Orthodox Judge Blames Religious School System for Overdose

The Orthodox community was rattled last month when 20-year old Malky Klein, daughter of Avrohom and Rifka Klein of Boro Park, died of a heroine overdose.

Social media flooded with tearful reflection. A podcast interview with Klein’s father went viral. A video tribute to the young woman got 28,000 views within a week. Over $250,000 was raised online, in Malky’s memory, towards an Israeli organization which works on early intervention in the Orthodox community.

But what stood out most was the reaction of Ruchie Freier, the only Hasidic woman judge in Brooklyn.

In an essay for the Haredi site VosIzNeis rife with religious terms and quotes from holy texts, Freier implored her community to consider the much deeper root of the problem which killed Klein — far deeper than any drug epidemic. Instead, she blamed the school system for Malky’s death.

In far too many Orthodox schools, children with learning disabilities are ruthlessly discriminated against, often thrown out of schools for their academic track record alone. Not a single religious girls high school would take Malky Klein, Freier writes, no matter how hard the girl tried:

But Malky’s situation is far from unique. Freier is describing a problem that has become tragically common in the community. In a world ruled by paranoia, where social status is everything — slightly above Divine Torah or law — parents will do everything necessary to keep their child in as elite an environment as possible, for the sake of a family’s reputation and of course their marriage prospects. And if it means pushing another child out, so be it.

Freier describes how she herself went to a principal, to plead for Malky to be accepted, despite her challenges. The principle was reluctant to take Malky in, “because there was negative information out there,” Freier writes:

Vicious rumor-mongering, and the inability to accept someone slightly different, is having deadly consequences.

Freier notes that it wasn’t always like this. “I had classmates from a variety of backgrounds, and some girls had parents who were not frum [Orthodox] from birth,” she writes. “We all got along, our teachers valued each student, and encouraged us to reach greater heights in our connection to Hashem. Some girls in my class had learning disabilities, but in those years, we didn’t know it, we just knew they failed most of their tests. No one thought that these girls didn’t belong….no one’s parents called the school to complain or have them expelled.”

But a shift has occurred since then, and Freier notes its source.

Freier is brave for speaking out — few can, not least because those who do so are often pressured back into silence. In January 2016, Orthodox LA-based philanthropist Shlomo Rechnitz gave a blistering speech at a Lakewood charity dinner, accusing religious schools of “bloodshed”, describing the situation of children being turned away as a “mahalah”, a disease, which has infected Orthodox society at large.

“Many of us have created for ourselves a new Torah, a new Yiddishkeit [Jewishness], that makes us feel good about ourselves, but has little to do with the Torah that He gave us 3,300 years ago,” Rechnitz said. “We turned our frumkeit [Orthodoxy] into an idol, and we have forgotten some of the basic tenets of Yiddishkeit.”

Rechnitz blasted the “elitism” of the community, and the “ugly superiority complex” that has been adopted. But he was pressured to recant, and ultimately agreed to “remove himself from the conversation”.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Author

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Life/Features editor at the Forward. She was previously a New York-based reporter for Haaretz. Her work has appeared in the New York TimesSalon, and Tablet, and she teaches journalism at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women.

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Orthodox Judge Blames Religious School System for Overdose

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