Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Breathtakingly Bad Attitude

What kind of education do these children really get?
My disagreement with Satmar on many issues – should not be construed as hating them or wishing them ill. I do not God forbid hate fellow Jews. On the contrary I love all Jews regardless of their level of religiosity to the right or left. Which is why I so often criticize Satmar. Especially in educational matters. I criticize them because I want them to do better. To be able to live materially better lives… and be better citizens.

As much as I would love to see them become  more assimilated into the real world, that is not my goal. I generally believe in ‘live and let live’. If Chasidus fulfills them spiritually, they should be allowed to continue to lead their lives that way. But at the same I still think they could vastly improve their lives materially with a little bit of tweaking. Or a little bit of prodding if necessary.

Which is why I have been harping so much about the lack of treating Limudei Chol (secular studies) seriously. As I’ve noted in the past, I support a bill in the New York State legislature that would enforce a law (already on the books for decades) that requires private schools to provide a curriculum of secular studies equivalent to what is required in public schools. There is not a doubt in my mind that studying those subjects has the potential for greatly enhancing the material welfare and improved attitude toward the outside world.

There is also evidence that a lot of Satmar Chasidim feel the same way privately about the lack of serious Limudei Chol in their schools. But they fear expressing those thoughts publicly. I don’t know what percentage of them feel that way. But I’ll bet there are a lot more than most people believe. Not only that but even prominent like Ezra Freidlander who are opposed to that bill, admit that that Satmar’s educational curriculum needs to be vastly improved, and have said so publicly . They just oppose the government getting involved. And accuse the people pushing for it having an anti religious agenda.  

Two significant articles have been published on this subject that are worth noting. One of them, (by Rabbis Yitzchok Adlerstein and Michael Broyde) is in opposition to the bill. But only on technical legal (or constitutional) grounds. Not on the goals that bill represents.

A more recent article in the Forward by Yitzhak Bronstein - a teacher of secular studies in their elementary schools - has a different take. Mr. Bronstien is speaking from experience and not speculating. He makes a strong case that an enforced secular curriculum is even more urgent than I ever suspected.  Here are some excerpts that - even if only  half true - paints a shocking picture of how Satmar indoctrinates their Chasidim: 
The secular education of my sixth-grade students this year consisted of one hour and 20 minutes at the end of the day, four times a week, dedicated to math and literacy through the federal Title 1 program for low-income children. Needless to say, after a full day of an intense Judaic studies curriculum, little attention remained in their young brains for secular subjects. Problems of focus were exacerbated by the widely shared sentiment that secular subjects represent “tum’ah,” or impurity, and “bittul Torah,” time that could and should be spent learning Torah. These feelings, shared openly by their rabbis and reinforced in various communal contexts, directly undermined my ability to teach in the little time we had together...
On days that my students were tired and disinterested in learning, they would bluntly reassure me that my presence was needed only so that the school would meet its obligations to receive state funding, and I shouldn’t be misled into thinking that I actually have to teach...
One especially disturbing attitude is their utter sense of disregard for individuals outside their community, such as the custodian who had to clean up the messes they left in the classroom on a near-daily basis. One afternoon I told my class a story about Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm, who insisted that the yeshiva he founded in 19th-century Lithuania not employ a custodian, in order to instill a sense of discipline in his students. Their response was that there was no need for that in their school, since the government was willing to pay a “goy,” whom they made clear to me was considered subhuman as a non-Jew and had nothing better to do with his time. 
Shocking! But I’ve heard this attitude expressed many years ago by the religious principal of a well known Charedi Yeshiva. One that has a decent Limudei Chol program through high school.

If this is the attitude instilled in the minds of young impressionable students, is it any wonder that even the non Chasdic Yeshiva world is moving away from decent Limudei Chol programs? Yeshiva high schools (non Chasidic) have arisen that openly brag about not having any secular studies programs. It is my understanding that some of these schools are held in the highest esteem by the Charedi rabbinic establishment since they teach only Torah all day long!

So it shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise that no establishment Charedi Rav supports that bill. Because that would go against a Hashkafa that considers Limudei Chol to be  Bitul Torah at best! Which breeds contempt by Satmar Chasidim – not only for secular studies but for non Jews as well. As described by Mr. Bronstein.

As I said at the outset, I have no issue with Charedim of any stripe. Let them live and be well to pursue their goals. Provided that they do not abandon common sense with respect to what it takes for an individual to support their families in the 21st century without resorting to welfare.  And provided they teach their students to see other people as human beings created in the image of God. But common sense seems to have gone on hiatus.