This article was published in the September 10, 2021 edition of The Five Towns Jewish Times (page 107) with the title "The First Day of School."

Yitzy trudged slowly through snow. His footfalls in his large, bulky boots made an audible crunching sound. The echo reverberated through the quiet small-town street. The truth was, though, that there were only two inches of snow on the ground. It wasn’t really the snow that was slowing him down. While many of Yitzy’s teenage peers tended to be nervous on the first day of a school year—especially entering a new yeshiva—Yitzy’s situation was diff erent. It was taking place in January.

Memories of the past half-year replayed in Yitzy’s mind. He had been shocked when the menahel told him at the end of ninth grade that he was going to need to fi nd a new yeshiva for the following year. The offi cial reason was that his attendance was poor. He came too late too frequently. Even just the sound of it was absurd. Was there really no one else whose attendance was as bad as his? When he wasn’t in class he was either sleeping late or in the gym. He was never the only one, so why was he singled out? He knew all along that the faculty didn’t like him, but he couldn’t imagine they would conjure up grounds for expulsion. And frankly, they hadn’t. He would never have dreamed that they would make such a big deal out of such a small deal just to get rid of him.

Tenth grade began with more of the same. Yitzy was quickly able to identify the kind of friends in his new yeshiva that were his “type.” They enjoyed late nights together, sometimes sneaking off of the yeshiva campus for fun excursions, other times sitting up late in their dorm rooms talking—e-cigs were taken out only if they knew the dorm counselor had left for the night. Beer was enjoyed on even rarer occasions. Mornings began late. Shiurim and classes were a mixed experience. At times, Yitzy would do anything to come up with an excuse to leave, find something else to entertain him, or manage to “change the subject.” Other times, he would get very engaged in the lesson and ask very intelligent and probing questions. Rebbeim and teachers struggled to find a predictor for his “good” days and “bad” days, but came up empty-handed. Their frustration was becoming evident. Again. The menahel seemed not to like him out of the gate. Again.

The reason for his second expulsion was, in all fairness, much more reasonable than the first one. One Sunday afternoon he lost track of what his friends were planning to do. He went to his dorm room to watch a movie on his phone. He vaped as he watched, enjoying a relaxing time by himself. Inexplicably, the dorm counselor entered Yitzy’s room. He was never around on Sunday afternoons before. Smartphones and e-cigs were strictly prohibited in yeshiva. He was caught with both. Somehow, he suspected that there was more to it than just that.

Now he was dreading entering a new yeshiva. He imagined the menahel introducing himself by telling him that he needed to change his pants and get a new haircut. He envisioned desperate rebbeim and teachers pleading with him to behave as he had the previous day. He entered the building, and managed with some help to find his classroom. He was late. He entered the room, doing his best to be as inconspicuous as possible. It was at times like this that he minded being six-foot-two with flaming red hair. The rebbi sat at his desk with a grandfatherly bearing. He appeared to be telling a story. The talmidim were lounging but listening. When the rebbi finished the story, the talmidim all chuckled. The rebbi then noticed Yitzy.

“Shalom Aleichem!” he said enthusiastically, “Are you Yitzy?”

“That’s what they tell me,” Yitzy replied sheepishly.

“Welcome in! We are excited to have you join us! Guys, Yitzy is a new talmid joining our shiur. Everyone should please make sure to welcome him.”

“But rebbi,” one very jumpy looking talmid in the far corner seemed to object, “We first need to find out if he can catch a football!”

Sparing no more words, the jumpy talmid spiked a football on the floor so hard that it ricocheted off of two walls before landing in Yitzy’s tight grip. He was an excellent athlete. The rebbi replied to the jumpy talmid.

“Eliyahu. It appears that he can.”

The class responded with a standing ovation. Maybe this new yeshiva would be different.

It was in fact very different. Yitzy’s new rebbi tolerated spiked footballs, standing ovations, and spotty attendance. Yitzy’s rebbi was a therapist as well as an ADHD life coach in the afternoons. He therefore understood profoundly and from different angles that many talmidim are not naturally equipped to learn effectively in a classic classroom setting. All of the rebbeim in the yeshiva understood this as well. Each grade had two classes—one was a standard classroom model, the other much looser. Yitzy’s penchant for rule breaking did get him into trouble at times. There were plenty of suspensions, confiscated devices, and more suspensions, but another chance always awaited him upon his return. This yeshiva not only knew what Yitzy needed, but also had the resources to support him.

Today, ten years later, Reb Yitzy—as he is known—is a rebbi in this very yeshiva. He does not teach in the standard classroom, or even the looser class. He has a group of four or five eleventhand twelfth-grade talmidim who need something even more unusual. Some of them prefer the basketball games he plays with them, while others prefer the hikes and swimming in a local lake. They all enjoy riding his pick-up truck. Some prefer riding in it (not in the cabin). Others prefer the opportunities to drive it—when Reb Yitzy is “not looking.”

The story of Yitzy—both his struggles and his successes—is the story of many students who do not thrive in a typical classroom. Yitzy had ADHD (as did Eliyahu). This accounted for many of his behaviors: his disruptions in class, lateness, inconsistency, poor attendance, stimulation seeking activities, and chronic rule breaking, to name a few. Additionally, Yitzy’s self-awareness was poor. He did not acknowledge how many half or even full days of yeshiva he had completely skipped in his first yeshiva. Instead, he was under the impression that the reason for his expulsion was simply lateness. He imagined that this was blown out of proportion because the yeshiva faculty disliked him. This wasn’t true either. Despite the many times they tried to explain this to him, and warn him of the possibility of expulsion, he never quite processed it.

The key to Yitzy’s success was finding the yeshiva—and class—that was the right fit for him. Yitzy needed a classroom in which some looseness would be tolerated, but in which the learning would also be stimulating. He needed a yeshiva in which some of his wilder behaviors would be tolerated to the degree that he would not be expelled for them, but at the same time they would not simply be accepted. (A yeshiva in which these behaviors would be accepted is likely to have students who will push the limits even further—with behaviors in which Yitzy had not engaged, but would not resist the temptation if they were being practiced by friends.) He needed a yeshiva in which there would be some naturally studious students, which would raise the bar for what he could aspire to achieve, albeit at his own pace. Fortunately, he found one.

An additional piece that was key in Yitzy’s success was his and his parents’ open mindedness in trying something different. Yitzy was a very bright kid, from a respected family. His new yeshiva was a neighborhood yeshiva—neither prestigious nor underwhelming, per se. It took a measure of modesty for someone of his skill level and background to attend a yeshiva that was not well-known and impressive. Being in the perceived “lower” class, could also have been a blow to his pride. Both Yitzy and his parents were willing for him to try it anyway (albeit after two unsuccessful ventures elsewhere). They are thrilled that they were.

Yitzy’s story is one of many students who are not naturally well suited for a standard classroom. Insistence that a student does not need something different, but simply needs to “try harder,” as well as various social pressures, can frequently motivate families to continue to try to keep their child in an environment for which they are poorly equipped. Sometimes, even within “out-of-the-box” options there is difficulty finding the right fit. Fortunately for Yitzy, he and his family were able to find exactly what he needed.

Rabbi Shmuel Reich AAPC is an ADHD life coach in private practice in Monsey, NY (remote coaching also available) as well as a rebbi in Yeshivas Ohr Reuven in Suffern, NY. He can be reached for coaching of individuals or couples, as well as for speaking or writing engagements, at or 646-262-8257.