In her latest book Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown writes about Institutional Betrayal. This describes a situation where a trusted institution causes harm by action or inaction to a vulnerable individual. I can think of no better example of institutional betrayal than the systemic denial of education to nearly 100,000 children attending ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic schools, and the failure of the New York State Education Department to stop it.
Within this culture, the values that are prized in contemporary society – curiosity, the quest for knowledge, intellectual entrepreneurship, engagement with the world at large – are shunned in favor of a narrow, tightly-controlled environment where only religious studies are permitted. And while Judaism has produced a rich history of scholarship and sacred books, a school curriculum that fails to offer English, science, math, social studies, history and the like is failing its students.
I am a product of this broken school system. In order to receive the secular education I craved I had to rebel against my parents, my teachers, my rabbis and my former community. I didn’t feel supported in my arranged marriage and it ended in divorce. I have a strained relationship with my two sons, both of whom have “graduated” from Hasidic high schools without a secular education (despite all my efforts to prevent that). Whatever I have achieved has been through tremendous struggle and at a terrible cost.
As a result, I cannot stand idly by as an entire generation of Jewish schoolchildren are denied the rudiments of education that is guaranteed them by law. I cannot bear to think that even one child might be demonized for dreaming of pursuing higher education, as I did. To channel my angst into activism, in 2017 I joined the board of Yaffed, a non-profit whose mission is to compel Hasidic and Haredi schools to comply with local mandates and provide a secular education to their students.
Our work has borne some fruit. The New York State Education Department heeded our calls and, in recent weeks, released new regulations for non-public schools. And if enforced properly, it would reduce the likelihood of other children experiencing what I and tens of thousands of children have experienced. It would once and for all spell the end of institutional betrayal.
Unsurprisingly, the institution wants to maintain the status quo at all costs. Agudah, the organization representing these Yeshivas, has launched a campaign against the regulations. Imagine a “religious” organization opposing the teaching of basic literacy skills. The arguments employed by Agudah are dishonest, flimsy and self-serving: “Nowhere in the proposed regulations is there any mention of the need to take into account the educational value of religious studies,” the group wrote in a statement. “By ignoring this essential component of yeshiva education, the proposed new regulations may result in yeshivas having to make major changes to their school day schedules … this is entirely unacceptable.”
This statement is as flawed as it is absurd. It implies that Hasidic schools ought to be exempt from complying with the law of providing minimum educational standards. Oddly, it admits that they currently aren’t meeting the minimum standards, but cannot deal with change because it would require such a major overhaul. According to this logic, there could never be any standards for any industry because the process of improvement or even meeting an acceptable baseline of safety “would require such a major overhaul.”
What is most galling, however, is the false binary that the Agudah and its like-minded entities promote: that by introducing secular learning, Hasidic children will be deprived of the birthright of their Judaic heritage. What utter nonsense. Throughout history, Jews have prided themselves on their literacy, both religious and secular. It is through the pursuit of knowledge and academic excellence that Jews have risen to the top of every field in a manner that is disproportionate with their minority status in the general population.
The deliberate withholding of the rudiments of secular knowledge to an entire generation of American Jewish schoolchildren is troubling. It hints of fundamentalism, thought control, and authoritarianism.
We know what happens in societies where access to information is severely policed and restricted.
The new NYSED regulations are built on an important foundation. Private schools in NY have long been mandated by state law to provide students with a substantially equivalent education. Students attending these schools trust and depend on these institutions to provide them with a well-rounded education. An education that includes secular studies alongside a religious curricula would give young Yeshiva graduates dignity and enable them to become contributing members of society, able to provide for their families on their own. Currently, without secular education, most young yeshiva graduates end up living in poverty. Unfortunately most depend on government aid programs for survival.
The crippling of human potential is not a Jewish value, indeed, it is antithetical to the Jewish penchant for self-reliance and resourcefulness. Yet Hasidic institutions have been violating their students’ trust for many years by deliberately neglecting their secular education; worse, by demonizing secular knowledge.
My experience is far from unique, there are untold thousands like me. Most are just afraid to speak out. I used to be afraid of that myself. When one is called to tell a terrible truth about one’s community or family it feels like betrayal.
And yet it is the students of these schools who are the victims of a terrible institutional betrayal.
This cannot go on anymore and it is incumbent upon all of us to act. Elected officials and society at large cannot turn a blind eye to the intellectual theft that is taking place. Nor can leaders of important nonprofits in the Jewish community.
This issue belongs to all of us.