Battle Over Role of Religion in Schools Plays Out in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community
“Some people leave precisely because they have been deprived of an education, and they feel betrayed.”
As public school education has become increasingly secular over the years, private religious schools have pushed back by focusing their curricula on more intense religious studies, often at the expense of instruction in secular subjects.
While the role of religion in schools has been a controversial topic since the early days of the American education system, the divide over the role of religion in education seems to be widening. One of the most obvious examples of the conflict can be seen in the educational institutions of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, where instruction in secular subjects is almost non-existent.
Schools that Don’t Educate
According to activists Citizen Truth spoke with, students at some of these ultra-orthodox educational institutions don’t even know that dinosaurs once walked the earth, or that one of the bloodiest wars in human history occurred as a result of the battle over slavery.
This knowledge is essential to be a rational, reasonable member of modern American society, which is what education in the United States is supposed to prepare its youth for. By denying these aspects of education to their students, ultra-Orthodox schools and other conservative religious institutions are not only doing these children a disservice; they are declaring war on modernity and reason.
Ultra-orthodox Jews are also known as Haredi, which can also be translated from Hebrew as “anxious.” This extremely conservative sect of Judaism is characterized by its anxiety towards the outside, non-Jewish world: fear of assimilation, doubt regarding scientific principles and complete trust in the religious leader of one’s specific community, known as a rebbe.
Throughout this article, the words ultra-orthodox and Haredi will be used interchangeably. However, remember that the majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States belong to Hasidic sects, which is an even more conservative group of communities within the larger Haredi community. All Hasidic Jews are part of the larger Haredi movement, but not all Haredi Jews belong to Hasidic communities.
Advocating for Fair Education
One of the groups leading the fight in support of better educational practices in Haredi religious institutions is Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), whose executive director is Naftuli Moster.
Moster was educated in an all-male Haredi school or yeshiva in Borough Park, Brooklyn, which is one of the epicenters of ultra-orthodox culture in the city. He decided to start YAFFED after realizing how incomplete the education he and his friends had received at yeshivas and other ultra-orthodox schools actually was.
YAFFED, PEARLS and a Battle Over Education
YAFFED recently released a 90-page report entitled Non-Equivalent: The State of Education in New York City’s Hasidic Yeshivas which gave a detailed account of the amount of time spent on secular studies in ultra-Orthodox schools. The report also provided comprehensive data on the government funding that yeshivas receive and included recommendations from the New York City Department of Education and the New York Department of Education.
YAFFED and other concerned groups have made repeated attempts to remedy the massive problems existing in religious educational institutions in New York. But the attempts at legislation by the New York State Education at YAFFED’s behest have been met with strong legal and political opposition, and as a result, have failed.
At the forefront of the opposition to YAFFED and similar groups is a group called Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, or PEARLS. Though the name makes allusions to freedom in education, it’s essentially a pro-Yeshiva organization created to oppose YAFFED and stop any government initiatives to improve education in ultra-Orthodox schools. To date, they have spent nearly one million dollars in their effort to prevent students at Hasidic schools from having access to secular knowledge.
PEARLS has friends in high places. The public relations firm who represents the group is Global Strategy Group, one of the most sought-after public relations firms in politics. They have assisted many prominent American politicians, including former New York governor Elliot Spitzer and current governor Andrew Cuomo. One of the leaders of PEARLS, Rabbi Isaac Sofer, is also a former fundraiser for current New York mayor Bill de Blasio. Given that Cuomo and de Blasio are some of the most prominent politicians charged with regulating the educational practices at Haredi institutions, this cozy relationship should be at least somewhat troubling.
Ultra-Orthodox Community’s Political Clout
Yeshivas are male-only education institutions, and since the intended goal of a yeshiva education is to become a rabbi, these schools offer less secular instruction than their female-only counterparts. As a result, girls educated at ultra-Orthodox schools tend to have an easier time as they transition to adulthood and attend college or join the workforce.
Moster also points out that these girls are no less Jewish or Orthodox than their male peers. He explained to Citizen Truth that “this goes to show that you can provide a full Judaic and secular education without compromising one or the other.”
As previously mentioned, the main reason that yeshivas devote almost no time to secular instruction is that these schools view their mission as preparing young Jewish men to become rabbis. However, one might also wonder if yeshivas are intentionally depriving young Haredi Jews of a secular education in order to make it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for them to leave their isolated communities and integrate into mainstream American life.
