With the historic release of the New York City Department of Education’s report on June 30, 2023, concluding an eight-year investigation of failing Hasidic schools in New York, I am finally allowing myself to dream… and think about what life could be like for Hasidic children across New York State, the United States and beyond
The report found that the majority of Hasidic schools under investigation, which are just a small sampling of similar Hasidic yeshivas across the state, provided little to none of the required education to their students. This confirms what we have known for years. These schools are deliberately not providing the education that these children are legally and morally required to receive.
This report finally offers hope for concrete and systemic change in this sector. For far too long, lawmakers, educators and politicians have ignored this issue, allowing generations of children to grow up uneducated. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Hasidic children across the world are being deliberately denied a sound and basic education borders on a humanitarian crisis and is a scandal of huge proportions.
This report enables us to look past the false binary that dangerously posits that secular education is the antithesis or even a threat to a religious education. In fact, there are networks of successful Orthodox and some Hasidic schools around the world that offer a superb education in the form of a dual curriculum.
As a mother of ten and grandmother of nine children, all of whom have attended Hasidic yeshivas in New York and New Jersey, I have firsthand knowledge of this problem and have seen the impact of the lack of education on my own adult children. But I noted the effects of a stunted education well before I became a mother. Tragically, my children’s father, although a scholar of Talmud, was severely compromised by educational neglect. Besides the limitations it had on him becoming financially independent, his educational deficit held him back even in his Talmudic studies.
As a bright teenager, my former husband had great difficulty speaking or reading English and only began to speak the language fluently when he attended a post-high school Yeshiva in Jerusalem with other native New Yorkers who had attended Yeshivas that provided a sound and basic education. As a young wife of 19, I would hear him complain bitterly about his struggle with understanding tractates in the Talmud that his peers had grasped easily. They had completed high school mathematics courses and his Yeshiva hadn’t offered it.
It’s ironic – and aggravating – that decades later, our grandchildren are experiencing the same ill effects of educational neglect.
Now, however, Hasidic yeshivas in New York City have been given an opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the world what is possible: a new paradigm of a school that excels in transmitting the richness of the Jewish scholastic tradition – filtered through the Hasidic lens – while balancing these studies with a solid grounding in English, science, math and social studies. Not only is there no contradiction in this concept, but doing so is critical to ensuring the success and well-being of the Hasidic community in these uncertain times.
Indeed, changes are already taking place in other countries across the globe. In England, school inspectors found that a Hasidic boys’ yeshiva in Stamford Hill that had previously failed the educational requirements had improved their curriculum and were now up to par.
In Israel, under the direction of Menacham Bombach, a new school system for Hasidic children provides a robust secular education to thousands of Hasidic children across the country, enabling them to graduate with high school diplomas while remaining within their Hasidic schools.
I envision a time where an inclusive school curriculum is the norm and Hasidic children across the world, from Kiryas Joel in the suburbs of Orange County, NY to Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, receive a robust secular education, learn about the history of their country and the world, become fluent in the language of their country, are proficient in math and sciences and become learned in social studies and more – all within their very yeshivas, surrounded by educators from their own communities.
I think of my children and grandchildren awestruck as they learn of the vastness of the solar system, participate for the first time in a science fair, and learn about the remarkable history of the United States, finally understanding why our ancestors chose to move here when they were fleeing oppression in Eastern Europe decades ago.
The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement, who professed the importance of elevating all mundane matters in service of the divine, will smile from the beyond, delighted that his children and grandchildren will finally understand the beauty of the stars, the wonder of mathematics, the intricacies of the natural world and the complexity of historical events.
No longer will Hasidic children be left behind. They finally inherit the education their ancestors envisioned and which they richly deserve.