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Tour of Satmar School Provides Rare Glimpse of Girls’ Education

February 19, 1998
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The sweet sound of first-grade girls singing in Yiddish fades out as more than 50 small faces turn toward the door. They rise to greet Rabbi Hertz Frankel, their dean, who is accompanied by a rare visitor from outside the community.

Frankel motions them to sit down and continue singing.

But their teacher whispers that he must leave before the girls can continue.

According to their Satmar Chasidic community’s stringent interpretation of Jewish law, girls even as young as 6 are prohibited from singing when a man can hear them.

Once he leaves, the girls proceed with a Yiddish song of welcome as many stare with frank curiosity at the female visitor whom they know is not from their world.

Led by the late Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the orphaned remnants of the Satmar Chasidic community came from Hungary to the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., to begin life after the Holocaust decimated their numbers.

They have since expanded to other communities — the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn and a town they created north of New York City, Kiryas Joel.

Committed to what Frankel describes as fundamentalist religious principles, the Satmar have succeeded in rebuilding a flourishing community in Williamsburg. Some 50,000 Jews live cheek by jowl with roughly the same number of Latinos in the dense urban shtetl, crowded into coveted public housing and private apartments.

Space is tight. And nowhere is that more true than in the Satmar schools.

Most of the Jewish families in Williamsburg have eight or 10 children — many have more than a dozen. Those who grow up here like to stay in the cloistered world that provides them with lives rich in the things that matter most to them, say members of the community: the intimacy and warmth that comes with living among extended families and in sync with the Jewish calendar.

A new synagogue is under construction. Now it’s just a giant hole in the ground, but it will eventually accommodate 15,000 worshipers, said Frankel as he watched the bulldozers moving earth in the distance.

As a result of the Satmar population explosion, their school system — which serves some 4,500 girls and 3,500 boys in Williamsburg alone — is bursting at the seams.

The girls are not permitted to talk to a reporter, but Frankel proudly shows off his part of what he calls the "Satmar empire," providing a rare glimpse into their sheltered world.

There are more girls than boys in the system because high school boys often board at out-of-town yeshivas or attend those in Brooklyn run by different, Satmar-allied Chasidic groups.

Smaller classrooms have been carved out of larger ones in the former public high school leased by the Satmar community for their girls’ elementary schooling.

Bathroom fixtures have been boarded up so that former restrooms can be used for learning. Paint peels off the walls and ceilings of many of the classrooms and what used to be linoleum floors have worn down to the wood in the nearly century-old building.

But the girls, dressed modestly in plaid skirts and thick tights, don’t seem to notice.

Most of their parents struggle to pay the $1,500 annual tuition for each child, Frankel said. The school gets New York state money for textbooks and lunches for those students too poor to afford their own, but the school fights an uphill battle to cover its expenses, Frankel said, in a community where many families are on public assistance.

Construction of a new, 50-classroom school building is on hold until enough money can be found to continue, he said.

Girls in Satmar’s Bais Rochel system attend through 11th grade. A 12th year is optional — and is a choice that only a small number make, according to Surie Basch, assistant to the principal at the girls’ high school.

After finishing school, most go to work for a year or two to help support their parents, before they marry and quickly begin their own families.

On one sunny winter morning, the streets are filled with young women in dressy cloth coats with velvet collars, wearing seamed, opaque beige stockings and low heels.

The young women place stylish hats over the wigs that fervently Orthodox married women must wear to cover their hair. They push baby prams with large, white rubber wheels, the kind often used 30 years ago.

They got their training for motherhood in the homes of their mothers, and in school as well, say those in the community.

From eighth grade on, the weekly school schedule for girls changes from Monday through Friday to Sunday through Thursday. The change enables them to help their mothers cook and clean on Friday to prepare for Shabbas, when these activities are prohibited.

Girls also get off a week before Passover so they can help their mothers get ready for the eight-day festival.

At school, morning classes are all in Yiddish. Girls study their prayer books, translated from Hebrew to Yiddish, and listen to lectures about the Torah portion of the week and other Bible stories.

After lunch come secular studies in English that adhere to the New York state curriculum.

Satmar girls never look directly at primary texts such as the Bible.

"The old rebbe prohibited girls from learning straight from the text," Basch explained, referring to Teitelbaum. "It’s a no-no."

In the back of the high school dining room, a few bookcases bulge with volumes of Talmud and other commentaries. Men use the space as a synagogue and study hall at night and on Shabbas, she said.

Does a girl ever pick up and peruse one of the books?

No, said Basch, with a short laugh. "If she did, she wouldn’t even know what she was looking at."

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