If a religious education is consistently and measurably inferior to one offered by public schools, it would make sense for parents to make a change. Who doesn’t want their child’s knowledge and academic skills to be at least on par with those of the average student?
You’d be surprised:
Roughly 57,000 students attend ultra-Orthodox Jewish yeshivas in New York City, and according to activists from a group called Young Advocates for Fair Education, many of the students, particularly the boys, will finish school with poor to nonexistent English and math skills, and little knowledge of history or science.
That’s because English, math, and science are widely considered “profane” among the Hasidic population.
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.
And in the past week, the state’s politicians made the problem even worse.
Amid the fevered last hours of New York State budget negotiations on Friday, with lawmakers scrambling to beat the April 1 deadline, a single, seemingly esoteric issue threatened to derail it all: state oversight of religious schools.
Top lawmakers accused one senator, Simcha Felder, of Brooklyn, of essentially holding the $168 billion budget hostage until the state agreed not to interfere with the curriculum at the private Jewish schools known as yeshivas. Some critics have accused the schools, which focus on the study of traditional Jewish texts, of leaving students without a basic command of English, math, history or science.
The drama highlighted Mr. Felder’s unique sway in Albany. As a Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans, thus giving them a slim majority in the chamber, he is courted by both parties; both are loath to alienate him or the overwhelmingly Orthodox Jewish population he represents.
State law says that what minors learn in private schools has to be “at least substantially equivalent” to what students learn in public schools in that district. (Think about how low the bar already was with that language in place; “substantially equivalent” leaves lots of wiggle room for slackening standards.) The rule won’t change, but oversight will be lacking.
With the unseemly horse trade that just took place in Albany, no one, it seems, will now be able to fix the situation for those poor kids. Simcha Felder, invoking religious rights, essentially fought to keep young Jewish students roughly as dumb, as manipulable, and as unemployable as students in fundamentalist madrassas. And the rest of the miscreants on the State House floor went right along with it.
Inevitably, we’ll see more of this:
At the 39 [worst] yeshivas [in New York City], children ages 7 to 13 receive only an hour and a half of English and math instruction combined four days per week. Other secular subjects are not taught at all, and English instruction for boys stops at age 13, the letter states. (Most Hasidic Jews speak Yiddish at home, and nearly a third of students in Jewish schools in New York City speak limited English, according to the Department of Education.)
In an interesting twist for a deeply patriarchal religion,
… girls tend to receive a better secular education. Naftuli Moster, the founder of Young Advocates for Fair Education, said that was partly because girls are not allowed to study the Talmud, leaving more time for secular subjects.
A yeshiva graduate, Moster got serious about raising educational quality for Jewish kids when he went to a secular college and realized to his embarrassment that he was unfamiliar with all sorts of concepts that other students had no problem with. For instance, he’d never heard the word “molecule,” nor did he possess any concept of the word’s meaning. For a long time, he considered himself “too crippled to make it through.”
During my senior year of high school, a common sight in our study hall was of students learning to sign their names in English, practicing for their marriage license. For many, it was the first time writing their names in anything but Yiddish or Hebrew.
When I was in my 20s, already a father of three, I had no marketable skills, despite 18 years of schooling. I could rely only on an ill-paid position as a teacher of religious studies at the local boys’ yeshiva, which required no special training or certification. As our family grew steadily — birth control, or even basic sexual education, wasn’t part of the curriculum — my then-wife and I struggled, even with food stamps, Medicaid and Section 8 housing vouchers, which are officially factored into the budgets of many of New York’s Hasidic families.
I remember feeling both shame and anger. Shame for being unable to provide for those who relied on me. Anger at those responsible for educating me who had failed me so colossally.
He describes how a physician he knows in Borough Park in Brooklyn, a heavily Hasidic neighborhood,
… often sees adult male patients who can barely communicate to her what ails them. “It’s not just that they’re like immigrants, barely able to speak the language,” she told me. “It’s also a lack of knowledge of basic physiology. They can barely name their own body parts.”
(Screenshot via YouTube)