It is no secret that innumerable children in New York are not being adequately educated. Among them are, for example, Black and Latino children growing up in Brownsville, The Bronx and other inner city enclaves — children whose educational achievement is thwarted by a toxic mix of substandard schools, racism, poverty, and lack of opportunity.
But what largely is a secret — or at least not widely appreciated — is the woeful state of education of tens of thousands of Hasidic (ultra-religious) children attending many of the Jewish parochial schools in New York City, Rockland County, and Orange County. I am a graduate of one those yeshivas, now working on behalf of an organization that is trying to get the problem more widely acknowledged so that it can be remedied.
The problem is particularly acute among Hasidic boys. Those under the age of 13 receive only about six hours per week of secular education and only in two subjects — English and arithmetic. The rest of their school day is taken up with religious studies. No science, no history, no geography, no art, no music, no computers. And after the age of 13, these boys receive no secular education whatsoever, despite being in school from seven in the morning to eight at night. This is, of course, in violation of New York law, which specifies a wide range of subjects to be taught in all schools — public, private and parochial. But New York’s education officials have been slow to address these yeshivas’ flouting of the law, despite being aware of the problem for years.
A result of this situation is that Hasidic boys typically leave high school with limited spoken and written English skills, and have virtually no prospects of gainful employment in the secular world. The further result, then, is that many of the Hasidic community’s often large families are “on the dole” — supported with tax dollars in the form of housing subsidies and other public assistance.
The insularity of the Hasidic community exacerbates this problem in a number of aspects.
For example, young people in the community are not allowed access to books, movies, newspapers or media from the outside world. They lack even the most basic knowledge of the United States government. Their understanding of other cultures is very limited, despite living in the heart of one of this country’s most diverse cities. The effects are crippling once Hasidic boys reach adulthood and discover that they are largely unable to navigate the broader world.
Another consequence of Hasidic insularity is that those on the outside know precious little about what is going on in these communities, and so Hasidic children are not protected by the watchful eye of the public. The media is generally unable to verify information or to speak to school administrators or teachers. The public thus remains unconcerned and elected officials are not held accountable.
Many who I have spoken to have expressed doubt that the problem is as real or as pervasive as I know it to be. For example, some have asserted that the unsatisfactory schooling in the Hasidic schools is not unique because many public schools are struggling as well. However, public school educators do what they can under trying circumstances. Their curricula certainly include all of the state-mandated subjects. By contrast, the yeshivas of which I speak flout the law and intentionally and affirmatively keep these subjects out of their curricula. Only basic English and arithmetic until age 13 and, after that, nothing!! It’s not that these schools are unable to follow the law and teach the required subjects. They just don’t think they need to. Indeed, to this point they’ve gotten away with it.
Others blame the children’s parents, asserting that parents can simply choose not to send their children to these schools. Yes, in theory the parents could choose to send their children elsewhere. The reality is, however, that these schools are integral to the fabric of the Hasidic life that these parents themselves were brought up in and that they cherish as adults. Few individuals have the fortitude to buck the tide and risk being shunned by the rest of their community. This is not to excuse these parents for failing to do what’s right for their children. But for the rest of us to simply blame the parents and walk away from this problem is to abandon those who are the most vulnerable and are real victims here — children who have no option but to go to school where their parents send them. Indeed, the education laws were put in place to ensure that children get the education that they need to function in modern society despite parents’ possible indifference.
Finally, some have argued that many Hasidic Jews are successful despite their unsatisfactory education. Yes, some are successful, but they are the exception. The majority of Hasidic families cannot make ends meet on their meager earnings and must rely heavily on public assistance.
The solution is simple: Insist that the City and State of New York enforce the law. However, that has proven to be easier said than done. My organization has had some success in heightening awareness of this problem, but we need a serious outcry and support from the public in order to force New York’s education establishment to enforce what the law requires.
Naftuli Moster is the Executive Director of Yaffed, a non-profit organization committed to improving the secular education in ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Yeshivas in NY and abroad.