Today is Day 6 of 31 for 21, a blogging effort to raise awareness for Trisomy 21.
After my last post, some of you may be wondering why my boys are in the school they’re in and not the same school as their peers. Initially I did this to ease the acclimation for our then fourth grader, since the administration of the school he went to (Amichai) was much more flexible and understanding toward new immigrants than the cheder, who expect boys to very quickly perform like kids who have lived in Israel all their lives. They also provided tutoring for new immigrants to help them learn the language. Then as time went on last year, I started to think that Amichai could be a good option for all of our boys and registered ds6 there for first grade. It has so many advantages and is technically a better fit for Americans than the cheder – the main thing that was missing was a strong peer group from boys in the community. At that point I decided I was willing to be the pioneer and send my boys here and trusted that others moving here would realize it was a valid option. All it would have taken was one or two other families to do the same to have made Amichai a viable educational option to mainstream families. But no one else made this choice, and it became obvious to me that my kids were going to pay the price by being socially isolated if I left them there.
That’s the cliff notes version of a very involved issue. A week and a half into this school year (ie a month ago), I made the decision to transfer them to the local Talmud Torah for social reasons. This was prior to my boys experiencing any social negativity, but it became clear to me that there’s no way to be part of the charedi community and to make visible choices that are different than what everyone else does. If we hadn’t had so many other things to deal with, I would taken care of this during the summer but I was busy trying to keep my head above water with a new baby and doctor visits and nursing…and I didn’t have any head space to think about it.
I didn’t anticipate having much of an issue with the transfer. Why not? 1) Firstly, it was the very beginning of the school year, not weeks into it. The time before the holidays is always a time of irregularity in all schools. Studies in earnest don’t start until after Sukkos vacation. 2) We’re part of the community and they know our family. We have an eighth grader at the cheder who is an excellent student and has made a great transition. We have two more boys in their gan system. They knew ds6 since he was in their kindergarten last year and was one of the most advanced kids in his class despite being a native English speaker. There are plenty of people who could vouch for us. 3) Last year, I had a conversation with the principal before registering ds (then 9) at Amichai, to find out if there was any transfer policy that would cause an issue for him at a later date. I explained that Amichai had support services for new olim that I thought it would make his transition to life in Israel easier and my plan was to transfer him to the cheder after a year or two, when he was acclimated. The principal said he understood that and there shouldn’t be any problem. I wouldn’t have made this school choice without this assurance in advance.
But now that conversation has been forgotten. When I called the principal, I was told that they don’t take boys from Amichai. He told me my boys will be behind (remember, ds6 had only been in this school for eight days a this point) and it’s too complicated and it’s impossible. I’m not going to go into the specifics of what was said, but I finally told the principal that they sounded like excuses and asked what was really going on.
One reason I haven’t written about this because it’s not pretty. Everyone involved is a good person with good intentions. But it’s a political issue and what is best for my kids isn’t part of the equation.
Some of you may say I need to find insiders to help me get my kids in. We’ve tried that from several angles. One friend is a peer of the decision makers and got the inside scoop on why this is being done, because we seem like the least likely American family for this to happen to and it doesn’t make sense to anyone. He was very, very upset about this decision as well as the reasons and told them what they were doing to us was terribly wrong. I had guessed about what was going on from some veiled hints and when I heard the insider’s version it wasn’t a shock to me, it confirmed what I thought.
I spent way too long going over and over in my mind what to do. Who to contact, how to approach them, was it a mistake to want them in a school that was taking this position, should I send them to a school in a different city instead, should I leave them where they are, should I homeschool them, what would I do with ds5 when he goes into first grade next year, what would we do if our boys were disenfranchised from the community, is the charedi community where we want to affiliate, etc, etc, etc. My mind just kept going over and over all the different variations of possible problems and solutions.
We had a meeting about this issue right after Yom Kippur with the chief rabbi of the city, who generally stays out of these situations. Right now we’re in a waiting place. After lots of efforts and intervention, we were told not right now and to be in touch with them again. So after Sukkos we’ll give them a call once more. I have a lot of ambivalence about this situation and regardless of how it all plays out, will probably continue to feel some ambivalence.
The second big reason I didn’t want to post about this is that I know there will be some people who think we deserved this, that we were out of touch for sending our kids to a different school to start with, that there must be something wrong with our family if the school doesn’t want to accept our kids, that we don’t understand charedi society….it’s been unpleasant enough to deal with all of this without these kinds of presumptions and I can’t explain myself more without saying something that will negatively reflect on others. Yes, I was optimistic about taking a different path than what was typical and thought we could bridge it, but a year ago the emotional and religious climate of the community was different than it is now – and I still believe that was a reasonable belief then.
I do want to share that one thing that was very recently decided – this isn’t public yet but I told the chief rabbi that I felt a responsibility to tell people about this. More people learn about the charedi community here from my blog than anywhere else, and it’s not fair if people come here with expectations of inclusion that won’t be actualized. The cheder will no longer be accepting families without looking at them very closely. They have said they don’t want to take Americans anymore, but this isn’t quite accurate. I believe they’ll take families who they think are a good fit but my guess (and please realize this isn’t what they’re saying, but me reading between the lines) is that the families of most olim and baalei teshuva or anyone who doesn’t quite walk the mainstream charedi line are likely to be excluded. This is a definite shift from how it’s been until now.
So that’s the short of a long situation. It’s ironic to me that I agonized for countless hours for the last year over the decision to send the boys to the cheder, and I breathed a sigh of relief when I finally decided to make the switch, thinking I would finally have peace of mind about a difficult choice. Now this situation has me back and forth in my mind again, and what I’m trying to do is shut off my thinking about this and just wait to see what will happen. This isn’t easy for me at all because it’s not my way of doing things. So now I’m getting a chance to develop this aspect of my character.