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Op-Ed: Jewish Education: Sacred and Sacrosanct or Secular Sensitized?

ezra[By Ezra Friedlander]

Recently, we’ve been hearing much in the news about a group that calls itself Yaffed (Young Advocates For Fair Education). They sent a letter to New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina and seven district superintendents, calling upon them to investigate “the quality of secular education, and in particular English instruction, at (the listed) Yeshivas, and to take steps to ensure that pupils at these Yeshivas receive the essential and substantially equivalent education to which they are entitled.”

This group, led by Naftuli Moster, is causing a tremendous amount of controversy in our community, and I’d like to share my own thoughts here.

On the face of it, their proposal seems fair. What could be more beneficial to our community than enhancing the quality of its education, even secular education? In fact, my wife and I, who are parents of two young boys in the Yeshiva system, were recently also discussing this very same issue.

So what could be wrong with Yaffed’s proposal? Plenty!

In our community, mesorah (loosely translated as tradition, values, and fundamental beliefs) is the core of our educational system, a concept that has defined the Jewish people from time immemorial and has been the source of our continued survival. So when a person like Mr. Moster and his organization comes along, calling on the New York State Department of Education to investigate our Yeshivas, my only response is: “How dare you? What right do you have to interfere with such sensitive and sacred matters?”

Do Moster’s claims have any validity at all? That is irrelevant. His actions speak louder than his words. By what he has done, he has completely disqualified himself from the conversation. He is like a prosecutor who is representing his case to the jury but has gathered evidence illegally. Any judge would throw his case out of court without a moment’s delay.

I highly doubt that this organization truly cares about our youth. Or about the quality of our Yeshiva system. Because if they did desire to communicate effective change, they would not have gone about it by retaining the former Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union Norman Siegel (a man who I do respect on many levels) to represent their case. It seems to me that, the sole purpose of this whole campaign is to besmirch our community’s reputation and to undermine our system at its core. And for that I unequivocally condemn their efforts.

It pains me greatly that it takes this person and this organization to raise points about our system that do indeed need to be addressed. They are hardly the proper messengers to deliver this message. In order to bring about productive change, the demand must come from the parents themselves and not from outside forces whose very mission is to attack our system with a viciousness and mean-spiritedness that will put our Yeshivas at risk.

Frankly, I personally feel that, by and large, our Yeshivas do adequately meet the State’s educational criteria. And most of us are very much aware of the serious failings within the New York public school system, so I would advise the DOE to focus on their own schools. Be that as it may, my goal here is not to criticize that system. I’d rather focus on our own Yeshivas.

When discussing this same issue, my wife and I came to the conclusion that it would be disingenuous for us to demand that our Yeshivas take on additional expenses at this time. They are sadly underfunded and struggling to survive. Especially in the Chassidic world, where a minimum of four to six children in a family can be attending Yeshiva at any given time, tuition barely covers the necessities. So how can we possibly demand that they do more?

Is there room for improvement? Certainly. But the only way to improve the system is through the united efforts of the parent body. It is our responsibility to ensure that our children are properly educated to prepare for their future, including giving them the tools to succeed in life. The Torah demands that parents educate their children and the Yeshivas are essentially our shlichim in this endeavor. But the onus is essentially upon us. Parents should work together with the Yeshivos to create a curriculum that would allow their children to be properly trained to enter the workforce. That is, after all, the stated objective of this campaign for change.

It’s important to me that my children are prepared to earn a livelihood and I take that responsibility very seriously. If Mssrs Moster and Siegel would really care about this, I call on them to redirect their talents and energies to find creative ways to request that government funding be increased so that Yeshivas can enhance their curriculum. Doing so would at least give them a seat at the table to participate in this conversation. It would show that they truly care about our children.

