SUFFERN, N.Y. (JTA) — My two children, aged 13 and 15, attend daily Zoom classes from designated corners of our suburban home. Slovenly habits aside, their workspaces are virtual classrooms in which they analyze George Orwell’s work and ponder Talmudic passages in equal measure.
Online classes — the ones they do not skip for a stealthy game of Minecraft or an episode of “Friends” — have provided a semblance of structure to their quarantined lives. When COVID-19 was still a distant threat, their private Jewish schools began oiling the wheels of transition to online learning.
But not all schools have made the switch, including in many public schools where low-income families might not have easy access to devices for multiple children.
In the Jewish world, this pandemic highlights broader societal and narrower cultural disparities. In many cloistered Hasidic communities, it exposes gashes that have been bandaged and prayed away for decades — separatism, educational neglect and technological sequestration — which are all unsustainable in the 21st century.
As someone who grew up in the Satmar community of Kiryas Joel but left that world on good terms, I am leery of rigid dichotomies between a “progressive” secular world and a “regressive” Hasidic one. The spectrum of Hasidic life is broad; many parents find ways to supplement secular education and ensure that their children participate in or are aware of the non-Hasidic world.
Due to the past couple of months of news coverage in which Hasidim have made headlines for breaking social distancing guidelines and for a fictional Netflix series in which a woman discovers the panacea for her misery in Berlin (“Unorthodox”), it bears repeating that Hasidim are not a monolith. So many of my brilliant and erudite Hasidic friends alternately impress me with their breadth of knowledge and intimidate me with their autodidactic ways. But they are the exception, not the norm.
Not everyone in Hasidic communities flouts social distancing rules (my mother and most siblings were locked in for months). But many leaders pushed back, costing us precious time that could have saved lives.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, as we added “social distancing” to our lexicons, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, leader of my hometown of Kiryas Joel and the Aaroni faction of Satmar, enumerated the challenges of school closures in his community.
“In non-Jewish families, they have two to three children, and a home with rooms for television, movies, entertainment … they don’t understand what a Jewish family is about … tight spaces, no goyish (secular) entertainment,” he said.
While I commiserate with the mothers and fathers who are tasked with entertaining eight, 12 or more children with no technological nannies, I cannot sympathize with a leadership that has systematically impeded progress by banning the internet and fighting the implementation of secular education in its yeshivas and cheders for years.
If only leadership had encouraged the safe use of the internet, the challenges of quarantine for burgeoning families might have been mitigated by online classes and other learning tools, and perhaps some kosher entertainment. If only the leadership appreciated and encouraged exposure to science, perhaps more would heed the calls from medical professionals instead of falling prey to scientific skepticism.
There is a rich paradox at play: Many Hasidim have strong faith in the medical establishment and trust doctors almost explicitly (few believe in “holistic” cures). But there is a dearth of knowledge about broader scientific methods and findings and the workings of science in general, which often translates to not taking warnings seriously, as evidenced in this pandemic.
Exceptions to the norm aside, quarantine has exposed the myriad ways in which a system becomes unsustainable if it continues to shun education and the internet, necessities in today’s world. Even the most cloistered Hasidic communities are really part of the whole society: What others do affects them, and what they do affects others.
A well-educated, linguistic and scientifically literate individual is needed for a society to function — for information and dialogue to flow between government and citizen, and for a society to cohesively fend off a health crisis and keep families safe and alive. Separatism, as it relates to being members of society, is a fictitious construct.
I have noted an increased porousness in the Hasidic world over the past decade that gives me hope: Individuals and families who leave and are not alienated from their loved ones allow for a more “open” society and understanding of what it means to be different and not to conform.
Though I am a radical realist (my dreamer friends can attest to this) and know that the old guard will maintain its ways, nevertheless I am hopeful that this pandemic will shift the tectonic plates for the younger generation and usher in a new era of change — or, at the very least, a move toward progress.
It is time for Hasidic leaders to allow broad access to the internet and stop resisting changes to their institutions. A strong system rooted in positive preservations rather than fear won’t be threatened by the modern world.
This piece is a part of our series of Visions for the Post-Pandemic Jewish Future — click here to read the other stories in this series. Use #JewishFuture to share your own ideas on social media. If you’d like to submit an essay for consideration, email email@example.com with “Visions Project Submission” in the subject line.