Bid For Better Secular Ed In Yeshivas Heading Toward Court

By Amy Sara Clark (The Jewish Week)
March 11, 2015

Failing to get a response from city and state officials, an organization pushing for better secular education in charedi yeshivas is gearing up to bring the issue to court.

In a Dec. 8 letter veteran civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, writing on behalf of the nonprofit Yaffed, asked officials to investigate complaints of charedi and black-hat yeshivas providing boys with barely any secular education.

“We wrote to the governor, the attorney general, the mayor and the chancellor. I do that periodically ... and this is the first time I’ve never gotten a single response,” said Siegel, who was director of the New York Civil Liberties Union from 1985 through 2000.

State officials didn’t respond to multiple emails from The Jewish Week asking for comment. Department of Education officials reiterated what they told The Jewish Week in December: that they needed complaints about a specific school before they could investigate. They didn’t address why they haven’t responded to Siegel’s request for a meeting, or respond to a question as to whether they would investigate should Siegal name specific schools, something Siegel said he expected to do at a meeting, but didn’t want to broadcast in a public letter.

“The only thing I can conclude at this point is that this is a radioactive issue” he said, that “none of them necessarily wants to touch.”

“It’s known that this is a community that very often votes monolithically,” he said. “All this just gets me very angry, because that’s not the way it should be. It should be that elected officials look at these issues on the merits and if there’s a problem here they should do something. They’re legally obligated to do something. Then you have to figure out how to hold them accountable.”

Holding them accountable will likely mean going to court, so last month Siegel and Yaffed founder Naftuli Moster met with other Yaffed activists to discuss how to find plaintiffs willing to sign their name to a complaint. The case would ask the court to force state and city officials to enforce a state law requiring that private schools provide instruction “substantially equivalent” to what’s mandated for public schools. While public schools are required to provide at least five hours of education per day, Yaffed asserts that many yeshivas only provide 90 minutes of secular education per day to boys, and no secular education to them at all after the age of about 13.

Moster said that even during those 90 minutes instruction is poor to nil, because the teachers, who usually have gone through the same education system as their students, are not qualified to teach and do not have the authority to maintain order, leading to 90 minutes of supervised recess for all but a handful of interested students who gather around the teacher’s desk to learn what they can. Yaffed is focusing on boys’ education to start because girls, who don’t study Talmud, get better — though still lacking — secular education.

Gearing Up For Court

While Yaffed awaits a response from the government, it is looking for parents of current students and current teachers to serve as plaintiffs for the lawsuit — not a small order in the insular charedi communities of Crown Heights, Williamsburg and Borough Park where doing so could lead to retaliation or social ostracism.

“To be honest, most people at the moment tell me that I’m out of my mind. They’ll tell me that you’ll never have any parents coming forward,” said Moster. He said he hopes the second part of Yaffed’s strategy, changing parents mindset, will make parents comfortable advocating for their kids. He stresses that the lawsuit is against city and state officials for not enforcing the law, not against yeshiva leadership.

“It should have been the state who steps in and says: ‘I get it, you’re not equipped [to teach secular subjects]. We’re going to provide you with the tools and the training and the capability of doing so.’ But the state has basically not done any of that. They’re turned a blind eye and ignored it completely,” he said.

Change From Within

On the hearts and minds front, last month Yaffed put up its second billboard, in the heart of Williamsburg. On the left side, marked 1988, a child with a math book in front of him complaining in Yiddish that “English” aka “secular” subjects are profane. The other side, marked “Today” shows the boy grown up, with a pile of unpaid bills before him, saying in English, “Oy, what was I thinking?”

Yaffed’s first billboard, which went up in 2013 next to Brooklyn’s Prospect Expressway, showed a picture of a chasidic boy reading a math textbook with the message in Yiddish and English: “It’s your mitzvah. It’s the law.”

Moster says the billboards serve to give people who already agree with Yaffed’s mission an opening to voice their opinion when someone brings up the ad. “But if you don’t have that stimulant, then there’s no discussion whatsoever,” he said. “And if there’s no discussion there’s no action.”

So far private donors have paid for the billboards, but just last month, Yaffed started an online crowdsourcing fundraiser on the site Jewcer. The goal is to raise $3,000 for a third billboard in Borough Park to go up later this month. As of Tuesday afternoon, halfway into the monthlong campaign, 18 people had contributed $1,088.

