September 13, 2022 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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.