Can Montreal Hasidic School Pupils Be Jolted Into Modernity?

At five o’clock in the afternoon, the lights are still on at an elementary school in Montreal. The school looks like any other school. It is a four-story red-brick building with a playground in the front and a parking lot in the back. A curtain in a third-floor window moves aside, and a little boy with sidelocks gazes out at this journalist pacing on the sidewalk and freezing in the February wind (school officials have turned down her request to come inside). Soon two boys appear at the window, then five, then 10. They wave and tap on the glass. When the journalist tries to snap a photo, they hide behind the curtain. As soon as she puts her camera in her purse, they tap on the glass and motion for her to try and take their picture again.

This is Yeshiva Toras Moshe, an ultra-Orthodox school for Satmar boys. Until 2014, it was regarded as “illegal” by the provincial government of Quebec because it doesn’t teach subjects — including the French language — that the Ministry of Education requires. Last fall, the government implemented a new system it had mandated a year earlier: The yeshiva still has no permit, but the 238 boys from grades one to six are required to participate in a homeschooling program supervised by the school board. They have to pass evaluations across all mandatory homeschooling subjects throughout the year.

“We had a few [homeschooled children before], about 20 — it wasn’t anything like we have now,” said Angela Mancini, the president of the English Montreal school board that oversees the homeschooled boys from Yeshiva Toras Moshe, since the parents are English-speakers.

The children from the yeshiva are now technically studying at home the same subjects as are required in all schools in the province, including subjects such as geography, science, history and French, Mancini said. Their education is based on an individualized plan designed by their parents and approved by the school board, and their progress is evaluated using a portfolio of work.

“Some students are doing very well, but they need to catch up,” Mancini said.

Yeshiva Toras Moshe refused to provide any information to the Forward, but former teacher Yohanan Lowen (who has since left the Hasidic community), said that until now the children there received only the total of an hour of math and English a day — and did not learn any other secular subjects. The school board would not comment on what the children were learning prior to the homeschooling mandate.

“Maybe it’s an hour a day — but that hour, it’s not a requirement to come,” Lowen said, explaining that even the classes provided were limited. “It’s not taken seriously. The children are tired already and the children are taught that it’s not important.”

The rest of the day is devoted to religious studies — in Yiddish and Aramaic. Children do not even learn Modern Hebrew, Lowen said, as the Satmars consider it a forbidden language of the Zionists.

This struggle between the Montreal Hasidic community and the provincial government of Quebec is the latest example of the conflict between religious educational priorities and legal requirements for secular studies. In New York State Naftuli Moster and his organization Yaffed has stung the Department of Education into an investigation of taxpayer dollars funding schools that he alleges do not meet minimum educational requirements. And in Israel Bar Von Mayer and 52 others are suing the state for not ensuring that their ultra-Orthodox state schools gave them adequate schooling.

Until now, secular education in the Montreal community stopped after the boys’ bar mitzvah at the age of 13, according to Lowen. After that, the Satmar boys continue learning only religious studies, he said. The yeshiva would not answer any questions. According to the school board, the homeschooling program is administered on a year by year basis, and it is up to the parents to sign their children up. Education is mandatory in Quebec until the age of 16.

Yeshiva Toras Moshe was not the only illegal Jewish school in the province. The nearby Satmar girls’ school, Beth Esther, which used to be accredited, lost its permit recently. The school did not respond to calls from the Forward. (Even its Yiddish answering-machine message does not comply with government regulations, according to which messages must be in French and English.)

In 2014, Quebec’s Minister of Education called for illegal schools in the province to close. The Ministry would not provide information on how many illegal Jewish schools are within its jurisdiction — and whether the homeschooling model might be applied to the students of other illegal schools in the future. “We don’t know the exact number of illegal schools because they’re illegal, so they’re not registered anywhere,” said Bryan Saint-Louis, a spokesman for Quebec’s Ministry of Education.

Some Hasidic schools that have government permits still cut corners when it comes to secular subjects. In some Chabad-Lubavitch schools in Montreal, for example, boys are not introduced to the English alphabet until they are nine — well after the legal requirement to start in first grade — and many stop studying secular subjects after their bar mitzvahs, said Peisach Sperlin, a Chabad rabbi in Montreal who has sons at one of the elementary schools. Despite mandatory science and technology requirements from the third grade onwards, the schools do not teach physics, chemistry, or biology he said. There just “isn’t enough time in the day, so they choose the most important subjects,” he added.

The Rabbinical College of Canada — the elementary school (“college” in French is a form of grade school) his sons attend — confirmed that it does not offer any biology, chemistry or physics classes. There is no Chabad high school in Montreal. Children from Chabad families travel elsewhere to continue their education.

“If they want to learn [science], they can learn it on their own,” said Sperlin.

Hasidic girls receive more hours of secular instruction than boys, because according to Hasidic tradition, boys concentrate on religious texts.

In the Satmar community, the issue seems to be the subject matter itself rather than the number of hours of study. “You don’t really need all the science. Biology and ecology definitely not,” said Alex Werzberger, a member of the Montreal Satmar community whose grandchildren attend Yeshiva Toras Moshe. “Especially when you take a small child and you tell them that what they learn in the Bible is not the real thing. So what do you do to that child? You confuse him.”

Werzberger said that the fact that most Satmar people are successful in life proves that secular education is useless. In Montreal, members of the community are known for going into real estate.

“You don’t see many Jews on welfare or on unemployment,” Werzberger said. “We live very nicely and we’ve done very nicely for ourselves. The government is trying to force people to learn something that is against their basic beliefs.”

But Lowen — who could read only in Yiddish and Aramaic until he taught himself to read in English when he was 29 — said that for him, the lack of education has been detrimental.

“It basically stole my youth. It ruined my life forever,” he said. “People are telling me [if you had had an education], you could have been a judge, a researcher, a professor. I don’t know what I could have been.”

Contact Julie Masis at feedback@forward.com

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