Hasidic Education in New York: A Clash of Law, Politics, and Culture

September 16, 2022
David Myers

A forum featuring scholars of the Haredi Research Group

Golden seal with relief of book, torch, and leaves with black lettering reading "board of education city of New York"

The major New York Times article from Sunday, September 11 on Hasidic education in New York has elicited a huge outpouring of responses on social media from many different quarters—critics of the school system, supporters, and, quite noticeably, many within the Hasidic community itself. It is hard to recall a story in which the Haredi community in the United States has been the focus of such wide national visibility and scrutiny. Responses to the Times piece have followed various lines of argument. Some have condemned it as egregiously misrepresenting the Hasidic community in New York as corrupt, violent, and hopelessly dependent on government support, when in fact the community produces respectful, law-abiding citizens of this country. Others have lauded the article for exposing at long last what they see as unconscionable disregard for the state’s “substantial equivalency requirements”—and more generally, the future prospects of Hasidic children.

Often times, these competing perspectives have fallen into a rather predictable political divide between liberals and conservatives. But not always. It has been interesting to hear the voices of former members of the Hasidic (or larger Haredi) world, those who have gone “off the derekh (OTD),” who express both empathy with and fierce criticism of the communities from which they come. It has also been interesting to hear voices from the left who are critical of the New York Times article for imposing a normative white, liberal, individualistic vision upon a community that does not conform to that type.

A major question that hovers above the impassioned debate is: are we at a point of no return? Will we see a major new effort by Hasidic community leaders—and their allies—to resist state-mandated educational standards? Will the churning debate within Hasidic and Haredi social media lead to calls for reform by parents who seek more secular education for their kids? Will there be an unraveling of the longstanding political alliances between local and state politicians and Haredi leaders? Or will the reaction to the Times story lend momentum to those conservative activists who want to undo public education as we know it and fortify the absolute right and autonomy of parents to educate their children as they see fit?

As these questions make clear, the stakes of this debate touch upon many aspects of life in this country—religious, cultural, political, and legal. It is this diverse set of issues that animates the work of the Haredi Research Group (HRG), an international collaborative of scholars committed to the study of Haredi history, culture, and life in the United States, Israel, Europe, and elsewhere. Following the publication of the New York Times piece, the group engaged in an intense exchange of views over its virtues and flaws. The following blog essays offer the reader an opportunity to listen into the conversation among HRG members. The essays below shed light on major issues foregrounded in the Times article, as well as other important themes (such as the education of girls and women) that were not in it. They also add a comparative glance at parallel developments in Israel.

The debate happens to connect with the conversations taking place at the Katz Center this year, where fellows have come together to share their research on the topic of “Jews and Modern Legal Culture.” Central to the fellowship year are investigations of how law, in its manifold forms, is practiced and contested in Jewish communities today, and how Jewish legal culture interacts and intersects with other legal systems like that of the state—issues at the heart of the controversy over Haredi education. A number of current and past Katz Center fellows are also participants in the HRG, including myself, Itamar Ben-Ami, Shaul Magid, and Ayala Fader. Whatever impact the Times article may have, it has unearthed deeply held attitudes about the relationship between Haredim and the world around them in the United States and elsewhere. 

David N. Myers is Kahn Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at UCLA and co-editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review. He is a visiting scholar at the Katz Center this year.

Beyond the Hasidic Enclave

Sam Shuman

Hasidim, with notable exceptions, practice what anthropologists call “matrilocal residence.” In this arrangement, a husband moves to where his wife and her family live after their wedding. Because contemporary shidikhim (arranged marriages) can be brokered across transnational borders, Hasidic men may find themselves moving to a foreign country for marriage.

Now imagine that you are a newly married Hasidic man from Williamsburg who currently resides in Antwerp, Belgium. While your wife is a Belgian/EU citizen, you are ineligible to obtain citizenship through marriage because you married at an early age. You will need to apply for citizenship through Hungary, the country where your great-grandfather once lived.

You visited Antwerp a few times before settling there. There was that time you traveled to ask Reb Leibish, the Pshevorsker Rebbe (Europe’s leading rebbe), for a blessing. And then you traveled again to meet your (future) wife in person. Save these occasions, you know little about Belgium. When locals speak to you in Flemish, you are never addressed as an individual. Jullie, they say, addressing you in second person plural (as in “all you Hasidic Jews”). Even the Hasidim here are different. European Hasidim care about class. They make that abundantly clear to you.

