'I didn’t know anything about modern studies'

Will they ever learn? US ultra-Orthodox still failing to teach math and science

A group of former yeshiva students works to change a system weighted towards religious studies that neglects to prepare graduates for work — or university

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

Illustrative: Young students at an ultra-Orthodox school. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative: Young students at an ultra-Orthodox school. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Naftuli Moster was a senior in college when, to his embarrassment, he found out he was the only one in his class who didn’t know what a molecule was. But it was a near-miracle that he was even enrolled in the first place: When he’d applied, he had never written an essay in English and didn’t even possess a high school diploma.

One of 17 children in an ultra-Orthodox family that spoke exclusively Yiddish at home, Moster, 31, grew up in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn and went to a Hasidic yeshiva through high school.

When he eventually did get the necessary criteria together to attend college, Moster says he labored in a warehouse full time for years while he slowly worked his way through his undergraduate degree.

“That was the only thing I was qualified to do,” he told The Times of Israel. “But I also liked to joke that I wasn’t really qualified to work for the warehouse either, since I had never taken gym or any kind of physical education. So I was this scrawny little Hassidic guy and suddenly I found myself in a warehouse all day long lifting 40 pound boxes.”

A large number of young adults face similar challenges as they emerge from an education system that regards secular studies — or a lack thereof — as an arbitrary matter left up to individual institutions. With little to no governmental oversight, it is up to the yeshivas to police themselves when it comes to providing non-religious coursework. Depending on the schools they attend, some children fare better than others.

Moster founded YAFFED (Young Advocates for Fair Education) in 2012 to help others like himself, and immediately after graduating from Hunter College in Manhattan with a Masters in Social Work in 2015, threw himself into working at YAFFED full time.

YAFFED founder Naftuli Moster. (Courtesy)
YAFFED founder Naftuli Moster. (Courtesy)

One of the organization’s main strategies is to encourage alumni of the yeshiva system to speak out if they were deprived of the tools to succeed, either by sending in their old report cards or by recording their experiences on video.

In a recent video interview conducted by YAFFED that racked up 46,000 views in just four days, a student named Manny spoke about attending Yeshiva Oholei Torah, the biggest yeshiva in the Chabad Lubavitch enclave of Crown Heights.

“[Oholei Torah] was founded under [Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s] leadership, and he advocated for no secular studies at all for his followers,” Manny said. “So this is the first yeshiva, as far as I know, that actually had no secular education at all.”

‘To learn about the whole civil rights issue that America has gone through, I was really shocked by it’

“I didn’t know anything about modern studies, anything about civil rights. That was a big thing for me,” he said. “To learn about the whole civil rights issue that America has gone through, I was really shocked by it.”

(When asked by The Times of Israel if he would like to give a statement regarding Manny’s allegations in the video, the elementary school’s acting dean Rabbi Hershel Lustig answered, “No, I do not,” and hung up the phone.)

Moster says that the Department of Education itself is responsible for ensuring educational standards are adhered to by yeshivas and other private schools, but politics render school boards unwilling or unable to enforce them.

Yaffed Voices: Yeshiva Graduate – Manny

Hear Manny's experience attending Hasidic Yeshiva Oholei Torah (Lubavitch) in Crown Heights.Share widely.

Posted by Yaffed on Friday, July 7, 2017

For example, he says, entire school districts in upstate New York contain ultra-Orthodox majorities who are perfectly happy with the status quo.

“In a normal district, if we were to file a complaint [that secular subjects weren’t being taught in the schools], the board of education would be alarmed and they would tell the superintendent, ‘make sure this is addressed,’” said Moster. “The problem is that in Rockland County [a large Hassidic center], 95% of the Hassidic yeshivas there are located in East Ramapo — a district that now has a majority ultra-Orthodox board of education who actually hired the superintendent. The board of education has no interest in changing this — in fact, they’re not going to tolerate it if the superintendent were to start snooping around.”

A billboard by YAFFED in front of a yeshiva, asking parents to think about their sons' secular education. Schools in the ultra-Orthodox community are virtually all segregated by sex. (Courtesy)
A billboard by YAFFED in front of a yeshiva, asking parents to think about their sons’ secular education. Schools in the ultra-Orthodox community are virtually all segregated by sex. (Courtesy)

There is currently pending legislation at the state level which would require that private schools provide at least roughly equal education in both quantity and quality to that being offered in public schools or risk being shut down, but it is an uphill battle getting the laws passed in a region where the ultra-Orthodox comprise a political powerhouse and regularly vote in blocs.

What’s more, a surprising number of people are simply unaware of the situation, though YAFFED seeks to change that.

‘It’s all about educating people on the education problem’

“The issue is gaining more attention, our videos are getting tens of thousands of views, we’re going around giving presentations in synagogues and colleges, we’ve collected petitions — we’re learning how New Yorkers respond to this issue, so it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore it, and any new legislation has a much better chance of passing,” said Moster. “Currently, a lot of legislators don’t know about the problem, and funny enough, a lot of legislators don’t know what the law is. So it’s all about educating people on the education problem.”

While becoming more aware that the lack of basic language and computational skills is an issue for students graduating from certain corners of the yeshiva system, the ultra-Orthodox establishment is staunchly opposed to any government involvement.

