Street signs in Hasidic Williamsburg: on secular education

It’s always interesting to watch the rotation of street posters in the streets of Hasidic Williamsburg. You can get a sense off of them what the most zealous members of the Hasidic community are busying themselves with, and you can see if their campaigns create change. Take the posters about smartphones and the internet. They have been everywhere, warning people about the problems with these devices. With time, I began to see a shift in smartphone use in public. Now nearly everyone in Williamsburg uses a flip phone in public. I am sure this doesn’t tell us the whole story, but it certainly speaks to how the Hasidic community continues to adapt and change in response to the change on the outside.

This new street sign is not about technology. It’s about education. I’m guessing it is a response to the efforts by activists like YAFFED who have been taking legal action to demand more secular studies for the education among boys. This subject has gotten a lot of attention over the last year or so. I’m sure it was the catalyst that led the blogger Katle Kanye to publish a work in Yiddish on the subject of boys education. (Katle Kanye was so kind as to send me a “reviewer’s copy” of his book and I just finished reading it. It is a really beautiful work, although I’ve had some criticisms on his ideas. Maybe I’ll write a review of it in the near future)

So far, most of the community’s response to the efforts to force the government to demand a broader education curriculum has been to counter the lobbying with their own quiet lobbying. This led to the passage of a provision in the New York State budget that relaxed some of the rules of government oversight, in other words, it was seen as a victory by the community. But clearly this continues to be a concern and it must have prompted the appearance of this poster all over the streets.

Here is the translation:

Why did the Yeshiva of Volozhin close?

In year 1887 the government demanded to bring secular subjects into the Yeshiva of Volozhin and they reluctantly gave in on just a minuscule of the conditions:

  • Only in a building “outside” of the Yeshiva.
  • A gentile teacher taught only the Russian language for 2 hours a day 
  • Of the 400 students of the yeshiva, only about 50 students joined the program.
  • In reality, only 15-20 students attended and they were already married.


Five years later, in 1892, the Maskillim (reformers/Jews who agitated for the change) reported on the Yeshiva (to the government) and then the government came and more firmly demanded more hours of secular studies. Then the rabbis decided to lock the yeshiva and not even negotiate with new concessions.

The rabbi Chaim Berlin, the son of the Ntzi”v (Rabbi Naftuli Tzvi Yehuda Berlin), the rabbi who all his life fought for the pure education of his father’s will recounted that his father told him before his death: 

“The reason why it came to it that the yeshiva had to be closed was because in the beginning they gave in a sliver, and because they gave in it came to a complete shutdown.”

And therefore the Ntzi”v warned his son to stand guard and not to allow in the mixing of secular with the holy in yeshivas.

We’ll stand for pure education, without negotiations!

Per Wikipedia, requirements by the government to increase secular education was the reason given at the time as well.

I have recently been particularly interested in understanding how the Hasidic mythology, its telling of Jewish history, plays a key role in the building of faith and preservation of its way of life. Stories like the one in Volozhin are powerful cautionary tales. And when it comes to expanding education, there is plenty of history to refer back to. When I read about these stories of the Russian government’s efforts to modernize religious education and the role Jewish activists took in it, I am overcome with a sense of de ja vu. It raises the question of how American values and laws will affect the trajectory of this old conflict.

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