BROOKLYN – For a marriage-minded girl in Brooklyn’s Orthodox community, thereÂ is no match more prized than a religious scholar.
Yet when it comes to secular subjects like English and math, most brides areÂ better educated than even the most learned grooms.
As DNAinfo.com New York reported in the first installment of a three-partÂ series, boys in Brooklyn’s 84,000-student JewishÂ parochial school system devote the bulk of their time to studying religiousÂ texts in Yiddish and Hebrew, while beneath ironclad social restrictionsÂ girls enjoy an education rich with algebra, modern literature and AmericanÂ history.
In Orthodox Judaism, men are religiously required to study the Torah, andÂ only they are believed to have the intellectual and spiritual capacity to parseÂ the Talmud. Put simply, Jewish boys are too important to be bothered withÂ frivolous concepts like geometry and grammar, experts on the communitiesÂ said.
“For a young Jewish teenager, it’s a waste of time because he’s supposed toÂ be studying Talmud, Bible, Jewish codes,” said Zalman Alpert, a librarian atÂ Yeshiva University and an expert on Brooklyn’s Orthodox communities.
“No matter which Orthodox community you’re talking about, the girls end upÂ getting a better education in secular studies.”
In fact, once you get past the dress code, most Hasidic girls’ schools wouldÂ be recognizable to anyone familiar with the city’s other parochial schools. EvenÂ in the most restrictive communities, Orthodox girls typically attend class fromÂ 8 or 9 a.m. until 3 or 4 p.m., spending the first half of the day on religiousÂ subjects and the second half on secular ones.
“It’s not like they just gave us an hour of English. We had math, EnglishÂ subjects, spelling, vocabulary, grammar, writing, global studies, history,Â science,” said Libby Pollack, who graduated from the girls branch of BelzÂ Yeshiva in Borough Park.
“Compared to men, we’re the educated ones.”
“The classes that I sat in on, it was a very lively dynamic,” said authorÂ Stephanie Levine, whose book, “Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers,” explores the lives ofÂ modern young Lubavitch women in Crown Heights.
“[Bais Rivkah in Crown Heights] did give Regents diplomas, and they pridedÂ themselves on that. They really wanted me to know that – the principal made itÂ very clear that they were meeting certain city and state standards.”
Nothing remotely equivalent exists in most of the boys’ schools.
“As many problems as my sisters have had in their education, I would kill forÂ the education they got,” said Eli, 23, who grew up in Midwood and askedÂ DNAinfo.com New York to withhold his last name to protect his parents andÂ siblings who still live there.
“[In boys’ school] there was a general disrespect for secular studies. TheyÂ use Hebrew [to fulfill foreign language requirements]. We learned the OldÂ Testament for two years, and that counts as a foreign language.”
Shmueli Lowenstein, who attended the prominent Crown Heights yeshiva OholeiÂ Torah, said even basic concepts like math were ignored at his school.
“My experience there was absolutely zero, none of that. When you did yourÂ homework, the questions were asked in Yiddish and you responded in Yiddish,” Lowenstein said. “The answer the rabbis would give you was all that is alreadyÂ in the Torah.Â The Gemara, the Talmud is fullÂ of math concepts. It’s already built in.”
Former students and parents described a system like the one at Belz YeshivaÂ in Borough Park and United Talmudical Academy in Williamsburg – where boysÂ receive bare-bones math and English lessons for an hour or two four days a week,Â run by a barely qualified teacher and always after a full day of religiousÂ instruction.
“We were throwing tangerines at our teacher, apples at our teacher, becauseÂ we were tired, we were done with the day,” said Hershy Gelbstein, a former UTAÂ student. “We didn’t have levels, we learned the same thing every year – noÂ wonder we threw tangerines.”
Textbooks, when available, are heavily censored.
“Any reference to anything they don’t feel comfortable with they will justÂ take out of books. Our reading books – forget about history books, the readingÂ books were stripped,” said David, a Belz Yeshiva parent who asked DNAinfo.comÂ New York to withhold his last name to protect his children.
“They blacked it out, took pages out. They had government books that theÂ government gave, but even those books were stripped,” David said.
