The fight over secular education for the ultra-Orthodox has spread beyond Israel, with activists in the US and Canada suing their governments for failing to impose educational standards on hassidic schools, while Orthodox schools in Belgium have been engaging in heated battles over the content of their curricula with local authorities.
These controversies came to the fore over the weekend when Ami Magazine, an English language ultra-Orthodox weekly, ran an advertisement for Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), an organization that lobbies for increased secular education among New York’s hassidim.
Bearing the Talmudic quote “a man is obligated to teach his son a trade” and showing an illustration of a hassidic boy reading a math textbook, the advertisement asserted that learning secular subjects is a religious mandate as well as the law.
The organization used the same advertisement on a billboard overlooking New York’s Prospect Expressway in 2013.
“Last night it came to my attention that in this week’s edition of Ami Magazine there is a banner ad for YAFFED, an organization with a mission to change the state of Orthodox Jewish chinuch [education],” wrote Ami Magazine editor Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter in an email to subscribers.
“Ami Magazine has repeatedly advocated against such efforts and has condemned organizations like YAFFED.
We have asked the community to unite against all those who seek to reform the Orthodox way of life, and we remain steadfast in our resolve to defeat such misguided initiatives,” he said.
The inclusion of the advertisement, Frankfurter stated, was the result of an error in the advertising sales process, for which he apologized.
YAFFED founder Naftuli Moster is currently suing the state of New York for failing to implement the same standards in ultra-Orthodox schools as in their secular counterparts, and, according to The New York Times, the parents of several students within that system have agreed to join him, although they are doing so anonymously for fears of communal backlash.
Yochanan Lowen, a former Satmar hassid, is in the process of suing authorities in Quebec, Canada, including the Department of Youth Protection, for failing to force local hassidic schools to meet nationwide educational standards, arguing that he lacks the basic life skills to function outside of his community as a result.
While secular subjects form a much greater part of the curriculum at American ultra-Orthodox schools than in Israeli ones, especially among the non-hassidic groups, there are significant numbers of students who receive minimal instruction.
A recent issue of Mishpacha, a competitor of Ami Magazine’s, ran glossy pictures of ultra-Orthodox youngsters studying in a brand new computer lab, showing the stark differences between the different educational standards at play among the pious.
While there are many who are sympathetic to YAFFED’s goals, the issue is less about secular studies than how you go about talking about it, explained Dr. Yoel Finkelman, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the author of Strictly Kosher Reading, a book exploring the ultra-Orthodox media landscape.
The fact that the staff of YAFFED is drawn from former members of the ultra-Orthodox community, as well as the fact that they chose to operate outside of the established Orthodox channels, are likely responsible for Ami Magazine’s rejection of their advertisement, he said.
“The Orthodox community is happy to have a conversation as long as you have the conversation without undermining the existing communal hierarchy,” Finkelman said. “Instead of talking about it with the educators and the big rabbis, they have gone outside the system and gone to the courts and tried to force the courts to shove it down the throat of the haredi [ultra-orthodox] community, and if there’s anything that the haredi community protects, it is their educational autonomy.”
Orthodox antipathies toward those seen as mosers, or informers to secular authorities, run deep.
According to Stuart Schnee, a public relations agent who works with the ultra-Orthodox community, cultural baggage from the Enlightenment also affects how the religious community sees efforts to reform its schooling.
YAFFED is “going to outside sources to change and impact Orthodox Jewish education and that pushes a lot of buttons. That’s what happened in Russia with the maskilim [ Jewish proponents of the Enlightenment] forcing yeshivas to teach certain things. There is probably a deep down immediate reaction” to such efforts, he said.
“I can’t imagine placing billboards, threatening lawsuits and placing articles in The New York Times will make people feel so warm and fuzzy about it, even if they think the goals are legitimate,” he said This controversy may hint at a larger trend within ultra-Orthodoxy worldwide, according to Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College.
“The recent cases of Naftuli Moster in New York, as well as a similar one in Quebec, in which legal action against the haredi schools and their failure to provide a standard general education for their students [was taken] by forcing state education authorities to enforce those standards, as well as pushback in Belgium by the haredi schools, hints at ferment in this community on this subject,” he posited.
In Belgium, educational authorities last year pushed for tighter controls over what the ultra-Orthodox teach their children, mandating the teaching of evolutionary biology, human reproduction and other subjects considered taboo.
“I think what you see in [Ami] magazine is an ambivalence at best and a confusion at worst as to what the position is of the community at large,” Heilman said.
While YAFFED’s tactics have been criticized as divisive, the organization believes that it has been left with little choice in how to bring about reform.
“Ami Magazine had an opportunity to be on the right side of history. And judging from the steady flow of praise we get from community members and leaders, they would have had plenty of support within the community,” the organization told The Jerusalem Post.
“We are often told ‘change needs to come from within,’ but how can change come from within when the local/ Heimish [religious] magazines choose to self-censor? People complain about us talking to the non-Jewish media about this issue, but the Heimish newspapers repeatedly reject our ads and offers for interviews. We hope they come around and choose to help us make a tremendous positive difference in the lives of tens of thousands of hassidic and ultra-Orthodox boys’ lives,” it said.
“Either way, we are glad that Ami had brought attention to this issue,” it concluded.The author of this article wrote for ‘Ami Magazine’ on a regular basis several years ago.