“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.
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.”