Thoughts on the NYT exposé on Hasidic education

Thoughts on the NYT exposé on Hasidic education

This week, the NYT ran a major exposé on its front page, top of the fold, Sunday edition. In it, it revealed that while Hasidic boys get barely any secular education, the schools receive funding for various government programs. Thousands of infuriated readers responded by leaving comments on the Times online, accusing the community of stealing their tax-paying dollars to fund what they consider to be child abuse. I read all the comments and found the debate quite interesting, if not predictable.

Here is my perspective on this saga.

As a result of this article, and articles like this, millions of people around the world will associate Hasidic Jews with impoverished, cultish lives. I know this because I come in contact with enough people as a tour guide in Hasidic Williamsburg and Boro Park to get a sense of how deeply their perceptions are formed by such articles. When they see a Hasid on the street or the subway or at the doctor’s office, they think: illiterate tax burdens who can’t earn a living. The single line from the article that will most shape public perception is this:

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.

The argument laid forth by the Times is simple and easy to absorb: Without basic English skills, Hasidic kids are uneducated, and therefore spend their lives living on the dole. Many people are under the assumption that Hasidic men go on to study the Torah for their entire adulthood. This misconception is often reinforced by people who speak from a place of knowledge, like when Naftuli Moster, the founder of the organization Yaffed and the biggest voice in the push for government intervention, told the Washington Post that “Every boy is groomed and destined to be a rabbi of some sort.”

But the problem is that there are two parts to this story: one about the issues of Hasidic education and one about the Hasidic economics. These two have been intertwined in the public mind. The critiques of Hasidic education almost always involve claims of poverty, illiteracy, and government dependency.

But these are actually two separate pieces that should be analyzed closely. We can’t simply assume that one leads the other, but rather, we should unpack each.

Part I: EDUCATION

I believe that issues with Hasidic education do exist, and a lot of criticism is warranted. I know many people who are satisfied in the Hasidic system in general and have no interest in leaving, yet are pained by aspects of the education. I especially hear complaints that the boys are not being taught English and some rudimentary curriculum, and in cases of corporal punishment. Many have told me that they quietly hoped that organizations like Yaffed would successfully force improvements, even while they dislike the ways in which this organization animates resentment toward the community. Other parents said they felt validated by the media coverage because they felt very powerless themselves.

And I would argue that Hasidic parents’ dissatisfactions would have — and probably already have — created change. It is inevitable. This community is going through a tremendous internal transformation brought on by changing economic, technological, and social variables. And a part of the change is a gradual shift in how education is executed.

The days of old, angry rabbis who walk around the classroom slapping a ruler against a palm are phasing out. Today’s parents largely want a different kind of school experience than the harsh education they had, and the expectation of parents creates a trickling change. I watch Hasidic boys file on to buses daily, and I see kids as young as two and as old as twelve, and from where I stand the teachers are paternal and gentle.

In fact, I believe that the explosion of the entire Hasidic education debate, including with the support of people from the community — as for example with the publication of Katle Kanye’s book in Yiddish — proves exactly this point. Parents want younger teachers, more exciting teachers, better summer programs, more special events to liven up the curriculum, and the school responds. Change happens. The conversation that we see in public is proof that things are changing because a call for change itself is change.

Cover of Yiddish book denouncing the community’s education standards

The question that remains is whether involving the government and forcing change through the legal system helps, hinders, or is neutral. I have had this debate with many people, especially in 2018 when I wrote an article for Tablet Magazine asking if the Hasidic community can change. Almost everyone I spoke to at the time argued that government oversight would directly or indirectly improve things. Meanwhile, I disagreed. I believed that forcing the schools’ hands would mobilize a reactionary movement that would probably cripple the natural pace of change. In 2018, in response to the question of why the education standards aren’t enforced, I wrote:

“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.”

It is impossible to prove one way or another. I will never know if I was right or wrong, but I think it is now clear that rattling the hornet’s nest is not without its risks.

