Secular Kids and Religious Schools

Several days ago, an observant Jewish writer who identifies himself by the nom-de-plume “Jameel Rashid” wrote a post on his blog (which he calls “the Muqata“) concerning the above topic. He sent an email soliciting our participation in the discussion, which I neglected to forward to the others (it was a very busy week!).

That was regrettable, because he has both touched on an important issue, and generated a long discussion (some 45 comments, some of the best of which he collected into a second post).

I’m putting this out so that more are aware of the discussion, and to get your opinions.

Personally, I think the idea that secular parents want to send their kids to the religious schools should be a mark of pride. Frequently it has nothing to do with the religion per se, but merely the quality of education (the Shas schools, for example).

When a school sets guidelines, it can and should expect students to live by them — whatever their observance level at home. If my old Hebrew school could expect me to turn up with a yarmulke every time, why can’t a religious day school in Israel? So I don’t think the presence of non-religious kids is necessarily disruptive — on the contrary.

The schools my children attend expect the homes not to have televisions. This hardly means that none of the families have televisions, and no one goes house to house looking, either (or threatens expulsion when a kid mentions Sponge Bob Square Pants). It does mean, however, that the kids are expected not to discuss TV shows, and that if a kid talks about them during carpool, a parent can bring it up with the administration or (if they feel comfortable) the other parent.

Admittedly, there have been few students in these schools from non-observant homes, but the same general principles apply. If the kids are expected not to discuss beach trips on Shabbat, you can generate an environment conducive to religious growth while still welcoming those not personally observant. In our day it seems the positive benefits of that engagement far outweigh the risks — but, again, I’d like to hear other opinions.

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8 Responses

  1. DMZ says:

    I’m going to approach this as the American I am. Forgive me for not sticking to the Israeli-oriented part of this topic.

    When I was in high school, the school was swinging to the right hashkafically (and pretty hard, at that). I said to my rebbe at the time, “What’s going on? This school used to serve the greater community, yet now we seem only interested in the right-wing bit of it.” (This was true – there were non-observant kids who had gone there in the 80’s, and even part of the early 90’s, I think.)

    He responded in an idealistic, but (I think) unrealistic way: “But, they can still send their kids here! It could still serve everyone!”

    I thought he was wrong at the time, and I still do. Jews who are non-observant tend not to be just “non-observant Orthodox folks”. They’re people who usually _don’t agree_, rightly or (IMHO) wrongly, with Orthodox ideals and philosophy. This is not just a matter of parents slapping tzitzis and a kippah on their kid before going to school, and, oh yeah, don’t tell anyone we eat traife or go to soccer games on Shabbos. This is kids telling their classmates why homosexual sex isn’t really a sin, and why women should wear tallesim. If only the biggest issue was lack of observance…

    I’m reminded of a play I just saw, G-d of Vengeance. I won’t go into details (the well-educated amongst you will know why), but one of the main themes of the play is that you can’t separate what goes on upstairs and downstairs – eg, what happens at school, and what happens at home. Maybe some non-Orthodox kids could make the separation. I’m doubtful. It seems like, from the linked blog entry, this is mostly correct. I also got the sense that some of the folks favoring tossing the secular kids were looking for a scapegoat.

    If it were up to me, though, I’d accept any kid, and hold them to standards equally. No surprise, given my background, but denying people based on their families is what leads us down that lovely slippery slope to “kollel-only schools” and all sorts of ugly inquisitions into family lives. If they’re bad influences, toss them out – but give them a chance, first.


  2. mycroft says:

    Agree with Rabbi Menken.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    I also agree with R Menken. Yeshivos are supposed to educate all Jewish children whose parents are unable to do so. I would be loath to use the “toss them out” attitude in dealing with kids who don’t meet a school’s mimimum standards-No less than the CI viewed the expulsion of a student as a matter of Dinei Nefashos.

  4. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Thank you Rabbi Menken for bringing this up. It is not an easy question to decide to admit a student, if he or she might dilute the atmosphere of the school. That is why there are advisory boards that are set up to weigh these important matters, and to advise educational institutions.

    Standards of Yeshivos have been raised over the past decades. This can be both a positive and a negative thing. I know of a Talmid Chochom who is responsible for disseminating a large amount of Torah who stated that he would not be able to get into some Yeshivas today with the standards that currently exist. Also, fifty years ago, New York Yeshivos purposely went to small towns to recruit additional students. On the other hand, there are today Yeshivos that specialize in only educating people from weaker backgrounds, so this might be one solution.

    Even as we experience growth in the Torah community, we should still try to satisfy the needs of as many different students as possible. There was an article about a year ago in the Jewish Observer that made the point that while today we can set our standards high in educational matters, we should remember that not everyone belongs on one track. There can be high schools today with no secular studies, as well as those that still have.

    I don’t know the exact answer to how to balance educating weaker students while still keeping a strong atmosphere in the school. But I think that as we raise the bar in Chinuch anew, we should be aware of the needs of all students, whether in the same or in different schools.

  5. mycroft says:

    “Yeshivos are supposed to educate all Jewish children whose parents are unable to do so. I would be loath to use the “toss them out” attitude in dealing with kids who don’t meet a school’s mimimum standards–No less than the CI viewed the expulsion of a student as a matter of Dinei Nefashos.”
    Unfortunately, tossing a kid out can lead not only to a kids loss of Yiddishkeit–which one can be a baal teshuva from–but also lead to “tragic accidents”–like the levaya I attended recently of a 16 year old boy.
    KIds are fragile –especially those who are not likely to be talmidei chachamim–even if they were 24/7 masmidim. They are still part of klallIsrael. We don’t have an IQ admission test to be part of Knesset Israel.

  6. Ori Pomerantz says:

    A related question, at what age do you want your children to be exposed to heterodox, secular, and non-Jewish ideas and ways of life? Unless they spend their entire lives in 4 amot of Torah, it’s going to happen sometimes – when would be the best time?

  7. HILLEL says:

    During the Hungarian anti-Communist Revolution, many Hungarian Orthodox (or partially Orthodox) Jews escaped to Vienna and, ultimatley ended-up in New York.

    The Yeshivos and Beth Jacob schools had great difficulty in integrating these new students, with their weak backgrounds.

    However, they rose to the ocassion by establishing special classes to ease these students into the mainstream.

    This kind of two-track system makes sense.

  8. Chanoch Roberts says:

    As headteacher of a frum boys high school in Gibraltar we face this issue literally on a daily basis. The community is very small, no other option exsists for parents as far as Jewish scool is concerned, so we feel a duty to accept all children regardless of religious standards.

    It is working well here, and I feel two crucial factors contribute to the success.

    Firstly there must be a code of conduct that is implemented. This should be done in a manner that makes the children feel they are special and makes them feel proud of themselves and their school.

    Secondly, at all levels of management (from class teachers through to the governing body) all parties must be very sensative to this issue and must actively work towards maintinaing a sense of achdus. This is not too difficult if extra curricular activites are made regular.

    As soon as each child feels wanted, your education will be easy and successful regardless of standards and general differences. Isn’t this the meaning of ‘chanoch l’naar’?

    I wish all educators much hatzlocho.

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