Richard Kronenfeld
Adult Ba'al Teshuvah Ph.D. Physicist

The War on Yeshivas

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While Jew-hatred is especially potent after having existed for over 2,000 years, the present war on Jewish institutions, including yeshivas, is part of a broader Leftist war on religion. Thomas Jefferson swore eternal resistance to tyranny; many of today’s political leaders have sworn eternal resistance to all forms of religion (except Islam, which they fear even as an ally). The signs are unmistakable: the glee with which governments pressure religious institutions and believers to violate their deeply held beliefs, such as forcing bakers of wedding cakes, florists, and photographers to provide their services for same-sex weddings; the decision of California Governor Gavin Newsom and other public officials to compel churches and synagogues to close their doors for up to two years during the COVID pandemic, while allowing bars, tattoo parlors, and big-box department stores to remain open because they were deemed as more necessary…

Focusing specifically on yeshivas, there is a vigorous debate between Orthodox rabbis, educators, and parents on one side, and the New York State Department of Education, backed by some Orthodox yeshiva alumni on the other, regarding how much secular education should be conducted in Haredi religious schools. (Parenthetically, we may add that this is not only an American issue; in the UK, OFSTED, the bureaucratic agency charged with overseeing private schools, has been applying similar pressure to British yeshivas.) Historically, the turning point came in 2012, when Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED) persuaded the New York State Department of Education to begin regulating private schools. The Department of Education then produced regulations that yeshivas and other private schools must provide education that is substantially equivalent to the public schools. After years of wrangling, they modified the regulations to the extent of allowing schools six paths for establishing substantial equivalence. Although that constituted an improvement over the 2019 version, Agudath Israel remained dissatisfied because the regulations didn’t consider the educational value of religious studies toward equivalency, leaving open the possibilities that yeshivas might have to change their daytime schedules to add more secular studies to achieve equivalency. That was unacceptable as well; litigation is expected. Adding to the urgency of the situation, the State Department of Education has cited Yeshiva Mesivta Arugath Habosem of Williamsburg (Brooklyn) for failing to meet the new standards, even though the New York City Board of Education had approved the school’s curriculum several times. Generally, all private schools must either select a pathway by December 1, 2023 or have a local public school authority review its curriculum.

Having outlined the history of this issue, we can summarize the arguments for each side as follows:

Writing in October 2021 in Mosaic magazine, Eli Spitzer, headmaster of a Chasidic school in London, acknowledged that his own secular studies in a Chasidic elementary school were woefully inadequate, consisting of 90 minutes a day of English and math in elementary and middle school and no secular studies at all in high school, so that by the age of 15 he had forgotten what little he had learned and had to start over again. Consequently, upon becoming a Chassidic educator himself, he was initially sympathetic to YAFFED’s arguments that their skimpy secular education left them insufficiently prepared to find employment as adults. Over time, however, he found the advocates’ claims to be overblown: first, blaming the high rate of welfare dependency in the Chasidic community on poor education overlooked the factors necessitating an expensive lifestyle, such as “large family sizes, high property prices, private-school fees, wedding after wedding, and the cost of more than 60 Shabbat and Yom Tov meals a year…”; second, that inadequate secular education hampered students’ ability to pursue college education, when in fact Chasidic parents don’t want their children to go to college and risk having them become alienated from their culture. On the other hand, the yeshivas’ assertion that Talmudic studies provided the equivalent of a secular education was equally unrealistic. In any event, the critics misunderstand the purpose of Chasidic education. The goal is not to teach skills but to mold young people who will be comfortable with retaining the Chasidic lifestyle.

This is the kind of definition that is calculated to offend liberal sensibilities: how can education, which is all about expanding boundaries, be about directing children towards a particular way of life? But this is what education has always been. The first known advocate of compulsory schooling, Plato, certainly did not think it was about imparting career skills. To him it was about developing the raw material of the human mind so that it became fit for citizenship in the perfected Greek polis. The spread of education in the Western world following the collapse of the Roman empire was everywhere connected with spreading and promoting Christianity. It took off following the Reformation, when reading the Bible, and hence literacy, was elevated to a basic religious duty of the ordinary believer. In the age of nationalism, education systems were designed to inculcate national identity and culture in what had previously been loosely bound, linguistically and culturally diverse areas….

