Interview with Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel Regarding DOE Report on Yeshivos

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Leadership of PEARLS (Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools) speaking at City Hall, Thursday. At the microphone is Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel.

What’s the next step after the report?

I’ll give you the legalistic answer first. The legalistic answer is that right now the ball is in the court of the State Education Commissioner and she needs to consider what the State Education Department’s obligations are under the new law. Of course, the new law itself is under constitutional attack in the courts and exactly what the new law means and how that translates into the practical world is not clear yet. There are a lot of big question marks in terms of being able to predict what the exact next step is.

Aren’t they supposed to release the new guidance any day now?

They were planning to release the new guidance by mid-August, but they sent around a note. I received a note from one of her deputies about a week ago saying that for the time being it’s pushed off.

Does this have anything to do with the city’s report?

This came out before the City’s report.

What’s interesting by the way is that the entirety of that advisory council, meaning the Catholic schools and the Lutheran schools and the Islamic schools and Christian fundamentalist schools and so on and so forth, they all go along with us in expressing concern about these new guidelines that are about to come out.

If I remember correctly, the Catholics weren’t so happy when the Felder Amendment first passed.

The Catholics weren’t happy with the amendment either because they have their concerns. We have our concerns, they have their concerns. Their concerns are more in the nature of who’s going to be doing the oversight. They don’t like the fact that the local superintendent is supposed to be doing the oversight according to the way the state has been interpreting the old law. They say the local superintendent is interested in us closing down because they’d like to have children. Every child means more money. You’re going to give the authority of oversight to the person who has interest in us closing down. That’s not fair.

Let’s go back to your earlier question. What is the next step? The next steps are, we’re waiting for and maybe having some more off-the-record conversations with the commissioner of education trying to influence these guidelines as they come out. What her reaction will be to the city’s report is another complicating factor that we don’t know yet.

And what will happen vis-à-vis the city before the city getting any guidance from the state. Will they continue to do the visitations to the schools that they claim they have been denied access?

Here’s what I say. This investigation started three years ago. They finally put out a report. The spotlight is very much on our mosdos. The new statute that is being challenged as unconstitutional says that every single school has to, throughout elementary school, cover the four basic core subject areas of math, science, history and English. At the high school level, they have to provide a sound basic education, whatever that means. Not defined. The report is positive in the sense that it says that there are certain improvements that have been undertaken by schools.

I think the single most important what comes next is that every single yeshivah, certainly those that are named in this complaint, but frankly every single yeshivah in the state, should do a careful inventory of what their limudei chol programs look like right now. Are they defensible under the new statute that Simcha Felder put out? And if they’re not defensible, what steps can they start to take to improve the limudei chol program so that they will be defensible if and when the law is upheld as constitutional. I think that’s the single most important immediate thing that has to happen right now that we can do.

We can take the steps. People can reach out to the hanhalah of PEARLS, to Yossi Grunwald, and say how can you help me PEARLS in implementing a strong curriculum and making sure that the teachers we have are properly trained to teach these subjects and putting us in a position where we will have a straight face argument that we are providing a decent education in our schools. That to me is the single most important thing that needs to be done. Many of the schools have already started doing it which is what this letter says. That’s the positive that this letter says.

This letter is suggesting — it doesn’t quite say it — that these 15 schools that cooperated with us and showed us what they’re doing and they are implementing the pearls curriculum, that they are now hereby given the stamp of approval. It doesn’t quite say that, but it comes close to saying that.

What that does is suggest — “hint, hint to all the other schools. This is what you guys ought to be doing. This is the safe harbor that’s going to protect you against the efforts of Yaffed and company and the bureaucrats who want to follow along to close you down.”

I’m not sure it’s diplomatic for me to say these things, but this letter ought to be an awakening for all of our mosdos that the day of reckoning is soon upon us, and if you weren’t one of the 15 that were checked out already, you will soon probably be in one form or another, whether it’s by the city people, whether it’s by the state people.

Yes, you will be able to point, baruch Hashem, to the limudei kodesh program and the critical thinking and rigorous academic material that the students are exposed to, which is all very, very positive. But you also have to show that you’re trying to make progress in your limudei chol program to give children the kind of education that will enable them to function as productive members of society when they graduate.

The argument that some yeshivos were making all the way in the beginning that we have a right to educate our children the way we see fit, I guess that’s off the table now.

No. It’s not off the table. It may be that at the high school level.

