Guest Columnist: Parents held hostage

Let the schools direct their pupils to the source, and teach them to decode the words of the great.

By ESTHER LAPIAN
February 23, 2012 17:05
Students at Beersheba’s Gevim Elementary School.

Elementary school 521. (photo credit: Sherihan Abdel-Rahman)

 
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Among the immigrant groups making aliya, Anglo olim are perceived as “most likely to succeed.” Being mostly an observant population, they arrive in Israel with a basic knowledge of Hebrew. Often with two academic degrees, employable and financially stable, they have a clear idea of the kind of education they want for their children and, being well-educated themselves, they know what a good education looks like. As they begin, however, to face the complexities and intricacies of the Israeli school system, self-assurance begins to fade. Faced with a vast network of schools subject to rules of the Education Ministry, as opposed to a system in which each local school is independent and self-serving, they are quickly overwhelmed.

What is the Education Ministry, anyway? Often parents will find that their Hebrew level, which served them well enough for learning Torah, is inadequate for following a rapid conversation between the principal and the school guidance counselor (the famous and all-powerful yoetzet) or for helping their kids with homework. Everything is different – the buildings, the classrooms and even the pupils themselves.

Frustrated and floundering, immigrants and their children struggle to stay afloat.

In the best of circumstances, relocating and changing schools is a stressful event in the life of a family, fraught with fear of the unknown and apprehension about the unfamiliar. All the more so if the family has moved to a new country – a new continent for that matter – and must deal with a whole new set of educational, social and behavioral axioms. For observant families, these universal concerns are intensified by the need to find a school that is religiously appropriate. Unlike “back home,” where there may have been no more than one or two day schools from which to choose, here, in the densely populated “gated” religious neighborhoods that Anglos are choosing to live in, the choices are many, the competition is great and the decision of which school to choose for one’s child becomes excruciating. The same parent who, back in the US, Canada or England, willingly sent his child to a day school with varied observance or sometimes even a non-observant population, now finds himself searching for the school that is the perfect fit. Feeling intense pressure to pick “the right school,” many parents end up choosing a school that is not the right fit at all, but a school that is more stringent and religiously demanding than they feel comfortable with. Parents then bend themselves out of shape to accommodate the rigorous demands of these schools.

Educational concerns that deeply mattered to parents back home, such as academic excellence, professional, well-educated teachers and a competitive secular curriculum, now take a back seat to finding the school with the most stringent religious standards that will afford them a do-not-pass-go entry into that coveted club of the religious elite.

If this is, in fact, what parents choose, then what is wrong with this picture? WHAT IS troubling is that parents are losing their autonomy and their own voice. With each passing day, religious schools, commonly referred to as torani or yeshivish, sensing parents’ frantic desire for religious acceptance, are exerting increased power over parents’ personal behavior. Certainly, state religious schools will not trail far behind.

Rules and regulations once limited to the confines of the schools are invading the private and sacred space of the home, disempowering the parents and eroding their sense of self-worth. When parents lose their authority and sense of self, they make flawed decisions concerning their children.

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One delighted father* recently called to inform me that his son had been accepted to the favored school on his shortlist. “But,” he added sheepishly, “I am not allowed to wear jeans anymore, even on my day off.” So this ever-lovin’ Abba, who loves to play ball and romp with his kids, will now have to wear a white shirt and black pants when skidding into first base.

A mother I recently worked with, who grew up on a farm surrounded by animals, consulted with the family’s rebbe and decided to take a pet into her home after experiencing a personal tragedy. Not long after, the family received a letter from her children’s principal asking them to remove the cats from their home. When her sons’ teachers began teasing them about their mother’s cats, she removed her sons instead – in mid-year, at no small social and psychological cost to the children.

One new immigrant parent called me distraught after being notified that if her son were to be accepted to the more liberal school she had chosen for him, all of her other children would have to go to the very same school. “How can I send all of my children there?” she protested. “It’s perfect for the two older boys, but wrong for the other three.” The school would not relent. Reluctantly, she enrolled all five children in the same school, feeling that she had no choice.

Another young mother, modest in dress and demeanor, informed me just last week of the latest stricture, startling because again it’s coming from a more moderate school: no denim skirts for mothers.

“I live in denim skirts,” she lamented. “I will have to throw out my entire wardrobe.”

What parents wear, the kind of furniture they have, the pets they own and even the holidays they celebrate are subject to scrutiny. No jeans for mothers and fathers alike. No pets – dogs and cats are verboten, but goldfish are OK. Independence Day celebrations? That’s a tough one. Well, maybe half a day.

Holocaust Remembrance Day? The 10th of Tevet is preferable. Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars? Just recite psalms. So while idealistic parents who gave up peace and prosperity, family and the comforts of a familiar culture, are standing at attention to a piercing siren heard around our world, their children are saying psalms – sitting down.

And severest of all – you want your child in our school? We take all or none. De facto, the school even determines where you send your children to school.

Anglo parents who send their children here for the year are falling into the same trap, choosing prestigious yeshivot for boys and and midrashot for girls with little regard for the religious and psychological effects that some of these schools are having on their children. A series of articles by Yedidya Gorsetman and Gary Rosenblat running in The Jewish Week (January 27 and February 4) is taking on the unnerving subject of emotional abuse in Israeli yeshivot. The series is rattling the complacency of American Jewish parents who surrender control of their children for a year to charismatic rebbes and esteemed schools because they provide a get-frum-quick fix.

In response to the events discussed in these articles, Dr. Michelle Friedman, a Manhattan psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, questions why parents are not more involved in choosing the right psychological environment for the children being sent “thousands of miles away for a year in late adolescence.” She is taken aback by “an unquestioning reverence for what goes on there. It just amazes me,” she states.

It is this same “unquestioning reverence” that is threatening the common sense of parents. In their eagerness for religious acceptance and status, parents are allowing themselves to be held hostage by the schools. Well-meaning parents are relinquishing their personal freedom and their parental voice.

THE JOB of schools is to teach children how to read, write and compute, to excite the mind and stir the imagination. The mandate of religious schools is to teach Torah and make children love their learning.

Conscientious parents are surrendering their ground as role models for their children. In order to create a home that is stable and balanced, parents need authority, recognition and self-esteem. Newly religious parents, less informed and therefore more vulnerable, but courageous in their quest for spiritual truth, are to be affirmed and strengthened, not dismissed and devalued. Schools need to involve parents in the religious education of their children, not to indict them.

Let the schools direct their pupils to the source, and teach them to decode the words of the great. But in the end, it is the parents who are responsible for deciding and designing how they want their home to look and feel.

Olim from Western countries are an idealistic, knowledgeable and value-informed community.

They are at risk, however, of losing that which made them special and “most likely to succeed” in the first place: their inclusiveness, their tolerance of “the other,” their broad-based knowledge, their respect for hard work and accountability, their flexibility, their sense of humor and their enviable self-confidence.

All this will not be passed on to the next generation if parents do not reclaim the responsibility and the authority to make the educational decisions needed for their family, each child according to his or her abilities and nature, Schools need to step back; parents need to step forward and speak up. When parents mistrust their own judgment and lose their sense of self, they become parents “at risk.” Unfortunately, their children may not be far behind.

*All names withheld and situations altered to protect the privacy of the families.

The writer is a teacher educator at Machon Kerem, a college of Jewish studies and humanities. She also directs a private service aimed at helping parents negotiate the complexities of the school system and advocate for their children.

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