By Sruli Shochet – Los Angeles
I recently wrote an article, Our Broken Yeshiva System…, that came from a place of heartache and pain. I lamented the fact that my son was not accepted into Oholei Torah and Morristown for shiur daled, and questioned the system that rejects bochurim with impunity. As seemingly many others were sharing my plight, I also put forth my email address to anyone who wanted to reach out and help brain storm a long-term solution.
The article touched a nerve and created a flurry of activity, resulting in a lot of comments. Some rightfully challenged me about my responsibility as a parent (for which I do take full responsibility). Others took umbrage and were quick to insist that the Rebbe’s mosdos are above reproach (debatable). However, I would say the vast majority empathized and even expressed their own frustration resulting from their own personal encounters with ‘the system’. There were even some interesting (and sad) insights from bochurim themselves currently in those said systems.
I quickly realized this is not about my son anymore. He is a capable boy, Boruch Hashem, and with the right direction and siyatah d’shmaya, he will be”h land on his feet. The issue is much more vast and global in nature.
But it was not only the comments on COLlive that left an impression on me. Rather, it was also the dozens of emails, WhatsApp and Facebook messages. Most from complete strangers, expressing their own grief, as well as words of encouragement. I fielded emails from Atlanta to Israel and had calls with people from Brazil to Toronto. There were even some yeshivas and smicha programs that sent messages looking to help. The fact that so many took the time to respond to someone they never met, really touched me. Mi K’amacha Yisroel!
Before proceeding, I want to quickly clear up a myth. There were numerous comments saying that if the boy was from a ‘gezhe’ family, this would be a non-issue. However, many of the people I spoke to who were experiencing similar issues, had last names that would make the “Who’s who” list of Chabad. This problem is prevalent in all the echelons of our community.
All these resulting conversations gave me time to reflect. Of course, I am hurt for my son. If I am being fully honest, my parental ego was wounded as well. But why? People get rejected from things all the time. You apply for a credit card, a bank loan, even a shidduch, and get turned down. You get that uncomfortable pit in your stomach for a few moments, maybe a day, and you move on. Why was this so different? The rest of the religious world apply to yeshivos all the time. Some get accepted and some don’t and move on to other yeshivos. What made this so unique?
Then it occurred to me what I believe may at the root of this particular issue. For whatever reason, at some point in time, we created this yeshiva trajectory, that the culmination of everything we do in mesivta through zal, all must end up at these two main yeshivos. Why? Not necessarily because they have the best educational program or educators. But rather because they control IF and where a bochur goes on shlichus. Yes, there are a few other locations that send boys on shlichus. But none control the shlichus spectrum like Oholei Torah and Morristown. With their self admitted limited staff and capacity, as Chabad grows each year, more and more bochurim just end up on the cutting room floor.
Which then got me thinking a little further. When did this whole shlichus phenomenon start? When did it become the status quo that a bochur needs to go on bochur shlichus? I reached out to some people well versed in Chabad history, as well as others who lived it at the time, to explain this shift. What I gathered was as follows:
While some locations such as Melbourne, Australia had six bochurim handpicked by the Rebbe as far back as 1967, it would appear that the trend really started closer to the mid 1970’s. But it was a very different trend. At that time, they would select certain groups of older bochurim and send them to specific yeshivos to help strengthen said local yeshiva. But this was not the case for the majority of the bochurim. Furthermore, there was no set yeshivos from which this occurred. For example, I remember in the early 80’s, my brother was part of a group that was sent from the YOEC yeshiva in Los Angeles to be shluchim in Miami, then from there on to London and after that to Ocean Parkway. At some more recent historical point, Oholei Torah and Morristown became the sole torch bearers of sending boys on bochur shlichus.
But the truth is, the history doesn’t matter. While that system may have worked when Chabad was much smaller, with its current ever-growing numbers bursting at the seams, instead of increasing our options, we continue to funnel these swelling masses into the same capacity-limited receptacles. You don’t need to be a physicist to know that by doing so, the receptacle will either break or most of what you are funneling with fall to the wayside.
