Yiddish Isn’t Enough

By Jennifer Miller (The New York Times)
November 21, 2014

Naftuli Moster was a senior at the College of Staten Island when he first heard the word “molecule.” Perplexed, he looked around the classroom. Nobody else seemed confused. Yet again, because of gaps in his early education, Mr. Moster was ignorant of a basic concept that everybody else knew.

“I felt embarrassed and ashamed,” he said. “Every single time I didn’t know something, I thought, ‘I’m too crippled to make it through.’ ”

Mr. Moster had grown up one of 17 children in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in Borough Park, Brooklyn, where most Hasidic men marry young and, right after finishing yeshiva, or high school, either immediately enter the work force or dedicate themselves to Talmudic studies. But if Mr. Moster’s educational ambitions were unusual among his peers, his limited grasp of English was not.

There are 250 Jewish private schools in New York City, and though some schools, like Ramaz on the Upper East Side, have intensive secular curriculums, many do not. Nearly one-third of all students in Jewish schools are “English language learners,” according to the city’s Department of Education. Yiddish is the Hasidic community’s first language, and both parents and educators report that many boys’ schools do not teach the A B C’s until children are 7 or 8 years old. Boys in elementary and middle school study religious subjects from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. followed by approximately 90 minutes of English and math. At 13, when boys formally enter yeshiva, most stop receiving any English instruction.

This has been true for decades, even though Hasidic schools receive millions of dollars in government funds and are required by state law to teach a curriculum that is “equivalent” to what public schools offer.

Mr. Moster, worried that the next generation of Hasidic Jews, plagued by high poverty and scant opportunities, will be ill prepared to provide for themselves, is calling attention to the problem with activism and possible legal action against the New York State Education Department. But the odds are against him. What Mr. Moster needs most is a groundswell of support, yet he has been marked as a renegade by the very community he says he is fighting for.

Mr. Moster, now 28, is working toward a master’s degree in social work from Hunter College. He attributes some of his success to early exposure to English. His parents spoke English between themselves, though they exclusively used Yiddish with their children. Mr. Moster’s sisters spoke English when they were growing up, he said, because Hasidic girls generally receive a better secular education than the boys. He was also a curious child. As a boy, he became interested in psychology after an Israeli psychologist came to Brooklyn. The community “really bragged about it, so I became intrigued in that field,” he said.

Though Mr. Moster was eager to know about the outside world, he did not realize that secular education could open those doors. In his school, he said, English, math and science were considered “profane.” When Yeshiva Machzikei Hadas Belz, the school on 16th Avenue in Borough Park where Mr. Moster was one of about 1,500 boys, added an extra year of secular studies, the students rebelled. “We kids were outraged,” Mr. Moster recalled ruefully. “We’d been waiting so many years to get rid of these nonimportant subjects.” The school soon reverted to its old curriculum.

The man behind the added year was a Yeshiva Belz board member named Jacob Ungar. Today, Mr. Ungar has high praise for his community’s educational standards. “It’s like at any school, where you have the main subjects and then the extracurriculars,” he said, adding: “Whatever a child usually gets in a public school, or Catholic parochial school or modern Jewish school — the yeshiva education is superior to that. Our students are as well educated as they were 100 years ago.”

When Mr. Moster first applied to college, after yeshiva, he did not know what a high-school diploma was. He had never learned the word “essay,” let alone been taught to write one. “I know I sound articulate,” he said recently. But nine years after beginning higher education, he said, “there are still times where I’m completely stumped by a certain word or concept that is familiar to the average student.”

“Given basic tools, I could be a lot further in my education,” he said. “That’s true for every member of the Hasidic community.”

In 2011, Mr. Moster founded Young Advocates for Fair Education, or Yaffed. Its aim was simple. The state’s Education Department requires the city’s nonpublic schools to teach a curriculum that is “substantially equivalent to that provided in the public schools,” and requires local school superintendents to ensure the standards are met. Mr. Moster says those standards are not being met.

So he sat down with three superintendents in New York whose districts have large Hasidic populations. “Two of them had no idea it was their responsibility to enforce the law,” he said. “In one case I was pointing out the regulations online.”

In a statement, the city’s Education Department said Mr. Moster needed to identify wrongdoing in specific schools for superintendents to investigate. “Superintendents cannot just show up at private schools for random inspections without a reason,” a department spokesman said.

Mr. Moster said his goal was to advocate systemic change, not to punish specific institutions. He also sent a concerned letter to the State Board of Regents, which oversees the State Education Department. He received a response that said that “although there is an equivalency of instruction requirement,” nonpublic schools “largely operate outside the scope of state-mandated general education requirements and oversight.”

To Mr. Moster, this meant that the state was acknowledging its responsibility and then willfully ignoring it.

He went to Albany to plead his case in person but said the meetings were unproductive.

The state department would not discuss Mr. Moster’s letter to the Board of Regents with The New York Times or speak about the equivalency mandate except to say that enforcement was the city’s responsibility. For its part, the city said the state was responsible.

So now Mr. Moster is taking legal action. A handful of modern Orthodox supporters have agreed to cover the legal fees and, with Mr. Moster, are interviewing lawyers. The plaintiffs in a lawsuit, however, must be either students who are currently enrolled in Hasidic schools or their parents. Mr. Moster said many families in New York’s Hasidic enclaves were sympathetic to his cause. So far, a small number of parents have agreed to take part in a lawsuit if they can remain anonymous. They worry that the yeshivas will expel their children and that the community will ostracize them if their names are revealed.

Mr. Moster is also a potential liability to his own project. Secular education pushed him away from his Hasidic roots. The formal break came after Mr. Moster filed for a “dependency override” from his family — proof that he was no longer a dependent — in order to apply for financial aid. In doing so, Mr. Moster went “off the derech,” or “off the path.” He said that he felt free but that his community considered him a disgrace.

Today, instead of black trousers, a white shirt and a broad, black hat, Mr. Moster wears V-neck sweaters and plaid button-down shirts. He still considers himself “very Jewish,” but that’s not how many ultra-Orthodox Jews see him. Once, he said, on the subway, a Hasidic mother instructed her son to “stop looking at the goy” — the non-Jew. She was talking about Mr. Moster.

Last year, Yaffed sponsored a billboard near the Prospect Expressway in Brooklyn with a quotation in Hebrew from the Talmud, “You must provide your son a proper education.” Below that was a caveat in English. “It’s your mitzvah” — or religious commandment — it said. “It’s the law.”

After the billboard went up, Mr. Moster said, Yaffed was bombarded with sympathetic emails and phone calls. Then word spread that Mr. Moster was off the path, and the response changed. “Suddenly it was, ‘We don’t want anything to do with you,’ ” he said.

Hasidic parents who want better secular education for their children worry that any association with an outcast like Mr. Moster will do more harm than good. “Until the government is sued, they won’t do anything,” said one Borough Park mother who was furious about her sons’ poor English. Fearing opprobrium in the community, she would speak only anonymously. “This has to be done in a culturally sensitive way,” she added. “I care about the children.” But activists outside the community, she said, “care about how they were wronged.”

That, Mr. Moster insisted, is not true. “We’re fighting the same battle,” he said. “We’re fighting the Department of Education, not the yeshivas. Every Hasidic boy deserves a minimum education, and the state has simply ignored us.”