Why haredim need secular studies

There is much to emulate in the sheltered world of haredim (the ultra-Orthodox): devotion to caring for children and elderly parents, an authentic sense of community, and low rates of violent crime and drug use among those committed to the lifestyle. Haredim have certainly benefited by avoiding TV and Internet and protecting themselves from the negative influence of the lowest elements associated with popular culture. These lifestyle choices have enabled haredim to preserve the Jewish heritage through Torah study and acts of kindness.

Every now and then, a reporter goes out to do spontaneous interviews with haredi children, and posts the results online. Ha ha, here is a kid who can’t answer simple math questions! See the backward child who doesn’t know basic historical facts! The intention is to have the audience mock the ignorant haredim and serves as warning to those who romanticize the traditional lifestyle which champions a Torah-only educational curriculum. The Israeli media tend to focus on how this separatism harms general society – if haredim choose to sit out of the workforce in large numbers, have eight children per family and shirk army duty, then the resulting economic burdens and military obligations are shifted to non-haredim.

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But the more important point is that a lack of secular education and the resulting life of poverty harms the haredi community itself. Yes, haredim can live without trendy sunglasses or a steak dinner in a fancy restaurant. However, they are often forced to do without things that can make real positive differences. For example, I attended a hassidic wedding recently where the majority of the hundreds of guests had never had braces or cosmetic dental work. I have never seen people with such disfigured teeth outside of the photos in the “before and after treatment” pamphlets in my dentist’s office. I was stunned to see what human teeth look like in their natural state. Some lucky guests had normal smiles, but a large number of people there looked scary – their teeth were broken, cracked, missing, stained, and crooked.

There are haredi children who go hungry, and haredi adults who suffer from unbearable levels of stress and family dysfunction due to a lifetime spent in debt. There are many haredi beggars in religious neighborhoods, marching from synagogue to synagogue every morning, and going door to door collecting in the evenings.

This is humiliating and is not in keeping with the Jewish value of being self-reliant. Many haredim with extremely high intellectual resources work at minimum-wage jobs or engage in menial labor and still can only partially support their families. With more education and skills, they could be accomplishing so much more personally and professionally, and contributing much more to society, including their own community.

Poverty is not the only issue. By limiting with the outside world, haredim place themselves at a disadvantage. Haredi classrooms are less likely to include developmentally appropriate practices, and many haredim do not have adequate knowledge about various physical and mental health issues. A lack of objective sources of information to contradict erroneous rumors, conspiracy theories and historical revisionism likely contributes to extremism among a minority of the group.

Furthermore, haredim must interact with outsiders, whether they like it or not. Because they generally do not become professionals, they almost always rely on others to be their doctors, lawyers, and therapists. They need to talk to non-haredi bus drivers, policemen and flight attendants.

There are not enough jobs within yeshivot for haredim who want to become teachers and rabbis. Often the jobs that are available – even as a cashier in a neighborhood store – require with outsiders.

Unfortunately, haredim may be disadvantaged in these interactions, as they lack the social knowledge necessary to communicate effectively.

Some haredim are wary of the outside culture, which is viewed as a force that erodes religious values, or they fear change because of the cultural meme of treating traditional customs with reverence.

Haredim – particularly those in leadership positions – are keenly aware that their lifestyle involves trade-offs. They know the negative side of being insular, but this is a price they are willing to pay to maintain what they consider a “pure” lifestyle.

And yet. The poverty is crushing.

More and more young haredim, lured by the Internet and the realization that they are not suited for a life of study and poverty, are leaving the community. They recognize that they are ignorant and are often curious. Often, when young people rebel against their upbringing, they open the door wide and flee, rejecting the community and its teachings. If haredim want to save their own children, they must reform haredi society to allow children a small window into the outside world.

Many “secular” subjects are not really secular. Algebra and chemistry do not touch upon religion.

In fact, haredi children do study math – however, only at young ages, and the curriculum currently taught is limited to basic calculation skills. Perhaps the first step to implementing changes is to provide incentives to expand what is already included in the standard haredi elementary-school curriculum.

For example, schools that normally teach math until fourth grade might be given government grants to continue their math program through sixth grade. Rather than coercion, support should be provided so that elementary schools can have ownership of the process and implement changes carefully. Ultimately, encouraging haredim to go in this direction will benefit the Israeli community as a whole.

The writer is a professor of psychology at Touro College Israel.