To play (the system) or not to play?

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, 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 “difficulties” of life in Israel unless they are pointed out by my Aussie or American friends. I’m fortunate to have built a good life here, 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 my hometown of Irvine, California, where all the teenagers in a clearly-defined geographic area went to the local high school, religious Zionist communities in Israel require young people to take entry exams, sweat out personal interviews in order to get into elite yeshiva high schools, and to deal with the pain of rejection if they aren’t accepted.

Worse, nobody but school officials know what the criteria for acceptance are. I’m not actually sure there are clearly defined criteria. Test scores and seventh grade report cards are said to count for a lot, as are the personal interviews, 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 actually spell out the entry requirements for the two local girls high schools. Rather, the principal said that 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 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 a decade or more ago.

Furthermore, the local model of creating micro-high schools to suit every narrow segment of the population prevents us from offering our children the academic and extra-curricular opportunities that a larger regional high school would be able to. A simple comparison: Gush Etzion, with fewer than 30,000 residents, is home to four high schools for boys and two for girls. None offer formal music programs, sports teams, drama programs or other extracurricular activities. One school offers foreign language instruction in Arabic.

In contrast, Irvine, California is home to 219,000 people, with four regional high schools. There, each school has enough critical mass to offer students all of the above, plus a wide range of academic options 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.

It’s an elitist system that will necessarily hurt many of children and by definition fails to offer them the educational and cultural opportunities all parents would like them to have. As a result, many parents are forced to shuttle their children to twice-a-week band rehearsals or swimming competitions in Jerusalem, or to French lessons closer to home. As outside activities, these groups carry additional costs, usually heavy ones.

In our specific case, it happens that all the high school options are excellent. Neveh Shmuel is a text-heavy yeshiva high school that seems cold to the outsider and prides itself on stiff competition amongst students to achieve high matriculation scores in Torah and secular subjects alike. Mekor Chaim is similar, with more of a focus on Chassidic thought and spirituality.

Orot Yehuda is less academic and is built around the yeshiva’s dynamic founder and dean, Rabbi Shlomo Kimche. The physical surroundings are sparse, but Rabbi Kimche and his staff more than make up for it with a warm, encouraging atmosphere and a clear message about the beauty and joy of Orthodox Judaism. Parents and students alike say the fourth option, Derech Avot, has the best staff and curriculum of any school around, but the school has a bad name amongst many parents because it caters to troubled teenagers as well as to academically-minded kids. It’s also the continuation of Gilad’s junior high school, meaning he’d be accepted without a test or personal interview. But 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.

Which ever option Gilad chooses will be a good option that will serve him well, but I’ve come to resent the entire system, and I find myself conflicted. Do we pull out of the system, notify Derech Avot that he’d be honored to attend and hope that some of his friends follow suit? Or do we let him take the national test, thereby keeping the other options open in case none of the other families want to give Derech Avot a chance but feeding a system with no clear benefits? 

© The Jerusalem Post

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