Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Enforced ignorance

I’ve written before about the shanda—scandal—of Jewish day schools that deliberately fail to teach secular studies adequately. This happens both in the United States and in Israel, in some ultra-Orthodox schools.

In those schools, secular studies (what you and I would call “school”) are typically referred to as “english” (not capitalized) and rarely exceed 90 minutes per day.  There may be less than that, possibly none at all, in the higher grades.

This comes about because the communities that support those schools believe that only Jewish learning is important. Secular education is unnecessary and possibly harmful, because it takes time away from studying Torah and, especially, Talmud.

These schools graduate students who read and write English poorly—the schools and their communities operate chiefly in Yiddish—and know little of science and modern  history. The young men who leave these schools have little in the way of job qualifications or academic skills for university-level education; they’re only qualified to continue studying in a yeshiva or kollel.

The situation is different for ultra-Orthodox women. It’s not considered important, or even desirable, for them to study Talmud at an advanced level, and since they will likely marry men incapable of doing most secular jobs, they need to be able to support a family—a large family.

Schools, both here and in Israel, are supposed to teach a state-mandated curriculum if attending them is to satisfy compulsory-attendance laws. Modern Orthodox day schools, as well as Conservative, Reform, and other community day schools, do so. Students in these day schools study the same subjects as students in public schools, in the same amounts, plus Hebrew, Tanakh, and Jewish history.

Enforcement of the requirements is up to local school districts. The ultra-Orthodox schools have been able to evade state requirements because of political influence. This is especially true in New York City, where certain rabbis have disproportionate influence in politics, and in Rockland County, where ultra-Orthodox Jews are the largest constituency in some school districts.

This may be about to change. The New York City Department of Education plans to investigate whether about three dozen yeshivot are providing adequate education in secular subjects. (This affects only schools in New York City, not in Rockland County or elsewhere.) It comes about in response to a request from parents, former students, and former teachers.

It should concern us if any Jewish students are not receiving adequate secular education. Partly because of lack of education, and partly because of having large families, ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to subsist on public assistance. Although no U.S. politicians dare to criticize Jews for this, it cannot be “good for the Jews” if large numbers of us are ill-educated and dependent on welfare.

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