What do public school students in NYC learn about Haredi culture?

So far, very little

Hasidim in Williamsburg. Credit: Mo Gelber/Shtetl

May 12, 2024 12:35 PM


Last year, when the White House released a national strategy to combat antisemitism, one element of the plan was to expand what K-12 public school students learn about American Jewish history.

“More education on Jewish American history and the valuable role that Jews have played in our national story is needed,” the plan said.

One year later, with tensions heightened by the Israel-Hamas war, government officials and Jewish community leaders are paying even more attention to what public school students across New York City learn about Jews. Shtetl sought to find out how the Department of Education teaches public school students about Haredi communities, who have for years borne the brunt of physical attacks. 

Over a period of three months, Shtetl reviewed documents from the DOE and its Jewish partner organizations and spoke to representatives from both. The reporting suggests that public school students still learn little to nothing about Haredi communities, and as conversations about Israel dominate, the parties involved risk continuing to overlook Haredi representation.

Last week, at the start of Jewish American Heritage Month, the DOE announced it would teach students more about American Jews through its Hidden Voices program, a series of books that use individual historical figures to illustrate larger themes about diversity. There are already Hidden Voices books about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, LGBTQ Americans, and the African diaspora. But now, the DOE has said that by June 2025, it will have two new books, one for Jewish Americans and one for Muslim Americans.

According to the announcement, the new book "will uplift the stories of Jewish Americans who have impacted our country and world, ranging from Louis Brandeis to Deborah Lipstadt." When asked by Shtetl if Haredim would be represented in the book, DOE Director of Media Relations Nicole Brownstein did not directly answer, saying the book was “still in progress.”

According to Shtetl’s review of current materials the DOE uses to teach students about Jews, Jewish heritage curricula tends to under-represent Haredi communities, a diverse group that includes Hasidic Jews, Litvish Jews, and certain Mizrahi Jews. 

The articles, books, videos, and other tools used tend to emphasize the Holocaust and influential leaders in American Jewish history, such as labor leader Samuel Gompers and gay rights activist Larry Kramer. They also speak broadly about the harms of bigotry.

The only document that discussed Haredi culture and history was a map set to hit social studies classrooms for the first time this May.

The map seeks to capture the rich diversity of the city’s Jewish communities with cartoons representing important people and places. It features the Bobover synagogue on 48th Street and 15th Avenue, Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lee Avenue shopping district, and the Bukharian Jewish Community Center — alongside more secular symbols, like controversial filmmaker Woody Allen and the public-facing sex therapist and Holocaust survivor Ruth Westheimer.

Howard Teich, an activist focused on local Jewish history, created the map in the mid-2000s with funding from the City Council and mayor’s office. “If we wanted to develop a sense of an overall view of New York City’s Jewish community, the map was the obvious choice,” Teich told Shtetl. He said that six months ago — several years after the map’s creation — he shared the map with DOE chancellor David Banks, who thought students should see it too. 

Public school teachers choose which materials from the city’s database they want to use, but still, Teich expects at least some students to see the map and hopes it will lead to a decrease in antisemitism. “The more that people celebrate, the less room they have to be negative,” he said.

In addition to materials focused on teaching students more about Jewish communities, the mayor’s office and DOE also recently released a set of curricular materials aimed at preventing hate crimes, which do not specifically discuss Jews or Haredim. But the idea of teaching students about hate crimes wasn’t new: in 2020, former mayor Bill de Blasio launched an initiative to implement hate crime awareness programming at public middle and high schools in Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park. The DOE and mayor’s office did not answer Shtetl’s questions about the current state of the 2020 initiative.


A Haredi woman from Borough Park, who taught for seven years at a public school in neighboring Sunset Park, told Shtetl she thinks the city needs to do better.

One December, a colleague invited her to teach fifth graders about Hanukkah traditions. The lesson quickly devolved as students expressed bigoted views, said the woman, who asked Shtetl not to use her name.

“One kept asking if I believed in this or that or the other thing,” she said. “Another student loudly whispered to a friend sitting nearby, ‘You know who killed Jesus?….The Jews!’”

“There was no attempt to bridge any gaps or teach anything about the Jewish people, let alone charedim,” the woman added, referring to her overall experience in the public school system.

