Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
Yeshiva Education
Duration
0:00 / 38:15
Published
September 29, 2022

In the wake of the recent extensive New York Times investigation into Hasidic yeshivas, a fierce and often acrimonious debate has emerged about the ethics of covering the Hasidic world from the outside, how private institutions that receive government funds are accountable to the broader public, and religious minority communities’ right to insist on their way of life, even when it brings them into conflict with the state. On this episode, Jewish Currents Contributing Editor Joshua Leifer hosts a conversation between Naftuli Moster, executive director of Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), and Frieda Vizel, a writer and tour guide of Hasidic Brooklyn. Moster and Vizel—who both grew up in, and later left, Hasidic communities—draw on their own educational experiences to offer very different perspectives on the Times article and reactions to it, on the best way to advocate for change in the Hasidic world, and on what’s at stake in the fight over secular education.

Articles and Podcast Episodes Mentioned:

In Hasidic Enclaves, Failing Private Schools Flush With Public Money,” Eliza Shaprio and Brian M. Rosenthal, The New York Times

Thoughts on the NYT exposé on Hasidic education,” Frieda Vizel

Progressives Have Abandoned Haredi Children,” Naftuli Moster, Jewish Currents

The Great Yeshiva Slander,” Commentary podcast

Private Religious Schools Have Public Responsibilities Too,” Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers, The Atlantic


Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

Transcript

Joshua Leifer: Hello, welcome to the Jewish Currents podcast, On the Nose. My name is Josh Leifer. I’m a Contributing Editor at Jewish Currents. We’re recording this episode on Thursday, September 22nd, and we’re going to talk today about the big New York Times piece on Hasidic education, and what it means: the politics of it, the discourse that’s erupted since it was published. I’m very excited about the guests that we have on today. We have Frieda Vizel, who is a tour guide, a writer, an intellectual who writes about civic life, and Naftuli Moster, the Executive Director of YAFFED. And so to start, I want to ask you, Naftuli, to tell us a little bit about YAFFED: where the group comes from, how it started, what the strategy was initially, and how things led to today and the New York Times article that came out not last week, but maybe two weeks ago.

Naftuli Moster: Sure. My name is Naftuli Moster, I grew up in the Hasidic community of Borough Park. I am the middle child of 17 kids. And we belong to the Belz Hasidic sect. When I was about 19/20, I began having this itch to possibly become a psychologist. At the time, I only know the word “psychologue” [psychologist] in Yiddish and Hebrew, and I only knew of one other psychologue in the entire Belz community. But I saw a lot of mental illness in my community, and even in my own family, that went undiagnosed and untreated. And I actually believed I’d be good at it. I didn’t know what it entails to become a psychologist–you know, if the word college ever came up in Yeshiva, it was only in a very derogatory way. So when I began inquiring, and then eventually actually set foot into a college to try to apply for that, that’s when it first hit me that I truly was far behind with regards to having the basic education and having the ability to pursue a college degree.

So for instance, the first question is, of course: Do you have a high school diploma? And I was like, “I don’t even know what that is.” They had me write an essay; I didn’t know what that was, I didn’t know how to write one. Even the little math quiz that they gave me, I couldn’t do without any help. So that was my first awakening to my own poor education growing up. In the end, I managed to get into college, and I was really struggling. I mean, working hard but doing quite well, given the circumstances. And it sort of hit me at some point that there’s some real, foundational harm that was done to my education that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make up for. I was, at that point, taking Intro to Biology because I pushed it off till the very end of my college years. And it looked around. They all knew what a molecule was, what a cell is, what biodiversity is, and the basics of science. And here I was, literally learning everything from scratch.

And that’s when I decided to look into the laws regarding non-public schools. Because until then, people would always say, “Well, these are private schools, so nobody can tell them what to do.” And it didn’t sit well with me because I figured it’s a form of neglect. So I started looking into it, and then someone connected me to a reporter who had looked into it. And I was just blown away when I first discovered that New York State law has been pretty clear, that non-public schools must provide an education that is, quote, “at least substantially equivalent to public schools.” The law goes on to list subjects that need to be taught: English, math, science, social studies, even music, art, physical education, health education. And I’m looking at that list of subjects, and I’m thinking, “We didn’t get a fraction of those taught.” And to explain to your listeners what we did get, what our education did look like: In elementary and middle school, we had a maximum of 90 minutes of secular education a day, and it happened at the very end of the school day. And then once we entered high school, we got cut off completely from secular education. There was no English, there was no math, there was no science, there was no social studies for all our high school years.

