Don’t Know Much About History: Inside The Battle To Improve Chasidic Education
A Jewish Week investigation into the fight for better secular education in chasidic yeshivas in NYC.
When Moshe graduated from his chasidic yeshiva in Borough Park two decades ago, he thought getting a job would be easy. After all, growing up, he was always told by his teachers that chasidic people are the most “desirable to hire.”
But with a secular education that ended when he was 13, he quickly found out how wrong they were. Unable to read English, and with only a rudimentary knowledge of math, Moshe discovered that the only work he could get was in a Jewish bakery. The hours were long and the pay low. And as a married man, he knew kids were on the way. He had to make more money.
So Moshe — who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of backlash from his community — decided to enroll in a computer programming course. But with his limited English, he just couldn’t keep up. He was advised to take an ESL class, but his 60-plus-hour work week got in the way; after a year, he dropped out.
Moshe eventually found his way, making ends meet by driving a taxi. But he feels the deficiencies of his education keenly.
“The most important times in my life, when I was supposed to get an education, I was busy studying their own things,” he said, referring to the six to eight hours a day his school spent on religious studies. “Never got a GED, never graduated high school and stopped English completely. And so I feel that the community failed us.”
Moshe is not alone.
The fact that yeshivas like the one he went to are neglecting to teach their students basic English and math — or any other secular subjects — is hardly a secret. However, the situation — highlighted over the last decade in a spate of books, articles and blogs about chasidic life — has only now captured the attention of public officials.
This summer, for the first time, the New York City Department of Education has launched an investigation into whether these yeshivas are meeting state requirements to provide an education that is “substantially equivalent” to what public schools offer. And on the heels of the DOE move, The Jewish Week and WNYC have learned, Daniel Dromm, the influential chair of the city council’s education committee, is pledging to hold the schools more accountable.
But reformers, led by a chasidic yeshiva graduate, face an uphill battle, hindered by the same forces that have caused government officials to turn a blind eye for decades. Their fight for better secular education turns on a number of thorny issues, including the separation of church and state, the cozy relationship between local politicians and powerful chasidic leaders thought to control significant voting blocs and questions about whether, in fact, those leaders are purposely neglecting secular education as a way to keep their followers in the fold.
‘Not a Single Word of English’
“At 13 kids get cut off completely from secular education and I mean completely. They start yeshiva at 6:45 or 6 and it goes all the way to the evening — 8 or 9 — and they don’t learn a single word of English, or science or math,” said Naftuli Moster.
“Imagine a boy coming out of the system. How are they going to know how to do a math problem? Or fill out an application?” he said. “I thought, It shouldn’t be like this. People should be given the basic knowledge to make their way in life.”
That so many of these young men find themselves so hindered in the job market is ironic because, with a 10-to-14-hour school day, chasidic teenage boys in neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Borough Park, spend more time in school than perhaps any other students in the city.
But nearly all of that time is spent on religious subjects; classes are taught in Yiddish and students study texts written in Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic.
After graduating from yeshiva, some chasidic men elect to continue their religious studies for a year or longer. They are typically supported by a modest stipend from the school, grants through the federal Tuition Assistance Program, or, if married, possibly by their wives or their in-laws.
It wasn’t always this way.
Growing Up, And Apart
Chasidim first began arriving in America en masse after World War II. Led by a few charismatic rebbes who had survived the Holocaust, they set about rebuilding the world they had lost in Europe. Men were encouraged to go to work so they could support their families (unlike their non-chasidic, ultra-Orthodox counterparts, chasidim did not have a tradition of full-time religious study for men). And even though post-war chasidic parents raised their children to speak Yiddish, they also got a solid secular education.
Over the next five and a half decades, Brooklyn’s chasidic population exploded, growing from what scholars estimate was roughly 50,000 in the mid-1960s to, according to the UJA-Federation of New York’s 2011 Jewish population study, 225,000 in 2011.
During that time, chasidic communities (with the exception of the Lubavitchers, who are known for their outreach to unaffiliated Jews) have also become increasingly insular and self-contained. Using a combination of communal charity and government benefits, they have built businesses, yeshivas and other institutions that, together, meet almost all of their needs. In 2013, the Avi Chai Foundation counted just over 100 chasidic yeshivas in the five boroughs with roughly 58,000 students — making it larger than the public school systems of Philadelphia, Boston and Detroit.
“You don’t have to go to the outside world,” explained a chasidic great-grandmother in a busy Borough Park shop. Like many chasidim, she values the strong boundaries her community has erected to keep outside influences at bay.
