Daniel Staetsky

A response to the Haredi education scandal

It is that time of year again. The American and the British and the Jewish world are being reminded of the Haredi existence. The precise topic is another Haredi education scandal. You see, there are many ways in which such reminders of Haredi existence could come but somehow these ‘many ways’ remain theoretical. In reality, the reminder comes in one way only which is the war of words between the Haredi and the non-Haredi camps on this or that issue of lifestyle that divides the two camps. Education, family, finances are those points of difference. Haredi Jews are differently educated, with a smaller luggage of secular and a much larger luggage of religious education, compared to non-Haredi Jews. Haredi women have 6-7 children, on average, while the non-Haredi mostly have 2-3. Relatedly, Haredi Jews are less affluent than non-Haredi Jews. With so many fundamental differences, there is a lot to cross swords about..I am so sorry…to discuss.

Which lifestyle is better? That is effectively what the recurring debate is about. Do not let the avalanche of heated arguments and counter-arguments formulated by the opposing camps to deceive you. Whatever the representatives of both camps say in these debates, more or less explicitly, essentially addresses this question: which lifestyle is better. With very rare exceptions, one of which will be highlighted here, the representatives mount defense of their lifestyle and it really does not matter whether or not representatives contribute their strictly personal perspectives or they write in an analytical capacity, as social scientists, for example. By the way, ‘better’ does not need to be carefully specified. This, in itself, is a problem, and I am prepared to ‘park’ it for now for the sole reason that I need time and space to address something far more concrete. Do not let it drop off your radar entirely though.

The concrete thing I am addressing today is a contribution by Eli Spitzer (New York State vs the Yeshivas) published in the ‘Mosaic’ in October 2021 and not written,  I stress, as a reaction to the  investigation by the New York Times into the state of Hasidic schools in New York, highlighted above. For several months now Eli Spitzer contributed his perspective on various aspects of Haredi lifestyle.  I would encourage anyone genuinely interested in the functioning of the Haredi society to familiarize themselves with the whole corpus of Spitzer’s writings. They deserve it. Not just because Spitzer’s writings represent a celebrated ‘insider’s perspective’ (indeed Eli Spitzer is a Haredi educator), and not just because they are eloquent. They are all that, but there is more to them. Spitzer’s writings are agenda-setting, they are programmatic in a sense that they clearly point out ‘where next’ if the problems motivating his writing are to be solved.

In what follows I focus on a small number of insights from Spitzer’s article. Simply: I take a number of issues, present claims and counterclaims, then present Spitzer’s perspective and follow with my own response. I am coming, in all instances, not from my own personal lifestyle preference but from a place dictated by scientific methodology. That methodology dictates three things. First, to find a solution we need to define the problem. Second, causality (as in: ‘how things work?’) should be very well understood: if policy X is proposed as a solution to a problem Y, how exactly will policy X operate? Will it bring the hoped outcome? Third, the outcome should be measurable and clearly measured before success or failure of policy are declared.

Let us start from the place of secular studies in Haredi primary and secondary schools. The major point of criticism against Haredi schools is that there is not much of it (specifically maths, science and languages), and that what is taught already is insufficient in quality. The counterclaim made by the defenders of Haredi schools is that their religious curriculum is so full and the study is so intense that a greater volume of secular content cannot be fitted into that schedule. Spitzer’s article points out, in brief, that the religious curriculum is not as full and the study is not as intense as portrayed by the defenders. A lot of time is misspent, and the learning, including the religious learning, is not as effective as presented. Further, Spitzer indicates that students graduating from Haredi schools with greater volume of secular studies may outperform their counterparts in Haredi schools with small secular content precisely in religious subjects (e.g. Talmud). So far the debate…

And now: who is right? The critics, the defenders or Eli Spitzer, whose position can be best described as an attempt at clarification and arbitration? There are significant pre-requisites, in my view, to being able to even begin to answer this question. Do comprehensive scientific studies of Haredi curriculum even exist? What do they say? Can we build a picture of the amount of religious and non-religious content offered, by type of Haredi school and sex of school (Haredi education is gender segregated)? Can we build a picture of a school day and how much time in reality is devoted to structured and non-structured learning on all subjects? What are the actual measurable outcomes of Haredi children, on religious and non-religious subjects? Are there measurable outcomes in religious subjects specifically? How do different Haredi schools compare to each other, again, with respect to religious and non-religious content? The bottom line is: if indeed Haredi curriculum should be changed, one ought to have a good idea of what works in the Haredi system and outside of it, in Jewish as well in non-Jewish schools, as measured by the outcomes, not opinions or feelings, or guesses, for that matter. In short: are the educational science and educational practice sufficiently equipped to address the question of the (proposed by some and resisted by others) educational reform in Haredi schools?