The practice is not limited to Belz Yeshiva.
Textbooks from UTA acquired by DNAinfo.com New York show the heavy hand ofÂ censorship – in addition to pages of text being blacked out, full-lengthÂ trousers were added to a cartoon bear to protect the animal’s modesty.
“They will censor anything that’s not tznius [modest] – pants, shortÂ sleeves, elbows, necklines, stuff like that they’ll censor,” said Faye TurnheimÂ of Williamsburg, a former teacher at UTA’s girls school. “There was one headÂ censor, and they would all get a printout of what the head censor has alreadyÂ done – on page 67 censor these words, on page 68 these words, cut out theseÂ pages.”
Belz Yeshiva did not return several calls for comment and a UTA principal,Â Rabbi Sholom Skaist, refused to answer questions after admitting that secularÂ studies are taught to boys only in fourth through eighth grades. Oholei TorahÂ also declined to comment for the series.
While many girls are busy earning Regents diplomas, a boy’s secular educationÂ in most yeshivas ends completely after his bar mitzvah at age 13.
“In my yeshiva and many others, you wake up around 6 to go learn JudaicÂ studies, you pray, eat breakfast, more Judaic studies, lunch, more JudaicÂ studies, dinner, and then more Judaic studies and then you go home,” saidÂ Naftuli Moster, 26, a native of Borough Park and the founder of YAFFED, a JewishÂ organization dedicated to improving the quality of secular education in New YorkÂ yeshivas.
“Boys are in yeshiva from 6:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. and they don’t learn aÂ single word of English.”
Few Jewish boys schools offers their graduates a state-issued diploma,Â despite the evident and growing demand. Brooklyn’s Hasidic neighborhoods,Â newspapers and websites are dotted with advertisements for GED tutors and prepÂ courses.
Touro College offers ESL classes targeted exclusively to the OrthodoxÂ population, even though most students were born and raised in New York City. ButÂ even those offer faint hope for young men already trying to support aÂ family.
“The only reason I was able to communicate in English somewhat when I wasÂ growing up was because my sisters were talking English to themselves and to myÂ mother,” Moster said. “I think this is the single most destructive thing thatÂ happened to us, the fact that we don’t speak English.”
The Department of Education is responsible for making sure the yeshivas offerÂ quality schooling.
“If a child attends a nonpublic school or is being educated at home, theÂ board of education of the school district in which the child resides must beÂ assured that the child is receiving instruction which is substantiallyÂ equivalent to that provided in the public schools,” said state DOE spokeswomanÂ Antonia Valentine.
But when asked to comment for this series of stories, spokeswoman MargeÂ Feinberg said only, “We were notified of a situation last year regardingÂ requirements. As a result, we engaged in the process outlined by NY State.”
It was left unclear what the “situation” was and which school itÂ involved.
Critics say the lack of basic education for boys keeps Orthodox familiesÂ poor, forcing many to depend on government assistance.
“Many people struggle. You have some percentage who work at B&H Photo [aÂ Hasidic-owned electronics superstore], you have a large percent of people whoÂ work in stores in Borough Park, in Williamsburg, at a local grocery or a localÂ bookstore – there’s a lot of people working in warehouses,” Moster said.
“For me to run that warehouse didn’t require much, it was just physical work.Â Ironically, even for that we’re not trained.”
Others argue that an education lacking all but the most rudimentaryÂ real-world skills keeps the community’s young men captive in a system thatÂ offers few alternatives, either for them or their children.
“I’ve seen this experience from a lot of people from other communities,Â especially Satmar – they step out into the world and they’re literallyÂ immigrants,” Lowenstein said. “Even if you wanted to leave, what are you goingÂ to do? You can’t spell your own name.”
But girls, who tend to get married early and care for large families, don’tÂ often get the chance to venture into the world to make use of their superiorÂ education, said Lowenstein, who has eight brothers and sisters.
“You’re not even educating the ones who are supposed to be providers,” heÂ said.Â “You’re educating all these women with tools they’re never going toÂ be able to use.”
Source: DNA Info