“What the dispute about ḥasidic yeshivas is really about, then, is something much more critical than instruction in secular studies. It’s about whether the liberal state is willing to let a countercultural social movement that bends the rules of the liberal order grow up in its midst. From the perspective of the state, and those loyal to it, there are reasonable grounds to prevent that. What is not reasonable, however, is the sort of liberal triumphalism that imagines that, under the pretext of implementing minor or neutral reforms, Ḥasidim will simply be intimidated into dismantling their own social order. Those among YAFFED’s supporters who understand what is at stake and want to disable the ḥasidic community’s ability to ensure generational continuity should do them the credit of not imagining it will be so easy.

“In the meantime, those who have the more modest goal of promoting better secular studies in the ḥasidic education system would be well advised to return to first principles and remember the distinction between education—the molding of an individual—and instruction—the imparting of specific skills. If they wish to get the majority of ḥasidic parents on board, then their most urgent priority is to demonstrate how specific forms of instruction can be introduced into ḥasidic schools without imperiling its overall educational purpose.”

We might add that yeshiva education doesn’t uniformly produce lower achievement than secular public education. For example, in September 2022, two Long Island yeshivas, the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach and the Yeshiva of South Shore, held a press conference in conjunction with elected officials and candidates from towns with yeshivas, including the communities of West Hempstead, Great Neck and the Five Towns, to denounce the attack on religious liberty by the New York State Department of Education. To support their contention, “The officials, candidates and religious leaders noted that local yeshiva and other private school students have attained the highest level of academic achievement, garnering many independent awards from the corporate, educational and scientific community. Additionally, the student body of the Long Island yeshivas have achieved tremendous success, boasting a very high rate of acceptance into the finest colleges and universities, completion of rigorous areas of college-level study, and succeeding in the most academically demanding career fields.“

Going even further, Liel Leibowitz argues in Tablet magazine that yeshiva education is actually superior to public education in ethical and moral instruction, and that haredi [“ultra-Orthodox”] students are happier than their public school counterparts.

And in any event, the objectors can place their children in a different type of yeshiva that provides a balance of religious and secular instruction. For example, here in Phoenix Yeshiva High School of Arizona for boys and Shearim Torah High School for girls offer a full religious (limudei kodesh) and secular curriculum that is to the right of Modern Orthodox. As we have observed, Chasidic families don’t have that choice if they wish to preserve their lifestyle, so that closing or reprogramming their schools would pose a hardship. Moreover, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Yoder vs. Wisconsin (1972) that Amish parents have the right to discontinue their children’s education after eighth grade, regardless of compulsory attendance laws. Shouldn’t Chasidim be treated the same as the Amish?

To reframe the issue in a wider context besides religion, yeshivas are also caught up in the societal push to restructure education in multiple ways: to enforce ideological conformity from kindergarten to graduate school, as was done in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany; to achieve equity (equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity; and thereby to overturn the meritocracy. The Jewish people benefit from meritocracy precisely because of our lifetime commitment to Torah study, beginning at age five with Scripture, at ten studying Mishnah, at thirteen the commandments, and at fifteen beginning studying Talmud. By contrast, the American system encourages regression to the lowest common denominator so no group is left behind. The result? As Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig writes in his essay “Toldot 5782: Education Dedication,” “Twenty-five countries outperform U.S. K-12 students. Those leading the way are China, Hong Kong, Finland, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Canada. China’s students not only place first overall, but they dominate each individual subject as well. U.S. students straggle in at 33rd in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading…. Even  the American charter school system, a system that was put in place to deal with some of the educational failings of the public system, has begun to contribute to the malaise of under-achievement.”

What are the public schools doing in response? Oregon has removed the requirement for students to pass a basic math, reading, and writing test to graduate from high school, while Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia, the top-ranked high school in America, is “…manipulating admissions standards to racially balance the student body at the expense of admitting academically qualified students. The racial rebalancing comes despite the student body comprising of [sic] 79% non-white students. The problem? 73% were classified as Asians. Even though they represented 30 different countries, it wasn’t the ‘right’ kind of diversity.” Similarly, specialized/screening high schools in New York City now lump all students with grade averages above 85% into one pot from which students to be admitted are selected by lottery.

Everything considered, the New York Board of Education should clean up its own act before passing judgment on yeshivas.

About the Author
I'm a native New Yorker (Brooklyn, to be precise) transplanted to the desert as a teen-ager. I hold a Ph.D in Physics from Stanford and have taught mathematics and physics at the high school, community college, and university level. I'm an adult ba'al teshuvah and label myself as centrist Orthodox and a Religious Zionist along the lines of OU, Yeshiva University, and Mizrachi.
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