A day in my life at an illegal ultra Orthodox school in London

“I was hit almost daily, oftentime leaving marks and bruises for days to come.”

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.

“Contact with outsiders, we were told, would contaminate our pure souls and so we must isolate ourselves”

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.

“Most boys finish school without being able to speak their country’s language or do little more than basic arithmetic.”

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 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.  

Izzy Posen

This testimony was first told to Humanists UK, which leads the national campaign for action against unregistered religious schools. Humanists UK works closely with former pupils of such settings, like Izzy, as well as current members of extreme religious communities to highlight their experiences and provide valuable evidence to the authorities.

CALL FOR EVIDENCE: Hackney Council launches consultation on illegal religious schools

The questionnaire can be found here: https://consultation.hackney.gov.uk/overview-and-scrutiny/unregistered-education/. If you are comfortable with your response or parts of your response being made public as part of the campaign to bring greater attention to this issue, please forward them to info@faithschoolersanonymous.uk 

Hackney Council’s Children and Young People’s Scrutiny Commission is carrying out an inquiry into illegal, unregistered schools in the Borough. As has been well-documented on this website, as well as by the British Humanist Association (BHA), a significant number of children from the strictly Orthodox Charedi Jewish community are ‘missing’ from the school system, and are attending illegal ‘faith’ schools in which they are subjected to indoctrination, educational neglect, and abuse. Hackney are now asking for former or current pupils, parents, or teachers of these schools, or anyone with information about them, to come forward and submit their experiences. This can be done entirely anonymously through the following link: https://consultation.hackney.gov.uk/overview-and-scrutiny/unregistered-education/.

For context, you can read the experience of one such former pupil here, who says that at his school ‘physical punishment was commonplace and the atmosphere was one of perpetual fear’: https://faithschoolersanonymous.uk/2016/05/life-in-a-charedi-school/. 

And you can read here about the extent of the problem, and how open a secret the plight of these children is, in our piece ‘Where have all the children gone?’: https://faithschoolersanonymous.uk/2016/11/where-have-all-the-children-gone/.

The following text appears on Hackney’s consultation page:

And the following screen-grab provides an indication of what information the questionnaire asks for:

Please do share the link to the questionnaire with anyone who you think can contribute to the consultation. If you are comfortable with your response or parts of your response being made public, please forward them to info@faithschoolersanonymous.uk.

FSA team

 

Where have all the children gone?

“We are lucky enough to live in a country and in a time in which one child going missing makes national news and provokes public outcry. And yet, when the children from almost an entire religious community go missing from the education system, year on year and by their thousands, our reaction and the reaction of our Government is to do almost nothing.”

There are a great many injustices embedded in the faith school sector of our education system. And as the Government moves to drastically increase the extent of religious discrimination and segregation in our schools, these injustices are only becoming further entrenched.

But which injustice is the worst? In a system that allows schools to discriminate against children on the basis of their parents’ religious or non-religious beliefs, forces countless parents to lie about their religion just to get their children into a local school, and requires children to compulsorily worship a god they likely don’t believe in, it can be hard to pick.

2016-05-13-lw-v1-charedi-school-2
An insight into life in an illegal religious school

In truth, however, the answer is ‘none of the above’. The greatest injustice present in our system relates to the thousands of children that we know are absent from it, and the total lack of any meaningful action to address this.

The problem of illegal religious schools in this country is one that has received increasing attention in recent years. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has been the driving force behind much of this, working with former pupils of these schools, and with government officials and journalists from the print and broadcast media, to ensure that the issue never falls too far from the top of the agenda. Not before time, the relevant authorities have started to take an interest too.

Oftsed’s outgoing Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has now written to the Education Secretary four times to outline his findings and concerns over illegal religious schools, and for the first time Ofsted have a dedicated team focused on identifying and investigating these schools. Local authorities like Hackney and Birmingham are no longer turning a blind-eye to these issues, or passing the buck when challenged on their inaction. Instead, they are carrying out their own investigations into illegal religious schools, and through the Local Government Association asking Government for more powers to intervene where they suspect children are not receiving the mainstream education they are entitled to. Even the Department for Education (DfE) has started taking some responsibility, introducing provisions to prosecute the proprietors of illegal religious schools and to clamp down on supplementary religious schools that may also be operating illegally.

But for all the increased attention and concern, the perception remains that this is a problem that’s still shrouded in secrecy, hard to identify, hidden from the eyes of the authorities and the arm of the law. This perception is not correct. This is a problem well known to us.

Last week the Institute for Jewish Policy Research published a report entitled ‘The Rise and Rise of Jewish schools in the United Kingdom’. Here is a graph from the report showing strictly orthodox boys by age in secondary schools in Stamford Hill, Manchester, and Gateshead (the three areas in England with the largest Charedi communities):

jprgraph

The drop off in attendance at age 13, represented by the blue bars on the graph, is clear to see. As the report notes:

‘An estimated 1,400 strictly Orthodox children aged 11-15 years are being educated in Jewish schools or yeshivot which are not included in the Department for Education’s school census… Indeed, about half of strictly Orthodox boys aged 11-15 years do not appear in the strictly Orthodox school system. The issue is not as extreme, but still exists, at the younger ages within this range: about one-third of the boys aged 11-13 are not found in the data on strictly Orthodox schools.’

This, I hope you’ll agree, is shocking. But when the report was published last week, the only headlines it received related to the rise in the number of Jewish children attending faith schools. None of the articles covering the report mentioned the missing children or the schools not included in the DfE’s census.

There’s more where this comes from too. The graphs below are from an Independent article earlier this year, showing the number of Jewish children in full time education in Hackney according to the Department for Education’s school census. Hackney is thought to be home to as many as 30 unregistered Charedi schools:

spotthedifference
Spot the difference

Again, you can see the problem here immediately. At the age of around 12/13, Jewish boys all but disappear from full time education.

Now you might ask how we know that when they disappear, they disappear into illegal religious schools. The answer is simple. No one has ever made any attempt to disguise this fact. Take as an example a report from 2007 produced by the Board of Deputies of British Jews:

“It can also be observed from Table 1 that the attendance figures for boys from Years 8 through 11 show a dramatic fall-off to almost zero. This is due to boys leaving these schools around the age of bar mitzvah in order to attend yeshivot (seminaries for young, unmarried men).”

bd

This is a public report, drawing on official data from the Department for Education, which openly and uncritically acknowledges that when boys in the strictly Orthodox community reach their early teens it is normal for them to start attending illegal, unregistered schools and for the entirety of their education from there on in to be focused exclusively on the study of scripture. And before you begin to wonder what is wrong with this – deeply religious schools serving deeply religious communities – take some time to read about what these places are like from the former pupils who have shared their experiences on this site.

We are lucky enough to live in a country and in a time in which one child going missing makes national news and provokes public outcry. And yet, when the children from almost an entire religious community go missing from the education system, year on year and by their thousands, our reaction and the reaction of our Government is to do almost nothing. That has to change.

FSA team

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