From the Anash.org Inbox: “Tears came to my eyes when I read two recent Anash.org articles. At the same time, my heart aches. Because, while three of my children benefited tremendously, two of my children’s Chidon journeys have been very different.”
Name withheld to protect my children’s privacy
I was genuinely smiling and my heart felt warm when I read two articles you recently posted. The first was written by Yosef Yitzchok, an 18-year-old boy with a shining neshama and a determined spirit, who described the wonderful time he had participating in this year’s Chidon. Similarly, I felt an incredible sense of pride as I read the article written by Levi, his Friendship Circle chavrusa, who spearheaded this endeavor and studied with and supported Yossi through the process.
The photo of Yossi proudly posing with his plaque and medal in the Chidon concert hall against the backdrop of thousands of fellow Chidon participants and a brightly lit stage speaks volumes. As does the video clip of Yossi singing and dancing to the Chidon theme song: “Hard work paid off to join this atmosphere.” Yes, indeed.
Tears came to my eyes as I read Yossi’s heartfelt words: “Chidon is one of the best things in the world. I want to tell all boys like me that they can also join Chidon. And I hope that they do! I will tell them: “You can learn Torah like other kids. You can earn prizes and go on amazing trips. You can feel the special chayus that Chidon kids have.”
I’m so happy for Yossi.
As a Chidon parent, I’d like to take a moment and thank Tzivos Hashem and the Chidon staff:
For delivering Kol Hatorah Kulah of the Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvos to today’s children in an unprecedented manner, in an attractive packaging that speaks their language
For being open to user feedback and using it to fuel growth
For investing tremendous resources in the interest of creating a more inclusive program
For building a network of base commanders and providing the infrastructure through which they can personally help each child and parent navigate the Chidon system
For making it easier than ever for parents to create a positive limud hatorah relationship with their children
For empowering our children and their friends to learn, discuss, and occupy themselves with Torah during their spare time
For uniting our children worldwide with a common ground and shared goal
And for so much more.
May the Aibershter grant every person involved in this project an overflowing abundance of brocha vehatzlocha in every aspect of their lives, robust health, gashmius with which to make ruchnius, and endless emesse chassidishe nachas from their entire families.
Three of my children have benefited tremendously from the Chidon. At the same time, my heart aches. Because two of my children’s Chidon journeys have been very different. How I wish that, as Yossi penned in his article, they could “feel the special chayus that Chidon kids have.”
These two are from the 15-24 percent of schoolchildren worldwide who have been formally diagnosed with neurodivergent conditions (such as ADHD, autism, and some learning challenges). Ninety-eight percent of these children, including my children, attend mainstream schools. This means that, like them, one of every five children will struggle with Chidon success simply because the way the Aibershter in His Infinite Wisdom wired their brains is incompatible with the curriculum. (These numbers do not include those who struggle for other reasons, be they mental health conditions, circumstantial challenges, or lack of formal diagnosis.)
Before you shoot me with comments about how nowadays every other child is given a label as a victim of the trends of the world we live in, let’s just keep it simple: Even if you are uncomfortable with the concept of diagnosing children, I should hope we are all aware that there are many children around the world who have a hard time succeeding at Chidon despite the fact that they try very hard.
Now, before you tell me that I shouldn’t even have registered my children to participate in Chidon, and should instead find other outlets through which to help them see success, or that I should be a more involved parent and not rely on “the system” to fix my children’s issues, I’d like you to consider the following:
A child who struggles with Chidon usually also struggles academically, and often also struggles socially. As such, their need to feel that they can be “like everyone else” is exponentially stronger than that of other children. Because if they can’t, it’s yet another proof that there’s “something wrong with me” and that yet again “I don’t belong.” Which can very easily lead to “this lifestyle—or life—is not for me.” No matter how incredible and involved their parents are. These are indisputable facts—there are too many korbanos and kevarim to ignore.
These are the children who not only expend tremendous efforts to stay afloat during their each and every school day (and very rarely manage to succeed), but watch their classmates thrive on things like Chidon Pirkei Avos, Chidon Halichos Olam, Yeshivas Erev, the Gemara Bifnim incentive system, Mishnayos and Tanya Baal Peh contests, essay contests, spelling bees, and brochos bees. They sink lower and lower into their chairs at each award ceremony as their classmates walk away with exciting prizes and carry their heavy sets of sefarim back to the classroom, while they accept their token certificate—or, in better cases, their fifth pocket-sized Mincha/Maariv or wallet-sized picture of the Rebbe.
