September 20, 2022 1:33 pm
Who has seen the Israeli TV series Shtisel, you will have an idea of what it means to be Hasidic Jews, or Hasidim. Who saw Unorthodoxanother German-American series this time, will have come a little closer to a particular Hasidic world, that of New York.
About two million Jews live in New York state (it is the largest Jewish community outside of Israel). Ten percent of them, that is 200,000 people, are Hasidic. Hasidic Jews are distinguished from modern Orthodox and other observants who, while faithfully following religious prescriptions, are integrated into society. They wear the same modest clothing as their ancestors, abide by very strict rules, and most live in neighborhoods that resemble enclaves, in Brooklyn and a couple of towns in neighboring counties.
In these areas, the shop signs are in Yiddish (the language spoken by Central and Eastern European Jews) and the sidewalks are crowded with families with strollers. The sense of belonging is very strong and is encouraged by the rabbis, who have considerable power. To foster community growth and keep it united, the leaders of New York’s various Hasidic groups rely on male religious schools, called yeshiva. About fifty have been built in the last ten years alone. The most important is the United Talmudical Academy (Uta), which with its immense wealth (more than 500 million dollars in 2021) is one of the largest private institutions in the state.
An enclave out of this world
For some days these schools have been at the center of a heated controversy, triggered by an investigation by the New York Times. The article, which took a year of work, describes in detail the Hasidic educational system and the idea of learning it encourages: in summary, a lot of prayer and little outside world.
Children and teens who attend yeshivas (their peers receive separate education) usually enter class very early, at 7.30am or even earlier, and go to school every day except Saturdays. Religion lessons, in Yiddish, take up almost all of the time and are repeated relentlessly. They are quite busy hours: the teacher, a rabbi, reads the text aloud (which can be in Yiddish but also in Hebrew or Aramaic), and the children follow through on their books, repeating words or phrases or answering questions. Older kids spend part of the lessons with a partner, discussing the topic of the day.
Non-religious subjects – English, math, science, history or civics – do not attract the same attention. Some institutes just don’t contemplate them. Those who include them in the school timetable normally concentrate them in the afternoon, at the end of the day, and only for pupils aged 8 to 12. The teaching is almost always entrusted to men from the community, who often do not speak English, or to young people hired on Craigslist (a very popular site that collects ads of all kinds). The manuals are checked page by page, so that prohibited content, such as a female image or references to non-Jewish holidays, can be erased with a black marker.
To keep up its failed educational model, this community can rely on state funds
As a result, thousands of Hasidic children leave school each year unprepared to face adult life outside their community. And therefore most likely with a marked future. Those who have looked for alternatives have experienced it for themselves. A 19-year-old former student told New York Times reporters that he lost his job at a diner because he was unable to write customer orders. Only after several difficulties did another find a place to stay and a job; a neighbor in his spare time taught him English and also gave him his first “secular” book, Ham and green eggs by Dr. Seuss, a kind of nursery rhyme for children (then he was 28 years old).
Is it possible that no one in the New York hasidic community has questioned the effectiveness of the system? And above all, is it possible that the public administration has done nothing?
The New York Times reporters explain that certain elements of these educational practices were already known. Some former yeshiva students and their parents have been sending signals to the city for at least ten years. In 2012 they created an organization to have more exposure and in 2015 they filed a formal complaint with the New York Department of Education to denounce the treatment that Hasidic schools reserved for non-religious subjects. But they didn’t get much. The administration of the then mayor Bill de Blasio opened an investigation into the schools, which soon ran aground. With the pandemic then it was suspended completely.
Another complication is that it is not easy for public officials to verify the quality of learning that these centers offer. Yeshivas, like all private schools in New York, should provide an education comparable to that of public institutions. But they’re not required to subject their enrollees to the standard tests that the state uses to assess students’ basic skills in subjects like English and math, so most don’t. Only in 2019, after the department published a partial report of the investigation that began in 2015, did UTA headquarters, which occupies an entire block in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, agree to have more than one standardized test run. of a thousand students. 99 percent of them did not pass (while the failure rate among all New Yorkers was about fifty percent).
Private schools, public money
The fact that in the most important city of the United States a closed community runs one of the most powerful private schools in the state on its own terms, without allowing external control and above all without recognizing the right of children to receive an education worthy of the name, is serious in itself. It becomes an even more serious public and political problem if, to keep its failed educational model up and running, this community can rely on state funds – at least one billion dollars in the past four years, according to the New York Times. This is a small portion of the resources that the city and state of New York reserve for public schools – the budget of the city department for education in the school year 2022-2023 reaches 38 billion dollars – but it is enough to alarm. at a time when the local government is slashing spending on public education.
In theory, the money raised from taxes should not finance religious education, the newspaper explains. But various local government departments ensure resources to private schools both because they are obliged to do so by state regulations and to manage through them some social services related to childcare. Hasidic yeshivas access dozens of such programs.
They take much less money per pupil than public institutions. But on average, they get more funding than other private schools in the state, including religious ones. In 2019, they received around $ 100 million to distribute free meals to almost all of their students every day, even during the summer; UTA offices later used that money to buy groceries from shops that belong to Uta itself, which then made a profit. Another hundred million dollars come from federal programs to provide secular education (yeshivas should use this money to take standardized tests, check attendance, purchase teaching materials); thirty million are used for school buses. There is also $ 200,000 for digitization and the internet, even if the rabbis of the community forbid students and families from using smartphones and surfing online.
After the New York Times sent a summary of its investigation to the schools involved, several Hasidic groups publicly defended the way they educate their young people, denying some of the newspaper’s conclusions. On September 13, two days after the article was published, the body of the education department that monitors all educational activities in the state unanimously approved a regulation that obliges all private schools to meet minimum academic levels in the subjects of base; those who are not in good standing could lose state subsidies.
However, some doubts remain about the effectiveness of the new rules. And the politicians called into question so far have avoided exposing themselves. This is because the yeshivas control small but influential vow pools. Before the election, parents and former students said, teachers often hand out copies of ballot papers to class with the names of candidates chosen by the chief rabbis. In March, when another regulation for religious schools was presented, Hasidic leaders took action to bury it, instructing the faithful through leaflets. To make sure the papers reached everyone, they sent them home through the pupils.
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