An acquaintance accosted me recently. "Whatever happened to ahavas Yisrael?" he wanted to know. While I sometimes doff my defender-of-the-faithful hat at the gym, I assumed he was talking about Emmanuel and dutifully trotted out all my proofs that no ethnic discrimination was involved. Though Emmanuel was -- as I had guessed -- the impetus for his question, the issue he raised was far larger than Emmanuel.
"When I grew up in Detroit," Max told me, "there were barely enough kids from shomer Shabbos families to support one day school. We all went to school together. I remember Rabbi Avrohom Abba Freedman, a devoted disciple of Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, going from bed to bed in hospitals asking people if they were Jewish. If they were, he would beg them to send their children to Bais Yehudah. Many important talmidei chachamim from that era came from non-shomer Shabbos homes."
As the frum community has grown, schools have become more and more selective. The emphasis today is on refining the criteria for exclusion, not bringing in as many Jewish children as possible. Rav Aharon Leib Steinman has quipped that Avrohom Avinu would not be accepted in our schools today because of his father, but Yishmael and Esav would be. Much has changed from the 40s and '50s. The average non-frum student of those days was more innocent than many students from Orthodox homes today. Schools can no longer simply employ an open-door policy. Internet and handheld devices are game-changers. One child with Internet access can corrupt an entire class.
(Nor is it always in the best interests of children of recent ba'alei teshuva or from weaker backgrounds to be integrated immediately with children from veteran religious families. In such circumstances, the recent ba'alei teshuva will often feel like second-class citizens, just because they are lacking so many basics their peers have absorbed at home.)
But our emphasis on tiny differences goes far beyond protecting our children against the ravages of internet. In both the United States and Israel, many schools look askance at any child whose father is not learning in kollel. Even children of English-speaking kolleleit are persona non grata is some Israeli schools. In a famous clip, a school principal boasts to Rav Steinman that the school employs someone with a special talent for ferreting out those who lack the proper signon (style)." Rav Steinman replies that what the principal calls signon is only ga'avah (conceit).
Community-wide schools for children from a variety of backgrounds have largely gone the way of the dodo bird – at least apart from smaller communities. Some of the reasons are valid; others less so: Like everything connected to chinuch, matters are complicated and the dividing lines thin. But we should at least have our eyes open about what has been lost. Idealism is the first casualty. In former times, children from stronger backgrounds were eager to be a positive influence on the children from weaker backgrounds. They consciously viewed themselves as mashpi'im (sources of influence), and that, in turn, strengthened their own religious identity.
I have been told by the daughters of highly respected rabbis in communities where a more "right-wing" Bais Yaakov opened up that they would not want to go to the new school precisely because they would miss the opportunity to be a positive influence. (The potential benefits for religious identity of defining oneself in juxtaposition to the surroundings is still found today in many children of rabbis in smaller American communities and among Israeli children who grow up in more mixed communities.)
The most common justification for ever more stringent entrance requirements to our educational institutions is the need to protect our children. Certainly no responsible Jewish parent would knowingly expose their child to a host of negative influences. We do not wantonly subject ourselves to tests in order to strengthen ourselves. But it is possible to cripple our children by sheltering them to such a degree that when they are exposed to challenges as adults they will have developed no tools for dealing with those challenges. Healthy bodies develop immunities through controlled exposure to viruses, and there is a spiritual parallel.
Not everyone we meet in life will be pre-selected to think exactly like us, and a school where everyone is so selected risks producing vulnerable products. Part of a Torah chinuch is providing our children with the tools that they will need to confront challenges. Parents of girls from Israeli kollel families living in the utmost simplicity and intent on preparing their daughters for such a life rightly fear that exposure to other girls living at a much higher standard might cause arouse discontent among some of their daughters.
But income differentials have been a fact of life since time immemorial. Better for the school to mitigate the challenges by developing parietal rules – e.g., putting strict limits on what can be served at a birthday party and/or limiting birthday parties to school. But ultimately there is no escape from the necessity of developing in our children a deep appreciation of Chazal's definition of "who is happy."
Another defense of schools limited to students from one chassidic group or who meet a long checklist of criteria is the desire to transmit a particular mesorah. The challenge, however, is finding ways to instill pride in one's own traditions, without becoming contemptuous of everyone else's. Such contempt is a natural by-product, however, when the mesorah can only be transmitted by excluding everyone with a slightly different one.
Homogeneity can also cause the atrophying of a Klal Yisrael consciousness. The less we are exposed to Jews who are different from us, the less aware we become of their existence. And the less aware we are of Jews outside of our narrow circle, the greater the chance that we will not take them into account when making decisions about our conduct.