After years of saying “no comment” when it comes to how their students are educated, chasidic leaders have begun to fight back against claims of poor secular education at their boys’ yeshivas.
According to the nonprofit YAFFED (Young Advocates for Fair Education) and former students and teachers who spoke to The Jewish Week, the vast majority of chasidic yeshivas provide secular education only 90 minutes a day, four days a week, and only until the age of 13. In the upper grades the boys study Judaics full-time, graduating with math and English skills of roughly a third- or fourth-grader, and with no science, history, geography, civics or other secular education at all. (Chasidic girls, who aren’t taught Talmud, get better secular educations.)
Yaffed’s efforts prompted New York City’s Department of Education to launch an investigation in 2015; the results have yet to be released.
In the six years since Yaffed began advocating for better secular education, charedi leaders have rarely spoken to the press, although in 2014 they created their own advocacy group to defend yeshiva curricula, PEARLS (Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools).
But on Monday, PEARLS took the offensive, launching the “Protect Our Yeshivas” campaign, which is distributing posters and bumper stickers for yeshiva parents to display in Williamsburg, Borough Park and Crown Heights. The organization has already given away most of the 10,000 posters and bumper stickers it had printed for the campaign, a PEARLS spokeswoman said.
Yeshiva parents are displaying the signs and stickers “in response to unrelenting attacks against their schools by anti-yeshiva activists,” according to a PEARLS press release. The bumper stickers and signs both read: “I’m a proud yeshiva parent — protect my right to choose.”
“In the past year we have decided that enough was enough,” Rabbi David Niederman, director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and a member of the executive committee of PEARLS, told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “We are extremely proud of our yeshivas and we are not going to allow this continuous bashing.”
Naftuli Moster, founder and executive director of YAFFED, contested PEARLS’ claim that it was trying to protect parents’ “right to choose” what yeshiva to send their children to.
“There’s no choice,” he said, arguing that people are pressured to send their children to yeshivas connected to their chasidic sects or shuls. “That’s where you’re expected to go,” he said. If you don’t, you will be an outsider, unconnected to the tightly knit communities in which they live, Moster said.
Asked whether YAFFED’s assertion that yeshiva boys only get 90 minutes of secular education per day was accurate, Rabbi Niederman said he wasn’t going to get into curricula details but that, “We teach what the law requires.”
New York State law requires non-public elementary and middle schools to provide students with a “substantially equivalent” education to that provided by public schools, including teaching students how to write an essay; “fluently” perform “mathematical functions and operations”; “interpret and analyze primary texts to identify and explore important events in history” and use the information “to construct written arguments.” They must also understand “the role of geography and economics in the actions of world civilizations” and, regarding science, be able to “gather, analyze and interpret observable data to make informed decisions … [use] deductive and inductive reasoning to support a hypothesis, and [understand] how to differentiate between correlational and causal relationships.”
Borough Park state Sen. Simcha Felder pushed through an amendment in April that changed the requirements for high schools so that instead of mandating specific classes, they are required to provide “academically rigorous instruction that develops critical thinking skills in the school’s students, the outcomes of which, taking into account the entirety of the curriculum [emphasis added], result in a sound basic education.”
While many people see the change as weakening the requirements for yeshivas (especially since the new amendment is written so that it only applies to bilingual nonprofit schools that let out no earlier than 4 p.m. for the early grades and 6 p.m. for high schoolers), Columbia University law and education Professor Michael Rebell argues that the inclusion of the “sound basic education” clause could make the high school requirements more stringent. This is because the phrase, found in Article 11 of the New York State Constitution, has been defined as being capable of voting and serving on a jury, which one judge deemed means a citizen must understand complex concepts — such as how DNA works — in order to be a fair juror.
While every school will have some graduates that don’t succeed, Rabbi Niederman said, the vast majority are able to succeed, going primarily into trades and professions that don’t require a college education. He said YAFFED’s assertions don’t reflect the views of the majority of yeshiva graduates but rather those of a few dozen “disgruntled students.”
Moster countered that YAFFED’s 2015 complaint that sparked the city’s promise to investigate was signed by 52 yeshiva graduates and parents and that hundreds more have shown support through various means. But, he said, how many people Yaffed represents is “irrelevant” because whether or not students receive a basic secular education is a civil rights issue. “How many people does Malala speak for?” he wrote in an email, referring to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who stood up to the Taliban to fight for the right of girls to receive an education.
In response to the claim that there are plenty of successful graduates of chasidic yeshivas, Moster said, “You have a handful of people who become highly successful despite not getting an adequate secular education. … You will absolutely find some chasidic people who can barely utter a word in English,” who hire good people to do the English and math for them. But those are the exceptions, he said, noting that the 2011 UJA-Federation of New York’s Jewish Community Study found that 43 percent of chasidic families qualify as poor and an additional 16 percent qualify as “near poor,” statistics that the UJA attributes to subpar secular education.
Rabbi David Zwiebel, who also serves on PEARLS’ executive committee, also supported PEARLS’ mission in the news release. “Generations of families have made the choice to send their children to yeshivas because of the high-quality Jewish education they receive,” said Rabbi Zwiebel, who is also vice president of the charedi umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America. “Parents know the educational needs of their children best —not the government.”
According to PEARLS, shortly after forming, the organization “hired a professional team to develop lessons and educational materials for math and English programs that are in compliance with New York State standards,” spokeswoman Elyse Winer wrote in an email. “Additionally, they worked with major textbook publishers [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and William H. Sadlier] to develop textbooks and other materials that meet these standards, while being culturally sensitive. For the 2016-2017 school year, more than 17,000 ELA textbooks and more than 3,000 math textbooks were purchased and used, all of which follow the state guidelines for secular studies.”