Farhers and Your Son’s Future
January 3, 2023
: Navigating the Fast-Paced Process of Mesivta Enrollment
Rabbi Yitzchok Landa
Photos by Jacob Elbogen
A parent’s role in guiding the development of their children toward becoming bnei and bnos Torah is riddled with many milestones that must be achieved, each with a certain amount of anxiety. For many, “getting in” to an appropriate yeshivah is a challenge.
With over 50,000 children in at least 200 Torah schools in Lakewood and the numbers of both constantly growing, the world of chinuch is daunting to those who are not in it, and sometimes even to those who are. The process of applying, testing, and enrollment in mesivta is fast-paced, often with less than a week separating the time the first student arrives for his interview from the moment the last spot is filled.
What can parents do to help set their sons up for long-term success?The Voice sat down with a panel of veterans of the process for an enlightening conversation on the system and how best to navigate it.
Meet the panelists: Rabbi Eliyohu Meir Schmelczer, sgan menahel of Yeshiva Orchos Chaim; Rabbi Zvi Bender, menahel of Yeshiva Ohr Yehuda; Rabbi Aryeh Leib Smith, menahel of Cheder Toras Zev; and an unnamed rosh yeshivah of a mesivta in Lakewood.
Keys to success
When asked for the keys to navigating the system successfully, the menahalim and rosh yeshivah speak with one voice. “Tefillah,” is the unanimous answer. “Parents and mechanchim always need to daven for the successful chinuch of their children at every step of the way. And it works.”
From a hishtadlus perspective, the menahalim see communication with the elementary schools as key. “The menahel and eighth-grade rebbi are your guides,” Rabbi Schmelczer says. “They have relationships with the mesivtos, understand the yeshivos, and understand your son. Most of all, they know what he needs to be successful. Stay in constant touch with the menahel and rebbi.”
“The parents and bachurim that stay in touch with their cheder menahel throughout the process are almost always satisfied with the result,” Rabbi Smith adds. “Those who don’t keep in touch are often frustrated with the system and result.”
The process: an overview
As a prologue to the acceptance story, consultations are held between yeshivos and parents. The first direct step in mesivta acceptance is the application. Parents are advised to apply to three or four mesivtos well in advance of the opening of registration. Next, over a span of a fewdays around Tu B’Shevat, mesivtos will conduct interviews (farhers) with all their applicants. The decision whether to accept a candidate is based heavily on the farher.
Immediately after the first farher begins the period that the menahalim call “in the heat.” Mesivtos will state their impressions to the parents, and, if accepted, ask for a verbal commitment to enroll. At this time, some adjustments are made as mesivtos finalize the majority of their enrollment and determine how many seats they have for the “second round,” which is acceptances that come soon after. Within a few days, most mesivtos have their enrollment finalized, and the “heat” is over. Any bachur that did not get accepted yet, or did not finalize an enrollment, will now have to move on to their third or fourth choice, and all will find their place.
“The system works for almost everybody,” one menahel emphasizes. “If a bachur has not yet found a yeshivah by the end of the year, it usually means there were outside or other circumstances which prevented him from being accepted.”
Let’s learn about these steps, one by one.
Where to apply?
With over 50 mesivtos to choose from, how does one know where to apply?
“Right here, we see the importance of communicating with the menahel and eighth-grade rebbi,” Rabbi Schmelczer says. “There may be fifty mesivtos, but only a handful are noge’a for your son. The menahel and rebbi are likely best positioned to know which ones they are.”
About a month before applications are expected, menahalim confer with eighth-grade rebbe’im to review each talmid. They will then meet in person or over the phone with parents individually to make their recommendations.
How are the suggestions selected? Mesivtos differ in many ways—most significantly, in the level of learning expected of their talmidim. It is important to find a mesivta at which your son will be challenged but not lost. “For many boys (though not all), it is better to be a rosh l’shualim (head of the foxes),” a mesivta rosh yeshivah explains. “Although Chazal recommend being the zanav l’arayos (tail of the lions), that may be meant for adults, not for bachurim.”
