Opinion |

Myths, Politics, Trauma: What Really Fuels the Clash Over Haredi Education in the U.S. and Israel

The fierce debate raging in both Israel and New York about teaching secular subjects in Haredi schools has its deranged fringes, but there is a core issue few are addressing

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Orthodox children going to school in Beit Shemesh last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Back in the alte haym, my family was never particularly revolutionary. There weren’t wayward great-uncles or aunts running off to be pioneers in Ottoman/Mandatory Palestine or joining the Communist Party. Or at least, if there were, they’ve been expunged from the collective tribal memory.

The one recorded act of dissent against communal norms is the decision of my great-grandfather Avrom Yaakov Pfeffer, at some point in the 1920s, to enroll his eldest daughter Golda in the Krakow Bais Yaakov. Sending one’s daughter to the big city to get an education was deemed such a heretical move in those days that he was kicked out of the Hasidishe shtiebel where he davened.

Nowadays, Bais Yaakov girls’ schools are the cream of Haredi education, and they will tell you that the movement had the blessing of the rabbis of the day – including the greatest of them all in the prewar period, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, or the Chofetz Chaim. This is at best a sanitized, self-serving retelling of what actually happened.

The founder of the Bais Yaakov movement, the pious dressmaker Sara Schenirer, had no rabbinical backing when she opened her first school in Krakow in 1917. For much of the movement’s first few decades, high-ranking rabbis were adamantly opposed to the very idea of girls leaving home and being taught by anyone but their fathers.

However, both local demand – which helped the movement rapidly grow to dozens of schools across Poland – and the fact that many families sent their girls to the more liberal maskilim schools in places where there wasn’t a Bais Yaakov, forced the rabbis to change their position. But this came only after the network was firmly brought under male rabbinical control. The Chofetz Chaim’s endorsement finally arrived in 1933, 16 years after Schenirer’s revolution began.

The true story of Bais Yaakov and the way it has been rewritten is important, and not just for Jewish historians. It tells us a few crucial facts about how the rabbinical leadership is resistant to change and will try to cling to the myth of a “pure education” that hasn’t changed for thousands of years. Also, that when facts on the ground demand it, the rabbis will quickly adapt and pretend they had been in the loop from the start.

If the current Haredi educational system for girls was devised in the early 20th century, then the underlying principle of boys’ schooling is even more recent: that no foreign element be allowed to adulterate Torah scholarship, save for a few hours a week of meager general studies to satisfy the authorities.

It is a principle that was possible only after the Holocaust, when the newly rebuilt ultra-Orthodox communities resided exclusively in Western or Israeli welfare societies. Try telling a parent in the Pale of Settlement who needed his son to work on the farm or begin an apprenticeship at the age of 12, so the family could survive, that he should spend his teens studying Talmud.

The system of exclusive Torah study, without any other forms of knowledge, did exist before the Holocaust and the incredible rebirth of Haredi life in Israel and the West. But it was only for a minuscule proportion of ultra-Orthodox boys – prodigies, sons of rabbis or a few wealthy magnates.

Educating entire generations in that fashion was unthinkable in the past. It is only possible nowadays thanks to social benefits and political arrangements, which allow families to survive in self-imposed penury, and because the rabbinical leadership has used this to enforce the isolation of their followers from outside influence.

Students attending their first year of school, in Beit Shemesh last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A political issue

The issue of Haredi education came to the fore in Israel this week. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was concerned that his political allies in the United Torah Judaism party were on the verge of running two separate slates in the upcoming election, due to an internal dispute over teaching core subjects in their schools. So, he promised to fund all the schools at a higher level regardless of their curriculum, should he return to the Prime Minister’s Office with their support.

It became an issue in the United States as well, as the New York State Board of Regents passed new rules requiring private schools to teach core subjects. The move followed a major investigation into the goings-on within Hasidic schools, published last weekend on the front page of The New York Times.

In Israel, where all three candidates for prime minister – Netanyahu, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz – are hoping for Haredi support to form a coalition government, the response to Netanyahu’s promise came mainly from the media and smaller parties. But former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who is not running in the election, could say what his cabinet colleagues were thinking: That “transferring massive budgets to schools refusing to teach English and mathematics will create an entire generation of young people without work skills and income.”

It remains to be seen whether the Board of Regents’ vote and the Times coverage will have any effect on the second-largest Haredi community in the world. But in New York as well, it is spilling over into politics.

Deranged columnists on the far right are calling it “a plot against Jewish education.” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted, meanwhile, that “Zealots in the corporate media are preparing another hit piece defending failing public schools, this time by attacking religious Jews.”

Some of the responses on the other end of the U.S. political spectrum have been equally obscene, with the New York affiliate of the ACLU literally accusing Haredi leaders of depriving “students of color, in order to lavishly fund yeshivas attended by white students.” There’s something especially repugnant about trying to frame this in racial terms – especially considering the fact that, in this case, it’s the ancestors of the “white students” who were enslaved and exterminated in much more recent memory.

What much of the controversy over Haredi education misses – in both Israel and the United States – is that this is a community whose leadership and most of its members, certainly the elder ones, are still suffering from a very real PTSD.

Yes, the Holocaust is the trauma of all Jewish people. But for the Haredim, the loss of European Jewry could have meant the loss of their entire system of belief and way of life. Indeed, back in the late 1940s, many within and outside the Haredi community believed they were on the verge of extinction.

Children and adults crossing in front of a school bus in the heavily ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park, New York.Credit: Bebeto Matthews / AP

Clinging to self-imposed isolation and the myth of a “pure education” that has never changed was deemed essential by the rabbis to rebuild their communities. And from their perspective, the Haredi renaissance in Israel and America proves them right.

But just as they have changed so radically over the past century, through a combination of external and internal pressures, they are still changing – even if the rabbis refuse to acknowledge it for now.

Much of the demand to teach general studies at a higher level – certainly the more effective demand – is coming from a new generation of Haredi parents, more removed from the trauma and better attuned to the necessities of modern life. As a result, such schools are beginning to open and flourish.

Like my great-grandfather, they understand that a better education is possible within the Haredi community, even if it means being ostracized at first.

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