So with that information, I began taking the next step and trying to advocate about it. So first, I met with some people in the community. I even met with an administrator of the Yeshiva that I attended. And I remember, vividly, how he was like, “Tuli, I tried all of this. I tried this.” And then he goes on to tell me how, going back a decade prior to that, he and his friends got together, and they realized that there were a lot of students in Yeshiva who are just not doing well. And they were like, “Let’s form a Yeshiva especially for students who are not going to become rabbis, and not going to grow to be the biggest talmid chochum [sage].” And they had a building, they lined up staff, they had funding lined up, and then the rabbis got wind of it, and they shut it down. I quickly realized that this is bigger than any one Hasidic sect, any one community.

And in fact, in some ways, it’s not even them. They don’t have the educational chops to even put together a good curriculum and offer a good education. It occurred to me: Where is the city? Where is the state in all of that? For instance, near my house, there’s a street where cars drive like maniacs. And one way is to speak to neighbors and maybe stop the drivers and be like, “Hey, you know, we’ve got kids here.” The other way to address it is to go to the people who are responsible to enforce it. To call the police, call the town, see if they can put in a speed bump. It’s actually a lot more logical than our opponents would like. They’ll be like, “Oh, they involved the government.” Yeah. Duh. That’s who’s supposed to enforce education law in New York.

JL: That’s a very good segue into what I wanted to ask Frieda. So Frieda, you wrote a piece that we will put a link to in the show notes, about how there was a sense that change, in small ways, was already happening in certain parts of the Hasidic community around education. And that, given the history and the memory that these communities hold of persecution, that maybe there was a different strategy that might have yielded change. I think for people who don’t necessarily know about the history of Orthodoxy, in some sense, Orthodoxy–and even more so Haredi Orthodoxy as a self-conscious form of Jewish life–comes out of the encounter with what you might in academia call secular modernity and secular education. And what kind of books you can read, and what kind of knowledge is allowed is, in some sense, a foundational argument that people are having. And so you, in that piece, write about how some of this history bears on the present. I was wondering if you can go a little bit more into what you were thinking, about the inside-versus-the outside strategy.

Frieda Vizel: Yeah. So both Naftuli and I are ex-Hasidic, and I grew up in Satmar Kiryas Joel. And I think we diverge enormously on what he was talking about just a minute ago, the speed bump analogy of turning to the government. I think if you want something to happen in a community that is fighting the natural pace of change, then you have to approach it with tremendous awareness that this society has a right to retain its unique way of life. That retaining its unique way of life is extremely difficult and requires maneuvering the constant decision of what change to allow and what change not to allow, and requires also a great anxiety about change. And the process of bringing change to such a community needs to take into account both the structure that this society is in, of trying to resist change, but also its history, which specifically to Hasidic community and Orthodox Jewry in general, is a long story, since modernity, of the beginning of the Maskilim, the Jewish enlighteners, who tried to bring Judaism up to date, so to speak, trying to force the Hasidim to so-called become civilized.

And they would do so, often, by targeting the education institutions and saying, “You must amend the education institutions. You have to start teaching Russian or Hungarian,” or whatever the language of the land was. “You must become a citizen of the world. You make us Jews look bad,” and so on, and so forth. And the Hasidic community had a very intuitive understanding that capitulating to those demands would put their entire existence in jeopardy And I think correctly so, to a degree. To a degree, there is room for secular subjects without dismantling the entire structure. But to a degree, if you mess with a boys education–especially because the boys education is one of the foundations of the systems of socializing Hasidic children into a very different future. If you mess with that, then I think you do, potentially, entirely dismantle the system.

And what I don’t disagree with, Naftuli, and what I hear from people all the time, is that there is a need for people in New York to speak English, that there is a need for the children to be adept. So for instance, you don’t end up going to the doctor and not being able to express your symptoms because your English is so poor. And something I have found as a tour guide–I’m a tour guide in Hasidic Williamsburg, and one of the things I really like about that is it allows me to get a really good feel for what’s going on in the streets because people talk to me. And I always hear people complain about education. They are very open to having their boys learn more. I know that the zealots in the community would not say that, but the people I speak to–I have a sense that there is an energy towards not replicating the tremendous struggles that so many people have. And I think there is definitely room for change. And I think there is change.

