Sunday, July 25, 2010

Another Kind of Discrimination

“It is crystal clear to me that “sheltered” communities have higher drop-out rates than heterogeneous ones. Don’t believe me? Just ask anyone who works with teens at risk, and drop me a line if they disagree with that statement. I also find that kids who are appropriately sheltered by their parents and raised in “mixed” communities are more tolerant and better prepared to maintain their Yiddishkeit when they inevitably encounter the world at large.”

Those words are not my own. They are the words of Rabbi Yakov Horowitz which I excerpted from his website.

This is not news to me. But those who defend the sheltering and isolationism would certainly argue the point. They would probably say that the benefit of sheltering their children from the outside world far exceeds the benefits of allowing a more open environement. After all - the dangers of the outside world are greater than at any time in history and if there was ever a need to protect their young from it - that time is now.

But let us look at what kind of world that has wrought. The most extreme example of it is Israel’s Meah Shearim neighborhood. They are as sheltered as can be. The results are there every day for the entire world to see with one violent protest after another - irrespective of what other segments of Orthodoxy say about them. External condemnations - if they hear them at all - are meaningless to them.

The legitimate Chesed they have among their own or those who are not threatening to their Hashkafos - is beside the point. Their isloation is so complete that - when it suits their purpose - the more ambitious among them have no compunction about behaving in ways that most people would consider a Chilul HaShem - all the while believing that they are making a Kiddush HaShem.

Of course not every Charedi community shelters to the extent that Meah Shearim does. But the idea is the same. Many such communities have developed school systems that operate on the same isolationist principles. They have been indoctrinated to consider everything in the outside world detrimental to one’s spiritual health. Entry into that world should only take place when absolutely necessary for ones safety or health.

Being raised that way can only lead to intolerance and condescension.

This brings me back to the Slonimer Chasidim of Emanuel. For purposes of this essay let us concede that the Slonimer parents were not guilty of ethnic prejudice and indeed – as they claim - only trying to filter out students from less observant homes. Let us even grant them the right to do that. Are the extreme standards that Slonim sets for admittance to their schools something to applaud? Rabbi Horowtiz re-published a Mishpacha article by Jonathan Rosenblum which suggests that it does not.

Jonathan makes a point very similar to that made a few years ago by Telzer Rosh Yeshiva Rav Avrohom Chaim Levine at an Agudah convention where he decried the overly strict standards of so many schools . Rabbi Levine’s point was that it is wrong to set standards so high that they exclude children from perfectly good homes.

He pointed to a few gentleman sitting in the audience who were Talmidei Chachomim but would have never been accepted into one of those schools today. They attended Yeshivath Beth Yehuda in Detroit. Beth Yehuda did not have those standards. They had to fight for just about every child they got – many of whose parents were not observant at all including the parents of those men in the audience.

In many of the more Charedi enclaves schools are about exclusion - not inclusion. That too is discrimination. Not allowing the Sephardi students into the Slonimer Schools because of their lesser religious standards than their own extreme standards is almost as bad as discriminating against them because of their ethnicity.

Here is how Jonathan put it. He describes a conversation he had with a friend from Detroit:

"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."

I think Aharon Leib Rav Steinman put it in stark relief:

Avrohom Avinu would not be accepted in our schools today because of his father, but Yishmael and Esav would be.

More from Jonathan:

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.

Jonathan is right on the money with this. People who believe in sheltering their children to the point of isolation are harming their children and jeopardizing the future of Judaism. This is what the Slonim parents have done by insisting on their extreme standards. But their goals of protecting their youth come at a very high price. As Rabbi Horowitz points out they tend to drop out in far greater numbers than those who are more integrated.

Integration breeds tolerance. Isolation can only breed hatred of those different from themselves.

This doesn’t mean that one must allow a free for all. Of course there has to be some sheltering from harmful influences. It’s all about balance. It doesn't have to be all or nothing.

The best way to do that is in a school setting. When it comes to religious standards it can truly be counterproductive to do what Slonim did. Exclusivity in a school may mean that higher standards of religiosity are being assured. But by excluding others they will inevitibly stifle tolerance. And worse they may even end up excluding their own children out of Orthodoxy.