The parents of several Rockland County yeshiva students filed a class action lawsuit on Friday against New York State's Department of Education and several yeshiva administrators for allegedly failing to offer adequate levels of secular education to students, which they say is badly handicapping their prospects for the future.
While secular education for girls is generally fairly comprehensive—including several hours of English and math instruction per day—the same cannot be said for boys, the lawsuit alleges. Secular education begins around the equivalent of 4th grade and ceases when boys turn 13, though the lessons they do receive are reportedly lackluster, and amount to little more than unqualified teachers "babysitting" students.
"Although a religious education may be cherished as integral to the ultra-Orthodox/Hasidic community life, the consequence of not providing a secular education is that students are never given the opportunity to learn even the basic Three R’s that all American children receive: reading, writing, and arithmetic," the lawsuit says. "Because of their gender, male, and their religion, ultra-Orthodox/Hasidic, they have been and are being denied their right to receive a sound basic education as guaranteed by law. As a consequence, their lifelong earning power is greatly diminished, leaving many to become dependent on the public weal."
The filings were made by a public interest law firm on behalf of seven unnamed plaintiffs, who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation from the Orthodox community. It does make clear, though, the deep sense of dissatisfaction that many students and their families appear to feel with the current status quo.
"Regardless of whether children attend religious school or public school, all children are entitled to receive a meaningful education—one that allows them the opportunity to become productive participants in our civic society—able to serve meaningfully on a jury, able to participate meaningfully in public debates, and able to participate meaningful at the voting booth," the lawsuit says.
"No parent or child should be forced to choose between substantive rights: the right to a religious education and the right to receive an education substantially equivalent to that received by public school students."
Naftuli Moster, the executive director of Young Adults For A Fair Education, or Yaffed, knows firsthand the difficulty of finding a career after graduating from yeshiva. Having been raised in Borough Park as one of 17 kids in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family, Moster's educational trajectory was the same as the rest of his peers: Many hours spent on Judaic studies, and very little time spent on general education. When he decided to go to college to study psychology, he found himself woefully unprepared.
"There’s no talk of college in yeshiva," Moster told Gothamist in August. "You never heard the word 'semester,' you never heard of financial aid...these concepts don’t exist. I was asked about my high school diploma and I didn’t know what that was."
The DOE is currently investigating 39 yeshivas around New York City on similar allegations, though Moster is concerned that the probe won't go deep enough—the agency, he said, is simply sending surveys to schools with the delusional expectation that questions will be answered honestly.
In October, video of a yeshiva teacher allegedly giving students the answers to an English test surfaced online.
The lawsuit is seeking a "graduated introduction" of secular subjects into a curriculum taught by qualified teachers, as well as three hours of enforced secular study per day.
A spokesman for the State's Department of Education declined to comment, saying the agency does "not comment on pending litigation."