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US Haredi Group Facing Uphill Battle Making Up for Poor Secular Education


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Photo Credit: Nati Shohat / Flash90

At the age of 13, Naftuli Moster was done with secular studies. Moster, who, years later, still speaks with a slight Yiddish accent, spent his teenage years learning in a Belzer yeshiva from 6:00 in the morning until 8:00 at night. It was quite common in his community.

“Fourteen hours a day in yeshiva but [a student] doesn’t learn a single word of English, math, history, science, geography, music art, nothing, nothing, nothing,” said Moster. “They’re not even allowed to play sports. Balls are forbidden in school.”

But this may change if Moster has his way. Moster, 26, along with several friends, launched Young Adults For a Fair Education (YAFFED). Their goal is to increase and promote basic secular education inside Ultra-Orthodox schools.

Naftuli Moster

Naftuli Moster

In describing the organization, Moster spoke about the lack of secular education in his Belzer Chasidic community. From the time he began elementary school, he had 1-2 hours of secular education—math and English—a day. Usually, the classes were poorly taught; discipline was non-existent and the subjects were taught in Yiddish. One year, he said, in an effort to save money, the school hired one of the rabbis to do double-duty and teach the “English studies.” The problem was that the rabbi didn’t really know English that well.

After finishing high school and learning in Israel, Moster returned to New York and enrolled in Touro College, but quickly found himself playing catch-up in all the basic studies.

“It’s embarrassing for a 23-year old to ask ‘What is an organism?’ and ‘What is an artichoke?’ It takes much longer to learn, since you’re not building on a larger knowledge,” he said. “It’s so hard for anyone to grow up in New York state being less educated than an immigrant from a third-world country.”

Moster eventually managed to succeed and he transferred to the City University of New York system, where he is working on a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

YAFFED is focused on boys’ schools since, they say, girls’ schools inside the Ultra-Orthodox community are typically far better.

Moster wants to work within the community.

“People want change,” he said about the Chasidic community. “People know it’s not the olden days anymore. Nowadays people rely on large businesses where education is a must… But people are afraid to speak up. They’re afraid to approach the school administrators and they’re definitely afraid to approach their rabbis.”

So far, the organization has met with several people inside the community who have been receptive to the idea. YAFFED also printed 5,000 copies of an educational newsletter and distributed it throughout the Ultra-Orthodox communities in Borough Park, Williamsburg and Monsey.

“Skip the people who have an interest in depriving the Chasidic community from an education and go directly to the people,” Moster said about his approach. “Get them excited about education and get them to demand an education.”

The newsletter also offered a free copy of the American constitution to anyone who emailed them, though Moster admits that few people took them up on the offer.

Moster says that the organization is not shy about promoting a better education to allow people who want to leave the Chasidic community the ability to do so. But he was quick to add that the organization wants to improve the lives of the people inside the Chasidic community.

“If you have a proper education, you have a better chance of remaining inside your community,” he said. A better education “will improve the lives of the people who choose to stay: they’ll be able to afford to invite people for Shabbat and buy nice things for Yom Tov; they’ll be able to live a better life as Chasidic Jews.”

The organization met with representatives of the New York State Department of Education, but Moster said that the meeting didn’t lead anywhere.

“They have their hands full with the public schools and they can’t overstep their boundaries,” he explained. “Even though prior law and court rulings say that it’s their responsibility. They feel like this is what the community wants and they don’t want to get in the way.”

Jonathan Burman, a spokesperson for the State Department of Education, said that there is little the state can actually do about a poor secular education inside the private schools.

“If a child attends a nonpublic school, the school district of residence is responsible for making sure that the child receives an education at the nonpublic school that is ’substantially equivalent’ to the education offered at the district’s public schools,” he said. “The Board’s responsibility is to the children living in the district; it has no direct authority over the nonpublic school.”

Even if schools don’t meet the “substantial equivalent,” there are likely to be few penalties. Burman pointed to the guidelines for determining equivalency of instruction in non-public schools.

“If a serious question does arise about equivalency of instruction in a nonpublic school, the superintendent of the district should inform the administrator of the nonpublic school that a question has been raised and arrange time for an informal discussion between the superintendent and nonpublic school officials regarding the inquiry,” their website reads: “The (Department’s) Office of Nonpublic Schools is available for counsel regarding the matter of equivalency.”

