Ep. 294: Big Ideas — with Eli Spitzer

February 2, 2022

Religious Liberty and Education series joined by Eli Spitzer, the headmaster of a hasidic boys’ high school in London. He is the author of a recent essay in Mosaic Magazine titled, New York State versus the Yeshivas, which is the subject of today’s conversation.

Jason Bedrick: Hello. And welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, Director of Policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Religious Liberty and Education series. Today, I’m grateful to be joined by Eli Spitzer, the headmaster of a hasidic boys’ high school in London, and he is the author of a recent essay in Mosaic Magazine titled, New York State versus the Yeshivas, which is the subject of today’s conversation. Eli, thank you, and welcome to the podcast.

Eli Spitzer: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Jason Bedrick: Well, before we dive into the content of your essay, perhaps you just briefly describe what the debate over substantial equivalency is in New York, and why there are concerns that the hasidic yeshivas in New York are failing to meet that standard.

Eli Spitzer: Well, I think the shortest and easiest way to explain this is simply by saying that hasidic schools for anyone who’s ever been to a hasidic, let’s call it yeshiva, and just to be clear, when we say yeshiva, what we mean is typically a hasidic boys’ school, whether it’s elementary, middle, or high school, but a hasidic boys’ school. And for any outsider who would visit one of these schools would immediately notice that they look very different, in terms of the timetable, in terms of the content which is taught, and also the outcomes, the attainment at the end of whether it’s elementary school or high school is also very different to a mainstream school.

Well, simply put, a hasidic school will not typically prepare their students or naturally prepare them for the next stage in a mainstream education, i.e., attending college, they will provide them with a very different curriculum, one that is mainly dominated by Jewish studies, religious studies. And the state guidelines in New York City stipulates that anyone running a school outside of the mainstream system, so if you run a private school, you have got a degree of flexibility in how you want to organize your curriculum, how you want to plan your timetable, how you want to lay out your classrooms, but ultimately, there needs to be a certain substantial equivalency.

Now, I think I’m right in saying that the definition of that equivalency was very vague. So, it wasn’t clear whether it should be that the outcomes should be exactly the same and equivalent to mainstream schools, or that the intentions, the intent of the curriculum should be the same even if the content isn’t exactly the same. And in recent years, probably about 10 years ago, a group of advocates got together, and one of the main objectives were to actually try and strong-arm the New York State authorities into defining what substantial equivalency actually means. And I think that went through a lengthy process in the end, what the New York guidelines produced was actually a very stringent and a very prescriptive definition of substantial equivalency, which basically went as far as saying, your schools, whatever else you do in terms of religious studies and whatever pedagogical methods you’ve come up with, that’s fine, but the bottom line is, the children in your school need to know everything that we want the children in our schools to know. And that obviously has led to a big argument, which is what we are going to discuss.

Jason Bedrick: And just before we proceed, one point of clarification, since we are across the pond and we are divided by a common language, in the United States, times tables refers to multiplication tables, but you, I think, mean sort of the day schedule, correct?

Eli Spitzer: Day schedule. That’s right. Yeah. I should say in Britain times tables as two separate words also means multiplication tables, but the timetable means the daily schedule. Yes, you’re correct.

Jason Bedrick: All right. So, you run a hasidic yeshiva, and yet you open your essay in Mosaic with some very strong criticisms for some of those who are defending the yeshivas in this debate, what do they get wrong?

Eli Spitzer: So, I don’t want to talk too much about my own school, just because I don’t want to sort of shine a spotlight on it, my school, the one that I run now, and I’ve just actually taken over at my current school and I’ve just left a school where I was for six years, they are slightly different and they do things slightly differently, which is partly why I’m involved. But generally, I’m actually talking about my experience attending hasidic schools myself, as someone who grew up in the hasidic community. And I feel that if someone who has got no experience of hasidic schools at all reads this debate would actually be a little bit baffled, wouldn’t exactly understand what is going on.

