How many rabbis do you need?

There are 57,000 children of ultra-orthodox Jews in state-funded yeshivas in New York. They are exempt from minimal education standards.

In April, state Senator Simcha Felder (D – Brooklyn) refused to sign off on the state budget unless yeshivas, which accept millions of dollars in government funding, were given more autonomy over curricula. Per a Post editorial, “Felder demanded [legislation] to exempt private yeshivas from state requirements to provide adequate education in basic areas such as English, math, science and history.”

The yeshivas are already black holes of miseducation, and this is going to make them even worse.

“[They] are being denied an education,” said Naftuli Moster, executive director of YAFFED, an organization that advocates to improve secular education in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. “The main reason has to do with [yeshiva administrators] saying there’s no time to learn stuff [students] won’t use in life — especially boys, who are [expected] to be rabbis.”

Moster added that there are other issues at hand as well: “There are certain things in science and history that contradict portions of the Torah — fossils, dinosaurs.”

Also things like English and elementary arithmetic. According to the story, only about 5% of the boys who go through the yeshiva system become rabbis — and that’s about 5% too many — and the rest are just untrained and unprepared for anything practical or useful, which means that some of the most poverty-stricken areas of New York state are those inhabited by the ultra-Orthodox.

The article interviewed several adult products of the yeshiva system. They came out of it with a cultivated ignorance. The ones in the story, though, are men who scrabbled to make up their deficiencies and get somewhere in life, which makes one wonder about the majority, who never get out and perpetuate the same handicaps on their children.


  1. Matt G says

    Well, if the question is “how many to screw in a lightbulb?”, with their level of education I would say “all of them”.

  2. mcfrank0 says

    This seems pretty straight forward to me. If you are participating in the social contract by receiving government funding, you must participate in society and meet minimal educational standards. Don’t want to participate in society — don’t take its money.

  3. Andrew Watts says

    Simcha Felder is the worst. He was one of the “independent democrats” who voted to caucus with the Republicans and then when Dems got the chamber 50/50 and the IDC agreed to dissolve, he still voted to keep the Rs in charge. Never heard of him doing anything good.

  4. Artor says

    Denying a child a decent education is abuse, plain and simple. Senator Felcher is a fucking disgrace.

  5. yjw11374 says

    This is the stuff of tragedy—for individuals, families and communities. I infer that, per usual, PZ sees beyond the headlines and obvious lessons: remarkable individuals who (overtly or covertly) overcome the conformity and constraints imposed by their upbringing. Along these lines, I recommend Shulem Deen’s ‘All Who Go Do Not Return.”

  6. ethereal says

    Even those who got away are still creeps.

    > “I would definitely give my kids a dual curriculum,” he said. “I want them to have opportunity — to know science, math, English. A worldly knowledge.”

    A dual cirriculum. “Because of religion, I’m too poor to support my kids so they’ll need to learn a trade, but I still want them at least to have a taste of the ignorance and prejudice that ruined my own life.”

    > “I know [yeshiva administrators are] afraid of what kind of sex education they’re going to give the kids or have problems with evolutionary theory,” he said of fears about secular education. “But there’s nothing controversial about the Pythagorean theorem or putting together an English sentence.”

    There’s nothing controversial about reproduction or evolution either.

    > Still, he feels passionately that his children need to stay in yeshiva in order to avoid any stigma.

    “Any” stigma, really? How about the stigma of not knowing basic math? of speaking English like a first-gen immigrant? of being a teenager without any knowledge of pop culture except the Hardy f@#king Boys?

  7. blf says

    Aren’t the ultra-orthodox effectively in control of the current Israeli “government” — that is, without the support of their political parties the current “government” could(? would?) very probably lose a vote of confidence? From memory — and possibly confusing them with some other minority — they are also amongst the poorest(in Israel), with numerous privileges (e.g., exempt from otherwise universal(?) military service).

    According to this fairly recent Gruaniad article, Hardline Israeli rabbis use tough checks on Jewish identity to block marriages (Sept-2017; my added emboldening):

    An ultra-orthodox religious court is infringing human rights by demanding Israelis prove their Jewish status, critics say
    According to figures seen by the Observer, [Reut T] is one of a growing number of Israeli citizens who, despite being recognised as Jewish by the state, have had their Jewishness questioned by an official rabbinate that enjoys an almost exclusive monopoly on state marriage and other issues.

    This was once a rare issue that affected only a handful of Israelis, but this has changed under a newly assertive chief rabbinate, dominated by the ultra-orthodox. A group called ITIM: Resources and Advocacy for Jewish Life, which is representing Reut and other families, says the rabbinate has summoned scores of people in the past two years for investigation to prove their Jewish status.

    According to figures acquired by the group under a freedom of information request, there was an increase of 100% from 2011-2016 in the number of people labelled pending confirmation of Jewish status. In the same period there has been a 460% rise in the number of people rejected as q class=”creationist”>non-Jews by the rabbinical courts. This is both shaming and painful, as Reut attests, and many of those affected have chosen to keep their experience private to protect other relatives whose own Jewishness could also be questioned.

