Crossing the Threshold

February 1, 2024

The leap from eighth grade to ninth is fraught with uncertainty.

Five mechanchim weigh in on how we can carry our sons through.

Elisheva Braun

All his cheder years have been leading up to this point.

With one foot in the big, wide world of mesivtas, he is hesitant, uncertain of what the future holds and insecure of his place in it as he wavers at the doorstep of bachurhood.

Stepping from cheder to mesivta is a rite of passage filled with hopes, ambitions, and no small measure of stress.

Can we walk this fraught path with clarity and equanimity?

Yes, we can. Five Lakewood mechanchim share how.

Doorway to bachurhood

In many ways, choosing a mesivta is one of the most pivotal steps frum parents take in their son’s upbringing. It sets the stage for so much that is to come.

The mesivta years are a pivotal time in a bachur’s life, during which much change occurs.

“If you were to rate a class of eighth-grade boys and then rate them again as beis medrash bachurim, you would be shocked by how much change and shteiging occurred,” says Rabbi Shabsi Brody, menahel of Yeshiva Yaaros Devash. “The results are not predictable. One enters mesivta a boy and leaves a bachur. Often, one who rates average in eighth grade grew to become a metzuyan, and unfortunately, the opposite has been seen too—one who was rated as a metzuyan in eighth grade stagnated and didn’t reach his potential.

“A lot depends on how well the bachur fits into the yeshivah. An ehrilche environment is crucial. These are the years when bachurim pick up their derech halimud, ideas, and hashkafos.If they connect well with their rebbe’im, they can form a kesher that lasts a lifetime. Additional factors include whether he blends well with the other bachurim and whether the level of the mesivta matches his skill set.”

Why do so many bachurim rise or fall during their mesivta years?

In many ways, this question lies at the heart of the olam hayeshivos,and it has been discussed and debated by menahalim worldwide. Some believe that qualities that aren’t accounted for at the farher become crucial in the high school years. The mother’s tefillos definitely play a role.

Rabbi Brody says, “There is nothing more motivating than success. When a bachur feels successful, he is motivated, and the sky is the limit. The right yeshivah will properly identify how a specific bachur can be successful and will monitor continuous shteiging.”

Due diligence

There’s a lot of old information, misinformation, and inaccurate individual perceptions out there. Those who don’t do proper research into mesivtas are very surprised by the reality.

Mesivtas aren’t just about the level of learning,” says Rabbi Chaim Mandel, menahel of Yeshiva Toras Menachem. “There are so many different styles. Does your son need more of an oilam? A kollel type of matzav? A rebbi figure? A mechanech? Someone who gives over hashkafos? More pressure or less pressure? Different styles work for different bachurim.”

There’s more. Says Rabbi Brody, “There has to be a social comfort level; your son has to fit in with the norms there. I very strongly believe that a bachur has to be happy and excited to come to yeshivah each morning.”

Too far to the right or the left and he feels out of place, looked down upon, or extreme. From not going anywhere without a hat and jacket to joining sports leagues, from how they do downtime to what type of footgear is acceptable, there’s a wide range of nuance in a very small world.

How is one to know?

“The number-one solution is to visit the yeshivah during up time and down time,” meaning, during seder and bein hasedarim. “You’ll see the model, the ruach, the energy. Watch the boys in the beis medrash and on the basketball court, and you will know if your son fits there.”

The irony of “aleph”

Keren HaTorah’s menahel, Rabbi Yitzchok Rabinowitz, validates parents’ desire to send to the most chashuve mesivtas. “We all want our kids to shine. We all want nachas.

“I grew up in the Bronx. I never experienced the competitiveness of today’s mesivta scene. But if we put our son in a place where he’s not up for the challenge, it can really hurt him. Some boys suffer through all four years of mesivta.

“Most importantly, parents shouldn’t put pressure on their kids. It can be very hard for them and cause a lot of anxiety. Parents shouldn’t simply encourage their son to go to the mesivta they want their child in; they should honestly consider where their son will thrive. Your son’s rebbi and menahel should be consulted, since they know best your son’s capabilities and what is going on in the mesivtas.”

