Landmark trial places Hasidic schools under scrutiny

Hundreds, and possibly thousands, of children continue to attend Hasidic schools in Quebec where the province’s compulsory curriculum is not taught, even though the government has been aware of the situation for decades, two former Hasidim who left the Tash community allege in their suit against the government and their former schools.

The landmark civil trial, which opened Feb. 10 in Quebec Superior Court, is hearing a case brought by Yochonon Lowen, 42, and his wife Clara Wasserstein, 41. They allege the education they received at Tash schools in Boisbriand, about 30 kilometres north of Montreal, included extremely little secular studies in violation of the law.

They contend that there has been little improvement at these and other ultra-Orthodox schools since they were children.

Their lawyer Bruce Johnson told the court the government knew of the situation for more than 30 years and even today the “vast majority” of boys coming out of Tash schools are not capable of functioning in the world.

The couple are not seeking damages. They want a declaratory judgment that the schools denied and continue to deny children the right to receive the education to which they are entitled between the ages of six and 16, and that the government and educational authorities, in tolerating that, are also culpable.

Specifically, the defendants are alleged to have violated the Education Act, the Act Respecting Private Education, the Charter of the French Language, and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

Named are the attorney general of Quebec, the local school board the Commission scolaire Seigneurie des Mille-Iles, several Tash schools and institutions, and Rabbi Elimelech Lowy, spiritual leader since 2015 of the community of about 3,000. His late father established Tash in Quebec after arriving from Hungary in 1951. He moved the community to Boisbriand in the early 1960s.

Yochonon Lowen

In their deposition, Lowen and Wasserstein claim the schools they attended did not have a permit to operate, that the language of instruction was Yiddish, and that the majority of the time was devoted to religious studies.

“The plaintiffs have never received a class in history, geography, science, art or physical education. In the case of [Lowen], he never even had a French class. The plaintiffs completed their secondary education without knowing what the St-Lawrence River is or ever hearing about the theory of evolution,” their lawyers state.

They claim both the Education Ministry and local school board, which was responsible for ensuring children in its territory attend schools that meet the requirements of the law, knew what was going on.

The couple say they want “to prevent future generations of children from suffering from what they suffered” by forcing the government to ensure that the full curriculum is taught in private religious schools.

Under the law, all schools, public or private, must teach a minimum of 25 hours of secular studies a week, including nine hours of either French or English, seven hours of mathematics, two hours of physical education and health, and seven hours divided among the arts, history, geography, citizenship, ethics and religious culture, and science and technology.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers also argue that other Hasidic schools in Montreal are not fully teaching the mandatory curriculum.

That was denied by the Tash community’s lawyer David Banon and government lawyer Eric Cantin, who said the secular education Hasidic children receive today is much better.

Bill 144, adopted in 2017, introduced stricter surveillance of school attendance and set standards for homeschooling. The Education Ministry had made an arrangement with the Hasidic communities permitting the curriculum to be taught by parents supervised by local school boards, allowing the children to continue to attend religious schools.

Caroline Kelly, who oversees homeschooling at the Education Ministry, testified that about 830 students from Tash are now being homeschooled under the supervision of the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, and the program has been working well.

Abraham Ekstein, president of the Association éducative juive pour l’enseignement à la maison, said there an no more illegal schools.

Last year, the Coalition Avenir Québec government amended the law to ensure that homeschooling is more in line with what is taught in schools and that the children write provincial exams.

However, the future of this arrangement is uncertain with the abolition of the province’s school boards under Bill 40, which was passed this month.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers cast doubt on how successful homeschooling has been. They say students are still going to the Académie des Jeunes Filles Beth Tziril, one of the defendants named, even though that Tash school’s permit expired in 2012 and was supposed to have closed in 2013, according to Education Ministry information cited in the suit.

It is claimed the Tash boys’ schools do not and never held a permit.

Also named in the suit are the Yeshiva Oir Hachayim in Boisbriand and, in Montreal, the Grand Séminaire Rabbinique Tash de Montréal and the Collège Rabbinique de Montréal Oir Hachayim D’Tash.

“These schools gave and still give to the boys of the Tash community an essentially religious education based on the Torah, the Talmud, and the teaching of the language intimately related to it –  Yiddish,” it is stated in the deposition.

Lowen had religious instruction from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week, and received less than six hours a week of “rudimentary” math and English.

Wasserstein, who attended schools now operated by Beth Tziril, received six to 10 hours a week of secular education between the ages of six and 13, including some French. After that, she attended only religious classes in Yiddish.

Neither holds even an elementary school diploma.

Their lawyers produced as evidence rules laid down by the late Rabbi Ferencz Lowy that forbade any outside books or newspapers in the class or home, or discussion of radio, television or movies.

The couple left the Tash community 10 years ago. Now living in Montreal and the parents of four children, they have been on welfare because they have difficulty finding employment, it is stated.

Moreover, they say having grown up completely isolated from Quebec society and the greater world has “compromised their social and emotional development” to this day and hindered their integration.

Born in the United Kingdom, Lowen settled with this family in the Tash community in 1988 at age 10. New York-born Wasserstein arrived as an infant.

Among the first witnesses at the trial were Marie-Josée Bernier, chief of services for the Youth Protection Department of the Laurentians, and Maryse Malenfant, a former Education Ministry official who oversaw private schools.

They recounted attempts in 2014-2015 to rectify the “educational neglect” of boys in particular at the Tash schools, with less than satisfactory results. The boys’ progress was followed up until the adoption of Bill 144.