The Greek philosopher Aristotle was among the first to formulate laws of mental processes. He was mostly interested in the ways memory works, and what are the elements which cause the individual to store and retrieve information which as been accumulated under various conditions. Among those elements he suggests the contrast. When one perceives a relationship between two entities or stimuli which are strongly antagonistic to each other, the chances are that such a perception will trigger and activate mental investment, which ultimately will express itself in an increase in memorizing. This is not less true for other mental processes. Perception of contrast often steers the individual's mind towards activating intellectual activity, as well as most productive scientific and artistic creativity.
The reader surly starts to wonder where this preamble is supposed to lead to. It came to my mind while contemplating about two personal events which I experienced just a few days ago. We - my spouse and myself- were invited to spend a Shabbat in a nice hotel in the Catskill Hills (also known as the "Borscht Belt"). The occasion was a "Shabbaton" of the Regional Officers of the National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). We truly enjoyed to be there together with these youngsters. Personally, I re-lived again my young years after the Holocaust, when I was an active member of youth movements, striving to open up the closed gates of Eretz Yisrael and to bring into the Holy Land as many Jews as possible. What impressed me more than everything was the "Simchas Halev" (Joy of the Heart) of these youngsters, and their openness to the different, to all those "remote" people who came there and be together in an atmosphere of "Yiddishkeit" and idealism. One immediately felt there, that all of the "Mechitzoth" (barriers) fell down like the "Walls of Jericho", but this time under the powerful Shofar blows of "Achduth" (unity) and fraternity. All of them were "needy" persons. Some of them felt the need to be "givers" and the other ones- to be "takers". One could also feel that the "takers" gave a tremendous satisfaction to the "givers" to the full contentment of all concerned. It is surely this spirit which is accountable for the wonderful work they are doing, a work of "Keiruv Halevavoth", a work of saving brothers from the terrible danger of assimilation and disappearance.
Still under the magnificent impression of this Shabbas, we were invited a day later to meet a number of parents having children with Down syndrome. These people are surely another population in need, craving badly to experience "togetherness" and "Keiruv Halevavoth". As it happens so often in such meetings, people become very quickly close to each other, opening their hearts, and showing readiness to mutually share their problems; grievances, as well as their success and hopes, which they experienced in measureless struggle and efforts to ensure a normal life to their child, themselves, and to their family.
Here I come to the issue of contrast which I mentioned at the beginning of this article. At this occasion, like in many others of this kind, I heard many accounts of parental experiences which are very far away from what could be anticipated from attitudes of "Keiruv Halevavoth". Even more shocking is the fact that these experiences occur frequently within religious educational frameworks and authorities, to whom the Mishna in Sanhedrin (ch.4;5) which emphasizes the vital importance to rescue every human being is well known, and surely part of their value system.
A few examples can easily illustrate the nature of these experiences. Animated by a strong determination to ensure the future of their child, parents are condemned to run from one kindergarten to the other, from school to school, and from Yeshiva to Yeshiva in order to find a place for their child within a regular religious educational framework. These efforts are of tremendous importance from both human and Jewish point of view, and should be highly encouraged. Unfortunately, and almost without exception, these parents are turned down without even bothering to evaluate the true mental capacities and learning possibilities of the child. Answers like "The child looks strange", "Parents will oppose it", "It is better for the child", "Don't make yourself any illusions", etc., are very frequently the excuses utilized by the school authorities for their adamant refusal. These answers, as well as many others of this kind, are the fruit of ignorance, as well as of an unjustified prejudice, that these children might have a most negative influence on the "good" children, or they may contaminate these latter with some mystical spiritual "illness".
Are our educational leaders aware of the detrimental effect such rejection may have upon these children? Do they really and genuinely consider what such an attitude means to the child's parents, siblings and to the entire community? What is the moral and educational message transmitted by such attitudes to our own children and to all of those that we are responsible for their value education? Often we say that we have to "protect" our regular students from undesired influences? Don't we feel that such inflexible viewpoints reflect a message that when one is weak, needy, and yearning for support, the best thing we can do is to give him an additional push "down the hill"? How are these attitudes congruent with the true spirits and values of "Ruach Israel Sava"?
It seems to me that in addition to the educational issue, we are dealing here with a most crucial religious matter. The commandment of the Torah- "Azov Taazov Imo" (Exodus, 22/5 ), does not refer solely to helping your enemy to restore the charge on the back of his donkey. It reflects a broad and basic stance referring to all areas of activity. Hence, educators and "Anshei Torah" can not just wave away this Judaic basic concept when dealing with this special population of Down Syndrome children.
I think that we are entitled to expect from our religious and educational leaders a totally different approach. They should be the "spearhead" in the struggle to modify meaningfully and profoundly the existing prejudices which dominate our society. We would expect that they should stand up, raise their voices and act intensively and militantly in order to create optimal conditions in order to ensure success of integrating such persons in our regular society. This requires fundamental changes not only in our attitudes and value system. It requires to go over from thoughts into practices, from ideas into deeds and from fatalistic resign to challenging intervention. This may produce a most important change in the life quality of our entire community.
I am fully aware of the difficulties one may encounter in absorbing such students into the regular classes. I am conscious of the multi-directional implications such an integration approach may impose upon us. But I also know, from my own experience of both a parent and a professional, that this is feasible and most desirable. During the last decade we succeeded in Israel to mainstream many (not enough) of such children in regular programs. Some of them only partially and some others were fully integrated in such classes to the satisfaction of all concerned, including the respective schools and educators. In some cases the Down syndrome children became the pride of these schools. Naturally, it was not only a "proforma" decision. We has to activate support systems in order to make such integration successful. These were mostly provided by the schools themselves, who succeeded to involve their students (be they classroom mates or students of higher grades) into this commendable educational project. Ultimately those regular students benefited not less, and perhaps even more, from this common endeavor. They will surely be better human beings, better educators and better militants for what is meritorious in society in general and in the religious community in particular.
It is important to emphasize that such children can be brought up as good pious Jews, Shomrei Torah Umitzvoth, as it is well known to all who are working with them. Hassidim tell us that a number of "Gedolei Israel", such as the Chazon Ish or the Steipler, may their holy memory be blessed, used to exhibit high respect for such children considering them to be real Tzaddikim, due to their genuine internal truth. Shouldn't their attitude be a lesson to all of us? Aren't we committed to follow their example? Don't we have to identify with them and absorb also their "Midoth Tovoth"?
In order to bring about such radical changes and to make them successful, the entire community has to be involved in it. Social negative attitudes towards Down syndrome persons, pejorative stereotypes and prejudices, and above all, ignorance about the possibilities to deal with such children have to become the interventional target for the community leaders. Such a mutli-directional task can not be performed by efforts of isolated individuals, or by the children's families. It has to become a public venture which will ultimately lead educators and school authorities to view the integration of such children as a primordial commandment of their educational vocation. Schools and Yeshivoth should be praised for their readiness to cope with such basic human and educational difficulties, and encouraged to communicate to the parents of such children, and to the children themselves, a message of hope, of militancy, of togetherness in this holy struggle to fulfill the commandment of "Kol Hamekayem". They have also to be aware of the fact that their work can lead to great success and to the highest levels of satisfaction which and educator can aspire to, i.e., to improve the life quality of one individual.
I strongly believe that if there will be conviction it will result in determination which will lead to action and ultimately to success. We all may become better tomorrow than today, and as the old Jewish dictum says: For the better there is no limit….(Besser hot nischt kein "shier").
This article first appeared in issue #4 of Down Syndrome Amongst Us