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November 29, 2019 11:02 am

We Must Stop Yeshivas From Robbing Our Children of a Secular Education

avatar by Naftuli Moster


A classroom. Photo: Wiki Commons.

On my first day of graduate school to pursue my degree in social work, my professor introduced herself as Dr. Mizrahi and asked the class what came to mind when they heard the name Mizrahi. When few others raised their hands, I figured I’d give it a shot. I raised my hand to say, “It means north.” She gave me a confused look: “No, if anything it means East, but I was looking to see if anyone knows about the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi.”

I was mortified. Then 27, I had long known my secular education growing up had been terrible — when it had existed at all. But this error was tied to my Judaic studies, and I had always excelled in those. I was a model student. When the Belzer Rabbi visited from Israel on rare occasions, and the yeshiva wanted to demonstrate their students’ Talmudic acumen, they pushed me to the front, so that when the rabbi asked a question, I was there to provide the correct answer.

My secular education was a different story. As is the case in the majority of Hasidic boys’ schools, in elementary and middle school, I received 90 minutes or less of secular education per day, and only in English and math (no social studies or science) — and for just four days a week. In high school, I received no secular instruction at all.

It was only at the age of 21, at a Shabbat table with non-Hasidic Jews, that I first learned which direction north and south were. After that meal, I was under the impression that north is mizrach. That’s where the holy land is, the holy remnants of the Beis Hamikdosh, and that’s where Hashem resides.

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Years after leaving yeshiva, even as I was still struggling to make up the gaps in my secular education, I felt confident that I at least knew what I needed to know from my Judaic studies. I knew which shoe I was supposed to tie first, and why we celebrate Sukkot and other Jewish holidays, but I could not make any practical use of this information — even on something as ostensibly “transferable” as directions.

I came to learn that while my Jewish education was certainly robust in content, it could not replace the essentials of secular education. In recent discussions with dozens of my peers who attended Hasidic yeshivas, I found similar experiences: while they understood the significance of terms like “mizrach” for religious purposes, the secular meanings of these concepts were not known to them.

Sitting in that graduate classroom at age 27, I thought back to memories of my first attempt to enroll in college 7 years earlier — at a Jewish institution. I had no high school diploma or GED. When I was given an entrance exam, which required me to write an essay, I did not know what the word “essay” meant, let alone how to write one.

Even after I was given some quick instructions about writing essays, I encountered another issue: I barely understood the essay prompts. One of the prompts was about the Jewish exodus from Egypt, but even though I had learned plenty about Yetziat Mitzrayim, I had never heard the word “exodus.”

In recent months, ultra-Orthodox New York yeshiva leaders, in their efforts to evade scrutiny of their yeshivas’ non-compliance with state education standards, launched a new misinformation campaign arguing that Judaic studies alone contain much of the secular educational requirements mandated by the state.

They say that just as we would be sensitive and sympathetic and let immigrant communities learn in their native language, so should yeshiva children be allowed to study in their language.

The difference should be obvious. It’s one thing to give children a transition period during which they learn legally-required content in their own language. It’s another altogether to teach almost exclusively religious text, in a language other than English, throughout the child’s entire upbringing, and expect secular content to be learned through osmosis and not instruction. It is simply not realistic, and it does not happen.

So the yeshiva leaders’ attempt at logic goes as follows: we’ll tell the government that Judaic studies contain the secular requirements as well; and we will then tell them that for obvious reasons they are not equipped to assess the secular value of our Judaic studies, and therefore we must continue to have the freedom to self-regulate without any government oversight.

It is important for New York officials to see through this argument. While Judaic studies have independent value, there is no basis on which to say that the secular knowledge required to thrive in the world is “contained” within it. All children in New York State are entitled by law to a robust general education — and Hasidic children should not be excluded.

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