Michael J. Salamon

Impairing the future

Welcome to the land of the cognitively impaired.

This is the land where newspapers completely edit out pictures of women, where advertisements for women’s clothing exist only in restricted print form and ads for wigs are not allowed to show the wigs or even “including just locks of hair” in the ad descriptions. It is a land where black duct tape is used to cover up cartoon characters on the front of cereal boxes and where many young men have a hard time believing that women have ankles, let alone knees. Young men and women in this land are not allowed to converse, even in passing, lest they lose access to their education. Because if caught communicating with the opposite sex they will be firmly asked to leave their high schools. As the joke goes – it might lead to mixed dancing.

I have no issue with raising children in a religious lifestyle. But, I do see a problem, almost daily in my practice, when young men and women find themselves cognitively distraught not knowing how to interpret how life works. It is a world where young people have difficulty understanding how to navigate simple communication with others or how-to non-judgmentally view the people around them who live life differently.

The clinical definition of cognitive impairment is applied when a person has trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions affecting their daily lives. It is most often used for individuals suffering from dementia. But it can apply to others. People who have constricted life experiences, who have not learned to traverse their way in the world, who are so constricted in their experiences that they have no understanding of the world around them often cannot easily make life decisions, learn new things or even concentrate on what is happening around them.

Recently an overwhelming number of media sources ran a series of scathing reports about the fact that Yeshiva students in New York are being denied a proper education. Many of the reports focused on a lawsuit initiated by “Young Advocates for Fair Education (Yaffed), a nonprofit committed to improving educational curricula within ultra-Orthodox schools. The suit filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, and N.Y. Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa” charged that the Felder amendment, which denies yeshiva students the right to a basic secular education, is unconstitutional. Naftuli Moster, the Executive Director of Yaffed attended schools where he says he did not receive an appropriate minimal secular education. According to the Yaffed website “In 2012 he founded Yaffed after discovering the gaps in his and his friends’ elementary and high school education.” In his recent interviews Moster pointed out that, despite graduating college and getting an advanced degree, he and many of those he attended Yeshivas with still feel significantly behind educationally and academically. I would add socially and even emotionally behind.

If for no other reason than to make it easier to overcome a sense of confusion in the world and enhance one’s ability to learn, concentrate and make decisions, removing some of the arbitrary restrictions to experiencing and understanding how others live seems imperative. Learning how to read and comprehend is a necessity.

There seems, however, an even greater concern. And while there is no direct measure of causation, there is perhaps a strong correlation worth exploring. It is no accident, after all the stories of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, that there is a movement to allow priests to marry. The reasoning goes that priests with spouses are less likely to target victims for their own selfish sexual needs. This is a mistaken position as we see that abusers exist in all communities and many are “happily” married. But there is no question that the rigid partitioning of young men and women so inflexibly can cause them to act out in a variety of ways, many unhealthy.

Again, I am not suggesting that religious laws be violated, but there are certainly healthy environments that allow for communication that is appropriate. It is also quite healthy for young men to know what a wig is or even what a lock of hair is. Why not? They likely see it at home. And what is so wrong with a cartoon character? Does it always have to be Uncle Moishe? Knowing that a Disney character exists will in no way create a perversion though black duct tape implies that a cartoon is depraved. When youngsters peel back the tape and see the characters they do not spontaneously or impulsively become wild and uncontrolled. They giggle and laugh.

Too many restrictions often yield many deficiencies. Overwhelming, all-encompassing restrictions are more likely to create rebelliousness than any caused by teaching teens and children about the world and how to function in it. Children need to learn resilience not avoidance. There is a price to be paid for partitioning out the world, pretending that it does not exist and not teaching children how to steer their way through it.

About the Author
Dr. Michael Salamon ,a fellow of the American Psychological Association, is an APA Presidential Citation Awardee for his 'transformative work in raising awareness of the prevention and treatment of childhood sexual abuse". He is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York and Netanya, the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications), "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America) and "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."