Seminary in Israel or America? That is the Question

by play

When Bais Yaakov Middle School teacher Mrs. Rochelle Goldberg’s only daughter Shoshana was applying to seminary, she concluded that she preferred to stay home and attend Maalot Baltimore, rather than join the vast majority of her class, who only considered going to seminary in Israel. That was back in the day when Maalot offered a first-year seminary experience. The ever-increasing popularity of Israeli seminaries resulted in closing that program. Maalot now offers only a second-year seminary program.

“People exerted a lot of pressure on us, and we finally caved,” recalls Mrs. Goldberg. “My daughter is happily married with children, b”H, but even now, I wonder if she had to go. She was unhappy much of the year.”

Mrs. Goldberg’s personal experience was the impetus for her to write and direct her seventh theatrical musical production, Recalculating. The play delved into the disapproval and pity that high school girls (and their parents) get if they choose to stay “local” for seminary. This “undue and unfair pressure,” as Mrs. Goldberg refers to it, is experienced particularly by those girls who live in out-of-New York communities.

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Performed on January 30, at Bais Yaakov, the plot of the play revolves around Malki Singer, the girl who does not want to go to seminary in Israel (played by Henya Wolowik), and her mother, Mrs. Shaindy Singer (played by Chedva Kermaier), and the flack they get from Mrs. Esther Scheinberg, a wealthy mother (played by Esther Tova Kaplowitz), and her daughter Yocheved (played by Aliza Fink). The Scheinbergs’ rabblerousing has students and parents alike believing that there is some deep dark secret preventing Malki from attending seminary in Israel: Either the family can’t afford it or is dealing with some sickness.

The pressure that Malki encounters makes her begin to lose the courage of her convictions, which, in the end, after much soul-searching, she regains. When the principal is made aware of her students’ feeling that every girl must go to seminary in Eretz Yisrael, she enlightens them. Going to seminary is not a given, she says. Rather, it is a gift from their parents, and sometimes a sacrifice.

The play ends with Malki’s class graduation and her valedictorian speech, in which she describes her experience of “swimming upstream,” even when it was difficult, and thanks her parents and school for helping her make the decision she feels is right for her.

“All communities outside of New York deal with this issue,” notes Mrs. Goldberg. “The shidduch stigma is certainly a factor. In New York, no one thinks twice if a girl went to seminary in Israel or not. More New York girls stay in the States for sem than those who live out of town. But if an out-of-town girl decides not to go to Israel – or can’t go for financial or other reasons –people question it and think perhaps she isn’t such a “good” girl. Considering the exorbitant cost and the fact that so many people go to Israel for vacation or summers, I wish more people would weigh their options.”

Some reasons for attending seminary in Israel, as opposed to staying local, were brought up in the play by the characters: Learning to be independent; seeing the places where our Avos walked and learning the history of the Land, in person; and going to learn where there is kedusha. To those points, one classmate rebutted, “We have very good seminaries right here at home. You can take a trip to Israel later on in your life. You can be independent at home if you live in a dormitory, and you can make your own kedusha by the way you dress or speak.”

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As I was writing this article, I happened to meet a young BMG (Lakewood) kollel wife and mother who, after weighing her options, decided to go to seminary closer to home. Soroh Hinda Slotchiver says that, although her high school in Providence, Rhode Island, really encouraged her class to attend seminary in Israel, she had no desire to go. Instead, she went to Bais Yaakov Intensive in Brooklyn. She was the only girl in the class of seven who did not go to Israel. Her two younger sisters also ended up going to Bais Yaakov Intensive, and a third sister has been accepted to the seminary for the coming year.

Sorah Hinda’s father, Rabbi Shmuel Taitelbaum, asked a shaila of one of the gedolei Yisrael, before the final decision was made. “The gadol was very encouraging about staying local,” notes Rabbi Taitelbaum. “He feels it is better to have children close by, where they are able to come home for Shabbos and Yamim Tovim when they have off, since the child gains the most from the home. Having your children close enough so you can be involved with them constantly is very important for a child, even during the seminary year. I don’t think any of my daughters had charata (regret).

“This gadol also said that even in the best seminaries in Israel, there are times when the girls have to place themselves,” continues Rabbi Taitelbaum. “He felt that it is not the place of a young lady at that time to have to worry about where she is going to be for a Shabbos or where she is going to find herself for a Yom Tov. This is so in even the best seminaries in Israel, let alone in those that have less supervision over the girls.”

