Thursday, August 18, 2011

At a private conference yesterday on the topic of inadequate secular education in haredi (Jewish Ultra-Orthodox) schools, some really shocking trends in haredi education were revealed by a group of graduates from such institutions.

The most appalling of all institutions turned out to be --somewhat surprisingly-- Chabad/Lubavitch. Graduates from Chabad schools testified that there was absolutely no secular education provided in their schools, not even elementary education, which is generally normative among haredi schools. It's interesting to note that Chabad pupils --unlike most other haredi counterparts-- speak English among themselves. This fact may explain somewhat the perceived lack of necessity to teach their pupils secular studies; administrators believe that Chabad pupils receive an adequate dosage of exposure to American ways by virtue of their native English speaking (as opposed to Yiddish -- normative at other haredi institutions).

Some other immensely disturbing conditions were revealed by other participants in the conference:

Most institutions offer only elementary secular education. After Bar Mitzvah, upon entering yeshiva qetanah, institutions such as Satmar, Krasna, Papa, Belz, Vizhnitz and other satellite community institutions offer no secular education to its pupils. It is also worth noting that the religious topics curriculum fills significantly more than a typical public school schedule: 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. is quite common (which is partly why many Yeshiva's offer dormitories to save commuting time). Some yeshiva's provide an option to its pupils in the afternoon hours to either enroll in secular courses or to study a religious topic -- typically shulkhan arukh, a work by Rabbi Joseph Caro that is commonly considered the basis for modern Jewish law. The caveat about this "choice", however, is that that secular route is shunned by administrators and pupils alike. Those who do choose such route are often perceived as morally weak or of inferior religious scholarship capacity. For others it is done out of "necessity", in order to be able to find employment at later stages in life or because parents are compelling them to.

I personally wonder whether administrators offer secular studies in high school merely to qualify for state and federal aid which is then collected on behalf of all pupils (including those that are not enrolled in secular courses) and partially diverted toward religious studies budgets. Another practice discovered in the meeting was the collection of federal Pell grants by some institutions on behalf of their pupils, often unbeknownst to them. They sometimes only discover this much later when applying for college funding and being told that their government aid availability has already been exhausted.

The Problem

Some people will invariably ask: okay, so what? if it works for them, let it be; why interfere with their autonomy if the haredi population is okay with a nonexistent or inadequate secular education?

There are several problems with this phenomenon. Chief among them is related to another development in haredi life. In the last decade hundreds of youngsters have defected from the grip of haredi communities, having chosen to pursue college and other employment unacceptable to haredim. They are often lured by the promise of a more libertarian lifestyle, where they can think and express heretical ideas freely and abandon some or all religious practices in favor of a more adaptive 21st century lifestyle.

Those defectors find themselves in an immense quandary. They feel that the haredi community does not speak to them any longer; they are eager to assimilate into the mainstream American culture. However, no one in the outside world seems prepared or able to deal with their overwhelming handicap in education and culture. For those who seek to enter college, the question is posed: no high school diploma and no GED? what do you mean? we need a letter from the last school you attended before you "dropped out"? Of course, they never were in any real school in the first place and even if they were, they would likely find them uncooperative since college is unacceptable to the Ultra-Orthodox.

One of the revelations brought to light in the conference was that many former haredim who decide to pursue college, require intense remediate courses and private tutoring to even reach a minimum level of knowledge necessary for entrance into college. Those who manage without formal courses are either lucky enough to somehow have had some exposure to secular studies in their schools or elsewhere in their haredi upbringing or they have a tremendous drive and tenacity to overcome the obstacles and pursue self-study methods to bring themselves up to par with college entry requirements.

Moreover, even those who do not pursue the college route, face tremendous difficulties adjusting to a more mainstream lifestyle. Satmar-williamsuburg graduates can barely write English and their speaking proficiency is bare-bones, not sufficient for conversational English. Math proficiency is also so rudimentary as to likely interfere with even blue-collar careers. One participant recounted how he did not know what a fraction was when he first left the haredi community.