On the one side, you have got the advocates, the critics of the hasidic yeshiva system, which are describing an absolute horror show, using words such as neglect, robbing children from an education, which sounds really bad and evil and dystopian. And on the other side, you have got the defenders of yeshivas, who are describing some wonderful, elite, beautiful, sophisticated education system offered in yeshivas using the terms of mainstream education. So, when it comes to an argument about how well they are prepared to pursue a college degree, you would have defenders of the yeshivas arguing that they are even more prepared to pursue any career they want, any qualification they want than pupils or students who attend mainstream schools. And that is simply not something that I can relate to as someone who attended hasidic schools. And I should say that I really enjoyed my time in hasidic schools and in yeshivas, I loved it, but there’s no way that it was similar in any way to the experience of someone who attended a mainstream local school down the road.

The yeshivas tend to offer, I would say, 80% of the day, between 80 and 90% of the day is taken by religious studies. So, it would be a range of biblical studies, Talmudic studies, a version of Jewish history, but a very selective version of Jewish history, which presents a certain narrative, and also deeply immersed in hasidic culture. So, a big emphasis on biographical, or maybe even geographical descriptions of great figures from Caribbean Jewish history, and Jewish song, and the festivals, the [inaudible 00:06:30] is a big part of the curriculum in hasidic schools.

But among all of that, there is very little time dedicated to English, to maths, to science, and to social studies, history, geography, computers, all of that hardly exists. And what does exist is sort of, in many hasidic schools, seen as a, well, it ranges between something which is important, but not that important, a distant second compared to Jewish studies all the way to the other end of the spectrum, where they almost see it as evil and something which is sort of forced upon them. So, there is a strong case to make in favor of yeshivas, which hopefully we will come to, but that is not the case of saying that yeshivas are just wonderful, elite, advanced academic institutions, which are not only equivalent, but superior to non-hasidic schools. That’s just not something that I can relate to or something that I recognize from my own experience of having attended hasidic schools.

Jason Bedrick: Before we get to the critics, to push back just slightly, you are certainly correct that in terms of curricular content, what is offered at most Haredi yeshivas is not comparable. One area where I actually think that the defenders have a case is that students do learn how to learn. In other words, they learn how to sit for long periods of time on one subject engaged, read deeply in a text, taking a very highly complicated text, analyzing it from multiple different angles, understanding it from different points of view, arguing over, debating it, committing it to memory, these are all highly valuable skills that are transferable.

The content is not so much, maybe 1%, maybe less of the content itself is transferable, but I do think that there is a case to be made that there are skills. And I’ve noticed that among a lot of the critics, at least a lot of the people running the organizations that are critical of the yeshivas, you have people that grew up in the Haredi yeshiva system, and then went on not only to get college degrees, but in some cases to graduate summa cum laude, to go on and get a master’s degree. And the question is, how many of the kids in Brooklyn at the public school down…

Jason Bedrick: Many of the kids in Brooklyn at the public school down the street accomplished the same thing, even though they were spending all day just on the secular subjects. What do you make of that case?

Eli Spitzer: Look, it’s an argument that I’ve heard from a lot of people, and I think I need more to be persuaded of it. Of course, Talmud is a sophisticated text, which requires a degree of intellectual sophistication in order to be able to understand it and to keep up with the sugyot in Talmud. It’s complicated. I get it. I don’t know to what extent that it is directly responsible for improving the cognitive functions of a child’s brain, but perhaps more importantly, I also know of many Hasidic schools where there is simply no emphasis on the academic side of what Jewish studies offers. It may be an unintended consequence, but the measure of success for these schools is actually not whether the students in the school are able to achieve a certain level of abstract reasoning and memorizing a lot of information. That is not ultimately, I think, the purpose.

I think there are definitely some Hasidic communities and some better-run Hasidic schools that do place an emphasis on academic achievement. You’re probably right that simply pushing and exercising the brains with any sort of intellectually stimulating content will achieve something which will then be transferable. I really don’t think that that is the main objective of what Hasidic schools are there to achieve.

Look, I’m not disagreeing, but again, I don’t think that that’s the big story here. I think there are two things to say about how people then go on to do well in higher education institutions.

