Ultra-Orthodox in New York Threaten War After State Demands More Secular Education in Yeshivas

Though the issue of secular studies in ultra-Orthodox has long been a hot button issue in Israel, it has only recently become an issue in America, with NYC serving as its key battleground. Even those calling for change say the new guidelines may be a step too far

A teacher at an ultra-Orthodox school in Israel, where secular studies has long been a contentious issue. That has now spread to New York.
\ Gil Cohen-Magen

BROOKLYN – New educational requirements issued by New York State’s Education Department for nonpublic and religious schools have the local ultra-Orthodox community up in arms.

School leaders and prominent rabbis are promising resistance and war if the new rules – dictating secular oversight of Haredi schools, known as yeshivas – are not changed.

The new regulations, issued by the state’s education department last month, require that students in religious schools be taught subjects such as math, science, English, social studies, art and music for a total of about 34 hours a week.

That would mean roughly eight hours of secular instruction four days a week. This is widely regarded as impossible, particularly for ultra-Orthodox boys’ yeshivas, which at the high school level currently offer zero or at most 1.5 hours of secular studies a day.

The new rules will also have public school inspectors visiting yeshivas, beginning next February, to assess compliance.

If schools refuse to meet the new requirements, they will lose the public funding they currently receive for record-keeping, school meals, computer systems, and the like. If a school is deemed not to be meeting the new rules, parents will have 30 to 45 days to put their children in another school. If they don’t, they could – at least in theory – be arrested for truancy, according to the state.

Though the issue of enforcing secular studies on Haredim has long been a hot-button issue in Israel (critics argue that a lack of proper education leaves the ultra-Orthodox dangerously unequipped for the modern world), it has only become an issue in the United States in the last two years, with New York City serving as the key battleground.

Sounding the alarm

Over the summer, a nonprofit group, Young Advocates for Fair Education, filed a lawsuit against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the education department’s top two officials, saying a recently amended law that relaxed academic standards at ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools would ensure that their students would continue to receive “a sub-standard secular education.”

Founder and executive director Naftuli Moster at a Yaffed event in Brooklyn, December 2018.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

The first hearings in the suit will take place in January, Naftuli Moster, Yaffed’s founder and executive director, tells Haaretz.

The suit certainly seemed to sound an alarm bell with the education department. Initially, it was investigating just 30 ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, compared with now pledging to examine all of them.

Defenders of the yeshiva system say parents have the right to send their children to schools that provide a Jewish education consistent with their beliefs and traditions. There are nearly 275 Orthodox Jewish yeshivas in New York State, but some are Modern Orthodox schools that provide a full secular curriculum alongside religious studies.

Although the schools are private, they are not entirely free of government oversight, as a state law requires that instruction in nonpublic schools be substantially equivalent to the instruction given at public schools.

The current guidelines expand that oversight and Haredi leaders are furious, with at least one describing it as “war.”

In a speech late last month at a warehouse packed with Hasidim in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Satmar Rebbe Aharon Teitelbaum vowed that “the Jewish people will not surrender to the wicked, whoever they may be, even the state education commissioner. … We will not comply and we will not follow the state education commissioner under any circumstances.

“A great battle awaits us, a difficult war, a long war, until we are able to correct it all,” he continued. “We must speak to the leaders of the Democratic Party, who are now at the head of the leadership in New York State. … It wouldn’t pay for them to start a war with all God-fearing Jewry in New York.”

The state’s education department did not respond to requests for comment about Teitelbaum’s statements and other strong responses from the ultra-Orthodox community.

A petition started by the head of a yeshiva on Change.org, titled “Yeshiva Parents Tell the State: Don’t Try to Bully Us or Our Schools!” has already garnered nearly 20,000 signatures.

The Flatbush Jewish Journal, which serves the Haredi communities in New Jersey, New York and Rockland County, has a box on its cover this week declaring: “Crisis Update: State Ignoring the Yeshivas’ Request for Clarification, and Yeshiva Tuition Will Go Up!”

Other Haredi authorities are taking a more diplomatic approach, calling out the guidelines for being unrealistic.

In a November 27 letter to MaryEllen Elia, New York State’s education commissioner, rabbinic advisory board members of the Haredi education organization Torah u’Mesorah wrote that the materials provided by the Education Department “seem to impose a rigid set of requirements that no yeshiva in New York can satisfy.” Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, the head of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, co-signed the letter with Rabbi Eliyahu Brudny of Mirrer Yeshiva.

In a video published by Agudah News, Reisman called the new rules a threat. “It’s immediate, and we must wake up to it before we wake up one morning and the yeshivas are being closed down. … Many thought they would start only with the weaker schools, the schools that don’t teach any English at all. Well, the news is that the goyim see us all in the same light. We’re all ultra-Orthodox fanatics, we all deprive our children of a proper education – never mind the fact that most of our yeshivas score far higher on the public tests than the 60 percent proficiency rates of the … public schools. This all doesn’t matter,” he said.

