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

By Sonja Sharp | January 23, 2013 6:51am

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 majority of girls’ schools offer New York Regents exams and diplomas, and most pride themselves on good scores. Some even offer AP classes.

“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."

The series on Jewish parochial education in Brooklyn continues this week on DNAinfo.com New York.