The problem with New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools during the pandemic


Covid-19 rates in New York — which have been very low in New York City for months — are rising again in areas where ultra-Orthodox Jews have been disregarding orders to follow social distancing rules to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Hasidic Jews — the most traditional of the ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States — protested the restrictions, setting fires and burnings masks in the streets of Brooklyn.

The Religion News Service reported that more than 400 rabbis and other Jewish religious leaders signed a statement supporting efforts by New York officials to shut down the schools and force Hasidic Jews to limit attendance at religious services. According to the report, it can be difficult to enforce public health regulations in these communities because many residents do not consume secular news and do not speak English well — or at all.

The practices of yeshivas — the schools run by the ultra-Orthodox — have been controversial for years in New York City. Some schools provide little or no secular education to students, despite state requirements that they do and despite the fact that these schools receive public funding from the state.

The following post about the yeshivas was written by Naftuli Moster, who was educated in a yeshiva and who came to realize the inadequacy of his education. Moster started a nonprofit called Young Advocates for Fair Education, or YAFFED, to advocate for reforms to yeshiva education. In this post, Moster looks at the current situation and makes recommendations about how officials could address it.

By Naftuli Moster

More than 300 New York public and private schools have been closed recently in communities with “hot spots” that have seen a sharp rise in the number of positive covid-19 cases after months in which the city and state had managed to hold the infection rate at or below 1 percent.

These clusters of high infection rates, in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Rockland, Orange and Broome counties, are primarily situated where there are large numbers of Jewish ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic residents, and where the warning signs have been evident for several months.

Many yeshivas have reopened with no precautions in place, large indoor weddings have resumed with no masks in sight, and the rabbis of various Hasidic sects have held court for hundreds and sometimes thousands of their followers, standing shoulder to shoulder inside synagogues with no social distancing. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) recently announced shutdowns of all nonessential businesses and schools in these areas where the virus is raging out of control.

I grew up in the Hasidic community, and it is evident to me why so many of its members have disregarded the health and safety protocols necessary to keep the transmission of the virus under control.

First, our elected leaders have for years allowed these communities to flout public health rules, whether it comes to measles vaccination or safe circumcision procedures. The community also has an outsize political influence because it votes as a bloc, and it is growing fast as a result of high birthrates, with tens of thousands of families residing in highly concentrated and insular neighborhoods.

Another problem that has contributed to the spread of the virus is how Hasidic schools provide no education in science. I was educated in one of these yeshivas, and I never heard of cells or molecules, or learned how invisible viruses could spread disease until I was 22 years old and in college.

This is why it is unfathomable that New York state has still not moved forward with enforcing the law that all children, including those attending ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Yeshivas, are provided with a basic education in science and other secular subjects.

For more than a century, New York state law has required nonpublic schools to provide an education that is “at least substantially equivalent” to that provided in public schools. Ultra-Orthodox Jews send their children to yeshivas where the main focus is on Judaic studies, and the subset of Hasidic Yeshivas take that practice to an extreme.

On average, Hasidic elementary and middle school boys receive only 60 to 90 minutes of secular education a day, four days a week. These secular studies usually take place between 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. and consist only of basic English and arithmetic. No science, health or social studies is taught to boys of any age, let alone art, music or physical education. In high school, Hasidic boys receive absolutely no education except in Judaic studies. They study religious texts from 6:30 in the morning until 8:30 at night and are taught primarily in Yiddish.

So it’s not uncommon for young Hasidic men to be unable to speak English even with minimal proficiency, or to know any math beyond basic addition and subtraction. Very often they understand nothing about health or biology. Hasidic girls tend to receive a more robust secular education because they are prohibited from becoming rabbis, and are instead expected to become the breadwinner of the family, while their future husbands are trained to become rabbis.

While yeshivas are private in name, they are heavily subsidized by the government. They receive millions of dollars in Title I funding from the federal government, which is intended for students who live in poverty; millions in state funds for books, busing and special education services; and child-care vouchers and subsidies for private guards from the city. These programs and other public funding combined often make up two-thirds of a typical yeshiva’s budget.

I began raising awareness about this issue more than eight years ago, when I discovered the huge gaps in my own education and how they had hampered me from pursuing a college education to become a therapist. It was nearly impossible for me to enroll in college in the first place because I didn’t have a high school diploma, nor did I have enough foundational knowledge or fluency in English to obtain a GED (high school equivalency diploma).

When I learned that for more than 100 years, New York state law has required the education that is provided in all nonpublic schools, including yeshivas, to be “substantially equivalent” to that offered in the public schools, I was astounded. In 2012, I founded an organization called Yaffed, to fight for the rights of Hasidic youth to receive an equivalent education. In 2015, we filed formal complaints to the city and state about how dozens of New York City yeshivas that enroll tens of thousands of students flout the law. We and many others who have grown up in the Hasidic community have written countless op-eds and held countless rallies, urging the state and the city to act.

And yet rather than exercising their authority and responsibilities to ensure that Hasidic children receive the schooling they deserve under the law, nothing substantial has been done to enforce it. While New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said in 2015 that he had launched an investigation into the substandard education delivered by these yeshivas, a joint report issued on Dec. 18, 2019, by the city’s Department of Investigation and the special investigator for schools concluded that the mayor had engaged in “political horse-trading” two years before, to delay his investigation in return for the support of ultra-Orthodox leaders and the legislators who represent their interests to extend his mayoral control over New York City public schools.

The day after that report was released, on Dec. 19, 2019, New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza finally issued a letter, addressed to the State Education Department, revealing the results of the long-awaited investigation into the yeshivas. The key findings were cited on page 13 of his 15-page letter: Only two out of 28 yeshivas actually complied with the state’s “substantial equivalency” law.

Over the last 2½ years, we have also waited for the New York State Education Department to adopt regulations that would clarify the mechanisms by which districts can more easily enforce the law. Draft regulations were introduced in July 2019 but so far have not been adopted. All that needs to happen is for the interim New York Commissioner of Education Betty Rosa, the former chancellor of the Board of Regents, to ask the board to vote on these regulations so they can be implemented and enforced.

We hope that she will do so promptly, especially given the sharp increase in coronavirus infection rates in the ultra-Orthodox communities, which in turn has led to the decision to close more than 300 public and nonpublic schools in the city, hampering the education of many hundreds of thousands of children who reside in these areas.

Ongoing failures of leadership at the state and city levels now risk an even sharper increase in covid-19 transmission, leading to the potential closure of all city public and nonpublic schools. The time has come to finally put the interests of children and by extension, all residents of the city and state, ahead of the concerns of private interests who have rejected any form of state oversight.





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