Friday, December 29, 2017

A War Against Yeshivos?

Rabbi  Aaron D. Twerski
I am a fan. I am full of admiration - not only of Rabbi Aaron D. Twerski, but of his entire extended family. (At least the ones I know about.) I don’t  think it would be lying to say that my own education in both religious and secular studies pales in comparison to his.

Rabbi Twerski is a devout Chasid that descends from a long line of Chasidic Rebbes.  He is also a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and former Dean of Hofstra University Law School. Unfortunately he is not typical of the community from which he stems. The more extreme of which (e.g. Satmar) eschews the kind of secular education Rabbi Twerski both received and teaches.

I mention this in light of an article he published in Crain’s New York Business. Therein he defends the current paradigm of Yeshivos now being attacked for lack of providing any secular education to their students.

This subject is not new to me. It is one that is dear to my heart. It is a subject that cause tremendous grief. Not because the system is being attacked. But because of what the attack is all about. Which is the above-mentioned lack of a secular education for their children. Who - except for the truly gifted among them that can catch up - grow up lacking the tools needed to get the very education Rabbi Twerski himself received.  Added to this is the generally very negative attitude among Chasidim about attending college altogether – in most cases.

Rabbi Twerski describes the financial successes of a variety of Chasidim in various fields. Chasidic entrepreneurs like the owner of B&H Electronics.  He is a Satmar Chasid that accomplished all of this without any secular education. His success and that of other Chasdic businessmen like him is attributed to the critical thinking skills one learns through the rigors of Torah study at intense and high levels. Rabbi Twerski asserts that this shows very clearly that their education is sufficient as is. And that success in the business world need not include any of the skills one develops in studying secular subjects.

I fully agree that many skills are learned that way. But there are skills that are left out that only the type of study one finds only on the secular side of one’s education.

Rabbi Twerski cites some examples of Chasidim that are accountants which clearly requires the kind of secular knowledge attained at a university. Passing a CPA exam is not easy even for one who has done that. My point being that those among Chasidim that pass a CPA exam are either exceptionally brilliant; have attended those college courses surreptitiously; or are not members of the more extreme anti college Chasidic sects like Satmar – one of the largest groups of Chasidim in the world.

It is true that many Chasidim without a secular education have jobs with decent salaries. It is for example a tribute to the owners of B& H that hire many Chasidim (and other Jews, religious or not;  as well as non Jews of all stripes and colors) at decent salaries. Rabbi Twerski may also be right about hiring prejudices against Chasidim by certain employers. This, he says, is part of the reason there is so much poverty among them. As is their typically large families where a combined income (husband and wife) can often reach six figures still not be enough to make ends meet.

Rabbi Twerski therefore rejects what he says is the charge that the root cause of their poverty is too much emphasis on religious studies in their schools.

It isn’t that there is too much emphasis on religious studies. It is that there is hardly any emphasis at all on secular studies. This is what the charge is all about - and I agree.

It is true that there are a lot of things about the religious side of a Yeshiva education that are valuable not only to the spiritual welfare of a Jew but even to their material welfare – as Rabbi Twerski points out. But I could not disagree more with his assertion that the current structure of Yeshivas in the more extreme segments of the Chasidic world is as sufficient preparation for the work force than it would be if they restructured their curriculum to include a good secular studies program. Which at the very least should be more or less what the city (or state) of New York requires.

This is what YAFFED (Young Advoctaes for Fair Education) seeks. They have gone to great lengths to see that New York’s core curriculum mandate is adhered to. As of yet, I don’t think this has happened.

I am not a mind reader and can’t speak to the actual motives of this group. They have been accused of having an ulterior motive to destroy Yeshivos rather than their stated goal of giving Chasidim a better secular education. The fact that YAFFED’s founder is a lapsed Chasid (and possibly no longer observant) has led many rabbis and other observant Jewish leaders  to make that charge.

True or not - that does not detract from their stated goal which I support. It is a goal worthy of the support of all of us regardless of our religious orientation. These Chasidim are our brothers. They deserve to be given every chance to succeed in life, Both spiritually and materially. So that even if Rabbi Twerski’s praise to this community for their material success is accurate, why not enhance the opportunity for more of them so that they too can do better materially?

For me that means adding a secular studies program to their curriculum. Much the same way most non Chasidic yeshivas do by offering both a religious studies program along side a secular studies program. It may not solve all their problems. But is surely will not hurt.