The New York Times presents an extraordinarily strong portrait of the Hasidic, or Jewish ultra-Orthodox communities in New York and how secular education is kept out of their schools. Closed-up communities that are more than familiar to me, including the applied forms of physical and mental coercion, the abuses in which one plays one’s own judge instead of letting civil laws and regulations do the job and the violations in the domain of human rights. All closed-up communities have similarities all over the world, including in the Netherlands. I believe that we should break those open.
When I was sixteen, I was forcibly sent to one of those New York neighborhoods by the Dutch school rabbi and my family. A rabbi who later also felt that the interest of the community should be placed before my individual interest, more on that later.
In Crown Heights, as that ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in New York is called, I urgently but lovingly had to be put on the ‘right path’ and start to live completely by the rules of the community wheel again. In other words, I was left behind, would not finish my pre-university education, would have to say goodbye to ’those bad, secular influences’ that strengthened my assimilation process – in thinking and acting – would lose my little secular stuff and contacts, lose my boyfriend and finally I would be married off.
There was a lot of talk in Crown Heights and I was shown why I should want that world, but it was all pointless. Nothing could hold me back (gosh, it is not so surprising that I don’t let anyone tell me what I should or shouldn’t do and that I don’t even want to think of living together, for example). A week later, I was back in the Netherlands. A few years later, after literally fighting a war at home, I had my high-school diploma.
The story in New York Times, for which hundreds of people were interviewed, was even published in Yiddish so that the community members who are consciously not learning English can still take a look at the content if they so choose. Yiddish is their community language.
The story was made with incredible integrity and composed with great care by those involved. The stubborn community members will see it differently, as an attack on those who still want to live according to the oldest (in my view often stifling and irrelevant) traditions and the so-called will of God. They label the report a ‘hilul Hashem’, which means something like staining the name of God and bringing shame to His group.
The story in New York Times not only takes me back to the beginning of my life, but also to a number of painful problems that we still have in the Netherlands at the moment. Problems that I, as an expert and activist, do not look away from and warn against.
Problems in all kinds of closed-up communities. Because despite the outward differences between them, the similarities between all those closed-up communities are unmistakable. I am allowed to say that because I have studied hundreds of histories of all ‘shapes and forms’, including the Christian Orthodox, mostly US-based, such as the Mennonites, Amish, Mormons, and Scientology. Moreover, at lectures I often speak to women who broke free from all those ‘shapes and forms’.
Let’s bring up the central problem of the story. The New York Times portrait explains how minimal mainstream education is in these types of Hasidic environments. However, these types of schools often still receive funding, by which they are kept afloat, or in other words, are being maintained. Yes, also in the Netherlands. We know about it. We see it. We hear it. We experience it. But what are we going to do about it?
Meanwhile, large groups of these closed-up communities will claim that things are not as bad these days, that secular education is increasingly offered and that religious teachings have everything needed to prepare the children for a dignified future – within (!) the community.
Read the NYT story and judge for yourself. Or watch the Netflix production One of Us, or my TED talk and read the Dutch autobiography Exodus from the lighthouse. Let me fill it in with activism and say that the reality is different, which is that those communities are a swamp of transgenerational community wheels. Where exercising power over others is done on a daily basis and literally in every aspect of people’s existence. Some love that and derive a meaningful existence from it. But for many this is not the case.
The system determines for the people what they need to know, do, feel and think. The community wheel is seen as a product of God (nope, it is man-made; by beards actually). The people of the community live according to their own conception the only right existence. And the leaders – rulers – of the community wheel know what God is asking from us. Incidentally, leaders in these types of communities have almost never received civil education, but do decide on the many aspects of individual human lives. I have only experienced it as wanting to keep control and power, also known as religious narcissism, sometimes with a cover of love if people are lucky. Religious trauma is an essential and proven phenomenon.
In the Netherlands, the Education Inspectorate asks religious schools to offer compulsory, civilian teaching materials. Religious schools are not yet banned in their current form and fall under the freedom of religion. It will not be the last time that the leaders of these schools show double faces. Outwardly claiming that they offer the civilian teaching materials and that there are no problems. And inwardly, doing something different, applying censorship and even discouraging children from attending secular education. Especially girls, who are being prepared to be mothers.
The censorship consists in the fact that large pieces of teaching materials are not offered in these schools. Pictures, names, facts or religious symbols of other faiths are crossed out. All kinds of civil media are also banned. Boys and girls and men and women are kept apart in large parts of everyday life. Heterosexuality is the only form of God’s covenant and should not be experienced until after marriage. Strict rules, also regarding clothing, finances, medical and psychological care determine the life and the layout of your week. And more.
