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.

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