Opinion

What It's Really Like to Be ultra-Orthodox in America - and Illiterate in English

I stood aghast at the epic travesty: My own adult brother - an American citizen born to American citizens, raised inside its borders, a dad raising children of his own - could barely read a sentence in the language of his land

A voter casting a ballot in Kiryas Joel, New York, November 2, 2010.
Mark Lennihan / AP

The issue of education among America's ultra-Orthodox Jews, particularly the Hasidic community, has received a great deal of press ink over the last few months, and for good reason.

The overwhelming majority of Hasidic children in the U.S., especially boys, do not receive a basic, rudimentary education.

This is a fact that is repeatedly obfuscated by apologists and self-appointed spokespeople for the community, some of whom recently took to Twitter to refute all claims made - often pseudonymously - by parents whose children are in this system.

They have pilloried "Yaffed," a group of yeshiva graduates and parents of yeshiva students who seek to rectify this injustice by lobbying lawmakers to investigate yeshivas and institute the state-mandated educational standards - and lobbed ad-hominem attacks at its founder, Naftuli Moster.

Most recently, Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote an op-ed in Haaretz ("U.S. Orthodox Jewish Kids Who Don’t Study English and Math Don't Need Your Pity") to make a grandiose statement: Hasidic children do not need the pity of outsiders seeking to implement change. "For many observant Jews, secular education has no intrinsic value; professions and jobs are simply ways to make a living and support one’s family," Shafran wrote. And "consider just allowing such people their priorities..."

Shafran, a man who purportedly values a comprehensive secular education and made sure his children received one, too, nevertheless disingenuously wishes to keep a portion of his brethren undereducated at best, and illiterate at worst.

In late March of this year, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, I visited my family in Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic enclave nestled in the hills of New York’s Hudson Valley.

The streets were teeming with costumed children - clowns and cops, fancy ladies and doctors - and music blasted from loudspeakers. On that day, every year, the village turns into a festive, boisterous, almost-anything-goes circus; it’s a boozed-up Halloween of sorts. 

Inside my parents’ home, crispy homemade challah was passed around on platters, then dipped into gelatin fish sauce and stuffed cabbage, followed by a bountiful spread of fish, kugels, elongated deli sandwiches, every kind of sweet and savory puffed-pastry turnover one could concoct, and enough wine and hamantaschen for days. The men danced around the table with a buoyant fervor, and the women gave the obligatory oohs and aahs for the children’s costumes.

An ultra-Orthodox man and children in Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York in 2012. (Illustrative photo)
Nir Kafri

My son dressed as an average Joe: oversized t-shirt over a stuffed beer belly, cap that read "Proud ‘Merican." One of my brothers attempted to read the five words on the t-shirt: "KEEP CALM AND DRINK BEER." He started, bent in closer, fumbled. His wife came to his aid.

Everyone chuckled, as if watching a grown man with five kids stumble over words that a four-year-old should know is hilarious. 

I stood there, aghast. I was witness to a travesty of epic proportions: here was an adult - a citizen of these United States, a boy born to American citizens, a kid raised inside its borders, a dad raising children of his own - who could not easily read a sentence in the language of his land.

He is a kind, conscientious and caring person whose love for his wife and children is admirable. He is the kind of husband who defers to his wife’s judgement on just about anything. He is the brother who goes the extra mile to call his sister and personally invite her to his son’s bar mitzvah, thanking me profusely afterwards for coming; the kind of brother who I love dearly and of whom it hurts deeply to write about here.

He does not deserve to be used as a pawn here to prove a point, and yet, this is the kind of story that needs to be heard by Shafran and his fellow apologists.

My brother is not an anomaly among card-carrying America Hasidim who are dismally illiterate. My many nephews hardly communicate in English. After 12 years of schooling, most boys from Hasidic yeshivas can barely write a decent sentence in English, and almost none have accredited high school diplomas.

Boys stand outside a school in Kiryas Joel, New York, July 1, 2014.
Mike Groll / AP

A boy in Hasidic cheder goes through his yeshiva years learning almost exclusively Hebrew and Yiddish studies, with an hour-a-day of English for four or five years of schooling; an afterthought. During this hour, boys are taught how to read and do basic arithmetic, but after a full day of learning holy texts, and given the negligent attitude the adults and administration exhibit towards this hour, not much is learned.

For Rabbi Shafran and many others in the mainstream Orthodox community who have held the Hasidic lifestyle on a pedestal - in a way believing them to be the true Jews, the ones who follow all the basic tenets, and then some - they see this kind of media attention as an affront to their own brand of Judaism. But their outrage or willful ignorance is hypocritical, because they would never consider this for themselves or their children.

But beyond that, what Rabbi Shafran fails to acknowledge is that parents, especially in the very insular Hasidic sects, do not have much choice.

For the growing number of disenfranchised Hasidim who wish to provide a better education for their children, there is no selection process when it comes to sending a child to cheder, or boys school. For a myriad of reasons, one must send to the yeshiva affiliated with one’s own sect and rabbi, especially once the boys are past preschool age. Doing otherwise is tantamount to rebelling against the rabbi.

There are changes happening at a grassroots level in some factions of more modern Hasidic sects: parents who want to educate their children are sending them to after-school programs especially designed for Hasidic children.

But in the community I was raised in, such changes are nearly impossible. A parent needs to tread carefully to avoid suspicion from the authorities, and giving a boy secular books to read could lead to unforeseen and innumerable consequences, and possible expulsion from the only school in town.

Ultra Orthodox school children walk to school in the Mea Shearim Ultra Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. Jan. 3, 2012
Sebastian Scheiner / AP

The Hasidic community is loath to change, abiding by its ancient, shtetl-like insularity. The idea that government might swoop in and demand they teach secular subjects to their children is, in some eyes, akin to banning bris milah, circumcision. They see it not only as an affront to their religious freedoms, but a way to tear down the proverbial gates that have kept them hidebound for so many decades.

But there is a growing body of Hasidic parents who are frustrated with the status quo and are covertly helping the Yaffed group in demanding change. And they should be applauded by the greater Jewish community who are beneficiaries of such basic rights, not hounded in the press.

Rabbi Shafran is a proponent of the Torah Im Derech Eretz ideology that religion, culture and education should all be the cornerstones of a Jewish lifestyle, not the shtetl-like ghettos of yore. He prescribes to the ways of Samson Raphael Hirsch, the late German Orthodox rabbi often referred to as the intellectual founder of contemporary Orthodoxy who did not exclude the secular world and culture.

If this is what Rabbi Shafran believes in, how then does he justify his support of denying children a basic education?

There is no fine line to toe here, rabbi. You either believe that children should be kept cloistered or that, like you’ve done with your own, they deserve to be educated in the language and workings of the land they live in.

Frimet Goldberger is a writer and freelance print/radio journalist based in New York. She has written widely about growing up in the Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel, and tours the country to talk about her experiences. Twitter: @frimetg