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Barred From Talmud Studies, Girls Get English and Math at Brooklyn Yeshivas

BROOKLYN — For a marriage-minded girl in Brooklyn’s Orthodox community, there  is no match more prized than a religious scholar.

Yet when it comes to secular subjects like English and math, most brides are  better educated than even the most learned grooms.

As DNAinfo.com New York reported in the first installment of a three-part  series, boys in Brooklyn’s 84,000-student Jewish  parochial school system devote the bulk of their time to studying religious  texts in Yiddish and Hebrew, while beneath ironclad social restrictions  girls enjoy an education rich with algebra, modern literature and American  history.

In Orthodox Judaism, men are religiously required to study the Torah, and  only they are believed to have the intellectual and spiritual capacity to parse  the Talmud. Put simply, Jewish boys are too important to be bothered with  frivolous concepts like geometry and grammar, experts on the communities  said.

“For a young Jewish teenager, it’s a waste of time because he’s supposed to  be studying Talmud, Bible, Jewish codes,” said Zalman Alpert, a librarian at  Yeshiva University and an expert on Brooklyn’s Orthodox communities.

“No matter which Orthodox community you’re talking about, the girls end up  getting a better education in secular studies.”

In fact, once you get past the dress code, most Hasidic girls’ schools would  be recognizable to anyone familiar with the city’s other parochial schools. Even  in the most restrictive communities, Orthodox girls typically attend class from  8 or 9 a.m. until 3 or 4 p.m., spending the first half of the day on religious  subjects and the second half on secular ones.

“It’s not like they just gave us an hour of English. We had math, English  subjects, spelling, vocabulary, grammar, writing, global studies, history,  science,” said Libby Pollack, who graduated from the girls branch of Belz  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 author  Stephanie Levine, whose book, “Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers,” explores the lives of  modern young Lubavitch women in Crown Heights.

“[Bais Rivkah in Crown Heights] did give Regents diplomas, and they prided  themselves on that. They really wanted me to know that — the principal made it  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 for  the education they got,” said Eli, 23, who grew up in Midwood and asked  DNAinfo.com New York to withhold his last name to protect his parents and  siblings who still live there.

“[In boys’ school] there was a general disrespect for secular studies. They  use Hebrew [to fulfill foreign language requirements]. We learned the Old  Testament for two years, and that counts as a foreign language.”

Shmueli Lowenstein, who attended the prominent Crown Heights yeshiva Oholei  Torah, said even basic concepts like math were ignored at his school.

“My experience there was absolutely zero, none of that. When you did your  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 already  in the Torah.  The Gemara, the Talmud is full  of math concepts. It’s already built in.”

Former students and parents described a system like the one at Belz Yeshiva  in Borough Park and United Talmudical Academy in Williamsburg — where boys  receive bare-bones math and English lessons for an hour or two four days a week,  run by a barely qualified teacher and always after a full day of religious  instruction.

“We were throwing tangerines at our teacher, apples at our teacher, because  we were tired, we were done with the day,” said Hershy Gelbstein, a former UTA  student. “We didn’t have levels, we learned the same thing every year — no  wonder we threw tangerines.”

Textbooks, when available, are heavily censored.

“Any reference to anything they don’t feel comfortable with they will just  take out of books. Our reading books — forget about history books, the reading  books were stripped,” said David, a Belz Yeshiva parent who asked DNAinfo.com  New York to withhold his last name to protect his children.

“They blacked it out, took pages out. They had government books that the  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 of  censorship — in addition to pages of text being blacked out, full-length  trousers were added to a cartoon bear to protect the animal’s modesty.

“They will censor anything that’s not tznius [modest] — pants, short  sleeves, elbows, necklines, stuff like that they’ll censor,” said Faye Turnheim  of Williamsburg, a former teacher at UTA’s girls school. “There was one head  censor, and they would all get a printout of what the head censor has already  done — on page 67 censor these words, on page 68 these words, cut out these  pages.”

Belz Yeshiva did not return several calls for comment and a UTA principal,  Rabbi Sholom Skaist, refused to answer questions after admitting that secular  studies are taught to boys only in fourth through eighth grades. Oholei Torah  also declined to comment for the series.

While many girls are busy earning Regents diplomas, a boy’s secular education  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 Judaic  studies, you pray, eat breakfast, more Judaic studies, lunch, more Judaic  studies, dinner, and then more Judaic studies and then you go home,” said  Naftuli Moster, 26, a native of Borough Park and the founder of YAFFED, a Jewish  organization dedicated to improving the quality of secular education in New York  yeshivas.

“Boys are in yeshiva from 6:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. and they don’t learn a  single word of English.”

Few Jewish boys schools offers their graduates a state-issued diploma,  despite the evident and growing demand. Brooklyn’s Hasidic neighborhoods,  newspapers and websites are dotted with advertisements for GED tutors and prep  courses.

Touro College offers ESL classes targeted exclusively to the Orthodox  population, even though most students were born and raised in New York City. But  even those offer faint hope for young men already trying to support a  family.

“The only reason I was able to communicate in English somewhat when I was  growing up was because my sisters were talking English to themselves and to my  mother,” Moster said. “I think this is the single most destructive thing that  happened to us, the fact that we don’t speak English.”

The Department of Education is responsible for making sure the yeshivas offer  quality schooling.

“If a child attends a nonpublic school or is being educated at home, the  board of education of the school district in which the child resides must be  assured that the child is receiving instruction which is substantially  equivalent to that provided in the public schools,” said state DOE spokeswoman  Antonia Valentine.

But when asked to comment for this series of stories, spokeswoman Marge  Feinberg said only, “We were notified of a situation last year regarding  requirements. As a result, we engaged in the process outlined by NY State.”

It was left unclear what the “situation” was and which school it  involved.

Critics say the lack of basic education for boys keeps Orthodox families  poor, forcing many to depend on government assistance.

“Many people struggle. You have some percentage who work at B&H Photo [a  Hasidic-owned electronics superstore], you have a large percent of people who  work in stores in Borough Park, in Williamsburg, at a local grocery or a local  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.  Ironically, even for that we’re not trained.”

Others argue that an education lacking all but the most rudimentary  real-world skills keeps the community’s young men captive in a system that  offers few alternatives, either for them or their children.

“I’ve seen this experience from a lot of people from other communities,  especially Satmar — they step out into the world and they’re literally  immigrants,” Lowenstein said. “Even if you wanted to leave, what are you going  to do? You can’t spell your own name.”

But girls, who tend to get married early and care for large families, don’t  often get the chance to venture into the world to make use of their superior  education, said Lowenstein, who has eight brothers and sisters.

“You’re not even educating the ones who are supposed to be providers,” he  said.  “You’re educating all these women with tools they’re never going to  be able to use.”

Source: DNA Info

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Posted by on January 23, 2013. Filed under Jewish News,Slider. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.