Sunday, November 23, 2014

Yiddish Isn’t Enough

Naftuli Moster - photo credit: Jewish Press
As noted here many times the fastest growing segment of Jewry in the US (and probably in the world) is the Orthodox segment. This is no longer news. It is a well established fact. What is also well established is that the fastest growing segment in Orthodoxy is the Chasidic segment. That too is well established fact.

The question I've asked in the past still applies. If Chasidim are the fastest growing segment, will the future of mainstream Judaism primarily be Chasidic? … with several smaller subsets of Orthodox Jews? Certainly one can make that case. But as I have said in the past linear projections are not always the best predictors of the future.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with being a Chasid. I am not one and firmly believe that my Centrist Hashkafos are the truest form of Torah observance. But I concede that that there are others that feel the same about their Hashkafos and can make arguments supporting it. I am not here to debate that issue. Only to say that I respect all legitimate Torah based Hashkafos in the Elu V’Elu sense.

So what’s my problem with Chasidim? It is primarily the same as my problem with the Charedi world in Israel:  the lack of a decent secular studies program in their schools. Which results in an increasing number of families living below the poverty line. From an article in the New York Times:
Boys in elementary and middle school study religious subjects from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. followed by approximately 90 minutes of English and math. At 13, when boys formally enter yeshiva, most stop receiving any English instruction.
Just as is the case in Israel with respect to government mandates of educational standards - in New York where the vast majority of Chasidim live, there is a similar mandate. And just as is the case in the Charedi world in Israel – it is honored in the breach by Chasidic word in New York. And in both instances the government has pretty much ignored it an allowed the status quo to continue.

In some ways things are actually worse in the Chasidic world here that the Charedi world in Israel. Israeli Chasidim speak the language of the country (Hebrew) fluently. Not so Chasidim in America. The language of America is English. Their schools do nothing to change this actually preferring they speak English that way. It is one way of distancing themselves from the general culture. Thus we have native born Americans whose knowledge of their native tongue is so flawed that is hard to believe they were born in this country. Their spoken English is filled with mispronunciation of common words; grammatical errors; errors of syntax; and a relatively poor vocabulary.

Being a poor English speaker does accomplish their goal of limiting social interactions with non Jews. But more importantly it limits job opportunities and hinders the pursuit of a higher education.

This last point was made clear by Naftuli Moster, who is cast as OTD by his former Chasidic community and who is now studying for a Masters degree in social work.

As I have pointed out many times - it is no secret that Chasidim with this kind of limited education are among the poorest Jews in all of Jewry. There is the notable exception of the few successful Chasidic entrepreneurs that were able to overcome that handicap and amass great wealth in business. But by far they are a small minority of the population. Most Chasidim like this live well below the poverty line in this country. Their limited education, resultant menial jobs with meager pay combined with their large families (typically 10 or more children) equals poverty.

How do they survive? By maximizing the use of govern aid, and free loan societies. Needless to say living below the poverty line and relying on government aid and charity is not a prescription for the future.

I have recently said that I believe there will be a change in the education paradigm one way or another.  Education will somehow become more sought by the average Chasid as each generation multiplies exponentially and geometrically increases the number of Chasidic families living in poverty. It may have already begun.

A lawsuit against the New York State Education Department is being considered by Mr. Muster. I’m not sure suing the government will succeed in any change.  Naftuli Muster is describe by the article as no longer observant (OTD). Ordinarily that would mean that his actions are completely discounted by his former community. But I think it’s significant that the lawsuit I supported by actual members in good standing of their Chasidic world – albeit anonymously:
Mr. Moster said many families in New York’s Hasidic enclaves were sympathetic to his cause. So far, a small number of parents have agreed to take part in a lawsuit if they can remain anonymous. They worry that the yeshivas will expel their children and that the community will ostracize them if their names are revealed.
The Chasidic world does not take challenges from the outside lightly. They fiercely oppose it.  But it appears that there is a  grass roots crack in the typical resistance to any change coming from the outside..

The purpose of the lawsuit is to get the State of New York to enforce its mandate for requiring a decent curriculum in its schools.  For their part, Chasidic leaders in these enclaves are quite proud of being a century behind the times:
(A) Yeshiva Belz board member named Jacob Ungar... has high praise for his community’s educational standards. “It’s like at any school, where you have the main subjects and then the extracurriculars,” he said, adding: “Whatever a child usually gets in a public school, or Catholic parochial school or modern Jewish school — the yeshiva education is superior to that. Our students are as well educated as they were 100 years ago.”
I’m glad to see that there are some in his community that support the lawsuit. I don’t know if the lawsuit will accomplish the necessary change. But I’m glad to see that the monolithic wall against change is being breached even slightly.  Chasidim want to see a better material future for their children than what they currently have. And that means that change may very well be in the wind.