The fate of a generation of Jewish children is at stake in yeshiva debate
In a surprisingly caustic Wall Street Journal op-ed last year, Dovid Margolin, a senior editor at the Hasidic magazine Chabad.org, warned of a major new threat to his community’s vast network of schools, known as yeshivas. “New York’s yeshivas face a challenge with echoes of ancient persecution,” he wrote, comparing it to the shuttering of Jewish cheder schools in the Soviet Union a century ago.
He wasn’t alone in sounding the alarm. “This war on Orthodox Jews’ religious educational underpinnings,” wrote Eli Steinberg in the Daily Wire, “is as much an existential threat as the madmen who storm their grocery stores with guns and rush their homes with machetes.”
Margolin and Steinberg aren’t talking about violence or state-sponsored persecution, however. The looming horror they describe is nothing more than a set of proposals the state Board of Regents is considering to help these schools provide children a basic education.
Upwards of 65,000 Hasidic children statewide do not receive the education they deserve. Most of them are boys attending yeshivas whose language of instruction is Yiddish: Children are not even taught to read and write in English. Similar neglect is found in math, science and other key subjects.
The lack of a basic secular education contributes to a cycle of poverty that prevails across the Hasidic community — one that will only get worse as its population grows.
Such schools are not simply neglectful: They fail to meet New York’s legal requirements for education.
True, the 1895 state law mandating compulsory education allows for the creation of nonpublic schools, including religious ones like yeshivas. But such schools must still offer a secular education “substantially equivalent” to nearby public schools’.
And public schools are constitutionally obligated to provide, per a 1995 ruling, a “sound basic education” — including reading, writing, math and other skills necessary for productive civic engagement.
This month, the Board of Regents will consider a series of regulations aimed at helping nonpublic schools, including yeshivas, fill the needs — and rights guaranteed by the state Constitution — of their students. They flow from a 2015 complaint that offered detailed accounts of educational neglect. After a few years of court battles, the proposals on the table offer no fewer than four different pathways to compliance.
Contrary to opponents’ claims, the proposals do not interfere with yeshivas’ religious freedoms or management. They come from a genuine desire to help them follow the law while protecting their community’s way of life.
There is nothing inherent in Jewish tradition that forecloses a basic secular education. For many centuries until very recently, most traditional rabbis learned how to earn a living alongside their religious studies. Today, Modern Orthodox day schools provide a rigorous secular education alongside their religious one — and some are among the nation’s top private schools. Indeed, some Orthodox communities in America compete favorably against almost every other ethno-religious category, Jewish or otherwise, for academic excellence.
Efforts like those of Margolin, Steinberg and others to paint their opponents as closet Cossacks are beyond outrageous. Many behind the campaign to make Hasidic schools follow the law, such as Young Advocates for Fair Education, which filed the 2015 complaint, are themselves committed Jews worried about the fate of the children who attend these schools.
As am I. For more than three decades, I’ve invested heavily in programs like Birthright Israel, which strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora. Central to my identity has always been a concern for the success of all Jewish communities — including the ultra-Orthodox. They are my people as much as any other group of Jews.
So it troubles me deeply that so many Hasidic leaders have chosen a path that rejects the Jewish tradition of educational excellence and instead leads to poverty, dependence and an inability to contribute meaningfully to the world. This is most sharply expressed in the education their children, especially their boys, receive.
For that reason, I’ve always looked for ways to help ultra-Orthodox communities become more economically self-sufficient and build excellence through education. I’ve also been a supporter of YAFFED’s efforts to enforce New York law.
But in the American Jewish community, only a small number of philanthropists, and none of the major institutions, have taken up the fight. The Jewish establishment has been surprisingly silent.
American Jews must understand what is truly at stake in the debate over New York Hasidic schools: nothing less than the fate of a generation of Jewish children. Organized American Jewry should stand up to the voices opposing the proposed regulations and strongly show their support.
And the Board of Regents, as well as the state’s Education Department, should stand firm in enforcing the law and not hesitate to pass and implement the proposals.
Michael Steinhardt is a co-founder of Birthright Israel and author of the forthcoming book “Jewish Pride” (Wicked Son, 2022).