You’ve heard the stereotype: Jewish parents are obsessed with education, hell-bent on finding the best schools for their children. Of course, like all hackneyed tropes, this one rests on an often-real foundation: most of us want our children to do as well, and as much, as possible.
But if you venture into certain Hasidic communities, another reality is operative. These communities seek to keep “outside influences” away from residents, leaving some kids in Borough Park, Crown Heights, and Williamsburg, Brooklyn; the Rockland County, New York cities of Kiryas Joel and New Square; and a growing section of Lakewood, New Jersey with scant knowledge of the English language or secular life.
According to Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED.org), a 5-year- old educational advocacy organization, this insularity is holding many communities back. In particular, they charge that some Hasidic Yeshivas are doing a tremendous disservice to youth, especially boys, keeping them from learning the skills they need to support them selves and their families. In fact, as the UJA corroborates, as of 2012 59 percent of Haredi (or ultra-Orthodox, of which Hasidim are a subset) families lived at, or below, poverty lines.
Equally disturbing, YAFFED reports that the NY Department of Education (DOE) has continually turned a blind-eye to these deficits, ignoring state laws that require private schools, including Yeshivas, to provide student with an education that is “substantially equivalent” to that of public schools.
This means that while yeshivas can certainly highlight Judaic studies, by law, they must also cover basic subjects like arithmetic, art, English, geography, gym, history, music, reading science, and writing.
The reality for many, is different. Avram grew up in Crown Heights and had little-to-no instruction in secular topics until he began studying for his high school equivalency diploma. Now a business administration major at Columbia University, he describes the challenges he’s faced as arduous, and says that he is still catching up both emotionally and academically.
“I always knew that there was an educational gap,” he told Kveller. “I somehow knew that I was not learning what other people were learning. My parents grew up in the secular world and I remember my mom sitting me down on the couch and teaching me to read English when I was pretty young. The rabbi had previously said that children would not learn English in school—we spoke only Yiddish in class–so that was it. We used English at home but my reading, writing, and spelling in English were basically non-existent.”
At age 12, Avram says, he began bristling at the rules and restrictions. “I would see clean-shaven guys wearing tailored suits and carrying briefcases and I wanted to be like them,” he continues. “I wanted to talk to girls, listen to non-religious music, go to movies.”
As his disquiet increased, Avram’s family sent him to a series of schools outside the NY metropolitan area. A different Yeshiva several hundred miles away allowed him to study for the GED exam. “I was really motivated and passed on my first try,” he says, “but I knew I needed to keep going.”
In 2012 Avram enrolled in a two-year Associate’s degree program at a public community college. “I graduated with a 4.0 index, but it always took me longer than others to complete assignments. When I got to Columbia, it really hit me. Most of the students had studied subjects like calculus in high school. I hadn’t, so I had no foundation. It’s been difficult, but I’m very competitive. If others can do it, so can I.”
Avram expects to complete his degree in 2018. But despite his success, he resents that he has had to learn so much on his own. This, however, has made him a “fan” of YAFFED and its agenda for other kids like him.
Naftuli Moster is YAFFED’s founder and Executive Director. “Thousands of kids—7.7 percent of New York City’s total school enrollment—are being handicapped for life by their Yeshivas,” he explains. Perhaps ironically, “Girls do a bit better than boys. Hasidic girls are not allowed to study Talmud and they can’t grow up to be Rabbis. They’re expected to earn a living and be homemakers. This means they’re given a basic understanding of secular subjects.”
Moster grew up in Borough Park, the 9th of 17 children. He was in Israel, he says, when he first acknowledged his lackluster education. “I was in my last year of Yeshiva Gedolah, 19 years old, and I suddenly noticed how much time was being lost. Officially, we studied from 6:30 am until 8:30 pm–Torah, Talmud Halakah—but really, there is only so much that boys can study. We’d hang out in the hallways, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, talking. It seemed like such a waste.”
Moster returned to Brooklyn about a decade ago. “I was 20, not yet engaged, so I got a part-time job and started at Touro College, in a program for Orthodox students. My parents weren’t happy that I’d enrolled but I wanted to be psychologist. I’d heard of an American in Israel who worked with the mentally ill and I thought this sounded very cool.”
Touro, however, was a shock. Terms like bursar, GPA, semester, and tuition were completely foreign. “Everything was new,” Moster says. “I remember hearing the word ‘artichoke.’ Artichoke? When someone asked me where I was when the OJ Simpson verdict was issued, I had no idea who OJ Simpson was. Then, in a biology class my senior year, after I’d transferred to the College of Staten Island, I heard the words ‘cell’ and ‘organism.’ I’d never heard them before.”
It was culture shock writ large and Moster became motivated to take action.
“I realized how insane it was that I was unfamiliar with such basic things,” he continues. When he learned that private school curricula are supposed to mirror those of the public schools, his rage turned to action and he founded YAFFED.
“DOE has its hands full running public schools, but they’re wrong to assume that since people pay for private schools they don’t need to pay attention to them. It’s outrageous that Hasidic Yeshivas for boys don’t meet even the most basic standards.”
What’s more, the problem is growing.
By YAFFED’s estimate, by 2030, 30 percent of Brooklyn youth will be Hasidic.
Yes, you read that correctly: 30 percent in 13 years.
As Moster repeats this stunning statistic, he reiterates his point: It is imperative that every Yeshiva teach fundamental skills to future generations.
It’s a message that Moster and YAFFED staff and volunteers repeat to every audience that will listen–in synagogues, at conferences, and before parents’ groups. YAFFED has also testified at City Council hearings and at DOE events, and has commissioned a moveable billboard to spread its viewpoint.
In addition, YAFFED’s first newsletter was recently sent to 20,000 households in Brooklyn and Rockland County. “Our phones rang off the hook after it was sent,” Moster says. “People wanted to know which rabbis were behind us. In these communities people don’t do anything if the Rabbis don’t agree and to date, none have gone public on this.” Still, Moster says that he is undeterred.
“We’re advocates,” he explains. “We constantly go after the DOE to push them to enforce state law. We’re helping the Hasidic community be self-sufficient.”
Moster admits that it’s not always easy to stay positive in the face of self-imposed segregation in many communities. At the same time, he says, change and progress are inevitable.