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Jewish Culture

Revisiting religious education

Moshe Unger
Posted 11/18/22

This is Part II of two columns reacting to media reports that were critical of Yeshiva Religious Education.

Looking at the data gathered in this article is actually quite shameful. The only data …

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Jewish Culture

Revisiting religious education


This is Part II of two columns reacting to media reports that were critical of Yeshiva Religious Education.

Looking at the data gathered in this article is actually quite shameful. The only data the reporters offer is one state test of one school network of one year!! Is this OK to rely on to smear so many people??

All other data are anecdotal data, and they are mainly reports from people who left the Chasidic community. The most that this article is revealing is that out of the 200,000 Chasidic Jews in N.Y.S. a handful of people have left due to negative experiences or other life circumstances. We all wish the world would be perfect, and it will be one day, but we are not there yet.

Some of the anecdotal data don’t even make sense to me. They tell of a boy who is in a youth shelter near Liberty who is without food or a job. There are so many organizations in the community which he can turn to even if he is not religious at all. Alexander Rappaport from Masbia will open his arms and feed this man and help him with whatever he needs. I can name many more people and organizations. If the accounts are true, I’d suspect that there is much more to the stories than reported. Life journeys can be painful and are always full of emotion, but they are hardly reliable data to paint so many people with such negativity.

One testimony in the NY Times article is from an English instruction teacher who left the job after a year. I saw in a local magazine a report of a different teacher who has been communicating by email with one of the NY Times reporters and relayed a very positive experience. At some point in the conversation the reporter asked if this individual is employed by a Chasidic school, and he said that he is employed as a teacher but not employed as a spokesperson nor has he been instructed to reach out to the Times. This is where the reporter stopped asking him questions and didn’t quote any of his words.

This is a demonstration of the kind of data collection they’ve made. A teacher who left a school disappointed is considered unbiased and a teacher who is happy with the school and hence his further employment in the school is considered biased. This paradigm is designed to only count negative data. They write at the beginning of the article that they interviewed more than 275 people for the article. The sad thing is that many of them have been positive reports about the Yeshivas and have not been included.

Let’s talk about public funding. In general, schooling has two important goals for the state: education and keeping children off the street. Because of the separation of religion and state and because the state does not want to fund general education in private schools, funding that goes to private schools are for the second aspect of school. The state pays for monitoring and ensuring student attendance, lunch, and other such programs. After all, they keep the youth off the streets no matter what the learning is.

Since there is no limit to improvement, I have the real solution, if anyone is interested, to upgrade the general studies in Chasidic schools: You get what you pay for. If the state will fund the education, like every citizen is entitled to, they’ll get what they pay for. Many states in the U.S. and also Canada, Australia, and most European countries do fund general studies in religious schools so really it does not challenge separation of religion and state.

They claim that the schools are flushed with money, but they offer no comparison whatsoever. They do not run any numbers on how much it costs per student, nor do they compare to public schools’ students. I don’t have to teach “college-educated” reporters that comparison is the first thing you learn in any Humanities course. A much better data point will be to show how much a community of 200,000 would have cost to taxpayers had they been using the public school system. Chasidim choose not to use the public school system, correct, but they still save the taxpayer immense amounts of money. That data is what’s important for comparison.

The same is regarding measuring wealth and poverty in the Chasidic community. Why don’t they offer more data, perhaps the median income by zip code? They probably don’t want to… When talking about neighborhood poverty statistics, context is needed. Chasidim all live together. The rich and poor drink coffee in the same synagogue together, a very unique phenomenon in the world, and this effects the neighborhood data when compared to other neighborhoods. Also, the definition of poverty changes by household size. Again, no data whatsoever, just a blanket statement that Chasidic neighborhoods are poor (without mentioning that there are no homeless).

I’ll share another, albeit smaller, example that illustrates the ill-intended nature of this article. They write “Just one [Chasidic group], the Lubavitch movement, encourages followers to speak English, so they can proselytize.” Any academic expert on Lubavitch (and there are a lot of them in the universities) knows that the late Rebbe of Lubavitch had a degree in ship engineering from one of the universities in Paris and hence his followers are more interested to pursue a degree than members of other groups would generally be. Instead, they chose to write that the reason they speak English is so they can proselytize. Apparently, to leave their readers with a positive view of one Chasidic group was simply too much for them.

By the way, Lubavitch does not proselytize. Their goal is not necessarily for people to become Lubavitch. Their goal with their activities is to help Jews who need any kind of help anywhere in the world and to offer Jews to do one more Mitzvah. Every Mitzvah done by any Jew is a success for them and they don’t aim to convert anyone. Just like Amazon wants you to buy items on Amazon, Lubavitch is here to sell you the value of doing a Mitzvah. So even the choice of calling them proselytizing is wrong.

I didn’t read the article right away when it came out, and I’m happy I didn’t because now it’s old and it doesn’t feel so threatening. Really, this article is older than old. It’s older than 2000 years of history of some Jews speaking badly of other Jews, much worse than any outsider would. As I said, in such cases their words are not reliable whatsoever.

Comments? Email me: moshe@mosheunger.com


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