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.
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.”