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Who Belongs in Seminary — The Conversation Continues

"It’s time to change the goal of seminary, and it’s time to teach girls ahavas Yisrael"


The Unassailable Seminary Student

Rabbi Hillel Belsky, Dean, Ateres Bnos Yerushalayim

Borrowing freely from Rav Yaakov Bender’s groundbreaking essay in defense of yeshivah bochurim, I want to shine some light on the seminary girl.

Today’s seminary girls battle against the dark forces of outside culture in order to emerge in the light as tomorrow’s nashim tzidkaniyos. They resist the trends and fashions that would pull them away from tzniyus and taharah, even when those trends are followed by people in their communities.

Despite their youth, at 18 years old they are expected to apply themselves to a burning question: Who will I become? They leave the comfort of home and all that is familiar. They work hard. We must expect progress, not perfection.

Why do seminaries demand straight A’s from their applicants?

The seminary principal who wrote a Words Unspoken seems to speak for all seminary heads when they say that weaker students need not apply because they cannot pay attention in class. This is a reductive and questionable statement. These words are liable to injure every student with less than an A average; I am sure that was not the writer’s intent.

The writer implies that students with lower grades cannot learn, cannot become teachers, cannot succeed. Perhaps the seminaries the writer prefers to only teach students who can perform and demonstrate mastery of their material in the way they present it. I wonder if the failure to teach students across a broader grade point average lies in the seminary’s lack of experience.

As Rabbi Bender pointed out, some students need time to mature; they need help integrating the depths of Torah and mussar they receive. Why judge them so harshly? Are we applying elitist measurements to our sons and daughters?

I admit my bias. When I started our seminary 24 years ago, I went to my uncle Rav Pam ztz”l for a brachah. He was weak but spoke with force: “We need seminaries to teach girls who are not straight-A students. If you can adapt your approach to include students all along the performance range, you have my brachah. We do not need another elitist school that rejects bnos Yisrael who want to learn. It is not supposed to be this way! Enough!” His pain at students’ rejection and his heartfelt wish for things to change were emphatic.

Sometime later, Rav Pam asked me to consider taking a certain student — a yesomah — but he said he would meet her first. He later called to tell me he could not recommend her. She did not have the ratzon. Ratzon is everything.

By this logic, even an A student lacking ratzon to grow and change and internalize Torah need not apply. She may be a highly developed test taker, but we are looking for something more. The year flies by too quickly to inculcate ratzon. But if you have ratzon, can you not mature, learn, and progress? Hashem brings hatzlachah to those who want it and work for it.

If a student wants to learn, we are duty bound to develop the means and flexibility of educating her. Some of our approaches include alternate assessment and differentiation. The creative approaches developed by our staff combine courage, creativity, and belief in our students.

What is the purpose of seminary? There are short-term and long-term goals. Short-term goals have to do with the level of choices the student makes every day. Later, will she choose the best version of herself when she decides on a job, further study, or indeed chooses a chassan?

We need to respect our students. As Rabbi Bender said, we need to consider where our students would be if they were not in seminary. It is up to us to educate them and then daven that they one day reach higher level goals: that they become amazing mashpios on the “unassailable yeshivah bochurim” they will marry; and that they become forces for good in their families and communities; and ultimately, deep within, reach maturation as ovdei Hashem.

Why have we seen siyata d’Shmaya in the success of our students? I could abbreviate the answer and say: Rav Pam’s brachah. In fact, his brachah was a hardball that I struggled to catch. But my staff is unassailable. Together, we enact chinuch for our students.

What do our students say? Their gratitude is right up there with their achievements.


See Her Strengths

T. W.

Dear Principal,

As a current seminary student, I read your letter. Seminary so far has been a process of unbelievable emotional growth. It’s an experience every girl deserves.

