Opinion |

U.S. Orthodox Jewish Kids Who Don’t Study English and Math Don't Need Your Pity

I personally believe in the value of a comprehensive secular education for Orthodox Jews. But I defend the right of those who don't - not least when they're under sustained attack for their values

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Avi Shafran
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Haredi Jews in Bnei Brak, Israel
Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews in Bnei Brak, IsraelCredit: Uriel Sinai
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Avi Shafran

I am a strong believer in the value of a comprehensive secular education, including for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) children and teens.

My wife and I are the products of such an education and made sure each of our children received one too. Strong English skills (here in the U.S., where I live) are invaluable, and a deep appreciation of the Jewish faith can be wonderfully fostered by properly taught literature, science, math and history.

However, some yeshivot, mostly in Hassidic communities, that, in keeping with their particular religio-cultural ideals, offer limited secular studies. And a battle against them has been waged in New York City in recent years by a small but very vocal group of activists.

Led by Naftuli Moster, a young man who was raised in a Hassidic community but left it for a very different life, the activists, some of backgrounds like Mr. Moster’s, claim that those yeshivot violate New York law and deprive the children who attend them the ability to live productive lives.

Mr. Moster and company are intent on forcing the issue, and, in 2015, persuaded the New York City Department of Education to launch an investigation into a number of those yeshivot. The activists have since been busy asserting their selfless concern for disadvantaged Hassidic children to any journalist whom they can get to listen. Who, it seems from the wide media coverage of their efforts, are many.

Some critics of the critics contend that the yeshiva-reform crusaders are not motivated by pure motives alone, that their passion is prompted at least in part by animus for the communities they chose to flee.

I do not deign to know if that’s true, or to judge anyone. Nor can I offer an opinion about the legal issue, as New York’s private education law is vague and open to various interpretations.

But I can address the crusaders’ claim about the harm done to Hassidic children by their parents’ choice of educational institutions.

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

While there is poverty in some Hassidic communities, at least as measured by income levels, no child goes hungry or is inadequately clothed. There is wealth in such communities – business acumen is an ability unrelated to education, and Hassidim are not underrepresented in that talent pool – and the idea that haves are responsible for have-nots is a holy given in the Hassidic world, as in the entire Haredi world.

What’s more, yeshivot excel, through their religious studies, at honing their students’ critical thinking – a most important part of a productive life – to a degree well beyond what public schools accomplish.

And, most germane, most Hassidim are in fact gainfully employed.

The proportion of doctors and lawyers in Hassidic communities may be smaller than in the larger Jewish world (though there are indeed Hassidic men and women in the fields of medicine and law), but there are also myriad small business owners, plumbers and electricians, car repairmen, electronics salesmen and a host of religious professionals (like teachers, scribes and ritual circumcisers) in every Hassidic, indeed every Haredi, community. Family supporters, taxpayers, all.

There are training programs like COPE Education for Business (full disclosure: it is a project of Agudath Israel of America, for which I work) and Jewish institutions like Touro College that have educated countless Hassidim. In COPE’s case alone, between 110-150 new students enter its Junior Accounting program each year; and approximately 60-70 students, mostly Hassidic heads of household, join its degree program yearly, qualifying them to sit for the CPA exams upon graduation two years later.

The community where my family has lived for decades, on Staten Island, has seen a recent influx of Hassidim. Among those I have met are several businessmen, a baker, an accountant or two and a speech therapist. Oh yes, and a personal trainer.

Bottom line: there is no dearth of jobs or professions in the Hassidic community, and any limitation of secular studies in Hassidic schools hasn’t been an impediment to that fact.

An ultra-Orthodox family crossing the street in Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York in 2013. (Illustrative photo)Credit: AP

Beyond all that, though, even assuming the best of intentions on the part of those attacking the limited secular programs at some yeshivot, those activists and their admirers are missing the most essential point.

While the critics, and much of American society in general, see success in terms of professional accomplishment, fame or wealth, religious Jews employ a different measure: How well one’s years were used to serve God.

Thus, at least 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.

My Hassidic speech therapist acquaintance, in other words, wants to look back at his life after the proverbial 120 years have passed and take comfort in his having lived not the life of a Jewish professional but that of a Jew who, as it happened, had a profession.

It would be nice if Mr. Moster and his friends would consider just allowing such people their priorities, and turn to pursuing whatever goals they have chosen for their own lives.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is a blogger, a columnist for the American edition of Hamodia, and serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs. Twitter: @RabbiAviShafran

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