Former student of Hasidic school tells trial she was exempted from secular studies at age 13

Clara Wasserstein arrives at the courthouse in Montreal, Monday, February 10, 2020. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

An ex-Hasidic Jewish woman who is seeking a judgment against the Quebec government for allegedly denying her a proper education told a Montreal trial she was terrified to speak out against her former community but came forward because she wants to help future generations of children.

Clara Wasserstein, a former member of the ultra-Orthodox Tash community north of Montreal, told a courtroom Wednesday she decided to bring legal action after seeing how her oldest son thrived when he was finally put into a public school, with access to classes such as gym.

“We had our children in the regular school where they had all these good things and I saw them blossom,” she told Superior Court Justice Martin Castonguay.

“I thought it was selfish to think, ‘my kids are good,’ when so many others are suffering.”

Wasserstein, 41, and her husband, Yochonon Lowen, are not seeking damages from the Quebec government. Instead, they want a declaratory judgment stating the Quebec government and several Boisbriand Hasidic schools violated provincial law by failing to ensure the couple received a proper education.

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READ MORE: Quebec knew about illegal Hasidic religious schools for decades, trial hears

They are hoping a declaratory judgement will help ensure other children in Quebec’s ultra-Orthodox schools are given an education that adheres to the provincial standard set for all students.

Lawyers for the province and the community have acknowledged that some Hasidic schools’ curriculums have been problematic. But, the lawyers have argued, the problems were addressed through tightened regulation as well as through arrangements with school boards that allowed ultra-Orthodox children to register as home-schoolers.

Wasserstein’s emotional testimony provided a rare look into the insular Tash community, which moved to the Boisbriand area north of Montreal in the 1960s and now counts some 3,000 people.

She described her upbringing as strict, where rules were enforced with threats of punishment and contact with the outside world was heavily frowned upon.

Visits to libraries were off limits, community leaders were to be obeyed without question, and corporal punishment was common, she said.

As an example, Wasserstein said she remembered feeling traumatized after being told she’d die young if she pulled even one of her hairs out on Shabbat, a religious observance beginning every week before sundown on Friday and lasting until nightfall on Saturday.

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

Wasserstein testified that girls in the community’s private schools received a mix of Yiddish-language religious education and secular classes such as math and English. And while boys spent almost all their time studying Jewish texts, girls learned to be wives and to raise Jewish children, she said.

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From the age of 13, she said she was exempted from the secular portion of the day to help her mother, because it was deemed the young girl already had enough secular knowledge.

“The principal said it was a very smart move, I already knew everything a Jewish mother should know,” Wasserstein said. “I could speak with a doctor, a taxi driver, what else did I need to know?”

She testified she was around 17 years old when her marriage to Lowen was arranged, and she said she never received a provincially recognized high school diploma.

The couple, who have four children, have said they spoke limited English and almost no French when they left their community, making it difficult to find jobs.

Wasserstein said the couple’s slow break from the community came when their youngest son was about three years old.

READ MORE: Expulsion order carried out for group of Hasidic Jews in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts

Lowen decided that he didn’t want to hit or spank his children — which was against community custom and was enough to start the family on the slow path to ostracization, she said. As they began to question what they saw, mistrust grew.

Eventually, Wasserstein said, people would cross the street when they saw her, and someone had hung a poster in the synagogue accusing her husband of poisoning the community.

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The couple moved to Montreal in 2007 with their children.

At first they tried to keep ties with the community and put their children in Hasidic schools. But she took the kids out because the teachers allegedly insisted on corporal punishment and because members of their former community warned the schools against accepting them.

She said the day she sent her son to regular school, with classes such as art and gym, it was a “dream come true.”

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When asked by Justice Castonguay why she chose to file legal action, Wasserstein said she had been “afraid for my life” to come forward because she had been told she would anger the community.

She said her intention is not to hurt her former community, but rather to ensure all its youth get access to the kind of education she said she never had.

“This is not something to anger people, it is to make changes,” she said.

The trial is expected to last until next week.

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