The Jewish people have only survived through the millennia because of the wholesome purity of our chinuch system. And that is uncompromising. Back in 1892, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, (the Netziv) actually shut down the famed Yeshiva in Volozhin because Russian authorities, prodded by members of the Haskalah movement, sought to introduce secular studies to the Yeshiva. He closed down the Yeshiva rather than submit to their demands.

I’m certainly not comparing the DOE to the communist regime. I’m simply trying to demonstrate how sacred our Yeshivas are to our community and how outside interference can only be counterproductive. Moster certainly knows this. And calling on the DOE to investigate our Yeshivas tells me in no uncertain terms that his agenda is not to improve our Yeshivas, but to disrupt and destroy them.

Sadly, his claim, as legitimate as it might be, has lost all credibility. It reminds me of the halacha which states that a Sefer Torah written by an apikores (non believer) is not kosher and cannot ever be used. I’m not accusing him or anyone else of being an apikores, just that their actions have invalidated their initial intent.

It pains me to write this article because I truly believe that positive change can be accomplished when there’s unity and people work together for a common cause. But when it comes to our sacred mesorah and the education of our precious children, there is no compromise. We must ensure that they are brought up al taharas hakodesh.
Don’t blame the messenger? In this case, I do.

Ezra Friedlander is the CEO of The Friedlander Group, a NYC and Washington DC based public policy consulting group. Follow him at @ezrafriedlander on Twitter. For more information, contact [email protected] or visit

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of YWN


20 Responses

  1. Anyone complaining to the government about the education in frum schools in America is a hypocrite with a clearly ulterior motive of destroying Torah education.

    In America, the schools are privately funded, and no one is assigned to any school – if someone doesn’t like the program at one school, they can go to another or can home school either in all subjects or just the secular (vocational) ones. That he is attacking a school he doesn’t send his children to is pure viciousness.

  2. “Russian authorities, prodded by members of the Haskalah movement, sought to introduce secular studies to the Yeshiva. He closed down the Yeshiva rather than submit to their demands.

    I’m certainly not comparing the DOE to the communist regime.”

    Eh,Ezra Freidlander,
    you should first be educated to defend education

    It was the Czarist gov’t who shut it down

    The communists took over in 1917

  3. ezra says he wouldn’t want the schools to take on extra expenses

    lets understand that no matter how much funding the yeshivas will get
    tuition will never be lowered
    the administrators will just spend more

    all schools cry and cry
    in the interim all family members have jobs there for life qualified or not
    and I have yet to see one yeshiva close
    yet buisneses close every day

  4. If Moster wanted to accomplish anything other than make life difficult for the yeshivos he would approach it differently.
    There already exists a spirit of change within the mosdos and most of them are taking steps to enhance their secular studies departments without this dirt campaign by Moster as anyone with kids in the system knows.
    If he really wanted to accomplish something positive he should reach out to heads of secular studies departments within the yeshivos and assist them directly in reaching their goals.
    It does not however seem that he is trying to do any positive!

    just for the record nick moster was in my class and was a very bad at English subjects!!! he barely passed any English classes!!!! he recently became a msw and is attempting to enter the heimeshe/charedi market!!!
    let the buyer beware he can talk frum and act frum he is one big lowlife. he earned his psychology because he worked hard and in the Chassidic community if u want too work hard with a a lot of help from hashem you can be very matzliach.

  6. if you want to know what their real motivation is, just look at one of their interns, who in an article on only simchos about his dog walking business( not that there is anything wrong with that per se) had this to say . ““I am angry for not having a well-rounded mathematical or linguistic education,” Gottdenger says. “I’m not upset about not being brought up with Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, and Baseball, but it’s hard to make it, to become independent, without a well-rounded education.” not bad but then he says this. ““People are ultimately going to live the life they want to lead,” Gottdenger says. “And even if it contradicts Judaism or Christianity or Islam or whatever, we have to let them be able to do it.” how much of this is oh I feel so bad for poor yeshiva boys who need a good education or is there some other ,darker purpose. methinks the latter

  7. Sadly without him going public nothing will be done . Just like the other issue, that we never see here reported, nothing was done until people went public and took it to the authorities. Sadly that is the only way to get things done

  8. The author makes several assumptions that I would appreciate his bringing some evidence for.

    1)Where in “our Messora” does it say children should not be taught the skills to earn a trade and to function within society?

