On Hasidic Yeshivas


Last week, The New York Times published the results of a more than year-long investigation into orthodox Jewish yeshivas in the greater New York City area. Through a mix of data and personal anecdotes, the authors paint a picture of schools that are failing to prepare students to succeed in contemporary America. And, they add, these schools are receiving public dollars while doing so.

Much of the commentary about the story has come from the Jewish community. This makes sense. Members of that community are better positioned to parse the theological issues that animate these schools and to understand the rich texture of Jewish life in the communities in which they operate. But, given that the discussion of these schools has widened to what the state, which is predominately not Jewish, should do, it is important that all of us think about what this means for our education system. I am, admittedly, an Irish Catholic from the Midwest, but here is how I think through these issues.

First, to get this out of the way, is the money. It was inappropriate for the Times to describe, in their headline, that these schools are “flush” with public dollars. They are not. It appears that the bulk of the public funds that the schools receive come from the federal school lunch program (which provides subsidized meals for children in all manner of schools across the country). The other big ticket items are things like funding for student transportation and some childcare subsidies for younger children. When first reading the article, it seems like the state of New York or the federal government is funding these schools directly to provide religious instruction, and they aren’t. The funds are going to ancillary services that are provided to feed and move children around, something that I think all of us agreed should be available to students in public, private, or charter schools.

Second, these schools force us to ask deep questions about what school is for. It seems that the primary objection to these schools is that they are not preparing students to participate in the modern economy because they are not getting the language and math skills needed to conduct business. Multiple references are made to how poor the Hasidic communities are, with the reader expected to connect the dots between poor schooling and poor economic performance. Setting aside the fact that some of the increased poverty rate might be a statistical artifact (Hasidic families are larger, which raises the bar for what is considered poor), what if teaching kids how to make money is not the most important thing to these schools or the families that send their children there?

To my untrained eye, it seems like the communities that operate these schools believe that their most important task in life is to uphold the covenant that their ancestors made with God. They go through great lengths in their diets, their habits, and their routines to ensure that they are following the laws that were passed down to them. It should not surprise us that they want their schools to teach their children these laws, how to interpret them, and how to integrate them into their lives.

It is unclear to me why this is any more or less appropriate of a guiding philosophy of a school than anything else. The cheap observation to make is we seem to be OK with countercultural school environments so long as they take place in a Waldorf school in Marin County, but for some reason the Jewish community is not extended the same assumption of good will.

The deeper point is that we don’t agree on what it means to be educated. Some people think job preparation is the number one mission for schools. Others think it is preparing students to be citizens. Some think it is to cultivate creativity and individuality. Still others want to pass down the store of human knowledge from one generation to the next. All of these are worthy goals, but in a big diverse country like America, different people will prioritize them differently.

Third, is what these schools are doing so unreasonable? Many of those who responded to the Times piece seem baffled why anyone would want their children to spend endless hours each day studying Torah and would think that doing so would be more important than learning traditional academic subjects. I probably would have thought so too, until I opened any book describing the last couple hundred years of western history.

For reasons known only to God, people have repeatedly tried to wipe the Jewish faith off of this planet. From the Iberian Peninsula to the depths of Siberia to the plains of Poland the Jewish faith has been safeguarded and transmitted at tremendous personal risk. Given that backdrop, it strikes me as quite reasonable that these communities prioritize keeping their traditions alive and their faith’s wisdom in the minds of the next generation. If within living peoples’ memory a modern developed nation tried to mechanistically murder all of the people who shared this faith can we maybe cut them some slack for how seriously they take keeping it alive?

Having said all of that, two things must be noted.

First, there were troubling allegations in the piece of physical abuse in some of the schools that were profiled. I don’t care what your faith is, that is impermissible in the United States of America in 2022 and any and all people who abuse children should be punished to the fullest extent of the law without fear or favor whether that occurs in a public, private, or charter school.

Second, I am open to regulations that prevent the most extreme cases of isolation. If, for example, it really is the case that there are schools that are not teaching students the English language or rudimentary math, and they are graduating the equivalent of the 12th grade illiterate and innumerate, I do think that it is in the State of New York or New Jersey’s purview to require these schools to improve on those fronts. Children are a special, vulnerable class of citizens and as a society we do have a duty of care to them. While establishing where the line between parental rights and that duty of care falls is fraught and challenging, it seems like one can be drawn here reasonably easily without infringing on parental rights or school autonomy.

But let’s be clear, there is a chasm between basic regulations around these outcomes and the regulations that the state of New York passed recently requiring private schools to provide an education that is “substantially similar” to what happens in the public schools. The default regulatory system for private schools now places local school districts as the arbiters of school quality, and grants them the ability to oversee private schools, determine if they are meeting the standards, and recommend corrective action if they are not. Private schools can avoid this fate by choosing different regulatory “pathways” offered by the state, essentially choosing to participate in various state programs, but it is unclear how at this moment all of that is going to shake out.

This is intensely problematic. Why on earth should the New York public schools, which do not have a particularly strong track record, be the yardstick by which all other options are measured? Providing an education that is substantially similar to many New York public schools would mean providing an education where students are in schools that are dangerous and fail to teach them much of anything. Setting that as the default and giving that system control over independent schools is a recipe for disaster.

No school or school system is without issues. But using a subset of a subset of one school sector as a battering ram to push through a wide-sweeping raft of regulations is a transparent effort to stifle private education. It is wrong.

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