There are other factors as well. “Some mesivtos have an intensive schedule and personality; others are more ‘laid-back,’” Rabbi Smith points out. “Some are very warm, and some are more academic. They may have differing views on bein hazmanim and bein hasedarim. Learning styles can be different—some focus more on iyun, while others move faster. Some have more in the way of smaller limudim such as Halachah, Navi, Chumash, mussar, and hashkafah.”
“There’s also the question of limudei chol,” Rabbi Schmelczer adds. Parents should consider if they want to send to a yeshivah that offers mandatory secular studies, optional GED studies, or none at all.
The “type” of bachur that generally attends the mesivta should also be considered—your son must be able to be successful culturally, socially, and academically.
Often, parents will be disappointed with the list of options, preferring to aim for a more distinguished choice than the yeshivah has recommended. The menahalim emphasize that this would be a mistake. “There are many different levels of learning,” Rabbi Bender says. “The mesivta has to be a good fit. There have been situations where a parent, for whatever reason, was able to get his son into a higher-level yeshivah than was appropriate and very quickly regretted it.”
A bit of realism is required here. Rabbi Bender warns that applying to unrealistic yeshivos can complicate matters later. “Don’t apply only to yeshivos that ‘take a miracle’ to get into,” he advises. “Choose yeshivos that fit and where you can be accepted.” This should ideally be so for all three or four, but many people will apply to at least one that is a bit of a long shot. At the least, one should be the best fit and one should be a fallback option where acceptance is relatively certain.
“Parents who don’t overshoot are almost always happy in the end,” Rabbi Schmelczer notes. “They may have not liked the choice—although it is an excellent mesivta—but they were fortunate to get in even there, and in the end they are happy. Afterward, they ask, ‘How did you know?’”
Many parents will want a second or third opinion and will do their own research. The menahalim and rebbe’im encourage this but note that the cheder’s impression and opinion must carry weight. Familiarity with the bachur is essential to a good recommendation.
“Often, the conversation in the coffee room or with the night-seder tutor will reinforce what the rebbi said,” Rabbi Smith points out. “But the perspective regarding the bachur over time and in a classroom setting cannot be replaced.”
A cheder menahel and an involved rebbi also understand other factors, beyond the bachur himself, which affect the likelihood of getting into a mesivta. There is the question of applicants, available slots, competition, and intended diversity within the mesivta. There is also the question of “getting in.” The most perfect mesivta in the world is irrelevant to someone who won’t be accepted there. The menahel and rebbi will recommend mesivtos that are not only fitting, but also practical to “get into.”
After meeting and discussing the topic with their son’s yeshivah, it is up to the parents and the bachur to decide which yeshivos to apply to. At this point, parents should familiarize themselves intimately with the mesivtos on the short list. This means gaining in-person, practical eyeballs on the yeshivah.
“The father should go to each mesivta on the list and sit down in the beis medrash,” Rabbi Smith recommends. “You will very quickly get a feel for the mesivta.”
Some go during night seder, but Rabbi Schmelczer recommends going outside of organized class time, such as for Minchah break.
And don’t think the mesivta is not going to notice you. “Go dressed as you would for the farher,” Rabbi Schmelczer adds.
Factoring in new mesivtos
In Lakewood today, many new mesivtos open each year. Last year alone saw no less than nine mesivtos open their doors for the first time. How should one view new mesivtos? Are they an opportunity to get in easily on the ground floor or a risky gamble with your son’s future?
It would be an easy question if we knew what the future held, but decisions have to be made now.
“New mesivtos can be a very good option,” Rabbi Smith says. “I’ve seen bachurim get into high-quality mesivtos, much better than they could have otherwise, because they were new. Sign up and register right away, when the new mesivta is still nervous about enrollment, and you can get into a mesivta that will be extremely difficult to get into later.”
