Re: Hasidic Children Need Your Protection / Comment on proposed rule: I.D. No. EDU-27-19-00010-P
I am writing to express strong support for the proposed rule regarding oversight of nonpublic schools — especially as it relates to Hasidic yeshivas like the one I attended, and which my children currently attend. I implore you to take the necessary steps to protect children from the willful educational neglect they have faced for decades.
I was raised within the Hasidic communities of Brooklyn and Rockland County, NY. I am a product of New York State’s Hasidic yeshivas, which I attended at all levels — from kindergarten though adult rabbinical seminary.
My education in classical Jewish texts was stellar — and I am grateful for it. I can take apart a page of abstruse Talmudic logic (in ancient Aramaic) within minutes. I can quote huge portions of the Hebrew Bible by heart, chapter and verse, along with many of its commentaries. I can delight over exquisite medieval Jewish poetry in their original forms.
My secular studies (such as it was), however, consisted only of rudimentary English reading and writing skills, and elementary arithmetic. These “studies” were provided during grades 3 through 8, for fewer than two hours a day. At the high school level, all secular studies were dropped entirely. I emerged from my student career entirely handicapped for economic success in our modern world.
By age 27, I was a father of five, and I stood helpless and disoriented facing the enormity of my responsibilities. I wanted to support my family with dignity and integrity. Instead, I had only a smattering of options involving menial labor, unethical (and often illegal) manipulation of government programs, and a few hazy entrepreneurial options — at which I failed utterly and miserably.
When I considered entry into the professions, I realized that I lacked the basic qualifications for such pursuits. My English and math skills were poor. My knowledge of history and science was an abhorrent mix of legends, myths, and utter falsehoods. My understanding of modern economics was completely nonexistent.
My own experience was ultimately one of the better ones. With extraordinary amounts of self-study, I was able to find work within the community as an non-credentialed IT specialist, and later, through sheer force of will, I would go on to find modest success as an author and essayist.
Mine is a success story of beating the odds. Most of my friends and peers have not been so lucky.
Worse still are my own five children, two of whom are boys, who, now ages 18 and 20, cannot speak, read, or write English past a second-grade level. As a noncustodial parent, I have been powerless to offer them better educational opportunities; I can only rely on the enforcement of our legal statutes to protect them.
My sons now have only their natural abilities and sheer resourcefulness to depend on. Their challenges — which I pray will be minimal — will be directly attributable to their severe educational neglect. Their successes will be no thanks to their educators.
Neither my children nor I deserved such neglect. We were entitled to the protections of the law under existing and longstanding legal statutes. It is the cowardice of our leaders and the indifference of our political representatives that allowed such neglect to go on for decades.
New York’s ultra-Orthodox community has now shamefully and misguidedly set up the battle lines on this issue. Agudath Israel of America, the premier advocacy group for ultra-Orthodox interests and which is run by a cadre of college-educated professionals (who would never dream of allowing this sort of educational neglect of their own children), has chosen, with extreme moral cowardice, to cover for the worst practices of some of their co-religionists. Through a misinformation campaign, marshaling of disingenuous (and often mendacious) voices of so-called “successful yeshiva graduates,” and recruiting unsuspecting allies, legal permissions are now being sought to enshrine such educational neglect as an unchallenged norm.
This is a travesty and an outrage for which I can scarcely find the words.
Strikingly, there are few articulated religious or ideological positions against secular education for Hasidic children. At stake, rather, is the comfort of autonomy that the American ultra-Orthodox Jewish community has grown accustomed to, and which they now fear infringement upon. What we see is a mad concoction of backroom political dealmaking, right-wing religious collaboration, a pinch of ideological extremism, and — when all else fails — a patchwork of questionable arguments for an inconsistent and ill-defined libertarianism.
Disingenuous appeals to American democratic “rights” get thrown in for good measure, despite the fact that these same leaders have had little regard for educational rights of children and the laws ensuring their protections, which government agencies and elected officials have neglected to enforce for decades.
For the sake of children who have nothing but the law to protect them, I beseech you to strengthen those laws, and to implement appropriate enforcement action and penalties for those who violate them.