Yeshiva Expose: English is Absent and Math Doesn’t Count at Brooklyn’s Biggest Yeshivas

(Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013)

The following is a report by DNA Info, about the limited amount of Math, English, Science and other general studies taught in Yeshivas:

Every morning at school, 7-year-old Uriyah Sidof prays for extra recess.

Literally, he prays for it — at Lamplighters Yeshivah, the Jewish Montessori school he attends in the heart of Hasidic Crown Heights, extra minutes of recess are doled out as a reward for especially heartfelt prayer.

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Recess provides Uriyah with a welcome break from the hard work of timed math tests, English language drills and science projects, subjects the majority of the 84,000 children who attend Jewish parochial schools in Brooklyn never get. Lamplighters is an exception — most Orthodox Jewish schools offer limited instruction in English, math and science, and some don’t teach them at all despite being legally required to do so, DNAinfo.com New York has learned.

Shmueli Lowenstein’s experience is much more common. The 25-year-old is a former student at Oholei Torah, the most prominent yeshiva in Crown Heights, where, he said,  “I did not grow up learning English or any kind of secular studies at all,” and subjects like phonics and math were “nonexistent.”

“Everything was done in Yiddish until seventh or eighth grade, and then they would switch to Hebrew,” Lowenstein said. “I don’t think I ever received a paper with English writing on it, except for maybe a permission slip for a school trip.”

Under New York state and federal regulations, stories like Lowenstein’s shouldn’t be possible — all New York schools, public and private, are required to offer “equivalency of instruction” in basic general subjects such as American history and math.

The state allows religious students to omit evolution questions on the Regents exam, but there is no waiver to exclude science from the curriculum.

Oholei Torah would not answer questions about its curriculum.

But more than a dozen parents, teachers and students told DNAinfo.com New York that many of Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish schools fall shy of even that narrow requirement, offering only an hour or two a day of pro-forma instruction for general subjects, if any.

“There are a number of schools which have absolutely no pretenses of it — kids from 3-years-old to 18 have no secular education at all, ” said Zalman Alpert, a librarian at Yeshiva University and an expert on the Orthodox community.

“Many other schools in Borough Park and Williamsburg are testing the waters about either doing away with secular studies altogether or ratcheting it down another few levels.”

What the situation amounts to, Alpert and others say, is a school system bigger than Boston’s operating virtually without oversight, making it easily the largest unregulated school system in America. This week, DNAinfo.com New York will take you inside that system, one the majority of New Yorkers and even the education officials charged with policing it know next to nothing about.

As with anything in New York, big here means huge. More children attend Brooklyn’s Jewish parochial schools than attend Catholic schools in Brooklyn and Queens combined, and unlike their Catholic counterparts, yeshivas are growing.

Although significant Jewish enclaves exist in all five boroughs, Brooklyn is home to the majority of the city’s 1.1 million Jews, and the vast majority of its most religious ones. In Kings County alone, the Orthodox emphasis on large families has helped spur an education crunch of epic proportions: In just four years, the borough’s Jewish parochial schools have seen an enrollment increase of more than 12,000 pupils, according to state records.

“In some schools, they’re taught very similar to public school … where the English department is fairly normative,” Alpert said, citing the United Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Crown Heights as a prime example. “But those schools are very few in number and they’re rapidly disappearing.”

Though several yeshiva principals declined to comment on their curriculums for this story, Rabbi Sholom Skaist of Williamsburg’s massive United Talmudical Academy told DNAinfo.com New York the school does teach general subjects — just not very much.

“We teach math, English, some social studies and some science,” Skaist said. “They do not have secular studies in all the grades, only from fourth to eighth grade.”

Like other children in high-poverty schools both public and private, many of Brooklyn’s Jewish parochial students receive federal, state and city aid, in the form of free and reduced lunch programs, educational materials and federal Title I allocations to educate students from poor families.

At least a few also receive Title III funds specifically earmarked for English learners, which is hardly surprising in communities like Williamsburg where the lingua franca is Yiddish and even adults often struggle to communicate outside of that language.

“I can’t read, I don’t know anything about the outside world — I have to struggle every time I have to read a menu for a  restaurant,” said Hershy Gelbstein, 18, who got the majority of his education at United Talmudical Academy.

“I have a good spelling, but not a good grammar. I lose the words. When I start talking English in front of someone who knows a good English, it’s like I’m speaking Spanish to someone who knows only English.”

READ MORE: DNA INFO

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19 Comments

  1. art says:

    Why are you carrying this report?

    My son went to normal — chassidish and heimish — yeshivos and learned English and math.

  2. voseppes says:

    So they’re learning Torah — GOOD!

  3. zionflag says:

    Tremendous chilul hashem and nail in the coffin for the future generation of children. A Talmid Chochom/Ben Torah is one who can read, write and speak the language of his country. Importing more and more from Eretz Yisroel without basis is determental.
    BTW that’s how Yiddish began…as a Germany/Polish dialect.

  4. Ctrl Alt Del says:

    This is not surprising. We’ve all known this for ages.

  5. a mamin says:

    This article is really exaggerated. The kids are taught English and Math in Chasidish schools. The problem is they don’t take it seriously, BUT THEY ARE TAUGHT!

  6. zionflag says:

    #5 BTW and what do they take seriously?
    How could a person be half a Yid, Rav E. Svei of Philly used to ask? Be a Mentsch half a day..and a chaya during ‘Limudei Chol’, what type of example do we give our children?

