Hosting Illegal Yeshiva in his Basement – Response

A couple weeks back, Forward.com posted an op-ed by an Orthodox Jewish father explaining why he is risking a fine by hosting a yeshiva in his basement.  The article can be found here:  https://forward.com/scribe/457121/why-im-risking-a-15-000-fine-by-hosting-a-yeshiva-in-our-basement/.  Comments responding to his post were, to put it mildly, negative and accusatory.  I would like to suggest that we read his account a little more carefully and empathetically.  It provides insight into the pressures and dynamics of the current circumstance in which so many parents find themselves.  It is a very sad article, yet it is good to have it out in the open.  I encourage you to read his article before you read my response.

* * *

It is extremely difficult to raise children, especially during hard times. The author (“Anonymous”) describes experiencing a significant parenting challenge. His response is to accept the offer of a workaround that frees him from having to confront this challenge and that absolves him from the parental responsibility to work at solving it.  Unfortunately, that workaround is both illegal and dangerous.  The school should never have offered him this option.

Rather than judge Anonymous and condemn him as a public health menace, it would be more constructive to analyze the situation that led to his dilemma and to unpack it, with empathy, since he certainly represents thousands of other parents experiencing a similar parenting challenge.   His experience reveals some of the gaps and failures in our communal and educational systems – specifically in supporting and educating parents – that require attention and ought to be addressed.

School-Parent Expectations and Support

Anonymous is not the first person to discover that it is hard to motivate children to daven[1].  Parents and educators struggle with this challenge.  It is the subject of countless parenting seminars, educator conferences, research articles in Jewish education journals, even doctoral dissertations.

In our Orthodox communities, parents are able to mostly offload this responsibility onto schools and camps.  Some of these institutions are more successful than others at tefila[2]  education.  Parents are generally not confronted with our struggles with tefila education.  But once schools closed for the pandemic, many parents like Anonymous had a rude awakening. 

Anonymous tells us that during the months school was closed, his children “had nothing to drive them to get up” on time.  His son “had been neglecting his prayers.”  That is to say, Anonymous expected his 11-year-old son to be motivated and disciplined enough to perform the sort of davening at home – on time – that he was able to do (or that Anonymous imagined he was able to do) at yeshiva.  When his child failed to meet these unrealistic expectations, Anonymous and his wife felt helpless and inadequate.  He contrasts this with the “enormous sense of pride and accomplishment” he had felt back when his son was small and the expectation was “simply repeating a single sentence that he had heard every day since he was born.”

Where did Anonymous acquire these expectations?  How much did the school educate the parents about home davening expectations for one’s children in general? Is it fair to ask teachers to provide realistic guidance and expectations to parents when they, themselves, elicit davening behavior through methods unavailable at home?

This father focused his article on his son, and on davening[3]; but parents have been struggling with various behavioral expectations, both religious and non-religious.   What sort of support did schools provide parents during the months school was closed?  Merely sending home star charts with lists of daily tasks for tracking children’s successes and failures, compliance and non-compliance, is not only woefully insufficient; in many families during the recent shut-downs, it became a source of stress and feelings of inadequacy, a brightly colored rebuke hanging on the refrigerator.

In what ways could the school – and other communal institutions – have tried to help Anonymous to feel proud and accomplished as a parent by providing the requisite skills and guidance? Is the yeshiva inadvertently conveying the message that a full and healthy Judaism isn’t possible for children if they are at home with their parents and not in school?

I ask these rhetorical questions not to criticize but to encourage schools to think about their chinuch[4] partnership with parents in a new way.  But it is not only on schools.  Our communities should be able provide the sort of parenting support and training that goes beyond hiring a speaker to give a 7-part lecture series.  The experience of parents like Anonymous exposes one of the gaps in our communal support[5] for families, upon whom there are so many stresses, even without the extra stress imposed by Covid19. 

“This seven-month layoff has been more than trying for my children,” Anonymous writes.  Based on his article, it has certainly been at least as trying for him and his wife.  Is it possible that the school in the basement exists for their benefit at least as much as for the benefit of their children? 

Remote Learning: Schools and Parents Balancing Risks

Davening was not the only concern Anonymous expressed when contemplating another extended school closing.  Anonymous is not the only parent in New York concerned that his children are falling behind educationally due to school closing or reliance on distance learning during this pandemic.  I assure Anonymous that his children are not the only ones who experienced a pandemic-setback in mood, social skills, and self-regulation as well.  These are indeed serious concerns.

I am not sure what effort his children’s school was making to address these concerns, however, because Anonymous declares that the school rabbis and principals “understand that remote-learning does not work.”  As an educator, I find that statement very troubling, and not least because I have recently heard it elsewhere, bandied about as an axiom.  Remote learning is not ideal as an all-day, long term approach.  Most of us are not that great at it yet.  But there are competent and creative ways to provide effective remote learning, and it is the responsibility of schools to find out about them and prepare themselves to deploy them should it be necessary.  There are technologies that can be used without exposing children to the internet.

