Thursday, August 26, 2021

School Elitism Must End!

Moreshes - a religious school that opened in 2013 in response to the problem
It’s that time of year. School is about to begin - or has already begun. Which brings with it an intractable annual problem that seems to be getting worse every year. And it applies mostly to places like Lakewood that have high concentrations of Charedi Jews. Who are multiplying exponentially with every passing generation. 

I do not say this in any pejorative sense. Only as an observable fact. One which can seriously damage young people. Perhaps even causing them to go OTD. (Not sure that happens. But it would not surprise me that it does in some cases.) 

I am talking about religious school exclusivity. Which apparently affects girls more than it does boys (according to a Facebook post I saw). In what seems like a never ending march in that direction, many girls in Lakewood have difficulty being accepted into the schools of their choice. Even if they have no behavior issues and are good students. I wouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t even being accepted into their second or 3rd choice of schools. 

I wish I could say I’m surprised by this. But it has been going on for too long. The blame for this problem not being solved lies at the feet of their communal leaders. There is a solution to this problem that makes eminent sense. But these leaders either don’t care, or may in their hearts believe that elitism is a good thing – while publicly decrying it! 

The explanation for this phenomenon is not hard to understand. When a population has that kind of exponential growth, it is almost impossible for their educational system to keep up with demand. As soon as a new school is built, it becomes filled even before it opens its doors. When the demand is so high and the supply is low, there will inevitably be students that will be left out.  

I don’t think there is any way to solve the supply/demand issue. You can’t just create a good school out of thin air. A building will not suddenly rise from the earth with state of the art facilities - fully staffed with great teachers. So there will always be students left out in the cold. 

But I question whether that need be the case. I have a hunch that there are schools that do have room for students. But they are not the ones most girls want to attend. They are not considered top tier. Students want to go to the best schools. Not the second or  third tier schools. Being accepted to those schools looms large on their eventual Shidduch resumes. Going to one of those lesser schools might even hurt them in that regard.

I suspect there are enough schools for everyone. Just not the ‘right schools’. If that is true then there is a solution. Which is to end elitism. If I were a community leader I would forbid a school to seek only the best and brightest students. More importantly I would forbid artificial religious standards that sometimes get in the way of accepting even good students. Like requiring a pledge to not have the internet in your home.  Or even something as silly as requiring a mother to not have a Shaitel (wig) that is too long.

There ought to be no such thing as a school like that - if it means that anyone not qualifying under those artificial standards will be left out in the cold. Every school should have a mix of students from exceptional to average. And certainly not require artificial religious standards like ‘No internet in the home’. That should not matter at all. There should instead be complete social integration between them.

What about the negative influences the students with internet in their homes will have on students from the more ‘pristine’ non internet homes? To answer that question we need to go back in time. All the ‘elitist snobs’ that run those schools today need to look at how their parents and grandparents fared under similar circumstances. Back then it wasn't the internet. It was television. (And many religious mothers did not even cover their hair, let alone wear a Shaitel that was too long! Never was a word ever said about that!)

There was just as much criticism of having a TV in your home then as there is today about having the internet in your home. And yet there was no such thing as an elitist school that accepted only non TV families. The opposite was true. School officials used to go to great lengths to attract Jewish students from any background. Even non observant ones They did  not have the luxury of today’s elitists. Religious schools had to struggle for every student. 

What about the supposed negative influences of TV? There was never even the remotest thought about eliminating that threat. Students were educated together in the same classrooms and socialized with each other. There was never a word from any educator to the students from TV homes to not associate with students from non TV homes. Not even a fleeting thought about that. 

And guess what happened. Some of the greatest Charedi religious figures of the 20th century came out of that environment. I always used to smile internally when I would mention a famous scene of a 50s comedy series to one of those religious figures – and they would laugh nostalgically along with me – having remembered watching that series regularly themselves. Even though they do not personally have a TV or the internet in their homes now. 

If schools would eliminate their elitist approach and treat every student the way students were treated back then, this problem would decrease significantly if not disappear entirely. 

I said at the outset, I have no animus in my heart. I have no ‘dog in this hunt’. None of my children or grandchildren are in Lakewood - save one who just got married. They have no children yet and may not even stay in Lakewood. But it nevertheless pains me to see any child left out in the cold because of false notions of religious exclusivity. Notions that may stem from a policy of general insulation from the rest of society. Which is characteristic of places like Lakewood. Because for every imagined step one takes forward in pursuit of religious purity by living a life free of any outside influences - there are consequences that may be a lot worse than what they think they gain.  As increasingly seems to be the case with students not having a school to attend.