For several years now, it’s been an open secret that the religious schools for Hasidic Jews in New York City have deprived students of a quality education. Because of their religious nature, there was also little to no oversight of the curriculum. Boys were expected to become rabbis, so their classes involved a heavy dose of religious indoctrination at the expense of all other classes. Girls received a slightly more well-rounded education, but it was hardly any better.
The only way that sort of training prepares you for the future is if you actually become a rabbi… something that only occurs for about 5% of those boys. The rest? They’re left with no useful knowledge that can set them up for success down the road. That also means they’re effectively locked into their religious bubble for life because stepping outside of it would leave them without most of the requisite skills to make it in the “real world.”
It didn’t help that, for a while when the state’s legislature was roughly split down the middle, conservative State Sen. Simcha Felder (a Democrat who caucuses with Republicans) effectively held the state’s budget hostage unless politicians promised not to interfere with those religious schools. He demanded that yeshivas be exempt from state requirements to give kids a proper education in areas like English, science, math, and history. It made the problem so much worse.
“[They] are being denied an education,” said Naftuli Moster, executive director of YAFFED, an organization that advocates to improve secular education in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. “The main reason has to do with [yeshiva administrators] saying there’s no time to learn stuff [students] won’t use in life — especially boys, who are [expected] to be rabbis.”
Moster added that there are other issues at hand as well: “There are certain things in science and history that contradict portions of the Torah — fossils, dinosaurs.”
That was in 2018. But even before then, this problem was evident. About a decade ago, Hasidic Jews took over a public school district in East Ramapo, leading to all kinds of internal battles. There was even a lawsuit in 2015 by ex-Hasidic Jews against state officials alleging that their school district was depriving them of a “sound basic education as guaranteed by law.”
Underlying all of these complaints was the fact that these religious schools receive taxpayer funding.
If the government is giving cash to these schools, where’s the regulation? Where’s the oversight? Don’t state officials have some kind of obligation to make sure students are receiving at least a rudimentary secular education?
Again, we’ve known about this problem for years. But because of the fragile nature of church/state separation and New York lawmakers unable or afraid to crack down on these schools, children of Hasidic Jews have suffered.
And now we are finding out just how broad the problem really is.
On Sunday, the New York Times‘ Eliza Shapiro and Brian M. Rosenthal published a damning account (gift article) of how these private religious schools, “flush with public money,” have failed the students in their care. After a year of reporting and interviews with more than 275 people close to the conflict, their article reveals just how poorly students are taught in these religious schools. (Also a first? The article was translated into Yiddish so that Hasidic Jews who are literate and able to access the internet may be able to read it.)
One of the bombshells: These Hasidic boys’ schools have received over $1 billion in government funding over the past four years.
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.
Girls receive more secular education because they study fewer religious texts. But they, too, are struggling: About 80 percent of the girls who took standardized tests last year failed.
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.
It’s not just standardized testing, which is only one (widely criticized) way to measure educational growth. Many of these schools physically abuse students, leave children unable to care for their families when they grow up, and have leaders who are proudly in denial of how poorly they manage their schools.
The Times notes that there are “about 200,000 Hasidic Jews in New York” (not to be confused with more modern Orthodox Jews), and they operate in a fairly insular environment. That means there are lot of children who may be short-changed by their leaders without even realizing it.
It doesn’t help that the various schools are independent of each other, which makes it harder to enact specific policy changes across the board, and that the Hasidic community wields a lot of influence by voting as a bloc largely to prevent interference in their school system.
That results in educators who care little about education:
Some Hasidic boys’ yeshivas do not offer any nonreligious classes at all. Others make attending the classes optional. Yeshivas that provide secular education now mostly hire only Hasidic men as teachers, regardless of whether they know English.
Secular textbooks are either censored with black marker to blot out images of girls and pigs and words like “library” and “college,” or specially printed to omit such content altogether.
If these schools aren’t educating kids, then why are they getting any money? It’s not because of the academics.
The city voucher program that helps low-income families pay for child care now sends nearly a third of its total assistance to Hasidic neighborhoods, even while tens of thousands of people have languished on waiting lists. The program provides more than $50 million a year to Hasidic boys’ schools that claim the end of their regular school day as child care, records show.
Hasidic boys’ schools also received about $30 million from government financial aid programs, which they access by counting their older students as pursuing higher education degrees in religious studies.
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.
The bottom line is that the government, despite good intentions through these programs, has helped the Hasidic community perpetuate its educational neglect. As one former member told the Times, there’s a nefarious theory behind why students weren’t really taught anything secular: “Hasidic education was designed to keep him from leaving the community.”
There’s a legitimate debate to be had about the value of private religious schools, but that debate rests on the assumption that those schools offer a secular education on top of their religious indoctrination. When we hear about fundamentalist Christian schools promoting Creationism in lieu of science, we rightly regard that as a form of mental child abuse. No one should deprive children access to reality because their religion demands otherwise.
It’s bad enough that these Hasidic families are sending their kids to private religious schools. It’s downright criminal that these kids are left worse off by the time they graduate, having wasted so much valuable time learning something most of them will never need to function in society unless they remain in their bubble.
These children deserve better. Their religious community isn’t going to give it to them. For now, though, the government of New York is rewarding the abuse and no one in power seems to have the guts to stand up on behalf of the kids. If politicians won’t do it, who will?
If adults choose to remain ignorant because it’s a requirement of their faith, that’s their choice. To force that ignorance upon kids who literally don’t know any better is selfish at best and a form of cruelty at worst. (It’s no surprise that Sen. Ted Cruz has already responded on the side of the schools, pretending that the Times article is some sort of anti-religious hit piece without addressing the substance of the claims in it.)
Here’s hoping this article opens more eyes to the problem and forces people in power to take some kind of action to help the children, even if it means plugging up the pipeline of cash that’s been flowing to these communities. No one is denying these people the ability to practice their faith; they have no right, however, to abuse children as part of their religious traditions.
On Tuesday, the state’s Board of Regents is set to vote on a set of rules that would require private schools to meet certain secular academic standards or lose public funding. Approving those standards would be a start. But so much more needs to be done.