One of the basic tenets of American democracy is freedom of religion. The government cannot do anything to advance any religious activity nor can it act to suppress religious observance. This has played itself out in various ways over the years for the Jewish community. Orthodox synagogues are usually granted parking variances since they don’t drive on Shabbos, rebbeim claim parsonage allowances to save on taxes, Jewish chaplains in the U.S. Army can have beards, towns are allowed to build eruvim, and in many communities public schools are closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Discrimination lawsuits are usually settled in favor of the plaintiffs, and the list goes on. Today it is no longer unusual to see kipot in the workplace and there are Orthodox day school graduates and even charedi Jews at the height of many professions.
One area of current conflict relates to the charedi Jewish educational systems in place all over the country, and in particular, in New York State. All non-charedi Jewish schools conform to state requirements to provide a general studies education equivalent to the public schools’, and they often exceed those requirements. Charedi schools believe that Torah studies are paramount and “secular” studies are minimized to the point that high school graduates (especially boys) cannot read or speak English beyond a very rudimentary level, nor can they perform basic mathematical computations. Science, history, mathematics and literature are totally omitted.
This may be an overgeneralization but it fits most charedi schools. The question that is raises, however, is to what extent can the government force a religious school to change its curriculum to conform to their standards for what is considered a basic skills curriculum? Is there an overriding social/communal/national obligation for the government to assure basic literacy for its citizens? Does a school have the right to claim that according to their religion all studies other than Torah are irrelevant and unnecessary?
Students born and raised in and around New York City can barely speak the language of their native country. They are raised in a community where Yiddish is the primary language of instruction. Until age 12 they receive only an hour or two of instruction in secular subjects each day. After that, the number drops to zero. From early morning until late in the evening, they spend their time immersed in the study of Jewish texts.
What may have worked two centuries ago in Europe is not a sustainable model in 21st-century America. At some point people need a job and there are precious few unskilled jobs that can support a large family where one does not need to know how to read and write English. No one disputes the primacy of Torah, but certain realities govern life. Not every yingle will turn out to be a gadol, and at some point a family needs an income.
Unfortunately, when this realization hits, the result is that sometimes the young person goes “off the derech.” Imagine trying to enroll in a community college at the age of 27 and being told to take a remedial English class aimed at new immigrants. Today there are support groups for these individuals run by former charedi or chasidic Jews who have made their way in what was heretofore an alien world.
New York State’s Department of Education seeks to address the struggles faced by graduates of charedi schools. These regulations would mandate that these schools ensure that students receive a secular education that is at least as good as that which public schools provide. Theoretically they are supposed to be doing that already. New York state requires private schools to provide an education that is “substantially equivalent” to what public schools offer. However, many charedi schools do not meet that standard. Attempts to address the problem have been blocked by powerful Orthodox community members. Last year, State Senator Simcha Felder (who represents a heavily Orthodox district) held up the passage of the state budget to stop New York from interfering in the curriculum at Brooklyn yeshivot.
The state’s proposal specifies how many hours must be devoted to each secular subject and requires schools to provide additional instruction to students with limited knowledge of English. Schools that don’t comply risk losing essential state funding. This is a long overdue remedy to a blatant problem.
However, lawsuits have been filed on behalf of Orthodox yeshivot claiming that these rules are too invasive and hamper their ability to provide a quality religious education to their students. Since schools across New York state would have to change their daily schedules, substantially decrease time devoted to Jewish studies and compromise the very mission that these schools were created to carry out, it is discriminatory and unfair. Agudath Israel of America and Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, are resisting efforts to impose more rigorous secular education standards on charedi schools.
A similar fight has been playing out in Israel, where attempts by the government to enforce general education standards on publicly funded charedi schools were met with fierce pushback from community leaders and their political representatives. How does one quantify how much secular education is too much? Is insisting that graduates from charedi schools be able to read and write and do simple calculations an infringement of religion?
Many charedi Jews with limited literacy find employment in businesses and factories and stores owned by other charedi Jews. Many families rely on the women to be the wage earners while the men study. Given that charedi families are quite large, this imposes a severe burden on these women. Unfortunately, a large number of families wind up on the welfare rolls. This is not a healthy way to plan one’s future.
No one insists that charedim to go to college and get a liberal arts education. However, we need home-appliance repairmen, plumbers, auto repairmen, electricians, factory workers, barbers and a host of other tradespeople who get trained and certified in vocational schools. But there too they need to read and write to decipher the manuals and instructions. Unfortunately the current status quo is a vicious cycle.
Under the proposed rules, private schools that don’t comply with the regulations will lose funding for textbooks, transportation and other state services. The education department is currently considering whether to enact the proposal. Given that charedim vote as a bloc, there is powerful resistance to this legislation and legislators want to stay in office.
The genesis of these proposed regulations came from a 2015 complaint to New York City’s Education Department by former students of 39 charedi schools who claimed that they had not received adequate instruction in secular studies, particularly English. A campaign to push for this legislation included billboards in Borough Park. Graduates of these schools who try to get a job claim that the schools foster mass educational neglect and are guilty of the equivalent of educational malpractice. They are depriving students of an education, subjecting them to lives of poverty and dependence on government assistance.
Girls in these schools generally receive a more comprehensive secular education since the community emphasizes religious studies for men, and women are expected to work while their husbands study. Women in these communities generally help their husbands with daily tasks that require communicating in English. This includes doctor visits and filling out welfare and insurance forms. Simply put, career prospects are severely limited because of the absence and denigration of secular education in charedi schools. What is currently being taught is preparation only for Jewish life. But if they have no means, they can’t even accomplish that.
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene tried to establish a charedi track at a major vocational training school, which drew a large group of potential students from Monsey, Lakewood and Passaic to an open house. Unfortunately even though the school would have accommodated their needs, no one signed up.