These are the children who sit through class each and every day waiting for recess, but then often don’t even enjoy recess because they don’t connect well with their peers or have real friends. They look with longing at their school’s exciting Tzivos Hashem and Bnos Chabad activities, performances, after-school events, shabbatons, and Mesibos Shabbos, but they simply don’t feel like they belong.
These children look just like you and me, yet spend most, and sometimes all, of their each and every day as square pegs in battle against a world that feels the need to stuff them into circular molds. The pain is constant and goes very very deep. And while they may at times manage to squeeze into place, they are left feeling hopelessly stifled, misshapen, and out of place.
Yes, one in every five children.
No, I am not exaggerating.
For how long can we expect them to keep on keeping on?
Most mainstream schools today still have a way to go before they discontinue the set mold model. Enter Chidon. With “every child, every mitzvah” as its slogan, Chidon was designed to be the platform through which each and every child could enjoy a thoroughly positive, uplifting, and motivational experience as they learn about and connect with every mitzvah—on their own initiative and at their own level, independent of their school experience or anything else going on in their life. Not just that, they get to feel part of something global and special, and that they share a unique bond and commonality with so many other children from all over the world. With four tracks currently in place, it seems to just about meet that goal. Frustratingly, for this 20 percent of children, this is not yet the case. Chidon feels like yet another mold that simply doesn’t come in their size.
Chidon is marketed as a voluntary program, but for these 20 percent, especially those living in Lubavitch communities or attending Lubavitch schools, it is more than mandatory: it is essential. And it is essential that the program be designed such that the sweetness of success is within their reach.
This is all the more crucial because Chidon is actually not a five-year program.
It is a path that sets the trajectory of a child’s personal relationship with Torah and mitzvos.
And concluding Book Five at age 14 means that the participant is no longer a child, but a teenager who is basing his or her next moves off his or her perceptions of the past few years.
While Chidon cannot be expected to solve all these children’s challenges, tasting the success and joy of a Chidon experience that caters to them where they are at means that this child-turned-teenager has a positive, warm, personal, and meaningful association with limud hatorah and with each and every mitzvah. It tells them that they are not damaged goods and that they are capable of succeeding with the tools and gifts that Hashem gave them. It lets them know with absolute certainty that they do have a place and a future in the world of Yiddishkeit.
I believe it is time for an additional track to be developed to truly accommodate the children who struggle, for whom even passing the most basic Chidon track is extremely challenging (yes, that’s factually one in every five children). This would need to be different from the standard style of studying and test-taking. It would need to be designed to accommodate each child al pi darko. I don’t have a fully developed idea of what this would look like, but there are certainly creative, knowledgeable, and skilled people who could come up with something incredible.
Here’s the clincher: It is crucial that this alternative track be branded and treated and rewarded with the same status and pomp as the rest of the Chidon tracks.
Let me explain. When the Mitzvah Maven tracks were first introduced, they seemed to herald a breakthrough: inclusion. Children who can only handle a more basic study system still have the opportunity to participate in the Chidon, albeit with a significantly scaled-down reward system. But when a child struggles through their each and every day despite trying so hard, setting them apart in this way is utterly crushing. It sends them the message yet again that they have no place in the mainstream society. This is not inclusion.
Inclusion means to provide equal opportunity to those might otherwise be marginalized. And “equal” doesn’t mean “the same.” In this case, it means to provide each child with equal opportunity to succeed in expanding their Torah knowledge and strengthening their personal connection with each of the mitzvos according to the abilities Hashem gave them–and to celebrate this accomplishment together as one with all those who are united through their shared achievement. Isn’t that Chidon’s ultimate goal?
You might argue and say that this is all wonderful and fine—and very idealistic—but falls way out of the scope of Chidon’s mandate or obligations. After all, the word “Chidon” actually means “quiz” or “test.” It conjures the image of a rigorous intellectual and knowledge-based competition where only the fittest survive—who said it needs to solve all the world’s challenges?
I beg to differ. As illustrated earlier, the biggest piece here is that these children need to see and feel that they truly belong. With Chidon designed to cater to “every child, every mitzvah,” and being so deeply integrated into every Lubavitch school and community around the world (including that of the yaldei hashluchim), it cannot go so far as to ignore the silent cry of 20 percent of its constituents!
Just as the Rebbe taught us that in addition to the Four Sons there is a Fifth Son, I beg Tzivos Hashem to recognize the need for a fifth track. It will be then that Chidon can in fact live up to its mission of “every child, every mitzvah.”
P.S. Thank you, Tzivos Hashem, for being so open to and welcoming of my feedback and for giving me permission to share it with the public in this form.