Suit Claims ‘Willful Blindness’ Over Yeshiva Secular Ed
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Suit Claims ‘Willful Blindness’ Over Yeshiva Secular Ed

Class-action lawsuit vs. state by chasidic parents, yeshiva grads focuses on Rockland schools; DOE mum on NYC probe.

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

Yeshiva parents and graduates are suing the state for turning a blind eye to chasidic yeshivas that fail to provide boys with an adequate secular education.

Citing the precedent-setting 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Brown v. Board of Education that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments” and that “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education,” the suit argues that “despite being aware of their individual and collective responsibilities to provide plaintiffs with a substantially equivalent education, defendants have knowingly, willfully, and consistently failed to comply with the law.”

Although most boys begin school at the age of 3, many don’t begin learning English or studying secular subjects until fourth grade. Between the ages of 8 and 13, boys get roughly 90 minutes of math and English a day — and no science, history or other secular subjects at all. At 13 they begin studying religious subjects full-time, the lawsuit says.

Advocates for Justice, a public-interest law firm, filed the class-action lawsuit Friday morning in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on behalf of five yeshiva graduates and two sets of parents who currently send their children to chasidic yeshivas. All of the schools connected to the plaintiffs are either in Spring Valley, Monsey or New Square in the East Ramapo Central District Board of Education, located about 25 miles north of New York City in Rockland County.

“Defendants have acted with deliberate indifference to the consequential harm they have caused and are causing by their willful blindness and deliberate refusal to acknowledge that yeshiva students need, require, and are legally entitled to, at the very least, a minimally adequate secular education,” the complaint says.

The suit asks that the court require the yeshivas to slowly introduce more secular subjects into the curricula — taught by qualified teachers who are given the resources and support necessary to gain the respect of the students — until the schools are teaching a minimum of three hours of secular education per day.

It also asks the court to require New York State to develop a mechanism to enforce the required changes to develop a “program for former student plaintiffs to remediate the ongoing harm that has been inflicted upon them by the failure to properly educate them.”

Advocates for Justice attorney Laura Barbieri says the specifics of such remediation would be worked out if the suit prevails, but she could imagine it taking the form of the yeshivas funding a GED program for its graduates at a local community college.

She compares the process to constructing a building. “I can build the house, but the rooms have to be decorated by the parties in an agreement,” she said. “I think what we’re doing here is beginning the process.”

The lawsuit was spearheaded by the nonprofit Young Advocates for Fair Education, or Yaffed, which was started by Naftuli Moster, who found that his Borough Park chasidic yeshiva left him woefully unprepared for college. At 18, Moster 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.

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 — held at the end of the day after eight hours of religious study — as a time to goof off.

Advocates for Justice is working on the issue pro bono on behalf of Yaffed in East Ramapo while civil rights attorney Norman Siegel is working with Yaffed (also pro bono) on a potential lawsuit against the city’s Department of Education’s lack of oversight of chasidic yeshivas that are primarily in Williamsburg and Borough Park.

The East Ramapo complaint asserts that the schools themselves broke the law by hiring uncertified teachers incapable of teaching secular subjects, creating a public burden by failing to prepare their students to earn a living, misusing federal education funds and, most strikingly, discriminating against boys by giving them significantly less secular education than girls (who get more because they don’t study Talmud).

“By their individual and collective acts and omissions, Defendants have contributed to if not created a culture of ignorance that results in the certitude that generations of yeshiva students, once adults, become financially impoverished, have no alternative but to be sustained principally by public benefits, fail to obtain meaningful employment, and fail to become productive civic participants in our society,” the complaint says.

The lawsuit does not name the plaintiffs because they are afraid their communities will retaliate. “They and their families risk being shunned or expelled from the community, having their businesses boycotted and ruined, suffering verbal threats and abuses, physical assault, and property damage,” the complaint says.

Examples of the price people pay for not following the rules in places like New Square and Spring Valley abound. Four years ago, a New Square man who prayed with nursing home residents instead of at the shul of the town’s grand rebbe, David Twersky, was badly injured after a Skerver follower tried to set fire to his home. Although Shaul Spitzer pleaded guilty and received a sentence of seven years, he was widely supported by community members at his sentencing. And in his memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return,” Shulem Deen writes of being declared a heretic, forced to move out of New Square and eventually shunned by his wife and five children after he began questioning his belief in God and exploring the secular world.

Yaffed’s claim against East Ramapo’s school board and New York State comes several years after Moster started Yaffed. First the group tried to bring the issue to the attention of city and state officials and the yeshivas themselves. After being rebuffed for years, Yaffed finally got some traction over the summer when it submitted to the New York City Department of Education a complaint signed by 52 yeshiva parents, teachers and former students. At the end of July, the DOE promised to investigate and Daniel Dromm, the chair of the city council’s education committee, also promised to take up the cause.

In the months since, the DOE has not released any information about the investigation, except to say they were approaching the task as “partners” to the schools rather than as investigators.

In addition to the state, the parents and graduates are also suing the New York State Board of Regents and its chancellor, Merryl Tisch; the New York State Department of Education and Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia; the East Ramapo Central District Board of Education and its superintendent, Deborah Wortham and the schools (and their principals) that the current students attended: Yeshiva Avir Yakov in New Square, United Talmudical Academy and Yeshiva Darkei Emunah in Monsey and Yeshiva Tzion Yosef in Spring Valley.

All of the defendants named in the suit either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to be interviewed. The NYC DOE did not respond to requests for an update on the DOE investigation.

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