Making Exceptions

Getting from the house to cheder — or rather the two separate chedarim that my sons attend — always takes time. Shmuel is like a seven-year old Wordsworth — constantly stopping to marvel at the wonders of nature (and the neighborhood); while Pinchos, five, comports himself like a young Newton, always pausing to ask how things work. Today, a garbage pick-up fired both of their imaginations. Yes, getting to cheder takes a long time.

Between the flights of sublimity and the mechanical inquiries, I pursue another topic — ‘How to Cross the Street.’ First, an under-undergraduate course in semiotics: ‘What do the thick white lines on the pavement mean? What does the blue and white illuminated image of the pedestrian connote? Yes, this is the place to cross the street!’

So we stand and dutifully wait. One car zooms by; and another. Then a young father, with ear phones – he seems deep in thought — his five year old daughter in tow, crosses down the block, away from the pedestrian crossing. I see Pinchos wondering: ‘what exactly is abba trying to pass off on us?’ ‘You don’t have to cross here,’ he finally says, another car whizzing by: ‘look at them,’ he points to the father and daughter still in sight and already at the makholet across the street, presumably poised to buy lachmania and choco for the day ahead.

‘No you can’t have lachmania and choco; mommy packed you a lunch.’ And: ‘just because other people do the wrong thing does not mean that it’s right.’ Finally, a car stops, the driver waiving us across benevolently. I nod in gratitude: ‘thank you for abiding by the law.’

Pinchos is first today. Shmuel, shy, is reluctant to accompany us, so he waits outside the cheder gates. Some boys lean out towards the street through the metal bars – starting to tease him, even as I’m standing by. ‘Yesh l’chem baya?’ — I ask — mimicking what boys typically say when taunting Shmuel who has Down’s Syndrome: ‘you guys have a problem?’ When I come back, Shmuel is still standing there – he looks confused, a departure from his wondrous happy friendly self: one of the boys is standing with his tongue hanging out with a mocking stare.

When I returned my wife asked: ‘what do you expect?’ Pinchos is in one of the schools that would not take Shmuel — why should we expect more from children than their teachers?

Back on our morning trek, now walking in the direction of Shmuel’s cheder, we encounter the bouncy-gait of the nine year old Yehuda: ‘Good morning Shmuel!’; and shortly after, a smiling boy in Shmuel’s class, ‘Shalom Shmuel!’ ‘He’s my friend,’ Shmuel boasts loudly to me. And then the gawky eleven year-old from down the block, who keeps a rooster in our building courtyard, volunteers, ‘Can I walk with Shmuel to cheder? I’ll take him!’ These are boys from a chassidic cheder in our neighborhood: while other principals told us, ‘Shmuel will give the school a bad name‘; their rebbe says: ‘it’s a mitzvah gedola; it’s a big mitzvah!’ So the children look at Shmuel as an opportunity. Or maybe they just like him?

So what kind of exceptions do we make — for ourselves? for our children? One thing is sure: when we start making exceptions, they become natural, even second-nature. Like crossing the street in the wrong place, or, making a new friend, even though he may be a bit different.

21 comments on “Making Exceptions

  1. Judy,

    Thank you. I have actually read that earlier piece and it was precisely the combination of the two that I had in mind when I commented on what I perceive to be excessive negativity.

    I have no wish to judge Prof. Kolbrener or anything of the sort. Clearly, judging by the choices he has made in life, he and his wife must be exceptional people and I don’t doubt that.

    What struck me was that he followed up his earlier article which made an uncomfortable but important point, with this one, which was chock full of far less important points and rather negative.

    Let’s face it – kids are cruel. Always were and always have been. The goal is to train them to act differently as they mature. I lived in Bayit Vegan where Prof. Kolbrener lives for two years and the people there are delightful. Like all Israeli’s they can be rough around the edges but they’re good, sincere, and decent folks. They love their children and look after them just like the next person [certainly not the degree that we Americans do but I’m not certain that’s a chisaron. For one, I think it’s a maalah.] They’re honest and hardworking. Many have real jobs and maintain respectable living quarters.

    This entire piece just smacks of negativity and trust me, as Prof. Kolbrener pointed out – kids take their attitudes from adults. How to view things negatively is one of those attitudes they pick up on rather easily.

