When I became a mom at the end of 2008, I was extremely nervous. Aren’t we all? I second-guessed every decision I made, from schedules to diapers to which “Mommy and Me” classes to take.
When my second child was born 17 months later, I was slightly more confident in my abilities, only because kid #1 was still alive—I felt like I was doing alright. When my third was born in late 2013, I found that I actually enjoyed motherhood a lot more, especially at the newborn, infant, and now toddler stage. I am a seasoned pro, and I feel secure in how I raise my babies.
But some things never change. I am still navigating the waters of motherhood with my firstborn. He is, unfortunately, my guinea pig. And can I tell you something? Our religion is failing him. I learned this the hard way, in the Jewish educational system.
You see, my son is a special kid. I know we all say that about our children, but he really is. He learns quickly, and has a fantastic memory, but he’s impulsive and has a speech delay (among other delays). The Jewish school we sent him to requires that we provide a one-on-one aide who’s with him full-time, at our our-of-pocket expense. He was also suspended from his Jewish kindergarten class two times. Yes, you read that correctly. Suspended from KINDERGARTEN.
I am not excusing my son’s behavior; I am not that mom (although I must say that suspension at that young of an age is really quite absurd). In the first suspension case, one of his friends tried to take away something he was using by grabbing it. In response, my son bit him. But this also happened on a day when I went out of town for the first time, and they had a field trip—not a “normal routine” day at all. The second instance, which also happened to be a bite (very unusual for my son), happened when a middle-schooler took his ball away. There weren’t any teachers around at the time, and the aide had just walked out of arms’ reach.
As a mother, I understand that rules are in place for a reason. However, as a mom to three kids, I also understand that what’s good for one is not necessarily appropriate for the others. It is with this sense of compassion that I appealed to the school administration, on behalf of all students, present and future, my own children included: Don’t limit teachable moments by enforcing punishment.
Yes, time-outs or removal from school might work with some children, especially as they age and fully comprehend their actions. However, in early elementary grades, when children are still learning and exploring—with help from their teachers, assistants, and peers—I strongly feel that out of the ordinary events should be teachable moments, not punishable ones.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” Isn’t that the true sense of community? We are all in this together, working as a team to bring up our children, encouraging their uniqueness, and loving every part of themselves.
What message does suspension send to my sweet, yet impulsive, child in this stage of his formative growth? That he’s bad? Unaccepted? Unwelcome? How does this action support the foundation of kehillah—community—or foster the embracement of Jewish values?
I kept in close contact with the assistant director of my children’s school and cried in one of our last conversations. She said to me, “At the end of the day, we’re still a business.” Is that the kind of Jewish values I want to instill in my child? Why was I paying so much to instill yiddishkiet into my children, when they are not taught the true ways of our religion?
I sadly got my answer when my daughter was on the receiving end of physical contact. She was punched in the lip with such force that her skin broke, by a child who I see as someone quite like my son. I didn’t get a phone call from the school. Nor a note. I wouldn’t have even questioned the cut she received, but she told me how she was scared of the boy that hit her. How she was trying to run away. And I know his name, because he terrorizes her every day. That boy didn’t have the behavioral aide that we are required to provide (we were forced to sign a contract). He wasn’t forced to take a day off of school—for that, I’m thankful—because his parents’ names are on the shiny pewter plaque of big donors to the school.
When it came time to resign the contract for first grade, we requested financial aid from the school. Sending two children to a private school, plus the cost of a personal companion, is not something that we can afford. However, in the spirit of l’dor va’dor—from generation to generation—we agreed to give back even more to the school when the shadow teacher was no longer a necessity.
We wanted to provide another family that may not have the means an opportunity to receive the Jewish education that we hold close to our hearts. We envisioned giving an opportunity to pass down the traditions and laws of our ancestors.
We were denied.
So my children didn’t go back to the Jewish day school. When I registered them at the public school near our house, and I relayed the details of my son’s challenges, the staff compassionately replied, “Don’t worry. We’re going to take care of him.” And that is what I was looking for all along. Free of charge, and without the common denominator of Judaism.
It has been four months since my kids have changed schools and entered the public school system, and our entire family has felt a part of a community, a feeling that we never had previously. When I met with the assistant principal at the new school, she had only just met my son, yet she reassured me that they could “help him learn.”
Judaism is a religion that holds asking questions in high regard, and this is mine: Have some of us North American Jews assimilated so much into our local culture that we’d trade core values for the “affluence” of mainstream private schools? Based on my experience, I think the answer, sadly, is yes.