Britain’s ultra Orthodox Haredi community is facing an existential crisis and threat. TCW writer Karen Harradine believes it to be serious and urgent, and one that cannot be overstated. In this series she explains the damaging impact that proposed government schools legislation would have on their independent faith-based yeshiva schools, destroying the ancient tradition of Torah education in this country. Part 1 is here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.
FOR ALL its stated concerns about safeguarding children, the government does a very bad job of it. Dumbed-down lessons, woke ideologies, bullying and excluded pupils characterise many schools in the State sector. Some 16,000 children, most of secondary school age, are educated in Pupil Referral Units.
Dramatically increasing numbers of children between the ages of 11 and 16 (nearly a fifth of that age group) are suffering from mental health disorders, according to 2022 post-lockdown statistics.
At the same time secondary school children are being taught to hate their own race and heritage, with ‘critical race theory’ reported to be as endemic in UK schools as it is in schools in the US.
Knife crime, which has escalated disturbingly in recent years, is reflected in the number of sharp instruments found on school property.
British secondary education performance rates as average amongst OECD countries for reading and arithmetic, but literacy remains an issue. Locking children out of schools in 2020 and 2021 has caused significant ‘learning losses’ and thousands of immigrant children in state schools are unable to speak English.
An intensification of anti-Semitic abuse, both from students and, unforgivably, teachers in mainstream schools, means that state education is not an attractive proposition for the Haredi.
Haredi educators, for whom the wellbeing and safety of their children is a high priority, feel that they are being unfairly targeted by Ofsted who they say keep moving the goalposts of their criticisms, putting them through great amount of stress. They feel they are victims of a ‘secularist plot’: for example, one girls’ school was downgraded from ‘good’ to ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted last year ‘amidst a bigger row over the teaching of protected characteristics such as sexuality and gender’. Ironically this is the very part of the national curriculum that many State school parents object to and wish to withdraw their children from. This particular set of ‘fundamental British values’ which so many parents find disturbing contradicts the moral code held by ultra Orthodox Jews who pride themselves on protecting their children’s innocence for as long as they can.
To Haredi girls who are educated separately it would be anathema to be forced to share school toilets with boys. Likewise, to have to ‘respect’ another child’s chosen pronoun, or else be accused of hateful or offensive behaviour, would be a cruel dilemma. Haredi teenagers don’t hang around on street corners after school or join gangs in the absence of fathers, in which stabbing may be an initiation ritual, and for ‘disrespect’ is common. Neither do they stay up all night addicted to internet gaming or social media, nor truant. Haredi parents know where their children are at all times, and in adherence to their religious ethos endeavour to keep them safe and cared for. Yet this is not regarded by the government as true safeguarding but as abuse.
An educator with decades of experience, Rabbi Zvi Lebovics, head of religious studies at Beis Medrash Elyon High School, quite simply doesn’t trust the government. He told me: ‘The government wants to tell us now how to educate our children. They are not trusted by us to educate our children, to turn out healthy children.’ He approves of some parts of the ’fundamental British values’ agenda such as respect for democracy and the law as building good character and civil behaviour, and praises many aspects of British law as considered and clever. Nor is it the secular subjects such as maths and English that he worries about but the pernicious effects of gender ideology taught under the guise of a ‘suitable education’. Rabbi Lebovics is concerned that this confuses children and robs them of their innocence.
He is concerned that the government and this ‘creed’ would devastate the Haredi: ‘They are trying to burn out the inner core of who we are. I don’t know their motivation, it doesn’t make a difference, we have been through this before, the state tries to change us, exterminate us, we are being tested again and again. And we bounce back strong.’
The government certainly seems determined to erode all our private spheres; its sacrifice of Haredi children on the altar of the Big State is especially worrisome.
But what of the Times‘s concern (reported in Part 1) that Haredi children miss out on learning secular subjects like maths and science and the allegation that thousands of Haredi teenage boys can barely read or speak English. Anyone who took the time to visit prosperous, thriving Stamford Hill, home to many Haredi, would see how exaggerated this is. The many stereotypes circulated about the Haredi, such as their reliance on government funding, are disabused in this video report from a New York business fair on their innovative ways of making a living, organised by members of the Haredi community there.
I worked among the Haredi community here many years ago. My memory is of male and female colleagues, some as young as 18, hardworking and professional. All spoke perfect English. The difference is cultural. Haredi marry young; they are free to decide on their spouses. The wives often have jobs, but some choose to support their husbands while they complete their yeshiva studies. Today I see no evidence of an epidemic of uneducated Haredi boys unable to communicate in ‘modern Britain’, existing on the periphery of society. The analytical and linguistic skills they acquire through their religious and language studies, and the self-discipline needed to work through a long school day (similar to most fee-paying schools), prepares them far better for productive life than relationships and sex and gender identities ‘education’. Some of the boys who graduate from Beis Medrash Elyon High School go into professions such as engineering and IT, some study through the Open University, while most attend yeshivas afterwards and then get a job. Their peers in Stamford Hill often become successful entrepreneurs; their self-sufficiency is a product of their unique education and upbringing.
The Haredi fear that should the government get its way by shutting down their schools and yeshivas and forcing their children to attend mainstream schools, their unique community will be destroyed. Both Rabbi Lebovics and Rabbi Asher Gratt are adamant that they will not allow this to happen.
In tomorrow’s final part of the series, I discuss with Rabbi Asher Gratt the moot issue of when it comes to deciding what constitutes suitable education, who knows best? Is it the parents or is it the Government?