Saturday, July 20, 2019

I have lived in Bergen County for much of the past 35 years and have had the personal privilege of witnessing my beloved community flourish and grow. Our community’s incredible growth has enabled the transformational development of our social and religious infrastructure.

One of our community’s greatest achievements is the founding and continued growth of our many academic institutions; each of them—without exception—reputable and renowned. I am genuinely proud that our local yeshivot represent a wide spectrum of institutional styles, educational philosophies, and religious hashkafot. That our community is blessed with such a wide variety of educational options, both on elementary and high school levels, is not to be taken for granted and serves as a model for other communities.

There is one particular feature that sets our community apart from other communities of similar size and composition. Currently, there is no Bergen County yeshiva that follows a K-12 model. Thus, upon graduating from eighth grade, our local students continue their education by selecting and then entering a new institutional setting. This model presents our community with a unique set of opportunities and challenges.

Without a K-12 model, high schools are compelled to actively engage in student recruitment, which has created an exceptionally intense competitive environment. All of our local yeshiva high schools, in addition to high schools located outside of Bergen County, invest substantial resources to attract, engage and recruit students. It must be noted that our school leaders, despite the institutional competition, frequently collaborate and coordinate, often serving the community collectively rather than individually.

The yeshiva high school application and admissions process is multifaceted and complex. It is therefore quite remarkable that historically, well over 90 percent of Bergen County children are accepted to at least one of their first schools of choice. (Given the limited capacity of any given school, eighth graders are expected to apply to at least two separate schools and, at times, students are strongly advised to apply to at least three schools.)

Each and every year, on a pre-specified date in the middle of February (this year February 12), high schools inform all of their applicants if they have been accepted, rejected or waitlisted. In recent years, many local eighth graders are accepted to more than one school, some are accepted to only one school, and a small, but not insignificant, number of children are informed that they have not been accepted into any yeshiva. Ultimately, virtually all of these children gain admittance, but only at the conclusion of a grueling process that can take many weeks, if not months. The emotional impact of feeling rejected by one’s community, even if only temporarily, can be devastating. I have witnessed firsthand the extraordinary pain experienced by these children and their families, all of whom feel marginalized, isolated and helpless. There are, of course, situations where children have special learning or behavioral needs that cannot be accommodated in one of our mainstream yeshiva settings. Such cases are not the subject of my remarks. My focus at this time is to address what has repeatedly occurred to students whose educational and behavioral needs can certainly be met within our yeshiva system but do not gain admittance to any school until the time that their peers have finalized their own decisions.

It goes without saying that each of our schools must strive to achieve excellence on every level—academic, religious, and social. In doing so, schools must work diligently to assemble a student body that will facilitate the successful achievement of their unique institutional goals. Understandably, this level of success can only be achieved by establishing a quantitative and qualitative balance in the classrooms and hallways. With over 20 years of professional classroom experience, I can personally attest to the impact that even one student can have on many others. This phenomenon is neither imagined nor exaggerated. Be that as it may, we must confront the following reality: For the past several years, 2-3 percent of the graduating eighth graders of Bergen County face rejection and uncertainty, with the knowledge that over 97 percent of their peers have been accepted to yeshiva.

To be clear, I have no doubt that our school leaders act with the purest of intentions and face extraordinary challenges, as they earnestly strive to preserve and promote the success and integrity of the schools that they lead. Furthermore, there are numerous complexities and systemic realities that have made it exceedingly challenging to fully resolve this issue in the past.

These challenges notwithstanding, I issue this public appeal on behalf of the children of our community who may otherwise suffer humiliation and pain. Over the next several weeks, school leaders, together with their admission committees, will finalize their decisions as to how to process the applications they have received. As a community, we must commit at the outset to offer every one of our children the dignity of acceptance. I therefore propose that until a placement is secured for every one of our children, all letters of acceptance be withheld from every Bergen County student. I respect the right of our school leaders to build institutions of excellence and genuinely admire their sense of responsibility in doing so. Collectively, however, we must do so in a manner that allows us, as a community, to simultaneously offer a space and a place for each and every one of our children.

Critics of my proposal will accuse me of presenting an oversimplification of this issue in public. Some may argue that Bergen County does not yet offer an appropriate and suitable educational setting for each of our children, an argument that I personally believe has merit. As I have already acknowledged, this issue is profoundly complex, and solutions that will satisfy all parties will require an unprecedented level of communication and compromise, involving elementary, high school and communal leadership. I firmly believe that as a community we are capable of achieving that goal. Until that time, however, let us please commit to sparing any child the extraordinary pain and anguish of rejection.

By Rabbi Larry Rothwachs