By Kate Hirsch
Growing up as a Reform Jewish girl in New York City, I went to a Jewish day school from the ages of three to six and then to Hebrew school twice a week after transferring to a secular school. In both my Jewish day school and Hebrew school, one of the most important facets of our curriculum was learning about Jewish values and how they are applied to our everyday lives.
We were taught of the importance of of ‘Chevruta’ (collaboration), ‘Kehillah’ (community), ‘Tzedek’ (justice), and ‘Areyvut’ (mutual responsibility). ‘Tikkun Olam’ (repairing the world) was said to encompass all of these values. This concept was not only highlighted in my own Reform Jewish education but in the education of many other Jews, and the results can be seen within the fabric of our society. There are many Jewish organizations that focus on a myriad of causes, from migrant justice and labor rights, to LGBTQIA+ issues, to racial and economic justice.
In working with a few of these Jewish social justice organizations, I’ve learned how my Jewish identity is centered in my allyship with other oppressed communities. In addition, I’ve also learned to advocate for those in the Jewish diaspora that do not share my identity. This has meant showing up for Sephardi, Mizrahi, and other Jews of Color in their fight to be fully recognized within the Jewish community. It has also meant solidarity with working class, low-income, and disabled Jews. While I’ve found involvement with these organizations crucial to my personal growth, recent experiences have made me realize there are many within the Jewish community that I, and others, have failed to fight for: Hasidic and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children.
This summer, I’ve had the pleasure of working as a Community Organizing Intern at a nonprofit in New York City called Yaffed (Young Advocates for Fair Education). Yaffed, a Jewish social justice organization, is unique in that it is the only organization in America advocating for the educational rights of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic children.
In New York, many students in ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools (known as yeshivas) complete their education having barely received instruction in English, math, science, or history. In many yeshivas, the only secular instruction boys under the age of 13 receive is 90 minutes of English and math, four days a week. After 13 years old, a school day consists exclusively of Judaic studies for up to 14 hours per day, and no secular subjects are offered.
As a result, nearly 100% of Hasidic boys leave yeshiva without a high school diploma and with little ability to read or write in English. This denial of a basic education to Hasidic children is not only an outrageous breach of human rights but also violates New York State Education Law (Article 65, Section 3204), which states, “If a child attends a nonpublic school… the board of education of the school district in which the child resides must be assured that the child is receiving instruction which is substantially equivalent to that provided in the public schools.”
In July 2015, Yaffed sent a letter to the Department of Education (DOE) signed by 52 yeshiva graduates and parents of current students identifying 39 yeshivas that are not compliant with this law. Following the letter, the DOE announced they were launching an investigation. Two years later, we are still waiting on a report and on any semblance of change within the yeshiva system.
While I had been given plenty of background information on the issue prior to working at Yaffed, I still had the mindset that the situation couldn’t be that bad. If it were, I reasoned, how could I, a Jewish person who grew up in New York City, have heard nothing about this issue? However, as the number of yeshiva graduates I spoke to grew, so did my realization that the situation was, in fact, that bad. I spoke with a 24-year-old man still in the beginning stages of learning English, a 19-year-old who had to self-study for an entire summer to learn simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and a 20-year-old who had never written an essay in English before signing up for his GED class.
These stories shocked and horrified me. My Jewish education had taught me the importance of advocating for all people, but I began to think, where was this sense of ‘Tikkun Olam’ when it came to the education of Hasidic children? Why was no one talking about this?
After a few months on the job, I’ve come to realize that the Jewish community is divided into two groups when it comes to this issue. The first is those who are not aware of this problem, or those who are aware of the issue but not of its severity. Yaffed is the only organization working on this issue, so there is little information being circulated online surrounding the Hasidic education system. Furthermore, the lack of education within the Hasidic community makes it even harder for individuals affected by the yeshiva system to speak out and to inform the world of their situation. The second group is made up of leaders, namely of the Hasidic community, who are aware and are actually complicit in the perpetuation of the problem, and organizations and politicians who are aware but afraid to address the issue due to the power and influence of Hasidic leaders. While each group is different, they all have one thing in common: none of them are speaking up on behalf of the educational rights of Hasidic children.
It is time for all of this to change. To those unfamiliar with the issue of Hasidic education, or who are aware but don’t see it as urgent, it is time to get informed. Visit Yaffed’s website, listen to the stories of yeshiva graduates. From them, you will learn, like I did, that this problem is worse than you could have ever imagined. And to those who are aware of this issue but are afraid to speak up, it is time to put the wellbeing of Hasidic children first. Every year, thousands of Hasidic boys graduate yeshiva with an education that leaves them completely ill-equipped for life in the US. If we do not become informed, if we do not speak up, this will not change. Particularly given that the Hasidic community is the fastest growing segment of the Jewish population, this is poised to become one of the most pressing Jewish issues of our time.
This is where the wider Jewish community has the potential to make a difference. By being knowledgeable and passionate about this issue we can show up in support of this cause, educate others, and uplift the voices and stories of the Hasidic children and their families. It is time we step up and begin applying the concept of ‘Tikkun Olam’ to the entire Jewish community.
Kate Hirsch is a current intern for Young Advocates for Fair Education (Yaffed) in New York City. Yaffed is currently the only organization in America that advocates for the educational rights of Hasidic Children.