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Fighting for student rights

Naftuli Moster of Rockland pressures state to enforce English literacy education laws

If you’d first met Naftuli Moster of Rockland County without knowing anything about him, he’d seem appealing — a young (he’s only 33 but if anything looks younger), thin, attractive guy, blonde hair and well-trimmed short beard, dressed in a standard business casual black-and-white way designed not to attract much attention. He’s maybe got a slightly noticeable intonation, not an accent, not nearly an accent, but enough to make you wonder if maybe his parents might be foreign.

His manner is friendly, polite, correct, businesslike. Appropriate.

Ask him questions, though, and his answers stop you.

“Where in your family’s birth order are you?,” you ask.

“I’m exactly in the middle,” he answers.

You ask the logical next question.

“Out of how many?”

“I’m the ninth.”

“As in, your parents had 17 kids?”

“That’s right.”

Naftuli Moster’s parents are Belzer chasidim; he was born in Brooklyn and educated there and in Israel. Although he is loath to say so himself — “What does it really mean to be chasidic?” he asks when he is asked about his affiliation — he appears no longer part of that world, and he has devoted his life to ensuring that the children and teenagers who remain there are given the secular education to which both New York and New Jersey law entitle them, and which will allow them to live in the outside world should they decide to do so.

He’s created an organization called Yaffed, as its full name, Young Advocates for Fair Education, works toward that end.

This week, he’s in Israel; he’s one of the 2019 Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation’s ROI Summit participants. The program, now in its 13th year, gathers 150 young Jewish activists from around the world in Jerusalem to inspire and challenge each other.

Being named a participant is an honor; for a participant to have come from the chasidic world is exceedingly rare. But then, Mr. Moster is used to being in that position — of accomplishing feats no one expected of him. With the work he’s doing now, he is trying to make it easier for other chasidic kids to do what he did.

Mr. Moster grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, into a world of sharply defined roles and expectations. His story is easier to understand when you realize that the chasidic world is not all of one piece; the various groups that make it up might look pretty much the same to an outsider, but their differences can be important.

Three of his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and both of his parents grew up in a Brooklyn that still was adjusting to the growth of the chasidic community. It was less insular at first than it soon became; at first, there were not enough of them to allow for that insularity.

Mr. Moster’s mother “grew up a modern Lubavitcher, in Midwood,” Brooklyn, he said. “They had TV their entire lives.” They all spoke English. Television was forbidden to Belzers; “That’s why we were discouraged from having a relationship with my mother’s family,” he said. “My mother shifted to the right on her own,” and she married his father. He came from a Belzer family, “but this was before the chasidic community was as established as it is now,” and there were fewer yeshivas, and less choice among them. “He had to go to a Litvish yeshiva,” Mr. Moster said, and he too spoke English.

Their sons did not.

Naftuli Moster, left, and Yaffed attorney
Eric Huang prepare to lobby in Albany, N.Y.

“My parents would never speak English to us,” Mr. Moster said. In a reversal of the classic American Jewish situation, where parents would speak Yiddish to each other in front of the children so the children could not understand them, and where the punchlines to jokes told in English would be delivered in Yiddish because the joy of story-telling would propel speakers to their mamaloschen, their native tongue, his parents “would just finish sentences to each other in English.”

His mother didn’t learn Yiddish until she married his father; “She would say that she learned Yiddish on the job,” he said. “She had seven sons in a row. Those were her first seven children.”

The gender of her children is relevant, he said, because daughters are allowed to speak some English.

(Readers should note that Mr. Moster’s parents’ names are not given here because, out of deference to them, Mr. Moster prefers not to supply them, just as he prefers not to specify where in Rockland County he lives.)

Mr. Moster and his siblings all went to schools that he feels strongly offered an inadequate education. “In elementary school — cheder — we had Judaic education all day long, and for a few years, from maybe about third grade to seventh grade, four days a week we had about 90 minutes of secular education, basic English and arithmetic,” he said. “It was just a zoo. The teachers were unqualified, and they didn’t have the school’s backing if they tried to discipline us. If students behaved during the rest of the day the way they did then, they’d be kicked out.

“In high school, secular studies vanished entirely.”

The day started early, he said; before dawn, each boy would go to the mikvah. Then “the school day started at 6:30 or 7, and would go to 8 or 8:30.

“You have young high school kids spending basically every waking hour in a yeshiva, in an environment where they see only people like themselves,” he said. The gender divide was severe, so “people like themselves” meant only chasidic boys and men. “Being seen with your sister was frowned upon,” he said. “It wasn’t tzniusdik.” It was immodest. “Even for married couples,” he added. “It wasn’t uncommon to have a kiddush after Shabbes, or a shalom zachor,” a gathering to welcome the birth of a baby boy. “If my parents would go together, they would walk on different sides of the street.” There are signs mandating such separations in New Square, in Rockland, he said; in Brooklyn there were no signs, but there was an understanding.

“Literally all day long we’d be in this environment, so we could come home and go to sleep and wake up and do it again,” he said.

