Published by Liel Leibovitz in Tablet on Septmeber 7, 2022.
Sometime soon, The New York Times is slated to publish its expose on the state of Hasidic education in New York. Several members of the community who were contacted by the Times expressed their grave concerns to Tablet about the paper’s biases and the likelihood, or lack thereof, that the Times will give Hasidic Jews a fair hearing. One member described the impending piece as “yet another assault.”
It’s a convenient feature of the Times these days that one hardly has to read it to divine what the Gray Lady might utter. And so, unless the muse of objective journalism intervenes in some way none of us should reasonably expect, we can assume the report will read something like this: We’ve talked to dozens of (self-selecting) people in the Hasidic community, reviewed documents handed to us (by interested parties), and were troubled to find that Hasidic schools have fallen far behind. Despite receiving enormous amounts of government assistance, these (money-grubbing) private schools don’t bother teaching children basic tenets like history or science, the result being graduates who are illiterate and an embarrassment. This Dickensian grimness is made possible because those crafty Hasidim vote en masse and hold local politicians under their sway—power these black-hatted Rasputins inexplicably choose not to exert when it comes to charging and convicting assailants who beat up members of their own community.
How to address such allegations?
You could play defense, and say that labeling what goes on in Hasidic yeshivot as strictly religious instruction that bears no relevance to the so-called secular world is woefully unfair. Study page 14 of Tractate Eruvin, for example, and you’ll come across the pronouncement that, “Whatever circle has a circumference of three tefachim must have a diameter of one tefach.” Aha! the average Times reader may growl. But this is wrong! Pi isn’t 3, it’s 3.1415 etc.!
Tosafot, the medieval commentaries on the Talmud, got there first: “But [pi] is a little more [than 3],” they write, “which means that the value [of pi] is rounded down.” The rabbis grapple with this, but can’t come to a good conclusion to explain this Talmudic error. “This is difficult,” Tosafot goes on to proclaim, “because the result [that pi=3] is not precise, as demonstrated by those who understand geometry.” It doesn’t take a Euclid to realize that for a young Hasidic boy to understand these concepts—appearing, again, in a most sacred text—he first needs to understand the basic premise of geometry.
Or history, given that so much of the Talmud is an account of about a millennium’s worth of movements and conquests, from Alexander the Great’s unprecedented empire to the rise of Christianity to the golden era of the Sasanian Empire. Go ahead and ask a public school graduate to tell you about Queen Shushandukht and see how far you get.
If you’re in a slightly nastier mood, of course, you can go on offense and argue that no one in their right mind ought to launch anything like an apologia for New York’s public education system. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, K-12 enrollment has dropped by a mind-boggling 9%. Maybe that’s because of the fact that despite receiving $14 billion for education courtesy of two federal stimulus packages, New York delivered one of the nation’s absolute worst performances. A survey of remote learning during the pandemic, for example, found that students in New York City’s schools received less than half of the instruction the state itself requires per year, a disgrace that Miami, say, or Houston, somehow managed to avoid, despite receiving significantly lower sums from Washington.
But this ain’t the Times; we’ve no interest in playing partisan politics here. Instead, let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that everything the Times will argue is absolutely true. Let’s assume that Hasidic schools are failing to teach children the basic foundations of secular education, and let’s assume also that public schools would do a much better job giving them these tools.
The community that runs these schools produces individuals who grow up in multigenerational homes, live close to and support each other throughout life, raise children, live according to their virtues, and spend their days doing things they love and believe are of the utmost importance. As a result, they are happier. Don’t believe me? Maybe you’d like to glance at that hotbed of Haredi propaganda, The Journal of Psychology, which, in a 2020 study titled “Prioritizing Patterns and Life Satisfaction Among Ultra-Orthodox Jews: The Moderating Role of the Sense of Community,” came up with the following conclusion: Haredi Jews are happier. “The results,” read the survey, “demonstrated that prioritizing meaning and sense of community were positively associated with life satisfaction … Our findings suggest that even in extremely close-knit community-oriented societies, a strong sense of belonging to a community enables individuals to prioritize more hedonic aspects of their lives in order to promote their life satisfaction.”
All of which should lead us to what ought to be the crux of this and any other conversation about education—which is what, precisely, is its ultimate goal. Education is a means to an end; what, then, do we want our well-educated children to be?
This approach forces us to do two things. First, it demands that we look at output, not input. The zealots trying to use state power to curb Hasidic liberties to educate their children as they see fit are demanding that yeshivot be compelled to teach as many hours of English, math, and other core subjects as do public schools, no matter how spotty the actual outcomes. Instead, we must demand better and judge an educational system by how well it succeeds in actually meeting its goals.
Which leads us to a second, and much trickier task: answering what, precisely, these goals ought to be. Here’s a radical idea: Above all, we want students invested in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We want them to become neighbors who care for the needy next door. We want them to become children who care for their parents as they age. We want them to become siblings who support each other through life. We want them to become spouses who treat their husbands and wives with respect and reverence and love. We want them to become individuals who are self-confident, grateful to their Creator for all of His bounties, and mindful that true joy means balancing personal appetites with communal needs. We want them to be happy.
With these perfectly obvious yardsticks at hand, let’s ask a much more pressing question: How well are our schools doing? And because roughly 50 million American students, or about 90% of all school-age children, attend public schools, a more accurate way to phrase this question is this: How well are our public schools doing?
To hear Nobel Laureate economist Angus Deaton tell it, not well at all. Together with his wife, the Princeton economist Anne Case, Deaton researched the rapid surge of so-called “deaths of despair” caused by suicide or drug overdose or alcohol-related diseases. Consider the following: In 2017 alone, the last year for which dependable data is available, 158,000 Americans died deaths of despair—the equivalent, Case and Deaton wrote, of “three fully loaded Boeing 737 MAX jets falling out of the sky every day for a year.” Nearly 92,000 Americans died in 2020 from drug overdoses, a number that continues to climb. Another estimated 95,000 die each year from alcohol-related causes, which is more than double those we lose to gun violence, two-thirds of whom are victims of suicides. With so many Americans rushing to put an end, one way or another, to their miserable existence, it’s no surprise to read the Times report that “the average life expectancy of Americans fell precipitously in 2020 and 2021, the sharpest two-year decline in nearly 100 years.”
And then there are the Americans never born at all. America’s birth rate has plummeted by a whopping 20% since 2007. To maintain a so-called “replacement rate” and keep the population stable, we need an average of 2.1 births per woman of childbearing age; America’s now at 1.6. With 4 in 10 Americans aged 25 to 54 now unpartnered—a steep 29% increase from 1990—it’s not hard to understand why.
Let us recap: Of the overwhelming majority of Americans who attend public schools, an increasingly alarming number go on to live solitary lives that drive them to choose infertility and turn to drugs and alcohol in record numbers to numb their pain. This is stark proof of an education system failing on the grandest scale imaginable, a catastrophic collapse that should terrify us all, parents and nonparents alike.
How to fix it? The answer may be simpler than we think. If the problem we’re facing is despair, the cure may be hope, that precious metal that is best mined wherever a sense of belonging is strong and a higher purpose evident. Hasidic communities have all that in droves, which is why they’re faring much, much, better than their nonobservant neighbors.
What we need, then, isn’t another Times hit piece suggesting that observant Jews are using their political clout to mask a vast cultivation of ignorance that borders on child abuse. What we need is a committee of Hasidic rabbis investigating New York’s failing public school system and offering ways to imbue it with the moral and ethical education it currently lacks and which it so clearly and desperately needs.