“You asked me what do we learn and, well basically, for the most part, No. 1 is to be a mensch, treat people nicely, be honest,” she said. “It teaches you, in my opinion, everything you need to know in life.”
Asked about Yaffed’s effort to bring more secular instruction into yeshivas, she said: “I know there are people out there making a bit of noise, but the majority is so terrific. And we’re so thankful for our insular world here because there is everything that we need here, it offers everything for the person.”
‘Below Grade Level’
According to former students and teachers, chasidic boys get the message that the secular classes — 90 minutes at the end of the day, referred to generally as “English,” even though it also includes math — are not to be taken seriously.
“Kids try to get away with trouble,” said Moshe, the cab driver. “They never try to take anything serious unless it gets seriously, strictly enforced.”
He described one June afternoon from his youth: “We really felt like the year was almost over, so we tore the books apart and we threw it at the teacher. We would never dare do something like that in Hebrew,” he explained, “because Hebrew we took it very serious … we studied the Torah and the Chumash until the last day of school. But English was more like, we did it just because we had to do it, you know? We didn’t gain much from all these years learning.”
“[On my first day, all] of the kids were at the closet where I was told the books would be,” said Greig Roselli, a writer and educator originally from Louisiana, who taught 4th, 5th and 6th graders English and math at Williamsburg’s United Talmudical Academy (UTA) back in 2010-11.
“But somehow they had opened the closet and taken all the books out and they were strewn all over the place. And I remember this little bitty kid was actually tucked into the top closet and he poked his head out [and yelled]‘Teacha!’ That was my first encounter. I was horrified. I had no idea what was going on.”
Roselli said that the students’ English language proficiency was well below grade level.
“For example, if I gave them a picture of a balloon and said I want you to write a story about this balloon…there might be two or three words that were readable.”
Roselli said that while the parents treated him with respect, it was clear that most had little interest in their children’s progress in secular subjects.
“Every year there was a parent- teacher meeting and only the fathers were there, and we were told to dress nicely and show up and that they would give us money. And they would always be like, ‘thank you so much for teaching my son, we really appreciate what you’re doing.’ But if I tried to talk to them about what their son needed work on” they tuned out.
Steve, who taught at UTA for five years but asked that his last name not be used so as not to jeopardize his work relationships, recalled an atmosphere where secular learning was considered of little, if any, value — something to be endured by the students until they reached bar mitzvah age and, in the eyes of the community, became men.
“They have a curriculum we fill out and certain times we give tests. And we give them the tests but it doesn’t really matter anyway because it gets thrown on some administrator’s desk,” he said.
He added that the kids performed “below grade level. It was many grades below level.”
Many chasidim, however, see this disregard for secular subjects as a mark of the community’s success.
“People talk about secular education as something [that was] necessary [in the founding years], but now that the community is able to thrive without it, it’s no longer necessary,” said Baruch, a young father from Borough Park who asked that only his first name be used because publicly criticizing the community can result in ostracism, or having one’s children expelled from school.
“There are many, many religious reasons why one needs secular education. I mean you can go through the Gemara all day and find examples of the use of secular science and secular ideas within the community and the importance of learning a trade and learning these things. Today, learning a trade means learning how to get Section 8 [federal housing subsidies] and get benefits.”
In fact, Baruch thinks that chasidic leaders would rather see their followers take government benefits and community charity than provide them with a good secular education.
“People in the outside of the community love to talk about how many charitable organizations we have,” he said, noting that such charity comes attached to some very tight strings.
“The chasidic community itself is causing people to not be able to work … and then they are providing them with this organization that comes in and says: we’ll solve your problem. … So they are like the mafia. … The same people who are running this organization are the same people who are keeping the yeshivas from offering better alternatives for people who want to have English studies.”
‘We Want Things To Stay The Way They Are’
Instead, Krakowski argues, the neglect of secular education is primarily about maintaining the chasidic way of life.
“[They would say], ‘We believe very strongly that this is the way things ought to be, and that it is good. And that our value, overridingly, is the religious tradition we have and we want things to stay the way they are,’” Krakowski said.
Many, like Yaakov German, a property manager and father of 12, agree and argue that knowing a lot of math or English is not necessary to be successful.
“I have five brothers. Each and every one of them opened businesses without going to any college, without anything,” he said on a bustling Borough Park street this summer.
“If you look at the real numbers,” he continued, “all the people that went to college and wasted 14 years, 16 years to get the grades and more scores, are not even making $50,000 a year. They wasted most of the years already where they were able to have already three homes.” (German is a local hero in the chasidic community for using footage from dozens of security cameras to help solve the murder of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky in 2011.)
