Backlash is Swift After NYT “Hit Job” on Yeshiva Educational Standards  - The Jewish Voice
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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Backlash is Swift After NYT “Hit Job” on Yeshiva Educational Standards 

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Backlash is Swift After NYT “Hit Job” on Yeshiva Educational Standards 

By: Ilana Siyance & Fern Sidman

A critical vote took place on Tuesday by the New York State Board of Regents  to establish new regulations for holding private and parochial schools to substantially equivalent academic standards. The vote comes on the heels of The New York Times story outlining a purported lack of oversight of private Hasidic Jewish schools that ostensibly fail to provide a basic secular education.

The vote not only decides on the autonomy of private schools and religious Jewish schools across the state but it also decides whether the state can mandate  the curriculum that the schools should provide instruction in and how much time will be left for religious subjects at the private schools.  The vote carries with it a tremendous degree of gravitas as it directly affects precisely how much oversight the government will have over Yeshivas, Jewish day schools and other private institutions of learning.  The result of the decision made by the Board of Regents affords the government full authority to review local schools’ curriculum and to reject a private school’s secular studies curriculum. If schools do not meet the criteria that the government sets forth, then they can possibly have their funding pulled.

The new regulations approved by the State Board of Regents would require all private schools to either offer Regents exams, be accredited by an approved accrediting body, or have its curriculum assessed and approved by the local school authority, as was reported by HaModia. The report also said that children attending schools that don’t meet these criteria would be considered truant, and their parents may be fined or eventually jailed.

“The NYS Education Department recently released new, proposed Substantial Equivalency Regulations for nonpublic schools. These regulations can give unprecedented authority over the Yeshivos to the local public-school districts, and the curricular requirements can present a serious challenge to the ability of many Yeshivos to be mechanech our children according to our mesorah”, wrote the Agudath Israel of America, a nonprofit Orthodox organization.

Many religious groups have been claiming that the choice of what to teach is theirs, and that parents choose to pay tuition for their children to attend the private schools, each to their own liking.  The Yeshiva spokespersons also stress that there are many Jewish modern Orthodox schools with a robust secular education program that would also be adversely affected by Tuesday’s ruling by the New York Board of Regents.

For several years now, the New York Times has taken it upon itself to research the Hasidic private schools, writing about how the schools are “failing by design”.  The Times has taken a handful of Hasidic schools as a sample, faulting the private schools overall for minimal time invested in secular studies. A recent, particularly disparaging article published by Times reporters Eliza Shapiro and Brian Rosenthal states that the schools dedicate the majority of the day to religious studies, erroneously claiming this leaves the students ill equipped to find jobs and excel in society.

In response to the denigration heaped on yeshivas and the quality of education they provide to their students in the Times article, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel of the Agudath Israel organization (which represents the views of the large swath of the Orthodox Jewish community in New York City and across the United States), recently penned a letter to Shapiro and Rosenthal, the two writers at the Times who produced the article in question.

Rabbi Zweibel said in this letter:  “The timing of this article is terrible. Hate crime statistics, specifically crimes targeting Jews, are spiking dramatically — and most of these crimes are being directed against Hasidic Jews. Is now the time to publish a major article in the most prestigious newspaper in the world portraying the Hasidic schools — and, by extension, the entire Hasidic community — in the most negative light imaginable? Obviously, no one in his right mind would accuse reporters with your surnames of being anti-Semitic, but don’t you realize how an article like this will fuel the anti-Semites of the world to escalate their attacks against Hasidic Jews?”

The Times also cites a standardized test in reading and math, administered in 2019 to 1000 students at the Central United Talmudical Academy, in which all students failed. The Times intentionally neglects to mention how other schools fared, or how many of the public schools throughout 37 states cheated on the same standardized test. The Times goes on to shine a spotlight on public funding that the Hasidic schools have received over the years, saying the funding should cease because the schools allegedly fail to provide an adequate education to students.

The left-wing paper also disparages city and state officials for not taking action. The article suggests that this is because they fear backlash from influential Hasidic leaders who hold sway among their followers when it comes time to vote. “There’s a significant population that you ignore at your peril,” said a political consultant quoted by the Times, Evan Stavisky, referring to the Hasidic community. “They are part of the fabric of New York politics.”

The Times also alleges that students are being “trapped” into dependency and joblessness, despite the fact that the government has endowed the schools with generous taxpayer funding.  The article says that the Hasidic boys schools collected roughly $1 billion in the past four years.  Even the Times conceded that that “the schools receive far less taxpayer money per pupil than public schools do”.

The article concluded that “students grow up and can barely support their own families”.  Still, as per the US Census Bureau data conducted this decade, the city’s greatest concentration of unemployment is by no means in Hasidic neighborhoods of New York City. Rather, such unemployment rates exist in districts 14, 15, 16, and 17 in the south and central West Bronx, and District 10 in northern Manhattan.

