'When you hear their stories, you realize this is real'

At NYC event inspired by The Moth, yeshiva grads roast their religious upbringings

Speakers at Yeshiva Stories decry the lack of secular education in religious institutions and tell some harrowing and humorous tales of life in the ultra-Orthodox world

Ari Goldman speaks at Yeshiva Stories in New York City, July 11, 2023. (Phylisa Wisdom via JTA)
Ari Goldman speaks at Yeshiva Stories in New York City, July 11, 2023. (Phylisa Wisdom via JTA)

New York Jewish Week — One spoke of using binoculars to watch TV through a neighbor’s window. Another talked about an abusive rabbi. Another said that, as a student, he would draw swastikas when he was upset — but he didn’t know what they looked like, so he wound up repeatedly writing Z’s in his notebooks.

A series of graduates of New York yeshivas gathered Tuesday night to talk about what they described as their often harrowing, sometimes humorous experiences growing up. As children and young adults, they studied in the kinds of Haredi Orthodox schools that were at the center of a high-profile investigation by the city’s Department of Education.

The investigation ended late last month after eight years with a report that said 18 of the city’s yeshivas do not sufficiently teach secular studies such as math, English and science.

Tuesday’s event, called Yeshiva Stories, was run by Yaffed — the nonprofit that has taken a leading role in pushing for greater oversight of the yeshivas — and was inspired by The Moth, the popular live storytelling series. Most of Tuesday’s speakers spoke in loosely-connected vignettes, and most were critical of the broader Haredi Orthodox world in addition to the yeshivas.

“I gotta be a little honest here — I went to the Footsteps gala dinner,” said one speaker, referencing an organization that offers assistance to people who choose to leave Haredi Orthodox communities. (He did not want his name mentioned in this article out of fear of how members of his former community would react.) “I drank a lot of wine, and the next day I was told that I agreed to do this. So, much like my secular education growing up, I don’t know if it actually existed.”

On Wednesday morning, just over 12 hours after the event, Yaffed detailed its response to the results of the city’s investigation at a press conference outside the Tweed Courthouse in lower Manhattan, which houses the Department of Education. The group announced that it filed a petition with the department on Wednesday to try to force government officials to “re-look at the schools that were deemed compliant” with state education standards during the investigation.

The investigation found that five schools were considered compliant because they were affiliated with high schools that meet state approval. The schools that the city judged to be failing now need to come up with plans for improvement. It is unclear what repercussions await if they do not.

“I call upon New York City’s education leadership to address the humanitarian crisis — one of many — currently taking place, conclude the investigation into failing Hasidic schools and give my grandchildren and their peers a taste of the American Dream,” said Beatrice Weber, Yaffed’s executive director, on Wednesday.

In all, it was a whirlwind 24 hours for the group whose complaints with the city more than eight years ago opened the investigation.

Tuesday night’s event attracted around 50 people — mostly yeshiva graduates or their friends as well as other Yaffed supporters, such as longtime New York State Assembly member Deborah Glick, who represents part of lower Manhattan — to a small arts space called City Lore in the East Village. The night was meant to bring out the individual stories of those affected by what Yaffed describes as neglectful and at times abusive yeshiva leaders. (Yeshiva administrators and their advocates say the schools turn out successful graduates and offer a quality education that is rooted in the Haredi communities’ religious values. Some have accused advocates for secular education of harboring bias against Haredi Jews.)

“When you actually hear [peoples’] stories, that’s what you realize, oh, like, this is real,” said Weber, who has performed at Moth events.

Libby Pollack, who has a YouTube series on “Advice and awareness about growing up with religious fundamentalism and coping in the ‘afterlife’ transition,” was one of the speakers. In addition to using the aforementioned binoculars in her Hasidic Williamsburg household, she spoke of trying to hack into nearby radio signals and secretly listening to non-religious music — which she said elders in her community called “jazzy music.”

A billboard by YAFFED asking parents to think about their sons’ yeshiva education. (Courtesy)

“If you listen to jazzy music, it would come home to you when you get married,” she said. “When you’re standing under the huppah… and you only want to think holy thoughts, the last thing you want is for jazzy music to come up.”

She also told a story about going on a Birthright trip in her early 20s, after her transition out of the Orthodox community had started. She went out one night with some of the people on the trip and described not knowing how to dress or what the word “club” meant — besides being the word for a weapon meant to hurt people.

“It’s a verb? It’s an activity? So what happens, do people beat each other up?” she said.

Not all the stories were lighthearted. Many spoke of physical or emotional trauma perpetrated by their teachers and Hasidic “royalty,” or prominent members of their communities. Jay Fishman, a 25-year-old software engineer who attended the event and grew up going to a yeshiva until he was 15, said the event featured a good balance of humor and seriousness.

“So many people hear about these stories, but just in the news, right?” Fishman said. “It’s very kind of disassociated. I feel like this was good to humanize people.”

He added, “For me, I grew up with this. I know what it’s like, I know the human part of it. So many other people realize it’s bad, but you can’t really connect it in a way.”

The last storyteller was Ari Goldman, the former New York Times reporter known for his years on the religion beat. He grew up Modern Orthodox, but his parents opted to send him to a Haredi Orthodox yeshiva. It was on the 90-minute subway rides each day from home in Jackson Heights, Queens, to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that he learned to love reading newspapers, he said.

Goldman is married to Shira Dicker, who handles public relations for Yaffed and planned the event. He said the event — which Weber hinted could be the first in a series, though plans are still in early stages — struck him as a unique platform on a scale he had not seen before in his reporting on Orthodox Jews in New York.

“Storytelling is a big thing now,” he said, referring to The Moth. “I think it’s been adapted to the Yaffed culture around this.”

He added, “And I love what Beatrice said at the end — you tell your story and it empowers you.”

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