The Truth About the Struggle For Secular Education in Yeshivas

You won’t see this in the Jewish Press, Flatbush Jewish Journal, etc.

For several weeks straight, FJJ and other Agudath-Israel-influenced media outlets have run headlines like these.

Since the New York State Education Department released their revised general education guidelines for private schools on November 20th 2018, various Orthodox newspapers, websites, and advocacy groups have been spreading fear and misinformation.

While the new guidelines were written by the state without substantial input from Yaffed, most of the attacks from Agudath Israel and Yeshiva leaders have focused on Yaffed. These attacks are baseless, burdened by inaccuracies and slander. In the ensuing storm, the intentions of both Yaffed and the state have been misrepresented. Furthermore, the approach taken by Agudath Israel and others is counterproductive and exposes the community to unnecessary dangers.

Yaffed was founded in 2012 by graduates of Hasidic Yeshivas who came together to change the status quo of little to no secular education in Hasidic Yeshivas. None of us came from askonis (advocacy) backgrounds or had any big connections to machers in our communities. Initially we met with some Yeshiva leaders, Rabbis, and organizations that funnel funds to Yeshivas. Those who supported our work were afraid to do so publicly, and the remainder either opposed our efforts or argued it was unnecessary, pointing to outlier Hasidic yeshivas that offered secular studies.

We came to realize there was no way community leaders would make changes in the Yeshivas just because a few Yeshiva graduates requested it. And even if a model Hasidic yeshiva existed, what about the rest? There would still be tens of thousands of Jewish kids without an education.

In 2013, when I was receiving a scholarship from the UJA, the reception’s keynote address was delivered by David Zwiebel, the executive vice president of Agudath Israel. After his speech, in which he extolled the importance and benefit of education, I walked over and asked him to do something about this issue. I will never forget his response. He said he believed graduates are perfectly capable to pursue what they wanted, noting that he had become an attorney following his Yeshiva education. Zwiebel, of course, did not attend a Hasidic Yeshiva.

This dismissive attitude is what I encountered again and again, and it became clear that, despite the constant refrain that “change must come from within,” no one from within was willing or bold enough to actually pursue that change. After all, I grew up in this community and I am well aware of the consequences people face if they don’t toe the line. Case in point, my family is concerned that my involvement with Yaffed is harming the reputation of my siblings, who will struggle to find Shiduchim and Yeshivas willing to accept their children. Rather the claim that change must, or will, come from within is being used to indefinitely postpone any change.

In 2013, Yaffed put up a billboard with the Talmudic phrase “chayav odom lelamed es benoi umnus” (“a father must teach his son a trade”) on the Prospect Expressway, which garnered a lot of attention. But once again our critics complained that it aired the dirty laundry out in the public. Little did they know, or want to believe, that prior to that we tried to place the ads in local Jewish newspapers but were turned down.

Ad placed on Prospect Expressway billboard after ultra-Orthodox newspapers rejected it

One Orthodox magazine mistakenly published our ad, and apologized to their subscribers less than 24 hours later and again in the following week’s issue.

Ami Magazine published our ad but immediately apologized to their readers.

So let’s review: we are told change must come from within, so we speak to Rabbis and local elected officials and they either tell us to go away or they say they too are afraid to speak up. So we tried to speak directly to the community, but then we were shut out from local newspapers. So we put up a billboard, which was sensitive to the community, and people still found fault with it.

So we turned to the New York City Department of Education and the New York State Education Department, the entities tasked with enforcing the law without fear or favor. When we were first contemplating a lawsuit, we decided not to sue individual Yeshivas because we believed our issue was with the state and complacent school districts.

In July 2015, we filed a complaint with the New York City Department of Education, which was signed by 52 Yeshiva graduates and parents, and it included a handful of former teachers as well. We named 39 Yeshivas that were clearly not compliant with the law. Yaffed asked the city not to publicize the names of the Yeshivas because public shaming was not our goal; our goal was to provide evidence to the city that this was a real problem. The city then announced it was launching an investigation.

As I did with secular media outlets, I reached out to Orthodox news outlets and offered to do interviews and discuss the complaint we filed with the city, but they ignored my offer. One reporter responded in a degrading manner.

Shortly after, I reached out to David Zwiebel and he agreed to meet with me. At the meeting he conceded that secular education is important. He claimed even science should be taught because kids need to understand the “Niflaos Haboreh (wonders of G-d).” He also made the case that people go off the derech because they feel betrayed for not having received a secular education. Yet he admonished me for going to the DOE, despite all our efforts to solve this problem internally.

I explained to him that it’s not too late, and that for the sake of avoiding further Chillul Hashem Jewish leaders, including Agudath Israel, should begin working to remedy the problem. At which point he claimed that Agudath Israel has no jurisdiction over Hasidic Yeshivas. I replied that this wasn’t true, as Agudath Israel helps secure funding for Yeshivas, including Hasidic ones.

