Some 10 years ago, I started talking to Chasidic men who were angry about the deficiencies in their secular education. Their concerns encouraged me to campaign for the registration of all yeshivahs that cater for school-age children so they provide both balanced secular education and appropriate safeguarding oversight. Those institutions refusing to comply with these two basic requirements should be shut down. Unregistered institutions are betraying young men and their communities as a whole.
I met bright young men with a passion for knowledge who were born and brought up in London, but who could barely speak English, and who had virtually no secular education. I met Chasidic men and women who wanted secular education for their sons, but who did not feel able to challenge community norms and who were unable to access better schools.
These young men told me of the challenges they experienced as a result of the failure to provide education in secular subjects, in particular in relation to obtaining meaningful and challenging employment after they left yeshivah. They said most of their cohort stayed within the Chasidic community, funded by a combination of a parental stipend, charitable handouts, cash-in-hand employment and government benefits (often obtained fraudulently).
Some found it possible to live a comfortable life, underwritten by these incomes, while others were trapped within a community that did not meet their requirements because they lacked the qualifications for an independent life. Some men were exploring life outside the community, but leading a double life because they lacked the financial and educational resources to survive in the wider world.
But why had these young men been left unprotected by the state? I learned there was a deficiency in the legislation that should have governed full-time educational institutions for school-age children, such as yeshivahs. Institutions that do not provide any secular education are presently not considered “schools” under UK law, and can neither be registered by the Department for Education nor shut down. They were not illegal because they didn’t qualify as schools but simply unregisterable institutions.
Children are legally required to attend full-time education, but a parent could say their son was being homeschooled, knowing the homeschooling regulations have also been deficient. The Education Bill will enhance these regulations, requiring local authorities to maintain records of children being homeschooled.
Many boys in Litvish Charedi registered boys’ high schools are also being failed, because many of these schools end while the boys are still of compulsory school age.
This situation should outrage our sense of social justice. The denial of secular education – a basic human right – is a central challenge in the Charedi community. Addressing this failure is key to the renaissance of UK Charedi life.
The denial of secular education – a basic human right – is a central challenge in the Charedi community. Addressing this failure is key to the renaissance of UK Charedi life.
A well-educated Charedi community will give its members full economic and personal autonomy, and will enable them to play a full role, both in their communities and the country.
Although it is often argued by Chasidic leadership that the reason for the lack of secular education is because Torah study is more important, another rationale – and certainly its consequence – is that an uneducated generation can neither challenge their community leadership and to insist they do better, nor can they easily leave. They would lack the means of communication, education and qualifications to function in society socially and economically.
Nahamu now has charitable status as a human rights advocacy group. But there is still a lot to do. The new legislation is only the start. There is likely to be significant resistance from the Chasidic leadership to the registration of schools and the provision of a rounded education. No doubt new loopholes will be explored.
I hope the legislation is sufficiently robust, but the direction of travel is clear.