Secular Education in Hasidic Yeshivas is a Jewish Issue

Courtesy Yaffed

By Naftuli Moster

For the last eight years, I have worked to bring attention to a crisis in plain sight. Tens of thousands of children in New York attend Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox yeshivas that provide little general education – that is, instruction in English, math, science, and social studies. My main motivation to do this work was, at first, personal. I had attended one of these schools and found myself, as an adult, woefully unprepared to pursue anything beyond menial work.

Yet, as time went on, I came to understand the issue is not limited to the experiences of myself and my peers. It is a significant issue for the Jewish community at large. If we are to grow and thrive as a community, no one can be left behind. Some of the problems that result from educational neglect – intergenerational poverty, frayed community relations, and lack of civic awareness – are no doubt matters of great concern to us all.

Those of us engaged in nonprofit work in this space are all too aware that, contrary to public perception and misleading stereotypes, poverty is a real and serious issue in the Jewish community.

This is especially true in the areas I’m most familiar with, the Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox enclaves in New York State. The UJA Federation of New York’s landmark 2011 study on Jewish poverty found that Hasidic families were the most likely to be living in poverty. New Square and Kiryas Joel are ranked among the poorest locales in New York State and in all of The United States. A majority of Hasidic families need to rely on public assistance to provide for their children, and this too is often not enough to cover all necessary expenses. This is where the philanthropy of the broader Jewish community kicks in to fill the gap.

There are many organizations doing great work to alleviate the pain of these families. But what are we doing to ensure that poverty isn’t passed down from one generation to the next? In development, we often talk about “sustainability,” but this is usually about the organizations themselves. What about the needs of our “clients”? Shouldn’t their families one day experience the dignity that comes from being self-sufficient?

Access to basic education is, of course, only one factor, but it’s surely something that must be improved if we have any hope of ending intergenerational poverty in the Hasidic community, which is the fastest-growing Jewish community in New York.

The long-term consequences of being deprived of an education, however, go beyond the financial and economic realm. As adults, those who attended schools where little to no English language instruction takes place will find it difficult, maybe even impossible, to communicate with people outside their families and neighborhoods.

Imagine growing up in the United States but never having heard of the founding fathers or knowing there was a civil war. Imagine never learning the basics of science or biology, so much so that you struggle to comprehend a global pandemic and the concept of airborne transmission, even as it ravages your own community.

But beyond receiving little or no instruction in English, math, science, and social studies, Hasidic boys learn little about Jewish history outside of the Torah, including about the Holocaust. They learn nothing of other Jewish denominations or major Jewish figures outside the Hasidic world. This creates a stark and almost-unbridgeable divide in the Jewish community. It’s saddening to think of all the potential partnerships and opportunities that have been unnecessarily lost as a result.

In my work, I have come to realize that a basic education is not merely a tool to be used; it is actually a form of power, and to lack it is to be confined to powerlessness and near-total dependence. The status quo, in which tens of thousands of Jewish children are not receiving instruction in basic secular subjects, is not acceptable nor sustainable. It’s time for the Jewish community to go beyond treating the symptoms while ignoring the underlying issue. It’s time to fight to ensure that every child, including those attending Hasidic Yeshivas, receive a robust secular education.

Naftuli Moster is the Executive Director of Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED). He grew up in Borough Park and attended Hasidic Yeshivas (elementary and high schools). In 2012 he founded Yaffed after discovering the gaps in his and his friends’ elementary and high school education. Moster graduated Summa Cum Laude with a B.A. in psychology from the College of Staten Island and went on to receive a Master’s in social work from Hunter (CUNY). Naftuli is a Wexner Field Fellow and a member of the ROI Community.