Thursday, March 13, 2014

Where Will it Lead?

Satmar Chasidim inside a Williamsburg Shul
I wonder what it will take for the mainstream Charedi world to see that the direction it is educationally going in is not in their best interests materially or spiritually.

Frimet Goldberger has written about her reaction to a Lev Tahor video (below) depicting children unable to answer the simplest of questions asked to them. Not just because they don’t know the answers. But because they don’t even know English well enough to understand what the questioner was asking them.

Lev Tahor for those who don’t know is an extremist Chasdic cult. Ms. Goldberger describes them as follows:
Lev Tahor is a small fundamentalist Hasidic sect that has made its home in an isolated area in Chatham, Ontario, in rows of identical houses. The community of roughly 40 families, led by their Jim Jones-like leader, Shlomo Helbrans, made the headlines recently as children were removed from their parents care by Canadian child protection services, citing neglect and physical abuse…
There are very few people (outside of the members of that cult) that see Lev Tahor as legitimate. They are an extreme distortion Judaism and Jewish values. In my view and in the view of many their leader, Moshe Helbrans should be locked up.

Nonetheless it is no coincidence that they model their lifestyles after Satmar type Chasidim. Their appearance is indistinguishable from them. I'm sure that Satmar type Chasidius is the model they strive to 'improve' upon. This is not to say that they are in any way connected to Satmar or that Satmar approves of them. I’m sure they don’t. But whether Satmar likes it or not, they are the model for Lev Tahor – only they have taken Satmar values to absurd and even dangerous extremes.

One of those extremes is the way their young people are educated in order to be able to function in the 21st century. To put it bluntly, it does not exist. So isolated are they that they can barely understand let alone speak English. That is Lev Tahor. But as Ms. Goldberger notes in her Forward article, the children of the Satmar village of Kiryat Joel and to a lesser extent Williamsburg are not all that much ahead of Lev Tahor in that department.

While they may speak and understand English, they fall far short of its proper usage and would pretty much respond to the questions asked in that video the way the Lev Tahor children do. Their language priority is Yiddish. That is what is mostly spoken in Satmar communites and it is the first language they learn. English is their second language. And they speak the language with a pronounced foreign sounding accent that is in many cases full of grammatical errors and improper syntax.

I don’t see how anyone like this can get a decent job in the 21st century where speaking skills are so important. Which explains why they have such a high poverty rate. And yet they are like this by choice. This is how they are raised. This is what their culture requires of them. 

I’m sure that there are many exceptions that do learn the language well and go on to get the education they need for good jobs. But the poverty level of the community as a whole speaks. While they do get a good Torah education, most are unable to get good jobs because they lack the basics required of them for them. I don’t know how other Chasidic groups treat secular education. But my guess is that in most cases it isn’t all that different than Satmar.

In Israel, this attitude prevails in the entire Charedi world – Chasidim and non Chasidim alike. They may speak the native language of Hebrew fluently. But other than that, they are just as illiterate as their Satmar type Chasidic counterparts in America. I’m not going to rehash what I’ve said about it in the past. Many times. Except to say that thank God the Israeli government is trying to do something about it. I hope they succeed.

What worries me is what is happening in non Chasidic Charedi world in America. When I was growing up, a good secular education was a given. No Lithuanian type Charedi Yeshiva would have ever dreamed of not offering the best secular education they could. The Charedi day school I attended in Detroit surely did. So did Telshe Yeshiva where I attended my fist two years of high school. English, math, science, history, civics, and more were all a part of the curriculum in Telshe. We even studied Shakespeare in Telshe.

Doing well in secular subjects was a given for us. Homework was assigned. We had to study for tests.  We had term papers… Even though the majority of the day was spent in religious studies - most of us took secular studies as seriously as we did religious studies. And even though Telshe was opposed to college, they prepared you well enough for it. That’s why many former Telzers were able to find good careers in the professions.

But in the ever increasing move to the right, that is changing. Lakewood’s premiere high school in Philidelphia used to be known for its excellent secular studies program. Philly’s then co-Rosh HaYesiva, Rav Elia Svei was reported to have said that if we are going to have a secular studies program, it is not Mitzvah to waste your time in it. But late in his career I’m told that R’ Svei changed course and forbade his teachers from giving homework.

There seems to be a trend away from secular studies now even in American Yeshivos. Ner Yisroel Rosh HaYeshiva R’ Ahaorn Feldman once got up at a Torah U’Mesorah convetion and blamed the secular studies programs in American Yeshiva high schools for not producing any great Talmidei Chachamim. He compared his 16 year old  grandson in Israel (who knew something along the lines of every Tosphos in Kesuvos by heart) to the typical American Yeshiva High school student knew. And added that his grandson was typical in Israel. He recommended creating a Yeshiva high school for the brighter – more motivated students.

Despite his assertion that this kind of school would be limited to the best and brightest - if his ideas were implemented in large scale it would mean the end of secular studies in American Charedi yeshivas.  Because who doesn’t think their own children are the best and the brightest? Parents would be tripping all over themselves to get their kids into those schools, that would increase demand and before you know it, such schools would become the norm. Thank goodness R’ Avrohom Chaim Levine of Telshe responded by standing up for secular education in Charedi high schools - which he said has always been the policy of Telshe.

But the truth is that it is happening anyway. Lakewood has many high schools that do not offer any secular studies at all. The trend in Charedi Jewish education seems to be going the way of Satmar and Israel.
I have written many times about the ‘New Centrists’. These are growing communities of moderate Charedim and right wing Modern Orthodox Jews who have decent careers and jobs because they were able to get the kind of education that helped them achieve that.

But if the trend away from secular education continues, where are the New Centrists going to get their future members from? There are over 6000 students in Lakewood now - and increasing in number every year. Most of them have high schools diplomas. Some of them will go on to get a higher education and good jobs. But will mainstream Charedi children who lack any secular high school education at all - start answering questions the way the Lev Tahor kids did in that video? If that happens, there will be very few decent paying jobs for them in the future. That will almost certainly increase their poverty. And if anything can cause Shalom Bayis issues and family dysfunction poverty can. And there is nothing spiritual about that.