What Wouldn’t You do for Your Children? Teach them English, Mathematics, Science and History…
As the New York Department of Education continues to attempt to establish and enforce guidelines for private schools, PEARLS, which advocates for Frum Schools in NY has released the following statement:
The regulations proposed by the State Education Department disregard the concerns expressed by more than 1,000 private schools from every segment of the nonpublic school community.
The proposed regulations disregard the long history of success demonstrated by private schools across New York State, they undermine the choices made by parents who choose private schools for their children, and they substitute the education bureaucracy in Albany for the private school leadership sought by parents and students.
The regulations proposed today are nothing more than a repackaging of the guidelines that were opposed by the entire private school community last Fall and declared null and void by the Albany Supreme Court this Spring. It is disappointing that the State Education Department failed to engage in dialogue with private school leaders prior to issuing these proposed regulations.
We remain willing to work collaboratively with the State Education Department. But we will continue to oppose SED’s attempt to impose top-down mandates on hundreds of thousands of private school children across the State. These proposed regulations will not be any more successful than the failed and rejected guidelines they replaced. We therefore urge SED to work with the private school community in a manner that respects the success, autonomy, history and purpose of private schools.
The recreation of Jewish life and learning in the United States after the destruction of the Holocaust was nothing short of miraculous. In 1944, there were two dozen Jewish schools in New York, with no more than 5000 students. Today, there are 165,000 students enrolled in more than 400 Jewish elementary and high schools in New York. State regulations cannot be allowed to hinder our mission or hamper our growth.
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(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of Citizen Truth.)
“Some people leave precisely because they have been deprived of an education, and they feel betrayed.”
As public school education has become increasingly secular over the years, private religious schools have pushed back by focusing their curricula on more intense religious studies, often at the expense of instruction in secular subjects.
While the role of religion in schools has been a controversial topic since the early days of the American education system, the divide over the role of religion in education seems to be widening. One of the most obvious examples of the conflict can be seen in the educational institutions of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, where instruction in secular subjects is almost non-existent.
Schools that Don’t Educate
According to activists Citizen Truth spoke with, students at some of these ultra-orthodox educational institutions don’t even know that dinosaurs once walked the earth, or that one of the bloodiest wars in human history occurred as a result of the battle over slavery.
This knowledge is essential to be a rational, reasonable member of modern American society, which is what education in the United States is supposed to prepare its youth for. By denying these aspects of education to their students, ultra-Orthodox schools and other conservative religious institutions are not only doing these children a disservice; they are declaring war on modernity and reason.
Ultra-orthodox Jews are also known as Haredi, which can also be translated from Hebrew as “anxious.” This extremely conservative sect of Judaism is characterized by its anxiety towards the outside, non-Jewish world: fear of assimilation, doubt regarding scientific principles and complete trust in the religious leader of one’s specific community, known as a rebbe.
Throughout this article, the words ultra-orthodox and Haredi will be used interchangeably. However, remember that the majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States belong to Hasidic sects, which is an even more conservative group of communities within the larger Haredi community. All Hasidic Jews are part of the larger Haredi movement, but not all Haredi Jews belong to Hasidic communities.
Advocating for Fair Education
One of the groups leading the fight in support of better educational practices in Haredi religious institutions is Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), whose executive director is Naftuli Moster.
Moster was educated in an all-male Haredi school or yeshiva in Borough Park, Brooklyn, which is one of the epicenters of ultra-orthodox culture in the city. He decided to start YAFFED after realizing how incomplete the education he and his friends had received at yeshivas and other ultra-orthodox schools actually was.
Moster is quick to point out that “receiving a Judaic education has its benefits. It’s not like lying in bed and doing absolutely nothing. But it’s no substitute for a secular education that includes English, math, science, and social studies.” Religious instruction may have its benefits, but only if it is properly integrated into a curriculum that also includes subjects like science, math and history.
YAFFED, PEARLS and a Battle Over Education
YAFFED recently released a 90-page report entitled Non-Equivalent: The State of Education in New York City’s Hasidic Yeshivas which gave a detailed account of the amount of time spent on secular studies in ultra-Orthodox schools. The report also provided comprehensive data on the government funding that yeshivas receive and included recommendations from the New York City Department of Education and the New York Department of Education.