I’ll tell you about a case in the United States Supreme Court, which you probably heard about. It’s called Yoder v. Wisconsin. The Yoders were Amish people who didn’t send their children to school beyond age I think 16 or 14 or something beyond elementary school, beyond eighth grade. They claimed it was a matter of their free exercise of religion. This was their religious beliefs that students should be in the classroom until eighth grade and afterwards they should be out in the field. That’s part of their free exercise of religion. The state can’t wave a compulsory education law in front of them and say that the compulsory education law says that children have to be educated until at least the age of 16. That violates our freedom of religion.

The Supreme Court basically said like this. Yes, free exercise of religion is a core constitutional value. A very important constitutional value and that’s clearly implicated by this. However, it’s not absolute freedom of religion. The exercise of religion is not absolute and the state has an interest in making sure that all children receive an education that will enable them to be productive citizens. We understand that, said the United States Supreme Court, that as long as they go to school through eighth grade and comply with the requirements for elementary school study then that’s sufficient to enable them to make a free exercise argument going into the high school level.

That’s a very significant precedent. It kind of says that however, if you don’t have something even at the elementary school level, you don’t have that foundation of basic knowledge that is taught at the elementary school level, then your free exercise of religion claim is not going to prevail.

Within those parameters, of course it’s a matter of freedom of religion. We can do whatever we want to be mechanech our children and of course we’re going to make that argument. However, based on the Yoder case, I would say that that argument will become much harder to sustain at the elementary school level.

This statute that Simcha Felder put in, which was based upon discussions with educators and discussions with many of the mosdos and hearing from some of the rebbes and that the rebbes are saying that they are prepared to upgrade the limudei chol at the elementary level. That gives me a sense of hope that if yeshivos indeed implement these upgrades at the elementary level, hopefully at least the elementary schools will be saved.

If they have nothing at the high school level then they can say, well, our religion requires that students above age limits be immersed on a full time level in limudei kodesh and therefore this is the way we transmit the mesorah from one generation to the next. The fact that other mosdos allow for a secular education doesn’t really matter because our particular religious beliefs based upon the guidance we have from our rabbinic leadership is that it should be full time learning at this age.

Under the Yoder case that argument were to work.

Remember, I’m just saying what might happen. If I’m a lawyer for the yeshivos, I’m not throwing in the towel. I’m going to go in and argue that the study of Talmud together with the free exercise considerations. We practice our religion by engaging in the most rigorous academic type of learning that exists anywhere in the world. I’ll bring you all kind of education experts who will say that.

I’m not giving up that we’re necessarily going to lose in that situation. All I’m saying is there is a concern that we have to recognize. Based on what the New York City Department of Education has written in this letter, I think it does kind of lay out a little bit of a road map for mosdos, at least at the elementary school level, that will make certain strides and show certain progress toward improvements in their program of limudei chol, which the government will agree to since, frankly, they don’t particularly want to have this confrontation. I think that they would declare victory and say wonderful. We’re working with the schools and look at the wonderful changes that are being implemented in the schools. We’re going to continue to collaborate. That’s three or four pages of this letter saying that.

He does write in the report at one point — I’m quoting — “a strong argument has been made that Judaic studies can be a powerful context in which they cultivate critical thinking and textual analysis skills.”

That’s a great and historic paragraph. Once upon a time, there were talks that in evaluating a nonpublic school and equivalency of instruction and all of that, the part of the day that is relevant to that evaluation is called secular studies because we’re not going to look into religious studies. First of all, we shouldn’t be looking at religious studies. That’s unconstitutional. We shouldn’t even be looking at that. And number two, we know what religious studies are. They’re studies of a bunch of hocus pocus.

Now, here we have a government entity coming in, this is also part of what the Felder Law tried to accomplish, by saying that the evaluation of the school has to consist of an evaluation of the entirety of the curriculum. The entirety means kodesh as well as chol. The evaluation is exactly this point about critical thinking skills and textual analysis and probably you can come up with some other words that emerge from a careful understanding of what learning is.

I remember not more than 15 years ago, the entire learning was more based on rote and memory. We had the 12 times table. We had to memorize the different rules of English. Today, learning is more about critical thinking, like they say.

I think it gives us tremendous credibility in the arguments that we advance. The fact that there is an increasing recognition that education is not just an accumulation of facts and memorization and things of that nature, education means teaching a child how to think. If that’s what education means then what’s the matter with Bava Kamma? It goes way beyond what is substantially equivalent. Our children are way, way ahead in terms of those most important aspects of education.

