Gedalya Gottdenger’s dream is to get a degree in psychology. But unlike most 21-year-olds, Gottdenger lacks a basic education, even though he has been studying since he was a child.
Gottdenger, who grew up in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, is a product of ultra-Orthodox Jewish day schools in which, numerous students report, math and English classes are barely taught, despite state laws requiring such instruction.
“In the heder we had English and math classes, but it was always at the end of the day and lasted only an hour each,” Gottdenger said in a telephone interview with the Forward. “It was like a joke; the focus was entirely on keeping us in the class for two hours in order to show the government that we were being taught English, but it was nothing to do with actual teaching.”
The situation got even worse during his high school years, when Gottdenger attended a Viznitz yeshiva in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boro Park.
“In the yeshiva there was nothing whatsoever; they weren’t even pretending to teach,” Gottdenger recalled. “From age 13 to 18, I did not have any English or math classes. I left there with pretty much zero knowledge in English or math.”
(Efforts to reach officials at Ahavas Israel and Imrei Chaim, the Brooklyn schools that Gottdenger attended, for responses to his allegations were unsuccessful despite repeated phone calls.)
On June 5, Gottdenger saw a huge billboard while driving on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that reminded him of the dilemma he faces. The advertisement quoted a phrase from the Talmud (in Hebrew): “One should make sure to teach his son a trade.”
The billboard was funded by Yaffed, an advocacy group of individuals raised in ultra-Orthodox communities, that seeks to improve secular studies in New York’s ultra-Orthodox day schools. According to Naftuli Moster, founder of Yaffed, the goal of the ad is to create an attitude change.
“We want to go past the community leaders and go directly to the people,” Moster, 27, said in a phone interview with the Forward. “To get to those people who do believe in education and enable them to speak up and ask their leaders to make some changes so their children can have a better future.”