I didn’t love high school. Sure, I was well educated, landing in college and a prestigious graduate program, leading to a successful career. When I was a teenager, that was the sole purpose of high school. To offer an education sufficient to move on to college. Little thought was given to middot, self-image, social adaptation or personal growth. Whatever issues you brought to high school, you had them upon graduation. Only more pronounced. We had about 60 students in my grade. At our recent 25th-year reunion, four people showed up. Why? Well, if you were part of the small popular clique, you were immune to social stresses. Everyone else was left to fend for themselves. Some found a friend or two to join them on the periphery. Others marched alone. Many, like me, chased the wrong crowd, never realizing that the true diamonds were hiding in plain sight. I was on the basketball team for four years; the only athletic program offered. But, it didn’t matter. I was not learning anything about sportsmanship or camaraderie. I was just trying to survive.
Perhaps that was the norm when I was growing up. I didn’t see my friends in other high schools faring any better.
That brings me to last Thursday night, when I watched my son graduate from the very same high school. Frisch runs strong in my family. My mother has been on the faculty for 40 years. My siblings and I are graduates. My children are all Cougars or soon will be. My nieces and nephews will one day be alumni. I have acted as the school’s lawyer, and I am a member of the board of trustees. Admittedly, it’s an odd resume for someone with such ambivalent feelings towards high school in general and Frisch in particular.
However, the yeshiva high school experience has evolved over the last 30 years. I have been involved as a board member or attorney for almost every yeshiva in the area over the years so I can attest to the fact that all of the yeshivot now offer a comprehensive program that goes well beyond books and tests. In some ways, I have found that, in preparing our children for adulthood, all of our modern yeshivot focus more on character, sensitivity, social responsibility and kindness than on raw scores. So, that’s a sea change. Each yeshiva high school has its own nuance and culture, but, when the dust settles, they are sending our children out into the world far better equipped to deal with life and its daily challenges than ever before.
That’s not what I wanted to say. I wanted to talk about Frisch, circa 2015.
The Frisch School is simply an amazing place. It’s not just a high school and doesn’t pretend to be. It’s your home and it’s your family for four years. With grades that each exceed 150 students, you are never lost. You will find your place. You will make friends. There are plenty to go around. They come in all shapes and sizes, all kinds of backgrounds and personalities. Not fake friends or friends of convenience. But, people who will care about you. Nurture you. They will peer-pressure away your more annoying social habits, while encouraging the best in you. You will quickly learn the meaning of social cues and positive reinforcement. Finding yourself in high school is more important to your future than acing a navi class.
Germinating your interests is equally important. The school is overrun with sports, art, drama, creative outlets, and political, religious and social clubs. There is literally no skill that you may need as an adult that you cannot hone as a student. By the time you graduate, you will know where your strengths lie and that will inform your future.
The school is blessed with an administration and lay leadership that constantly surprise me with their dedication and depth. Trust me, it’s not easy. Some 400 Modern Orthodox families, each with a list of grievances, some justified, some not, and each with the (sometimes) unreasonable belief that their issue trumps everything else on the administration’s plate. They want action, if not answers, and they want it now. Not that there is anything wrong with that. A parent should see their children as the most important thing in the world and constantly fight the good fight on their behalf. But, human frailties and simple math make the equation insurmountable. But this school and this administration will get to it. Maybe not as fast as you would prefer, but they will listen. And investigate. And respond. I have found that they don’t always reach the expected or desired result and, to be sure, they make mistakes. But, it’s not for want of care or genuine concern. Historically, we have seen the tragic result of cool, detached administrators who just don’t seem to care. I don’t know if their client-service numbers are better than those of their peers, but it’s just not the right environment to foster love and compassion. And, those are indispensable in today’s model.
But, I think the secret to Frisch’s success can be found in its incredible ensemble of young rabbis. They are the lifeblood of the school. Not only because of their scholarship and perspicacity but because they are strategically deployed throughout the school, always in sight. They can quickly intervene in any misadventure, while getting to know the students. Learning not just their names but who they are. They develop relationships designed not only to educate by blackboard but by example. No, I am not naive. They aren’t perfect. And, not every rabbi connects with every student-type. But, that’s why it works. There are so many of them. Each with his own approach, hashkafa and personality. And, they all have one thing in common; they genuinely want your child to succeed in life. Preferably as a halachic Jew but at the very least, as an ethical and moral Jew.
There is much more to say. But, a simple theme emerges. I have come to learn that success in life has little to do with your high school report card or, regardless of what your teacher says, your AP scores. It’s not whether you survived with 10 marginal friends or one great friend. It’s not whether you are captain of the basketball team or a member of the computer club. It’s about growth and maturity. You are a child when you enter high school and an adult when you leave. Your soul must be nurtured just as much as your brain. More so. And, in order to grow, you need options. Social, artistic, creative, role-models, occupational, expressive. You need to find yourself because, after all, next year you are expected to choose your major (read: future career).
Frisch has evolved from the one-dimensional model to a great institution of diversity and inclusion. It’s no wonder that Frisch graduates of every stripe flourish in every field. Measure them pound for pound against any other public or private high school and you will find an extraordinary rate of success—not necessarily financially, but where it counts. Family. Relationships. Honor and integrity. And those, of course, are the very ingredients for a happy life.
Ari Weisbrot is a litigator in New York and New Jersey, and moonlights as an occasional writer. Ari grew up in Teaneck and lives in New Milford.
By Ari Weisbrot