Sunday, September 09, 2007

No Child Left Behind

Yesterday I attended HTC’s annual ‘Shabbos of Chizuk’ Luncheon for Alimuni. Rabbi Yaakov Sussman, a Rosh Yeshiva (senior Magid Shiur at HTC) spoke. He related the following story.

He was a sixth grade Rebbe for a class at Arie Crown Hebrew Day School. It was his first year as a Rebbe ...just of out of Kollel. There was a boy in his class who was... simply put… incorrigible. He did not what to be a part of anything that was going on in the school rebelling at everything in sight. It turned out the boy was a Ger Katan, a child of non Jews adopted at birth by a Frum couple.

At Bar Mitzvah a Ger Katan is given the option of not choosing Judaism. They may in fact opt out. In most cases this is just a formality. The child is asked at Bar Mitzvah if he wants to remain Jewish, he says yes, and that’s that. (I’m not sure if they have to undergo another Tevila, but that isn’t the issue here.)

After a few months with this disruptive student, Rabbi Sussman thought that perhaps it might actually be in his best interests if he were told to opt out. Why, he reasoned, should this boy be put in a circumstance where he would be subject to severe heavenly punishment for actions that would not apply to him if he was not a Jew?

He thought about it for a while; thought about the repercussions for the parents; and decided he would speak to the principal, Rabbi Meir Shapiro. He hesitatingly approached the office full of trepidation but entirely convinced of the rectitude of his decision.

Rabbi Shapiro welcomed him into his office and warmly asked him how things were going? Rabbi Sussman immediately updated the situation with this student and made his suggestion. The normally kind and gentle Rabbi Shapiro nearly exploded and read him the ‘riot act’. ‘What?!’ he said. You’re giving up on this boy?! Some of the biggest Talmidei Chachamim and Gedolim were thrown out of school. Some were thrown out, returned… and then thrown out again. One does not give up on any child. Needless to say the child was never given the advice to opt out.

I don’t know what happened to this child, I hope he straightened out eventually. But a very important lesson was learned that day by Rabbi Sussman. It is a lesson for all of us. One should never give up on any child, no matter how bad that child behaves… no matter how much he refuses to learn or to cooperate. Every child has a key to his heart. It is up to those people who are in the front lines of Chinuch to find that key. That is a principle Rabbi Shapiro lives by to this day. However, to be fair, it must be noted that a disruptive child will be counter-productive to the welfare of the other students, a dilemma that every Mechanech faces.

One cannot truly fault schools if they cannot continue to have such children in the school. Sadly, parents of such children are asked to take their children out of the school. But that does not absolve the Jewish community of their responsibility of Arvus. Such children cannot be abandoned. But by default, that has unfortunately been the case for all too long.

Three years ago, Rabbi Shapiro retired from Arie Crown at age 70. He thought he was going to live a quiet life… free of the enormous responsibility of being a principal of a day school of over 700 students for 40 years. But it was not meant to be.

Rabbi Shapiro was asked to lead a new day school, Gesher HaTorah. This is a school that is specifically geared to students that do not ‘fit in’ …students that have special needs whether they are emotional or physical… students that become at times social pariahs to their peers …students who would very often become disruptive and rebellious at every turn. These are the potential ‘dropouts’ …the ‘kids at risk’.

The school has been an immediate success after just one year. Many parents from all walks of religious Jewish life who could not keep their children in any of the mainstream day schools, and who had exhausted every option for their child… some of whom had already been enrolled in public school… were now given special attention in small classes by specially trained Mechanchim and professionals in the mental health field. They are learning. They are happy. They are no longer social pariahs.

What a brilliant choice! Rabbi Shapiro at age 73 has once again triumphed. May he go from strength to strength.