Let us now switch from the issues of curriculum to life chances of Haredi people. The whole reason Haredi education is under scrutiny is not the ‘controversial’ content that it delivers, but the extent to which this system prepares its students for the future. The sharpest claim of the critics of Haredi education points out that people devoid of secular knowledge cannot properly function in the modern economy. The defenders best claim amounts to saying that Haredi education is not fundamentally flawed since it has some secular content, that commercial success may be unrelated to educational achievement (citing examples of famous businessmen whose formal educational luggage was unimpressive) and that educational deficit in secular subject X (say, chemistry) can be easily overcome when needs to be. The advantage of Spitzer’s essay is that he skims through claims and counterclaims mainly adding informational ‘meat’ to the debate. The diversity of Haredi educational system, for example, specifically with respect to the proportional shares of secular and religious content is not something widely known. The specific goals of Haredi religious education are spelled out by Spitzer in clear and unambiguous terms, in a way rarely seen. These are socialization into Hasidism, and in broader perspective, into Haredi life, on the one hand, and fluency at independent lifelong study of Jewish religious sources, most importantly Talmud, on the other hand.

How to judge this crop of claims, counterclaims and insights? The first, seemingly obvious, yet necessary to reiterate insight is that Haredi and non-Haredi educational systems operate on very different, and at times opposing, premises. Haredi systems foster and encourage religious primacy and fluency with all its innumerable expressions – scholarly religiosity, lifelong religious learning, dedication to following religious law, practice and religious authorities, being at a service, in short, of an omnipresent, invisible Force. Secular systems, and in that sense Jewish and non-Jewish schools are no different, foster self-actualization and individualism. The religious domain is treated in them as part of what can be vaguely understood as tradition, or history. It does not constitute the primary focus of individuals’ actions, let alone commitment. To borrow an image from the Jewish Haredi world view: the tangible and observable world around us is just a ‘corridor’ to the other world. In secular world view: the observable world is all that there is, and it revolves around an individual and his/her/their needs, dreams and wishes. Therefore, it is a genuine ‘clash of civilisations’ that can be re-shaped as a ‘dialogue of civilisations’ through the acknowledgement, on both sides, that a compromise must be reached.

And just how can this be done? Here, as previously, there are (mostly unfulfilled, in my view) informational pre-requisites. Converting the clash into dialogue would entail careful assessment of just how much reform the Haredi curriculum actually requires. Simple enhancement of secular content in Haredi schools to a certain, higher than now, percentage of the total would not do. How much is enough? -that is the material and the most critical question requiring an answer. The other question is ‘enough for what?’ and ‘what is the hoped measure of success?’. Is it participation in the labour force? Is it a certain degree of material prosperity? No reform can start without a vision and a plan of where the reform should ultimately lead. And there is an even bigger question belonging squarely in the domain of educational science: just how educational deficit of any kind is best to be addressed? Which types of education deficit are amenable to intervention at different stages of life? What is the best strategy for doing so? It is possible that these discussions are held somewhere, in the narrow educational circles, I simply cannot remember them in conjunction with the issue of the Haredi educational reform.

These questions are especially pertinent in the context of the discussion of Haredi schools because, should these schools continue to exist, part of their instruction – and not a small part – will be dedicated to religious learning, which is another way of saying that they will omit or cut out certain parts of secular knowledge. However, and this is a vitally important point, the whole question of addressing educational deficit is not a Haredi issue. Far from that. Many types of knowledge required from us today, and vital for success in the labour market, were acquired by us away from school and much later in life. All those born in the sixties and the seventies had to study computer literacy from the scratch and on the job; no school, how ever elite, could prepare us for the revolution in computer technology on a scale seen today. Many of us write, speak and work in a language different from our mother tongue. Only a minority, or at least a proportion, acquired their functionality in the second, third and fourth language in primary or secondary school. Good knowledge of languages is mostly a fruit of later educational development, driven by necessity. A Haredi friend of mine who, unlike myself, grew up in an English-speaking country, admitted to me, with a degree of embarrassment, that he only learned English properly at age 18. I smiled under the moustache. I only learned English properly between ages 25 and 30. Not because I was Haredi. Because I was an immigrant. The moral of the story: it is possible to learn and master subjects not learned in school at a high level later in life. Moreover, flexibility probably should be built into educational paths in general, as it may allow better adjustment to changes in the labour market. Now…can educational science and practice give us answers as to the workings of such remedial education? How many educational experts and educators, inside and outside of Haredi community, considered these issues in depth, experimented with them? Can their voices be heard?

