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 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.”
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.
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 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.”
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?