This testimony was told to Humanists UK, which leads the national campaign for action on unregistered religious schools. Humanists UK works closely with former pupils of such settings, like Izzy, as well as current members of closed religious communities to highlight their experiences and provide valuable evidence to the authorities.
My name is Izzy and I would like to share with you the story of my childhood.
Just like you – or perhaps unlike you – I was born to two loving parents whose greatest wish in life was that I and my siblings grow to become our best selves and have the best opportunities in life. But unlike you, that ‘life’ was not meant to be during our lifetime.
You see, I grew up in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in East London – a community ruled by a dictator. That dictator – aka God – had a plan. A very specific and well-calculated one. The details and minutiae of the plan were very intricate and complex, but the general idea was very simple: God has a book that he wants you to follow. You either follow the book and secure yourself an eternity of bliss in heaven, or you disobey it and you are sent to hell.
Now, this may sound like an easy enough task, but the book was no mere book of instructions. It was actually an extremely complex document with many layers of understanding and interpretation and in order to avoid the hellfires one had to be on constant guard to ensure that their every action, speech and thought is to the absolute godly standard. Even a tiny deviation from the rules – which covered every second of one’s day – would be cause of great concern as to the consequences of those actions.
In such an environment the best possible upbringing that one can have is one that brings them up to be obedient and submissive subjects to God, who know exactly what they are to do and who follow all the rules to perfection. Good grades, employability, character development, self actualisation, physical and emotional well being, were therefore of minor and secondary concern for our educators and schools. What was important is that we are well versed in the religious texts and that we have the correct godly conduct – which extended to far more than being an upright and moral citizen.
I thus spent all of my childhood in a run-down school building, studying religious texts from morning to evening. Studying secular studies would be an absolute waste of time, as being knowledgeable about the world was not in God’s instruction manual. Not only did we not study any secular subjects, but we were also completely ignorant of them, believing that everything that one can possibly know is contained in God’s Book of Books. Instead of science, we had the ancient writings of the Talmud to enlighten us with the most “up to date facts” about the universe, such as the universe’s geocentricity, the various kinds of demons around and how to protect oneself from them and young earth creationism.
The language of instruction in school – the only language that most of the kids and teachers could speak – was Yiddish. The language barrier was a deliberate implementation by community leaders with the unashamed goal of limiting contact between community members and outsiders. Contact with outsiders, we were told, would contaminate our pure souls and so we must isolate ourselves as to not get influenced by their filth and stupidity.
In-keeping with Biblical methods of child education, corporal punishment was the preferred choice of disciplining for teachers and educators in my community. Personally, being a particularly non-conforming child, I was hit almost daily, oftentime leaving marks and bruises for days to come. Modern pedagogical methods and psychology were frowned upon in my community and special educational needs went unacknowledged.
I can go on and on recounting one horror story of my childhood after another, but I want to come on to tell you what my concerns are now regarding the thousands of my former co-religionist kids still remaining in the community and still being brought up in their education system.
- Spiritual captivity: Education is about giving kids information and guiding them so that when they grow up and become adults they can make choices of their own. The kids in Ultra Orthodox Jewish communities are shown only one possible way of life and are told that all who deviate from that go to hell. This keeps the kids in spiritual captivity and deprives them from any other lifestyle they may have wanted to live.
- Deprived education: Kids in my former community are not given anything that could be called an adequate education even by the most minimum standards. Most boys finish school without being able to speak their country’s language or do little more than basic arithmetic. This means that when they grow up they find it extremely difficult to do tasks as simple as going to the doctor’s or the bank. When they eventually need to support a family, they find themselves without the basic tools for supporting themselves and many of them resort to a life of poverty, dependency and income through dubious means.
- Anti acculturation: The community has a very negative attitudes to outsiders and to alternative cultures and lifestyles. Kids in the community are brought up with hostility towards, and suspicion of, people beyond their virtual ghetto walls. Far from promoting pluralism, respectful disagreement and tolerance, these schools teach kids a single and absolute lifestyle to the exclusion of all others. Kids are taught racist and sexist ideas and grow to hate other religions, sexual identities and alternative lifestyles.
- Child safety and development: Being so secretive and so scarcely regulated, kids learning in these schools are under constant risk of maltreatment and underdevelopment. Corporal punishment is the norm and kids are potentially vulnerable to other forms of abuse as well. An extremely narrow curriculum fails to stimulate the kids and does not allow them to develop healthily into adulthood. Psychological problems and behavioural issues are disproportionately high amongst charedi adolescents, being a direct result of an education system that is monotonous and all text based.
As an ancient Talmudic saying goes, ‘the chained cannot free himself from the house of bondage’. It is therefore the moral responsibility of those who were more fortunate than these kids and have had a good education, to do all that we can to make sure that the less privileged get what they deserve. We cannot idly stand by whilst just around the corner basic education – something that we take for granted – is denied from thousands of our fellow human beings.