Opinion

Haredi Poverty: The Same Threat in Both New York and Israel

The controversy over secular studies in the state’s yeshivas are the tip of an economic iceberg

ultra-Orthodox residents of Borough Park, Brooklyn, during the Sukkot holiday, September 20, 2013.
AP

The ultra-Orthodox “society of learners” has long been regarded as a uniquely Israeli phenomenon. Where else but in the Jewish state would a government not only agree to let a large segment of the population shun secular education and the labor market to pursue a life of Torah study, but use taxpayers’ money to enable this to happen?

But the same phenomenon has been quietly happening in New York for quite some time and only now is the problem it poses gradually being acknowledged. 

After the city did everything possible to avoid grappling with the issue, the New York State Department of Education has recently issued rules to enforce a modicum of secular education at non-public schools (read Haredi yeshivas) and is vowing penalties against violators.

As crackdowns go, it’s not very much, but it’s an important start. That’s because it takes aim at the foundation of the society of learners phenomenon, which seeks to ensure that all ultra-Orthodox men spend as much of their life in religious studies as possible. 

In that model, the role of the yeshivas is immerse: boys and young men in Torah learning to the exclusion of virtually any other education that might give them an opening to the outside world, in particular the temptations of a job and money. 

According to a study by Young Advocates for a Fair Education (YAFFED) – a group that has been pressing New York authorities to force yeshivas to follow education laws – the youngest Haredi boys get about six hours a week of instruction of basic English and math. The classes are an afterthought after a grueling day of religious studies and often taught by unqualified teachers. In any case, even that minimal effort comes to an end after the boys reach age 13. 

Like their brothers in Israel, when they become adults there’s little these men are trained to do besides continue to study or hold the most menial job. Many are only fluent in Yiddish and are so isolated that they aren’t aware of what they don’t know, and lack the most basic tool to rectify their deficiencies. 

The result is the same dynamic that operates in Bnai Brak operates in Brooklyn. Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the epicenter of American ultra-Orthodoxy, are poor; two suburban towns that are exclusively Haredi are the two poorest in New York State.

Haredi leaders have fought an angry counter-offensive to keep the education authorities out of their yeshivas, on the grounds that they are following the way of life Jews have observed over the centuries. Interfering with a yeshiva’s curriculum is an assault on freedom of education and religion.

Certainly those issues are relevant to the debate about the yeshivas, but they aren’t decisive. Society and the state have an obligation to set standards, especially if the well-being of millions of people is at stake, even if it may interfere with individual freedoms. That’s the price we all pay for living in urban, networked societies. The recent outbreak of measles in the Haredi community is a case in point: A parents’ freedom not to vaccinate violates others’ right to health.

In Israel, the society of learners has become so big, as the Haredi population has grown, that is has begun to have impact on the entire economy. Every Haredi man who can’t or won’t get a secular education and enter the labor market puts a great burden of producing and paying taxes on the rest. It poses a threat to the future of the country.

The U.S. is far too big for the ultra-Orthodox to create that kind of problem, but New York City is not.

There are only 240,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews in the greater New York area, but they are impoverished (43% are defined as poor and 16% as near poor). They get by via a mix of mostly badly paid work and increasingly on government assistance. 

Unlike most impoverished communities, Haredim know how to work the system both to benefit families and educational institutions. They make efficient use of every program available. For instance, in two largely ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, Williamsburg and Borough Park, the proportion of residents getting food assistance (the SNAP program) runs at 51.8% and 33.8%, respectively, versus just 20.4% for all of New York City.

The lion’s share of assistance come legally, but the pressure to find money to keep an increasingly impoverished community afloat makes it tempting to skirt the law, as the Lakewood, New Jersey welfare fraud case illustrates.

The pressure is only going to grow. Because of its high birthrate, the Haredi population is expanding rapidly. YAFFED forecasts that if current demographic trends continue by 2030, the Haredi school-age population will account for up to 37% of Brooklyn’s total and 13% of New York’s. Needless to say, the overall Haredi population will show the same numbers, i.e., New York will be home to a large and growing community of poor and uneducated.

Haredim are by no means the only New Yorkers who suffer those socioeconomic problems, but they are the only ones who make it a principle to deny their children a minimum of opportunity to escape them.

Just like Israel, the city and state have an obligation not only to Haredi children but to the future of New York to make sure that doesn’t happen.