Op-Ed: Disposable Students: When a Student "Doesn't Fit In"

It is registration time for yeshivas and ulpenas (girls' religious high schools) again. It is also the time when there is "weeding out" of students who do not 'fit in'. An impassioned plea.
Published: Thursday, December 19, 2013 10:50 AM


We Jews wandered the four corners of the earth for so many centuries, never having a home where we could feel completely safe.  Our experience from Egypt on taught us to respect the dignity of the stranger and to reach out to the needy.   When we were vulnerable, the voices of our sages cried for the downtrodden and the lonely. 

When “not fitting in” was intrinsic to our experience and our own being, our teachers taught us to care about others who felt the same way.  But now?  Now, when Jerusalem is ours?  Now, when Orthodox Judaism has never been in a stronger position?  Now, when in America there are communities where observant Jews can choose between three or four full-sized kosher supermarkets where they can choose from among tens of thousands of kosher products; communities dotted with shtiebels (small houses of prayer, often hassidic) and beautiful synagogues; communities with tens of day schools and yeshivas to educate our youngsters, where public school districts provide buses to take our students to the day school and yeshiva of their parents’ choosing?

We are blessed to be living at such a time, at a time when politicians are genuinely and fervently concerned with “Jewish issues.”  At the local and national levels, policy makers are truly supportive of the needs of the Jewish community and of Israel.

We are indeed blessed.

And yet… and yet with all these blessings so many of the leaders of our schools and our communities seemingly act cold and hard, rather than with openness and understanding.  The irony is damning.  No place has this been more apparent than in the way that yeshivot treat and “manage” their so-called “difficult” students, those students whose needs and behaviors often cry out for attention.

The “riches” of having more students than they can fit in their classrooms has made them greedy and more than willing to simply “weed out” any student who does not hew perfectly to strict and rigid rules.  After all, what could be easier than to simply remove a student who, for whatever reason, needs or demands more time or attention, and replace him or her with some other student who will be more compliant, better-behaved?  

Easier?  Perhaps. But right?

Rav Ovadya Yosef zt"l, the highly respected Gaon and leader of Sephardic Jewry, asked, “Whom are you throwing out? A rock?  Some accumulated trash?”  He was not blind to the challenge of teaching so-called “difficult” students.  But when he confronted a rowdy, disruptive or uncooperative student in a class, he did not view the student as “the enemy” but rather as the unique being God intended.  He embraced the uniqueness of each of his students. 

What an upside-down world we have created when Rav Ovadya’s approach strikes us as refreshing and encouraging, nstead of the norm!  Instead of the way our experience as Jews has taught us to be!

In making this point, I do not mean to minimize the importance of rules and decorum.  I do not mean to minimize the challenge of the “difficult” student nor do I mean to suggest that it is never appropriate to remove a student from a particular learning situation.  There are always extenuating circumstances when an individual student cannot remain in a school – for his sake and the sake of his classmates. 

However, even when it is determined that a young person must be removed from a school, that decision should never be made lightly, or judgmentally.  It should be made in consultation with experts including rabbinic leaders, school psychologists, social workers and certainly the parents.  And then, if the consensus is that it be best for him/her not to remain in this particular school, only half the job is done. The other half is, where does he/she go now? What is the alternative? Remember, no child, not yours or mine, is trash to be mindlessly thrown into a dumpster.

That said, it is not the unique case that is the focus of my concern.  My concern is with the approach that too many of our school leaders take, which is that it is not only acceptable but preferable to remove students (and sometimes their siblings!) simply because s/he doesn’t “fit in”.  Such a posture is beyond unacceptable.  It is reprehensible. 

An educator is not merely a conveyor of information, a conduit of transferring data.  An educator must be concerned with the neshama, the soul, of his student. An educator cannot simply remove a student without finding an alternative for that student. An educator must not be satisfied until that yiddishe neshama that he refuses to handle, love, nourish and develop is registered in another school, one more caring and embracing.

An educator must think not just about the student, but also about the student’s family.  Tossing aside a young soul with no more consideration than throwing out some garbage is cold and ugly, and not without additional consequences.

I have heard from parents, frightened and overwhelmed, as their child’s school and community essentially abandons their child and family.  One mother called me, reduced to tears.  “Pardon the tears, but I am at a loss. What am I supposed to do with my 9th grade daughter? She was never a problem academically or behaviorally. Now they say she doesn’t fit in.”  

Pay attention!  This mother was not from some Godforsaken out-of-town community.  She was calling from the heart of Flatbush!

Over and over, I hear the cruel refrain.  “S/he doesn’t fit in”.  What does that even mean? 

And what am I to say to the parent who cries to me, “What am I to do with him/her?”

The solution is not as simple as placing the student in another school.  Too many times, the insensitivity of the educator goes beyond his own school.  He sees to it that the child is blacklisted.  Some sort of “inter-principal” network removes the child not only from one school but blocks him from all of them.

As a result, students who need structure, who need the embrace of the community, not its rejection, are left to while away their time at home, on the street, idle, frustrated, and bored. 

“And mind you,” a mother told me, “my daughter is not rebelling, tearing the place apart. At least not yet!  She keeps asking me, ‘What happened, mommy?’  ‘What’s wrong with me?’ What am I to tell her?”

Is she to tell her daughter that her school was like a factory and she was expected to be a widget?  Is she to tell her that she didn’t “fit the mold”?  That is not a Jewish message!

How many do we lose to the Jewish community because of being shunned?  I heard from one young adult, “I didn’t fit the mold, and had a hard time, ultimately going OTD. I later came back, with a modern Orthodox hashkafah.”

