The vast majority of Charedim want their sons to be educated at least to the level where they can read and write fluently in English. It’s true that there’s a committed minority who would, if they could, abolish secular education (Chol) altogether, but there’s an equally dedicated minority who are passionate about giving young Charedi boys a first-class education. Why is it, then, that the side that doesn’t have the support of the majority almost always get their way while ordinary Charedi parents quietly put up with schools that produce functionally illiterate young men?

The answer, I believe, lies partly in the fact that supporters of improving Chol have never been able to properly explain why doing so is not only desirable, but why it should be made a priority. Mere support for improving Chol will never overcome the massive practical and logistical obstacles to transforming Charedi schools. We have to explain why it should take priority over the dozens of other topics that have a claim on our attention.

The main reason used by advocates of improving Chol is the claim that, especially in the 21st century knowledge economy, better secular education is needed to prepare young Charedi men to compete in the market place: אם אין קמח אין תורה. There are many problems with this argument. First, the truth is that there are many Charedi communities which are firmly in the black economically speaking. It is true that these communities are usually highly dependent on the welfare state, but, while this might be morally problematic from certain points of view, it is neither here nor there economically speaking. Indeed, the average household income of a Charedi family is already above average and when Charedi families fall into economic distress, the immediate factor is almost always large family size and a culture that encourages spending beyond one’s means to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. Better secular education will have only a small, and very delayed, effect on poverty in our community.

The most important reason for dispensing with the economic argument for better Chol education is, however, that it implicitly accepts the premise that secular education is an external burden, something that we could dispense with entirely were it not for the need to secure funding for our way of life. Once this is accepted, the obvious conclusion is that we should teach only the bare minimum of Chol necessary to get by and it’s always easy to argue to push that bare minimum down a little bit more. Given that the general tendency of the past 70 years is for the welfare state to grow and grow, and given the thankfully blossoming Charedi business sector, it’s just as easy to argue that as time goes by we need less Chol, not more.

The real reason why Chol needs to be improved has nothing to do with economics at all. Chol needs to be improved because without it, many young Charedim cannot help but believe that their Charedi upbringing has robbed them of an essential aspect of civilized human dignity.

What I mean by this is the ability to read a complex text, or listen to a speech, and to formulate a response either orally or in print. This ability requires fluent reading, comprehension skills, the ability to organise thoughts, and also a cultural hinterland that includes a working knowledge of the basics of science, world history, and ideas. It is the absence of this, rather than any specific skills, that leaves more and more Charedim feeling inadequate and inferior to those outside the community’s walls.

Some of the young men who feel this way leave the community, often becoming its bitterest opponents, but the majority stay behind nursing a corrosive resentment of their parents, teachers, Rabbis and community. What is more, the ranks of these embittered young men is growing by the day.

Until the last decade, it was quite possible for a Charedi man to have no interactions with anyone from the outside world beyond paying a plumber or giving directions to a minicab driver. Now, however, thousands have access to a smartphone and the internet. They know that there’s a global conversation going on, and they know that they could never participate in it without being laughed out of the room. Ordinary Charedim follow political debate passionately, but it is a conversation that they can only watch from the side-lines; they are unable to share their own perspectives about Brexit or Trump. The fear of appearing to be an imbecile does have the ‘benefit’ of being a powerful incentive not to venture too far beyond the community’s walls, but it keeps young men within the fold as captives. The ultimate feeling of humiliation occurs when they find themselves unable even to defend their way of life to outsiders who see them as an object of ridicule or pity.

I know many people who feel this way, but, first and foremost, I know that I used to feel this way. Growing up, I would listen to LBC radio, struggling to improve my broken English, but acutely aware that if I ever dared to call in, I would be totally unable to express what I had to say. For years after, I felt that I was inadequate and my childhood had been wasted: it was useless to tell me that I could read Aramaic, Hebrew and Yiddish, that I had memorised 100s of dafim of Gemara, or that I had studied in one of London’s finest kollelim because I knew that in any conversation with an outsider, Jew or non-Jew, I was just another Stamford Hillbilly.

It was only once I had triumphed in my struggle to become literate in English that this resentment began to fade and I could appreciate what I had gained from being raised Charedi. Now that I am able to stand on my two feet in a discussion with anyone, I am also much more aware of the problems in wider society and able to explain how and why our cultural model works. To put matters bluntly: being literate has allowed me to appreciate how lucky I am that I did not go to a normal school. For anyone in my position, being literate is a sine qua non of self-respect, not just as an individual, but as a Charedi Jew.