Besides, the choice isn’t either 100% remote learning done poorly or stuffing a teacher and 27 kids (above age 10 especially) into an enclosed basement without social distancing or souped-up ventilation.  Masks are good, for sure; but even surgical masks are inadequate protection[6] for this set-up 6.5 hours a day at a time of community spread.  Why did they not at least hold these classes in the back yard, which would reduce risk significantly and be legal, for as long as weather permitted?  There are great personal microphones for teachers, usable with masks.  Why no dividing kids into smaller “pods” to minimize risk?

Let us continue to read carefully, because Anonymous does not seem to have come up with this outrageous plan by himself.  He is thankful to the school for “decid[ing] to set up classrooms in people’s homes,” and for refusing to accept the “edict” of the duly elected governor.

The school has given Anonymous more than a solution to his parenting challenges; they have also provided him a familiar Jewish narrative in which to embed and thus justify his action. We are resisting the evil edict of a Jew-hating tyrant in order to save our children and our religion!  It is easy to slip this on and feel as virtuous as a Maccabi, especially if one is risking substantial financial loss.  This school has unethically placed a michshol[7] before struggling, stressed-out parents.  Will the Board of Directors cover the fine if it is levied? Insurance, legal fees?  Can they absolve him and his wife of guilt feelings if ch”v someone sickens or worse as a result of this stunt? Are they even paying to clean Anonymous’ basement floor? Anonymous doesn’t say; but he is grateful to the school for putting him and his wife in this position.

Meanwhile, the school as an organization has seemingly been too inflexible to rise to the challenge or to productively adapt to changing circumstances.  Why bother to train teachers in new instructional strategies that would make them successful in a situation that school districts across the country are also confronting?  Why bother to work with communal organizations to provide parents with tools and support that would free them of some of their dependency and make them better partners in the chinuch of their children?  Why bother with these when one can simply flout the law (turning otherwise law-abiding parents into calculating, garbage-shlepping scofflaws) and get away with doing exactly what one has always done?

I believe Anonymous truly has been convinced that he is doing what is best for his children’s “spiritual, mental, and physical health.”  No longer is he helpless; now he is “moser nefesh[8]” for his children and his faith.  He is proving to all that, in his words, “our teachings mean more to us than money.”

This mesiras nefesh, however, does not strengthen his family or make them more skillful parents.  It does not push his kehillah[9] to do a better job of stopping the virus’ spread so that schools can open and stay open.  It does not push them to address the stresses of today’s Orthodox families.  It is an escape to a pretend world in which we can imagine ourselves heroic martyrs battling an old, familiar enemy.  It is an indulgence in the fantasy that financial martyrdom is the sufficient and laudable response to whatever problems we face.

As a mechaneches[10] I feel obligated to remind us that there is actually a very real world with very real dangers and challenges, and the Torah places upon us the very real responsibility to face them without flinching and to identify new solutions in accordance with Torah values.  The Neviim[11] were actually very explicit that merely sacrificing huge quantities of expensive property at the Bais Hamikdosh[12] is the easy way out; changing our ways, as individuals and as communities, is the hard work that the Creator values.  To paraphrase them, we ought to be prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable; conducting ourselves with utmost integrity; valuing justice over power; and having the courage to face adversity without turning to the nevi’ei sheker[13] telling us what we wish to hear.  To save lives rather than to risk them.  To take responsibility rather than to shift blame.  To honor our elders rather than put them in danger.  To conduct ourselves honorably rather than draw the ire of public officials upon ourselves.  These are standards to which we should hold ourselves and one another.

Anonymous, by the way, is not the first father to commit an illegal and highly irresponsible action when an opportunity arises to do what he perceives to be in the best interest of his children.  The school unethically used its perceived moral authority to convince him to ignore his conscience.  His choice can be understood, but not justified, and certainly not emulated.  This is all very, very not okay.

[1] Pray (Yiddish)

[2] Prayer

[3] This focus is itself worth exploring.

[4] Education

[5] Imagine if the model of chosson or kallah classes were adapted as parent classes for couples blessed with their first child.  What an additional blessing if it became the norm for first time parents to learn from a non-judgmental teacher about basic principles like a child’s need for attachment, love, security, and structure, especially if that person were available over the years to coach and support them.

[6] Plexiglass does not replace social distancing and is ineffective against aerosolized droplets.

[7] Stumbling block

[8] Self-sacrifice

[9] Community

[10] Jewish educator

[11] Prophets

[12] Temple

[13] False prophets

About the Author
Dr. Shani Bechhofer is an independent Jewish education consultant and researcher in Monsey, NY. In addition to working with schools on strategic leadership, training and coaching principals, evaluating agency and foundation programs, and researching the Bais Yaakov movement, she is a local community advocate for good government and intercultural dialogue in Ramapo, NY.
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