February 26, 2024
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February 26, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Playing Russian Roulette With Our Children

Editor’s note: The below was written by a Bergen County yeshiva day school administrator, who asked to remain anonymous.

Year after year, around this time, we silently watch as our children become the victims of our current high school selection process. Although there is value in the practice of filling out a high school application, going to an interview, and encouraging parents and children to enhance their knowledge of the various schools and the incredible higher learning opportunities our community offers, the rejection piece of the process and the anxiety and fear that enshroud this operation are the absolute antithesis of what we stand for as Jews.

Throughout history, we have fought countless adversaries who tried to prevent us from transmitting our Torah’s commandments and values to our children. From biblical times to the Middle Ages, and through more modern times, no one was able to keep us from learning Torah or from getting some form of Jewish education. They certainly tried, but we never relented—not to the Romans, not to the Greeks, not to the Spanish Inquisition, not to the Soviet Union. We always sacrificed everything we had for the sake of perpetuating our children’s Jewish education.

And now? Although we are blessed with the freedom to offer our children vibrant and robust Jewish education, and fortunate enough to have outstanding high schools in our community, aren’t we discreetly and ever so gently perpetuating our foes’ aspirations by sending rejection letters from our high schools? Why is it acceptable for us to reject our children from our own Jewish institutions? Isn’t every Jewish child “worthy” of our schools? Are we comfortable playing Russian Roulette with our children’s emotions and tolerance levels, not knowing whether or not a rejection letter will lead a child to resent a Jewish institution, or even worse, reject us back? Why should any of our children become Jewish high school “rejects”?

By silently watching anyone being denied entrance to a Jewish school, we are sending the collective message to all our children that some may not have a place at a Jewish institution. This message is more damaging than any stranger prohibiting us from learning Torah. It’s not our assailants who are by default sending Jewish children to public schools, or telling families their children are not welcome in a Jewish high school. We are the ones rejecting our own children from Jewish high schools; we are the ones telling our children that they are just not “religious enough” or “motivated enough,” or need “too much academic support’’ to be able to attend our schools. For whatever reason—be it space, finances, resources, attitude, family circumstances—we are the ones rejecting our children from Jewish high schools.

Are we OK with letting even one Jewish child think Jewish education is out of reach for him/her? Aren’t the “unmotivated” or “not religious enough” children the ones who need Jewish education the most? Shouldn’t we try to inspire and bring closer the ones who don’t yet feel as connected to Hashem? Isn’t it our responsibility and obligation to provide Jewish education to everyone, even—and especially—to those who need the extra support, be it religious, academic or social-emotional assistance?

And what about those unnecessary rejection letters sent to some of our most dedicated, hard-working, and committed students? Why do they deserve to be crushed by a rejection—any rejection? Can we perhaps come up with a system that places children in one school without rejecting them from others? Indeed, I have the utmost respect and appreciation for the painstaking process the high schools already go through, but I am convinced that with more work, collaboration and communication amongst the high schools, we can produce a system that places children in one and only one school while rejecting them from none.

Yet, year after year, we see 13- and 14-year-old children and their families overwhelmed with stress, anxiety and even depression due to the application process, dreading the ultimate and frightful February decision letters. And despite the creative wording in each rejection letter, the message to the children is: “We have too many applicants and we chose others over you.” What a crushing letter to receive at that tender age. And even more so, what a terrible message to receive from a Jewish institution at this vulnerable and delicate stage in life.

Aside from pitying the “total rejects”—those who are not accepted into any school and have to watch aghast as their principals, parents and rabbis frantically call everyone they can, negotiating and pleading with each school to pity their child and accept him/her to their school—shouldn’t we also be outraged by any and every rejection letter from any Jewish institution? Why are we silently watching as our children dread those distressing missives?

This is not about allowing our children to struggle, work hard, persevere, confront obstacles and overcome disappointments. Rather, it is about their bond to their Jewish identity, their future commitment to their Mesora and Jewish education. It is about their belonging to their community. How can we expect a child to remain connected when we repudiate them?

It is our job to inspire, motivate and believe in every Jewish child. He/she may have not achieved all that we would have liked them to achieve—yet. But isn’t that our role, to make sure they get there, or at least try before we lose them completely? Isn’t it up to us to let them know we all believe in them? We are all collectively responsible for every child who as a result of this process becomes depressed, alienated, rejected.

Our children should most definitely feel fortunate and grateful to be able to attend Jewish schools. But that pride and sense of gratitude should stem from the fact that we live in a free country where we enjoy freedom of religion, and not because “my high school selected me and not my friend.”

All children deserve to feel proud and connected to their Jewish education, not scared, rejected or doubtful. I respectfully and desperately call on all the rabbis, heads of school, and community leaders to come together and think of a better way to serve and admit every Jewish child who is interested in attending a Jewish high school without the shame and anxiety they are currently experiencing.

Is it possible for the local high schools to hash it out before any child is left feeling deflated? Can all the Jewish high schools in the tri-state area band together for this indispensable and fundamental cause? Can we achieve a solution that will mitigate the pervasive fear and panic surrounding high school admissions?

This is indeed a grand endeavor that does not and should not remain just a dream. If the National Resident Matching Program can place 30,000 medical students per year, we too can figure out a way to match our eighth graders with one appropriate high school instead of sending out rejection letters. This is our challenge as a community—one that we can certainly overcome by uniting and working together.

We do not have to make the physical sacrifices our predecessors made, but we certainly have our own blunders to untangle to ensure that every one of our children feels embraced and wanted in a Jewish high school.

Name Withheld on Request
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