Why Some Hasidic Children Can’t Leave Failing Schools
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Beatrice Weber wakes up most mornings afraid that her son’s Hasidic Jewish school is setting him up to fail.
Her 10-year-old, Aaron, brims with curiosity, and has told his mother that he wants to work for NASA. But his school, like other Hasidic boys’ schools in New York, teaches only cursory English and math and little science or social studies. It focuses instead on imparting the values of the fervently religious Hasidic community, which speaks Yiddish rather than English and places the study of Jewish law and prayer above all else. Recently, Ms. Weber said, Aaron’s teacher told him that the planets revolve around the Earth.
But when Ms. Weber, a divorced mother of 10, tried to withdraw Aaron from his religious school, called a yeshiva, and enroll him in another one with stronger secular studies, she found that she could not do it. She had signed away that right in a divorce agreement drawn up by Hasidic leaders.
Across New York’s Hasidic community, parents like Ms. Weber often end up trapped in an impossible position, anxious to get their children out of some of the worst-performing schools in the state but hindered by social pressure and religious institutions.
Beatrice Weber has tried for years to get her 10th and youngest child, Aaron, a better secular education than his older siblings received.
The dynamic plays out most vividly in cases of divorce, which in the Hasidic community are conferred by a rabbinical court known as a beth din.
The courts, three-judge arbitration panels of rabbis and other community leaders, can function as informal arms of the Hasidic leadership. They often ensure through binding divorce settlement agreements that children must remain in intensely religious schools, even if they provide little secular education, according to interviews with four dozen parents and attorneys and a review of hundreds of pages of court filings and other documents.
The agreements are typically upheld by New York State judges seeking to follow precedent by maintaining stability for children amid divorce. But in doing so, the judges can sometimes find themselves in an unusual position, ordering children to remain in Hasidic yeshivas that appear to be violating a state law requiring private schools to offer a basic secular education.
In September, The New York Times reported that many of the state’s private Hasidic boys’ schools were denying their students such an education despite collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in public money each year. Most of the schools offer just 90 minutes of English and math per day, four days a week — leaving many graduates unable to navigate the world outside New York’s close-knit Hasidic community.
That community, comprising some 200,000 Hasidic Jews across Brooklyn and the lower Hudson Valley, is dedicated to preserving the religious traditions followed before the Holocaust by their ancestors in Eastern Europe. Few institutions are more central to Hasidic life than yeshivas, and many Hasidic parents embrace them despite their lack of secular instruction, saying they would not send their children anywhere else.
But others described feeling anguished as their children fall behind. One said she could barely stand to see her son leave for his Hasidic yeshiva in the morning but has left him enrolled for fear of losing custody. Another said his son’s English was so poor that the boy could barely read the side of a cereal box. A third said she became so fed up with her son’s yeshiva education that she secretly enrolled him in a secular after-school program, saying she feared that one day he would ask her why she had not done more for his education.
Some who tried to move their children into new schools — even religious schools with more secular studies — said they met opposition from family members, who lobbied school leaders against accepting the transfers, testified against them in secular divorce proceedings or hired lawyers in the beth din to keep children in Hasidic yeshivas.
Representatives of the Hasidic community and advocates for yeshivas said that when parents are divorcing, children should remain in their original yeshivas for their own stability. In interviews, some parents said their children did struggle to adjust to non-Hasidic schools.
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“When one parent leaves the Hasidic way of life, it fundamentally destabilizes the environment of those who remain, leaving the other parent challenged to maintain just what they had signed up for,” said Rabbi Moshe Hauer, the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, an umbrella organization representing religious Jews.
Rabbi Hauer and others emphasized that parents who disagreed over their children’s education often came to do so only after one of them had left the community. Some parents interviewed by The Times said that was true, and for good reason: They did not have enough exposure to the secular world to understand that their children could benefit from both secular and religious education.
Ten lawyers who handle Hasidic divorces in the state court system told The Times they had seen a marked uptick in cases in which education was a major issue, pointing to several dozen in the past decade. The true number of such cases, however, is not known because they almost always play out in family court proceedings, the records of which are not public. And still more are resolved in the beth din before they can even make it to New York State courts.
