In America, Yeshiva bochers don’t get educated

In case you don’t know the Yiddish, a “yeshiva bocher” is a Jewish student at an Orthodox religious school (a “yeshiva”) who is a “bocher” (male student, usually unmarried). And what this article points out—one of the open secrets of Judaism—is that yeshivas are the American equivalent of Islamic madrassas: schools where you study religion—and nothing else. That means that the students wind up largely unsuited to enter society at large or hold down many jobs, with many of these going on welfare deliberately, aiming to spend their entire lives studying the Torah. In fact, because of the brainwashing they get from their parents, they don’t want to enter society at large, but prefer to remain in their insulated communities. That is their right. But it’s not their right to neglect state educational requirements.

In the U.S., there are educational standards that all students have to meet, regardless of their school, but these are largely ignored for yeshiva students, many of whom live in New York. As the following New York Times piece reports (click on the screenshot), the cultural and actual illiteracy of yeshiva students (most of them ultra-Orthodox) is staggering. Further, a state senator from Brooklyn, Simcha Felder, who represents many of these Jews, is campaigning to get a legal exemption for yeshiva students from the state’s educational standards.

The piece’s author, Shulem Deen, was a Hasidic Jew who left his community at age 33, and still considers himself “educationally handicapped” even though he got his high school equivalency degree. Having left the Hasidic community, he lost custody of his sons.

The education problem is worse for men than for women, as Jewish girls aren’t required to study the Torah and so, says Deen, receive a “decent secular education.” But, later destined for marriage and strictly bound to the home, they can’t use it in jobs.

Just a few facts from the piece:

When I was in my 20s, already a father of three, I had no marketable skills, despite 18 years of schooling. I could rely only on an ill-paid position as a teacher of religious studies at the local boys’ yeshiva, which required no special training or certification. As our family grew steadily — birth control, or even basic sexual education, wasn’t part of the curriculum — my then-wife and I struggled, even with food stamps, Medicaid and Section 8 housing vouchers, which are officially factored into the budgets of many of New York’s Hasidic families.

I remember feeling both shame and anger. Shame for being unable to provide for those who relied on me. Anger at those responsible for educating me who had failed me so colossally.

A woman I know works as a physician at Maimonides Medical Center, in heavily Hasidic Borough Park in Brooklyn, and often sees adult male patients who can barely communicate to her what ails them. “It’s not just that they’re like immigrants, barely able to speak the language,” she told me. “It’s also a lack of knowledge of basic physiology. They can barely name their own body parts.”

. . . Across the state, there are dozens of Hasidic yeshivas, with tens of thousands of students — nearly 60,000 in New York City alone — whose education is being atrociously neglected. These schools receive hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding, through federal programs like Title I and Head Start and state programs like Academic Intervention Services and universal pre-K. For New York City’s yeshivas, $120 million comes from the state-funded, city-run Child Care and Development Block Grant subsidy program: nearly a quarter of the allocation to the entire city.

The result: millions of taxpayer dollars spent to provide welfare for those who, because of religion, are denied a proper education:

According to a report by Yaffed, or Young Advocates for Fair Education, an organization that advocates for improved general studies in Hasidic yeshivas, an estimated 59 percent of Hasidic households are poor or near-poor. According to United States Census figures, the all-Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel, an hour north of New York City, is the poorest in the country, with median family income less than $18,000.

One heavily Hasidic district of Brooklyn, South Williamsburg, has, over the last decade, shown dramatic increases in using public income support such as cash assistance, Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid.

This is insupportable, and a terrible waste of young minds—minds doomed to endlessly pore over ancient scripts and argue about their meaning, yearning for the return of the Messiah.

Yes, the religious have a right to their craziness, but when it interferes with civil requirements—like getting a good secular education—religion has to take a back seat.  I weep to think of all those boys who, had they not been born into Orthodox families, would have the freedom to do and study what they want, some achieving great things. The endless scrutinizing and exposition of the Torah is not a great thing; it’s nonsense. And Felder is a reprehensible man for furthering this nonsense.



  1. Posted April 10, 2018 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    The Amish apparently do a much better job of educating their young:

    • loren russell
      Posted April 10, 2018 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      Not even in the same ballpark: Aside from the fact that the skills built in doing farmwork are as practical as the Torah is not, and transfer to a wide range of vocations and hobbies [in my own experience], the Amish seem to manage to provide a way out for youth who aren’t suited to this and don’t want to live traditionally.

      • Posted April 10, 2018 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

        Right on. I know many Amish who are successful in the “English” world, particularly business, as well as former Amish who have gone on to careers in medicine, education and business.

