Naftuli Moster was a senior in college when, to his embarrassment, he found out he was the only one in his class who didn’t know what a molecule was. But it was a near-miracle that he was even enrolled in the first place: When he’d applied, he had never written an essay in English and didn’t even possess a high school diploma.
One of 17 children in an ultra-Orthodox family that spoke exclusively Yiddish at home, Moster, 31, grew up in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn and went to a Hasidic yeshiva through high school.
When he eventually did get the necessary criteria together to attend college, Moster says he labored in a warehouse full time for years while he slowly worked his way through his undergraduate degree.
“That was the only thing I was qualified to do,” he told The Times of Israel. “But I also liked to joke that I wasn’t really qualified to work for the warehouse either, since I had never taken gym or any kind of physical education. So I was this scrawny little Hassidic guy and suddenly I found myself in a warehouse all day long lifting 40 pound boxes.”
A large number of young adults face similar challenges as they emerge from an education system that regards secular studies — or a lack thereof — as an arbitrary matter left up to individual institutions. With little to no governmental oversight, it is up to the yeshivas to police themselves when it comes to providing non-religious coursework. Depending on the schools they attend, some children fare better than others.
Moster founded YAFFED (Young Advocates for Fair Education) in 2012 to help others like himself, and immediately after graduating from Hunter College in Manhattan with a Masters in Social Work in 2015, threw himself into working at YAFFED full time.
One of the organization’s main strategies is to encourage alumni of the yeshiva system to speak out if they were deprived of the tools to succeed, either by sending in their old report cards or by recording their experiences on video.
In a recent video interview conducted by YAFFED that racked up 46,000 views in just four days, a student named Manny spoke about attending Yeshiva Oholei Torah, the biggest yeshiva in the Chabad Lubavitch enclave of Crown Heights.
“[Oholei Torah] was founded under [Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s] leadership, and he advocated for no secular studies at all for his followers,” Manny said….