Rockland County, NY – The quality of the education provided at Chasidic schools has come under the microscope in recent years as critics charge that many institutions fail to provide pupils with even a basic secular curriculum.
Some students, however, have taken matters into their own hands, venturing out on their own to supplement the rudimentary teachings they received by taking advantage of a variety of educational opportunities.
A recent Journal News article profiles several Chasidic students who chose to continue their studies in the hopes of creating better lives for themselves. While there are those who have chosen to leave their Chasidic roots behind, others found a way to expand their educational horizons without compromising their practice of Orthodox Judaism.
Mendel Taub thought that he was the first member of his family to enhance his studies with courses at the Rockland County Board of Cooperative Educational Services. By age 15, the New Square resident had dropped out of school and quickly realized that unable to read, write or even speak English and with just basic math skills, he was qualified only for low paying, dead end jobs.
Purchasing a radio on the sly to prevent being ostracized by community members, Taub tuned in daily to Rush Limbaugh’s radio program hoping to gain a better command of the English language.
Realizing that he needed a proper education, Taub turned to the East Ramapo School District where an administrator advised him to wait until he was 17 so that he could enroll in a local BOCES program without parental consent.
“All I wanted to do was learn English,” said Taub, “I didn’t think I’d be able to master math, science or social studies. I was clueless. I didn’t know anything about anything.”
Just before he began his classes, Taub confided in his older brother Abraham, who shared that he had earned his GED at BOCES and was currently enrolled at Rockland Community College.
Mendel Taub, who is now 21, volunteers as an EMT for the Ramapo Valley Ambulance Corps. An undergraduate student who received a full scholarship to Pace University, Taub hopes to go to law school. While he is no longer religiously observant, he still lives in his parents’ home and harbors no resentment towards the Chasidic community. He describes his experience at BOCES as “a tunnel to success.”
Abraham Taub earned a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for academic excellence while he was at Rockland Community College. He remains part of the New Square community where he lives with his wife and three children, all of whom attend village yeshivos.
Taub operates a business selling booths to parking attendants and security guards while continuing his schooling at the NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine and hopes to become an emergency room physician.
Entertainer Lipa Schmeltzer is another member of the Chasidic community who was honored by Rockland Community College with the Chancellor’s Award at the age of 36.
Schmeltzer moved out of New Square and worked his way up through the educational ranks, hiring a private tutor to get him through his BOCES coursework and ultimately graduating from RCC in May 2014 with honors with a dual major in liberal arts and performing arts.
Now a student at Columbia University, Schmeltzer is earning a degree in creative writing and visual arts and he considers his synagogue in Airmont, New York to be a refuge for those who feel confined by the insular restrictions of the Chasidic community, offering acceptance and a safe haven for those who don’t fit the mold.
The number of students from the Chasidic community registered at BOCES has grown over the years from just a scattered few to approximately 40.
Albert Moschetti, adult education director at BOCES when Mendel Taub enrolled, said that his staff goes the extra mile to ensure that students of all backgrounds feel at home in the program.
“In the last eight years we began to see that some of our outreach to the Jewish community was showing a result,” said Moschetti.
Enrollment from the Orthodox and Chasidic community is also up at Rockland Community College, according to college spokesperson Tzipora Reitman.
“Word is out that RCC offers a comfortable environment for Jewish students, both academically and socially,” said Mrs. Reitman.
Monsey resident Chaya Wagschal is the rare Chasidic young woman who attends college full time. She noted that since girls’ schools typically offer a fuller secular education, she was able to start in RCC without having to go to BOCES first.
“It’s hard for the boys but it can be done,” said Miss Wagschal, noting that she wished that Chasidic yeshivos designated a larger time slot to general and secular studies for their male students.
Miss Wagschal, who is 20 years old, said that most of her high school classmates went on to seminary and then either took an entry level job or did an accelerated college program that enabled them to pursue a career in nursing or graphic design. She is enrolled in a math and science honors track in RCC and is planning a career in computer science and electrical engineering. A member of the Chasidic community, Miss Wagschal said that both her parents and her community have been supportive of her educational choices.
Former Kiryas Joel resident Eli Wagschal is another member of the Chasidic community who ventured into the halls of academia, traveling daily to Yeshiva University in Washington Heights, as previously reported on VIN News. Wagschal graduated in May 2014 with a degree in business management and a GPA over 3.5. He is currently pursuing a degree in law at Pace University.
30 year old Pinchas Dirnfeld was one of the first New Square teens to enroll at BOCES a decade ago. Now working on a doctorate in mathematics at the University of Utah, Dirnfeld went from BOCES to RCC and earned a masters from Columbia University.
“Overall, there are a lot more kids who go nowadays than 10 years ago,” said Dirnfeld.