Sunday, December 09, 2012

Ultra Charedi Chinuch

Illustration courtesy of the Forward
Once again Judy Brown paints a devastating picture of what it’s like to be a child growing up in the ultra Orthodox world of Chasidus. If I am not mistaken her brand of Chasidus was Ger. But I don’t think Ger is unique in the aspects she describes. I also believe that many non Chasidic families qualify for the description she gave. I would classify them all as ultra Charedi.

I was not raised like this. My father came from a very Ultra Orthodox Chasidic family in pre-war Poland. But I had a very pleasant childhood.

The question is: Is this description of life among the ultra Charedim typical? Is this their standard operating procedure?

I’m not sure. It is hard for me to imagine a society that is as cruel to their young in the name of Chinuch and that society surviving, let along growing by leaps and bounds as it is. If that were the case - every single male child would end up dysfunctional. That’s what the kind of physical or mental abuse Mrs. Brown describes does.  

And yet my guess is that her descriptions are not all that uncommon either.  I have on more than one occasion seen an ultra Charedi (usually Chasidic) father’s anger flare up at a cowering child who wasn’t doing what he was supposed to in Shul that day.

It is also a fact that there are a lot of Charedi and Chasidic children going OTD these days. I happen to believe that a lot of that has to do with the kind of abuse Mrs. Brown describes. Beating and berating children who do not live up to expectations will do that.

Mrs. Brown goes on to discuss many of the ills she experienced or observed in her upbringing. Frighteningly so if this is standard operating procedure. But the way Jewish education is treated - is alone worthy of discussion.

Not every Jewish child is a genius. Not every child is cut out for learning Torah in any great depth. It is very likely that despite our reputations of being a smart people, statistically I would bet that we do not diverge all that much form the intelligence spectrum of the general public. That means that some Jews have above average IQs and some have below average IQs.  We span the entire spectrum. Most of us are somewhere in the middle range.

Most of us will never become big Talmidei Chachamim. With a lot of hard work and diligence we will for the most part be able to learn Torah at a passable level. Some will do better than others. But real Gedolei Torah will be few and far between. .. just as one would predict based on the geometrically decreasing percentatges on the right side of a bell curve of Jewish IQ scores. There are some among the huge middle segment will not be able to “catch on” no matter how much we try. But don’t tell that to a parent who thinks a child just isn’t trying hard enough. An  average child who just can’t hack it? My child? Below average Even slightly? Not possible. That child is at high risk for going to go OTD.

I believe that this a problem that extends beyond the borders of the Charedi world well into the world of Modern Orthodoxy. There are not too many Jewish parents of any Hashkafa who will able to emotionally accept that their child is just average.

But… most of us are average or just slightly above. We can’t all be geniuses.

It isn’t only the intelligence of the child that is a factor. Sometimes a child just doesn’t have the interest in studying Torah and will not be motivated enough to work at it. Even if he has high intelligence he may want to use it in other pursuits in which he as a greater interest. God forbid an ultra-Charedi parent of the type Mrs. Brown describes accept that as an excuse for “not learning”.

There are also some very bright kids who have learning disabilities like ADD. They simply cannot stay focused on a Shiur (lecture). Their minds wander.  That too is an occasion for the wrath of some of the more ultra Charedi teachers and parents. The mental and physical abuse that may result is a perfect formula for going OTD. Children like these are destroyed by parents who refuse to recognize it is a treatable disorder. In a world where learning Torah is everything, the idea that one would use his intelligence for something else is unacceptable! The idea that a child has a learning disorder is seen as being lazy.  He is daydreaming. He just has to forcibly shaken out of his daydream state to pay attention.

Aside from that near universal bias about our children being geniuses there are differences between the enlightened society of Modern Orthodox  Jews and moderate Charedi Jews  on one hand - and the extremist Charedi world that Mrs. Brown describes on the other.

Most of enlightened Orthodoxy will accept that there is such a thing as a learning disabled child that may need medication, special education, and perhaps some tutoring. There are rarely beatings or mental abuse of a child so afflicted.. Nor is learning Torah the only worthwhile thing a Jew can do. While we all place a primary importance on Torah study, we all realize that there are many ways to serve God.

Modern Orthodox Jews  are proactive in seeking a good secular education.  If a child expresses interest in a field other than Torah study, we encourage study in that field as the way to best fulfil their service to God. While MO Jews will encourage Torah U'mnaso (Torah as a profession), that is only when a child is motivated to do that over anything else. If that is what he is talented at, that is what he should be encouraged to do. But if a child is interested in science and seeks to make a career in a science related field, we encourage them to do that.

Moderate Charedim have a similar attitude  Although they will say that Torah Learning should be everyone’s first pursuit and minimize the importance secular studies per Se, they also prepare themselves for a possible different outcome by having decent secular educations to go along with their Torah study. At least through high school. So if a child does want to go into a field other than full time Torah study, he can do it. There are plenty of moderate Charedim who have gone on to get a higher education and become professionals. And thus able to earn a relatively decent living while serving God in their uniquely individual ways.

But in extremist ultra Charedi societies like the one Mrs. Brown was raised, this is not an option. She describes an American community, where there is no secular education at all beyond 8th grade. Aside from every child being thought of as a genius, they also do not value the study of anything other than Torah.

It’s kind of ironic if you think about it. Chasidic communities do value working for a living and do not focus on the Kollel life as much as their non Chasidic Yeshivishe counterparts. And yet they do not allow their children to become educated enough to get decent jobs.

That seems to be the state of ultra Charedi society. They are the fastest growing segment of Orthodoxy. They have many adherents. They do not value a secular education. They do not recognize modern concepts of Chinuch such as dealing properly with ADD problems. And their disciplinary methods often include mental and sometimes even physical abuse – if one is to believe Mrs. Brown. I tend to believe her.  She has no reason to lie about her experiences and observations growing up. The question remains, what kind of society will they end up with? And how many of their children are they willing to sacrifice for it?