It's so simple to be wise.  Just think of something stupid to say, and then don't say it.     Sam Levenson (1911-1980)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Imperfect is Normal

I began a comment responding to a post by Conversations in Klal entitled "We, the Perfect People," then realized that the topic is definitely worth a longer response.

Klal, you're absolutely right.  

After all, the Seven Laws of Noah require all other societies to set up a legal system and solve their interpersonal disputes... and we can't admit we have problems?  The only way to solve them is to accept that it's about time we become a fully normative society, by yanking our problems out into the light, even when they are excruciatingly painful.

This one hit me hard: A couple of years ago I worked with a young boy who was being physically and emotional abused by his Rebbe. His parents knew about it and felt powerless, especially his mother, who felt unable to physically enter the school, a domain of men. Many in the community knew about this Rebbe, including the school administration. Community members were afraid, or unwilling, to do anything about it, either because they subscribe to that horrific "spare the rod" principle (does someone have the Pirkei Avot on that?), or more likely, because they understood that their families would be socially isolated, and their kids would not be accepted into any of the private religious schools, if they were to earn a reputation as whistle-blowers.  

This kid was traumatized. His expressions of fear, sadness and victimhood were overpowering. Throughout his life he had been taught that his Rebbe is the most important person in his life, after his parents. That his Rebbe was to be respected and obeyed. Except that this Rebbe was hitting him, grabbing him by the neck, and yelling unspeakable things -- in the name of G-d and the Torah, so how could he be wrong?   This boy was being abused on so many levels, caught between the supposed "authority" of G-d, and the private hell of his own suffering. 

It was painful to watch. Worse yet, I identified with this boy's feelings of powerlessness, since I, too, felt that my ability to help him was limited. The family did not want me to say a word ("The Rebbe is old, he's near retirement, his wife is ill, he's under a lot of pressure. We don't want our daughters being refused acceptance into good schools because of this."). My workplace, a small, nonprofit development center, was in a bind because they knew they would be censured - i.e. lose their clientele - if they single-handedly took on the educational system. This was way beyond a business consideration; it was an understanding that the center would no longer be able to help many, many children in need if their schools forbade families to use our services.

I continued to work with the boy and his family, offering counseling, strength and support so that they could feel empowered and work through their options. My professional supervisors spoke with people of influence within the community. The family eventually chose to speak to the school about the problematic Rebbe, and to move the child to another school, where he could begin the process of learning to trust a new Rebbe. I felt relief for the child, but a complete lack of satisfaction with the larger picture.

And yet, I believe change is happening... slowly. In Israel, special education is more accepted than ever before. There is an entire branch of the school system, both formal and informal education, dedicated to children with physical, mental and emotional challenges. As Conversations in Klal pointed out, Special ed., and all the various paramedical fields (physical therapy, occupational therapy, expressive therapies, etc. etc) have become some of the most popular fields of study, especially for religious young women of all types.  I don't know about the graduates of Touro and similar places, but I would suspect that the young Israeli graduates, especially the Haredi ones, are working within their communities, since they are most unlikely to work outside of them. (Maybe we have it slightly "easier" in Israel, since we are all living together in this country and we cannot send the problem away as easily. But I'd love to think that it's something a little loftier....)

On a personal note, my Haredi relatives have a child with Down's Syndrome who takes part in public and private family life in every way, and always has. When I asked her mother how her community sees it, her reply was, "The kids in our neighborhood see it all the time now -- she's not the only child with Down's. They know R. is a little slower than the others, but she joins in all their games, and everyone is patient with her." And go figure: two of R's older sisters have already gotten married to very fine young men, and she was dancing out there with the rest of the ladies. (Let's not celebrate yet. This same girl's 12-year-old sister, when hearing that I work with kids with cancer, asked earnestly, in astonishment, But isn't that contagious?!).

So, Klal, I'm sending you some optimism.... You're right: there's not enough change out there, but there's definitely change. Meanwhile, our work is cut out for us, and the question remains:  What are we gonna do about it?

Keep the balance,



ProfK said...

ALN, that little boy was "lucky" because he at least had you working to mitigate the pain and fear he was going through. But my heart goes out to all the little boys and girls who don't have someone like you available, whose families aren't reaching out or can't reach out because they don't know if help is available or whose communities and their institutions pressure them not to reach out.

What is so painful is that for so many there is no hope that things will ever get better. They cannot speak out, so it becomes our responsibility to speak out for them.

First step? For every community there needs to be a printed listing given to each member with all the names, addresses and phone numbers of every group/institution/individual who is a "specialist." It should be alphabetical by "problem," with every possible problem listed. At least then we can see what help might be available, and what help still needs to be supplied.

And welcome to the blogosphere. I hope you enjoy your stay among us.

A Living Nadneyda said...

Hello Klal,

Your idea of listing resources is a good step toward working on the solution. In this particular community, knowledge of resources isn't necessarily the problem, but lack of enough accessible / affordable resources is. Also, often, the willingness to take that step and call on the resources, since this would constitute admission of a problem in the first place.. and back to your post...

Thanks for the welcome. I'm really enjoying reading your posts, and meeting all the other great people and ideas out there...