Overview:

A media exposé sheds light on the shockingly poor education offered at Hasidic Jewish private schools.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The New York Times has published a long-overdue exposé of private schools run by the Hasidic sects of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. These schools, called yeshivas, operate in Hasidic enclaves in Brooklyn and New York’s Hudson Valley region.

At these yeshivas, secular subjects like English and math are taught for—at most—90 minutes a day, four days a week. Science and history often aren’t taught at all. The vast majority of classroom time is devoted to studying and memorizing Jewish religious texts and ancient rabbinical commentaries on those texts.

Unsurprisingly, students who graduate from these institutions are abysmally ignorant beyond these narrow religious boundaries. They often can’t read or write in English, can’t do any math beyond basic arithmetic, and know next to nothing about the world in which they live (for example, many don’t know what dinosaurs were or what the Civil War was). They’re utterly unprepared to live independently or to function in secular society.

Failing by design

Let’s be clear: this isn’t a well-meaning but tragic failure. It’s not happening because these schools are underfunded and could do better if only they had the resources. On the contrary, it’s the desired result. The leadership of Hasidic Judaism has a deliberate policy of keeping children ignorant, so that they’re not tempted to leave their religion or to live on their own.

That’s why they rented out a baseball stadium for a mass meeting to warn people to steer clear of the internet, because of the dangerously unorthodox ideas it contains.

That’s why the rabbis of Satmar Hasidism issued an edict forbidding women from attending college.

The leadership of Hasidic Judaism has a deliberate policy of keeping children ignorant.

That’s why they maintain a strict, almost medieval separation from the modern world, including—according to the article—forbidding students from reading secular books at home. When they’re forced to use secular textbooks in their schools, they’re censored with black marker to conceal dangerous words like “library” and “college”.

Their goal is to preserve their hidebound, insular, intensely patriarchal culture exactly as it was two hundred years ago. They acknowledge no authority except their own rabbis, and want to keep their children from learning anything that might inspire them to think differently.

This isn’t a revelation

Now, this story isn’t a bombshell revelation. The basic facts have been clear since 2015, when the group Young Advocates for Fair Education, or YAFFED, raised the alarm about the deplorable quality of education in these yeshivas.

However, the Times article gathers all these facts in one place and puts figures on them. And those figures are damning:

The students in the boys’ schools are not simply falling behind. They are suffering from levels of educational deprivation not seen anywhere else in New York, The Times found. Only nine schools in the state had less than 1 percent of students testing at grade level in 2019, the last year for which full data was available. All of them were Hasidic boys’ schools.

…Statewide, the public schools that served only low-income students all scored exponentially higher than the boys’ yeshivas did, the analysis found. The same was true for schools that overwhelmingly enrolled nonnative English speakers.

In Hasidic Enclaves, Failing Private Schools Flush With Public Money.” Eliza Shapiro and Brian M. Rosenthal. The New York Times, 11 September 2022.

(In a praiseworthy move, the Times also published the article in Yiddish so that everyone in the Hasidic community would be able to read it.)

It would be bad enough if private yeshivas were letting their students wallow in educational neglect. What makes this more infuriating is that they’re using tax dollars to do it:

Officials have sent money to Hasidic schools for decades but have never provided a full public accounting. To create one, The Times identified dozens of federal, state and local programs and analyzed how much they have given to yeshivas, looking most closely at the last year before the pandemic.

The analysis showed that New York’s Hasidic boys’ schools received more than $375 million from the government in that period.

Hasidic boys’ yeshivas receive far less per pupil than public schools, and they charge tuition. But they appear to get more government funding on average than other private schools in the state, including other religious schools, the analysis found.

…The schools got roughly $100 million through antipoverty programs to provide free breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks every school day to virtually all Hasidic boys, including during the summer. At least one school network, the U.T.A., uses the money to buy food from retailers it owns, using the profit to support its budget, interviews and records show.

Once again, this isn’t new information. For example, Hasidic schools’ abuse of the federal E-Rate program is something we’ve known about for a while. But the Times investigation sheds light on the scope and scale of the problem.

Another disturbing revelation in the article is that some teachers in these schools beat and abuse students as a means of discipline:

More than 35 men who either attended or worked at a Hasidic school in the past decade told The Times they saw teachers hit students with rulers, belts and sticks.

…At Avir Yakov Elementary, in New Square, north of New York City, one man recalled being kicked by a rabbi so hard that he flew under a table. He was 4 at the time. The school did not respond to requests for comment.

A recent graduate of Yeshiva Beth Hillel of Williamsburg said he once saw a teacher knock a classmate to the ground and stomp him repeatedly.

And at Bobover Yeshiva Bnei Zion in Borough Park, a young man said when he was 11, a teacher dragged him across the room, and his head banged on a locker and started to bleed.

This educational deprivation has consequences. Many yeshiva graduates end up doing low-paid menial labor for a living, or subsisting on food stamps and federal welfare programs. The Hasidic town of Kiryas Joel is the poorest community in the entire United States for this reason. Another Hasidic town, New Square, tops New York state poverty rankings with an eye-popping 70% poverty rate.

For the few who do leave the Hasidic community, trying to carve out an independent life with these disadvantages is a brutal struggle:

Mendy Pape said he left a Hasidic neighborhood in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for Montreal in 2010. He got a job at a bagel factory, but, unable to afford an apartment, he slept on park benches. Despairing, he tried to take his own life.

After six months in a psychiatric hospital, Mr. Pape said he recovered enough to find work and an apartment. A neighbor started to teach him English in her spare time, he said, and gave him his first secular book: “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Seuss. He was 28.

Hasidic Jews’ lack of education also harms them in more immediate and deadly ways. With scientific education bottoming out near zero in these communities, anti-vax ideology flourishes—and they paid a heavy price for it when COVID-19 struck. They got sick and died at far higher rates than the general population. Next up, polio is returning to Hasidic communities, given a foothold by low vaccination rates.

The right to teach, not the right to enforce ignorance

In a pluralistic, multicultural society, parents have the right to teach their children their own beliefs and traditions. What parents don’t have, and shouldn’t have, is the right to deprive their children of education altogether. They don’t have the right to prevent them from learning about anything the parents dislike or disagree with.

That’s why we have compulsory education under the law. It’s not just because education is essential for earning a living, but because it’s beneficial to give young people a broad perspective on the world. It’s a positive good to teach them everything we know about the world, about the scientific truths gleaned from centuries of diligent investigation. It’s a positive good to teach children about the sweep of history and the diversity of civilization, about great writing and great art, influential culture and timeless philosophy.

What parents don’t have, and shouldn’t have, is the right to deprive their children of education altogether.

We all have to choose who we become, and education is essential to making an informed choice. If they learn all of this and want to stick with the culture or religion they were raised in, that’s their right. But if they choose a different path for themselves, that’s their right as well.

This is how all progress happens, by expanding people’s intellectual horizons and teaching them that they can ask questions and make up their own minds. If a culture can only survive by keeping people ignorant of the alternatives, by forcibly isolating them from the wider world, by cutting them off from any information that might conflict with their assumptions… then that culture doesn’t deserve to survive.

Avatar photo

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...