Ultra-Orthodox Schools Teaching Ultra-Orthodoxy

An odd complaint from parents who voluntarily send their kids to religious schools.

The sidebar of a New York Times article I was reading earlier today pointed me to a strikingly bizarre op-ed by Beatrice Weber and Chaim Levin titled “My Son’s Yeshiva Is Breaking the Law.” I’ve reproduced it in its entirety because it’s so short:

What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s not a common question for boys attending ultra-Orthodox yeshivas in New York. That’s because many of these schools focus on Judaic studies, preparing students for a life of religious scholarship — at the expense of basic reading, writing, math and science. New York State law mandates that private and religious schools provide a curriculum equivalent to that of public schools, and a 2019 report by New York City’s Department of Education found that only two of the 28 yeshivas it investigated met these requirements. This is especially problematic, considering that the city’s yeshivas receive over $100 million in state funds annually.

Authorities have failed to enforce the laws, allowing the community, which is a strong and unified voting bloc, to disregard secular education requirements. In the video above, a mother pleads with city and state officials to enforce the law so her son can receive one of the most basic rights: education.

Let’s stipulate at the outset that I have no idea whether New York yeshivas are breaking the law but that, if they are, I believe they should stop and/or the authorities should enforce the law.

But here’s why I find the piece so odd: if you believe the ultra-Orthodox religious school you’re sending your kids to are doing a bad job of educating your children, stop sending them there. Nobody is making you send your kids to an ultra-Orthodox school for indoctrination.

Furthermore, while again stipulating that I believe these kids ought to get the education the law requires, it strikes me as quite likely that the overwhelming percentage of parents who send their kids to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas are really much more interested in having them focus on Judaic studies, preparing for a live of religious scholarship, rather than, say, Western civilization and the critical thinking skills fostered by science and the humanities. Indeed, I would be willing to go out on a limb and speculate that the two are in direct conflict.

FILED UNDER: Education, Religion
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Yeah. I agree. But still, I’ve live among ultra-Orthodox Protestant Evangelicals who held similar world views and know that they simply wouldn’t get “send your kid somewhere else” as a solution. That your kid has to be in Christian School is as immutable to some Christians as it is to Hassidim.

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  2. CSK says:

    Simple question: If you haven’t mastered “basic reading,” how on earth do you embark on a life or “religious scholarship”?

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  3. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: Basic reading in which language? But, yes, the correlation between first-language reading skill and overall second-language literacy and fluency is pretty well documented. The key question among the ultra-Orthodox may be which language is the “native one.”

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  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    it strikes me as quite likely that the overwhelming percentage of parents who send their kids to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas are really much more interested in having them focus on Judaic studies, preparing for a live of religious scholarship, rather than, say, Western civilization and the critical thinking skills fostered by science and the humanities.

    This is true of most people who send their children to religious schools. When religion and science clash, which will they teach?

  5. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    I read some of the reader comments following the Times editorial, and the people who’d attended Roman Catholic schools mentioned that they’d received quite rigorous training in the sciences. I think it’s the Protestant fundamentalist school that object to the teaching of evolution, etc. And I’ve looked at the science curricula of some of our local RC schools, and those seem fine to me. Nobody’s teaching that the universe was created in six days.

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  6. MarkedMan says:

    I used to live near Kiryas Joel in NY state, and similar issues came up quite regularly. Her point is far from bizarre. In these communities, the religious schools act as the public schools. They are funded by the state or local school districts. The people who live there have little choice but to send their kids to these schools.

    As to the larger question: should taxpayer dollars be used to fund such things? Hell no, as this is the result. A powerful block gets to impose religious indoctrination on the public dime instead of meaningful education because they can deliver thousands of votes without fail. As long as the current officials give them what they want, they will vote en masse for them. If they fail in any way, the Hasidim will change every single one of their votes at the next election. They do not care in the slightest about anything else the candidate may do or believe, simply because they don’t ever hear about any of that. Very little of the outside world even makes it inside.

    Think about that the next time someone talks about how unfair it is that Catholic or Protestant religious schools don’t get vouchers or other public money. We don’t have to speculate what happens when religious schools are supported by the public dime – this is what happens

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  7. charon says:

    I actually find that mother’s complaint very reasonable.

    The kid would never be able to be Bar Mitzvah as Orthodox without the relevant education – no doubt pretty important to her – but she also wants him to get a reasonable valid education.

