ROCKLAND COUNTY, New York — Mendel Taub grew up in a village where residents obey every utterance of their grand rabbi. The rebbe commands all aspects of his followers’ lives and rails against the secular world, banning its modern channels—smart phones, computers, television. Yiddish street signs direct men and women to walk on opposite sides of the street. Women are forbidden to drive. Wives must shave their heads, cover their wigs with scarves and wear skirts that extend at least five inches below the knee. “Modesty squads” report wrongdoers to the rebbe.
But this isn’t in a foreign country: it’s Rockland County, New York, just 30 miles north of the city.
New Square is one of the most insular communities in the country. Nearly all of its 7,700 residents are part of the Skverer sect of Hasidism, which originated in 19th century Ukraine. Post-war immigrants founded the Rockland village in 1954 to continue their Hasidic ideal of living a sanctified life, uncorrupted by the secularized Brooklyn, where they originally settled.
New Square has one large, multi-building school for all its children. Yeshiva education for boys focuses on religious texts, with little study of English and math, and no study of science or social studies. Around the age of 13, boys begin to focus almost exclusively on Judaism’s holy books, the Torah and Talmud.
Seven year ago, Taub was a good yeshiva student and very inquisitive. But after teachers punished the 15-year-old for questioning the fundamentals of Skver beliefs, he dropped out.
“I realized that Talmudic law wasn’t really going to help me get a job.” Taub said.
Taub didn’t know English and was determined to emerge beyond his native Yiddish. So he convinced an itinerant salesman, who mostly peddled watches and calculators in the village, to sell him a pocket radio. He had saved $20 of his Bar Mitzvah money to buy the contraband.
“It went down like a drug deal, at night, under a dark roof,” he said. “We didn’t talk much. I slipped him the money. He passed me the radio. And we both walked away knowing exactly what we did.”
If religious authorities were to catch wind of his actions, Taub would destroy his chances of getting a desirable match in his sect's customary arranged marriages or risk becoming an outcast in the only community he had ever known.
Taub used the device to turn Rush Limbaugh into a surrogate English teacher.
He tuned into Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other conservative radio show hosts during 12-hour days packing hard candies into cardboard boxes in a New Square warehouse. Low wage manual labor was his only employment option. He would set the volume just loud enough to hear Limbaugh rant.
Taub chose to learn from the right-wing radio preachers because, at the time, he identified with their ethnocentric attitude.
“I came from a community of ‘chosen people’ and here were people basically saying the same thing,” he said. Other beliefs resonated for him as well. For instance, Taub had been taught homosexuality was a sin against God, an idea he now rejects.
Plus, the teenager figured, their vocabulary was good, despite words that heavily skewed toward the political.
"I knew what ‘unilateral agreement’ and ‘hegemonic power’ meant but didn’t know understand the world ‘stove’,” he said. “It was funny.”
With the help of a dictionary, Taub drew up a complex word map to help him understand sentence structure and spelling.
He bypassed FM stations altogether.
"I couldn’t relate to any of the news about sports,” he said. “And music hurt my ears. I still felt guilty when I heard voice of a woman because it would elicit 'impure' thoughts."
At 16, Taub summoned the nerve to call the local school system on a public pay phone, asking in broken English how he might register for classes.
“My dream was to get a high school diploma,” he said. “With that, I would be able to hold a job and have a family. For me, it was the measure of an educated man.”
He was directed to a state-backed education program called the Board of Cooperative Educational Service.
The next day, he called Albert Moschetti, BOCES’ adult education director at the time. When the two met in person, Moschetti offered his hand to greet the teenager.
“He didn’t know what to do with it,” Moschetti said. “Hand-shaking wasn’t natural for him.”
On his 17th birthday, Taub began to study English as a Second Language in a classroom filled with students born in other countries.
“My classmates couldn’t believe I grew up in America. Who in America doesn’t speak English at 17 or 18?”
New Square is an extreme case but Hasidic yeshivas around the world have similar educational practices for boys relegating many to lives of poverty and public assistance. (Girls do not study the Talmud and thus have more time for nonreligious coursework.) Deficient general studies “have been an ongoing problem in Israel, London, and Quebec,” said Naftuli Moster, a former Hasidic yeshiva student and founder of Young Advocates for a Fair Education or Yaffed. “The high rates of poverty in the Hasidic community have been well-documented,” he said.
