Yeshiva education and the last bastion of legitimate prejudice
Written by Moshe Krakowski. Published in the City Journal during Autumn 2020.
In late 2014, I met with Naftuli Moster, a bright and charismatic graduate student at Hunter College who grew up in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community. He was interested in studying Hasidic parents’ attitudes toward secular (nonreligious) education—an area that I have long researched and written about.
I gave him the best guidance I could: how to write a survey, how to get buy-in from the community, whether to use Yiddish or English, and how to ensure that his sample was as representative as possible.
I eventually realized that his aim was not data collection. A month later, the New York Times reported that Moster was suing New York City and the state to force schools to provide more secular education. Over the last five years, Moster has managed to put in motion multiple lawsuits and countersuits, launch a spirited media campaign, and persuade New York State officials to pass new, unprecedented education guidelines regulating private education. Panicked supporters of the schools (called yeshivas) have responded by holding up the state budget in Albany and coordinating a letter-writing campaign opposing the proposed regulations.
Supporters of Moster’s organization, Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), claim that secular education is a matter of basic human rights. Yeshiva education, they claim, dooms students to a life of poverty and despair. Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) opponents—represented formally by Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty (PEARLS)—see these intrusive regulations as an unprecedented assault on their religious way of life.
Considering that 170,000 students are currently enrolled in Jewish private schools in New York—110,000 of them in Hasidic schools—this issue carries major repercussions for both the Jewish community and the city of New York more broadly. The state’s actions call into question the very idea of private education in the United States, as parents’ educational choices may no longer matter in the face of state mandates. This has particular significance during a time of increased conflict over public education in the wake of Covid-19, as parents are stuck with public schools that won’t open and are frequently turning to private alternatives. Moreover, this conflict has unfolded amid a growing strain of anti-Semitism in New York City and its suburbs—making this an existential issue for Haredim, who feel that their way of life is under threat and, with it, perhaps their lives themselves.
Orthodox Judaism in the United States comprises two major strains: Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi (or ultra-) Orthodoxy. Modern Orthodox Jews observe Jewish law but also engage robustly with contemporary culture and society. In contrast, Haredim—meaning “those who tremble before God”—reject secular culture and values. They mediate their participation in secular society through numerous barriers—religious mandates, educational and occupational choices, language, and dress, among others—and thereby maintain a complex balance of engagement and separation. American Haredim make up the largest and most rapidly growing Orthodox denomination; the Orthodox Union Center for Communal Research estimates that roughly 40 percent of Haredi Jews under age 20 in New York speak Yiddish as a first language.
I’ve spent my academic career trying to understand how education (boys’ education, in particular) helps shape American Haredi communities. Both the content and structure of boys’ elementary schools make religious study and practice an all-encompassing reality for students. Secular education comes in a distant second, intended only to help students eventually support themselves in jobs, function in daily life, and participate as citizens in society. (Not obligated by religious study to the same extent as boys, girls receive far more secular education; the lawsuits target boys’ schools only.)
Every Haredi community decides for itself how much secular education is necessary. Some yeshivas provide secular studies extensive enough to help their students perform well on New York State’s Regents exams. These schools usually (but not always) belong to the Yeshivish branch of ultra-Orthodoxy (think of men in fedoras and short jackets).
Hasidim, adherents of an originally populist religious movement that developed in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe (from where they adopted their distinctive frocks and fur hats), are more conservative and cloistered in several ways. They speak Yiddish as a first language; most of their schools offer less secular education; and they are (mostly) more opposed to higher education than Yeshivish Haredim.
Boys’ education among both branches of Haredim is intense. By middle school, students often begin the day at 7:30 AM with study and prayer services and end only at 5:30 or 6:00 PM. In high school, boys continue to study until late at night—9:30 PM or even later.
Religious studies typically consist of learning to read and translate biblical and mishnaic Hebrew, chumash (Bible) and Talmud, Jewish law and custom (halakha), ethical instruction, and prayer. By contrast, only core secular subjects are offered (math, language arts, civics/history, and science), and many schools do not extend these subjects past elementary school. In some Hasidic elementary schools, the subject matter is even more constrained, focusing only on math and language arts.
