Satmar Rabbi’s Speech on New “Substantial Equivalency” Guidelines

The following is a translation of the Satmar Rabbi’s speech. The original audio can be found here.

The Talmud says (Taanit 21b), “If the mistress of the house is afflicted, will not the maidservant be afflicted all the more?” If we are in such distress in the land of Israel, then we will certainly be so outside the holy land. To our great pain and chagrin, outside the land of Israel, too, there is persecution of Torah institutions with regard to the issue of secular studies.

In England and Canada, the government has been persecuting the educational institutions on these matters. Just last week, the British government shut down one educational institution. We need the mercy of Heaven to be freed from this misfortune. It is a bitter decree.

Here, too, in the State of New York, the government has been pursuing this matter. In truth, over the past two or three years, respected activists have taken steps to deal with the government and to speak to the government, they are attempting to postpone the issue, to buy time- “come today, come tomorrow, come the following day” - but they have not yet succeeded in resolving the matter entirely.

Praised be our Holy Creator, that respected activists have been pursuing this, chief among them Rabbi Simcha Felder of Borough Park. They have been successful, in Albany, in sponsoring a new law, which is to be a great redemption, as we will soon discuss further.

The law was enacted two days before Passover. In fact, it was on the eve of Passover, when Jews could no longer be there and take part, it was already nighttime of the holiday, when the Jew-haters managed to insert a few additional words into the law, and these words have been causing problems. Now we must conceive of a solution to fix this. We can fix this, and we must fix this.

I now plead with all of God-fearing Jewry [Ultra-Orthodox Jewry] for this not to turn into a internal political matter or to increase strife, because we need all the strength of God-fearing Jewry, with unity and with responsibility, to triumph over the wicked ones, those who hate us, the haters from within our nation and the haters among the the Gentiles, who wish to destroy our educational institutions, may God have mercy.

The Old Law of Secular Education

I want to speak for a bit about the actual new law. We must understand, the old law was clear, all children who study in our primary Torah schools [elementary and middle school] and yeshivas [high school] — which they call “high school” — must study secular studies every day. The secular curriculum has such and such areas of study — which they call “subjects” — I believe it’s 15 or 16 subjects, and they must study secular subjects for a certain number of hours. In reality, we all know the truth, that in our primary Torah schools for boys [before Bar Mitzvah] they studied at most an hour and a half, and in the advanced yeshivas [high schools] there were no secular studies at all, [spending their days] “fully sacred unto God. [Judaic studies]”

According to the old law, the government had the power and ability, through the state’s Education Department, to simply send a letter to the administrations of all primary Torah schools and yeshivas, and to demand a response. What is studied? How many hours is it studied? Which subjects are studied? And we are required to respond. And we all understand that if we were to lie, the government would consider it a crime.

They have the right to send inspectors to each school to observe and verify that these subjects are being studied, and they have the right to shut down a school that does not teach secular studies. There is no recourse through complaining in state court either. “Why have you shut me down?” “Because you’re not teaching secular studies!” Simple, straightforward. And the truth is, we either had very little secular studies or none at all.

The New Law from Passover 5778

The change that was created in the new law [was complicated by the fact that] you can’t make a law that Jews are exempt from secular studies, such a thing can’t be done in a America. What we were able to do, through the guidance of various attorneys — in America everything must be cloaked in this way — so they made a law that if you study a subject that sharpens the mind’s ability to understand, in depth, to compare things, to differentiate between things, one student asks a question, another gives the answer, one builds and the other demolishes, when studying subjects that sharpen the mind, that is, just as secular studies does, that is, when someone studies [the Talmudic treatise of] An Ox Gored a Cow, and he studies and debates whether he must pay, or doesn’t have to pay, or if one person borrows money, and then denies all of it, whether he must swear an oath, and why he must swear an oath, he studies in depth, he studies rigorously, that is then equivalent to secular studies. Because it sharpens the mind, and when he reaches adulthood, he’ll have a good understanding of business matters, he’ll understand how to make deals, understand interpersonal relationships, this is the new law, in the form that we laid it out.