Now, it should be stated that there is an alternative to solving the ‘dignity gap’ that exists between academically oriented Charedi men and the rest of society. It is to erect ever higher walls, to wage a renewed war on the internet and strain every sinew to create a parallel world where a bochur can feel his ability to dissect a Rashba is the only indication of intellectual status he needs. There are parts of our community that are doing precisely this and, for all I know, they may buck the odds yet again. For better or worse, however, most Charedim have already reached the point where that is not an option.

In practice, then, the most realistic guarantee of Charedi Judaism as a community of satisfied and happy people requires Charedi boys being brought up to be literate in the language of their country. There are many advocates of educational reform who are cynically using Chol as an opportunity to bring the system they hate to its knees, but there’s no reason to let them have the last word. Fixing our broken Chol system isn’t giving in to our enemies: it’s taking away their most powerful weapon and giving our young men the ability to live as proud, dignified Charedi Jews.

23 thoughts on “Chol and the ‘Dignity Gap’

      1. Very interesting insights.
        IMHO charedi education is always values oriented, meaning that if the topic doesn’t carry any educational values then it’s worthless. Therefore the reason of neglecting chol subjects, physical education etc.
        Anything that doesn’t donate to spiritual elevation is worthless.
        It is a very strong point when speaking about the individual. When it comes to the education of the masses, any subject that may be essential even to a substantial minority, for whatever reasons, has to be researched and have effort put in to modify it in order to suit charedi culture. Otherwise it won’t take long until we have a YAFFED here in England.
        This can be achieved only by organized efforts, convincing the community leaders that even if it may not be ideal, it is the רע במיעוטו. Any alternative will be much worse.
        I’m not sure that time is already ripe for this revolution. Sadly it looks like that the leaders aren’t grasping the severity of the situation, and even those that do, aren’t convinced that there’s no other way out.

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  1. Look around you and you will see for yourself being Chareidi is what you see in the mirror. Do you see an ehrlicher yied with beard and peyos happily married with a happy family and an oived Hashem. Or do you see a trapped soul dressed as a Chareidi and on the more extreme a self hating Jew. I am sure like me you are from the former where being Chareidi is not a burden rather an enhancement to our passage of life on this earth.

    The majority of Chareidi society worldwide many below the poverty line and illiterate even those with access to the internet are more than happy with their lifestyle. They are no different to millions of people on this planet who find themselves without the means we have but yet find happiness within.

    The problems and society you address are but a small percent of Chareidi jewry worldwide and an even smaller percentage of the world at large.

    So where it’s true many many individuals need your advice and encouragement just as many are happy to stay put and let the world run its own course.

    I feel exactly the same as you but considering the majority don’t, and of those they are satisfied in their own little way, I wouldn’t try to educate people who are more worried about their Shmura Matzos than Brexit.

    What we need to do is create a system for those of us that wish to further their education beyond Chareidi lifestyle but yet remain within the community and with time there is definitely change in the air…..to which for this I raise my hat to you…. keep up the good work!

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  2. Thank you for replying. I hope my posts even those that dont agree with you pass your moderation.
    How to run a Jewish school and teach children.
    The secular teaching is already done well in most goyishe schools and one only needs to copy them.
    The Hebrew teaching is as yet not done well in any school especially the chassidish ones.
    First of all one must not employ any rebbe who has not had secular education. He because of his inferiority complex cant stand the children learning it and does his best to stop them calling it goyish to them and making fun of the secular teachers.
    Reading must be taught phonetically and properly. If a child cant read he is finished for life and will always be behind and disruptive. That is why children in chadorim who cant read properly are so badly behaved compared to others.
    Writing is very important. That secular lesssons spend so much time on it is not for nothing. And hebrew lessons which dont are therefore never any good.
    Dikduk is very important. That chasidim dont learn it means that they cannot translate. I have yet to see one who translate the shma properly and in my opinion none of them are yotse. A child has to write out daily the siddur or chumash with the dikduk and translation of very word. This is very important. If he does this well he will advance in Hebrew studies otherwise he doesnt have a chance. He must also do each word separately not some together.d
    Teaching gemoro is no different. Before explaining it the child has to write out the translation of every word. If he cant translate he will never be able to learn.
    Now a very important thing. The rebbe has to know the gemoro properly. What I call properly is like a letter in the tribune some weeks ago. If he cant learn how do you expect the children to. He will end up like most chasidish places with just reading it. He might as well stick to tehillim which most boys do there.
    The chazon ish brings the gemoro that one has to take the best rebbe possible. The children come first even if it means throwing out the present one. His parnoso doesnt count when a childs learning is at stake.
    The rebbe shouldnt be talking too much explaining. He should try to get the children to think for themselves and they should be doing it and he should only be helping them.
    As an example, something I can say here but not in a public paper. The daf yomi is now soon starting niddah. There are many chasidic kollellim learning this subject which is very important. I have spoken to members of different ones and no one uses artscroll and none have any idea of what goes on inside a woman. Of course their whole learning is a waste of time. After explaining to some and showing them the artscroll they admitted they can now start again, agreeing that they never understood a thing.
    A child also has to imagine the gemoro happening in front of him. A rebbe has to bring the gemoro to life. He cant do that if he himself doesnt understand like my example of niddah.
    He has to use artscroll to prepare the gemoro even though he is only going to learn with little children. And not just teach them to read it.
    I know a lot of this is news to you, and you may not agree with it. but I still hope it will pass your moderation.

