Would Secular Education Destroy The Haredim? YAFFED Panel On Education in Ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas

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Inside Oholei Torah, a Crown Heights Yeshiva. (Photo credit: Rabbi Yossi  Newfield)

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.

The organization first became known in 2013 when the group placed a billboard along Prospect Expressway to raise awareness about secular education in certain ultra-Orthodox schools. Within the next two years, they filed two formal complaints to the DOE and participated in a lawsuit against an upstate school district for not providing students with an adequate secular education. The complaint charged students in four schools within the East Ramapo school districtall male students who belonged to the Haredi Orthodox Jewish sectdid not receive “basic literacy, calculating, and verbal skills necessary to enable children to eventually function productively as civil participants.”

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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, diminishing the effect of the lawsuit against the East Ramapo school district. 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, 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.

Panel on the education at Yeshiva institutes in New York City
Panel on the education at Yeshiva institutes in New York City

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.

Rabbi Yossi Newfield at Repair the World in Crown Heights during a Hannukkah party and panel on secular education at certain ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools.
Rabbi Yossi Newfield at Repair the World in Crown Heights during a Hannukkah party and panel on secular education at certain ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools.

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 listed in YAFFED’s 2015 complaint to the DOE 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.”

Chavi Weisberger, a mother of three and director of Footprints at a YAFFED panel on secular education in ultra-Orthodox, all-boys, Yeshiva schools.
Chavi Weisberger, a mother of three and director of Footprints at a YAFFED panel on secular education in ultra-Orthodox, all-boys, Yeshiva.

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 supplement his 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:

“This is the first of what I hope would be many panel discussions on this topic,” said Natfuli. “Attendees came away with a new appreciation of the importance of the issue and a renewed commitment to stand with us as we fight to guarantee equal education to the tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish children that are currently being denied an education and robbed of a future.”

More than 60 Yeshiva graduates, parents and people who have limited exposure to the controversy surrounding Yeshivas attended, as did Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan from Queens, who chairs the education committee in the New York State Assembly.

The question we were left with was – Would secular education really destroy the Orthodox way of life, and is not educating the children the right price to pay?

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7 COMMENTS

  1. If the Orthodox community isn’t strong enough to survive Basic education, it should absolutely collapse and be eradicated. That’s just a toxic cult. A contemporary education shouldn’t be a threat. If your religious and cultural teachings are actually positive and humane (and not just a complex system of oppression operating under the guise of “tradition”), then what’s the worry? Hmm? Literacy. Math. Science. Aaaaack!! Imagine if these young men received an actual education and didn’t need to rely on welfare to survive because they were actually employable and contributing members of society?

  2. So let’s see, outside people are to answer a question of whether another culture can survive in a certain context. Uh, maybe they should have a say ya think?

    Such dangerous presidence. Imagine us “deciding” about the Amish/Native Tribes/Hindu’s etc. This leads to totalitarianism. There’s a larger issue of playing with the fundamentals of democracy which educated people ought to know of, which is the reason we have the luxury of talking about this here in the first place i.e. Separation of church and state, freedom of religion and speech etc.

  3. I was educated in public schools and my two sons are in yeshiva. They have secular topics after lunch till 4:30pm and the morning learning in english also helps the secular in its thinking. My son at 7 is in second grade doing 3rd grade level math and he can read young adult books. He learns about everything. My youngest is 5, playing ghost with words with us at the table. I am happy about the mix of secular and non and how they enhance each other at our school in Flatbush. My sons learn much better values than I did in public school and our way of life. We are low income. I lost my job but I am here and help my kids here and there with their learning, adjusting their writing skills. I am ok with assisting them in any cracks. It doesn’t take much to make adjustments for me. I like to see more reading of books, so I encourage a little more than the teacher and help with handwriting and take math beyond them a bit. I am concerned for the schools that try so hard and cooperate. I think they are ok making improvements. We cannot afford a higher price in education. I told my husband that I will not eat or drink starting tonight for a day, would like to do that much longer because I feel that the repercussions of this is enormous and that it feels a little blind to me. It is very concerning. I was educated in public school but as a Lubavitcher I can say that if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be married, have had children, and have such a fulfilling life. I have lived a different life with practicing different faiths and like Siddhartha, found my faith to include everything I have experienced in it including those religions . The answers were in my backyard that I rejected as a child because I rejected my mother and I found no depth in Judaism at all. Our school tries to attract great teachers to it. Please do not make our education more expensive than it is. We are already to the hilt. Please recognize the good, don’t just be a kvetcher complaintant. It is important to be fair and to see also shortcomings in all people and all school systems including the public schools. If it is possible to squeeze in better this and that for our school and it isn’t more expensive, fine in terms of secular but the hebrew portion which is three hours a day, that is basic for our kids and precious. I don’t want ANYONE screwing that up thank you!

  4. I am the orthodox community and I and all of my children have/are in regents accredited schools that have all been college prep schools. There are various sub-communities within the orthodox world and no we do not want our children in the public schools and yes we want our children to have academic curricula that is both rigorous and college oriented. More mainstream yeshivas (Prospect Park Yeshiva, BYA, Shevach, YOB and all girls yeshivas and boys yeshivas that take regents) are all novel-reading, literature essay writing, trig/pre-calc taking students. Most if not many of these yeshivas have honors tracks and offer AP courses in addition to regular college courses for credit. Ironically, this whole fiasco is affecting all of our schools when it seems to have been initially directed towards this subgroup of non-regents Chassidishe boys yeshivas. Please be aware that there are many Chassidishe yeshivas that do take regents and they do very well. Attacking all yeshivas, calling us a “cult” and enacting legislation to shut down our schools is simply racism that’s (welcome 1984 newspeak…) now been sanctioned as politically correct orthodox Jew-hatered. That this was all started by Jews -waaay too much irony there to even start discussing here but rest assured that Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstien are saving a spot for you on the comfy couch.

  5. Of course most modern Orthodox yeshivas as well as many haredi and hasidic yeshivas offer a decent education to their young students. Yaffed and similar groups mentioned in this article are not addressing or criticizing such schools. They’re specifically addressing smaller, more insular communities within the larger Orthodox world that really do not offer an adequate education, not enough of the basic skills that are needed to function well in today’s economy. Implying that the critics of such schools are “attacking all yeshivas” and advocating “legislation to shut down our schools” is misguided; both Ms. Friedman and “Concerned Parent” are making sure their children are attending schools that prepare them for work and for citizenship. If there are Hindu, Amish, or Native American schools that limit their children’s education to the degree that some schools run by some haredi groups do, then they too should be investigated, regulated, and changed to meet the standards that both Ms. Friedman and “Concerned Parent” uphold for their own children. What’s more, students in schools that are more modern in their outlook, even students in public schools, don’t necessarily abandon their religion, culture, family and community–I suspect that it is the very insularity and rigidity of the schools under investigation that alienate their young victims and prompt them to leave their cages, even at the cost of leaving behind family, friends, community and culture.

  6. Truly sad to read. The misrepresentation and mischaracterization of the role of yeshivas is guaranteed by the panel’s composition. A more balanced perspective and nuanced understanding of the various streams within Orthodox Jewish life would give readers a better understanding of the complex world of Jewish educational purpose and structure. What may seem antiquated may indeed be timeless, while certain demanded curriculum requirements may be merely reflective of passing societal flotsam. Just perhaps, if society at large did not demonstrate its acceptance and encouragement of less than normative values, the Hasidic community would not place such value on insularity. Tradition IS important in a world of few anchors. Being able to reason and divine purpose in a chaotic world is the gift a yeshiva gives its students. It pains me to see that gift unrealized, decried and scorned.

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