YAFFED and other concerned groups have made repeated attempts to remedy the massive problems existing in religious educational institutions in New York. But the attempts at legislation by the New York State Education at YAFFED’s behest have been met with strong legal and political opposition, and as a result, have failed.
At the forefront of the opposition to YAFFED and similar groups is a group called Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, or PEARLS. Though the name makes allusions to freedom in education, it’s essentially a pro-Yeshiva organization created to oppose YAFFED and stop any government initiatives to improve education in ultra-Orthodox schools. To date, they have spent nearly one million dollars in their effort to prevent students at Hasidic schools from having access to secular knowledge.
PEARLS has friends in high places. The public relations firm who represents the group is Global Strategy Group, one of the most sought-after public relations firms in politics. They have assisted many prominent American politicians, including former New York governor Elliot Spitzer and current governor Andrew Cuomo. One of the leaders of PEARLS, Rabbi Isaac Sofer, is also a former fundraiser for current New York mayor Bill de Blasio. Given that Cuomo and de Blasio are some of the most prominent politicians charged with regulating the educational practices at Haredi institutions, this cozy relationship should be at least somewhat troubling.
Ultra-Orthodox Community’s Political Clout
Yeshivas are male-only education institutions, and since the intended goal of a yeshiva education is to become a rabbi, these schools offer less secular instruction than their female-only counterparts. As a result, girls educated at ultra-Orthodox schools tend to have an easier time as they transition to adulthood and attend college or join the workforce.
Moster also points out that these girls are no less Jewish or Orthodox than their male peers. He explained to Citizen Truth that “this goes to show that you can provide a full Judaic and secular education without compromising one or the other.”
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As early as Friday, a judge may decide whether or not the New York State Education Department can proceed to enforce new guidelines for religious and private schools. These guidelines are designed to make sure that private schools are meeting the legal requirement to provide an education that’s “substantially equivalent” to public schools. Sounds reasonable, right? Not to the unholy trinity of yeshivas, Catholic schools and inexplicably some elite private schools, like Brearley and Packer Collegiate, which are suing to prevent any oversight whatsoever.
Until recently, New York State did not enforce its own education standards. And while many private and Catholic schools pride themselves on providing a high quality education that’s even superior to public schools, the consequences have been devastating for students in Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox yeshivas.
In 2015, our group, Young Advocates for Fair Education (Yaffed), filed a complaint with New York City alleging educational neglect in hundreds of Hasidic yeshivas. That neglect has deprived approximately thousands of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic children of a basic education. In our experience, on average a Hasidic boy receives just 90 minutes of secular instruction in elementary and middle school and no secular instruction at all in high school. The results are damning. The Hasidic neighborhoods in New York State are among the poorest in the state and even the country.
The city has been pathetically slow to act, and so the state stepped up to revise its guidelines in an attempt to clarify them for local authorities tasked with determining and enforcing the substantial equivalency standard. On Nov. 20, 2018, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia released the revised guidelines, which triggered vitriolic opposition from Hasidic yeshivas and their supporters.
The guidelines do not differ significantly from previous versions. They require the teaching of the basics, such as English, math, science and social studies.
Catholic and other non-public schools would easily pass any substantial equivalency test, but instead they’ve rallied to the defense of the ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas, which make no secret of the fact that they haven’t and won’t provide their students with a full secular education.
It’s mind-boggling, because most of the non-Yeshiva schools would barely face any scrutiny at all. Registered high schools go through a more rigorous review by the state in order to be eligible for Regents diplomas, so they would be exempt from an additional substantial equivalency review. Accredited schools, including the majority of private schools, would be subject to only a cursory review, as the district’s substantial equivalency review will take the accreditation determination into consideration. But some Yeshivas, the worst offenders no less, are fighting to remain completely independent from government scrutiny, even as they receive millions in federal, state and local subsidies. Some Hasidic Yeshivas’ budgets are covered two-thirds by government funding, and only one third from tuition.
