Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Fighting for the Right to Remain Ignorant

A Yeshiva in Williamsburg (JTA)
It is truly maddening when the truth gets obscured by politics and agendas.  Let me therefore once again outline what I see as the truth about how the American Orthodox Jewish community educates its children. This subject has once again reared its ugly head in the epicenter of Orthodox Jewish life in America: New York City. The candidates running for mayor have been questioned about what their policies will be on that subject. 

The truth is complex but not all that difficult to understand. First it should be recognized that there is no more uniformity in Orthodox education than there is uniformity on  Orthodoxy itself. 

Second, let me state the obvious. The primary function of a religious school is to give their students a religious education. That is true of all Orthodox Jewish schools.  (How they define that varies in ways that are beyond the scope of this post.) But when it comes to secular studies there is a glaring gap between the best and worst of them. 

The vast majority (if not all) modern Orthodox schools are high on the list of those providing a decent secular curriculum for their students. The problem lies within the Charedi world. The disparity between schools there varies greatly. On the plus side of the Charedi spectrum are schools that provide a secular studies curriculum. That includes most of the non Chasidic Yeshiva world (sometimes referred to as the 'Litvishe' Yeshiva world). The quality of that secular curriculum ranges from excellent to adequate. (Although that too is changing. More about that later.) 

The Chasidic schools is where the problem mostly lies. Some Chasidic schools offer a decent secular studies curriculum. But some don’t offer any at all. That is the crux of the issue. But that is being obscured by advocacy groups defending the right of parents to educate their children as they see fit - as a matter of their religious rights. Meaning that if a religious school chooses not to offer a secular curriculum at all, it is a right protected by the First Amendment. 

The retort that the public welfare is negatively affected by the lack of educating so many young Chasidim is refuted by advocacy groups defending those schools by claiming their students somehow do better in life than many public school graduates do.  But that is at best a specious argument. While it might be true that they do teach some secular studies  as part of their religious curriculum, in no way does it compare to what is taught in the public schools. That their students may fare better in life than many public schools students do - is more of a cultural issue rather than educational one. 

Generally speaking, many of the graduates of the ‘no seculars studies’ schools utilize every available government financial aid program to supplement incomes. Incomes that suffer because the jobs they end up with are low paying menial jobs. Job opportunities are limited by the education they received. (Or  more precisely - didn’t receive.) It is true that there are many very wealthy Chasidim that did not have the benefit of a secular education. But they are a very small percentage of the whole.

Since this demographic is the fastest growing one in all of Orthodoxy, this problem becomes exponentially greater with each passing generation. Living off the government is not the right way to live and should not be the way forward. While it is true that even with decent incomes, in many cases they would still be legally eligible for government aid because of their large families, that doesn’t excuse not doing their Hishtadlus  by doing what is necessary to  maximize income and minimize government aid. But the opposite is happening. They are denied opportunities for lack of having had a decent secular edication.

This is not something that should be defended as a matter of religious freedom - even if that might be the case (which at best is questionable). By defending it they end up hurting the people they are trying to help. Ironically the people doing that are Orthodox Jews that had the benefit of a decent secular education – having become capable attorneys.  Defending the right to be denied such a path in life does not do them any favors. 

To me it is simple. Living in America in the 21st century requires being educated. Without it, places one at a major disadvantage – whether they realize it or not. 

Making this even sadder is the fact that this mentality is taking hold in much of the non Chasidic world too. As charedi yeshivas that once had great secular studies programs are increasingly dilutng them – and is some cases eliminating them.  For some reason they think this will make their students better Jews. I do not believe this was ever a part of authentic Jewish thought. 

Judaism is not a monastery where the only thing that maters is religious studies. My message to the Yeshiva world is that we cannot function as a society much less be a light unto the nations by doing only one thing: studying Torah. My message to the Chasidic world is that we cannot survive by an overdependence on government stipends. 

The politics of protagonists on this issue muddies the waters. Accusations of nefarious agendas are irrelevant even if they are true. The focus should not be on the messenger, but on the message. Which in my view should be to educate our young in the ways of the Torah. Which has always included having a good grasp of general knowledge. In that vein the new normal demeaning secular studies should should revert to the old normal of valuing them.  

It is with this in mind that I would base my vote for mayor of new York. If I were an Orthodox Jewish parent in New York, I would be voting for the candidate that best understands the truths as I just outlined them. And insist that schools that deny their students a secular curriculum be required to do so or close. Because the current anti secular studies trend denies too many of our young a decent future. And that fighting for the right to remain ignorant does not help anyone.