The work in my seminary is pretty intense, and my mother and I constantly worry what will be with my sister in a couple years. My sister, who has been blessed with a learning disability, struggles through every class and every day of school, yet her effort, resilience, and simchas hachayim outshine probably anyone else’s. My grades and abilities may make me seem like an asset to my seminary, but in my humble opinion, my sister is a way bigger asset. Her weaknesses have become her strengths, yet I worry that you will only see them as weaknesses, ignoring all she has to offer.

You said that your seminary is trying to train in the next era of teachers. Let’s train teachers who see each girl’s depth and what she has to offer. And let’s recognize that girls who struggle in school may be the ones who have the resilience, dedication, and ratzon to be teachers. Let’s rise up and respect each girl for who she is while erasing these ridiculous boxes we’ve created.


Star Students

Aviva Tal

As a 12th-grade teacher, the Words Unspoken struck an especially sad chord within me. I teach in an out-of-town community, where much effort is spent celebrating each student’s individual strengths. But our students are in for a rude awakening when the time comes to venture out, and the yardstick by which they are measured is a very different one.

At a stage of life where so many hours are spent in the classroom, students who are academically talented are fortunate. But does anyone believe that those students are inherently more worthy or more deserving of inspiration?

What is our goal, anyway, in being mechanech bnos Yisrael? Although the writer of the Words Unspoken states that it is to train teachers, there seems to be a very small minority of seminary students who go into chinuch (as lamented in these pages).

In my eyes, the stars among my students are those who are mevakshos, those girls who genuinely seek to learn, to grow, to understand. Those who persevere despite academic challenges, those who continue to seek out opportunities for inspiration even as they struggle to learn, are truly role models.

There are menahelim who will acknowledge there is a need to inspire even the less academically inclined talmidos, but who feel it is not their avodah. They might urge that schools be founded for this population. But those of us who are in chinuch today do not get to opt out. We do not get to say that our avodah is only with a particular segment of the population, and these girls are not our achrayus.

There have been many seminaries over the years who have attempted to serve this niche, to present a program that is uplifting and inspiring but not academically rigorous. What I have observed is that (with a few notable, very impressive exceptions) that model is too often unsuccessful. The seminaries that become known for a less demanding educational program often end up attracting students who are less serious about their Yiddishkeit. The unfortunate reality is that many of the finest, most sincere, most growth-oriented of my students are left with few options for seminaries.

I have been teaching honors classes in my school for many years, and have always modified my curriculum and expectations to accommodate individual students who wanted to join but lacked the requisite skills. I have found that as long as these students constituted a small minority of the classroom, it did not adversely affect the level on which I could teach, and there was much gained on all ends. The honors students were inspired by those willing to work so hard to learn when there were easier options available, and the weaker students gained by being in the class and with a more motivated group of students.

If every seminary would commit to accepting a certain percentage of weaker students, as long as they truly wanted to learn and were committed to their personal growth, the whole avirah of the school could be enriched. Of course, this would have to be adopted across the board by all seminaries in order to succeed.

My talmidos who are the subject of this conversation are truly my heroines; they have impressed and inspired me with their courage, their convictions, their determination. They have been a great source of nachas to our school, and I know they will continue to bring nachas to any seminary fortunate enough to have them attend.


Spiritual Wasteland in the Holy Land

A Heartbroken Mother

Unfortunately, due to my daughter’s academic struggles, she wasn’t able to go to a regular seminary. This led to her going to a seminary that is non-academic — and, I have now discovered, not very hashkafically sound. Despite being in the holiest place on earth, my daughter is in a spiritual wasteland. Things I tried to shelter her from are part of normal conversation there.

Why must a girl be exposed to these horrible elements in order to be looked at in shidduchim or in her social circles? Why do I have to put up with the craziest, most bizarre conversations and questions my daughter keeps asking me? Why?

My daughter doesn’t want to come home; she’s embarrassed to leave. I’m afraid her yetzer hara is enjoying himself immensely over there. Do we need to send these kids off-the-derech because Hashem granted them a place in society, but we can’t? If this is not sinas chinam, I don’t know what is.