Even a full review can hardly be considered intrusive. Superintendents or their designees must visit all non-public schools once within the next two to three years and once every five years thereafter. As part of that visit, local officials would look at the instruction being done in the schools and would also collect documentation that demonstrates adherence to the guidelines.
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The New York State Education Department (NYSED) has issued guidelines under which public school officials would inspect private schools to determine whether the education being provided is satisfactory. This stunning announcement has generated massive pushback from the private school community and promises to be an important test of private school autonomy.
An NYSED press release announcing the policy stated that “local public school officials have the responsibility to ensure that the education received by nonpublic school students is substantially equivalent to that received in district public schools. Substantial equivalency means that a program is comparable in content and educational experience.”
According to the new guidelines, “All religious and independent schools will be visited as part of the process.” The reviews are slated to begin during the current school year. Going forward, “Superintendents or designees should plan to re-visit the religious and independent schools in their district on a five-year cycle.”
After a public school superintendent or designee visits and reviews a private school for a determination of substantial equivalency, the local public school board will vote on that determination. If the school board votes that a private school is failing to achieve substantial equivalency, “the board will provide a reasonable timeframe (e.g., 30-45 days) for parents or persons in a parental relationship to identify and enroll their children in a different appropriate educational setting.” After that, “the students will be considered truant if they continue to attend that school.”
Private School Response
The private school response has been resolute in rejecting the terms of the new policy. In a letter to New York State Commissioner of Education Mary Ellen Elia, the New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents declared its refusal to submit to the visitations by public school officials: “We write to inform you that the New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents, representing some 500 Catholic schools, rejects the recently released ‘substantial equivalency’ guidelines and is directing all diocesan Catholic schools not to participate in any review carried out by local public school officials.”
Rabbi David Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America and member of the CAPE board, also expressed strong opposition to the new policy: “The notion that our schools have to provide an education that is ‘substantially equivalent’ to that provided in the public schools, as measured by the specific courses offered and the hours required to be devoted to those courses, is patently absurd. Parents who reach deep into their pockets, often at considerable sacrifice, to enroll their children in religious or independent schools do so precisely because they seek an education that is substantially inequivalent to that which is offered in the public schools. Any governmental regulation of how nonpublic schools go about their educational business must be done, if at all, with a light touch — not with the heavy hand New York State has displayed with its new substantial equivalency guidance.”
Jim Cultrara, Co-Chairman of the New York State CAPE, offered the following statement in response to the NYSED guidance: “The parents who choose our schools can have great confidence in their academic rigor and while the state has a right to establish minimum basic secular education standards for all schools, the measurement of religious and independent schools’ performance against those standards must be consistent, objective and reflect the right of parents to choose a school that they determine is best suited to educate their children. Giving local public school officials the authority to evaluate and determine whether our schools can operate is simply unacceptable.”
As an article at Reason.com observed, the new policy gives a private school’s local competitor – the public school board – the power to declare it educationally deficient. “Would anybody trust Microsoft with the power to determine if its competitors should be allowed to exist?” The new policy could be a bellwether for other states and is therefore being watched intently by friends and foes of private education across the country. Keep your eyes open for updates on this situation in future editions of CAPE Outlook.
CROWN HEIGHTS — Young Advocates For Fair Education (YAFFED), a Manhattan organization looking to revise educational standards in ultra-Orthodox schools, celebrated the last day of Hanukkah in Brooklyn on Monday evening with a party and a panel discussion on the secular curriculum in some ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas (Jewish religious schools for boys).
The secular studies issue has been in the news most recently because of the Felder Yeshiva deal last spring during the budget season, the inability of the Department of Education to inspect the schools to establish whether they are providing a “substantially equivalent” education to that available in public schools, and the lawsuits filed by YAFFED advocating for change. The Orthodox Jewish community is very insular, and a powerful voting block, as evidenced by both the City’s and the State’s lackluster efforts to seriously tackle education issues at politically connected Yeshivas.
One of YAFFED’s lawsuits was against an upstate school district in 2015 for not providing students with an adequate secular education. The complaint charged students in four schools within the East Ramapo school district—all male students who belonged to the Haredi Orthodox Jewish sect—did not receive “basic literacy, calculating, and verbal skills necessary to enable children to eventually function productively as civil participants.”