    • Gabrielle
      Posted April 10, 2018 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      I read the ‘Amish Education’ that you linked to above, and the 8 years of schooling that Amish children get sounds just fine if one remains in the Amish community. In fact, the education seems perfectly tailored to ensuring that children will stay in the community forever: the teachers are Amish women who themselves only have 8th grade educations; they don’t use modern text books, but ‘McGuffey’s Readers’, just like in the 1800s(!), and so on. Of course there’s no computers, since there’s no electricity.

      A salient quote from the article “The Amish believe that separation from the outside world is the only road to salvation. The mission of Amish education is to prepare their children to remain Amish.”

      How is this not brainwashing? And it is all perfectly legal, as our Supreme Court has rule in the ‘Wisconsin vs. Yoder’ case referred to below. It seems that if Amish schools are exempt from providing decent secular educations through high school, then Hasidic yeshivas are also legally exempt.

      I do give the Amish their due, in that they do not take any public assistance, even though they do pay taxes. This is something that I, being Jewish, find shameful about the Hasidim.

      Several years ago, PBS ran two documentaries about the Amish. One is ‘The Amish’ about their lifestyles and the economic stress their communities are under. The other is ‘The Amish: Shunned’, about what happens when a person leaves their Amish community. It’s not pretty.

      • Posted April 10, 2018 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

        For me, brain washed is too extreme. Perhaps thoroughly indoctrinated. I would also point out that the Amish are not a homogeneous community. There are subsets ranging from the ultra conservative Schwartzentruber Amish to more liberal groups. Tha local Bishop has a fair amount of authority, but can be convinced to change some directives if the congregation presses. Also, where I grew up, there were English teachers in Amish schools, and many Amish attended public schools. I had a classmate who was exceedingly adept at shooting paper wads with his suspenders. Thanks rest of us needed rubber bands and we usually got caught. Amish don’t join the church until late teens or twenties, and there is a significant number who do not join

        • Gabrielle
          Posted April 10, 2018 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

          I see you are from Colorado, and I did know that there are Amish communities there. It sounds like they are quite different from the ones in Pennsylvania.

          My family is from Lancaster PA, the heart of the Amish country in the US, and where the Amish first settled when they came to this country in the early 1700s. The Amish here do not go to public schools with other children, only to their own one room schoolhouses. They leave school after the 8th grade. They rarely interact with outside communities, unless it is to sell things like quilts, foods, farm goods or furniture, or to get medical care. Having a career in medicine or education? This would be a pipe dream.

          • Posted April 10, 2018 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

            Grew up in Nothern Indiana. Like many things, the further west you go, the more liberal things become 😁 I should have noted that the careers I mentioned were nearly all former Amish. Many such folks become Mennonites and thus can pursue higher education.

            • Gabrielle
              Posted April 11, 2018 at 7:08 am | Permalink

              That’s what I suspected, that the individuals you are referring to, who’ve gone to regular public schools, have become Mennonites.

  2. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    This is obviously much more destructive in a 21st century urban environment than in a medieval rural setting. Amish are still largely farmers and can fend for themselves in a way these folks cannot.

    I recall that in high school I enjoyed some of the writings of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, but suspected his view of Hasidic Judaism was massively over-romanticized. (I am not Jewish but the vast majority of my high school was.) I have recently felt vindicated in this suspicion.

  3. ariel
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Bachor (בחור) not bocher (בוחר). Bachor literally translates to “young man”. Bocher is “voter”.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 10, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      This is NYC Yiddish not Hebrew

      Bocher (Yiddish: BOCH-‘r): From Hebrew bachur, lad. A youth. Often, a student at a yeshiva

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted April 10, 2018 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

        Same root as “bachelor”?

      • HRG
        Posted April 11, 2018 at 4:01 am | Permalink

        Not only NYC Yiddish. “Bocher” [sic] is one of the several Yiddish terms from Hebrew which has become part of Viennese slang.

  4. ploubere
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    I had heard stories about how insular and exclusionary these communities are—there’s a This American Life episode about them stringing wires around their boundaries, or something like that? But I didn’t know the schools were that bad. How sad.

    • Posted April 10, 2018 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      The wire is there for a completely different, equally insane reason.

      • Posted April 10, 2018 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

        Eruv. I’d forgotten about that little bit of religious nuttery.

        • Hempenstein
          Posted April 11, 2018 at 6:14 am | Permalink

          Yep, in Pittsburgh they have it marked by telephone poles, and there’s a hotline in case something happens to one, which, see, would cause a broach in the conceptual wall.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted April 11, 2018 at 9:04 am | Permalink

            They’d be S.O.L. if the phone company ‘undergrounds’ the cables or goes to fibre, then.