Others are quick to note that if someone wants more job training, there are numerous ways to get it within the community. They point to programs like those offered by Machon L’Parnasa–a division of Touro College in Borough Park that holds classes leading to a certificate and/or associate’s degree in fields like accounting, desktop publishing and medical coding and billing–and the charedi umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America’s COPE Institute, which runs a highly regarded accounting course and provides free job placement assistance upon its completion.
Ezra Friedlander, a chasidic PR consultant and lobbyist who works with Agudath Israel of America, agrees that secular education — especially vocational — should be improved, but not if that means sacrificing the sheltered life his community has created for its children.
“Look, it’s a balancing act,” he said during an interview in his sun-drenched Borough Park apartment filled with Judaica and drawings by his three young children.
“As a father I’m concerned with the secular influence of society. I think secular society has failed us. And this is coming from someone that interacts and engages the secular world 24/7, almost, so no one can accuse me of being insular,” he said.
“Still, it’s a legitimate fear out there. And sometimes it comes at a price. And sometimes the price is less of a secular education,” he added. “I’m willing to pay the price.”
Change in Numbers
Whatever their motive, yeshivas that do not offer an education equivalent to that of the public schools — which includes teaching secular subjects until the age of 16 — are violating the law. Plenty of officials know this. But until this summer, none has taken any action.
The government response did not come as a result of the growing number of books and memoirs describing life in chasidic communities, nor the four years of letters, phone calls and meetings Yaffed’s Moster had with education and elected officials. Even the Yiddish-language billboards Yaffed put up in chasidic neighborhoods to raise awareness of the problem failed to elicit a reaction from officials.
What made the difference was numbers. This summer, Yaffed and its lawyer, civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, got the signatures of 52 former students, teachers and parents who asked for an investigation into claims of substandard secular instruction in 39 yeshivas.
No yeshiva administrators or chasidic community leaders contacted would comment for the story; The Jewish Week and WNYC, working together on this story, contacted representatives from the Satmar and Lubavitch school systems, the charedi umbrella organization Agudath Israel, the national yeshiva association Torah Umesorah as well as numerous chasidic yeshivas, including two of the largest: Williamsburg’s UTA, where Steve and Roselli taught, and Yeshiva Machzikei Hadas Belz in Borough Park, Moster’s alma mater.
But some individuals have spoken out publicly against Moster, who, because he no longer lives in the chasidic community, is viewed by many within it as a disgruntled troublemaker.
Friedlander, the PR consultant, says he believes secular education needs to be improved, but that it has to happen from inside the community, not by an outsider like Moster.
Moster says personal attacks like these, and the threat of being ostracized, are exactly what keep people quiet, and make change from within an unrealistic goal.
He believes the only way change will happen is through government enforcement. But he — and many others — thinks politicians are afraid, too.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Care
Baruch, the young Borough Park father, thinks it’s pretty clear why elected officials have looked the other way: Votes.
“The voting bloc is so strong. It means a lot to a lot of elected officials. … And the community really stresses that it’s very important for us to vote in a bloc because that’s where our power is,” he said.
Just after Yaffed hired Siegel last fall, the former ACLU director sent a letter to the mayor, the governor and city and state education officials asking to meet about the issue. He never heard back.
“What was remarkable is that in all the years that I’ve been doing what I do, when you write a letter to elected officials and appointed officials of that stature, you get a response,” he said. “The only thing that I can conclude at this point, and maybe I’m wrong, is that the fear is a political fear, that [the chasidic community] is politically powerful to the point that elected officials, including the governor, the attorney general and the mayor of the city of New York are not prepared to confront this issue.”
Yaffed and Siegel tried again in February, this time sending the superintendents overseeing the districts with chasidic schools a list of 27 specific yeshivas that should be investigated. Again, they heard nothing.
It was not until July, after Yaffed sent its letter boasting 52 signatures and citing 39 yeshivas, that the Department of Education finally promised to investigate, a story first reported by The Jewish Week and WNYC.
The Councilman Stands Alone
But the city’s decision to rely only on documents provided by the schools has concerned education advocates, like Queens Councilman Daniel Dromm, who chairs the council’s education committee.
“We can’t have students leaving schools in New York City that can’t speak English, that have no idea of science or history or social studies,” he continued. “That is not allowed by the state and we cannot continue to allow that to happen anywhere in the state.”
He said that if the DOE probe doesn’t expand past documents, he will use his authority as the education committee chair to conduct his own investigation — with site visits, student interviews and possibly a public hearing.
