The Ugly Attack on Hasidic Children’s Future

Naftuli Moster
Nov 16, 2017 · 8 min read

Perpetrated by those who profess to protect them

Yesterday Rabbi David Niederman’s op-ed in the Daily News (presumably in response to my op-ed a week prior) made many false allegations against Yaffed. It misrepresented our work as well as the issue we are working to address.

I want to begin by dispelling his allegation that we are attacking Yeshivas. That is not now and never was what we do. If we are successful, Yeshivas will continue to thrive in America, only with a stronger curriculum for their students. And if there is anyone we are attacking, it is the Department of Education and Mayor de Blasio who controls it for failing to enforce education laws in these Yeshivas.

Several years ago we filed a complaint with the city Department of Education alleging that thousands of children attending Hasidic schools are not receiving the education they are supposed to receive according to New York State Education Law. We specifically asked the DOE not to release the names of the Yeshivas we provided them, so that the Yeshivas do not feel targeted. Our hope was they would conduct a swift investigation, produce a comprehensive report on their findings, including steps to bring Yeshivas into compliance, and then begin implementing those improvements. During the past few years, we have been scrupulous with both our language and initiatives to work with the community as much as possible and not do anything that would attack their Yeshivas.

We also extended an olive branch to the leaders of those Yeshiva systems. I met with Rabbi David Zwiebel from Agudath Israel, who said he agreed with the need to improve the secular education, but that he’s unable to do anything about it because he has no control or jurisdiction over Hasidic leaders and Yeshivas. I turned to Rabbi Niederman and emailed him on several occasions requesting a meeting because my goal is to work with the community — not against it. But Niederman never deigned to respond. People like Niederman are creating this issue by refusing to engage in dialogue.

My attempts to speak/meet with David Niederman

Instead of meeting with me and possibly collaborating, Niederman banded together with Zwiebel and started an organization whose mission appears to fight Yaffed and to preserve the status quo. You may not see this in their website literature, but it was unmistakably clear in the interviews they’ve done for Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox newspapers. This group hired an attorney that has apparently stonewalled the Department of Education’s attempts to visit the 39 Yeshivas, which is why two years and three months into the investigation, the DOE has only visited six of the Yeshivas. Obviously, the DOE is to blame because had they been serious about the investigation, they’d have put their foot down and visited all 39 Yeshivas anyway. But it’s become clear that the ultra-Orthodox leaders are out to obstruct progress from happening. They are harming their own constituents, parents who want to see improvements in their children’s education and want their children to have futures of possibility.

(Several people who have shared his piece with me expressed their incredulity that Niederman could have written this op-ed given his own education and command of the English language. I’m not here to poke fun at Rabbi Niederman. In a way, he’s just as much a victim of the failed education system as I am and as the thousands who have graduated and who are still in it. But there has to be a special place in hell for people like him who know the struggle but choose to obstruct progress from happening.)

In his op-ed, Niederman begins by purposely obfuscating the problem and talking about the many and diverse Yeshivas in NYC. We have never generalized. In every complaint, media appearance, and op-ed, we stress specifically where the problem is: primarily in Hasidic boys’ schools. No one at Yaffed, or those in the media who pay attention to us, confuse which Yeshivas we’re talking about. And we often praise those that do provide a proper secular education.

He then claims that parents have a choice, a claim that has been refuted again and again. In Hasidic sects, most parents do not feel they have a choice. There’s a tremendous amount of peer pressure to send their kids to the Yeshiva belonging to their sect. And the largest sects (i.e. Satmar, Lubavitch, Bobov, Belz, Skver, Vishnitz, etc.) are the worst offenders, leaving tens of thousands ill-educated. And even if there was a choice, that still does not give Yeshivas permission to operate outside ofthe law and deny children instruction in core subjects required by law. More specifically, it’s unacceptable that NYC and NYS do not enforce those laws like they would, say, seat belts and car seats.

He then goes on to say “the allegation that our schools don’t provide any instruction in English and don’t offer secular education — one that has been repeated often since an advocacy group started promoting it — is false.”

