Re: Hasidic Children Need Your Protection / Comment on proposed rule: I.D. No. EDU-27-19-00010-P

Dear Regent,

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.

Shulem Deen
Brooklyn, NY


  1. Malaika Martin August 30, 2019 at 2:40 pm

    Haredim in America will/are fast becoming an underclass dependent on their rabbis and leaders for the basics of life. The reason is the lack of education. How this human rights violation can continue to go on in the United States is beyond me, but then there are many human rights violations going on here. The difference is that this is self-inflicted.

  2. David Zalkin September 2, 2019 at 3:38 am

    A great letter, and there isn’t much I can disagree with.
    My only question is, even if the State does get serious about enforcing minimal requirements on the Charedi schools, how much will that really help? Don’t you think that the schools would simply find a way to get around the new rules, or, at least, let the children know that the rabbis are opposed to the rules, thereby making a joke of any classes beyond what they approve of? You can’t FORCE children to learn.

  3. Menachem Vilner September 16, 2019 at 4:44 am

    While you raise some important points regarding the need to provide our children with the skills they will need to survive and support themselves in the world at large, the proposed rule goes much too far and is aiming to mandate exposure to ideas that are antithetical to the values of any Torah-observant individual (not only chareidi).
    And when you say “Mine is a success story of beating the odds”, is that really true? I wouldn’t call “a success” loosing your family in the pursuit of better secular education…

  4. Shulem Deen September 16, 2019 at 10:57 am

    David Zalkin: I think the first step is taking the law seriously. If chasidic yeshivas get around it in ways that do not violate the law, it will still keep the (majority) well-intentioned and law-abiding taking the matter more seriously generally.

    Vilner: where’s that gemoro kop when you need it? Success story in reaching my goals WITHOUT education. And also, with respect: fuck you.

  5. Menachem Vilner September 16, 2019 at 2:10 pm

    Shulem, I see you achieved great language skills. Real success. CONGRATS! As painful as the truth maybe at times you need to face it. Then not all is lost. Ktiva V’Chatima tova.

  6. Aryeh Leib December 1, 2019 at 1:39 pm

    The issue is not, as framed by the author, the proper balance between secular and religious studies.
    The issue is: Who gets decide that balance.
    That question was settled almost 100 years ago. See here:
    The parents get to decide. It’s the fundamental right of parents to direct the education of their children.
    The author’s argument is compelling, if you share his values. The author is no doubt familiar with the counter-arguments, but rejects them because he does not share those values.
    It’s the parents that get to choose those values, at least for the first 10-15 years of the child’s life, in most cases.
    What complicates the author’s situation (and evokes sympathy) is that his wife has legal custody and therefore his voice/values do not count, even though he’s the father. That’s often, but not always the unfortunate consequence of divorce.
    The remedy is not, as suggested, to invoke state power to erode parental rights, which in this case would give the disenfranchised father a voice, which nature suggests he should otherwise have.