Earlier this month, the New York State budget passed with new language that would somewhat relax the government education requirements for Yeshivas. Following this change, activists who left Hasidism and are fighting to enforce more secular education were quick to denounce the law. Shulem Deen wrote in the The New York Times “Why does New York Condone illiteracy?” and Hasidim took to Twitter to fight back. My Facebook feed is filled with outcries against corruption and uneducated children.
When Hasidic education is in the news, I bite my tongue. While I too was educated in the Hasidic community, I am a woman, and women are said to get more education, which is to say I learned more English. I left the Hasidic community when my son was five and still in Kindergarten in the Satmar community. But most of all, I find it hard to say anything because this conversation is so often reduced to moral absolutism. This is a fight in which both sides have set themselves up as the saviors of the children, the heroes to the victims, and anything besides heroism will get shouted down by indignant advocates whose work is here to save the day.
I understand their positions. On the one hand, Hasidic men like my father, still traumatized by the memory of the Holocaust, see their way of life as perpetually threatened, always on the verge of extinction. It’s why the language they use to discuss this issue includes words like meshimed, or a Jew who seeks to hurt his own people, or gezeyrah, an evil decree by the government, both loaded and theological. Comparisons to the persecutors of old abound, and the same old solutions are offered: Hunker down, do not give an inch, and quietly use political emissaries to overturn decrees. A modern day Rabbinic miracle is when political power saves the day from governmental villains.
Then there is the version of this saga that Shulem Deen might tell, as he described in the Times. In this version, he was a New York boy who was not taught history, geography, science, literature. His English education was merely an afterthought. The boys in his Yeshiva did not write their names in English until high school, when they practiced their signature for their marriage license. Deen’s own teenage sons cannot speak, read, or write English beyond a second grade level. Like Deen, they will become adults with severe handicaps vis a vis their future economic endeavors. Like him, they will have no marketable skills and be forced to take low wage jobs and supplement it with government funding. The result of this startling denial of standard education is this: One of the Hasidic communities, Kiryas Joel, is the poorest village in the country according to the US Census Bureau. Here are people like Deen and his children who are forced to become burdens to society and unable to hold a decent job. How is it that New York State allows for this travesty to go on? The answer must be that the rabbis use their block vote, an act of outrageous corruption for which everyone pays.
Both these stories are powerful, and there is truth to both. But they are also incomplete. It’s certainly disingenuous, even ignorant, of Hasidim to equate a demand to teach more math and science to any form of violent anti-Semitism. The comparison suggests a skewed sense of history as well as a persecution complex that ought to be addressed rationally. It’s also an argument that obscures the fact that the Hasidic community receives plenty of subsidies on which it depends, and so is far from reluctant to play the secular game when it suits its interests. But the other side is just as guilty of scare tactics, and never more so when the conversation comes around to economics.
To hear the defenders of core education say it, a community of children without modern education will result in destitution and a reliance on government handouts—your tax dollars. The problem with this argument is that it is hyperbolic and insincere, even if census data seems to support it. It is true that Hasidim need to do more to provide adequate vocational training for jobs that require specific credentials. But that’s different from saying Hasidim are really one of the poorest communities in the country. Several factors skew the census data: Hasidim have very large families; I come from one of fifteen. They live in heavily concentrated areas, which amplifies any trend. Income might be underreported. And the community is very good at using its collective power to lobby and organize for as many government programs as possible. Just because people are good at getting benefits doesn’t mean they are poorer.
When I walk through my Hasidic community, I don’t see the markers of some of the poorer neighborhoods. There are no homeless Hasidim lying at the corner, no Hasidic mothers begging for food, no abuse of drugs to numb the pain. I see a people nicely dressed, with the children in ribbons and bows.
How do Hasidim make money if they don’t get a secular education? The Hasidic economy seems to operate in old-school, wheeler-dealer, handle-bandle kind of way. The men who don’t speak English learn it as they go along, and their female relatives help. When I was a child, my father would often phone from the office and ask us to ask our mother how to say this or that word in Aynglish. “And ask Mammi…. vus meynt alternate?” To this day, my father speaks a barely comprehensible English, even as he runs a large organization for disabled children and often interacts with Albany politicians.
There is also this: The Hasidic community is large enough to create employment on the inside. Its unique needs for special kosher food, modest clothing, censored entertainment, modified technology and segregated education are all economic opportunities that outsiders can’t compete for; jobs which WalMart can’t take. The men also start their careers at a young age; by twenty, most Hasidic men are looking for jobs. They don’t even need a high school diploma to be hired by a fellow community member. Training for a career happens on the job, which means Hasidic men don’t become doctors or lawyers. Men also meet a lot for prayers. These male circles become information exchange networks for ‘where can you invest in real estate’ and ‘which gemach gives the most in interest free loans.’
I speak from personal experience. I got a job at a secretarial Hasidic insurance firm in Kiryas Joel straight out of eleventh grade high school. I stayed on the job for fifteen years. Over the years, I came to understand why my employers could be successful despite their broken English and terrible habit of showing up to meetings two hours late; because Hasidim trusted each other, and referred each other, regardless of English speaking skills. Many businesses that came to my desk were run by men whose vocational preparations were limited to being taught significant chuptzah, being part of a substantial economic network, living in a much more entrepreneurial culture.
That is not to say the Hasidic educational system or its economic system aren’t problematic and in need of reform. In fact, in recent years entrepreneurs in the typical Hasidic spirit have tried to capitalize on this need. The book How to Make Friends and Influence People was translated to Yiddish, and signs all over Williamsburg advertise various courses in computers, Excel, and even self-confidence. There are a lot of men who feel crushed by the financial burden of feeding a young family, and some men (and of course, women) never realize their potential. And it’s also disturbing that children sit in school and learn by rote for hours; the problems with this harsh approach was certainly a large motivator in my own leaving the sect.
But I take issue with framing education as entirely measured to economic outcomes. Education isn’t meant to line up a job; if it did, there wouldn’t be so many college graduates in our greater society who are struggling, with college debt to boot. One thing I think the Hasidic education gets right is that it exists for the sake of learning itself (albeit religious learning), not a means to and end. Whereas my twelve-year-old in public school is told that all he does, from start to end, is to prepare him for the workforce, Hasidic kids don’t make any connection between fifth grade Gemarah and a future job. Secular education has devolved into a myth of jobs as the reward for education, and some seem hellbent on imposing this myth on Hasidim. But Hasidim have myths of their own, and they’re no better or worse.
Having grown up in the Hasidic community and then left it, I have a lot of thoughts on how we might work from the inside to bring about much-needed reform. And anytime I’m tempted by moral absolutes, I call my Hasidic brother, the one with the long, sloppy red sidecurls, and I ask him for an Excel formula, and he puts together strings nestled within each other like only a Talmud kup could, and we chat about economics and politics and the Hasidic men he is helping with computers, and when I hang up, I feel like all the outcries in our secular bubble make no sense. It’s just always going to be more complicated, and in the end, I’d rather have it that way.
Frieda Vizel lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She blogs at friedavizel.com.