Bill De Blasio Must Not Let ultra-Orthodox Jewish Votes Override His Duty to the Law

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie (Ha'aretz)
July 27, 2016

Mayor De Blasio, stop ignoring the welfare of Jewish children. Stop supporting policies that condemn them to a lifetime of poverty and illiteracy. Stop depriving them of the possibility of an honorable livelihood. Stop making them dependent on all manner of government handouts.

The children that I am referring to are ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic boys who attend New York City yeshivas. There are at least 39 of these yeshivas where boys under the age of 13 get no more than 90 minutes of English and math a day. These subjects are taught by untrained and unlicensed teachers at the end of a long day otherwise devoted exclusively to religious studies, in which the language of instruction is usually Yiddish.

Many of these children cannot speak proper English or do simple mathematical calculations. They are being denied the decent education that is the right of every American child and that the City of New York is obligated to provide.  And as Mayor, it is your job to see that it is provided.  

Yes, I know. The ultra-Orthodox community votes, and votes in large numbers. A very high percentage of the community votes for you, following the instructions of their religious leaders. And many of these religious leaders are terrified at the prospect of exposing their children to secular subjects, seeing those subjects as temptations that might ultimately draw those children away from their religious community.  

But Mr. Mayor, you have no choice here. You must ensure that these children are educated for two major reasons. First, it is the right thing to do. If ultra-Orthodox children choose to venture beyond the confines of their own community and to find their place in the larger world, that is a choice that they are entitled to make. If they do so, they will need the skills that only education can provide. And if they should choose to remain in their own community, they will still need the skills to support their families and escape the humiliating dependence on welfare payments to which so many have been condemned.

Second, New York State law requires that adequate education be offered to every single child, without exception. The law states that instruction given in private schools or in home schooling must be "substantially equivalent" to the education provided in public schools. It is an outrage and an embarrassment that you and previous mayors, bowing to political pressure, have chosen to ignore this law. The children involved have paid the price, and so too has the citizenry of New York. When a law of such import is ignored, it breeds disrespect for all laws and for the officials charged with enforcing them.   

But as you know, Mr. Mayor, it is no longer possible to look the other way. Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), founded in 2012, identified the 39 yeshivas that, in its view, offer substandard education. A year ago, it demanded that the city's education department investigate them. You have not yet responded to their demand, but YAFFED has made it clear that it will not let you off the hook. You and your education officials must give a proper accounting of what is being done for these children.

I know the pressure that you are under.  

Grand Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, the rebbe of the Kiryas Joel-based segment of the Satmar Hasidim, has viciously attacked those who challenge the right of his students to remain ignorant of secular subjects.  "We should pray," he said in a speech to his followers, "that these evil doers should not lay their hands on the Jewish children here in America." And mainstream Jewish organizations, which should have the courage to speak out, have mysteriously remained silent.

Some American Jews even claim that freedom of religion, guaranteed by the constitution, allows the yeshivas the unrestricted right to teach what they please, even if that means no secular education at all.  But as others have noted, this is a misreading of the constitution, not to mention an affront to common sense.  

There are certain things that the state can reasonably compel its citizens to do, and meeting appropriate educational standards is one of them. Freedom of religion does not give parents the right to deny their children the medical care they need to live, the seat belts they need to be safe, or the basic educational literacy they need to survive in society. Mr. Mayor, please remember that every single state has educational requirements similar to those in New York. And just as they are enforced elsewhere, they must be enforced in New York City as well.

Mr. De Blasio, I am confident that the people of New York City and New York State support the law as it now stands. And while you should enforce the law because it is your duty to do so, you should know how the overwhelming majority of Jews, including Orthodox Jews, view this matter. They see no religious reason why observant Jews should not also study secular subjects and learn the skills required to participate in the workplace and support their children. In fact, for almost all of the Jewish community, this is pretty much of a no-brainer.

New York's Yeshiva University is evidence of that, and so too are the many yeshivas where the study of secular subjects is encouraged. Most Jews in New York, like most Jews everywhere, believe what was taught by Maimonides, the great 12th century Jewish scholar, taught:  "He who dedicates himself to studying Torah but does not work, and instead lives off charity, profanes the name of God and disgraces the Torah."  

Mr. Mayor, do not abandon the yeshiva students of New York. Make sure their schools teach what they are supposed to teach. Enforce the law.  

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie