In the third part of his Torah in Motion lecture series on the Ben Ish Chai, Marc Shapiro says: “Students need to be given training so that they can earn a living. He also says that is important for the Jews of Iraq to speak a proper Arabic. The language of the city is Arabic but the problem is that we don’t speak good Arabic. We speak Judeo-Arabic… Is there any more of a lack than when someone living in a country doesn’t understand its language?
“I’ve met people from Kiryas Joel and Williamsburg , born in America, not only do they speak with an accent, they are functionally illiterate. This guy in New York is suing the State of New York because they don’t enforce the law that every school needs to teach basic secular education.”
“It’s a form of child abuse. They can’t speak English. They can’t earn a living.”
Yiddish Isn’t Enough
A Yeshiva Graduate Fights for Secular Studies in Hasidic Education
Naftuli Moster was a senior at the College of Staten Island when he first heard the word “molecule.” Perplexed, he looked around the classroom. Nobody else seemed confused. Yet again, because of gaps in his early education, Mr. Moster was ignorant of a basic concept that everybody else knew.
“I felt embarrassed and ashamed,” he said. “Every single time I didn’t know something, I thought, ‘I’m too crippled to make it through.’ ”
Mr. Moster had grown up one of 17 children in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in Borough Park, Brooklyn, where most Hasidic men marry young and, right after finishing yeshiva, or high school, either immediately enter the work force or dedicate themselves to Talmudic studies. But if Mr. Moster’s educational ambitions were unusual among his peers, his limited grasp of English was not.
There are 250 Jewish private schools in New York City, and though some schools, like Ramaz on the Upper East Side, have intensive secular curriculums, many do not. Nearly one-third of all students in Jewish schools are “English language learners,” according to the city’s Department of Education. Yiddish is the Hasidic community’s first language, and both parents and educators report that many boys’ schools do not teach the A B C’s until children are 7 or 8 years old. Boys in elementary and middle school study religious subjects from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. followed by approximately 90 minutes of English and math. At 13, when boys formally enter yeshiva, most stop receiving any English instruction.
This has been true for decades, even though Hasidic schools receive millions of dollars in government funds and are required by state law to teach a curriculum that is “equivalent” to what public schools offer.
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Mr. Moster, worried that the next generation of Hasidic Jews, plagued by high poverty and scant opportunities, will be ill prepared to provide for themselves, is calling attention to the problem with activism and possible legal action against the New York State Education Department. But the odds are against him. What Mr. Moster needs most is a groundswell of support, yet he has been marked as a renegade by the very community he says he is fighting for.
Mr. Moster, now 28, is working toward a master’s degree in social work from Hunter College. He attributes some of his success to early exposure to English. His parents spoke English between themselves, though they exclusively used Yiddish with their children. Mr. Moster’s sisters spoke English when they were growing up, he said, because Hasidic girls generally receive a better secular education than the boys. He was also a curious child. As a boy, he became interested in psychology after an Israeli psychologist came to Brooklyn. The community “really bragged about it, so I became intrigued in that field,” he said.
Though Mr. Moster was eager to know about the outside world, he did not realize that secular education could open those doors. In his school, he said, English, math and science were considered “profane.” When Yeshiva Machzikei Hadas Belz, the school on 16th Avenue in Borough Park where Mr. Moster was one of about 1,500 boys, added an extra year of secular studies, the students rebelled. “We kids were outraged,” Mr. Moster recalled ruefully. “We’d been waiting so many years to get rid of these nonimportant subjects.” The school soon reverted to its old curriculum.
The man behind the added year was a Yeshiva Belz board member named Jacob Ungar. Today, Mr. Ungar has high praise for his community’s educational standards. “It’s like at any school, where you have the main subjects and then the extracurriculars,” he said, adding: “Whatever a child usually gets in a public school, or Catholic parochial school or modern Jewish school — the yeshiva education is superior to that. Our students are as well educated as they were 100 years ago.”
When Mr. Moster first applied to college, after yeshiva, he did not know what a high-school diploma was. He had never learned the word “essay,” let alone been taught to write one. “I know I sound articulate,” he said recently. But nine years after beginning higher education, he said, “there are still times where I’m completely stumped by a certain word or concept that is familiar to the average student.”
“Given basic tools, I could be a lot further in my education,” he said. “That’s true for every member of the Hasidic community.”
In 2011, Mr. Moster founded Young Advocates for Fair Education, or Yaffed. Its aim was simple. The state’s Education Department requires the city’s nonpublic schools to teach a curriculum that is “substantially equivalent to that provided in the public schools,” and requires local school superintendents to ensure the standards are met. Mr. Moster says those standards are not being met.
So he sat down with three superintendents in New York whose districts have large Hasidic populations. “Two of them had no idea it was their responsibility to enforce the law,” he said. “In one case I was pointing out the regulations online.”
In a statement, the city’s Education Department said Mr. Moster needed to identify wrongdoing in specific schools for superintendents to investigate. “Superintendents cannot just show up at private schools for random inspections without a reason,” a department spokesman said.
Mr. Moster said his goal was to advocate systemic change, not to punish specific institutions. He also sent a concerned letter to the State Board of Regents, which oversees the State Education Department. He received a response that said that “although there is an equivalency of instruction requirement,” nonpublic schools “largely operate outside the scope of state-mandated general education requirements and oversight.”