Naftuli Moster leads a demonstration in Albany for better enforcement of education laws to help chasidic students attending yeshivas.

After yeshiva, as was the custom, Mr. Moster went to Israel; the Belzers had a yeshiva ketana — a high school — in Brooklyn, but its next level of education, starting the last year of high school and extending through the gap year and then through a third year, the yeshiva gedolah, is only in Israel. “Usually boys tend to go for at least three years, and they usually get engaged and married before their second year,” he said. “When a boy needs to get engaged, the parents see to it. It is all arranged; the girls’ parents would send someone to look at the boy, or look at him when he’s home for Pesach.

“By the time the boy and girl meet, it’s pretty much a done deal.” Those young chasidic couples you might see in hotel lobbies in Jerusalem, or maybe in the ferry terminal in New Jersey? They’re not Belzer, Mr. Moster said.

He came home from Israel, at 20, with another idea in mind. “I had this strange idea,” he said. “The idea of pursuing a degree.” An academic degree. “Even though I’m not sure that I even knew what I meant.”

But he persisted.

He wanted to become a psychologist. “I saw a lot of mental illness around me, going undiagnosed,” he said. He didn’t yet know what it meant, or even what it was called, but “I saw that it went unaddressed. There was a lot of stigma toward people with mental illness.” He wanted to help.

He found “a branch of Touro College that they call Machon l’Parnasa,” he said. Its full name is Machon L’Parnasa/Institute for Professional Studies, and it was in Brooklyn. “It is for Orthodox Jews,” he said; it was gender-segregated, and used the Orthodox worldview and vocabulary. But still, he wasn’t ready for it. “They were looking for people who at least knew what a high school diploma was,” he said. He didn’t. And “I spoke only broken English.”

Administrators at Machon L’Parnasa asked him “if I had a diploma, and I didn’t. I was able to get a letter from the yeshiva, but there was no transcript.” The school didn’t compile transcripts. “So either I could pursue a GED, which would be hard because I was so crippled educationally. Or I could take a placement exam; that way you bypass having to get a diploma or a GED, but you have to frontload certain courses that serve essentially as high school courses. You have to take an exam, and write an essay, and take a math quiz.

“The problem was that I didn’t know how to write an essay, or even what an essay was. They tried teaching me on the spot. They graded their own exams.”

When he took the test, “I remember that one of the essay prompts was about Yetziat Mitzrayim” — the exodus from Egypt — “but the prompt said Exodus, and I didn’t know what that meant. The other one was why I was or was not a vegetarian. So I wrote two paragraphs—one about why I was a vegetarian, and the other about why I was not.”

Despite his lack of education — and quite possibly because of his overwhelming drive and evident curiosity and brain power — “they did squeeze me in. I had to take quite a few remedial courses, and then I got started. That was the first time when I really had to face the reality that my education had been really poor, but still I didn’t realize how bad it was. I had no comparison. And when I asked questions, for clarification, I got a lot of heads turned. People turned to look at me.”

Chasidic students at the Belz yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Still, he persisted. How? “There was something pushing me,” he said. He couldn’t define that force, but he felt it. “But clearly I didn’t know what I was in for,” he said. “Years later, when I finally got my bachelor’s degree, I thought now I have to get a Ph.D. I didn’t realize that I would have to take the GREs — and that they are timed exams. But then, me speaking English involved me thinking in Yiddish and then translating that into English. It was a delayed process.” So he decided that it made more sense to earn a master’s degree in social work.

That was later, though. How did he manage to pay for Touro? “I hoped to get financial aid,” he said. He was still living at home, although relations had become a bit strained. “My father was not thrilled,” Mr. Moster said. “He did not supply me with his documents,” which are necessary for financial aid forms. “After talking to different people and different organizations, though, I learned about a concept called dependency override. In unusual circumstances, if parents offer no support, even if the kid is living under the parents’ roof, the school can make a financial aid decision on the students’ income.”

As he moved ahead with his education — after Touro, Mr. Moster went to the College of Staten Island, which is a CUNY school, and then to Hunter College for his social work degree — and his life, and  he got married. Mr. Moster thought back on his childhood, and all the things he was not taught.

“I had delayed taking hard science until the end, until my senior year,” he said. “So I took Bio 101, and it was a review of high school science. For me, all that stuff was brand new. I didn’t know about a molecule or a cell or biodiversity or photosynthesis. It was in that classroom that it hit me. I had heard about the concept of child abuse and child neglect. Why doesn’t education fall under that category? I thought that this was a new, interesting concept to tell people about.

“I did some research, and I found that New York State has laws for private schools, and I found the prior guidelines, that are still in effect.

“It was so astonishing. There was a q & a about what nonpublic schools must teach, and there were lists, broken down into detail. And these subjects, that were so clearly required — and they were not remotely touched on in my education.

“So I began to reach out to elected officials.”