Some ex-Haredim, and especially ex-Hasidim (including Naftuli Moster), have left their communities following significant personal or family trauma, and an increasingly large group have written tell-all books—so many, in fact, that the ex-Hasidic memoir has become a genre. Ex-Hasidim have also been the subjects of numerous books and articles, both scholarly and popular. As unusually accessible accounts of a closed community otherwise hard to penetrate, their writing offers the only information about contemporary Hasidic life for many outsiders. This lack of understanding among the general public has helped YAFFED make its case. The rapid success of this organization (led by ex-Hasidim) is due partly to the fact that most state and city officials have no direct sources of data about these schools.
In 2015, YAFFED sent a letter to the city of New York listing 39 schools that it alleged were failing to provide a “substantially equivalent” education to that of public schools—as required under New York State law. The state does not make clear what “substantially equivalent” means, specifying only a handful of mandatory subjects: topics such as patriotism and citizenship, the U.S. Constitution, and health and safety. YAFFED’s letter argues that the secular education offered by religious schools is too minimal to meet these requirements.
The city should have been skeptical about YAFFED’s allegations when it turned out that only 28 of the 39 schools actually existed. One address contained in YAFFED’s 2015 list was for a butcher shop. Nevertheless, in 2018, the Department of Education appeared to agree with YAFFED and released highly specific and detailed guidelines governing the mandate of substantial equivalency. The guidelines dictated exactly which courses should be taught, for how long, and by whom. For example, the guidelines require “English language arts, two units of study or the equivalent” with a “unit of study” defined as “at least 180 minutes of instruction per week throughout the school year.” Later re-released as regulations, not just guidelines, these mandates required yeshivas to stop offering the type of religious education that defines their mission, since the increased hours required for secular education would reshape the school day. To give weight to the new regulations, MaryEllen Elia, then the state education commissioner, warned that parents who send their children to failing schools could be prosecuted under truancy laws—laws that themselves could trigger neglect charges, leading to the removal of children from their parents.
The regulations have not yet been enforced. In late 2019, the city released its own report on the schools targeted by YAFFED, though it was based on investigations by state officials who don’t understand the primarily Yiddish instruction offered in these schools and who were, moreover, operating without guidance from the state on the meaning of substantial equivalence. The Department of Education at first declined to address the regulations, perhaps in part because it experienced rapid turnover since they were passed—losing members to retirement, resignation, and, in one case, death. (Among those resigning were Elia and her acting replacement, Beth Berlin.) In summer 2020, the Department of Education pledged to hold a series of public meetings devoted to developing a working definition of substantial equivalency and to the development of procedures and timelines, as well as reporting requirements. These meetings, which began in November 2020, will be used to publish new guidelines in January 2021.
YAFFED is far from a dispassionate source of empirical data. Though the authors of the city report speak as if from firsthand experience, the report appears based largely on hearsay, “common knowledge,” and misunderstanding. Richard Carranza, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, has noted that among the 28 schools targeted by YAFFED’s report, complainants had direct information about only 11.
Even where these 11 schools are concerned, accepting YAFFED’s claims regarding these schools is like relying on a divorcé for information about his ex-wife. I have collected video data of history classes being taught in schools that the report claims offer no instruction in history, as well as of students engaging in mock-government exercises—passing “bills” and vetoing them—in a school that the report claims offers no instruction in civics. The report dwells at length on the government funds that yeshivas receive while eliding the fact that most of this money consists of reimbursements for services required by the state—for example, student record-keeping. The report also neglects the fact that because Haredi students don’t attend public schools, their schools actually end up saving, rather than costing, taxpayers money—an overall net gain to the state budget of more than $2.75 billion annually. What emerges is a kind of conspiratorial manifesto that treats the ordinary financial workings of these schools as nefarious.
YAFFED’s argument for regulating secular education in Haredi yeshivas is that yeshiva education is a form of child abuse—something so egregious that it should not be tolerated, no matter what religious beliefs underpin it. Why, then, do parents pay thousands of dollars to send their children to these schools? YAFFED’s answer: Haredi parents are too ignorant and cowed to break free from their leaders’ dictates. As one ex-Hasid, Shlomo Noskow, wrote in a recent article: “My parents had my best interest in mind, but they acted like cogs in a system, following community norms. Hasidic Rabbis and community leaders set the norms, including school curricula. But the developing mind of a child shouldn’t be restricted to religious studies, regardless of religion.”