Clearly, you know, the education system for my parents, that generation, was a very rigid one. And slowly, we heard parents want the older rabbis, the oldest teachers, to be taken out of the schools. They want a younger energy. We started to see, in the newspapers, a ton of pictures of the children and programs. I see programs in the streets. The education system is naturally changing because parents who were born second generation, third generation, are saying, “We don’t want our children to be hit in school.” I don’t know a single parent who wants a rabbi to take a belt and hit the child. So the change is coming because the parents are saying, “We don’t want that for our children.” But all of this change is in conflict with this anxiety about change. So there’s that fine line it’s trying to find, of changing without the entire structure coming undone. And I think bringing back the entire project of forcing the Hasidic community to change is a recipe of essentially alienating the people who should be agents of change from within, and crippling the natural pace of change as people get anxious about anything that changes.

JL: I think we’re getting at what is really at the core of this. I mean, the political aspect of this is something that maybe we also should talk to, but I think it has been covered a lot, about the responsibility of elected officials. But I think in terms of the values clash that’s at the core of this, I think we’re kind of teasing it out here, in the sense of the question: What is a Hasidic education for? And can you have a Hasidic education that does incorporate the kinds of things that might equip a student to succeed in college when, in some sense, what a Hasidic education–and Frieda, you write this in another of your pieces–is, in some sense, is meant to keep people being Hasidim? So Naftuli, I know that you view things a little bit differently. So I wanted to bring you in here to hear your thoughts on that.

NM: Okay, so I’ve so much to say, in response to what Frieda was saying. Which, I totally appreciate her perspective. I will say, and in response to your question, Josh, these are real intellectual and philosophical questions, and I’ll be honest, I’m not a philosopher. And also, as a Yeshiva graduate, I never had the luxury of really contemplating it. And it’s not like Yeshiva leaders ever invited us to have this conversation, and I really wish they did. I would have told them that we’re not pushing for anything beyond the basics. English, math, science, social studies; none of the things that they object to, right? We’re not talking about the even sex ed or LGBT stuff, which of course they always go to. Like, “That’s what they’re really after.” I always tell people, you know, I went to the Belz Hasidic boys schools. My sisters went to the Belz Hasidic girls schools. If Naftuli Moster got the same education as his very own sisters got, in the same Belz Yeshiva system, there would be no YAFFED. And I can assure you they didn’t get adult-level education. It was very, very basic, but they had a better balance of the time allotment, and they did focus on subjects that just weren’t taught in our Yeshivas.

But let me respond to some very specific points. Of course, change is always happening. And I agree with that statement. And I think it’s an important thing to point out because Yeshiva leaders always like to be like, “This is how we were 1,000 years ago. And that’s how we are.” And they use the argument in court, too, and it’s important for listeners and judges out there to understand: no. Change is always happening, right? There were no cars 200 years ago. There are a lot of these things that change over time, in the way they dress, observe, and so on and so forth. But–I often hear this from Yeshiva apologists or defenders–they’re like, “Well, this advocacy is actually hindering the change.” There’s zero evidence of that. If anything, I think we can see evidence of it accelerating the change. And there is this strategy of trying to bring change from within at a slow pace.

There’s a person in Israel, for instance, his name is Menachem Bomba. He’s working with that approach. He started a Yeshiva, attracted 200 kids, 400 kids, and 600 kids. Israel has over 100,000, maybe 200,000 Haredi who are not getting a basic education. So unfortunately, in my opinion, it’s a drop in the bucket. And if there was a Yeshiva like that in Brooklyn, I can assure you my parents would not have sent me there. So this sort of very slow change is not sufficient to me. I believe we need systemic change. And we weren’t pushing for anything crazy. You know, we spoke to Agudath Israel people and so forth. We tried. We, on our end, tried, but there was this resistance. And I want to point out, Agudath Israel and other Yeshiva leaders, if they didn’t like the way we do things but they genuinely believed there’s some value in improving education, listening to the will of the parents, they could have made any change they wanted and basically sent YAFFED into oblivion. And I mean this. Like there was no need for our existence if there was this kind of basic education.

