Over the last several years, a vicious falsehood about our community has spread its way into the public sphere. Some who had never before professed a single iota of care about anything relating to the survival of the Jewish people decided that it was their mission in life to “reform” our yeshivos. Apparently — as the debate leaders would have the world believe — our yeshivos are failing our children.
This began simply enough. A handful of young men who left our community complained that the yeshivos they attended as children did not adequately prepare them for the lives they chose to lead as adults. Fair enough. Yeshivos are intended to prepare children to lead Torah-observant lifestyles; the complainants chose to lead other lifestyles. Their complaints are akin to saying law school does not adequately prepare one to be a heart surgeon.
But what happened next is fascinating. Politicians and bureaucrats who had never before expressed a desire to help yeshivos grow and prosper chose to make “education standards” their cause of the day. Many of these same people vehemently opposed any effort to bring resources and services to our yeshivah children. For example, my predecessor, former Councilman David Greenfield, led a years-long battle to obtain free security for yeshivos — fiercely opposed by many of the same people now pushing for state “standards” for yeshivos.
Long before I was elected to the City Council, I was proud to be a part of Councilman Greenfield’s long effort to organize the yeshivah community in partnership with the religious schools of other denominations. Our predecessor in the City Council was Simcha Felder, who led a successful effort to obtain transportation services for our yeshivos — also opposed by many of the same forces. Tax breaks for yeshivah parents would hit brick walls. And so on.
While we have always accepted as a given that government would not pay for religious studies at yeshivos, it was also clear that yeshivos had enemies who opposed the very notion of yeshivos. That yeshivos even existed was offensive to these forces.
So it came as no surprise that the debate led to where it is today. What began as an attack on a small number of chassidishe yeshivos has now ballooned into a push for state “standards” for all yeshivos — including those yeshivos with robust secular programs. I warned about this during my campaign last year. I was very clear that I believed that while today’s target was a handful of chassidishe yeshivos, tomorrow’s target would be all yeshivos. Unfortunately, I was right.
I have always believed that yeshivah education is about parental choice. Parents have the right to choose which yeshivah is best for their child. Some will send a child to a yeshivah within walking distance because the most important factor for those parents is distance. Some will choose a yeshivah based on an affiliation with a particular kehillah. Some will choose a yeshivah because of the particular Menahel or Rosh Yeshivah. Some will choose based on the mesorah of the particular yeshivah. Some will choose based on what type of secular education is being offered. Parents weigh these and other factors to make the choices that fit best for their family.
The push for state “standards” would have our yeshivos effectively become clones of public schools. The overseers of these state “standards” would be local public-school districts. In New York City, that means the bureaucracy known as the New York City Department of Education. In other places around New York State, it would be the local elected school boards. In many places, these bodies have long battled with yeshivos. And in all cases, these are the very same people responsible for the current lackluster state of public-school education. How much sense does any of this make?
If government wants to send resources, assistance, suggestions to our yeshivos, we’ve always been eager and willing to accept. But what we can’t and won’t accept are directives. We can’t and won’t accept “guidelines” that tell our yeshivos how to use the valuable time they have with our children. Those decisions belong in the hands of our parents and mechanchim.
This opinion is not just my own. In a recent letter to the State Department of Education, the Council of Catholic School Superintendents wrote that they are instructing their religious schools “not to participate in any review carried out by local public school officials.” Because schools of other religious denominations also recognize the inherent danger in allowing local public-school officials to oversee the education decisions made by parents who choose religious education.
The promise of America is that all would be welcome to worship in their own tradition. For us, that means fashioning yeshivos to educate our children in accordance with the mesoros of our forefathers, brought here from lands afar, in a generation-to-generation connection stretching back to Moshe Rabbeinu.
This is our right — not merely because I say so, but because the United States Constitution has guaranteed it for 230 years. As I’ve done since long before I was elected last year, I will continue fighting for our right to exercise our religious freedom. And no Albany bureaucrat can take that away. Period.
Kalman Yeger is a member of the New York City Council, representing sections of Borough Park, Midwood, Bensonhurst and Kensington.