But how can you be sure that mesivta will be right for your son? Rabbi Schmelczer is not overly concerned. “The rebbe’im in the new mesivtos are usually experienced, with many years of teaching and reputation behind them. There is much you can find out about the rebbi, the rosh yeshivah, and the menahel based on their past positions. You can make sure the fit is good. In my opinion, parents should strongly consider a new mesivta.”
Will the yeshivah “make it?” “Most mesivtos that open, stay open,” Rabbi Schmelczer says, “and the new ones will be able to cater to each bachur in a manner that becomes more difficult as they grow larger.”
The rosh mesivta has a different perspective.
“Sending to a new yeshivah can be a bit risky,” he says. “The mesivta is experimenting on your son and hasn’t necessarily figured it out yet. A star rebbi, even with many years’ experience in the classroom, doesn’t necessarily intuitively know how to be a menahel or rosh yeshivah.
“A new mesivta can be a great opportunity, but there is an element of risk. You have to decide whether that is a position you want to be in, and you must weigh the risk versus reward factor.”
Once they’ve narrowed down their choices to three or four mesivtos, the parents will call the mesivtos and ask for an application.
Decisions must be made very quickly once the “heat” begins. “This is one of the challenges with the current system,” the rosh yeshivah comments. “Not too long ago, parents and yeshivos had a week or two to make this vital decision with yishuv hada’as. Today, everyone needs an answer within hours, and many feel like they didn’t have time to think it through.”
The best way to deal with this challenge is to have a clear first, second, and third choice before farhers even begin. The first choice should not be a mesivta that requires a “stretch” to be deemed fitting, but one that will be a good fit and likely to accept the talmid. If this mesivta issues a quick acceptance, the entire period of doubt can be avoided. Often, a “yes” is received before the bachur has taken all of his farhers, and if he responds right away, the rest can be canceled.
Keep in mind that some mesivtos will want to know whether they are the first choice. If they are not, they will be less likely to accept the bachur. No one wants to accept a boy and be turned down and then need to reach out to other applicants in the second round of acceptance. When parents have a clear, relevant first choice that is likely, they can confidently tell mesivtos which is the first choice and which is not.
What mesivtos are looking for
Mesivtos review the application and contact the yeshivah from which the applicant is applying. Several days before the farher season opens, someone from the mesivta will call the parents to schedule a farher.
Mesivtos base about 85 percent of their decision on the farher, Rabbi Schmelczer explains. “This means not only how well the boy reads the gemara and answers questions, but how he presents himself at the farher.”
What can be seen on the farher? “The bochen can get a very clear idea of a talmid’s level in learning based on the farher,” Rabbi Schmelczer says. “It is very rare for a boy to fool the bochen by preparing the daf or two very well.”
Rabbi Bender adds that “they don’t only ask about the daf or two that the talmid prepared; there will always be a question or two on other dafim as well.”
Don’t some boys get flustered and blank out from the pressure? Can a farher seriously understate a bachur’s abilities?
Rabbi Shmelzcer doesn’t think so. “They can tell,” he reassures nervous parents and bachurim. “I’ve seen hundreds of placements, and the mesivta gets it right the vast majority of the time.”
Sometimes, if a bachur didn’t do well and both the menahel and rebbi feel strongly that this is not who the bachur is, the mesivta will consider giving him another farher.
“The main factor that a rosh yeshivah is looking for in a farher is whether he feels this is a bachur he will connect to, whether his yeshivah is a place where this bachur can thrive,” Rabbi Smith notes. “It’s not solely about the performance.”
The rosh yeshivah we spoke with has a different perspective. He emphasizes the importance of being a mevakesh. “In our mesivta, we see that the desire to know and to grow is a greater predictor of a boy’s ultimate success in learning than kishronos are. We are looking for bikush.”
Navigating “the heat”
Let’s look at the process from a mesivta’s perspective: After the farher, parents have to correctly interpret the mesivta’s response and often will be pressured to make a quick decision. The mesivtos are pressured as well, to make sure they have satisfactory enrollment—they do not want to have a situation in which their target clientele registered to other mesivtos and they missed out on bachurim that are a good fit. With pressure all around, things happen fast.
