Hasidic education official tells trial Talmudic education rigorous

MONTREAL — The head of a Jewish home-schooling association took umbrage in court Monday with the accusation his ultra-Orthodox community fails to properly educate its boys, claiming Talmudic studies are rigorous and prepare a young man for any possible career.

For a young Hasidic man who finishes this "rigorous" Talmudic education, Abraham Ekstein told Superior Court Justice Martin Castonguay, "nothing stands in his way to learning anything else he wants in his life."

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But those religious studies are only for boys, Ekstein told the court.

"I cannot speak for God's reason why it's better this way," Ekstein said on the last day of evidence from the defence in a civil case brought by Yochonon Lowen and Clara Wasserstein. They are a married couple who left the Tash ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Boisbriand, Que., north of Montreal.

Lowen and Wasserstein accuse the Boisbriand Hasidic schools and the Quebec government of failing to educate them and of leaving them unprepared for a life outside their insular community. The couple aren't seeking damages, but in hopes of ensuring other children receive a standard education they want a ruling declaring the province and several Hasidic schools violated provincial laws.

Ekstein, 41, himself a Hasidic Jew, was called as the only witness of lawyer David Banon, who is representing the Hasidic schools in Boisbriand. Lawyers for the Quebec government completed their defence Thursday. Banon didn't call a single witness from the Tash community.

Ekstein, who lives in Montreal, is also the head of a home-schooling association that acts as a type of liaison on education matters between the Quebec government and the province's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

He testified that his own Hasidic community in Montreal, made up of between 600 and 700 families, shares the same values as the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Boisbriand. In these religious communities, he said, receiving a professional designation doesn't carry the same status as it does for non-Jews.

"The best status symbol is becoming a Torah scholar," he said, referring to the Jewish holy book. "That's what I want for myself and my kids."

Lowen had testified that when he left the Tash Hasidic community 10 years ago, he spoke little English and no French, had never heard the words "science'' or "geography'' and had never spoken to a woman who was not a member of his family.

A youth protection agency employee testified earlier in the trial that an educational assessment of 320 boys in the Tash community launched in 2014 found that 280 were "educationally compromised,'' with most of the Yiddish-speaking youth unable to write or communicate in English or French.

The situation improved markedly after the community agreed to make changes and legally register the children as home-schoolers, but by 2017 most remained below the level of their peers, she said.

In an interview following his testimony, Ekstein said girls in Hasidic communities have never had problems with secular education because they spend less time on Talmudic studies.

Wasserstein, however, testified that from the age of 13, she was exempted from the secular portion of the school day so she could help her mother. She said it was deemed she already had enough secular knowledge.

Ekstein said in the interview that he isn't familiar with the specifics of Wasserstein's education, "but I can say that this is very, very uncommon .... It was for sure due to some personal circumstances."

Bruce Johnston, lawyer for Lowen and Wasserstein, questioned the relevance of much of Ekstein's testimony, noting the witness wasn't from the Tash community and he cited people who weren't available for cross-examination.

"It's like they brought a lobbyist in court to testify," Johnston told the judge, referring to the schools' strategy of calling Ekstein and no one from the Tash community.

The trial resumes Wednesday with closing arguments.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Feb. 17, 2020.

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