Jewish Education in Crisis – A Torah Perspective

An Interview with Harav Yisroel Reisman, Shlita
Rosh Yeshivah at Yeshivah Torah Vodaath

As the Jewish community continues to grapple with the ramifications of
the new New York State guidelines for religious and independent schools,
Harav Yisroel Reisman graciously agreed to share with Hamodia’s readership his insights on this crisis

There have been some new developments in this ongoing crisis.

It seems the State Education Department is backing down from the most outrageous part of their demands regarding the number of hours of secular studies, as well as the imposing of certain rules on 5th and 6th grade, which it seems they are not authorized to do.

This helps us because the starting point of the battle going forward will be better. It’s totally uncharacteristic of the Department of Education to back down and say they made a mistake. So this is a sign of the shtadlanus accomplishing the goals and getting widespread support. It is the outrage of our community, which has been pretty much unified on this issue, that has led to this.

The letter to the community written by the Rosh Yeshivah, along with Harav Elya Brudny, and Harav Yaakov Bender, on Wednesday stressed that the new demands are still troubling.

The demands are troubling.

In addition, the main objection of the other segments of the nonpublic school community, including the Catholic schools and independent schools, is that the City should not be in charge of our schools. Their job is to take care of the public schools, not the private schools, and they shouldn’t be able to impose their curriculum or authority over our schools.

They shouldn’t even be visiting our schools. The Catholic schools said they are not going to let them in. Had a yeshivah of 80 students said that, it would have been the front page of the New York papers. There are 500 Catholic schools in the state and the administration said they are not letting them into any of them. This announcement didn’t make any of the New York newspapers, other than the Albany Times Union.

This indicates that we really must be aware of the unfortunate fact that we are not going to get good publicity. Instead of crying about it we must try to avoid negative publicity. Walking around and crying that everyone is biased against you is not preferred. What is preferred is not to give them the opportunity to say these types of things.

Has there been a decision made whether the yeshivos will be allowing the inspectors in?

We will take all steps necessary to ensure that no yeshivah is put at risk or faces legal exposure. We have seen that the shtadlanus is working, and we will continue to advocate to retain our autonomy. We are also working with the other members of the nonpublic school coalition, which is similarly committed to maintaining the autonomy of their schools. I can say that we will take all steps necessary to make sure that no parent or school faces any type of sanction.

My understanding is that size-wise there are 500 Catholic schools and, l’havdil, 440 yeshivos, as well as a little over 200 private non-denominational schools and that’s the bulk of it. There are six or seven of the smaller groups. None of them are interested in letting the inspectors in.

The Rosh Yeshivah strongly feels this is going to end up in court.

The idea of allowing city inspectors, people who run the public schools, to inspect our schools is, first of all, just not a correct thing because they are doing a poor job at the public schools. Secondly, it’s absolutely preposterous that they are going to walk into a limudei kodesh class and sit down and assess its value. They will not know what’s going on. They will not understand anything. These are bureaucrats who are having a hard time running public schools. The notion that they are going to assess a class in limudei kodesh is absurd.

There are various petitions being signed and calls for emails to be sent out to the Department of Education.

These efforts are obviously helpful because the partial backing off is only a result of our pressure. Whatever anybody does is certainly useful as long as it is done with seichel.

We now have a letter from the City Council, and I think the justice of our cause has been demonstrated. Frankly, the fact that they backed down and admitted that they overstepped their bounds in at least two areas — the requirements for the fifth and sixth grade and the seven-hour demand for the seventh and eighth grades — showed the Council members that we were right.

Does the Rosh Yeshivah see a united effort going forward?

There is no divide, we are all working together. The litvishe yeshivos and the chassidishe yeshivos are working all together. Anybody that wants to be is included. This is not just the Agudah; it’s not any formal group. What’s unusual about this is that it’s all grassroots. Rav Brudny and I went [to meet with the commissioner] not under the rubric of any organization. The petition was not set up by any organization. It was set up by one person. This is extraordinary.

Even the Modern Orthodox schools, which seem to be on the sidelines for the moment, will probably change their opinion once an inspector visits. I’m not certain of that but my feeling is that since the Catholic schools are against it, and the other private schools are against it, they will come aboard.

What is the message to those who want to be of assistance in this battle?

We are not certain how it is going to unfold. It’s a long process. When you get to court there are certain things that are agreed to and certain things that are contentious. We are certain that matters agreed to, for our side, will be increasing because of this outrage. We feel that this outrage, which now has reached the secular media as well, is a very powerful tool as we move forward to court.

Our dream would be that at some point the State will backtrack entirely. (My little granddaughter is here. She is telling me we should write a letter to the president.)

What hashkafic message does the Rosh Yeshivah want to impart to Klal Yisrael?

My call is for the achdus of Klal Yisrael. I think that we have to recognize the different groups in Klal Yisrael who have different customs and different hanhagos as far as limudei chol and it seems every group is happy with its path, which is fine. But to be critical of each other is not fine. It’s not retzon Hashem. We have seen too much of that since YAFFED went into the business of criticizing yeshivas; too much of people saying this or that is wrong.

I am not condoning taking money for something that you are not entitled to, that is assur and nobody would defend that. But, how much limudei chol a person has and what a person does with his life in the olam haTorah, it’s wrong when people say: “My way is right and everybody else is wrong.” We have to be able to accept the fact that there are groups that learn less limudei chol than us and not be critical of it. To me, it’s the lesson nobody wants to hear. Stop being critical of the other person. To the gentiles you are all the same, to them there’s no difference. Whatever their feelings are towards Yiddishkeit it really doesn’t have to do with that. To me, the lesson is that we need to be misached between ourselves and stop feeling that your way is the only way.

I think we should pause and take a moment to be machshiv what we have. We have taken the opportunity and we are telling them that in our schools we don’t have crime, we don’t have drugs. When a phone call from a yeshivah goes to 911 it’s because someone from outside our community came. Public schools call 911 all the time because of the actions of their students.

The fact is that the derech haTorah is deracheha darchei noam. We should stop and look at ourselves and say “Wow!” Look at the public schools, then look at the yeshivos. That’s my message.