by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
The Gemara (Masechet Sanhedrin 41a) teaches that approximately forty years before the destruction of the second Temple, the Sanhedrin exiled itself from the Chamber of the Hewn Stone on the Temple Mount so it would no longer adjudicate capital cases. This took place, as Rashi comments, when “murderers proliferated.” With a plethora of homicides, the Sanhedrin stopped executing criminals, something that is counterintuitive. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to increase the number of executions in order to preserve civil society rather than eliminate executions altogether at a time when society was in a state of collapse?
Apparently not. When the deterrent is no longer effective, and society is awash with violence, executions will not atone for crimes, deter future crimes and redeem that society. Other measures need to be taken. The system has to be re-thought from the ground up. It is not logical to keep doing the same thing when that no longer has the desired effect.
On a number of issues facing our community, I have changed my mind (a subtle reminder that I am not impervious to reason or good ideas). It has been building for a while and crystallized in the last few weeks. For some time now, we have heard that many of our youth are in a bad way – drinking, drugs, scandalous behavior – all of which have given rise to problems in schools. There have been conferences and seminars, calls for better education and improved communication. And the schools have generally responded to credible accusations of misconduct with a quick but somewhat selective trigger finger – especially in their use of expulsions. A number of people have reported to me about a party that took place recently in the metropolitan area that attracted a lot of teens and involved mass drinking and revelry, with the parents of the host conveniently out-of-town. (There were probably many other and similar parties of which I am unaware.) And the schools have dutifully responded with the range of disciplines at their disposal, and applied to the great variety of offenders under their dominion in inconsistent ways.
I have always been a law-and-order man; schools should have rules just like life has rules because otherwise there is chaos and anarchy. But I think we have gone too far in these situations to the extent that I have changed my mind. I used to think that it was appropriate for schools to monitor their students’ behavior even off campus and react when there is degenerate behavior, and in an ideal world that would still hold true. But I no longer believe that. Schools should monitor what students do on their premises, and that’s it. And off premises? That is the responsibility of the parents. Remember them?
Parents used to have primary responsibility for parenting, discipline, and instilling values in their children. Sometime in the recent past, parents abdicated that responsibility to the schools, and the results have not been pretty. For example: What parent lets a teenager go to a party of teenagers that has no responsible adult in charge? (I say “responsible” because not all adults are responsible.) You would have to be insane to allow such a thing. My children were trustworthy, but I would never let them as teens go to an unsupervised party. My wife and I would monitor, as best as possible, with whom our children would socialize. That is elementary parenting.
Forget the schools. As far as I am concerned, it’s none of the school’s business what happens off campus. It’s the parents’ business – and parents have to reclaim their role. Indeed, parents have many more disciplinary tools in their arsenal than schools do. They should use them, without fear of losing their children as “buddies.”
That being said, I have reconsidered something else. Schools have to stop these willy-nilly expulsions of students, which have become (1) a marketing tool (“Look at us! We expelled two students for unacceptable behavior. Problem solved. Send your children to us!”), (2) a deterrent that has clearly failed given the widespread misconduct that apparently exists and (3) a tacit admission that schools don’t have the time, interest or energy to deal with every child with a problem. I was slow to come around to this but I have realized that was once unthinkable has become normative, and again, quite selectively applied. A few months ago, I was sent a video a few months ago of Rav Moshe Weinberger (the Rav of Aish Kodesh) pleading with principals to remember their own youth. “What were you like when you were 17?” Why are they pretending that all was so perfect that now we can just dispatch Jewish children into the spiritual wilderness? (Listen to the whole shiur, but especially from minute 38 and on.)
My initial reaction was that it is easy for someone not in chinuch to make such a broad statement and encourage such a policy change – banning expulsions – but as I pondered his comments over the course of a few weeks, I realized that he was correct. Teens are teens, and even if the parameters of “acting out” have widened over the decades since I was a teenager, and mostly in very unsalutary ways, I do not doubt that there are today principals and Roshei Yeshiva, teachers and rabbis, who acted as teens in ways that they chalk up to adolescent hijinks. Yet, they – or their boards – do not want to give today’s children the same break or a compassionate hand. I certainly do not lay all the blame at the feet of the principals or administrators who are often confronted with conflicting pressures that cannot all be resolved to the satisfaction of all.
And then I started my research on my “Great Rabbis of the 20th Century” series and to my astonishment, I determined that these giants dealt with the same issues in a much more tolerant, loving and probably effective way. The Alter of Slabodka, for example, never agreed to expel a student. (Keep in mind that Slabodka had its share of students who desecrated Shabbat, who were Socialists trying to overthrow the Czar, who were students in the yeshiva who even rebelled against the Alter and tried to have him dismissed!) Yet, he would tell the Roshei Yeshiva, that we must look and find some good in them. He kept one student around, he told his colleagues, even though he wasn’t much of a student, because he liked to do favors for people. The Jewish people need that also. And when challenged about particular miscreants, he would cite the verse in Kohelet and the Midrash (Vayikra Raba 27:5) thereon: “‘G-d seeks out the pursued;’ even when the righteous pursue the wicked” G-d takes up the cause of the underdog. So find his good quality and help him. Don’t throw him away.
Similarly, Rav Ovadia Yosef said in an interview a year before he died that it is forbidden to expel a child from yeshiva. I quote: “Even if there is a student who behaves inappropriately, it is still forbidden to throw him out of school and instead we must exercise extreme patience… If we are patient with this student, one day he can grow up to be a talmid chochom. And if we send him away from the yeshiva where will he go? To a secular school and then what will become of him?”
And then he added: “What, are you throwing away a rock? These are precious souls! If you throw a child away, do you know what will be? Are you ready to take responsibility for what might happen?”
