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April 20, 2018 11:23 am

Yeshivas Must Provide Basic Education for Jewish Students

avatar by Ronn Torossian

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A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

There are many opinions about a new law in New York, whereby there is now reduced government oversight of basic education at yeshivas.

A Satmar leader, Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum, told Ami Magazine that government shouldn’t be involved at all with what Hasidic schools teach, noting: “…the haredi public are normal, responsible people.” Subtext: Government interference in religion isn’t a good thing, and the Torah is, of course, a good thing.

While Rabbi Teitelbaum makes sense, so too does a New York Times op-ed by Author Shmuel Deen, who noted that tens of thousands of students in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas “graduate without the most basic skills,” in a system whereby “high school, secular studies are dispensed with altogether,” and “English is regarded as profane.”

As Deen sadly writes, many of our children graduate yeshivas with no skills, often even unable to name their own body parts.

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This is something that I have seen firsthand in my dealings with this community — American-born people who literally have trouble communicating in basic English. No matter how great their Torah skills may be, this is simply sad.

It’s also sad that according “to a report by Yaffed, or Young Advocates for Fair Education, an organization that advocates for improved general studies in Hasidic yeshivas, an estimated 59 percent of Hasidic households are poor or near-poor. According to United States Census figures, the all-Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel, an hour north of New York City, is the poorest in the country, with median family income less than $18,000.”

This is also directly connected to the fact that basic education isn’t provided in these schools.

An anonymous article on Medium.com — written by a proud Hasid — notes that he graduated school not knowing “any English, or Quickbooks, or Excel; I had no training in anything. I fell from the Torah world into the material world without any preparation at all. Today, already doing well at my job, I could never achieve the positions that pay close to a quarter million dollars a year. All because the learning of my youth did not prepare me for it. I look with envy to the company attorney, the accountant, the engineer. They are well paid for their professions. But I have no profession, and must make do with my narrow wage.”

While he loved learning Torah, after his marriage, he learned that, “Chase Bank doesn’t accept the ‘horo’oh’ as payment. Neither does American Express. Nor even my local grocer, the one who stands next to me each Simchas Torah at the hakofos. They all demand cash. Green American dollars. “

He notes: “The education I received did not prepare me for the real world. And so here we must ask: why should we not teach our children a craft? Will teaching them Quickbooks prevent them from remaining faithfully observant Jews? What kind of heresy is there in the study of Excel? What is the problem with studying English, which is a vital necessity in today’s world? Blessed be the Lord that he prevented the decree of the wicked. But speaking amongst ourselves, pious Jews, perhaps it is time  —  under the purest conditions  —  to provide the studies that would help our children with their futures?”

This anonymous author is right. Are all Jews meant to be great rabbis? Are all yeshiva students not meant to also function in the real world?

To me, Rabbi Teitelbaum, Shmuel Deen, and the anonymous Medium.com author all made sense — and I don’t pretend to know the answers.  With such exposure on these issues, it’s a time for the community to focus on solutions and answers to these important challenges. The Jewish leadership shouldn’t ignore this crisis.

What should be undisputed is that people who graduate from yeshivas should have basic skills. The real world exists — as do bills, and more.

Ronn Torossian is a Public Relations executive.  His Algemeiner columns may be read here.

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