Analysis |

Change in Hasidic Education Will Come From Inside the Community

The New York Times’ investigation into failing ultra-Orthodox boys' schools across the state is welcome, if belated, and contains key lessons as well for the community in Israel

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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From New York to Bnei Brak, change is coming, slowly, from within, but it will need a lot more nudging.
From New York to Bnei Brak, change is coming, slowly, from within, but it will need a lot more nudging.Credit: AP, ingimage. Artwork: Anastasia Shub
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The New York Times published an investigative story Sunday (“Failing schools, public funds”) into the state of Hasidic schools for boys in New York, and the fact they are failing their students by design.

The report was both lengthy, at over 4,000 words, and prominent in its front-page placement. The paper obviously deserves full credit for producing such a powerful piece, which seems to be just the start of an ongoing endeavor. Few news organizations can devote the resources the Times has to an issue, allowing two correspondents to work full-time for many months on one project and giving them the additional services of data journalism, researchers and a dedicated investigations editor.

And yet, as with every hitherto underreported issue, it’s also worth asking why it took this long for a major media organization to shine a light in this direction.

It’s not as if New York Hasidim are an obscure cult. They live in New York, for goodness’ sake. Nor is this just a minor phenomenon. We’re talking about at least 50,000 boys of school age. There are no great secrets either. For years now, there has been a steady stream of young men and women leaving the Haredi community, talking openly about the near-total absence of any general curriculum in their schools. There have been numerous personal memoirs written, and it’s already been fodder for drama and reality shows on television.

Uncharacteristically, journalism is arriving on the scene after entertainment.

There are a number of possible reasons for the reluctance of the mainstream U.S. media to delve more deeply into this until now. Politics is one. The more conservative news organizations would be less enthusiastic in questioning the choices of a religious community on how to educate its children. Liberal outlets may have less of an incentive as well – at least in this case – since the political deals that allowed the yeshivas to avoid oversight while receiving an above-average level of public funding as private schools were done with Democrats at the city and state level.

There’s also a sense of irrelevance and parochialism to the ultra-Orthodox community that has allowed it to go under the media radar. Even though there are an estimated 250,000 Haredim in New York alone, there are no city reporters who cover them regularly, as a full-time beat.

And then, of course, there’s the fear of being accused of antisemitism – a fear the public defenders of the Haredim have already tried to prey on by warning that the publication could fuel bias against their community.

But ultimately, it has been impossible to ignore and the attention of the Times, which will hopefully lead to wider coverage, has the potential to induce significant change – especially as it’s taking place alongside an increasingly open debate within the Haredi community on the way their schools are run.

Haredi children playing on a sidewalk in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood.Credit: Mark Lennihan / AP

Long-running debate

In Israel, where the Haredi community is a much larger, more visible and politically powerful part of the population, the debate over what is usually referred to here as “core subjects” in ultra-Orthodox schools is a long-running one.

Just as the Times’ investigation was hitting the newsstands, it was revealed in Israel that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised the ultra-Orthodox parties that if he’s returned to office, he’ll act to give their schools full public funding without requiring them to add general studies to their curriculum.

The promise was made as part of Netanyahu’s attempts to ensure that the different Haredi factions represented in the United Torah Judaism alliance continue running together in the upcoming November 1 election, rather than splitting into separate slates and jeopardizing votes for his right wing/religious bloc.

The issue of the lack of general studies in Haredi schools has major implications for the future of the Israeli economy, as demographic trends ensure that their graduates will be a growing proportion of the workforce. It is also an intense political dispute, with the Haredi parties putting the independence of their schools from outside supervision and their continued funding at the top of their lists of demands as potential governing coalition partners.

Attempts to force through a “core studies” curriculum as a condition for funding by the rare governments in recent years that have not had Haredi parties in their coalitions (such as the outgoing one) have largely failed. However, the possibility of Belz, the second-largest Hasidic sect in Israel, joining a government program whereby they receive funding in return for teaching general subjects at a higher level, is the reason for the current rift threatening to split United Torah Judaism.

However, nearly all the coverage on this issue in the Israeli media over the years has been from these economic and political angles. Much less attention has been paid to the personal cost paid by the hundreds of thousands of young men and women graduating from these schools.

The New York Times investigation has put an emphasis on this as well, interviewing a series of young men who found themselves abandoned, without any skills for living and working in the outside world, once they left Haredi life. It’s to be hoped that news organizations in Israel and other countries do likewise.

It’s important that Haredi schools for girls do not escape scrutiny either (even though, by and large, they have a higher standard of general studies, as their Torah study is not seen as inviolable). Young women who are being forced into a life where they are required to marry and start having children before they turn 20 are worthy of our attention as well.

This isn’t just an issue in Israel and the United States, though they have the world’s two largest ultra-Orthodox communities. Similar disputes are occurring in countries with smaller Haredi communities. In many of those cases, where the ultra-Orthodox have less political influence and the local governments have a different attitude toward the independence of private schools, there has been much more pressure on the Haredi leadership to adapt their curriculum.

In Canada, for example, Hasidic schools in Quebec are being forced to teach a set number of hours of French and English. In Britain, where the inspection of schools is carried out by an agency that is independent of the government and largely immune to political pressure, there are a number of ongoing inspections of Haredi schools in London, Manchester and Gateshead. These have been found to be failing their students and could be forced to close down.

In Australia, the huge publicity surrounding the case of Malka Leifer – the girls’ high school principal in Melbourne accused of multiple cases of sexual assault, who fled to Israel in 2008 and was extradited only after a lengthy legal saga – has also caused a spotlight to be shone on private Haredi schools there. Just last month, New South Wales’ education authority shuttered a Haredi school in Sydney over “issues relating to governance and curriculum.”

Malka Leifer, right, being brought to a courtroom in Jerusalem in 2018, before her extradition to Australia.Credit: Mahmoud Illean/AP

Backlash is inevitable for any outside attempt to inspect and change the way Haredi schools educate. In the short-term, this will mean an attempt to double down and build the walls even higher. As The New York Times points out: they are not failing their students out of neglect but “by design.”

The whole point of Haredi education as it has been constituted since the Holocaust has been to rebuild the communities devastated in Europe through isolating their children from the world and preventing any “foreign” influence in their schooling. The fact that the communities were rebuilt in democratic countries with modern welfare systems was supposed to both allow them to teach without state interference while receiving public funding.

This remains their objective, and the rabbis and Haredi politicians will keep fighting for it. The New York Times won’t deter them.

But that doesn’t mean change is not inevitable. Within the Haredi community, as some who were interviewed in the piece attest, there is a younger generation of parents who believe the system is unsustainable (indeed, they claim they wouldn’t have spoken to the paper if it weren’t for their despair at the situation and their desire for change). They want a different education for their children, while remaining in the fold.

This is true in Israel as well, where Haredi parents, working with the Education Ministry, have founded the fledgling “state Haredi schools” that teach a full curriculum of both religious and general studies.

Change is coming, slowly, from within. But it will need a lot more nudging.

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