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Naftuli Moster: Yeshivas Must Be Brought into the 21st Century

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Naftuli Moster is the Founder and Executive Director of YAFFED, a nonprofit organization focused on improving secular education in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. He is a graduate of a New York yeshiva, and he became convinced after he finished that he had been denied a full education. He blames officials in New York City and New York State for ignoring the needs of Yeshiva students to avoid offending politically powerful orthodox Jewish communities.

Moster writes:

Students in many ultra-Orthodox yeshivas face educational neglect. NYSED must stop the delays.

It may sound shocking in this day and age, but many ultra-Orthodox schools in New York are actively violating state law by providing little to no secular instruction in topics like English, math, science, and history—and New York officials have stalled and stymied action to address this educational neglect at every turn.

What started as an allegation by a small group of grassroots activists has since been confirmed by the New York City Department of Education, which found that 26 of the 28 yeshivas they investigated did not meet the minimum standards. Hasidic boys in elementary and middle school receive a maximum of 90 minutes of secular education a day, and in high school they receive none whatsoever. (Girls in these same communities tend to receive more secular education because they are barred from studying Talmud and because they are groomed to be the breadwinner, so their husbands can continue studying Torah.)

After years of considering a proposal to increase oversight of New York’s nonpublic schools—the first real chance at reform since this issue came to the fore in 2015 —the New York State Education Department (NYSED) balked. In May 2021, after intense pressure from private school entities, NYSED quietly disclosed to the Board of Regents that they would be scrapping proposed regulations, which had been under consideration since 2019 and would have increased oversight of the state’s nonpublic schools, ensuring that they provide students with a basic education. New regulations are supposed to be developed this fall, but since they were not discussed in the October Board of Regents monthly meeting, the timeline seems to be delayed once again.

This development is unacceptable. Since the alarm was first sounded about the lack of secular studies in Hasidic yeshivas, leaders of these same schools have taken every opportunity they can to smear advocates and spread misinformation about what really goes on in their institutions. Their tactics have contributed to the years of stalling of any meaningful reforms, leaving students to suffer the consequences of no real secular education, and limited college and career prospects.

And, this student population is on the rise. Our report shows how the Hasidic population only continues to grow, and with that, so does the impact of this issue. Hasidic students already make up 20.5 percent of the nonpublic school students in New York, with over 90,000 students enrolled in Hasidic schools in 2018-2019. In Brooklyn, it is projected that by 2030, 23 to 37 percent of all school-age children will be Hasidic.

This means that each passing year, more students will miss out on a basic education. Many finish their schooling with about the equivalent of a third or fourth-grade education and never learn even basic sciences or history. Where is the equity in that?

Of course, NYSED should follow through and develop meaningful regulations that would enforce subject matter requirements and time allotment standards. But NYSED cannot act as if, in the absence of new regulations, they are powerless to enforce any kind of educational standards. There are long-standing regulations about how to deal with complaints against nonpublic schools in New York. NYSED must use its existing authority to ensure that children attending ultra-Orthodox yeshivas are getting the education to which they are entitled under the New York State Constitution. A new school year is already underway, and there is no time to waste.

It is shameful that NYSED is failing to live up to its self-proclaimed vision to “provide leadership for a system that yields the best educated people in the world” out of fear they might upset private school leadership. The students themselves—the very people that NYSED is supposed to support—are bearing the brunt of this crisis. NYSED must step up to do the job they are entrusted to do, and that taxpayers pay them to do.

Betty Rosa, Commissioner of NYSED, has an opportunity to be a real leader here and ensure strong regulations are adopted. And, while policies are being crafted and revised, she must use NYSED’s existing authority to take any corrective actions necessary against schools that are failing their students. She can leave an indelible mark on New York State education policy, finally putting an end to the injustice ultra-Orthodox students have faced for generations.

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