Learning Times Tables at 23

When people come to GesherEU, they often have very little secular education. We find out how the charity and its partners help members to achieve their potential.

Most children in the UK learn their times tables when they are seven. But GesherEU member Pini, now 23, has only just learned them. That’s because, like many boys in the Charedi community, he left school at 14 without even basic maths skills.

Pini grew up in Stamford Hill after moving to the UK from Israel with his family when he was eight. He says it took more than two years to be given a place at a school, during which time he he received no education at all: “None of the schools wanted to accept us because we weren’t part of the community,” he recalls. “I only had basic education at that point. English was my first language, and I spoke some Hebrew, but I didn’t speak any Yiddish. When I finally went to school, all the lessons were in Yiddish so I had no idea what they were saying.”

Helping people who have left the Charedi community to access the education they’ve missed out on is one of GesherEU’s main priorities. “Our members leave their communities without the education and life skills to make their way in the outside world,” says trustee, Robert Bernard.

While primary independent Charedi boys’ schools are registered and undergo Ofsted inspections, they do very little secular teaching – just one or two hours a day, usually at the end of a 12-hour day. Most teaching is in Yiddish, there’s negligible physical education, no PSE (parents are asked or told to opt out) and most teachers are unqualified. At 13, boys go to a Yeshiva where they learn only the Talmud. They get no more secular education at all and don’t do GCSEs. If asked why they’re not in school, parents will claim to be home-educating their boys.

“Since the Yeshivot only teach religious subjects, they claim that they are religious establishments, not schools, so that Ofsed, DfE and local education officials do not have authority to enter for either education or safeguarding reasons,” explains Robert.

Girls receive slightly more education, with teaching in English, but no visual media or access to the internet. At secondary school level, girls can take GCSEs in a limited range of acceptable subjects, but books will be censored. From 16, many girls attend Sems (seminaries) where they learn to run kosher homes.  They may be able to take ‘A’ levels in a limited number of subjects.

When he started school, Pini wasn’t even able to read a clock

When he started school, Pini wasn’t even able to read a clock. “One teacher  – the nicest one – sat me down after school and taught me how to tell the time and other basic English and maths. I learned more the year he was there than in the rest of the years put together.

“Most of the time, I used to get kicked out of class because I wasn’t up to speed with everyone else. They didn’t offer me help to catch up, and my family wasn’t willing to pay for extra tuition. Not that the teachers taught anyone much anyway – except when the inspectors came in.”

Charedi schools don’t just offer substandard education, they also endorse corporal punishment, helping to keep children in a climate of fear – scared of what God will do to them if they step out of line, scared of their teachers, of their parents and of being ostracised by the community.

“Once, a teacher hit me with my own book across my face. It happened a few times, because I was frustrating him, because I didn’t understand. But my brothers, who went to different schools, had it much worse than me. One got kicked out for misbehaving and ended up on the street.”

Robert says the main function of education within the Charedi community is to produce obedient citizens – boys who will ideally spend their lives studying religious texts and girls who will be good Jewish wives and mothers: “They learn that to be of value, they must be perfect in obeying every nuance of Jewish law and their sect’s traditions. They learn that to be respected and honoured members of the family and community they will look forward to an arranged marriage before the age of 20, becoming parents who will produce many children.”

Children are taught not to question anything, and to accept religious texts as the literal truth

Children are taught not to question anything, and to accept religious texts as the literal truth. Sex education is banned: “Without the skills to survive outside the community they are totally dependent on the community’s support, that would be withdrawn should they not comply with its norms.”

Pini finished Yeshiva with only basic literacy skills and no qualifications. Soon after, aged 19, frustrated and disheartened, he decided to leave the Charedi community. He bought himself a motorbike and started making deliveries of keys and money to support himself – the only work he could get. Following an accident, he got a job in a restaurant. Since then he has had a series of other menial jobs.

“I’ve been held back because of my lack of education,” he says. “I don’t know what people do in offices. I don’t even know what skills other people have that I’m missing.”