            Or can an underground cable also serve as a ‘conceptual wall’? How about a glass filament?

            (*Stiff outta luck)

  5. John Conoboy
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    How is it that all this public money is going to religious schools?

    • yazikus
      Posted April 10, 2018 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      There’s going to be a lot more, soon, if we don’t do something. If DeVos has her way, schools like this (though of her preferred flavor) will be getting vouchers soon.

  6. Posted April 10, 2018 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    A mind is a precious thing to waste. And religion has wasted billions.

  7. BobTerrace
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I read the NY Times article and I see how the problem has gotten worse than before. This is nothing new. I grew up in Rockland county New York and saw this happening in the 1960s. It has continued there for the last 50 years and there are now entire municipalities that have been taken over by the Orthodox. They have completely decimated the budgets for the local school systems, so that even the secular students in these towns do not get any decent education either. Stories like this have been well documented as well as stories about entire huge families living completely on public assistance,including ones who own NY City diamond stores.

  8. glen1davidson
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Keep them too ignorant to know better, and there’s a good chance they’ll stay religious.

    Not that the state should be quick to step in, but no one should be kept so ignorant, whatever the reason.

    Glen Davidson

  9. Martin Levin
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has a superb novel about this very issue. “36 Arguments for the existence of God” is about, among other things, the waste of a brilliant mathematical mind in a town very like Kiryas Joel. Goldstein herself grew up in an untra-orthodox community, so she understands it very well. She’s now an atheist who’s written superbly about Spinoza, who was excommunicated (very rare) by the Amsterdam Jewish community for heresy.

    • Posted April 10, 2018 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

      I recently re-read The Chosen by Chaim Potok and it was even better the second time, now that I’m older and wiser.

    • Gabrielle
      Posted April 11, 2018 at 7:11 am | Permalink

      I checked the Wikipedia entry for Goldstein. She grew up in an Orthodox home, which is quite different than an Ultra-orthodox (Hasidic) home. The Orthodox do believe in higher education, and even though most of their childrenattend Jewish Day schools, they do get a good secular education that prepares them for university-level work.

  10. Steve Pollard
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Nice that they have food stamps, Medicaid and housing benefit to make up for their inability to earn an honest dollar. What would they do without these safety-nets?

    • eric
      Posted April 10, 2018 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

      I suspect the answer to that is: “make the women hold down full time jobs AND raise the family, while they continue to just study the Torah.”

  11. Mark R.
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Wasting one’s life like this is completely absurd…not to mention sad. The fierce tribalism that religion engenders is one of religion’s most harmful attributes.

  12. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    I did a series of trials about a decade and a half ago representing members of the Hasidic communities in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Kiryas Joel, in Orange County a bit north of the city. I had a vague, goyish understanding of the ultra-Orthodox before that, but was astounded by just how insular those communities were, especially in and around what may be the world’s most cosmopolitan city.

    • BJ
      Posted April 10, 2018 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      I was just about to page you on this. If this went to court, is Wisconsin v. Yoder the most likely case to apply here?

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted April 10, 2018 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I think Yoder is still the leading case on the topic. SCOTUS’s Free-Exercise clause jurisprudence is a mess, with little rhyme or reason distinguishing cases, which often involve odd-bedfellow majorities, combining pro-religion right-wing justices with leftists standing up for the rights of minority religious groups.

        The cases where I represented Hasidic clients were all criminal, most involving some type of fraud on a governmental program. (Often we had to strike secular Jews from the jury pool, since many of them looked upon the ultra-Orthodox as a familial embarrassment — shanda of sorts.)

        • BJ
          Posted April 10, 2018 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

          Thanks, Ken. Informative as always.

        • Hempenstein
          Posted April 11, 2018 at 6:21 am | Permalink

          Ironic vs. stereotypes – the ultra-Jewish getting a goy attorney.

          • BJ
            Posted April 11, 2018 at 10:05 am | Permalink

            Ken’s an attorney, so he’s an honorary Jew.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted April 11, 2018 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

            My buddy who co-counseled the cases with me was about as secular a Jew as ever there was, but his brother was an Orthodox rabbi. He brought me into the case.

            We saved so much time for so many Hasidim, I’m half-expecting a nomination to the “righteous gentiles” at Yad Vashem. 🙂

  13. Heather Hastie
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    I think this is outrageous. It’s true they have a right to live how they choose, but I’m not sure they have a right to expect taxpayers to support them throughout their lives just so they can spend them studying the Torah.