Yet the assumptions underlying Noskow’s claim—that religious studies stunt the mind and that only ignorance can explain parents’ commitment to this educational system—are astounding to anyone who has ever spent real time in a yeshiva classroom.
Haredi religious studies are exceptionally complex and stimulating. “Religious studies” may conjure visions of catechism memorization, ritual practice, or pulpit training. But in the Haredi context, yeshiva religious education focuses on the kinds of close textual study typical of advanced college-humanities courses and fosters many of the skills that current education research recognizes as most valuable: reasoning from evidence, resolving multiple perspectives, contextualizing information, and studying independently. Talmudic material is intricate, difficult, and highly complex, yet by my estimation, 80 percent to 90 percent of kids in the schools I’ve observed (including four on YAFFED’s list of “failing” schools) are able to study Talmud semi-independently by the time they leave eighth grade.
YAFFED has claimed that the average yeshiva student can’t speak English, has no means to get a job, and lives in poverty and poor health, forced to rely on government assistance. But it simply isn’t true that the average yeshiva graduate can’t speak English. And even at the bottom end of the distribution, weakness with English isn’t specifically the result of poor schooling. As an outside observer, what strikes me most about secular classes in these schools is not their appalling weakness but their banal (and, in some spots, mediocre) normalcy. Some secular teachers in Hasidic yeshivas are phenomenal, while some are poor; some classes appear organized and on task, while others are all over the place; some students are way below grade level, while others are at or even above grade level. None of this is much different from many of our country’s public schools. The real reason Hasidim in some sects speak English poorly lies outside the classroom: the use of Yiddish has taken on deep religious meaning for Hasidim. This is a matter of culture rather than of education. In Hasidic sects where English is also used outside of school, students speak, read, and write well; in those that speak no English outside of school, despite their relatively similar hours of secular instruction, students struggle with basic English competency.
According to city records, in 2015–16, proficiency rates for eighth-grade English Language Learner (ELL) students enrolled in New York City public schools in District 14, which includes Williamsburg—where many Satmar Hasidim live—was 0 percent for math and language arts. In 2016–17, those numbers jumped to 2.1 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively. Non-ELL public school students don’t fare much better. In math, for example, proficiency rates in District 14 were 7.6 percent in 2016–17.
In this context, it’s hard to argue that parents who send children to Hasidic schools are committing child abuse. This is not to criticize public schools, which often perform the best they can, given their many constraints. But it suggests that if all the Hasidic parents in New York City moved their children to public schools, we might end up with lower proficiency rates for Hasidic kids than we have now.
YAFFED’s claims about Hasidic unemployment and poverty likewise don’t hold water. They proceed from the assumption that Hasidim live in poverty because their education is so poor that they cannot get jobs to support themselves. But this is clearly not true. OJPAC (a public-action group supporting the Orthodox community) recently pulled census data for Kiryas Joel, an all-Hasidic village near New York City that is home to Satmar Hasidim, who pursue the least amount of secular education of any American Hasidim. They found employment numbers resembling the New York average. In 2017, 70 percent of residents were employed, compared with 75 percent in New York overall; the median income for year-round, full-time workers was $50,613, compared with $54,262 in New York overall; and 32 percent of year-round, full-time workers made more than $75,000, compared with 33.7 percent overall. Moreover, as the founder of OJPAC, Yossi Gestetner, recently pointed out, because the Hasidim are so young on average (82 percent of adults in Kiryas Joel are under 45), incomes should be low relative to the average, as maximum earnings tend to come later in life.
While these data capture only Kiryas Joel (it’s one of the only places where one can do such an analysis, since it is a completely Hasidic village), most other Hasidic communities are less insular (and offer more secular education) than Satmar, making it unlikely that they earn less on average, especially not for reasons related to education. The only school that I know of that offers no secular education conducted a survey of eighth-grade graduates currently between the ages of 30 and 35 and found that 91 percent were gainfully employed (they shared these data on the condition of anonymity).
