Natalie Arbatman

In defense of religious education

Although the Hasidic movement was largely decimated in the Holocaust, close to one hundred thousand Hasidic Jews have settled in New York City, where they educate children in religious private schools. (Depositphotos)

A young boy with thin, long hair looks straight at the camera like he has never seen one before. His mouth is gaping, eyes wide open. His gaze is piercing, pitiful. If the photographer told you the boy had never been outside before this picture was taken, you would probably believe him.

This boy is a Hasidic Jew living in New York who is featured in an “exposé” by the New York Times on Jewish private schools. The Times wants you to see him not as a school boy raised in his community, but as a spectacle to be pitied, because the Times, like most other media institutions that purport to value multiculturalism, acceptance, and religious freedom, routinely dehumanizes religious Jews in blatant acts of antisemitism.

Last week, the Times’ investigative team published a scathing article about the Hasidic school system in New York consisting of four main findings: 1) Jews who finish Hasidic schooling largely fail state testing and thus graduate unprepared to be productive, working members of society; 2) the lack of secular education in Hasidic communities is a ploy to prevent children from interacting with the outside world; 3) Hasidic schools receive a disproportionate amount of funding compared to public schools; and 4) Hasidic leaders use their political leverage to avoid state-led changes to their curriculum and funding.

Riddled with ideological inconsistencies, false correlations, and shoddy journalism, this article paints an inaccurate picture of religious schooling, perpetuates antisemitic stereotypes, and disrespects Jewish cultural and traditional practices. The Times’ egregious lack of statistical accuracy and the dozen logical fallacies in this article are accepted by the public with little thought only because religious Jews have already been so deeply othered by mainstream society. 

Hasidic communities undeniably have problems, like all small, homogenous communities do, be they religious or not. Well intentioned, constructive commentary that aims to solve these problems within the Hasidic education system should be welcomed and encouraged. But an article like the one published by the Times, which attacks the faith of a minority community and argues that cultural and communal practices preclude Jews from acting in their childrens’ best interests, does not help anyone. To the contrary, it normalizes and encourages the kind of antisemitism that made Hasidic Jews the number one target for violent hate crimes in New York last year.

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What the Times article gets so wrong is that it operates under the assumption that the purpose of education is solely to prepare students for the working world. But education’s purpose is and should be so much more, and in contemporary secular society we are failing to live up to this ideal. 

Leo Strauss explains that “Liberal education is the counter-poison to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing but specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart.”

Educational institutions should strive not only to imbue their graduates with ubiquitous empirical knowledge about how the world works, but also to produce thoughtful members of society who can think deeply about the human experience and derive meaning from philosophy, religion, or the humanities. Those who have both practical and spiritual intelligence are best equipped to exist in the complicated reality that is modernity.

Hasidic schools prepare students to do just this.

First, as pointed out by the Tablet article “The Plot Against Jewish Education,” “[t]he community that runs these schools produces individuals who grow up in multigenerational homes, live close to and support each other throughout life, raise children, live according to their virtues, and spend their days doing things they love and believe are of the utmost importance.” 

Hasidic Jews are significantly happier than the average American who graduates from their local public high school. Consider this: nearly 92,000 Americans died in 2020 from drug overdoses, another estimated 95,000 die each year from alcohol-related causes, and close to 50,000 Americans die every year of suicide. Although the Times article may have you believe that Hasidic graduates live lives of despair, isolation, and poverty, the social ills that characterize those that attend public schools – crime, gang violence, drugs, and homelessness — are not to be found in Hasidic communities. 

Though the Times’ claims to embrace diversity and multiculturalism, it is painfully clear it does not have a serious commitment to preserving endangered religious practices and beliefs

Additionally, Hasidic Jews, also known as Hasidim, are, in fact, contributing members of society, both materially and otherwise. Hasidim, unlike those working in secular society, organize their professional lives so they do not interfere with their religious obligations. But most – about 80% – are, nevertheless, gainfully employed, working in secular jobs as electricians, carpenters, wholesalers, operators of small businesses, manufacturers, and in religious jobs as teachers, ritual slaughterers, and overseers of food products requiring rabbinical supervision. Compare this to the 21.6% of public high school graduates who are, as of 2021, unemployed

In addition to their contributions to the labor force, Hasidim are the last remnants of a unique Jewish tradition that emphasizes community, piety, and charity. Although the Hasidic movement was largely decimated in the Holocaust, close to one hundred thousand Hasidic Jews have settled in New York City, where they single handedly keep alive an age-old tradition that has been lost to antisemitism. Though the Times’ claims to embrace diversity and multiculturalism, it is painfully clear it does not have a serious commitment to preserving endangered religious practices and beliefs. 

Yes, graduates of Hasidic schools, also known as Yeshivas, score lower than average on national math and reading tests while New York City public school students receive average scores (despite leading the country in spending on public schools). But contrary to what the Times would have you believe when citing these statistics, Yeshiva students are not stupid. According to Moshe Krakowski, a researcher and expert on Hasidic education, Yeshiva students engage in religious text study, which, “more closely resembles upper-level humanities coursework in a university.” Studying Jewish texts requires a level of critical thinking, higher order analysis, and reading comprehension that is seldom reached in public school humanities classes.