One, which is what I say in the piece: people overestimate how difficult it is to overcome educational deficits. Human beings have decided somewhere around 150, 200 years ago that every child should attend a school, largely because of how the economy is organized, and because parents need to both go and work and earn a living and cannot look after them at home all day. But you can see, for example, and this is a very small example, where the range in different of when schooling actually starts, when you’ve got in the West, in Britain, and I think in America, anywhere from the age of three, preschool and then early years, and then you go to Scandinavian countries, Finland, and they won’t start attending school before the age of seven or eight. No one is arguing that actually… Well, the fact is, the evidence is there that they don’t lose out by starting school a few years later.

Now, I want to take that a step further and say that the reality is that someone who’s very committed and dedicated and determined to achieve a certain qualification will, in the space of a year or two, manage to close that educational deficit. How do I know? Because I know plenty of people who have done exactly that, and I also know that I could hardly speak English at the age of 15 or 16. Yiddish is my first language. I went to a school where secular education was extremely poor, and I, for some reason, decided towards my late teens that I want to do something about it and close that gap, and I managed just well. And I know so many others who, yes, you need to be motivated; you need to be dedicated; you need to be conscientious, but they get there. So those educational deficits are not that hard.

The point you raise about dysfunctional schools, where children, despite thousands of hours of being taught all of this, don’t achieve anything. But again, maybe that supports the idea that schooling and the amount of time you dedicate to secular studies, that is not the ultimate deciding factor on what will make you successful academically in your early twenties. There are other factors, and a lot of them to do with peer groups and genetics, to some extent, but also to how motivated you are later on.

Jason Bedrick: Turning now to the critics, you mentioned a group, Yaffed, Young Advocates For Fair Education. They’re the main group of former Haredi students who are advocating for change. Where do you think they and some of the other critics go wrong in their critique of the yeshivas?

Eli Spitzer: I should say, first of all, before I start criticizing Yaffed, when Yaffed first came on the scene, and the knee-jerk response from any mainstream Hasidic institutions or individuals was to condemn them and to accuse them of all sorts, I was actually more sympathetic, maybe because maybe that’s just how I think and I thought, “Actually, let’s give them a fair hearing. The fact that they are run by people who have chosen to leave the community doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not onto something,” and I actually gave them the benefit of the doubt. There were things that were said on either side, which I felt was unfair, but I’ve decided, you know what, ultimately, I think they’re passionate about improving standards of secular education of the Hasidic community. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Their argument that it can only be done from the outside, I don’t necessarily agree with that, but I could see where they’re coming from.

But then slowly, over time, I started seeing a bit of a pattern, and that pattern was constantly framing the argument as the Hasidic education system is… Well, using words such as educational neglect. Robbing children from an education. I didn’t see anywhere, nowhere, their flagship 2017 report with big academics who’ve contributed with all sorts of introductions and figures and everything; nowhere was there an explanation of what a Hasidic school is. If you don’t know anything about the community, you would be forgiven for thinking that it is run by some extremist fanatics who are just kidnapping children off the street and keeping them locked in straitjackets and just abusing them. That’s the impression you get.

There’s one line in their 2017 report, which just states that, “Why don’t Hasidic boys have a lot of time for secular education? Because as boys, most of them are expected to become rabbis when they grow up.” And that just betrays either willful denial or distortion of what is actually happening, or complete ignorance of simply not understanding what a Hasidic school is. Because if you know the Hasidic world, you will know that the emphasis on becoming a rabbi is a complete joke. The Hasidic world is very clearly not focused on creating future scholars and rabbis. It is there as a lofty ideal, and as an aspiration, and something that should be facilitated and supported if someone does choose to become a scholar or a rabbi, but the Hasidic community is actually… And that one of the biggest distinctions between Hasidic Haredi communities and the non-Hasidic Haredi communities, is the emphasis on full-time Torah study in the Hasidic world is much, much lower than it is in the Yeshivish world, for example.