    2)Volozhin yeshiva students were fluent in Russian (the local language) and were already in their late teens and twenties by the time they arrived on that elite institution. Even if the elite yeshiva was closed down due to the demand to INCREASE secular studies, how is that relevant regarding how the broader population, and especially younger grades should be taught? ANd, BTW, if you read the scholarship of Stampfer and Schechter, you’ll find out that there were other factors at play in the closing of Volozhin..

  9. For instance, here’s a summary of some of Prof Stampfer’s research as to why Volozhin closed:

    First, contrary to legend, they did have secular studies in Volozhin. In fact, according to documents released after the fall of the Soviet Union, it appears the school was shut down when the arguments between those who supported R’ Chaim Brisker as the next Rosh Yeshiva and those who supported R’ Chaim Berlin grew into anarchy, with no mention of secular studies being an issue at all.

    Rav Chaim Brisker did threaten to close the school rather than the 1892 edict, but it wasn’t over secular studies in particular. (Especially since they were already being taught.) According to R’ Barukh haLevi Epstein (the Torah Temimah) in Meqor Barukh (as translated in My Uncle the Netziv, pg 205-206), the edict required secular studies from 9am to 3pm, and closing the school at dark. This would leave no time at all for Torah study for much of the year, and very little during the rest.

    As for the general attitude to secular studies in Volozhin, both in curriculum and in the students’ pursuit of ad hoc studies in their own time, the Torah Temimah writes (MUtN, pg 204):

    …[T]he students of Volozhin were quite knowledgeable in secular studies: they took an interest in science, history and geography and knew many languages. In fact, those students who desired to pursue these disciplines succeeded in learning twice as much as any student at a state institution. In Volohzin, Torah and derech eretz walked hand in hand, neither one held captive by the other. It was the special achievement of the Volozhin student that when he left the yeshiva, he was able to converse with any man in any social setting on the highest intellectual plane. The Volohzin student was able to conquer both worlds — the world of Torah and the world at large. A well-known adage among parents who were trying to best educate their children was, “Do you want your child to develop into a complete Jew, dedicated to Torah and derech eretz? Do you want him to be able to mingle with people and get along in the world? Send him to Volozhin!

    And in fact, R’ SR Hirsch wrote a letter to his community to aid the emissary sent from the Yeshiva to raise funds in Frankfurt. In it, he calls Volozhiner Yeshiva “fellow travelers on the path of Torah im Derekh Eretz“!

  10. Because clearly the yeshiva community can police itself… After all, they’ve done such a great job with child molesters.

    What a joke! Kids are graduating from yeshivas barely able to read and write,

  11. I may be mistaken, but I thought the government provides some funding for the secular education in the yeshivas. Clearly, what this group is doing is not the proper way to address the issue, unless of course they went to the appropriate rabbonim before proceeding, which I doubt.

  12. Sadly it’s clear that Moster’s intentions are not noble and pure: he’s got an ax to grind and to me seems like the quintessential מוסר, רח”ל. His actions, were they noble, would have had hid arrange for a meeting with גדולי ישראל and/or administrative officers or board members of the yeshivos and discuss ways of enhancing and improving the general studies education in our mosdos! And, truly, it is an issue! Kids can’t read, write or compute basic math. But to rat out the מוסדות to a government who already is quite antagonistic toward our way of life and our schools is downright מסירה for which חז”ל have delineated serious personal retribution. I feel bad for his lot!
    (And once again, akuperma, you got it exactly right!)

