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The scandal of Hasidic education — a cry from the heart

We are reeling from the report on Hasidic education. We needed to hear about this and we need to help repair it.

In this Sept. 20, 2013, file photo, children and adults cross a street in front of a school bus in Borough Park, a neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York that is home to many ultra-Orthodox Jewish families. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

(RNS) — I have been struggling with this column for two days.

In fact, I was not sure I would actually write and publish it — until almost this very minute.

But, I determined that I cannot not write these words. For I write these words more in sadness than in anger; more in hope than in embarrassment.

This past Sunday morning, the Jewish world awakened to a New York Times article — on the front page, above the fold — about the massive educational failures at Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) schools in New York.

When I say “awakened,” I do not only mean from a restful sleep. I mean, awakened to a disturbing social reality that many of us had known about and simply brushed over.

The failures center on secular education — or, rather, the lack of secular education. There has been a self-imposed, woeful ignorance in secular subjects that has unfolded in plain sight of several political administrations.

In short, it is an educational horror. The mere fact that many students do not learn English adequately means they will not be able to function in American society. This has crippled generations of young Jews — many of whom then fall victim to any number of social woes.

To wit:

In 2019, the school, the Central United Talmudical Academy, agreed to give state standardized tests in reading and math to more than 1,000 students.

Every one of them failed.

Students at nearly a dozen other schools run by the Hasidic community recorded similarly dismal outcomes that year, a pattern that under ordinary circumstances would signal an education system in crisis. But where other schools might be struggling because of underfunding or mismanagement, these schools are different. They are failing by design.

The result, a New York Times investigation has found, is that generations of children have been systematically denied a basic education, trapping many of them in a cycle of joblessness and dependency.

That cycle of joblessness and dependency has produced its grim results. Consider the demographics of two Haredi towns. Kiryas Joel in Orange County has both the youngest median age in New York and the highest poverty rate in the United States. New Square, in Rockland County, is the poorest town in New York.

Consider the words of Shulem Deen, who left Haredi society, about his discovery of the very existence of the local public library:

I returned several times to that set of encyclopedias, and the children’s librarian, a pleasant middle-aged woman, began to notice me and smile when I entered. Suddenly, I felt self-conscious: a grown Hasidic man sitting each day on the tiny orange chair at the green-and-yellow tables. So I moved on, hesitantly, to the adult sections upstairs, where the encyclopedias were heavier and denser, with fewer illustrations, the different sections like a maze in which the purpose was not to find the way out but to linger and stroll into each dead end and to gather as many treasures as possible along the way.

For Shulem, the very exposure to secular knowledge was like an eye-opening trip to a foreign country.

You will be quick to say: “Rabbi Salkin is just a Reform rabbi. He is opposed to traditional Judaism.”

You would be wrong. Anyone who knows me, and has read my writings and has heard my sermons, knows of my deep respect, and even admiration, for traditional Judaism. I count Orthodox rabbis and scholars, both men and women, among my most honored teachers. Those who know me would know my deep, pervasive commitment to klal Yisrael. They would know my love of all Jews.

Neither is this a critique of Hasidism. I have massive respect for Hasidism — as a religious system. I frequently pepper my sermons and educational programs with Hasidic teachings.

No, this is about Hasidim — or, some Hasidim, or to be even more precise, their leaders.

This is not about how they practice their Judaism, which is their sole concern.

Rather, it is about how they function in the public realm. It is about how they intersect with, and interact with, the modern world. Those schools are receiving public monies. Because of that, they are accountable to secular authorities and to the public itself.

The other day, Tablet published an article by Liel Leibovitz, defending the Hasidic community and its values.

He writes:

The community that runs these schools produces individuals who grow up in multigenerational homes, live close to and support each other throughout life, raise children, live according to their virtues, and spend their days doing things they love and believe are of the utmost importance. As a result, they are happier.

I support those values. I admire how those communities take care of their own. I like happy people.

But, Liel (whom I respect and whose other writings I admire) titled the article “The Plot Against Jewish Education.”

No. The New York Times article is not a plot against Jewish education. There is no pernicious plot against Jewish education — the idea of which is just another example of pervasive conspiracy theories.

Let us be clear: What we are seeing in those Haredi communities is not a sweet, romanticized view of traditional Judaism. This is not “Fiddler on the Roof.” This is not even “Shtisel.”

This is something dark. This is the willful perpetuation of social pathology at the hands of Jewish leaders.

Some of you will say: “Well, that’s The New York Times for you. A bunch of Jew haters and Israel bashers. What else would you expect from them?”

No, not quite.

To be sure: Numerous observers, over decades, have sensed that The New York Times has long reflected an ambivalence about Jewish issues, especially Israel.

But, this isn’t it.

Consider that The New York Times also published this article in Yiddish. That is both unprecedented and heroic. It is a shofar blast to to the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic community.

The Yiddish version is saying to that community: Wake up. Your educational system is cheating your children. It might be preparing them to be Talmudic geniuses. It might be preparing them to debate RASHI and Ibn Ezra and other commentators. As Seinfeld would have put it, in a different context: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

But, it is not preparing them for life in the modern world.

Some of you will say: “There you go — imposing your modern, Western values on these people!”

I am sensitive to the diversity critique. I embrace the fact that the various tribes that constitute America have different values and emphases.

And yes, the Hasidim are free to reject the modern world and its many temptations. (I, too, have been a critic of many elements of modernity, though living squarely within it and reaping its many rewards.)

But the utter rejection of the best parts of modernity; the rejection of education; the insistence of living not in America, but in an imagined, reconstructed shtetl out of the 1600s — which, again, is their right — these actions come with a price.

The price is that they are condemning their children to poverty.

Worse than that: they are showing the world an image of Judaism that is distorted and inaccurate. They are feeding the real antisemites — not The New York TImes reporters, not the Jewish critics — a plate of raw, unkosher meat.

Finally, the way this Jewish community is handling education is contrary to classical Judaism.

The sages of the Mishnah, the ancient code of Jewish law, put it this way (Avot 2:2):

 

Rabban Gamaliel the son of Rabbi Judah Hanasi said: excellent is the study of the Torah when combined with a worldly occupation, for toil in them both keeps sin out of one’s mind. But study of the Torah which is not combined with a worldly occupation, in the end comes to be neglected and becomes the cause of sin.

To study Torah at the neglect of a worldly occupation is the cause of sin. We are now seeing the results of that sin.

Here is the good news: New York City Mayor Eric Adams has said he will complete an investigation into the state of secular education in Hasidic schools.

Moreover, The Washington Post reported that New York state officials have proposed new rules that would require private schools to prove they are meeting state education standards.

And yet, already, certain sectors of the Jewish community are circling their wagons. They are crying “antisemitism!” and bringing the fire and brimstone that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah upon the Gray Lady and those who resonate with her findings.

I understand their loyalties, but this must transcend such loyalties. This is the season of teshuvah, of repentance, of introspection — of saying where we have gone astray, and of reaching out to our fellow Jews and helping them.

You love the Jews? Good.

Help those Hasidic communities fix this.

It is not yet too late.

Let us hope they will, in fact, do that.

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