    They should have a proper secular education alongside their learning of the Torah. Public education funds should not go to schools that aren’t meeting secular education standards. I think taxes should pay health costs as in most modern countries, and support those who can’t work. However, studying the Torah is choosing not to work. They should be supported financially in this by co-religionists – such as monks and nuns are, for example, if that’s what they want to do.

    And mostly it’s just not fair on these kids not to give them choices in life.

    • Posted April 10, 2018 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

      Dawkins would call it child abuse. I don’t disagree.

      • Mike
        Posted April 11, 2018 at 8:32 am | Permalink

        I would agree with Dawkins,I think Religious Education, if you can call RE Education, should be done after normal school hours, in their own time. I would close all Religious Schools .

        • Mike
          Posted April 11, 2018 at 8:40 am | Permalink

          I wouldn’t ban Religion, but it should be confined to your Home or your Church or Synagogue or Mosque, and in no way should it be allowed into normal Schooling, except in the same way that History or some other Art’s Subject, and not in any brainwashing they appear to do,in Madrassas and Yeshiva’s. And finally all Religious Institutions and Private Education Establishments would have to pay Taxes.

      • Posted April 11, 2018 at 11:46 am | Permalink


        I just don’t know what the age of consent should be to leave school on one’s own, though.

    • eric
      Posted April 10, 2018 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

      All US citizens have the right (or should) to state and federal social services. I have no problem with them drawing welfare and so on. However, I do have a real problem with hundreds of millions in state and federal education grants handed out with no curriculum requirements or standards. IMO any private educational outfit (including other religious and secular homeschool organizations and private and voucher-supported schools should be required to show that they do or will meet some basic educational goals before they qualify for educational grants.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted April 11, 2018 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        I agree that it’s the education part that is by far the worst part of this. I have no issue with all the other support they’re getting, except for those who aren’t even trying to find work but are capable of it. Otoh, I also support the idea of a guaranteed minimum income so maybe my stance is a tad hypocritical. But if someone just wanted to spend their life studying books about fishing when a GMI hasn’t been introduced, I think a lot of people would not think that was okay. I think everyone should have a right to medical care. Income support, or whatever you call it, I think the person should be open to paid work if a suitable job is available. However, I wouldn’t expect an Orthodox Jew to work in McDonald’s, for example.

  14. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    a “yeshiva bocher” is a Jewish student

    This actually scans better in EN_GB, where a “botcher” (also “bodger”) is a person who performs dodgy, incomplete or poor quality work. Also verbs “to botch (a job)” or “to bodge”.
    There’s a minor (archaic) use of “to bodge” which is “to work green (unseasoned) wood,” which doesn’t carry the “shoddy work” implication, but generally it’s a term of contempt.
    Which is very appropriate. Let them spend as much time as they want rubbing woad into their psalteries or whatever it is they do. But they need to sit the same exams as everyone else before they leave schooling. I’d include the basic first aid test in that, which should throw a few spanners in religious body-paranoia.

  15. BJ
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    In some NY and NJ suburbs, ultra-orthodox tend to start moving into a neighborhood and, once enough of them have entered, they vote as a bloc to do things like constantly reject any new funding for local public schools and other services they don’t use. Some find ways around local taxes by, for example, claiming their basement is a synanogue. They use all sorts of tactics, including voting new members onto school boards and into other critical local government positions. Since they’re far better organized than other residents, they can sometimes take over an entire township if enough move in, though that usually doesn’t happen and, where it has, they often stay clustered in those spaces. Still, it causes many problems and it’s rightly enraging to residents.

    My family and I often say that such people give Jews a bad name, just as Muslim extremists give Muslims a bad name or certain Christian groups give Christians a bad name.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 10, 2018 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

      You’re absolutely right about the last paragraph there, BJ. I think many people are annoyed by groups like that**, and it could easily translate into anti-semitism. I usually remind myself that most Jews including Jerry and yourself and all the ones I know are nothing like that.

      (**I am, I think it’s actually a strong iconoclastic tendency, since it gets activated by any group that implicitly claims exclusiveness or superiority – like fundamentalist Muslims, Mormons, Amish, etc)


      • BJ
        Posted April 10, 2018 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

        Oh well, every religion’s got ’em.

  16. Roo
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Hmm. Cognitive dissonance on this one, as I am fond / supportive of the concept of Buddhist monks and nuns, and feel there is value in people pursuing *those paths. I don’t know enough about yeshivas to compare these life routes conceptually, but I also can’t say I dismiss the concept out of hand.

    • kevind
      Posted April 11, 2018 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      If someone consciously makes the decision after receiving a proper education thats one thing. The problem here is the kids are being brought up in a way that limits their options before they are in a position to make a sensible decision for themselves.

