Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem: the Olam Ha’Sheker Excuse

By William Kolbrenner
Open Minded Torah

Spring time in Jerusalem, so yet once more, my wife and I embark on the path of finding a place for our son Shmuel with Down syndrome, this time in a cheder, a pre-kindergarden class in our neighborhood.

So earlier this week, we set up a meeting with the principal of a school around the block from our house. Not only was he cordial, but he had the look of someone who was genuinely interested in helping us with the education of our son. There had not been a child in his school with Down’s syndrome for a generation, but listening carefully to our description of our son, his cordiality turned into what seemed like understanding. He invited us back the following day to meet with a rebbe and an administrator to discuss logistics – and how to integrate Shmuel and his ‘syat’ or ‘shadow’ into the classroom. The teacher of the class which the principal had in mind for Shmuel put it simply – ‘my business is to teach children; and I’d do my best to teach Shmuel as any other child.’ ‘Though I am not a professor,’ he continued with a wink, ‘I do have thirty years of experience.’

As we were leaving – s’yata d’shmaya my wife said – another one of the rebbes, seeing Shmuel, stopped us, and mentioned that he had been a classmate of the boy with Down’s syndrome from years back. To the questions which reflected the principal’s main concerns – ‘will he be disruptive?’; ‘will he be accepted by the other boys?’; ‘will he want to participate in class? – the rebbe answered with reassurance. As Tolstoy might put it, no two children are alike, and no two children with Down’s syndrome are alike, but the rebbe only affirmed what we had told the principal – his classmate had been full of joy, eager to participate and imitiate, not at all disruptive. Shmuel’s affability and good cheer – traits which prompt my wife to wonder what I would be like with an extra chromosome – and his cognitive high-functioning, we explained eagerly to the principal, are what brought us to mainstreaming and his neighborhood school in the first place.

A few days passed. I left some messages at the school, but my calls were not returned. When I finally reached the principal, he suggested I speak to someone else in the school -now a fourth person – who I was told would make the ‘final decision.’ It didn’t sound good; so I pressed the principal instead.

‘It’s a very difficult decision…’ His voice trailed off. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way Rav Kolbrener, and please don’t be insulted….’

Calling me rabbi, I thought to myself, was a bad sign.

‘It’s a matter,’ he hesitated, ‘of considering the mossad.’ It was now not just an elementary school, but an institute.

‘What about the mossad?’, I asked.

‘Its reputation.’

I was silent.

‘We have to think of what other parents will say when they see a child like Shmuel in the class with their normal children. How will we be able to justify it to them? They also have to be respected. It simply will not be good for the reputation of the school.’

I wasn’t insulted, in fact I had heard versions of this before.

There was an undoubtable hint of frustration in his voice – likely I thought that those from whom he had sought advice had a different view of the ‘mossad,’ and were forcing him to do something against his better judgment. So I responded: ‘we both know that what you are now advocating – acquiescing to close-mindeded and sanctioning fear of difference – is against our hashgafa, indeed I continued, any Torah perspective.’ ‘It’s a chilul hashem,’ I continued, ‘a desecration of G-d’s name, to send us away to schools outside of our community – to other schools, and other communities – when you yourself acknowledged that Shmuel could find a place in one of your classrooms.’

‘And as far as ordinary children,’ I went on, filling the silence, ‘we are not children of Esau who find perfection in this world, but the b’nei Yisrael, children of Israel, of Jacob, who acknowledge that this world is a place of lack and imperfection.’ ‘I am a pragmatist,’ I continued: ‘if Shmuel is disruptive or can’t be integrated into the class room, then we will take him out immediately, but if the experience of our home is true, if that of our building is true, of his nursery school are true, then Shmuel’s presence will be a blessing for him, and for all who have the chance to be around him.’

‘Rav Kolbrener’ – again the wrong title – ‘what you say is all emes l’emiso’ – the undeniable truth, ‘k’dosh k’doshim,’ the holy of the holies, but, and I could almost see and feel his shoulders shrugging, ‘we live in ‘olam ha sheker – a world of lies.

Here it was – the olam ha’sheker excuse! I had heard people exclaim ‘olam ha’sheker’ as an expression of frustration; this was the first time I heard it as an explicit excuse. Using the olam ha’sheker excuse, not as a form of self-consolation, but justification for doing the wrong thing, turns Torah into something theoretical – ‘we can’t actually live by the words of Torah!’ So Torah ceases to be a manual for life – a handbook for tikkun olam – the redemption of the world, but an ideal to which we aspire when not in conflict with our prejudices and fears. The principal couldn’t help being honest: so he acknowledged that my words were true, even holy, but from the olam ha’sheker perspective, such truth and holiness don’t have a place in the world. So Judaism transforms into a religion of ideals only. How often is such an excuse – even if not explicitly uttered – used as a means of justifying our laziness, self-interest or even corruption?