And indeed, the activism to force change ignited a significant counter-movement. Whereas when this issue first came to the fore some 7 or so years ago, Yaffed naively thought it would just ask the community to change; things are now in a state of pure animosity between the community and Yaffed. I remember how, when the organization started out, they advertised on billboards in neighborhoods like Boro Park, urging schools to change its ways because it’s a Mitzvah. One billboard read: “Is your son receiving instruction in: English, math, science, history and geography? Speak to his principal or school administration today!” People I spoke to thought it would be effective, like any campaign to raise funds for charity or drive people to vote. They didn’t anticipate that the reaction would be a war cry.

In the early days of Yaffed, it naively expected community cooperation

Now the mood is so very different.

Williamsburg is teeming with posters against the terrible decree to change Jewish education. Multiple organizations have been founded now for the very sole purpose of fighting back. Years ago I documented various street posters as I watched the counter-response form, but by now it’s just massive and not only on the streets but also online (with online petitions), and I stopped bothering to record them here. It will be interesting to see if, in the battle that will ensue, defensive organizations will quietly create change to prove a point or if they’ll dig their heels in.

Counter-offensive poster

A recent prayer event to fight mandates

One organization that cropped up is Pearls, and they put out a lot of videos.

Part II: ECONOMY

The second half of the argument, however, is one I take issue with. The argument that Hasidim are all unemployed rabbis is blatantly false on its face. There is quite a lively and growing economy within the community, much of which I’ve documented over the years. I did one video on the Hasidic mom-n-pop shop economy, and a lot of people found it eye-opening. I’m hoping to follow that up with a new video (out now here! https://youtu.be/UXXOGYqbK5o) on the larger economic story. I think it’s an interesting story. I think it challenges our assumptions about what skills really do lead to economic success.

There is so much to be said for the Hasidic economy, but I think that what’s true without a doubt is that the majority of Hasidic men work — some with more success than others — but generally there is a healthy economy in the neighborhood. The New York Times stories in which we hear of people who struggle enormously do not represent the average person. It is, I think, misleading to pick out the people who struggle without portraying the big picture.

It’s also important to make a distinction between those who struggle within and those who struggle after they leave. Any society needs to prepare its children for adulthood in their own society. Hasidic parents do not prepare their children for a secular adulthood, and neither do secular parents prepare their children for Hasidic adulthood. I do agree, however, that if you leave Hasidism and try to enter the secular workforce, you’ll find yourself without any of the needed preparations and at brutal disadvantage.

I can tell you this from personal experience. I’ve dealt with crushing poverty for years, despite working incredibly hard, and I believe strongly that if I had been raised in a public school, college track system, I would have had it easier. I have a son in the New York City public school system, and I see how he is being prepared for life in a way that, if you did not receive this preparation, leaves you crippled. For instance, the capacity to take tests and move through the enormous bureaucracy or receive credentials is made much easier for him because of the support he receives in school. Anyone who skipped all the steps he had, and has a language disadvantage on top of that, and often even has children to support, is bound to struggle greatly.

I believe this struggle reflects just as badly on the secular system as it does on the Hasidic system. It simply shouldn’t be this hard to make it on the outside. It shouldn’t. Something is amiss when hard-working, ambitious people set out to try to rebuild a life and find themselves roadblocked in every direction. And while it’s easy and gratifying to blame that on cultish communities, I think oftentimes this depressing situation calls for a better look in the mirror.

~ ~ ~

One final note:
* The article opens with a mind blowing statistic: “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.”

That’s an incredible statement, and something this incredible really needs to be better unpacked rather than just having it sit there for the shock value. Hasidic kids are not illiterate or stupid. Who took the tests? What tests? Why was there not a single student of the thousand who could, maybe by luck, pull off a passing score? What did the test check for? What was the school’s approach to the tests? We all know that school admins are masters at gaming the system, and that schools benefit financially from being classified as underperforming. Did that play a role? What kind of cultural and language barriers were at play? Would comparative tests be administered to communities with other primary languages?

I think data from tests could be very interesting, but it’s important to really place it in its cultural context or else it is mere shock value.

** I also wondered how they came to the number 50,000 children. That seems low to me. If Williamsburg has some 100,00 residents, and almost half are minors, the number in schools would be substantial in Williamsburg alone.


