Pulling the Plug on Potential: How Modern Orthodoxy Must Save Ultra-Orthodox Education

By: Molly Meisels  |  November 14, 2018

By Molly Meisels, Junior News Editor

At this very moment, children in Jewish day schools and yeshivas across the country are learning about the fall of the Roman Empire, the intricacies of Talmud, and the anatomy of the human body. They are building robots and competing in debate tournaments, while anticipating their acceptances to prestigious universities. Their lives are fixated on an education which will be the foundation of their economic and social futures, allowing them to positively impact their communities. Their lives have been focused on education, both secular and Jewish, for as long as they can remember. It is all they know, and most take it for granted. They expect all Jewish children to have these experiences, but this is unfortunately not the case. If you travel to the ultra-Orthodox communities of Brooklyn and Rockland County, most children will never learn how to write an essay, name the bones in their bodies, or do mathematics beyond multiplication and division. Many will end their secular educations at the age of twelve, and some will never be able to sign their names in English.

The ultra-Orthodox community has many attributes. Its community members are pious, dedicated, and passionate, deserving of respect from the rest of Jewish society. However, the state of education in most ultra-Orthodox communities is in crisis. While I never wish to impede the religious freedoms of individuals, the issue of education is not a religious one. Education is a necessity. Education is the atom of our lives. Without it, we cannot flourish and we cannot succeed. Just as you cannot have gold, silver, or iron without atoms, you cannot have health, wealth, or gender equality without a solid education. Education breaks cycles of poverty and illness, allowing those born into low socioeconomic communities to rise above their circumstances. By prohibiting valid standards of education in a community, you are cutting off a life-line, and pulling the plug on lives that still have potential.

In ultra-Orthodox communities, girls are provided with a solid, albeit a substandard, education. Girls are taught four hours of Jewish studies and four hours of secular studies per day. They are prohibited from learning Gemara and their studies are immensely censored, but they are taught history, English, science, and math. They will most likely not utilize their education, but they have received one. Boys experience education a bit differently. Many Chassidic boys begin their secular educations at seven years old. From seven to twelve, they have approximately one hour of secular studies per day, when they learn the basics of math, reading, science, and history. Secular studies are viewed as an inconvenience by administrative figures, and the children notice this, causing them to disrespect their secular studies teachers. They come to realize rather quickly that their secular education does not matter in the slightest.

When these boys turn thirteen, everything changes. Most boys are sent to yeshivas, where they remain for up to fifteen hours per day. They learn no secular studies at all. Some boys are given the option to take secular studies classes after their fifteen hours of learning, but most decline. They are exhausted. Why learn secular studies when they can use the time to sleep? And more importantly, why learn secular studies if their rabbis do not deem them vital? Consequently, by the time they are eighteen years old, most boys will have the education level of a fourth-grade public school student.

This system sets children up for hardship. Education generates tolerance, understanding, and critical thinking skills, and Chassidic children are deprived of these essential proficiencies. It is well-known that education is dangerous. Education challenges the power of leadership. Education is the one weapon ultra-Orthodox communities cannot fight in the war against secularization. Educate a child and you change a world; keep a child in darkness and you preserve your influence.

Chassidic communities face astronomical levels of poverty, and this is a product of insufficient education. In the Chassidic village of New Square, the average household income is $21,773, compared to the New York State average of $60,741. This makes New Square the poorest municipality in New York, with a poverty rate of 70%. The New York Chassidic community of Kiryas Joel is ranked as the second poorest New York municipality. These communities rely heavily on government funds, making it nearly impossible for them to ever reach stability. While some men in these communities are born with innate business-sense, allowing them to build their way up economically, they are the exceptions. Most struggle to find jobs to support their families, and many women are busy raising their large families, barring them from working full-time jobs.

You’d think that the government would notice this lacking educational system and do something to combat it, but the government does close to nothing to improve the educational standards of these communities. The bloc votes provided by Chassidic sects are vital for political reelections. Without the Chassidic vote, many would not be in their positions. Investigations into the dismal state of ultra-Orthodox educational affairs are pushed off, closed due to inadequate evidence, and utterly ignored. But politicians cannot ignore a problem of this magnitude, as it will grow and consume the next generation of Chassidic children.  

If politicians choose to do nothing, then it is up to the Modern Orthodox community to take concrete action. The Modern Orthodox community has a love/hate relationship with the Chassidic community. They adore sharing mystical tales of Chassidic rabbis, admiring the sects from afar. However, they tend to disassociate with the more fundamentalist Jewish sects, and they believe that the issues plaguing these communities are not theirs to combat. But I beg to differ.

Yeshiva University is an institution which defines itself by Torah U’Madda. YU has found a way to fuse these two together, and its students represent Torah Jewry at its finest. Students of Yeshiva University, and Modern Orthodox individuals at large, are the only ones who can assist the Chassidic community. They are in a position to persuade. They can teach the Chassidic community how to balance a Torah life and a life of secular education. They can teach the Chassidic community how to rise above poverty and gender inequality. They can change the worlds of children being denied a fundamental human right. Remaining apathetic is no longer an option. YU is at the forefront of change across the world, but change begins at home. Chassidic communities are family. They share the same genes and heritage as those attending Yeshiva University, and many Yeshiva University students have Chassidic ancestry.

Modern Orthodoxy must exert its resources and vast knowledge to save the state of education in Chassidic communities. It is their obligation to assist those who have trouble assisting themselves, for what good is Tikkun Olam if it is only practiced in third world countries? Modern Orthodoxy must start organizations, lead GED programs, and help encourage local government officials. Yeshiva University should make a concerted effort to recruit students from ultra-Orthodox schools. Many ultra-Orthodox teenagers do not fit the Chassidic mold and want to pursue something religiously different. However, they do not have educational resources and do not believe that there is a religious alternative to their upbringings, leading them to leave Judaism completely. Organizations like NCSY should be welcoming and accommodating to students of ultra-Orthodox backgrounds, since they too could use kiruv. Summer programs and camps should do everything in their power to accept the ultra-Orthodox, as it would provide a comforting and safe Jewish environment for these children to blossom in. Acknowledging the positive work done by many Modern Orthodox institutions should be highlighted and celebrated, like families from Chassidic backgrounds being accepted into schools like Bruriah, Ma’ayanot, and Yeshiva University. However, we should not be satisfied with anything less than excellence, and the current state of ultra-Orthodox education is anything but excellent.