Monday, April 26, 2010

The Religious Standards of Orthodox Schools

What should the parameters be for accepting a child into a religious school? What if a parent pulls a child out of an Orthodox day school - sends that child to a Conservative day school to finish elementary school and then applies to an Orthodox high school? Should the school accept the child? I have been told by an acquaintance that this happened to a parent he met. The parent was told that there were other reasons for denying entry but she denies that there were any that would otherwise be an impediment. She ended up sending her child to a public school.

There are several issues here. Is public school a better alternative than sending a child to a religious elementary school where heretical ideas are accepted? On the one hand I would think such a school is forbidden. On the other hand, I would think that in the lower grades where there is no discussion about those ideas and only the basics are taught, it might be better than a public school where there is hardly a trace of Judaism with the possible exception of Chanukah as a co- holiday with Christmas.

One thing is certain. If a child attends a Solomon Schechter elementary school and then an Orthodox high school, there is a far greater chance of successfully integrating into the religious community – since the basics will have been learned. On the other hand it is possible that the seeds of a heretical idea may have somehow been planted into a child’s mind and that can warp essential Jewish belief in the future – and possibly expose others to those thoughts.

There is a tangential issue that is more complex. To what extent should a religious school be required to accept a ‘problem’ child? What defines a ‘problem’ in this context? What are the consequences to that child if rejected? And what are the consequences to the school if accepted? Will a problem child spoil other children via that influence? Is the responsibility greater to the individual child who may be lost to Judaism if he is rejected? Or is the responsibly to the ‘good students’ who may be ruined by the ‘bad apple’?

What should the standards of a religious school be for acceptance or expulsion of any student?

Rav Ahron Soloveichik was of the opinion that one may not turn away any child who seeks a Jewish education. He did not believe in expulsion. It was rare if it happened at all under his watch. He felt that it was the responsibility of the school to deal with each child and try and solve the problem –whatever it may be.

Non acceptance or expulsion of a child was considered a shirking of responsibility by Rav Ahron and a contributing factor to a child going off the Derech. Other schools felt that accepting a problem child does more harm to the good children than it does good for the problem child.

There is another related issue about acceptance on the right. Schools seem to be tripping all over themselves to see who has higher religious standards. The arguments about rejecting a child causing them to go off the Derech are countered with the argument ‘there are other fine schools that will accept the child.’

The trouble with this is that in the competition among schools to achieve a reputation as the best, they are continually raising the standards against one another. Standards that in my view are counterproductive. And do not in any way serve to enhance a child’s spiritual level or knowledge. And yet in this era of tremendous competitiveness there are fewer schools that will accept a ‘lower’ standard. Not only that, once a child is rejected, his reputation precedes him – making it harder for him to be accepted into a school that might normally have taken him.

Telshe Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Avraham Chaim Levine once pointed out at an Agudah convention that there were huge Tamidei Chachamim in the audience who attended the day school in his home town of Detroit that would not have been accepted to any of the top day schools in New York today because of their background or home life. Many of those Talmidei Chachamim come from non religious homes.

Today not only does one have to be religious, one is forbidden to have any modern technology that will connect you to the outside world. TV, the interent, movies, secular music, and even secular news papers are forbidden.

I would personally never send my child to a school like that. But there is competition by many parents on the right to get their children into schools like that. That leaves parents who for example dare to bring a New York Times into their homes few options. It also has the effect of creating even more insularity for those children. Not only are they not exposed to any of the culture, they are not even exposed to others who are exposed to it – even slightly!

I miss the diversity of my era. Those students Rav Levine spoke of are probably people I know. I went to school in the Detroit of the time he was referring to. I can testify to what he said. It was a time of tremendous Achdus. We were all in the same educational boat. People from Charedi homes, Chasidic homes, Lubavitch homes, Modern orthodox homes, irreligious homes, American homes, European immigrant homes, holocaust survivor homes… it was all there. And we were all friends -one big homogeneous tent of inclusion.

There was no such thing as not accepting a child. Expulsion was rare. One had to be incorrigible to be expelled from a day school. In fact I do not remember a single child being expelled in my time. The leaders of that day school were all about recruiting as many Jewish children as possible. They were the pioneers of Jewish education as we know it today – role models of how to do it right. Unfortunately as Rav Levine indicates - no one has learned from them.

The Frum world in America has had an exponential population explosion over the past few decades. That has enabled various groups to create schools with specific Hashkafos exclusive of children with other Hashkafos or backgrounds. Most of the above metioned groups whose children attended the same school now have their own schools.

The more the population grows the greater the exclusivity. And the easier it is to reject students – passing them off to one of ‘the other fine schools’. The ‘move to the right’ has exacerbated the problem even further. The result is that the exclusivity that schools strive for is one of the most divisive forces in Orthodox Judaism.

It is one thing to strive for academic excellence – whether it is in Limudei Kodesh or Limudei Chol - as long as there are tracks for all levels of ability available. That is a laudable goal. Religious standards are legitimate too – up to a point. But when schools start eliminating large swaths of religious Jews for superficial reasons… that becomes unacceptable and even harmful to the fabric of Orthodox Judaism.