Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Do the Right Thing

The Association of Orthodox Jewish Teachers of New York City Public Schools (AOJT) sponsors an annual "Do the Right Thing" essay contest for students. Sometimes they write about moral dilemmas that they or someone they learned about faced and, in their opinion, resolved honorably. Sometimes they write about moral dilemmas where they think they chose wrongly, and what they learned from the experience.
I faced such a problem several years ago in the course of teaching in a public high school in Brooklyn. A Gentile colleague of mine complained that we Jews are clannish and care only about our own. In particular, Hatzalah, the Jewish volunteer ambulance corps that is active in every Jewish neighborhood in the metropolitan area, was "only for their own" and did not reach out to other residents of the neighborhoods where they operate. One day I was in the room that doubled as a general office and teachers' lounge; due to construction a large part of the building including the teachers' lounge was unavailable. A fellow teacher, Gentile but not the one complaining about clannish Jews, suddenly experienced trouble breathing. Her situation rapidly went from bad to worse, and somebody called out, "Call 911!" The new state of the art telephone system that had just been installed could not reach 911. Knowing that the system could reach seven-digit local numbers (at that time we didn't have to dial 1+ an area code for local numbers), I asked for the phone, dialed Hatzalah's number and explained the situation. As soon as I hung up the phone I literally ran outside to guide Hatzalah to the room where the emergency was unfolding. After several minutes of no response, I ran back to the room to find Hatzalah there; they had entered through another entrance. Their volunteers cared for my colleague with their usual consummate professionalism and did not utter a word about the patient not being Jewish. Thank God, my colleague made a full recovery. After they left and the situation calmed down, my principal and the assistant principal for security entered the room, gleaned the gist of what transpired, and asked me in front of my colleagues, "Who gave you authority to make the call?" I told them that I took moral authority since 911 was unreachable and medical help was urgently needed, watching a colleague die was not an option and I would do the same thing 100 times over if necessary. They hemmed and hawed, apparently pissed that I made the administration look bad, but no disciplinary action was brought aganst me for my "unauthorized call." During my next class, a student who heard about what happened told me that it was very nice of me to make the call. I made a dismissive gesture with my hand and said, "eh, what else could I have done?" I did not tell the students that the real heroes of this piece were the Hatzalah volunteers, who did not hesitate to march into a neighborhood that every Jewish mother tells her children not to set foot in, lest black bogeymen jump on them and eat them up.
The same day or perhaps several days later another colleague asked me for Hatzalah's number. I hesitated for a second, knowing that Hatzalah is supported by voluntary contributions raised within our community, does not have the resources to care for everybody in New York City and therefore does not normally advertise its number outside our community. Nevertheless, Hatzalah's reputation spread far and wide; they're there almost before you hang up the phone, often faster than the Fire Department's EMTs. I did give my colleague the number. Shortly thereafter, the colleague passed away at the age of 52 from complications of diabetes, a common cause of premature death among African Americans. I was profoundly relieved that I did not withhold the number as I was tempted to do; whether or not it would have made a difference, his death would have been on my conscience for as long as I lived.

With several years of hindsight, I have no doubt that I did the right thing both in calling Hatzalah and incurring the displeasure of my bosses and in giving out the telephone number, possibly making racists in our community unhappy.

Hat tip: Wolfish Musings

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Blogger Jeff Eyges said...

my principal and the assistant principal for security entered the room, gleaned the gist of what transpired, and asked me in front of my colleagues, "Who gave you authority to make the call?"

The bureaucratic mindset in action.

Wed Jul 23, 11:50:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kol hakavod! And may you be generously rewarded for your kidush HaShem.

Wed Jul 23, 01:01:00 PM EDT  
Blogger ProfK said...

A neighbor, not Jewish, of one of our local Hatzoloh members had the Hatzoloh number and used it when her husband was having a heart attack. Hatzoloh responded and was already loading into the ambulance before EMS showed up. Everything turned out fine and this man, in gratitude, donated a large sum of money to Hatzoloh. Our Hatzoloh doesn't go around advertising to the whole neighborhood but plenty of non Jewish people who have the number and are grateful for having emergency responders locally. Grateful in singing the praises of Hatzoloh and grateful in that they have donated to the cause. A win-win situation all around and a real kiddush Hashem.

Tue Jul 29, 01:24:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

The bureaucratic mindset indeed. Most of the principals and APs I've worked with, as well as the chancellor and mayor, are concerned primarily that they come off looking good. They don't give a damn about the students, and woe to a teacher who complains of not having the tools to do the job. And I'm sick and tired of hearing "no money." It's the all-purpose excuse to get inept and incompetent administrators off the hook. If something's important enough you find the money, and what's more important than the kids?
So many of these kids have absentee fathers, and I was the significant male in their lives. I would go to their plays and their basketball games, and one year my HS won the city championships at Madison Square Garden and brought home the net.
I chose not to take a second job at a yeshiva, as many of my colleagues did, because my students deserve better than a teacher who bolts as soon as the last bell rings, and yeshiva kids deserve better than a stressed-out moonlighting public school teacher. Besides which, in Brooklyn yeshivot the E-word is a problem, and you can't teach and be intellectually honest. Given that choice, I'll always choose the latter.
One day my A.P. walked into my classroom after the finall bell, and saw me arm wrestling with a male student. He wrote me up. Never mind it's a terrific rapport builder, and stereotype buster. Seikhel is a rare commodity at the NYC Dep't of Ed.

Wed Jul 30, 03:28:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jeff Eyges said...

It's such a shander, it really is. They're lucky to have you, Zev, and they don't even realize it.

And we wonder why people don't want to go into teaching!

(Oh, and what Garnel, said, too.)

Wed Jul 30, 04:53:00 PM EDT  

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