Sunday, January 03, 2021

Is There a War Against Charedim in America?

A Chasidic teacher and his students (Cross Currents)
Dr. Moshe Krakowski is someone I know, albeit not well. He grew up and was educated in Chicago having had the benefit of many of the same influences I did. Including the influence of R’ Ahron Soloveichik - having attended Yeshivas Brisk in its prime. His parents are both very bright, highly educated, and highly ethical professionals. So it is no surprise to me that the apple has not fallen very far from the tree. Moshe achieved a PhD, heads the Azrieli Masters Program at YU and is considered an expert in his field. Which means that his recent essay in City Journal should be taken seriously (as well as his follow-up piece on Cross Currents). 

In his lengthy article he exposes what he says is a war against Charedim. Which was instigated by YAFFED head and expatiate Chasid, Naftuli Moster. Although he considers Moster a friend - believing him to be sincere in seeking the goal of improving the lives of his former community (as I do), Moshe does an excellent job in describing how his questionable methods have generated a series of events that has caused more harm than good. 

YAFFED has gotten education authorities to impose harsh new guidelines that could harm or even potentially destroy Orthodox Jewish education as we know it – if it were to be enforced. Which so far it has not been.

Moshes criticism is of course appreciated by Agudah and PEARLS, advocacy groups that have been fighting these new guidelines as a First Amendment constitutional issue. But he has nothing to do with either of them and came to his conclusions based on his own - hands on research.      

Moshe has observed that popular notions about Charedi education by those outside of that community, even among many modern Orthodox Jews, are badly mistaken  - skewed by a combination of ignorance and misinformation about a closed society. Much of that misinformation the result of Moster’s activities. The most significant of which is the successful lawsuit Moster’s organization YAFFED has filed against New York’s educational authorities. 

They have revised guidelines so drastically that even the Catholic Church objected - and joined Orthodox advocacy groups to challenge them in court. 

Moshe also suggests that educational authorities do not distinguish between Yeshiva type schools - the vast majority of which provide a decent secular education for their students and the few Chasidic schools that provide virtually none. In the former, students fare as well or better than their public school counterparts.  This is even true in many Chasidic schools that also have a decent education. Very few have no secular education at all. And even there, Moshe has observed that despite not having had the benefit of a secular education, most are gainfully employed comparable to their secular counterparts. Some of them do very well. 

And yet educational officials are putting all Charedi schools in the same category with guidelines that are clearly detrimental to the future of Jewish education. I don’t think any of this is arguable. Especially since Moshe has studied it extensively and has come out with this conclusion on is own.

This might seem to dispute my strong criticism of those Chasidic schools that do not offer a secular education to their students - cheating them out of opportunities to better support themselves and become better citizens. 

But my criticism was never about all Charedi schools. Quite the contrary. I believe that most Charedi Yeshiva high schools should be the paradigm for Chasidic schools. Being gainfully employed is a good thing. But there is not a doubt in my mind that they could be doing a lot better if they had the same education provided to their non Chasidic counterparts. That would give them many more options to succeed and better support their families. Including entering professions that only a good secular education would enable them to do. 

Not that one needs to do that to make a lot of money. But by limiting how they can do that, it leaves many of them out in the cold –  able to only get lesser paying jobs. There are of course exceptions where an uneducated person can do quite well financially in business. But not everyone is capable of doing that and as a group would do far better if they got an education. 

That is what upsets me. Because that means that it becomes a way of life to supplement their income with government financial aid. In most cases they do that legally. Qualifying for financial aid because their relatively decent income is still not enough to alone support their large families. I believe it is fairly well established that part of their ‘education’ is teaching them how to access those funds legally. 

Any time you get involved with government financial assistance programs on a scale as massive as this, it opens up opportunities to cheat the system. Hiding income is not unheard in order to qualify. Not saying they all do that.  Not even saying most of them do. My hope is that it is only a tiny minority. But the fact remains that when an entire community makes government aid a way of life, abusing the system does take place. It’s not a matter of ‘if’. It’s a matter of ‘how many’. 

But even if that was not the case and everybody there was able to make ends meet without taking a dime form the government, the fact is that their literacy rate is about the same as that of a 3rd grader. They are taught English as a second language - if at all. So that even if they were born here, their command of he English language is so poor that they in many cases they can barely put a sentence together on paper without making major grammatical and spelling errors of the type made by an 8 year old. When people like this become involved in public advocacy, it is embarrassing to read some of what they have written. 

I don’t know if that rises to the level of a Chilul HaShem. But it surely does not say anything flattering about people who claim to be the essence of Torah true Jewry.

I have been told that the reason they speak and write English so poorly is a conscious choice by their leadership. They claim that speaking English too well is violation of Chukas HaGoy, the biblical prohibition against following the laws and customs of non Jewish societies. (Which is also why they have their own manner of dress.) They are entitled to believe and live the way they choose. But not when they claim to represent the best of Orthodox Jewry. Because that affects all off us.

Thankfully the rest of Orthodox Jewry does not see speaking English well to be a violation of Chukas HaGoy. The intent of Chukas HaGoy is not to fall victim to idol worship by assimilating into their society. Speaking English well does not so that.

It is for this reason that I support getting those schools to educate their children by any means necessary. But at the same time - not by destroying the vast majority of Orthodox Jewish schools with a draconian new definition of equivalency.  

It should be limited to the few Chasidic schools that actually have this problem. What we do not need is a major overhaul that will hurt us all. All such attempts should be fought vigorously. But so too should there be simultaneous vigorous support to require those Chasidic schools to have the same curriculum the rest of Orthodox Jewish schools have. The rights of religious Jews to educate their children as they see fit is not denied by insisting on the same type of education the vast majority of Orthodox Jewish schools provide. It should not be the all or nothing approach of the type Agudah is seeking. Instead Agudah and company should  target the negative and support the positive.

If that happens, I think we can have the best of both worlds.