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Politicians in New York City and New York State eagerly seek the endorsement of the ultra-orthodox Hasidic community because it tends to vote as a bloc, favoring whoever supports their interests. One of their highest goals is to make sure that their religious schools are free of any state mandates. Andrew Yang has emerged as the leading defender of the yeshivas and their “right” not to provide a secular education.
An investigation of yeshivas by New York City officials that started in 2015 wasn’t completed until 2019. The investigation was prompted as a result of complaints by a group of yeshiva graduates called YAFFED (Young Advocates for Fair Education), led by Naftuli Moser. YAFFED said that some yeshivas failed to teach basic secular subjects such as English, science, and mathematics, leaving their students unprepared to enter secular society. YAFFED accused Mayor de Blasio of slowing down the investigation to placate his allies in the politically powerful Orthodox Jewish community.
In 2018, the New York Times ran an opinion piece by a graduate of a yeshiva complaining that all of his schooling had been taught in Yiddish or Hebrew, leaving him with no skills for the modern economy.
I was raised in New York’s Hasidic community and educated in its schools. At my yeshiva elementary school, I received robust instruction in Talmudic discourse and Jewish religious law, but not a word about history, geography, science, literature, art or most other subjects required by New York State law. I received rudimentary instruction in English and arithmetic — an afterthought after a long day of religious studies — but by high school, secular studies were dispensed with altogether.
The language of instruction was, for the most part, Yiddish. English, our teachers would remind us, was profane.
During my senior year of high school, a common sight in our study hall was of students learning to sign their names in English, practicing for their marriage license. For many, it was the first time writing their names in anything but Yiddish or Hebrew.
When I was in my 20s, already a father of three, I had no marketable skills, despite 18 years of schooling. I could rely only on an ill-paid position as a teacher of religious studies at the local boys’ yeshiva, which required no special training or certification. As our family grew steadily — birth control, or even basic sexual education, wasn’t part of the curriculum — my then-wife and I struggled, even with food stamps, Medicaid and Section 8 housing vouchers, which are officially factored into the budgets of many of New York’s Hasidic families.
Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, reported that the yeshivas “receive hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding, through federal programs like Title I and Head Start and state programs like Academic Intervention Services and universal pre-K. For New York City’s yeshivas, $120 million comes from the state-funded, city-run Child Care and Development Block Grant subsidy program: nearly a quarter of the allocation to the entire city.”
When the state or city says that the yeshivas should provide an education for their students that is “substantially equivalent” to secular education, their leaders cry “separation of church and state!” But, inconsistently, their representatives in the legislature actively lobby for tuition tax credits and vouchers. They want the state’s money but not its oversight of the education they provide.
Only two out of 28 yeshivas investigated by the city’s Department of Education were deemed to be providing an education “substantially equivalent“ to that given at secular public schools, with another nine on their way to providing it, according to the city’s report on the long-delayed investigation into failing yeshivas.
The group Young Advocates for Fair Education, or YAFFED, lodged complaints against 39 yeshivas it deemed failing in 2015, which is when the city ostensibly began its investigation. After years of delay, the city narrowed its scope to only 28 of the schools. The DOE finished its visits to those schools this year, according to a letter schools Chancellor Richard Carranza sent to Shannon Tahoe, the interim state education commissioner, on
Out of those 28 schools, the DOE said only two were found to be substantially equivalent to legally mandated secular education standards; nine schools were found to be moving toward substantial equivalency; 12 were cited as “developing in their provision of substantially equivalent instruction,” and another five were deemed “underdeveloped in demonstrating or providing evidence of substantially equivalent instruction.
Some yeshivas refused to allow the investigators to enter.
Now comes an election for Mayor in 2021, and Andrew Yang is a prominent candidate.
Yang has made a point of siding with the Orthodox community and defending their “right” to ignore state curriculum standards (e.g., teaching secular subjects like mathematics and science in English, not Hebrew or yiddish). Consequently, he has become a favorite among the leaders of the Ultra-Orthodox community. Yang has made a point of his support for parent’s freedom to choose any kind of education they want.
As other candidates danced around the subject, Yang offered a blunt defense of the embattled Jewish private schools. “I do not think we should be prescribing a curriculum unless that curriculum can be demonstrated to have improved impact on people’s career trajectories and prospects,” Yang said.
He added, pointing to his own month-long Bible course at a Westchester prep school: “I do not see why we somehow are prioritizing secular over faith-based learning.”
The stance rankled some education advocates, who pointed to a 2019 report that found just a fraction of yeshivas were providing students with adequate secular instruction. Other observers described the comments, which echoed a similar answer recently given to The Forward by Yang, as a transparent attempt to curry favor with the Hasidic voting bloc.
This is a transparently disingenuous response, since studying the Bible as literature for a month is very different from religious indoctrination and studying almost all subjects in Hebrew or Yiddish. Certainly this does not prepare young people to enter the modern economy with the skills they need. (Apparently, Yang attended public high school in Somers, New York, in Westchester County, then the private Phillips Exeter in Massachusetts.)
“It’s like a horse race where one horse comes from last to near the top,” one leader in the Orthodox community, who asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly, told Gothamist. While Eric Adams and Scott Stringer were previously seen as the front-runner candidates, “nobody expected we’d even look at this guy,” the source added of Yang. “All of a sudden it’s ‘Whew!’ He’s certainly in that first tier pool of candidates.”
On Twitter, both the Satmar and Bobov, two of Brooklyn’s most influential Hasidic dynasties, have referred to Yang’s comments as “refreshing.” The head of New York government relations for Agudath Israel, an umbrella organization for Haredi Orthodox synagogues, also commended the candidate on Thursday.
The recent comments mark a shift from an answer Yang gave to Politico last month, in which he suggested that schools not meeting baseline standards should be investigated. In the time since, the outlet noted, the campaign has hired the Borough Park District Leader David Schwartz as director of Jewish Community Outreach.
“The things he’s saying echo with great precision what the pro-yeshiva groups are saying,” another source in the Orthodox community told Gothamist. “He’s very carefully putting these talking points out there.”
Yang defended his stance at a forum moderated by Randi Weingarten:
Gracie Mansion hopeful Andrew Yang on Thursday mounted an extraordinary defense of the Big Apple’s embattled yeshiva schools, telling a Jewish mayoral forum that the city has little business “prescribing” secular curriculum to the religious institutions.
Yang made the comments during a virtual New York City mayoral forum hosted by the New York Jewish Agenda after moderator Randi Weingarten asked him: “As mayor, how would you ensure that every child receives what the New York state Constitution calls a sound basic education on secular topics, including not just the public schools, but including the yeshivas and other religious schools.”
“When I looked at the yeshiva question, Randi, the first thing I wanted to see were — what were the outcomes, what is the data,” Yang responded.
The tech entrepreneur and a leading Democratic front-runner in the mayoral race, continued, “I do not think we should be prescribing a curriculum unless that curriculum can be demonstrated to have improved impact on people’s career trajectories and prospects afterwards.”
Yang’s remarks fly in the face of a damning 2019 report by the Department of Educationon yeshiva schools in the city that found that just two of 28 provided adequate secular education to their students.
“If a school is delivering the same outcomes, like, I do not think we should be prescribing rigid curricula,” said Yang who then spoke of his experience in high school.
“I will also say that when I was in public school we studied the Bible for a month. Bible as literature,” he said. “If it was good enough for my public school, I do not see why we somehow are prioritizing secular over faith-based learning.”
Andrew Yang is a cynical opportunist.