Given the religious desire that Haredi men have to continue Talmud study throughout their lives (pushing them away from standard employment) and the extremely high birthrate in Haredi households (that justifies public assistance even when earning close to $100,000), standard metrics of poverty are often profoundly misleading. Add to that the near absence of the kinds of violent crime typical of high-poverty areas, and the incredibly high levels of social cohesion and trust, and what we see is not a picture of poverty and despair but one of the last truly functioning communities, in a country where people are increasingly bowling alone.
As a country, we’ve been here before. In the late 1800s, the U.S. government began forcing American Indian children to attend state boarding schools, against their parents’ wishes. The assumption was that if these children were “properly” educated—shorn of their long hair, given “civilized” clothes, forbidden from speaking their native tongues, given “white” names in place of their Indian names—educators might successfully “kill the Indian, and save the man.” Whole cultures were lost as a result of this misguided state intervention, which the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 eventually declared to have been against “the best interests of Indian children” partly because it bulldozed over “the unique values of Indian culture.”
There are, of course, many differences between this history and the attempts to reform New York’s Haredi yeshivas. But this history is worth recalling because it parallels the Haredi experience. They, too, refuse to change their names, language, and dress, and see government-imposed education as an attempt to undermine their religious beliefs and to change their way of life radically. The norms and mores of modern society, including many of those embedded in standard school curricula, are profoundly at odds with Haredi religious beliefs. And the raison d’être for these schools’ existence is a form of religious study that requires intensive, high-level, textual skills that take time and effort to acquire—to a degree that would be impossible were the state to impose more hours of secular education. Government regulation of these schools would involve regulating an essential (perhaps, the essential) element of Haredi religious life.
For Hasidim, more is at stake than just schooling. This community views education as critical in establishing a religious community that will be capable of living within American society without being subsumed by it. It’s easy for outsiders to ask what could be wrong with requiring students to devote more time to English, but from a Hasidic perspective the problems are obvious. Somehow, the most liberal and tolerant members of our society can see American Indians as worthy of cultural protection (albeit belatedly) but cannot accept that Hasidim might deserve similar consideration.
Critics of Haredi education buy in to a vision of public education as unquestionably normative. Yet our system of public education is relatively new, in a historical sense, and not without its own considerable flaws, which critics who have grown up in Haredi communities lack the perspective to understand. With the zeal of converts, ex-Hasidim are quick to adopt new cultural norms without any sense that they, too, are contingent. In reality, every choice that a parent makes has an opportunity cost, and no perfect choices exist: ex-Hasidim angry about the handicaps that they believe Hasidic schools have imposed on them overlook both the tangible benefits that they may have received from this education and these schools’ relative position within the vast American educational landscape.
In portraying the yeshivas as powerful aggressors and their students as powerless victims, YAFFED is seeking to invoke the might of the state against a vulnerable minority group. Disturbingly, it appears that the state has been receptive to the idea. As a lawyer for the New York State Education Department reportedly argued in defense of the regulations: these rules were imposed for the “voiceless child who can be conscripted at their parents’ will.”
The move against Hasidic schools comes in the context of a massive uptick in anti-Semitic hate in New York City and its environs, uniquely directed at visibly Haredi Jews. This hatred has manifested itself across a wide range of communities and contexts: from neighborhoods conspiring to keep Haredim out to daily physical attacks in Brooklyn to anti-Semitic murders and assaults in Jersey City and Monsey.
The reasons for anti-Haredi animus are complex, but coverage of Haredim in the media certainly hasn’t helped. The average news consumer would not be faulted for drawing an impression of Haredim as reproducing unsustainably and destroying neighborhoods, while also being crooks, slumlords, moochers, and cheaters who live off state largesse without contributing anything.
