I’ve been going through some old files to make room in the closet, and found my old folder from my eighth grade “Sewing Course”. Sewing was usually the only class that didn’t involve sitting at the desk and taking notes. I find it really interesting to contrast this “special” (as such classes would be called in my son’s public school) with my son’s sevenths grade “specials”, which are of course music, gym, French and library.

The introduction states that the goal of the course is to be able to fix clothing to make it fit better and more modest.

Our particular course was to learn the various different approaches to filling a skirt slit so as to ensure it was modest. We had to write down instructions plus mini samples.

The "Skirt Pleat Extension"
The "Kick Pleat"
The "Center Pleat"
The "Pleat Insert Slash"

I probably couldn’t pull off any of this if my life depended on it, but then again, who remembers their high school calculus either.

There are posters everywhere – huge ones that can wrap a fat streetpost twice – inviting all men in the community to a Night of Rescuing our Education. This is an event that promises to bring “activists, rabbis, legal experts” to discuss the “Edict Against Education year 5779”. (This is a reference to the long history of decrees against Jews, from massacres to expulsions to intervention in religious observance, which are often referred to by the year; ie, “The Edicts of 4856“)

“Residents of Williamsburg awake!”
“What is our responsibility during this hour?”
“Do for the sake of the children of the community”


“The Edict of Education 5779”
“We will not allow Jewish children to get a goyish education”
“Fiery speeches by rabbis, activists, legal experts.”

One of the posters (which I’ll post if I get a chance to photograph) shows modern-orthodox looking kids in the backdrop, an ominous warning almost. It also promises in bold letters not only fiery speeches, but flam-feyerdigeh drushes, that is, the extra-hot-beyond-the-scoville-scale spicy speeches. In other words, here is a promise that this won’t be a boring committee meeting, but something inspiring, fiery, emotional – a rally of sorts! I almost want to go!

This extremely strong reaction from the Hasidic community doesn’t surprise me; I’ve long said that this is a raw nerve and antagonizing the community will mobilize the zealots. But what remains to be seen is if this will also inspire a counter-movement within the community and create a conversation about education reforms sorely needed, especially vis a vis updating how discipline and curriculum is done. We already saw the publication of a very, very insightful book by Katle Kanye in Yiddish on the subject. There is so much talent inside the community because of the high retention rate, that there are always things changing from within in some ways. I wonder if some things will quietly change while most every other ploni is too busy attending extra-fiery speeches to notice.

It’s really a question of: 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 the nineteenth century Europe. As soon as modernity reached Europe, Jewish “reformers” tried to urge the government to intervene with the lifestyle of these “unwordly” 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 hedarim. 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 de ja 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 forec 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 hedar 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.

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.

As a tour guide in Hasidic Williamsburg, I’ve gotten used to being asked this question. The first time I explained how Hasidim are educated – with all emphasis on religious learning – and I got this question, I didn’t expect it. Having grown up Hasidic I wasn’t used to thinking of education in the strictly vocational way that secular people think of it.

Apparently in the secular world, and that is everywhere (we have tourists from all over the western world) education is thought of as purely work training. People think they go to school only so they could earn a living. Twelve grades plus four years college, plus a masters, in order to peddle this skill or that product. It is fascinating that people have forgotten that you could learn things on the job. People assume that if you don’t have a formal education in something, then surely you are handicapped forever. But the world wasn’t always that way, and humans can learn things quickly.

There was a time when people learned skills on the job, and schooling had nothing to do with those skills. If you were to become a carpenter, you’d apprentice for a few years. If you had gone to the local one room schoolhouse, your elementary training would have done nothing for your carpentry skills.

It makes me ask: is work really what education is for? Just a job? Are you learning all these subjects only to sit at a nine to five? Shouldn’t education be for a greater purpose?

And why can’t people learn things without being taught explicitly how to do it? What happened to osmosis or adaptive skills or autididactic learning?

Here is the thing. In the secular world, people believe you can’t do anything if you haven’t gone through some formal training, paid money and received a paper to assert your qualification for that work. Nevermind that to get said paper you just need money for tuition and to show up. You just. Must. List. Degrees. Colleges. Proof.

But Hasidim have a different system. I was hired right our of high school without even a valid high school diploma. I was trained to do whatever work in the insurance office needed to be done, and ultimately did large group renewals. Everyone in our company had less than a high-school diploma. We operated in a world in which you were given economic opportunities just because you had a good reputation.

Some men got work through family at early ages, maybe at nineteen and by the time they were 24 were experienced and out on their own, successfully. Almost no one among Hasidim has heaps of student loans or years whiled away getting a degree. That gives these people significant advantage in the competitive economic market. Nevermind the advantage they have in their built in network that the community is.