Months later, Zwiebel co-founded PEARLS, a group that at first presented itself as trying to improve Yeshivas, but their actions ever since, as well as more recent statements, indicate they were created to shield Yeshivas. Their strategy was to stonewall the city’s investigation by claiming they are making improvements, including through new curricula and textbooks. In a recent report the city acknowledged PEARLS’ claims of new curricula and textbooks, but added that the city inspectors have not gotten access to all those materials. Both Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have publicly disputed PEARLS’ claim that no Yeshivas have denied access to city investigators.

I have since reached out several times to David Niederman from the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg (UJO), a top Satmar leader, who co-founded PEARLS with Zwiebel, yet he not once got back to me.

Several attempts to reach Rabbi David Niederman from UJO

Meanwhile, the state decided it was best to make the guidelines clearer, so that districts have no excuses, driven by political considerations, to delay enforcement.

Despite their claims to the contrary, Agudath Israel was included in the process, as they sit on the commissioner’s advisory panel for non-public schools. In a recent letter they acknowledged having seen an early draft of the revised guidelines. But because they had decided to protect failing Hasidic Yeshivas, which refused to improve their secular education even marginally, they helped Satmar and others orchestrate what was one of the dirtiest political tricks in New York history. They had Simcha Felder, who at the time was a powerful state senator, hold up the New York State budget until he secured an exemption for Yeshivas from having to meet the same “substantial equivalency” standards as all other non-public schools.

To my dismay, I have heard David Zwiebel in Yiddish present Felder’s legislative maneuver as a major win, so that Yeshivas can continue providing little to no secular education. Publicly, of course, he expressed bewilderment as to why Yaffed was opposed to the amendment since it was codifying into law that Yeshivas do need to meet basic standards.

The truth is, the change in the law had one purpose, and that was to undermine the forthcoming guidelines for the benefit of Yeshivas. Everyone who followed the issue understood that, and a few weeks ago, the Satmar Rebbe admitted that before thousands of people — in Yiddish, of course.

When the guidelines were issued in November and there seemed to be confusion over how many hours of secular instruction the state was requiring of Yeshivas, Yaffed was the first to call on the state to clarify that they weren’t requiring seven hours of secular education per day. We recognized that schools can accomplish a lot in fewer hours, as we have often pointed to the modern Orthodox schools, to many Litvish schools, and even to some Hasidic girls’ schools as proof that you can provide a solid secular education by splitting the day with the Judaic studies.

Now, to be clear, everyone knew the state wasn’t requiring Yeshivas to teach more secular studies than public schools. This was an obvious case of unclear bureaucratic directive that required clarification. Yet Agudath Israel exploited the weeks of uncertainty to rally unsuspecting people, including some Modern Orthodox Jews, to the defense of the most failing Yeshivas in our midst. The only beneficiaries of that fear-mongering campaign are school leaders who want to maintain the failing status quo.

The state, to no one’s surprise, has since clarified that it is only requiring half that amount of secular studies in those grades, yet the damage Agudath Israel has caused is done. Some parents are convinced the state is out to turn their Yeshivas into public schools or worse.

These are the facts, and despite the smokescreen put up by Agudath Israel and the censorship by their enablers, the truth will continue to shine through.

Imagine if David Zwiebel had heeded our calls years ago and agreed to avoid an embarrassing public battle by helping address this issue from within (with some assistance and monitoring from the state to ensure the improvements are real and not just lip service), how much negative press could have been avoided? How many hundreds of thousands of dollars could’ve been saved? We, of course, have continued to engage parents and students who believe Hasidic Yeshivas are providing them with an inadequate education, even as we advocate the state enforce the law as it existed prior to the Felder Amendment.

Yet instead of realizing this, Agudath Israel is doubling down. They are now gearing up to help failing Yeshivas sue the state in court. I cannot overstate how foolish this is. Not only do court battles cost money and resources, but there is great potential for unnecessary embarrassment to be revealed during the legal process.

With lawsuits, all bets are off. Every program, every dollar, every contract is up for discovery and scrutiny, not only by the parties involved but also by the media and the public.

Agudath Israel knows this. But they have lost their way, and are about to drag the entire community down with them.


P.S. I pitched the story to the Jewish Press’ opinions editor as a response to their incessant negative reporting about Yaffed. But consistent with the one-sided reporting we get from Der Yid, Der Blatt, Di Tzeitung, Flatbush Jewish Journal, Yeshiva World News and others, the Jewish Press’ editor refused to even entertain publishing this piece. I therefore ask that you share this far and wide to make up for the extreme censorship we’re facing.