At his aufruf, Shana Kramer's oldest son stood up in front of all his rebbes at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore and said, "It would be impossible for me to thank everyone that I have to thank for bringing me to this point, but there is someone I have to thank publicly because she stood there and cried every time I left the house to go back to yeshiva." He was talking about his mother, and the experience of sending her son away for high school, was, as Kramer, 52, put it, "Like taking my heart out of me and stomping on it."
Hyperbole aside, Kramer's experiences as a mother who sent her children away to high school are echoed by many parents in Los Angeles' religious community. According to Rabbi Yaakov Krause, the principal of Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Torath Emeth Academy, the largest ultra-Orthodox elementary school in Los Angeles, every year at least 15 percent of Torath Emeth parents will send their boys to out-of-town yeshivot for high school. A few years back, it was as many as 40 percent, and even though today more parents are opting to keep their children in Los Angeles for high school, there is still a significant number of students who leave the community to seek Torah learning in other places.
Members of the Orthodox community are quick to point out that the phenomenon of sending children away is an old Jewish tradition. "In the Bible, Isaac and Rebecca sent young Jacob away to learn for many years," said Rabbi Dr. David Fox, a clinical psychologist. "In the Diaspora, for hundreds of years in Ashkenazic and Sephardic countries, where many towns did not have schools and institutions, the parents had to send their children away." Fox, who is on the graduate faculty of USC and is involved in rabbinic education and service, has parents consult him on the issue of sending their children away nearly 30 times a year.
The reasons for sending children away are varied. Many parents want their children to attend their own alma maters. "We chose Ner Israel because my husband is an alumnus, and we knew many of the staff members," Kramer said.
Moreover, in the ultra-Orthodox world, there is a certain cachet attached to large rabbinic academies outside of Los Angeles -- places like the Ner Israel Rabbinical College of Baltimore -- and both parents and students want the prestige and the learning that is associated with those yeshivot. "Most of the time the desire to travel far is fostered by the student himself, who has his eye on a particular type of study," Fox said. "In the secular world, a child is motivated to get into Harvard, Yale or MIT. In the religious world, you will have a child who is attracted to a particular style of yeshiva or seminary."
While attending the Harvard of yeshivot is a draw, many parents also feel that the schools in Los Angeles -- places like Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles or the Calabasas Yeshiva -- will not provide their boys with the yeshiva education experience that they need. Parents want their boys to have the experience of total immersion in Torah study, away from the luxuries and pampering of Los Angeles. "There is a degree of camaraderie and academic intensity that dormitory life in an out-of-town yeshiva or seminary can afford the young man which the home setting or local school does not always provide," Fox said.
"I think that people really want their boys to have the experience of living away from home in a yeshiva where there are no distractions," Kramer said. "For example, there might be a television in the home that the parents are carefully monitoring, but they want their boys to have a purely spiritual time, and to get away from the daily newspaper. If they really want them to have a total immersion, then a local yeshiva will not fit the bill."
Others think that although the yeshivas in Los Angeles are fine institutions, they do not have what it takes to keep the students in town. "What we need is a rosh yeshiva who has a proven track record with a national reputation that will be able to retain and to draw boys to a beit midrash [house of study]. That is what our goal is," said Benny Westreich.
Westreich, 49, is a lawyer, and although he and his wife chose not to send their boys away to yeshiva, he has been working for several years to try and attract what he calls a world-class rosh yeshiva to Los Angeles. "We do have a really terrible balance of trade, because we export really successful boys to high schools [out of town]," he said. "We have zero coming in, and we have a heck of a lot going out."
Rabbi Eliezer Gross, the principal of Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, believes that there is no real reason to send boys out of town to yeshiva. "I don't think there is a difference in the quality of education that the boys receive," Gross told The Journal.
For the boys themselves, being sent out of town can be a maturing, stimulating, but often difficult experience, more so when they are sent away at a younger age. They often become homesick, and have trouble adjusting to life in the dormitories. For this reason Fox recommends that if parents have any doubt about the child's maturity, they should keep him home as long as possible.
"I certainly do get consultative phone calls with regard to some Los Angeles students who are living in dormitories out of town," he said. "I get called by the principal or the dean saying that they are concerned about the way a youngster is developing. But in the past few years, many of the yeshivas have taken onto the staff a mental health consultant to oversee the curriculum and to help homesick or anxious youngsters adjust to the atmosphere. And, it is not as if we are talking about a Charles Dickens situation."
Elliot Mandelbaum, 18, is someone who believed that the Torah pastures were greener elsewhere. He left Yeshiva University High School Los Angeles (YULA) in 11th grade against his parents' better wishes to study in Yeshiva Toras Moshe in Jerusalem. He was already in the highest shiur (class) at YULA, and he was ready for more intense studies.
"I felt that of the yeshivas that I was looking at for the way I wanted to go, this was the best one. In Israel, I am away from everything, with less distractions, and it is easier to learn," he said in a phone interview from Jerusalem.
Mandelbaum has a rigorous schedule in the yeshiva. The school requires him to learn 10 hours day, but in practice, he studies for 12 1/2 hours a day, often not leaving until after midnight.
But he suffers none of the anxieties that might plague other young yeshiva students, and he has no regrets about the choice he made to leave Los Angeles. "I am very happy with the decision I made to attend this yeshiva," he said. "I think it was the best decision."