Since founding Yaffed in 2012, I’ve maintained that the city and state Departments of Education are the main culprits in depriving Hasidic boys of an education, and not the yeshivas themselves. This position is stated quite clearly on Yaffed’s website and it is a position I have expressed many times in interviews as well. However, in recent months, religious leaders’ own words and actions have made it clear to me that the blame is joint -- yeshivas are not acting merely out of ignorance or ineptness as I had supposed; rather, they are willfully denying children a basic education, flouting the law, and working to sabotage my efforts to improve education for tens of thousands of Hasidic children.
Despite the fact that the actual violations are committed by Hasidic school administrators and the leaders of the various Hasidic sects, I had believed that culpability lies largely with the Department of Education since they are charged with oversight and they have been fully aware of the problem for at least the last half dozen years. I had also heretofore believed that as yeshivas were acting out of ignorance or incompetence, and not with the intent of harming the children, it would be wrong to label yeshivas the culprits as this might inadvertently and unfairly harm the yeshivas. For this very reason, I never released a list naming the yeshivas that do not comply with state standards as my intent was never to shame or blame them.
Many have argued that nonetheless, yeshivas should know better and should be held accountable. While I believe that yeshivas are responsible to the children in their care, I didn’t find them extremely blameworthy until recently for the following reasons: Hasidic yeshivas have a lot on their plates, and running quality secular education programs is not an area where they excel. They aren’t maliciously denying children an education, I had thought; they are simply unequipped or even unaware of their obligation. While this doesn’t absolve, it does render them less guilty since the neglect in this case would not have been deliberate. Furthermore, the problem didn’t happen overnight. It slowly deteriorated over several decades, and at this time, school administrators would not know where to begin even if they wanted to improve the education.
The Departments of Education, however, are fully equipped to enforce secular education laws and to advise schools on how to implement a full state-mandated curriculum. It was their responsibility to monitor yeshivas so that we wouldn’t be at this point where some schools are teaching no secular studies at all. Yet they’ve looked on all these years as yeshivas were evading their responsibility, and they did nothing.
More recently, though, I learned that yeshivas and leaders were actively trying to thwart my efforts to improve secular education. Last summer, Ezra Friedlander, an ultra-Orthodox PR consultant, began publishing op-eds arguing against my work. He wrote, among other things, that “by and large, our Yeshivas do adequately meet the State's educational criteria. And most of us are very much aware of the serious failings within the New York public school system, so I would advise the DOE to focus on their own schools.” After arguing that the DOE shouldn’t work to improve yeshiva education and after implying that yeshivas are meeting standards (when he, as a member of the community, knows very well that many yeshivas teach no secular education at all), he then went on to say that he and his wife together decided that yeshivas are too underfunded to change in any way. Until more funding is made available to these yeshivas, Friedlander concluded, they should not be burdened with education requirements.
In a TV segment we both participated in a short while later, Friedlander again invoked limited funding as the primary reason yeshivas wouldn’t be able to meet standards, while at the same time maintaining that yeshivas do meet standards. Around that same time, another Hasidic PR rep, Cheskel Bennet, made similar claims on Twitter.
Neither of these individuals was willing to use their PR talents to promote education in the Hasidic world. On the contrary, they used their leadership positions to support the status quo of denying children a basic education.
While their attitude was disturbing, to say the least, I still hoped that they were acting as lone individuals. They weren’t Rabbis or yeshiva administrators even if they claimed to be speaking on their behalf.
But let’s fast forward to July of this year. A group of rabbis and leaders formed an organization, PEARLS, to represent the various yeshivas we alleged are not providing a basic secular education. If we were briefly optimistic about the motives of this group, our optimism quickly dissipated when we learned more about them. The acronym PEARLS stands for Protecting Educational And Religious Liberties in Schools, a name that would suggest the group wants to limit government regulations of non-public schools. Further enlightening were statements made by Rabbi David Zwiebel, an Agudath Israel representative and a founding member of PEARLS, and by Avi Schick, an attorney representing the 39 yeshivas under PEARLS, the same yeshivas we named in our July 2015 letter to the DOE.
Zwiebel in particular made it abundantly clear that PEARLS’s purpose is to impede Yaffed’s work. According to the Orthodox newspaper Hamodia, “Rabbi Zwiebel said that PEARLS, through a combination of legal protection and public relations efforts hopes to combat this development [of enforcing education standards in nonpublic schools].”
These efforts to undermine us and to excuse the yeshivas for failing to provide a proper education demonstrate that the yeshivas in question are not such innocent, passive bodies who are too incompetent to provide a proper secular education, but rather they are willing participants who will do what they can to undermine any possible progress and enforcement. PEARLS seems to be spending exorbitant sums of money on a litigator and on a PR firm, Global Strategies, that is one of the finest in the country. Those same funds could have been used toward improving yeshiva education, but instead, yeshiva administrators, Rabbis and leaders are pooling their resources in order to continue depriving children of a basic education. This has become an organized effort and it is now impossible to deny that yeshivas themselves are to blame.
While our official stance has not changed, and while our intention is still to target our lawsuit at the DOE, these recent developments warrant that we scrutinize at least one of the yeshivas’ claims, namely that they don’t have enough money to run a proper secular education program. Claims regarding funding seem dubious for the following reasons:
1. There are thousands of Catholic, Muslim, and even Jewish nonpublic schools that provide a proper secular education. In fact, even Hasidic schools generally provide their girls with an education that meets state standards. And they, presumably, have the same funding available as their counterpart boys’ schools. This leaves us believing that it is a matter of priority, not of funding.
2. Yeshivas have enough money to hire teachers to provide instruction for 14 hours per day, many more hours than the typical public school day. They have sufficient funding for expensive religious texts such as the Talmud, Torah, Halachic texts and texts on Chasidus. They also have funding to maintain their buildings and provide lunch and busing for their students. Their school year is several months longer than that of the public school as many yeshivas provide instruction in sleepaway camp straight through the summer. But apparently, the one item they can’t find any funding for is secular education.
We are not talking about a school that due to limited funding is cutting down on school days. The yeshivas have sufficient funding for the school to run year in and year out. If the schools are operating, the students are attending and the teachers are being hired, where is the lack of funding? This rather seems to be the result of a lack of interest in spending existing funds on secular education. I.e. Rather than hire a teacher to teach 14 hours of Judaic studies each day, the school should hire a teacher to teach, say, nine hours of Judaic studies and five hours of secular studies each day. The cost would not change much -- the school would still be paying for the same 14 hours of instruction. But the content of that instruction would change to include the required secular studies.
3. Based on my research into this matter, I believe that yeshivas have plenty of money. Although it is extremely challenging to paint a complete picture of all the revenue yeshivas receive, what we know is that yeshivas have three major sources of funding: Tuition, government, and philanthropy. At the same time, as noted earlier, many who defend yeshivas' right to deny children a basic education do so in the name of limited funding. Clearly, for the many aforementioned reasons, it is not for lack of funds that most Hasidic yeshivas neglect to provide students with a basic secular education. At the same time leaders' demand for additional funding along with their disparaging attitude toward secular education practically invites us to investigate whether existing funds are in fact being used for their intended purpose.
In a future post I will provide a brief breakdown of their three main funding sources to help determine whether they have sufficient funds and whether those funds are being used properly.