Esther Bernstein

This is a story about school standards and what it means to enforce them. It’s not the story of local politicians dictating what belongs in a Texas public school textbook. It’s the story of members of the New York Hasidic community asking for the full weight of state and city governments to come to their aid.

Sometimes I play a game as I walk from the Herald Square subway station to the Graduate Center.

As I pass many ultra-Orthodox women who have come in from Brooklyn, I attempt to identify which neighborhood each woman is from. Her hair-covering (turban, kerchief over wig, wig alone), her tights (beige or black, seamed or seamless), her style of makeup, the length and style of her skirt, and her hairstyle all tell me if she lives in Williamsburg, Boro Park, Kensington, Midwood, Bensonhurst, or Crown Heights. Grad Center friends have good-naturedly scoffed at this game. These women all look the same; there’s no way I can possibly identify their neighborhoods. But the difference between my gaze and the gaze of my fellow students is that I’ve lived among these women, as one of these women.

Proximity and belonging alerts you to the nuanced differences among a group that looks almost entirely uniform to outsiders. My high school, one of the largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish girls’ high schools in Brooklyn with a total enrollment of just below 1000 students, drew from a mix of communities and neighborhoods. Even with our school uniforms of navy blue pleated skirts and blue-checked Oxford blouses, there were usually “tells” that identified girls’ specific neighborhoods.

Hasidic schools are less diverse than that because they each draw from only one community within the larger ultra-Orthodox community. Led by a rebbe, a spiritual authority whose guidance directs almost every aspect of his followers’ lives, each sect of Hasidim has its own separate girls’ school and boys’ school – Satmar, Skver, Bobov, Belz, Kloesenberg, Tzanz, Stetchin, Stolin, etc. This reality reinforces the perception by outsiders of ultra-Orthodox communities as cloistered and insular, with every individual in that community conforming to every aspect and rejecting anything from the outside world.

A recent lawsuit filed in Manhattan district court challenges this insular vision. Seven plaintiffs, consisting of former students as well as parents of current students, allege that four boys’ yeshivas in Rockland County fail to meet the state and city general education requirements. Boys in pre-K through third grade receive instruction only in Torah and Talmud, in classes taught exclusively in Yiddish. From fourth through eighth grade, they receive instruction in rudimentary English reading skills and basic arithmetic. These secular studies classes last for two hours after a long eight- or nine-hour day of Torah study beginning at 7am, often only three times a week. After eighth grade, when most boys have their thirteenth birthday and become bar mitzvah, there is no longer instruction in non-Judaic subjects. As a result, the plaintiffs argue, boys graduating from these institutions are often forced to work menial jobs and struggle to support their families.

Ironically, the perception of Hasidim as hostile to outsiders creates a resistance on the part of some outsiders to take sides, or even understand the gravity of the situation. There is, of course, the charge that targeting these schools is an anti-Semitic reaction to the sects’ resistance to assimilation into mainstream American society, but the charge falls apart when the issue is examined closely.

YAFFED (Young Advocates for Fair Education) is the force behind the lawsuit. Critically, the lawsuit does not just target the four yeshivas named in the suit but also the New York State Board of Education, the Board of Regents, and individuals within those entities. The point Naftuli Moster, a formerly-Hasidic graduate of one of these schools and the founder of YAFFED, is trying to make is that it is not only the responsibility of the Hasidic community to fix the system which is systematically failing to educate their children, but to draw the attention of the government bodies meant to protect these boys.

The focus on boys’ schools is a strategic reaction to quite a fascinating twist on gender discrimination. In many ultra-Orthodox girls’ schools, the level of secular education is far higher than in the boys’ schools. Torah study is the domain of the men in ultra-Orthodox communities, and they are expected not to waste time on anything else. While girls learn lessons of the Torah and study the text itself to varying degrees, the guarding of girls’ minds against “unnecessary knowledge” is less stringent. Girls do not learn anything considered directly impure, but they do learn English speaking and writing skills, more advanced math skills, and some basic sections of the sciences. The perception of girls as less capable and less culpable in Torah study ironically works to their advantage in this case.

