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For the first time, the Canadian government is getting a taste of what New York City and state have been dealing with for years — a trial over a lawsuit accusing it of failing to provide adequate secular education to Hasidic children.
Yohanan Lowen, and his wife Shifra, claim in the lawsuit against the province of Quebec that when Yohanan graduated at age 18, he was unable to read or write in French or English or perform basic arithmetic.
(Shifra Lowen has written for the Forverts).
“The plaintiffs finished their high school education without knowing about the St. Lawrence River or the theory of evolution,” a summary of the claim reads.
The Lowens filed the lawsuit, which alleges that education authorities did not provide proper oversight of the Hasidic schools he attended in a Montreal suburb, in 2015.
Yohanan was born into the “Tash” Hasidic community, which among Hasidic Jews has a reputation for extreme insularity, and left in 2010.
The trial began on Monday in Quebec Superior Court. The Lowens are not seeking financial damages. Rather, they are aiming to have the court impose a declaratory judgment, which would force the province to ensure that students of private religious schools receive an education that meets the standards of the provincial curriculum.
The Lowen’s lawsuit comes amid increasing scrutiny of Hasidic yeshivas in New York State, where some people who have left various Haredi communities have sued the state and the city citing similar reasons as the Lowens. Little has changed in New York, however, as pro-yeshiva groups, yeshiva critics led by YAFFED and state education authorities have spent years arguing over the basic facts of what is taught in Hasidic schools.
On Monday, Marie-Josée Bernier, a youth protection employee, testified that many children in Hasidic schools suffer from “educational neglect,” lacking basic general knowledge and possessing only rudimentary English and no French at all. A 2014 investigation by Quebec’s youth protection services determined that 280 of 320 boys in the Hasidic education system who were examined were “developmentally compromised.” Some couldn’t read a menu or count change.
While the educational issues in New York are strikingly similar, the political situation in Quebec may be more conducive to those seeking to reform Hasidic schools there. Furthermore, the tension between French and English language partisans in Quebec will likely play a role.
Under the previous Liberal government, the province had entered an agreement with some Hasidic schools that saw secular studies taught at home under the supervision of local Anglophone school boards. Those school boards have, however, been dismantled by the new ruling coalition Coalition Avenir Québec as part of an education overhaul passed on Saturday in part to strengthen the role of French in the province’s education system. With the Anglophone school boards gone, the future of the deal between some yeshivas and Quebec that allowed the schools to not teach secular subjects appears to be in jeopardy.
Bruce Johnston, the Lowens’ lawyer, argued that Quebec has known for 30 years that some religious schools have been operating illegally but failed to enforce the laws.
“We’re not saying these people are ill-intentioned, but whatever strategy they had was a failure,” Johnston told the court, before asking the judge: “By tolerating illegal schools, did the government violate its own law?”
Lawyers for the Tash Hasidic community contend that educational standards have improved since the Lowens left the fold.
The trial is expected to last until February 20th.
Jordan Kutzik is a staff writer at the Forverts.