Sunday, July 08, 2018

Defending the Indefensible

Voter in Kiryas Joel casting ballot in 2010 (Ha'aretz)
Frimet Goldberger is an unusual expatriate Chasid. (Chasidah?) She left her former community  of Satmar’s Kiryas Joel but has remained observant. Why she did that is irrelevant to the post. I mention it only to show that those who accuse expatriate Chasidm of having an anti religious agenda cannot say that about her.

They do however say that about Naftuli Moster. They claim his efforts  towards implementing a secular curriculum is done with an ulterior motive. One whose agenda is far more nefarious and based on an anti religious vendetta attempting to ultimately destroy it. 

I have seen no evidence of that. Nor do I even know whether he is still observant or not. Accusations about that come from people within his former community that say they know him. Hard to know whether they have any credibility about him since they endorse their current educational system, thereby opposing efforts to change it. But Frimet is observant. This is what she claims and no one has challenged her on this. (If I remember correctly she is modern Orthodox now.) I believe her criticism comes from the heart.

So now we have an observant former insider with family still living there - with warm feelings about it telling it like it is in an oped in Ha’aretz.  Chasidim educated in places like  Kiryas Joel are so illiterate that they can barely read a sentence in English. She is not the first one to make this claim nor will she be the last (unless things change).

Her op-ed was written as a response to Rabbi Avi Shafran’s own op-ed in Ha’aretz. Therein he defended the right of Chasidic enclaves to educate their children as they see fit. That we need not pity them even though they do not educate their children in anything but religious studies. That they do quite well without it.

Rabbi Shafran says that as an adherent of Torah Im Derech Ertetz, he would never educate his children in a school like that. But that - he says - doesn’t mean that they don’t have the right to educate their children that way.  He then goes on to show that they live their religious values quite successfully and happily. They live modest lives based on their financial means. And they don’t measure success in terms of successful careers or money. Most have decent jobs. Mostly in the trades. Not in the professions. For which they can find training when they need it. Is he right? More about that later.

I thought Frimet’s response to Rabbi Shafran was unnecessarily harsh. But her challenge to him resonated with me: 
If this is what Rabbi Shafran believes in, how then does he justify his support of denying children a basic education?
There is no fine line to toe here, rabbi. You either believe that children should be kept cloistered or that, like you’ve done with your own, they deserve to be educated in the language and workings of the land they live in. 
Rabbi Shafran might say that it isn’t about what he thinks is objectively right. It is about freedom to choose the education parents see fit for their children even if it is not something that most others personally believe in. As long as they are happy; do not become a burden on society; and their educational choices  have no ill effects on them or their future.

I agree that they seem to lead happy well adjusted lives. Frimet decribes the positive image she saw on a recent visit to her old community on Purim: 
The streets were teeming with costumed children - clowns and cops, fancy ladies and doctors - and music blasted from loudspeakers. On that day, every year, the village turns into a festive, boisterous, almost-anything-goes circus; it’s a boozed-up Halloween of sorts. 
Inside my parents’ home, crispy homemade challah was passed around on platters, then dipped into gelatin fish sauce and stuffed cabbage, followed by a bountiful spread of fish, kugels, elongated deli sandwiches, every kind of sweet and savory puffed-pastry turnover one could concoct, and enough wine and hamantaschen for days. The men danced around the table with a buoyant fervor, and the women gave the obligatory oohs and aahs for the children’s costumes. 
Is Rabbi Shafran right? Perhaps he has a point. But I still disagree with him and communictaed that to  him privately. Ironically it was very similar to Frimet’s response: 
I have to disagree with you here. It isn't only about jobs... or the number of wealthy Chasidim that support the poor. It is about the total lack of - in fact opposition to - even the ability to write or even speak English properly - thereby severely limiting their opportunities in the job market. 
The skills they learn in Limudei Kodesh are limited not sufficient - leaving out many of the study tools required in a secular educational environment like a college. 
The few doctors and other professionals found among some Chasidic communities are not from environments like New square or Kiryas Joel or Williamsburg. Those Chasidim have probably attended one of the more mainstream Yeshivos like TvD (Torah VoDaath). 
The programs you mention like COPE do offer training to these Chasidim. But how many actually take advantage of them? Most of these Chasidim have menial jobs with meager incomes that fall far short of their need to feed their large families. I have heard that a lot of these types of Chasidim quietly complain about not being given any secular studies but refrain from doing so publicly for fear of the repercussion.
And you can't dismiss the statistics that say that something like 77% of (..I think it was Kiryas Joel or Williamsburg) is on welfare - which lends itself to  fraud (e.g. hiding income in order to qualify.)
You may be right about a community that chooses to remain isolated and ignorant about the world having the right to do that. But when it involves public funding and the possibility of fraud and Chilul HaShem, I think it trying to get them to offer a secular curriculum similar to most mainstream yeshivas in America is goal worth pursuing. 
I have been critical of those that have tried to undermine attempts to improve the lives of my fellow Jews in Kiryas Joel. Defending the rights of people to choose ignorance may be wonderful for the first amendment. But it may not be so wonderful for the people choosing it. Are you really helping them by defending that right? Is ignorance really bliss?

And how far does this ignorance go? I saw this in a Facebook forum which dialogues between religious and OTD Jews. I realize the social media is notorious for ‘fake news’. But I trust the person who posted this: 
A question to anyone brought up Chassidic: In an article I read today, someone said that in his Chassidic community (in Canada) kids were taught that secular Israelis cut up Sifrei Toah to make sandals. In addition, any mitza that a dati leumi person might do will leak out of the holes in his kippa srugah. 
I can’t help but wonder whether this is an attitude that those children learn and then believe. Even if it isn't directly taught as in that excerpt. Even as they might deny it publicly.  I don’t know, but I hope not. Because if it is, their Chinuch  is far worse that I could have ever imagined. If true, is this what their defenders believe is worth defending?

Let me make one thing perfectly clear. I have no problem with any religious lifestyle that any Jew might choose. I have no particular animus toward Chasidism even though I believe in a different Hashkafa. My motives are based purely on improving the welfare of fellow Jews. That is it! I have no reason to otherwise change the lifestyles they choose.