We Jews wandered the four corners of the earth for so many centuries, never having a home where we could feel completely safe. Our experience from Egypt to the galut taught us to respect the dignity of the stranger and to reach out to the needy.
When we were vulnerable, the voices of our sages cried for the downtrodden and the lonely. When “not fitting in” was intrinsic to our experience, our teachers taught us to care about others who felt the same way.
But now? Now, when Jerusalem is ours? Now, when Orthodox Judaism has never been in a stronger position? Now, when in America there are communities where observant Jews can choose between three or four full-sized kosher supermarkets with thousands of kosher products; communities dotted with shtiebels and shuls and beautiful synagogues; communities with tens of day schools and yeshivas to educate our youngsters, where public school districts provide buses to take students to the day school and yeshiva of their parents’ choosing?
We are blessed to be living at such a time, a time when politicians are genuinely concerned with “Jewish issues.” At the local and national levels, policy makers are truly supportive of the needs of the Jewish community and of Israel.
Yes, we are indeed blessed.
And yet… and yet with all these blessings, so many of the leaders of our schools and our communities seemingly act cold and hard rather than with openness and understanding.
The irony is damning. No place has this been more apparent than in the way yeshivot treat and “manage” their so-called difficult students, those students whose needs and behaviors often cry out for attention.
The “riches” of having more students than they can fit in their classrooms has made educators and administrators greedy and more than willing to simply weed out any student who does not hew perfectly to strict and rigid rules.
After all, what could be easier than to simply remove a student who, for whatever reason, needs or demands more time or attention, and replace him or her with some other student who will be more compliant, better behaved?
Easier? Perhaps. But right?
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Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt”l, leader of Sephardic Jewry, asked, “Whom are you throwing out? A rock? Some accumulated trash?” He was not blind to the challenge of teaching “difficult” students. But when he confronted a rowdy, disruptive, or uncooperative student in a class, he did not view the student as the enemy but rather as the unique being God intended him to be and embraced him as such. What an upside-down world we have created when Rav Ovadia’s approach strikes us as refreshing and encouraging instead of the norm.
In making this point, I do not mean to minimize the importance of rules and decorum. I do not mean to downplay the challenge of the “difficult” student nor do I mean to suggest it is never appropriate to remove a student from a particular learning situation.
There are always extenuating circumstances when an individual student cannot remain in a school, for his sake and the sake of his classmates. However, even when it is determined that a young person must be removed from a school, that decision should never be made lightly or judgmentally. It should be made in consultation with experts including gedolim, school psychologists, social workers and certainly the parents.
And then, if the consensus is that it would be best for the student not to remain in a particular school, only half the job is done. The other half is the crucial matter of where the student goes next. What is the alternative?