Last Monday I appeared on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme to discuss allegations of Charedi schools pressuring parents to take up their legal right to opt out of sex education lessons. I argued that there was no evidence that either Yesodey Hatorah or Lubavitch were pressurising parents and that they were merely doing their duty in informing parents of their right to opt out. Those of you who are UK license fee payers can watch it here, whereas the rest of you will have to settle for the snippets on Twitter.
Frankly, I’m sick of this. I’m not an expert on sex education or alternative lifestyles and would be perfectly happy never to express an opinion about either of them ever again. What I care about is standards of education in the Charedi community. Put simply, it’s not OK that men in my community emerge from 15 years of schooling unable to read English, unable to write grammatically in any language, unable to understand basic mathematics and science, and, distressingly often, unable to speak English fluently. Obviously, I can’t expect that people outside of the community will be as passionate about this issue as I am, but I would expect at least lukewarm support and certainly not to be undermined at every turn.
Some people genuinely believe that it is of the utmost importance that Charedi children are taught about safe sex and alternative sexual orientations. I happen to disagree: I think our system works at least as well as any other in the western world at coping with the challenges posed by modern society. More importantly, however, their agenda is completely unreal and fantastic. Insulating children from sexuality is not just one feature of Charedi culture, it’s a fundamental part of our way of life shared by everyone from the most punctilious yekke to the ‘chunyok’ who starts Shacharis at 12.00. The demand for sex education is nothing less than a demand that Charedim abandon their entire approach to child rearing, a demand that the Charedi community is for some inexplicable reason expected to submit to voluntarily if only it is hectored enough.
Like anyone else whose agenda is fundamentally removed from reality, the advocates of sex education and LGBT lessons in Charedi schools are reduced to dishonesty. Instead of providing a real argument as to why Charedi school children need to be taught about homosexuality and transgenderism, they concoct a completely fictitious epidemic of homophobic bullying based on anonymous anecdotes drawn from non-Charedi schools when they are not simply invented out of thin air. Instead of frankly admitting that they want to impose sex education on a community fiercely opposed to the very suggestion, they ‘astroturf’ into existence grassroots Charedi demands for sex education based on a handful of anomalous cases.
Jews come in all shapes and sizes and there’s a tiny but vocal minority who insist on sending their children to Charedi schools and then expressing frustration about the fact their children’s school is Charedi. I can entirely appreciate that there are people whose personal religious identity lies somewhere between Charedi and Modern Orthodox Judaism and are frustrated that they have to make a binary choice when it comes to choosing a school. Life can be complicated. There is no excuse, however, for presenting a handful of families caught between two communities as somehow representative of the Charedi community at large in order to present a false narrative to those unfamiliar with the internal workings of the Jewish community.
Actually, describing this narrative as merely ‘false’, drastically understates the issue. It is a complete inversion of reality. Charedi schools are not exercising their power by witholding sex education, they are meeting the needs of parents and it is doing so that gives them the power they exercise elsewhere. The reason why Charedi parents often put up with underfunded, poorly run schools and pedantic, sometimes even humiliating, admissions processes is that they do not have alternative options which satisfy their baseline requirements for schools that adhere to Charedi principles of child rearing, one of which is zero sexualisation.
The only thing that is achieved by external forces – whether they be government agencies or Jewish activist groups – constantly raising the issue of sex and relationships education is to put ordinary Charedi parents into a state of anxiety and distrust, to create a sense of being under siege that empowers the most fanatical and obscurantist voices in the community. Schools who have failed to do their job in educating the next generation, or even in simply taking adequate safeguarding measures, are able to rally parents to their side in the name of protecting the innocence of Charedi children.
I am willing to believe that many of those in the Department for Education and OFSTED who pursue these pointlessly counterproductive policies simply don’t have enough knowledge of the community to understand the damage they are causing. Many of the Jewish activists egging them on, however, clearly do know and those that didn’t before have by now had the situation explained to them countless times. The simplest explanation for their behaviour is that they just don’t care. If they truly believe that the typical Charedi male is a rapist, then perhaps the issue of Charedi literacy appears to them rather footling.
However, the fact that advocates for a Charedi sexual revolution are dishonest and that their efforts do nothing but spread havoc is not even what angers me most. It’s time to address the most disgraceful feature of their advocacy, which is the bullying of a specific school that has done as much as any to improve educational standards in the British Charedi community: Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School.
As I have written before, funding is not the only issue for Charedi schools, but it certainly is an issue, especially at the secondary level. Yesodey Hatorah was the first Charedi school in Stamford Hill to become state aided and the girls who study there benefit from facilities and opportunities unavailable at any other Charedi school. This decision was not an easy one to take and those who took it have felt the full force of hostility from fanatics. What is worse, however, is that outsiders intoxicated by the dream of Charedi teenagers learning about the birds and the bees have decided to exploit Yesodey Hatorah’s vulnerable position to create one media firestorm after another. They have formed a de facto alliance with the worst and most extreme elements of the Charedi community to victimise an excellent Charedi school.
I’d like everyone reading this to put themselves in the shoes of senior leaders at YHS over the past week. In a school of hundreds of pupils, there are dozens of issues concerning behaviour, curriculum, teaching and learning, parental communication, resources, finances and more that requires the undivided attention of its senior leaders . Instead, however, they have had to deal with the stressful fallout of a television and social media storm about a taped conversation between a secretary and a parent. This is every headteacher’s nightmare, but for one school having its name dragged through the mud has become a regular occurrence. Yesodey Hatorah’s sin is simply doing its job, acting in good faith to provide Charedi children with a first class Charedi education. For this they have been punished over and over with unwarranted media scrutiny. It’s time for activists with visions of sunlit uplands where transgender Charedi children meet their partners on dating apps to get a grip and stop bullying an easy target for doing the right thing. Enough is enough.