Related:

In conversation with Gerry Albarelli, former Hasidic boys’ English teacher

Is the Hasidic community poor?

Why Hasidic boys’ educational standards are not enforced

Street posters in Hasidic Williamsburg: on secular education

Street poster: “Satmar’s economy is thriving”

19 Comments
  • Moshe
    Posted at 12:40h, 13 September Reply

    Central UTA students didn’t take the test which resulted a 100% failure

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 12:43h, 13 September Reply

      Well, first of all, we can’t take people’s word for it so if the tests weren’t taken, we need some way of substantiating that. And then, can someone explain how that happens? Did they hand in a bunch of blanks?

  • Josh
    Posted at 13:10h, 13 September Reply

    One thing I always found interesting was that why be scared of teaching math and sciences? The Rambam was a master physician and master of Halacha, that is someone that should be bolstered to Hasidic boys. Some of these Hasidic boys could be great professionals and give back to the community without sacrificing who they are. Some of them are already owning businesses in tech, real estate, and finance.

    I agree the NYT agree had its good things and bad things, but most of could it will probably spur more anti-semitism.

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 13:26h, 13 September Reply

      There are many reasons why they are so resistant to change. Change, especially towards Americanization, threatens their whole way of life in an age where it is extremely difficult to retain unique cultures because of globalization and it’s homogenizing effect. In general, this culture is a tightly interlocked system of elements that keep change out. If the curriculums change in a serious way, it would have a tricking effect. For instance, if kids can be doctors and lawyers, then they’d have options to move out of the community for work, thereby defusing the power of the local economy. A lot more could change with a changing education than meets the eye.

  • Dooet
    Posted at 14:21h, 13 September Reply

    …”then they’d have options to move out of the community for work, thereby defusing the power of the local economy.”

    Here’s the deal.
    I need you crippled, so you can’t run away.

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 14:35h, 13 September Reply

      Definitely one way to put it!

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 14:44h, 13 September Reply

      If you are going to say the hasidic system is designed to keep people from leaving you 100% won’t get an argument from me.

  • naftali weiss
    Posted at 15:01h, 13 September Reply

    @josh, I am a Yeshiva graduate and I can tell you they we are not afraid of math, we teach basic math in our schools, Frieda you know that, in regards to science I think its pretty self explanatory why as a religious community we would be afraid of science, at least the way they teach science in the secular world.

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 15:07h, 13 September Reply

      I think by basic math he means a full curriculum of maths, not just a little nibble here and there.

  • naftali weiss
    Posted at 15:52h, 13 September Reply

    I don’t think the reason for that is because we are afraid of math, there is nothing dangerous in algebra, its just that we only teach the subjects that are important for every day life of an average person. don’t you think so?

    By the way, sorry for starting with the comments, but I just read the article and as always you have the unique advantage of being in the inside and on the outside, of understanding, and criticizing, unlike other OTD’s who unfortunately only have the criticizing part,

    I am just wondering, you are writing – between the lines – that even though corporal punishment has lessened in recent years it does still exist, so I am wondering, as a public school parent, is corporal punishment non-existent in public school, because in yeshivas its down to a minimum, so are we really significantly different than public schools in that area?

  • Tovia Lefkowitz
    Posted at 03:52h, 14 September Reply

    Great article Frieda.

    As a Satmar Chasid I respect your honesty and unbiased analysis.

    Unlike many that left the Hasidic community and like to trash on the so called ‘System’, you cut through the noise. I respect your decision to change your way of life which was far from easy. You got my vote! 🙂

  • Laura Sie
    Posted at 08:44h, 14 September Reply

    Frieda, I thought of you when I read this in the Times! Did you see their contact form? I think you would be a great resource for journalists to interview, and it wouldn’t be amiss to have your name and ideas in print for your business and your upcoming book…
    Scroll to the bottom for the contact section, and do let us know if they reach out to you! I have long hoped to hear your voice in the mainstream press as well as here in the blogosphere.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/11/nyregion/hasidic-yeshivas-schools-new-york.html