After spending a couple of years debating Jewish jurisprudence, you will have to learn Flemish and a trade. The diamond industry, which once supported Antwerp’s Jewish workforce, has no place for you. You will navigate these obstacles while juggling everyday religious duties and familial obligations. Yes, you will fare better in your Flemish classes than the newlywed husbands from Bnei Brak. But what opportunities are available to you? Even skilled vocational work (electricity, plumbing, carpentry) will be a learning curve. These jobs assume preexisting math and science skills. Your friend can afford to operate a seforim gesheft (bookstore) because his father gave him startup capital. You want a better education for your own sons, but you feel social pressure to enroll them in the city’s weaker heder, the one operated by your Hasidic group. How could you not?

This is not the story of any one Hasidic man. It is an assemblage of numerous stories that I have heard over the course of conducting fieldwork in Antwerp, Belgium since 2015. Because of gendered protocols around modesty, I largely interacted with Hasidic men. What I write here is certainly not representative of all Hasidic Jews; it is particular to the experiences of the men I met. Like all knowledge, it is situated and partial.

I write this as an experimental response to the New York Times article by Eliza Shapiro and Brian M. Rosenthal, who confine the scope of their exposé to the state of Hasidic education in New York. The two journalists describe New York’s Hasidic communities as “largely insular enclaves devoted to preserving centuries-old traditions.” In so doing, these journalists rehearse tired and racist colonial tropes for describing the “natives.” Hasidim become confined to a timeless present—that is, a place both out of time and out of place. Shapiro and Rosenthal only ascribe mobility to those who exit the Hasidic world (and, in so doing, enter modernity). “Soon after turning 17 in Kiryas Joel, in Orange County,” they tell us, “Mr. Kraus decided to run away…”

Of course, those who leave the Hasidic world are not the only ones who move. As I have sought to illustrate above (and have argued elsewhere), there are serious issues with (mis)representing Hasidic life as immobile or as socially and spatially bounded. Hasidim and non-Hasidim cohabit the same globalized world. Shapiro and Rosenthal do gesture briefly to other global Hasidic communities. “In other parts of the world with large Hasidic populations, including in Britain, Australia and Israel,” they explain, “officials have moved to crack down on the lack of secular education.” Comparison alone is not enough, however. It elides the fact that Hasidic “populations” are constantly in flux. Hasidim regularly move between countries.

While there are those who question whether this article warranted a place on the front page of the New York Times Sunday edition, I think its placement is all too fitting. Albeit unintended, its placement signals that the current state of Hasidic education in New York is decidedly not a local news story. The systematic problems with Hasidic education in New York do not reside in New York alone. They are carried to other places across the world.

Sam Shuman is a visiting assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Davidson College and a Fellow at Fordham University’s Center for Jewish Studies.

Lost in Translation: The Pitfalls of Haredi Education in Israel

Lea Taragin-Zeller

The New York Times piece on Hasidic education in New York has stimulated a wide range of responses. Here I attempt to offer a comparative perspective on the situation in Israel.

Even though it seems like Haredi education there is havoc-driven, it is unbelievingly systematic. I first realized this a decade ago when I asked the (male) head of a Bais Yaakov school to allow me to conduct research in his Jerusalem-based seminary. When I told him that I was particularly interested in modesty classes, he laughed and said: “Every class is about modesty!” A decade later, I can attest that Haredi female education is systematic about modesty, preparing women for marriage and children, and teaching young women how to make a full dinner when all you have left in the fridge is a tomato.

As I watched these young women grow up and start families of their own, I witnessed how systematic education produced systematic gaps. Since the establishment of the Israeli state, Haredim have acquired varying levels of autonomy from national curricula and regulation systems. Alongside Israel’s national education system, an independent Haredi school system was developed to bypass subjects that pose challenges to intracommunal worldviews and lifestyles. In my own work, I have reflected on two of the most painful topics that have been purposefully omitted from Haredi curricula: sex and STEM education.

In the absence of state-based education infrastructures, verbal taboos among Haredi Jews around sexuality prevented familiarity with consent, contraception, and reproductive health (not to mention anything beyond cisgendered, heterosexual reproduction). Even though young mothers were supposed to become the main breadwinners and take responsibility for their (and their children’s) health, they were equipped with little English, limited science education, and ongoing trust issues with the Israeli state and its “secular” healthcare system.