As Hasidic leaders have become increasingly concerned that parents might withdraw their children from Hasidic yeshivas, some have recently turned to prenuptial agreements to head off that possibility before the children are even born.
One such agreement, which was drawn up in part by Martin Friedlander, a New York City-based Orthodox divorce attorney, includes an addendum that requires divorcing parents to raise children “pursuant to what is expected in practice and spirit by the schools” the children are attending at the time of the split.
“A lot of these cases that we see today, the parents started off on the same page, and they were on the same page for many years,” said Mr. Friedlander.
Mr. Friedlander added that Hasidic yeshivas are so different from other schools — in what they teach and how they teach it — that their students can experience severe culture shock if they are suddenly enrolled somewhere else.
Advocates for parents who want to transfer their children say that argument reveals a fundamental problem.
“It’s psychologically painful for children when parents differ in terms of parenting and religious values,” said Sara Glass, a psychotherapist who has worked with children in Hasidic divorce cases in which education is at issue. But, she said, “that’s often used as a manipulation tactic to stop parents from leaving or seeking secular education.”
‘He is missing out’
For the first 30 or so years of Beatrice Weber’s life, she did what was expected of her, starting with her engagement to a young man whom she had met only three times before, sitting across from him at her parents’ dining room table. Their first child was born when Ms. Weber was 19.
Having married a promising Talmudic scholar, Ms. Weber moved with her growing family to Israel so he could study there. But after they returned to Monsey, an Hasidic enclave north of New York City, tensions in her marriage began to mount. Like many Hasidic women, Ms. Weber was discouraged from driving around the suburban town, but she fought with her husband until she got a car.
Then, she had a miscarriage over the Sabbath. She said her husband refused to call the doctor until the holiday was over. Ms. Weber, dizzy and bleeding heavily, dialed the number herself.
By her 34th birthday, she had become acutely aware of how little power she had, and she enrolled in Touro College’s School for Lifelong Education in Borough Park, Brooklyn, to study psychology. “The dynamic in my marriage was I felt like I wasn’t good at anything,” Ms. Weber said. But succeeding in school, she said, “really opened up a whole world for me.”
Eventually, she left her husband, and their divorce was finalized in 2016. A few years later, Ms. Weber looked into moving Aaron into a yeshiva that largely served families in the Lubavitch Hasidic group, a school that split the day between religious and secular education.
Ms. Weber said that she filled out an application, but that school staff called Aaron’s yeshiva, which notified her ex-husband. He immediately summoned Ms. Weber to court, she said, where her lawyer advised her to agree not to try to transfer Aaron or risk losing custody.
Ms. Weber’s divorce agreement held that her children “shall continue to be educated in the same school system as they are currently enrolled,” and required changes to be reviewed by a liaison: Ms. Weber’s uncle, a board member of Aaron’s yeshiva. Still, Ms. Weber eventually moved one of her older children from one yeshiva to another.
James J. Sexton, a lawyer for Ms. Weber’s ex-husband, said in an interview that Ms. Weber had failed to comply with a court order to follow her divorce agreement when she transferred her older child, and was warned by a judge not to do so again by moving Aaron.
By then, an undergraduate degree had empowered Ms. Weber. But when she got home from work each afternoon, she was reminded that her youngest child’s nonreligious education was sorely lacking. At one point, she said, Aaron’s schoolwork consisted of copying single-digit numbers and letters.
Ms. Weber began to see his school as a place that could force him to seek a better education in his 30s, as she did. And since most Hasidic schools stop teaching boys secular subjects after they turn 13, she felt time was running out.
So she filed a complaint with the state Education Department in 2019, accusing Aaron’s school, Yeshiva Mesivta Arugath Habosem in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, of breaking the law by not offering an adequate secular education.
In October, state education commissioner Betty Rosa ruled in her favor, but the outcome for Aaron remains uncertain: The school has until spring 2024 to show that it is trying to improve.
Ms. Weber recently took over leadership of Young Advocates for Fair Education, a group that pushes for more secular education for Hasidic children. But she fears she might not be able to help her own son.
“He’s just such a great kid,” she said of Aaron. “And he is missing out on so, so much.”
In a statement, Richard Bamberger, a spokesman for Aaron’s yeshiva, said Ms. Weber did not appear to have an issue with the school before she left the community.