The second was earlier this summer against the “Felder Amendment”. In July, YAFFED sued government officials, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, after rogue Democrat Simcha Felder, of Flatbush, brokered a deal with top state lawmakers which shielded certain Yeshiva schools from more oversight, effectively diminishing the effect of YAFFED’s initial lawsuit. The suit claims Cuomo violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and represents 52 former Yeshiva students and parents from 39 New York City schools.
The panelists Monday night were Rabbi Yossi Newfield, a Yeshiva graduate, Yitz Finkelstein who taught at a Yeshiva, Michael Rebell, a professor from Columbia University and YAFFED’s attorney Tom Bridges, and Chavi Weisberger a director at Footsteps, a non-profit that assists ultra-Orthodox Jews looking to leave the community to live a secular lifestyle were all present. The co-founder of Footsteps Malkie Schwartz moderated.
Co-founder and Executive Director of YAFFED, Natfali Moster, opened the discussion in front of the six-person panel.
“This is not about bashing a community or a way of life,” said Moster as he summed up the issues at hand. “It’s about shedding light and speaking up in defense of tens of thousands of children who have no voice and who are helpless in the face of the educational neglect they’re being subjected to.”
Although not a complainant in any lawsuit, Rabbi Newfield, 38, had a similar experience as a student at a Brooklyn Hassidic Yeshiva. Oholei Torah is part of Chabad-Lubavitch sect which is located across the street from the ultra-Orthodox group’s world headquarters in Crown Heights. He said from 13- to 17-years-old his classes lasted eight to 14 hours where the Talmud, Code of Jewish Law and Hassidic Philosophy were taught exclusively. There were no secular studies.
That was 1990 through 1996 when the student population was 1,300, he said. Today, 1,850 boys study at Oholei Torah, ranging from kindergarteners to the Seminary (extended rabbinical school, ages 17 – 20), and according to Newfield whose five nephews go to the school, nothing has changed.
“They don’t teach math, they don’t teach the [Latin] alphabet, they don’t teach science and I’m trying to stop them,” he said. “So, I do what I can.”
One of the schools that is part of the YAFFED’s most recent lawsuit is located in Northern Brooklyn within the ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect. Panelist Yitz Finkelstein taught at the United Talmudical Academy of Williamsburg (which doesn’t have a website) for two years and said students in first through third grade receive secular studies for an hour and ten minutes each day. Those in the fourth and six grades get an extra 10 minutes to learn English, Math and Social Studies. The rest of the time is dedicated to religious studies.
“I had kids in fourth grade who could not spell and write their own names in English,” Finkelstein said, while he and others who taught secular studies at the school were grossly unqualified for the position as undergraduate students themselves.
A pro-Yeshiva organization, Parents for Educational and Religious Studies in School (PEARLS) declined to answer inquiries from Bklyner but Brendan Hannah, a PEARLS representative sent the following statement along with a prepared Q&A.
“The curriculum varies from yeshiva to yeshiva, but most K-8 schools teach Judaic studies and general studies such as English and math,” the statement reads. “Our teachers employ a Socratic method of instruction, similar to that employed at many law schools, in which students learn critical thinking, analytical, comprehension and literacy skills.”
For Chavi Weisberger, who left the Hassidic community after divorcing her husband, the choice to unenroll her son from his Yeshiva school is out of reach. Weisberger lost the right to have any say in her children’s education when she signed an agreement with her husband giving him full control of their children’s education at their marriage.
Weisberger had similar complaints about the Yeshiva’s secular curriculum but added the school days are so long, there’s little time to add to supplement their education with tutors.
“When does he get to be a child and just hang out with his family and read and relax,” she asked.
That could change. Section 3204 of New York State Education Law requires local school officials (that would be the New York City Department of Education) to “ensure that school-aged children who reside within the boundaries of their school district are receiving an education”. The new plan to evaluate substantial equivalency is briefly explained here, and judging by this questionnaire, most Yeshivas would fall under the Commissioner’s (currently MaryEllen Elia) review: