“New York State Cracks Down on Jewish Schools: Senator Simcha Felder and Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel meet the long shadow of Joseph Hodges Choate,” in the Fall 2019 issue of Education Next, prompted a response from the director of policy research at the Jerusalem, Israel-based Kohelet Policy Forum, Yitzhak Klein:
To the Editor:
Israel’s experience with Jewish religious schools is pertinent to the subject Menahem Wecker covers in his article on Jewish religious schools in New York. The Israeli experience is that schools that teach young men to reason rigorously based on the analysis of classical legal texts in Hebrew or Aramaic do not thereby equip them to function in a modern economy.
There is no Choate amendment in Israel’s legislation and almost all schools are state-funded. This includes a “stream” of schools that combine Orthodox religious instruction with a standard general curriculum, but also a stream of schools where instruction in math, languages, history, social studies etc. effectively stops (for boys at least) after eighth grade. This educational policy reflects both suspicion of general education and culture and the pursuit of an ideal – that men should pursue a life wholly devoted to traditional scholarship, unsullied by foreign ideas or secular pursuits (including work). Hundreds of thousands of young people go to schools in this stream.
Orthodox parents who subscribe to this kind of educational philosophy are also voters, and their representatives in Israel’s legislature (the Knesset) possess a lot of power. This power enables them to maintain their schools as a kind of ex territorium where compulsory education is concerned.
The consequences for the young men, their families when they establish them (for almost all Orthodox men marry) and for Israeli society in general are severe. It is true that the education provided by these schools trains good students well in reasoning and textual analysis. They do not, however, teach one the skills necessary to join a modern economy – to write an essay (or even an email), to solve an equation with two unknowns, to operate Excel, or to read an English text. The majority of the young men who acquire this education cannot afford a life of contemplative scholarship; they have to go on the job market, for which they are singularly ill-equipped. Their education has condemned them to a life around the poverty line. Policies to help such men make up the gap in their 20s have failed. If you don’t study math and English in high school chances are you’ll never learn either well enough to get more than a menial job; some manage it, most don’t.
The Orthodox population in Israel has a high birthrate and their numbers are growing. As more and more of them join the economy, they depress average labor productivity, and indeed the jobs Israel’s 21st-century economy can provide for the functionally unskilled are limited. Israel survives and competes in the global community by virtue of its wits and skills, and the consequences of skill-less Orthodox education are a matter of concern (and rising public resentment).
The implications for New York are that the achievements claimed for Orthodox schools should not relieve them of the obligation to provide their students with 21st-century job skills, nor the state of its responsibility to ensure that they do. The Choate Amendment may have been adopted against a background of hostility to a religious denomination (Catholics), but that doesn’t mean that some legal instrument meant to ensure that kids learn what they need to get by in a contemporary economy isn’t needed.
Last updated December 12, 2019