The fight over what’s taught at a subset of New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish yeshivas is intensifying, with some of the city’s top private schools joining forces with the yeshivas to oppose new oversight regulations proposed by the state.
Meanwhile, advocates for more secular studies at the yeshivas in question demonstrated at City Hall Wednesday, accusing the de Blasio Administration of failing to ensure that students receive an adequate basic education in subjects such as English, math and science.
It’s been four year since members of the secular education advocacy group Yaffed filed a formal complaint alleging “mass educational neglect” at dozens of yeshivas, most of them in Brooklyn. But on Wednesday Naftuli Moster, executive director of Yaffed and a yeshiva alum, said little, if anything, has changed.
“The city has dragged its feet,” Moster said. “Kids who entered high school a month or two after we filed the complaint have already finished high school and have left without receiving any secular education.”
New York requires that private schools offer education that is “substantially equivalent” to that offered by public schools. But Sheindy Weichman, a mother who joined Moster at City Hall, said the coursework at her 13-year old son’s yeshiva in Brooklyn did not come close to that level.
“His curriculum consisted of simple English, nothing beyond second- or third-grade level, and simple math, nothing beyond a third-grade level. There was no curriculum for science or geography or history or any other secular subject,” she said.
Yeshiva supporters generally defended their programs. Aron Wieder, a Rockland County legislator and vocal critic of Yaffed, pointed to yeshiva graduates’ professional contributions as proof that criticism of the schools is unfounded and additional oversight unnecessary.
“You'll see many Orthodox Jews, many Hasidic Jews very successful in the business sector. They're successful in all sorts of trades,” he said.
Their concern about additional oversight by the state has spread to the world of independent schools like Spence, Trinity, and St. Ann’s. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 24,000 people have left comments about the proposal to visit the non-public schools to ensure they’re compliance rather than wait for someone to complain.
City education officials have been investigating the claims for years. And Will Mantell, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said the investigation is progressing.
“We’ve visited every school in this inquiry and are now working with them to gather important documentation and follow-up information,” he said. Mantell said inspectors have visited the 28 schools relevant to the complaint after years of some yeshiva leaders blocking their access.
At the same time, the yeshivas and other private schools are campaigning against new state regulations that would mandate inspections within three years of opening and require that all schools be inspected by 2023. It would also establish new requirements for math, English, science and social studies.
Yeshiva leaders and their supporters say the new regulations violate religious freedom.
“A big chunk of New York State secular curriculum is antithesis to Judaism and to Jewish community,” said Moses Kahan, an investment advisor who was among the counter protesters at City Hall.
Other private schools say the regulations are unnecessary and burdensome. Catholic schools and some of the city’s most elite independent schools have been encouraging parents to submit letters opposing the regulations. Thousands of parents have already submitted their objections. The comment period for the new regulations is open through September 2nd.