  13. There are many different types of Yeshivos, so parents have choices.

    Who are these people going to for their agenda, those that run a failed school system themselves? If you don’t like something, try to change it from within. Obviously, most parents disagree with them or they could get their change internally. Going this route is the approach of scoundrels.

  14. We are all too familiar with Ezra and his type. Cheat on food stamps, Section 8, etc. while not working at a decent paying job because secular education in yeshivas are woeful. If the govt cut out your programs, you guys would be finished, economically and otherwise

  15. The Rama 246:4 rules explicitly that it is absolutely prohibited according to Halachah to engage in a curriculum of secular studies. To read secular studies now and then, is permitted, he says. The source of the Rama is the Yerushalmi Sanhedrin.

    It has been suggested the difference between a curriculum and just a glance, is that this prohibition is not due to Bitul Torah but rather a Bizayon HaTorah, by establishing studies in areas other than Torah, it shows that you believe they have some value that would justify learning them when you could have been learning Torah.

    Rav Shimon Schwab ZT’L sought the Torah opinions of two great authorities, Rav Boruch Ber Liebowitz ZT’L and Rav Elchonon Wasserman ZT’L, regarding college education. Their responses were as follows:

    Conclusion of Birkas Shmuel (Kiddushin #27 p.42):

    “What emerges is (a) that according to the Torah the obligation of Banim Ubeni Banim means you must make your children into Geonei and Chachmei Torah – and not merely to prepare them for life as a Jew. But rather, you must teach them and get them to learn the entire Torah, and if chas v’sholom you do not, you violate the entire Mitzvah of learning Torah as per Banim Ubnei Banim.

    (b) Universities and gymnasiums (i.e. secondary schools) are prohibited because of Apikursus [that they teach]. My Rebbi (i.e. Rav Chaim Soloveichik ZT’L) prohibited them even in war time, and even to save a life, for to avoid violating this, even a Jewish life is to be spent.

    (c) To learn secular studies on a regular basis is prohibited, as per the Rama 246:4 …

    Brothers, please do Teshuva while there is still time, for the enlightenment (Haskalah) has blinded our eyes and weakened us. For we have no benefit in this world at all – both spiritually and physically – except from Torah. All the strength of Klall Yisroel is from the Torah … we should do Tehsuva and repair the Batei Medrashos that have been broken by the Enlightenment.”

  16. Kovetz Shiurim II:47:

    Question: Under what circumstances is it permitted to learn secular studies?

    (a) If you must learn books that contain apikursus, it is prohibited … needless to say even to make money or to prevent a loss thereof.

    (b) If you must sit in school with Goyim, and it causes someone to befriend the Goyim and their ways, it is prohibited as per the Lo Saseh of Hishomer Lecha etc. for the Torah commanded us to distance ourselves from the Goyim in every way…

    (c) If the studies do not cause you to learn Apikursus or to befriend Goyim, and you learn secular studies in order to know a skill to make a living, it is permitted, and it is a Mitzvah. However, this is only in general. But if a person sees that his son wants to learn Torah and he is prepared to be a Gadol B’Torah, in such a case R. Nehuray said: “I will forgo all skills in the world and teach my son only Torah.”…

    (d) If you don’t need the studies for Parnasa, and you just want to be involved in them, there is reason to prohibit because of Bitul Torah, as per the Rama in YD 246, who writes that it is forbidden to learn secular studies on a regular basis….perhaps it is not due to Bitul Torah but rather it ia an affront to the honor of the Torah … someone who set out to learn secular subjects indicates that he believes that they have a purpose in and of themselves [besides for parnasa], and that is against the Torah’s opinion. [see above]…”

    Reb Elchonon continues, saying that the confusion in Germany happened when people thought, mistakenly, that by Jews possessing secular knowledge the Goyim will hate them less. This caused a “negiyos” – a vested interest – that caused the German Jews to desire that their rabbis have a secular education as well.

