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October 20, 2014 / 26 Tishri, 5775
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The Disposable Student

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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?

* * * * *

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?

That said, it is not the unique case that is the focus of my concern. My concern is with the approach too many of our school leaders take, which is that it is not only acceptable but preferable to remove students (and sometimes their siblings!) simply because they don’t “fit in.”

Over and over I hear that cruel refrain. He or she “doesn’t fit in.” Such a posture is beyond unacceptable. It’s reprehensible.

* * * * *

An educator is not merely a conveyor of information, a conduit of transferring data. An educator must be concerned with the neshamah of his student. An educator cannot simply remove a student without finding an alternative for that student. An educator must not be satisfied until that soul he refuses to handle, love, nourish and develop is registered in another school, one more caring and embracing.

An educator must think not just about the student but also about the student’s family. I have heard from parents who are frightened and overwhelmed as their child’s school essentially abandons their child and family. One mother who called me was reduced to tears. “I am at a loss. What am I supposed to do with my ninth-grade daughter? She was never a problem academically or behaviorally. Now they say she doesn’t fit in.”

Pay attention! This mother was not from some small out-of-the-way community. She was calling from the heart of Flatbush.

What am I to say to the parent who cries to me, “What am I to do with my child?”

The solution is not as simple as placing the student in another school. Too many times the insensitivity of the educator goes beyond his own school. He sees to it that the child is blacklisted. An informal “inter-principal” network removes the child not only from one school but blocks him from all of them.

As a result, students who need structure, who need the embrace of the community rather than its rejection, are left to while away their time at home or on the street, idle, frustrated, and bored. “And mind you,” a mother told me, “my daughter is not rebelling, tearing the place apart. At least not yet. She keeps asking me, ‘What happened, mommy?’ ‘What’s wrong with me?’ What am I to tell her?”

Is she to tell her daughter that her school was like a factory and she was expected to be a widget? Is she to tell her that she didn’t “fit the mold”? That is not a Jewish message.

How many do we lose to the Jewish community because they were shunned? I heard from one young adult, “I didn’t fit the mold and had a hard time, ultimately going off the derech. I later came back, though, with a Modern Orthodox hashkafa.”

He came back. He had the strength of conviction to seek another path to God and Torah; there are after all, shivim panim l’Torah, seventy faces (or perspectives) to Torah. But what of the countless others who don’t come back? What about those whose communities turned against them and told them, “You don’t belong”? What had they done? Was their transgression so great that they were shunned as though they were Cain?

Again, I applaud schools with high standards. Every good school must adhere to a code of conduct and behavior that covers academics as well as social and religious behavior. The question is, how do you respond to infractions? Is a minor infraction treated the same as a major one? Is the only response to an infraction to throw a student out?

Students who have been expelled from a yeshiva and blacklisted from others often find their way to public schools or local community colleges and, hurt and angry by how they were treated, gravitate toward a more secular experience.

Still others, rejected by yeshivas with minimal general studies programs, are ill equipped to even find their way to public education. They are particularly vulnerable to the ills of the secular world and they too often end up in the streets, aligning with the most undesirable elements of society. Whatever family contact they have continues to fray until it disintegrates as their parents and other relatives shun the “outcast” in their midst.

In this way, families and generations are lost. Why? Because a menahel determined that a child “doesn’t fit in.”

Who will answer for these lost souls? Who will be big enough to reply to the Ribbono shel Olam who will surely want to know, “Why did you allow My beloved children to forsake Me?”

Who will respond to the mother who asks, “Why did my daughter fit in through eight years of elementary school, and then one month before school opened for ninth grade she suddenly didn’t? What changed? Won’t anybody tell me?”

* * * * *

It wasn’t all that long ago that rabbanim and others concerned with the Jewish future in this country looked “with candles” for students to register in what were then fledgling institutions. Yeshivas were starved for talmidim. Bais Yaakovs for girls were barely a dream.

During that time, everyone was welcome. Everyone fit in. Many community day schools came into being because local Orthodox rabbis – overwhelmingly members of the Rabbinical Council of America – went door to door to any and all Jewish families soliciting not money but any Jewish children whose parents would enroll them in this new phenomenon.

In Lakewood, New Jersey, the late Rabbi Pesach Z. Levovitz dared to dream that a day school could be a reality. He literally begged for Jewish kids in and around Lakewood, Howell, Freehold, Farmingdale and Toms River where Jewish immigrants, mostly Holocaust survivors, initiated successful egg farms and businesses.

“Just come!” he enthusiastically told one and all. “Give me a chance.” His persistence laid the groundwork for a community that would ultimately become the “Lakewood” we know today when Rabbi Levovitz welcomed, embraced and assisted Rav Aharon Kotler, zt”l. The rest is history.

In the Bronx, the revered Rav Yeruchem Gorelick, zt”l rosh yeshiva and dreamer and my unforgettable rebbi – established Yeshiva Zichron Moshe and Bais Yaakov decades ago and expressed great satisfaction and enthusiasm when the city allowed for students to be bused to the schools of their choosing. He felt busing was introduced min hashamayim – that it was divinely ordained in order for everyone to come and fit in.

So it was across the country. In Pittsburgh, the late Rabbi Joseph Shapiro knocked on doors in the evenings when both parents were home, asking for the opportunity to explain why a day school education made sense for all Jewish parents, even the “greeners” who wanted to rid themselves of any real Jewish observance and identity. That was the beginning of Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh and many other Hillel academies throughout the country.

All were welcome. All fit in. They only needed to come.

And now?

* * * * *

The issue is not whether every yeshiva and school needs to accept every student. Rather, it is whether there is a seat for every child who wants to attend a yeshiva, a Bais Yaakov, a day school. There must always be a seat at the table – and an acknowledgement that the table is large enough for everyone.

The great imperative of Judaism is to learn and teach Torah. Veshinantam levanecha. Who are we to determine who is worthy to learn? Who are we to suggest that someone is not worthy?

Not long ago I received an e-mail from a mother who was in anguish over her son, who had been “kicked out before Pesach.” She agreed the yeshiva was not meeting his needs, that it was not the right place for him. “But now I have a son in jeans with an unfiltered smartphone, still shomer Shabbos, B”H, but not doing everything properly.”

She and I continued to e-mail for several days. Throughout, I found her to be thoughtful and reasonable. At one point she wrote, “I have strongly felt [it] would have made a huge difference…had he not been kicked out but transferred. If they would have said, ‘This is not the right place for you but let’s find the place that will meet your needs.’ ”

She wondered whether it would be possible for yeshivas to work together with parents to find the right place for the student who “doesn’t fit in.”

She was pleading not just for her own son but for “all the sons and daughters expelled and rejected.” She didn’t want her son, or anyone else in a similar situation, to feel hated or unwanted by the frum community. With an appropriate placement, her son could be in yeshiva and “hold his head high” in the community.

Does anything else need to be said?

I offered her a number of suggestions and supportive comments, and at one point she said what was deepest in her heart and in the hearts of countless parents and their “punished” children. With exasperation, hurt, and bewilderment she said to me, “Articles are nice but with all due respect we need bigger. The more children who get kicked out, the more children we will have on the street suffering – and the path back is so much longer and ever so much more difficult.”

And then she asked, “How can we take this to the gedolim and make a change ASAP?”

I share her fear and bewilderment and sense of urgency.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.


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