But the school system in the Ultra-Orthodox community does appear to have run afoul of some of the substantial guidelines: while the state does not mandate specific time for studies, it does dictate that grades 1-6 should approximate the five hour daily and grades 9-12 should have five and a half hours. And schools must teach several subjects beyond math and English.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel, declined to comment on the issue.

“Secular subjects were taught, but the emphasis was on Jewish subjects; most of a typical school day was spent learning Torah and Talmud, with a few hours dedicated to secular studies,” said David Kiss, 26, a full-time musician who grew up in the Ultra-Orthodox community in Monsey. “I happened to be a voracious reader, and luckily my Mom and Dad encouraged that, or my English vocabulary would be awful. We had one stressed-out teacher who taught all the subjects, and our academic upbringing definitely suffered because of that. I still am quite awful at math; I don’t know my multiplication tables.”

Michael Jenkins, the director for programming at Footsteps, an organization that works with people who leave their ultra-Orthodox world, said that most people who come to the organization have a very limited education.

“Their attitude is generally frustration, motivation and anger,” he said. Many end up finishing up a GED at Footsteps, since their high school diplomas do not transfer.

Jenkins added, however, that while they don’t come to Footsteps with a secular education, they do come with some form of education.

“There are things that translate well: study habits, perseverance, grappling with problems, defending an argument, I think those are things that are learned in yeshiva,“ he said.

Others see the lack of secular education as being directly connected to the poor economic situation inside the Ultra-Orthodox community. According to the most recent UJA survey, more than two out of every five Chasidic households are poor. The Chasidic town of Kiryat Joel is the poorest place in America.

“The Chasidic community is fond of pointing to people who never had any education and who are now millionaires,” said Shulem Deen, a writer and the founder of Unpious, who also grew up with a very limited secular education. “They ignore the fact that these people are rare individuals who made it by sheer tenacity. Most of the community relies on Medicaid and it’s obvious that the economic levels in the Chasidic community are what they are because there’s no education.”

He said that he felt Moster faced an “uphill battle.”

“It’s a tremendous step in raising awareness of the issue,” he said. “Whether he will directly affect change remains to be seen, but he definitely has a chance of starting a conversation.”

Moster, who just quit his job working in a warehouse, said he believed his life would have been different had he had a proper secular education.

“I would have been a doctor by now,” he said. “And the same is true for so many others.”

About the Author: Michael Orbach is the Senior New York Correspondent for JewishPress.com. His work has appeared in the JTA, The Forward, The Jewish Week and Tablet. He was previously the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Star newspaper in Long Island. He is finishing up a novel.


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20 Responses to “US Haredi Group Facing Uphill Battle Making Up for Poor Secular Education”

  1. If a child is attending a Torah focused school, his/her parents have to do the work to supplement. It is a big job and it can be done (that is what we do as our son has 2 hours of reasonably well done secular studies – with homework – a day). However, it is necessary for the parents to be able to do this themselves (as in our case due to our own secular education) or to afford to hire others to supplement. That can be a major obstacle if the resources are not available. However, there are flash cards and books for basic schools on sale at Walmart – or at the public library – and parents and children can even learn together if necessary. We do flash cards for fun before bed with our son for a few minutes to memorize multiplication tables. He plays games with his father and then does a bit of discussion about geometry and physics with application to the games being played. We teach history and natural sciences as a part of story telling. We encourage our son to write English letters to family and take notes on his thoughts in a diary. He is also learning to play an instrument so he learns to read music and expands his skills further. It can be done and it should be taken seriously by parents who choose a Torah life for themselves and their children.

  2. Yori Yanover says:

    I had the doubtful pleasure of teaching "limudei chol" in a chasidic yeshiva in Boro Park in the early 90s. I lasted through Hanukkah. The boys came into my classroom at 4 PM, having begun their school day at 7 AM. They had no interest in the material. Their folks had a lot of money which they made without limudei chol, so what the heck. The textbooks were censored for female presence and huge areas of text were blackened over, like a FOIA document. I left each night exhausted, humiliated, angry, self loathing. And the pay stank. If my teaching experience is any representation (I welcome comments), then these boys' fate is sealed.

  3. Rebecca Lesses says:

    Is two hours really enough? Students are in public school from about 8:00-2:00. Not all of that is instruction, but a majority is. Is it really possible to make up the several hours lacking from his religious school? I have friends who sent their children to Jewish schools for 12 years who got a very good secular education as well, and they spent much more than 2 hours per day, plus enrichment at home, on those subjects.