Several Jewish organizations are involved in trying to expand what public school students learn about Jews, but its unclear how well they represent the particular communities that antisemitism harms the most.

Mark Treyger, a former Brooklyn City Councilmember and the CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, wrote in an email statement to Shtetl that in addition to informing the city’s curriculum on Israel, the JCRC-NY has also been pushing for the DOE’s new Hidden Voices book about American Jews to include materials about Haredi life. When asked exactly which Haredi figures he thinks the book should include, Treyger did not respond. 

The Jewish Education Project, a nonprofit organization, also seeks to improve education about Jews and Israel. “When we and our coalition partners who deliver educational content in schools refer to the Jews of NYC we absolutely reference the diverse haredi community,” said Amy Amiel, the chief program officer for the nonprofit. Amiel declined to share details.

The UJA-Federation of New York told state legislators in January that it was "leading efforts in New York to actualize the White House’s 'National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism,' particularly in K-12 public school education, offering trainings on Jewish issues and creating relevant content." UJA-NY did not respond to calls and emails from Shtetl asking for more information about its efforts.

In a congressional hearing on Wednesday about antisemitism in K-12 schools nationwide, Banks, the chancellor, said that the DOE was also working with the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL, which recently opened a new office in Borough Park, did not respond to a message from Shtetl asking for more information about its curriculum work.

One resource to which the DOE points teachers is the California-based Institute for Curriculum Services, which the DOE says offers “fully implementable lesson plans covering topics ranging from Jewish American identity to the History of European Antisemitism.”

As of Friday, ICS’s website highlighted lessons related to the Israel-Hamas war. A review of its lesson plans on Jewish American identity show that, while they represent other minorities in the Jewish world, such as Mizrahi Jews and Jews of color, they do not mention Haredi Jews. One resource provides nine short profiles of American Jewish historical figures, none of whom appeared to be Haredi.

“Our resources do not go into the details of the various Orthodox communities in the U.S. (Haredi or otherwise),” said Bella Ben-Shach, ICS’s deputy director, in an email to Shtetl. “We state that American Judaism has a range of religious denominations, including Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox, with a range of observances and practices.”


Some people in the Haredi community hope that tolerance will increase, and antisemitic attacks will decrease, as public school students learn about their culture. But at least one Haredi leader questioned to what extent education can reduce antisemitism. 

"The idea and the notion that somehow the fact that an 18-year-old African American [man] doesn't understand the Jewish culture and that's why he's kicking a 60-year-old Jewish man in the head is ludicrous,” Chabad activist Rabbi Yaacov Behrman told WNYC in 2019. “We have to respect each other's cultures regardless of what we understand."

Some studies suggest that education can be an effective way to fight bigotry. For example, results of a 2023 study in Israel, where most of the population is Jewish, suggest that education can be effective in combating prejudice toward sub-groups within Israeli society, such as Haredim.

Rabbi Nochum Kaplan, the director of Chabad’s education office, told Shtetl he thinks it’s important for public school students to learn more about Haredi people because the two groups rarely have the types of social encounters that would naturally lead to mutual understanding.

“The typical public school educated youngster neither understands nor cares to understand a culture that seems so alien to them,” Kaplan wrote in an email. “They don't attend the same schools, they don't interface culturally or enjoy the same form of recreation. They don't celebrate the same holidays and their value system appears so strange.“

“The only antidote to this is knowledge and understanding, and it must start with the young,” he added. “It is not just a matter that is of concern to the charedi community but it should concern any fair-minded human being.”

Rabbi Eli Cohen, the executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, also believes in the power of education.

Hoping to improve historically strained relationships in his neighborhood between Hasidic and Black Americans, he has long worked with Black activist Geoffrey Davis to talk to students about gentrification, combating stereotypes, and, of course, the Lubavitcher rebbe.

In 2019, Cohen told the Forward that one day, when he visited pre-schoolers in East Flatbush, one student pointed at his beard and said “I’m scared of you.”

To him, what happened next proved how powerful education can be. “After we had spent a few minutes with the children, the little girl stroked my jacket sleeve,” Cohen said, “and told us she wasn’t scared any more.”