Rabbi Mandel explains, “As well as parents know their child, they don’t know him in the context of the classroom. Even if your son is an amazing boy who gets 100 on every test, he may not be the right fit for Mesivta X, where you’ve set your sights on sending him. You have to understand the dynamics of the place; you really need to have a feel of it.”

“A lot of parents think their child is Rabbi Akiva Eiger,” Rabbi Rabinowitz says. “In a situation where the bar is too high above them, some will work harder than ever, but others will give up. It really depends on the boy; many bachurim can chas v’shalom be hurt by going into a ninth-grade shiur that isn’t within hand’s reach of their abilities.”

“People have a misconception about the role of a mesivta,” Rabbi Brody adds. “It’s important to know that being a metzuyan is not contagious. A bachur becomes a metzuyan when his best qualities are brought out. That’s when he can fulfill his potential.”

In other words, what’s “alef” for thee may not be for me.

Thinking out of the box

“Many people feel more comfortable sending to an established mesivta. Very often, going to a newer yeshivah is a major ma’alah. There’s a lot more flexibility and space to make the yeshivah fit your needs,” Rabbi Brody says.

“While researching and comparing mesivtas, the information you receive must be current. Ask your son’s rebbi and/or menahel when was the last time he personally visited the yeshivah. Speak to present parents. It is beneficial for fathers and mothers to hear a recording of a weekly shmuess to get a feeling for what the yeshivah is promoting and the direction they are leading their talmidim.”

Rabbi Brody adds that his father, Rav Pinchos Brody, rosh yeshivah of Yaaros Devash, often repeats a powerful thought from the gedolim of yesteryear: “The world thinks that a weak bachur needs a lot of chinuch, direction, while a strong bachur is okay on his own. The opposite is true. It’s the metzuyan who needs the most chinuch; he can get very lost without real direction. When his best qualities are identified and brought out, he can grow and expand to reach his potential.”

From experience, Rabbi Brody has found that being in the top half of the class, where a boy feels challenged yet successful, brings out the best in most bachurim. But when this is not possible, a boy can feel successful in other ways.

“Very often, a boy feeds off of giving. Learning with a boy who may not be as strong as he is in certain areas is really to his benefit. Like in any relationship, there’s giving and taking in every chavrusashaft.Sometimes, there can be one boy in the chavrusashaft who brings A to the table, and his partner offers B. That’s often an ideal setup.”

The wisdom to know the difference

“Try not to get stuck on your idea of what’s right for your child. Don’t be hung up on where the ‘oilam’ is going if it is not for your son or if he will not be able to get in. By the time you accept the reality and let go of your preconceived expectations, it can be too late—his second or third option can be gone,” warns Rabbi Mandel.

“Many boys themselves know where they really are holding. They know which mesivtas are realistic for them. Often, the boy can deal with rejection, even if it is difficult. However, many times, it’s when the parents are ois mentsch about where their son is going that the boy is devastated.

“If the parent is proud of his son for what he’s doing on his level, the child will adapt and do well. Being comfortable with where your son is going works better than any words of chizuk.

“We have to make sure our sons don’t get broken, but we don’t have to be afraid of disappointment. Although we’re not looking for disappointment, we can use it as a teaching moment to prepare them to overcome other disappointments down the line.”

At the farher

You debated, you applied. You called, you followed up.

When the roshei mesivta finally meet your son, what are they looking for?

“It depends on the mesivta,” says Rabbi Gelbwachs, menahel of Yeshiva Tiferes Torah (YTT). “Some want to see what the bachur knows. The more ‘elite’ places may throw in an unexpected question, something the boy’s rebbi didn’t teach, to see the way his mind works. They also look at how the boy dresses, whether he will fit in.

“We have a special PTA only for eighth graders’ parents. The rebbe’im suggest four or five mesivtas that they feel are appropriate for the boy. When parents follow the rebbi’s suggestions, their sons usually easily find a place. If a boy is serious about his learning and has good middos, acceptance shouldn’t be a problem.”