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  8. charon says:

    @charon:

    ETA: Whether the school should receive public funding is a separate issue from the quality of education.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: Nobody’s teaching that the universe was created in six days.

    But they do teach that 8 cells is a human being, that being gay is unnatural and goes against God, that Jesus turned water into wine and that he was resurrected and ascended to heaven.

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  10. KM says:

    @CSK :
    RC schools did indeed offer a more robust education and focus on science, especially if they were run by any Jesuit or Franciscan branch. You didn’t go there because your family was faithful but because the quality of the educational experience was far superior to public schools. There are many strains of RC that think science and mathematics are the languages God wrote the universe in and that you cannot understand the world without them. Education was supposed to make it clear that an orderly universe was divinely created. The Big Bang theory is RC-compatible (coming from a priest, it would be) as it fits the dogma of Fiat Lux and can be scientifically explained.

    Evangelicals – fundies all strips, really – are the ones who reject science because they cling to literalism and strict ideologies that cannot change to meet new facts. The RC can accept things like evolution and Big Bang reluctantly because they can be made to fit into existing theology. If you believe the Bible is perfect or that the Earth is literally 6,000** years old, you have to reject anything that challenges that.

    ** I’ve noticed that number never changes. If Evangelicals have been claiming the Earth is 6K years old for over a century, shouldn’t it be 6,100 now?

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  11. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: Thanks for the context. It makes more sense if the yeshivas are the only viable option.

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  12. wr says:

    “if you believe the ultra-Orthodox religious school you’re sending your kids to are doing a bad job of educating your children, stop sending them there. Nobody is making you send your kids to an ultra-Orthodox school for indoctrination.”

    Well, your husband, for one. Like most fundamentalist sects, Ultra-Orthodox Jews give men the bulk of the power. And then there are her parents and her siblings and everyone else in this incredibly tight-knit, conformist society who may well shun you if you start violating their most basic beliefs.

    This is a culture that enforces a strict dress code on all its adherents. That makes its women wear wigs so their hair isn’t subject to the polluting gaze of other men. Deciding simply not to conform has huge consequences…

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  13. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    I’m not entirely sure if that’s done in biology classes. In a religion class, yes.

    There was a Jewish comedian–his names escapes me at the moment, but he was quite famous years ago–who sent his children to the local Catholic school because the education was better than what was provided in the public schools in his part of Long Island.

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  14. CSK says:

    @KM:
    I’ve always had a problem with that six thousand figure. By the way, have you ever seen this:

    http://www.creationmuseum.org

  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK:

    I’m not entirely sure if that’s done in biology classes. In a religion class, yes.

    I can assure you, the biology is subservient to the religion.* Unless it is a Jesuit school. Maybe. Not sure how they would finesse that.

    I sent my sons to the local Catholic grade school because STL public schools were a mess and my youngest ended up in a Catholic HS because my ex fucked up so bad the public school wouldn’t take him (long story). That doesn’t mean I didn’t have a number of conversations with my sons about some of the idiocies they were being taught.

    * I don’t go to Catholic hospitals because biology is subservient to religion.

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  16. Joe says:

    Well, your husband, for one. Like most fundamentalist sects, Ultra-Orthodox Jews give men the bulk of the power. And then there are her parents and her siblings and everyone else in this incredibly tight-knit, conformist society who may well shun you if you start violating their most basic beliefs.

    While I agree with wr about the source the pressure to send the kids to religious schools, the authors’ gripe is really with the schools or the orthodox community more generally. Here, they are trying to use the State to leverage the community, but the State has become entirely complicit in the enterprise and is, in fact, also being leveraged by the community as a voting block. The complaint here is too bad for the authors (I mean that sincerely – I know about religious pressure), but either misdirected or futile.

  17. charon says:

    @charon:

    Public funding is really a red herring, all schools have a duty to provide a proper education to minor children. Apparently there is such a mandate by NY State but the mandate is not being enforced.

  18. charon says:

    @Joe:

    I know about religious pressure

    Which is why Reform Jews and Conservative Jews and ordinary Orthodox (i.e., not ultra=Orthodox) Jews exist.

  19. SKI says:

    Furthermore, while again stipulating that I believe these kids ought to get the education the law requires, it strikes me as quite likely that the overwhelming percentage of parents who send their kids to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas are really much more interested in having them focus on Judaic studies, preparing for a live of religious scholarship, rather than, say, Western civilization and the critical thinking skills fostered by science and the humanities. Indeed, I would be willing to go out on a limb and speculate that the two are in direct conflict.

