Ex-Hasidic man educated in religious school had never heard of science, trial told

MONTREAL — Boisbriand, Que., is only about a half-hour drive north of Montreal. But to members of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group who live in the off-island suburb, Montreal may as well be another planet, a former member told a courtroom on Thursday.

When Yochonon Lowen left the Tash Hasidic community 10 years ago, 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, he told Quebec Superior Court Justice Martin Castonguay.

Integrating into secular society was difficult, to put it mildly. It still is.

“It’s hard, because you always feel like you don’t belong here. You feel not only like you’re in a different country, you’re on a different planet,” Lowen said under questioning from his lawyer.

“You don’t know the cultural associations. You don’t know what (people are) talking about. You don’t know how to make friends. The opposite sex is difficult, because you’ve never spoken to a girl in your life.”

The civil trial, which opened Monday in Quebec Superior Court, has cast a light on the education received by children in religious schools run by the Tash community, which Lowen said is notable even among ultra-Orthodox groups for its commitment to isolation.

Lowen, 42, and his wife Clara Wasserstein have filed legal action against the Quebec government, which they accuse of failing to ensure they received the education to which they were entitled.

They are not seeking damages but want a ruling declaring the province and several Hasidic schools violated provincial education laws, in the hopes of ensuring other children receive a standard education.

Lowen said his education in the Tash religious school, or Yeshiva, involved long hours of studying religious texts in Yiddish and Hebrew but no secular subjects.

In elementary school, or cheder, he said the only secular studies consisted of 45 minutes of English and some math, which was optional and offered for only half the year. Lowen said he opted out his second year after being told by his mother that “your soul is much more pure if you don’t study any outside knowledge.”

At one point, lawyer Clara Poissant Lesperance asked Lowen if he’d studied geography or science.

“I didn’t even know the term, geography. I didn’t know the word,” he said.

“I didn’t know the term science either, there was nothing.”

After graduating, Lowen said he had to take English lessons in secret at a Jewish community centre in Montreal because he hadn’t learned any in school and it was frowned upon to seek education from outside sources.

Currently, he doesn’t have a job.

Wasserstein, for her part, testified on Wednesday that girls receive 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.

The couple’s lawyers have alleged that illegal religious schools continue to operate, and hundreds of students attend them under the government’s nose.

On Monday, a youth protection agency employee testified that an educational assessment of boys in the Tash community launched in 2014 found that 280 of 320 were ”educationally compromised,” with most unable to write or communicate in English or French.

The situation improved markedly after the community agreed to make changes and legally register the children as home-schoolers, but by 2017 most remained below the level of their peers, she said.

Lawyers for the government and Tash have said the concerns expressed in the lawsuit no longer reflect the situation in the community.

On Thursday, a witness from the provincial education ministry told the court that recent legislative changes have given the government much greater leverage to ensure school attendance laws are respected.

Barbara Gagnon said Bill 144, which was introduced in 2017 and amended last year, contains a number of mechanisms to better identify and enforce cases of children whose parents are suspected of flouting the law.

She said there have been vast improvements in information-sharing between different government departments as well as among school boards and social services, which now work together to ensure children don’t slip through the cracks.

David Banon, a lawyer for Tash, has said the community is in compliance with the law after reaching an agreement with a local school board allowing the children to register as home-schoolers.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta Health Services' central zone jumped from 162 active COVID-19 cases to 178 on Friday. Five additional deaths were reported provincewide, bringing the toll to 323. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
622 new COVID-19 cases set another daily high Friday

Province confirmed 622 additional cases Friday

Advocate file photo
Man awaiting murder trial facing two new trials for breaching release conditions

Quentin Strawberry going to trial in March in connection with 2019 murder

Ecole La Prairie students and teachers dressed up in Halloween costumes and paraded by Barrett Kiwanis Place, while waving at the building’s residents in Red Deer on Friday. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
Ecole La Prairie students parade in Halloween costumes for Red Deer seniors

Dozens of Red Deer students put on their Halloween costumes to spread… Continue reading

Advocate file photo
Preliminary hearing set for Walmart shooting suspect

Chase Freed facing second-degree murder and attempted murder charges

Truck driver Jaskirat Singh Sidhu walks into the Kerry Vickar Centre for his sentencing in Melfort, Sask., Friday, March 22, 2019. nbsp;A lawyer representing the truck driver responsible for the deadly Humboldt Broncos bus collision says he wants to stay in Canada once released from prison. nbsp; THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kayle Neis
Truck driver responsible for Humboldt Broncos crash seeks to stay in Canada

Jaskirat Singh Sidhu was sentenced to eight years after pleading guilty to multiple charges

A man walks past the lineup for Covid19 Assessments at Toronto Western Hospital in Toronto on Tuesday October 27, 2020. New federal projections suggest that Canadians need to cut a quarter of their contacts to keep the COVID-19 outbreak from resurging. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Canadians need to cut contacts by a quarter to control COVID-19 outbreak: Tam

Canadians need to cut contacts by a quarter to control COVID-19 outbreak: Tam

FILE - Artist Billy Joe Shaver poses backstage following his concert "Billy Joe Shaver presented by WMOT/Roots Radio" at City Winery Nashville in Nashville, Tenn. on April 1, 2017. Shaver, who penned songs for Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Bobby Bare, has died. His friend Connie Nelson said he died Wednesday in Texas following a stroke. He was 81. (Photo by Laura Roberts/Invision/AP, File)
Outlaw country artist Billy Joe Shaver dead at 81

Outlaw country artist Billy Joe Shaver dead at 81

Vancouver author Julie Flett is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
‘Birdsong’ by Julie Flett wins $50K children’s literature award

‘Birdsong’ by Julie Flett wins $50K children’s literature award

Children wait using physical distancing while getting their picture taken at picture day at St. Barnabas Catholic School during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Tuesday, October 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Sanitizer, masks and smiles mark an unusual school photo day for a COVID-19 year

Sanitizer, masks and smiles mark an unusual school photo day for a COVID-19 year

People are silhouette as they walk holding hands along the board walk on a fall evening overlooking Lake Ontario during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on October 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19 could make transition to standard time smoother, say experts

Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t get any darker, the end of… Continue reading

FILE - In this April 23, 2018, file photo, the logo for ExxonMobil appears above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Exxon lost $1.1 billion in the second quarter, Friday, July 31, 2020, its economic pain deepening as the pandemic kept households on lockdown, diminishing the need for oil around the world. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
Losses mount for oil companies as pandemic grips economy

Losses mount for oil companies as pandemic grips economy

The offices of SNC Lavalin are seen Monday, March 26, 2012 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
SNC stock touches 52-week low after Q3 loss linked to arbitration, COVID precautions

SNC stock touches 52-week low after Q3 loss linked to arbitration, COVID precautions

Imperial Oil logo at the company's annual meeting in Calgary on April 28, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Imperial Oil ekes out Q3 profit as Kearl oilsands mine rebounds from outage

Imperial Oil ekes out Q3 profit as Kearl oilsands mine rebounds from outage

Most Read