Well, yes and no. We have never said that all Hasidic Yeshivas do not teach English. We have been very clear all along, and this is verifiable by looking at all the material we’ve published and every single place we’ve been quoted. Here it is:

In most Hasidic elementary schools, boys receive just 90 minutes of instruction in secular studies. That usually consists of just English and math. In most Hasidic high schools, boys receive no secular education at all. They spend up to 14 hours a day in Yeshiva, but study exclusively Judaic studies.

The above account has been confirmed by dozens of Yeshiva graduates as well as parents of current students. And no ultra-Orthodox leader has come out and flatly denied it. Even Niederman appears to be choosing his words in a way where it’s unclear if he’s denying it or not.

He then goes on:

“Of course, every institution can improve, and our schools are no different. That is why over the past few years, dozens of yeshivas have banded together to fund a non-Hasidic team of educators to work with the major textbook publishers to devise a culturally sensitive, Common Core-compliant set of textbooks, teacher guides and lesson plans.”

This once again misses the point. Yes, every institution can improve. Schools where children are not doing well on exams or where the graduation rates are low, should improve. But the Yeshivas in question have a lot more than “improving” to do. They need to “begin teaching the subjects required by law.”

In Niederman’s version of improvements, all we see are cosmetic changes, which according to parents of children attending those schools, don’t appear to be making much of a difference. There’s no increase in the amount of time dedicated to secular studies. No increase in the number of subjects. And no increase in the number of years. Meaning, high school boys are still being denied an education altogether.

Additionally, some of the so-called improvements may not have gotten into several of the 39 Yeshivas at all.

So let’s ask a few pointed questions of Niederman regarding two Yeshivas that were named in our July 2015 complaint:

Did Yeshiva Oholei Torah, a Lubavitch elementary school located at 667 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, begin teaching any secular studies?

Does Yeshiva Shaarei Yosher, located at 4102 16th Ave in Brooklyn, teach any secular studies to its high school students?

To my knowledge, the answer is “no” for both. So how can he claim there have been improvements?

Furthermore, let’s assume there have been improvements over the course of the investigation, that is not reason for the city to end their investigation and refuse to release a report. Imagine if a father were accused of abusing his ten children, causing them irreparable harm, but during the investigation, he began making slight improvements. Would ACS just drop the case and say “well, he’s made improvements, so now we’re good?” Of course not.

What we have here are dozens of Hasidic boys’ schools that have for decades violated the law and caused irreparable harm to tens of thousands of children. During the DOE’s investigation, they supposedly made some minor cosmetic improvements. Is that reason to abandon the investigation and the pursuit for full enforcement of the law? I don’t think so.

More from Niederman:

“Those critical of yeshivas are also often strikingly unaware of what goes on during the Jewish studies portion of the school day.”

Does Niederman not understand that I and most of the people I work with are either Yeshiva graduates or parents of current students? We know full well what goes on there during Judaic studies. We’ve had 18 years of that. It’s true, some of it is pretty rigorous, but most of it is not usable in today’s economy. And no, we are not prepared to become lawyers because we graduate without high school diploma and with little or no proficiency in the English language.

He goes on to say that he’s proud of the Yeshiva graduates and that many become successful. He also alleges that our mission is not really to improve the secular education but rather to destroy their way of life. Of course that’s not true. But specifically, he says “You need not take my word for this. All you need to do is read theirs.”

We agree, don’t take his word for it. Do read our report. You will be amazed at the information you will learn about the magnitude of the problem as well as things you hadn’t realized before. For instance, that these very Yeshivas that have flouted the law for decades, have received and continue receiving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. It is not uncommon for a Yeshiva’s budget to be half or two-thirds fulfilled by government (city, state and federal) funds. Yeshiva tuition makes up a small fraction of the Yeshiva’s budget. It’s the public that supports this.

Perhaps nowhere does Niederman show his contempt for choice and for children’s rights more than in his conclusion:

“Hasidim choose a different path…”

That presumes that children make this conscious decision to be denied an education and be left with little choice and opportunity for the rest of their lives.

In reality, these decisions are made for the children, and it’s precisely that what is so disturbing and why we need the public to demand that Hasidic leaders take into account these children’s futures when they make decisions on their behalf.

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Naftuli Moster

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