It’s time to change the goal of seminary, and it’s time to teach girls ahavas Yisrael. Teaching girls how to be kind and accepting is the most important life skill. We must teach our girls to break their comfort zone and help other girls study and do well. This will prepare them to be true women of valor.

I am writing on behalf of so many mothers and daughters. Please, I beg you, before sending out rejection letters, accept a few girls who are weaker students, and think of a way to help them academically. Trust me, we parents would pay even more to keep our children in a kosher environment.

Life isn’t only about tests. It’s about passing them — and this test just may be the biggest score you’ll ever get up there in Heaven.

And to the other seminaries out there, please be honest with parents about your hashkafic level is. Don’t say “no iPhones” when you know every kid has one under her blanket. Let parents make an honest decision.


No Longer Just for the Select Few

A “Top” Sem Graduate

Dear Principal,

You suggest that seminaries are top-notch schools where intense learning is done and therefore are not suitable for girls who are academically weaker. If what you’re saying is true, then we should have about three or four seminaries that exist solely for those girls who are metzuyanim.

In actuality, seminary today is something of a must — almost every girl who graduates from a mainstream Bais Yaakov will go to seminary for the year. You don’t seem to realize this — and neither do most seminary principals. Which means right now there are thousands of girls of all academic levels applying to a whole bunch of seminaries that only cater to the most academic (or well-connected) girls.

I myself am a graduate of what can be considered a “top seminary.” You may have even been my seminary principal. And I loved the intense learning. However, looking back, it’s not the academics that had a lasting impact. It was seeing my teachers and the lives they were living. It was visiting mekomos hakedoshim and experiencing the beauty of our land. It was deep and thoughtful conversations with friends and roommates. And from discussing this with my friends — fellow top seminary graduates — this is something they all agreed with.

Thirty years ago, seminary existed just for a select few. But with the system as it stands today, your mindset is hurting thousands of girls, and their parents, deeply.

We’ve been intensively discussing how to reform the shidduch system because many gedolim have passionately said that it’s hurting precious bnos Yisrael. But the seminary system is doing the same. Are you willing to take achrayus for the pain you’re causing to so many young girls?


Do We Choose to Grow — or Point Fingers?

A Pashuta Yid no longer in Kansas

After reflecting on the Words Unspoken column about seminary acceptances, it became clear to me that this goes far beyond the details of one specific column.

We were all created as fallible, imperfect human beings with a mission to grow and improve ourselves. Growth is not fun or easy, and we naturally prefer the path of least resistance.

When we face concerns, challenges, and conflicts, there are two primary approaches. Route A is clear-cut. It feels safer and cleaner. This route involves pointing a finger at someone else (perhaps even rightfully so). “They are the reason for X.” “If only they would change Y, then X would not be a problem.” “They should be introspective and grow.” The words easily flow from our comfortable perch high above the mess.

Route B can get messy. It involves seizing opportunities. Opportunity for our own personal growth, for collaboration, for authentic dialogue that leads to meaningful change. However, that route requires rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty. That route means taking responsibility; unmasking our faults and revealing imperfections. That kind of vulnerability leaves us open to judgment and rejection.

Our communities have made monumental progress and development. There have been an increasing number of eloquent and vulnerable pieces in our publications. Alas, there remains a concurrent theme of missed opportunities. Be it letters to the editor (I’m as culpable as the next reader) or published columns, there is an observable trend of pointing rather than joining, of taking umbrage with an organization, an individual, or a segment of society.

All the perspectives are valid, but they do leave me wondering: Where is the ownership? Where is the desire to grow, to find what is in my control and develop it? “You’re doing something wrong! No! You’re doing something wrong! I’m right. No, I’m right! I’ll prove it to you! Let me respond in three neatly typed columns, why I will not budge from my position!”

Do we genuinely believe this will motivate change? By typing louder than the other person?