I hope at the end of the day, based on that assumption, that the government will recognize there’s a certain ways in which they have to be differential to the religious values that define what our education looks like. I am hopeful that we will be able to retain the essence our yeshivos without any compromises and at the same time be considered to satisfy the requirements of these laws.

Whatever it is, if a yeshivah thinks that they can continue having a very poor quality, and demonstrably poor quality schooling, I would look at this letter from the New York City Education Chancellor as a warning signal that they do have to take certain steps. Certainly whoever reads the statute would say that.

So it does look like this fight is not over from a legal standpoint at least.

No, by no means.

Richard Carranza, you know, is relatively new to this whole process. He was in Houston before and if I remember correctly, I think he was in Florida before that. I don’t think he ever had exposure to a yeshivah education. What was your experience working with him?

I met him only once, the day that the letter was released.

The media narrative is that half the yeshivos did not allow access.

Read Avi Schick’s Daily News editorial and you will see he said the schools never did and never would deny access. We are contesting the representation by the city in this letter, but frankly we’re not dwelling on it because if the focus becomes exclusively that then you lose out on the important stuff of the letter, which is what I said earlier, which is the fact that the City is kind of endorsing and embracing the steps that the schools have taken to improve their education and they are looking for progress in education. That’s what should make them happy. They are saying that we acknowledge that we have to consider the limudei kodesh also.

Any other buttons I’m not pressing over here that you would want to say?

I have an idea of a point that we haven’t made yet, but it is an important point. Somehow we have to make a point. The argument is that you have to give children an opportunity to succeed in society. What is this “succeed”? What is this “success”? How do we define success? The conversation assumes success means that you will be able to earn a living and make money. That’s what success is.

Of course that’s part of success. But from our perspective and what our parents from the moment the child is born when the brachah to them is “tizku l’gadlo l’Torah l’chuppah ul’maasim tovim.” For us, success is if our children grow up to be talmidei chachamim. If our children are shomrei Torah u’mitzvos b’hidurah, and they have hashkafos of the Torah hakedoshah and not of the society around us, and they are ba’alei middos — that’s what success is. That’s the way we measure success for our children.

How many people subject themselves to a life of minimal material comforts and means because they are pursuing higher and more idealistic purposes? A lot.

When we consider what success is, we may have a different conception of what success is. Out there in the world, they say these schools are failures. Failures? What are you talking about? Look at what we’re producing, baruch Hashem.

What they look as a failure is an education that doesn’t put children on the trajectory to college.

Right, and not from a societal perspective. We’re falling behind China. Gevald. An education that allows us to keep up with China or we should stay ahead of China. Education is supposed to develop a child to maximize his potential as a human being, and for shomrei Torah u’mitzvos as a Yid. That’s what education is and that’s what success is.

I once opined that if someone grows up in Africa where life is all about working in the fields or you grow up in a town where everybody works in the oil industry, they would be failing their children if they wouldn’t give them the basics of that particular economy. In our society, if somebody doesn’t know the basics of Gemara, halachah, all those things, he would be a failure.

Right.

The other part of the story which hadn’t been developed well enough yet is the role that the yeshivos have in the remarkable rebirth from the ashes after Churban Europe.

In other words, you’re saying that we should get special consideration?

I’m not saying a special anything, but to try and destroy the structure of the yeshivos that have been the most effective means of assuring Jewish continuity in the land of the free and the home of the brave, where everybody assumed we would assimilate into the melting pot, this is very precious, the track record that these yeshivos have in that respect. From a historical perspective, that counts for a lot. This point has not been developed at all in our public statements or anything.

Could you elaborate on this a little bit? You’re bringing up an important point.

The miracle of the growth of the religious Jewish community and even it’s taken the form that existed for many centuries in Europe confounds all the experts. It’s a tremendous success story. It’s a remarkable success story. It’s a miracle. The way that this was accomplished, the way that this was done was through the building of yeshivos that did not and would not make changes to assimilate into the broader American mainstream. Certainly the Jewish community is a whole lot better for it. And frankly the United States is a whole lot better for it because diversity. If you pay any attention to what people say, diversity is our greatest strength.

To some extent we do march to the beat of our own drum. We do have different values and we do try to preserve those values because having different values is not a detriment to a strong democratic society, to what makes America great. This is exactly what makes America great. It’s “E pluribus unum.” We have to preserve the pluribus.