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Letter from New York

Leonard Quart: New York City officials' hands-off policy on yeshivas might finally be over

Religious Schools Standards

Members of the New York state Board of Regents vote in favor of the P-12 consent agenda on Sept. 13 in Albany, N.Y. The agenda included the adoption of revised statewide rules that private schools, including Jewish Yeshivas, face stricter enforcement of long-standing requirements that they provide academic instruction "substantially equivalent" to that in the public sector.

It’s hard to generalize about New York City’s private schools. They run from the elite all-girls Brearley School on the Upper East Side and the top academic co-ed Horace Mann School in Riverdale (the Bronx) to Borough Park’s Yeshiva Imrei Chaim Viznitz, an all-boys school with 74 students.

The elite private schools are often bastions of privilege, with the money and connections to offer unique resources and opportunities to their students. These can include peer-to-peer tutoring, college counseling, volunteer work, summer internships, technology and career advice from alumni.

Most of the Hasidic yeshivas clearly provide a much more limited and severe learning environment, dedicated to promoting study of religious texts and perpetuating their orthodox Jewish subculture.

My experience in a yeshiva

In the late 1940s, I attended an all-boys yeshiva from second to sixth grade. Located in a white working-class neighborhood, it was not Hasidic but strictly orthodox. Since both my grandfathers were rabbis, my parents who were traditional but not really religious felt I should get a taste of what they saw as a Jewish education. The yeshiva did offer a half-day of courses taught in English, which seemed to my 10-year-old mind satisfactory, if not particularly stimulating. At first, I was OK with the Hebrew and religious part of the school day. It soon began to oppress me, though, as rote learning took over and long, tedious sessions of poring over the fine and, to me, irrelevant points of the Talmud became the norm. Some of the teachers used corporal punishment — three smacks on the hand with a ruler for talking — a painful and humiliating act that could bring one to tears.

However, the corporal punishment was not what bothered me most about the school. The teachers who taught the narrow Hebrew curriculum (no history or literature) were in the main devoid of an iota of sensitivity and teaching skill and promoted unquestioning religious belief. The school was housed in an old telephone building with an unsafe, rickety outdoor steel staircase (which in my nightmares always seemed to be collapsing, with me falling through space). Inside, it always seemed dark and fetid, especially the basement cafeteria that served unappetizing spaghetti for lunch seemingly every day. If I ever had any religious feeling and commitment, it quickly disappeared in this constricted atmosphere where genuine spirituality didn’t exist. Ultimately, I was able to get such bad grades in Talmud and related subjects that my parents allowed me to leave for public junior high school, which to me represented liberation despite the generally uninspired curriculum it offered.

More scrutiny

Yeshivas are in the news recently. The New York Times recently reported that many (though not all) Hasidic schools have systematically denied thousands of children a thorough education in subjects like English and math. Many of those students can’t read or write in English after graduating. The Times reported that every one of the 1,000 students at the Central United Talmudical Academy who took state standardized reading and math tests in 2019, failed.

To be clear, these are Hasidic schools — not modern orthodox, co-educational ones like Ramaz on the Upper East Side that offer a dual curriculum of general studies taught in English and Judaic Studies in Hebrew. Elite universities accept many of Ramaz’s graduates.

Hasidic schools are a different story.

Some New York lawmakers have condemned the underperforming schools and their leaders, but most New York City and state leaders, including Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul, have taken a largely hands-off approach to Hasidic Jewish private school education. Of course, their response has to do with the reliable votes that are delivered by the grand rabbis to specific candidates. There are an estimated 200,000 Hasidic New York residents, and politicians assiduously court them. In addition to poor educational standards, the Times found that these yeshivas still relied on corporal punishment. At some schools, boys have called 911 after being beaten. At the same time, Hasidic yeshivas currently collectively receive millions of dollars of public funding annually for programs like feeding students and providing afterschool care. They have usually operated as if they are free of any regulation — a protected minority whom authorities have rarely been willing to confront.

Finally, the pressure may be too great for the politicians to maintain their hands-off policy. The state Board of Regents recently unanimously approved regulations that give teeth to a longstanding state law that requires private schools to offer an education “substantially equivalent” to public schools. (Of course, a huge number of the public schools the state fully funds are posting state test results nearly identical to the ones reported from the yeshivas.)

Yeshiva defenders have predictably condemned the additional oversight as an intrusion on their right to a religious education. But the yeshivas have had years to reform the education they offer, and they have done nothing.

The time is politically right to be tough on the yeshivas and prevent them from offering a substandard education in the name of religion. Let’s hope that Adams and Hochul and other New York pols are willing to sacrifice some votes by committing to giving Hasidic yeshiva students the educational possibility of succeeding in the larger secular world.

Leonard Quart can be reached at CinWrit@aol.com.

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