Hasidic schools aim to strike a balance between faith and provincial curriculum, court hears

“We strive to maintain our culture, to transmit our culture to our children, to survive as a people,” the president of the Quebec's Jewish Association for Homeschooling told the court. “This whole case is so sad for us, in the sense that there are no winners.”

'I'm convinced that we are going in the right direction,' president of home-schooling association says

Abraham Ekstein, president of the Quebec Jewish Association for Homeschooling, testified Monday at the civil trial brought against the government and the Hasidic community of Tash by former members of the Hasidic community, Yohanan and Shifra Lowen. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Quebec's Hasidic community is trying to strike a balance between preserving its own religious faith and satisfying the educational requirements of the provincial government, the president of Quebec's Jewish Association for Homeschooling told a Montreal courtroom Monday.

Abraham Ekstein was the final witness in the civil case brought before the Quebec Superior Court by Yohanan and Shifra Lowen, two former Hasidic Jews who say the province and their home community of Tash should have done more to provide them with a secular education.

"We strive to maintain our culture, to transmit our culture to our children, to survive as a people," said Ekstein, a Hasidic Jew and father of seven who lives in Montreal's Outremont borough.

"This whole case is so sad for us, in the sense that there are no winners."

The Lowens are seeking a declaratory judgment from Justice Martin Castonguay, to compel the province to do more to ensure children in Tash are taught subjects like math, English and French. 

Castonguay will also need to consider whether new rules for home-schooling put in place by the previous Liberal government and strengthened under the Coalition Avenir Québec have helped achieve that goal.

Ekstein was the sole witness called by David Banon, the lawyer defending schools in Tash, a Hasidic enclave in the suburb of Boisbriand, north of Montreal.

Castonguay had Ekstein leave the courtroom several times during his testimony, to allow debate between lawyers over the relevance of some of what he had said, given that Ekstein doesn't live in Tash and isn't directly involved in schooling in that community. 

Fears of assimilation

As president of the home-schooling association, however, Ekstein said he met multiple times with Tash leaders in recent years and that they are aware of the need to work with the province.

He acknowledged there had been resistance in Tash, which was founded in 1962, over fears the province was trying to "impose assimilation."

However, he said, "I'm convinced that we are going in the right direction and that children will succeed much better."

Children in Tash were the subject of an investigation by Quebec's youth protection agency beginning in 2014, the court heard last week.

The agency found that boys were taught "little to nothing" from the provincial curriculum, while the girls received a balance between a religious and a secular education — learning math, social sciences and English.

Shifra Lowen, left, and Yohanan Lowen, right, at the Montreal courthouse with one of their lawyers, Clara Poissant-Lespérance. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Youth protection official Marie-Josée Bernier testified that about 280 of the 320 boys who were assessed were flagged for further monitoring, given their poor level of English and math skills. 

The new rules adopted in 2017 led to improved collaboration with the local English school board, the court heard, and after that, fewer than than 100 boys were flagged for further monitoring.

A solid foundation?

Yohanan Lowen testified last week he had spent long days at the school in Tash, rising before 6 a.m. and studying the Jewish scriptures from that time until past 9 p.m. — except on the Sabbath.

When he left the community, he said, he couldn't speak French or English and had no understanding of subjects like math and science.

Ekstein wasn't able to say to what extent education at the religious schools in Tash had changed in recent years.

In a document submitted to the court, an investigator hired by the plaintiffs said the last students left the boys' school in Tash shortly before 9:30 p.m. this Sunday.

While Ekstein said he believed the provincial curriculum was worthwhile, he also argued religious education given to boys laid a solid foundation for the future.

"A child who finishes this rigorous Talmudic education — nothing stands in his way to achieve anything else in his life," said Ekstein, now 41 and on the verge of becoming a chartered accountant. 

Closing arguments in the trial are scheduled for Wednesday. A judgment isn't expected for several months.

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler is a journalist with CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.


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