Wednesday, February 21, 2018

A Misleading Argument

Typical Chasidic elementary school classroom  (New York Jewish Life)
Is it possible to honestly agree with what amounts to a lie? The obvious answer is no, it isn’t. And yet I find myself doing that in an article by Williamsburg resident and Chasidic school graduate, Abe Deutch. He defends against what he deems an attack against Yeshivos in New York City.

This is a classic case of misidentifying what is being attacked and then defending it. (Otherwise known as a red herring). Mr. Deutch has attacked ‘the attackers’ implying they have an anti religious agenda. Although he does not name the group or its leader, it is clear that he’s talking about YAFFED (Young Advocates For Fair Education) and its founder (and expatriate Chasid), Naftuli Moster. Who is pursuing the goal of making sure that government required educational standards are met in the Chasidic Yeshivos that have been ignoring them. 

I have heard this charge against Mr. Moster and YAFFED before. And as I’ve said in the past, I can’t read minds. I don’t know what goes on in anyone’s heart… or know what the real motives are for anything anyone does. All I can do is judge what they are doing. In this case they are asking that New York education officials enforce the law with respect to mandated educational curricula. YAFFED also asks that education officials do their due diligence to see who is and isn’t following it and sanction those that do not. Which for me is quite the reasonable request regardless of any supposed hidden agenda. None of this is new. I’ve discussed it all before. More than once.

What is different this time is that what Mr. Deutch is defending is a yeshiva education itself. He claims that what is happening with the Chasidic Yeshivos that do not offer any secular programs is the beginning of  slippery slope towards government meddling in all Yeshivos. And then he goes about defending the values taught in all yeshivas. Values that I obviously agree with.

There is no question in my mind that the future of Judaism lies in Yeshiva attendance. Without a basic religious elementary and high school education, the future of Judaism in America would be bleak – even for Orthodox Jews. 

Although there have been some major exceptions where Orthodox Jews have attended non religious schools (whether public or private) and remained observant as adults, history has shown that in assimilationist culture like ours has shown - without it, observance is severely weakened. Children from observant families might as adults forgo observant Judaism entirely. 

It is more than about getting a decent Jewish education. A Yeshiva environment during the formative years is essential so that one does not experience primarily the rich and attractive general culture and its pull toward assimilation and non observance. 

It is my sincere belief that had the day school movement not been started, there would be far less observant Jews in America today. And Orthodoxy would be as endangered a species as Conservative and Reform Judaism.

So I agree with Mr. Deutch in that sense. But as I said this is a red herring.  What is being asked of those particular Chasidic Yeshivos is to have the same or equivalent curriculum that most other Yeshivos do. That they offer basics like English, Math, Science, and History. Mr. Deutch has conveniently ignored that distinction – seeming to place all Yeshivos in the same category.

He then argues from the perspective of his own non secular education experience (in a sort of bait and switch tactic). He claims that the education he received in his Yeshiva (implying  that his school represents all Yeshivos)  prepared him very well for life: 
The reality is that these children are in school and learning for ten or more hours a day, several hours longer than their public-school peers. While the curriculum mix is different from what public schools offer, the focus on critical thinking and problem solving prepares them for success in a wide variety of pursuits – and to be thriving, upstanding citizens of their communities. Just because it’s different, doesn’t mean it’s not valid. 
To simply call it different implies that they have a different but comparable secular studies program to that of public schools. While what he says about his experience may be true. But, it is not nearly enough to prepare students for a successful career. The critical thinking is there. But the study skills required for advanced learning are not.

Nevertheless, Mr. Deutch says that he managed to create a successful  plumbing business using the skills he acquired at his Chasidic school. His children and many of his classmates went on to successful careers too. But evidence has shown that many if not most children graduating from these schools are ill prepared for the workforce of the 21st century. They find it difficult to catch up to graduates from public, private and religious school that do offer secular studies. They end up with menial jobs and meager pay. In most cases not enough to support their typically very large families. Which is why so many of them have to rely on government financial assistance programs . And unfortunately we know where that all too often leads.

This is what Mr. Deutch fails to understand. Or purposely ignores. It is disingenuous to argue the value of a Yeshiva education as a defense against a good secular studies program. That argument has nothing to do  with what those schools are being asked to do. Which is basically to follow the law. They haven’t been doing it and have until now remained under the radar and unsanctioned

It is more than time that these Chasidic schools join the ranks of most other yeshivas and provide a decent secular education for their children. There is nothing in Judaism that forbids the study of Limudei Chol (secular studies).  If they had done so in the first place none of this would be happening. They would not feel that they are being attacked because of their religious beliefs because they wouldn’t be attacked at all. Nor would the values he said are so critical for the Jewish people be negatively affected. Even slightly.

And finally there is this. Mr. Deutch says that a new organization PEARLS (Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools) has been formed to upgrade the secular studies programs for Chasidic schools (as though they already had them but they needed upgrading – another misleading statement).  However, the mission statement says that this organization is about protecting their parental rights to educate their children as they see fit.

But even if it’s true that they also want to upgrade their ‘secular studies program’- if he believed that what they were doing until now was so great (as evidenced by  him, his children, and many of his classmates) why bother? Why the need for the the ‘upgrade’?

He says that there is always room for improvement. That is certainly true. If YAFFED accomplished any improvement at all - by forcing them to upgrade - it was certainly worth doing. But PEARLS has been around since 2016. I wonder what - if any - improvements there have been in those schools. What does their secular studies program look like now? I will be happy to be proven wrong - but my guess is that nothing has significantly changed.