That said, I constantly found Haredi educators and mediators who were aware of these difficulties and attempted bridge these gaps by equipping young men and women with knowledge that had been omitted from their sex education (see more on this here). Meanwhile, in the context of STEM education, I found that medical askanim (self-ascribed community experts) served as intracommunal mediators for Haredi men and women, assisting them during their encounters with Israel’s “secular” medical system. Whereas Haredi Jews are constantly critiqued for their low levels of individual secular and science literacy, these askanim often claim that the knowledge and networks they provide to Haredi individuals surpasses that of the average “secular” Israeli. This is how Rabbi Statsky (a pseudonym), a medical askan I spoke to framed it:

“On an individual level—especially young couples—they have a very low level of knowledge, I would even say too little, really no knowledge. I met a woman who came out of a surgery of a womb amputation but thought it was just a vaginal resection. But on a general level—whoever has a medical problem—because of the abundance of medical organizations, the askanim of our society help people understand. They make the relevant medical information accessible.”

While one can appreciate the efforts of medical askanim like Rabbi Statsky to make medicine more accessible to Haredi Jews in Israel, it is impossible not to wonder: what counts as sufficient community-level science literacy? Is it “sufficient” that a woman has the necessary surgery, yet has no idea what was actually happening to her own body? In a community with strict taboos around sexuality, is it sufficient for someone in her social network to be familiar with the different parts of the reproductive system—or is this something that every individual must know?

Speaking to a young Haredi father, Sruli, really drove this point home for me. As part of a study on science communication, I asked how he checks whether something he reads is true or false. He looked at me with a sad smile: “Even though I have tried, I can barely read English. This means that I can never check the reliability of the science news I read. I will always need someone to translate for me.” His sad expression said it all.

English was a privilege this Hasidic father didn’t have. Even though he paid for a private English tutor for his children to ensure a better future for them, this is a privilege that most Haredim (who can barely make ends meet) have. Sruli, and many other men and women I spoke to, realize that it is time for English, STEM, and even sex education to become part of the Haredi education system, in some kosher way. Yes, there are some extremely talented (and often well-off) Haredim who find ways to overcome this structural inequality, but most continue to live in constant poverty and go to the doctor without being able to understand their own diagnosis. The price they pay, as we have seen during COVID-19, as well as the recent polio upsurge and anti-vax sentiments (see here for more), is high and will remain so unless major changes come.

Lea Taragin-Zeller is assistant professor of cultural studies and public policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Shefa 2.0

Shayna Weiss

Hasidic education did not always eschew secular learning for boys. This strictness, part of larger trends in the Haredi world, is an attempt to build walls against an ever-encroaching modernity, an unstoppable force moving at the speed of wireless internet. Enormous amounts of effort hold up these walls, including hundreds of millions of dollars of government funding, as detailed this week in the New York Times.

Hasidic girls receive far more secular education than their male counterparts, with the ideal of supporting their eventual husbands in financial, emotional, and spiritual terms. In some communities, traditional professions such as teachers are less appealing as women seek jobs with higher salaries, especially ones that can accommodate flexible schedules for women with large families. In fact, women do much of the ever-increasing labor of supporting the wall separating male Haredim from the secular world.

Therefore, Haredi women are tasked with having it all, a supercharged version of a well-known struggle. While scholars have noted the changes in education and employment, less visible is the burgeoning emotional and mental support structure for Haredi women—a self-help industry that has spawned its own influencers, shows,and lifestyle apps. These women operate almost entirely outside the traditional Haredi media outlets, flocking to Instagram, Whatsapp, and Linked In. Through these outlets, Haredi women introduce concepts of self-care, boundaries, and empowerment to their communities. Some even tout a Haredi version of a prosperity gospel. One online course, Shefa [Abundance] 2.0, promises: “Hashem wants to give you abundance ad bli di—without bounds. Who are you to shy away?! Instead, you are ready to make a money goal and shamelessly get it, plus more. Even without a job or fancy office. Money, wealth, and plenty was always meant for you. Now you get to claim it, and enjoy it.” The course is $555, with the option of a $1000 afterparty for graduates.

Self-care comes with a price. With the rise of a Haredi middle class, coupled with still-high rates of poverty and an ever-increasing cost of living, male community leaders often warn women that they are too much in the world, neglecting their primary duties as mothers, as they did in this summer’s gatherings against social media in Brooklyn. While Haredi girls receive better secular education than boys, this education is still tightly regulated. Hasidic girls’ schools sometimes refuse to release transcripts to their graduates who need them for secular colleges. On the Israeli reality show Bnot Brak, which looks at Haredi women influencers, one of the women explains, “It’s not easy to be the foundation of the home [akeret bayit] and run an Instagram page, an empire of its own.”