Traditions in the West in literature, philosophy and theology – from Homer to Plato to the apostle Paul – separate the ideal, take it out of the world. But Judaism – and this was one of the reasons that I started, years ago, to begin to split my time between the library and the beit midrash – transforms the real into the ideal, elevating the world. Judaism offers the promise of a learning which is not simply theoretical – those earnest discussions I used to have in the seminar room in graduate school – but a learning leading to action and tikkun olam.

Or perhaps this is naive? too idealistic?

First published here

27 comments on “Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem: the Olam Ha’Sheker Excuse

  1. Here in Far Rockaway, there initially was only one girls’ school, Torah Academy for Girls (TAG), and one boys’ school, Darchei Torah. Both schools felt an “achrayus” (responsibility) to educate all of the frum children in Far Rockaway. Even though there are now other yeshivos, plus parents theoretically could drive forty minutes to get to schools in Queens or Brooklyn, both TAG and Darchai developed excellent programs for challenged Far Rockaway children. Significantly, as these are community schools, high achieving children also attend, without any stigma from the inclusion of kids with learning problems. I have found that schools which serve particular Chassidic groups also have this mentality; i.e., the Gerrer girls’ school feels a responsibility to educate all Gerrer Chassidic girls, from challenged to brilliant. Since you are unfortunately not part of such a community, I would suggest reaching out to other DS parents to find out where their children attend school, and which programs are better than others. The Internet makes this kind of social networking a lot easier than it was even a decade ago.

  2. I think here is an example of an alternate viewpoint which finds some areas which need improvement within the frum community. Reading this would not constituter reading a media outlet which is hostile to frum Jusdaism; yet another thread calls into question the desire to seek news and viewpoints from alternate sources.

    Just wanted to mention this as one more possible take on that issue.

    I wish the best to this post’s author, and a yasher koach on mentioning this important set of concerns and issue.

  3. Its stuff like this that causes the community to loose good people in large numbers. If you treat people badly enough sooner or later they will leave. I wonder if the current leadership understands this, or that people are being treated badly.

  4. Frum idealism should not be only a BT dream. In fact, the only way it will ever succeed is if we get a few, well established frummies on the bandwagons… and let them lead.

  5. My son, who is Dsylexic, has been messed about by “well meaning” rebbes and staff at his primary school to the point where at age 11 he hates everthing having to do with school ! However, in the same classroom sits a child with downs syndrome who happens to be the grandchild of a member of the school administration. Just to show that when it is important enough and you have the right name, all doors are opened.

    When I was a “young” BT in Yeshiva we used to talk about BT’s helping to “wake up” the frum world and create a bit of a “revolution.” To show the Frum world that we can be idealistic and not rely on the “olam HaSheker” excuse ! I think the need for this is only getting greater by the day.

  6. Most yeshivahs are already in permanent debt, even though they have teachers who have not been paid for months.

    Fundraising is very very difficult, and donors do not always make their donation decisions based on logic that we would agree with.

    It is easy to bash the principal of the yeshivah, but if YOU were the principal you might see things differently.

  7. As long as they can rationalize that some better-suited school somewhere will pick up the slack, these types of administrators will not step up and do the right thing.

  8. The identifying traits of the children of Avraham Avinu are Rachmanim (merciful) Bayshonim (which I liberally translate as not shrill, toned down) and Gomlei Chasadim (doers of Chesed). Obviously, those who refuse to educate children and ease the burden and pain that their families bear have none of the above traits, proving that they cannot be considered among the children of Avraham.

    Why would I want my child to attend the same school as their children. I prefer an all-Jewish clientele….

  9. Our “communities” can lack the essential element of a community, which is concern and responsibility for all its members. What we can have instead are loose conglomerations of individuals, families, and institutions fending for themselves. As separate entities, they can make their mission statements whatever they want them to be, sounding noble but limited to what they want to do within their comfort zone. This is a manifestation of physical and spiritual golus (exile) and can exist anywhere today.

  10. R. Kolbrenner, I understand the point of this essay, but as a practical matter I hope you’re not limiting yourselves to only Chareidi schools for Shmuel.

    We all have a visceral and understandable desire to educate our children in an environment the closely matches our ideals. However, with this population that can just not be the top priority.

    My wife and I worked at camp HASC many years ago. Though it was a co-ed camp (and is still) there were numerous campers from very chareidi, even meyuchusdik, homes. These families understood the priorities.

