Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED) today filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York State Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia, and N.Y. Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa. They are seeking to stop the state from enforcing legislation that was intended to shield the Yeshivas from some government oversight.
YAFFED founder Naftuli Moster says there are 83 Hasidic yeshivas in New York City and 38 in other parts of the state where secular education such as English, math, science and social studies is given little or no attention. An estimated 115,000 children attend those schools.
There are about 275 Orthodox Jewish yeshivas in New York state, but many are ‘modern Orthodox’ schools that provide a full secular curriculum along with religious studies.
Department of Education spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said the department is working on updating its guidance on equivalency of instruction at the yeshivas.
Pesach Eisen told the Associated Press that at the ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools he attended in Brooklyn, most of the day was spent studying religious texts with classes taught in Yiddish. One class at the end of the day was spent on secular subjects including English and math, enough to be “able to go to the food stamps office and apply.”
“Everything was super basic. … Nobody took it seriously, so even if you were a studious person you had no chance,” said the now-32-year-old Eisen, who had to take remedial classes and study intensively on his own before he succeeded in graduating from college in 2016.
“When we grew up there was no such thing as big aspirations — ’I want to be a doctor, I want to be a lawyer, I want to be a businessman,’” said Eisen, who no longer practices the ultra-Orthodox faith. “It’s, ‘I want to be a rabbi. That’s the only thing.’”
Defenders of the yeshivas say parents have the right to send their children to schools that provide a Jewish education consistent with their beliefs and traditions.
“We specifically for generations have chosen this kind of education for our children,” says Ari Goldberg, who has seven children attending Hasidic yeshivas in Brooklyn. “This is what we want. Why should it be taken away?”
The yeshiva backers also say critics err by just counting the minutes of a school day spent on secular studies.
“The problem solving, the literacy, the critical thinking, all that is in Judaica studies as well,” said Yitzchok Kaufman, a Brooklyn yeshiva alumnus and parent.
YAFFED was founded in 2012 with the aim of pressuring New York City and New York state to enforce the substantial equivalence standard at yeshivas. But that effort was dealt a blow last spring when a state senator who represents a heavily Orthodox Brooklyn district threatened to hold up the state’s $168 billion budget unless the state agreed not to enforce the substantial equivalence rule in the same way at ultra-Orthodox yeshivas as it’s enforced at other schools.
The legislation pushed by Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans in the state Senate, singled out schools with long days, bilingual programs and nonprofit status — in effect, yeshivas — and put the state Department of Education, not local school districts, in charge of determining what curriculum rules those schools must follow.
Although the schools are private, they are not entirely free of government oversight because of a state law requiring that instruction in non-public schools be substantially equivalent to the instruction given at the local public school.
Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools (PEARLS), is not party to the suit, but submitted the following statement to YWN to set the record straight:
“No one cares more deeply about the quality of education our yeshiva students receive than the parents who send them there.
PEARLS was not involved with the legislation and is not party to the lawsuit. The legislation has not impacted our work, nor will this lawsuit. Our pride and commitment to the diverse education our tens of thousands of students receive daily remains unwavering, and the ongoing assault on our yeshivas has become arduous for our community.
We also continue to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide high quality, standards-compliant textbooks, teaching guides and professional development. The educational materials we helped develop are already in use in dozens of schools, benefitting thousands of schoolchildren.
Today’s lawsuit recycles many false claims about yeshivas that were previously made in Tweets, Facebook posts and press releases. They are no more true or valid now that they are contained in numbered paragraphs.
The depiction of yeshivas in YAFFED’s complaint is supported only by YAFFED’s own self-styled “report,” which was itself based solely on a small group of self-selected YAFFED Facebook friends. And even among that group, there are literally zero complainants about the vast majority of yeshivas YAFFED continues to mischaracterize.
The City’s Department of Education and the State Education Department are familiar with the curriculum in our schools. We are confident that those who have made education their lifework will not be swayed by the inaccurate picture today’s lawsuit portrays.
Ultimately, parents must have the right to choose how their children are educated. Today’s lawsuit asserts that the legislation will result in excessive entanglement between government and religious schools, while at the same time seeking to use the government to outrageously attempt to deny parents the right to direct their own children’s education and upbringing.”
(YWN World Headquarters – NYC / AP)