The main purpose of a Hasidic school is to, as I say in the piece, to cultivate Hasidut. To take these children in their most formative years and provide them with the tools, with the worldview, with everything they need in order to grow up satisfied, loyal members of the Hasidic community. If you are not prepared to recognize that that is the main function of the Hasidic schools, or you do recognize that, but you deliberately misrepresent what you’re arguing for, then we are going to keep arguing with someone saying, “No, no, no, I don’t want to change anything other than improve your secular education,” and the other side saying, “We don’t have anything to improve because we provide an excellent secular education.” Then you end up going around in circles and no one is actually benefiting from it.

Jason Bedrick: You make a great point in your piece about the distinction between education and instruction. What is that distinction and what is the bearing that it has on this particular dispute?

Eli Spitzer: In the piece, I make the distinction between education and instruction, because I think framing it in this way is the most important and most helpful way to understand this debate here, and also to understand how we move forward.

By education, what I mean by education is specifically not the specific content of the curriculum, but the bigger picture: molding the individual. Education as a way of cultivating, grooming, if you like, and preparing that child, that student, in his or her formative years into initiation into a worldview or a world or a culture or an economy that you believe is desirable.

Instruction, of course, is very technical. It is devoid of any underlying agendas. It is just imparting knowledge, taking a set of specific content and passing it on.

What I argue in the piece is that actually every education system anywhere in the world is exactly that. An education system, which is designed to mold an individual into a specific world view. The difficulty in actually pinning down the current Western model of education is that the very idea that they want to initiate these children into, is the idea of individual autonomy and freedom. And therefore it is presented as if there is no … we don’t want to you into anything. We want to prepare you in order to pursue whatever you think is the best way in life and adopt whichever worldview you will be drawn to. And we just broaden your horizons so that you’ve got all the options available to you.

But of course, and this is something that, my favorite chapter in the book that you’ve published, which is, I think it’s chapter three, which makes that very point. That it is a lot harder to see the flaws in the Western model of individual autonomy. But actually, at least as much as any other system, it excludes, or it does a disservice to entire chunks of its demographic by, for example, creating this ideal of social mobility, of pursuing whichever career you want, even if it means abandoning your community and abandoning your family in pursuit of something which ultimately is not necessarily in the best interest of many of these children when they grow up.

So again, the point and the extent to which the Western model of education, which is held up as the superior model, because it doesn’t direct the students into a particular worldview, is actually not necessarily true. And in the book that you’ve published, Rita Koganzon, one of my favorite chapters in the book, where she argues very convincingly and actually demonstrate the flaws of that Western model of individual autonomy and freedom. And she makes the case that actually by taking young people, children, and convincing them that the best future for them is to pursue whichever career they want, and whichever international globetrotting internship that they can land, regardless of whether it means undermining their roots in their community or their family, is something that is actually counterproductive. It is not in the best interest of large chunks of society.

And it does that, instead of perhaps for example focusing on the importance of staying within your community, the importance of the family unit, the importance of perhaps other means of employment that may sound less glamorous, but are more productive, more satisfying, more rewarding.

And therefore you look at any education model, you have to be able to separate the content from the dogma if you like. Even if that dogma sells itself as being anti-dogmatic. And you have to be able split the two and say, look, let’s try and agree on what specific content, what instruction is useful in a practical way. And what is something that every child growing up in America, in order to be able to function, just to engage and interact with wider society, just to be self-sufficient, just to gain a level of independence, what they should achieve.

But then you have to follow that up by also saying. That conversation, part of that conversation is how can we do that without undermining your education system, without undermining the objectives of what you try to offer.

What I found most disturbing about the critics of the yeshiva system is that at no point, other than paying lip service at sort of a superficial level and saying, oh, we don’t want anything other than increasing the amount of secular studies to X amount of hours a day, and every child in the Hasidic community should be able to pursue a college degree, I think that just shows a lack of appreciation or recognition of what Hasidic education is there to provide.

And I think ultimately even if eventually they will prove successful, they will mobilize the full power of the state in order to force parents into submission. I think they should be more honest and not suggest that, oh, we’re not asking for much. Well, you’re asking for an awful lot. And you might win. You might lose. But I think you should be honest and open about what you’re demanding.

