I’ve lost count of the number of people who sent me a link to the New York Times expose on Chassidic yeshivahs. It included material that had previously been reported including the lack of secular education and the use of corporal punishment. What was new was that yeshivahs in New York are claiming government funds allocated for disadvantaged students, but are not providing the services that the funds were meant to support.
I have met dozens of young men who, often in broken English, have recounted their experiences. However, I was not aware of the New York yeshivah’s ability to access public funds. In the UK we are used to government funded faith schools, but these schools are carefully monitored; and one Ofsted “inadequate” rating puts the school into special measures with high levels of oversight. In the USA with the strict division of Church and State, I understood that all faith schools are privately funded.
The article showed that virtually no yeshiva students passed the standardised tests. It has been suggested that the Yeshivahs encouraged low achievement in these tests so that the amount of money claimed could be higher still, so perhaps the attainment was not as bad as the article claimed. Either way, the expose demonstrated the principle of “coerced criminality” that Nahamu has been lobbying on.
Theft of public funds (including benefits) has become socially normalised even halachically justified to to support the expensive Chassidic lifestyle.
Public funds were fraudulently claimed, as the secular education was not delivered. Further money was intended to fund computers that the Rabbis had no intention of buying (as computers are forbidden). Other money was for meals that were never delivered. This is a misappropriation of public funds, by the communities holy leaders, who had no qualms in claiming this money. Theft of public funds (including benefits) has become socially normalised even halachically justified to to support the expensive Chassidic lifestyle.
The expose has elicited many critical responses, including that it’s an anti-semitic trope, and that Yeshivah education prepares the boys for business careers; Gemara encourages critical thinking, and a good work ethic.
However, the New York city voucher programme that helps low income families pay for child care now sends nearly a third of its total assistance to Chasidic households. So which is it? Is there widespread poverty as a result of poor education, and families are entitled to these vouchers, or does the Yeshivah education does prepare children for business careers, in which case the vouchers must be being claimed fraudulently?
Even if some have successful businesses, for too many, without fluent English, and without basic numeracy, the only jobs available are low skilled, and hence low paid, and widespread poverty is the result.
Other critiques argue that the wider Orthodox model in the USA is hardly one to aspire to; capitalist ethos, costs of private schooling, high levels of attrition and college debt.
The denial of education limits Chassidic boys autonomy as they reach adulthood, including having options beyond the social coercion that leads up to a forced marriage.
Whilst I appreciate that there are flaws with this model, this critique doesn’t address the question of why the Chassidic boys cannot be taught fluent English, numeracy and science, even if more time is allocated to kodesh than to secular studies on a similar basis to Litvak Yeshivahs.There is simply a lack of willingness to allow Chassidic boys to achieve fluency in the vernacular, alongside maths and science education.
There seems to be two reasons for this; firstly the denial of education limits Chassidic boys autonomy as they reach adulthood, including having options beyond the social coercion that leads up to a forced marriage. Chassidic boys also do not have the skills to read more widely and to integrate with wider society.
Secondly, secular education is seen as a waste of the boys time, each minute of secular education takes away from religious education which will surely earn Chassidic men a place in the world to come.
But it’s not antisemitic to ask why Chassidic boys are not entitled to literacy and numeracy. Rather I would argue its antisemitic or discrimatory to deny education on the basis of their gender and their faith, a soft bigotry of low expectations resulting in life-long disadvantage. And it’s time to ask why is it that in a religious community that prides itself on being law abiding with high levels of morality has the theft of government funds been normalised?
And to the people from outside the community who defend the yeshivahs. This troubles me most of all; why do you defend the denial of English literacy when you wouldn’t do the same to your own child?
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