    Just some food for thought.

  2. To Professor Kolbrener: Is there any way you can switch around the morning routine, and bring Shmuel to his cheder first, and then Pinchos? I understand this may not be feasible due to distance and school starting time concerns. However, it would be enormously beneficial for Pinchos to see his Down Syndrome brother positively accepted by his classmates and his rebbe. In addition, dropping Shmuel off first means that the cruel kids at Pinchos’ school don’t have the opportunity to taunt Shmuel (or to taunt Pinchos about Shmuel).

  3. To David F: I think you should read Professor Kolbrener’s earlier post, “Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem – The Olam HaSheker Excuse” in conjunction with, and as a prequel to, his present post, “Making Exceptions.” An understanding of his previous struggles to find a placement for Shmuel (which as you can guess from his comment, are not completely over) would help to comprehend the background for this piece. Think of this posting as the second entry in Professor Kolbrenner’s journal about being the BT father of a Down Syndrome child in Jerusalem, both the triumphs and the defeats.

  4. Thank you for your explanation. I guess what troubles me about your article is that you come across as excessively negative and critical and that too, is something that children can learn from their parents. Each point individually may be valid, but as a unit, it just strikes me as overly critical.

  5. When an institution has to do something outside its comfort zone, things only happen if someone in authority chooses to champion the “exception”.

    We can ask why some things we view as just and proper are viewed as being outside the comfort zone. This gets back to how the key personnel inwardly view their mission. That can range from something Jewishly inspired/inspiring to something like “scramble to stay in business no matter what”.

    There is rarely a true, traditional kehilla structure that assumes responsibility for all members of the kehilla. What we are often left with is a slew of private, opaquely run organizations, often poorly integrated into any system, and often wasting resources through duplication of services, nepotism, etc. Sometimes, though, this anarchic situation has a bright side, namely, when a Torah visionary with a solid plan can set up an institution fully reflecting his/her positive vision.

  6. David F:

    My post was about how we deal with people who are different from us, and how parents provide models for their children – not always good ones. And yes, I want the best for my children, as Gary so eloquently put. The Torah tells us to embrace difference in learning and life: we should try to build a community in which that comes to fruition.


    There are several important points that I got from the post. Prof. Kolbrenner wants his sons to keep doing things according to their family practice, while not harshly judging those who do things differently.
    He also hopes that the boys, especially Shmuel, will not be victimized by those who would taunt them for being different.
    This is an important lesson in following the advice of Rabbi Hillel: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

  8. Mr. Kolbrener,

    I was asking a question, not stating an opinion. I am truly wondering what the point of your piece was and would love to hear an explanation if you’d care to provide one.

    Thank you

  9. There are several important points that I got from the post. Prof. Kolbrenner doesn’t wants his sons to keep doing things according to their family practice, while not harshly judging those who do things differently.
    He also hopes that the boys, especially Shmuel, will not be victimized by those who would taunt them for being different.
    This is an important lesson in following the advice of Rabbi Hillel: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

  10. Well, Judy, I’m afraid we’re not in Kansas anymore – in fact never have been. We were helped by the intervention of a tzaddik to get Shmuel into the school, and though the rebbeim and other talmidim are enthusiastic about his presence, there are administrators who are to put it kindly, obstructionist. Meaning, there are many more ‘fear and loathing’ pieces incubating – I’m hoping that they will not have to be written.

    We try to be aware of the social dynamics with the other children in regard to Shmuel. Though at the moment, our own position – that mainstreaming begins at home – seems to be prevailing. But we are aware that it can be subject to change.

    And David F – I think you are an excellent reader of my piece. Though I wasn’t aware there was self-criticism in this piece. I’m glad, however, that you found it: keeps me honest.

  11. Mr. Kolbrener,

    I’m struggling to comprehend the point of this post. Are you highlighting the fact that kids can be very cruel sometimes? Are you trying to place the blame for that on their teachers who are also, in your opinion, very cruel? Are you decrying the lack of involvement on the part of the father who had headphones on while taking his daughter to school? Or are you upset at the drivers who failed to stop at the white line? Or are you criticizing yourself somewhere in this piece?
    Please do explain for the less intellectually gifted among your readers
    Thank you.

