Religion v. Education and the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community

Battle Over Role of Religion in Schools Plays Out in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community


Ultra-orthodox Jews in BrooklynUltra-orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, September 14, 2007. (Photo: diluvi, Flickr)

(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of Citizen Truth.)

“Some people leave precisely because they have been deprived of an education, and they feel betrayed.”

As public school education has become increasingly secular over the years, private religious schools have pushed back by focusing their curricula on more intense religious studies, often at the expense of instruction in secular subjects.

While the role of religion in schools has been a controversial topic since the early days of the American education system, the divide over the role of religion in education seems to be widening. One of the most obvious examples of the conflict can be seen in the educational institutions of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, where instruction in secular subjects is almost non-existent.

Schools that Don’t Educate

According to activists Citizen Truth spoke with, students at some of these ultra-orthodox educational institutions don’t even know that dinosaurs once walked the earth, or that one of the bloodiest wars in human history occurred as a result of the battle over slavery.

This knowledge is essential to be a rational, reasonable member of modern American society, which is what education in the United States is supposed to prepare its youth for. By denying these aspects of education to their students, ultra-Orthodox schools and other conservative religious institutions are not only doing these children a disservice; they are declaring war on modernity and reason.

Ultra-orthodox Jews are also known as Haredi, which can also be translated from Hebrew as “anxious.” This extremely conservative sect of Judaism is characterized by its anxiety towards the outside, non-Jewish world: fear of assimilation, doubt regarding scientific principles and complete trust in the religious leader of one’s specific community, known as a rebbe.

Throughout this article, the words ultra-orthodox and Haredi will be used interchangeably. However, remember that the majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States belong to Hasidic sects, which is an even more conservative group of communities within the larger Haredi community. All Hasidic Jews are part of the larger Haredi movement, but not all Haredi Jews belong to Hasidic communities.

Advocating for Fair Education

One of the groups leading the fight in support of better educational practices in Haredi religious institutions is Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), whose executive director is Naftuli Moster.

Moster was educated in an all-male Haredi school or yeshiva in Borough Park, Brooklyn, which is one of the epicenters of ultra-orthodox culture in the city. He decided to start YAFFED after realizing how incomplete the education he and his friends had received at yeshivas and other ultra-orthodox schools actually was.

Yeshiva in Brooklyn, NY. Photo: [mementosis} via Flickr.

Moster is quick to point out that “receiving a Judaic education has its benefits. It’s not like lying in bed and doing absolutely nothing. But it’s no substitute for a secular education that includes English, math, science, and social studies.” Religious instruction may have its benefits, but only if it is properly integrated into a curriculum that also includes subjects like science, math and history.

YAFFED, PEARLS and a Battle Over Education

YAFFED recently released a 90-page report entitled Non-Equivalent: The State of Education in New York City’s Hasidic Yeshivas which gave a detailed account of the amount of time spent on secular studies in ultra-Orthodox schools. The report also provided comprehensive data on the government funding that yeshivas receive and included recommendations from the New York City Department of Education and the New York Department of Education.

YAFFED and other concerned groups have made repeated attempts to remedy the massive problems existing in religious educational institutions in New York. But the attempts at legislation by the New York State Education at YAFFED’s behest have been met with strong legal and political opposition, and as a result, have failed.

At the forefront of the opposition to YAFFED and similar groups is a group called Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, or PEARLS. Though the name makes allusions to freedom in education, it’s essentially a pro-Yeshiva organization created to oppose YAFFED and stop any government initiatives to improve education in ultra-Orthodox schools. To date, they have spent nearly one million dollars in their effort to prevent students at Hasidic schools from having access to secular knowledge.

PEARLS has friends in high places. The public relations firm who represents the group is Global Strategy Group, one of the most sought-after public relations firms in politics. They have assisted many prominent American politicians, including former New York governor Elliot Spitzer and current governor Andrew Cuomo. One of the leaders of PEARLS, Rabbi Isaac Sofer, is also a former fundraiser for current New York mayor Bill de Blasio. Given that Cuomo and de Blasio are some of the most prominent politicians charged with regulating the educational practices at Haredi institutions, this cozy relationship should be at least somewhat troubling.

Ultra-Orthodox Community’s Political Clout

Yeshivas are male-only education institutions, and since the intended goal of a yeshiva education is to become a rabbi, these schools offer less secular instruction than their female-only counterparts. As a result, girls educated at ultra-Orthodox schools tend to have an easier time as they transition to adulthood and attend college or join the workforce.

Moster also points out that these girls are no less Jewish or Orthodox than their male peers. He explained to Citizen Truth that “this goes to show that you can provide a full Judaic and secular education without compromising one or the other.”