The last point…Haredi welfare dependency, a subject attracting attention both in Israel and in the Diaspora communities, is often linked to educational underachievement in the secular domain. Perhaps the most insightful contribution made by Eli Spitzer on this subject is the one highlighting the role of what Spitzer calls Haredi ‘expensive lifestyle’. I will quote directly: ‘Welfare dependency within the community is primarily the product of an expensive lifestyle caused by large family sizes, high property prices, private-school fees, wedding after wedding, and the cost of more than 60 Shabbat and Yom Tov meals a year (the equivalent of having Thanksgiving at least once a week)—all of which make welfare a rational economic choice for many people.’ It is too early to apportion the blame for Haredi welfare dependency between ‘inadequate education’ and ‘expensive lifestyle’ but there is little doubt that ‘expensive lifestyle’ is a factor, and a central one. An average Haredi household consists of 5-6 persons. The average household size is in the range of 2-2.5 in the West. About 40% of Haredi households have seven or more persons in them. Now, imagine a couple of well-established individuals in their reasonably well-paid occupations: say, a husband earning £40K and a wife earning £50K per year. The range represents the salaries of an associate professor and a senior lecturer in the United Kingdom, by the way.  A childless couple on these salaries will live comfortably. A couple with three children-considerably less so. A couple with seven children-use your imagination. You can add to this all aspects of ritual life that Spitzer is talking about but you do not need to, really. Household sizes alone determine a lot. Nine is bigger than five and five is bigger than two. A high salary divided between two becomes low salary when divided between nine. Why to talk about this? It is an expectations-management moment. Reforming Haredi education in the most radical manner, converting all Haredi women into NASA engineers, for example, will not result in eradication of financial constraints in this population as long as the current household sizes are maintained, and even if they are reduced somewhat. To be precise, fostering professionalism and orientating towards commercial success could be a useful intervention only it cannot be expected to equalize the average levels of prosperity of Haredi and non-Haredi Jews, for example.

What is the direction of my travel here, you may be asking yourself…It should have become obvious, but I will sharpen it, in case there is a room for doubt. The New York Times investigation and Spitzer’s contribution in the ‘Mosaic’, now recycled by them in response to the investigation, will attract reactions from the broad range of commentators. Academics in social sciences are expected to play a central role in this. Some of them will be motivated by the noble aim of helping Haredi.  Others may be motivated by the even more noble aim of helping Haredi on Haredi terms. It would be interesting to see how many can bring high-quality insights from the educational science: how does Haredi educational system work? What specifically should be changed in it, given (very important!) what is understood as effective in educational science? How the outcomes are measured and what are the expected, concrete and measurable, outcomes of any intervention into the working of this system? Finally, how to ‘marry’ between the desired Haredi lifestyle and the proposed reform? What are the various options available that take into account Haredi sensibilities?

Will these discussions develop? Given how many of them happened so far, I would not hold my breath. Yet they are necessary and ultimately inevitable, and so they will happen. When? When lifestyle consultants, especially coming from outside of Haredi community, bring to the discussion table the know-how rather than just the good intentions.

About the Author
The author is a demographer and a statistician, born in the USSR - a world that no longer exists - and educated in Israel and Britain. The author holds a PhD in Social Statistics and Demography. To date he has served in senior analytical roles in the Central Bureau of Statistics (Israel) and RAND Europe (Cambridge, UK). He is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (London, UK). He has published widely on Jewish , Israeli and European demography and social statistics. The author's favourite topics are demographic and social puzzles involving Jews and people that surround them-why do Jews live so long? why do Muslim Arabs in Israel have so many children? why do women-globally- live longer than men? Is there a link between the classic old-fashioned antisemitism and today's antizionism? These are just a few examples of questions that motivated some of his work and on which he has written extensively. Dr Daniel Staetsky is an owner of the website 'Jewish World in Data' which is a unique depository of data and factual commentary in Jewish demography and statistics.
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