  12. We once lived in a town where the only day school had a restrictive policy. Kids who didn’t “pass” their interview with the psychologist / dragon lady didn’t even get into kindergarten. No matter to them that the nearest other Jewish school was well over an hour away. The principal said “we’re not here to save Jewish souls”, meaning that his community school owed nothing to the community and could cherry-pick students as it pleased. The school had a resource room with a very good special ed teacher, but vitually no one got in who really needed the room for its intended purpose! One excuse given was that the dual Hebrew-secular curriculum made such demands that no unexceptional child could succeed.

  13. To Professor William Kolbrener: I had previously read your posting “Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem – The Olam Ha’Sheker Excuse” about how all the schools rejected your Down Syndrome son. I was very pleased to read in your latest posting that Shmuel finally found a cheder where he is fully accepted by the Rebbe and the other boys. You are very fortunate to have found some genuine menschen. Maybe you should give Menachem and Randi Lipkin the school’s name and address, so that when their son Yisroel Simcha is ready to start cheder, they can also apply there.

    You might want to have a heart-to-heart talk with Pinchos one day when nobody else (not his mom, not his brother) is around. There exists a possibility that he is being taunted and ridiculed by the boys at his school because, “Your brother’s a retard,” or some other insulting remarks. You may unfortunately have to consider placing Pinchos into another school where they won’t find out he’s got a brother with DS (only because kids can be so incredibly cruel). You don’t want Pinchos to suffer because he is the sibling of a special-needs child, then he will grow up hating his brother. Let Pinchos attend a school where he will learn to be proud to be a Kolbrener, not chas v’sholom ashamed of his family. (From my own experience: I was taunted as a child by some cruel classmates. That is something very difficult for a kid to deal with at a young age).

  14. The concept of a school that turns away your DS son with the excuse that “it will reflect badly” on the school — that does more to push Jews away from Orthodox Judaism, and does more to push BT’s back to the reform or secular worlds, that you can possibly imagine. How positively awful. Shameful.

  15. I don’t think you’re being facetious at all. It seems to be the unfortunate reality in Eretz Yisroel, a main reason why we won’t make aliya till our kids are grown.
    From our experience though kids are more likely to reflect the school & particularly their friends. You wouldn’t want Pinchos to be embarrassed of his special brother CV”S and in that kind of small minded environment it seems likely. It’s an environment that does not respect differences no matter how good or special (unless you’ve got lots of money to donate..)

  16. Do we make exceptions for ourselves – this law is not for me – or exceptions which take into account others? Perhaps in an ideal world we wouldn’t have to call on people to respect the exceptionalism of Shmuel, but regrettably we don’t inhabit that world now.

  17. Kids with electronically absorbed parents should be taught at an early age to send text messages to Mom and Dad; that might get their attention.

  18. Yes, I would agree – he’s in the wrong school. And we’re hoping to find ourselves in a position to change things. But our ability to get into different schools is slightly compromised, since Pinchos’ father has a ‘psul’ – ie that he is a university professor. I’m being partially facetious – but it is true. Though it’s likely – sadly – that those other schools would not be particularly responsive to Shmuel’s difference either. Having said that, he’s more likely – I hope – to reflect the ethos of the family. As I have written elsewhere (sorry to sound like an academic), mainstreaming begins at home.

    And the image of a father – earnestly listening to a shiur while taking his kids to school – is not a good one. It’s what you might call one of the other ‘Oedipus Complexes’ – paying attention to the wrong people. Of course, we are all guilty of it, but it’s a pretty stark example.

  19. Prof. K,

    By being engaged with your kids on the walk to school, YOU are the exception.

    So many parents, spouses and children lose these opportunities when they tune the world, and each other, out by listening to music/lectures, conversing on a cellphone, or sending text messages during their time together. Parents even do these things while pushing their children in strollers.

    A recent study said that children whose parents push them in rear facing (toward the parent) strollers develop communication skills more rapidly than those in forward facing strollers. I think a controlling factor in those studies should be parental use of electronic devices!

  20. Pinchos is in the wrong school, unless you want him to reflect the ethos of the school he’s in.

Comments are closed.