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.