Hasidic Schools: Who Gets To Define Success?

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15 Sep 2022

“In Hasidic Enclaves, Failing Private Schools Flush with Public Money.” This New York Times headline of 9/11/22 begs the question: How do you define a failing school?

That likely depends on how you define success.

Orthodoxy’s single greatest investment is in the education of our children, and the return on that investment has been outstanding. The effectiveness of our expanding school system is evidenced in burgeoning and engaged communities of commitment. This is true across the spectrum of Orthodoxy and is especially pronounced in the Hasidic community. That is why the impression of Orthodox illiteracy and educational neglect – “failing schools”- left by this New York Times article is beyond ironic. Orthodox Jewish homes – especially Hasidic homes – are filled with children and books. Education not only dominates those children’s school days, but their home life as well. Discussions around the regularly set family dinner table communicate values and the generational commitment to faith, community, and family.

I am not Hasidic. As a child, I attended a yeshiva where we had both religious and general studies, with classes conducted in Hebrew, in English, and in French. It was not a Hasidic yeshiva, but some of our elementary school teachers were Hasidic and they lent the atmosphere and the education a Hasidic feel. No, that did not mean that they beat us, though in those days a particularly unruly student may have gotten a rap across the knuckles. What it meant was that the atmosphere was not only studious; it was also joyous.

A hallmark of Hasidism is the infusion of life with joy, often through song. The yeshiva curriculum was academically rigorous, but our Hasidic teachers punctuated scholarship with songs that continue to accompany us throughout our lives. To this day – fifty years later – my mother still asks me to sing the songs that I brought home from those Hasidic teachers.

Orthodox Judaism has experienced a post-Holocaust revival across its full spectrum, from the Modern Orthodox to the Hasidim.  The insular Hasidic community’s growth leads the way numerically, but its influence extends beyond its communal boundaries. Hasidism’s emphasis on the melody and joy of the religious experience has been adopted across the Orthodox spectrum – and even well beyond Orthodoxy – as a critical element of educational and communal engagement. The Hasidic community’s growth, their celebration of learning and living Jewish, and their commitment to and identification with family and community has influenced and inspired every corner of the Jewish community.

That is the Hasidic community that we know. But the community we know is not the Hasidic community the Times article describes. Instead, the article surveys a community through the minority who that community has failed. Almost inevitably, this prism depicts a world of failed education, widespread use of abusive corporal punishment, and inappropriate access to government funds.

Failed Education: The Hasidic schools focused on in the article are wholly and successfully committed to education, but do not define success as the achievement of English or American cultural literacy. They are designed to educate students to become Hasidic adults committed to religious values, living somewhat apart from the secular world, and equipped to raise and support a family. In these efforts they have been wildly successful, creating communities that are thriving socially, religiously, and even economically, with low rates of unemployment and substance abuse, vigorous entrepreneurship, and a dynamic culture of volunteerism and charitable giving.

Like every imaginable academic system, these schools are imperfect, and their approach does not work for all their students. And where they fail, the student who seeks to leave the Hasidic community and culture will likely require further education. Is that a fatal flaw? The Supreme Court considered it a basic freedom to allow Amish parents to educate their children to become Amish adults. Are the heimish (culturally traditional) not entitled to the same religious liberty as the Amish?

And if we want to help these schools to provide more secular education, we must do so with respect for their beliefs and traditions and the way of life that they are dedicated to preserve, motivating without denigrating, incentivizing rather than demonizing.

Abuse experienced in any form and in any place is horrific and destructive. Abuse at the hands of educators and religious figures even more so. Abuse is simply deplorable and must be reported and addressed in partnership with the relevant authorities. It is a journalist’s duty to stimulate the process of exposing and eradicating any such behaviors. The stories of victims must be told. But just as stories of police brutality fail when they portray an entire community of law enforcement heroes as thugs, this story failed when it highlighted a smattering of allegations to portray an entire Hasidic community as repressive abusers.

Government Funds: We deplore and condemn fraud in all its forms, but the article identifies little evidence of fraud and instead seems disturbed by the very notion of public funding of religious schools. Orthodox private schools save the government and its public school systems billions of dollars annually. Their students absolutely deserve their fair share of government investment in their education, so long as it is permitted by law and sanctioned by the constitution. The government’s relatively tiny spend on Orthodox students likely realizes its greatest return on investment in producing upstanding, law abiding, and income producing adults.

The entertainment industry and news media are obsessed with telling the Orthodox story, but the narratives they produce inaccurately, unfairly, and consistently present a caricature fashioned by an alliance of the unfamiliar and the hostile. This latest New York Times feature is another installment of the same, this time directed specifically at the Hasidic community. In their zealous pursuit of Hasidic integration, the writers have misunderstood, alienated, and even demonized an entire population.