The Price of Exclusion

“Whatever happened to ahavas Yisrael?” an acquaintance recently demanded to know. While I sometimes doff my defender-of-the-faithful hat at the gym, I assumed he was talking about Emmanuel and dutifully trotted out all my proofs that no ethnic discrimination was involved. Though Emmanuel was — as I had guessed — the impetus for his question, the issue he raised was far larger than Emmanuel.

“When I grew up in Detroit,” Max told me, “there were barely enough kids from shomer Shabbos families to support one day school. We all went to school together. I remember Rabbi Avrohom Abba Freedman, a devoted disciple of Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, going from bed to bed in hospitals asking people if they were Jewish. If they were, he would beg them to send their children to Bais Yehudah. Many important talmidei chachamim from that era came from non-shomer Shabbos homes.”

As the frum community has grown, schools have become more and more selective. The emphasis today is on refining the criteria for exclusion, not bringing in as many Jewish children as possible. Rav Aharon Leib Steinman has quipped that Avrohom Avinu would not be accepted in our schools today because of his father, but Yishmael and Esav would be.

Much, of course, has changed from the 40s and ’50s. The average non-frum student of those days was more innocent than many students from Orthodox homes today. Schools can no longer simply employ an open-door policy. Internet and handheld devices are game-changers. One child with Internet access can corrupt an entire class.

(Nor is it always in the best interests of children of recent ba’alei teshuva or from weaker backgrounds to be integrated immediately with children from veteran religious families. In such circumstances, the recent ba’alei teshuva will often feel like second-class citizens, just because they are lacking so many basics their peers have absorbed at home.)

But our emphasis on tiny differences goes far beyond protecting our children against the ravages of internet. In both the United States and Israel, many schools look askance at any child whose father is not learning in kollel. Even children of English-speaking kolleleit are persona non grata is some Israeli schools. In a famous clip, a school principal boasts to Rav Steinman that the school employs someone with a special talent for ferreting out those who lack the proper signon (style).” Rav Steinman replies that what the principal calls signon is only ga’avah (conceit).

Community-wide schools for children from a variety of backgrounds have largely gone the way of the dodo bird – at least apart from smaller communities. Some of the reasons are valid; others less so: Like everything connected to chinuch, matters are complicated and the dividing lines thin. But we should at least have our eyes open about what has been lost.

Idealism is the first casualty. In former times, children from stronger backgrounds were eager to be a positive influence on the children from weaker backgrounds. They consciously viewed themselves as mashpi’im (sources of positive influence), and that, in turn, strengthened their own religious identity.

I have been told by the daughters of highly respected rabbis in communities where a more “right-wing” Bais Yaakov opened up that they would not want to go to the new school precisely because they would miss the opportunity to be a positive influence. (The potential benefits for religious identity of defining oneself in juxtaposition to the surroundings is still found today in many children of rabbis in smaller American communities and among Israeli children who grow up in more mixed communities.)

The most common justification for ever more stringent entrance requirements to our educational institutions is the need to protect our children. Certainly no responsible Jewish parent would knowingly expose their child to a host of negative influences. We do not wantonly subject ourselves to tests in order to strengthen ourselves. But it is possible to cripple our children by sheltering them to such a degree that when they are exposed to challenges as adults they will have developed no tools for dealing with those challenges. Healthy bodies develop immunities through controlled exposure to viruses, and there is a spiritual parallel.

Not everyone we meet in life will be pre-selected to think exactly like us, and a school where everyone is so selected risks producing vulnerable products. Part of a Torah chinuch is providing our children with the tools that they will need to confront challenges. Parents of girls from Israeli kollel families living in the utmost simplicity and intent on preparing their daughters for such a life rightly fear that exposure to other girls living at a much higher standard might cause arouse discontent among some of their daughters.

But income differentials have been a fact of life since time immemorial. Better for the school to mitigate the challenges by developing parietal rules – e.g., putting strict limits on what can be served at a birthday party and/or limiting birthday parties to school. But ultimately there is no escape from the necessity of developing in our children a deep appreciation of Chazal’s definition of “who is happy.”

Another defense of schools limited to students from one chassidic group or who meet a long checklist of criteria is the desire to transmit a particular mesorah. The challenge, however, is finding ways to instill pride in one’s own traditions, without becoming contemptuous of everyone else’s. Such contempt is a natural by-product, however, when the mesorah can only be transmitted by excluding everyone with a slightly different one.

Homogeneity can also cause the atrophying of a Klal Yisrael consciousness. The less we are exposed to Jews who are different from us, the less aware we become of their existence. And the less aware we are of Jews outside of our narrow circle, the greater the chance that we will not take them into account when making decisions about our conduct.

