New York State requires yeshivas to provide a secular education to their students that is “substantially equivalent” to what public schools offer. The fact that the law has been neglected for decades is no surprise, but it is a disgrace.
Finally, a government official is seeking reform. Daniel Dromm, a city councilman who chairs the education committee, told The Jewish Week and WNYC (working in collaboration on this project) that allegations about the sub-standard curriculum are “very serious.” If true, he said, they amount to “abuse or neglect of students.” He is calling for an in-depth investigation to determine how public funds earmarked for secular studies are being spent, and what students are and are not learning.
It’s clear that many of the boys complete school with little ability to read or write English or develop math skills beyond a fifth grade level. The limited time at the end of the school day that is devoted to secular studies is not taken seriously by teachers, students or administrators. Indeed, there is a sense of open neglect, if not contempt, among some chasidic families who view a serious secular education as a threat to their traditional way of life. Complicating the issue is the close relationship between local politicians, who tend to look the other way on these matters, and chasidic leaders, who hold sway over the votes of their followers.
The reform effort has been driven largely by one former chasid, Naftuli Moster, 29, one of 17 children growing up in a chasidic home in Borough Park who realized how inadequate his education was when he sought to attend college. He formed an advocacy group, Young Advocates for Fair Education, several years ago and has resisted recriminations from his former community for his efforts.
A months-long probe by deputy managing editor Amy Sara Clark and special correspondent Hella Winston, made possible by The Jewish Week Investigative Journalism Fund, found Dromm to be the only government official willing even to discuss the situation. Clark and Winston sought comment from more than a dozen political officials, including the governor, the mayor and the public advocate, none of whom agreed to be interviewed. Similarly, no yeshiva administrators or chasidic community leaders contacted would comment.
All the more reason why Moster’s initiative and Dromm’s willingness to take action on this long-overlooked mandate deserve support, offering yeshiva boys the opportunity to graduate with marketable skills and not be dependent on the state as adults. As Moster has noted, it is not only a Jewish value to educate one’s children, it’s the law of the land.