  11. Yes, Gary, I agree that having a special needs child in a classroom should enhance the reputation of a school, and the experience of students – and it has happened in our experience, as I’ve written about in my blog http://bit.ly/1egAkM.

    But sadly, this is not always the case. In Israel, it’s not an isolated problem, but endemic to our community – where charedi schools have no ‘interest’ to mainstream. There may well be a non-vocal majority who find this distasteful, but the status quo rules.
    So I would say to you Mendy, let’s not fight what our instincts tell us – identifitying with the principal is only to help perpetuate a system based upon values that go against the Torah.

    It’s not only an expression of expressing pain (though thanks for listening), but of pragmatism. What do we do when Torah institutions fail to reflect Torah values?

  12. Unfortunately, all too many educational institutions are either insenstive , hide behind a variety of ugly rationales such as those quoted by R Kolbrenner or are only willing to shep naches when and if parents of special needs kids literally work and sweat to establish and do their own fund raising for such programs.

  13. The school is worried that there reputation will suffer if they accept a “special needs” child? I would think that accepting your child would ENHANCE the school’s reputation!

  14. I wish I wasn’t so shocked. I wish this essay had a happy post script. I wish that my love of Torah was lived by those who seem to “have the power.” I am saddened, disillusioned, and disappointed. Where are our Rabbeim? I am so sorry for the disconnect between emes and l’maaser…I pray that HaShem guides you and Shmuel to a place of wonderful and loving chinuch…

  15. My personal feelings are that the (unfortunately) quiet majority do not object to having special needs kids in the classroom. On the contrary, they appreciate having their children exposed to apecial children. Two of my girls (who attend a top, regular chareidi BY type school) had girls with shadows in the classroom and it gave them a greater appreciation of their own capabilities.

    Unfortunately, it is the vocal few who usually set the agenda in most schools. The only advice I have is for the Kolbrenners (or better, a good friend and ally) to try to involve the quieter parents to pressure the administration by telling that they don’t want their children to get the message that Klal Yisroel is only meant for Metzuyanim and anyone less is not considered a child of Hashem. Because that is the message they will get.

    And, mny children have only gained by attending a school that imparts an inclusive message. In fact, my older daughter now volunteers in a respite program. She brings home a very special needs child each Sunday afternoon and all my younger ones play with him and enjoy him. What greater nachas can a parent have??

    Hatzlacha Rabba to you. May Hashem continue to grant you the Koach to continue doing the best for your child (and all your children).

  16. Wow! How incredibly timely. We are going through something similar, though not as severe, right now with our DS son, Yisrael Simcha. He’s 22 months old and will be aging out of a wonderful once a week program at Shalva in July. As much as my wife would like to keep him home another year she knows that the best thing for him is to have the socialization and structure of a Maon (daycare center) for at least a few hours a day.

    We were approached nearly a year ago by a new local Maon to consider sending Yisrael there. They marketed themselves as a Shiluv (integrated) Maon and said they would include a number of DS kids. Once my wife checked it out she felt this would be a very good place for Yisrael. Just last week the social worker from the Maon told my wife that it’s no longer a sure thing that there will be a place for Yisrael. Apparently, the social worker intimated, they don’t want to get a reputation as a DS Maon!

    So now we’re running around trying to find a private gan for him. In the end, we are beginning to realize, a private Gan may be better. There are pros and cons for each.

    I’m sure it will all work out well. It’s just amazing to see this post at this time!

  17. Bill, I hope Hashem provides quickly provides a relief or cure for all the pain you and your wife are experiencing. I’ve gone through similar experiences myself. One Rav asked me to look at it from the school’s point of view.

    What if it was true that it would negatively effect the school’s reputation in a tangible way and that the principal was highly qualified to come to that conclusion? Does the principal have an obligation to do what’s best for the school? Does that obligation exist even if it would negatively effect a child denied entry?

  18. Another challenge is for parents of similarly rejected students to act together as an interest group. Administrations in denial mode like to convince each set of parents that their “problem” is uniquely hard to deal with.

    Parents and students so victimized are often reluctant to go public for fear of social ostracism, reduced chances of shidduchim, and other aspects of community-based repression. Possibly BT’s are better conditioned to buck the system, but, on the other hand, BT’s who lack family networks within the system may also be more vulnerable.

  19. The tendency to reject “other than ideal” students is especially pernicious when:

    1. All Jewish schools in the area do the same thing, or

    2. There is only one Jewish school in the area.

    As long as there are no kehillos to take responsiblity for all the Jewish students and Jewish schools in their zones, the problem identified here will remain hard to solve. Each school is now a separate private business worried about its own bottom line.