No other city or state education official would speak on the record, but Mayor Bill de Blasio sent The Jewish Week a statement vowing “zero tolerance” for subpar secular education at chasidic yeshivas. Three weeks later, Williamsburg Councilman Stephen Levin issued his own statement defending them by saying he’s “visited yeshivas in Williamsburg and [has] seen secular education taking place first-hand.”
The more than a dozen other politicians The Jewish Week and WNYC contacted either did not respond to multiple requests for comment or declined to comment. They include Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and Midwood Councilman Chaim Deutsch, who chairs the education subcommittee on non-public schools. The list also includes the six city and state officials representing Williamsburg and Borough Park.
Dromm said he’s not surprised.
“I think a lot of people are afraid of the vote, particularly as it relates to chasidic and Orthodox communities. And I understand the politics of that,” he said. “However as an educator, a New York City public school teacher for 25 years before I got elected to the council, I feel that we cannot allow a situation that ultimately would amount to abuse, or neglect, of students.”
Because Kids Don’t Vote
Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton, an expert on church-state issues, agrees that this kind of political pandering harms children.
“What this tells you,” she added, “is that children don’t vote and these politicians don’t care.”
Indeed, advocates for reform have expressed concern over Mayor de Blasio’s close ties to the chasidic community, pointing to the mayor’s fulfillment of a campaign promise to drop the unpopular parental consent forms for the controversial circumcision ritual known as metzitzah b’peh. In the ritual, a mohel sucks on a newborn’s penis to draw out the flow of blood, a practice that has been linked to the deaths of two infants from the herpes virus. He also streamlined the reimbursement process for special education, something Orthodox groups have been strenuously lobbying for.
At a campaign stop in Williamsburg a few days before the 2013 mayoral primary, a Satmar leader described de Blasio as having “a proven record of sensitivity to the Jewish community.”
“We have no doubt that Bill de Blasio will continue to prove himself loyal to our community when he is in City Hall,” he said. “He’s an honest man, a true and trusted friend who will make a great mayor.”
Some people think that loyalty — and a desire to be re-elected — may be the reason the city isn’t making school visits or student interviews a part of its probe.
One possible sign they may be right is the DOE’s stonewalling of the The Jewish Week’s Freedom of Information (FOIL) request for public documents relating to past complaints about chasidic yeshivas. It has delayed its response for five months, citing the “volume and complexity” of the “requests we receive and process.”
De Blasio spokesman Wiley Novell said the mayor’s relationship with the chasidic community has no influence over the DOE’s decisions regarding the yeshiva probe. “The state law is very clear,” he said, that when the DOE gets a complaint, it must investigate and, if necessary, “and enforce corrective actions to ensure students are receiving a strong and equivalent education,” he told The Jewish Week via email. “And the Department has followed those rules to the letter. No one is above the law, and everyone is held to the same standard.”
At a campaign stop in the upstate Satmar enclave of Kiryas Joel during the run-up to his first gubernatorial election in 2010, a Satmar leader introduced the soon-to-be governor by saying, “You didn’t come over here for an endorsement, because this community would have endorsed you regardless. … We wanted to let you know that we are family.”
In his first year in office, Cuomo pushed through a bill making millions in tuition aid available to rabbinical college students. This was part of the same budget that cut funding to public colleges and universities by 10 percent.
On the eve of the 2014 election, Cuomo received $90,000 in donations from Orthodox realtors in Brooklyn and this May, days after he vetoed a bill aimed at stopping the expansion of Kiryas Joel, he received $250,000 from a network of companies linked to a developer from the upstate village.
Cuomo’s press office did not return messages requesting comment.
‘But We Need More Money’
Some fear that these close political relationships will lead to a push by yeshivas to secure more government funds, something some members of the community have already begun to argue is necessary to improve the quality of secular education. And indeed funding was a topic of discussion on a recent broadcast of Talkine, the popular Orthodox radio show hosted by Zev Brenner.
Henya’s comment reflects the concerns of many private and parochial school parents who feel strapped because they not only pay taxes for public schools they don’t use, but private school tuition for their own children.
But there are those who argue that more funding would not necessarily address the problem, and that it would also raise serious constitutional issues.
“As a general rule, the government cannot fund religious institutions and that applies not just to the yeshivas, but the parochial Catholic schools and any Muslim schools” as well, said Norman Siegel.
In practice, this means that yeshivas in New York get millions of dollars from the city and state, including funds for things like school nurses, textbooks, busing, lunch programs, special and remedial education and universal pre-K.