In the last article, one Oholei Torah bochur commentator hit the analogy nail on the head. He said that he feels like he is just in a train station. No one goes to the train station because they like the train station itself. They are just there, hoping to catch the train to another destination.
Think about that for a moment. Of all the parents and bochurim I spoke to, everyone acknowledged that they were not going to Oholei Torah or Morristown because they felt that it is the institution that most suited them and would best service their educational and spiritual needs. They went there with the sole purpose and hope of getting spring-boarded from there to another location. Is that how we are supposed to make life altering educational decisions for the spiritual health and growth of our children?
This is not, chas vesholom, a knock to the great talmidei chachomim and mechanchim of these zal institutions. They are giants and I am but nothing compared to them. But how can they possibly even begin to try to service the overwhelming and surging numbers, with their admittedly limited support staff and aging years? I have no doubt we will hear that there are those bochurim who somehow flourish in these institutions and are able to glean incredible growth from some of those giants of our Torah world. But unfortunately, they are by far the exception and not the norm.
Don’t get me wrong. Bochur shlichus can be a beautiful thing. I did it myself back in the day. It can teach you valuable life skills, as well as a good preparatory step for someone who plans to go on shlichus as his life’s mission. But as our Chabad numbers grow and our resources don’t, this self-imposed trajectory is unsustainable.
So then why do we continue on this illogical and potentially destructive path? Why aren’t more shiur daled type yeshivos opening up to service the growing needs of the community?
I think the answer lies in our hearts and minds. We created these imaginary stigmas and labels. At some point we decided that if our son doesn’t get shlichus, then that will affect the way he, and by extension we, are perceived by others. This in turn will affect his shidduch options and the list goes on from there. We created our own mousetrap that we are now flailing to escape.
We need to tear those labels up, remove the imaginary stigmas from our minds, and instead focus on mapping out where will my son garner the most spiritual growth THIS year. If the end game is that we should raise good chassideshe, yerei shomayim, husbands and fathers, who in turn will be shining examples for their prospective communities, then we need to ensure that EVERY year not be wasted in a train station, but rather already on the train, headed in the right direction.
I want to be clear. When I say ‘we’, I mean ‘me’. I realized that I needed an attitude adjustment and in turn I am hoping others will join me as well. There should be as many as ten shiur daleds in Crown Heights, each one competing to offer the best contemporary program for our youth. With the imaginary pressure of bochur shlichus removed from our shoulders, the world is the limit. You want to stay on and learn for another year after shiur daled or another after that? By all means! Lehagdil Torah u’Lehadiroh!
Again, I am not advocating to get rid of bochur shlichus, c”v. However, bochur shlichus should just be one of many equally important tracks that bochurim can choose from, without being judged by adults or their peers. You really want to go on shlichus because it’s what YOU want to do and not because of the ‘mah yomru hagoyim’? Mah tov u’mah noim!
As the first step of this stigmatic removal, the term “2nd tier yeshiva” needs to be ripped out of our vernacular. Only the Al-mighty alone can decide who is on what tier. “Educate a child according to his way” (Mishlei 22:6), does not mean that the education level gets watered down or compromised. It means it is adapted in an equal but different parallel shift, to fit that particular group of boys needs. This is a conditional necessity for the fulfillment of the end of the possuk: “…so that even when he grows old, he will not turn away from it.”
Sounds like a dream? The only thing stopping it is our own mindset, outlook and perspective. However, that is something squarely in the control of each and every one of us. Our conversational language needs to change. What our kids hear coming from our mouths about boys who chose to buck what is sadly the forced current norm and instead go to a yeshiva best suiting their needs, should be nothing but complimentary. This way, one day if they want the same, they will feel comfortable openly sharing and discussing that with you.
But who am I to pontificate? I am a nobody; a big mouth with a keyboard, who can string a few sentences together. It is my fervent wish that the Mashpiem and Rabbonim in Chabad approve of this position and preach it, not just in private to those that turn to them for advice, but to the masses at large. From the ones I have already spoken to as a result of all this, it would appear that they do agree. There just needs to be the courage to take that bold step and proclaim it publicly.
With this small but vital mental realignment, it can all be possible. When we do that, we all win and our children most of all.