Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Youth at Risk and This Week's Torah Portion (Vayero) by Guest Columnist Rubin Danziger

Through the book of Genesis, the narrative focuses first on the ancestors of mankind and then upon the ancestors of the Jewish people. After an initial compelling story, those whose history parted with that of the Jewish people such as Ishmael and Esau fade out with a detailed genealogy that is devoid of personal narrative in the written text.

A particular compelling story in this week's Torah portion is that of Hagar and Yishmael, who was sent away at Sarah's urging by Abraham, as detailed in the following verses. (JPS translation) Bereshis 21:8-20

8 And the child grew, and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport. 10 Wherefore she said unto Abraham: 'Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.' 11 And the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight on account of his son. 12 And God said unto Abraham: 'Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to thee. 13 And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.' 14 And Abraham arose up early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away; and she departed, and strayed in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 15 And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. 16 And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: 'Let me not look upon the death of the child.' And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her: 'What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. 18 Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast by thy hand; for I will make him a great nation.' 19 And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink. 20 And God was with the lad, and he grew; and he dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.

I have always found the emotions and imagery vividly compelling. Even as I accepted the need for sending away Ishmael, I was always haunted by this set of biblical imagery.

As I assumed the responsibilities of fatherhood, my empathy with the suffering of Yishmael and Hagar became almost painful. One day, the doors of a yeshiva closed behind me an one of my children. We left with heavy hearts and a refund check.

I am normally quiet about my "yichus". With a name like Danziger, no one has to know that my mother was Italian and that I converted to Judaism as a young man. But that day I spoke up for my child.

"I went to Catholic school for six years. I was a rebel. I was a non believer. I did everything my child has done and more. I wanted to get thrown out. I didn't believe in their faith and I was drawn to my Jewish ancestors. I could not get them to expel me. It pains me that your school which espouses a far more resonant truth, that is untainted by complicity in the Nazi genocide is more willing to send away a Jewish child of whom fewer remain in the world than the hundreds of millions of Christians. It pains me to make this comparison. I have never compared Jews to Christians in an unfavourable light. But I must do so now."

When I got home that night, away from my wife and children, I cried bitter tears. They were the tears of Hagar, and the waters for which my child's lips were parched was not of the earth but of the Jewish faith. Like Hagar, I took my child through the desert. Thank G-d there were wellsprings that sustained us. My words to the principal that fell upon deaf ears reached heaven and opened human hearts. I did not want my child to be like Leon Trotsky, who was thrown out of Yeshiva and became a communist and hater of Judaism. I did not want an obedience trophy as a child but one whose goodness would continue to sustain the Jewish people.

There are growing numbers of children who are having learning difficulties or emotional problems. Growing numbers are leaving the faith. As in years past, they are sent away with their parents. All of scholarships that had made paying tuition possible dry up when they are sent away. An often crushing burden is added to the load put on the parent's back. Even though they were effectively in a neighbourhood school, there is no neighbourhood school system. I wonder how many parents faced with this problem thought of Hagar travelling with her child through the desert? How many felt that desperation? Who offers these children acceptance and at what cost? How much stress is added to the home when the tuition burden suddenly doubles or triples?

I have been very pointed in omitting the gender of my child or any identifying details in writing of this issue. There are girls who are having problems in school as well as boys. There is a massive disparity between the assistance given them and their families and that given to boys. And there is a stigma placed upon girls who do not fit in.

This problem has been discussed in great detail. Unfortunately it is discussed as gossip. There are all too many who would never discuss a sitcom at their dinner table who will speak of a child out of yeshiva. If such discussion were a prelude to action, it could be a positive thing. But it seldom is. Too many children are shut out of the neighbourhood yeshivas without a feasible alternative. We are welcoming returnees to Judaism through our front door and throwing their children out the back door Then we pat ourselves on the back for putting tefilin on their uncovered heads or coaxing them into accepting shabbos candles. Then we can sleep. There is no politer way to say this. This is not a time for politeness.

Who are we to say which Jews are dispensable ? Which Jew can we do without? We condemn those who advocate euthanasia, those who pull feeding tubes out of the sick and dying elderly. But we are doing the same thing spiritually to children who do not fit into our mainstream yeshivas.

If you are here to read a case history, then read no further. If you want to figure out who wrote this and whose father he is then this is the wrong article for you. Perhaps in that case I could interest you in a copy of the National Enquirer. The sadness and desperation of families with children out of yeshiva has been discussed enough, in your papers and at your table, Far too little has been done.

I do not believe that Jewish observance is dispensable. I believe every Jew needs Torah and every gentile needs every Jew to have Torah. I believe we hurt those who remain within Jewish observance by sending children away.

The descendants of Yishmael tormented the Jewish people over the generations leading to the present day. Hagar repented, according to our rabbis. Yishmael remains lost. It is said that he will return in the times of Moshiach. How isthis instructive to this generation?

We have sent too many mothers and children into the spiritual desert with little to sustain them. This indifference to the stranger is not befitting Jewish character. Sodom,which also appears in this week's parsha also closed its doors to strangers. We maintain the merciful distinction that our rejection of those who become strangers is not violent. It is a small consolation, yet one that offers some seeds of hope.

It is to me fortuitous that this parsha occurs so early in the school year, so soon after the high holidays, at a time when school adjustment problems start to become apparent.

There is a Jewish belief that everything we see is for a reason. If we see a person in need, it is because we can be a part of the solution.

I have spoken forcefully and bluntly because I believe that there is a resevoir of decency that I can tap in dealing with this problem. These are boys and girls whose souls have been entrusted to us. We must not turn them away. If they must learn apart from the mainstream, their families should not be saddled with a crushing tuition burden. Funding can be common even if learning is separate.

Abraham Fried sang a famous song , "No Jew Will Be Left Behind". It is about the time of Moshiach. It is a joyous image in troubled times In the mean time, Jews are being left behind. It is our collective choice by default. How sad. Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this article and thank you to the author. Just to underscore your point: I know some people who started a school for girls who were not succeeding in the mainstream. They have a wonderful approach to chinuch and to helping the girls understand the beauty of Judaism without ramming it down their throats. They had a tremendous response and had 40 girls enrolled, with a waiting list. Due to lack of funds they had to downsize, not accepting as many girls as originally planned. And now no other schools are willing to accept the girls that had enrolled but didn't go back. The fact that this school could not increase in size means the frum community cannot uphold EVEN ONE SINGLE SCHOOL for a population that now comprises a relatively large percentage of our youth.WE CANNOT SUPPORT EVEN ONE??????? Why aren't there 10 such schools? It is too sad for words.