Hasidic students spend hours every day analyzing dense legal arguments in the Gemara, a set of ancient laws no less sophisticated than modern Supreme Court opinions. In Talmud study, they read and discuss extensive literary material, not unlike those one might find in an AP Literature class. When reading Torah, students answer text-based questions and come up with nuanced arguments about their readings, similar to assignments in, say, a college history course. 

Studying secular subjects does not impede religious education. On the contrary, secular disciplines can bolster Talmudic scholarship and help broaden and make relevant religious learning. However, the state has no place in regulating and mandating curriculums in private religious institutions, nor does completing coursework in state-created math, science, history, and English curricula necessarily makes someone “educated.” 

The Times isn’t operating from a genuine concern for these students, they are playing into classically antisemitic ideas about practicing Jews and their existence in the modern world

The Times also suggests that Hasidic elders hatched a sneaky conspiracy to prevent Jewish children from assimilating into the secular world. While elders may in fact want to prevent the younger generations from straying outside the community, why do we expect assimilation of Hasidim, and not of any other group? Why does the Times root for the destruction of a minority culture in favor of integration into a Western way of life? And why does this expectation exist only for the Jews? 

While the article argues Hasidic students’ lack of English proficiency is an enormous disaster, there are no such articles from the Times criticizing exclusively Spanish-speaking neighborhoods in California or Texas. Nor does the Times have a problem with other ethnic enclaves around the US. It does not contend that Native Americans in Reno, Nevada, or Ethiopians in Washington, DC, or Cambodians in Long Beach, California, or Mexicans in Anaheim, California must abandon their cultural practices and communities in favor of integration.

It would take a much longer article to explain the origins of such double standards, but the bottom line is the Times is not operating from a genuine concern for these students, it is simply playing into classically antisemitic ideas about practicing Jews and their existence in the modern world. 

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The Times also accuses Hasidic leadership of scamming the government to receive a disproportionate amount of funding for their religious schools from state budgets. 

This is blatantly false. First, in 2020, New York allocated about $320 million to the state’s 1,800 non-public schools (among them Yeshivas, Catholic schools, and other private institutions), which educate over 400,000 elementary and secondary students. This means the state spends approximately $800 for every non-public school student. Whereas, according to the US Census Data, the cost per New York public school pupil in 2017, the most recent year available, was $23,091 per pupil. Notably, Hasidic Jews pay property taxes that support secular public schools they cannot use, so their use of state funding is fully justified. 

The Times also asserts that “[t]he city voucher program that helps low-income families pay for child care now sends nearly a third of its total assistance to Hasidic neighborhoods.” It claims this funding is disproportionate, but antipoverty programs eligibility requirements are based on the number of children and Orthodox Jewish families have, on average, 3.3 children, while non-Jews have less than half of that on average. Many Hasidic families have more than six children living in the same household at a time. 

Regardless of how much funding Yeshivas receive from the state, every student, Jewish or not, is entitled to the same materials, textbooks, security, and special education services provided to their public school counterparts. 

Furthermore, in a magnificent display of antisemitism, the Times accuses the Jewish community of using their massive influence in New York politics to avoid scrutiny from the state. Yes, Yeshivas prepare their students to vote for politicians that will better represent the interests of their community but while civic participation is celebrated and vehemently encouraged in all other school settings, the Times finds it appropriate to denounce it in the Hasidic context in a manner that is eerily reminiscent of the accusations made by Soviet antisemites in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

A genuine good-faith effort to improve the lives and educations of Hasidic children does not start with hateful and discriminatory take-downs of a religious minority’s way of life

Finally, the quality of the journalism in the Times article is deeply suspect. Every interview included comes from a Jew who chose to leave the community. Not a single current Hasidic child or parent was quoted in the entire article. It is clear that the authors of this article cherry-picked interviews and evidence to better fit their narrative, a practice that is antithetical to good journalism and that invariably leads to inaccurate and biased reporting. 

Hasidic schools are not flawless – no institution is – and the experiences of students who have suffered at the hands of abusive teachers or administrators in these communities should in no way be discounted. Certainly, religious schools ought to be held up to the same standards of moral conduct as public schools. But a genuine good-faith effort to improve the lives and educations of Hasidic children does not start with hateful and discriminatory take-downs of a religious minority’s way of life. 

Religious freedom is a core value of the United States. Those persecuted for their religious beliefs flee to this country because of its tradition of tolerance. But such tolerance will not last if the paper of record continues to engage in skewed, dishonest, and agenda-driven journalism. 

The boy in the photo deserves more than what the Times has given him. He, his family, and his community are a part of a long-standing, purposeful, and vibrant religious tradition that deserves our admiration, concern, and most importantly, our respect. It’s time we lend it to them.

About the Author
Natalie Arbatman is the daughter of Soviet Jews who grew up in the Bay Area, giving her a unique perspective on modern American antisemitism. She is a Zionist who works to defend Israel online and on campus. She is a fellow for Club Z and a current freshman at George Washington University in D.C.
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