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  3. I would like permission to write about the differences between university and yeshiva/kollel and the reason university has better results. Most students qualify there be it medical financial legal etc. One cant say the same about Jewish mosdos How many qualify to become rabbis. Maybe we can learn something from there.

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  4. Thank you.
    I will only make a start. Basically the question is why are universities more successful than yeshivot and kollellim.
    For a start to get into a university one has to have passed some kind of test. Usually in the UK it is A-levels. The more one has the better university one can get into. To get into a yeshiva although some do a farher, and some depend on if you can pay, there is no set exam, to qualify you, and most go in without any proof of previous education.
    So for a start a yeshivas contain boys who shouldnt be there, and some who are only there because their parents sent them and would rather be elsewhere. This doesnt provide a good environment for the rest of them.
    One goes to a university to qualify for a carreer later in life. Most who go to a yeshivo dont go to become dayanim. This takes away the ‘urgency’ of their studies.
    At the end of the day in a university you get an internal degree, so you have something to work for, I would suggest that if a yeshiva would provide an external one (one cant trust them with an internal one) many more boys would concentrate on their learning more.
    There is a major difference. A university is subject based. In other words it is to become a doctor a lawyer etc. No yeshiva/kollel is that. Gemoro contains many subjects and one just learns one daf after the other.
    A lecturer has to know his subject in advance. And not just for the first year but the full three it usually takes to get a degree. He cant just learn it as he goes along. He also has to provide the office a list of every thing he will be teaching his class and the test at the end.
    In a yeshivo very rarely does an RY know the whole gemoro in advance. And even if he does he usually wont know what he will be teaching. He usually prepares it on the day and often it is the first time he is learning it. And the next day he may realise he is mistaken.
    Gemoro is really a legal book. No child learns law before going to university. And no one is accepted before eighteen.
    Even the mishna considers fifteen the correct age. See also about not learning tisha b’av at what age one enjoys learning. If a rebbe thinks one can learn it earlier then his idea of what constitutes learning must be faulty. This is a fault of most rebbes and many RYs. Of course there were exceptions like the vilna gaon. What really happens is that boys are fooled into thinking they understand. This is really the worst possible thing and one has to get out of it.
    It doesnt matter if one doesnt inderstand even tosfos sometimes doesnt. But a person has to be clear in himself of what he does and what he doesnt. This is very hard for a younger person, and the main reason why he should really be older to learn gemoro
    This is hardly just the beginning. But I am posting this that maybe I can improve what goes for Jewish chinuch today.

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  5. Maybe you should give the possibility to comment in Hebrew, so that those that aren’t familiar with English should also be able to comment

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  6. A fascinating article and interesting comments. I’m a newcomer to people in the charedi/chasidim community as they have moved into my own Jewish community outside London. So I have limited experience of meeting with and talking to them.

    I have found among these pioneering Jewish men who studied in a yeshiva a common thirst for information beyond what they already know. Everyone has a different level of intellectual ability but the focus of yeshiva learning is by definition very different from any university education. The latter follows on from several more years school study than young men going to a yeshiva. So by definition university students have a broader/deeper general knowledge base than young Jewish men who began studying Torah more deeply from an early age.

    As a professional with a university education and so speaking I hope with a little experience, a degree is simply a mark of intellectual ability, albeit not a very precise one especially if concepts of practical ability are factored in and things like an ability to pass exams (often without needing full knowledge of the degree subjects) are ignored. Chasidim/charedi I have met measure up with ease to those with university education in terms of ability even if their knowledge is far more focused towards Torah.

    The conundrum is simply time. To study Torah to the extent that chasidic lifestyle requires leaves little room for perfecting ability in English. Many less-observant people are not particularly erudite in English language or many (if any) other topics. However they do not stand out by their appearance and (often) accent – caused by Yiddish being the first language often coupled with being born outside the UK. The spoken differences spotlight the apparent lack of literacy when in reality chasidim/charedi have high intelligence exemplified by their detailed knowledge of Torah.

