Breeding Bigotry: The Failures of Our Jewish Education System

By: Molly Meisels  |  March 31, 2019

By Molly Meisels,Junior News Editor

All names have been excluded to protect the identities of the students mentioned.

“Inanimate objects -> plants -> animals -> humans -> Jews – that is the ladder of enlightenment,” said my high school teacher to a classroom full of impressionable young girls. She spent her Bible lesson defining the superiority of the Jewish people. We were described as the pinnacle of humanity, and no other people matched our supposed virtuosity. My classmates absorbed the racial pyramid and assumed it to be the truth. Why wouldn’t they? Our teacher was a well-respected woman with decades of experience in Jewish education. No one believed she would lie to us about anything so monumental.

Consequently, whenever non-Jews arose in conversation, my classmates depicted them as sub-human. They were terrified of non-Jews and their “inferior” qualities. To them, us Jews have genes laced with gold. Since we were taught that Jews are the Chosen People, most assumed that we trump all others in morality, ethics, and logic. That 45-minute-long class had a cataclysmic impact on the value systems of Jewish children, who eventually turned into Jewish adults – the next generation of Orthodox Jewry. This one incident did not stand alone. It was a pattern which subsisted in my school, as it did in all the other schools of my community. This narrative is highly indicative of the prevalent problems within Jewish education which are propagated by Jewish educators worldwide.

I spent my childhood hearing radical comments about Jewish superiority, male domination, and archaic homophobia. At the time, I naively believed that these bigoted beliefs were exclusive to my community. My community is an extreme of Orthodoxy, abiding by traditional practices which were status quo in pre-World War II Europe. The bigotry there is appalling, yet not scandalous. This is all they know, as the insular nature of the community leaves little room for tolerance. However, I was shocked to be met with the same intolerances at Yeshiva University – a community of open-minded Jews with ties to secular society. I expected them to know better. I was concerned by what I witnessed, embarking on a journey of exploration to discover the roots of this toxic bigotry. After much investigation, I have found that the issue of antagonistic prejudice seems to be present in all Jewish communities, and it begins in the Jewish education system. Whether one grows up Chasidic, Sephardic, Modern Orthodox, or Yeshivish, they will be inoculated with bias in the guise of Orthodox Judaism. No Orthodox group can assert innocence, as all are equally guilty.

Bigoted beliefs are not born, but bred. They are mercilessly perpetrated in Jewish schools through the lens of “Jewish” education. No one is immune, as it has infiltrated primary schools, middle schools, high schools, gap year programs in Israel, and Yeshiva University. Our children are in danger and they have been for some time. They are in danger of a brainwashing so foul it is difficult to undo. Training the successors of our religion to be racist, homophobic, vitriolic individuals with a superiority complex should not be the outcome of Jewish education, even if done subconsciously.

Post-World War II Jewish education is broken. I’m not even completely certain it can be broken, because the word broken assumes that it was whole to begin with, and I do not believe it ever was. This Jewish education has been faulty for some time, growing weeds of blatant injustice and bias which strangle our youth. Since it is beyond broken, it requires a revolution.

This revolution begins with our educators. We need to be wary of those we allow to teach the next generation of Jews. One can be a Talmudic scholar or a pious Jew, but that does not make them infallible or angelic, and that definitely does not make them a suitable mentor for young children. We need to begin changing the ways we approach teaching Judaism in our schools or we will push thousands of children away from Judaism, and the ones we don’t push away, we will train to be fanatical.

I have gathered dozens of accounts from educators and students from a spectrum of religious institutions. Most individuals I have spoken to are discontented with the direction taken by Orthodox Judaism in the realm of philosophical education. They are dismayed with the education they have received and the education that their children will likely receive in the future.

They have said that racism was a significant factor in their Jewish educations. One student recalls her elementary school teacher distributing an 18th century “scientific” diagram comparing Africans to monkeys. Other students have shared stories of rabbis and teachers blaming the slavery of African-Americans on the sins of the Biblical Ham, with some educators claiming that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated for freeing the African-American population. Most disheartening is the story of a former Syms student who recalls that during his gap year in Israel a rabbi said that “n****rs belong in a field picking cotton.” When the student marched out of classroom in protest, he was mockingly called a “classic Los Angeles liberal” by his peers.

