Over and over throughout my time in yeshiva I heard this constant refrain, that we were better than the public schools because we had a higher graduation rate, and didn’t require drug screenings and metal detectors. And I believed it. I believed that the education I was getting was far better than whatever public school had to offer, and that I was intellectually and morally superior to my public school peers.
Then I grew up and realized that the world isn’t quite so simple.
I’m now seeing a resurgence of this ridiculous idea in the wake of the debate over private school curricular standards in New York State. Since that topic as a whole is very complicated and nuanced, and would require more than one post to fully flesh out my opinions, I just want to focus on this one specific aspect of it: The idea that yeshivas are academically and morally superior to public schools.
What really kicked my opinions of yeshivas in the teeth was when I started volunteering for Our Place, a drop-in center for Jewish kids at risk. Sure, I’d been abused for years in the frum world and had dropped out of yeshiva, but I still thought before that point that it was really just me and my life experiences, and that the image I had of the frum world in general, and the yeshiva world in particular, were sound and valid.
Just to give an example, the idea that yeshiva guys would do drugs or have sex before they were married was inconceivable to me. Mind you, I was 19 at the time, but I’d never really stepped out of my personal bubble. When I started volunteering at Our Place, reality came at me fast and hard. A lot of the kids there were regular drug users, some of whom were drug dealers, some of the kids were in gangs, some of them had knocked up their girlfriends, and so on. It was, to 19-year-old me, at once heartbreaking and eye-opening that this myth I had believed about the frum community and the people within it was nonsense.
More shocking even than that was the way a lot of the community seemed to interact with and feel about this group of boys. Many of them had been abused, the community had silenced it or covered it up, and when they inevitably started “acting out” as a result of their trauma, the community threw them out. One night I got curious and asked a bunch of the boys there whether they had been able to speak to their rebbeim about a range of topics. Unanimously they said no. They had been kicked out of yeshiva for asking. Then they’d been kicked out of the next yeshiva for asking, and so on. They were only taken seriously when they were finally sent to what they characterized as “babysitting/kiruv” yeshivas, where, since they were already at the rock bottom of the yeshiva world, the rebbeim had nothing to lose by engaging with them.
Why? Because at that point the yeshivas and rebbeim had nothing to lose. There was no longer any image of perfection to maintain because they were dealing with kids the community had rejected for threatening to shatter that illusion. Of course, by then these boys were soured on the community and yeshivas in general, and never lasted long in these places.
Every so often one of them would die. A suicide, or a drug overdose, or a gang-related killing. Not a word in the charedi press. Not a tear shed for them. Not a world written in remembrance. These boys die without so much as a peep from the community that excised them to retain this illusion of perfection, to prop up this ridiculous idea that we’re so much better than “them” both academically and morally.
Public schools don’t get to be selective with their student bodies, they have to work with whatever district they happen to be in. They have to find a way to make it work. If their district happens to be an a high-poverty, high-crime area, then they have to try to educate that population, even though the children in that district may have more immediate, existential priorities than learning their reading writing and ‘rithmetic.
Yeshivas, on the other hand, get to be selective. They get to choose what “types” of people they accept. They get to expel with impunity. They get to abuse, and cover up, and expunge the victim from their narrative, all in service of maintaining this lie that yeshivas are by definition better than public schools.
Setting aside the fact that many yeshivas actually do graduate and issue diplomas to students who aren’t, in fact, deserving of them by artificially inflating their grades, it’s very easy to claim academic superiority when you make your job easy by eliminating anyone who you think might disturb that illusion.
Comparing yeshivas to public schools in this regard is therefore disingenuous at best, and malicious at worst. The yeshiva world can’t have it both ways. It can’t refuse to serve, and in doing so deny the existence of, the kinds of children that public schools are compelled to and still maintain that they somehow by nature operate at a higher level. They don’t get to expel from school and ostracize from the community children who struggle with drugs, who have sex before marriage, who suffer from mental health issues, who come from broken, or abusive homes, who have questions of faith, and then claim that because they’ve washed their hands of such problems they are therefore better than the ones who haven’t.
The system is built on the blood of those discarded children, and that blood boils on the ground as these liars stand on their corpses to more loudly proclaim their lies.