Two former members of a Hasidic community in Quebec have won the right to take the Hasidic schools they attended to court for allegedly depriving them of a secular education, and the Quebec government for not meeting its obligation to ensure that the mandatory provincial curriculum was enforced.
Yochonon Lowen, 41, first attempted in 2014 to sue the schools where he was a student in the Tash community, located in Boisbriand north of Montreal, as well as the Quebec education ministry and the local public school board.
He has since been joined in seeking legal recourse by his wife, Clara Wasserstein, who also grew up in the Tash community and attended its schools.
They will have to wait awhile though for their day in court.
On Feb. 28, Quebec Superior Court Justice André Wery set their court date for Feb. 10 of 2010 and blocked off 15 days for the trial.
The defendants named are the Attorney General of Quebec, several Tash educational institutions, and Tash Rabbi Elimelech Lowy.
In May 2016 the couple filed a motion for a declaratory judgment against the defendants.
They allege that children raised in their former community did not receive an education in accordance with law, and that its schools are, not only not teaching the compulsory curriculum, but are illegal.
The motion seeks a declaration by Superior Court that these schools operate in violation of the Education Act, the Act Respecting Private Education, the Charter of the French Language, and the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
It also seeks a declaration that the government of Quebec, by tolerating this situation, violates these same laws.
No damages are sought.
In May 2017, Superior Court dismissed motions filed by the defendants to have Lowen and Wasserstein’s application thrown out, ruling that the plaintiffs’ case could be heard.
The judge concluded that the couple had “clear standing to act in the public interest and that the action presented a serious question that had to be decided by the court,” said their lawyer Clara Poissant-Lespérance.
However, the judge decided the local school board had no liability, and rejected the claim against the Commission scolaire Seigneurie des Mille Iles.
This will be the first court challenge of its kind in Quebec, where successive governments have been trying to find a resolution to so-called “illegal” ultra-Orthodox schools for many years.
While in opposition, current Premier François Legault was a harsh critic of the Liberal government on this matter, claiming it had been lax in seeing that all Quebec children receive an adequate education.
Some ultra-Orthodox schools were found not to be following the prescribed curriculum, particularly at boys’ schools, to have uncertified teachers, and no licence.
Progress has been made in recent years in bringing schools into compliance, notably through teacher training and setting up homeschooling in association with the English Montreal School Board and, in the case of the Tash community, the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board.
Religious subjects continue to be taught at community schools, while parents assume responsibility for teaching secular content.
Originally, Lowen had attempted to launch a $1.25-million lawsuit against the education department, the local school board, and the St-Jérôme youth protection department, as well as two Tash schools he had attended. That never went further than sending a demand letter, and he later changed his lawyers.
Lowen told The CJN that he received virtually no instruction not related to religion, that he left school unable to read or write in English or French, and could hardly do basic math. Consequently, he could not find employment effectively outside the Hasidic milieu.
“Everything except Torah was forbidden; some leaders said it was a sin [to learn anything else],” said Lowen, who also said he suffered psychologically by being brought up in an extremely insular society.
He left the Hasidic community about 10 years ago.
Today, the couple, who have four children, lives in Montreal and participate in the mainstream Jewish community. He is still working toward a high school diploma and has no regular work.
They hope that with this issue being heard in court it will force the government to act against any schools that are not obeying the law and that all children will receive the education to which they have a right.