Saturday, April 7, 2012

Huffington Post: National Education Day and the Education I Never Had

The focus of my blog is to give hope to people, particularly those who suffered because they were different, were raised in an environment that made the future of their lives more difficult or survived of abuse  people who may feel like they have no voice. 

I hope that this website can spread awareness, spur discussion and motivate real change on issues that are hardly discussed at this time in many communities, particularly more insular ones. My personal story involves my journey growing up an Orthodox gay Jew. Thankfully, dialogue on LGBT issues is taking place even within Orthodox communities.

Personally, the issue of education is profoundly important to me. I wasn't raised with any formal, academic education at all. I believe it necessary that we acknowledge other equally important issues facing youth today, including education, which is so fundamental to our lives and livelihoods. I recently wrote about education in the Huffington Post:

April 4th, 2012
Chaim Levin

Yesterday was proclaimed "National Education and Sharing Day, USA" in tribute to the late Chabad Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Schneerson's birthday. President Obama wrote: 
For centuries, the pursuit of knowledge and the cultivation of character have driven American progress and enriched our national life. On Education and Sharing Day, U.S.A., we renew our commitment to these timeless aspirations, and we rededicate ourselves to fostering in our sons and daughters inquiring minds and compassionate hearts.
In a global economy where more than half of new jobs will demand higher education or advanced training, we must do everything we can to equip our children with the tools for success. Their journey begins early, and it demands stewardship from throughout the community -- from parents and caregivers who inspire a love of learning to teachers and mentors who guide our children along the path to achievement. Our Nation's prosperity grows with theirs, and by ensuring every child has access to a world class education, we reach for a brighter future for all Americans...

Reading the President's proclamation deeply saddened me as I thought about the education I missed out on in the Chabad school Oholei Torah (Educational Institute Oholei Menachem) in Crown Heights. Basic reading, writing, spelling, math, science and history were not part of the curriculum at any of the Chabad schools I attended. My classmates and I did not have access to a world class education.
I have profound respect for the late Rebbe and his legacy. However, I remember very clearly those talks that he gave -- the ones we studied every year in elementary school about the unimportance of "secular" (non-religious, formal) education, and the great importance of only studying limmudei kodesh (holy studies). As a result of this attitude, thousands of students were not taught anything other than the Bible throughout our years attending Chabad institutions.
Until this day, Oholei Torah and many other Chabad schools -- particularly schools for boys and a few for girls in Crown Heights and in some other places -- do not provide basic formal education. It pains me to think of all the the doctors, lawyers and other professionals and leaders that could have come out of these institutions. These institutions have cultivated the character, compassion, cooperation and goodwill the President also speaks of, producing thousands of shluchim(emissaries) for Chabad all over the world. However, that is the goal of such schools; if you do not become an emissary, you fell through the cracks and are not prepared for anything else. The mantra of Oholei Torah, what most people say when asked why they send their kids to such a school is: "That's what the school wants for their students, and that's what their parents want; they hope for their kids to become emissaries of the Rebbe."
The big question remains unanswered though: What happens to all of us whose futures do not involve becoming emissaries? The majority of students do not go on to become emissaries and lack even a basic formal education, and, hence, the brighter future the President refers to is difficult to reach. As I attempt to make up for a lack of education in anything other than the Bible and a language not relevant to the workplace, I have more and more questions about how such a harmfully unbalanced educational system still exists.
Four and half thousand people have become emissaries, a few people have managed to go on to college and a few Chabad schools do include formal non-religious curricula. Many people within the community of Crown Heights still rigorously defend Oholei Torah, excusing the failings of the school by pointing to the "many success stories." Yet, they fail to notice the largest crowd, those of us who have been ignored, who miss and always will miss the basic education that the President extols.
In honor of National Education and Sharing Day, we should examine whether we are doing everything we can to equip our children for success. Failure to provide basic formal education cripples children within Chabad communities. We cannot ignore the harm done, and I refuse to remain silent. By opening discussion on education, we risk only improving the Chabad community and honoring the Rebbe's humanitarian legacy as an advocate for youth.

On National Education and Sharing Day, I hope we all reach for a brighter future for everyone and strive for schools that cultivate not only character, compassion, cooperation and goodwill, but basic education and tools for success. As we celebrate Passover and overcoming the chains that held us back, I hope we reflect also on things things that keep us from personal freedom today.


  1. Chaim: I posted the following message to one of your earlier blogs, but I think it is a better fit here:

    "I think you would make a wonderful social worker or psychologist. I hope you are able to go back to school and complete your education. A mind is a terrible thing to waste and you have been given such special gifts. There are a lot of people who want you to succeed. Please don't disappoint us."

  2. Chaim,

    I'm sorry but if English was important to your parents then they would have sent you to Lubavitcher Yeshiva. As a graduate of ULY (Ocean Pkwy) I could unequivocally tell you that we had quite a good English/Secular education, probably on par with any other decent institution in Brooklyn. It was obviously not their priority just as one who prefers that their child study Spanish or a different language/subject other than English and will choose to send their child to such a school....

    My point is please don't blame the Rebbe for your lack of education. You got an education, perhaps just not the one that you would have preferred. So now you can send your children to a school of your choice and in two decades they will have the choice to either appreciate it or deride you for depriving them of their preferred academic choice.


  3. Parents don't have have a right to economically cripple their children. They have a responsibility to raise them to become productive members of society. The British are starting to crack down on illegal Yeshivas that aren't registered with the government and don't meet minimum government standards. Read here: Also read the comments that follow the article.

    When the community at large gets tired of seeing their taxes going for welfare payments to functionally illterate graduates of religious schools, there will be a blowback. Ground zero may well be the areas around Kiryas Joel, NY or New Square, NY. The Education Department of the State of New York will eventually be forced to stop ignoring the problem.


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