Substantial Equivalency in New York for Yeshiva Students – Naftuli Moster YAFFED [podcast]

CAPITOL PRESSROOM

June 4, 2019: Non-public school guidelines

The fight for substantial equivalency for non-public schools made its way to the Board of Regents meeting in Albany this week. Naftuli Moster, Executive Director of Young Advocates for Fair Education, discussed what he hopes to see the State do next to ensure substantial equivalency.

Yeshivas and No Secular Studies, the Tragedy for Jews and Democracy

The Forward - News that Matters to American Jews

Originally published in The Forward.

Susan Lerner and Esther Fuchs

May 29, 2019

Yeshivas Aren’t Teaching Secular Studies. It’s A Shonda For The Jews And Democracy.

Over generations, no matter their religious practice, Jews have shared a commitment to educating their children. In New York, the government has set the standards for that education and taken the legal responsibility to ensure that every child in every school, whether public, private or religious, receives an education that meets those standards. And yet, we find ourselves in an extraordinary situation, where rabbis in some of our most vulnerable communities have chosen to deny children the secular education they are entitled to and relegate them to a life of poverty and dependency. It is even more disheartening that our elected officials have chosen to be complicit in this disgrace.

For decades, yeshivas have received millions — if not hundreds of millions — of tax dollars from New York State lawmakers for transportation, security, lunch, textbooks, and even academic intervention services. Some yeshivas cover as much as two-thirds of their budget with public funds

Yet, we have little to no accountability for that money, even as certain Ultra-Orthodox leaders openly flout state law which requires all nonpublic schools to provide an education that is “at least substantially equivalent” to public schools. That’s because lawmakers have historically prioritized politically powerful voting blocks ahead of student wellbeing, and they’re doing it on our dime.

The fact is we have no idea if these schools are even in compliance with state educational requirements to teach secular studies, but we have reason to suspect that they’re not. According to a report commissioned by Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED) in 2017, Hasidic boys receive only 90 minute or less of secular instruction a day in elementary school, and none in high school. This leaves them unable to read and write in English, perform basic math, or understand the science behind vaccines.

It’s an ongoing crisis, but despite recent efforts by the New York State Education Department (NYSED) to implement very basic oversight, these Ultra-Orthodox leaders are fighting to keep our children in the dark ages. Pilpul and gematria are simply not a substitute for writing a clear English sentence and understanding basic math concepts.

 

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Religion v. Education and the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community

Battle Over Role of Religion in Schools Plays Out in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community

 

Ultra-orthodox Jews in BrooklynUltra-orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, September 14, 2007. (Photo: diluvi, Flickr)

(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.

Yeshiva in Brooklyn, NY. Photo: [mementosis} via Flickr.

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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Opinion Piece – Orthodox Yeshivas, Substantially Similar Education and NYS

  • OPINION

Don’t let ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas get away with this: A judge must rule for the state as it seeks to ensure basic educational equivalence in non-public schools

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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