Chinuch Crisis: Update from the Frontlines:

A discussion with Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel about the ongoing chinuch crisis.

News of the revamped regulations for non-public schools has set off a wave of deep concern throughout the Orthodox community. Hamodia spoke with Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America, to give the public additional clarity as to how the issue has reached its present stage, what is being done, and what can be done.

How did this issue metamorphose from a lawsuit from a small group of malcontents about a limited number of yeshivos into changes so radical that even the Catholic schools felt the need to boycott?
The guidance that New York State’s Department of Education has now issued has totally shifted the focus of our efforts in the fight for Torah chinuch.
Until now we were more or less sparring with a phantom. A small group of disgruntled former yeshivah students formed an organization called [Young Advocates for Fair Education] YAFFED. They painted themselves as “survivors” of the darkness and backwardness of the chassidishe yeshivah system, and they embarked on a crusade to enlighten those still caught in the clutches of what they portrayed as an educational system from the dark ages. The media and many in the “progressive” political camp loved them. The ugly story they told played beautifully in the larger narrative of hatred and fear of Chassidim — and to an extent of all Orthodox Jews — that we unfortunately see more and more of.
It was a terrible and ugly smear campaign against the community, but for several years it remained a low-level issue that at most raised some questions as to how government was regulating the yeshivos, but without any authority to make policy changes.
This campaign was carried on with sufficient force so that ultimately, the Board of Regents, which oversees schools in New York, took note and pressed the Commissioner of Education, Mary Ellen Elia, to take action, which is what she has now done with the release of these new guidelines for all non-public schools. This radically changes the nature of our struggle, as we are no longer fighting a group of heroic young figures, so to speak, but a government policy document that has very real implications.
As for the guidance itself, there are two parts. The first is a memo written in balanced prose that addresses the need for private schools to be “substantially equivalent” to public schools. It also speaks of the need for those evaluating private schools to be objective and open-minded and sensitive to the values of the parents and leaders of those institutions. In the hands of the right bureaucrat, you could see such guidance being enforced in a tolerable way.
Then there is a second section, which is a checklist of requirements. What was essentially done is that any statute that is not specifically limited to public schools was applied to private ones. The result is a long list of subjects that must be covered in each grade through high school. Most notably, in grades five through eight, the guidelines would require approximately seven hours a day, five days a week, of limudei chol.
The demands are completely unreasonable, for several reasons. First, I don’t believe that even public school students themselves are spending that amount of time in class. Furthermore, many of the conclusions they drew from what is on the books are highly questionable. Most troublesome of course is the fact that such demands basically make it impossible for any school to maintain a dual curriculum of limudei kodesh and limudei chol. It creates a problem, to a significant degree, for the Modern Orthodox day schools as well as for what we will call chareidi mosdos.
It is so outrageous that not only the entire Orthodox world but most of the broader non-public school community is up in arms about it. In an ironic way, the Commissioner might have done us a favor by going so far. Had the guidelines only addressed issues in the mosdos that this discussion started out with, I’m not sure you would have been able to galvanize such a broad force against the new regulations.

To what extent are askanim and Rabbanim willing to work with the state in trying to meet the standards of “substantial equivalency”?
The question of striking the correct balance between time for and emphasis on limudei chol in the yeshivos has always been an issue, and one that is obviously answered differently by different parts of the community. We can all acknowledge that there may be an obligation to give children a solid secular education, based on applying Chazal’s requirement to train children for an “umnus kallah u’nekiyah” [a respectable profession] in today’s world. The question becomes where to draw the line. We have a core mission of transmitting Torah and the mesorah to the next generation, which is the essential mission of yeshivos. Aside from the onerous nature of the new state requirements, at least as they stand on face value; the idea of the state being able to come into our yeshivos and make those judgment calls for us is a potentially fatal blow to the very essence of chinuch and to the future of Klal Yisrael.
Yes, of course our yeshivos should do all that they can to see that the time they devote to limudei chol is used to its utmost, and that students are getting the basic skills they need to be able to support themselves. But, we cannot compromise on our holy obligation of v’shinantom l’vanecha which, as Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz, zt”l, points out in Birchas Shmuel, is to make our children “talmidei chachamim and geonim.”

If taken at face value, will this affect every yeshivah and day school, or do some have more reason for concern than others?
This week, Thursday, the State Education Department is convening a large meeting to train people for implementation of the new regulations. This event is for those who will be involved in making evaluations, as well as for representatives from non-public schools. It’s possible that some of what these guidelines seem to mean at face value will be modified, which would not surprise me. After that, I think we will have a better picture as to what types of institutions will actually be affected by this in the immediate future.

How much of this is about funding? All funding comes with compliance requirements which are left to the discretion of state authorities, but would this be a problem even if yeshivos theoretically gave up the financial aid they receive from the city and state?
According to the present document, this has nothing to do with funding. It does say that if schools are found non-compliant, funding for the few services the state provides could be stripped, but it does not stop there.
It says that if schools do not meet these standards, parents will be asked to remove their children from those institutions, and if they refuse they will be considered truant. Technically, that means that the local child welfare board could knock on the front door and take those children away from the parents on the grounds of being educationally neglectful. I do not see such dire consequences happening so fast, but it illustrates the nature of the challenge we are facing. Truancy is a real legal status with real consequences.

What is being done currently by Rabbanim and non-public-school advocates, and what options remain to deal with this issue?
We are pursuing various options, none of which offers simple solutions. We are speaking to people in the political world as well as in other segments of the non-public-school world. We are trying to galvanize public opinion. Particularly noteworthy have been the remarkable efforts of two Roshei Yeshivah, Harav Elya Brudny of the Mir and Harav Yisroel Reisman of Torah Vodaas. These leading voices of the Torah community have had an article published in the Wall Street Journal, have personally visited the State Education Commissioner, have followed up with her by seeking clarification on several critical points in the guidance, and have hosted and participated in numerous internal strategy meetings. Their involvement, as well as that of Harav Yaakov Bender of Darchei Torah, has been nothing short of remarkable.
We are also looking carefully at legal options, which I think have some potential. There are some technical questions that could be posed to the courts, like whether the Commissioner had authority to do this. Then there is the fundamental issue about the religious freedom of parents to educate their children according to their faith and traditions. There is a firm precedent for this. In the early 1970s, the Supreme Court upheld an Amish family’s right not to educate their children beyond the eighth grade on constitutional grounds of freedom of religion. This gives us a strong foundation to work with, especially since the time our children spend not studying secular studies are applied to a rigorous intellectual academic pursuit — learning Torah.
Beyond that, every Yid who cares about the future of Klal Yisrael has his hishtadlus to do as well. There is a petition going around to tell the state how unhappy the community is about the new regulations and how deeply offensive and intolerable they find them. It’s already gathered thousands of signatures in just a few days, and I think it sends a strong message.
It goes without saying that our first move is to turn to the Shomer Yisrael with tefillah and maasim tovim. The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah declared Asarah b’Teves as a Yom Tefillah for this matter, but you don’t need me to say that it should not stop there. This is something that really strikes at the heart of Klal Yisrael, and we each need to do what we can to see that it reaches a favorable conclusion.