It was quite distressing reading the article about frum families having to make the decision to send their children to the local Teaneck public schools (“Frum times in Teaneck High,” January 12). It was distressing on so many levels it is hard to know where exactly to begin.
Let me emphasize at the outset three crucial points. First, as will be established below, I am uniquely qualified to weigh in on this topic. Second, this is a judgment-free response. In no way should anything in this article be construed as passing judgment on decisions families need to make regarding what has become an all-too-common phenomenon in both Teaneck and other Orthodox communities. This is an extremely difficult and often gut-wrenching decision — as it should be — and I envy no one who has had to make such a decision, or who currently is struggling with this decision. Last, I am not weighing in on decisions made to send frum children to public schools because of special education needs that are not, or cannot, be addressed adequately by the yeshiva system. That is a stand-alone topic that also must be addressed, but this response today is geared toward the parents, not the yeshivas.
I write this response under my real name. I am not hiding under the cloak of a pseudonym, although it would have been much easier to do so. This response requires credibility to be effective and the topic is important enough so I believe it is worth the price of sacrificing my privacy.
I have been on both sides of the proverbial tracks. When financial times were abundant, I sat on the board of a local yeshiva day school and often was tapped for significant donations to scholarship funds and other needed projects. I don’t recall ever saying no when asked to give, and I gave with great joy, as I was aware of those who were struggling. I was extremely thankful for my financial success
Unfortunately, the financial tide took a 180-degree turn, and then I became the recipient of massive scholarship funds (I have five children) as opposed to the donor of these funds. I was no longer the guy in the back of limo but rather the guy behind the wheel, lugging suitcases just to put some money in my pocket. I remember, with some lingering bitterness, the scholarship interrogation, making me feel as if I was trying to game the system, all the while my house was in foreclosure and my cars were being repossessed. Didn’t I have some rich relative who can pay for the kids’ tuition, they wondered. I felt so alone and depressed as I figured I must be the only frum person in Bergen County without a rich relative.
It was frustrating and often demeaning to sit in front of smug scholarship heads having to explain that I really didn’t have money or access to money. One of my children was not allowed to return for his senior year of high school because I owed the yeshiva $5,000 from the previous year and had no means of coming up with the past due balance; nor did I have additional funds for his current year. So he was forced to get his GED (as I was not going to send him to public school) and took his SATs and did just fine. The high school refused to release his transcripts to the college to which he applied, but ultimately, after the college president read his personal statement, the college accepted him, understanding the situation as a whole.
I can write a book on my experiences, but hopefully with this brief anecdotal evidence I’ve established my credibility to weigh in on this difficult topic.
I wrote at the outset that I was distressed reading the article. I was distressed for two main reasons. Although I suspected it was the case just by reading the headline, my suspicion was confirmed — and then some. This article was written “b’simcha” (joyfully) and with a “gotcha” attitude toward the yeshiva system as a whole. I am the first to acknowledge that the yeshiva system has its share of problems. What system doesn’t? Are there problems with the modern Orthodox system? Of course. Are there problems with the charedi (yeshivish) system? Of course. The chassidish system? Of course. There is a massive divide within the Orthodox communities between the haves and the have-nots. As such, there is a growing bitterness and resentment towards that singular institution — the yeshiva — that highlights this difference, more than anything else, with the crushing yeshiva tuition needs. Of course, house size, type of cars, vacations, etc. often demonstrate these differences as well, but none of those are anywhere as meaningful as yeshiva education.
There is no doubt this is a serious problem within the Orthodox communities and has left a lot of genuine and committed families rightfully jaded. When these feelings turn into an anti-yeshiva attitude, however, it has then morphed into something dangerous — which brings me to the second reason for my distress.
In halacha (Jewish law) there are concepts called “b’da’avad” and “l’chatchila.” B’da’avad is doing something in a lesser desirable fashion, while l’chatchila is doing something in the preferred way. So while someone absolutely could fulfill a religious requirement b’da’avad, we strive to the best of our abilities to fulfill that same requirement l’chatchila.
That is all well and good. The problem results when one begins to believe that the b’da’avad is actually the l’chatchila. This is what I gleaned from many of the comments from those parents who chose to ditch the yeshiva in favor of public school for financial reasons. I am in no position, nor do I have any right, to judge the ultimate decision frum parents make to send their child to public school. Sometimes there truly might be no choice. I strongly caution any parent who has made that decision, however, or currently is considering making that decision, to understand that this is a b’da’avad, not a l’chatchila.
I think one of the great survival skills we, the Jewish people, have is our ability to make lemonade out of lemons. From time immemorial we have had the ability to make the best out of bad situations and even to back into a certain mindset that tells us that whatever is happening really is what we would have wanted anyway. It’s a great coping mechanism, but if it is not sprinkled with a dose of reality could be dangerous.
I respectfully suggest to these wonderful parents who have had to make the decision of foregoing yeshiva education in favor of public schools that they should not for a second believe that this really is the best thing for their children’s continued growth as Orthodox Jews. I respectfully suggest that while clearly so many Orthodox Jewish values are indeed learned from the home, the home needs to be a reinforcing environment for these values. The home is not a detox unit for the secular values their child is exposed to for at least eight hours a day, five days a week, week in and week out.
Will there be exceptions to the rule? Of course there will be. Nevertheless, parents need to understand that there is no educational equivalent to, nor substitute for, a yeshiva environment. I don’t care if it’s a left-wing, centrist, or right-wing yeshiva. While certainly there may be merit in being exposed to other cultures and beliefs, there is a time and a place. Elementary school and/or high school is not — l’chatchila — that time or place.
The 11th mishna in the second perek (chapter) of Bava Metzia — as well as other places within the Talmud — is remarkably instructive about the importance of yeshiva education as it tells us that there are certain situations where someone’s rebbi (main teacher of Torah) actually takes precedence over his own father.
The value of a Torah environment and education can not be stressed enough. It is the duty of yeshiva administrators and the powers that be within the yeshivas to do everything humanly and financially possible — with tremendous sensitivity — to ensure that parents are not placed in a position where they must make these difficult decisions. Parents, on the other hand, need to bite their collective tongues, grit their collective teeth, and hold their collective noses at what often is a demeaning scholarship process. The pain to the ego will be well worth it.
Parents need to know, at least in their hearts, that all avenues have been exhausted before they forego a yeshiva education in favor of public schools. At the very least, parents need to recognize that while they might have no other choice, this is a b’da’avad, and such recognition should be conveyed to their children as often as possible.