State’s Secular Studies Requirements Worry Yeshivos, Opposition Campaign Building

State’s Secular Studies Requirements Worry Yeshivos, Opposition Campaign Building

By Sergey Kadinsky

Are Jewish schools providing the same education to their students as public schools in secular subjects? In response to a public campaign by disillusioned graduates of chasidic yeshivos that their schools have not prepared them for a working life, the New York State Department of Education released new guidelines on November 20 that require more hours of secular studies than there are available in a school day. The rules are designed to ensure that yeshivos provide the equivalency of the secular education that is given in public schools.

The guidelines require the teaching of subjects such as math, science, English, social studies, art, and music for a total of nearly 34 hours a week, numerically impossible to fit into a school day that also includes religious studies and a lunch break. “This is draconian; it is impossible to fulfill,” said Rabbi Binyomin Kessler, Menahel of the Yeshiva Ketana of Queens, a boys’ elementary school with 405 students.

The rules are to go into effect in February. Failure to comply may result in loss of public funding for mandated items such as record-keeping, school meals, and transportation. Parents who fail to transfer their children to compliant schools may be facing truancy charges. The new guidelines follow nearly five years of campaigning by Young Adults for Fair Education (YAFFED), a group of alumni of chasidic yeshivos who feel that their schools have not adequately prepared them for higher education and careers.

“This is a very serious matter. It requires tremendous unity to rally and have our voices heard. There are many ways to measure equivalency,” said Michael Salzbank, Executive Director of Bnos Malka Academy, an elementary and middle school in Forest Hills. “Equivalency can be based on many factors. Look at our school. We have a lot to be proud of.”

Initially, many of the administrators, faculty, and parents in Queens did not give the state’s new guidelines serious thought, as the matter appeared to be between the State and 34 yeshivos that were under investigation by the city over the past three years for allegedly offering little if any secular subjects.

But with all private schools being affected by the guidelines, regardless of their graduation rates and performance on state exams, Rabbi Yosef Churba of Yeshivat Magen Abraham in Brooklyn authored a petition directed to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, which has gathered nearly 50,000 signatures since it was publicized online two weeks ago. “I received an email from the Bais Yaakov of Queens to sign the petition,” said Rabbi Elan Segelman of Lander College for Men. “Yeshiva Ketana of Queens also sent me an email about this petition.”

What surprised Rabbi Segelman and other local rabbanim is the scrutiny that Queens schools are facing as part of the dragnet ensnaring all private schools. “Our education is a superior education. Our graduates are represented in all professions. Frum Jewish high schools here are leading in the Regents exams,” said Rabbi Herschel Welcher, who sits on the Vaad HaChinuch of Shevach High School in Kew Gardens Hills. “On all the state tests, we’ve outperformed the public schools. We offer no apologies.” He added that in this community, the synagogues are filled with working professionals who take their children’s education seriously. “Respect our community and leave our schools alone,” he said in a message to state regulators.

Alongside the petition, leading roshei yeshivah publicly shared their concerns. Following a New York Times article questioning the education offered by yeshivos that featured a photo of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, its Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yaakov Bender wrote a letter to the newspaper. “We take the most pride in fulfilling our primary mission of teaching Torah and imparting Torah values. But we also outperform the public schools academically at every level. Our performance on State tests far surpasses theirs, we offer numerous Advanced Placement courses, and our graduates achieve great success in their chosen professions. Six of our alumni have attended Harvard Law School over the past decade!”

The editors then replaced the photo of Yeshiva Darchei Torah on its website with that of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, which offers more than a dozen college-level Advanced Placement courses in its high school, unintentionally proving the point that private schools can outperform public schools in preparing students for college.

Rabbi Eliyahu Brudny of the Mirrer Yeshiva and Rabbi Yisroel Reisman of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath also wrote a joint letter to Commissioner Elia that was shared with the Flatbush Jewish Journal, along with a separate op-ed piece that was published in The Wall Street Journal. “The state government now requires private schools to offer a specific set of classes more comprehensive than what students in public schools must learn,” they wrote. “Our schools must offer 11 courses to students in grades 5 through 8, for a total of seven hours of daily instruction. Public schools have less than six hours a day of prescribed instruction.”

“The new curriculum demands so much time that it crowds out Torah study, our sacred mission,” they added.

Agudah activist Chaskel Bennett described the state’s guidelines as “unacceptable overreach by the government. Parental choice in education is constitutionally protected and confirmed by the US Supreme Court.”

Agudah supporter Yaniv Meirov of Chazaq noted that when his organization makes the pitch to Jewish public school families to transfer their children to yeshivos, they know that yeshivos in Queens offer a good secular education in an environment that also teaches positive midos and respect for parents. “More than 500 children have been placed in yeshivos, putting them on the path towards Jewish heritage. This is our future.”

Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal has been meeting with Jewish community leaders and elected colleagues over the past month to discuss the State’s education guidelines. “We knew that there would be changes in policy but were very surprised by this as it is so radical. We are working on a strategy. We will return to session in early January, and that’s when the conversation will pick up,” he said. “For now, we are having many meetings.”

Although critical of Orthodox organizations for their opposition to State intervention, YAFFED founder Naftuli Moster appears to agree that the number of hours prescribed by the state is unrealistic. “In the end, we believe that the state will not require as many hours as is currently being described. We look forward to reviewing future clarifications,” he wrote in a statement.

Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld said that a closer look at the guidelines reveals that yeshivos that do well academically should not be concerned. “In nonpublic schools, the unit of study requirements may be met, or their equivalents may be met, by the incorporation of the State learning standards of such subjects into the syllabi for other courses,” the guidelines note. This suggests that the hourly amount does not apply literally towards secular subjects. Schools that participate in Regents exams and high schools that offer Advanced Placement courses are already deemed as compliant by the state. “This is about Satmar,” said one attorney familiar with the guidelines. In this regard, that’s where the matter originated when YAFFED first began its campaign. In a recent speech to his congregants, the Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel, Rav Aron Teitelbaum, railed against the State, describing the plan as “evil.”

“The Jewish nation will not bow or give in to the wicked, not even the commissioner of education,” the Satmar Rebbe said. “We will sacrifice and stand up for our very existence so that we can educate our children and provide them with a Torah education.”

In private and online conversations with my neighbors, reaction has been mixed on the petition. The prospect of compelling more than 440 yeshivos that educate 165,000 students statewide to follow these guidelines seems impossible to believe. The State can’t even get many of its public schools to do better with their exam scores, attendance, and graduation rates. But with their autonomy in charting their educational approaches, public funding, and tuition increases on the line, we should pay closer attention.

By Sergey Kadinsky