As we approach the one-year mark of the coronavirus pandemic that continues to ravage the world, we would like to reflect on how Yaffed addressed the unique challenges that Hasidic families in New York face.
Early March 2020
Since most Hasidic households speak exclusively Yiddish and internet access is rare, many ultra-Orthodox families did not have access to information about how Covid is spread. To address this need and promote Covid safety, we included a Yiddish translation of the CDC guidelines in the newsletter that we sent out to 20,000 Hasidic homes in New York.
Late March 2020
Ultra-Orthodox families are typically very large, with as many as twelve children in one household. With yeshivas closed and most kids at home, there was a real need for diversion. We created a directory of free and inexpensive educational online resources that families could easily access.
April 2020-June 2020
Hasidic boys spend up to 13 hours a day studying Talmud. Without government enforcement for secular education within school, even access to a basic English lesson usually seems impossible. In an interesting twist, due to the pandemic, for a short period of time a window of opportunity opened up. Yeshivas were closed, kids were at home, and some parents were seeking to use the time productively. Seeing a chance to help these young men, Yaffed moved quickly into action by organizing a series of classes.
In April, we launched several pilot classes on Python, a widely-used programming language. After determining the interest and skill level of students, our volunteer instructor created a six-week course for both boys and girls.
By late spring, the yeshivas had re-opened, leaving only girls in the Python class. In early summer, the students applied their newly acquired coding skills to present impressive culminating projects.
Knowing that their sons won’t receive any secular education once they enter yeshiva, women often bring home books in English when their children are young. Many mothers feel a real sense of loss as their boys go into high school and are taught to shun secular subjects.
Yaffed realized that this gap in yeshiva was an opportunity to help make up for some of that loss. We facilitated an online English class for Hasidic families. While there were many interested families, a lot of obstacles stood in the way of the class being successful.
The most obvious issue was accessibility. Very few ultra-Orthodox families have access to tablets or WiFi, making attending the class almost impossible for most. But, even if they were able to connect to the class, fear prevented many others from signing up.
Hannah Miranda Miller, Director of Community Engagement and Organizing at Yaffed explains, “Many of the parents I speak with are afraid to be seen as someone who is pursuing a secular education, even if they are otherwise content in their Hasidic community. The fear of being seen as someone whose views or desires deviate from those of community leaders affects everything. The repercussions of being viewed this way can permeate into every sphere of your life-and the lives of your loved ones. They’re worried about shidduchim [matches] for their siblings, for their cousins, they’re worried about the future of their grandkids, even if they don’t have them yet. The fear spreads so far and so wide. It’s impossible to encapsulate it into words.”
Despite the challenges, seven boys, ranging in age from 12 to 18, regularly attended the class and many others dropped in when possible.
Most of the boys could speak some English, but few could read or write beyond a second grade level.
After the class, parents reached out to say how pleased they were with its success.
“This was the best thing happening to him…during this time: enabling him to grow scholastically. Behind every cloud [lockdown] there is a silver lining. ”
“Thank you so much! My child loves the classes- can they be even more often?”
“My child felt accomplished on the very first day and hopefully this will continue.”
A lack of science knowledge was clearly a factor in the devastating COVID losses that the ultra- Orthodox community faced. Boys receive no science education in either elementary school or high school.
To address this, Yaffed facilitated a science class that started immediately after the English class. But, because most yeshivas were fully open by then, students once again were left with virtually no free time.
Nevertheless, the science class went on with several regular students and others who joined occasionally. Since these boys had no formal knowledge, the priority was to first give them a background in what science is and why it’s valuable and then to focus on biology and germs.
The instructors were knowledgeable of the boys’ educational background and careful to present information in a way that was respectful and in tune with the community’s sensitivities.
The families who stayed with the class were pleased with what their students had learned.
“I wanted to let you know that my child loves this (science) class! Rabbi L. is really good and engaging! My son looks forward to it and always tells me about what he learned afterwards. Please let Rabbi L. know how much he loves it. Thank you very much!” one parent said.
Because of the lack of compliance to COVID safety practices, we anticipated that there would be a second peak of COVID in the fall. Yaffed recognized the need for more accessible information about how the virus is spread. For Hasidic people, most of whom were never introduced to even basic scientific concepts, the idea of an airborne illness was almost incomprehensible.
To address the lack of understanding and potentially help lower transmission, we translated into Yiddish an article that provided broad background information on cells, molecules, viruses, and different types of transmission, including airborne.
Realizing that there were a lot of misconceptions about masks, we included an explanation of how masks could help lower their chances of contracting COVID.
By the fall, COVID had ravaged much of the Hasidic community. Although many families had lost loved ones, there was still a great deal of misunderstanding and unwillingness to adhere to COVID safety members.
In November, Yaffed coordinated a panel of medical professionals and yeshiva graduates to discuss how to address the correlation between the lack of science instruction in the ultra-Orthodox community and the resultant public health outcomes.
An integral part of COVID safety is science education. Until Hasidic kids get the secular education they are entitled to, they will continue to be vulnerable to national emergencies and poverty. Yaffed remains committed to pressuring legislators to enforce the law and make sure that Hasidic boys receive a substantially equivalent secular education. Find out how you can help!