The American education system has been known to be a dismal failure at producing literate, educated, functioning members of society. Some would liken it to a glorified form of babysitting, where students get an education and oversight by adults until they are of legal age to set out on their own, and owing to social promotion are passed through the grades until the time has come.
Out of a desire to give their children a better education as they understand, some parents choose to homeschool their children. Many times this works well, but other times not so well. There are more than a few “homeschool horror” stories that abound where children are left less educated, or without an education at all.
But what happens when the effects of homeschooling gone wrong are injected into a school system? Such is what is happening right now in majority Orthodox Jewish communities in the US, where Jewish advocacy groups have been exposing how Jewish children are being left illiterate and uneducated by their own community schools, being forced to study Jewish religious texts all day and if the student’s parents should try to give their children any ‘unapproved’ material, which is for the most part anything other than a religious text, that they risk being ostracized from their own communities:
The issue of education among America’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, particularly the Hasidic community, has received a great deal of press ink over the last few months, and for good reason.
The overwhelming majority of Hasidic children in the U.S., especially boys, do not receive a basic, rudimentary education.
This is a fact that is repeatedly obfuscated by apologists and self-appointed spokespeople for the community, some of whom recently took to Twitter to refute all claims made – often pseudonymously – by parents whose children are in this system.
They have pilloried “Yaffed,” a group of yeshiva graduates and parents of yeshiva students who seek to rectify this injustice by lobbying lawmakers to investigate yeshivas and institute the state-mandated educational standards – and lobbed ad-hominem attacks at its founder, Naftuli Moster.
Most recently, Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote an op-ed in Haaretz (“U.S. Orthodox Jewish Kids Who Don’t Study English and Math Don’t Need Your Pity”) to make a grandiose statement: Hasidic children do not need the pity of outsiders seeking to implement change. “For many observant Jews, secular education has no intrinsic value; professions and jobs are simply ways to make a living and support one’s family,” Shafran wrote. And “consider just allowing such people their priorities…”
Shafran, a man who purportedly values a comprehensive secular education and made sure his children received one, too, nevertheless disingenuously wishes to keep a portion of his brethren undereducated at best, and illiterate at worst.
In late March of this year, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, I visited my family in Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic enclave nestled in the hills of New York’s Hudson Valley.
The streets were teeming with costumed children – clowns and cops, fancy ladies and doctors – and music blasted from loudspeakers. On that day, every year, the village turns into a festive, boisterous, almost-anything-goes circus; it’s a boozed-up Halloween of sorts.
Inside my parents’ home, crispy homemade challah was passed around on platters, then dipped into gelatin fish sauce and stuffed cabbage, followed by a bountiful spread of fish, kugels, elongated deli sandwiches, every kind of sweet and savory puffed-pastry turnover one could concoct, and enough wine and hamantaschen for days. The men danced around the table with a buoyant fervor, and the women gave the obligatory oohs and aahs for the children’s costumes.
My son dressed as an average Joe: oversized t-shirt over a stuffed beer belly, cap that read “Proud ‘Merican.” One of my brothers attempted to read the five words on the t-shirt: “KEEP CALM AND DRINK BEER.” He started, bent in closer, fumbled. His wife came to his aid.
Everyone chuckled, as if watching a grown man with five kids stumble over words that a four-year-old should know is hilarious.
I stood there, aghast. I was witness to a travesty of epic proportions: here was an adult – a citizen of these United States, a boy born to American citizens, a kid raised inside its borders, a dad raising children of his own – who could not easily read a sentence in the language of his land.
He is a kind, conscientious and caring person whose love for his wife and children is admirable. He is the kind of husband who defers to his wife’s judgement on just about anything. He is the brother who goes the extra mile to call his sister and personally invite her to his son’s bar mitzvah, thanking me profusely afterwards for coming; the kind of brother who I love dearly and of whom it hurts deeply to write about here.
He does not deserve to be used as a pawn here to prove a point, and yet, this is the kind of story that needs to be heard by Shafran and his fellow apologists.
My brother is not an anomaly among card-carrying America Hasidim who are dismally illiterate. My many nephews hardly communicate in English. After 12 years of schooling, most boys from Hasidic yeshivas can barely write a decent sentence in English, and almost none have accredited high school diplomas.
A boy in Hasidic cheder goes through his yeshiva years learning almost exclusively Hebrew and Yiddish studies, with an hour-a-day of English for four or five years of schooling; an afterthought. During this hour, boys are taught how to read and do basic arithmetic, but after a full day of learning holy texts, and given the negligent attitude the adults and administration exhibit towards this hour, not much is learned.
For Rabbi Shafran and many others in the mainstream Orthodox community who have held the Hasidic lifestyle on a pedestal – in a way believing them to be the true Jews, the ones who follow all the basic tenets, and then some – they see this kind of media attention as an affront to their own brand of Judaism. But their outrage or willful ignorance is hypocritical, because they would never consider this for themselves or their children.
