The latest salvo in The New York Times’ ongoing exposé of the yeshiva system in New York focused on a new report issued by the New York City Department of Education that found 18 religious schools failing to meet secular education standards set by the government. The article raised some troubling questions but ignored one of the most important: Why do Hasidic parents continue to send their children to “failing schools?”
I am a former Hasid who makes a living as a tour guide and YouTuber exploring Hasidic Williamsburg, where many of these implicated Hasidic schools are located. Since I am in the neighborhood often, I have come to know the rhythm of the schools that are at the center of the ongoing controversy. Every day I watch hundreds of happy boys spill into the streets during recess and pile into buses at the end of the afternoon. I see children who are deeply cared for. I see a neighborhood with one of the lowest median ages in the country, where life revolves around raising the young. Furthermore, I see parents who pay private school tuition to send their children to these schools. So why, if they are failing, do the schools continue to burst at the seams?
There are times when parents don’t have a choice. When a couple splits, one of the parents can end up in a contractual obligation to enroll their children in specific Orthodox institutions. In other situations, there may be social pressures that leave parents with few real options. These things do happen, but I believe they represent a minority of cases.
The majority of Hasidic parents send their children to these schools because they succeed by some significant metrics. That doesn’t offset the ways in which they fall short. But in a holistic accounting that considers not only their efficiency as preparatory institutions for future workers but also the social value they provide, these so-called failing schools accomplish a great deal. Perhaps much more than an ordinary public school.
First and foremost, these schools are Talmud Torahs—institutions dedicated to the study of Jewish texts. This is what the boys spend the bulk of their time in school doing, and it is a yeshiva’s raison d’etre. According to Eli Spitzer, a Hasidic boys’ school headmaster, the Torah study is not as rigorous as yeshiva defenders often portray it. “In elementary and middle school, many hours are spent singing songs, listening to stories, and repeating material that has already been learned. In high school, meanwhile, most of the day is devoted to unstructured learning. This, for many students, consists primarily of socializing while absorbing a tiny amount of material.”
Beyond providing their formal curriculum, these schools socialize boys, helping them grow into Hasidic men. The boys spend their days cultivating a special piety, earnestness, and curiosity, as well as a strong sense of belonging. Girls, meanwhile, are socialized in modesty in schools of their own. This is not taught at a designated period during the school day but rather is the cumulative product of the culture in these yeshivas.
As a mother having once sent my son to a Satmar boys’ school, I would argue that the most important function these schools provide is the help they offer to families. Hasidic boys’ schools are in a league of their own in getting children out from under their mother’s fartich—from under her feet. Mothers tell me that the boys are in school so many hours because “boys need to study the holy Torah,” but I think there’s more to it: Unlike the girls who help run the household, families—which often live in small apartments—need the boys and men to leave daily.
Among Williamsburg Hasidic sects, the boys start school from as young as two-and-a-half years old and remain in the system until marriage. They are in school six days a week, all year round. They are bused from the family’s home and dropped back off at the door at the end of the day. They are kept busy all day without any screens. They get served multiple meals in school. They don’t usually bring home homework or need to prepare for tests. Notably, they don’t even go to school with backpacks. Everything they need is there at the school. The day gets longer as they get older: After Bar Mitzvah comes fartuks (study at dawn) and masmidim (study late in the evening). While in the secular world educators bristle at any insinuation that they are babysitters, Hasidic schools plainly take on the task of easing the burden for parents. They also seek to address students’ emotional needs.
It is an irony of the current debate that liberals who believe in strong social safety nets, who would balk at the assertion that a person should be judged by their wealth or career attainment, and who once celebrated the maxim made famous by Hillary Clinton, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ seem incapable of appreciating those same values when they come from religious communities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when public schools shut down, causing long-term emotional and academic damage to students, Hasidic schools continued to operate, often underground, and even after some were raided and closed by the NYPD. While these moves were controversial, the same schools that have been singled out by the Times put their necks out for their students and parents—sparing them some of the terrible losses that were suffered by students in other institutions.
