Several years ago my husband and I were the directors of a seminary, which girls from all over the world attended.
Dina, one student, was a somewhat “strange” girl by anyone’s definition. She had a health condition that needed monitoring, and she carried some emotional baggage. She was loud, often making socially inappropriate comments and failed to keep some of the basics in personal hygiene. None of these qualities particularly endeared Dina to anyone. One glance at Dina could easily let on that she was somewhat “different.”
But Dina was also harmless. She posed no threat to the other students in any way, including Yiras Shamayim.
The reaction of Dina’s peers was interesting. Some “good” girls who came with references extolling their wonderful middos avoided her entirely, not wanting to be seen having any association with her.
Other girls, though, saw Dina for what she was, and reached out to her. They delicately and tactfully taught her. Consistently, these special girls displayed the greatest ahavat Yisrael without making her feel like a chesed recipient.
It wasn’t easy. Throughout the year, one issue after another cropped up. But these girls grew from their sensitivity, and their kindheartedness affected their peers too. It was impossible not to learn from their example. These students taught me a significant lesson about true ahavat Yisrael.
Why do I write about Dina now, almost a decade later?
I received a call about a month ago. It was from Dina’s mother.
I hadn’t been in touch with Dina all these years, and had rarely spoken to her mother, due to the time differences of our countries.
Dina’s mother sadly informed me that Dina had passed away the previous year, succumbing to her illnesses. She wanted to request that our students study on Dina’s upcoming yahrzeit, in her zechus.
She continued to express her gratitude. She explained a little of Dina’s history that was unbeknownst to me. She shared how her year at the seminary had been the very first time in Dina’s life that she had felt any real happiness.
“Due to her health problems, Dina’s childhood had been extremely difficult. Under constant doctor’s supervision, she had been in and out of school, and had always felt alienated from her peers.
“I want you to know how much you did for Dina,” the choked-up mother continued. “Even in her last hours on her deathbed, Dina spoke with a sparkle of happiness in her eyes, about the girls that befriended her and the year spent in your school – even though it’s been over 10 years!”
Did the girls in Dina’s class or dormitory lose out by having this “different” girl in their midst?
Despite the hours that our students spent in intense study or devoted to chesed and community work, I can honestly say that Dina was probably their greatest hands-on learning experience for the entire year.
Dina taught me about the real meaning of chinuch.
In most elementary schools, every class has a mix of students. Some are the “A” students; others are the non-academic types. There are those who are popular, smart and talented and everyone’s dream friends. But there are also those who are homely, overweight, extremely introverted, lacking self-esteem, unpopular or strange.
By being grouped together, students are forced to get along. Moreover, the job of mechanchim is to help their students discover the inner beauty in every individual, regardless of external qualities.
True, it is more difficult for teachers to cater to varying academic levels, but good teachers provide enrichment, as well as remedial opportunities. Stronger students are occasionally called upon to help weaker ones, and they gain skills, not only in presenting ideas but in learning how to give, as well.
It may be challenging to meld so many different types into a wholesome group, especially those “unlikeable” ones, but everyone gains from reaching out.
Nowadays some high schools and seminaries have become extremely polarized, vying for the “top” girls, a.k.a. the smartest, most popular and charismatic.
I understand that each director is looking out for the reputation of his/her school. I also understand the need, in today’s climate, of safeguarding the environment by preserving a respectable standard of yiras shomayim and not accepting students who might have a detrimental affect on the others.
I understand, as well, a school trying to maintain a high academic level. But truth be told, if the learning is intense, weak students who cannot keep up, won’t look at such a school as an option, and won’t need to suffer the hurt and rejection in the process. On the other hand, diligent “B” students who put in serious effort, can be a bigger asset to any school than an “A” student who gets her marks with little effort.
Moreover, I can’t reconcile myself with the months and months of anxiety inflicted on our children (and parents) to get into the “perfect” high school or seminary, which supposedly is a prerequisite to the next step of making the “perfect” shidduch. I also take issue with the use of “connections” that parents are forced to use, and that seminary directors succumb to, and how this affects acceptances, irrespective of personal merit. Our children are blissfully too naïve to confront such prejudice from the mechanchim that they respect at this stage of their lives.
The whole process would be more enriched and less painful if as a community, we took responsibility for all of our students, to encourage many respectable schools rather than a hierarchy of desirable ones.
But most of all, even after being accepted into the “perfect” institution of one’s choice, I wonder how many of our children are losing out on the valuable life skills and lessons, of reaching out with sensitivity to another. Not as a classroom lesson. Not as a community chesed or ahavas Yisrael project, but as a real-life scenario.
As mechanchim, we may not take pride in having students like Dina. But perhaps it is these students, more than the “dream” ones, who actualize our potential as real mechanchim, while providing our students with opportunities for real chinuch. Just ask Dina’s mother. She’ll give you a whole new perspective on chinuch when she tells you about those special girls who about a decade ago, reached beyond their egos to befriend her daughter.
*Names and identifying qualities have been changed.