Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Great Chareidi Education Myth

In Ramat Beit Shemesh, where I live, there's this myth. I call it the myth of the chareidi education. There are a lot of israeli chareidim and anglo chareidim living here, but there;s also a lot of Confused.

As has been pointed out to many a new oleh (and also many a diaspora Jew who dares to comment on the complex system of ideological and theological 'boxes' that fill the Israeli religio-social world), Israeli chareidi is not the same as anglo chareidi. There are hundreds of American families who consider themselves chareidi, but who support the existence of the state of Israel, chat on facebook, and aren't surprised at husbands working in finance, law, web design, etc. They are very happy with their blend of hashkafa (worldview), but they also want to live in Israel. When they want to make aliyah, they're warned that they can't straddle the boxes, because then their children will be confused about where they belong and they'll become OTD (Off The Derech). And you can't be anything other than chareidi, because then your children with also go OTD.

This is where the Great Chareidi Myth comes in. It goes something like this:
If you really want to be sure that your kids will stay frum, you have to go chareidi. You could send to a dati leumi or a chardal school, but then your kids will not come out really learning Torah, serving Hashem, or living a committed life. Because look, dati leumi is really a lite option.
You should send to an anglo chareidi school, not an Israeli chareidi one, because they are better for anglo parents. Don't worry, it's not like israeli chareidi. The boys do learn chol (secular) subjects.

Sometimes it goes:
Why not just try the chareidi school? You can always 'trade down' (into a dati leumi/chardal school) but you can't 'trade up'. You don't have to stick with it, but you should really try it.

Most egregious of all, to my ears, is:
Look, you're a baal teshuvah couple. You don't really have the skills  to support your children in their learning, so you really need to send them to a chareidi school, for their sakes.

This upsets me for many reasons. Let us count the ways:
1. There is no insurance that will keep your child 'on the derech'. A chareidi school is not going to prevent a child from changing or questioning his/her level of religious observance.

2. It is beyond insulting to the committed, dedicated, G-d-fearing and Torah-learning non-chareidi families to refer to them as Judaism Lite or living a non-committed life.

3. In all chareidi schools, including anglo chareidi ones which claim to teach secular subjects, the boys get a minimum of secular education. Sometimes that is not enough for them to get enough bogruyot qualifications to go on to university-level study in their chosen subject, so that they end up having to take their bogruyot exams again as 20-somethings. One anglo-chareidi school tells parents that the boys learn enough to go on to a regular dati leumi yeshiva high school if they want to, but their secular  work is not graded or often even looked at closely, and their 7th & 8th grade rebbis teach the boys about the worthlessness of secular learning through a variety of stories and shmoozes.

4. Dati leumi should never be referred to as 'trading down', as though there is a hierarchy of value among different 'types' of Jews.

5. It is not easy to switch your children from one school to another just because you tried one out and didn't like it. It's not like trying out a car on approval. When children are suddenly moved from one 'box' to another, whether that is chareidi to dati leumi or vice versa, it bewilders them and sets them onto the wrong foot.

6. I find it insulting to tell baal teshuvah couples that their background is a handicap which they have to overcome by making themselves appear 'more frum'. I also haven;t the faintest idea how the children of a baal teshuvah couple will be helped by going to a chareidi school as opposed to a non-chareidi one. It might have something to do with shidduchim

Most of all, #7: people get stuck in the wrong 'box' and can't move.

I've talked with a few families who have had something like a mid-Aliyah crisis. They came full of idealism and ready to 'trade up' their level of religious observance by sending their children to a chareidi school, so that their child won;t go OTD. And a few years down the line, they realise that they didn;t up their level of observance, they just upped their wearing of stockings. Or that sending their child to a chareidi school does not actually innoculate them against questioning their faith. Or that, quite simply, the chareidi school box is not the box that they really belong in.

But now they're stuck. Sometimes practically, because the dati leumi schools are not always so happy to take families who looked down their noses at them for not being 'frum' enough. Sometimes they are mentally stuck, because they are bombarded with warnings that they won't be able to get their child into a good (read: chareidi) high school unless they go to a chareidi elementary school, and if their child doesn't go to a 'good' high school, they won't get a 'good' shidduch, so there's no choice.

