As a sixth-grade teacher of math and literacy at a Hasidic school in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, I am extremely disappointed by the silence of mainstream Jewish organizations regarding a secular education bill moving through the New York State Legislature. The bill in question, introduced by Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, would enforce a law passed in 1928 that requires private schools to provide an education that is “substantially equivalent” to the instruction provided in public schools.
While some have pointed out legal justifications for remaining silent on the proposed legislation, my day-to-day experiences in the classroom lead me to believe that the status quo is more intolerable and unsustainable than may be perceived. As a matter of conscience, and for the sake of the children involved, the situation calls for a far more vocal response from the Jewish institutional world.
The secular education of my sixth-grade students this year consisted of one hour and 20 minutes at the end of the day, four times a week, dedicated to math and literacy through the federal Title 1 program for low-income children. Needless to say, after a full day of an intense Judaic studies curriculum, little attention remained in their young brains for secular subjects. Problems of focus were exacerbated by the widely shared sentiment that secular subjects represent “tum’ah,” or impurity, and “bittul Torah,” time that could and should be spent learning Torah. These feelings, shared openly by their rabbis and reinforced in various communal contexts, directly undermined my ability to teach in the little time we had together.
Though on the books for decades, the law that Jaffee hopes to see enforced is currently not implemented in Hasidic schools, and that’s an open secret to everyone involved. On days that my students were tired and disinterested in learning, they would bluntly reassure me that my presence was needed only so that the school would meet its obligations to receive state funding, and I shouldn’t be misled into thinking that I actually have to teach.
Unsurprisingly, my students’ literacy and math skills are well below their grade levels. Our principal told us that nearly every student in the school where I taught receives a score in the lowest quartile on state metrics, which is particularly worrisome for my students, since this is the final year that they will receive any formal secular education. Upon reaching their bar mitzvah, students would be excused from showing up to my classes and would learn Torah instead. In other words, not only are my students woefully behind their peers, but those gaps are only going to be exaggerated as time goes on.
Perhaps as depressing as my students’ weak math and English skills is their inability to fathom how the lack of those skills might negatively affect their futures. A large portion of my job was simply persuading my students that, yes, the ability to speak and read English or perform basic math can enhance their lives significantly. Immersed in a Yiddish bubble, they simply cannot imagine a situation in which they may have an interest in reading an English book or interacting in a meaningful way with a non-Jew.
The unfortunate reality is that the future of these children is likely to include the same poverty and dependence in which they were raised. Many of the adults have chosen their priorities, but the predicament of my students is not voluntary. This is simply the only world they know, and their community is preventing them from gaining access to other possibilities by failing to meet basic educational standards.
Future livelihoods aside, there are many negative developmental consequences of depriving my students of secular studies. One especially disturbing attitude is their utter sense of disregard for individuals outside their community, such as the custodian who had to clean up the messes they left in the classroom on a near-daily basis. One afternoon I told my class a story about Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm, who insisted that the yeshiva he founded in 19th-century Lithuania not employ a custodian, in order to instill a sense of discipline in his students. Their response was that there was no need for that in their school, since the government was willing to pay a “goy,” whom they made clear to me was considered subhuman as a non-Jew and had nothing better to do with his time.
This overwhelming and wholly unjustified sense of superiority, combined with the insularity of their community, results in children who are uninformed, myopic and judgmental. The tragedy is that many of these students are well-meaning and very bright, if perhaps too obedient to communal mores. They are too sheltered to demand that their right to receive a basic education be met, and they can’t see how the status quo is harming their maturation or character development.
Predictably, the response of the Hasidic leadership to the proposed legislation has been one of harsh reproach, with the Satmar Rebbe based in Monroe disparagingly referring to those involved in promoting the bill as “worthless people.” Whereas the Satmar Rebbe’s primary concern may be protecting his own power structure, we should be able to see more clearly that every child deserves a real choice about his future, which is ultimately what the proposed legislation is about.
The Jewish institutions that display no hesitation in getting involved with matters of education policy need to do more. It is shameful that organizations, including the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, which feel compelled to lobby on issues like school vouchers and scholarship tax credits, have shown no inclination to help promote Jaffee’s bill. As interested Jewish observers, we need to stand up for the rights of Hasidic children.
Yitzhak Bronstein is a middle school teacher and freelance writer living in New York City.