    Perhaps chasidic/charedi lifestyle cannot permit the adequacy of time necessary to bridge the dignity gap referred to in the article. This refers to both the age at which a broader-based secular education starts along with the time spent in gaining that education through sixth form and university. There is no panacea. Having an awareness of the problem is a start. But I wonder if bridging the the gap might involve sacrificing Torah time for more secular subjects and this might be considered a dilution of the traditional yeshiva/kollel education.

    Whatever the future of education is for (ultra) observant Jews, I have no doubt that it is not these Jews who lack the ability to be the brightest at anything but the system in which they are educated. And this discussion involves only young men. Without any desire to be provocative or revolutionary, women equally should have the same opportunity of wider education since they are just as capable.

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    1. Jewish girls at the moment do have the same opportunity of wider education. And Jewish chasidic girls schools like Yesodai Hatora in SH are among the top performing schools in Hackney.

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  7. I would like to speak about schools
    I notice that today every school has remedial classes. I consider this wrong. In my time this didnt exist, rebbes had more yiras shomaim and also got paid less.
    A rebbe has to teach all the children not just the good ones and rely on remedial for the rest. If he has to lower the standard so be it. A child must not sit in a class even for part of the time and not understand the rebbe. If the rebbe cant teach the whole class he is in the wrong job. If necessary a good boy should move up a class and the opposite down a class. But that is a last resort but remedial is certainly not the answer.
    A lecture is to prepare the student to pass exams and get a degree. He therefore has to understand the whole lecture every bit of it, he can never know what the exam questions will be.
    A shiur is for the RY to show off what he knows. Many talmidim dont understand the whole of it and some hardly even part of it. It doesnt really make a difference to them at all.

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  8. Eli,

    With respect, and not intending to play down the achievements you have made in the written and spoken word, I feel you could benefit from a proofreader.

    Unlike you I did English GCSE, A. level and a further qualification at university standard. The way you write reminds me of others I know who, most admirably, are self taught and have progressed to a good standard of English, but …it is self taught.

    Your otherwise solid text suffers from over-verbosity. You would be more effective if you favoured succinctness and brevity over the temptation to use long fancy words.

    In a nutshell, I am respectfully suggesting that you waffle too much, and if you cut your text down a bit it would be more impactful, and, crucially, easier to read.

    Hatzlocha rabboh.

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  9. Thank you. I am not sure you are referring to me. WordPress is not very good at that compared to other platforms so I wont reply. Except to say I dont know what you mean by spoken word or which words you consider fancy.
    I am an avid writer on many blogs Jewish and non-Jewish and have not been told all this before.
    You are of course welcome to rewrite anything I write to meet with your standards. It seems everyone else is aware except me, that one has to have their reply proofread and be suitable for a professor and that explains the dearth of them here apart from what I wrote earlier.
    I would also think other replies on here are much more suitable for what you say.
    But what I say I do consider very important and therefore continue.
    How should one teach gemoro.
    The way it is done today is for the rebbe to keep talking and talking boring the child to death. That is even if he does understand. That is termed knocking it into his head.
    The correct way is for the child to come up with it.
    For instance the rebbe first has to state the case and ask their children their opinion. Hands up for yes and then for no. Then the yes give their reasons and then the no. This makes an interesting debate amongst the children with the rebbe helping it along but making sure to get the children to say as much as possible. This is really what a chavursa ought to be but rarely is. This teaches the children to think for themselves, and is what gemoro is all about. A rebbe should never be scared of saying he doesnt know. The children will respect him for this not less. They dont expect him to know everything and are not easily fooled into thinking he does.

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  10. I now realise that the comment was not meant for me. It is a pity that unlike other platforms one cant edit or delete ones post. I would also like to say that I would rather you commented on the substance of posts rather than on the way they are written and on reading both I am not sure who is more verbose and who waffles more. Maybe it is my lack of understanding but it seemed a lot of repetition in both.
    I would also welcome new posts of new subjects. This one is getting a bit long in the tooth and wordpress isnt doing it very well. I dont mind if my replies are changed into a post rewritten by you with your opinion although I am sure you have many of your own ideas. Other Jewish blogs have come and gone, and it would be a pity if this went the same way. There doesnt seem to be many Jewish orthodox blogs in English and the ones that are, are all over moderated, meaning if you say something against the blog owner which he cant answer which many of my posts are, they are refused.

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