No Child Left Behind

August 24, 2023

Stopping at Nothing

Rabbi Dr. Yosef Shimon (Joel) Rosenshein advocates for Klal Yisrael’s children

Elisheva Braun

A few years ago, a Russian family called me. Their seventh-grade daughter, Sara*, was being kicked out of her school, and there was no room for negotiation.

Mr. Roth*, its director, is the grandson of my dear friend who opened the school’s doors many decades earlier. I was the psychologist there for years. I called a rav I know well, who is recognized for his dedication to helping immigrants. I asked the rav to meet me outside the school at 2:15 that afternoon and we would go in together to speak with the director.

“Don’t we need an appointment?” he asked.

“Just come; don’t worry about it,” I said.

At 2:15, I met the rav. We called the director, and his secretary told us to come up to the office.

“Tell him to come down to us,” I replied.

When the rav looked surprised by my chutzpah, I said, “I’m double the director’s age!”

Sure enough, the director came down to meet the rav and me.

“There’s no question,” he said. “Sara has to go. She has learning disabilities. We sent her for therapy, but she refuses to show up to sessions. Her parents haven’t paid tuition in months.”

“Please give her another chance. I’ll sign a paper right now that says that the first therapy session or tuition bill they miss, she’s out,” I told Mr. Roth.

He replied, “I can agree to that deal. I know your word is a word.”

With the help of therapy, Sara successfully graduated eighth grade. High school acceptance presented its own issues; I had to threaten to involve a certain high-ranking individual before they agreed to take her.

Sara is about to graduate high school with great grades. To say that she is a changed person is an understatement. She’s so mature. Today, she’s helping other girls in their growth. It’s an incredible journey to witness.

This story is one of countless examples of Dr. Yosef Shimon Rosenshein’s never-take-no-for-an-answer approach. Moreover, it gives us a glimpse into his heart, which is too wide and too soft to see any child left behind.

“A psychologist,” he says, “should stop at nothing to help people.”

No child left behind

A psychologist since 1962, Rabbi Dr. Yosef Shimon Rosenshein has been helping children get into schools for six decades.

The founding director of the New York City Board of Education’s evaluation and placement department, Dr. Rosenshein brought publicly funded special-education evaluations to all 32 districts of New York City.

One day, the doctor’s boss, Dr. Helen Feulner, informed him that a complaint had been filed against the department.

“Who is complaining?” he asked.

It was Rabbi Moshe Sherer, chairman of Agudath Israel, and Rabbi Yosef Kaminetsky, director of Torah Umesorah. Dr. Rosenshein was involved with both Agudath Israel and Torah Umesorah, and he enjoyed a close relationship with both leaders. (There’s even a Torah Umesorah award named for him that’s given to rebbe’im and moros who make contributions to mental health.)

“They said that the department wasn’t helping Jewish children. The problem,” he explains, “is that we simply didn’t have the legislation to fund private-school students’ evaluations. Everyone except public-school children had to pay for evaluations out of pocket.”

That changed in 1968, when the ACLD (Adults and Children with Learning Disabilities) organization lobbied to enact a federal law that requires cities and states to provide free evaluations for students in private schools.

It was a time when special education resources were in their infancy and in the frum world, nearly nonexistent.

Dr. Rosenshein would do something about that.

“Mr. Jerry Pinsky, a parent, and I decided to build an infrastructure for frum special-ed students. We called a meeting, to which we each invited three attendees. Ninety-five parents showed up. That’s when we realized how pressing the need was.”

Buoyed by his band of dedicated parents, Dr. Rosenshein founded PTACH (Parents for Torah for All Children), the first Jewish special-ed unit in the world. Mr. Pinsky was its president.

“One of the first rules we established is that no PTACH program would exist as a separate school. The idea was to bring special education into regular yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs so its students could finally answer the question, ‘Where do you go to school?’ without shame. They could now proudly tell their friends, ‘I go to Chaim Berlin,’ or, ‘I’m in Bais Yaakov D’Rav Meir’ or another of the many mainstream schools with PTACH programs. They could take some mainstream classes and learn other subjects in supported PTACH classrooms. We have an agreement with the schools that PTACH students can join any class they choose, even if it’s full. This is the perfect solution for children who need extra help with learning.

“PTACH was my pro-bono project. From hiring to running the board, I did everything on my own. I was my own supervisor.”

Two years in, the workload became too heavy for one man to carry, and Dr. Rosenshein hired Rabbi Burton Jaffa as executive director and Dr. Judah Weller as the educational director for PTACH.

In New York, Baltimore, California, Chicago, and other locations in the US and Eretz Yisrael, PTACH classrooms have opened their doors to embrace, educate, and encourage students with many kinds of needs.

A passion becomes a project

In later years, Dr. Rosenshein was once again on the lookout for a project he could take on to benefit Klal Yisrael.