Preparation is key. “I tell the boys at every opportunity I get, ‘Don’t wait until eighth grade to get someone to help you. They ask from beginning of the maseches; you can’t just cram the information. Start getting serious about learning, start learning how to learn, right now.”

Rabbi Mandel echoes this sentiment. “You can’t wake up a month before farher season and decide you want to be the masmid hador and try to cram it all in at once.”

As far as chazarah, “At times, even very bright boys need a chavrusa to learn with them. It’s best to find someone who understands farhers and can prepare the boy for them.”

Not just kishron

What are the mesivtas looking for in the boys?

For Yeshiva Yaaros Devash, after seeing if the academic level is up to par, the first indicator is where the bachur’s and his family’s she’ifos and hasagos lie.

The farher is more than just an academic exercise. “The bachur we’re molding isn’t just about academics. There’s a combination of kishron and many different ma’alos such as middos and yiras Shamayim, on which there is a tremendous emphasis in all yeshivos. Background is also carefully considered, as the family’s hasagos and she’ifos must fit with the model of the yeshivah.

“A successful bachur is a happy bachur,” Rabbi Brody concludes. “We strive to maintain a warm, happy environment in our yeshivah. The warmth of our rebbe’im is a partial contribution. Happy talmidim contribute to the atmosphere. The real question is whether what we provide will make him successful and happy, fulfilled. If he will be able to thrive with what we are offering, it’s a match.

“Lakewood is the Yerushalayim of America, with many upstanding mesivta options. There are many outstanding chasheve options to match all the different needs.”

Nothing personal

Rejection from a mesivta does not reflect on you.

Rabbi Mandel is careful to explain this to bachurim—and their parents—before they embark on the mesivta journey.

Baruch Hashem, we have so, so many boys bli ayin hara. It’s impossible for a mosad to accommodate everyone, even though a certain boy might be their ideal bachur. A lot of the rejections have nothing to do with the boy himself. Mesivtas know what they want before farhers start. Often, they want 10 of “x” type of boy, 10 of “y”… They may have simply filled their quota.

“Additionally, mesivtas can only accept boys according to what they see. Rejection doesn’t mean they saw something bad in a bachur; he may have unfortunately not performed well at the farher.”

Rabbi Mandel helps his boys take a bigger-picture view.

“Fast-forwarding a few years, bachurim from different but similar mesivtas often end up in the same beis medrash. Sometimes, you really can’t differentiate who came from which mesivta.”

“When we unfortunately can’t take someone, we get into the placement business,” says Rabbi Brody. “There are so many beautiful mosdos in Lakewood that match many different needs,” and the yeshivah does its best to get each of the boys into the one where he will thrive.

Eye on the end game

The truth is that as human beings with short-term vision, we don’t know what’s best for our sons.

Rabbi Gelbwachs says, “Menahalim can attest that very often, our fantasies of what’s best for our kids aren’t accurate. Everything is min haShamayim.”

He has tens of stories to prove it.

As Rabbi Brody puts it, “Sometimes, there is very short-lived excitement followed by slow-release disappointment; other times, there is fleeting disappointment that becomes long-term fulfillment. We see how while we don’t always know what’s best for our child, the Eibershter walks us step-by-step to get just where we have to be.”


Application tips

Rabbi Mandel shares some practical advice:

  • Do your research beforehand. Once the farhers have taken place, you’ll have to give very quick answers, and you won’t be able to do proper research under that type of pressure.
  • Be proactive. While farhers are important—and they definitely inform mesivtas’ decisions—the hanhalah has an idea beforehand, based on their research, of whom they’re interested in seeing. If you have protektzya,use it early in the process. Pull a month before farhers, when 40 slots are available, carries a lot more weight than when it’s down to the last five seats. Call the mesivta. Show interest. If they did not hear from you, they may think you are not interested in sending to them. Be on top of the situation.
  • Try to get a farher for your first-choice mesivta first if you can. Earlier farhers yield a higher chance of positive answers than later ones. Do what you can to secure a timely slot. Once you took the farher, you might not be able to wait for your first choice to get back to you.
  • Follow up. Don’t sit back and wait for the mesivta to reach out to you. If you are waiting for them to send an application or haven’t heard back from them, don’t be shy to call them.


