City officials have confirmed they will investigate a complaint alleging that dozens of Brooklyn yeshivas are violating state law by giving their students a subpar education in English, math and other secular subjects.
Fifty-two yeshiva parents, graduates and former teachers signed a letter, sent on Monday to education officials, alleging that there are 39 yeshivas where boys over the age of 13 get no secular education at all. Boys aged 7 through 13 get an average of only 90 minutes of English and math instruction per day, and none at all on Fridays. Other secular subjects, such as science and history are not taught, the letter says.
Citing New York State Education Department guidelines requiring that private schools provide an education “substantially equivalent” to that of public schools, the letter asks the seven superintendents overseeing those schools to investigate the secular instruction at 38 schools in Brooklyn and one in Queens, and help any schools they find lacking to improve their English and math instruction.
Asked whether the complaint would trigger an investigation, Harry Hartfield, a Department of Education spokesman, said via email: “We take seriously our responsibility to ensure that all students in New York receive an appropriate education, and we will investigate all allegations that are brought to our attention.”
One week after the letter was released, when asked whether Mayor Bill De Blasio wanted to comment, spokesman Wiley Norvell said via email: "The city takes its responsibility to address any complaint very seriously. Everyone is held to the same standard, and there is zero tolerance for the kind of educational failure alleged.”
The signatures were collected by Yaffed (Young Advocates for Fair Education), a 3-year-old nonprofit advocating for a beefed up secular curriculum at chasidic yeshivas.
Yaffed founder Naftuli Moster, who attended a chasidic yeshiva in Borough Park, said the response was “nice to hear” but said he would like the Department of Education to outline what steps it plans to take to investigate and how it would help improve secular education at any schools that need it.
“Otherwise it’s just another empty promise,” he said.
Still, the promise to investigate is more of a response then Yaffed has yet received in the three years it has been asking officials to investigate yeshiva education.
In December, Yaffed’s lawyer, civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, sent a letter to city and state officials complaining about the lack of the quality secular education and asking for a meeting. However, that letter did not have the 52 signatures and did not specify specific schools. Officials did not respond directly to Yaffed but the New York City Department of Education (DOE) told media outlets it was unable to investigate without complaints about specific schools. In February, Moster sent city and state officials a list of 27 yeshivas but got no response.
Siegel, who was executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union from 1985 through 2001, said this is the first time in his career he hasn’t received “a single response” to requests to meet with public officials.
He said he finds the silence troubling. “This is a real issue and these are officials who are supposed to follow the law and they’re not.”
Yaffed did not release the names of the people who signed the letter and has asked the DOE to follow suit in order to protect them from retaliation or social ostracism.
“They could get kicked out of the yeshiva, they could get thrown out of the synagogue,” Moster said. “Once you’re labeled as someone who is going against the community, you’re either kicked out or you feel like you’re kicked out.”
He added, however, that things are changing, noting a recent article in the charedi newspaper Hamodia advocating better secular education.
Moster began advocating for better secular education in chasidic yeshivas when he discovered how unprepared for college his own yeshiva education had left him. When he left yeshiva he did not know how to do long division or write an essay. He’d never heard of a molecule, a cell, or the U.S. system of checks and balances, or even the American Revolution.
Moster said that even the 90 minutes of secular studies he did receive each day were of poor quality. Yeshiva administrators considered secular education as a waste of time, he noted, since Judaic studies were paramount, and students treated the classes as a time to goof off.
One Yaffed supporter, who requested that his name not be used for fear of backlash against his family, graduated from a prominent Borough Park yeshiva and now sends his children there. He said his sons had learned multiplication and had started on fractions when their secular education stopped.
“The teachers are very unqualified — people from the community with hardly any English knowledge,” he said in an interview earlier this year.
“My kids are really top-notch students. Each one of their tests, all their marks are top marks and it’s such a waste that they don’t get any [secular] education,” he said.
If city or state officials fail to crack down on yeshivas with poor secular education, Yaffed plans to go to court. However that would require parents of current students to sign on publicly publically as plaintiffs, a tall order in the insular charedi communities of Crown Heights, Williamsburg and Borough Park.
“People are afraid that their children are going to be thrown out of the school [if they sign on”], Siegel said. “Even with what their concerns are, they want to be there, they want their children to be there. They just want their children’s education to be better.”
Moster and Siegel stresses that a lawsuit would be against city and state officials for not enforcing the law, not against yeshiva leadership. For this reason, they asked the DOE to also keep the names of the schools private.
“We don’t want to make this a fight against specific yeshivas,” Siegel said. “My hope is that at least one of the seven superintendents will do what they are required to do under the law and that is investigate.”
Yaffed recently set up a hotline (646-350-0075) where people can learn more about the organization and leave complaints about specific yeshivas.
Note: This story was updated August 3 with a response from Mayor Bill de Blasio's office.