Ex-Hasidic couple taking Quebec government to court over religious school education

Clara Wasserstein, left, and Yochonon Lowen arrive at courthouse in Montreal, Monday, February 10, 2020. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

An ex-Hasidic Jewish couple who were educated in a private religious school graduated without knowing how to speak French and hardly being able to speak English, a lawyer said Monday at the opening of a trial centring on the Quebec government’s responsibility to regulate religious schools.

The couple were in Quebec Superior Court on Monday seeking a judgment against the province, which they accuse of failing to ensure they received an adequate education.

Bruce Johnston, a lawyer representing Yochonon Lowen and Clara Wasserstein, told a Montreal courtroom the couple received almost no secular education while attending a school run by the ultra-orthodox Tash community in Boisbriand, north of Montreal.

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According to court documents, the plaintiffs were educated in Yiddish at a religious school that did not hold a permit. They never got a single history, geography, science or art class, while Lowen never attended a French class.

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“The plaintiffs finished their high school education without knowing about the St. Lawrence River or the theory of evolution,”  reads the summary of their claim, originally filed in 2016.

Court filings say Lowen and Wasserstein were left unprepared to integrate into Quebec society when they left the community in 2010 and have struggled to find work without recognized high school diplomas.

The couple, who also go by Yohanan and Shifra Lowen, are not seeking damages but want a declaratory judgment against the province and several Boisbriand Hasidic schools in order to “prevent future generations from having to suffer what they suffered,” according to court documents.

“These illegal schools still exist and several hundred students attend them, in full view of government authorities,” the original 2016 court motion claims.

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But on Monday, lawyers representing the province and the Tash community argued that the problems with the students’ education have been addressed.

David Banon, a lawyer representing the community, says Tash has complied with tightened provincial legislation and agreements with school boards that have allowed Hasidic families to register as home-schoolers.

The claims in the lawsuit “do not reflect the reality of the Tash community today,” Banon said.

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A youth protection agency employee told the court that an educational assessment of 320 boys in the community found that 280 were lacking in areas such as math and reading and writing in English.

Marie-Josée Bernier said the agency was first called in 2014 to assess a girls’ school and found the students could speak English and received secular education, albeit at a slightly lower level of difficulty than other schools. But a subsequent assessment of the boys found a different story, she said.

Many of the students, who were educated in Yiddish, did not speak enough English to administer the test without an interpreter, and they spoke almost no French. While they could complete simple sums, they did not know higher math.

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She told the court many of the boys suffered from educational neglect, meaning their knowledge was “below the minimum of what’s needed to be functional and autonomous in Quebec society.”

Bernier said situation improved markedly after the families entered into an agreement with the school board to regularize their education. By 2017, less than 100 of the boys were considered educationally “compromised,” although their education level remained below others of their own age.

The province has made moves in recent years to address the problem of illegal religious schools.

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Bill 144, adopted in 2017, gave the government greater powers to enforce compulsory school attendance and required authorities to create a set of standards for home-schooling. That law was amended by the current administration last year to strengthen measures to ensure compliance and require students to pass standard ministry exams.

Eric Cantin, a lawyer representing the Quebec government, told the court the province “is not playing ostrich” when it comes to the issue of religious schools.

He said that while there have been problems in the past, things have improved greatly in the years since Lowen and Wasserstein attended school.

Abraham Ekstein, the head of a Jewish home-schooling group, told reporters outside the courtroom that since the new provincial legislation, every Hasidic child in Quebec is registered with the government in compliance with the law.

“If you ask me about the term ‘illegal religious schools,’ those don’t exist any more,” he said, adding that Montreal’s Hasidic community members are productive citizens who work and pay taxes like any other.

The trial is expected to last about two weeks.

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