‘Government overreach’

Agudath Israel of America also requested more information about the new requirements from the education department, but has yet to receive a response, its chief of staff and associate director of education, Avrohom Weinstock, tells Haaretz. The new regulations “are government overreach,” he says. “This is new ground and abridging our ability to function as Jews.”

The updated requirements even proved too much for the person who has pushed for increased secular education in yeshivas since 2012. Moster, who was raised a Belz Hasid in Brooklyn, says he set up Yaffed after realizing he had finished yeshiva high school without a basic education in things like math and English.

Moster says six or seven hours of secular studies in yeshivas “is unrealistic,” adding: “But state should have at least three or four hours a day.”

The Agudah, which represents Haredi interests to government officials, as well as providing guidance directly to schools, concurs.“While we don’t have an issue at all with health and safety requirements,” says Weinstock, “here the state went one step further – more like three steps further. They’re saying not only do you have to comply with statutory requirements, but we will also proactively go into your schools. With 34 or 35 hours a week, it appears to be even more onerous requirements than public schools have. We’re scratching our heads. How could any Jewish school function?” he asks.

Weinstock says many people are not thrilled when the education department says it wants to become so heavily involved in the running of yeshivas. “Should the state be telling nonpublic schools this many hours or that many hours? It’s a slippery slope, and we’re going down it,” he warns.

Most Orthodox yeshivas are located in the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, with some in Manhattan and Staten Island. Others are in Rockland County, which is home to Haredi strongholds Monsey, Kiryas Joel and New Square.

New York State law has long required religious schools to offer instruction that is “substantially equivalent” to the secular education offered in public schools. But the education department has permitted Haredi yeshivas to self-certify that they are doing so. The yeshivas have long claimed that talmudic study offers that “substantial equivalency” and actually provides a superior education to the one public school students receive.

Yaffed published a 90-page report last year, “Non-Equivalent: The State of Education in New York City’s Hasidic Yeshivas,” detailing the secular studies offered at a range of Haredi high schools. At Bais Yaakov in Borough Park, for instance, girls are taught English, math, science, social studies, physical education and art. However, at the Belz, Satmar, Pupa and Lubavitch boys’ yeshiva high schools, they get none, the report says.

Non-Hasidic Haredi institutions, like Brooklyn’s Torah Vodaath and Mirrer Yeshiva, tend to provide more secular studies to students than their Hasidic equivalents, many of which teach only in Yiddish. Haredi girls of both streams are generally offered far more secular classes since, unlike men, they are expected to find work and generate income for their future households.

In fact, students at Haredi girls’ high schools receive enough of a secular education to score well on the New York State Regents Exams – a series of tests that are given at all public high schools. On Wednesday, the Jewish Press touted them as evidence of the effectiveness of Haredi education, though the Orthodox newspaper did not mention the fact that nearly all the high-scoring Haredi schools teach girls.

Goy with a yarmulke

Another aspect of the new guidelines will ensure that teachers of secular studies in yeshivas are qualified educators – something many of the present teachers in boys’ yeshivas (Haredi ones in particular) are not.

Just ask Yitz Finkelstein. While he was a college student, he was also teaching secular subjects at the Satmar boys’ yeshiva United Talmudical Academy, Williamsburg. The lessons were at the end of the school day, which is when secular topics are always scheduled.

“I taught first grade from 3:30 to 4:40 P.M. and fourth grade started at 5 P.M. I was not in any way qualified to do this,” Finkelstein said, speaking as a panelist at a Yaffed event in Brooklyn on Monday. “There was no real support or talk of lesson plans, and children were openly disdainful,” he added.

“They called me goy and shegetz right to my face,” he said, even though he is Jewish and wore a yarmulke while teaching there. Secular education at the school was so bad, Finkelstein added, that “I had fourth-graders who couldn’t spell their own names in English.”

It’s not just the ultra-Orthodox  community that is angry, though. Catholic schools said this week they will not let state inspectors through their doors and are willing to lose the government funding they receive.

Moster praises the direction New York’s education department is taking, even if he feels it has for now set unrealistic expectations.

“For so many decades yeshivas basically operated outside the law, and don’t understand why someone is now demanding a basic standard,” he says. “But we’re just asking for basics. We’re not asking they prep kids for Harvard, but that they give kids a basic education.”

But Weinstock warns that the Haredi community is ready to fight the education department over these guidelines, no matter how long it takes.

“We don’t use the word war, but at the same time we have to make sure our religious freedoms and way of life are preserved,” he says. “We won’t walk away from that. It would be un-American to think otherwise.