It took some time before Mr. Moster felt comfortable enough to pursue his vision forcefully. He had to spend some time in the outside world first. “And then, several years ago, I mustered up the courage to start doing this more effectively,” he said. “At that point, I began reaching out to lawyers, and asking them to look at it, but I had no concept, still, that there were different kinds of lawyers. I was reaching out randomly.”

He was torn.

This work, the effort to ensure that all children, including chasidic children, got the education to which the state believed they were entitled, “was a distraction that I didn’t want,” Mr. Moster said. “I was working full time” — in a warehouse in Newark, doing heavy physical labor; because some of his co-workers couldn’t pronounce Naftuli, “I said call me Nick,” he said. “I was going to school on evenings and weekends, and when I had some spare time, I would do the research, and I would call people, from the warehouse, with heavy boxes on my shoulder.

“I thought that maybe I could just let this go, just go on with my life, and then I imagined what it would have been like if someone three years ago or 30 years ago or 300 years ago had thought about doing something and had not said no, let’s go on with my life. My life would have been different.”

Since then, his quest has taken over his professional life.

“This happened around the time when there was a major incident in New Square. A guy prayed in the wrong synagogue, and there was an arson attack.” (The man who was davening in the wrong shul and whose house was set alight in response is Aron Rottenberg; the incident was in 2011.) “The family retained a civil rights lawyer. I reached out to that attorney.” That was Michael Sussman.

“I don’t think that he believed me when I described the extent of the issue. How could he? The law is so clear. He said, ‘Organize a meeting. Bring me 20 different yeshiva graduates from different schools.’ I did; they were all from different schools, and the story was basically the same from all of them.

“And after that event he said, ‘You should form an organization.’ So I did. At first I thought it would be a quick thing, but it ended up consuming me.”

Now Yaffed has “two full-time employees sitting right here” — the nonprofit agency has space in another, larger foundation’s offices in midtown Manhattan — “and another one, a lobbyist, in Albany. That’s two hires in less than six months.” Mr. Moster is the executive director.

There is some pushback to his work, Mr. Moster said. Some of it, of course, comes from within the community; this is the way the schools always have worked, and they work, and mind your own business. That is to be expected. “But I find it frustrating — maybe it’s my pet peeve — that the larger Jewish community basically says that it is not their problem. And I say, why not? Why isn’t it?”

He is trying to talk to rabbis and lay leaders to confront the issue, “but a surprising number of them also have said, ‘It’s not my problem,’” Mr. Moster said. “Even worse are those who believe that we all are entitled to live our lives as we wish. And you can and should according to your values, your culture, and your tradition, but your freedom to exercise your religion ends when it affects other people. We have laws for a reason, to protect children, so that your choices now don’t completely cripple or handicap them when they become adults.

“It should be a given that every Jewish person should be concerned about it, and should speak up, should stop apologizing for them or excusing them.

“We need more Jews and non-Jews, anyone who has a conscience, who cares about children’s rights, educational rights, and fighting poverty.”

Jews also tend to support chasidic schools because they think those schools are authentic in a way their own practices are not. “But you cannot sanction this behavior,” Mr. Moster said.

The problems with the schools “is as prevalent in Rockland as it is in the city,” he continued. “To some extent, the effects are felt in Rockland even more acutely. There is a scarcity of resources on the county and then the school district level. And you have people who know nothing about the environment, so you see reckless development, and it is felt much more strongly in Rockland. In the city you have such extreme wealth that several thousand more people on the dole don’t make much difference. In the city, when you talk about poverty, you don’t think about chasidim.”

But in the chasidic community “there is a lot of dependence on government assistance,” he said. “And in Rockland, the issue of secular education is a topic. There are primaries for the election for DA coming up, and the question of enforcement in education has come up.” (That primary was set for June 25.) “Even people who aren’t running for positions where they can make changes have made this a topic.

“People understand that a lack of secular education doesn’t translate only into a poorer population but also one with a lack of understanding of American history — slavery, women’s rights, civil rights. You know nothing.

“Chasidic boys also learn less about the Holocaust than public school kids do,” Mr. Moster said. “We don’t have lessons planned about it. On one day a year — the day when that school’s rebbe was rescued — they convene us in the lunchroom, and we are told a little bit of that rebbe’s history, and then a survivor comes and sings a song. There is no history lesson about it. No history about what Nazism was, or about who Hitler was, or about what happened during the war, or after it.”

Now, “my work is mainly awareness raising, advocacy, and grassroots organizing,” Mr. Moster said. “They all overlap. We are making an active push to get the broader Jewish community more involved.

To be involved, he suggests “attending press conferences. Attending hearings. Publishing op eds. Sending letters to the editor. There is so much that people can do if they think of it as a priority. There are so many ways to make a difference.”

And, he added, people who live in New Jersey shouldn’t think of this as just New York’s issue. “The issue also is exploding in Lakewood,” he said.

Mr. Moster summed up Yaffed’s position. “If there is a school that doesn’t teach, in my opinion it is not a school. It is just a building where educational neglect is happening.”

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