Playing matchmaker

When it comes to finding a place for each of their eighth graders, it is well-known that rebbe’im and menahalim go to bat for their boys.

Case in point: When Rabbi Gelbwachs pushed a shidduch for the child of a local rosh mesivta, the favor wasn’t without strings attached.

“He wanted to give me shadchanus. I told him, ‘The shadchanus is that when I ask you to take a boy who would fit well in your yeshivah, you’ll take him.’

“One of our boys came from a very, very difficult home. When it was time to apply to mesivtas, I was worried. His brothers had gone to all different yeshivos and unfortunately, none of them were matzliach.

“I cashed in on the favor and sent him to a top yeshivah. I’m getting emotional saying this.” He takes a deep breath. “Today, he’s married with a beautiful family. He’s sitting and learning; his children are doing beautifully. That was my shadchanus.”


Choosing up

Like with a shidduch, we know that our idea of the perfect match isn’t always accurate.

Here’s one example of many.

The Hirsches’ twin sons both had their heart set on Mesivta A. The rosh mesivta was willing to take one twin—but not both. For Rabbi and Mrs. Hirsch, the decision was agonizing. How could they dash one child’s dream while saying yes to the other?

Eventually, they chose to send the older twin to Mesivta A and the younger one to his second-choice place.

It’s four years later, and baruch Hashem, both boys are thriving. But it’s the younger twin who really shines; the less competitive and more positive environment of his mesivta is the best match for him. When it came time to apply for his younger brother, that was the first choice.


More than mesivtas

As critical as mesivta enrollment is, it’s not the only thing happening in eighth grade.

“Eighth grade is not just a mesivta year,” Rabbi Mandel likes to remind parents. “It’s a year of growth. There’s so much to gain. If we get caught up in mesivta application and the whole year becomes about that, we’re missing a tremendous opportunity to give over real values, real chinuch, and much growth in the learning.”

A boy who coasted along in the younger grades and got 100s because he’s smart may be in for a surprise. In eighth grade, a bachur has to really invest effort if he wants to succeed. Even if he is very bright, the learning is so much more intense and complex that he really needs to give it his all.

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The therapeutic angle

Mesivta applications can be a grueling process that leaves parents at the edge of their seats. Remind yourself that at the end of the day, everyone ends up in a mesivta. Take a deep breath. Your son will be fine,” says Daniel Ifrah, LCSW.

In his work as a social worker, he acknowledges that while the process is high-pressure, “I don’t typically see kids falling apart from it. In a sense, parents bear the brunt of the pressure. Kids are resilient. For the most part, aside from children who struggle with anxiety or similar challenges, they are fine. A lot of the worry falls on the parents.”

The hardest part?

“When a handful of kids are left without a mesivta when everyone else has been placed. It can take them a couple of weeks to find something that works, and it’s a really hard situation. It’s especially painful for parents to watch this take place.”

A word of advice: “If you feel disappointment about the place your child was accepted to, he will sense it, and he will feel that he has let you down. We have to really come to peace with the reality within ourselves and accept that the results are from Hashem. Then we can pass on our composure and acceptance to our sons.

“The idea is not to put your child in the best mesivta, but in the mesivta that’s best for him. This process is not about asking him to pretend to be someone he’s not. It’s about being there to support him in who he is and to help him find his own truth. It’s a matter of finding the right fit, just as we spend time finding the shoe that is the best match for our foot.”

Empathize and normalize the anxiety by telling your son how normal it is to be anxious and stressed-out. Share your own similar past experience and how it made you feel. At the same time, give the message that working hard for things that are important to us is healthy and productive.

Be supportive by showing that you are secure with the common goal on finding him the best place for him.

Finally, show hakaras hatov to your dedicated rebbe’im and menahalim during the process, acknowledging their dedication and advocacy on behalf of your son.