Ex-Hasidic couple lose case against Quebec government over inadequate religious education

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

A Quebec Superior Court judge has ruled against a former Hasidic couple who took the Quebec government to court for failing to ensure they received the education to which they were entitled.

Justice Martin Castonguay refused to grant the couple’s request for a declaratory judgment against the Quebec government and several ultra-Orthodox Hasidic schools, concluding that the issues raised in the trial had already been addressed.

Yochonon Lowen and Clara Wasserstein had claimed in court that they received almost no secular education while attending private religious schools run by the ultra-Orthodox Tash community in Boisbriand, north of Montreal, in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The married couple alleged the private Jewish schools they attended left them unprepared for life outside the insular community, leading them to struggle to find jobs once they left more than 10 years ago.

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

The couple did not seek damages but asked instead for a ruling declaring the province and several Hasidic schools violated provincial education laws, in the hopes of ensuring other children receive a standard education.

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During the trial in February, Lowen testified that when he left the community he spoke little English and no French, had never heard the words “science” or “geography” and had never spoken to a woman who was not a member of his family.

His education consisted of long hours studying religious texts in Hebrew and Yiddish that left little time for other studies, he testified.

Wasserstein, for her part, testified that girls in the community received more secular education than boys, but that she was exempted from such studies at age 13 because it was deemed she already knew enough to communicate with outsiders.

In a written decision published Thursday, Castonguay expressed his “profound sympathy” towards the couple for what they were subjected to “both during and after their departure from the Tash community.”

But while he acknowledged there may have been problems with the schools, those have since been addressed through tightened regulation as well as through arrangements with school boards that allowed ultra-Orthodox children to register as home-schoolers.

READ MORE: Court orders Montreal religious group to provide kids’ names, citing schooling concerns

Castonguay noted that new laws enacted in 2017 gave the state greater powers to act against illegal schools or in cases where a child’s education is being neglected.

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“The state gave itself the means so that the difficulties that previously existed no longer do,” he wrote.

He also wrote that an agreement that allows members of the province’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities to register their children as home-schoolers under the supervision of local school districts has been a success.

During the trial, a former employee of the Quebec Education Department testified that the government had known for decades that the boys attending religious schools in the ultra-Orthodox community weren’t being educated according to provincial norms. However, the witness said the legislation in place at the time gave the province limited powers to investigate.

Castonguay, in his judgment, failed to find fault with the Education Department’s actions, saying they acted in accordance with the laws in place at the time.

He noted that declaratory judgments are to be used to resolve problems that are “real and current,” and should not be used to weigh in on political controversies.

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