Haredim ‘R’ Us

Douglas Altabef

By Douglas Altabef

You could have set your watch to it: The New York Times came out with a shocking, truly shocking, revelation about the complete waste of resources expended by the New York Board of Regents on retrograde haredi schools.

The students in these schools did really poorly on standardized English and math tests, with scores that would likely lead to the conclusion that the funds were completely wasted and raise the question of what is going on in these places.

This inquiry would be a bit funny if it didn’t cut so close to the bone. Why funny? Because these students are learning at a pace and going through a quantity of material that would put most secular counterparts to shame.

Why close to the bone? Because when one considers the issue, there is an eerie parallel to how most of the world sees Jews in general and Israel as a country.

There is a profound degree of just not getting what the haredi schools’ mission is, not to mention what the haredim themselves are about. For centuries, there has been a similar lack of understanding about what Jews do, what Jews are about and why Jews even continue to exist.

And now, in the latest permutation of non-comprehension, there is broad-based confusion as to why Israel would hold it so important to cleave to Jewish tradition and to insist on a state predicated on Jewish law, norms and values.

In other words, we don’t compute. We are the perennial odd man out — the exception that cannot be measured by the norms and standards that seem to fit so much of the rest of the world.

In the case of the haredim in New York, what would make for a good investment or a bad one? Surely, it cannot be relegated to the realm of test scores. The investment must be seen as a long-term one designed to produce law-abiding, productive citizens who contribute to the welfare and well-being of New York.

Of course, eyebrows will arch at the idea that the haredim are somehow contributing to the common good of New York. After all, they are famously insular, with values that often do not overlap with those of the larger society.

But if we are talking about an investment, we have to look at the ancillary costs and benefits that particular communities provide to the larger society.

Haredim are not mugging their fellow citizens, nor are they breaking into their homes. Haredim take care of their own with a breathtaking array of social-welfare organizations. When was the last time anyone stepped over a homeless haredi person?

If the idea of an investment is to turn out people who can perform trigonometric functions or remember quadratic equations into adulthood, then haredi schools have indeed failed.
However, if the goal of education is to empower someone to love learning — to be a lifelong student possessed of the tools to learn even subjects previously not encountered — then I would suggest that the investment in haredi schools is a bargain.

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of interacting with an extraordinary school on the Golan Heights that was training both Ethiopian Israelis and haredi Israelis to become electronic technicians for the air force. The program has been remarkably successful, and I remember asking how the haredim were able to manage it, given their lack of relevant preparatory work in the yeshivahs.

The answer was basically: When you have been learning Gemara for years and years, you can pick up other subjects pretty quickly.

Would the New York Regents regard investments in schools that were concentrating on the sociology of the Maori people in the South Pacific, requiring their students to speak that language and to immerse themselves in that culture, as a bad investment?

I suspect that they would appropriately say, no, of course not. This is diversity of experience and learning, and it is valuable in and of itself.

So why is there not the same empathy for the haredim?

Back to my basic premise: The profound non-comprehension of the haredim is of a piece with the historic and widespread non-comprehension of Jews.

Why do we have to adhere to such anachronistic ideas as not eating a whole array of perfectly healthy foods? Why do we insist on practices that take us out of the realm of larger civic life, and are designed to make us stand out and look different?

Israel is the outlier of countries, cleaving to Jewish traditions, cleaving to the historic Land of Israel, cleaving to the importance of a nation-state that is a Jewish state, respectful of its non-Jewish residents, but a Jewish state nevertheless. Again, the odd man out, the case that doesn’t fit neatly into the existing categories.

The difference that demarcates Jewishness and Judaism has always been an irritation to many, and at times has been perceived as a threat and a menace. A candid assessment would conclude that New York State’s assessment of haredim is not so removed from this perspective.

Rather than feeling the need to defend the haredim, I would congratulate the Regents on their far-sighted investment in the continuity of a community that has added stability, viability and vitality to New York.

New York Regents, keep up the good work!

Douglas Altabef is the chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu — Israel’s largest grassroots Zionist organization — as well as a director of B’yadenu and of the Israel Independence Fund.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here