Thursday, June 07, 2018

Religious Elitism in Education

Classroom (Matzav)
Back in the late 50s, when I was an elementary school student at Yeshivath Beis Yehuda in  Detroit my classmates consisted of an eclectic mix of religiosity. They were from homes with a wide range of religious observance - from very Charedi to the non observant.

That school was one of the first Yeshivos (if not THE first) that R’ Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz’s fledgling Torah U’Mesorah had taken under its wing. 3 of his top students – pioneers of Torah Chinuch - were sent there to lead the school, Rabbis Joseph Elias, Avarahm Abba Friedman, and Sholom Goldstein.

Back in those days it was a struggle to get people to attend a Ysehiva. Parents were concerned about their children being prepared for the modern world by getting a proper education. Yeshivos were not seen as a realistic option. Especially if they were not observant.

Those 3 pioneers literally pulled Jewish kids off the streets promising their parents free tuition; guaranteeing them that their children’s educational needs would be met. Since that was the only religious day school in Detroit, even the most Charedi parents in the city sent their children there too. 

Not long before that time there were no Yeshivos at all in Detroit. Public school was the only option. I recall a few years ago when Rav Avrohom Chaim Levine (Agudah Moetzes member and Rosh HaYeshiva of Telshe) telling attendees at an Agudah convention that he had attended public school all the way through 7th grade. His father (who was Charedi) was one of the leading Orthodox Rabbonim in Detroit for many years.

A few years ago at a Torah U’Mesorah convention, the same Rav Levine attended a debate about the need for religious standards in a school. The argument was that a school had the right to set it’s own religious standards. If a child came from a home where those standards were noy met, the school had a right to refuse them admission. Rav Levine stood up and objected strongly to such strictures, pointing out that many of the Mechanchim that were in that room had attended Yeshivath Beth Yehuda. If they had had those standards then, they would not be there today – and would probably not be observant at all!

A few years before his death, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman was recorded admonishing a principal with that attitude yelling, Gavah, Gavah, Gavah at him! That principal had asked if he could deny a Sephardi girl into his school because her home did not meet their religious standards. Rav Steinman saw right through that and called a spade a spade. He saw a haughtiness based on a false sense of superiority and called it out! He realized the harm to innocent young girls and their families this policy would have. And wanted no part of it.

The religious elitism permeates the Torah world today is as strong as ever. It has turned into high value for schools. One that many schools compete over – to show how Frum they are.

For me, this kind of religious elitism is one of the biggest the biggest problem facing Orthodox Judaism. The more elitism there is, the less unity. Elitism turns into divisiveness. ‘Nisht Fun Unzera’ – not one of ours is how it is sometimes expressed). In essence cutting themselves off from the rest of the observant world. The more to the right one is, the more this attitude is the case. Every other Jew - even if they are observant is seen as ‘Krum’ (veering off the ideal Torah path).

I wish we could go back to my days in Beth Yehuda where elitism did not exist at all. There was no such thing as one student being ‘frummer’ than a fellow student. We were all one. Friends who interacted with one another... spending time in each others homes; being involved together in extra curricular activities. Everyone was treated equally by their Rebbe. We were a cohesive group - unified by common principles of observance. 

Today, that idea is non existent. Schools now define themselves by comparing how religiously elite they are. The more elitist they are, the more desirable they are to parents. And the more children get rejected.

A story in Matzav is a case in point. A Charedi school in Israel has complained that Ministry of Education is trying to forcibly involve itself in school’s Hashkafa: 
It is reported that the Education Ministry has established an appeals committee for girls who have not been accepted to schools for next year, dealing with girls nationwide. The head of the Chareidi branch of the ministry is also the head of this committee.
However, the previous director left the position two months ago, and the ministry has appointed a replacement, Gila Nagar. It is explained that while she is “truly a wonderful person, she hasn’t the slightest clue or familiarity when it comes to Chareidi lifestyle”.
The committee has met in recent days and addressed cases of girls who are without schools for the coming year. 
Long story short, that committee re-examined the Hashkafic tests given by the schools and marked ‘correct’ an answer marked wrong by the school thus forcing them to accept students that were rejected: 
(R)egarding the question of the meaning for “someone who takes advice from the Chachamim,” the expected answer to this in a Chareidi school is to accept an ‘Eitza (advice) from Gedolei Yisrael’. The student in question answered that this is ‘following advice from parents’ – and it was rejected.  However, the ministry decided the response of “advice from parents” was correct, amended the student’s grade and informed the institution in a letter that the girl meets the threshold conditions and must be accepted. 
I understand that a school has a right to insist on its own standards - no matter what they are. No one is forced to send their children there. The irony is that the more elite the school is, the  more desirable it becomes for the parents. 

I can’t imagine considering a child taking advice from an observant parent to be a wrong answer. Even if one believes that an ‘Eitza from Gedolei Yisrael’ trumps what parents tell you. 

What about the fact that schools are overcrowded and need to have limits to their numbers. That is a serious problem that needs to be addressed but is beyond the scope of this post. 

What I will however say is that it should not be religious elitism that solves that problem. Because that creates more problems than it solves. 

Frumkeit is just a way of showing off. It divides rather than unites.That is what  the great Baal Mussar (Jewish ethicist) Rav Shlomo Wolbe spoke out against, and Rav Steinman meant by yelling Gavah, Gavah, Gavah. And it should be a lesson for all those who educate our young. Including the school in question here. Too bad it isn’t.