Friday, September 08, 2017

Education Denied

Orthodox Jewish families in Borough Park, Brooklyn (New York Times)
One must accept the truth no matter who says it. And yet the truth is often ignored or even lied about by community leaders with an agenda that hurts their own people. All while believing it actually helps them. 

The truth is that the Judaism places the highest possible value on Torah study. No knowledgeable Orthodox Jew would ever dispute this.  The problem is that in Charedi circles that belief is expanded to exclude all other studies. The thinking is that since there is so much Torah to study one cannot ever complete the study of all of it. In pursuit of that goal, Torah has to be studied full time to the exclusion of everything else. Other studies will reduce the amount of Torah knowledge that could have been gained.

This was in fact the rationale used by Rav Moshe Feinstein when he was asked whether one is permitted to attend college. How then do we explain that in America at least, so many Charedi elementary and high schools have relatively decent secular studies program for a sizable portion of each day?

The answer to that is bit complex.  But I think the primary reason is a that when most of the Charedi schools in America were founded, no parent would send their child to a school that did not offer a secular education along with religious studies. So in order to get started and survive (and finding nothing inherently wrong with secular studies) they offered it for the greater good of educating their populace Jewishly. There is not a doubt in my mind that without these schools, Orthodoxy would today be in decline rather than in ascendancy.

Rav Eliya Svei – founder and Rosh HaYeshiva until his death of The Philadelphia Yeshiva had always defended their past excellent reputation by saying  something along the lines of the following: If your going to have secular studies, it is no Mitzvah to waste your time. You might as well learn something. 

Reading between those lines however makes it clear that he considered it a compromise he would rather do without.  When the Charedi world got stronger and more Yeshivos proliferated – some of them not offering any secular studies,  his yeshiva watered down those secular studies by among other things, no longer allowing homework.

The paradigm of not offering any secular studies is how Israeli Charedi high schools operate. In America, a variety of the large Chasidic community also do not offer secular studies. Including both Satmar and  Chabad. 

In Satmar and Sqvere, none of the high schools have any secular studies at all.

And although Lubavitch/Chabad has many fine schools that offer a decent secular program, it is only for the same expedient reasons that the more mainstream non Lubavitch schools do. Their late Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn  dictated that it is preferable – whenever possible to eliminate all secular studies and offer solely a curriculum of religious studies. Chabad’s elementary school in Detroit has no secular studies. And neither does their high school here in Chicago. The same is true for Oholei Torah, their school in Crown Heights. 

Except for girls. Secular subjects are studied by girls in all of the above mentioned scenarios - proving that there is nothing wrong with that - and that there is even value in knowing those subjects.

I need not go into details why I believe this situation is extremely harmful to them. I’ve done that so many times that I’m beginning to sound like a broken record. Besides, it should be obvious to anyone what a lack of education does to one’s financial future.

But is is also harmful to all of Orthodox Jewry. When there are so many Orthodox Jews that believe that secular studies should – in the ideal – never replace any religious studies it hurts us all. We are all one community that supports one another.

In the Yeshivishe Charedi world, there are still options for parents that want their children to get a good secular education. Albeit decreasingly so as the race among Charedi schools to ‘outfrum’ each other increases.

No such option exists in the more insular segments of the Chasidic world. Even though deep down, a lot of parents have come to realize that this does not bode well for their children’s future. Which is why Naftuli Moster created YAFFED (Young Advocates For Fair Education). 

Naftuli grew up in a closed Chasidic environment. When he left it, he found out just how much education he was lacking. Now wants to correct that situation. He’s been trying to do so for at least two years. And he is being condemned by his former community as well as many outside of that community for doing so. 

The claim is that he is no longer religious and that his real agenda is a vindictive one that seeks to destroy his former community. That is why, say Moster’s antagonists he has gone to the authorities to get action on his goal. They probably see him as a Moser, an informant who is seen in Judaism as one of the most vile people a Jew could be.

I can’t read his  mind. I do not even know if he is still observant at any level. But I can certainly see that the goal he seeks is not destruction but salvation. Two years ago when this issue heated up Ezra Freidlander one of their political and public relations activists, acknowledged that a problem exists. But he claimed that it should be dealt with internally. And certainly not directed by a ‘Moser’ like Moster.

Which brings me to a recent article in the New York Times. Two years ago New York’s Department of Education said they would investigate charges that these schools did not live up to their requirement of offering a substantially equivalent curriculum to that offered in public schools. 

YAFFED claims that Mayor Bill deBlasio and his school chancellor, Carmen Farina have been turning a blind eye to this. Even though they promised to take swift action, they have ignored the problem allowing these schools to continue to function as before. What about Freidlannder’s promise to change things internally? I guess he was kidding. Or lying. Or completely deluding himself. To the best of my knowledge nothing has changed.

What about the claim one often hears that the curriculum offered in public schools is of no real benefit to their future financial welfare? (For example what purpose does knowing American history or Euclidean geometry serve in that respect?) And the claim that they learn culturally – kind of by osmosis - what they need to know to survive? 

First, it isn’t only about the particular subjects. It is about the skill acquired in studying them which are valuable in getting a higher education leading to a better job. As for their financial welfare, one need not look any further than statistics that show the Satmar Community of Kiryas Joel to be among the poorest cities in the nation. Or to look at what proportion of them get government financial aid. Or the propensity to skirt the law bordering on (if not outright) welfare fraud in some cases.

I hate to see the government get involved in religious education. Which is the claim of those that have opposed scrutiny by New York’s Department of Education. But this is not that. This is the government doing its duty – keeping its obligation to the public to assure that all citizens are given a decent education. And to make sure that any financial aid given to them by the government is used as intended – complying with the conditions that money is distributed to them.

I’m not sure what the next step will be. But I’m pretty sure that nothing there will change, regardless of what the government does. Government officials will never stop funding them. That would be political suicide. Which is unfortunate. Since the real losers will be the children.