When Yossi was a little boy growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he’d often wander into his father’s office and look at all of the diplomas and awards on the wall. The plaques represented a life completely different than his own. They both confused and impressed him.
As a young man going through the Hasidic education system, college diplomas and awards were out of the question for Yossi. In fact, Yossi could barely read or write in English. And yet his home was filled with reminders that his father had grown up very differently.
“My father grew up secular. His formative years were in public school, and then he went from Columbia College to Harvard Medical School. It was on the strengths of that secular scientific background that he was able to support nine children to live a somewhat upper middle-class life. But he didn’t give my brothers and me those opportunities. It was always obvious to me that he was denying us opportunities that he was given by his parents. It hurt a lot.”
Yossi carried this pain with him throughout his own experience in the Chabad educational system, where he was denied even the most basic education.
“I went to a Lubavitch [Chabad] yeshiva in Flatbush until fourth grade where I learned the basics of the ABCs. From the age of 9-23, I attended Oholei Torah in Crown Heights, the yeshiva that the Lubavitcher Rebbe founded in 1956 with the sole purpose of not having any secular education.”
The Chabad movement is one of the largest and most well-known branches of Orthodox Hasidic Judaism in the world. Because Chabad is largely known through their English-speaking shluchim (emissaries who spread Jewish knowledge to unaffiliated Jew), it is often assumed that Chabad yeshivas provide a higher level of secular education than other Hasidic yeshivas. Unfortunately, that is not usually the case.
Yossi detailed long hours spent in the classroom praying and learning Torah. Most days started at 7:30 and didn’t end until 5 or 6. No English, Math, science, or history were taught.
Yossi remembers the moment when he realized that his sisters’ educational experience was different than his.
“I recall at a young age, maybe in fourth grade, or fifth grade, my older sister, the oldest in the family, was trying to teach me the timetables, you know, seven times seven, and so forth. She was only a year older than me but she recognized that I wasn’t being given a basic secular education. She would say, ‘Oh, Yossi you can do it!’ On the one hand, I appreciated that she was trying to help me, of course. But, on the other hand, I was always very jealous.”
When Yossi finished yeshiva at age 23, he knew that he wanted to further his education, but he wasn’t sure how. Like his Chabad classmates, he had no high school diploma and almost no math skills. What gave Yossi a slight advantage over his peers was the fact that he’d received a basic knowledge of reading in his Flatbush primary school that he’d continue to nurture over the years.
“I think it was because of sports that I was able to develop my reading skills. I learned the basics of reading and writing in second and third grade before I transferred to Oholei Torah. Because I was such a sports fan, I continued reading about sports. Actually, the only reading that I did from the age of nine to 23 in English was the sports pages in the newspaper.”
Yossi’s reading ability gave him some confidence he could pass the English portion of the High school Equivalency test. But, the math component of the test felt completely out of reach to him. Yossi turned to his paternal grandmother to help.
“My paternal grandmother was a junior high school mathematics teacher in a public school. She was not religious. When I finished yeshiva, I was 23 and she was 90. I would sit with her every day going over the timetables, basic fractions, some very basic algebra. She taught me just enough math that I could pass the GED. You had to get like 25 questions right, and I got 26.”
Although Yossi was able to obtain his High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED), his difficulties in math continued to plague him. He enrolled in Touro College and hoped to study something in the field of science, but quickly realized his lack of formative math education would make that dream almost impossible.
“College math is predicated on high school math. But, I never had high school math, let alone elementary math. It was demoralizing. Because I didn’t have enough of a grasp of math, I couldn’t really study science. I ended up majoring in history, which was mainly reading comprehension.”
Although he was able to obtain a bachelor degree in History, Yossi’s lack of math education continued to limit his career aspirations. Yossi considered enrolling in grad school to become a history professor but ultimately realized he didn’t have the math skills to take the GRE. Instead, he earned a paralegal certification and worked for a few different organizations over the years. Unfortunately, the paralegal career has never provided him with the income or job satisfaction that he was hoping for.
Still, Yossi feels fortunate to have had any education at all. Most of his classmates who stayed in the Chabad world have not had the same opportunity. Their career choices are limited to becoming rabbis or working in Hasidic-owned businesses.
For Yossi, that life did not feel like an option.
“My three brothers and I, we’re all intellectuals like our father. We have a sort of genetic curiosity about the world. We want to know what’s happening around us. So the idea of taking away secular education from four intelligent boys was against our nature. Not only could I not advance academically in what I wanted to do, but it was against my nature and my brothers’ not to be given the tools to engage with the world around us.”
Although Yossi re-established a relationship with his family, he still struggles with the resentment he feels toward his parents.
“My parents were ba’al teshuva, meaning that they were sort of born-again Hasidic Jews. They wanted to ingratiate themselves into the community that they joined so they kind of turned off their own internal compasses. This is what the community was demanding and they didn’t protest.”
When Yossi looks back at his childhood, one of the things that hurts the most is the lack of agency he had.
“I didn’t feel I had a voice. My parents made a decision. That’s where I had to go. Nobody asked me. I was a good kid, I wanted to trust my parents, they knew what was best for me. So you kind of go with the flow. But in adulthood in my early 20s, I realized that the decision they made for us was wrong.”
Yossi has used the pain he felt about his own education to advocate for other boys in the Haredi yeshiva system.
“I believe the continual rejection of secular knowledge within the Hasidic community is ultimately self-defeating. You have to break the current education cycle and find a way to allow secular and religious education to coexist. My whole point as an activist is to challenge the leaders that they could do better, and they have to do better for the sake of the children. You can’t deny an entire field of knowledge from kids in the 21st century, right? You can’t do that. Not according to the law, not morally, not ethically, you can’t do that.”
Yossi has been volunteering with Yaffed for several years to help end the educational neglect in Haredi schools. Find out more about how you can help give current and future yeshiva students the opportunities that Yossi was denied.