  17. Jon Gallant
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    One poster commented: “Nice that they have food stamps, Medicaid and housing benefit to make up for their inability to earn an honest dollar. What would they do without these safety-nets?” In the old country, there was a simple answer: a Yeshiva bocher’s WIFE worked or ran a small business to support her husband in his holy studies. Some of us know contemporary Haredim who have managed to contrive a similar life plan. Of course, contemporary welfare provisions, in Israel and as noted even in the US, supplement the working wife’s contribution.

    • Gabrielle
      Posted April 10, 2018 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      I believe it is common in Ultra-orthodox communities for women to run small home-based businesses to earn money, though it would still not be enough to support their families.
      I once knew a Hasidic woman who drove a school bus for her local yeshiva. A lot of Hasidic women also teach in the girls’ yeshivas.

  18. Posted April 10, 2018 at 7:22 pm | Permalink


  19. Posted April 10, 2018 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    not news. it has ever been thus. lots of home schooled christian kids are the same. particularly fundamental mormons.

  20. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m a firm believer in welfare, for people who find themselves, through no fault of their own, unable to provide for themselves or their families. And I don’t resent paying taxes to help with that. But deliberately planning to live off welfare when they could do otherwise is just parasitic and fraudulent. Screw them, they can starve.

    More practically, the state should cut all funding to schools that don’t teach the specified minimum curriculum (which should include sex education!). In fact it sounds as if these Hasidic communities are nothing but parasitic drains on the public purse. I wonder if it’s feasible (though maybe not politically practical) to make welfare payments conditional on NOT living in a closed community…


    • Hempenstein
      Posted April 11, 2018 at 6:34 am | Permalink

      I like that last idea. As it is, the closed communities are practicing institutionalized parasitism.

    • Posted April 11, 2018 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      I don’t think it is practical, myself.

      But the truancy or other educational rules should apply to the kids.

      The hard part is when the parents repeatedly refuse. Removing their welfare or whatever will make things worse for the kids, so I am very hesitant to propose that.

  21. nicky
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    Indeed, nothing short of criminal, depriving children of a useful education and brainwashing them.
    And the taxpayer is funding these ‘schools’? Complicit in creating a class of parasites?
    As proposed above, there is no reason not to have a kind of national minimal curriculum or standard that schools must comply with if they want to see a cent of subsidy,

  22. Rasmo Carenna
    Posted April 11, 2018 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    This is child abuse. Maybe legal, but child abuse nonetheless.

  23. Dave
    Posted April 11, 2018 at 3:47 am | Permalink

    I don’t know any Jews so I have no insight into the mentality of these ultra-orthodox types, but I’m curious to know what is the supposed purpose of spending your life studying the Torah? Is its “message” so complex or opaque that it has to be deciphered anew by each generation, or do they believe there are new insights or subleties still waiting to be discovered? Christians and Muslims also revere their scriptures, and some particularly devout muslims can memorise the entire Koran, but I don’t know of any Christians or Muslims who seek to spend their entire lives poring over the text. Christian monks often do practical things as well as pray and meditate, while muslim fundies can also hold down jobs or run businesses. What’s the difference with these Hasidic Jews?

    • BJ
      Posted April 11, 2018 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      If you knew any Jews, you still wouldn’t know any who think it’s worthwhile to spend your life poring over Jewish texts. Only the ultra-orthodox think this, and you wouldn’t know any.

      There are people like this in every religion, but, again, you wouldn’t know them because they almost always form insular communities. The Christians who do this usually live in monasteries. Muslims who do this tend to live in Muslim-majority countries. Unlike those religions, there are less than 15 million Jews in the world, and anywhere from 5.7 to 6.8 million of them live in the US. When it comes to the Orthodox, they only live in a few very specific, highly localized clusters, almost exclusively in a particular part of the Eastern seaboard’s tri-state area.

    • Posted April 11, 2018 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      The tradition from what I understand is that at the very least the entire text should be read (repeatedly) over the course of the year – the calendar telling you what to read each day, etc.

      This then gets additions like the Kabbalah, which adds arbitrary layers of supposed meanings and that sort of thing, so I imagine there would be some who could convince themselves that looking for hidden messages and the like was worth it.

      I don’t understand what one is supposed to *do* with the findings.

      (Michael Drosnin’s _Bible Code_ is just this with the help of a computer.)

  24. Sixtus
    Posted April 11, 2018 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Whatever else they may be doing, or not doing, they aren’t yearning for a ‘return’ of the Messiah. Their awaited Messiah has yet to show up a first time.

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