My two sons, ages 13 and 15, were both born and raised within the U.S. Neither of them can speak, read or write English.
My sons live in the insular, Yiddish-speaking chasidic world, and their schools provide them with no general studies education. From early morning until late in the evening they are occupied with one thing only: Torah study.
During three of their elementary school years, my sons had occasional after-school “English” classes during which they learned the English alphabet, how to read single-syllable words, like cat and bag, and elementary arithmetic — addition and subtraction, mostly. Now, past bar mitzvah age, that too is over.
I have not seen my sons in years — they have become alienated from me after my own choice to leave the chasidic world — but I miss them dearly, and worry about them often. I can do little to help further their education, though.
According to a report in this newspaper last week, chasidic schools receive millions of dollars in government funds and are required by state law to teach a curriculum that is at least “substantially equivalent” to what public schools offer. According to the report, however, chasidic boys’ schools, or yeshivas, usually teach only the very basics of English and math, and in some cases, not even that.
Science, literature, art and most other subjects in the state’s mandated educational curricula are almost unheard of.
Is there any hope for change?
In July, a letter of complaint was submitted to the city’s Department of Education, signed by 52 people, including former students, parents, and former teachers, naming 39 yeshivas in the New York area whose curricula fall far short of the state-mandated norms. The complaint was delivered by Yaffed, a city-based organization founded by Naftuli Moster, himself a product of the Belz chasidic yeshiva in Borough Park, and who now advocates for education reform in chasidic schools.
In response, the DOE announced it will investigate the schools listed, although as it turns out, the “investigation” will involve no more than asking yeshivas to respond in writing to a list of questions about their curricula.
Predictably, some within the chasidic community are already pushing back. Ezra Friedlander, a chasidic public relations consultant, has attacked Yaffed and its work, even as he acknowledged that the changes they propose are both necessary and fair. His main problem: blame the messenger — Yaffed, and presumably, the DOE. Friedlander simply won’t have outside interference into how the chasidic community runs its schools.
I am not unsympathetic. The chasidic community is trying to maintain a cherished lifestyle within a world that is largely hostile to its values. As a former chasid, I know and understand the fear of outside intrusion in schools — institutions seen to be primarily fulfilling a sacred duty. But I also know that on this issue, change will not come otherwise, and the situation is dismal enough to warrant outside intervention.
My sons, if their paths are to follow the pattern in their community, will likely be married before their 20th birthday. Birth control will be forbidden, and they will be expected to have large families, for whom they will have to provide, despite their minimal education and lack of marketable skills.
In time, they will learn — on their own, in a manner typical of immigrants — to read and write English, though they will struggle, and achieving any level of proficiency will be unlikely. Their families will almost certainly have to rely on public benefits —Food Stamps, Medicaid, Section 8 — to get by.
This is not mere conjecture; this is a pattern that has persisted for decades among a large portion of the chasidic community in the New York area. (Similar situations exist in chasidic communities in Israel, the U.K., Canada and elsewhere.)
My sons’ community, the upstate Village of New Square, provides even less secular education than most — but not by much. My own education in a chasidic elementary school in Borough Park was Ivy League by comparison, and still I entered adulthood woefully unprepared for life in the modern world.
The case for government intervention isn’t complicated. Lack of education directly correlates to greater poverty, and so it is no coincidence that some 63 percent of chasidic Jewish families in New York City are poor — and this estimate does not include communities like Kiryas Joel, in Orange County, among the poorest towns in the country.
While some chasidic individuals find success despite their meager education, particularly in the fields of entrepreneurship, vast numbers are forced to rely on government benefits to get by. In some communities, couples apply for Food Stamps and Medicaid right after marriage as a matter of course.
Those who would excuse the current system are doing these communities a disservice. They have either not seen or remain oblivious to the many young chasidic men, who, after fathering several children, go out to seek jobs but cannot write basic English words, cannot compose a basic letter of business correspondence,and cannot speak in full coherent sentences using the language of this country.
I have seen the helplessness and the poverty that results from this situation, and later the searing anger on the part of a number of these young men for being deprived even the most basic skills needed to provide for their families.
According to Yaffed, the majority of chasidic parents wants better secular education for their children, but feels hopeless about the possibility of meaningful change and are fearful of being shunned for speaking out.
One thing must be made clear: This is not about a community’s right to religious freedom. So far, chasidic communities have not made the case that their religious beliefs forbid secular studies; in fact, in a twist of sexist irony, girls, who are not obligated to study Torah study, receive instruction in secular studies that is vastly superior to that of boys, and proves that the study of secular subjects is not anathema to its world, only to its boys. The end result, however, is the institutionalizing of ignorance and poverty not out of principle but out of neglect. Chasidic leaders simply don’t see the issue as a priority, and elected officials are too timid to poke a reliable electoral bloc with enforcing the laws.
And let’s make no mistake: It’s the law that’s currently being violated, and going unenforced. Average citizens don’t get exemptions from laws they dislike or find inconvenient. They can either lobby to change the law, or comply. Chasidic schools must do the same, and city and state officials need to start doing their jobs by making sure of it.
Shulem Deen is the author of the memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return” (Graywolf Press).