Section 3204 of the New York State Education Law outlines the obligations of non-public schools: instruction provided by a competent teacher; English as the language of instruction and of textbooks, except for three years after enrollment for students who “by reason of foreign birth or ancestry have limited English proficiency”; instruction for the first eight years in “at least the twelve common school branches of arithmetic, reading, spelling, writing, the English language, geography, United States history, civics, hygiene, physical training, the history of New York State and science”; specialized training beyond the first eight years in some of the same areas and the additional areas of “the principles of government proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and established by the Constitution…”

The amount of regulation the state has over non-public schools has been debated in court many times. In the early twentieth century, as states became concerned about the influx of immigrants entering American society, laws tightening control over education were passed. In 1922 an amendment to Oregon’s Compulsory Education Act was proposed which would have required all children to attend public schools with few exceptions. The Ku Klux Klan and at least two Masonic organizations strongly advocated for the bill as an effort to shut down Catholic schools. The bill passed but was overturned in the 1925 Supreme Court case Pierce v. The Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. Supporters of parochial schools never argued against state regulation of education, but rather argued that compulsory enrollment in public schools interfered with their right to instill community values in their children. The final decision, in favor of the private school’s right to provide alternate education, noted that “the child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” Current New York State law reflects this and allows private schools to set their own course of study as long as the education meets state standards. Yet, as Moster’s case illustrates, in many situations, laws are not enforced.

Things may have remained this way, with Board of Education officials allegedly turning a blind eye to the severe lack of education in yeshivas, if not for the wave of young people leaving the Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox communities. These young men are so lacking in basic skills that it takes years to catch up in order to get their high school equivalencies, attend college, or even work a fairly simple job. They find it hard to make themselves understood in conversation, they have virtually no English writing skills, and they can barely compute past fractions. They also have no knowledge of history or of natural sciences, and at times their understanding of the natural world or of social norms is even counterfactual.

When is it right to force change on a minority group, if ever? Moster has been told by one community leader, whose opinion is echoed by others, that he has “disqualified” himself from making these claims because he left the Hasidic community and has chosen not to identify with them or their values. However, this ignores the many men who remain in the community but desperately wish they had received better education. Change is not being forced on them; they are clamoring for the change themselves.

Even without trying to move out of the insular community and into mainstream American society as Moster has done, these men find it almost impossible to earn a living due to their limited education. Many Hasidic families wind up on welfare, which has often been derided as opportunistic laziness or outright fraud by city officials and by the media. But most of them don’t want to be on welfare. They want to work and earn their living, they want to be able to use the intelligence and skills they know they have, but they are hampered by the tremendously sub-par education they received as children.

The New York Times has featured numerous nuanced examinations of the cultural and economic factors affecting the large percentage of Hasidim on welfare (between one-third and fifty percent in Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel). An article in the 21 April 1997 issue cites an anonymous 27-year-old father of four who confirms the cultural pressures and then admits that, “I hope to get off, I am trying to get off.” There are multiple factors contributing to the phenomenon of welfare dependence in Hasidic communities, and YAFFED is attempting to address the factor of education.

YAFFED’s suit does not seek to introduce any innovations to state regulation of private schools, merely to enforce existing laws. The laws cited in the suit focus on the duty to provide an education giving students an opportunity to succeed, which the plaintiffs claim to be able to prove is not happening in these yeshivas. However, these laws have been in effect for years, and the Board of Education officials should have been enforcing them.

An oft-cited criticism of this endeavor, made both by Jews who oppose this kind of reform to their own schools and by outsiders who think the effort is too narrowly focused, is that enforcing an education “substantially equivalent” to public schools is almost laughable. Public school education has many problems, and there are multiple groups doing necessary work to correct the phenomenon that we as CUNY teachers know all too well – that public school education, especially in economically disadvantaged areas, does not necessarily prepare students to succeed either.

