Sunday, October 02, 2022

Thriving or Abject Failure. It's Complicated

Satmar school bus (Brownstoner)
One of the things that have made me so supportive of requiring Chasidic schools in communities like Satmar to offer a core secular curriculum is that without one, it limits how they can earn a decent living. I still feel that way. But let me hasten to add that this is not the only reason. More about that later.

The pushback by defenders of this community is that they do just fine without it. That they are in fact a very financially secure and productive community with a variety of ways to make a living. That is in fact quite true. Nowhere is this point made more clearly than by an expatriate Chasidic woman who gives tours of her former home base, Williamsburg. 

One would think that just like other expatriate Chasidm that she would be bitter and cry the loudest about the lack of a secular education.  But that is clearly not the case. a 15 minute video (below) by Frieda Vizel paints a very different and positive picture about the legitimate ways Satmar tyoe Chasdim make a living. It is well worth the 15 minutes of your time to see it. It will surely change the misconception by so may people that with the exception of a few wealthy businessmen, Chasidim have menial jobs and live a life of poverty. That is far from true.

That being said, the lack of an education still limits their options since very few of them are able to overcome it, catch up with those who had one, and have careers that require a higher education. Be that as it may, the fact is that they do quite well within the limits of their (non) education within the confines of their insulated lives. 

But as I keep pointing out, making a living is not the only reason to require a secular education. It is outrageous to me that people who are motivated to study and master complex subjects in the Talmud, remain ignorant of the English language to the point of not being able to construct a single sentence without gross errors in spelling and grammar. That too limits their earing potential. But as I keep saying, it makes the most religious looking Jews among us seem ignorant to the rest of the world. 

Not in terms of their humanity. They often project a very positive image as charitable kind people willing to help their fellow man at the drop of a hat. But that does not remove their image as ignorant of the language and basic knowledge about the country in which they live.  

It should concern us all that this type of Chasidus does that on purpose They see it as a way to counter the negative values they see in the outside world.  It is beyond me that it doesn’t seem to occur to their leadership that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews were educated that way- and managed to remain true to the ideals of the Torah without a hint of being influenced negatively. Including many Gedolei HaDor

The near universal Orthodox opposition to any government interference in Chasidic education is being characterized as an assault on our religious rights and a virtual assault on the Torah itself. 

I do not see it that way at all. The government has a right - perhaps even a duty to demand minimum educational standards as long as they do not interfere with  religious values. Furthermore those defenders ignore the value of ridding a huge religious community of ignorance of the language of the land. It isn’t only about being able to communicate without being fluent. Of course they can. It’s just that it makes the most religious Jews among us seem ignorant. Why their supporters keep ignoring that very important point eludes me. 

This brings me to an article by ‘Open Orthodox’ Rabbi Ysoscher Katz.  Rabbi Katz and I could not be further apart on issues like female rabbis and LGBTQ issues. I am in complete disagreement with him on these issues. That said, he has a perspective about his former Satmar community that few people have. On the issue of education, we see eye to eye. A position he recently articulated in a Jerusalem Post article.

It’s true that he too is an expatriate Chasid. But he did not go OTD. He is still observant. Not only that but he has Semicha from R’ Yechezkel Roth, a giant of Psak Halacha respected by virtually all Charedim. 

Rabbi Katz also expresses a love of learning Torah to this day and teaches Gemara at YCT. He also exprsses very warm feelings about his former community where he said he developed his thirst for Torah study. . However, he also says, his successes should be seen as an exception. His reaction to the (now infamous)  New York Times investigative report is quite revealing in that it comes form a former insider that still loves his old community: 

On one hand, the article brought back painful memories of violent corporal punishment, and also reminded me of the time, many years ago, when I suddenly realized how little my more than twenty-five years of education had prepared me for the world outside the invisible fence surrounding my native community. Once I made a decision to poke a hole in that fence and step outside, I was confronted with numerous intellectual inadequacies… 

I WAS fortunate to find employment in a field where my robust Jewish education gave me an advantage, and my lack of secular education did not put me at too much of a disadvantage. As a Talmud teacher, I am able to utilize everything I was taught in Satmar to make me successful at my job. 

Were I, however, to choose any other career path, I would have been an abject failure. My years of schooling did not teach me how to conjugate a proper English sentence, master modern technology, or be equipped to pursue a decent professional career. Knowing a lot of Talmud does not help with any of that. 

Indeed. it is interesting to contrast the information in the video with the what Rabbi Katz descreibes. One might think that one of these narratives must be false. Either they thrive or they become abject failures.

But as in most things in life, it’s complicated. There is no black and white here. Just a lot of gray. There are pluses and minuses that do not necessarily contradict each other.  Yes they do well overall in the sense of supporting themselves and their families financially as a self contained community .But if they try and venture outside of it into the world at large they will very likely find themselves at a great disadvantage. Careers open to the secularly educated will be closed to them. Very few will be able to overcome it and most will indeed find themselves as abject failures in trying to reach that goal.  

I have therefore not changed my view. I support the goal of requiring a core secular curriculum into those schools that currently refuse to offer them. The same core curriculum that the vast majority of other orthodox schools do to one degree or another. A government has the right to demand reasonable standards of education of its citizens. That is NOT called interfering in their religious rights. 

Like Rabbi Katz, it bothers me that the defenders outside of the Chasidic world would never send one of their own chidren to a school like that. And would surely consider their chlidren deprived if they did. Why don’t they feel the same way about other Jewish children? Why do they support the right to remain ignorant?  

One more thing. The fact that Rabbi Katz is on the far left of Orthodoxy (some even consider him an Apikores) will surely cause a lot of people to discount everything he said.  But truth is to be found wherever it lies. It doesn't matter who articulates it. One needs to think about that before dismissing what Rabbi Katz says.