Tuesday, December 29, 2020
In late 2014, I met with Naftuli Moster, a bright and charismatic graduate student at Hunter College who grew up in Brooklyn's Hasidic community. He was interested in studying Hasidic parents' attitudes toward secular (nonreligious) education—an area that I have long researched and written about.
I gave him the best guidance I could: how to write a survey, how to get buy-in from the community, whether to use Yiddish or English, and how to ensure that his sample was as representative as possible.
I eventually realized that his aim was not data collection. A month later, the New York Times reported that Moster was suing New York City and the state to force schools to provide more secular education. Over the last five years, Moster has managed to put in motion multiple lawsuits and countersuits, launch a spirited media campaign, and persuade New York State officials to pass new, unprecedented education guidelines regulating private education. Panicked supporters of the schools (called yeshivas) have responded by holding up the state budget in Albany and coordinating a letter-writing campaign opposing the proposed regulations.
Supporters of Moster's organization, Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), claim that secular education is a matter of basic human rights. Yeshiva education, they claim, dooms students to a life of poverty and despair. Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) opponents—represented formally by Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty (PEARLS)—see these intrusive regulations as an unprecedented assault on their religious way of life.
Considering that 170,000 students are currently enrolled in Jewish private schools in New York—110,000 of them in Hasidic schools—this issue carries major repercussions for both the Jewish community and the city of New York more broadly. The state's actions call into question the very idea of private education in the United States, as parents' educational choices may no longer matter in the face of state mandates. This has particular significance during a time of increased conflict over public education in the wake of Covid-19, as parents are stuck with public schools that won't open and are frequently turning to private alternatives. Moreover, this conflict has unfolded amid a growing strain of anti-Semitism in New York City and its suburbs—making this an existential issue for Haredim, who feel that their way of life is under threat and, with it, perhaps their lives themselves.
Orthodox Judaism in the United States comprises two major strains: Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi (or ultra-) Orthodoxy. Modern Orthodox Jews observe Jewish law but also engage robustly with contemporary culture and society. In contrast, Haredim—meaning "those who tremble before God"—reject secular culture and values. They mediate their participation in secular society through numerous barriers—religious mandates, educational and occupational choices, language, and dress, among others—and thereby maintain a complex balance of engagement and separation. American Haredim make up the largest and most rapidly growing Orthodox denomination; the Orthodox Union Center for Communal Research estimates that roughly 40 percent of Haredi Jews under age 20 in New York speak Yiddish as a first language.
I've spent my academic career trying to understand how education (boys' education, in particular) helps shape American Haredi communities. Both the content and structure of boys' elementary schools make religious study and practice an all-encompassing reality for students. Secular education comes in a distant second, intended only to help students eventually support themselves in jobs, function in daily life, and participate as citizens in society. (Not obligated by religious study to the same extent as boys, girls receive far more secular education; the lawsuits target boys' schools only.)
Every Haredi community decides for itself how much secular education is necessary. Some yeshivas provide secular studies extensive enough to help their students perform well on New York State's Regents exams. These schools usually (but not always) belong to the Yeshivish branch of ultra-Orthodoxy (think of men in fedoras and short jackets).
Hasidim, adherents of an originally populist religious movement that developed in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe (from where they adopted their distinctive frocks and fur hats), are more conservative and cloistered in several ways. They speak Yiddish as a first language; most of their schools offer less secular education; and they are (mostly) more opposed to higher education than Yeshivish Haredim.
Boys' education among both branches of Haredim is intense. By middle school, students often begin the day at 7:30 AM with study and prayer services and end only at 5:30 or 6:00 PM. In high school, boys continue to study until late at night—9:30 PM or even later.
Religious studies typically consist of learning to read and translate biblical and mishnaic Hebrew, chumash (Bible) and Talmud, Jewish law and custom (halakha), ethical instruction, and prayer. By contrast, only core secular subjects are offered (math, language arts, civics/history, and science), and many schools do not extend these subjects past elementary school. In some Hasidic elementary schools, the subject matter is even more constrained, focusing only on math and language arts.
Some ex-Haredim, and especially ex-Hasidim (including Naftuli Moster), have left their communities following significant personal or family trauma, and an increasingly large group have written tell-all books—so many, in fact, that the ex-Hasidic memoir has become a genre. Ex-Hasidim have also been the subjects of numerous books and articles, both scholarly and popular. As unusually accessible accounts of a closed community otherwise hard to penetrate, their writing offers the only information about contemporary Hasidic life for many outsiders. This lack of understanding among the general public has helped YAFFED make its case. The rapid success of this organization (led by ex-Hasidim) is due partly to the fact that most state and city officials have no direct sources of data about these schools.
In 2015, YAFFED sent a letter to the city of New York listing 39 schools that it alleged were failing to provide a "substantially equivalent" education to that of public schools—as required under New York State law. The state does not make clear what "substantially equivalent" means, specifying only a handful of mandatory subjects: topics such as patriotism and citizenship, the U.S. Constitution, and health and safety. YAFFED's letter argues that the secular education offered by religious schools is too minimal to meet these requirements.
The city should have been skeptical about YAFFED's allegations when it turned out that only 28 of the 39 schools actually existed. One address contained in YAFFED's 2015 list was for a butcher shop. Nevertheless, in 2018, the Department of Education appeared to agree with YAFFED and released highly specific and detailed guidelines governing the mandate of substantial equivalency. The guidelines dictated exactly which courses should be taught, for how long, and by whom. For example, the guidelines require "English language arts, two units of study or the equivalent" with a "unit of study" defined as "at least 180 minutes of instruction per week throughout the school year." Later re-released as regulations, not just guidelines, these mandates required yeshivas to stop offering the type of religious education that defines their mission, since the increased hours required for secular education would reshape the school day. To give weight to the new regulations, MaryEllen Elia, then the state education commissioner, warned that parents who send their children to failing schools could be prosecuted under truancy laws—laws that themselves could trigger neglect charges, leading to the removal of children from their parents.
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