But beyond that, what Rabbi Shafran fails to acknowledge is that parents, especially in the very insular Hasidic sects, do not have much choice.
For the growing number of disenfranchised Hasidim who wish to provide a better education for their children, there is no selection process when it comes to sending a child to cheder, or boys school. For a myriad of reasons, one must send to the yeshiva affiliated with one’s own sect and rabbi, especially once the boys are past preschool age. Doing otherwise is tantamount to rebelling against the rabbi.
There are changes happening at a grassroots level in some factions of more modern Hasidic sects: parents who want to educate their children are sending them to after-school programs especially designed for Hasidic children.
But in the community I was raised in, such changes are nearly impossible. A parent needs to tread carefully to avoid suspicion from the authorities, and giving a boy secular books to read could lead to unforeseen and innumerable consequences, and possible expulsion from the only school in town.
The Hasidic community is loath to change, abiding by its ancient, shtetl-like insularity. The idea that government might swoop in and demand they teach secular subjects to their children is, in some eyes, akin to banning bris milah, circumcision. They see it not only as an affront to their religious freedoms, but a way to tear down the proverbial gates that have kept them hidebound for so many decades.
But there is a growing body of Hasidic parents who are frustrated with the status quo and are covertly helping the Yaffed group in demanding change. And they should be applauded by the greater Jewish community who are beneficiaries of such basic rights, not hounded in the press.
Rabbi Shafran is a proponent of the Torah Im Derech Eretz ideology that religion, culture and education should all be the cornerstones of a Jewish lifestyle, not the shtetl-like ghettos of yore. He prescribes to the ways of Samson Raphael Hirsch, the late German Orthodox rabbi often referred to as the intellectual founder of contemporary Orthodoxy who did not exclude the secular world and culture.
If this is what Rabbi Shafran believes in, how then does he justify his support of denying children a basic education?
There is no fine line to toe here, rabbi. You either believe that children should be kept cloistered or that, like you’ve done with your own, they deserve to be educated in the language and workings of the land they live in. (source)
This is not the first time that orthodox communities have been involved in such controversies. In Guatemala, the Orthodox Lev Tahor sect, which fled to Guatemala following charges from Canada that the group, which claimed to ‘homeschool’ their children, was not educating them at all except for in religious texts, and the children lived in squalor and were often times sexually abused. The sect was so abusive and brutal it was named the “Jewish Taliban”:
There is a small, tight-knit and strict community of Jews currently in Canada who call themselves “Lev Tahor,” which means “pure heart.” The group is also known by the nickname “the Jewish Taliban.”
This sect is considered an extremist group even by haredi standards. Probably a short hand way to explain that is the women members wear clothing that resemble burkas. The group has about 200 members. It is anti-Zionist and has been residing in Quebec, near Montreal, for the past ten years.
However, there have been difficulties between the Canadian authorities and the Lev Tahor sect, primarily over the issues of educating their youth. In addition, there are ongoing child welfare investigations prompted by outsiders or relatives of the sect members who allege the children don’t have proper hygiene, are neglected and suffer from psychological abuse. There are also rumors of forced marriages. (source)
Lev Tahor eventually was forced to flee Guatemala over the same issue- they refused to educate their children following government guidelines of any sort, and they systematically isolated themselves from the community in which they lived, to the anger of the locals and the government.
So should homeschooling be banned? Absolutely not, because as many have pointed out, parents who choose to homeschool do so most of the times out of care for their children, and when done properly owing to the ability to restructure and distribute time and resources, homeschooled children tend to do better overall than those who went through the public school.
The issue which needs to be emphasized here is not really homeschooling or even the sects themselves, but rather, the abuse of homeschooling as a cover to hide behaviors that are antisocial, objectively immoral, or illegal from the rest of society, to isolate people and create communities who are cut off from the rest of society in so much that there the means of dealing with such abuse are limited.
But in fairness and to that same issue, who can blame anybody who believes in a firm set of values for “cutting” themselves off from mainstream society and culture on the basis of principle? It is a lesson that many Christians in the USA could learn well from, because for far too many American Christians, there is the Protestant error – and it does not matter if one is Catholic or Protestant because it crosses both – of equivocating patriotism and good citizenship with religious practice. Such is also an error because religious faith does not directly correlated with support of one’s nation. It can correlate, it ideally should correlate, and many times it the past it has correlated as such, but it never has in an absolute sense, and also many times the two have opposed each other. This was a great trouble of the Christian east, as in the Orthodox world, being a Christian was often synonymous with belonging to a particular ethnic group as opposed to emphasizing the universality of all Christians over divisions of race and nation, and is a problem which still beleaguers the orthodox world today.