Through the story in New York Times, we learn something about the severe poverty that exists among many community members as a result of a lack of secular education. Of course, there is a system whereby poor community members are sometimes helped by other community members, for example through free ready-made meals or babysitting rounds.
Free help is not always nice, because apart from everything that you can think of in terms of shame and other emotions, or in terms of how generous help sometimes really is, it also ensures that community members end up even more controlled by others. (It is not surprising that I almost never ask for help these days and do as much as I can by myself.)
We also learn from the New York Times about the heavy-handed corrections being made by teachers in the schools, in the synagogues and elsewhere. Sometimes, it will be more than a hard smack, than rinsing the mouth with soap, or scratching off nail polish, as happened in my youth at the only Jewish Orthodox school that we have in the Netherlands.
Corruption is also happening on a daily basis. Parents who give teachers an annual tip (I also remember that from my time at the only Jewish-Orthodox school that we have in the Netherlands) and hope that the ‘rulers’ will then be friendlier towards their children.
Then there are the contests of being more pious than pious. There is respect in the experience of the religion and the performance of actions at a detailed level. Whoever has more prestige and power, also through who is married to whom within ’the web’, has more space and tolerance to be spared from abuses and unpleasant situations, also known as bullying. The combination of the competitions of being more pious than pious and prestige and power forms a fierce cocktail of social control.
The web, as I call it, consists of all kinds of ‘key figures’ that return in various places and in different roles within the closed-up community. For example, you have the Jewish psychiatrist who is related to X, owns 15% shares in the kosher retail chain and sits on the board of three Jewish schools. You get the idea. Key figures that maintain relations and help each other out through favoritism. For the experts: recognizable?
For those who try to get out of the closed-up community, it is literally hell on earth. That hell is beyond anyone’s imagination in civil society. Every minuscule normal aspect that people in civil society know is not self-evident in these circles.
If people want out, they have no idea what they don’t know. And they hardly know anything, because they have never had a fully-fledged secular education. They have no money, no mentors, no network in the world outside the community, often no insurance or basic care and of course no housing. Sometimes they don’t even have their own passport and often they don’t even have their own debit card.
Moreover, they are pulled back to ensure that they will stay, sometimes literally, towards extreme forms of physical and mental violence as a result of wanting to get out. People have to be damn strong.
Teenagers and young people who leave have the advantage that they still have a lot of time ahead of them and are still somewhat malleable. This is different for older people sometimes. Young people can still absorb a lot of new knowledge and make something of their lives.
At the same time, young people are sometimes mentally more susceptible to the methods than older people. At a time when they really need to be encouraged in what they do well, like and want, they are confronted with a hole in themselves, because they don’t know who they are without the colorized picture of the community wheel, with everything that isn’t there in their lives and with that huge mountain that they have yet to climb. It can feel hopeless.
The internal pain can become devastating. That is why we see that some of them fail to escape, turn to drugs, or even take their lives. Sometimes they are even more or less encouraged to do the latter by those compulsive and powerful community members who tell them that they have failed according to the ‘one real truth’, that they are not worthy of life, or that they will not make it on their own outside the community.
Secular education is an essential means of progressing as a person in life. It is a human right; something that we should enforce more strictly, also in the Netherlands. The consequences of no secular education are not just for one lifetime, but for whole generations to follow. The consequences may seem easy enough to imagine for the right-thinking among us, but go much further than most of us can imagine.
That is why I find it rather bizarre that we don’t have mandatory tests for closed-up communities. We do have integration courses for newcomers, but it is precisely these kinds of tests for such communities that could prevent a lot of suffering, disadvantage and inequality. We can only make progress with it if the government compiles and implements such assessments seriously.
With those tests, we can break open the closed-up communities a bit. We can give children new opportunities, even if they were born in a closed-up community. We can keep a foot in the door to mean something to our fellow humans with involvement and justice from a human, criminal and family law framework (also see the work of Professor Janine Janssen).
That school rabbi of mine? So he wrote a letter to Youth Care stating that the interest of the community came before my interest, that is, to appease the situation I was in, when I needed help and had to be removed from home. And that I belonged in that community – a choice he wanted to make, when it was only up to me to make it. The man in question has caused a lot of abuse, or misdemeanor if you will, but has never been brought to justice. In that circle, justice consists in the fact that ‘pipos’, as I call the helpers, now casually grant him other paid functions within the closed-up community. I recently felt intense anger about that.
The web, the key players and the endless succession of repetitions. It seems that we still don’t want to understand how it works. Control and power within closed-up communities still takes place. On the bright side, from time to time there are people who still manage to get something good out of those swampy community wheels. From the inside. With guts and contradiction. Or from outside. With guts and awareness. Secular education is a precondition for this. I hope that we will listen to them and learn from them.
The Dutch version of this article was published by BNNVARA, Joop.