The ultra-Orthodox community in New York is experiencing a second wave of COVID-19 infections after losing hundreds of members in the first wave. The lack of compliance with public health guidance has brought renewed tragedy. Many people are pointing fingers at the community for their failure to comply and to understand the gravity of the situation. However, the criticism is misplaced. The State itself is culpable here.
How can this be the fault of New York State? It comes down to education. For years, New York has largely neglected to enforce its “substantial equivalency” law. Substantial equivalency protects the rights of private school students to basic general education. It essentially mandates that private schools meet the bare minimum standard of education required of public schools.
New York lawmakers have, for decades, allowed yeshiva officials to deprive young children of a proper secular education by neglecting to enforce the law.
The impact of the dearth of secular education is clearly visible. Why would otherwise self-preserving people come in close contact with others in the middle of a pandemic without masks? Why would they open schools and houses of worship surreptitiously—and without any precautions in place—while the State required lockdown? Why would they attend large funerals for victims of this very deadly and easily-contracted virus, even as ambulances are flying by bringing their neighbors and friends to hospitals?
They simply have not been educated to understand the risks. When children are deprived of science education, they become adults who do not understand the concepts of transmission or contagion. It also makes it more difficult for people to discern between scientific facts and the misinformation that has spread on social media and in WhatsApp groups. When people can make it into adulthood without ever being taught that there are particles smaller than the eye can see, how can they be expected to understand concepts like airborne transmission?
The lack of education has so handicapped this community, that leaders are now demanding New York City hire Yiddish-speaking contact tracers so they can engage with families who have been here for generations but who still aren’t able to speak English.
Of course, the need for multilingual contact tracers is evident for the many immigrants speaking a variety of languages, but the tens of thousands of adolescents and adults speaking only Yiddish is not a result of recent immigration, but of lack of education. Children whose families speak Yiddish and attend ultra-Orthodox yeshivas are not given the chance to learn English because secular education is simply not available to them. How can we expect that they will become anything other than parents who perpetuate the neglect and can listen only to their own leaders, because they cannot understand the world outside their community?
Now, no one is saying that in the midst of a pandemic we should point fingers and let the crisis continue to spin out of control. The City should try to find Yiddish contact tracers and should spare no effort to reduce the spread. But we cannot ignore the elephant in the room—the disregard for COVID-19 mitigation guidelines stems from a lack of education. Had the yeshivas been providing adequate secular education, there would be a greater understanding of the basic scientific principles behind the public health recommendations. There would also be no need for Yiddish speaking contact tracers.
New York State has a responsibility to every yeshiva student to enforce substantial equivalency, to ensure that all schools are teaching children the skills they need to thrive and to survive in this world. It is now more evident than ever that failure to enforce substantial equivalency standards can have dangerous consequences.