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the executive vice president of the Agudath Israel of America — the largest ultra-Orthodox federation in the United States — recently took to the radio waves to denounce the proposed laws.

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of the Agudath Israel of America, in 2010. (Screenshot YouTube)
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of the Agudath Israel of America, in 2010. (Screenshot YouTube)

“What is being threatened by the government is extremely presecriptive, something which would impose totally unacceptable obligations upon our schools and communities,” Zwiebel told host Dovid Lichtenstein on a July 8 episode of the “Headlines” program, “and I think that we have to be very vigilant to protect the independence of our schools.”

“At the same time,” he said, “I think it’s a healthy thing that we’re having a discussion of the quality of secular education in our schools, I think that it is something that should spur us internally to focus on this question.”

Zwiebel grudgingly credited the outside pressure for galvanizing educational institutions to stark taking stock of their programs.

“These are important internal conversations that are happening and for all I know, the fact that these conversations are taking place may be attributable to the general concern that has been raised about governmental oversight and the specter of the government coming down very prescriptively on what schools have to teach. So that may be a byproduct,” Zwiebel said.

Illustrative photo of children in an ultra-Orthodox classroom. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of children in an ultra-Orthodox classroom. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Moster is aware of Zwiebel’s statements, but is not yet chalking them up as a victory.

“He was backed into a corner to the point where it would look very bad not to admit that,” Moster said. “But he is completely against any legislation protecting the interests of these students.”

Subjects like history and civics are considered superfluous even by Zwiebel, who does believe in observed minimums to ensure that students are able to communicate and succeed out in the world.

‘They’re talking about a school in England that was shut down because they didn’t teach proper respect for people of various orientations’

“Obviously I’m not advocating that our children grow up uneducated and unequipped to deal with the most basic [tasks],” said Zwiebel. “I would imagine certainly at a bare minimum every child who goes through the yeshiva system should emerge knowing basic communication skills — reading, writing, being able to express themselves, the other things that are essential just to be productive members of society.”

“Today, however, what we’re talking about is governments coming in and being far more prescriptive as to what has to be taught in a private school,” he continued. “They’re now talking about, there was a school in England that was shut down, actually — believe it or not, shut down — because they didn’t teach proper respect for people of various orientations.”

While Zwiebel requested that the government respect parents’ rights to educate their children as they see fit — including those parents who choose to steer their children towards Torah study exclusively — he did not address the right of access to a competitive education for the children themselves.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the Agudath Israel of America, echoed Zwiebel’s sentiments to The Times of Israel.

Agudah Israel of America spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran (courtesy)
Agudah Israel of America spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran (courtesy)

“The question of what our yeshivas teach, how many hours they devote to limudei kodesh [religious studies], which subjects are off limits either because they are religiously offensive or because they detract from the intensity of the religious learning experience — these are issues that go to the core of the schools’ and parents’ religious obligation to transmit Torah to the next generation of Jewish children,” said Shafran.

“By filing a formal complaint with a governmental agency, asking government to require yeshivas to put into place a curriculum that is substantially equivalent to that of the public schools in subject matter and time allotments, the public critics are seeking to totally do away with the yeshiva system as we know it, which plays such an integral role in the religious life of our community. This is totally unacceptable,” he said.

But the lack of oversight plagues some students well after they graduate — whether their diplomas are accredited or not.

University education is highly discouraged, as most non-Jewish institutions provide an environment that Shafran called “entirely antithetical to religious growth.” Certain tracks in approved institutions are endorsed, which Shafran said “lead to degrees in things like accounting or computer science.”

Furthermore, he said, “Much of the Hassidic community chooses business ventures rather than professions, and many of them do quite well taking that path, which is a time-honored and respected one.”

Yaffed Voices: Yeshiva Graduate- Hayden

New interview with Hayden, a graduate of an all-girls Hasidic school (Satmar girls' school of Boro Park).Also available on YouTube:

Posted by Yaffed on Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A newly-released video interview on the YAFFED Facebook page quotes a girl named Hayden, who went to an all-girls school run by the Satmar Hassidic sect, as saying that she was unable to apply to university because the school would not release her transcripts.

‘We had lectures why college was bad, why it ruins your soul’

“We had lectures why college was bad, why it ruins your soul,” she said.

“I did try to go to Sara Schenirer [a seminary and college for Orthodox girls], and I did ask them, ‘What do I have to do to get accepted here,” Hayden said. “And they said, ‘Well, you need your high school transcripts.’ So I called up my high school and they said, ‘You don’t have a transcript and either way we’re not giving it to you. You can use your diploma for whatever job you need.’”

Moster would like it to be illegal for schools to prevent alumni from applying to university.

“We’re speaking to elected officials, appointed officials, and all kinds of people who are in a position to help, to try and take this to the point where it will be impossible for the Agudath Israel to continue to try to ignore this any longer,” he said.

If successful, Moster says he will be able to resume his normal routine in a life that has faced enough unnecessary delays already.

“I might go back to clinical social work someday,” he said. “In fact, I hope I can go back to it. If the whole issue with education gets resolved, maybe we’ll stick around a few years to make sure it really gets enforced, and then I could actually go back to my life and doing what I really want.”

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