    Rav Moshe Feinstein ZT’L also denounced college in a Teshuva, and in a famous speech delivered to his students, published under the title “The Counsel of the Wicked” (Vaad LeHaromas Keren HaTorah, New York, 1978). There he reiterates that everyone has an obligation to become great in Torah, we should not care so much about Cadillac’s (yes, this was said in the “olden days”), and that learning Torah is what we should be pursuing, not secular stuff. He says in America you do not need college to make a Parnassa, and we should be willing to live on little, not a lot, for the sake of Torah, and that R. Nehuray’s statement of abandoning all skills in favor of Torah applies all that more today that we live in a country where you can make a parnassa without college, with no miracles needed.

    (As an aside, the standard of livelihood required is bare minimum. “Kach hi darkah shel torah – pas b’melach tochal etc.” – Bread, salt and water – if you have that, you have parnasah. The Rambam writes that a typical Baal Habayis works 3 hours a day and learns 8.)

    There is a tape available in many Seforim stores called “The prohibition to learn in Colleges” (Yiddish), which contains addresses by Rav Moshe Feinstein ZT’L and Rav Aharon Kotler ZT’L condemning college.

    Regarding High School, the only reasons it is allowed is either because education is mandated by State Law (in New York it is until age 17), or simply because if they did not have High School education in the Yeshivas, parents would simply send their kids to worse places to get it.
    But it is definitely looked upon not as a l’chatchilah, but rather as something that is annoyingly necessary in the current environment.

    Today, there are a small number of High Schools in America – particularly in Lakewood – that do not teach English. Also, many Yeshivos do try to reduce the amount of secular studies as much as possible, through knocking out the last semester of English, and a number of kids are leaving HS early to enter Bais Medrash.

    Rav Chaim Segal ZT’L, the Menahel of the High School at Yeshiva Chaim Berlin was once told by Rav Shach ZT’L that if possible, he should not be teaching English studies. In Eretz Yisroel, almost all Chareidi Yeshivos do not have English at that age. Rav Aharon Kotler ZT’L made some kind of commitment not to allow English studies on the HS level in Lakewood. The exact details, and if this was actually a Takanah or merely a preference, is not clear and depends who you ask. In any case, Rabbi Elya Svei, Rosh Yeshiva of Philadelphia and a student of Rav Aharon’s, was asked why he allows English in Philly if Rav Aharon was against it. What difference can there be between the town of Lakewood NJ and Philadelphia PA? Reb Elya answered that he has no choice, and that currently, the Baalei Batim would not send their kids to the Yeshiva except under these circumstances.

    Is any of this the ideal? No. It is not. Is it justified? The schools say it is, as they have no choice. But the point is not what the Jews do, its what Judaism wants. Everyone agrees that it would be a higher level, a preferable situation if we would indeed not learn English even at the HS level, at least not beyond what is necessary to survive. Nobody claims it is an ideal.

  17. The Chasam Sofer in Parsha Beshalach states clearly that certain secular knowledge is useful for learning certain Torah topics, such as cow anatomy being useful for shechitah, and arithmetic for Eruvin and Sukkah. But that before we embark on obtaining secular knowledge – and of course that means only to the extent that it is useful for our Torah studies – we must first fill ourselves with Torah-only knowledge. After we are strong in Torah, only then can we move to acquire the useful secular knowledge that we need for our Torah studies.

    He quotes the Rambam, who he describes as “the father of philosophy” in our religion, in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, stating that a person may not learn philosophy until after he has “filled his stomach” with Shas and Poskim, which are the things, and only the things, that bring us Olam Habah. Then he quotes the Rashba, saying that there is a cherem against learning any secular studies if you are under age 25! The he quotes the Gemora in Brachos “Keep your children away from science” (higayon, as some meforshim translate it), noting that the Gemora is directing its prohibition at “your children”, but not at the adults, for adults, who are already advanced in Torah knowledge, need some secular knowledge, such as cow biology (I keep emphasizing that so that we do not make the error of thinking that the secular knowledge that we need is a college education). But it is dangerous for us to pursue it until we are armed and ready with a Torah foundation. This is because someone with a Torah perspective looks at the value and culture of of secular studies differently than does someone ignorant of Torah. And we do want to get the proper perspective.

