Wednesday, May 04, 2005

RJJ Newsletter - May 2005

It has been evident for many years that if somehow Rebbi Akiva and Rebbi Eliezer were transplanted into contemporary religious Jewish life at the time that they were beginning their study of Torah, it is highly unlikely that they would be admitted to our best yeshivas. They would be sent to a kiruv school or perhaps one of the weak day schools that dot our communal landscape. Only after they were thoroughly cleansed of the baneful effects of bad parentage and background might they be accepted by our strongest schools.

It is also true that children of many Talmudic sages and Torah scholars of subsequent generations, including the recent period, would also be turned away from some yeshivas and Beth Jacobs. Although these parents were transcendent scholars and spiritual giants, alas they had the serious defect of earning their livelihood outside of the four cubits of Torah, perhaps by being in business or a professional or working for government or a private employer. There are mosdos at the elementary school level in Israel and now in this country that will not accept children from such homes, presumably to protect those who are admitted from harmful influences.

Whatever the explanation, this is madness, an example of the spreading sickness known as extreme frumkeit. It is said that children with working fathers live in more affluent homes, have nicer clothing, tend to show off, or that their appearance makes other children feel inferior, etc. This is inaccurate on several grounds, most notably the obvious fact that at least in this country, a majority of yeshiva-world families with a working father struggle to make ends meet. The more likely explanation is that schools with an exclusionary policy seek to proclaim that they are better because their students come from pure Torah homes.

Because this sort of frumkeit is a dynamic force, what we are now witness to is likely to be followed by even greater deprecations against sense and sensibility. Admittedly, it is hard to figure out what the next step might be. Unless we are willing to protest against a policy that to my knowledge has no antecedent in all of the annals of Torah chinuch, worse tidings await us. Too many of us - and I specifically refer to Torah leaders - are unwilling to criticize what is wrong. It is a sure bet that the protest expressed here is one more fruitless tilting against the windmill of good intentions gone awry.

It is obvious that kollel-only schools survive because they have the support of affluent people whose children and grandchildren would not be accepted by such schools. I imagine that they contribute in order to atone for the sin of making a living. Or could it be that they believe that exclusive schools are desirable? If so, they are mistaken. There isn't as much as a line in the speeches and writings of the Great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood or, for that matter, other Gedolei Torah who led the yeshiva world in the last two generations, that can be marshaled in support of an exclusionary policy. I am told that one of the yeshiva world's most revered and senior Rosh Yeshiva was appalled when told of such a policy and referred to it as "rishus" or evil.

In a way, this policy is linked to the view that yeshivas must rid themselves of students who do not match up academically or who stray even minimally in their behavior. This allegedly protects a yeshiva's reputation, of course at the expense of Jewish children and their families. It is also, I might add, at the expense of violating the clearly expressed views of the Chazon Ish. But why worry about those who are being turned away and, in some instances, also turned off to Judaism? Out of sight is out of mind. The child is now someone else's problem.

When we opened on Staten Island thirty years ago, we faced the question of whether to accept children from non-Shomer Shabbos homes. Rabbi Yaakov Feitman, our principal, and I sought the counsel of his Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, ztl, who built Chaim Berlin into a great Torah institution and who was a genius in matters of chinuch. We presented the question. The Rosh Yeshiva responded vigorously, insisting that we must not have a policy of refusing such children. He emphasized that some of his outstanding students had come from homes that were not Shomer Shabbos. Where would they be now, he asked, had they not been accepted?

This question isn't asked too often these days. We develop standards that reject students and parents and we are comfortable with what we are doing. Of course, a kollel-only school is different from a policy that denies admission to students from marginally Jewish homes. In the former situation, the rejected applicants will find another yeshiva. This is not true of those from marginal homes. Likely as not, they will be deprived of our heritage, of a Jewish future. As I said many years ago at the annual dinner of Torah Umesorah, we are being M'rachek K'rovim, alienating those who may close.