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Yeshiva Education: Where Do We Go From Here?
By Feiga Rochel Feldman
What effect does expelling a student from school have on the young man's or woman's future? This is a question all yeshiva principals must ask themselves.
The reason a school administrator, a principal, or a head or school chooses to expel a student may range from a student getting caught cheating on a test, to drinking on school grounds, to engaging in a verbal or physical altercation with another student. The specific reason reflects what is considered egregious behavior by the person in charge. If Dovid gets expelled for cheating on a test, and this may be the second time or even the first, it is a reflection of the values of the principal. In one yeshiva, a student may get a zero on the text, in another he may have to take a make-up, and in the extreme case, in another he may get expelled.
Obviously, expulsion does not reinforce the student's commitment to Judaism; as a matter of fact, the effect is usually quite the opposite. Living within the community, the consequences of expulsion from a yeshiva high school can be seen by any parent who pays attention. Personally, we have seen observant, Jewish boys, simply toss their religion to the curb because they identify their having to leave yeshiva high school with the injustice of the religion itself.
Cheating is definitely not a strong enough reason for permanently expelling a student.. We need to teach our children right from wrong, but encouraging them to find an alternative society by rejecting them from their schools is not the appropriate way. Teen-agers are strongly influenced by their peers and once out of the yeshiva, many become angry at the expulsion, take umbrage, and begin to socialize with an undesirable crowd. Most of the boys in our neighborhood, who were expelled for different reasons, did not stay observant.
Talking with the guilty individual, perhaps suspending him or her for one or two days and assigning an extra academic project is sufficient. Some might say that this is minimal punishment, but if a person takes the time to evaluate the consequences for the child, this is adequate. A lesson needs to be taught with regard to moral behavior, but the adult in charge has to have future vision. Expelling such a student is a terrible error. Even worse is when the head of school deems it appropriate to place a permanent "black mark" on the student's record by informing all other yeshivot or schools including colleges that this student cheated (maybe even just once) on a high school exam.
The real life incident that comes to mind is the story of one student who ratted on four other boys; he claimed he had seen the others take money from the box that held the lunch money. There was no proof, just what the "informer" said. Well, the head of school went ballistic and decided the four accused boys needed to understand what stealing "really meant." He decided the correct punishment was to mar their permanent records, among other things. He then concluded (without evidence) the four boys must have been taking money from other sources in the school, which was not true. The head master was convinced of the amount of money that was taken, also without proof. It did not matter. It was his school. He was unmovable because he had decided this was the way to deal with the situation and nothing could change his mind.
There are times when some of the teachers and rabbis in the school will speak up on behalf of an otherwise good boy who may have engaged in what may later in life be termed a teenage prank, but only up to a point. Most teachers be they of secular subject or Jewish subject will not challenge the decision. They may feel too much confrontation will put their jobs on the line. Decisions of such consequence should not be left up to one individual. Teachers and rabbis usually know students better than the administration because of the direct, daily contact they have. Before expulsion, the heads of schools need to discuss the issues with the teachers and decide as a group what to do. Unfortunately, sometimes the Rosh Hayeshiva rules with an iron hand and the teachers will not speak up for the boys or girls to the degree they should because of the aforementioned reason.
Interestingly enough, there are halachic (interpretation of the laws ) issues with the action of expelling a student from school. Many rabbis do not want to casually discuss this issue as a general principle, yet, research shows that expelling a student is often likened to capital punishment. There is the story about the dean of a yeshiva who came to the famed sage, the Chazon Ish to ask if a boy should be expelled after he was caught stealing. Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, the Chazon Ish, explained that given the misdeed the boy committed, he was not (deserving of the death penalty and so, he should definitely not be expelled.
Expulsion is equated with death, the death of a young Jewish teenager's love of religion and observance. In the Mishnah, in Tractate Sanhedrin, we learn that he who saves a single life, is comparabale to saving the entire world. Greater thought needs to be given to the following phrase about he who destroys a single life. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein feels that very careful deliberation must be given before expelling a student as depriving a child from his education is comparable to a capitol offense. It is strongly advised that before expulsion, careful attention must be given to who the future friends of the child will be if taken out of his Jewish environment. And on it goes. One of the main purposes, if not the main purpose, of a yeshiva education is to lead students in the path of a moral and ethical life while fulfilling responsibilities to G-d, their families, friends, and community.
The egos of heads of schools tend to be over inflated. They make decisions and only consider the immediate outcomes. They worry over their images and the images to the outside world of their respective institutions. When a yeshiva high school expels students for possession of drugs, or any deemed inappropriate behavior, the news spreads from the community to the Internet via sites frequented by the teenagers. The next year when potential students visit the high schools with their parents, the opening session given by the Principals emphasizes what will not be tolerated in his yeshiva. The emphasis always reflects the latest "scandal' of the other local yeshivas of which the community is already aware.
The heads of schools need to worry more about the long term effect on the life of an expelled student. Asking for forgiveness, months later is just a way to assuage their guilt. The student's entire life and future is often altered. We are personally familiar with a number of students who have been expelled from yeshivot for different reasons. Not one of them has remained committed. Almost all of them furthered their educations in public venues. They either transferred to a public high school or opted for early admission to the local community college. The one or two who went to another yeshiva did so as a result of parental pressure; even they drifted away from observance. The boys and girls angered by what they considered a personal injustice are influenced by their new secular environment, including drugs, unfortunately. This is not to say the drug culture has not integrated the yeshiva environment, but it has to a significantly less degree. We cannot forget nor forgive those administrators who do not even ask for forgiveness. They are the ones who think they know everything and are always right in their decisions.
It is imperative we value our children and their futures more than the reputation of any individual institution. The heads of the Jewish educational institutions need to come down from their high horses and treat all the children equally, make sure all the teachers do likewise and give much more thought to the future of the children they consider renegades. Expelling a child from a yeshiva needs extraordinarily careful consideration. An entire life is often affected and this should be no quick decision. The egos of the heads of the schools must be put aside or their consciences should forever be guilty.
from the August 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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