The Covid-19 pandemic is particularly illustrative in this regard, as both the media and the mayor of New York treated Haredim with animus and prejudice, trading on the most vicious anti-Semitic stereotypes: Jews as spreaders of disease. In April, while crowds gathered in parks and other venues, Mayor Bill de Blasio specifically called out Hasidim for attending a revered leader’s outdoor funeral. When asked about his mask-less attendance at a protest that violated his own guidelines—while religious services remained shuttered—he asserted that the comparison was “apples and oranges” because (protests) “had profound meaning and we’re all acting on the meaning of those protests.” Evidently, religious services don’t have profound meaning. While non-masked residents of non-Jewish neighborhoods were given masks by police, non-masked Hasidim were given tickets.
The Hasidic community was hit early and hard by the pandemic. Communal celebrations of the Purim holiday in mid-March—just before the public became fully aware of Covid-19—unintentionally spread the disease far and wide weeks before the state and city began to implement shutdowns. During the early part of the pandemic, most (but not all) Haredi communities adhered to the guidelines, but as the “15-day” lockdown moved into summer, many communities quietly resisted the mandates, opening synagogues and camps.
Explanations for this communal reaction are not self-evident, even to those intimately familiar with these communities. The high value Haredim place on communal prayer and gatherings certainly played a role. So, too, did political affiliation; many Haredim supported President Trump, and they read and listen to media that have downplayed both the crisis presented by Covid-19 and the necessity of measures to contain it. The community’s high rates of infection early in the pandemic also appear to have influenced Haredi perceptions, with many Haredim believing that their communities have already achieved herd immunity.
The head of a large school in Borough Park told me in an interview that his sect organized antibody testing before the holiday of Shavuot at the end of May, and that 70 percent of men and 50 percent of women tested positive. “At this point,” he told me, “I am only wearing a mask to make other people feel good, but I had it (Covid-19) in March, and I can’t get it or transmit it. But when people attack us, nobody wants to wear it anymore, just for appearance’s sake.”
One thing is clear, however: Hasidic resistance to the government mandates does not come from ignorance or backwardness, as many believe and as some news outlets have uncritically reported, relying on some of the same informants who have spearheaded the anti-yeshiva movement. The idea that Hasidim ignore mandates because—as Naftuli Moster was quoted in the New York Times as claiming—“(they) have very little knowledge of science” and don’t even know what a cell is, is absurd. Haredim are some of the most sophisticated consumers of medical treatment and expertise in the country, something immediately apparent when one walks into any of the top-tier research hospitals in the New York area. When researchers needed convalescent plasma, it was Haredim (supposedly ignorant of the existence of cells) who spearheaded the campaign to donate, as many of them had already been infected in the first wave. “Every Hasid knows everything about Covid at this point,” the head of the Borough Park school told me. “IgG, IgM antibodies—we’re experts.”
The media misrepresentations are not just mistaken but damaging. They have likely helped exacerbate the problem they purport to explain, by fueling the perception within Haredi communities not only that state and city officials don’t understand or value Haredi religious traditions and practices but also that they are actively hostile to them. This perception, in turn, has helped engender resentment and resistance among Haredim.
The response by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio during the holiday of Sukkot in early October illustrates how false perceptions of the community cause real harm. Without any real understanding of the Hasidic community’s values, beliefs, or attitudes toward health and safety, public officials condescendingly called out only Orthodox Jews as responsible for rising cases in New York city, imposing arbitrary, draconian lockdown measures without regard for Haredi religious life. Instead of working with community leaders, Governor Cuomo convened a conference call to lecture them, took no real questions from them, and then hours later gave a public press conference announcing the shutdown of religious gatherings right before a major holiday, something he had just promised community leaders he would not do on the call hours earlier. In response, many community members protested, some rioted, and the overall climate enabled abhorrent Haredi demagogues to rise to prominence.
Cuomo’s and de Blasio’s approach stands in stark contrast to the government response in Haredi Lakewood, New Jersey, where Governor Phil Murphy went out of his way to work hand-in-hand with community leaders, leading to exemplary Haredi adherence to government guidelines over Sukkot.
As the new school year got under way in September, the vast majority of Hasidic schools were open legally, in-person, with varying degrees of distancing and masking. And while there was an initial small uptick in Covid cases, as of late December those areas were no longer considered “micro-clusters” by the governor’s cluster-action initiative. Nonetheless, throughout the course of the pandemic, numerous news outlets have singled out Hasidim for special condemnation. (Just one of many examples: the Brooklyn Eagle ran an AP story on subway mask scofflaws but swapped out the AP’s lead picture of a sleeping man for a different AP picture of Hasidim.)
