The puzzle of home education in Hasidic communities

While educating children at home is a big challenge for any parent, it is an achievement for most Hasidic parents. Fathers have not been able to develop their skills in this regard, not having received sufficient secular education themselves, and mothers, in charge of large families, often work outside the home.

The issue is all the more important given that home education is currently the only avenue for ensuring boys from Hasidic communities an adequate secular education that meets the requirements of the Ministry of Education and the Higher Education of Quebec (MEES).

A researcher in educational sciences, I have been working in collaboration for two years with my co-author, Devorah Feldman, social worker from a Hasidic community and director of the Limmud Center . This organization has been offering since 2015 a program created to help Hasidic parents fill the lack of secular education in religious schools attended by their boys. While the success of this program demonstrates the potential of the new MEES approach to this issue, the risks involved must also be considered.

A clearly visible community

Hasidic Jews, in Montreal as elsewhere, attract media and sometimes political attention. However, in Montreal, the nine Hasidic communities number only about 11,000 people , or 12% of the Quebec Jewish community.

Although Hasidic communities prefer to stay away from the outside world, they often live in the heart of the city and are very visible by their dress (men are dressed in black winter and summer and wear large hats, streimels, and women wear the wig). They also have a very distinct way of life (separate shops, different public holidays and large families).

The general public can discover them through films like Felix and Méira , by Maxime Giroux, documentaries , novels like He who goes towards her does not come back , by Shulem Deen, or comics like Salomé et les hommes en noir by Valérie. Admirals and Francis Desharnais. Series like Unorthodox , distributed on Netflix, also shed light on the life of Hasidic Jews.

Insufficient secular education

To better understand their educational challenges, we must first explain the education within these communities, which takes on astonishing forms for the uninformed. The girls, who will later have to manage the household (children, cooking, education), but also to work outside to earn a decent salary, attend religious schools which provide, in addition to religious education, adequate secular instruction. and even recognized in the annual ranking of schools .

On the other hand, as those responsible for spiritual and community life, men should have a thorough knowledge of Torah. They study the Bible, the Talmud, the Mishnah and other texts interpreting the Bible. Their education is thus devoted from an early age to the learning of the sacred language, ancient Hebrew (lashon kodesh) and to the cyclical study of the texts within religious schools which are neither recognized nor accredited by the MEES.

To recognize a school, the MEES requires that it first offer the entire Quebec School Training Program before adding overtime for specific projects (as do Jewish schools that are accredited ).

Young Hasidic boys attending religious schools can therefore complete their compulsory education without having acquired the necessary skills in French, the official language of Quebec, and in English, which is however often their mother tongue. This is also the case in various school subjects such as mathematics, science, history, geography or ethics and religious culture).

The Hasidic communities greatly value education to ensure the transmission of knowledge and the maintenance of their way of life. Through education, they affirm their identity and their differences with Quebec society in the broad sense. It is not the fact of learning secular subjects that the Hasidim reject, but the fact of prioritizing this teaching over religious teaching .

Political tensions

This problem is not new. Successive Quebec governments have tried to find common ground with rabbinical authorities for decades, to no avail. However, the lawsuit brought by a couple who attended a religious school and who grew up in the Tosh community of Boisbriand forced the government to propose a viable solution. The couple accuses the Quebec state of not having respected its legal obligation to ensure their right to education.

Clara Wasserstein and Yochonon Lowen arrive at the Montreal courthouse on February 10, 2020. The couple, who have left their ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community have filed a lawsuit against the government of Quebec and the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic schools in Boisbriand, Quebec. . THE CANADIAN PRESS / Graham Hughes

Rather than forcing religious schools to respect the pedagogical regime provided for in the Education Act , the Quebec government proposed an amendment that regularizes the choice of home education and allows Hasidic parents to adopt it for secular education, while continuing to send their children to religious schools during the day.

The goal of the Limmud Center , a learning center born from the initiative of Hasidic mothers, is to offer support to parents by welcoming boys daily, for one hour, after school. They learn mathematics, English, the social world and science. Nothing is taboo.

Precautions to take

survey carried out since 2018 as part of a partnership project funded by SSHRC, allowed us to document this work and observe the educational successes of boys. For example, at the end of the school year, students can present texts of a quality that often exceeds their grade level, while many had a significant delay in reading and writing. They also demonstrate a very high level in mathematics and science.

Thus, the elections, the solar system or the human body were among others discussed during the last year. To achieve this feat, the center promotes alternative and interdisciplinary teaching practices by working with small groups on diverse themes.

This structure proposed by the Limmud Center, offering the learning of secular subjects outside religious schools independently, remains unique for the moment. Most Hasidic boys take additional classes taught by representatives of organizations who come to their religious schools at the end of the day. While this may sound encouraging, caution should be exercised in this mode of operation for several reasons.

First, the roles played by community – religious – schools in registering children with the ministry and school service centers that oversee home education should be clarified in order to prevent rabbinical authorities from keeping that education. under their tutelage, whereas it must henceforth be under the responsibility of the parents.
There is also cause for concern about the education of girls, which until then has been in line with ministerial requirements. Will they still be able to benefit from a complete school system when, under the new model, schools can do without it and hand this responsibility over to parents?

Another question must be raised in view of the need to once again offer Hasidic children a different treatment by giving them access to other support structures and registration procedures.

Finally, it will be necessary to ensure that this secular instruction, officially under the responsibility of the parents, is not once again taken over by the same community authorities who have so long refused to provide adequate education for Hasidic boys.

This article was written in collaboration with Devorah Feldman, Executive Director of the Limmud Center .