Hasidim are obeying Quebec education law today, lawyers argue as case wraps up

Yochonon Lowen and Clara Wasserstein are seen at the Montreal courthouse where their case against the government and former Tash community was heard. (Janice Arnold photo)

In their final arguments in a civil case brought by two former Tash members, lawyers for the Quebec government and Hasidic Tash community refuted that children in that community or other Hasidic communities are not being educated in the province’s compulsory curriculum.

The nine-day landmark trial in Quebec Superior Court wound up on Feb. 19 with the lawyer for Tash, David Banon, arguing against the inapplicability of the declaratory judgment sought by Yochonon Lowen, 42, and Clara Wasserstein, 41.

The married couple want the court to declare that the Tash schools they attended as children operated, and still operate illegally.

They also want the court to declare that the Quebec government, in tolerating this situation, is violating its legal obligations. They are not seeking monetary damages.

Justice Martin Castonguay is not expected to render a decision for several months.

Banon argued that the plaintiffs’ lawyer Bruce Johnston did not provide any substantial evidence that Tash or any other Hasidic community is running illegal schools or that any Hasidic children are being denied instruction in the mandatory subjects.

On the contrary, Banon said defence testimony has proven the Hasidic communities are abiding by the law today and that Quebec has introduced legislation in recent years that has made it impossible for them to do otherwise.

Since the adoption of Bill 144 in 2017 by the Liberal government and its strengthening last year by the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government, all Tash and other Hasidic children in Montreal who are not attending a legally recognized school are registered in a homeschooling program with the local school board.

Of the close to 6,000 children currently being homeschooled in Quebec, almost half are Hasidic, the court heard. As of December, 838 children in the Tash community are enrolled. Tash is a community of about 700 families in Boisbriand, about 30 kilometres north of Montreal.

Banon said since 2018 the Tash community has “collaborated enthusiastically” with education officials to comply with the law and that feedback from all sides has been positive.

He noted that parents attended all information meetings in 2019 with board officials and that the parents find them “helpful, kind and understanding” in providing an education respectful of their way of life.

There remains disagreement on the teaching of sex and some aspects of science, Banon said, but the community is receptive to the board and education ministry’s pedagogical guidance.

The Hasidic students in Montreal are supervised by the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) and those in Boisbriand by the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board (SWLSB).

Defence witnesses from the SWLSB and the Education Ministry testified that the arrangement with Tash is, overall, working well and the children’s progress is satisfactory.

The board has three consultants working specifically with the Tash schools, it was said.

Homeschooling became an alternative for the Hasidim in 2014 when the Education Ministry reached an out-of-court settlement with the Satmar community that avoided the closure of its boys’ school. In 2011, a Superior Court judge ruled the school was operating illegally.

The option, which allows students to continue to attend religious schools by day and be taught the provincial curriculum by their parents at home, soon proved popular.

Bill 144, which went into effect in 2018, established clear regulations for the enforcement of school attendance, either in a legal school or recognized homeschooling program. Amendments made by the CAQ set even higher standards. Quebec today is said to have the most stringent homeschooling rules in North America.

Johnston argued that, in practice, this is not the case. Tash boys, he said, continue to attend religious schools where the language of instruction is Yiddish from early in the morning until evening, leaving them little time or energy for secular studies.

He also questioned the qualifications of parents whose own education was lacking and who often have several children.

Johnston alleged at least two Tash schools do not have a permit to operate. He cited one of his witnesses, a school director, who testified that she did not know what was taught in the school.

Lowen and Wasserstein’s suit alleges the laws being violated are the Education Act, the Act Respecting Private Education, the Charter of the French Language, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Johnston said his clients are asking the court to pronounce on whether the schools at this moment are in conformity with the law or not.

Tash lawyer Banon cited in particular the testimony of Abraham Ekstein, president of the Association for Jewish Homeschooling. He stressed that Torah and Talmud study aids in the development of children’s minds, sharpening their memory and analytical skills. They are more receptive to learning in general.

Ekstein allowed that boys are receiving much more of this kind of religious instruction, but girls are, on the other hand, getting more secular education in their schools.

Moreover, he said Hasidic children do not have phones, television or movies occupying their time.

Banon stressed that Hasidic communities today are eager to work with the authorities to find ways of reconciling their beliefs with the education the government mandates.

The lawyer for the Quebec government, Eric Cantin, presented an article-by-article description of Bill 144 to show that the law has sufficient teeth to enforce compulsory school attendance for children aged 6 to 16 and parents’ fulfilment of homeschooling requirements. This includes inspections that permit authorities to enter any place, including private homes, to assess the situation.

The amendments that came into effect last July have strengthened minimal teaching and evaluation requirements, including the writing of provincial exams.

Moreover, he said 2017 modifications to the youth protection act mandate its departments to intervene anywhere if there is reason to believe a child’s welfare, including educational rights, is at risk.

Johnston’s firm, Trudel Johnston & Lespérance took on the case of Lowen and Wasserstein in 2016 as one “in the public interest.” The couple, who married as teenagers and have four children, left Tash in 2010.

They claim their lack of even a basic secular education has made it difficult to find employment and that they have depended on welfare to live.