According to a lawyer familiar with this problem and is considering tackling this in court, it's not abut attempting to enforce the state's or other people's standards on the haredi community. Clearly, the haredim are entitled to freedom of religion and --broadly speaking-- to customize the education of their children according to their religious mores and values, so that if a pupil is like most other pupils they would as adults be satisfied and appreciative with the haredi unique approach to education. The problem is that for those who decide to burst out of the restrictive haredi bubble, their education is so basic as to significantly impede their ability to make the choices they so desperately want to make. Essentially, the haredim are erecting such huge barriers to the outside world that even those who are absolutely determined to make it out are incapacitated by their lack of a basic education.

One participant recounted how he had always wanted to be a mathematics professor. Upon entering high school, he was told after taking an admittance test that he lacks sufficient mastery of the subject to be admitted to the high school math course. When he went to his religious studies principle (known in Yiddish as the menahel) to discuss his dilemma his menahel reacted with glee: "ah, that's great; this way you won't ever become a professor" evidently treating his pupil's desire to become a math professor as an undesirable temptation; now that his proficiency is inadequate those il-conceived aspirations can be finally laid to rest. Of course -- the principle overplayed his hand. In response, the pupil decided to drop out of the Yeshiva altogether and pursue his own curriculum that initially included both traditional Talmudic studies and math but he eventually left the folds of haredi life altogether.

Possible Remedial Action

What can be done to remedy this ill? Several possible solutions were raised and I shall throw my own ideas into the mix:

* Pressure government executive departments (such as the New York State Board of Education) to get off their butts and fulfill their obligations according to State law. State law requires a minimum of secular studies through 12th grade. haredi institutions overwhelmingly do not meet those minimum criteria.
* Sue the state in federal court, perhaps claiming a violation of civil rights by not providing its citizens a basic "civil capacity" to function as an informed, educated citizen.
* Change the law to allow the haredim to develop secular courses that do not conflict with their creationist beliefs and their aversion to sex study before marriage.
* Raise awareness among political electees and activists that this breach in execution of the law is happening before our eyes and is negatively impacting an increasingly larger slice of the haredi population. The goal should be to put an end to the cozy relationship between haredi institutions and their representative assemblymen and councilmen. If the assemblyman fears for his office in the upcoming election he may be more readily spurred into the otherwise uncomfortable action against parts of his constituency.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Hasidism as a way of Preserving Tradition

The Hasidic movement started through the activities of a particular person in a well-defined place and time. The founder of the movement, Rabbi Israel Ball Shem Tov ("Besht") lived in Eastern Europe in the 18th century. He died in 1760 and his disciples then disseminated his teachings far and wide.

Other contemporary prominent Jewish leaders include Rabbi Eliyahu from Vilna (the "Gaon") and Moses Mendelssohn. Both passed away before the turn of the century (though they were younger than the Besht). In some way, those aforementioned Jewish leaders still have their respective following to this very day. Mendelssohn represents the "rational" school of Judaism as exemplified by its Reform and Conservative segments. The Gaon represents the Litvish/Yeshivish world and the Besht represents the Hasidic world.

Nobody, however, sees any connection between those movements beyond the coincidence that they originated in the 18th century, which begs the question: is it really a mere coincidence that all the major modern Jewish segments have their origin in the cultural milieu of 18th centruy Europe? What really transpired in 18th century Europe that can perhaps shed some light on the essential impetus for the launching and development of those movements?

Historians, of course, know the answer. It's the Enlightenment. Two very important events occurred in the 18th century. The American Revolution and the French Revolution. Both these events had a tremendous impact on the future direction of Western Civilization. At the turn of the 18th century people everywhere were grappling with situations and questions with which they had never come face to face before. Is the monarch sanctioned by God? Does the clergy have a monopoly on Godly matters? What if God's word as expounded by the priest does not make sense to me? Am I allowed to interpret the word as I see fit? Is government a holy institution that one may not impugn or all hell will break loose, or is it possible -- just possible-- that government is merely a social contract of "live and let live" (first propounded by Thomas Hobbes)?

I think that a historical anchor exists in the 18th century and its people, perplexed and shaken to the core by those very profound questions, to many of the modern social and religious movements, especially Hasidism.

