In the burgeoning Jewish community where I live, rampant polarization has become a sad fact of life – and nowhere is this more obvious than in our schools.
In theory, these divisions are benign. People band together in their desire to grow in avodas Hashem (service of G-d) by adhering to a specific leader, or a particular “school of thought.” But if the group’s method of “lifting themselves up,” involves “putting others down” the branding can become problematic, and can lead to elitism and arrogance.
Ideally, anyone who wants to educate their children in the derech (direction) of a specific school, and who agrees to follow that school’s rules, should have the option to attend that institution. But when schools start to systematically reject would-be students in order to erect a glossier façade, this can quickly degenerate into dividing children into “the best” and “second-best.”
When orthodox Jewish parents start saying things like: “only THE best will work for my children,” alarms bells should start ringing, and important questions should start to be asked.
For example, while most Jewish neighborhoods maintain a “community school,” i.e., one that accepts “all types,” a specific, faction-run school is still usually the preferred mode of education.
The number one reason seems to be this: “I don’t want my children to be exposed to the influences inherent to the school-that-accepts-everyone.” The question is: which influences are we really talking about here, and what is really going to negatively affect our children in actuality?
While we talk about exclusive schools being ‘the best’, what are we really saying?
The dictionary defines exclusive as follows:
ex·clu·sive /ikˈsklo͞osiv/ adjective: 1: reserved for particular persons 2: snobbishly aloof
Do we really want to be creating a situation where “Jewish education” becomes synonymous with “exclusivity?” Are we really saying that snobbery, haughtiness and disparaging talk (onaas devarim), are some of the core values that we want to see reflected in our schools?
The last I checked, our Sages considered boasting, hurting people (v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha) and pretending to be something you’re not (echad b’phe, vechad b’lev) amongst the most potentially devastating spiritual influences a Jewish neshama can be exposed to.
Of course, community schools also have their fair share of challenges.
The choice many parents face can often be boiled down to this: “what’s a worse influence: a smart phone or rotten middot?” It’s also true that some of the parents who send to these institutions appear to need their space, religiously, and feel a little choked if there are too many rules, regulations or “religious nuances” to deal with.
But does that really make them and their families “second best”? Is that the message we really want to be giving our children?
How different things could look if more of us based our choice of school on the principle of keeping Hashem’s Will one step before our own. With this principle guiding us, we would know that effective chinuch habanim (Jewish education) is underpinned by emes (truth), and yashrus (straightforwardness) and chesed (kindness).
Our priority would then be in finding our children an educational atmosphere that is accepting, loving, academically sound and infused with yiras Shamayim (fear of Heaven). Not “the best”, not “exclusive”, but schools where our children will truly flourish, and where the emphasis is far more on loving our fellow Jew as ourselves and working on our own bad middot, than dividing our children up into “the best” and “second best”.
The yetzer hara seems to have smuggled itself into our schools under the disguise of “exclusivity” and is here to stay. So now the real question is: how do we fight it?