Borough Park

Religion Vs Education: City probes Orthodox schools, 38 in Brooklyn

August 28, 2015 By Karen Matthews and Mary Frost Associated Press and Brooklyn Daily Eagle
In this 2013 file photo, children gather on a sidewalk near school buses in Borough

The story that Yeshivas serving New York’s Hasidic communities – including 38 in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, Williamsburg and Borough Park neighborhoods — provide scant secular education to their students has hit a nerve with readers across the Internet.

Boys attending the ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools receive almost no education in math, science, American history or other subjects considered essential in today’s world, even though private schools by state law must provide an education “substantially equivalent” to that of public schools.

Since the story broke earlier this week, commenters to this paper and many others have both criticized the schools and praised them, with some calling for the city to mind its own business.

“I wrongly always thought that our New York State constitution guaranteed all students in the state the opportunity for a ‘sound basic education’ … Seems I was wrong,” Brooklyn Eagle reader Alejo Gonzalez Garaño commented. “Very sad as some children don’t have those rights.”

“They choose to continue living there and have decided not to think for themselves,” Eagle reader Mominbk wrote. “Every thought that goes through their head must meet approval of their rabbi.”

“Freedom of religion should not include the right to neglect a child’s future; and the obligation to ensure that children can grow up and be self-sufficient is, in fact, a fundamental aspect of the Jewish religion,” said CH Hoffman, commenting on AP’s The Big Story website.

Other commenters, however, think the government should butt out of their children’s education.

“This is so wrong on many levels. Soon, the government will be moderating the messages at our churches, etc. Ridiculous. Clearly, Yeshiva education has produced countless smart, brilliant individuals as shown by our real estate market,” DD wrote on the Eagle website.

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Deremes, commenting on the Jewish Failed Messiah website, agrees. “There are loads and loads of Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) who make tons of money without secular education in Yeshivas. Many of them have professional business. Those who really want to succeed hard and with a bit of luck will make it far more than the educated ones.”

Garnel Ironheart, also on Failed Messiah, took a cynical New York stance. “There will be an investigation. Palms will be greased. No problems will be found.”

For the first time, the city Department of Education is investigating the schools.

Chaim Weber attended a school with no science, no geography and no math past multiplication. 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.”

“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.”

The investigation itself is shrouded in secrecy. The names of the specific yeshivas that are being targeted have not been released because of fears of retaliation. And aside from Weber and Moster, who agreed to speak out, the names of those who called for the probe have also not been publicly released.

“I’m worried for my kids. They could be kicked out if I named the school,” said Weber, who said his 10-year-old son has learned simple addition but not subtraction.

The push for secular education at the Yeshivas has been spearheaded by an organization called Young Advocates for a Fair Education, or YAFFED. 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.”

Members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community closely adhere to tradition and tend to limit contact with outsiders; Yiddish is their first language.

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.

City Department of Education spokesman Harry Hartfield said last week that the department was finalizing requests that would be sent to the Yeshivas for lesson plans and other materials.

He said that if a district superintendent determines that a yeshiva is not providing substantially equivalent instruction, the superintendent will work with the school to develop a plan to fix deficiencies.

Moster said that approach won’t uncover the truth. “These Yeshivas are very good at producing whatever kind of proof you need,” he said.

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.

Critics of the yeshiva system say the shoddy education dooms tens of thousands of New Yorkers to poverty.

A 2011 study by the UJA-Federation of New York found that 45 percent of Hasidic households in the New York metro region were in poverty. Among households of six or more people the figure was 64 percent.

Weber said he overcame his yeshiva education by hiring private tutors. He eventually went on to college and now works for a real estate firm.

“Eventually I did catch up,” he said. “But it was very hard.”

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