Sometimes, a family only wants to move their sons, or their daughters, or only one specific child, but the chareidi schools won't allow them to keep a child in the chareidi school if his/her siblings go to a non-chareidi school. So they have to choose which child will be made unhappy. Sometimes they are so entrenched in a chareidi circle that they just can't cope with moving their children to a non-chareidi school, even though that would be best for the child. Sometimes they really believe that they need to keep their kids in a chareidi school in order to keep them 'on the derech', but they can see that their child is not getting what he/she needs in a chareidi school.

Very often, they asked their rabbi before they chose a school, and their rabbi (like one I know of) told them all of those myths listed above. Sometimes they come back to their rabbi in the midst of their mid-aliyah crisis and ask what to do now, and the rabbi recommends a private tutor. Or that the father spend more time with the child. Or to be more Israeli and stop worrying so much. Both of the former can be good solutions for a child who is struggling in school, but in this case they don;t actually address the problem. The latter, of course, is nonsense.

Or they don't come back to ask the rabbi again, because they were taught to trust in daas torah, and daas torah told them to send their kids to this school, so they'll follow daas torah's advice and not make a difficult situation worse by turning away from the path they were taught to follow. Especially not if they are baalei teshuvah and lack the courage of their convictions.

The Great Chareidi Myth is just that - a myth. Joining a chareidi community won't keep your child 'frum'. Sending your child to a chareidi school where he sees the teacher hitting his classmates, and never doing anything about it, isn't going to immunise him from going 'off the derech'. Keeping your daughter in a beis yaakov where she fights every day against a tznius regimen that she can't follow isn't going to teach her the beauty of Torah.

One family I know swallowed the Great Chareidi Myth, and their child X is still paying for it. When they made aliyah, they were told that they 'have' to send their daughter to a chareidi beis yaakov otherwise she'll go 'off the derech'. They swallowed that myth (after all, it came from daas torah), and didn't know what to do when she dropped out of school 3 months later, unable to bear the harsh atmosphere. They couldn't cope with the failure of the 'sure bet', and X couldn't cope with being misjudged and mistreated by everyone around her. Eventually she was taken into care, where she was abused. Today she is living a Modern Orthodox life, but as far as her family is concerned, she is OTD.

Not every child ends up like X, but many do end up battered and resentful towards Judaism for having squashed them into a mold that they didn't fit and ignored them when they cried out in pain.

I've just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink. In it, he describes the powerful split-second decisions that every one of us makes without consciously thinking. One aspect that he outlines is that of race; that even people who are consciously anti-racism can have powerful, unconscious racist biases that cause them to make snap judgments for or against people depending on the color of their skin.

It seems to me that in Ramat Beit Shemesh, at least, there is a powerful unconscious religious bias. People hear 'chareidi' and automatically think 'frum' or 'committed', and they hear 'dati leumi' and think loose. One person told me that starting by sending to a chareidi school means starting 'up'. While they can always move 'down' to a dati leumi school later on, it's a lot harder to move up to a chareidi school. She was not much less horrified than I was to realise that she had just called non-chareidi lower than chareidi. She thought that she thought of them as two separate but equally 'good' streams of Jewish observance, but her unconscious choice of words showed that actually, in her mind 'chareidi' meant 'better'. And she's not the only one.

It's possible - even probable - that the rabbis and community leaders who encourage people to send their children to chareidi schools truly believe in the myth they are peddling. They truly believe that this is the best for every child. Because it's not their conscious mind making this decision, even when they think it is. It's their unconscious religious bias.

According to the researchers on the issue of unconscious race biases, it's not possible for us to change them by conscious willpower. We can't 'will' ourselves to have a more positive association with black skin than with white skin. There is only one way to change our preconceived, unthinking reactions: to spend more time with real people from our negative bias group. As long as rabbis and teachers and leaders continue to take steps to keep chareidi and non-chareidi apart, the negative bias which fuels that separation can only grow. The Great Chareidi Education Myth is powered by lack of knowledge about the 'other', which in turn is powered by the divisions generated by the Great Chareidi Education Myth.

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