Hasidim Meet Education Standards, but Couple Was Harmed: Quebec Court

Dec. 9, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—An ex-Hasidic couple has failed to get a court to declare that the Quebec government and the community in which they were raised violated their rights to a proper education.

Justice Martin Castonguay of Quebec Superior Court dismissed their motion for a declaratory judgment that the schools in their former Tosh community in Boisbriand, north of Montreal, broke the law in denying secular studies to them and other children in the community.

Furthermore, Yochonon Lowen, 43, and Clara Wasserstein, 42, alleged that the province failed in its obligations by tolerating the situation, which they say has changed little since they were in school.

In a 42-page decision issued on Dec. 3, Castonguay said the court could not issue a declaratory judgment because the evidence showed the Tosh community today, by and large, is seeing that its children, aged six to 16, follow the province’s mandatory curriculum, either in its schools or through homeschooling supervised by the local public school board.

Additionally, the judge did not declare illegal the religious schools many children continue to attend fulltime, as the motion had requested.

Castonguay, however, acknowledged that the couple had been harmed by having almost no secular education, particularly true in the case of Lowen. The couple, who left the Tosh community in 2007, testified that they could not find employment and were ill-equipped to live in broader society afterward.

The court “wishes to express its deepest empathy with regard to the plaintiffs for what they suffered before and after their departure from the Tosh community,” the judge wrote.

The couple was not seeking damages. They said they were pursuing the action primarily for the sake of Hasidic children today, both Tosh and those in other communities in Montreal, who they believe are still not getting the education prescribed by law.

The landmark case was heard in February over seven days during which numerous witnesses testified, although no one from the Tosh community took the stand.

It was the first legal challenge to Quebec’s efforts over the past 15 years to resolve the problem of Hasidic and other haredi communities that traditionally give their children an almost exclusively religious education, often in schools or by teachers who are unlicensed by the province.

Lowen, for example, testified he was taught only a little English and math; Wasserstein, as was typical for girls, received somewhat more but little past elementary school.

Both emerged from the community unable to read and write English and with no knowledge of French, let alone subjects like science or history.

The litigation was undertaken in the public interest by the firm Trudel Johnston & Lespérance, which has represented the couple since they filed the motion more than four years ago.

The legal team called the decision a moral victory.

“The judgment confirms that the plaintiffs, like all the children in their community at the time, did not receive the education to which they were entitled under the law,” it said in a statement.

While the judgment does point to progress since the proceedings were launched, the lawyers note it also “criticizes Tosh community leaders for resisting government efforts to educate the children of their community.” Established in Boisbriand in the 1960s, Tosh has over 3,000 followers today.

The progress has come about mainly with the passage of legislation in 2017 that more strictly enforces school attendance, and subsequent regulations on homeschooling standards. As the court heard in the case of Tosh, it also involved the intervention of the Youth Protection Department, in addition to repeated attempts by education department officials.

Today, more than 830 Tosh children are enrolled in homeschooling overseen by the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, the court heard. “This is a victory for these children who receive more education than their parents did,” stated the couple’s law firm.

Their clients are considering an appeal, they said.

In addition to the Attorney-General of Quebec, the motion named as defendants La Grande Séminaire Rabbinique de Montréal, five Tosh schools, and the community’s leader, Rabbi Elimelech Lowy.

That Lowen and Wasserstein finally had their day in court was a victory in itself. Their motion was first filed in May 2016, alleging the named defendants were violating the Education Act, the Act Respecting Private Education, the Charter of the French Language, and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

The defendants tried to have it dismissed, but a Superior Court judge ruled in May 2017 that the issue was of sufficient public interest to be heard.

Among the witnesses for the defence was Avraham Ekstein, a Satmar Hasid from Montreal and head of the Jewish Association for Homeschooling, who testified that Hasidic communities are conforming to the law while maintaining adherence to their religious beliefs.

He defended the traditional education as being a valuable preparation for secular life, pointing to the fact that he is a chartered accountant.

Prosecution witness Shulem Deen of Brooklyn, N.Y., a 46-year-old former Hasid, said these communities do not give children an adequate secular education today. He is the author of the 2015 memoir All Who Go Do Not Return.