Hasidic Jews are, by and large, employed in successful occupations.  The same article even conceded, “six days a week, often before the sun rises, boys file into classrooms and spend up to eight hours a day studying the Talmud and other ancient texts”, which clearly illustrates that the boys in these yeshivas are receiving  a full day of instruction. The Times also alleges that corporal punishment is an acceptable occurrence in some of the Hasidic schools.  Richard Bamberger, spokesman for Hasidic schools, responded by saying the schools “have zero-tolerance policies against any violence.”

Speaking to the Jewish Voice on the condition of anonymity, a representative of the Tzedek Association, a Brooklyn based organization that advocates for Jewish education and other human rights causes, said on Tuesday that “The entire New York Times article was replete with countless egregious falsehoods and baseless accusations. He stated that, “the Times accuses yeshivas of employing corporeal punishment with their students and that is patently untrue. There is absolutely no veracity to this insidious propaganda and the Times provided no concrete evidence to buttress its claim.”

On the issue of government funding for yeshivas, the Tzedek Association representative said that of the $1 billion over the last four years that the yeshivas have received, $400 million of that amount is designated for the school lunch program and $30 million is earmarked for parents who qualify for school vouchers. He added that the remaining balance is for yeshivas to comply with government mandatory testing.

He added that, “the yeshivas most definitely have their students take the government required exams and the test results indicate that yeshiva students do much better than anyone would admit.”

A report on the Vois Es Nais web site estimated that the roughly 100,000 students being served in the private schools get just $2500 per child in government funding, as opposed to roughly $28,000 spent per child in the public school system.

HaModia reported that in a New York Sun op-ed last Wednesday, Borough Park Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein wrote, “The Times is also going to accuse chasidic yeshivas of encouraging families to vote, as if a basic civic duty is scandalous when undertaken by chasidim. With voter turnout in New York City at historic lows — just 23 percent of eligible voters turned out in the November 2021 election — one would think the Times would applaud efforts to turn out the vote.”

Taking to Twitter to express his views last week on this hot button issue, Assemblyman Eichenstein also said that the Times article was “a pitiful rehash of cherry picked data and inaccuracies, peddled by the same group obsessed with Orthodox Jews. What’s clear is that the NYT is not interested in the positive value of our schools, just spreading lies for clicks.”

Also weighing in on this issue was the Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim, an organization that represents over 950 American rabbis.

In a statement sent to the media on Tuesday, the RAA said that “these new guidelines represent an unacceptable governmental encroachment on and intrusion in the autonomy of our religious schools. Each school’s board and educational committee should be entrusted to determine the course of education for its students, according to the traditions and philosophy of its community and parent body.”

RAA Presidium Chairman, Rabbi Yaakov Klass, stated that “perhaps the single most important issue currently facing the Jewish community of New York City is the freedom to educate our children in a proper yeshiva environment that trains them to be good Americans and at the same time teaches them to remain true to our faith and traditions. The Yeshiva educational system has produced generations of productive, loyal, resourceful, and respectful New Yorkers who have contributed greatly to the growth of the city’s economic, civic, and cultural greatness. The vast and diverse Yeshiva system in New York City is currently thriving as it offers parents a spectrum of schools to fit each child’s unique needs. Never in history has a Jewish parent had so many school choices as in New York City today.”

RAA Executive Vice President, Rabbi Mendy Mirocznik, noted that “the important wall of separation between state and religion is being breached in a most egregious manner, as evident by the draconian guidelines issued by the New York State Education Department.”

The RAA statement continued by saying, “this country was settled due, in part, to the desire to live and raise one’s children according to one’s religion. The constitution protects the right of a citizen to parent and educate one’s child in the religious manner one sees fit.

Jewish schools have done an outstanding job in educating the community’s children. In addition to extensive Judaic content and core secular studies, these schools teach critical thinking, logic, textual skills, and traditional values – skills that are crucial to becoming productive, law-abiding citizens. The numerous graduates of the Jewish educational system and their manifold accomplishments, throughout the USA and abroad, attest to the high quality of Jewish education.

The Rabbinical Alliance of America fully and unequivocally supports all the actions being taken by community leaders supporting religious liberty and Jewish education in combating the edicts of the New York State Education Department encroaching upon the separation of religion and government.

The Rabbinical Alliance of America calls upon the New York State Education Department to abolish these draconian regulations that are, in our considered opinion, both unconstitutional and an infringement on religious freedom, the promise this great country offers all its inhabitants.”

The Hasidic community has been plagued with such attack in the past and for the last several years have been busy tapping lawyers to defend the private schools’ right to teach what the parent body and school administration agree is the right balance to instill the century-old values for the religious communities that they serve.  “The Hasidic community is proud of the education that it provides to its students — all of whom attend at their parents’ choice for a religious education — and has many, many accomplished and successful graduates,” wrote J. Erik Connolly, a Chicago based lawyer from the Benesch firm which represents the Tzedek Association in a letter to the two Times reporters.