Through his work as head of Vaad L’Hatzalas Nidchei Yisroel, an organization that spreads Torah in the former Soviet Union, Dr. Rosenshein drew close to Rav Matisyahu Salomon. When one year, R’ Matisyahu shut down all of Lakewood’s high schools because many girls hadn’t been accepted, Dr. Rosenshein was struck by the severity of the problem.

He had found his calling.

“I knew I had to do something,” Dr. Rosenshein says. “I decided that I would help children get into schools. Any acceptance I could facilitate over the phone would be free of charge.

“I have relationships with Rav Yeruchem Olshin, Rav Dovid Schustal, and other roshei yeshivah, rabbanim, and influential community members. I’m connected with Torah Umesorah, Agudath Israel, and other organizations. I felt that I was in a position to be of service to others.”

Where things break down

What makes our school-acceptance system so fraught, so stressful, so impossible to navigate and increasingly unsustainable? And what is it about our town that makes Dr. Rosenshein so passionate about assisting its parents?

“When it comes to school acceptance, Lakewood is the most difficult place. It’s getting worse every year,” he asserts.

First, there’s the logistical aspect.

“Lakewood is growing very rapidly, on a scale that is almost unheard of. It hasn’t had the chance to grow slowly and accommodate needs. People tell me that many hundreds of babies are born in Lakewood annually.”

If that’s true, we need hundreds of seats to open every year—a nearly impossible feat.

“I feel terrible for the parents and children; it’s a very difficult situation.”

There’s more to the story, though.

“At least half the calls I get are about problems that stem from the parental side—the parents either didn’t do their due diligence soon enough, or they misunderstand what the right school for their child actually is.

“Parents want the best for their children. The mistake they sometimes make is thinking that the best place for their child is where the important people go, where their friends go, where the right crowd is. Unfortunately, the ‘perfect’ place may not be right for their child. When making such decisions, we have to think of our children; not our social status.”

Dr. Rosenshein recalls one recent story. “A family moved from Eretz Yisrael to Lakewood in April. In June, they called to ask for help getting their children into schools. It turned out that they had moved across the Atlantic without making a single call to determine whether their kids would be accepted to any schools.”

Another frantic mid-June phone call came from a chassidishe woman who couldn’t get her daughter into her chassidus’s school.

“My husband is a member of the shul; we’re part of the community. I don’t understand why they won’t take us!” she cried.

A couple of questions revealed that the woman drives. “The school doesn’t accept children whose mothers drive,” she told Dr. Rosenshein.

“If that’s the rule, then you can’t expect to be accepted when you break it,” he said.

Showing up

“One of first things I try to teach people is this: get off the phone. You can’t get your child into a packed school by calling the principal. You’ve got to go down to the school and sit in the principal’s office. The secretary will tell you that the principal has no time to talk to you, and they’re right; principals are extremely busy people. But wait there. Keep waiting. The principal will eventually find a minute to talk to you,” Dr. Rosenshein says.

“This approach works many times; I’ve seen a great success rate. It shows the school that you’re a parent who cares; it impresses the principals. Even if they don’t take your child, they’ll likely become personally involved. They may make a call for you; they may help you get into another school. Sometimes they’ll even call me to explain why the child doesn’t belong in their establishment.”

What can be done?

The first call of order is to be honest about what your child needs.

“Listen to what the principals and teachers are recommending,” Dr. Rosenshein advises.

Insome cases, the child should be evaluated for learning or psychological difficulties.

“It’s likely that 50 percent of the children who should be evaluated never are. It’s a real shame, because evaluations are free of charge, and they offer a lot of clarity as to what’s really going on with the child and where they should go. When parents call me and I feel the need for an eval, I ask them to email me their child’s evaluation results afteward. This gives me a realistic picture and enables me to facilitate their placement over the phone for free.”

To illustrate the simple power of evaluation, Dr. Rosenshein describes the classic “ants-in-the-pants” student.

“When the kid is jumping out of their seat in class, the adults might send them to a psychologist for medication. But we have to take a wider view. The child may be jittery because they don’t understand the lessons, because they’re hungry, or because their parents are fighting all the time. Evaluations show us what’s really going on.”

Problems can stem from all sorts of places, and taking a holistic view before trying to tackle them is imperative.

When Mrs. Silverstone* called for help getting her son accepted in yeshivah, Dr. Rosenshein recommended that she visit the principal. When she argued that because the principal is male, she didn’t feel comfortable to do this, he told her to ask her husband to go.

“I was shocked by her response. She called her husband all sorts of names and told me that he was incapable of speaking with the principal. ‘Your problem is not school acceptance; your problem is your marriage. If you improved your marriage, you would probably be able to resolve this issue,’ I told her.”

Going to bat

“I’ve gone to the schools in person many times when the parents have requested it,” says Dr. Rosenshein. “It changes the whole discussion.”

But whatever the technique, it all boils down to the same thing. “As parents, caregivers, and therapists, we need to stop at nothing to help our children. Never say no; never say it’s impossible. The Ribono Shel Olam will answer if we pray to Him and do the right thing.”

*Name has been changed