Former Yeshiva Student Highlights Educational Deficits of Many Hasidic Schools November 26, 2014

Former Yeshiva Student Highlights Educational Deficits of Many Hasidic Schools

A piece in the New York Times examines the work of Yeshiva graduate Naftuli Moster, in highlighting the educational shortcomings of many Hasidic schools in New York and pushing for enforcement of existing law regarding the curriculum requirements of non-profit schools.

Some New York City Jewish schools offer a full range of educational topics, secular as well as religious, but many of these schools keep non-religious studies to a bare minimum, particularly for boys (who are often pushed toward eventual Talmud study after graduation). Sometimes secular studies comprise less than two hours in a school-day:

Nearly one-third of all students in [New York City] Jewish schools are “English language learners,” according to the city’s Department of Education. Yiddish is the Hasidic community’s first language, and both parents and educators report that many boys’ schools do not teach the A B C’s until children are 7 or 8 years old. Boys in elementary and middle school study religious subjects from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. followed by approximately 90 minutes of English and math. At 13, when boys formally enter yeshiva, most stop receiving any English instruction.

It’s further worth noting that

… Hasidic schools receive millions of dollars in government funds and are required by state law to teach a curriculum that is “equivalent” to what public schools offer.

Moster notes that “in his school… English, math and science were considered ‘profane'” topics of study; this aversion to secular education comes at a steep cost for the Hasidic community, which struggles with some of the highest levels of poverty among Jewish communities. Moster, despite having gone on to pursue a secular higher education, can point to a number of ways in which his religious education impacted his personal learning — he recalls, for instance, being unaware of what an essay was, entering a class ignorant of the definition of “molecule,” etc. To this day, he says, he is still sometimes “stumped by a certain word or concept that is familiar to the average student.”

Moster has been working to ensure that his community’s religious schools adhere to the statewide educational standards in place and “teach a curriculum that is ‘substantially equivalent to that provided in the public schools.'” To this end he founded YAFFED — Young Advocates for Fair Education — in 2011 and has since attempted to pressure local officials to observe and enforce the standards. So far, despite a number of meetings and communications, he has met with little success. From superintendents who were unaware of the regulations, to officials who believed the problem was someone else’s, no one seems willing or able to oversee the needed changes:

The state department would not discuss Mr. Moster’s letter to the Board of Regents with The New York Times or speak about the equivalency mandate except to say that enforcement was the city’s responsibility. For its part, the city said the state was responsible.

Since his efforts so far have failed, Moster is eying a lawsuit to compel officials to enforce educational standards. So far, he has gathered some support from the community.

A handful of modern Orthodox supporters have agreed to cover the legal fees and, with Mr. Moster, are interviewing lawyers. …[A] small number of parents have agreed to take part in a lawsuit if they can remain anonymous. They worry that the yeshivas will expel their children and that the community will ostracize them if their names are revealed.

It remains to be seen whether the lawsuit will proceed, and, if it does, what success it will meet; but Moster hopes his efforts will bring better educational opportunities to the young men of the Hasidic community. “Every Hasidic boy deserves a minimum education,” he notes.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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