  20. After another discouraging morning – at two other schools – the comments above serve as a nice reality check for my wife and I. We almost were at the point where we began to think – after two more condescending lectures from principals – that we are the ones somehow acting inappropriately. Grateful for the reality check and encouraging words.

    But here’s a question: maybe, as bts, we shouldn’t be so apologetic about who we are and once were? I have to admit that I wanted to say to one of the principal with whom we met: ‘we are not used to shouted lectures; we were once secular! we are not used to men waving their pointed fingers in the face of women; we were once secular! we are used to a modicum of derech eretz; we were once secular!’ But I didn’t.

    To return to my question: aren’t we the ones bringing Torah values to the table? What happens when it seems that the institutions that most claim to embody Torah principles are in fact betraying them? Is it time perhaps for bts to more aggressively speak up?

    Just some first thoughts to the responses and some admittedly provocative questions. Again – thanks!

  21. What a heartrending article. I wish you would forward it to the “mossad”.

    In both my sons’ and my daughters’ (very right wing) yeshivos, there are mainstreamed children with similar challenges. It has had wonderful effect on the Middos of their peers, more so than any lecture.

    But the point is not what “effect” it will have on the peers, however positive. The point is what effect a Jewish education will have on a Jewish child, and the answer is obvious. This child is no less than any other.

    Our hearts are in pain with you.

    May Hashem grant you overflowing nachas from your child, and may the right doors open welcomingly very soon.

  22. We’re supposed to proclaim and live by Toras Emes in this very world. From Avraham Avinu onward, our whole goal has been to combat sheker and not to buy into it or be intimidated by it—even when it emanates from within our circles.

  23. “what you say is all emes l’emiso’ – the undeniable truth, ‘k’dosh k’doshim,’ the holy of the holies, but, and I could almost see and feel his shoulders shrugging, ‘we live in ‘olam ha sheker – a world of lies.”

    Rabbeinu — I’m crying. With you. With the Klal. With the fact that you experienced the attempt to pump you up with a kavod’ika title was as a smokescreen for betrayal. DON’T GIVE IN! You are a Rav and so am I and everyone else who knows the emes l’emiso and stubbornly seeks to LIVE it.

    May H’ bless and guide and open our eyes, once and for all, to the sheker of institutionalized Yiddishkeit.

  24. Why don’t you add a forwarding button. I would have loved to send this post out to several people and I hate having to cut and past it.

  25. This has got to be one of the best beyondbt posts of all time and yes you are right Mr. or Rabbi Kolbrenner and that principal is wrong. I’d venture to say that it is that Olam Hasheker perspective that keeps Moshiach from coming.

  26. What a horrible, horrible experience. What a sorry excuse for a principal. You just ran smash into the reality of the sickness in our culture — what will the neighbors think! and how will my son ever be able to get a ‘good’ shidduch if they found out he went to pre-kindergarten with a Downs kid! Your anger is completely justified.

    But I would caution you not to judge Judiasm by the Jews.

    Most peoople don’t get it about what it means to be a good Jew. My mom used to say that, even though she didn’t keep Shabbos or kosher, that she was a good Jew because she was a good person. “Well”, I told her, “Being a good person is a good start, you have to be that first, but there is more to it than that.” In this case, the reverse is going on. While he may be keeping all the laws, he’s not a very good, very admirable, or a very good person. But he’s a “good Jew” they all would agree.

    Except for me, and maybe you?

    The only reason we live in a world of lies is that too few people, and almost none of the people who could make a difference, confront lies and the liars. Again, don’t judge Judiasm by its leaders. Until those esteemed leaders gets some real courage and backbone, its not gonna change.

    I know of two rabbis who have a backbone. Both are outcasts. Both should be held up a examples of what a leader is supposed to be. I hold them in the highest regard because of their commitment to Torah principles as they understand it. But because of their honesty and ethical standards, they are marginalized. Klal Yisroel is greatly diminished because of it.

    There’s a guy in my shule who has been going around to the public schools tryng to get them to have a moment of silence. I disagree very strongly with the idea because, to me, it is getting too close to putting religion into the public schools. We’ve even gone a few rounds over it. But I still respect him, and admire him, because he is doing what he thinks is right and good. It shows what kind of a man and what kind of a Jew he is. I am proud to be able to call him my friend.

    I guess you can only keep looking, perhaps try to find someone with the clout and backbone to force the hypocrites to do what they ought to. You could also try to publicly expose them, but although they deserve it, it probably would backfire. I wish there was something I could do to help you, but I’m a nobody and I live mostly outside of the mainstream. I’ve just got strong opinions and a big mouth, neither of which are assets.

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