Lawyers put a lot of thought into this, this a great redemption for all our Torah schools, as the effect is that all the hours spent for religious studies will be included as if they were studying secular studies. And so, legally, the schools are now in compliance with the law.

What Happened Now?

What happened, however, sadly, the wicked among our own nation, of the Jewish people, within us and amongst us, they made a pact with the state’s education commissioner to read a false meaning and a twisted meaning into the new law, with the argument that the new law does not replace the old one but only adds to it, so that the old law that requires that we study secular studies, as mentioned previously, all those hours and all those subjects, remains in full effect. And so she has the power to send inspectors to ensure compliance with the old law.

All the lawyers say she is reading a false meaning into it, not by accident but willfully and intentionally. I will let you in on a secret. In the original law that was prepared the day before Passover, as mentioned earlier, through Rabbi Simcha Felder and all the respected activists working with him, there was certain language used, which, if that language were left as it was, we wouldn’t have our present trouble with the state education commissioner. Except there were various assembly members, very evil people, one from Monsey — and Monsey has been suffering from him [generally] — and another from our area around Kiryas Joel. And I want to commend the assemblyman from Williamsburg, who did stand up for our Torah institutions. But these others that I’ve named, from Monsey and from our surrounding areas, and a few others, didn’t allow the law to pass, and they held it up until the holiday began that night, and the governor demanded that it be completed, because his reputation was on the line, it had to be done by the first of April. And so they were able, on the night of Passover, when Jews were no longer there to stand guard, to introduce small changes to the language. And it’s through those changes that they are insisting today, and by which they are now harassing and persecuting the Torah institutions.

But I want to convey the chagrin, that after all these things, there were elections held in New York not long ago, and we had to vote for state senate, for that wicked person in the area surrounding Kiryas Joel, whose hand was in this crime, he stood at the head of those trying to block the law. And there were Torah-observant Jews who supported a wicked person like him, a hateful enemy. For years now he has been causing trouble for residents of Kiryas Joel and the surrounding area in all ways that he can. Activists pleaded with them [the Torah-observant Jews] not to do this, but they couldn’t be persuaded.

We cannot understand how Torah-observant Jews could vote for an evildoer trying to destroy all Torah institutions in the entire state of New York. Now, today, all institutions suffer from this evil person and his evil friends, and they claim that they are supported by Jews, that Jews support their principles. This is shameful and outrageous.

Against the Law of “Freedom of Religion”

I want to hereby notify the government leaders of the State of New York: we accuse the state education commissioner of harassing all God-fearing Jews, the Jews who want to educate their sons and daughters in the ways of Torah that we have received, generation after generation, from our rabbis. And the state education commissioner is willfully falsifying the new law, and she is violating the law herself with her evil decrees.

The state education commissioner wants to change the study content of all Torah schools and yeshivas and all girls’ schools in the entire State of New York. This means that the state education commissioner wants to change the Jewish people, God forbid, and to lead the Jewish people to apostasy, to abandon our religion, as the Greeks did in their time.

The state education commissioner has entered into a pact with the evildoers among our people, whose entire purpose is the destroy our Torah institutions. All of God-fearing Jewry across the globe generally, and in New York State particularly, sees in this a terrible decree against the education of our children, our sons and our daughters. God-fearing Jewry sees in this a decree to abandon our faith.

Who could have imagined a thing like this? That a time would come and the government of the State of New York would issue evil decrees against our holy education?

We cry out, and respond to the state’s officials and to all the leaders of the State of New York: the Jewish People will not surrender to the wicked, whoever they may be, even the state education commissioner.

The Jewish People will stand strong, with God’s help, to protect the holy education of our children at any price and with our very lives. The Jewish people have a history of giving their lives for the sake of the holy Torah.

We will set out to do great battle against the state education commissioner, and we will say to whomever it is of interest to know: the State of New York has no right to enact a law that is against our religion. The State of New York has no right to issue any opinion whatsoever about our education system, when we see this as a matter that is against our religion.

Will live in a democratic state, where we have freedom of religion for every citizen.

What Does Education Look Like in the Public Schools

We say to the state education commissioner: if you want to improve education for New York State’s residents, go fix the public schools first.