Frieda mentioned the Maskilim. I’ll say the funny thing is, I know nothing about the Maskilim. We didn’t learn Yiddish history, Jewish history, either. I always remind people, we didn’t even learn the history of the Holocaust. Of course, all kids knew 6 million Jews were murdered, and that some of our grandparents had some sort of ink on their arms. But we knew nothing about how Hitler came to be. Or post-Holocaust, there’s a lot of important history that I only learned in my 20s and 30s. I will say, in my years, corporal punishment and other kinds of beatings were unfortunately very common. But here’s the main thing I wanted to say. There’s a big difference between progress being made on not hitting children versus progress being made on education. It’s easier for parents to speak out against corporal punishment or other kinds of beatings of children, because that is not sanctioned by the Yeshiva. It’s not the issue of a policy that we should beat up kids. And that’s why parents can speak up.

Whereas, when it comes to education, it is the policy of the Yeshiva. And it is the policy of the entire Hasidic community and to some extent in the entire Haredi community. And that’s why this notion, that you can have a parent here and a parent there nicely asking for improving education–that that would result in change, in my opinion, seems a little bit like a fairy tale. And that’s why we have to pursue systemic change. And again, I understand the fears of the community, and it brings back memories, and that’s a good reason to be an adult and sit down at the table. We’ve repeatedly invited them and asked for it. The notion that you’re going to be scorched earth–you know, nothing, we’re not going to make any changes–even though, you know, as Frieda mentioned, that parents in the community want it: What’s the benefit of it? Just to stick it to YAFFED? Like, you know that parents want it. You know that it’s okay to make modest improvements. Might as well try to do something. And they didn’t.

JL: Frieda, I want to ask you actually two questions that came to my mind as Naftuli was talking. One is, I’d be very curious to hear a little bit about your experiences in the girls’ schools. Because my sense is that while, surely, maybe in some sense, there’s some basic educational skills that girls and women do learn, there also is a lot of instruction about modesty and other things. It’s not just like the girls get math and the boys don’t. But I also wanted to ask you: What would internal, communal channels be in order to bring about this kind of change? Like how would it work? Would it be talking to principals, to the rabbonim [rabbinical leaders] and saying, “Look, we want this and more in the school,” and then there would be like a give and take there? Like, how would it play out in the best case?

FV: So let me first respond to what he was saying. The very core of our difference in perspective is that, first of all, Naftuli thinks that we’re not asking for much. You know, we’re just going to add math or science, which is actually asking for systemic change. In a climate where the education system is at the heart of so much of the society’s very survival, I think it’s asking for a lot. I think what maybe is missing here is the question of: How much can the Hasidic community change its education system without changing itself, away from its way of life? What’s gonna happen if they change a little? If they change a lot? And I think a lot of people say, “Oh, just a little math, a little science. What if there was a little more?” At which point do things start to change structurally, to the point that maybe people go on to have jobs outside the community and move out of the community? Or maybe the way of life stops being recognizable for its retention of Yiddish in such closed enclaves? So I think the core of the question is: How much can there be change without taking away the very essence of being hasidische yid [Hasidic Jew]. And this is something that is a very, very difficult line.

The other thing I want to say is, Naftuli, you saying that there is no evidence that the activism you’ve been involved in, and the fights you’ve been involved in, has slowed the natural pace of change. Which I think there probably isn’t. But what we do see, what is definitely real, is that this sparked a reactionary movement that turned on all of the alarms about change, and is creating a kind of extremism where there were all these rabbis and zealots who got the fire lit under their butt and are now fighting for the education. And they’re organizing in organizations, and their eyes are peeled towards what’s happening in the schools. And I think this does not allow for things to naturally happen.

For instance, there’s now Hasidic trade schools–I’ll call them vocational training schools–that have cropped up. Like some programs teach Excel, some programs teach architecture or computer coding. And these are for adults, they’re not for children. But to me, they’re very surprising. One of them is called Viewpoint Academy. It literally has the word Academy in it. And something like that could definitely exist in the boys’ Yeshivas. A similar concept, or maybe a private program outside of the schools for parents. There are possibilities for these kinds of innovations, but they won’t happen, I believe, if the reactionary movement is sparked. That’s really why I think there is a danger in coming in and saying, “Not only are we going to force change, but we’re also going to bring up all of these other things like funding, government funding. We’re going to create this image of poor, impoverished people who are living off the dole and can’t write a straight sentence and are illiterate,” and create a tremendous amount of resentment from the outside towards Hasidim. How is that going to be in any way helpful, you know?