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19 Responses

  1. Jacob T says:

    Kol ha-kavod on this reflective and even-handed essay.

  2. dr. bill says:

    Could not agree more. I wonder if part and parcel of the logic of those who would disagree is their goal/objective to maintain that separateness throughout all of or at least major parts of one’s life.

  3. Shlomo ben Meir says:

    Agree, we have lost that ahavas yisroel.

    We, the frum yeshiva community, are becoming so insolated that it borders on insecurity. Instead of producing strong and self confident talmidim, we are producing scared and insecure talmidim. Look at the expansion of the so called insolated career “degree” programs? Scared to set foot on a campus? Seems that is the case. Do these “degree” programs work? Not really. Will you receive a piece of worthless paper called a degree? Yes, but then try competing with others from real universities for the scare jobs in today’s job economy.

  4. Zadok says:

    I have been told by the daughters of highly respected rabbis in communities where a more “right-wing” Bais Yaakov opened up that they would not want to go to the new school precisely because they would miss the opportunity to be a positive influence

    A daughter of a highly respected rabbi in an OOT community can make such a statement.In town, the sentiment of staying in a school to be a good influence, would be considered a very snobby and holier then though attitude, therefore it wouldn’t be effective.

    Another major difference between the community schools and schools today is, that the community school type parents weren’t so vocal in criticizing the schools and its haskafahs when it is was to the right of them.Seeing the amount of school criticism on the blog world (even the non malicious type)the schools have more of a reason to refuse all those who don’t share their haskafos and values.

  5. YM says:

    I don’t understand how a school that excludes children whose fathers don’t learn full-time in Kollel is able to survive financially – doesn’t someone have to pay full tuition?

  6. L. Oberstein says:

    This is the real you writing, the one who realizes how off the mark our frum culture has strayed. Project Inspire is trying assiduously to awaken the frum community to their ability to influence other Jews to observe the Torah. If only the exclusionists would include the rest of us in their concept of the Jewish Community, we could reach so many more. Ther problem is that they are stuck in a siege mentality , circling their wagons and afraid of contamination by the rest of the Jewish community. At a time of our strength, these people must feel very weak indeed. There is so much good in the frum world, so much chesed, so much concern for others, that it is hurtful when the ones who exclude us get all the publicity. If only they could say “eilu vo eilu divrei Elokim Chaim ” and not feel the absolute need to delegitimize anyone who is not of their same ideology.
    Every time a ban comes out against a school, a book, a person, it drives away intelligent people who are appalled by rejection.
    A visiting rabbi from Israel this weekend told me that the definition of “Kofer” that led to his ostracism from the chareidi world is that his ideas are injurious to the equilibrium of that society, they upset the apple cart, not that they are actually kefira in the Torahm, but kefira of their culture.

  7. Shades of Gray says:

    “I have been told by the daughters of highly respected rabbis in communities where a more “right-wing” Bais Yaakov opened up that they would not want to go to the new school precisely because they would miss the opportunity to be a positive influence…”

    Rabbi Berel Wein, in a lecture from 1999, tells of Rabbi Eichenstein in Chicago , a lone Chasidic rabbi who sent his sons and daughters to the local Orthodox community schools in Chicago around the 1960’s. Rabbi Eichenstein instilled in his children such pride, that instead of his children wanting to dress like everyone else in the class, R. Wein’s own sons came home from yeshiva wanting to grow Chasidic peyos like the Eichenstein boys, and similarly, some girls of other families wanted to emulate the dress of the Eichenstein daughters!

    I think it’s also interesting that one of Rabbi Eichenstein’s daughters, the late Rebbetzin Yehudis Perlow, went on to have an influence on many people in the community, rather than being influenced by them.

  8. L. Oberstein says:

    Rav Dovid Kronglass, zecher tzadik lebrocho, the Mashgiach of Ner Yisroel once explained that there are two ways to understand the statement that Noah was a righteous man in his generation. One way is that because he was the only one of his kind, he became greater and did more than he would have done had he not been the greatest in his time.He could not rely on Abraham so he was indeed actually greater than he would have otherwise been.

    My young daughter who is going to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for one semester to study micro biology courses not available here (she is majoring in parasites) asked me about organising Shabbos meals for other students. Her idea is that if she will be the only observant student, she should share her Shabbos with other Jews. This is what I will call the “Noah Conundrum:, one can be greater out of town than in town.

  9. tzippi says:

    I kind of feel like I’m playing devil’s advocate here, because I agree with everyone, and am glad to have the chinuch opportunities I do (though some would say, by virtue of my living out of town that I DON’T have opportunities).

