Hasidic school raid puts spotlight on conundrum facing Education Ministry
Illegal school among those in ultra-Orthodox community working to comply with provincial law, rabbi says
Each morning, an untold number of children in Montreal's Hasidic community set off for schools that don't follow the province's curriculum and aren't recognized by Quebec's Education Ministry.
The Quebec government has been trying quietly to deal with the issue for years, engaging in negotiations with non-conforming schools in an attempt to find solutions.
But a raid this week on a school in Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie operating without a ministry permit thrust the problem back into the spotlight and renewed questions about how to balance religious and personal freedoms, the rights of the child and the role of education.
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On Wednesday, Montreal police officers accompanied officials from the agency charged with youth protection in English Montreal, Batshaw Youth and Family Centres, when they descended on the school – a nondescript building on Parc Avenue at Beaubien Street.
About a dozen women and about 60 male students, most of them of elementary-school age, along with some adolescents, were escorted from the premises.
Raid described as 'overkill'
Alex Werzberger, president of the Coalition of Outremont Hasidic Organizations, described the raid as "overkill."
In an interview on CBC Montreal's Daybreak, Werzberger said the school is working to adapt to the province's requirements, either through home-schooling or additional tutoring.
"This is a very new school, and they're working on it," he said. "They're not saying no."
No one from the school nor its board could be reached for comment on Friday.
Hershber Hirsch, a member of the school's board, said earlier this week the school will "continue to co-operate" with the Education Ministry.
"We are certainly not very happy with the trauma caused to the kids, which was not in any way necessary given our co-operation with the [youth services] up until now," he said.
Home-schooling as compromise?
Radio-Canada recently profiled another school, Outremont's Beth Esther Academy, attempting to comply with provincial law by meeting the requirements through home-schooling.
Only two people on the staff, however, had the qualifications to be teaching in the school, and there was no science equipment inside.
As well, the English Montreal School Board signed a home-schooling contract with each of 236 parents from the Yeshivas Torah Moshe community in Outremont last fall, EMSB spokesman Mike Cohen said in an email.
"This is our only arrangement so far," he said.
"We are certainly open to talk with the Education Ministry anytime if they wish to arrange for additional home-schooling students."
Non-certified schools an exception
In the aftermath of the raids, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a local advocacy group, has taken pains to stress that the majority of Montreal's Jewish schools meet the provincial requirements.
"There are over 20 schools in Montreal as part of the Jewish community, none of which, by the way, would be described as secular," said Reuben Poupko, the organization's co-chair and a rabbi at Beth Israel Beth Aaron in Côte St-Luc.
'The idea that this institution represents the kind of threat that would necessitate that intervention is a little out of whack.'- Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs
"All of them are religious to one extent or another, and they all conform, even the Hasidic schools, conform to Quebec curriculum."
"The community that I represent believes that all schools should be in conformity with Quebec law and Quebec curriculum," he said.
Poupko added, however, that while "the law on the books makes sense, obviously, the idea that this institution represents the kind of threat that would necessitate that intervention is a little out of whack."
"These kids are in school all day, no one is in the streets, there's no history or record of delinquency, and these are kids who spend their whole day studying in a very serious way," he said.
He added that he's hopeful the school becomes "compliant with Quebec curriculum."
Proulx wants new regulations
It's unclear how many Hasidic schools currently don't conform with provincial requirements.
Education Minister Sébastien Proulx acknowledged it's difficult to keep track since the schools aren't registered, and some of the children don't have a provincial permanent code.
Proulx said he wants to introduce new regulations to make sure children don't fall through the cracks of the education system.
The province has previously been the target of legal action from a former member of Boisbriand's Hasidic community, who argued it didn't do enough to ensure he received a proper education.
"I hope that as a society we will be able to intervene more easily. I want us to be able to have a communication with communities," Proulx said.
with files from Daybreak and Canadian Press