Hasidic Yeshiva schools owe their students better education

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New York City, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the United States, recently approved a new mandate requiring all private schools to provide educational programming on par with that offered at public schools. How does this affect the Jewish community?

There are many sects in Judaism, including the Hasidic sect, a form of Orthodox Judaism. Hasidic Jews practice a traditional form of Judaism, characterized by a deep separation from the secular world. Many followers live in Hasidic neighborhoods, most prominently Williamsburg in Brooklyn. These neighborhoods function as insular communities, operating in Yiddish. This separation also applies to education: children in these communities attend Hasidic Yeshivas, private schools with curriculums heavily focused on religious studies. Students often spend morning until nightfall studying the Torah, the religious book of Judaism, and the Talmud, a record of Jewish religious law and theology. Instruction in math, English, and science is also included, but to a much lesser degree.

As of September, New York expects all private school students to perform at the same academic level as public school students. Private schools have three years to demonstrate compliance. This new expectation poses a problem for Hasidic Yeshivas, whose students have consistently failed state standardized tests to an alarming degree. Former teachers at said Hasidic Yeshivas have reported that some of their 12-year-old students in their last year of English instruction could not spell words like “cold,” or the neighborhood they lived in, “Williamsburg.” This benchmark failure raises even more questions when compared to public schools, primarily those whose students are low-income or non-native speakers of English, who perform in accordance with the state standard, as indicated by research conducted by the New York Times. Former students of Hasidic Yeshivas have professed their lack of preparation for life outside of school — and outside of their Hasidic neighborhoods, should they choose to venture out of them.

Hasidic Yeshivas do not operate as a monolith. Each school is instead individually run by committees. However, these committees ultimately dance to the tune of the community’s rabbis, like Moishe Indig, who supports New York City mayor Eric Adams. The support from the Hasidic communities of N.Y.C., who often vote as a bloc, is often sought by politicians. Hasidic leaders advise the community to vote for candidates who honor the educational sovereignty of their Yeshivas. Up until the latest educational mandate, New York lawmakers and the Board of Regents for the Department of Education have largely adopted a hands-off approach to Hasidic Yeshivas.

But now, with no such candidate able to preserve the inviolability of one of the most important tenets of the Hasidic community, rabbis are at a crossroads: face state sanction of their schools, or comply with the secular invasion of their educational philosophy, as they see it. One must wonder, now, why these rabbis concern themselves so strongly with the preservation of the current school system. Who does this school system benefit?

Supporters of this mandate assert that secular and non-secular education does not have to be mutually exclusive. Some supporters include parents of students who attend these Yeshivas, worried for the future of their children. On the other hand, critics claim the mandate is an infringement on one of the fundamental parts of Hasidic Judaism; should Hasidic Jews choose to center their education around the study of the Torah, then that is their prerogative.

The secular public attitude towards this mandate seems positive overall, especially in regard to its effects on Hasidic Yeshivas. However, there are some viewpoints that raise questions on the underlying reasons for said public support. One commenter on the New York Times article wrote, “Religious fundamentalism of all stripes is a cancer upon society… which seeks only to ensure the sustained power and influence of its leadership.” Could support of this educational mandate be synonymous with anti-religion sentiments for some? Are people simply eager to intercede devout piousness in non-Western religions? Or does this distress stem from a place of compassion for Hasidic boys barred from a proper education due to the nature of their societies? In that case, either party will have a different definition of what a “proper education” constitutes.

Other readers comment their dismay at the Times' incomplete coverage of this story: they lacked an explanation as to why multiple sects in Judaism venerate such intense study of the Torah and Talmud. Also missing was a further investigation on successful graduates of Hasidic Yeshivas and their roles in supporting their Hasidic communities. Was this exclusion purposeful? Would these stories have painted a different picture of not only Hasidic Yeshivas but fundamentalist Jews as well?

Presumably, if one peels back all the layers of this current dilemma, is this story not reminiscent of the age-old issue of separation of church and state? How will (sometimes) secular America handle non-secular minority groups? Does public funding of private schools give the government leverage in deciding educational benchmarks for these schools — religious institutions or not? If Hasidic Yeshivas receive a share of taxpayer money should the Department of Education not subject them to the same, or similar, schooling expectations as public schools? Or should students of Hasidic Yeshivas be held to different standards due to their non secular ways of life after graduation?

Politics, anti-religion sentiments, and Orthodox supporters aside, one truth remains firm: all children in America deserve equal access to education, including these Hasidic children. By inhibiting the study of secular subjects, Hasidic Yeshivas can potentially disable their students, limiting their prospects of success after graduation. Furthermore, this omission of secular material continues the cycle of insulation of the younger Hasidic generations from the outside world, thus increasing the risk of failures in any context outside that of their Hasidic communities. Schools should equip their students with the tools and knowledge to function as competent, responsible members of society, even if that means exposure to the secular world. Ideally, students at Hasidic Yeshivas should be allowed the option to truly learn important subjects other than religious studies without stigma or fear of ostracization.