2008 Rachel's Story
Chananya Weissman
August 1, 2008, The Jewish Star

Rachel used to enjoy learning Torah. Her report cards could be rubber-stamped with A’s, and her teachers crowed about her intelligence, enthusiasm, and genuine love for learning.

That all changed around fourth or fifth grade when she began asking too many questions.

Sometimes her teachers provided answers that puzzled her even more. It seemed as if they didn’t really know the answer and were just trying to cover for themselves, or maybe they just wanted to brush away her question. Rachel couldn’t be sure.

Rachel was very inquisitive and contemplative, and by seventh grade her questions became deeper and more persistent. One teacher criticized Rachel for being disrespectful when she observed that an answer to one of her questions didn’t seem to make sense. Other teachers told her outright that she shouldn’t ask so many questions and should just accept what she was being taught. After all, her teachers knew much more than she did.

Her classmates began to taunt Rachel when she asked questions. They would roll their eyes and make disparaging, impatient remarks whenever she asked a question. Her teachers did nothing to discourage this, and their own reactions to Rachel’s questions implicitly encouraged this social pressure.

Rachel began to ask questions less frequently, each time weighing the burning need to know against the hostility she might encounter. She knew that some teachers weren’t worth questioning altogether; she would either receive foolish answers or be insulted. She had even been warned that asking certain questions bordered on heresy, and that in general she didn’t want to gain a reputation for asking too many questions or being “argumentative”. It could hurt her ability to get into a “top” seminary, and ultimately even prevent her from getting shidduchim.

Rachel didn’t understand why some of her teachers seemed to know so little about what they were teaching, or why some teachers seemed constitutionally incapable of admitting they did not know something. What would be so bad if a teacher said, “I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out”? She thought to herself that if she had a student who asked her a difficult question she would try to research the answer with the student. At the very least, she would compliment the student on the question.

As time went on and Rachel’s negative learning experiences outweighed her positive experiences she became sullen and withdrawn in the classroom. She did her work lethargically and her grades began to suffer. Her teachers believed her to be lazy and a problem child. In eighth grade she was switched to the lower class. Rachel’s social life deteriorated as well — not that it was ever great to begin with.

Rachel’s self-esteem plummeted, and she became openly disdainful of some of her teachers. It seemed they weren’t really teaching Torah but pushing an ideology. She heard a great deal of mussar about dressing properly and how important it was for her to marry and essentially become the handmaid of a learning boy — that was in fact the reason for her creation — but the content of what she was being taught seemed to have stagnated on a child’s level as her mind continued to develop. Didn’t anyone seem to notice? And why were her personal dreams and ambitions treated with such disregard?

When it came time to apply for high school Rachel was horrified to learn that none of the schools she thought she might attend were interested in even meeting her. She had a “reputation”, it seemed. She had “issues” that made her a “bad fit” in these institutions. The administrators were afraid of how she might “influence” the other girls.

After much pleading by her parents and some other back-door interventions that Rachel was only peripherally aware of, one mainstream school accepted her on probation. No one made any secret of the fact that the school didn’t really want her. Rachel no longer wished to attend this institution, but her parents told her that she had been given a chance and shouldn’t throw it away.

In tenth grade Rachel threw it away. That’s what some people said, anyway. She was glad to be out of there.

Rachel began to hang out with other disaffected young people, and for the first time in many years felt accepted by others. Her new friends appreciated her intelligence and personality, and they understood how she felt about her “stupid religion” and the “idiots who brainwash people”. They’d been there too. More often than not they were the brilliant ones, the creative ones — though most people thought of them as troublemakers, bums, and lost causes.

Rachel began to experiment with chemicals and boyfriends. She felt exhilarated for short times, but increasingly felt empty and depressed as these lures failed to satisfy the spiritual cravings that were buried deep within her. She contemplated suicide on more than one occasion.

Sometime in her twenties Rachel took a trip to Israel and, through a series of coincidences, became friendly with an observant family. She spent Shabbos with them and actually enjoyed Divrei Torah for the first time in many years. She mustered the courage to ask a question — she had never been so afraid of what might happen — and this led to a discussion that lasted over two hours.

Rachel soon found herself in a seminary for Ba’alei Teshuva and rediscovered her joy for learning. Her questions were welcomed and treated with great seriousness. Never was anyone criticized for asking a question, no matter how offbeat or provocative. On the contrary, her teachers reveled in the challenges and discussions, and claimed that it sharpened their own learning.

Rachel also learned that Judaism was not a dark and forbidding religion after all, but a beautiful way of life. God was not vengeful and always on the lookout for any small excuse to punish someone for all eternity, but loving and benevolent, albeit demanding. Why wasn’t she taught this all along?

Rachel became a success story, a poster child for all that is right and good in the world of Jewish education. Her teachers prided themselves on having saved another soul, and having brought her back “on the derech”. They often spoke of her at fundraising opportunities to demonstrate the urgent need to help “bring more people back”. No one ever stopped to ask if it would be more cost-effective not to lose them in the first place.

Rachel learned a great deal after returning, but it was a couple of years until she learned that she would never be fully accepted or considered as good as those who were “frum from birth”. After all, she had gone “off the derech”, and was therefore perpetually unstable and permanently blemished besides.

Shadchanim treated her with disdain. Some were covert in how they expressed it, but Rachel was well trained in picking up on such things. Even her teachers told her that she had to be “realistic”. She learned that she would only be able to marry someone who shared a low rung on the community ladder: a handicap, a much older bachelor, a divorcee with children, someone with mental problems, or, of course, a fellow Ba’al Teshuva. She had been welcomed back into the community only to learn that, beneath the outward respect and warmth, in essence she was still and would forever be a lesser person and a reject.

Rachel is fictitious. Her story, however, is all too real.

It’s 10 AM. Do you know what your child is being taught?

Rabbi Chananya Weissman is an educator who has seen children become inspired, seen many more drift away, and wonders who is made to suffer more. He can be contacted at admin@endthemadness.org.