Given the rise of the LGBT in society, for many people, to be a good citizen means to accept the abominations of the city of Sodom, which is something that a Christian cannot do and thus increasingly so, one cannot be both a good Christian and a good citizen. If one does not want their children exposed to the evils of that city, one must be prepared to indeed educate as a parent outside of school because many of the schools have been mobilized into vehicles for inculcating homosexuality into them.
In terms of principle, one cannot argue that this particular Jewish sect does not care about their religious beliefs and does not attempt to conduct their lives in a way that is consistent with them.
What one sees here is a lack of balance.
For example, this sect- and the Lev Tahor sect- say that education which is “secular” is “bad” and must not be allowed at all. While I cannot say that I have seen the equivalent in any sort of “mass” sense in the Catholic world, there are Catholic and Protestant people with good intentions but in response to the problems of the day behave in a similar way to these two Jewish groups. They shut down and become insular, cutting off their children from the greater culture and even fellow Christians, creating a bubble the leads to strange behavior and similar abuses.
Some years ago, I knew a family who was in a *similar* situation. This family- I’ll call them Smith (not their real name)- had four children and lived in a run-down house with an overgrown yard and garbage strewn about the yard in an old manufacturing town. I’m not sure if the parents were autistic, “slow” (think Forrest Gump), or had some other issue, but there was something that was “not right” about them both. They were and still are Catholic, and all five children were homeschooled, and like this particular sect above, there was a heavy emphasis on religion to the detriment of other subject (although I can say that all of the children did know how to read and write).
The oldest son, and from what I came to understand the one who received the most “intense” training from his parents- was one of the strangest people I have ever met. He could read and write well, he went to Church, but was socially handicapped to a great degree because he was raised in a bubble of his parents’ creation and that of those he associated with. He was able to find work as a stone mason, and he has since been able to provide for himself, albeit a meager wage. He never really “left” his bubble, and being so drawn into it he began to create his own fantasy world that he wrote down in his own series of books and even began to act out. Keep in mind, this is a man in his late 20s who was doing this. From what I understand he has since stopped, but for some years as a part of his persona, he would “perch” on tree stumps in a certain area of the woods wearing a cape, and would jump down when people walked by. His antics were so noted that they earned him the urban legend of the “Gargoyle man” in the area, and when I first heard of this “Gargoyle man,” because I knew this person, I knew it was him.
The second son was not so odd, and he received less intense “training” from his parents, but was still “off.” He got a job as a gardener, but was still socially awkward. One might think of him as a bearded version of Forrest Gump with a religious bend. He reached out more into society, but still remains confined to the religious bubble that his parents and their circle raised him in.
The third son was possibly the most rebellious, but in a healthy way. From what I remember he wanted to be actively involved with other children and people, and so he fought the mould forced on him by his parents. After graduating from high school he started working at a fast food restaurant, by the time he was 19 he was manager of it, and in a few years he had the opportunity to go into upper management. Instead, he chose to pursue a vocation to the priesthood and has been studying since for seminary.
The third son, who I will call “J” and is the most articulate, has admitted his brothers’ strangeness, and attributed it not to being homeschooled, but that his parents, out of good intentions, were trying to “shelter” them from the rest of society, and that while he appreciates their work, one cannot hide absolutely from the society around him.
A parallel view of this can be seen with the criticisms of academia today. Academia has always been a “bubble” environment, disconnected from reality and entertaining that which could not be entertained in general society. However, the reason for this disconnect is because the “bubble” provides a true “safe space” in which ideas can be discussed between people in ways they could not be in the rest of society. The purpose then, is to be able to have such discussions in a socially appropriate context, and then having had them to return to society with a broader perspective and deeper knowledge from said conversations without needing to have them in public.
Truly, the “safe space” of academia is not intended to advance social dysfunction. It is to the contrary established to prevent such dysfunction from penetrating into the public. It is why professors traditionally have “tenure”, so they can say things that are not socially appropriate and they cannot be fired for it because, sometimes, telling the truth or discussing controversial topics is not liked, and too often it is a cause for people being fired from their jobs. Tenure, just as with the nature of academia itself, it a “check valve” on society to ensure a degree of open discussion about topics that would not otherwise be able to be discussed.
However, academia today and tenure has been perverted. The system has been utterly hijacked and is being used to push ideas and causes into the public that would never have been permitted in public years ago. It is an abuse of the purpose for which it was created. Similarly, the experience of the family I knew or in the case of the Kiryas Joel and Lev Tahor communities are examples of the abuse of home education in order to further isolationism that is based on an unhealthy fear of the unknown instead of a desire to grow a man into what God has intended him to become.
But academia and education are not the only areas that can be hijacked. Anything in an organization done for a good cause with good intentions can be manipulated and abused if one desires and works ardently enough to do so, and it can happen whether a person intends to do good or evil, and the most effective way to realize this is through creating a lack of balance and then exploiting said situation.