“I didn’t feel pressured, because I didn’t want to go to seminary in Israel,” recalls Soroh Hinda. “I got to go home more often. I was home for every single Yom Tov, which I really enjoyed and I feel that was beneficial for me. Obviously, it’s not Eretz Yisrael, but I don’t think I missed out on the seminary experience. I was in a dorm with other girls, I went places and did things. Two years ago, I went to Israel for a week. I don’t feel that it affected my shidduchim at all.”

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Rather than merely conjecture, I asked WWW’s “Ask the Shadchan” columnist, Mrs. Mashe Katz, who has been a successful shadchan since she was a teenager, if she would share her thoughts regarding the shidduchim concern raised in Recalculating.

“There are plenty of very good seminaries in America,” said Mrs. Katz, “There is no reason parents should put themselves out financially or otherwise because they are concerned that their daughter will not find an appropriate shidduch. If it is bashert for her to find her zivug (mate), it will not matter if she learned in Israel or in America; that is up to the Ribono Shel Olam. There are plenty of girls who married wonderful young men even though they did not go to seminary in Israel. If we don’t put a stop to the mindset that girls must go to Israel, it will continue.”

Finally, I asked girls, themselves – both play participants and viewers – whether Recalculating changed any of their ideas about their futures.

Peninah Lieder, who played the role of Rena Shield, a classmate of Malki’s, remarked: “I don’t know if the play really changed my opinion about going to seminary in Eretz Yisrael, but the theme was not being judgmental and not jumping to conclusions if you see someone doing something. The play taught me the importance of being dan lekaf zechus.”

Rochel Langer, who played the part of Naomi Sterman, another classmate, said, “I didn’t want to go to seminary in Eretz Yisrael, and I still don’t want to. It has nothing to do with frumkeit, and I love going to Eretz Yisrael. It means that even if I don’t go – just because I don’t want to – I can still be a totally regular, normal person.” 

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This is not the first hot topic that Mrs. Goldberg has brought to the surface in her playwriting. Last year, her original Persian-themed musical drama, Journey’s End, really hit a nerve in the Iranian community and was the subject of an Ami magazine article, “Lifting the Curtain on Persian Pride.” Little did Mrs. Goldberg realize that her play, which merely intended to raise awareness of a neglected culture, would turn out to be a sensitive topic close to the hearts of many. After the performance, the Persian lead actress found her mother in tears as she emotionally explained that the play closely portrayed the experiences of her husband, an experience that was never shared with their children. It was a real eye-opener for many of the eighth graders as well as the entire Bais Yaakov student body and staff.

This year’s amazing performance, which was produced by Mrs. Shari Rochind and was under the direction of student heads, Shulamis Buehler and Dina Bracha Schechter, and assistant student head, Blimi Herskowitz, was performed before a packed house but did not elicit as great an emotional response. However, high school playgoers did have their opinions to share.

Tenth-grader Shoshana Lieder remarked, “I guess I changed my focus. You have to think about why you are planning to attend seminary in Israel, not just because everyone else is doing it. It got me thinking. I think I still want to go, but it gave me some room to think about why I would do it or what I hoped to gain, rather than go because everyone is doing it so I want to do it.”

Eleventh-grader Nechama Sachs opined, “I think it is definitely a pressure for Baltimoreans to go to seminary in Israel. I think it takes a girl like Malki, from the play, or a group of popular girls in the class to come together and all say they are not going to seminary in Israel. Then it would work and it wouldn’t be as much of a pressure.”

As I was about to leave Bais Yaakov, a mother of a high schooler, who preferred to remain anonymous, shared: “It’s really, really hard to send our daughters to seminary. Most of our girls end up working for many, many years, either in the summers or babysitting every night to earn it. Most of us can pay the amount we are paying for high school tuition, but $25,000 is a lot of money. The richer families can afford it, and there are scholarships for the poorer families, and a lot of schools do offer chinuch scholarships. I think it is hardest for the middle class, but somehow, we make it work. I do think that if a chunk of girls would decide to stay in America, you would see things change. The problem is that no one wants to be the one to do it, because right now, it is not considered mainstream. But, if a group of girls would get together and say, ‘We are staying here,’ I think it would catch on.”


© Margie Pensak-2017





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