Pini was lucky. Somebody he knew told him about GesherEU, who put him in touch with Gateways, a Jewish alternative education provision. It was set up to support young people who can’t function in or access mainstream education, due to mental health, social or emotional challenges.

Launched in 2014 under the umbrella of the London Jewish Cultural Centre,  it merged with JW3 in 2015, and became an independent charitable organisation in September, 2023. Now based in Hendon, Gateways has had substantial funding from the Ronson and Wohl foundations. 

It helps students to take qualifications in English, Maths and Science, as well as vocational subjects, such as cooking, photography and hair and beauty. “We’ve got our own dedicated centre, a warm and nurturing safe space where students can access learning,” says CEO Laurence Field. “We also have a gym, a cafe, a garden area and therapy rooms. We accept students from 14 up to 25 and we work with many schools and referral organisations across the Jewish community, including GesherEU.

99% of the people referred by GesherEU have not had any sort of secular education

Laurence estimates that 99% of the people in their late teens and 20s referred by GesherEU have not had any sort of secular education. “When they come to us, they have the reading and writing ability of a 12-year-old, but it’s not because they’re not bright or capable. They just haven’t been taught the basics. And for many of them, English isn’t their first language. So, we start from the beginning with them, from helping them to tell the time and to read, and then we build them up to the point where they can get qualifications.

“We’re also conscious that many of them are working full-time, because they also need to earn a living, so we work alongside their employers to navigate that. Some of them have suffered from trauma in the past, which we also help with.”

Laurence says Gateways often has to manage expectations. “Often, GesherEU refers people who want to do GCSEs within six months. We have to help them understand that there’s a process, and it could take up to two years to attain qualifications. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Many of our students have a problem with low confidence, and they struggle to commit, which we help them to improve. We offer a whole, holistic package – education, mentoring, career coaching and mental health support.”

He’s proud of his many success stories:“We had one student who came to us not being able to read or write, or speak good English, who graduated this year. He started off doing functional skills – very basic, low-level qualifications, and left us two years later with top marks in his English and Maths GCSEs. He also got a business studies BTech qualification, and he’s now training to be a chartered accountant. Other people referred by GesherEU have gone on to university.”

“Gateways has helped me so much,” says Pini. “They’ve given me therapy, English lessons, maths lessons, advice, and tried to help me get a job.”

He’s pragmatic about his situation: “Learning my times tables at this age makes me frustrated sometimes and I feel angry at my parents, at the community, but it is what it is. I could cry about not learning them at seven, or I could just get on with it and learn them now.”

Despite the education issues within the Charedi community being an open secret, the authorities seem reluctant to impose change – perhaps out of fear of offending a religious community, or being accused of racism.

“The community uses the lax regulations, the multiple agencies involved and a disregard for secular authority along with funding to pay for legal advice, to know how to keep those who seek to make change happen, at bay,” says Robert.  “They also have good internal communications – internationally if required. Once a loophole is uncovered, every establishment or parents will quote that ‘excuse’. Hence how every parent with a boy in Yeshiva is ‘home schooling’ their child.

All those who come into contact with secular officials are also well versed in the appropriate ‘mantras’. This might be ‘The right to religious freedom’ , ‘They are trying to destroy our culture’ or ‘assertions that action would constitute anti-semitism’.” 

“It’s  a way of stopping them from leaving.”

Pini believes that failing to provide secular education is a way of keeping people in the community. “It’s a way of stopping them from leaving,” he says. “I feel the community doesn’t think secular education is important because it believes its way  – its ideology – is right. It’s the way it’s always been.”

A talented artist and graffiti artist, Pini now hopes to pursue a career in painting – something he wasn’t allowed to do in the community: “I’ve been doing art since I was four, ever since I can remember, but I was put down for it and so eventually stopped.

“I started again when I started having therapy at Gateways. I remember as a kid, I used to tell my brother, ‘One day, I’ll be selling art and I’ll be buying you stuff with the money. Now I hope that this will become a reality.”

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