February 22, 2020

A Challenge to Lethal Rejection

Rejection. It is a strong action that elicits even stronger emotions. The most common reactions are bitterness, depression and anxiety but even worse, rejection destabilizes our innate need to belong. Rejection follows the same pathways in the brain as physical pain and, in extreme cases, feels akin to an emotional and/or social death.

Many families’ initial foray into Jewish community and synagogue life occurs with the acceptance to the early childhood program at their local synagogue or Jewish Community Center. Yet, it is often tougher to get into the preschool they want than it is to get into an Ivy League school, and parents feel pressured to make the cut. Parents are requesting letters of recommendation, calling in favors, touring the temple two or three times so that the administration will get to know them, donating more money, joining several synagogues, and more to secure coveted spots at Jewish preschools. Seriously? It’s just preschool.

In many cities, getting into a preschool has become tantamount to applying to Harvard. Preschool has become big business for synagogues, which often survive off the revenue of their early childhood programs.

Once upon a time, a couple would move into a neighborhood and join the local synagogue of an affiliation that resonated with them. Easy. What changed? Why does it have to be so difficult to enter Jewish communities?  

The rationale that synagogues use for the admission process is often valid on face value:

Yes, preschools must limit the number of students.

Yes, it is important to ensure families remain members into old age so that our communities are self-sustaining and robust.

Yes, some families can be tough to deal with.

Yes, we have lots of diversity now, especially in cities such as Los Angeles.

Yes, some children have identified special needs.

Yes, some families need financial assistance.

These arguments and more could be made for the right to accept or reject students. However, isn’t it time that we all started to practice what we read and teach? Lessons such as:

We are all created b’tzelem elokim, in God’s image. If so, aren’t all applicants worthy? Even the ones with special needs?

Al tifrosh min haztzibur, don’t separate yourself from the community. Unless the synagogue rejects you?

Havei dan kola dam becaph zechut, judge each man favorably. Only if they pay in full?

And who should be choosing whom? Should a preschool director, rabbi or board member choose who gets to enter our communities after a five- or 10-minute interview? Or should our community members, who after much searching and touring, questioning and working, choose us?

There is a famous midrash that says that God didn’t actually choose the Jewish people. That instead, we chose God. We should be allowing our families to choose God as well, and to choose to worship and belong to God within the communities that they feel most connected to. If we don’t, I fear that these same families, stinging with the pain, humiliation, fear and depression of rejection, may end up choosing something else entirely.

Imagine a Jewish community in which no one gets rejected. The only words that families would hear would be “acceptance,” “love” and “welcome!”

“Our school is full but we will call you if a space opens up.” This would no longer be a personal rejection. Instead, they are messages of acceptance and inclusion, with the hope that a space will open up in one of the schools. The synagogue would be welcoming, regardless of admission into the school.

Instead of a lethal rejection, it just might be the other door they enter the synagogue through. 

Oh, what a world it could be!

Tamar Andrews, director of Temple Isaiah preschool, is an early childhood education professor.