However, Moster explains that though this very well might be the case, these practices are actually having the opposite effect. He said that “some people leave precisely because they have been deprived of an education, and they feel betrayed.”
The political influence of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York is staggering. They make up a huge voting bloc and foster strong relationships with elected officials and political candidates. When asked about the actual scope of the ultra-Orthodox community’s political and economic influence, Moster explained, “It’s hard to quantify. But they got New York City to drag out a simple investigation for nearly four years. So that should tell you something.”
Moster is referring to the city’s investigation into ultra-Orthodox educational institutions that began in the summer of 2015, when a group of concerned parents and former students and teachers at yeshivas alerted the city that many of the city’s yeshivas and other ultra-Orthodox religious schools were not devoting enough class time to secular instruction. However, when education officials from the local government attempted to gain access to these schools in order to carry out an inspection, they were denied entry into over half of the schools they tried to visit.
This would seem to indicate that not only are these institutions aware that their curricula are not in line with the required standards, but also that they are intent on flagrantly violating these standards of fair education without fear of reprisal.
Further, despite their promises made in mainstream media sources to allocate more time to secular studies in ultra-orthodox institutions, religious leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community often send a different message when talking to Yiddish-language publications who almost exclusively serve the Hasidic community.
For example, prominent Rabbi David Niederman, who heads the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn (UJO) and is one of the most vocal members of the aforementioned group Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools (PEARLS), has repeatedly voiced his commitment to improving the amount of secular education offered in yeshivas. Yet Rabbi Niederman told the Hasidic newspaper Der Yid, “(We) must be strong together and not allow our education to be altered… The message must be clear; we won’t compromise.” Based on the Rabbi’s words, the message seems to be very clear: ultra-Orthodox educational institutions are going to continue to offer sub-par education, without compromise, until they are forced to do otherwise.
Another indication of the inordinate amount of political power wielded by New York City’s ultra-Orthodox community is the allegation that New York’s current governor, Andrew Cuomo, only received the support of influential Rabbi Zalman Tietelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe of Williamsburg, after visiting his Brooklyn home and promising that he would not interfere in the educational practices of yeshivas.
To which, Moster asks, “Whatever happened to politicians expressing respect and appreciation for religious or cultural differences without crossing the line of promising to help them violate the law and the New York Constitution?”
Haredi communities believe that following the instructions of the community’s rebbe is of paramount importance, and that not doing so is tantamount to disobeying God himself. Tietelbaum leads one of the largest ultra-Orthodox congregations in New York, and since this community votes as a bloc, this means he has a huge amount of political power. Democratic politicians such as Cuomo have no choice but to kowtow to leaders like the Satmar Rebbe in order to ensure that they are also able to maintain control of their own political power.
Measles, Yiddish and Regents Exams
Ultra-Orthodox communities have recently been in the news due to measles outbreaks that occurred in these insular communities as a result of opposition to vaccination. Local governments like New York City were able to shut down schools that refused to cooperate and enforce laws and regulations that were put in place to protect the citizens of the city.
Moster says that this proves that if the city really wanted to force yeshivas and other religious schools to cooperate with accepted educational standards and practices, they could.
Moster says, “If the city really wanted to enter, they would. Look how they shut down Yeshivas that did not cooperate with them on the measles crisis.” Public health crises such as outbreaks of highly infectious diseases are obviously incredibly serious matters that need to be handled accordingly. But is the education of hundreds of thousands of children a gravely serious matter, as well?
Another problem with yeshivas functioning as high schools is that many yeshivas don’t administer the New York State Regents examinations, which means that many students who graduate from yeshivas don’t receive a real N.Y. high school diploma. One former student at one of Brooklyn’s many yeshivas explained how the education he received there severely limited his higher education prospects.
He stated, “I was unable to get into college without a high school diploma and without knowing what the words semester or essay meant.” The same individual said he had to give up on his dream of becoming a psychologist because “to get into a decent Ph.D. program, I would have had to do the GRE’s and for someone with so little foundational knowledge and to whom English was a second language, I knew I would not do well on such an exam.”
Classes in yeshivas and other ultra-Orthodox schools are almost always taught in Yiddish, which is also the language that most of the children attending these schools use at home. As a result, in addition to the other staggering educational handicaps that students who graduate from these institutions face, they are also often unable to communicate effectively in English, which further hampers their ability to succeed in the modern world.