It is reductive to assume that more exposure to the secular world will automatically change Haredi women’s opinions regarding education. Often, it has the opposite effect—plenty of them are proud of their sacrifices to enable a Torah society. Nevertheless, many report that the stark differences between themselves and their husbands or brothers convinced them that both Haredi girls and boys need secular studies. Education for boys may grab the headlines. But our analysis is incomplete if we ignore the education of Haredi girls, tasked with creating the next generation of Torah scholars.

Shayna Weiss is the associate director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.

Win the Battle, Lose the War?

Orit Avishai

The recent New York Times investigation of Hasidic schools in the greater NYC area found that these schools were failing to educate students in math, English, and science and were not being held accountable for turning out functionally illiterate adults who could not survive economically outside their communities. 

That Hasidic schools do not comply with a web of state regulations should not have come as a surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of these communities. The article quotes Satmar Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, who told his followers as much in 2018. But the article’s targets were New York city and state politicians who turned a blind eye, as much as the rebbes and their associates who engineered this system. Still, the investigation created a maelstrom, and the Jewish Internet erupted with accusations of antisemitism and treatises on religious freedom—a revered liberal principle that is both a foundation of American liberal democracy and central to current efforts to thwart it.

Curiously, the article mentions neither “religious liberty” nor “religious freedom”; the structure that the rebbes put in place was a product of back-room wheeling and dealing rather than First Amendment litigation. But mainstream and social media responses leave no doubt: the battle over ultra-Orthodox children’s education in New York City is part of fierce battles over religious freedom now playing out in state legislatures, local school boards, and the executive branch. Jewish communities have undoubtedly long benefitted from principles of religious liberty. Given a string of recent decisions that have elevated religious freedom protections, the Yeshiva University case concerning whether religious schools can discriminate against LGBTQ people (now pending in the United States Supreme Court), promises to break new ground.

But what Haredi communities are really after is autonomy from the state, not advancing a principled religious liberty. Contextualizing the debate over Jewish communities’ right to educate their children in accordance with their religious beliefs in broader patterns of contemporary American political culture should give them pause. “Religious freedom” is a seemingly religion-neutral principle, but both its history—and, more alarmingly, its current trajectory—leave no doubt that the “religion” in question is no longer (if it ever was) neutral. Rather, it is becoming plain that religious freedom is a key tool that advances Christian nationalism, a political ideology and cultural framework that merges American, white, and Christian identities, embraces Christianity as a bedrock identity, and assumes that the laws of the land should be based on Christian morals, ethics, and history. 

Religious freedom cannot and should not be ceded to Christian nationalists, and the concept’s varied uses and interpretations leave plenty of wiggle room. However, with recent Supreme Court cases increasingly consolidating around a narrow vision of both the “religion” and the “freedoms” this principle guarantees, minority religious groups, and, especially Jews, might want to consider the wisdom of throwing their lot in with increasingly vocal and militant Christian activists.

Orit Avishai is a professor of sociology and is affiliated with Fordham University's Center for Jewish Studies.

The Media Aftermath

Ayala Fader

The New York Times article “Failing Hasidic Schools, Flush with Public Money” reports on what has long been a public secret for those familiar with Hasidic boys’ yeshivas: their failure to meet minimum standards for secular education despite relying on public government funding. However, the robust commentary before, during, and after the article’s publication in English and Yiddish tells an equally important story too, a story of how media is amplifying opportunities for change and dissent. The ensuing media explosion—on WhatsApp, Twitter, and Instagram, in print, on the telephone—suggests that alongside the top-down, rabbinically driven “official” response of communal authorities, there is a growing forum for bottom-up debate among Hasidic insiders, those who have left, other Jews, and non-Jews.

Hasidic Jews have always been invested in their representation. But a few snapshots post-publication give a sense of expanding media outlets that support a growing diversity of positions among Hasidic Jews and their engagement with others. A more official organization like PEARLS (Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools) held an “emergency teleconference” in Yiddish warning of the grave threat that the new regulations pose to their children. Right-wing Orthodox media personality Ben Shapiro, popular with some Hasidic Jews, tweeted about “the media’s new war on Hasidic Jewry,” likening it to the war the media waged on Evangelicals. Ami Magazine, an ultra-Orthodox publication, tweeted an invitation to critical politician Liz Kreuger “to visit our Brooklyn office for an in-depth conversation about the article and the facts.” In closed WhatsApp groups, some expressed excitement that change to yeshivas and the “system” might really happen, while others shared their pain at being parents who felt they had little choice but to send their children to Hasidic schools because schools are so central to communal life especially during matchmaking.