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10 thoughts on “Religion v. Education and the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community

  1. I also get upset when people compare the Mormons (LSD) and Amish to the Hasidics. Granted both communities follow esoteric ways of life and are very traditional, but both communities have a very strong value system of self reliance. I am sure they have their own sets of problems and I am not saying they are angels, but they are not vermin like the Hasids :

    The Amish emphasize the separation of church and state. They prefer not to receive subsidies from government programs. They will typically not serve in government committees or commissions, but will often consult and cooperate with local officials. The Amish generally avoid holding public office and engaging in political activism. They are, however, permitted to vote. The rate of voting is typically low unless a local issue is on the ballot.

    We want to help people help themselves,” said Terry Oakes, managing director of LDS Welfare Services. “We don’t believe in giving handouts. We believe in giving hand ups.”

    Need I say more?

  2. LM – I think eventually their morally corrupt behavior and unsustainable lifestyle will only go so far before
    a large mass of people in these towns and counties will peacefully protest and demand accountability. By that point hopefully their unethical behavior will be brought to light and they can longer claim the anti-Semitism card! More and more people are leaving the Haredi community and coming out about the problems they faced. More and more criminal charges for government fraud, sexual abuse, turning towns into a scene from third world countries, skyrocketing costs for government services, and whether they are challenging the separation of church and state. List is endless but you get what I mean. I hope the backlash will be done in
    a nonviolent and diplomatic way.

    • We fear that the skewed moral compass that seems to pervade so many of the communities throughout Brooklyn and Ramapo and within areas of Australia, England and Israel, and allows illegal activity to be conducted with impunity and an unimpeachable lack of remorse is going to be what guides the future of these communities. The ultra-Orthodox in many of these areas (and there are more) have managed to justify what a civilized and lawful society might view as wholly unjustifiable behavior. Think Platinum Partners’ Rechnitz and Reichberg, Malka Leifer, the recent condemnation of measles vaccines in Rockland, NY as examples. The lack of education of the children in many of the communities (though not all) makes the situation untenable. And the sheer rate at which they have children versus the rate at which we have children makes any effort to take control of the situation nearly impossible.

  3. Haredim are like a malignancy, eating away at the society in which they’re embedded by corrupting politicians, draining welfare resources, harboring concentrations of unvaccinated children, invading new territory and outnumbering the locals until they have to move because they’re unable to live alongside these uncompromising relentless Haredim. Eventually I expect they’ll push into the wrong locality and will provoke a spectacular backlash against them and it’ll be like the 1930s all over again.

    • It’s already getting there. Unfortunately, it is not only the Haredim that are feeling the backlash but the secular, modern-orthodox and less religious who are being most harmed.

      • So LM – do you think at this point all hope is lost? As in, the population rate will eclipse that of all of us
        and there will be a “United States of Hasidim” in and around the NYC area where a mass exodus of people
        will move? Where to, who knows. Recent reports is that they are now trying to target Staten Island.
        So now its not just Ocean County, the epidemic will be spreading into Monmouth and Bergen County.
        Where next? Any thoughts LM? That is what is confusing me : NYC and its suburbs is the hub of
        the American economy…how could they possibly take over large swaths of the NYC area. I mean where
        are we all going to go? The Atlantic Ocean?

    • One has to see what has happened in Lakewood, NJ. I give kudos to the media and various public policy experts who are bringing to light the problems Hasidic communities create and cost at the expense of the larger communities and societies they live in. I hope KJ and Lakewood will open the eyes of the public and politicians here and nationally. And hopefully it will be shown in a way that it is not deemed “anti-Semitic!

  4. It has simply left me speechless the state of education in these Ultra-Orthodox Jewish yeshivas and how it leaves these young men and women, especially men without any marketable job skills. This form of education is oppressive and has produced a whole population of individuals who are illiterate (English and how to function in the secular world), ignorant and unable to think for themselves. I am not saying it is not right to have these religious schools where they learn the Torah and Talmud, but this needs to be complemented with an equivalent secular education so they can function in the larger mainstream society to some extent. They do not question at all the unsustainable way of life that their leadership has created by gaming the American government, political and legal system. No wonder why their rebbes are so powerful and their followers susceptible to such brainwashing!

    All segments of the Jewish community have produced some of the greatest scientists, intellectuals, philosophers and mathematicians (to name a few) the world has ever seen. There are many modern Orthodox Jewish communities who who produce great scholars of the Torah and Talmud, while still living, functioning and contributing to the mainstream secular societies and communities they are a part of. Being a Talmudic and Torah scholar is not antithetical to being intellectually open and curious.

    The Hasidic and Ultra Orthodox community do not represent the culture of intellectual openness that has always been a part of Jewish culture and thought over the centuries. So sad!

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