But the reasons for the failure of public schools to adequately prepare their students differ from the reason for the failure of Hasidic schools. In public schools, lack of funds is often pointed to as a cause of this failure. Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox schools point to lack of funds as well, claiming that since they do not receive government funding and must rely on tuition from families paying for as many as six or seven children at once, they will obviously be operating on a lower level. But the state does provide funds for private schools. The ways they can do so are limited because the state cannot actively fund religious education. One method of government funding for private schools is through textbook allowances. Under NYSTL, the New York State Textbook Law, private schools follow the same process as public schools do for requesting textbook funds. And yet Hasidic yeshiva students never see any textbooks, because the yeshivas do not take advantage of what the state offers them, and the Board of Education seems not to have noticed this discrepancy.

Before enlisting the help of lawyer Norman Siegel in filing a lawsuit against the various government officials for failing to do their jobs, Moster contacted the Department of Education to alert them to the conditions of education in these yeshivas. That was in 2012. Three years later, in summer 2015, when YAFFED saw that nothing would be done, they issued a letter signed by 52 former students and parents of current students, resulting in a promise from the Department of Education that the situation would be investigated. With no results from that investigation over six months after this promise, YAFFED is working on bringing the matter to court.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the community, either against themselves or against their family. Should it become known that they are involved in this case, their sons or brothers may be made unwelcome in these schools, which effectively cuts them off from their community. Reading some comments on YAFFED’s Facebook page, articles in some Jewish publications, and other conversations in various places, one would assume that the general response of religious Hasidic Jews is anger at YAFFED’s efforts to change the community.

However, the picture painted by vocal opponents to enforcing standards of education in yeshivas ignores the many voices of Hasidic men who remain in the community and yet are clamoring for this change. Most men who speak up, whether on their own behalf as they struggle to find work or on behalf of their sons currently in yeshiva, remain anonymous. The few who do identify themselves publicly as supporters of YAFFED’s work are drowned out by the voices of those opposing it. But the actual balance of supporters and opponents within the Hasidic community itself is obscured by the necessary invisibility of some supporters.

The structure of a community necessitates a certain amount of conformity from an individual in order to continue being considered a part of that community. People want to be part of communities for various reasons, and they make certain small sacrifices in order to be part of it. As graduate students and academics, we may not agree with all the norms of our communities, but we will at times choose to conform in certain small ways in order to maintain our status as members of the community. Members of Hasidic communities have many different and individual reasons for wanting to remain in the community, and until now, they have been forced to sacrifice their education in order to do so. As the lawsuit makes its way through the courts, as the story develops and gains more publicity, more and more Hasidim are coming forward to voice their support and to agree that the laws should be enforced for the good of their children.

But to claim that YAFFED and other advocates are motivated by anything resembling anti-Semitism or Jewish self-hatred, by a dislike of any community which keeps to itself and does not readily integrate with American society, is just wrong. It is the people in this community itself who want the change, but they lack the civic education enabling them to take any action. Those who left and pursued education on their own are simply giving them the voice, the tools, and the power to effect change.

The state, the institution which should have been making sure that these laws were enforced all along, is just as guilty as those standing on the sidelines and claiming that unless someone asks for help, we should leave them alone. It is unacceptable that any elected official would willingly allow any entity to blatantly disregard a whole set of laws. And when others outside of the community become aware of what is happening, it is horrifying to think that the reaction may be an assumption that the entire community wants things to stay the way they are.

Elected officials work with community leaders, as they do in many neighborhoods and communities. They know the votes they need to get re-elected rest in the hands of these leaders. Of course individuals are free to vote on their own, but in Hasidic communities, the rebbe usually names which candidate to vote for before each election. His followers, educated in yeshivas where no civic education has been given, do not have the tools to evaluate the candidates’ positions and views or to form their own opinions on crucial issues.

Had YAFFED been a group of only people who had left the community, and had their efforts been met with resistance and only resistance, the argument that outsiders want to change the community out of prejudice might be valid. The plaintiffs who have never dissociated from the community in any way, and the growing multitude of voices rising in support of YAFFED’s efforts, prove that this is not the case. Rather, through an effort to reform the schools and enforce laws of education, YAFFED is attempting to empower members of the community to make their own choices and to let their elected officials know what those choices are.