(JTA) — Are yeshiva students being denied the solid secular education guaranteed them under the law, or should New York City yeshivas have the freedom to set their own religious curricula free from government oversight?
Since a complaint by activists for better secular education in yeshivas in 2015, it’s been a perennial issue in the city’s politics. In this year’s mayoral primary race, powerful Orthodox leaders reserved their endorsements for candidates who saw it their way. The 2015 complaint spurred an investigation that confirmed allegations of substandard secular learning, but it has yet to prompt action.
Now the issue is getting the documentary treatment in a new film, “An Unorthodox Education.”
The film traces the conflict between yeshiva leaders, represented by an organization called Pearls, and Yaffed, a group formed by activists for secular education who graduated from yeshivas.
Joe Kolman, the film’s director, acknowledged that he didn’t launch the project without his own view — that yeshivas should follow the law requiring them to provide a secular education “substantially equivalent” to the one provided by public schools. But Kolman said he wanted to hear from the other side.
“Most graduates of ultra-Orthodox schools … are happy with the education they receive and they have no desire to leave,” he said. “But those that do want to leave their communities, they feel imprisoned by the education they never received.”
We spoke to Kolman about why he decided to tackle this subject. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
JTA: What drew you to the subject of secular education in haredi yeshivas?
Kolman: My grandfather was the chief rabbi of the Yemenite community in Holon, Israel. He arrived from Yemen in British Palestine in 1922 and he made sure that his kids got a good religious education and a secular education. My mother went to a religious girls’ yeshiva in Tel Aviv, and she went on to University of London and went to law school in Chicago and got a Ph.D. from Columbia.
I’m a direct beneficiary of my grandfather’s belief in secular education. So when I learned a few years ago that there’s tens of thousands of people in Brooklyn who are illegally denied a basic education, I was just furious.
My wife and I learned about all this firsthand when we volunteered to let a member of Footsteps [a support group for the formerly Orthodox] stay in our spare bedroom. She was studying to get her bachelor’s degree and she told us these horror stories about the enormous hurdles she had overcome. It was just so shocking.
Before you started working on this documentary, what was your impression of the Orthodox world?
I knew it very well because I spent summers in Israel. When I was in my grandfather’s house in the summers, the phone got turned off with a switch on Friday afternoon and it wasn’t turned on until Sunday morning. And then Friday night it was 50 people in the house because everyone’s coming in for Friday night dinner, and then Saturday the house is filled with people, too. I knew what Orthodox life was all about. It wasn’t this strange thing to me, and I still think it’s an amazing thing.
Was there anything that surprised you as you did the research for this documentary?
Oh my god. The surprises just came one after the other. I mean I could not believe the things that we saw. We are people of the book, but what surprised me were these young people that were functionally illiterate. You see that the kids don’t know how to write their own names in English. They’re not taught that the earth moves around the sun, they’re taught to hate everybody who isn’t Jewish.
We make this point over and over again that education at yeshivas varies widely, we’re not talking about all the yeshivas. Some yeshivas actually do a good job of teaching secular subjects, particularly Modern Orthodox and some of the religious schools, but others just don’t, and you have to see the accounts of the people themselves.
You see this incontrovertible evidence on film and I think people are inevitably surprised like I was. Their jaws drop. Once you see this for yourself, you can’t say that it’s simply not true or that we’re making all this up.
Did Yaffed have any official connection to the film in terms of shaping it or producing it?
I wanted to call Pearls. And the first thing I said was I’m doing this independent documentary and [its spokesman] says, “Well, you’re funded by Yaffed, aren’t you?” And I go no, it’s an independent documentary and when I say independent, that means it’s not affiliated, I’m not a gun for hire, this is not a corporate documentary. And they literally could not understand what that meant.
How do you approach the issue of portraying both sides, especially when representatives of the yeshivas refused to speak with you and didn’t really trust that you were independent?
I tried calling professors who had this point of view and they turned me down. I made it very clear, ”Look, I have a position, I have a position that there’s a problem here in the community.” And I made it very clear, I’m not going to lie to them and say this film is something that it’s not. But I said, “I do want to hear the other side.” And nobody wanted to be interviewed.
I actually did one interview with a professor, but then he didn’t feel comfortable after the interview, so we didn’t run it. So the only thing we could do was use the public footage that was available online. The first version of the documentary was 20 minutes long and people told us, we’re not hearing enough of the other side. And I said, OK, you’re right.
That’s when we started amping up the other position because you really need to have the two sides to debate. If you’re not talking about the other side, you’re not really convincing anybody. You need to understand the issues from their perspective.
Do you feel like there are two sides to this?
The way I framed the debate is there’s a state law and the state law says a certain thing, and that state law has to be obeyed, and there’s clear evidence that it’s not being obeyed. People have desires and rights under that law to practice religion the way they want. And then they have to follow state law on other things. And I think that’s the way I look at it.
What do you think would be a just resolution to the question of how the government should regulate and mandate secular education in the yeshivas?
I think there needs to be a way for us to determine that the kids in yeshivas are getting a decent education. Now that doesn’t mean inspectors coming in and looking into the textbooks in the lockers. It means coming up with some objective way. Now one objective way might be testing, such as the Regents tests.
One of the people at Pearls points out very rightly that public schools are not doing a great job of teaching secular education and yes, that’s true. So let’s make sure that all yeshivas are at least as good or better than the worst public schools, or the average public schools, and let’s find a way to do that. We don’t have to tell them how many hours a day they study or what subjects or what textbooks to use, but there has to be some objective way to determine the truth.
The question is whether children who graduate from institutions have the abilities to become independent adults if they choose. And if someone comes from a yeshiva and doesn’t have enough English to get a job as anything but a minimum wage job in a factory, then you wonder whether they’re getting an appropriate education.
I think that a better secular education would allow people who remain in the community to be more prosperous and to solve some of the problems associated with the [reliance on] government funding in many of these communities. Kiryas Joel [the Satmar Hasidic enclave in upstate New York] has [some of] the highest Section 8 housing funding in the entire country in any community.
In my mind, there’s no conflict with having a secular education and practicing your religion. My mother was this really devout woman. Her secular education never interfered with her faith. So I don’t understand why people are so afraid of it.
What do you hope people will take away from watching this?
I’d like them to ask themselves what we owe children, what we owe our kids, and what happens when we don’t give them the education they need to become independent.
“An Unorthodox Education” (2021, Elm Court Productions) is streaming here through Aug. 8.