    Actual Torah study is *all* about critical thinking and wrestling with intellectual complexities.

    I don’t particularly like the Haredim or the way they practice our shared religion or many of their attitudes towards, well, just about everything but the one thing they absolutely emphasize and prize is intellectual rigor and textual analysis.

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  20. mattbernius says:

    @SKI:
    Agreed. Which is part of the reason why the social sciences adopted the term “hermeneutics” from biblical/Talmudic studies when they applied similar techniques to cultural texts.

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  21. flat earth luddite says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I don’t go to Catholic hospitals because biology is subservient to religion

    Great idea if it works in your area. As with most things, YMMV. I resent the religious restrictions placed by organizations providing services to the general public, and feeding at the public trough, although as long as we live in a world where the general good is not funded by “the state,” I have to deal with it.

    In Portland, you have Catholic hospitals (Providence), Episcopal (Legacy), and Adventists. Plus a quasi state-run teaching college (OHSU). I wound up having my cancer treatments through Providence, because OHSU viewed my condition as untreatable. Excellent care, physicians, staff, etc., etc., with one exception, physician assisted suicide. Oregon allows terminal patients to opt for physician assisted suicide. My doctor was able tell me that this wasn’t an option there, and she couldn’t further discuss this option with me, due to hospital restrictions. Given my probable prognosis and treatment, this was the only disagreement we had in a decade of my being her patient.

    OTOH, my daughter went to Planned Parenthood for her medical consultations for years, because pricing was fair and the staff didn’t get involved in religion based “conversations.”

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  22. Joe says:

    @charon: It’s also why Protestantism exists. as well as the atomization of Protestant sects.

  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @MarkedMan: Thanks for the comment and the article link. This is a factor outside my experience on the pretty relentlessly secular Left Coast.

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  24. Northerner says:

    @KM:

    The RC can accept things like evolution and Big Bang reluctantly because they can be made to fit into existing theology.

    My experience with RC is that they quite enthusiastically accept evolution and the Big Bang (which as another poster pointed out, was first suggested by an RC priest), so long as they can postulate God started the whole process. In fact, an RC astrophysicist I know (a physics professor) says general relativity makes it easier, because it provides a nice mechanism for having God outside space-time, in the same way say we could stand outside a balloon and watch the two dimensional creatures moving about on its surface.

    I’m not RC, but I’ve always thought their concept of God is much less limited than the typical Evangalical’s — they seem very comfortable with infinite space-time, intelligent life on other planets, the patterns of science applying to life and so on. Possibly that’s why there are many more RC’s who are scientists than there are Evangalicals. Of course, many Evangalicals will s point to RC’s believing in evolution and the big bang as further proof that they aren’t really Christians.

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  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @KM: ” If you believe the Bible is perfect or that the Earth is literally 6,000** years old, you have to reject anything that challenges that.”

    Actually, I don’t. But I also invest no concern in what the public school teaches as science, so I may well be an exception to the rule. I’ve found compartmentalization necessary to make sense of how the world works viz-a-viz how I, as an independent agent of my own conduct, live.

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  26. Gustopher says:

    Furthermore, while again stipulating that I believe these kids ought to get the education the law requires, it strikes me as quite likely that the overwhelming percentage of parents who send their kids to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas are really much more interested in having them focus on Judaic studies, preparing for a live of religious scholarship, rather than, say, Western civilization and the critical thinking skills fostered by science and the humanities.

    I expect they want both. And if taxpayers are footing the bill, the schools have to teach the secular education.

    And if the schools want to add on silly hats, or that in addition to evolution the world was created 6,000 years ago, and the parents are fine with it, then sure. We had to read A Separate Peace in school, and that had no real value, so go with panda thumbs or floods or whatever. Just do well on the real education.

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  27. charon says:

    I find this obsession with taxpayer this funded that totally bogus.

    All kids should get an education that meets minimum standards regardless of the type of school or how it is funded.

  28. DrDaveT says:

    @MarkedMan:

    In these communities, the religious schools act as the public schools. They are funded by the state or local school districts. The people who live there have little choice but to send their kids to these schools.

    What’s the mechanism there? Is it like Amish communities, where literally everyone in the school system is a member of the religious community, so there’s no tax base to fund a secular public school? Or is it that the local taxpayers find it less of a hassle (and cheaper) to let the religious community remain closed and provide their own schools? Or something else?