Let’s utilize this particular Words Unspoken, only for the purpose of articulation. Parents are stressed about overwhelming tuition for seminary? They have this preconceived notion we’re only out to make a buck? Wow. Okay. Let’s work on our communication with parents. Let’s develop more transparency about our budget so we can get on the same page. After all, we are partners in this, right?

Girls are feeling rejected when they don’t fit in a box — while also feeling pressure to try and fit in this box? Let’s create a conversation about that. What other options do they have? What percentage of our incoming students genuinely aspire to become teachers?

Let me reevaluate what I genuinely value. Let’s have an open conversation between parent and daughter about social expectations and what environment will help her thrive. I wonder what kind of pressure seminaries are under to create a certain image of a seminary? Are they in need of more resources?

What is truly in my control? It’s my choice how I respond, no matter the circumstance. What will I choose?

To reiterate, all the perspectives (the “Words Unspoken” column was just an example) have depth and validity. There are most definitely individuals and entities that are failing in their roles. Still, change does not happen in an echo chamber. It happens in a shared chamber.


“A Seminary Principal” responds: 

I am saddened (but not surprised) that my words were so completely misunderstood, or misconstrued, by many readers. Many responses indicated that I’d said that grades are more important than character, and that principals are only interested in straight-alef students. I cannot find any such implication in my letter.

On the contrary, seminary principals (myself included) spend weeks on end away from our families to personally interview each prospective student. If we just were interested in grades, we could simply look at students’ transcripts. Any girl who is willing and able to exert the effort to follow the program will be accepted.

I did not speak about a beis-plus student, nor a gimmel student, nor any other arbitrary threshold. I was addressing a non-academic non-student. I am talking about the girls who do disrupt classes, girls who did so in high school, who will continue to do so in seminary, who are not interested in learning and just want to go to an “in” seminary. Many of these girls are already “burned out” of school, and being immersed in a total school environment away from home will just exacerbate this. This is not conjecture, it is based on my on-the-ground experience.

Baruch Hashem, we are very proud of a large majority of our graduates who are not “gifted students.” What singles them out is motivation, or the will to let our gifted mechanchos motivate them.

Some respondents claimed that the goals of seminary are hashkafah and growth, and seminary therefore must be for everybody. I hope it is not cynical to ask who created the curriculum full of hashkafah and growth-oriented lessons if not the villainous principals who want to deny this experience to a wonderful bas Yisrael, who just accidentally failed her way through high school, simply because she couldn’t be bothered?

Another recurring theme was the “right” of every girl to experience the kedushah of Eretz Yisrael. Every seminary offers what they have. We are not offering camp, not even a spiritually elevating camp. We offer lessons pertinent to bnos Yisrael that will lead them through life — the many letters we get from alumnae after ten or twenty years saying that they are still benefiting from their seminary year will attest to that. However, what we offer is school, lessons taught in a classroom and reinforced by self-study and homework. Our experience has shown us that there are certain girls who do not wish to be a part of this intense learning experience — and it invariably fails.

We have dedicated our lives to chinuch, we have b’siyata d’Shmaya succeeded (if we had failed, then no one would be pressuring us to accept their daughters), and we know which girls we can teach (the large majority), and which will suffer and fail.

Do we say that these girls are not entitled to help, chas v’shalom? Do we say that Klal Yisrael is not responsible for them? We only say that we provide education for a large segment of the population. No mossad can cater to everyone. Those who do not fit in ruin it for themselves and for others. I challenge all the responders to open seminaries that cater to girls who don’t want to come to class.

Are there failings in the chinuch system? Surely. Does Klal Yisrael in general need to be more inclusive? Perhaps. But that does not change my point. We are offering high-level education for those who actually appreciate it and sacrifice for it, and do not deserve to be disturbed and hindered by those who do not or cannot.

Ultimately, the Mesovev kol Hasibos determines who should be where. Our tefillah is that every bas Yisrael find the proper setting for her individual growth.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 775)

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