To play (the system) or not to play?

Religious Zionists should foster large high schools instead of micro elitist yeshivot.

Students in classroom 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Students in classroom 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Without a doubt, choosing a high school for my 13- year-old son is the most frustrating thing I’ve had to do since making aliya 18 years ago.
Except for a two-and-a-half year period in Australia a decade ago, I’ve lived my whole adult life in Israel. That’s brought a lot of advantages – I’ve never really lived abroad as an adult, and I very rarely visit the United States, so I don’t really think about the supposed “difficulties” of life in Israel unless they are pointed out by my Aussie or American friends.
Without private school tuition (and a wife who works in hi-tech), it is easier for us to make ends meet than it was in Melbourne, and on the rare occasion I do compare Israel to the Old Country, I find that Israel stacks up pretty well. Very well, in fact.
Which is why I’m so traumatized about choosing a high school for Gilad. As opposed to most communities abroad, where all the teenagers in a clearly-defined geographic area went to the local high school, religious Zionist communities in Israel have created micro-high schools to suit every narrow segment of the population.
In Gush Etzion, where I live, there are fewer than 30,000 residents, but there are four high schools for boys and two for girls. There’s a text-heavy yeshiva high school (with dorm) that prides itself on stiff competition among students and a similar school just up the road that focuses on hassidic thought and spirituality.
You’ve got your warm, but less academic yeshiva school that prides itself on a family-like atmosphere and a clear message about the beauty and joy of Orthodox Judaism, and the public, non-yeshiva high school, with a strong staff and emphasis on secular and Torah subjects but a bad reputation because it caters to troubled teenagers as well as to academically-minded kids. That last fact means many students can routinely been seen smoking just outside the school grounds during school hours without kippot on their heads, two facts that scare many religious parents.
But none of the schools have more than a couple of hundred students, meaning their ability to offer a full range of academic and extra-curricular programs is limited. There are no formal music programs, sports teams, drama programs or hiking clubs. One school offers foreign language instruction in Arabic, but that’s about it.
In contrast, my hometown of Irvine, California, is home to 219,000 people, with four regional high schools, each with approximately 2,000 students. That critical mass gives the schools the ability to offer students all of the above, plus a wide range of academic programs to challenge university-bound students and to ensure that weaker students get the basic education they will need to enter the work force after high school. Motivated students complete their studies and move on to tertiary study feeling proud of their accomplishments, but not like a holier-than- thou elite.
WORSE, THE schools require young people to take entry exams and to sweat out personal interviews in a tough acceptance process, and to deal with the pain of rejection if they aren’t accepted. It’s an opaque process, and some honest teachers inside the system have said off-the-record that they don’t exactly know if there are clearly defined criteria.
Test scores and seventh-grade report cards are said to count for a lot, as is the personal interview, complete with questions about the student’s level of religiosity, the family’s level of observance and a nebulous impression of whether Student A is the “sort of young man we’re looking for here.”
And that’s for the boys’ high schools. One mother of an eighth grade girl said her daughter’s teacher wouldn’t, or couldn’t, actually spell out the entry requirements for the two local girls’ high schools. Rather, the teacher said representatives of the each high school would meet with their elementary school counterparts for a briefing about which girls are more suited for the elite school, and which ones would be better suited to a “less academic” environment. The mother believes the acceptance process is based almost entirely on those recommendations.
The drawbacks of the situation are clear to all, and it also isn’t clear exactly what the benefits of the system are. Accomplished men and women in their late 20s and even their early 30s say they still bear the hurt of having been rejected by the “top” schools years ago.
PROPONENTS OF the system argue that an elitist structure to high school education allows each student to attend an institution that is tailor-made for him or her. Academic kids who are “strongly” religious can be coddled in homogeneous incubators so they don’t fall under the influences of “datlashim” – a Hebrew acronymn for “dati l’sheavar,” or formerly religious. Less academic kids have schools that tailor to their needs and can give them skills they will need for university study in a warm, nourishing environment.
But the elitist system that will necessarily hurt many of children also by definition fails to offer them the educational and cultural opportunities all parents would like them to have. The “good” schools like to show off their prize students, but fail to mention consistent studies showing that 20-30 percent of their graduates choose not to observe the mitzvot as adults.
Many ex-Orthodox Israelis say their greatest moments of religious crisis came when they were drafted into the IDF – after years of a clear message that they were the elite of Israeli society, they encountered moral, friendly, intelligent secular Israelis – the horror! – who loved the Land of Israel as much as they did but looked askance at many extreme facets of today’s religious world. So even for the cream of the national-religious crop, it isn’t clear just who benefits in the long term from the current system.
In our specific case, it happens that all the high school options are excellent, and whatever option Gilad chooses will be a good option that will serve him well. But I’ve come to resent the entire process, and I find myself conflicted. Do we pull out of the system, refuse to apply to any of the schools and notify his junior high school that he’d be honored to continue there and hope that some of his friends follow suit? Or do we let him take the national test, thereby keeping the other options open but feeding a system with no clear benefits?
Ultimately, it isn’t our decision alone to make. At the age of 14, this is the first major life decision Gilad has really had a voice in. Perhaps its all part of the difficult process of letting go of my first little boy, but it’s extra difficult to subject him to a process that I don’t believe is in his best interest, or anyone’s.
The writer is opinion editor of The Jerusalem Post and a resident of Efrat.