To be sure, not all Hasidic Jews have access to the diversity of opinions out there, especially busy Hasidic women or those without internet access. Nevertheless, the non-hierarchical interactions that media affords may threaten rabbinic authority, which has historically been strengthened by control of social institutions, including schools. Indeed, over the past two decades, there has been a growing cynicism among some Hasidic Jews who witnessed public political struggles over rabbinic succession, making their leaders seem out of touch and all too human. Some men were frustrated by the difficulty of finding well-paying jobs once they had families due to their limited secular educations. Even higher education is becoming slightly less suspect to some in the Hasidic world these days. Rabbis’ efforts to control access to media, from requiring filters on smart phones to censoring books, may be an acknowledgment of the potential for social change when people get talking, reading, and writing together.

Ayala Fader is professor of anthropology at Fordham University and the Ivan and Nina Ross Family Fellow at the Katz Center this year.

What Is the New York Times Article on Haredi Education Really About?

Shaul Magid

The New York Times feature essay has raised an enormous backlash on social media and among many American Jews. Accusations of bias, unfairness, and even antisemitism have floated through the portals of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Jewish journalism.

It seems to me that there are a variety of issues here that have become mashed into one large set of accusations based on various interrelated but not identical components. First, the failure of school systems in Haredi communities to prepare students to attain the basics of citizenship and educational skills. Second, the appearance of this featured story in the Sunday New York Times at all. Finally, the presumption of what constitutes “knowledge” given that Haredi education is intense and rigorous, albeit in matters that arguably do not prepare its students with the basic skills for life in twenty-first-century America.

Regarding the educational curricula and policies of Haredi schools, much of what appeared in the Times is not new but has been written about for decades. Naftuli Moster has been working tirelessly on this issue with his organization Young Activists for Fair Education (Yaffed), and essays in law journals have addressed the matter of secular education in Haredi schools.

What almost none of the critics of the article I have read mention is that this story is really about corruption: the corruption of city and state political figures and yeshiva deans who have duplicitously taken money from state coffers without abiding by state regulations. And the politicians who have looked the other way and ignored non-compliance, assumingly to cultivate Haredi favor in the voting booth. As much as this a Hasidic story, this is also a New York story of political corruption.

The nature of Haredi education is a matter that is largely internal to the Jewish community, even as legal issues sometimes extend to the courts. Private schools in general have great latitude in curricula if they abide by certain very broad procedural mandates. But the New York Times article was not really about that. It was about the way that Haredi schools are taking money from the state, and thus American taxpayers, without abiding by the dictates of state educational procedures. In fact, R. Aaron Teitelbaum, one of the two Satmar rebbes today, is quoted in the article as saying “The truth is, we either had very little secular studies or none at all. We will not comply, and we will not follow the state education commissioner under any circumstances.” And yet his schools readily accept state funding. It is this corruption that merits a featured essay in the Times. Teitelbaum can certainly refuse to comply with state mandates and suffer whatever consequences may come his way. But if he takes money and does not comply with the conditions upon which the money if granted, that is corruption.

I conclude with a personal anecdote. When I was in yeshiva in Boro Park in the early 1980s, I was asked by my rosh yeshiva, who happened to be Haredi, to go to downtown Brooklyn to sign a few documents for state funds for the yeshiva. When I got there, I was told the money was for a summer program run by the yeshiva to teach English to new Russian immigrants. I knew nothing about this program and I did not sign the forms. When I returned to the yeshiva, I told the Rosh Yeshiva I refused to sign the documents to allocate the funds. He asked why. I asked him about the program. He told me no such program existed. “That is why I did not sign,” I said. Then I asked him, “How can we take public money for a program that does not exist?” He smiled and looked at me as if I had landed from another planet.

Whether this case is exceptional or not I will let the reader decide. But taking money from state coffers while unabashedly claiming “We will not comply” is corrupt and likely illegal. And unless you hold by the halakhic opinion that theft is only a transgression if it is theft against a Jew, it is also transgressive. If there is any antisemitism being fostered here, it is not by the New York Times but by the yeshiva deans who engage in such activity, and those who defend them.

Shaul Magid is professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.


Image: Seal of the NYC Board of Education, c.1955, on the facade of the Asher Levy Campus at 185 First Avenue. Photo credit Beyond My Ken, reproduced under CC BY-SA 4.0.

About the Author

David Myers

David Myers

Read more