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Mother of 10 says her kids didn't learn basic reading, math, science at Hasidic schools

A yeshiva school bus drives through Borough Park on Sept. 12, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A yeshiva school bus drives through Borough Park on Sept. 12, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, New York Times reporter Eliza Shapiro told Here & Now about an investigation into New York’s Hasidic yeshivas, or schools, that offer so little non-religious education that students get to high school without basic reading and math skills.

These schools are not required to give standardized tests but some do. In 2019, the Central United Talmudical Academy tested 1,000 boys in reading and math. All of them failed. While many Jewish schools have been recognized for excellence, these ultra-orthodox Hasidic schools, which serve about 50,000 students across Brooklyn and the lower Hudson Valley, offer a very different education.

Yeshiva school administrators and attorneys representing them dispute these claims and statistics. They say their schools reflect the community’s values, and many parents agree. But others, and former students, say the schools violate state laws guaranteeing an adequate education.

Among those parents is Beatrice Weber. She has 10 children and her three youngest kids still live at home. She filed a complaint against her son’s yeshiva in 2019. And she works for Yaffed, a non-profit trying to improve education in Hasidic schools.

“That investigative report shocked a lot of people,” Weber says, “but not me and not any of the parents in the community. We know this.”

Beatrice Weber and children at her daughter’s wedding. (Courtesy of Beatrice Weber)

Weber’s 9-year-old son started attending his yeshiva in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — located a block away from Central United Talmudical Academy — at age 3, but didn’t start learning secular subjects until second grade. Weber taught her children English as their first language at home, so some of her kids found themselves helping their Yiddish-speaking teachers with reading

Students at these yeshivas spend long 8-hour days in school with only the final hour dedicated to academic studies like English and math. By the time they leave for high school, the kids are generally reading at a third-grade level, unable to write an essay, or do math beyond long division. That means no fractions, no algebra, no advanced math, Weber says.

Recently, her son’s teacher told the class that all the planets revolve around the Earth, and drew a picture to illustrate

“My son, who’s a little bit of a space geek, raised his hand and was like, ‘No, that’s not how it works,’” Weber says. “And the teacher was actually surprised and actually paid a lot of attention when my son explained it to him. And I was like, ‘Wasn’t he angry that you disrespected him?’ He’s like, ‘No, no, no. The teacher was very curious. He said he had never learned that before.’”

Most teachers at these particular yeshivas don’t have teaching certifications or even high school diplomas, Weber says, adding that they were also educated in these schools.

When Weber read the New York Times investigation, seeing the story told publicly brought her pain, trauma and fear of antisemitic response.

“I’m a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. That fear is always there, even though I know logically that the only way to improve something is to expose it,” she says. “I’ve written my own experiences of living in the community and leaving. So I know the value logically of exposing these kinds of stories, yet having it exposed felt really scary.”

But Weber wants things to change for kids like her son — a bright young boy who can’t read at his grade level. She says she’s hired a tutor, at the end of his long school days, to help him overcome the limited secular education he’s getting at school.

Weber says she’s particularly frustrated because this lack of non-religious education doesn’t reflect Jewish values. Many Jewish schools teach strong Judaic and secular curricula. But Weber says she’s forced to send her smart, curious son to his yeshiva despite all the shortcomings because it’s mandated in her divorce agreement.

She counters the argument that the right to religious freedom gives these schools the right to deny secular education.

“[Yeshivas] have a right to teach their religious subjects, but I don’t think that that gives them a right not to teach the academic subjects. Children should be able to graduate schools being able to know how to read and write,” she says. ”There is nothing in Judaism that would dictate that a child should not be able to do that.”

When it comes to gender equity, Weber points out that boys and girls go to separate schools from about age three. And while most of the non-religious education girls get is similar to that of their male counterparts, they do learn slightly more English and writing. Weber says that’s because they’ll be expected to manage a household, take care of bills and other formalities like “filling out paperwork at the doctor’s office.” Still, they will not be exposed to literature, anything beyond rudimentary math or other staples of secular education.

Recent picture of Beatrice Weber and her three youngest children. (Courtesy Beatrice Weber)

Weber’s children also experienced corporal punishment and humiliation as a form of discipline at these schools. She recalls going down to one of her son’s schools about 15 years ago to talk to the principal about alternative methods of discipline — but her ex-husband told the principal he agreed with the methods the school was employing.

Two years ago, Weber says she tried to file a complaint regarding a corporal punishment incident involving her son,, but the police wouldn’t write a report, she says.

“Recently, he has not been getting hit. And I think they know maybe that I speak up and that it would not be wise,” Weber says. “But he still sees it happening as recently as this year. He said there was a classmate taken to the front of the classroom [and] punched by the teacher. The principal was called in to hit him. I mean, there’s no words.”

Weber notes that outside of the Hasidic community, parents can choose whether to send their kids to public or private schools. After breaking out of this insular world, she says she’s learning she deserves the right to make the same choices as other mothers.

“People don’t really understand how the community operates,” she says. “And I think people don’t realize the sense of helplessness that you have in the community and the few choices that you have.”

In 2019, Weber filed a complaint with her son’s school and with New York City about the lack of adequate secular education in these Hasidic schools. It went to New York State Court in 2021 and it’s now in the hands of New York’s Supreme Court. Weber is waiting for a ruling.

Karyn Miller Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe BullardAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.