It’s back-to-school season, and the question on every parent’s mind is simple: Will kids go back to school?
In the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York, where Hasidic Jewish families are no stranger to adversity in education, there’s an extra layer of concern: Will our schools survive the financial distress imposed by COVID-19’s economic toll?
Over the last 20 years, enrollment in yeshiva schools in New York has grown by 62.6%, according to a Manhattan Institute report from the institute’s director of education policy, Ray Domanico. In Crown Heights, home to the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement, enrollment in Jewish schools has increased by 40%, with more than 6,000 children enrolled in the neighborhood’s yeshivas.
But the coronavirus and the economic crisis have taken a toll on the community in Crown Heights and the yeshivas that serve as its nervous system. With over 50 community members lost to the coronavirus and tuition revenue down, these schools are in peril. At a recent Manhattan Institute event, Rabbi Motti Seligson, director of media relations at Chabad Lubavitch, explained that for these yeshivas, confrontation with adversity is nothing new. But without emergency federal funding for religious and private schools, perhaps something along the lines of the School Choice Now Act that Sens. Tim Scott and Lamar Alexander are advancing, this new trial could be one of the toughest the sector has faced.
It’s worth revisiting the yeshivas’ history. Crown Heights yeshivas are the direct descendants of the Tomchei Temimim schools established in Russia in 1897. The schools emphasized rigorous textual analysis of rabbinic texts, the study of Hasidic mystical philosophy, and an emphasis on virtue and character development. The yeshiva system’s founder, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (the Chabad Lubavitch movement’s fifth leader) foresaw grave oppression impending for Russian Jewry. Tomchei Temimim would prepare its students to be resilient amid the physical and spiritual danger approaching. The schools survived for the next 20 years through moves, forced closings by authorities, and financial constraints. In 1921, the main yeshiva would be shuttered by the Soviets, its teachers arrested, and its student body expelled from the city of Rostov.
Yet, yeshiva schools would not die with the yeshiva closure in 1921. The elder Schneersohn’s son and successor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, developed an infrastructure of underground Jewish life throughout the Soviet Union. At great risk to their lives, Schneersohn and his followers, many of whom were graduates of Tomchei Temimim, maintained an underground network of yeshivas and pathways for Jews to access their spiritual needs, such as a mohel to perform a circumcision, matzo for Passover, and prayer and holy books. Schneersohn was arrested and exiled from the Soviet Union in 1927.
Upon his arrival in the United States in 1940 from Nazi-occupied Poland, a wheelchair-confined Schneersohn declared that “America is no different.” In the U.S., surrounded by opportunity for economic flourishing, religious freedom, and physical safety, spiritual life would shrivel without an infrastructure for Jewish education. On the very evening of his arrival, he established a branch of the Chabad yeshiva system in New York, and in 1941, he established Beth Rivkah girls’ school in Crown Heights.
Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn’s successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, oversaw the expansion of the Chabad school network and further shaped the education model, stressing that education was not merely about knowledge acquisition, but about the development of a child’s character and moral virtue. While schools should imbue children with the skills they need to make a living, emphasis should always be placed first and foremost on religious subjects and character development. In fact, Schneersohn argued, this education system would be most well equipped to shape children to be upstanding members of society.
An education system which only sought to transmit knowledge would not succeed in deterring crime. Without a focus on character development, the child’s only deterrent for crime would be fear of punishment, and that wouldn’t last very long. Hasidic schooling could imbue children with an abundance of gratitude for American material blessings and opportunity, all the while grounding them in eternal values that would guide them through life.
Today, Crown Heights yeshiva students are taught they have the privilege to attend their schools due to the self-sacrifice of the last few generations of Hasidic Jewry. Parents no longer risk imprisonment and exile in Soviet labor camps for educating their children in yeshivas, yet they see themselves as self-sacrificing for Jewish education as they prioritize paying tuition above all else. Yeshiva schooling is an essential link in the transmission of Judaism to the next generation. And while some may think of private school as education for the wealthy, in Crown Heights census tracts where 80% of school children are enrolled in private school, the median household income is $64,776. About 23% of those children come from households of six or more.
On March 13, Crown Heights administrators, in contact with the local medical professionals and rabbinic authorities, decided to close the schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the weeks that followed, the pandemic devastated the community. Crown Heights Jewish news sites were updated daily with announcements of untimely deaths of local business owners, rabbis, teachers, parents, and grandparents. Funeral processions passed the central synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway multiple times per day. As sirens blared through the neighborhood, yeshivas stepped in to provide additional support for their students and local families. In addition to pivoting to virtual learning, schools supplied breakfast and lunch for families in need, and arranged the donation and distribution of refurbished tablets for families with several children needing to be online at the same time.
As of mid-June, local medical professionals announced there have been no new confirmed coronavirus cases in the neighborhood since the beginning of May. Yet, joblessness and (most recently) rising crime and a nightly barrage of illegal fireworks continue to plague the community. Schools face financial uncertainty. Tuition revenue is down 30%, and local business owners, who typically help support the schools, face economic distress after months of being closed.
While it’s true that families who attend these schools are resilient — the history I’ve described above can attest to that — these schools are in dire need of financial assistance.
Another COVID-19 relief package is now under discussion in Washington, and policymakers would do well to think of supporting the thousands of children attending yeshiva schools. With an uptick in crime and recent civil unrest gripping the country’s urban centers, there can be no moment more important to support school systems devoted to molding young men and women with gratitude for this country’s great blessings, rooted in purpose and eternal values.
Malka Groden is the deputy director of development at the Manhattan Institute.