Quebec judge rules against Hasidic couple in trial over secular education

Yohanen and Shifra Lowen, two former Hasidic Jews, argued the Quebec government didn't do enough to ensure they received a proper education.

Justice Marc Castonguay expresses support for the Lowens, but says rules have already been tightened

Yohanan and Shifra Lowen argued in court that they were not given an adequate education in Tash, a Hasidic community north of Montreal. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

A Quebec Superior Court judge has ruled against a former Hasidic couple who claimed the Quebec government didn't do enough to ensure they received an adequate education.

In a decision issued Thursday, Justice Martin Castonguay opted against issuing a declaratory judgment against the province.

Such a judgment could have forced the government to take additional steps to oversee children attending religious schools.

Yohanan and Shifra Lowen alleged they received almost no secular education while growing up in Tash, an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Boisbriand, Que., a suburb north of Montreal. 

Yohanan, who first launched the legal action, testified that the secular education he received as a boy was particularly limited, leaving him with no knowledge of basic subjects such as science, math or geography.

He said he was ill-equipped to get a job when he left Tash and moved to Montreal with Shifra, whose legal name is Clara Wasserstein, and their four children.

In his ruling, Castonguay expressed "profound empathy" for what the Lowens went through before and after they left Tash. 

But he concluded that the problems with the schools had already been addressed with a 2017 law that gives the government greater powers to track children in religious schools and gives school boards the authority to oversee their secular education.

The current Coalition Avenir Québec government further strengthened the law last year, requiring that students learn a subject in the same year as their peers in public school and take part in mandated provincial exams.

Plaintiffs 'remain concerned' about Hasidic children

The trial shone a spotlight on the cloistered community of Tash, which was founded in 1962 by a group of Montreal Hasidic Jews seeking to escape the influences of the city. About 3,000 people now live there.

Abraham Ekstein, the head of Quebec's Jewish Association for Homeschooling, was the sole witness called by the lawyer defending schools in Tash, which were also named in the lawsuit.

He testified that Hasidic schools "strive to maintain our culture, to transmit our culture to our children, to survive as a people."

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

Abraham Ekstein, president of the province's Jewish Association for Homeschooling, testifed in the civil trial of Yohanan and Shifra Lowen. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

In a statement Thursday, Clara Poissant-Lespérance, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, said her clients "remain concerned about the future of Hasidic children."

She said the fact that many children in Hasidic communities still attend religious schools on a full-time basis, as noted in the judgment, is a point of concern for the Lowens, "who see it as a barrier to the education of these children.

She said they will review the judgment before deciding whether to appeal.