One of the worst and most heavily institutionalized patterns of racism occurs at Yeshiva University High School for Boys (MTA). There is a rabbi at MTA who has been teaching there for decades. He has written for the white supremacist organization American Renaissance, and has spoken for AmRen at the same conference which attracts figures like David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard. This rabbi has written that “there are the paleo-cons of the Old Right who yet defend their vision of a pre-1932 America. And who, truly committed to the truths of the Judeo-Christian tradition, could deny that America then was a far better place to live than it is today?” He later comments that it is troubling “when one realizes that America will in the next century no longer be a White nation.”

Many say that YU has ordered the rabbi to remain silent about his racial views while in the classroom, but this unabashed racism is still being fed to our children. A former student of this particular rabbi says that he recalls “arguing with some of his [the rabbi’s] students who were convinced that segregation wasn’t really racist…I can attest that his views had some influence…” Another former student clearly remembers the rabbi speaking about his racial views, although it was done subtly. He says, “I had class with him every morning. We were supposed to be learning Gemara, but, many days, he’d spend most of the class discussing his social and political views. Usually, he would talk about how the world was much better before the 1960s when American liberals started gaining influence.” This racism at Yeshiva University is even spread in undergraduate classrooms. A Syms senior says, “Throughout [my college education] I’ve heard that Arabs are rabid murderous animals.”

This racism is what our children are being exposed to. It is as if rabbis are not aware of or do not care about the minority individuals who are part of our communities. They do not seem to care that Judaism is meant to be a religion of morality. How can we be a religion of morality if we demean others due to the color of their skin? How can we be a religion of morality if our morality is built on foundations of discrimination? What if minority students were in any of the classrooms discussed above? Minority Jews do exist. They are Orthodox and they are attempting to find their place in an Orthodox world which is overwhelmingly white. This makes it nearly impossible for them.

How can we legitimize or encourage a system of Jewish education that transmits such venomous revulsion towards those of different races? It is as if we have forgotten that for most of history the Jewish people have been oppressed and persecuted for our heritage. How can we, an oppressed people, use our current privilege to oppress other people? How can we justify this inexcusable behavior? How can our educators validate it, even if it is not all of them who spread it?

The bigotry in our system is further conveyed through philosophical teachings about Jewish genetic superiority. Students smirk and laugh when I ask if they were ever taught about the “supremacy” of Jewish people – “of course I was,” most respond. A Stern student says, “We were often told in speeches about how most of the world ‘doesn’t think’ and Jews were the only people capable of complex thought and that non-Jews were like sheep who never thought or questioned ideas.” In one of my classes recently, a student justified stealing from non-Jews through a Halachic perspective, and the rabbi did not intervene. It is beyond my comprehension that this is our status quo. If this is how we view ourselves in relation to the world, how does that differentiate us from white supremacist movements?

The most dangerous and internally harmful aspect of our current Jewish education system is its attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community. Halacha aside, about 1 in 10 individuals are gay. That means that there are many gay Jewish children in the Orthodox school system. The homophobia spread in the Jewish education system breaks these children. They are told that being gay is sin. They are told that their identity makes them revolting, and if they act upon their deeply biological identity, they will be ostracized from the Jewish community. This homophobic rhetoric is especially spread in high schools. One student says, “We would have many speeches from many rabbis about how being gay was unnatural…Some even went as far as to say that AIDS was a good thing and that all gays were pedophiles.” This student is dismayed because at the time he thought that this was a “normal part of being frum” and that the homophobia was so pervasive that no one said anything. Imagine there are 150 children in this school. 15 of those children are likely gay. How destructive must it be for the psyche of young boys to hear that their romantic feelings for other boys make them pedophiles? Imagine the immense shame and self-loathing associated with this line of thought, followed by years of trauma. How can we do this to the innocent? It seems barbaric. And it doesn’t stop in high school. In the Netiv Aryeh yeshiva in Israel, there is a rabbi who says that “the only good homosexual is a dead homosexual.” What would Netiv do if a student committed suicide because his rabbi convinced him that his sexuality made him undesirable for Jewish communities or the world at large? How many must suffer before we do something to change this shattered system?

This bigotry has been spread in our education systems for too long. It has poisoned and corrupted the minds of our youths for generations. We are the generation that must change that. Many students at Yeshiva University are frustrated with the way Judaism has been communicated to them from elementary school through college. They are weary and perturbed. The past was the breeding ground for trauma and hate. Let us make the future fertile land for healing and acceptance.