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.