Wednesday, August 28, 2013

An Educational Failure

Getty Images via the Forward
If one wants to the understand the ultimate failure of Chasidic educational systems in places like Kiryas Joel, Williamsburg, and Squaretown - one need only listen to a few of its members who have bucked their system.  

I do not mean that they became irreligious. Not at all. They are probably just as religious as any other observant Jew. In fact they probably are still culturally Chasidic. At that level these places are extremely successful. Chasidim are taught very diligently how to be Chasidim.

Frimet Goldberger - a senior at Sarah Lawrence College and who grew up in this kind of environment has an enlightening interview (audio) about this in the Forward

Their rabbinic leadership places little if any value on a secular education. They vilify everything outside of their own world. Certainly a college education is vilified. But even the English language is vilified. Yiddish is the language they are first taught and the language spoken at home and in the schools. To the extent that they know how to speak English even in broken form is to the extent that they have probably learned it on their own - outside the home or the school. 

English is a 2nd language to them. Learning it well is discouraged in their communities... and barely taught at all in their schools. (Although I am told that this is improving). So even after they graduate high school their ability to read English is severely limited. In some cases as described in that interview it is a practically nonexistent skill.

English is considered a form of Chukas HaGoy. This is a law in the Torah that forbids Jews to practice non Jewish customs that can eventually entice them into idol worship. Satmar style Chasidus considers every non Jewish activity Chukas HaGoy. Which is one reason they dress the way they do.

This is the attitude with which every Chasidic student is instilled. If someone speaks English too well, he will be criticized for it as having trespassed into the realm of Chukas HaGoy. The only reason it is allowed at all is because even they realize that living in an English speaking land without understanding the language would be a huge handicap. But they better not speak it too well…

Their English reading skills are therefore dismal. Unless they are highly motivated to do so on their own, they cannot read a simple English language textbook. And their so called high-school diplomas are worthless as a means of entering college. They are not recognized at all – and with good reason.

And yet the Chasidim in this interview attend college.  But it was a struggle for them. One that with great effort they overcame. Imagine trying to get into a college without knowing how to read English.  Or even if they manage to get in - taking a class without having any reading skills. They have to learn how to read English before even thinking about entering college. And where are they going to learn it?

This is something I have been talking about for quite some time now. While Chasidic Rebbes do encourage their Chasidim to work for a living, their approach to secular studies prevents most of them from getting anything but the most menial of jobs.  Menial jobs do not pay enough to support a family, certainly not the typical size Chasidic family of ten or more children. This is corroborated in these interviews. The Chasidim in these interviews wanted to make a decent living and realize that a college education will improve their chances greatly.

I’m happy that there are now some organizations that - according to those interviewed - help Chasidim with no educational background get into college and thereby find better and higher paying jobs. But I am not sure how much support these organizations get for their leadership.

I don’t know the statistics. But my guess is that the percentage of Chasidim currently attending college is minuscule. But at least it’s a start.

I know that Chasidic rabbinic leaders are afraid of exposing their Chasidim to values which are foreign to Judaism – not to mention Chasidus. That’s why they condemn college. But what is their excuse for not giving their students a basic secular education in their own schools? How can they expect Chasidic men to make enough money to support themselves, let alone their large families without any secular education? How can they continue to be so strongly against it? Is living an impoverished life a Jewish value? 

Even though Chazal defines true wealth as being satisfied with one’s portion – there has to a portion of some kind to be satisfied with. Starvation wages is not a ‘portion’ for a family of 10 or more children. It is no Mitzvah to be poor.

And what about the dysfunction that so often results from living in such poverty? The romantic image of the poor but happy Chasidic family that can barely afford to put food on the table but nevertheless serves God in Simcha is for the most part a myth. Yes there are some exceptional families like that. I don’t believe that living an impoverished lifestyle forced upon a community by a poor educational paradigm will keep most of that community happy.

I have said this before. The growth of communities like these will continue, but their lifestyles of educational ignorance and utter poverty must eventually give way to better educations, better jobs, and integration into the mainstream.

If Chasidic Rebbes don’t get on board with this somehow, they may very well be left behind. I know it doesn’t seem like that now. If one - for example - only looks to the typical wedding made by a Chasidic Rebbe for one of his children, they will see tens of thousands of happy Chasidim as guests at that wedding, Maybe I’m wrong but in my view if the poverty increases – which it almost certainly will if their educational paradigm doesn’t change…  I don’t see this kind of fawning audience in the future.  There will be a rebellion. In fact if this interview is any indication – it may have started already. If these Chasidic leaders want to remain leaders they may very well have to change.