    “These are family members who have undergone thorough examination of their Jewishness and came to live in Israel,” lawyers for Reut and ITIM argued in an appeal contesting that the rabbinical courts have no authority, by law, to investigate or reject, on their own initiative, the Jewishness of Israeli citizens. “Suddenly and without their will or consent, a cloud of doubt is cast over their Jewishness. They are required to answer to the rabbinical court, without having done anything to deserve a trial over their identity. There is not enough space to describe the personal and emotional damage this situation creates.”


    It has also resulted in the disclosure of an alleged “blacklist” of 160 rabbis worldwide whom the rabbinate does not trust to check the Jewishness of immigrants to Israel: among the names on the list is the US rabbi who oversaw the conversion of Ivanka Trump.

    Reut’s problem is that she came to Israel from the former Soviet Union aged 10 months, the granddaughter of an orphaned Holocaust survivor adopted by a non-Jewish couple who made antisemitic comments to her. Her grandmother was scarred by her experience, Reut said, and after fleeing her adoptive parents as a teenager hid the fact she was Jewish on official USSR papers, a decision that has come back to haunt their family.


    “This is a very worrisome trend. Israel is a nation of immigrants. If this continues, it puts in danger the most basic human rights of more than a million citizens,” said [the director of ITIM, Rabbi Seth] Farber. “Beyond this, it is also against Jewish law, which states that one must take at their word a person who says they are Jewish. A small group is imposing its fundamentalist views on the Israeli immigrant population.


    Farber believes there is a wider issue at stake than simply individuals and families. “It’s about what Israel is going to be. We don’t interrogate Jews and put them through investigations.”

    He links recent moves by the chief rabbinate and courts in part to Israeli coalition politics, which has allowed the small ultra-orthodox parties that prop up prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing government to wield disproportional influence.

    [… Reut said] “I feel like a second-class citizen. It is absolutely ridiculous that as an Israeli citizen who goes to synagogue every week I am not allowed to get married here just because someone decided they had doubts about my Jewishness.”

  8. numerobis says

    Only 5% become rabbis? That’s even worse than the fraction of Ph.D. graduates who become professors.

  9. anbheal says

    Oh, there are a lot of gonifs in that community. Thirty years ago I worked with a jailed felon with the initials JW, who held a position with initials CFO, at what was then the country’s third largest health insurance company, with the initials EBCBS, and he had me writing computer programs to support his actuarial and underwriting staff’s analyses of where they were getting shafted. Every single quarter it was in the yeshivas of Crown Heights and Williamsburg.

    I could tell that something was clearly amiss, quarter in, quarter out, but JW and one of his henchmen, JE, I believe also in prison, and also from the yeshiva community, would breezily dismiss my concerns, saying “they’re like Mormons, or Catholics, they all have 7 or 8 children, and our underwriting/actuarial algorithms assume 2.65 children per family, so naturally their family medical expenses are larger than average.”

    When I finally mentioned it to the CEO, the CFO called me into his office to stage a dispute with an IBEW union rep — I had bought our area’s secretary a power-strip, due to these new things called PCs and printers, and she needed some extra outlets to plug her extra stuff into. The union rep said I had just stolen $600 from a union electrician. I’m a Leftist, a union guy, unions brought the Irish from shoeless and starving (like, 15 percent of Irish kids in Boston had clubfoot at the turn of the last century from going barefoot in winter) into the middle class. I was appalled at the accusation of stealing food from the mouths of union babies. The CFO said that I was also an anti-Semite, as evidenced by my constant attacks on Yeshivas. Again, I grew up in a Jewisdh neighborhood, lost my virginity to a Jewish girl, was dating a Jewish woman, had attended countless seders and a fair number of brises….and then he said “the union will drop its complaint against you if you lay off the Yeshiva investigations.”

    Then and there I knew there was a crime being committed. And that it was something pretty close to money laundering. And I started looking for new employment.

    And of course I read in the papers a few months later that half of the underwriters and actuaries and JW himself had been arrested, there was a Congressional investigation, and they had been siphoning money away from what was then the public insurer of last resort in order to facilitate conservative Jewish immigration from the recently freed-up Eastern Europe. Basically, your health insurance premiums were flying over the most orthodox of the orthodox from the Ukraine and Belarus and providing them housing and healthcare in return for them turning the voting bloc of Brooklyn Jews into conservatives.

    It was a genuine concerted conspiracy, to tip the NYC Jewish community to conservatism. They’re assholes, the Yeshiva Mob.

  10. PaulBC says

    anbheal, great story, but I swear I reread the first paragraph at least three times trying to wrap my head around a how the CFO of a health care company could operate out of a jail cell. Sigh, yes I am too literal-minded at times. I assume he was actually convicted later on in your chronology. (You gave enough hints to Google it.)

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    If the Israelis really want to kneecap the Muslims, they’ll send in a stealth team of crack Mossad theologians to generate a large clique of Ultra-Ortho Islamists. Too many wishy-washy modernizing reformists in those madrassas!

  12. chigau (違う) says

    Pierce R. Butler #13
    The Israelis do not want to kneecap the Muslims,
    they want to exterminate them.