I’m writing about an incident in my life that occurred 33 years ago and caused me tremendous pain for over three decades. My pain ended today.
I wasn’t going to write about this publicly, but the other person in this story asked me to write this episode of both of our lives so other people can learn from what happened to us. Out of respect for the anonymity of the people in this story, I’m going to change their names.
When I was 12 years old in sixth grade, I wasn’t the best student. I didn’t have good grades and I wasn’t an attentive student. On the last day of sixth grade a few of my friends started a water fight, against school rules. They were caught and sent to the principal’s office – I was not involved. At the same time the water fight boys were sitting nervously in the waiting room outside of the principal’s office, I was in Chumash class with Morah Sarah.
At one point during class, Morah Sarah turned around to write something on the board and my friend Yossi was talking aloud and joking around. Morah Sarah spun around, looked at Yossi and me, and while I don’t remember her exact words it was something along the lines of, “Uri and Yossi! I’m sick of you constantly disturbing my class! Get up right now and go to Rabbi Cohen’s (the principal) office and wait there until after class when I meet you there.”
I tried explaining that I hadn’t done anything wrong. Again, I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I’m sure I begged her to believe me that I hadn’t been talking. Morah Sarah showed me no mercy. She didn’t believe me, and she sent me and Yossi to the principal’s office to wait until she met us there after class.
When Yossi and I arrived at the principal’s office, our wet water fight friends were also waiting there for the principal. When Rabbi Cohen opened his door, he ushered us all into the office together. While Rabbi Cohen knew that Yossi and I weren’t involved in the water fight, he still considered us part of the “trouble makers” group and we were all put on academic probation. We were told that next year we wouldn’t be given any second chances.
I was convinced then, and am still convinced today, that had I not been sent to Rabbi Cohen’s office at the same time my water fight friends were waiting, I wouldn’t have been put on probation. I know I didn’t deserve to be there. Morah Sarah was wrong – I wasn’t talking. I was furious at her for not believing me.
In seventh and eighth grades I was branded a “trouble-maker.” I wasn’t a perfect student, and I made a lot of mistakes over the next two years. Each time I did something wrong, my actions were viewed in the context of “He’s one of the troublemakers of the grade.” I knew I wasn’t, and it was only due to Morah Sarah’s false accusation I was put in the “bad” group. I had to pull strings to get into the high school I wanted to attend. Because of having “Probation” on my transcripts, I wasn’t a prime choice for schools to accept me. “Trouble maker” followed me throughout high school until I graduated and attended yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael.
I never forgave Morah Sarah for what she did to me. While in yeshiva I learned the halachos of hating a fellow Jew and realized I had a problem. The Rambam wrote “Whoever hates a fellow Jew in his heart transgresses a Torah prohibition as it is written in the Torah, ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Hilchos Deos 6:5). “When one person wrongs another, the latter should not remain silent and despise him” (Hilchos Deos 6:6).
What should a person do if he hates someone who wronged him? How was I supposed to handle my hate for Morah Sarah for having accused me falsely? The Rambam wrote, “[The offended party] is commanded to make the matter known to the offender and ask them, ‘Why did you do this to me? “Why did you wrong me when you did such and such?” as it is written in the Torah, “You shall surely admonish your friend” (Hilchos Deos 6:6).
This seemed difficult to me. I’d have to find Morah Sarah, confront her, admit my vulnerabilities to her and how much she had hurt me. The Rambam offered another solution. “It is pious behavior if a person who was wronged by a friend would rather not admonish them or mention the matter at all because the person who wronged them was very boorish or because they were mentally disturbed, as long they forgive them totally without bearing any feelings of hate or admonishing them. The Torah is concerned only with those who carry feelings of hate” (Hilchos Deos 6:9). Although this was the perfect solution for me, I couldn’t bring myself to forgive Morah Sarah. I needed her to apologize to me.
When other people had offended me, I also didn’t want to confront them, but noticed that time healed all wounds. I asked my rebbi, Rabbi Saul Zucker, if I didn’t want to confront them, and knew that after a few months I’d likely just forgive and forget, would I be violating the prohibition of hating the person in my heart in the interim period? Rabbi Zucker told me as long as I was confident time would heal the wound, I could wait until it did and wouldn’t be in violation of hating someone in my heart.
Yet, try as I did, I could not forgive Morah Sarah, nor did time heal the wound. I felt so wronged at being falsely accused and having that stain of a “bad kid” around me for years. As time went on, I realized I’d have to find Morah Sarah, explain to her the hurt she caused me, and ask her for an apology. I began to search for Morah Sarah.
In the ensuing decades, every time I ran into someone with the same last name as Morah Sarah I’d ask if they knew her. It wasn’t until two weeks ago, 33 years after I was in Morah Sarah’s classroom, that I finally found her. She had been living within a 30-minute drive of my home for years.
My wife warned me that by telling Morah Sarah what had happened and my hurt, I could devastate her. Was it really fair, I asked myself, to seek my own closure and need to fulfill my mitzvah of tochechah at the expense of her self-confidence? I felt it was.
I contacted her and asked if we could meet for coffee. It isn’t everyday a former student contacts you after 33 years and asks for a meeting, and Morah Sarah’s interest was obviously piqued. We met for coffee and I explained my mitzvah of tochechah, and my need for an apology from her.
I could see my words hurt her. She had no idea of what she had done and the pain she had caused 33 years before our meeting. She asked what she could do to make it up and I explained that all I wanted was an apology. After she apologized, I felt a weight lift off me. I responded by telling her I completely forgave her. I further explained that unlike the horror stories people in Jewish education fear the most, her false accusation against me didn’t stymie me, turn me off to Torah, or cause me debilitating trauma. I have a great life; I became a Jewish educator myself and I am proud of the family I am raising.
Our meeting turned to my reassuring her that she wasn’t a horrible person, and her 40 years in Jewish education were a testament to her successful career. We began discussing the risks Jewish educators face in their chosen careers. Like a doctor who has a career of treating thousands of patients successfully, but inevitably has made mistakes that have resulted in patient mistreatment or even death.
Morah Sarah and I discussed how serious the risk Jewish educators take in trying to inspire their students to lead Torah lives, and how low teacher compensation and respect are in our communities in relation to the hazards of the job. Morah Sarah asked me to share it in the hopes that others begin to understand the risks of Jewish education. The Jewish community tends to focus on horror stories like this one more than on the success stories that thousands of Jewish educators create every day. Jewish educators deserve recognition for the risks they take and the student victories they create.