The issue is beginning to draw attention in New York, where Yaffed has partnered with famed civil rights attorney Norman Siegel and law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher to pressure the city and state to provide better general studies in the private religious schools.
On the eve of beginning at school, Taub confided in his older brother, Abraham, that he was about to break their community’s taboo against secular studies. Sitting in a gray Honda minivan outside the family’s home, Taub was shocked by Abraham’s response:
“He told me, ‘You think I’m uneducated. You think I’m illiterate. Well, I’ll tell you something you don’t know. I have a New York State GED and I’m going to college,’” Taub recalled. His brother was studying at Rockland Community College, a State University of New York school.
"I was flabbergasted. I was shocked. I felt like I was living in a fictional novel,” Taub recalled. “I viewed my brother as a nice Hasidic man who didn’t even speak English. I even looked down on him a bit because I thought I knew more than he did.”
Abraham Taub, who was married with children at the time, was risking his young family’s reputation and even his children’s enrollment in only school in town. New School authorities use expulsion as a means of mandating conformity, as evidenced by a long list of social rules parents must sign in order to register their children each year.
The brothers soon spent a semester together at Rockland Community College and both would eventually win a State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for academic excellence. Attending college with his brother “was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was a strange man in a strange land. He taught me about GPAs, college credits, how the system works.”
His brother didn’t prepare him for one thing, however—female classmates.
On the first day, “I thought, ‘Holy crap. Girls! Front, left, right, back. Girls! Do you say hello to them? I can’t believe they’re part of this class or that I am.”
Taub hadn’t so much as walked on the same side of the street as a girl and had been forbidden from looking directly at them.
Abraham, who is studying to become an emergency-room doctor, still lives in New Square with a wife, three children, his own home and a business selling booths for security guards and parking attendants. He is graduating from the NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine on Long Island this spring and will then begin his residency. Mendel said the community now reluctantly tolerates his brother's pursuits because he has continued to respect most communal norms doesn’t try to influence anyone to break with tradition.
Mendel, however began to slowly shed his regulation white shirt, black suit, and black brimmed wool hat soon after he started studying outside of his village. At first, he carried his books in a shopping bag because no one in his village uses backpacks. The day he finally slipped on one and walked through the village, he felt stares of disapproval and knew gossip about him had begun in earnest.
“At that point, by walking around like that, and without all the garb, I finished any future I had in the community,” he said. His chances to find a marriage match were through. “I was ostracized from that point on.”
He lost lifelong friends. “My worst fears had come true,” he said.
But outside New Square, Taub excelled. After graduating Rockland Community College with honors, he was asked to become a trustee. In May, he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and criminal justice at Pace University, which he attended on full scholarship. He earned his Emergency Medical Technician certification and has worked for two ambulance corps. Now a certified Yiddish court translator, he is studying for the LSATS, with hopes of attending law school in the fall.
Taub no longer identifies with conservatives. His multi-ethnic classmates helped him appreciate the value of racial and cultural diversity, he said. He attended the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia July and credits Democratic policies—those that support school loans and grants—with allowing him to fulfill his dreams.
Though there were tearful times with his parents and plenty of disagreements, they allowed him to live with them for several years while he earned his degrees. His friends abandoned him but when he began to show success in the outside world, a few softened and began speaking with him again. He now has a “beautiful” relationship with his parents and siblings and lives in an apartment close to New Square. He respects the Skverer’s communal values but insists that “Community leaders have a responsibility to provide people with a basic secular education,” he said. “Depriving students is blatant injustice.”
“Mendel is an amazing young man. He is courageous, tenacious, poised, and really smart,” said Thomas Della Torre, RCC’s associate vice president for academic and community partnerships. Perhaps more importantly, Della Torre said he carries no overt bitterness.
“His attitude is: This is what’s best for me and I want others to know it’s available to them.’”
Taub has helped Orthodox Jewish organizations design curricula to improve vocational training for Hasidic men. And people from his hometown secretly reach out to him for advice all the time, often through the banned WhatsApp messaging platform.
In the last year, he said as many as 80 people have contacted him. “I talk with them. I give them information about BOCES and RCC. It is such a crisis for them when they realize they have options. There are so many decisions to make. Being socially isolated comes with a certain peace of mind.”