He came back.  He had the strength of conviction to seek another path to God and Torah; there are after all,  many ways to the Torah. But what of the countless others who don’t come back?  What about those whose communities turned against them and told them “You don’t belong”?  What had they done?  Was their transgression so great that they were shunned as if they were Cain?

Again, I applaud the school with high standards.  Every good school must adhere to a code of conduct and behavior that covers academics, social behavior, and religious behavior.  The question is, how do you respond to infractions?  Is a minor infraction treated the same as a major one?  Is the only response to an infraction to throw a student out? 

Yeshiva students who have been expelled and blacklisted from other yeshivas often find their way to public schools or local community colleges and, hurt and angry by how they were treated, gravitate toward a more secular experience.  Still others, rejected by yeshivas with minimal general studies programs are ill-equipped to even find their way to public education.  They are even more vulnerable to the ills of the secular world.

They too often end up in the streets, aligning with the most undesirable of society.  Whatever family contact they have continues to fray until it disintegrates as their frum families shun the “outcast” in their midst.  In this way, families and generations are lost.  Why?  Because a principal determined that a child “doesn’t fit in.”

Who will answer for these lost souls? Who is big enough to answer the Lord on High who will surely want to know, “Why did you allow My beloved children to forsake Me?”

Who will answer the mother who wants to know, “Why did my daughter fit in all eight years of elementary school, and one month before school opening in 9th grade, she suddenly doesn’t fit in?  What changed? What happened?  Won’t anybody tell me?” 

It wasn’t all that long ago that rabbis and others concerned with the Jewish future in this country looked for students with lanterns to register in what were then fledgling institutions. Yeshivas were starved for students, talmidim.  Bait Yaakovs for girls were not even a dream, but the wisp of a thought about a dream.  It has been a very few short years since fine institutions of Torah learning for both boys and girls became a reality.

During that time, everyone was welcome. Everyone fit in.  Many communities’ day schools came to be because the local Orthodox rabbi, overwhelmingly members of the Rabbinical Council of America, went door to door to any and all Jewish families soliciting not for money but for any Jewish child whose parents would enroll their child in this “new” phenomenon called “Jewish day school.”

In Lakewood, NJ the late Rabbi Pesach Z. Levovitz dared to dream that a day school could be a reality.  He literally begged for Jewish kids in and around Lakewood, including in Howell, Freehold, Farmingdale and Tom River where Jewish immigrants, mostly Holocaust survivors, initiated successful egg farms and businesses.  “Just come!” he enthusiastically told one and all.  “Give me a chance,” he begged.

His persistence laid the ground work for a community that was to ultimately become “Lakewood” where Rabbi Levovitz lovingly welcomed, embraced and assisted Rav Aharon Kotler zt'l. The rest is history!  In the Bronx, the late, revered rav, Rosh Yeshiva and dreamer, my unforgettable rebbi, Rav Yeruchem Gorelick zt'l established Yeshiva Zichron Moshe and Bait Yaakov decades ago and expressed great satisfaction and enthusiasm when the city allowed for students to be bused to the schools of their choosing.  He felt that busing was introduced by Providence – it was divinely ordained, so everyone could come and all fit in.    

So it was across the country.  In Pittsburgh, the late Rabbi Joseph Shapiro knocked on doors in the evenings when both parents were home, asking for the opportunity to elegantly and sensitively explain why a day school education made sense for all Jewish parents, even the “greeners” who wanted to rid themselves of any real Jewish observance and identity. That was the beginning of Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, and many other Hillel Academies throughout the country. 

All were welcome.  All fit in.  They need only come.

And now?

The issue is not whether every yeshiva and school needs to accept every student.  Rather, the issue is whether there is a seat for every child who wants to attend a yeshiva, a Bais Yaakov, a Jewish Day School. There must always be a seat at the table – and an acknowledgement that the table is large enough for everyone!

The great imperative of Judaism is to learn and teach Torah. Who are we to determine who is worthy to learn?  Who are we to suggest that someone is not worthy? 

Not long ago, I received an email from a mother who was in emotional anguish over her son, “kicked out before Pesach.”  She agreed that the yeshiva was not meeting his needs.  That it was not the right place for him.  “But now I have a son in jeans with an unfiltered smart phone, still Shomer Shabbos BH, but not doing everything properly.”

She and I continued to email for several days.  Throughout, I found her to be thoughtful and reasonable.  At one point, she wrote, “What I have strongly felt would have made a huge difference is had he not been kicked out but transferred. If they would have said, ‘This is not the right place for you but let’s find the place that will meet your needs.’”  She wondered if it would be possible for yeshivas to work together with parents to find the right place for the student who “doesn’t fit in.”

She was pleading not just for her own son but for, “all the sons and daughters expelled and rejected.”  She didn’t want her son, or any of them, to feel hated or unwanted by the religious community.  With another, appropriate placement, her son could be in yeshiva and “hold his head high” in the community.

Does anything else need to be said?

As we concluded our emails and communications, during which I offered a number of suggestions and supportive comments, she said what was deepest in her heart and in the hearts of countless fathers, mothers and their “punished” children.  With exasperation, hurt, and bewilderment she said to me, “Articles are nice but with all due respect we need bigger. The more children that get kicked out, the more children we have on the street suffering and the path back is so much longer and ever so much more difficult.

“How can we take this to the rabbis and make a change ASAP?”

I share her fear and her bewilderment and I share her sense of urgency. 

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at Safrane@ou.org