I wasn’t going to write this article because I first thought that the information in it is obvious. What prompted me to write this was seeing people without goals waste their year in yeshiva or end up stuck in the wrong one. Unfortunately, people usually don’t realize this until it’s too late. Here’s how to avoid becoming one of them.
Become a Proactive Student
The point of studying in a yeshiva or seminary is to accomplish goals that you set for yourself, whatever those goals may be. Yeshivas are means, not ends, for achieving these goals. Most yeshivas have their own goals for their students. Few do not.
Proactive students write out a list of their goals before choosing a yeshiva. Reactive students have vague goals or no goals at all, thereby submitting themselves to whatever goals their yeshiva has for them. They may or may not accomplish these goals, depending on how much they care about them and how motivated they are. Still, these goals are not their goals.
You can be a proactive student, a reactive student or somewhere in between. The choice begins before you begin looking at different yeshivas. Simply by choosing to become a proactive student, you are ready to move on to Step 2. Choose wisely.
Write Out Your Goals
Before you even consider different yeshivas, write out a list of goals you have for yourself for the following year. Think “what can I get out of a year in yeshiva?” If nothing comes to mind, you may want to rethink boarding that plane in September.
Goals can range from “Assess the validity of Torah” to “Learn which commentaries to look at for different types of questions that arise when studying Talmud” plus everything beyond that and in between.
Maybe you want to improve the quality of your prayers. Maybe you feel that you want to connect more to Torah observance, but are lacking the necessary inspiration. Or maybe you want to simply explore the ancient and timeless wisdom that the Torah has to offer. But whatever you choose, be specific.
Also, consider if you are putting too much on your plate. Be honest with how much you are capable of handling and make sure to prioritize.
Every person should have their own unique goals for themselves. These are not the goals that your teachers, rabbis or parents may have for you. If their goals are different from yours, talk to your guides and get them to elaborate why their goals for you are different from the ones you have for yourself.
Use your own mind to reach a conclusion. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. Your guides are great for advice, but you should be trying to develop into your own person during this year.
Choosing a Yeshiva
Once you’ve made the list, you are ready to pick a yeshiva. To do this, first figure out what its goals are for its students. You have selected the right yeshiva once your goals line up with its goals more than any other yeshiva’s.
A good way of finding out what different yeshivas’ goals are is to look at their websites, schedules, current rabbeim and, most importantly, current students. An even better way of doing this is simply to ask them.
Don’t waste time during interviews. Ask “What is your yeshiva’s goals for its students?” or, my favorite question to ask during my interviews last year, “What makes your yeshiva stand out among all the others? What can I get here that I cannot get anywhere else? What would I be missing out on if I didn’t come here?”
Watch out for red flags: If you get vague answers, like “the guys,” “the rabbeim” or “the environment,” ask for more details. Every yeshiva is going to tell you things like that. Also look out for a yeshiva that claims that it is the best yeshiva for everybody. Every honest yeshiva knows that this is not true. Anybody who makes this claim does not have your interests in mind, only their own.
Warning: Do not seek advice from a former member of a yeshiva or one of your teachers if the information on this yeshiva is outdated. Many yeshiva applicants make this big mistake. Try to get the most recent information possible by talking to current and newly former students, or to one of your teachers who are in contact with them. Many teachers form their opinions on yeshivas with outdated information and do not change their minds, even many years later. They have good intentions, but do not become a victim of this.
As a close rebbe once said to me, “You won’t know whether or not a yeshiva is the right place for you until you go there.” After the first couple of weeks of settling in, go over your list of goals, and make sure they are in line with your yeshiva’s goals.
Make an appointed time, once a day, week or month, to check your list to make sure that you’re following through. How often you do this is up to you, but it is too important to forget. You must keep up with yourself throughout the year in order to get the most out of it.
As the year progresses, you will likely discover new goals that you have for yourself. When a new goal comes to mind, write it down, think about it and, if you choose, add it to the list and keep up with it. But make sure that a new goal is your goal.
Students who, instead of writing down their goals, keep them bouncing around in their head, have a tendency to forget about their goals and subconsciously replace them with their yeshiva’s goals. Don’t do this. Think carefully before you add—or even subtract—a goal.
Making the Switch
If you realize that your goals do not line up with the goals your yeshiva has for you, you may want to look someplace else. Switching yeshivas is a tough choice for everybody who does so, but you will be very glad down the line if you switch to one that’s better for you, even if your friends, parents and teachers look at you funny. Be brave.
How do you know which yeshiva is the right one? Go back to Step 1. Now that you’re actually in Israel, hopefully with friends in other yeshivas, use your new environment to your advantage.
If you are currently a first-year student in a yeshiva in Israel, and are considering returning for a second year, then this article should be helpful to you too. I will give a thorough treatment of the “Shana Bet” topic in my next article.
By Ezra Epstein
Ezra Epstein is a yeshiva student, studying in Israel. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more of his articles, visit his blog, “Brick Wall,” or ezraepsteinbrickwall.blogspot.com.