Professor Yitzchak Levine writes here about a disturbing encounter at this year’s Torah Umesorah convention:
After Rav Levin had made his remarks about the 5 boys from non-religious homes who had become exceptional Torah personalities, I turned to the person sitting next to me and said, "You realize, I am sure, that today these 5 boys could not get into most of the yeshivas in Brooklyn." He replied, "It was a different tekufah [era] then. We are no longer concerned with parents who send their kids to public school. If someone wants to start a yeshiva for public school kids, then let him. It was a different tekufah."
Unfortunately, מעשה שהיה כך היה, several years ago a young man from my shul left his yeshiva high school in mid-year for health reasons, and attended public school for a matter of days until his family could find an appropriate yeshiva for him. The Brooklyn yeshiva they eventually found was willing to take him, but only if he would first attend another yeshiva, even for just a couple of weeks. Why? Because they didn’t want the parents of his future classmates worry about this child's public school influence. [Student-laundering - a logical extension of money-laundering…]
I was livid, of course, as were the poskim I called to weigh in. But the yeshiva pointed to the parent body, arguing that enrollment competition was intense, and that they needed to meet parent demands.
I’m glad to say that the student went elsewhere. I was happy to see him a yeshiva where they cared more for the welfare of each bochur than the welfare of their bottom line.
That said, I think this issue requires greater examination, because I believe these parents and yeshivot are not entirely in the wrong. We are obligated to provide our children with the strongest possible Jewish education, not just in curriculum but also in environmental values. After all, the Gemara, Rambam, Shulchan Aruch and many others discuss the problem of bad peer influences on children in yeshiva.
We are supposed to aim as high as possible for our children: Rav Herschel Schachter has pointed out that the Shulchan Aruch says one should not hire a nursemaid who eats treif. Why? Because the gemara (Sotah 12b) says that Moshe Rabbeinu couldn’t nurse from a woman who had eaten treif, since he was going to speak with the Shechinah. The Shulchan Aruch is warning us that in case our children might be suited to become Moshe Rabbeinu, we should choose the right nursemaid!
So on that basis, we could argue that parents are correct to be extreme in their demands for their children’s peer environment.
Then why was I livid about the yeshiva which wanted to run a student-laundering operation before taking my congregant?
Because it's not about aiming high; it's about the definition of "aiming high" and what that requires. These parents and yeshivot are assuming that exposure to students of a certain background will harm their children, will detract from their education, will weaken their emunah, will make them vulnerable to who-knows-what. It’s the “lock the door” school of parenting, taking what appears to be the easy way out to raising Torah youth.
I can’t agree with that approach. I don’t think that locking everything out produces stronger children; if anything, it produces children who lack self-control - all decisions are made on their behalf. It produces children who lack self-awareness - they live their most impressionable years in a homogeneous environment, never really becoming aware that there are others who see the world differently.
My children, here in Allentown, go to a day school which is 60%-70% non-Shomer Shabbat. I must acknowledge that this presents great challenges, and I’m never entirely sure that this is a good derech for them. It may be that the Allentown approach is one extreme, at the opposite end of the Brooklyn-cited extreme which locks out the “outside” entirely.
I look at the goals of each side, and this is what I see:
In the Brooklyn model’s version of success, the kids grow up without experience making decisions and value judgments for themselves. And all the kids who ever attended public school, or come from the wrong type of home, are left to their own devices.
In the Allentown model’s version of success, the kids grow up with an awareness of right and wrong and the ability to choose between them, without having others make the choice on their behalf. And the kids who attended public schools are welcomed into the yeshiva system, and offered the opportunity to learn as well.
And that, to me, is a major goal of religious education.