Thursday, May 28, 2009


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 Wolf

* 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.


micha berger said...

Don't be so hard on the school. The blame lies in the community, the customer base. The school administration and board could very well want to take in such children; after all, that was their initial instinct. But if it means that the school will fail to meet its mission altogether because they can't change the world they live in, no one is helped.

Of course, saying it's the community and not the school says nothing about your opening statement that "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."

We lost sight of what actually counts in ways beyond "just" our concern for what others would think. There is also the guy who would never consider relying on heteirim for chalav hacompanies (as R' Moshe zt"l called it) or electric shavers, but relies on specious arguments for cutting fiscal corners -- not to mention the implicit willingness to risk causing a chilul Hashem.

Look, Chassidus has largely devolved into rote, Mussar never recovered from WWII, Breuers gave up TiDE for Lithuanian yeshiva-ness... What Ism is left to define our perspective on "what actually counts"?

But rather than gripe about the school, join a program like the Vaad AishDas runs. Or if your inclinations run differently, pick up a copy of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh or Benei Machashavah Tovah and try a chassidic approach. In short, emphasize "what actually counts" in our own lives, the one bit of the community we have the most ability to change.


PS: Between the opening sentence and discussing what it's like to raise a child with Downs, you basically begged me to reply. (Personally, I'm not a fan of inclusion, but that's a distraction from your point.)

BrooklynWolf said...


I won't hold the school completely blameless, but your point that the community is really the problem is well taken. *That* really is where attitudes have to change. What's sad is that I thought we had moved beyond the idea that children with disabilities are to be excluded, rather than included (where possible).

The Wolf

ProfK said...

Given the large number of frum children who have an "eppes," how dare any of us "play God" and decide who can go to a "regular" yeshiva and who can't?! The term "disabilities" covers a broad range of items. Are we suddenly ranking disabilities for acceptance? What's next? They turn down the child with peanut allergies? They turn down a child with vision problems who must be seated in the front row? We talk about midoh k'neged midoh. I shudder to think what the Ribboneh Shel Olam has in store for those who turn down a child because of reputation.

frumheretic said...

I read that post yesterday and found it very, very sad. Could be wrong, but I came away with the feeling that the principal was not being forthcoming during the initial meeting and never intended on letting the student in, though it's possible that he was just a lackey and other people pulled the strings at that school.

Some very incisive comments were left, especially one that said (paraphrased) that most people are learning Torah, but are not living Torah.

Garnel Ironheart said...

The gemara in Berachos tells us that when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was dying, his students came and asked for a blessing.
He answered: "May you fear God as much as you fear man."
"Not more?" they asked.
"Whenever someone sins," he explained, "he looks around to make sure no one's looking. But God is always watching and no one cares."

Ultra-orthodoxy has created a culture in which conformance above all else is the highest virtue. Never mind that this kid is high functioning, that he is probably a happy kid who loves learning. He LOOKS different, he has a genetic problem, so he's now "the other". No black hat on his head can ever change that.

How about the continuing discrimination against Sephardi Jews wanting to go to Ashkenazi schools in Israel?

How about people judging other people by the kippah on their head instead of the fear of God in their hearts?

Despite all that, have a great Shavuos, Wolf

Jeff Eyges said...

Wolf, it seems to me that over the past year or two, you've been writing about these scenarios increasingly, and have increasingly expressed incredulity. I don't understand it; you grew up in that world, and were the victim of some of its abuses as well. I have to see it either as denial on your part, or just luck that you've managed to avoid some of the more egregious characters until now.

Some months ago, I said something to you along the lines of, "Why are you so surprised? This is who they are. Did you really not know?" I'm saying it again.

Anonymous said...

Very sad, but not surprising.

On the note of disabled children, what do y'all think of the autistic children producing messages about the complete destruction of American Jewry being imminent unless we all make aliyah en-masse? (basically, it's make aliyah or die) There hasn't been much chatter about this outside of a few blogs..

eglantine said...

hey, as the now divorced mother of an 18 year old son with down's i am not at all surprised. i tried 16 years ago to get my son into a jewish school and failed miserably. and believe me , i tried both as his mother and as the consummate professional that i am. the attitude toward the mentally disabled ( not the child who is bright but who has health problems) is the underbelly of the jewish world. we are light years behind the non-jewish world -- even the emphasis in the posting on the fact that this child is "high functioning" ( i suppose as opposed to low functioning) is telling. if we worship an idol it is the one of intelligence and being smart. my child has taught me among many other things how little intelligence it takes to be a person. never in his life has he done wrong to anyone. he has not spoken a single word of loshon hara ( i guess if you are not bright enough a lot of bad stuff does not come across your mind). he lives with me, his mother, and thanks me with a depth of gratitude for little things that make me think that had i but a tenth of the gratitude that he has for me for Ha-Shem i would be a truly great jewish woman. this post has evoked so many feelings in me that i have relegated to a bottom drawer in my mind and soul. in my work as a child psychologist it tends to be the jewish schools that are hardest to deal with. truly, it is the most pathetic aspect of who we are and may Ha-Shem have mercy on all of us.

Anon1 said...

Our son was once rejected for admission to the only Jewish day school within a 2 hour drive from our home, because he flunked their kindergarten level entry test (which included an interview with the psychologist/dragon-lady/gatekeeper). The principal told us his school was not here to save Jewish souls (really!). This sendoff came despite his under-utilized resource room with a very qualified special ed teacher. This school was Modern Orthodox through and through, so I get a bit annoyed when the elitism issue is framed as being limited to the more traditionally Orthodox.

Later on, after we moved, our son attended another Modern Orthodox day school, where the only kids in the resource room who were actually helped there were those with good connections (= Money). The unfavored kids were left to sit around in the resource room as if it were a study hall. The general studies principal there even ridiculed him at a faculty meeting until a teacher sternly told her she was out of line.

micha berger said...

To address the anonymously asked question of May 31, 2009 1:52 PM: On the note of disabled children, what do y'all think of the autistic children producing messages...Two words: Ouija board.

In other words, ideomotor response on the part of the facilitator.

The Beis haLevi said, people are given a certain capacity for emunah. If they do not direct it to the important things, it gets spent on little ones.


Shira Salamone said...

It's not just Orthodox schools. Our son was refused admission to a Solomon Schechter (Conservative) Day School because of his borderline hyperactivity and poor social skills. By a combination of genetics and a good education in a non-sectarian private state-subsidized special ed school, he was fortunate enough to outgrow his problems as a teenager, and is now a doctoral candidate in physics. But he's completely non-observant, and won't set foot in a synagogue. The Jewish community simply can't afford to throw away its "imperfect" children if we have any religious principles and wish our children to maintain any level of religious practice.

Anonymous said...

In my experience, yeshivas that reject borderline cases always suggest an alternative so that they are not perceived as rejectionist, that the alternative provides a "better" environment. Unfortunately, the alternative suggested may make no sense at all educationally, but it makes the yeshiva feel better, and more important, they think it looks better from a PR point of view.