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?