But now I want to talk about my own education. I went to Satmar girls’ school in Kiryas Joel. I attended 11 grades. I didn’t get a diploma. But I would say, I’m surprised that 80% failed–according to The New York Times, 80% of the girls failed standard tests. I’m surprised because our education was fairly good. We learned math and science and history. I think literature was cut by Satmar at some point. But we learned home economics, and we were fluent in English. And to this day, that gender disparity is enormous. My son speaks only English, goes to public school. And when we go to chasunes [weddings] he goes to the men’s section, and he can’t communicate. But if he were to come in the women’s section, he would of course be able to communicate. So there’s definitely a gender disparity. But, of course, the interesting thing is that the people who then go on to work are the men. The people who go on to have careers, to be the breadwinners, are actually the men, even though they are the ones who had no training whatsoever. Although the women are very often the secretaries. There is a quiet population of females that are helping the male population in the Hasidic business world and making it possible for them to be successful at bringing their own skills to the table.

JL: Frieda, you brought into the feeling of embattlement that a lot of Hasidic people, or certainly their spokesmen, bring up when articles like this come out. And I actually would be very curious to hear both of your thoughts about the article itself. I know that I and many other people in Jewish Currents, outside of Jewish Currents, with friends and from all kinds of different parts of Jewish life, have been trying to figure out how to feel about some of what was written. Because in some ways, my sense was that the article brought in a lot of different things that are related, but they’re also separate. There is the issue of English versus Yiddish, and there is, in general, the point of view that the article brings, which is one of the outside looking in. And naturally, when that happens, there’s always a feeling of misrecognition and things that are missed. I mean, Frieda, it sounds like you’re saying that it’s counterproductive for outsiders to come and present this view of the community to itself. Is that right?

FV: Well, there’s definitely an element of outsider saying, “We have to save the Hasidic children,” that seems to me to smack of a kind of, I don’t know–white man’s guilt is not an exactly appropriate term here. But pushing one culture onto another, that’s how it strikes me, of “the way these children are raised, I don’t approve of, and we have to come in here and rescue them.” And there is, of course, a long, sordid history of Western cultures having that attitude, taking that attitude, and saying, “We’re gonna step in here and save these poor children from these primitive, backward cultures or societies.” And ultimately, these things are disasters. We end up agreeing that those are disasters. And I definitely don’t like the idea when people say, “Oh, these poor women. We have to step in here and do something.” All of these things strike me as incredibly condescending, and also as a kind of colonialism.

But the article on the whole, I have no qualms with insinuating that children don’t learn English in Hasidic schools. And I also think that the question of how that can be changed is a very valid one, because I think there is a desire for change. But what really bothers me about a story like the way The New York Times frames it, is it ties it to poverty, and it ties it to tax funding, and it makes this ugly insinuation that Hasidim are just mooching off *you.* They are stealing from *you.* By the way, they’ve created a ton of resentment. I can tell you, I’m a tour guide. So I meet people from all over the world. I’ve met thousands of people, and they have, on this issue, an incredible resentment. Incredible resentment. There was no sense of the Hasidic community having any virtue that contributes to the larger world. And I think this kind of article just creates one singular narrative, of the moochers taking and remaining illiterate. This thesis is in the article. They say “the result, a New York Times investigation has found, is that generations of children have been systemically denied a basic education, trapping many of them in a cycle of joblessness and dependency.”

So denied a basic education, I think what they’re saying is a basic, secular education. They get, of course, their own education. A cycle of joblessness, and dependency; if joblessness is to say there is a high poverty rate, and to insinuate that people are unemployed–which is not true, the vast majority of in places like Williamsburg work–and dependency, is to v create this resentment that people in this community are getting government aid. Which strikes me as so hypocritical for, supposedly, a newspaper that is on the left. I am on the left. I support entitlement programs. I think lunch programs are a beautiful thing. I think schools supporting the meals of children is the raising of the village that is necessary. And it strikes me as so underhanded and ugly to make people resentful for things like lunch programs or other school programs. And that’s really where the heart of my criticism of that New York Times piece is.

JL: Naftuli, I want to bring you in to hear your thoughts, because I imagine you see things a little bit differently.

NM: Yes. I think we take away so much responsibility from the leaders. There’s always like, there’s a small organization, YAFFED, that somehow made the Satmar rebbe, and the Bobover rebbe, the Vizhnitzer rebbe–all these rebbes, with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets, connections to every level of government and government officials, they can tell 5,000 people to jump off a roof and they’ll do it, right? Like enough with the coddling of them. They should have the responsibility to be able to distinguish between what is an attempt to shut down their Yeshivas versus an attempt to try to teach a little bit of English, math, and science, and so forth. And I recently tweeted about this, where I pointed out–look, again, I didn’t learn history, so I don’t know for a fact–but I can just imagine that during the Civil Rights Movement, or the women’s rights movements, I bet there were people who said, “You know, if only you tried to bring change from within. In fact, change was already coming, and possibly your harsh advocacy stalled it.” I think it’s a hurtful and inaccurate way of seeing this whole thing.