    Your ‘internet friend’ from Vermont,
    Laura

  • Mary Morgan
    Posted at 10:13h, 14 September Reply

    Hi Frieda,

    I’ve read your blog for many years now and generally appreciate your measured approach. (I’ve also been on one of your tours 🙂 I disagree with your characterization of American education being primarily about getting certificates and passing tests. There is real knowledge that is being imparted that allows those not in the Hasidic community to take on professions in medicine, engineering, architecture, etc— bodies of knowledge that the Hasidic make use of but nonetheless don’t train their children to access. Don’t you think that those fields are valuable? The Hasidic seem to think so, in making use of them. Wouldn’t it then be valuable to train their children to be able to access them?

    Mary

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 12:31h, 14 September Reply

      That’s a very interesting perspective and I really appreciate what you’re saying. Let me think on it.

      • Frieda Vizel
        Posted at 13:18h, 14 September Reply

        Mary, I reread your comment and it’s interesting that you point out that Hasidim value certain things that they don’t train their children themselves. I think that can go for many people. But I didn’t categorize American education as merely about certification, especially specialized education. I do think that education should be about more than career readiness, but I don’t see medical schools, for instance, as in any way extraneous to practicing medicine. Hasidim don’t go down those paths themselves for various reasons, but they have other paths. And I’m not disparaging in any way the path to for instance learning neurosurgery.

  • ah yid
    Posted at 18:15h, 15 September Reply

    Ms. Vizel You hit the nail on the head when you write Any society needs to prepare its children for adulthood in their own society. Hasidic parents do not prepare their children for a secular adulthood, and neither do secular parents prepare their children for Hasidic adulthood. What you wrote is really a synopsis of the entire issue. When Jerold Nadler says, “it was clear that some of the Hasidic schools were “utterly failing.”” and then Satmar gives out a statement Our schools hasn’t produced a murderer. This shows that YAAFED, The SED, and the NYT are talking about apples, and we are talking about cucumbers. There is no discussion here. We’re not on the same page. Satmar points to the very successful business expo they had in June and the SED looks at test scores. The main problem I see is that Yiddish is not only the first language English is frowned upon. This is not a school issue this is a cultural issue. No matter what the SED decides, the problem with English test results will always be an issue as long as parents speak to their children Yiddish and children speak to their friends only Yiddish. A few hours of English a week is not changing anything. A Second problem, the yeshiva world in general say, that our learning in the morning is worth more than all the secular topics you want us to teach. By learning gemara we develop thinking skills, analytical skills, even writing skills. We learn moral and ethical values in gemara, chumash, mussar..The SED doesn’t even consider what we learn in the morning of any value. Third, I am not Satmar, But I have been in one of the Satmar yeshivos the last few years. First of all, in the building I work in there are cameras in the hallways, lunchroom and even the classrooms. No one is hitting a kid today. Alot has changed in the last 20 years in all aspects of chasidishe yeshivos. There are teacher training courses geared to chasidishe rebbeim. Fourth most people I spoke to believe the SED look at frum jews in general and chasidishe people in particular as primitive, backward, and outdated ts their job to bring us into the Woke society of 2022. They won’t stop with English test scores, and they won’t stop with our children reading books like Hester has two mommies G-D forbid. They want us to learn their morals and ethics. We know from history Jews never capitulated to those who wanted to interfere with our school system or Torah teaching. You only have to go back two years ago when especially in in chasisidishe communities they reopened the yeshivos clandestinely. If the SED tries to force their curriculum on the chasidishe yeshivos they will somehoew find a way around it.

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 18:54h, 15 September Reply

      Thanks for a very interesting comment.

  • j238nyc
    Posted at 10:24h, 30 September Reply

    The necessary change can only happen with effective government enforcement. No loopholes. No spineless politicians.

  • j238nyc
    Posted at 10:31h, 30 September Reply

    “Hasidim don’t go down those paths themselves for various reasons, but they have other paths.”

    Consider that. Hasidic children are entitled to the opportunity to make that choice and they are being deprived of that due to educational neglect.

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