New York City to investigate secular education in the city’s Jewish schools
There was no science, no geography and no math past multiplication at the ultra-Orthodox Jewish school Chaim Weber attended. And the only reason he ever heard of the American Revolution was when a seventh-grade teacher introduced it as “story time.”
Naftuli Moster said he never learned the words “cell” or “molecule” at the ultra-Orthodox schools he attended, where secular subjects were considered “unimportant or downright going against Judaism.”
Now young adults, the two yeshiva graduates echo complaints critics have made for years about the rudimentary level of secular education at private schools serving New York’s Hasidic communities. Now, for the first time, the city Department of Education is investigating more than three dozen of the schools to make sure their instruction is up to the most basic standards.
But even the advocates who called for the investigation question whether the city will be able to pierce the close-knit, insular Orthodox community to force meaningful change.
“These schools have been operating for a very long time,” said Weber, one of 52 former students, parents or former teachers who signed a letter requesting the investigation into 39 yeshivas. “They have kind of perfected their method for pulling the wool over the eyes of authorities.”
State law mandates that the instruction in private schools must be at least substantially equivalent to what can be found in the area’s public schools, and the local district, in this case New York City, is given the oversight power.
Calls to several Brooklyn yeshivas and messages to community representatives were not returned. Members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community closely adhere to tradition and tend to limit contact with outsiders.
The push for secular education at the yeshivas has been spearheaded by an organization called Young Advocates for a Fair Education. Moster, its executive director, grew up in a Hasidic family with 17 kids and became an advocate for education after he enrolled at the College of Staten Island and saw how far behind he was.
“If we were to compare these schools to some of the worst performing schools in America these would be worse,” Moster said. “We’re talking about a school that simply doesn’t teach the basics.”
Yiddish is the first language in many of New York City’s ultraOrthodox homes and the language of instruction in their yeshivas.
Boys at the yeshivas receive just six hours a week of instruction in English, math and other secular subjects up to age 13, according to the letter to city and New York state officials requesting an investigation. Secular education stops at age 13 as boys devote themselves full time to Jewish religious texts. Girls get more secular schooling because they don’t study the Talmud.
Advocates also fear that the city will be slow to act because some elected officials rely on ultra-Orthodox voting blocs.
“They have political clout,” Weber said. “I’m not very optimistic that this will change a lot but you’ve got to try.”
The attorney for Moster’s group, former New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Norman Siegel, said he will file a lawsuit if the investigation does not yield meaningful results.
In this Sept. 20, 2013 file photo, children and adults cross a street in front of a school bus in Borough Park, a neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York that is home to many ultra-Orthodox Jewish families.