Take for example the sexual abuse of children in religious groups, with the Catholic Church as the example. In the “sexual abuse crisis” in the Church, which has been clearly documented as more accurately a “homosexual abuse” crisis, as 81% of the cases of sexual abuse are homosexual, there is a systematic pattern of bishops hiding abusers and allowing them to be in the presence of children but refusing to report the abuse to the police. This is not to say that all bishops, or even a majority are involved in doing this, but there is an unmistakable pattern among far too many of this, it is a pattern that still continues, and it is a pattern that must stop. Ted’s story with how he was attacked by a homosexual priest and how the diocese refused to address the issue is just one of many examples, and if you have not read his experience you need to read it here.
Likewise, in fairness to the accused, there are priests who have been falsely accused of sexual abuse and even convicted of abuse when it has been proven that the accused is innocent. The American legal system has also been known to unjustly punish priests even if the evidence shows their innocence. Perhaps the most infamous incident of this is the case of Fr. Gordon MacRae, who runs with the help of his supporters the blog These Stone Walls where he writes about life in prison. Fr. MacRae’s case, which is worth reading, has been called one of the greatest examples of priestly witness in modern times, and yet in spite of the evidence supporting and admissions of persons who testified against Fr. MacRae that they lied on the stand, he remains in prison.
Here we have two examples of a lack of balance, the former being one of the hiding of the clerical abuse of minors, and the other allowing a priest falsely accused of abusing minors to be punished unrighteously. Both represent the fruits of a lack of balance.
In the case of reporting on current events, even the very discussion about Islam and the danger she poses to the Western world is an ideal example. One one hand there are people who deny that Islam poses any threat to the Western world, and would defend its rise. On the other hand, there are those who say that Islam is the only threat and that any means can be used to combat it, including allying with groups that support homosexuality and eugenics. While both sides may have good intentions- the former being to prevent the unrighteous abuse of Muslim people, and the latter wanting to protect one’s nation from what is a legitimate threat- adhering to either extreme will lead to abuses of mercy or perversions of justice.
The Philosopher Aristotle, who was drawn upon greatly by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, taught moral behavior is the balance found between excess and deficiency. This is sometimes called the “Golden mean”, and when followed, it results in harmony between divergent views, synthesizing them (often times) into a workable resolution. This does not mean that objective moral truth can be compromised in the name finding “balance” in a Hegelian sense. It is fundamentally the opposite, reflecting the principle that as God is a God of order who created a perfect universe in perfect order, his nature is reflected in the harmony between persons, ideas, and actions, and disorder in nature, be it from people, ideas, or actions do not stem from God, but are effects of Original Sin that penetrate into the very fabric of created existence.
This order is represented also by the scientific principle of equilibrium. That is to say, things in nature tend to naturally seek balance, and to create an imbalance takes work, and once the work that is needed to build said imbalance is no longer supplied and released, the restoration to equilibrium can be violent and destructive.
If it sounds like a “bomb,” this is precisely what one is- a collection of chemicals created through the use of energy to be inherently unbalanced so that upon the application of heat or electricity, a return to equilibrium is fast and violent, resulting in an explosion. In a social sense, the result is not a “explosion” that destroys a building, but rather the implosion of an individual person or in the case of a group, community of people in their environment in any attempt to return to equilibrium, and if such cannot be attained, it results in the covering up of perverse activities and the formation of defective, self-inflicted personality traits.
Such is found in the example of the orthodox illiteracy rates discussed earlier in Kiryas Joel, the oppressive, “Talibanesque” conditions of the Lev Tahor movement, the strange behavior of the Smith family, the continuing unfolding of the homosexual abuse issue in the Church, and the fractioning of politics into either self-annihilating liberalism or nationalized socialism as the answers to the challenges posed by Islam.
As the Catholic Faith has always taught, the answer is not found in espousing excess or deficit, but in harmonious balance between the two. In a society gone mad such a balance may even appear to be extreme or unbalanced, but unlike a marketing campaign where perception is most valued, reality is what matters, and the refusal to acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly in a situation and seek to find balance in accordance with truth will result in the creation of extreme positions that will only return to equilibrium with violent force whether one desires this or not.
This is why in the Church, music that is loud, noisy, or could incline to the disruptive is frowned upon, because the nature of God is not to tend to violent extremes, but harmony and order. As the prophet Elijah saw, the voice of the Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the silence, and out of silence in a small, still voice God spoke to him (1 Kings 19:12).
One cannot embrace the world and its evils. One also cannot hide away from the world, for if those who seek righteousness are called to be lights unto the world one does not place oneself under a basket (Matthew 5:15).
As always, truth is not found in excess or deficit, but in balance.