On the point that it generates resentment: Look, when we started YAFFED, we didn’t care about poverty, dependence on government assistance, we cared about education. There’s a law, it’s been on the books for a long time, the Yeshivas are not compliant with it. You try to make a pitch to the government and say, “Here’s why you should care, because here’s how it impacts these kids and society.” If that doesn’t work–which of course in New York, it doesn’t work–you have to make the case to the public so that they can then apply that kind of pressure on the government, so that they are compelled to make the change. This isn’t like, trying to save a community from itself. It’s unfair to characterize it in that way, as though this is a community unto itself, not interfering or not engaging with the public, having no impact on the public, and be like, “Oh, it’s colonialism, showing up there and being like, ‘you must change.’ ” No, there’s been a law on the books since before the Hasidim even moved into New York State, maybe even like 50 years before they first began moving into New York State. And the consequences of not getting an education do have an impact on society. I don’t think it’s all resentment.

Let me give you an example. When George Floyd was murdered by a cop, right, it was shown on TV. It generated resentment to the cops, to the police, but it was also a catalyst for change because people understood the issue. It raised awareness, and it pushed for change. Of course, with some people, that resentment goes too far. Some people speak poorly about the issue. We haven’t seen anyone acting, even though the Yeshiva leaders like to say that we’re causing antisemitic attacks, there’s been zero evidence of that happening. But again, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t or can’t talk about the issue and how it impacts society, and therefore, why we think society should come to their aid. And I also want to add, even if it were true, which it is not, that the Hasidic community was an island unto itself, not using any of the resources, not participating in the electoral process–which is some of the stuff that you see, actually, with the Amish–I personally believe that everyone has an obligation to speak out on behalf of the Hasidic kids. It’s being portrayed as though as this is what the community wants. But that’s not what the kids want. They’re kids. They don’t know what is being done to them until it is too late. And the same way we can advocate for little kids being put in cages at the border, there’s no reason why we cannot advocate for kids who are being denied an education. It doesn’t really matter what kind of trauma some of the rabbis have from past generations. The reality is, there’s a law and the law is there for a good reason. The law explains itself that no kid should be left to ignorance. It is not being enforced, and it is harming kids, and it is harming people in the community. Therefore, it makes sense for anyone–in fact, I see it as a moral obligation–we must go and seek out the outrage, moral outrage, from the public, especially the broader Jewish community.

FV: I want to say: What this comes down to is the survival of a way of life. The real serious question, at its core, is how does the Hasidic community retain its way of life while also making change. You can try to make all sorts of intellectual arguments. I think it ultimately comes down to a sensitive, delicate walk from within. Change made by people who really don’t want the system to change, but want these particular things to change. I’ve used the analogy of the Dor Yeshorim organization, which is an organization that does genetic testing before marriage to check if there are diseases like Tay Sachs, which is very common among Ashkenazi Jews. The man who started the organization had four children that were born with Tay Sachs. And it is a terrible, devastating tragedy. The children died before they were 10, as far as I remember. And he started to get the community involved with genetic testing, which, of course, in some ways is like going against the idea of “Let everything be beshert”: leave it in God’s hands. But he wanted people to get tested, to use the tools of science and modernity in order to prevent this terrible tragedy. And he was effective, and I think what made him effective, I can’t say it was particularly one specific argument as much as it was a sensitivity, a desire to respect, on the one hand, while also really, really wanting this particular change.

JL: I want to ask one last question. Something that has come up alongside the conversation about the article itself and the importance of education has been this question of what it means to write, and think, and talk about a community that one is not part of, or one is no longer part of. And something that strikes me that you both have in common is that you both, in some sense, translate the communities in which you were raised into a language and a way of thinking that is understandable by people who have had no encounter with it. I’d be curious, from both of you, to hear about some of the questions or challenges that you face in translating your experiences to a non-Hasidic–a largely non-Hasidic–audience.