I plead and I demand that we examine the success of the public school students in New York City, and, by comparison, the success of the students of the Jewish people in the Torah schools.

Let us look at the number of criminals, who commit all sorts of violence and savagery, murder, theft, drug crimes, and so forth.

Let us look at where we have beautifully ordered families, fathers and mothers and children. We imbue our children with a refined education, with values of respect and decency. Even within large and blessed families, who have many children, there is order in the home. Each family has a home, every father or mother works, we live decent lives, even those who are poor.

Let us take the percentage of students, or, as they call them, “graduates,” of public school, and then look at those produced by our Torah schools, our primary yeshivas and our yeshivas of higher study. Let us see who has succeeded in their lives, and what percentage ends up in prison.

The Fruits of Our Education in the Business World

Let’s take a look at the business people [among us] who have been successful, the knowledgeable and intelligent ones. Yes, yes, that is a result of studying the Talmud and its commentaries, that’s what hones their minds. Let’s take a look at who owns the big business, the big stores, the building owners and real estate dealers.

Who are the ones who pay taxes for all the stores, who pay taxes for those private homes, who are the millionaires who make the large deals and vitalize New York State’s economy? Are they the products of the public schools, or are they the products of our Torah schools and yeshivas?

Let’s determine which education led to greater success, which education led to the raising of beautiful continuing generations, with decency and respect between people.

The government knows all this, and they knew it all along. That’s why they looked the other way regarding our education system, because they knew that every public school student costs the government 24,000 dollars per student each year. That’s setting aside building expenses.

The government does not provide funding for our education system except for transportation and meals, breakfast or lunch, or supper, for those who spend the full day at the yeshiva.

Today they want to fix our education system, and so we say, first fix the public schools, and afterwards you can come to us.

Prepare for War!

In summary: we will not sit back and rest. We will battle for our rights using all means available to us. The Jewish people will do all that is possible, with God’s help, to annul this heavy and bitter evil decree.

The Jewish people will, with God's help, raise and educate its sons and daughters in the way of the Torah, on the same path that has been transmitted to us according to the guidance of all our rabbis, may they live and be well, who follow the principles and the ways of the holy rabbis of previous generations. And we will not budge from this!

We will not comply, and we will not follow the state education commissioner under any circumstances. These are our words for the state education commissioner.

And to our brethren the Jewish people, I want to say a few words. It appears that a great battle awaits us, a difficult war, a long war, until we are able to correct it all. We must sit and deliberate with seriousness and with responsibility, to weigh the options available to us. We must unite all our powers, all our communities, and all of God-fearing Jewry across the State of New York.

We must employ all connections that we have to those in places of influence, and to engage in all sorts of lobbying among state officials and other leaders.

We must consult experts and lawyers, which will be relevant to taking the matter to court, to battle for our rights, whether it be federal court or state court.

We must speak to the politicians and so forth, we must speak to the leaders of the Democratic party, who are now at the head of the leadership in New York State, and to explain to them that it isn’t worth it for them. It wouldn’t pay for them to start a war with all God-fearing Jewry in New York.

We all understand that this is not the work of one day, it is not of one week, it is not of one month. This will cost a lot of money, and require a lot of activist work.

If there will be unity among God-fearing Jewry, and this won’t be turned into an inner political matter, as was done with the decree of the military draft for yeshiva students in the land of Israel, then with God’s help we will succeed in annulling this heavy and bitter decree.

The Jewish people will increase prayer and intercession with the Holy Creator, the Holy Creator, the Holy and Powerful Creator, who has rescued us in all times from evil men, so that God will not withdraw his kindness from upon us, and he will rescue us from all who seek to do us malice, and from all evildoers, the evildoers among our nation, and the evildoers of the Gentiles, we should be able to educate our children to form upright generations unto God, in the path of Torah and fear of God, with sacred peace of mind, until God will help and we will merit the welcoming of the king, the Messiah, speedily and in our days, amen.

Naftuli Moster is the executive director of Yaffed, a non-profit organization committed to improving the secular education in ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas