What Seminary Says About You (Behind Your Back)

This is for Flatbush Gal, who is currently going through the seminary interview process, poor child.

Seminary might be the most overrated of frumkeits in the Orthodox community. Not that the seminary experience isn’t an awesome one, in all meanings of the word. The sort of learning you do is, on the whole, more exciting than high school fare, and there’s the giddy independence created by being a few thousand miles away from anyone who knows you well enough to keep a close eye on you.

The overrated part is how much of an effect seminary has on a person’s rest-of-their-life. In high school they told us that seminary would determine our “mehalech” so we should choose the one with “hashkafos” that match ours—or at least the ones we wish were ours. And post-seminary, guys and their mothers can kick up quite a fuss about a girl’s seminary, because it’s supposed to say something about her “mehalech” and “hashkafos.” Aside from the fact that most bais yaakov high school students go to bais yaakov seminaries, and most non-BY students go to non-BY seminaries, this application is negligable. Which is to say, we assume all BJJ grads are going on to smicha programs, Hadar students all wear pearl necklaces and don’t question their teachers, Me’ohr students may drop out of the cult but don’t count on it, and BYA students will spend the rest of their lives scrapbooking pictures of themselves in polo oxfords, slinky skirts, and various locations. From Michlala on down, every school has its supposed ‘type’. And it’s based on those ‘types’ that high school students choose their seminaries.

Only caveat: most students don’t get into their ‘first choice’ seminary. So already you have more than half the female population placed in seminaries that they don’t believe quite match their “hashkafos.” Of these, a good number don’t even get into their second choice. And some don’t get in anywhere, and therefore ended up someplace totally unexpected. I’m in the latter group.

Last night someone told me that when trying to sell me to a guy’s mother, she ran up against the seminary wall. “But do smart girls go to that seminary?” the mother asked anxiously. “My son is very bright.”

Um… The Someone didn’t know what to say. It was a classic “ask me about me” situation. Though, come to think of it, if the mother would have asked me, I doubt the answer would have reassured her.

Mom: So is that a seminary for smart people?

Me: Well I went there and they say I’m smart, does that count?

Mom: Well why did you go there if it isn’t on your level?

Me: Nobody else wanted me, it was getting late in the year, and I really wanted to go to Israel. But we shared teachers with other seminaries—how different can it be? (My opinion about “academic” seminaries over here.)

Mom: Hold on—nobody else wanted you?

Me: Yup. So my principal cut a deal with the menahel and shoved me into this sem at the last minute.

Mom: It’s been great speaking to you. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

There’s a general misconception that seminary acceptance is all about grades. This myth is perpetuated by those with below 3.5 GPAs to explain why they didn’t get into their first choice. Those with higher GPAs feebly protest that it’s also about personality match. I can’t say that explanation pleases me either. My mother complains that it’s about SAT scores while my father is unapologetic about his yeshiva choices. A vague transcript of one of my interviews can be found here (plenty of identifying information glossed over) for further illustration.

My point is that if a large chunk of students only attend the seminary they attend because they have no other choice, how much can it say about them? I know of many people who didn’t fit the stereotypes of their seminary because they didn’t really want to attend it.

And all that stuff about molding… I don’t know how malleable the average brain is, but most students start recovering within 10 months of touchdown in the USA. Nine months of exposure to a “hashkafa” is no match for 18 years of prior life. I’m not sure I even know what the “hashkafa” of my seminary was. The thing that sticks with me is an awed feeling at how much depth there is to Torah, but don’t even try asking me for an example.

With people attending seminaries for reasons ranging from “I think it’s the perfect match for me” to “Well it’s in Israel at least,” can you really judge a person based on it?



40 thoughts on “What Seminary Says About You (Behind Your Back)

  1. Just so you know, BYA girls are prohibited for tznius reasons from wearing slinky skirts while in sem- and they don’t wear them on tiyulim either. Sorry. (but some do scrapbook!)
    But, very nice post, and very true! Thanks for putting the facts out there.

  2. So, so, so true. I went to a seminary where I agreed with the hashkafos but would be embarrassed to be seen with 85% of the girls who went there. Most of my friends did not get into the coveted Michlala, Bnos Chava and BJJ (respectively) and went to other seminaries, where they might or might not have agreed with everything that went on there. I feel that seminary is a very poor judge of character, having seen what goes on in Israel. You can go to the most right-wing sem and still do tons of, er, stuff. And unless you get married right out of sem, it doesn’t affect you much. About 6 months after, you calm down a bit.

  3. I also went to a seminary that wasn’t on my original list of choices. I didn’t like it much and switched when I went back for one more semester. Also, I was there when the school was still very new and didn’t really know what it was supposed to be be hashkafically yet, so I don’t really think it says much of anything about me at all.

  4. but then there were those sems that i didn’t even apply to… i wouldn’t WANT to go to those sems, even if i wasn’t accepted into my first or second choice. (actually, i didn’t want to go to my second choice, either. good thing i wasn’t accepted)

    of course there are exceptions to the rule, but in general, most girls in a sem follow the ideals of the general populace of the sem.

    And while it’s true that many girls, if not most, come down from that “sem high”, there are those who changed completely from that one (or two!) year(s).
    Like me.

    But yes, there is a big misconception about grades and seminaries. The sem I went to wasn’t so academic, in the basic sense of the word, but the girls I knew were some of the most brilliant I’ve ever met.

  5. I know what you mean. Hah. I laughed when I read your myths about those seminaries. They are SO untrue- from my experience and my friends. But yes, it is true. SO much weight gets put onto seminary- there is SO much pressure in 12th grade. And yes, it is a great year, blah blah, but there is life after seminary. It is not THAT important, like high up next to the other priorities where it is placed.

    And why, oh why, are we judged by it by boy’s mothers? I love it when I hear, “Oh, well, my daughter got into BJJ, or whatever, but she didn’t want to go.” There is so much stupidity…

  6. We took a trip once and the airlines lost our luggage. We were in the middle of Podunk, Missouri and tsniusdik clothing was going to be impossible to find. I managed to buy two tops, horrible as they were. Anyone judging me on that trip on the basis of what I was wearing was going to be so wrong about me.

    Anyone judging someone else on the basis of the seminary they went to is making the same mistake–Seminary is just “temporary clothing purchased to cover the essentials” until you can get back home to your “real” clothing.

  7. It’s a little sad that your Jewish-learning career pretty much starts and ends with sem.

    I chose to go to Stern after my year in Israel, and the experience I got there (learning-wise) dwarfed anything I got in my classes in sem.

  8. Can someone here explain why seminaries treat their classes like high school while Yeshivas practically don’t give any tests at all? I never understood the emphasis on grades.

  9. … I don’t know much about seminaries, but from what I’ve heard from many, many sources, I seriously wonder why most mothers (given the mindset the mothers have) would trust any girl who came out of seminary.

    I mean, I’m a boy so I don’t have a clue, and I’ve never been to isreal but… What I’ve heard is that girls go in to seminary all innocent, and come out very not-innocent…

    Like someone I know who accidently walked in on two girls making out in their room in seminary to see what it felt like.

    and I’m not sure I would be willing to send my girls to a seminary when I have them, at least not an eretz yisroel one.

    Just to many horror stories. I’m surprised that the mothers aren’t tossing all sem grads out the window when they first hear.

    The other thing I’ve heard from some more right wing girls is that the more right wing and “tznius” the seminary, the worse the behavior, and the less they come out having learned.

    But I don’t really know anything about it.

  10. oh and said seminary girl thereafter spent her seminary years doing likewise with boys, lest g-d forbid she do the same as those two girls. (she’s now much older.)

  11. What if–gasp–you didn’t go to seminary in Israel??? Then, they really close the door on you. But, I was pretty happy with my choice. Never regretted it.

  12. hello.

    this is coming from a guy; not that girls don’t seem to learn good things from the year in seminary (with the exeption of midreshet harova), but besides for the religion difference, I personally feel girls learn a lot more about middot and life in nun training schools. They regerously teach about conquering their bad traits, and they go out and actually help people around the world, in the name of G-d, and spread G-ds word (and they don’t even molest chldren!)


  13. yoni – don’t believe everything you hear. and one story is not the rule.

    and poko-lala – many girls in my year of sem went out and helped their respective communities after working on themselves during their year in the holy land.
    please don’t badmouth the people of am yisroel based on narishkeiten.

  14. Sometimes, seminary acceptances are based on numbers; per the school and city the girl is from, so how can you judge someone based upon whether they made the cut for the ‘2 spaces’ or ’10 spaces’ alloted to their city?
    But, I think that a year in seminary, wherever one goes, is worth it no matter what. Even if you say you didn’t gain anything, I’m sure you gained something, small as it may be.

  15. 😀
    Yoni, if you can’t trust a girl to monitor herself after 12 years of religious education, then it doesn’t matter if she goes to seminary or not. She’s a lost cause. And the same for yeshiva guys in Israel.

    Strength: if you don’t go to seminary in Israel it’s not the end of the world, but if you don’t go to seminary, it really is. “Tsk tsk – doesn’t she care about her soul?” 😉

    Poko-lala – my experience with Midreshet Harova and other seminaries doesn’t seem to tally with yours, but that could be because I only know two HaRova girls – perhaps you only know two other-seminary girls? 😀 Too often people make generalizations with insufficient information.

    Flatbushgal – most people like wherever they go, if not for the administration then for the classes if not for the classes then for the fellow students. In my experience, the seminary itself is the least of the seminary experience.

  16. dreamer, problem is it isn’t just one story.

    Its dozzens and dozzens of them. Everone I’ve ever met tells me that either they were messing around, or everyone they knew in seminary was, or both.

  17. Well Yoni, I think we can start turning the tide here. Neither I nor my friends “messed around” in seminary. We did some things that people consider stupid and hairbrained, but no messing, and nothing against any halacha except maybe “vinishmartem me’od.” And I guess every horrified poster here can probably say the same thing.

  18. I’ve heard a couple of weird stories, but they were by far the exception rather than the rule, and I heard them all second- or third-hand. I never saw or heard of anything inappropriate going on in my seminaries.

  19. I second that, Yoni. Neither I nor any of my close friends that I spent practically every hour with messed around (with boys or with girls) and nothing overtly suspicious went on with the other girls either. Stupid things, sure- sneaking out to buy drinks at night and hitchhiking but nothing more extreme than that. Unless you actually attended yourself, you should not spread hearsay around.

  20. not that girls don’t seem to learn good things from the year in seminary (with the exeption of midreshet harova)

    I wish to be enlightened. What exactly is so wrong about Harova girls? They don’t learn good things there? So what do they learn?

  21. I personally feel that sem is such a waste of time.

    And why do they make the poor girls study so hard? Its not like they actually going to use the knowledge when they get married a year later…

    And its so expensive too.

    Da Wife didn’t go and she’s perfectly o.k.

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  23. What is Medreshet Moriah like? Do any frum girls go there or are they more modern, pants wearing types?

  24. No idea – I’ve never heard of it. But it sounds like the type. If it’s got “midreshet” in the name, chances are quite good you’ve got the extreme left of the religious spectrum.

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  26. I didn’t go to Midreshet Moriah but I know girls who have. It is a Mizrachi school, pretty educationally demanding, but also a “warm” place. The girls seem to really like it there. The few girls I know who went there have mothers who do not cover their hair, but they themselves plan on (or already do) cover their own hair after marriage. In terms of pants- I don’t know what the majority of girls do, but the ones I know would not wear pants.

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  30. You’re very right. Thereis so much stereotyping going on, while it’s so important to see someone as the sum of their experiences and circumstances, not limit our view of them to one short year.

  31. you are all a bunch of idiots!! half of you probably didn’t even go to sem but are just saying a bunch of l”h. nebach on all of you!

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