Jewish Education in Crisis – Faced With Fear and Confusion, What Comes Next?

The current climate of fear and confusion surrounding us in response to New York State
Department of Education guidelines is unprecedented in our recent history and calls for action,
clarification and reassurance. In response, Gedolim, askanim and legislators are addressing
this issue from every angle. Each one plays a pivotal role tailored to a specific objective. As your
state senator I remain your unwavering advocate and a steadfast supporter of the yeshivos.

In response to many people who have reached out over the past few weeks
with concern and requests for information about the new regulations,
here are my answers to your most commonly asked questions.

What is ‘substantial equivalence’?

The New York State Education Department (NYSED) has long recognized the right of parents to choose an alternative to public school in accordance with religious beliefs and educational philosophies. The law that governs non-public schools (yeshivos, private and parochial schools) mandates that they provide their students with a “sound basic education” that is known as substantial equivalence. Written in 1929, before most yeshivos were even established in this country, this law was among the most stringent in the nation. It required that private schools teach between 11 and 15 secular subjects (differing by grade) over 5 ½ hours each day to meet the required substantial equivalency.

A law that allows for parent choice in schooling so long as it provides a sound basic education must allow for private schools to be something other than privately run public schools.

Over the past few years, the NYS Education Department has been in the process of updating their guidance to private schools (defining the requirements of substantial equivalence). I worked diligently with Gedolim, prominent educators and top legal experts in the field of education to ensure, with Hashem’s help, the continuity of yeshivah education as we know it. Our work culminated in the Felder Amendment.

Why are the new guidelines problematic?

The new guidelines, handed down on November 20, were prepared specifically to provide guidance and clarity to private schools. Instead they have led to more questions, concerns and confusion than ever. Lifelong educators should not be confused by a document prepared specifically for them, and perhaps they wouldn’t be had they been consulted as valued stakeholders during the preparation.

Our top educators, long responsible for the education that has produced some of the most successful people in the world, across every professional field, have called the new guidelines punitive and draconian. It appears to allocate no value at all to the hours of intensive study that our students engage in daily. There are simply not enough hours in a day for any yeshivah to be in compliance while still providing a Jewish education.

Many have said that the SED is paying lip service to cultural sensitivity, while the rubric they provide for evaluation is a direct contradiction. It is unfortunately not surprising that the cultural sensitivity so highly respected by the mainstays of higher education has not yet eliminated religious prejudice.

While it is possible that someone with a keen understanding of our way of life and mode of study might be able to complete an evaluation of this sort, putting local public school teachers in charge of these evaluations is inconceivable, inappropriate and absurd. New York State cannot, and with Hashem’s help, will not, ever be the final word on Jewish education. Putting an entity with no understanding of our value system, history or aspirations into a hands-on, supervisory role over the complete content and delivery methods of yeshivah education is wrong and unheard-of in any other context.

What is the Felder Amendment?

The Felder Amendment requires that the state, for the first time, recognize and take into account the educational benefits our students acquire in their religious curriculum — the extensive time spent in the demanding study of Biblical, philosophical and Talmudic works — when determining “substantial equivalence.” The total number of secular subjects mandated for yeshivos was reduced due to the acknowledgment that their long hours of Judaic studies develop analytical and critical thinking skills, and often include the application of mathematical, historical and other concepts.

The required courses that remain in the secular curriculum are reading, writing, arithmetic, history and science. This compromise was to give yeshivos a viable option that enables compliance with state regulations while maintaining the long hours of intensive religious studies that are the hallmark of a yeshivah education.

Does the Felder amendment allow yeshivos to provide sub-par education?

No. The goal of the Felder Amendment was to secure the future of yeshivah education by ensuring that a sound basic education, as mandated by the state, could occur in tandem with our own rigorous Judaic curriculum. Yeshivah leaders were closely involved in these discussions, and those whose grade-school secular education had been lagging expressed their commitment at that time to update the curriculum. In fact, most have already implemented significant modifications.

What do we do now?

What was most shocking about the guidelines released on November 20 was the wide brush with which they painted the yeshivah system. Until now, many believed that just the few who would be found lacking in their secular education would be taken to task. Instead, we were reminded that it is in our best interest to remain unified — as the world rarely sees our distinctions. The battle we have engaged in over the last few years to secure yeshivah education continues to be waged, with more support than ever before.

My work with all the stakeholders, including the yeshivos and the NYSED, remains front and center in the effort to fully protect the rights of yeshivah parents and to ensure that their religious freedoms are upheld under the law.

Given the choice, I often avoid calling attention to work in progress before I have seen it take positive hold. I am often cautioned that this is a professional hazard, given how slowly the wheels of change tend to turn in government. However, I continue to play the long game, following with faith the Gedolim who guide me, that success follows the dictate of the Talmud, Ein habrachah shurah elah b’davar hasima min ha’ayin — No blessing rests upon anything that is not hidden from the eye. Despite my hesitance, many are aware of the crucial work I spearheaded on this issue over the last few years, and I continue to serve your needs faithfully. Every facet of our united effort to combat this reprehensible action is necessary to achieve our common goal that yeshivah education as we know it remains a secure educational option.

Senator Felder, elected in 2012, represents the 17th Senate District, which encompasses portions of the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Midwood, Flatbush, Borough Park, Kensington, Sunset Park, Madison and Bensonhurst.

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