Why Hasidic boys’ educational standards are not enforced

Why Hasidic boys’ educational standards are not enforced

A reader asks: Why aren’t Hasidic boys’ education standards enforced?


This is one of the frequently-asked-questions on my tour.

The question really is: if the NYC Department of Education cares, what can they do?

Hasidic groups have a long history of fighting changes to their education, going back to nineteenth-century Europe. As soon as modernity reached Europe, Jewish “reformers” tried to urge the government to intervene with the lifestyle of these “unworldly” Jews and to demand certain rudimentary educational requirements.

The Hasidim saw this as an attack on their faith and began a long tradition of resisting by all means: they would try political intervention from behind the scenes but they would also stubbornly refuse to comply. If it meant the closure of schools, so be it. They would not give in to the attacks on their faith.

From “Hasidism, a New History”:

The supporters of Enlightenment (Maskilim) wanted to reconcile modernization with the retention of unique features of Jewish identity: religion, the Hebrew language, and cultural ethnicity. They advocated secular education, “productivization” (steering Jews into farming and the crafts), and integration with the surrounding Christian society by abandoning traditional Jewish dress, language, and separatist customs.

There were many many instances of Government requirements that rudimentary secular studies be taught in Hasidic chedarim (schools). The book chronicles such instances in Russia, later in Poland, Hungary, Galicia. The results were mixed, but the more zealous Hasidic sects fought this by all means.

Hasidism’s efforts to maintain its power amid the radical changes taking place in modern Jewish society depended heavily on the preservation of its traditional educational system, and its premier institution—the heder (plural: hadarim)…

Often the intervention by Jewish activists met complete resistance.

The unrelenting attempts of the Maskilim and Russian government officials to monitor the hadarim [Hasidic boys’ schools] and introduce changes met with vehement opposition by all the ultra-Orthodox circles. In 1893, the government recognized the futility of this battle and gave up on intervening in the traditional education, which from then on was defined as “private religious guidance” under the jurisdiction of the home and not of the public education system.

When I was a kid, stories of persecution of our faith were all in one category, be they threats that were physical or spiritual. This was one of the biggest genres of children’s books: stories of threats to the Jews (say, by evil gentile decrees, to either rob Jews of their faith or of their lives). We heard dramatic stories of Jewish kids who were forced home from school because of the work of evil-doers. I remember a picture in one of our Dertzeylung Fun Tsadikim Yiddish children’s book (I would have to see if I can find it ) that depicted a Hasidic yeshiva with big planks nailed over its doors, distraught villagers, and the ruthless Czar’s soldier’s (I think it was the Czar) gloating and laughing in triumph.

Today, with the activism by Yaffed (an organization that is agitating the government to force Hasidic yeshivas to provide rudimentary secular education) I see a lot of Deja Vu; both in the philosophy of the activists and in the resistance by yeshivas.

Here is a call to the government to force changes in Hasidic education circa 2015 and on:

What I think is: knowing what we know about how deep-seated an issue education is for Hasidim, what can the secular department of education do? Lock Hasidic schools? Punish the schools with trials and fines and a lot of actions that will bring to mind the traumas of religious intolerance of the past? Re-enact the Russian nightmares and reinforce a deep persecution complex? Fine the parents? Fine the administration? Which way can you turn this that won’t make the Hasidim resist harder – and hurt the children?

I’m in a minority opinion here. Many people have argued that if you force Hasidim’s hand, withdraw funding and punish them, they will adapt. I can’t see it happening. Not with such a loaded, sore issue.

Not surprisingly, the Hasidic community is already conflating religious intolerance in Czarist Russia with the efforts by the State of New York and the ex-Orthodox activists.

Street posters recently went up in Williamsburg alarming people of the terrible ‘gezeyerehs’ (anti-semitic decrees) of the past and warning people that when Jews caved to secular authorities and added secular studies, major yeshivas went under. I translated the poster here:

August 14th, 2018

On the other hand, this lovely Yiddish book came out this month, maybe last. It is a really beautifully written, intelligent work. At its core is an appeal to parents in the Hasidic community to wake up to the situation they send their children to. It argues with parents who are very modern, who know modern psychology and are with-it and twenty-first-century parents. It asks parents to realize the problems with the chedar model in general, not only secular studies. I think change from the inside will go much, much further. I also think that all this agitating from the outside will stunt changes from the inside, but again, that’s my very-much minority opinion.


The Hasidic local economy

The Christmasification of Chanukah

Street posters: fighting back to preserve Hasidic education

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1 Comment
  • chaim weiss
    Posted at 01:26h, 08 April Reply

    Its interesting to see how you , like many other liberals and fans of “freedom”, loose your whole liberalism when it comes to the hasidim, the rabbis arent allowed to tell you which tights you have to wear but you can tell them what suffices for education.

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