Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A View of Satmar Education from an Insider

Frida Vizel does a good job describing the truth about Chasidic education. In her Tablet Magazine article of the same title, she tries to be objective about her former community. The former Satmar community resident describes in some detail what life is really like there and tries to navigate between the two polar opposite descriptions of it. Claiming it is not as dire as Shulem Deen describes in his New York Times oped on the subject, but does agrees that they could still use a lot of improvement. 

I should note that even though Ms. Vizel was educated by Satmar she is quite articulate. This does not however reflect the kind of education the men receive in that world. Women do get a secular education there. I don’t know whether she is observant or not, but that is irrelevant. I believe she has presented an honest view of Satmar life.

The point of her article is that their finances and job opportunities are a lot better than the impression one gets from the many stories and opinion pieces written about them.  Here is how she puts it: 
To hear the defenders of core education say it, a community of children without modern education will result in destitution and a reliance on government handouts—your tax dollars. The problem with this argument is that it is hyperbolic and insincere, even if census data seems to support it. It is true that Hasidim need to do more to provide adequate vocational training for jobs that require specific credentials. But that’s different from saying Hasidim are really one of the poorest communities in the country. Several factors skew the census data: Hasidim have very large families; I come from one of fifteen. They live in heavily concentrated areas, which amplifies any trend. Income might be underreported. And the community is very good at using its collective power to lobby and organize for as many government programs as possible. Just because people are good at getting benefits doesn’t mean they are poorer. 
While Mrs, Vizel tries to use these words to defend her old community, I find this description falling short of that mark

The community is still grossly under-educated and its members often uses antiquated means to support themselves. This is hardly a prescription for a financially secure future in a 21st century economy. Here is her description of how her community survives:
How do Hasidim make money if they don’t get a secular education? The Hasidic economy seems to operate in old-school, wheeler-dealer, handle-bandle kind of way. The men who don’t speak English learn it as they go along, and their female relatives help. When I was a child, my father would often phone from the office and ask us to ask our mother how to say this or that word in Aynglish. “And ask Mammi…. vus meynt alternate?” To this day, my father speaks a barely comprehensible English, even as he runs a large organization for disabled children and often interacts with Albany politicians.
Her father’s success is probably due more to his own personal determination and ingenuity than it is to any preparation through Satmar’s educational philosophy.

What about the statistics that say Satmar is the poorest community in the nation? It is true as she notes that a number of factors - such as large families - skew the census data. But she practically admits that her community under reports their income and actually is a lot better off than those statistics show. She also notes the extensive use of as many government programs as possible.

Well, that combined with under-reporting of income easily lends itself to possible massive fraud in the aggregate.

She might argue that everyone under-reports income to some degree. I doubt that. It is true that many people will hide a small amount of income and not report it to the IRS.  Which is still wrong. But that's still a lot different than defrauding the welfare system by taking money they do not really qualify for. And even leaving ethics out of it, most Orthodox Jews do not depend on welfare and are statistically less likely to defraud the welfare system. Besides - the Jews doing it that least should be those claiming the highest level of Torah observance. I suspect the opposite is true based on statistics alone. 

What kind of job training is available to Satmar Chasidim if they don't have a secular education?

By her own admission the kind of job training they get ‘in-community’ is limited to jobs that do not require specific credentials. Which means home town jobs like Torah teachers, store clerks, fish mongers, butchers and the like. We aren't talking about people with marketable credentialed skills, like plumbers, welders, or carpenters, let alone a profession requiring a higher education. 

It is highly likely that  all this translates into pay that is considerably lower than those trained on the outside – where apprenticeships in the trades most often lead to certification. Furthermore only those trades that serve the community are available for them to be trained ‘in-community’. There are a variety of trades that are not available to them simply because they are not needed in that community directly. The only apprenticeship training they can get for those trades is on the outside. Who is going want to hire and train someone that can barely speak English?

Mrs. Vizel also notes that one of their sources of income are Gemachs (free loan societies). Is that any way to support a family? To borrow as much money as one can? 

It is also not so much of a surprise that the typical signs of poverty don’t exist in Satmar. Here is what she says to indicate that:
When I walk through my Hasidic community, I don’t see the markers of some of the poorer neighborhoods. There are no homeless Hasidim lying at the corner, no Hasidic mothers begging for food, no abuse of drugs to numb the pain. I see a people nicely dressed, with the children in ribbons and bows. 
No one accuses Satmar Chasidim of being drug addicts. No one accuses them of not having great family values... or of not being great parents. The only concern is how they pay for being ‘nicely dressed, with the children in ribbons and bows.’

All of which brings me back to the issue at hand. The utter lack of any secular education for Satmar men. The Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel is shortchanging his Chasidim - with the false claim that he is fighting secular education as a function of Gzeiras Shmad. There should be no doubt about it. Unfortunately that is a  claim bought into so easily by far too many of his Chasidim.