This double standard has only increased anti-Semitism targeting Haredim. Throughout the late spring and early summer, Jewish media reported numerous instances of anti-Semitism directed at gatherings of Jews (passersby shouting, for example, “You’re the reason why we’re getting sick”), but non-Jewish media gave these cases scant attention. Reporters instead camped outside Jewish schools and bus routes to check whether Jewish children might be illicitly going to school, while ignoring the medical impact of mass protests. This last fact is supremely ironic, considering the baseline assumption of Haredi education critics: apparently, those parents willing to risk both the law and Covid-19 to send their kids to school are at the same time committing child abuse because they prefer their children uneducated and ignorant. In truth, however, what this really demonstrates (to the extent that there may have been illicit schools operating) is just how central religious education is to Haredi religious life.
I don’t believe that the ex-Haredim I know, including Naftuli Moster, harbor anti-Semitic views. They are sincere and well-intentioned people who have experienced serious trauma and believe passionately that they are helping the Haredi community. I likewise don’t believe that any of the outside contributors to the YAFFED report are anti-Semitic. Yet it is impossible to read YAFFED’s report on Hasidic education—or many of the organization’s other public pronouncements—without recognizing the same deeply offensive rhetoric commonly parroted in media coverage of Haredim. The report begins by stating: “The average young Hasidic man leaves the yeshiva system completely unprepared to work in—or interact with—the world outside his community.” Dire warnings of explosive population growth follow, along with accusations that the Hasidim are directly harming the average New York taxpayer. The report warns of “the grave consequences for the citizens of New York City and New York State were this problem to remain unchecked.” The report cites misleading statistics to make it seem as if the schools are harming the average taxpayer and makes unsubstantiated accusations of financial fraud and cheating on state exams.
The consequences of such charges are not trivial. The murders in Jersey City prompted some angry neighbors to justify the attack because of the list of crimes that Hasidim supposedly engage in—most prominently, financial swindling. The report also explicitly brands Hasidim as un-American and other: “In almost every respect they demonstrate a fidelity to maintaining customs tied with their diaspora and non-American roots.” Or: “The behavioral rules and values of secular society are necessarily considered of a lower order and sometimes even with contempt.”
The report’s appalling afterword, prepared by Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, concludes that the Haredim are guilty of educational neglect, a term that she considers akin to “child neglect and abuse.” She compares the Haredim with Warren Jeffs and Mormons who practice polygamy, as well as with the “prophet,” Lee Kaplan, who went to jail for marrying Amish minor girls whom their parents “gifted” him. She concludes by calling for laws that would allow parents (such as the Hasidim) to be prosecuted for “educational neglect.”
YAFFED’s misinformation campaign is a tragedy for one final reason: we know much less than we should about Haredi, and especially Hasidic, schools—which means that we have no way to help those schools that want to improve. When I visit Hasidic schools, I find that school leaders are desperate for information and tools that might help them improve their secular education. The will is frequently there—but not at the expense of the community’s religious values. In order to understand how to help—even just to identify what help is wanted—we need to understand the culture of the communities in question, to understand the role that education plays within that culture, and to be sensitive to the religious concerns that parents and teachers have. For those who genuinely want to improve education in Haredi communities, numerous pathways exist to bring it about—as long as improved secular education is really the goal.
Sadly, however, it seems clear that none of this was ever really about education. Education has instead served as a proxy for the antipathy that many have for how the Hasidic community lives. While I do not blame ex-Hasidim for feeling as they do, I wonder about those with no connection to this community who are so quick to believe every calumny about Hasidic education. I suspect that as long as such complaints are framed as a matter of human rights, it’s easy for people to convince themselves that this is not about Hasidic culture. But let’s recognize this campaign for what it is: an attempt to reeducate—forcibly, if necessary—a minority that does not want to abandon its religious beliefs.
Moshe Krakowski is director of the Azrieli Masters Program and an associate professor at Yeshiva University.