Here, as well, the eighth-grade rebbi and menahel have a major impact on the decisions.
Some mesivtos will give an answer on the spot, but many will not; they prefer to wait until all interviews have been completed to have a better picture of the scope and range of applicants. Although no firm answer is given, parents often try to get an idea of what kind of impression their sons made and what their chances are of being accepted.
There is another important point to keep in mind. “Don’t judge anything by the impression your son got during the farher,” Rabbi Schmelczer says emphatically. “All the roshei mesivta are ba’alei middos, and none will allow a bachur to walk away from a farher thinking he did poorly. It’s simply a question of mentchlichkeit. They will all assure the parents—quite sincerely—that they have a chashuve bachur for a son.”
Rabbi Bender agrees. “Parents will sometimes hear from their sons that they did well and then wonder why the mesivta says ‘no.’ Some will think the elementary school intervened and ‘messed things up.’ This is far from the truth; it is the result of simply misunderstanding the rosh mesivta’s encouragement to the bachur.”
The parents can pick up on the mesivta’s intent if he listens carefully to the nuanced response. The cheder menahel will help.
Even when a ‘no’ is received, “pushing” can sometimes help. “There are a few different types of ‘no,’” the menahalim concede. “It can be challenging for a parent to tell them apart. Some are ‘no way,’ and others are flexible and can be changed. The menahel will know when it is kedai to push, to have some influential people call and advocate for your son.” This is another reason it is important to stay in touch with the cheder throughout the process.
What happens when a mesivta says “yes”? Often, they will want to hear a confirmation of acceptance and registration immediately or within a few hours. This can be challenging for parents whose son may not have completed farhering yet or may not have received a response from their first choice. Should they accept a “yes” from a “realistic” or “fallback” option when they have not yet heard back from the preferred yeshivah? Parents will try to stall for time, but the mesivta is in a similar bind. If you are going to say “no,” they don’t want to lose out on another talmid who is waiting for an answer and may otherwise go somewhere else where he has been accepted.
A lot of things are dependent on and waiting for each other. It can be a painful decision to make, and again, the cheder menahel and rebbi can help. “The menahel or rebbi will often have information the parent does not,” Rabbi Smith explains. “Sometimes, a mesivta will only accept a certain number of talmidim from a particular cheder, for whatever reason.” The menahel may know that information, and will also know how many bachurim have been accepted already. Although the mesivta may have shown a willingness to accept a bachur, with this and other perspectives, the menahel can more realistically estimate the likelihood of getting a “yes” from a hoped-for mesivta.
“Certainly, never turn down an acceptance while counting on another one withoutconsulting with your menahel or rebbi first,” Rabbi Schmelczer says.
It may be unfortunate, but an additional factor of which the menahel would be aware is the history the mesivta has with the elementary school. The school’s recommendation is tremendously important to the mesivta; if they have had a negative experience in the past, the mesivta administration is less likely to accept a bachur who could be somewhat borderline. Some yeshivos can be overly enthusiastic about bachurim, and this can hurt the mesivta’s trust in the future.
Within a week, all the decisions will have been made, and the overwhelming majority of bachurim are enrolled.
Pressure and risk
Many bachurim in eighth grade today feel tremendous pressure to perform on the farhers. They can be given the message that their entire future can depend on their learning from Sukkos until Tu B’Shevat since that period determines which mesivta they will get into, which affects their ultimate experience in beis medrash, and thereby the rest of their lives… It can be a bit overwhelming. We ask the panelists if the pressure is too much.
The menahelim are encouraging but they don’t take the bait. “It is very important to get into the right mesivta,” they emphasize. “The wrong mesivta—too high or otherwise—can severely impact a talmid’s growth.”
The rosh yeshivah strikes a tone of reassurance, and all agree. “Ultimately, Hashem decides everything,” he reminds nervous readers. “Certainly, hishtadlus is important, but that is all it is—we must all have bitachon that Hashem will put each bachur in the situation that is best for him, whether or not we would have come to the same conclusion on our own.”