In fact, according to state education department documents, New York City’s Jewish schools received just over $51 million this year in state funding, or .18 percent of the Department of Education’s total budget of $27.6 billion. In addition, they have an estimated $57 million due to them for state-mandated programs in past years.
Chasidic yeshivas also get tens of millions in federal dollars, including Title I funding for schools in low-income districts, Title III funding for English-language learners and even funds for computer and Internet technology.
However, Marc Stern, an attorney for the American Jewish Committee who specializes in church-state issues, says the scant secular education offered by so many chasidic yeshivas has little to do with money.
“The objections to extensive secular education are primarily ideological. They are not primarily financial,” he said.
“If the question was, were the science classes taught in up-to-date labs with microscopes and fancy DNA sifting equipment and so on, then money is the answer,” he added. “If nothing is taught where a history course can be taught for the price of a textbook and the state subsidizes it, if that course isn’t offered at all, that has very little to do with money.”
Stern added that, “If somebody were to offer Satmar a million dollars a kid you’re still not going to see arts and humanities courses.”
Over the years, there has been little oversight of all this money going to the chasidic community. And there have been cases of fraud.
In 1993, the federal government disqualified 20 chasidic schools associated with the Satmar and Lubavitch groups from receiving Pell grants because of “widespread” fraud, including providing the names, high school diplomas and Social Security numbers of students who didn’t go to the schools, according to the New York Times.
The city’s Department of Education “acknowledged that its own staff had for years ignored reports from an educational accreditation council that the schools were ‘avocational’ instead of ‘vocational.'”
In 1997, six chasidic men were indicted on charges of using fraud to steal tens of millions of dollars in student loans, business assistance and housing subsidies.
Two years later, a group of chasidim was convicted of funneling millions in federal aid to religious institutions and private bank accounts. That was the same year a Williamsburg principal pleaded guilty to giving dozens of chasidic women no-show teaching jobs.
And in 2013, The Jewish Week discovered more than a dozen chasidic yeshivas were reaping tens of millions to fund non-existent computer and Internet technology.
Cardozo’s Marci Hamilton says misuse of government funds is not unique to one community and that, “The problem with every government funding program is that there are those who will take advantage of it and expand the categories well beyond what the government intended.”
None of these issues — the power of the chasidic voting bloc, the misuse of funds or the challenges of governmental oversight — is lost on Yaffed’s lawyer, Norman Siegel. And he is well aware that politics could derail the effort to ensure that chasidic children are getting the kind of education mandated by law.
“This is a hot political issue. It’s radioactive,” he said.
But Siegel also believes that depriving these students of a secular education is a violation of their rights. And that ensuring that the law is enforced is the right thing to do.
“When it comes time for elections, this should be an issue that people should be aware of. And for elected officials in high positions who ignore the violation of civil rights, history says that sooner or later, they’re held politically accountable.”
Williamsburg and Borough Park photos by The Jewish Week (see captions below). All rights reserved.
Hella Winston is special correspondent; Amy Sara Clark is deputy managing editor. The story was made possible by The Jewish Week Investigative Fund. This story is the result of a joint investigation between The Jewish Week and WNYC.
Photo Captions (in order):
1. Borough Park. Michael Datikash/JW 2 & 3. Williamsburg. Michael Datikash/JW; 4. Holiday wear in Borough Park. Amy Sara Clark/JW; 5. Yiddish and Hebrew children’s books in Williamsburg. Michael Datikash/JW; 6. The UTA school where Steve and Greig Roselli taught in Williamsburg. Michael Datikash/JW; 7. After school in Williamsburg. The Jewish Week; 8. In Williamsburg, it’s common for chasidic children to wear matching outfits. Michael Datikash/JW; 9. PR consultant and lobbyist Ezra Friedlander points to Hamodia’s weekly supplement for kids as an example of English educational materials available to them. Amy Sara Clark/JW; 10. Yaffed founder Naftuli Moster. Michael Datikash/JW; 11. Yaffed’s latest billboard, in which the children tell their father that they want to study secular subjects. Courtesy of Yaffed; 12. Councilman Daniel Dromm. William Alatriste/NYC Council; 13. Crown Heights. Michael Datikash/JW. 14. Williamsburg. Michael Datikash/JW; 15. Williamsburg. Michael Datikash/JW 16. Borough Park. Amy Sara Clark/JW; 17. Williamsburg. Michael Datikash/JW; 18. Pre-holiday shopping in Williamsburg. Michael Datikash/JW.