The original article on Mishpacha.com can be viewed at http://mishpacha.com/Browse/Article/7228/Do-We-Care-Enough
I will never forget that tap.
It was the fall of 1965, my first zeman at the Philadelphia yeshivah. Like everyone else, I slept in the dormitory. Early one Wednesday morning, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the rosh yeshivah, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlita. He never woke up the bochurim — there was a vekker for that. “Your father is sick,” he said. My father, Rav Dovid Bender, was a healthy 53-year-old who served as a menahel in Torah Vodaath back in Brooklyn. “You are going home,” Rav Shmuel continued, “and Reb Elya [Svei] and I will accompany you.”
I had a sense of foreboding the entire train ride, but it was only when we arrived at Manhattan’s West 4th Street station and I saw scores of my parents’ relatives and friends that I realized that my father was not sick. He had been niftar — and I had a new status: yasom.
Baruch Hashem, I was never mistreated as a result of my newfound status. Returning home, I was fortunate to be cared for by my mother, Rebbetzin Basia Bender; my brother-in-law, Rav Chaim Leib Epstein; and my paternal grandfather, Rav Avrohom Bender, zichronam livracha. But I was a yasom. So I can relate to a yasom’s pain.
That is why I feel compelled to draw the tzibbur’s attention to a widespread problem: a callousness, bordering on cruelty, with which many of Klal Yisrael’s orphan boys and girls are being inadvertently treated.
A caveat: Many of our mosdos in fact are sensitive and bend over backwards to avoid hurting yesomim. Some, however, do not. This state of affairs is unacceptable for a nation of rachmanim, bayshanim, and gomlei chasadim.
Do we understand the pain of a yasom? My father z”l used to offer a mashal: Imagine that you had an open wound and someone struck you on that exact spot. It would hurt even more. Bereft of his parent and protector, the yasom is also wounded, and any mistreatment will compound his existing suffering.
Someone fortunate enough to be raised by both parents can never fully understand an orphan’s pain. Yet the Torah instructs us not to hurt them, so we must use our imagination to determine what might hurt them and avoid it at all costs. We cannot bring back the missing parent. But we must, as individuals and as a community, be creative and figure out how to make life a little easier for these innocent children.
Some examples of the current situation:
Avos Ubanim This remarkable program of father-and-son learning has transformed Motzaei Shabbos into a beautiful opportunity for limud haTorah and parent-child bonding. But what about the banim who don’t have avos? Do we make sure that every fatherless boy has an adult to accompany him? In addition, can we eliminate the constant reminder these children face of the gaping void in their lives by doing what some communities already did years ago and universally change the name of the program to Dor L’dor?
Shabbos and Yom Tov Who takes the children to shul on Shabbos? Often the mother is tied down at home with younger kids and cannot do it, and older boys who belong in the men’s section need an adult male to walk them to shul and daven with them.
Who takes the boys to purchase arba minim, or perform other activities that a father normally would? Other challenges apply to girls, or when the deceased is the mother. Do we even think about it?
Educational mosdos How can it be that in 2017, there are some schools where, well into the school year, rebbeim, morahs and teachers are still unaware that a student in their class is from a one-parent family?
Mrs. Sarah Rivkah Kohn, the founder and director of Links, an organization that runs numerous programs for yesomim and yesomos, has alerted me to a persistent problem. What follows are excerpts from an unpublished essay that she recently penned:
“Please fill in missing criteria highlighted above.”
The trouble is that the criteria the institution’s website is missing in the application is also, sadly, lacking from this girl’s life. I’m talking about a parent.
Many mosdos have put their application process online, to ensure that every blank is filled in properly. (There are several valid reasons for this change.)
Many families who’ve lost a parent are reporting that the new systems won’t allow for the deceased parent’s info to remain blank. Some girls reported that their mothers — almanos — would fill in the word “deceased” in place of the departed father’s name. In some cases, it worked. In others, even that was not enough. But if it was just the technology that was insensitive, I would never write this piece.
I am writing through tears as I go through the e-mails forwarded to me in the last couple of weeks.
Let’s start with the application process:
“The mosad called to tell me that my form was incomplete and was not going to be processed. I told them that the only part I left out was about my father who’d passed away years back. I don’t have a shul for him nor a place of employment/kollel. I thought I was clear. But two weeks later a form letter came to me in the mail [stating] that I was being denied an interview because of [an] ‘incomplete application.’ I [finally] reach[ed] the right person in the office who could help me out. She said that she would make it work for me but that I should realize she was doing me a big favor.”
Then, there is the interview process:
“I just had my initial interview. My mother passed away six months ago in a sudden accident. At the interview the menaheles said to me, ‘I noticed on your application that you left out all info about your mother. Avoiding filling in things like that makes me feel like you’re still in denial.’ I was surprised and didn’t respond. She continued, ‘I think it would be a great experience for you to write your mother’s name, what high school she went to, and whatever is nogeia — just put a”h after her name. Honestly, that will tell me that you’re ready to be in [our mosad] after such a sudden death. It’s not for all girls who lost a parent.’ Yes, I’m in the year. Yes, I’m raw. Yes, I’ll cry. But I’m not going to get better by writing my mother’s name. Yes, they have every right to refuse me — but not like this. To her credit, the menaheles apologized, but said she didn’t realize I still took all this so hard.
Her heartrending essay includes other examples as well.
Basic menschlichkeit When the leadership of an institution is informed about the petirah of a parent, do they make a point of amending the database so that future mailings are addressed properly? Do you know how painful it is for a widow to receive a letter addressed to her husband five years after his passing? Four years later, we are still getting mail addressed to my late mother-in-law who lived with us — even after writing “deceased” in big letters on the envelopes and sending them back. Our yeshivah’s office administrator checks the Misaskim shivah listing twice a week so that she can update our records.
Acceptance What about the acceptance process for high schools? Do we give even a modicum of deference to an applicant who is a yasom? It is known that the Brisker Rav ztz”l and his successors made every effort to accept yesomim into the elite Brisker yeshivah in Yerushalayim. Perhaps that is because one might inadvertently hurt the yasom by rejecting him — and thereby violate an issur d’Oraisa.
Children of divorce Nearly all of the above applies to children of divorced or separated parents as well. Their pain is acute — and just as real as a yasom’s. A beis medrash bochur from a broken home once confided in me that he considered yesomim to be comparatively lucky, because at least people are sensitive to their situation. What about him? Like the yasom, he is also wounded — and he may even harbor shame about his situation.
The Torah warns (Shemos 22): “You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. If you cause him pain….” The pesukim describe the dire punishments that will befall one who perpetrates such agony. Rashi, quoting Mechilta, explains that the same applies to causing pain to any person, but the Torah refers to the hoveh — the usual example, that of the yasom or almanah, because they are weak and frequently oppressed.
This always puzzled me. Is a person liable to endure the terrible tragedies enumerated by the pasuk on account of tcheppering a regular person? I suspected — and later saw this confirmed in the Chofetz Chaim’s Shemiras Halashon — that when Rashi says “any person,” he means anyone who, because of their circumstances, will be similarly affected by the pain! This surely includes children of divorce.
Middah tovah merubah. If the Father of yesomim and Defender of almanos cares so much about their feelings that the consequences for hurting them are so severe, how much eternal reward will He give those who make a real effort to be cognizant of their emotions!
It is not a difficult thing to do.
It just means using our minds and opening our hearts.
Rabbi Yaakov Bender is the rosh yeshivah of Yeshivah Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway, New York, and the author of Chinuch with Chessed (Mesorah Publications)