The Education I Never Had, and Why No One Is Doing a Thing About It

At the age of 17, I had a formal education more comparable to a third grader. I lacked the opportunity to function as an informed, educated young adult.
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The school I attended while growing up as a Chabad Orthodox Jew in Crown Heights, Brooklyn did not teach any formal, academic subjects -- no reading, writing, literature, math, science or history. I cannot say that I was all too surprised by the many people trying to defend this broken system or even by the criticism of me. Still, it is painful to realize that my peers and fellow victims of the same system are so willing to defend handicapping thousands of young people by not teaching kids fundamental, academic subjects.

Some chose to interpret my article as attack on the Chabad movement: "While it is true that secular studies aren't taught at Oholei Torah, the same can be said of almost all ultra-Orthodox schools around the world, so bashing Chabad alone isn't fair," as if the educational failings of Chabad -- the only aspect of Chabad I criticized -- are minimized by those other communities around the world. The same people even claimed that Jewish "holy studies" were enough alone because they produce smarter brains. Many responses were racist, and some, downright rude, simply because I chose to blow the whistle on a reality that still haunts me and others who are striving to attain higher education despite being denied the basic foundation for that.

Some attacked my character and my intentions, others lambasted me as the shtut meshugener (town crazy person) and even impugned my family. Another, an English professor no less, dared to claim that the students of these schools in Crown Heights that do not teach academic subjects are better off than "the black kid in Bed St[u]y" (Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly African American neighborhood in Brooklyn) -- as if all Jewish children are too privileged as a class to be disadvantaged by a lack of education, as if it is a competition and white Jews can therefore ignore the problems in their communities.

At the end of Chabad yeshivah (high school), I knew no more than how to solve simple fractions, no science, no history and was far from able to formulate just one paragraph in English, let alone a whole essay. I had learned very basic reading and writing in English and math from a private tutor that my parents had hired for one hour a week after school. The curriculum of the school focused solely on Hebrew and Judaic studies and the spoken language was Yiddish. Science, history, math and (non-hermeneutic) reasoning were not part of my knowledge base. Tutoring one hour a week for all academic subjects was clearly insufficient to make up for the complete lack of coverage of these fundamental skills in school. And aside from that, I was lucky enough to have parents who were able to afford a private tutor, as opposed to most others who didn't have that opportunity.

At the age of 17, I had a formal education more comparable to a third grader. Without a solid formal education, I lacked the opportunity to function as an informed, educated young adult. I managed to pass a GED test after great difficulty at the age of 18 out of my own initiative; going to college and pursuing a higher education had been presented as almost heretical by the educators in my school. I do hope to go to college, but my early lack of education has caused great difficulty. I was well versed on things like the Talmud or Bible, but thinking in English, understanding the country that I lived in and its history and knowing the basic formulae of math, let alone understanding them, were out of my reach. We did have some minor training in Yiddish writing and spelling, but the courses were never demanding enough that one would be able to formulate a full essay even in Yiddish, which was a second language to most of us, who spoke English at home.

Bringing awareness and trying prevent social injustices from occurring within Orthodox Jewish communities, both to LGBT people and youth generally, has led to vicious attacks. It seems the most scrutiny comes from Orthodox people who would defend a broken system that harms the lives of many. Unwilling to admit that there really is a problem with the schooling system which people are afraid to challenge because, as many have told me, "there are no other schools in Crown Heights to send our children to."

Some have dared to try to blame those of us who were harmed mostly by this system and to place the entire burden of success on our shoulders, saying things like "Well, you can blame your background all you want, but it's up to you to do something about it." Some point to the success of few people in Crown Heights who have become CEOs or owners of large businesses and are considered wealthy, but they once again fail to recognize the vast majority of people who have seen only difficulty and no success because of their educational background. Success in academia and the ability to pursue a career and a higher education does not start when one is 18 years old, and certainly not without any background in academic subjects. Compulsory education starts at 5 years old, when one would ideally be learning the ABCs and counting, the foundation to literacy and mathematics. People are indeed entitled to ensure their children have a Jewish, religious and Hebrew education, and there are so many schools who offer both Hebrew religious studies and full formal academics as required by the state and board of education.

There is a deep, sinking pit in my stomach when I think about the years of academic study I missed that most people take for granted. I smile sadly when I hear kids complaining about going to school; I would gladly go in their place. While I certainly hope I can, one cannot easily overcome missing out on 13 years of academic study and a corrupt system.

The corruption at Oholei Torah has provoked a frustrating, painful memory, which I had not planned on mentioning. In third grade, my classmates and I watched our teacher brutally beat one of the students for what seemed like at least a half an hour. To this day, my friends and I remember that event vividly. It is something no one can ever forget. This teacher was not held accountable, let alone disciplined. More recently, I questioned the school's dean about this event and why it wasn't dealt with; I had also inquired about some other disturbing allegations from former students that Oholei Torah covered up and refused to report sexual abuse that former students had brought to the attention of the school seeking help.The response I got was glib: I was told that these stories are not true (even though I witnessed one and heard the accounts of sexual abuse from the victims themselves). A former social worker, and hence a legally mandated reporter, employed by this institution told me that he was told by the dean of the school that if he were to ever report a crime to the authorities, he would immediately be fired.

My appeals to the community on the problems of the educational system had all fallen on deaf ears. I had to seek an outside forum to open a dialogue. People are discussing the problems now. I had spoken to the school administration many times about these problems, as well as my objection to the current curriculum being taught in the school. The only response that I got and continue to get from the principal and other chief operating officers within the school is: "This is the Rebbe's institution, and this is how he wanted it and we won't ever try to change that. It's pure chutzpah to try and challenge something the Rebbe believed in, and even worse to try and bring shame to the Rebbe's institution by talking about these things publicly."

It is time that people stop blaming the whistleblowers for the problems of their community -- a community that is doing nothing to fix the problem. Instead of coming together to figure out how to keep our children safe and do what is in their best interests and how we can build a more tolerant, welcoming and educated future generation, we are concerned that people who bring awareness to problems that no one is willing to address are committing a great chilul hashem (desecration, or shaming of the community). However, only abuse and failure to educate makes Chabad look bad, and each day that Chabad does not address the problem, it only looks worse. It is my sincere hope that Chabad can be the great and admirable movement it is in so many other ways.

Parents, while you may want to send your kids to such a school understanding that it is your right to limit your children's education strictly to religious studies, there is a very real chance that it may harm your children. One day, your child may very well demand to understand why you denied them a basic education; one day, your children may be outraged at being denied their right to a basic education and the resultant opportunities to find a decent job, secure a promotion or provide for their own families. My parents have indicated that sending me and my siblings to Oholei Torah was a mistake and would not make the same choice now. Ironically, many people have left the community because of the failings of schools which would cultivate only yiddishkeit (Jewishness and observance). Parents want the best for their children and want them to go far in life.

As Kahlil Gibran wrote in his poem "On Children," parents are the bow from which children as living arrows are sent forth. Children need a solid bow in order to fly. Children need an education to succeed in life.

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