In his letter to Shapiro and Rosenthal at the Times, Connolly also wrote: “First, the article you describe in your September 1, 2022 emails appear to imply that the Hasidic boys school system is a uniform network, thereby allowing you to make blanket statements about the community as a whole based upon the policies, curricula, or issues that are unique to individual schools. The truth is that, as you yourself admit, there are 150 Hasidic schools in New York, and they are all independently owned and operated. Accordingly, what is true for one school might not be true of the others or representative of the majority. Based on your email, it appears that you intend to publish the following “facts” about Hasidic schools as a whole, which are simply untrue.”

Connolly continued by listing the allegations presented by the Times’ reporters and the facts that clearly rebut them.

He wrote:

 

  • Allegation: “[Hasidic boys] schools provide almost no instruction in basic secular subjects such as history or science.”

Fact: Hasidic schools teach a variety of secular subjects including history, English, math, geography, and science. Each school has a different curriculum and amount of time that these subjects are studied per day.

  • Allegation: Hasidic boys schools only teach English, reading, and math, to studentsaged 8 to 12.

Fact: In the majority of the Hasidic schools, such instruction begins as early as pre-kindergarten or kindergarten. Again, each school develops its own curriculum and instructs students accordingly.

  • Allegation: The rules for some schools discourage further study at home.

Fact: The overwhelming majority of the Hasidic schools require homework.

 

  • Allegation: Secular instructors at the Hasidic schools are “woefully” unqualified,

and some are hired off of Craigslist or ads on lamp posts.

 

Fact: All teachers are qualified, background checked, and vetted. The teachers’ qualifications are approved by the Office of Children & Family Services, amongst others, and checked during routine school inspections by other agencies such as the Department of Health. It is not a common practice to find teachers on Craigslist or to hang flyers seeking teachers on lamp posts.

  • Allegation: The Hasidic schools follow the guidelines of the United Talmudical Academy.

Fact: Not all Hasidic schools follow the guidelines of the United Talmudical Academy. In fact, the majority follow their own education programs and curricula, which they build from the ground up.

  • Allegation: Religion teachers use severe corporal punishment, which creates an environment of fear that makes learning difficult.

Fact: Corporal punishment is not a standard practice or policy across Hasidic schools. Rather, there is an unequivocal policy in these schools that corporal punishment will not be tolerated and any teachers who use corporal punishment will be fired. Indeed, the Torah mandates a way of life that does not include violence. Moreover, the schools are inspected by agencies such as the Office of Children & Family Services and the Department of Health, and any allegations and any allegations of corporal punishment would be raised and documented by these inspections.

There is already a NY state law in place requiring private schools to provide an education comparable to that offered at public schools. Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio began an investigation into the schools in 2015, but it was put on hold when the pandemic struck.  “Had it not been for the demands of Covid, we would have finished the investigation, put the willing schools on a corrective action plan and urged the state to sanction the unresponsive schools,” said Mr. de Blasio.

NYC Mayor Eric Adams, who touts a good long-standing relationship with the Hasidic community in Brooklyn, where he had served as Borough President, has stayed away from intervening in the private schools.  Under pressure, his spokesman, Maxwell Young, said for the first time that the administration would complete de Blasio’s investigation into the schools, and they must meet the high standards.

It was reported that the mayor’s spokesman told the Times that he believed “schools should be culturally sensitive and meet high standards.”

A report on the World Israel News web site said that Adams told reporters on Monday that he was “not concerned about the findings of the article.”

“I want a thorough investigation. I want an independent review and that’s what the city has to do. And we’re going to look at that,” the mayor was quoted by Spectrum News NY1 saying.

WIN also reported that Adams enjoys broad support from the Hasidic community and his senior adviser, Joel Eisdorfer, is a Hasidic Jew.  According to his spokesman, however, “the mayor’s decisions are not influenced by political support.”

So far, Gov. Kathy Hochul has quietly hinted she will not crack down on the Yeshiva day schools, or make changes to their curriculum.  The vote on Tuesday by the Board of Regents spelled out the state policy–and this could mean that Hasidic schools will lose public funding if they do not comply by providing a satisfactory secular education program,  as based on the board’s criteria.

“The government has an oversight responsibility to ensure those public dollars are spent as intended, but in recent years both the city and state have failed to hold yeshivas to appropriate educational standards,” said Brad Lander, New York City comptroller, whose office serves as the city’s fiscal watchdog. “Newly proposed state regulations will help clarify the city’s oversight responsibilities.”

Lander added on Tuesday that “Today, the Board of Regents adopted regulations clarifying the City’s oversight responsibilities to ensure that private and parochial schools offer a substantially equivalent basic education. As Comptroller, I’ll work to make sure we meet them.”

 

 

 

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