Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Letter to NY State Commissioner: please allow Hasidic youths to have a chance at a better education

This moving letter, reprinted with the permission of its author who asked for his name to be removed, was sent to NY Commissioner of Education Betty Rosa and top NYSED officials.  It was sent shortly after he had participated in a online discussion of stakeholders, whose views were solicited to give feedback on state regulations to enforce the NY state Substantial Equivalency law.  The message points out how the lack of a basic secular education threatens not only the life chances of Hasidic youths, but also the health and safety of their communities. 

For more on this issue, see recent opeds by Naftuli Moster of Yaffed in the Washington Post and Gotham Gazette, the latter entitled What Happens in Williamsburg Doesn't Stay in Williamsburg.

Dear Commissioner Rosa, Deputy Commissioner D’Agati, Assistant Commissioner Coughlin, and members of the Board of Regents,

I also want to thank you for addressing this important issue as well as echo and elaborate on many of the points made by others.

I was raised in the Hasidic, Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and attended a Hasidic yeshiva until the age of 15. In my Hasidic elementary and middle school (cheider), after an intense day of religious studies, we had only an hour-and-a-half of very rudimentary English and arithmetic. In Hasidic high school, during my thirteen hours in yeshiva daily, we exclusively studied religious texts such as the Talmud and Torah and no secular studies whatsoever.

Throughout all my years in a Hasidic school, I was never taught any science, history, geography, government, art, literature, computers, health or any math beyond arithmetic.

The school I attended and its disregard for a secular education is not in any way an isolated case. It is the universal norm among Hasidic boys schools in New York. (The girls generally do receive a better secular education, since in ultra-Orthodox Judaism they are forbidden from studying the Talmud and cannot become rabbis.)

The result: I could not write a paragraph in English despite being the third generation in my family living in New York City. I did not know how to add simple fractions despite being a top student in my class and attending a 13 hour school day.

I was fortunate and was eventually able to drop out of my Hasidic yeshiva in pursuit of a secular education. However, that came at the immense social and emotional cost of losing my childhood friends and being viewed as a black sheep within my family and childhood community.

Others in the community are not as fortunate.

Go into a doctor’s office in my childhood neighborhood of Williamsburg, and you will see Hasidic men having to call their wives on the phone to confirm their English date of birth or to act as translators so they can understand the doctor’s diagnosis.

My bright Hasidic friend had to call me periodically when he began working in construction to help him with simple calculations when he was ordering equipment.

So many of my family and childhood friends know virtually nothing about the history of their country. They’ve never heard of the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, or the term “civil rights.” They live in one of the world’s most diverse cities and still know nothing about the history or culture of any of their non-Jewish neighbors.

But the lack of basic scientific knowledge has even more dire consequences.

My stepfather sadly passed away from Covid-19 in March. He was 42 years old, with no prior health conditions; it was a terrible loss. After his funeral, I was shocked to see many attendees crowding together indoors and with no masks. These were people I love and respect, people who are generally caring and responsible, people who value life and each other. 

Watching them, I realized that with no basic understanding of science it truly can be unintuitive for someone to follow the guidance of medical experts. If you’ve never before heard the term “biology”, “cell” or “microscopic”, any baseless conspiracy theory about the virus can make just as much sense as a scientific one. I realized that the lack of secular education, in addition to causing severe community economic hardships, unfortunately is also partially responsible for such devastating loss of life.

During the recent stakeholder engagement meetings, I felt that my voice and my story, and those of so many others affected by the lack of secular education within the Hasidic community, were not sufficiently relayed.

While it is easy to focus on positive stories and also important to focus on improvements, no true change can be achieved without explicitly acknowledging and addressing the problems. For regulations to be effective, the wrong they are hoping to remedy cannot be glossed over. Only by acknowledging the mistakes of today can we hope for a better, improved tomorrow.

I hope that you will take the stories of hardships faced by so many raised within the Hasidic community, the facts about the continued educational neglect within Hasidic yeshivas, and the spirit of hope for positive, meaningful change into account when making decisions about the new regulations, so that no child will continued to be deprived of basic skills they need for their future and well-being. 

Sincerely, [name removed]

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