Protect Your Son from Stagnating in Mesivta
As heard on Hashkafa M’meon Kodesh, given by Rav Gershon Ribner
Nowadays, there are many different types of mesivtas available, of varying levels and degrees scholastically, servicing different levels of motivation and commitment.
A very important consideration when choosing a mesivta is not to go out of your league.
I’ve had many bachurim confide in me that they’re in mesivta or beis medrash and “nobody looks at them.” They’re one of 30 boys in a class, the shiur is geared to the top bachurim, and they’re just left to their own motivation. The boys with the more attractive personalities or more outgoing personalities are the ones who forge a good relationship with the rebbi and grab his heart, and the rest of the class have no shaychus with the rebbi. They are not part of the clique, they’re not making it.
So I ask these bachurim, “Why did you choose this yeshivah?” And they’ll say, “What do you mean—it’s a good place, a top yeshivah!”
But it’s not a good place for them—and look what happened to them because it’s a “top” yeshivah. Why not go to a yeshivah that fits you, where you’ll be from the best bachurim, the shtark ones, the one other bachurim look up to and want to learn with b’chavrusa? Why go to a yeshivah that’s out of your league?
Now, the boy himself is not expected to know which mesivta is a match for him. The parents don’t always know either—they don’t know the mesivta scene, they might overrate or underrate their son, and they might be overprotective and sell him short. Therefore, choosing a mesivta must be done in serious consultation with the boy’s rebbe’im and menahalim.
Don’t get caught up in the “rating” of a mesivta. And don’t think, Well, if he goes to that top mesivta, then he can get into that top beis medrash, and then he can get into Brisk…then he can finally get that top shidduch.
Don’t look for labels—“Oh, baruch Hashem, finally, he got into the top yeshivah!” That’s not the end of the problem—that’s where the problem starts.
Forget it. You’re ruining his life.
Consider sending him to a yeshivah where they’re building their reputation—maybe a newer yeshivah or a yeshivah that’s trying to remake itself. They’re very invested in the boys, they’re going to work with them, he’s going to be the focus of the yeshivah. That’s a very enriching environment.Even after ascertaining which mesivta is the right kind for their son, often parents push hard to get into a specific mesivta. So they start with the protekzia and they’re busy with this rebbi or that gadol calling, getting this supporter involved, doing everything they can to push their son in and wear down the menahel’s resistance.
But that’s not the way to go. You need a tremendous amount of hashgachah pratis to choose the right mesivta. You can’t possibly know the whole picture. You don’t know which friends he’ll find in any mesivta, which friends will build him and which friends will destroy him. You don’t know—so why fight for the unknown?
It is a common sentiment among Orthodox Jews never to fight too hard to get on a flight. Because at a certain point you start thinking, If things are working against me, I better not get on that flight. These circumstances might be Heaven’s way of trying to guide me off a doomed flight. One must have that attitude with mesivtas as well. You’re dealing with something way over your head. You need to rely on the One Who knows the future and knows the character of every person and where he will shine.
One last point: when a boy starts high school, he will immediately see boys in the mesivta, some growing and excelling, and sadly, some boys stagnating and underachieving. There is something a parent can do to greatly increase a bachur’s odds of being successful in mesivta.
If he has a mentor, an older bachur who’s already established in the yeshivah, then he’ll do much better. It could be an 11th or 12th grader who’s already established as a ben Torah—he’s not sleeping through zman kri’as Shema, seder is seder, he likes to learn and he knows how to learn, and he’s normal and psychologically healthy (that has to be checked out very carefully). Have the ninth-grade rebbi arrange it—he’ll know the bachurim and who is a good match. Let the rebbi get them to learn together a half hour before Shacharis—it will give the boy tremendous strength. He has someone to turn to. He’s not alone. This will really increase the odds of a boy being successful in high school. Make sure that the older bachur is offered compensation for his time and effort, and remember to never be stingy on your most lucrative investment—your child’s growth.