The Economic Toll of Ultra-Orthodox Education
Yeshivas receive massive amounts of government funding, which comes from programs with names like Academic Intervention Services, Mandated Services Aid and the Comprehensive Attendance Program.
According to Moster, government funding makes up about two-thirds of the annual budget of some yeshivas. The actual finances of most of these schools are difficult to ascertain because they’re religious organizations and tax-exempt from having to disclose their funding. This is one of the primary reasons that their lack of cooperation with standardized education procedures has been met with such outrage. If a private, religious educational institution is receiving public funds, should it be required to comply with government standards?
Besides the obvious issues with taxpayer’s money being used to fund religious schools providing dubious and subjective instruction to their students, government funds often also end up having to be used to support students of these schools well after they graduate.
According to YAFFED’s report, the average Yeshiva graduate “speaks little to no English, has few or no marketable skills, earns a household income well below the average Brooklynite’s, marries young and has many children, and is forced to rely upon public assistance to support his large family.”
New Square and Kiryas Joel are the two poorest municipalities in the state of New York, and both of them consist almost entirely of ultra-Orthodox residents who have been educated exclusively at yeshivas and other ultra-Orthodox educational institutions. As a result, religious studies are valued more than work, people have huge families, and the result is that these communities rely almost entirely on government assistance and have robbed their youth of the ability to be self-sufficient.
The goal of educational institutions is to produce graduates who can strengthen their communities and the world around them with the knowledge they have learned, but yeshivas are denying their students this ability and forcing them to rely on others for assistance.
Further, under New York State law, even private schools that don’t receive government funding are required to ensure that their students are at least receiving some basic level of education akin to that offered at public schools. Many legal cases have provided a legal precedent to this, such as Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York and State of New York v. Donner.
Similar Problems in Maine
The controversial question of whether or not taxpayer money can be used to fund religious schools has also recently been brought into the legal arena in Maine, where three families are contesting the state’s policy of not funding religious schools and are attempting to change the policy in federal district court. The families are claiming that the state’s decision not to fund these schools is a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Maine’s policy is being supported by a number of organizations, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose deputy legal director, Zoe Savitsky, claimed that “the state has a duty, under both state and federal law, to only fund schools that serve all students, not schools that discriminate on the basis of, among other things, disability status, religion, or sexual orientation.” She added that this policy is in keeping with the state’s Constitution.
Another group supporting the state is the Education Law Center, whose senior attorney, Jessica Levin, has stated, “An expansion of Maine’s tuition program to schools with a religious education mission is contrary to the State’s affirmative constitutional duty to educate every school-aged child in adequately funded public schools and in a learning environment free from discrimination.”
The case is still moving its way through the court system and as of now has still not been resolved.
What Happens Next?
After the New York State Education Department issued new guidelines in an effort to improve secular education in yeshivas and other religious institutions, PEARLS joined with Catholic School associations and other groups supporting private schools to sue the education department. They claimed that the new guidelines violated the State Administrative Procedure Act. They also dubbed the new guidelines, which still barely manage to address the educational travesty that is occurring at these institutions, a “new inspection regime.”
After the case was brought to the New York Supreme Court, a judge ruled in favor of PEARLS and the other groups, nullifying the state’s guidelines without commenting on their constitutionality.
Religious schools will exist as long as there are parents who believe that any education lacking in religious values and morality is not properly preparing their children for adulthood. However, there will always be strong opposition to using public funds to support these schools, especially if the institutions in question have a track record of failing to adhere to state standards or are providing a dangerous environment for their students.
Given the immense scope of the ultra-Orthodox community’s political and cultural clout, it is unlikely that yeshivas and other ultra-orthodox schools will back down in their fight to provide an unbalanced and unequal religious education at the expense of their students any time soon. However, as more and more generations of students educated at yeshivas and other ultra-Orthodox institutions realize the opportunities they have been robbed of as a result of their insufficient education, the movement to undo decades of unfair teaching practices and educational corruption may grow stronger and more vocal.
This article has been updated to correct the statement, “According to Moster, government funding makes up about two-thirds of the annual budget of most yeshivas” to instead say “some” yeshivas. The statement, “The actual finances of most of these schools are difficult to ascertain because they’re religious organizations and tax-exempt from having to disclose their funding” was also added.