Jason Bedrick: Now, as the case is in New York, the state has not gone all in yet. It has this pending threat of enforcing substantial equivalency, whatever exactly that means. And however, exactly that they plan to enforce it at some point maybe in the future.

But in Britain, the state has gone much further down that road of enforcing a certain vision of education on private schools and on religious schools in particular. Could you give us just a little background about what’s going on in Britain? How has this debate unfolded in Britain? What are the issues? And what is Ofsted, you can explain what Ofsted is, and what are they doing with the private and religious schools in Britain?

Eli Spitzer: Okay, sure. A bit of context is important to understand what is going on in Britain at the moment. Up until around about 2010/2011, the position of the authorities in Britain, more or less, was turning a blind eye to the independent sector. So in Britain you have, just to sort of put it into context, you’ve got about 25,000 state aided schools, so schools that are part of the state system. And about 5,000 independent private schools.

Now, the majority of the independent schools in Britain are the elite institutions like Eton College and Harrow School, where the glitterati send their children. And they were always superior to the state system and actually held up as an example of what the state school system should aspire to.

But there was always a much smaller contingent of Orthodox Jewish private schools. And you had some Muslim private schools and some Christian schools. Who always operated outside of that state system. But for many, many years, managed to fly under the radar.

The position was, look, live and let live. We don’t know exactly what’s going on. There were some token inspections with, for example, Ofsted, which is the Office for Standards of Education, which is a government agency responsible for inspecting and maintaining standards and regulations in schools. They would usually send in, for example, an Orthodox Jewish inspector. So there were members from the Haredi community who were trained to be inspectors. And they would go in to inspect the schools in their own community. The explanation was that you need a certain cultural understanding, and that’s why it should be them. And therefore the school that I went to was always, when I was there, was always graded good or outstanding. And those are their four grades that a school can get, it’s either outstanding, good, requires improvement or inadequate.

So Haredi schools across the country were doing well. No one noticed that much. On the day when the inspector came in, there was a little bit more cleaning going on and some soap in the soap dispensers and some posters going up on the wall. But it wasn’t too invasive. It was all very good.

In 2010/2011, there was a big scandal that broke that dominated the news in Britain at the time. And that was a group of schools in Birmingham that were taken over by Islamist extremists. Who basically got themselves onto the board of trustees and to the governing boards of certain schools. And with an agenda to, I don’t know if it was to implement Sharia law, but to actually move it to a more fundamentalist position. And that was really controversial. It kicked off. And it basically forced the government of the time to start scrutinizing … Well, they can’t just scrutinize Muslim schools, can they?

So, it meant scrutinizing faith schools in general. So of course it meant Jewish, Muslim, Christian schools, suddenly the government was paying attention. And they started doing proper inspections of these schools. And suddenly a picture emerged that there are some serious failings across the board. And schools were caught off guard, didn’t know exactly what was going on. It took a while. Even Ofsted were not prepared for what they were going to find. And there was a lot of inconsistencies of what was enforced in one school was totally ignored in another, but it took a few years, I would say up until about 2015 to reach a certain sort of, to settle down in a certain pattern and consistency. And it boils down to Haredi schools regularly being criticized and failed over A, a lack of decent standards of simple secular education. But there’s another side to it, which is under the Equality Act of 2010 under British law and certainly under the Ofsted interpretation of that law, every school has to promote a specific understanding and respect for the LGBGT community and has to provide sex education and various controversial bits, which Haredi schools are completely opposed to. In fact, they’re not necessarily opposed to LGBT education. It’s not about Adam and Steve, they would be opposed to Adam and Eve as well because Haredi schools maintain a strict policy of zero sexualization of children, and they won’t go anywhere near these subjects.

And it’s basically been going around in circles. And to this day, 2021, occasionally schools get not shut down, there’s only one example of a school that was Department of Education tried to shut them down. But in other schools what tends to happen is that if they don’t improve and they don’t comply, then eventually they can get a restriction on the way they operate and they limit the numbers of pupils that they can admit and so on. And it has actually been causing a lot of trouble, a lot of controversy, a lot of it’s been really demoralizing for people running Haredi schools.

