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Investigation of Hasidic Schools

Sep 15, 2017 by

It’s been alleged that dozens of so-called “ultra-Orthodox” Jewish religious schools have been persistently flouting state law by denying their students education in math and English that is “substantially equivalent” to that provided by public schools. If that’s the case, it would constitute a betrayal or legal and moral duty and set up these students for a future of economic privation, dependency, and unfitness for employment.

The allegation was made in 2015, but despite Mayor DeBlasio’s pledge of a timely and impartial investigation, his critics claim he has made little progress and deliberately allowed the inquiry to stall in obeisance to what the NY Post and other rage shabbily call the “powerful Hasidic voting bloc.”

If the allegations are true, it is painful to consider the implications. If gross educational neglect can be substantiated, then all recourse of the state should be exercised and resources deployed to correct the inadequacy.

I don’t doubt the potential legitimacy of the charge, though I admit to some skepticism as to its motive. One must keep an open mind.Certainly the nature of the accusations have not been applied elsewhere to similar private school systems, but that may or may not be because no need has been uncovered.

Education was a driver of self-sufficiency

If these dozens of Hasidic schools are guilty, it would be particularly ironic, as for centuries, indeed millennia, Jewish tradition has placed an unsurpassed high value on education, both as a religious duty and as a survival necessity in dealing with hostile societies that either expelled them or violently excluded them from most trades.

So they entered professions like medicine and law in proportions far above the general population. That fact was a common complaint of the Nazis and is still today one of the enduring pretexts for anti-antisemitism.

Let’s await dispassionate discovery.

I don’t know whether Mayor DeBlasio’s perceived tentativeness is attributable to due diligence, or intimidation by the Hasidic community. The decibel-level and unflagging energy with which a sweeping expedited investigation of the Hasidics is being demanded is a bit unnerving, especially considering some of the corners from which it is emanating.

On the other hand, my own experience a while back makes me queasy. I hate to think that there might be something to the charges against the Hasidic delivery of secular education, but my interview at an orthodox private school for an afternoon position teaching English after my “day job”,  makes me under duress more objective than I care to be.

I interviewed there for around an hour. I was told I seemed like a “good fit” and was taken on a tour of the school. However, I blew my chance because of my response to one follow-up question from my interviewer. He had been pleased that my curriculum would include grammar, expository and creative writing, research technique, spelling and vocabulary and literature.

“What are some of the things you teach in literature?” he asked.  My answer was a deal-breaker and sent me packing to look for pastures that were greener both in terms of challenge and of salary.

He had no quarrel with things like plot and tone. But when I mentioned “character analysis” , he flipped out. He insisted that whenever issues of morality of thought and action arise, it was strictly out of bounds for a lay teacher to discuss. Only the religious leader could do that.

Perhaps my experience back then could not happen today. Maybe there’s been at least some marginal modernization of outlook. But it smacks of the kind of narrow, controlling practice that would make the avoidance of secular education more likely.

Let’s find out now and withhold all judgement until we do!

Ron Isaac


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