“Ms. Weber proudly parented her two older sons through graduation at Yeshiva Mesivta Arugath Habosem, and the only change has been in her religious affiliation and her new career as a paid yeshiva critic,” Mr. Bamberger said.
Perhaps no barrier to moving children out of Hasidic schools is more significant than the rabbinical court system known as the beth din.
Rooted in centuries-old legal tradition, beth dins serve as an alternative to civil courts for Orthodox and Hasidic Jews worldwide, by mediating business conflicts and divorces, among other disputes.
The quality of those proceedings can vary widely, according to legal scholars and lawyers who have participated in them, and the courts themselves can range from permanent, well-established panels to more ad hoc groups convening in living rooms or basements.
Hasidic beth dins tend to be less transparent than other rabbinical courts, and some Hasidic yeshivas require parents to bring disputes to a beth din that is aligned with religious leaders.
Hasidic women can find themselves at a disadvantage when negotiating in the beth dins, as only husbands can confer religious divorces. Many non-Hasidic beth dins encourage men to grant their wives a divorce before litigating disputes about education, but that does not always happen in the Hasidic courts.
Some women who have settled divorces in Hasidic beth dins told The Times they were willing to sign almost anything to finalize the split, including dense documents dictating how and where their children would be educated. Some said they signed without fully understanding what they were committing to.
Afraid of not being granted a religious divorce, known as a get, Chani Getter signed an agreement in a Hasidic beth din in 2003 promising to keep their children in religious yeshivas.
“They handed me a document, saying, ‘sign here’,” said Mx. Getter, who has left the community and identifies as nonbinary, “and I had no idea that this separation agreement that I was signing was more binding than going to court would have ever been.”
Mx. Getter’s ex-husband, Moshe Getter, said in an interview that an attorney for Mx. Getter had drafted the divorce agreement. (Mx. Getter said neither parent was focused on secular education at the time, only on dissolving the marriage.)
Chavie Weisberger was 25 and desperate to leave her unhappy marriage when she walked into a Hasidic beth din in a Borough Park living room in 2008. Her divorce agreement gave her ex-husband control over where their three children went to school, even though Ms. Weisberger got physical custody. Ms. Weisberger’s father-in-law had hired one attorney to represent both parties, she said.
“I just feel so blindsided by how easily manipulatable I was,” said Ms. Weisberger, who later fought to maintain custody of the children in State Supreme Court.
Her oldest child, Bee, personally asked a state judge for permission to attend a Manhattan public school. Bee remembers shaking with relief when the request was granted. (Lawyers for Ms. Weisberger’s ex-husband did not respond to requests for comment.)
An increasing number of decisions in cases like Ms. Weisberger’s are falling to state judges, interviews and records show. The courts in Brooklyn and Rockland County, in particular, have become battlegrounds where religious tradition and state education law collide — and judges have typically ruled to keep children in their original yeshivas.
That has been a source of deep frustration for Julie F. Kay, an attorney whose legal project helps Hasidic people who leave the community fight for child custody.
“I just want the courts to recognize that when one parent chooses secular education, that should be the priority,” Ms. Kay said, noting that state law requires private schools to provide an education comparable to what is offered in public schools. “This isn’t about parental choice; this is about ignoring one parent’s choice that aligns with state law.”
Malky Wigder said she never planned to leave the Hasidic community. But after her divorce was made final two decades ago, she assumed she could move her two sons from one Hasidic group’s yeshiva into another’s, where they would get slightly more secular education. She said she soon discovered that her own family members were calling, visiting and writing letters urging other yeshivas against enrolling the children.
Her sons remained in their school until they started telling her about seeing and experiencing verbal and physical abuse there. Eventually, they told a state judge the same thing and were allowed to enroll in modern Orthodox schools, which are known for both their robust secular and religious studies. (Attempts to reach Ms. Wigder’s ex-husband were unsuccessful, but court transcripts show he expressed concern that the children were becoming less religious after leaving Hasidic yeshivas.)
“This system is designed to eliminate choices, it’s not a fluke that it’s so hard for parents to make these transitions between schools,” Ms. Wigder said. “This is really the only way to perpetuate this way of life.”
Brian M. Rosenthal contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy and Kitty Bennett contributed research.
Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.