Whatever Happened with that NY Hasidic School Controversy?

You might recall that, back in September, Orthodox Twitter had been up in arms about a recent New York Times article on the poor academic performance of Hasidic yeshivot. Among other things, G-d-awful test scores were highlighted:

Credit: NY Times

And as many pointed out, other Jewish schools fared little better, supporting the well-tested theory that religious education in general quite simply sucks. It would be unfair to single out the Hasidim for what is systemic problem in US education. It’s also somewhat understandable that the community would be a bit sensitive given the heightened negative attention on them in recent years, especially on TV. There’s certainly more nuance to Orthodox Judaism than what you see in Unorthodox or My Unorthodox Life. The gender norms suck and the fashion is terrible, but embracing such religious traditions are – for better or worse – the choices of consenting adults (we hope). However, the Times investigation fundamentally deals with the well-being of children, who have little freedom to choose.  

Say what you will about the tone of the original piece, the evidence it lays out is convincing. The clear lack of knowledge and skills in the secular sciences is absolutely damning; Hasidic children are not being given the skills they need to thrive in the modern world. But it also reveals a policy problem: the state government has to enforce higher standards, but it is politically difficult for NY politicians to do so given the importance of the Hasidic community’s vote.

It’s been four months, so let’s check back in with the whole controversy. Did tensions cool? LOL no. The NY Times investigation (rightfully) continues, having now uncovered possibly fraudulant use of state special eduction funds. This is now the subject of a Federal investigation, though notably not a state one.

Naturally, some Hasidim continue to react with about as much composure as you would expect of the super religious, having put up Three Billboards Outside Upper Lower Manhattan, NY complaining about the newspaper. We get it! It’s fun to rag on the Times these days, especially with their god-awful political “bothsidesisms” an excrutiating opinion pieces. But they’re hardly being anti-Semitic in investigating how these communities are potentially breaking the law and failing their youth, are they?

Some may make the argument that not learning science and math is simply a part of Haredi tradition that should be respected. However, it is not a violation of religious freedom to ensure the youth are given the skills they need to thrive in modern society, and – better yet – contribute to said society.

Part of the issue is that the idea of an exclusive, non-modern religious community in the middle of a big city is quite silly, when you think about it (the Amish get away with their collective ignorance because they live in the boonies). The fact is that unskilled male theologians, put-upon wives, and dumb children cannot survive in New York City (or London, or Jerusalem, etc.) without massive special treatment and corruption. I know this because I am also an unskilled male theologian living in a city.

NY politicians should expect Hasidic communities to give something back besides votes, which means the children need to be learning something besides the damn Torah or Home Ec. But more fundamentally, it’s unfair for their kids to not have access to the same subpar math and science education as gentiles. Even if it isn’t part of Hasidic tradition, not offering it deprives them of the freedom to make their own choices later in life, including the choice of whether to leave their closed religious community.