  4. So far so good – his scores on standardized tests from the state of Illinois were all excellent.

  5. ok – english spelling not so good – but he is learning to spell in 3 languages at the same time!! But we bumped up spelling games to compensate after the test scores came in. But math and analysis and reading comp all super.

  6. Charlie Hall says:

    The state has a LOT to say about postsecondary education, even in private colleges and universities; no degree can be granted without state supervision and approval. The state can extend this to K-12 education and it unfortunately may be necessary to do this.

  7. Stefan Fuchs says:

    They ar not Hareidi or even Orthodox. Moster lives with his live-in girlfriend! she did not go to ultra-orthodox schools, just middle of the road. She is not orthodox any longer for personal reasons unrelated to hassidic education.

  8. Jonah Block says:

    does he ever have time to play games or have fun? you'd better be careful or he will grow up to be like me

  9. Shulem Deen says:

    Rebecca — You're right, of course, that two hours isn't enough. But even more so, it comes at the end of a full day of Talmud study, when the kids are absolutely exhausted. When I was a kid (attending a Hasidic boys school), "good behavior" during English class consisted mainly of not throwing orange peels at the teacher when his back was turned. Classroom decorum was otherwise non-existent, and the actual studies — and the teachers who taught them — were actively disdained and vilified.

  10. I really appreciate the comments esp from you guys Jonah and Shulem – there is a lot of fun but I appreciate the reminder – also the situation at his school is probably better than most as there are 9 kids in his class (total) and they are all well behaved – BUT FUN! – guys. The school is perhaps a bit pathbreaking in its approach as they have a very serious from man at the helm of the secular studies program (not to G-d forbid denigrate my sisters in the teaching profession). Putting a frum young man in that role who takes it VERY seriously and goes around from class to class during the afternoon checking on everyone's progress show the boys it is something that is valued. So really we may be in a unique situation – which is why people move to Chicago to come to our school.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I wonder why the Jewish Press is employing an anti-Orthodox reporter, who forerly worked for the ultra-anti-Orthodox Forward and Jewish Week, as their senior New York corresondent. Presumably there has been a management change at the Jewish Press. Readers should be aware of this change in editorial orientation.

    Orbach's articles about New York's Orthodox community are unfair and contain many questionable statements that unlikely to be true. He depicts New York's Orthodox Jews as sex perverts who cover up for each other, and ignoramouses who burden the public living on entitlement programs or welfare. Neither description is a fair characterization of most Orhodox Jews.

  12. Mayer Fertig says:

    It's been said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion but no one is entitled to have their own facts. Yet, you seem to be perfectly happy having your own facts. And that's ok. Because so long as everyone else is aware that you've made up your own facts, then we also know to ignore your opinions.

  13. Mark Pelta says:

    Michael Orbach is the best damn reporter there is on these issues. The Jewish Press should be proud to have him. But unlike Mr. Dalgliesh, I don't expect anybody to take my word for anything on the basis of my rhetorical flourish: Google Reb Orbach's articles from papers he's written for, from the Jewish Star to Tablet.

  14. Faigy Mayer says:

    I do wonder, if some other entity/body would pay for well-qualified teachers, would things turn around? Children requiring specialized attention or tutoring don't receive it and that is clearly due to the lack of money. I don't think the yeshivas want to incur the expense of teachers with a secular education as they don't realize its value. In a way this is a cycle.

  15. Yori Yanover says:

    Yocheved — what about cultural context? History, Geography, Art, Music — can a person be truly of this society and function with equal ease at home and in the marketplace without a thorough liberal arts education?

  16. Yori Yanover says:

    As Michael Orbach's editor, the buck stops with me. I find that Michael is expert at finding areas that deem reporting in the Jewish community and goes after them. I think his reports are fair. Instead of making broad accusations, please offer an example of "unfair and questionable statements that unlikely to be true."

  17. Rose Wimpfheimer says:

    Those religious schools scare me that these kids don't even learn the classics!

  18. Naftuli Nick Moster says:

    Thanks so much Yori! And trust me, nothing in Orbach's story is even slightly exaggerated.

  19. Elke Blinick says:

    Mayer Fertig Did we read the same article? What facts are made up? That Hassidim do not get a good secular education? Have you read 'unchosen'? How many ultra's at YU?

  20. What is thorough? What is needed and what can kids get on their own if they can read and know how to think critically. That is what we focus on – teaching a love of reading and also teaching critical thinking. And then there are George Harrison songs as well….

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