by Cole S. Aronson
The way to fix well-funded, failing schools is more funding––unless the schools are privately run. Welfare dependency isn’t lamentable––unless the dependents belong to religious sects. Standardized tests are bigoted and tell us nothing about minority achievement––unless the minority is pious and speaks Yiddish.
For many readers, such left-wing hypocrisy explains the New York Times’s recent report that New York’s Hasidic schools (which educate thousands of children and take millions in public money) produce alumni with dreadful command of English, social studies, mathematics, and science. These readers argue that the article was a double-spread fusillade in the Times’s hundred-year war against Jewish particularism (for a detailed history of that campaign, see my grandfather Jerold Auerbach’s monograph Print to Fit), and that no other community would have been so singled out.
Which is all fair enough. I have my doubts about the Times’s motives in printing this article and I certainly think the Gray Lady has a Jewish problem. But what matters right now––if the Times story is correct, which I’ll assume it basically is––is that numerous Jewish children are not getting educated in the language, history, and civics of the country of which they are citizens.
The stats are astonishing. “Only nine schools [in New York] had less than 1 percent of students testing at grade level” in 2019, the Times reports. All were Hasidic boys schools. Hasidic girls schools did better, with an 80 percent fail rate. That’s worse––far worse––than public schools with high numbers of poor children, to say nothing of non-Hasidic Jewish schools and of private schools in general. Teachers in boys schools testify that most of their students can’t speak and read and write English fluently. At many boys schools, secular studies pretty much stop after bar mitzvah age––thirteen.
These failures don’t seem explicable as isolated cases of negligence. Rather, whole schools knowingly produce alumni unequipped for American life. Indeed, in 2018, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, a Satmar Hasidic leader (Satmar is one of the largest and most reclusive sects), proudly declared in Yiddish that Satmar schools taught virtually no secular subjects and that Satmar would refuse to comply with state education laws and commissions.
Not that local and state governments have been terribly exacting. Bill de Blasio slow-rolled an investigation into Hasidic schools prompted by a complaint in 2015 that the institutions were systematically failing their students. Many of the schools simply wouldn’t give investigators access. After four years a report was released surveying twenty-eight Hasidic schools in Brooklyn. According to the letter from Richard Carranza, then schools chancellor, to the state education commissioner, only two of those schools provided educations that are “substantially equivalent” to those received in public schools. Andrew Cuomo was also a longtime ally of the Hasidim; according to the Times, he did not deny promising the Satmar Hasidim in 2018 that he’d refrain from interfering in their operations.
This is not good for the Jews. For an immigrant to struggle with English is one thing, and I am proud to know plenty who have done so. But many Hasidic communities raise American children in Yiddish while not fluently teaching them the language of their country. This is to deny children full participation in American public life and access to many great American institutions––of education, culture, finance, law, media. To not teach proper civics and American history is to promote ingratitude for this country’s many blessings, and to neglect a duty all Americans share to pass on those blessings from generation to generation. Which is bad enough, but the Hasidim have the chutzpah to fund this unpatriotic way of teaching with hundreds of millions of dollars in public money.
Raising kids in the Jewish tradition in a world actively hostile to its teachings is a holy and heroic thing to do, and I intend to try to do it myself. America has thrived because religious communities transmit their values and their practices. Our society, adrift and lonely and faithless, will be reoriented by those who live their lives as adventures for God’s sake. But not if those same people treat their polity as a contemptible communal ATM, instead of as a community of “shared loves” (to borrow a phrase from R. R. Reno).
To be a light unto the nations, as the Jews are called to be, requires respect for one’s gentile and secular Jewish neighbors. It also requires civic-mindedness, not Old World paranoia that treats governments like the Russian czars––to be exploited when possible and appeased when necessary. If ever there has been a non-Jewish country that deserved Jewish gratitude and respect, it is America. No nation has been so brilliantly conceived in liberty rightly understood and so ceaselessly dedicated to the proposition that all men are made in God’s image.
Hasidim and Jews in general have done well in this country. Hasidic communities in particular are admirably dedicated to the Jewish tradition––all while bearing much of the recent rise in anti-Semitism, which left-wing papers like the Times reported on too little too late. Hasidic maintenance of the Yiddish language is a gorgeous thing. Its internal charitable work is Tocquevillianism at its best. But if the cost of this single-mindedness is unethical behavior toward locality, state, and country, then the community has some serious thinking to do.
New York City and New York State will not be able to do it for them. It’s a task for Hasidim themselves. And for their non-Hasidic Orthodox brethren, in particular the Modern Orthodox community that has managed, however imperfectly, to transmit Torah life while engaging fruitfully in American life. But as a general rule, the Modern Orthodox community is loathe to criticize the ultra-Orthodox, Hasidim included. One cost of this forbearance is that the serious errors in more hardline parts of Orthodoxy are published by people hostile to Orthodox values, like those at the Times. Something similar happens in the Israeli ultra-Orthodox world, which has been repeatedly embarrassed by investigations published in the left-wing paper Haaretz.
Conservative intellectuals do the Hasidim no favors by defending their bad behavior and nurturing their grievances. This isn’t about the culture war or the double-standards of the American left or how the New York Times has it in for the Jews (which it does). It’s about a community’s failure to raise literate Americans—the kind every conservative intellectual wants to rear in their own families, and the kind the conservative educational reform industry has been trying for years to get public schools to produce.
The victims of Hasidic neglect are Hasidic children themselves––and a country that desperately needs the influence of robust and patriotic religious communities.
Cole S. Aronson is an MA candidate in philosophy at Hebrew University and a Krauthammer fellow with the Tikvah Fund.