But the critical reports from The New York Times and from the Department of Education don’t focus on the ways these schools serve as vital organs to Hasidic communities. Instead, they focus on what the Hasidic schools don’t do: They do not prepare the boys to be efficient workers and reliable consumers inside of mainstream, secular economic arrangements. And this is true. Hasidic schools don’t do the kind of career prep that can help students become future brand managers, corporate tax consultants, or equity administrators. It seems that in the wider world, people are so used to conflating education with economic preparation—because this is what modern education has become—that they assume that Hasidic schools seek to do the same.
Some conclude that since Hasidic boys study Torah, the goal of their schools must be to make them rabbis. As Naftuli Moster, the founder of Yaffed, an organization pushing for more government intervention in Yeshiva education, told The Washington Post, “Every boy is groomed and destined to be a rabbi of some sort.” But Hasidic schools don’t prepare children for careers as rabbis; in fact, they don’t prepare them for any career at all.
A short while after Hasidic boys marry, they often go out to work. They don’t have any formal training, and their English might be broken, but they have a community that serves as an economic network, and they are immersed in a culture of hustlers. As I’ve explored in a video on how Hasidim earn a living, the community’s local economy of mom-and-pop shops compensates for the disadvantages the boys have in not being fluent in English or traditionally prepared for careers. It remains true that poverty rates are very high, but I believe the main cause of this is the high cost of living: New York City’s Hasidim have large families, live in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and pay the price for expensive kosher food, a rich calendar of holidays and festivities, and private schools. Hasidim also live in geographically concentrated areas in order to be within walking distance of the synagogue and close to their families. This drives up property values to an incredible degree.
All of this doesn’t mean that Hasidic parents don’t have criticisms of their sons’ schools. In fact, I believe the debate over Hasidic education stems, in part, from internal frustrations. As someone who is on the periphery, parents talk to me candidly about the things that bother them. Plenty have complaints about education, as parents will have anywhere, and I hear especially about the state of “English” for boys. Parents tell me they don’t want to raise New York-born boys who struggle to speak the language of the land and who do not know the basics in math, spelling, history, and so on. But at the same time, these parents value the many things they do get from the schools, and would by no means want the good to go away.
Hasidic boys’ schools have come a long way from the days of Rabbi Eli Hecht, who, in his memoir, Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, recalls a miserable cheydar in 1950s Brooklyn. At the helm of Hecht’s class was an intimidating, if not abusive, Holocaust survivor who terrorized the students with his shteken—his dreaded stick. Today’s Hasidic parents would hardly stand for such things. They demand well-orchestrated Chumash parties, upgraded arts and crafts programs, gentler and more energetic teachers, and swim and other summer programs. They are attuned to the trends in treatment for ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning issues. Things are changing, albeit in ways more complicated than state metrics can capture.
When it comes to secular education in yeshiva, however, change can be much harder, as it can be perceived as a demand for less Torah—and thus an assault on the sacred. The issue brings up old fault lines from the days of yore, when reformers in Europe tried to get religious Jews to get with the times by forcing change in the yeshivas. Just a few years ago I came across a Yiddish poster in Hasidic Williamsburg that read: “In the year 1887 the government forced secular subjects into the Yeshiva of Volozhin … The yeshiva had to be closed ... And therefore the Ntzi”v warned his son to stand guard and not to allow in the mixing of secular with the holy in yeshivas.” The poster ended with a cry: “We’ll stand for pure education, without negotiations!”
In other words, these debates about yeshivas are debates about values. Some in the community have told me that they believe the government wants to push things like LGBTQ, race theory, and other “leftist agendas.” But even among those who are less politically minded, there’s a lot of anxiety about being able to raise children according to Hasidic values. After all, while some Hasidic schools may not teach traditional history, the community is not ignorant of the long history of religious persecution.
So how do you change some things without losing others? How do you change the curriculum without destroying the essence of a system that many in the community feel is working well?
The poor state of secular education in many Hasidic schools doesn’t come from apathy or negligence. Rather, these schools have several competing priorities. There are ways in which the schools fail but also, importantly, ways in which they deliver. This is why, despite all the damning reports, Hasidic schools continue to prosper.
Frieda Vizel lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She blogs at friedavizel.com.