For a long time, I've felt that there is a significant problem to the way that Orthodox Judaism is practiced today. That problem is that we worry far too much about what other people will think rather than what actually counts.
The point was driven home to me yesterday as I was reading a post written by a father who was trying to get his son with Down's Syndrome into kindergarten in a school in Jerusalem.
The father met with the principal of the school. All seemed to go well and the parents were invited back for a subsequent meeting with the rebbe and an administrator. Discussions centered around how to integrate the child (and his "shadow") into the classroom. The child is a high-functioning child and the teacher seemed confident that he could successfully teach the young child.
Alas, it all fell apart when someone higher up put the kibosh on his enrollment. Was it because they were afraid the child wouldn't be able to fit in? Was it because they were afraid for his safety or the safety of the other kids?
No -- it was because they were afraid of the yeshiva's reputation. They were afraid of what people would think of the yeshiva if they saw a child with Down's in the classroom.
This is just so wrong on so many levels, that I just don't know where to begin. But let's start with the question raised -- what would people think?
I don't know about any of you, but I can only wonder at who would be so small-minded as to think any less of a yeshiva that would include a Down's Syndrome child (assuming, of course, that the child can truly fit into the class*). I thought we moved beyond the times when kids with disabilities were locked away and hidden from view and were considered embarrassments. I thought that we in the Orthodox Jewish world have finally come to realize that even children with disabilities such as Down's can be given a Torah education (up to his or her own capabilities, of course). We have developed programs to help and educate children with disabilities and to allow them to mainstream whenever possible. It's really a shame to see that there are still some people in the frum community who would see it as an embarrassment to be associated with a school that has a child with Down's.
Of course, there's also the idea that school has a mission -- to teach. I would think that if a school could successfully teach (and mainstream) a child with Down's it would be a major coup for the school. I would think that the school would look at this as an opportunity to prove that a Torah education is accessible to all and that they are so good, that they could even help mainstream a child with Down's. But the school chose to discard this opportunity as well.
I can't help but wonder what will be next. Will schools start giving IQ tests** and not accepting those who don't score over 115 for fear of being labeled as a "school for dummies?" Will they start turning away kids with wheelchairs or missing fingers for fear of developing a reputation for taking in "different kids?" Or are our schools to become places where only "perfect" kids are able to attend?
I know it's little consolation to them, but I think that perhaps the parents of this child with Down's were lucky to dodge a bullet. I'm not so sure that I'd want to enroll my kids in a school where the value system is reputation before things that are really important.
* The father, in fact, made the point that if his son couldn't fit in, he'd withdraw him from the school, but that didn't seem to make a difference.
** To be distinguished from an achievement or skill test which, IMHO, is perfectly acceptable.