    It’s kind of like firemen putting out a fire. They have to (a) dress in their heat-resistant protective outfits, and (b) run into the fire and put it out. But of course, they have to do it in the right order.

    And that is indeed what it boils down to – do we value the Torah’s standards of education more than that of the secular world or vice versa? The choice is simple: All the secular “education” that you get will be useless to you in the next world. There, they will not ask you if you know how many US presidents were re-elected in history, or whether you are familiar with the policies of Chairman Mao, or if you know how to program a computer. They will bring a Sefer Torah scroll to you and ask “do you know what it says in here?” The more you know of that, the more you will be considered “educated”. The less you know, the more you will be considered ignorant. So the question is – do I want to be educated on this world or on the next?

    And please note, there is no minimum threshold for the amount of Torah you are obligated to know. The rule is: more is better; less is worse. And the difference between just a little more and a little less is staggering. As the Vilna Gaon points out, one word of Torah knowledge gives you more holiness than an entire lifetime’s worth of doing other Mitzvos.

    And here we thought that a secular education is expensive! Its much more expensive than you think – you can acquire it only at the expense of your time and effort that you could have been putting toward becoming educated in Olam Habah.

    Two things, though. First, the prohibition is only to learn secular studies as a regular curriculum. To read about them occasionally in your spare time is permitted.

  18. I was flying back from Israel and a chassid was sitting next to me.

    When you arrive in the US you have to fill out a customs form otherwise they wont let you in. The customs form was obviously in English. this Chassid did not have any english skills and could not even read the latin Alphabet.

    I offered to fill out the customs form for him and showed him where to sign his name.

    This was only on a plane for a customs form. I have similar stories for job applications , DSS forms or doctor office forms

  19. Yes it is wrong of Moster to “air dirty laundry” and it would probably be considered “moser” but EZRA!! YOU ARE WRONG ABOUT IF PARENTS ARE UNHAPPY LET THEM SPEAK!!

    Parents have NO SAY only rich people and people on the board like maybe you –ezra– HAVE SAY!!

    I agree with the comment that NO MATTER HOW MUCH MORE MONEY THE YESHIVAS GET, THE TUITION WOULD NOT BE LOWERED!! the yeshivas get a lot of my money –give me a “drop” of a deduction– and DONT LET ME HAVE SAY!!

    Most yeshivas will spend more time “policing which clothes and snacks you send your child with” instead of ensuring to put the efforts into trying to stop bullying which IS DANGEROUS BOTH EMOTIONALLY AND PHYSICALLY!! and most of all most yeshivas are going by the board and NOT BY ANY GADOL/POSEK FOR DECISIONS!! they even take your money and make you sign that they get to keep the money if they decide FOR ANY REASON TO THROW YOUR CHILD OUT!! (well then how can you pay the next school IF YOU GET A CHILD INTO ANOTHER SCHOOL!!)

    AND THE YESHIVOS WANT ONLY THE BEST KIDS!! they dont want to take kids who have IEPs and need more help!! well THAT IS THEIR JOB !! TO EDUCATE!!

    SO yes the secular curriculum is “BELOW” that of public school BUT THEY STILL WANT TO THROW KIDS OUT WHO ARE NOT PERFORMING WHEN THE YESHIVAS ARE NOT EVEN TEACHING the steps to get to the next level!!

    ALL ADMINISTRATORS/PRINCIPALS ARE CORRUPT except the ones that go by daas torah and dont just follow the boards —most of the rabeim and moros are hard working and also will not get a raise if the yeshivas get more gov. funding!!

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