Substantially Equivalent Education

I understand Yiddish. I like to hear it. On occasion I like to converse in it, but Yiddish is not the holy tongue. It is the “mama lashon” for many but it does not reach the level of importance that Biblical and prayer Hebrew does. At least that is the way I believe it should be. Others disagree.

In some yeshivas there is a mandate that all classes be taught in Yiddish and only Yiddish be spoken in the home. Along with this requirement comes the rule that secular subjects, when they are taught, are not to be taught beyond third grade level and in Yiddish as well. In New York State there is now an attempt to correct some of this rigidity for the sake of the children. The State has promulgated guidelines for education of all children. These Guidelines have created a significant uproar in the yeshiva world.

I have a personal position on the New York State proposed Guidelines for Determining Equivalency of Instruction in Nonpublic Schools. I have read them carefully. What strikes me about the opposition among yeshiva educators is that, in effect, there is nothing objectionable about what is being suggested in the Guidelines, unless, of course for those who object, the goal is to continue to raise individuals who are uniquely unable to get along in society. The guidelines clearly state that the Department of Education has no authority over non-public schools. The DoE does have a responsibility, though, to children. And what they are proposing is not rigid comparability but substantial equivalency. Yeshiva objections have ranged from the mild “we do not want them to get involved in educating our children” to charges of anti-Semitism by the government. What is most interesting is that the yeshivas who oppose the guidelines have no support from the Catholic Diocese schools of New York, traditional allies in opposing certain government rules that both have considered intrusive.

I just finished a new book by Amber Scorah entitled “Leaving the witness: Exiting a religion and finding a life.” Ms. Scorah is a third generation Jehovah’s Witness and this book is a personal account of her leaving that religious organization. There is much in the book that made me cringe and I simply could not identify with. Members of this belief system are taught to proselytize, may only socialize with members of the Witnesses and are forbidden to celebrate birthdays among other inflexible dictates. What is overwhelmingly clear is that the fundamentalism of their practice encourages a stunting of maturation. Witness children are raised to fear virtually everything not specifically approved by their doctrine. They are strident in their faith and rigid in their convictions even as they recognize that some beliefs are irrational. In their doctrine Jehovah’s Witnesses state that “Education helps us to provide for our families.” Their educational principals revolve around their religious beliefs and therefore they also state “Spiritual education has greater value than secular education” and “Higher education can lead to moral and spiritual dangers.” This doctrinaire approach contradictory in its apparent dismissing of the first principle of education as a means to provide for their families is based upon their prophecy that the end of the world is nigh and other than basic needs not much is relevant or important. At the very least this has led to low income for many of the believers.

I do not believe that the yeshiva system that is objecting so vigorously to the New York State Guidelines for substantial educational equivalency is emulating the Witnesses, at least not consciously. What I do believe is driving the crusade to prevent approval of the Guidelines is a combination of shortsightedness and the same mindset that has objected to the need to address other communal issues that some would rather not deal with. For those issues, like sexual abuse, there were more traditional belief systems that aligned with the yeshiva world view. Still, the objections to providing safe environments with reasonable and supportive guidelines for reporting and intervention were passed despite all the push back. Likely the same will happen with the educational guidelines. It’s time to accept that there is Chochmo bagoyim. Speaking Yiddish is wonderful. It is another language that can be used to get along in the world. It should be taught. But so should English and math if our children are to get along in the world.

About the Author
Dr Michael Salamon, is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and a 2018 APA Presidential Citation Awardee. He is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York and the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications) and "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America). His newest book is called "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."
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