NM: You know, I find that the general public actually tends to be more generous in giving the benefit of the doubt, almost, to Yeshivas and to the community. People try to make it seem like everyone’s out to get the Haredi world; I see the exact opposite. Like I can tell you from my years of advocacy, the broader Jewish community, they don’t want to get involved. You know, you have to drag them, kicking and screaming, to finally say, “Look, if you’re going to pursue tikkun olam elsewhere, you better apply it here, too.” So there’s no real desire for them to step in. But specifically, I don’t think most people comprehend what we’re talking about. Like I think especially the right has been pushing this narrative, right, that there’s an assault on religious education.

JL: Right, they turn into like a huge culture war thing, and Ben Shapiro has been tweeting about it.

NM: What they are trying to push is this narrative, like, “Look, you know, these Catholic schools–full, secular education throughout the day and a little bit of religious education at the end of the day–and that’s the kind of education that YAFFED is going after. They’re trying to fight that.” Right? But a Hasidic boy, age 12, gets 90 minutes of secular education at the end of the day, if they’re lucky. And then no secular education once they’re 14 or 15, and so forth, in high school. That’s a big challenge to convey to people, because many people just cannot fathom that kind of level of what I say is educational neglect. One final point I’ll make is Frida brings up an example, the Dor Yeshorim example. Again, it’s an example where it is not sanctioned by the community to have children born with defects as a result of genetic conflict. So I mean, it’s huge. Dor Yeshorim is amazing. But I’m saying it is not the same, this idea that you could bring change from within, because of course, 95% of the Hasidic population, they have nothing against the idea of trying to mitigate these kinds of genetic issues. It’s not a systemically imposed thing. It’s not something that is coming from the leadership. So it is different. The notion that we would try to bring change from within, there would be a kumbaya and the leaders would be like, “Oh, sure, I had no idea that people want a better education, and that they’re living in poverty. Oh, sure, let’s just,” you know, it’s not the same. It’s just not the same. And you know, we can have a legitimate discussion about these issues, but at least let’s talk apples and apples, not compare apples and oranges.

FV: I think at the core of this conversation is such deep, philosophical disagreements about what the role of outsiders are, what the role of people in the community is, and I think it comes down to questions of outsiders trying to force change and believing that they know what’s good for a society. And this is where we really diverge, and to what degree outsiders’ definition of what is neglect and what needs to change is one that should be imposed on another population.

JL: I’d be curious to hear about what it means that there are all these people who have taken up the cause of the Hasidic Yeshivas, but who aren’t from Hasidic communities themselves. I mean, Naftuli mentioned this a little bit, about how the cause has been enlisted in the right-wing culture war, and Ben Shapiro is defending it, and you have all these people who are modern Orthodox who are saying it’s an assault on traditionalist ways of life.

FV: There’s been so much that has been frustrating. For me, as someone who sees myself as, I would call myself a street anthropologist, I am interested in this society. It really, really bothers me that when it’s convenient, the modern Orthodox and the Yeshivish community will step in, and they will pretend that it’s all one monolith. And it is not. They’re different communities and a lot of the apologia involves blurring all the lines. And I listened to a Commentary Magazine podcast where they were talking about the Hasidic education system, and they talk about the boys learning English. And there’s so much misinformation, almost a laziness, about actually going into the communities you’re defending and finding out what they’re like. Which I don’t find to be any better than an outsider saying, “Well, ho ho ho, I’ve come in and I’ve said you need to change. I know what’s good for you and you need to change.” I see them both as being a lazy projection of your own values. Especially what I see is the right wing, like that podcast I was listening to, their values on the two-parent family, the many children, they’re praising it on and on, and they want to take that value and extrapolate it onto the Hasidic community, form it as some kind of evidence. It’s so frustrating because you don’t know that community, and it’s more complicated, and it’s definitely not this utopia of perfect families. I think apologia doesn’t help at all. All of the defense doesn’t help in terms of understanding, which I think is valuable. And I tried to do it in my own work. I don’t have any lofty goals in my work, to make people see things one way or another. I just find it, more than anything, interesting. It does something good for us. And that’s, I think, the ultimate benefit in trying to look closer instead of just bringing ideology.

JL: Naftuli, Frieda, thank you so much for talking with me and to the Jewish Currents audience today. Really appreciate it. I do think that this was an edifying conversation for me. Nuanced, respectful. Hopefully, it’ll model a way of talking about this for others. So with that, thank you so much, and maybe we’ll talk another time.

NM: Thank you so much.

FV: Thank you.



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