Failings of New York Hasidic Education Exposed by Investigative Report

The New York Times is set to release its findings soon in a months-long investigation into New York’s Hasidic Jewish schools (yeshivas). Ahead of its release, reporters sent a summary of what it will publish, seeking comments from the involved institutions. Hasidic leaders have denounced the summary findings, calling it cherry-picked data and outright lies that portray them as a community of “villains.”

“Antisemitism is on the rise in New York, and the number of hate crimes targeted at the Hasidic community have increased in recent years…[Tzedek] believes that your article will contribute to the negative perception of the Hasidic community and in turn fan the flames of antisemitism,” said defamation attorney Erik Connolly, warning the New York Times against publishing it.

Yeshivas have been a source of controversy for many years. The non-profit organization Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED) began petitioning the New York State Education Department in 2011. The organization alleged that thousands of children attending these schools are left “completely unprepared to work in, or interact with, the world outside his community.” The group said that it is quite typical for a Yeshiva graduate to have abysmal skills in basic math, writing, and English language, as Yiddish is spoken in school and at home. Young girls spend half their day on religious studies and the other half on English, math, science, and social studies. Young men who are expected to become rabbis get no secular education at all after age 13, spending twelve hours a day on Judaic studies.

New York State requires that non-public schools provide a “substantially equivalent” education to public schools. YAFFED claim that the Education Department has stonewalled them and that when they finally agreed to an investigation into the matter in 2015, they stalled and let politics interfere. Finally, in 2019, the DOE released a statement that of the twenty-eight schools they visited, only two met the “substantially equivalent” status, while others were “developing.” DOE spokesperson Miranda Barbot said they would work with the schools to “close any gaps quickly.”

The Jewish community sees the interference as a religious freedom issue and fiercely resists curriculum changes. State authorities have been in talks with community leaders, trying to find a way to bring the students up to proficiency without stepping on religious beliefs and values. Several proposals have been drafted and scrapped over the years and are still ongoing.

The number of Hasidic Jews in New York has doubled over the last twenty years. They are an extremely insular community. Leaders keep it this way by instituting rules against smartphones, social media, and modern technology. Separation from the outside world, they believe, is how to assure spiritual cleanliness, but the seclusion can get dangerous. According to a 2021 report by Nishma Research, many Hasidic Jews are vaccine-hesitant. Some community leaders say vaccines are against Jewish Laws, and people are suspicious of political motivations and object to being coerced. This hesitancy led to a large measles outbreak in 2019, massive spikes of Covid-19, and this past July, a twenty-year-old Hasidic man became the first U.S. polio patient in ten years.

Leaving the community is extremely difficult. It usually means breaking ties to everyone and everything you’ve ever known. There is, however, one organization whose mission is to help such people. Footsteps was founded in 2003 and is the only organization in North America designed to help transition former Ultra Orthodox into society. Starting as a monthly support group, Footsteps grew into a full-service social service agency that offers many services, including mental health, emergency cash funds, assistance getting a driver’s license, a GED, language courses, job interviews, food and housing, and more.

A woman identified as Rachael, who received help from Footsteps, says, “I was always told if you leave, you’ll be homeless. Dying alone was a constant threat. They (Footsteps) eased me into the secular world. Everything new felt amazing, even wearing a short-sleeved shirt.”

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