Monday, December 29, 2003

120 Years

Sixty years ago, my twin brother Allen and I were in our first year at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on Henry Street on the Lower East Side. We were fourth graders, that is for what used to be called English. For Hebrew, we were in the first grade, in a class with students three or four years older than we were, a circumstance that arose entirely out of the sudden death of our father five years earlier. Our rebbi or religious teacher was Rabbi Nachman Mandel, who by 1943 had already taught first grade for about ten years, at RJJ and elsewhere.

Good first grade rebbis are hard to come by. Rabbi Mandel was good, as is his first cousin, Rabbi Baruch Pollack, who is in his fifty-third year teaching that grade. There must be something in the family genes.

The first grade experience was not easy for Allen and me or for Rabbi Mandel. We were rambunctious and more than a bit mischievous – or at least I was. If classmates from those early years are to be believed, I was more in trouble than in the classroom. Doubtlessly, there were ample grounds for the yeshiva to tell our mother to let another school have the privilege of educating us. In fact, for several years we switched to another yeshiva, coming back to RJJ during high school. But in 1943-44, we persevered, in large measure because of Rabbi Mandel’s patience and caring.

It’s doubtful that these days boys like us would get the chance that we got. Yeshivas were more tolerant back then and less nervous about accepting and retaining students who don’t easily fit in. They were inclusive, always trying to get more students and not because of the tuition income since many parents paid little or nothing. School officials and lay leaders understood that it was their responsibility to provide a religious education, as well as a good secular education, and this responsibility was not limited to the best and the brightest or easiest students.

The attitude nowadays in many of our schools is that students who deviate from the norm because they have learning or emotional problems or come from marginally religious homes should be someone else’s responsibility. Even when seats are available, it’s a trifling act to turn away, often on spurious grounds, some who seek admission and it takes little sweat to toss out a kid.

There are schools, especially in the New York area, with more applicants than there are seats. It remains, though, that there has been a sea change in attitude as yeshivas seek greater homogeneity in the student body and in the families that they serve. Problem students or those whose families deviate somewhat from religious or other norms are not welcome. Students who are behind educationally or difficult in other ways are in too many instances expelled. It’s easier to get rid of a student than to be patient and caring. Out of sight is out of mind.

In more than fifty years of intensive communal activity, much of it devoted to yeshivas and day schools, nothing pains me more than the awareness that certain of our schools are cold and hard toward parents and children. In most yeshivas, principals have the sole authority to decide who gets in and who does not and, more critically, who remains and who does not. I could never accept such a responsibility because the stakes are too high. But there are principals who acting without principles are determined that these decisions are theirs alone to make. That’s terribly wrong.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There is the example of the Beth Jacob of Borough Park, an all-girls elementary school with 2,400 students that is led by Rabbi Oscar Ehrenreich, now in his fiftieth year as principal. He has molded a school with a strong educational program, Judaic and secular, that is purposefully inclusive. Attention is paid in a discreet way to children with special needs or with emotional problems or from broken homes or social and other difficulties. Rabbi Ehrenreich has created an environment in which students can grow emotionally and educationally.

There isn’t space to recite all of Beth Jacob’s special touches, ranging from the way students from needy homes participate in activities requiring payment without the children knowing that payment hasn’t been made to the pairing of successful students with at-risk kids to mentoring arrangements that involve volunteers. There are about 200 graduates each year and the school makes a tremendous effort to see that each girl is accepted by a good high school.

Sadly, this inclusive and tolerant approach is not in evidence at schools that even boast about their exclusivity and have no hesitation about expelling students. Is it any wonder that despite much rhetoric about the tragedy of at-risk children, the situation continues to worsen? Where do the principle-less principals think the students they throw out will end up?

And this brings me back to Rabbi Mandel. He never became a principal or administrator and always remained a first grade rebbi, for many years at a Los Angeles yeshiva. He has retired and Yeshiva Rav Isaacson-Toras Emes in Los Angeles will honor him on Sunday, January 18 for seventy – yes 70! – years of devoted service to Torah education.

If we add Rabbi Ehrenreich’s fifty years to Rabbi Mandel’s seventy, we have 120 years – the fullest lifespan – of caring and devotion, of service to G-D and His people. 120 years of spiritual and educational achievements that have made a difference in thousands of Jewish homes, in the lives of so many who are now themselves grandparents and parents of yeshiva and day school students.

Rabbi Mandel and Rabbi Ehrenreich have glorified religious Jewish education. There are other excellent people in the field whose achievements need to be noted. But I wonder about those in yeshiva and day school education who preach and practice exclusion, people who deliberately or inadvertently are cruel to parents and children. What will they have to say when they complete their 120 years?