And in Rav Yissachar Frand’s Dvar Torah this week (the second essay) he made the same point. If all these great rabbis are addressing this issue, it tells me that there is a problem in Baltimore, Israel, the Five Towns, New Jersey – and everywhere else.
And who are we throwing away? The children of the Avot and Imahot of our people. Like Rambam says (Hilchot Sanhedrin 25:2), even the lowliest among us are “the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, the armies of G-d who took us out of Egypt with a great might and a powerful arm.”
I’m not an extremist. If a child is endangering another child, that is different. But short of that, there are other measures. Educate. Discipline. Suspend. Make a child repeat a class or a grade. (The thought alone of paying an extra year’s tuition will get the parents’ attention.) But don’t throw them away. G-d also took these children out of Egypt.
I would rather send my children to a school that deals with its children with problems than to a school that pretends it doesn’t have any children with problems.
And what should parents, now once again responsible for their children’s behavior, impress upon them? During the years of bondage in Egypt, we never lost our identity, our dignity, our sense of self-respect. We always knew, in the statement of the Mishna (Masechet Shabbat 111a), that “all Israel are the children of kings.” We are all princes and princesses. We never let the Egyptians, those debauched pagans, define us. We endured them, survived them and triumphed over them, and then the sense of inner freedom naturally emerged from us. It cannot be suppressed forever – in any of us.
That is the message for us and for our children. They should realize that all the attractions and allures of the world mean nothing compared to the great privilege of being part of a royal people. They need to be taught that when they act like reprobates, they have first and foremost let themselves down.
There is no greater deterrent to mischief than the realization that some conduct is beneath them and unworthy of them, of who they are supposed to be. When that realization sinks in, we will merit only blessings from all of our children.
For a specific message, I share with you a note sent by two dedicated parents in our shul to their teenage son and daughter, who both accepted it with love.
“As tonight is New Year’s Eve, I understand you both have intentions to go sleep by friends... We need to have a crystal-clear understanding of what our expectations are...
We are very trusting parents and feel we have made our values clear. I don’t think I need to repeat them. However, I recognize that despite your good intentions you might find yourselves in a situation you did not expect. There have been an alarming number of instances where underage drinking has taken place. I think some clear guidelines need to be established. If these guidelines are not 100% clear, or you have ANY questions now or in the future, I expect you to follow the rule of “when in doubt do without...” So here are our basic guidelines...
Under no circumstances may you go to a house (or any public place like a hall or hanging out on a street etc.) where you know in advance there will be alcohol being served. I get that sometimes these things occur and you don’t know about them in advance. So... if you are somewhere and after the fact alcohol is being served then I expect you to leave... We will pay for your Uber, no matter how far it is, if you can’t secure a lift immediately. No lingering, no phone charging, don’t even wait in the house... If it’s cold or raining then put your jacket on and wait at the entrance until your lift gets there. Further, I need a text IMMEDIATELY that you are in this situation and are following these directives and where you are going.
On that note... I pay lots of money every month for you to have WORKING cellphones. You get to enjoy using them pretty unencumbered (meaning I don’t totally dictate what you can and cannot do on it, even though I pay for it...) the quid pro quo (what I get in return) is 100% access to your whereabouts... You are my children and I am responsible to make sure you are safe, so like it or not I need to know where you are. So, if your phone “isn’t working” or is off or you have no service, I need to know where you are going BEFORE you go and WHEN you are going to be home or the next acceptable location. This is BEFORE you leave. There was a time many centuries ago when kids didn’t have cellphones. I know it’s crazy to imagine but it’s true. The above rules worked for thousands of years... your generation has not earned the right to be independent and “aloof” without parental knowledge or consent...
Needless to say, if there are other “inappropriate” things going on, under the same conditions as above, for example smoking, illicit behavior (look it up if you aren’t sure what that means) or even at a home where there is chilul Shabbat etc. the same standards apply. You need to leave!
Finally, there is a curfew EVERY night. Understandably on non-school nights that time can be later. But it is not fair to me who sleeps with a phone next to his ear to go to bed not knowing that all my children are safe and at home at an appropriate hour. I prefer to be the LAST one asleep AFTER all my children are tucked in bed and sleeping. I understand that it may not be realistic all the time. But that needs to be the exception and not the rule. If you aren’t 100% sure how this applies to you then please get it clarified, in writing.
If for half a second you are thinking that these conditions are unfair or unrealistic then I am sorry... Please don’t confuse the fact that we trust you with the fact that we do not want you in an environment where the above goes on. Those are our values and until you are independent (out of the home and supporting yourselves) we make the rules.
1) You may not go anywhere you know inappropriate activities will be taking place.
2) If you are somewhere and this is happening you need to contact us immediately and leave.
3) When you aren’t where we know you will be you need to tell us before you leave where you are going (if your phone isn’t or won’t be available).
4) We expect you home for curfew (if you aren’t sure when that is then it’s a lot earlier then you think...) IF you want to extend your curfew you need to ask BEFORE you even leave the house AND get an answer.
We love you and care about your health and well-being. We have many more years of experience and have had other teenagers before you. I know that “times change”. We have and can be flexible, when appropriate but most of the above are guidelines with zero flexibility.
One more thing. Needless to say, participating in any of these acts themselves isn’t allowed... I am referring to the drinking, smoking and illicit behavior. In those areas we do TRUST you guys and you have not let us down. As you get older we recognize that the peer pressure to “try this” or even hold a drink or cigarette (not even inhaling) will likely occur. These social pressures can be overwhelming. We know it’s out there. We know it’s not isolated. We don’t want to question your judgment or question our trust... It’s VERY hard to always “do the right thing...” but that is why we TRUST you...
Please acknowledge and accept these guidelines.”
All good advice!