Moster said he hopes the campaign will not only raise money, but also get more people involved. “For a $36 or $72 donation they feel like they have a chip in the game,” he said. “They want to follow it more closely.”

Currently, most of Yaffed’s hundred or so supporters are former charedi yeshiva students. But Moster hopes to get more people behind the effort, both inside and outside the charedi community.

Help From Outside?

He sees a broad umbrella organization, such as the UJA-Federation of New York as a potential partner. “To me the UJA, I always see them strategizing,” he said. “They’re involving all different groups: intermarried families and the LGBTQ community. But he says involving those groups isn’t going to stop the demographic trend in which Orthodoxy Jewry is on the rise and non-Orthodox Jewish communities are declining.  

“I think they’re just not doing enough to recognize [the problem] — they can’t just be on their own side and let Judaism be taken over by what will eventually be a group of largely uneducated individuals, relatively extremist individuals,” he said.  

Deborah Joselow, UJA-Federation of New York’s managing director of the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, said charedi day school teachers and principals participate in many of their professional development programs and they have one program specifically for educators in Torah Umesorah-affiliated schools. The two-year-long program has trained 120 principals from both boys and girls yeshivas.

Joselow said the UJA is focused on working with educators who come to them, rather than intervening in schools uninvited, but said her organization also works directly with parents and students when schools are unreceptive.

“We’re going to lift people up wherever they are. When the hand is stretched out it’s easier to help, but we don’t give up on anybody,” she said.

Asked whether she thinks there is a problem with the quality of secular education in some charedi schools, she said: “I can’t condemn any one particular school or one particular sector but obviously we wouldn’t be invested in educational excellence if we didn’t believe there was a challenge there, for lots and lots of schools.

“Sometimes schools are very hunkered down, just in taking care of their kids and using minimal resources to get maximal results,” she said.

All three major charedi umbrella organizations, Chabad, Agudath Israel and the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg have declined to comment for this story, but in December, Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, said the amount of secular education provided by chasidic schools varied greatly but that most yeshivas offer a very good education that gives children “strong reading and textual skills.”

“I think that Naftali Moster’s experience is the exception to the rule,” he said.

But the yeshiva graduates who support Yaffed disagree.

'Such A Waste'

One supporter, who requested that his name not be used for fear of backlash against his family, graduated from the prominent Yeshiva Machzikei Hadas Belz in Borough Park two decades ago and now sends his three children, two teenage boys and a 4-year-old girl, to the school, which is also Moster’s alma mater.  

His sons stopped learning secular subjects at 13. Before that, they got 90 minutes a day of English and math. The kids had mastered their times tables and division and had learned “maybe a little fractions” when they began learning only religious subjects during their 12-hour school day.

“The teachers are very unqualified — people from the community with hardly any English knowledge,” he said.

The father of three said his education was slightly better: he learned a little history in addition to basic English and math, something he hasn’t seen his kids study.

Now, at almost 40, he’s a cab driver, unable to get a better job because of his poor English and struggling to pay his bills.

When he was younger, he spent a year taking ESL and GED classes through a government funded program aimed at charedi yeshiva graduates. But he was unable to keep up and flunked out.

“I was married, I had to pay rent. I had to pay electric bills. I was working at a bakery where they needed me full-time,” he said. “The basics we should have been taught in yeshiva, when you have no overhead, no bills to pay.”

He wants better for his children, but is unable to move them to another school. He’s no longer religious, but his wife is and approves of the education they’re getting.

“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. He’s considered trying to educate them at home, but has no idea where to start or even what books to buy, he said.

He’s hoping Yaffed’s efforts will be successful, both in getting the state to intervene and in encouraging people in the charedi community to stand up for better secular education. He thinks many parents want this, but are afraid.

“People talk about the problem,” he said, but nobody was really, really open to coming out so strongly about this issue until now. ... Hopefully something will come out of all of this,” he said.

Yeshiva Machzikei Hadas Belz, in fact, tried instituting more secular education a few years back, but quickly gave up the effort after students protested. But this father of three wishes the principal would try again. (Belz officials did not return a phone call seeking comment.)

“The principal knows my position. I’ve actually approached him three times on this,” he said. “My kids are at his school, so it’s like me and him are colliding on who is going to have more influence on my kids. And it seems like he’s pushing his agenda and I’m pushing mine. And it feels like he’s winning.”