  7. Chamor HaDor says:

    As a teacher, I can tell you that it stems mainly from the home. When a parent tells a child “don’t worry about the goyish learning”, it sends a clear message to the child!
    I’ve spoken to many a parent who didn’t hide their feelings about secular subjects/education. Agreed that some subjects are less important than othes but when a child grows up and goes out into the open world NOT being able to read, let alone write the language of his birth country, unless he’s lucky enough to land a good job, he’ll be at an indefinite disatvantage.
    But sadly, it ain’t changin’ and time soon….Kudos to ALL the yeshivas who take secular education seriously – be proud of your accomplishments!

  8. manishma says:

    When I was in Yeshiva the hanhalla didn’t bash English. Today it’s a total joke. How many kids today are prepared to face the outside world. Some Roshei Yeshiva call English subjects a nisayon. What can we expect for our boys?

  9. computerbubby says:

    I’m a secular teacher in a Chassidishe school. I 100% agree with #5 & #7. If you only knew how hard it is to drum knowledge into minds that just couldn’t care less….the attitude in the home is one of great disrespect. The only reason we secular teachers are given even the bit of respect we do get is because the parents are afraid we’ll fahshtehr a shidduch. Like anyone really cares what WE think? After all, we only teach “shtuss.” so what do we know?

  10. Mottel1 says:

    …the problem is NOT exaggerated …and a portent of bigger problems to come…
    Part of the problem is that we DON’T have a UNIVERSALLY RECOGNIZED American GODOL HADOR. Everything is being copied from the Eretz Yisroel model and what is good for Eretz Yisroel doesn’t necessarily apply. BOTH Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky expressed openly that secular subjects should be taught and learned SERIOUSLY…otherwise it is BITTUL TORAH. Not everyone can learn an entire day…and those that are forced to (peer pressure, family pressure), often become “children at risk”. People have difficulties making a parnasah in today’s climate. If you don’t know english and math (I didn’t say college), it becomes even more difficult. There are only a limited number of Klei Kodesh opportunities (Rabbeim, Robbanim, Sofrim etc). Last but not least…look at torah publications translated into english that have helped the spread of torah. Do you think that someone who never learned english (how to write properly) would be able to do this?
    So the next generation will have very, very few Lomdei Torah who will even have the ability to write.

  11. Ms. Critique who may always know the answers correctly says:

    In truth Math should be part of Limudei Kodesh as it is in Eretz Yisroel. One needs math in learning too. We have family who moved here and the boys are way ahead in math that their peers over here in N.Y.C.
    So even the Yeshivos who don’t want to stress secular studies should incorporate math into limudei kodesh as is done even in the most ultr religious yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel. As far as English is concerned if all is transalated in offices such as Food Stamps and Medicaid why bother(sarcastic)with English.

  12. a mamin says:

    #7 In my home we do not tolerate disrespect on any level in any form, BUT my kids have alot of bad examples in school to watch.The other children make it a circus in English. If you pay attention , you are called a goody goody. None of my boys were ever able to take their English studies too seriously due to this and IT DOES NOT ALWAYS come from the home!

  13. computerbubby says:

    To #12 OH YES IT DOES. WHY do you think kids behave badly in school? Because the PARENTS don’t do anything about it. What should we do? Potch your kids? Sorry, madam, you are so naive if you think your kids are perfect angels. My guess is, you belong to the school of thought (pun intended) that says “I know my kids, chas v’sholom they would ever behave like chayas.” HA! If they wanted to learn they would. They just don’t want to & it’s so much more fun to join the circus than ignore it & work. It’s amazing, it’s always yenem’s fault.

  14. crazykanoiy says:

    Our community has lurched rightwards. The new norm in “Yeshivisha” High Schools (not just “chasideshe” High Schools)is to severely limit or totaly abolish all secular studies.

    It is high time that a Chinuch system modeled on the Chinuch of Torah Im Derech Eretz and following the vision of Rav Hirsch is created for serious Bnei Torah who recognize the value of Limudei Chol and its ability to help one in his lifetime commitment Avodas Hashem.

  15. idachgissa says:

    My children grew up in Eretz Yisroel in the cheder system, with no limudei chol except some arithmetic and a little dikduk. They did hear some English at home, but I was careful to speak to them only in Yiddish. One of my sons came to the US at age 18, took a course in English and preparation for the GED and after one year he passed with flying colors and went on to study computer science and got a good job. Another son, had various jobs over the years in Eretz Yisroel, and then took a six month preparatory course, mostly in English and math, and now is well on his way to a law degree at a Charedi institute in Eretz Yisroel. The other children who remained in learning don’t need secular learning. Isn’t it a shame to spend 12 years studying things that could be learned in a much shorter time later if needed. Pure bitul Torah!

  16. zionflag says:

    Check out your children’s school and sit in or observe an afternoon class. Stand up for your rights and give an opinion or DONT REGISTER your child if you dislike the attitude.
    “Not everyone can learn an entire day” – what does that have to do with Reading, Writing and Speaking with clarity, comprehension and with proper grammar & syntax?

  17. brooklynhocker says:

    My son’s education I can say is way better then the one I received, in fact I have to reteach myself inorder to help him with his homework sometimes. I can’t speak for chasidish yeshivahs, but Torah V’das is doing a great job of giving our son a well rounded education, so this study is a bit skewed.

  18. a mamin says:

    computerbobby: you are mistaken, we DO NOT tolerate misbehavior even in English and my sons know it!! the atmosphere is not conducive to learning. My sons are not angels, to put it mildly but they do not get any good recognition ,at home they misbehavior.

  19. Wolfman says:

    My experience is with somewhat middle of the road yeshivish places. (I hate labels.) The report is sadly right on target.

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