An innovative lawsuit in Quebec offers an intriguing model for reforming the substandard secular education provided in many Hasidic communities.
For years it’s been well known that many Hasidic yeshivas in New York fall far short of the state’s education department requirement that private school curricula be “substantially equivalent” to those in public schools. As reported in The New York Times last year, many Hasidic elementary school students receive only 90 minutes of math and English education each day, in contrast with seven and a half hours of religious education.
Such practices, the Times observed, have been going on for decades.
Lately the abuses have become even more egregious. In the East Ramapo school district, Hasidim form a supermajority of the school board, a position they have shamelessly used to their advantage. Public school budgets have been slashed, public school land has been sold at fire sale prices to Hasidic yeshivas, and funds have been diverted to religious schools, at the expense of everyone else.
Why has nothing been done? Simple: politics.
Hasidim vote, and they vote as blocs — both out of sincere obedience to their rebbes and with the understanding that divergence from the party line will be punished severely. As a result, Hasidic hierarchies can deliver thousands of votes to politicians. They can make or break political careers. And so no one takes them on.
That’s where the Quebec lawsuit comes in.
Yohanan Lowen was educated in the reclusive Tash enclave in Boisbriand, north of Montreal. Like similar communities in New Square and Monsey, New York, Boisbriand is a world unto itself. The Hasidic power structure controls everything and enforces its own rules. One can live in Boisbriand and never encounter a non-Hasid, let alone a non-Jew.
Lowen, represented by the not-for-profit Clinique Juridique Juripop, alleges that he was deprived of his right to a secular education. And he’s suing not just the yeshivas that left him functionally illiterate, but also the Quebec government and other public agencies that knowingly allowed this illegal activity to continue.
Now 37 and the father of four, Lowen says he’s unable to hold down meaningful employment; he currently teaches Talmud part time at a liberal synagogue and is on the dole.
Although Lowen’s claims may seem trumped-up for his lawsuit — he is seeking $1.25 million in damages — I have met many people with similar stories. They struggle to emerge out of fundamentalist ghettos, receive almost no support from the mainstream Jewish community, and often have to start from scratch as adults, learning English (or, in Israel, modern Hebrew) and basic life skills. Many find their way, but many others are lost souls, abandoned by their families and by the wider Jewish community.
There are points of light in this darkness of coercion and ignorance: small organizations like Footsteps (in the United States) and Hillel (in Israel); stirring narratives published in these pages by Frimet Goldberger and others; and stories of those who have thrived outside the ghetto walls.
But the collusion among Hasidic leadership, Jewish powerbrokers, politicians and the mainstream Jewish community has failed thousands of individuals trapped inside lives they do not wish to lead, but cannot leave, for fear of poverty and isolation.
Lowen says that many Hasidic parents have sent him secret letters (and checks) of support from around the world. They want the change he is seeking, but would risk excommunication if they tried to bring it about.
We need an American Yohanan Lowen. There have been courageous ex-Hasidim who have pushed for reform. Naftuli Moster, profiled in the Times, is one of them. He has written to the Board of Regents, met with school superintendents, talked to officials in Albany and even sponsored a billboard along the Prospect Expressway to persuade Hasidim to educate their children.
So far, he’s been stonewalled. Amazingly, rather than launch its own investigation, the city’s education department has demanded that Moster investigate his own allegations. The city and the state are passing the buck back and forth.
And don’t expect New York’s progressive mayor to do anything about it. In the last election, Bill de Blasio had the support of half the Satmar community and many leaders of Agudath Israel of America. He’s not going to challenge a critical part of his own base. On the contrary, he’s tried to pour even more money into the yeshiva system via the city’s universal pre-K program — although these efforts have so far foundered on constitutional grounds.
The efforts of reformers like Moster are noble, but unlikely to succeed. The only way politicians will challenge the Hasidic power elite is if they are forced to do so.
A lawsuit such as Lowen’s should not be understood as anti-religious or anti-Hasidic. As long as it is voluntarily chosen, the Hasidic way may be beautiful and profound. On the contrary, it is the UJA-Federation of New York, the city government and the state education department that are short-changing thousands of Hasidic children, abandoning them to an insular power elite. How exactly is the federation serving the needs of this growing segment of the New York Jewish population by allowing its leaders to starve it of knowledge, education and power?
As many have said before me, such negligence is a chillul Hashem, a profanation of the divine name. But the secular system, too, has failed. Not only have we failed to fight this coercion, we also have aided and abetted it.
Who will take up the charge, then, to fight this injustice in the courts? Who will step forward to be the American Yohanan Lowen?
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.