They feel like they’re just constantly being put down by things that are beyond their control, by things that their own parent body wouldn’t allow them to change anyway. But for me, the biggest problem, and it’s something that I’ve written about and I’ve argued about, and I’ve even spoken to quite senior people in Ofsted and the Department of Education where my argument was, if you can find a way to remove those controversial subjects that the school leadership is not in a position to comply with and focus on reading and writing and mathematics, the things that Hasidic parents are not opposed to in principle and Hasidic school leaders are also trying their best to do well in, but if you can incentivize school improvement by saying, if you do well in those basics of reading, writing, and mathematics, then we’ll leave you alone or will recognize that progress than there would be much further down the line, and there’ll be actually much more successful, but unfortunately that hasn’t really happened.

Jason Bedrick: All right, well, we’ve discussed your critiques of both the Yeshiva advocates and the Yeshiva critics. Where do you fall on this debate? What are you advocating for?

Eli Spitzer: So what I am advocating for essentially, what I am in favor of, and actually something that I’ve dedicated my professional life to and this what I literally do for a living it’s actually do as much as I possibly can to preserve the ethos and the culture and the overall objectives of Hasidic education whilst at the same time, improving the standards of secular instruction and doing it extremely carefully and doing it in a way that as far as possible, and I see it as something really risky and dangerous and something that I have to constantly be careful about and take advice on, but actually, how can we raise that basic standard of secular education?

Let’s say and try and get it in line with the secular education that Hasidic girls would receive, but at the same time not the undermining the overall objectives of Hasidic schools. I think that is possible. I think, again, we have to be realistic because there is a need in my view to increase slightly the amount of time that is dedicated to secular studies. There is also a vital need to look at teachers, recruitment of teachers and where those teachers are going to come from because that is often not talked about.

But I think that is one of the biggest problems in trying to improve standards of secular education is the shortage and the lack of people who are willing to come and teach in these schools, but focusing the efforts on looking at what can we do to achieve a decent standard, mainly literacy of being able to read and write competently in the national language, and at the same time, the other thing that is extremely important is actually explaining why that’s necessary and not in using the terms of reference from the secular world. Us saying, well, that’s necessary because maybe your son wants to go to college and doesn’t want to continue, doesn’t want get married at the age of 19 or 20. No, I think people who are in favor of maintaining the Hasidic education system and people like me who are in favor of the long term viability of the Hasidic community need to argue, which I have done extensively on my blog and interviews and various other places, I need to argue why is a basic level of secular education important?

It is important, for example, because I would argue the Hasidic world is becoming increasingly dependent on welfare. And whilst there is no link, and this is the point that I make in the piece that the lack of secular education directly contributes to welfare dependency. I think it is fair to say that they are a growing number Hasidic Jews who are connected with the outside world and they feel like they have missed out on an opportunity to pursue a degree or to become a professional, to become a lawyer or an accountant or something like that.

And I think that resentment is unhealthy and it’s something that should be addressed. And also the PR crisis of the Hasidic community, the increased attention from Netflix TV series to the New York Times who are constantly attacking the Hasidic community. And we’ve moved from being an interesting, cute phenomenon into something hostile and anti-liberal, and I think we need more people who are actually able to engage with the outside world and explain and defend the Hasidic values. And in order to do that, we need to generate a class of people who are able to communicate in English with the outside world. Among other reasons which needs to be argued and needs to be demonstrated in order to convince parents why it’s important, but at the same time why and how it would not undermine the principles Hasidic education.

Jason Bedrick: Our guest today has been Eli Spitzer. He is a headmaster at a Hasidic boys high school in London, the author of the Mosaic Magazine essay, New York State Versus the Yeshivas. You can also find his blog and podcast at elliespitzer.com. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Eli Spitzer: Lovely.

Jason Bedrick: Thanks so much for joining us. This has been another edition of Ed Choice Chats, The Big Idea series. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for The Big Idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast, follow us on social media at edchoice and don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thanks so much. We’ll catch you next time.