You see, most people tend to think that Hasidism is a populist and regressive movement. Folks who were brutish and uneducated, who toiled hard and saw little reward, who sought to liven up God and tailor God to their needs: a God who appreciated song, dance and prayer just as much as he does scholarship, erudition and punctilious observance of Mitzvot. But this view is now brought into question since Hasidism has now matured far beyond its incipient age of dance and music and is now de rigueur in the Haredi world. There is hardly any Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) person in our society that is not directly or indirectly inspired by Hasidism. Of course, we all know that modern Hasidism is more nuanced and complex than that of 18th century Europe. But ultimately the question beckons: what legitimates this movement? What's the secret to its enduring appeal and why is it so important in the survival of Haredi Judaism?

So let's go back and re-interpret 18th century events in the light of our time. As pointed out earlier, the 18th century was an era of upheaval; not just militarily or politically but also culturally and religiously. There were essentially two categories of answers offered in response. One was conservative and God-centered and the other was progressive and humanistic. The wealthier and educated world, often characterized by inhabiting Western Europe, often chose the latter, whereas the people of lesser means, intellectually and materially often chose the former.

Why? Re-evaluating one's morals is a very difficult task. It is often easier to effect impressive technological breakthrough, than redesign one's moral framework. It's just too depressing, too wrenching, too discouraging -- to propose that the guardian angel, once thought to accompany the human on every step of their lives through divine providence, is in fact just an illusion. The enlightenment suggested that there is no magic bullet. There is no God who is there for you for your every need and want listening and granting your prayer and who will not hang you out to dry. The enlightenment suggested that humans are running the show and humans need to assume responsibility for their own lives. Again, assuming responsibility and the uncertainty that such an attitude towards life encompasses, is gut-wrenching. It could be highly distressing unless the individual has the capacity and willingness to grab the bull by the horn and make tough, independent, fateful decisions. It is so much easier to hang on to "God" and "know" that God will be there for you no matter what.

This concept constitutes the watershed between the original Hasidic camp and the Mendelssohn camp. Hasidim sought to avoid learning, discovering and rebuilding from scratch and so they latched on to God. The Mendelssohn folks asked the tough questions and therefore ultimately found themselves in a secular world. It's not that the Mendelssohn disciples made a conscious decision to abandon their faith or to disavow their God. The original Mendelssohnians were in fact very pious Jews. What defined them is one thing: the capacity and desire to learn, to absorb and to process information. The Hasidim, in contrast, expressly denounced scholarship and elected retrenchment as their modus operandi to deal with the enlightenment crisis.

The reason that modern ultra-orthodoxy is so closely affiliated with Hasidism is that to this very day one must shut out the inquisitive and investigative process in order to preserve one's faith. Hasidim were the ones who provided the archetypal paradigm for all future generations to follow in this regard. This explains the strange and ironic phenomenon that at the time Hasidim were seen as dangerous to tradition since they often did not rigorously observe halakha, whereas nowadays they are seen as the stalwarts of faith, observance and piety. It's not about halakha; it's about asking questions. The original Hasidim lived in a setting where they were incapable of asking questions, much less answer them in a satisfactory manner; so they developed song and dance and psalm-recitation as wonderful emotional panacea to the intellectual turbulence of the time. The modern Hasid likewise shuts out the rational process but since he is a bit more sophisticated, he manifests a greater adherence to halakha and declares a stronger commitment to scholarship. Ultimately, however, his "scholarship" is spurious since he only entertains the kind of questions that are consistent with his faith and preconcieved religious notions.

Hasidism is thus NOT simply a regressive movement; a movement that is bound to vanish in due time, as progress inevitably triumphs over regress. It is, rather, a unique school of thought; a different way of coping with the socio-religious upheaval of the time. It's the "don't-ask-questions" mode of coping. It's the emphasis of emotional aspects of Judaism over intellectual ones. Hasidism survives in modern society insomuch as this blind, uncritical, unquestioning reliance on tradition is so critically important to modern Ultra-Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy desperately needs blind faith like a fish needs water.

In contrast, those who did not restrict their thought processes, EVEN THOUGH THEY HAD THE HIGHEST REGARD FOR THEIR FAITH (Mendelssohn and his followers), eventually found themselves reforming and rationalizing their way out of the system altogether.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I am currently listening to "1. Fast Cars And Freedom (Remastered Version) - Rascal Flatts"