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Jewish schools must obey the law

The demand in some NY Hasidic circles that boys engage in full-time Torah study to the exclusion of basic educational literacy is illegal, immoral and un-Jewish
Illustrative: School children pray with a recently born child at Aishes Chayil, a postpartum recovery center, in Kiryas Joel. N.Y. Feb. 16, 2017 (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Illustrative: School children pray with a recently born child at Aishes Chayil, a postpartum recovery center, in Kiryas Joel. N.Y. Feb. 16, 2017 (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

In the haftarah for Yom Kippur morning, taken from the book of Isaiah, the Holy One says to the people of Israel: Offer help to the “wretched poor” and remember “not to ignore your own kin.”

With Yom Kippur approaching, the New York Jewish community should be paying special attention to this divine demand.

The poverty figures for some segments of New York’s Jewish community are stunningly high. According to YAFFED, the education non-profit, 43% of ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York City are defined as poor, and 16% as near poor. Furthermore, the poorest municipality in all of New York State is the ultra-Orthodox town of Kiryas Joel.

These figures should not be a surprise. Some – not all, but some, and mostly Hasidic groups – of New York’s ultra-Orthodox communities deny their male children access to even the most basic secular education. These are places where young men, who devote almost all their school hours to the study of Torah in Yiddish, do not know enough English to fill out job applications and where, as adults, they continue Torah study and get by on menial work. Under these circumstances, the material deprivation that they and their families suffer is inevitable.

In the face of this wretched poverty, why does the Jewish community stand by in silence?

Those who defend the indifference of the Jewish establishment usually make an argument along these lines:

It is true that these groups are poor, they say. But no one is starving. Families have food on the table, and people are adequately clothed and housed. These Jews have chosen to require virtually full-time Torah study for their male children, even if this means that the children will be denied the fundamentals of secular education and that for many of them, poverty is the likely outcome. We may not choose to live as they live, the argument goes, but we respect their choice, and it is theirs to make.

But there is a problem with this logic.

First, they are expecting others to pay the bills. New York City yeshivas receive nearly half of their financial support from federal Title 1 funding, state grants for books and busing, and city dollars for school guards and child-care vouchers, and individual yeshiva students also receive various income supplements. Seemingly admirable lifestyle choices begin to look very different when funds from the public purse are required to sustain them. Many American Jews are uneasy with this arrangement, if not downright embarrassed, especially given that basic educational literacy is not part of the yeshiva package. After all, we Jews take pride in our collective efforts to contribute to America while not expecting government to support what we should be supporting ourselves.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with a community that is poor, uneducated in secular matters, and lacking employment skills taking money from government programs intended to help just such a population. But what sets this element of the ultra-Orthodox world apart is that they are the only group that, as a matter of principle, knowingly and purposefully denies their children a minimum of opportunity to escape their situation. Under the circumstances, to expect the government to pay their way may be legal but stretches the good intentions of the American political system to their very limit.

Second, parental control over their children’s destiny has never been absolute in America.

American parents do not have the right to deny their children the medical care they need to live or the seat belts they need to be safe. To be sure, they have substantial latitude in how they educate their children: They can choose public schools, private schools, or homeschooling. But they cannot withhold from their children the basic educational literacy that they require to live in society.

In fact, every state in the Union has a law requiring parents to provide their children with the educational competencies necessary to survive in today’s world. The law in New York state, passed in the 19th century, obligates all of New York’s private schools to offer a “substantially equivalent” education to that of the public schools.

So how has it come to pass that ultra-Orthodox yeshivas with approximately 60,000 students and located in and around New York City do not meet the requirements of state law?

A good question, and one that does not yet have a clear answer.

At the insistence of YAFFED, the education non-profit mentioned above, a four-year investigation of 28 yeshivot was conducted by the New York City Department of Investigation. Its report was issued in 2019 and concluded that, in 26 or the 28 schools, instruction in basic reading, writing, and mathematics was woefully inadequate, and science and social studies were hardly taught at all.

The New York State Education Department then proposed a set of regulations to compel compliance by the yeshivas with the statute. But the yeshivas organized ferocious resistance, claiming that the regulations infringed upon the right of private schools to shape their own curriculum and of religious parents to educate their children as they see fit. Responding to the pressure, earlier this year the New York Board of Regents scrapped the proposed regulations and announced its intention to offer a revised proposal at some point in the future. When it will do so and whether the new regulations will have any teeth remain to be seen.

Do the yeshivas have a valid constitutional argument, based on the principle of religious freedom, to educate their children as they wish? Almost certainly not.

Nonetheless, today’s conservative Supreme Court has consistently shown an inclination to give greater weight to claims of religious freedom over other, competing interests. While aware of the weight of legal precedent opposing their position, the New York yeshivas might nonetheless be hoping for a more sympathetic legal climate if they are forced to pursue legal remedies. And meanwhile, knowing that bureaucracies move slowly and that the issue has garnered little public attention, they resist curriculum changes and leave their schools as they are.

Finally, putting aside matters of law and politics, what does the Jewish tradition say about the failure to teach religious observant young men the skills necessary to earn a living and support a family?

The claim from some rabbinic authorities in New York that Judaism mandates Torah study and only Torah study for boys and young men is utter nonsense. The Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin, 29a) states that anyone who does not teach his son a trade is behaving “as if he has taught him banditry.” The thrust of the tradition is clear: It is the obligation of parents to make sure that their children possess the knowledge that will enable them in the future to support themselves with dignity.

And apart from this clear position, rabbinic sages for countless generations have demonstrated that one could be both expert in Torah and expert in secular matters. In addition to the Rambam and the Ramban (great rabbis of the 12th and 13th centuries), who were famous in this regard, most rabbis of the golden age of Spain were physicians, mathematicians, philosophers, scientists, or poets.

And in more recent times, leading rabbinic figures of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewry have emphasized the obligation to teach children not only religious studies but general knowledge and skills necessary for earning a livelihood. The Chatam Sofer, one of the intellectual giants of Haredi Judaism, was emphatic on this point, as was the Ben Ish Chai (Yosef Chaim of Baghdad).

The Jewish community has, on occasion, made exceptions for the truly great Torah scholars – the select few who devoted themselves solely to study of sacred texts and were supported by wealthy families. But there is no basis whatsoever in the Jewish tradition for the idea that the general male population of the religiously observant world is to be denied practical education, isolated from the outside world, and condemned to a state of pauperism and utter ignorance of secular matters. This is not “tradition” – it is a radically new development, dating back less than half a century.

So with Yom Kippur only days away, let us heed the teaching in Isaiah. Let us deal with wretched poverty in our midst and let us not ignore our own kin – yeshiva students denied the basic education without which many will face a future of misery and struggle.

Let us call on the New York Board of Regents to fulfill their responsibilities.

Let us insist that when it comes to basic educational opportunity to which all Americans – yeshiva students included – are entitled, the authorities of New York state must enforce the law.

About the Author
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012.
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