Jerusalem — Sometime in the past few weeks Rabbi Eli Mandel, vice-principal of Jewish studies at the Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, received an offer he felt compelled to refuse: “$1,000 cash” for every TanenbaumCHAT student he directed to a certain Israeli gap-year yeshiva.
“I recognize that recruitment for Israeli yeshivot is a cutthroat business, but I was (perhaps naively) shocked at a recent proposal made to me by a somewhat prestigious yeshiva to remain nameless,” Mandel wrote in a much-discussed posting on Lookjed, a respected user-list for Jewish educators.
In the seven years he has provided guidance to students considering a gap year in Israel, “this is the first time I have been approached in this way,” Mandel said.
Rabbi Mandel, who declined to elaborate when contacted by The Jewish Week, would say only that he was hoping that his post and the ensuing conversation would “bring this to light and discourage such practice.”
Respondents to the posting and those interviewed for this article uniformly expressed dismay at the notion that a gap-year yeshiva would try to bribe day school recruiters to attract students. The issue is particularly sensitive because Modern Orthodox day schools, and the Jewish community at large, routinely encourage students to spend their post-high school year in Israel.
Enrollment in non-haredi Israeli yeshivas and seminaries has risen from nearly 2,400 students for the 2006-2007 school year to an estimated 3,200 in 2010-2011, according to MASA Israel, a program that encourages Israel study. Where a student ultimately decides to learn often depends on a day school counselor’s recommendations.
“Aside from the obvious negation of Torah principles, this calls into question what recruitment is all about,” said Rabbi Binny Freedman, rosh yeshiva of Orayta, a Jerusalem yeshiva, said in the online discussion. He is also the director of Isralight, which offers spiritual retreats and Jewish learning sessions. “If the goal is to ensure that every student finds the place best suited for him or her, then this is obviously a step in the wrong direction, to put it mildly.”
Educators are attributing this behavior — something, they say, they have never personally encountered — to the fierce competition between Israeli yeshivas and seminaries for overseas students. Those institutions rely largely on student tuition and stipends from the government, MASA and the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency to keep their doors open.
Like the proverbial elephant in the room, this cut-throat competition is out in plain sight but rarely discussed, the educators acknowledged.
Aside from last week’s Lookjed discussion, just about the only material on the subject appears on the website of Atid (www.atid.org), an organization that promotes leadership in Jewish education.
The unsigned article notes that schools “are under enormous pressure to make their customers/students happy quickly.” If the current students aren’t satisfied by early November, when yeshivas begin recruiting next year’s crop of students, they will tell their friends to choose another school, the writer says.
“No recruiter wants to sit down at an Israel night and hear the following: ‘Well, I was considering your yeshiva, but I just heard from my friend who said it is too hard for him and he’s not enjoying himself.”
The article throws a harsh light on recruitment campaigns, stating that yeshivas and seminaries “waste hundreds of thousands of dollars” on recruiters’ “hotel rooms, bad coffee and international flights.”
At least in some schools, the author writes, the competition for students “comes with infighting, bickering and lashon hora (bad-mouthing).”
The author goes on to assess the educational cost of this competition. To woo students, it says, some schools water down their content — a process he calls “edutainment” — which amounts to less time in intensive study, more frontal teaching, “and teachers who have to worry deeply about how much the students like them.”
These schools, the author claims, feel compelled to retain charismatic teachers over more knowledgeable ones, and teach more sources in translation “or in easy to digest sound bites” so that students avoid the frustration of studying difficult sources in depth.
While some yeshivas offer excellent, rigorous programs, others “will present themselves as more serious than they really are,” the writer says.
Rabbi Jeffrey Saks, director of ATID, told The Jewish Week he was “very disturbed but not shocked” by Rabbi Mandel’s Lookjed posting. He said that the past few years “have been a period of growth” for Israeli yeshiva programs that cater to overseas students, but that the economic turndown worries administrators who have to pay overhead and teachers’ salaries regardless of enrollment.
“It’s crazy. The administrators start pounding the pavement right after Sukkot. There’s a lot at stake,” Saks said.
Rabbi Mark Lehrman, director of Yeshiva University in Israel, said he has never heard of a recruiter offering a financial incentive to a day school administrator.
“It saddens me because it’s showing that at the end of the day, business is intruding on Torah learning,” he said. “We’d like to think the Israeli experience is a l’shma experience – for the love of Torah — but economic concerns are an ever-present reality.”
Separately, in a pair of Lookjed postings, Rabbi Todd Berman, associate director of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem, also recounted what he considers a case of questionable integrity.
“Two students from another yeshiva appeared unannounced in our beit midrash. One of the students explained that they were happy at their yeshiva and had no interest whatsoever in coming to Eretz HaTvi.”
When Rabbi Berman asked why the students had come, “they explained that they needed to come to Eretz HaTzvi for recruitment purposes, and had been sent by one of the recruiters of their yeshiva.”
The rabbi acknowledged that “no yeshiva’s recruitment practices are free of guilt,” and called on his fellow educators to adopt a set of recruiting guidelines.
Rabbi Berman called on all yeshivas and seminaries, in conjunction with Yeshiva University (which provides college credits to the Israeli schools in its network) and the Board of Jewish Education to draft “ethical guidelines” for institutions and their recruiters.
“It is high time to clean house, do some much-needed soul-searching and even teshuva,” Rabbi Berman wrote.
Among the things the rabbi would ban: offering money to Israel advisors; public criticism of a school by another school; pressuring students to enroll prior to the cut-off date, before they have heard from other schools; stringing along prospective students by failing to provide acceptance letters; and misleading or false advertising.
“These are all well-known offenses,” Rabbi Berman stated.
The educator said violators should be judged in a rabbinic court empowered to impose sanctions, including “absolute bans.”
“We are engaged in holy work,” Rabbi Berman concluded, “and we should be exemplars of holiness.”