NEW YORK – At the ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools Pesach Eisen attended in Brooklyn, most of the day was spent studying religious texts with classes taught in Yiddish. One class at the end of the day was spent on secular subjects including English and math, enough to be “able to go to the food stamps office and apply.”
“Everything was super basic. ... Nobody took it seriously, so even if you were a studious person you had no chance,” said the now-32-year-old Eisen, who had to take remedial classes and study intensively on his own before he succeeded in graduating from college in 2016.
Complaints that schools like Eisen’s run by New York’s strictly observant Hasidic Jews barely teach English, math, science or social studies have fueled a movement to demand stricter oversight by state and local educational authorities. Critics planned to file a lawsuit this week in federal court, seeking to stop the state from enforcing legislation that was intended to shield the schools, called yeshivas, from some government oversight.
“When we grew up there was no such thing as big aspirations – ‘I want to be a doctor, I want to be a lawyer, I want to be a businessman,’” said Eisen, who no longer practices the ultra-Orthodox faith. “It’s, ‘I want to be a rabbi. That’s the only thing.’”
Defenders of the yeshivas say parents have the right to send their children to schools that provide a Jewish education consistent with their beliefs and traditions.
“We specifically for generations have chosen this kind of education for our children,” says Ari Goldberg, who has seven children attending Hasidic yeshivas in Brooklyn. “This is what we want. Why should it be taken away?”
The yeshiva backers also say critics err by just counting the minutes of a school day spent on secular studies.
“The problem solving, the literacy, the critical thinking, all that is in Judaica studies as well,” said Yitzchok Kaufman, a Brooklyn yeshiva alumnus and parent.
The planned lawsuit by Young Advocates for Fair Education, or YAFFED, which is pushing for improved secular education in the ultra-Orthodox schools, names Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Department of Education’s top two officials as defendants.
Department of Education spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said the department is working on updating its guidance on equivalency of instruction at the yeshivas.
There are about 275 Orthodox Jewish yeshivas in New York state, but many are modern Orthodox schools that provide a full secular curriculum along with religious studies.
YAFFED founder Naftuli Moster said the Hasidic yeshivas where secular education is generally given short shrift number 83 in New York City and 38 in other parts of the state. An estimated 115,000 children attend the schools.
For boys in the Hasidic yeshiva system, the emphasis is on studying religious texts. Classes are taught in Yiddish, the language spoken in most Hasidic homes. Secular subjects are relegated to the end of the long school day, when the boys are restless and inattentive, critics say.
Once the boys reach high school, they don’t study secular subjects, devoting their entire day to the Torah, Talmud and other Jewish texts.
Hasidic girls can’t study Talmud and therefore learn more English, math and social studies than the boys do, though taboo subjects such as evolution and sex education are typically omitted.
“They erased anything about dinosaurs,” said Shavy Rosenberg, who attended Hasidic schools for girls. “Anything more than 5,000 years old was erased.”
Although the schools are private, they are not entirely free of government oversight because of a state law requiring that instruction in non-public schools be substantially equivalent to the instruction given at the local public school.
YAFFED was founded in 2012 with the aim of pressuring New York City and New York state to enforce the substantial equivalence standard at yeshivas. But that effort was dealt a blow last spring when a state senator who represents a heavily Orthodox Brooklyn district threatened to hold up the state’s $168 billion budget unless the state agreed not to enforce the substantial equivalence rule in the same way at ultra-Orthodox yeshivas as it’s enforced at other schools.
The legislation pushed by Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans in the state Senate, singled out schools with long days, bilingual programs and nonprofit status – in effect, yeshivas – and put the state Department of Education, not local school districts, in charge of determining what curriculum rules those schools must follow.