    We have to face the reality here. Those of us with a legacy of American parents/grandparents grew up this way and thrived on it. Our grandparents were united in their struggle to stay observant and this largely centered on keeping Shabbos, with almost all other differences falling by the wayside. On the other hand, there are those who came after the war. Many people felt a mission to recreate what they lost, which by definition would focus on many of the details and nuances the Americans didn’t focus on. And we also have to admit that with the Shabbos battle largely won, we now had the energy to redirect to the other 612 mitzvos, and major areas of Yiddishkeit.

    When you think about this, this is beautiful and an immense Divine blessing to allow us to regroup and catch our national breath. I wonder how we can reconcile the yearning to recapture the beautiful spirit of the earlier generations with some of the positive outgrowths of parochialism. (As an aside, when I went to seminary, one of the teachers said that girls from cities x and y [x being my hometown and y the city I’ve raised my family in] don’t come in knowing as much as the east coast girls, but the spirit and unity they bring is unsurpassed.)

  10. S. Ziskind says:

    Thank you for another very thought provoking article. Because of your position as being part of Israeli Chareidi society and yet coming from a very different culture, you’re able to see things in ways others can. Now, how do we get from your powerful article to real change?

    Since you are a member of the press, I have to bring up something which I also consider problematic: which is a false picture of homogeneity presented in the media. I see this especially in articles about different towns/communities where the towns/communities are painted in such a way that it appears that the only frum people living there are chareidi/yesvhish. These periodicals are not being advertised as being only for the chareidi public but for the frum public and yet the pictures they paint are of a chareidi only world. This shows a distorted picture of the actual community. Sometimes they put in a disclaimer that they can’t profile every group in the community, but funny how almost every time they’re profiling a yeshivish community? I understand they follow the guildelines of Rabbonim and I like that. That’s why I read these periodicals. At the same time, a distorted picture doesn’t help anyone.

  11. S. Ziskind says:

    I meant to say that Rabbi Rosenblum is able to see things in a way others cannot.

  12. Steve Ehrlich says:

    I just finished reading the details of the phone plan my daugther’s Charedi seminary wants her to get. It says its a “kosher phone” which the “Gedolei Yisrael have approved. So it doesnt have SMS text messaging or Internet access”. Now, I sort of understand the internet thing. But what is wrong with text messaging? The answer I think, is that there is a knee jerk impulse to ban anything new. And what is the real problem with the internet? Its because we dont really trust our youth, right? What kind of message does that convey?

  13. another Nathan says:

    I moved to a different community in order to be closer to Orthodox day school, where the children, not just the curricula were orthodox. So when my daughter got invited to a classmate’s house, I didn’t worry about the food she would be offered.

    My daughter came home, and told me they went for pizza in the mall. There was no kosher pizzeria in the mall. I called the mother, who said “I got her a cheese pizza. Are you one of those don’t consider that okay?”

    Kiruv is good, but there is a tipping point which cannot be discerned until the dynamics of the class or the school have irreversibly tipped.

  14. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    To Another Nathan:

    There is a big difference between the environment your daughter is in and the charedi schools in Israel (and more frequently in the US as well). Schools have to worry about a “tipping point,” and children who are out of synch with school philosophy don’t necessarily belong in a school. However, sometimes the discernment criteria are a bit over the top. There’s a big difference between a parent who orders a cheese pizza from a nonkosher place and yourself. However, how important is the difference between you and a full-time kollel father? What about a full-time kollel father who was born in the US and a sabra? How about parents who let their daughters wear white tights as opposed to dark blue? Are these differences as important? Do they really give rise to a tipping point?

  15. Bob Miller says:

    If community or school decisions about inclusion and exclusion become subjective and not anchored in Torah law, errors will occur and people will be needlessly hurt.

  16. Ori says:

    What is Torah law on this?

  17. Bob Miller says:

    July 28th, 2010 at 2:38 pm
    What is Torah law on this?”

    Whatever it is, it’s probably too nuanced and complex to present in a blog.

  18. Simcha Younger says:

    Ori: What is Torah law on this?

    I believe (without verifying) that the law is that the community must ensure that every child is in a Jewish school, but as long as no one is left out in the cold every school has full discretion of who to accept.

  19. Dov says:

    If community or school decisions about inclusion and exclusion become subjective and not anchored in Torah law, errors will occur and people will be needlessly hurt.

    The system now is not anchored in Torah law, and people are being hurt.

    See the video that R’ Rosenblum referred to, where Rav Shteinman is approached by a head of a cheder to get approval to reject kids based on step-siblings after a second marriage, and he says that “selectivity like this isn’t selectivity, it’s gaiva, gaiva, gaiva.”

    A big part of the problem is that anything that’s done enough starts to be considered Torah law. Once we can admit that there is no issur in another child’s father working in a job, no issur in davening another nusach, and no issur in lots of other things, then we can start to have a rational discussion.

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