Wednesday, November 16, 2005

On Acceptance

When I was born, my parents were not frum. As a result, for the first few years of my life, I grew up in a non-frum household. Even though we weren't frum, we did keep several Jewish practices - we went to shul somewhat regularly, my mother lit Shabbos candles (somewhat regularly), we kept kosher (in the home) and the like.

One thing that my mother always insisted on was that we have a Jewish education. As a result, when I was six years old, I was enrolled in a frum yeshiva for first grade. I can honestly say that it was one of the best Judaic experiences I had as a kid. My rebbe that year was a phenomenal man who kept the children engaged in learning.

I don't know if my parents had a hard time getting me enrolled there or not, but I was there - and the effects of my year there continue to influence me positively to this day.

The year afterwards, my parents moved out of state and I was enrolled in the Hebrew Academy of Morris County, a Conservative yeshiva in New Jersey. I was there for three years until my parents separated.

My mother took my sister and I and moved to Brooklyn. Shortly after her separation, she became a Ba'alas Teshuva - and my sister and I did so as well. However, she found it difficult to get me into a yeshiva. One wanted to start me in the third grade (I was already ten years old - far too old for third grade). Another was only willing to accept me if I did not have any contact with my non-frum father. I eventually found a temporary home in a yeshiva in Brooklyn that primarily served children of Russian descent. I was one of only four frum kids in the school. After two years there (where I learned every Russian curse word - though I would never speak them) I was finally enrolled in a "mainstream" yeshiva (albeit held back one grade in Hebrew studies). It was in this yeshiva that I had many of the problems that I've blogged about here before.

I find it interesting that the one year I spent in a frum yeshiva as a non-frum kid was far more influential in my life than the years I spent as a frum kid in a "mainstream" yeshiva. While, to be perfectly honest, I can't say that I'd be frum today just by the experience I had in first grade, I can also say that I might not be frum today if not for the experiences of that year.

I find it interesting, however, that my parents (who weren't rich, by any means) were able to get me into a frum yeshiva in first grade, when they themselves (and I too) were not frum at all, and yet, four years later, as a frum parent with frum children, my mother was unable to get me into a frum yeshiva without all sorts of unacceptable conditions. What happened in those four years?

Of course, I realize that the yeshiva world is not a monolithic bloc, and that I may simply have been lucky that my parents found someone with a more open mind back in first grade. But I wonder what the people who turned me away back when I was trying to get into fifth grade would say if they knew that because a frum yeshiva accepted a non-frum kid, that the non-frum kid is a frum adult with frum children. I also wonder if stories such as mine aren't more common - or, more precisely, potential stories - where children from marginally observant families who apply to frum yeshivos and are rejected end up turning away from Judaism altogether.

The Wolf

8 comments:

Essie said...

Another was only willing to accept me if I did not have any contact with my non-frum father

I am in shock...

BrooklynWolf said...

Yeah, that shocked me too when my mother told me about it several years later.

But then again, considering how far we've come in yeshiva discrimination, it really shouldn't be all that surprising...

The Wolf

SephardiLady said...

I could write an entire megillah, but I also noticed the same part as essie and am speechless.

Does the administration of that school have any idea what type of harm it does children (especially boys!) to have no contact with their fathers? Does the administration have no ahavat yisrael for a fellow Jew? Do they seek to alienate the less-frum Jew (your family was not estranged, they were traditional!)? Do they have no confidence in Torah? Do they find Torah so unattractive that they believe a father who does not keep Shabbat will have more influence than the mother and the peers?

This is pure craziness! It is a very good thing your mother had the discretion to keep this a secret from you until you were an adult. This story should turn any erlich person's stomach.

And, BTW, there are plenty of people who have became shomrei mitzvot because they were enrolled in Orthodox day schools and Yeshivot. I don't have enough fingers (and toes) to count the number of people from my husband's school that were brought to Torah and Mitzvot because they were given a chance. Kol Hakavod to the schools that have confidence in Torah.

SephardiLady said...

OK--I might have been speechless, but my fingers sure got moving quickly. LOL.

Zeh Sefer Toldot Adam said...

Mr Wolf,

Your story is very moving and intriguing. But sadly I was not speechless as was sephardilady or essie. I have only come into regular contact with the UO world in the last few years of my life but I have had all my suspicions and prejudices confirmed. Your story is just another drop in the ocean.

What makes me speechless is the way the community sticks its head in the sand and ignores these problems. The letters pages of the Jewish papers are full of sad stories like yours. I am not aware of any body that takes responsibilty for making things better. The Jewish papers are a forum for complaint. What is needed is a mechanism for change.

Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

Your story sounds very similar to mine, with several important differences. We were not frum until I was 8 years old. My brother and I attended a local public school. When I was in 3rd grade, my maternal grandfather, who was Shomer Shabbos, got my parents to enroll me into a school called a Talmud Torah - basically an after-school Jewsish class where we learned how to read siddur and other such things. It was supposed to be a 3-yr program. I never made it to the second year! After finishing my first year there, the rabbi told my mother, "Mrs. XXXXXX, your son belongs in a yeshiva!" So far as I know, he did not say this to any other parent of the 15 or so boys in my class. This was the late 60's and the public schools in my area were starting to turn bad. Plus, there was a good yeshiva a few blocks from my house and the children of my mother's best friend went there. So, the following year, my brother and I started yeshiva. Yeshiva life had its ups and downs but Baruch Hashem, I'm now a parent of a number of children myself and we are all frum and on the Torah observant road, as is my brother and his family. I consider myself very fortunate that my parents were willing to take upon themselves Shmiras Shabbos and other mitzvos along with us, so there weren't any religious conflicts at home. After 2 or 3 years, my mother even began wearing a sheitel.

I feel I owe this all to that one Talmud Torah rabbi who got us to go to yeshiva. Although very old now, he is Baruch Hashem still alive and we are still somewhat in touch, close to 40 years after our initial meeting. As a matter of fact, he was able to attend 2 of the three bar mitzvas that I have made and I have told him a number of times that he gets alot of credit for those bar mitzvas.

It's interesting to note that when I joined that yeshiva - a well known very orthodox yeshiva in New York in the 60's, we were not frum, I had never opened a chumash before (again, I was 8) and yet, we were very well treated by the entire hanhala. I have no idea what this yeshiva's current policies are in this regard.

PsychoToddler said...

My impression is that things are actually much worse now.

Sweettooth120 said...

I just befriended two kids (ok early 20's) who grew up in yeshivishe/uo families. They left the life and their families, both at 16, coincidently. The man wants to have nothing to do with a Yeshiva education for his future children, his girlfriend stills wants them to at least attend a Jewish day school. It will be interested to see what happens when that time comes. Where I live there are seven day schools for the primary grades, but even within those choices, it is still difficult to find a right match, unless you are religious. If you are secular, the three options are a school that is a hike away and screens any children that they foresee having any "issues." One is so small and is not up to par with the public education or the judaic studies, and the third one is so large, so academically intense, and VERY EXPENSIVE. Fortunately, I found a great school for my daughter, a small, community based orthodox school with mainstream ideas, but I am not sure if it will be a good match for my son. And so in another year, the anxiety of finding a school and the daily disagreements with my husband to allow our children to even attend a Jewish day school, will begin again.