Orthodox Groups Undertake Letter Campaign Supporting Yeshivas
By Hamodia Staff
NEW YORK — Yeshiva-advocacy organizations in New York are reaching out to their constituencies to undertake a letter-writing campaign opposing regulations on private school curricula, as the state seeks to institute rules that would significantly expand government oversight of private schools.
“Our ability to continue to exist as Klal Yisroel is being threatened by a few malcontents who have left our community, and whose lobbying has resulted in proposed regulations that would threaten our ability to continue our beautiful mesorah,” said Rabbi Moshe Dovid Niederman, a leader of the group PEARLS (Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools).
New York State law has, for more than a century, required that private schools provide an education “substantially equivalent” to that of public schools, but the law never delineated how “substantial equivalency” is determined. In 2015, some former yeshiva students who have since left the Orthodox community alleged that they hadn’t received a substantially equivalent secular education, and state authorities have since been working to formulate specific regulations for certifying substantial equivalency. But private-school leaders and parents oppose regulations, which they deem an infringement on religious liberties and parental rights.
Under the newly proposed regulations, private schools would need to satisfy the substantial-equivalency requirement via one of several pathways, such as registering as having a Regents program; being accredited by a government-approved accrediting body; or being assessed and deemed compliant by the local school authority, which is the schools chancellor in New York City and the local school board elsewhere.
Children who attend a school deemed non-substantially-equivalent would be considered truant, and their parents may be jailed.
“For 70 years, the Chassidic community in New York, which had to flee Europe due to religious persecution, has enjoyed freedom of religion,” said Rabbi Niederman. “And now that is all under attack.”
A previous iteration of the proposed regulations on private schools was scrapped in 2019, after the state Board of Education was flooded with letters opposing the regulations during the public-comment period. A total of 140,000 comments were submitted, mostly from yeshiva parents and graduates expressing opposition to the proposed rules. The Board of Education then withdrew the proposed regulations and conducted meetings with stakeholders before releasing the new proposed regulations on March 10 of this year, and opened a public comment period that concludes May 30.
Yeshiva advocates who spoke with Hamodia consider the newly proposed guidelines slightly better than the previous iteration, as there is no longer a requirement for specific hours of instruction in particular subjects. The new guidelines instead would offer several pathways toward substantial equivalency. If a school’s preferred pathway is an assessment by the local school authority, the regulations discuss factors that “must be considered,” including whether a variety of subjects are taught, but don’t provide hard criteria.
But the yeshiva community still opposes the regulations as an inappropriate intrusion.
“We understand that in order to function in America, our children need a robust secular education,” said Harav Yaakov Bender, Rosh Hayeshiva of Yeshivah Darchei Torah and a member of the Vaad Roshei Yeshiva of Torah Umesorah. “But we cannot lose control over what and when we teach in our yeshivas. We look to our rabbanim, roshei yeshiva, and daas Torah to tell us what to teach, and we will not allow outsiders to tell us what is good for us.”
Supporters of yeshivas setting their own curricula say the results prove that yeshivah education is successful in preparing students for a life as both a religious Jew and a good citizen.
“Yeshiva graduates not only become rabbis and scholars and head civic and charitable organizations, but have gone into virtually all fields and industries and started prosperous businesses, employing people from communities across New York state,” said Rabbi Niederman.
More than 300 mental-health professionals who are yeshiva graduates recently submitted a letter, stating in part: “The narrative that yeshiva education is inadequate for professional success is simply not true; our education enabled us to successfully complete college and graduate school, and for some of us, doctoral level training. Our experience has been that general studies at a high level are indeed taught in our yeshivas. Further, Judaic studies are not a mere distraction from education as portrayed by the new guidelines. On the contrary, skills learned in Judaic studies have directly contributed to our academic success, including but not limited to ability to analyze text-based documents, linguistic skills from learning two or more second languages, writing skills, logical reasoning, legal process, Jewish history and civics, and more. This is in addition to the ethical and moral framework they imbue: if you need a tire changed, emergency medical care, a donation, a hot meal, a monetary loan, professional mentoring, a referral, or a place to sleep — our flourishing network of volunteer social service organizations provide all this and more, a direct outgrowth of the unique value system taught in yeshivas.”
Even for yeshivas whose secular-studies curriculum would satisfy the currently proposed regulations, “there is concern over what happens when the final arbiter of how your children are raised is not parents but the government,” said Avrohom Weinstock, chief of staff at Agudath Israel.
“Nobody should think they are safe from the overreaches that these regulations represent,” said Weinstock. “Even if your school can squeak by under the currently proposed regulations, are you confident that in five years government won’t change the requirements in a way that excludes your school? And all it would take is one disgruntled student from 20 years ago to start causing problems.”
“The leading anti-yeshivah instigator has said he wants to stage an ‘intervention’ for yeshiva parents,” continued Weinstock. “Respectfully, the term is generally used in the context of drug addiction. To characterize our decisions of how to raise our children is such a way only bespeaks their perspective on yeshiva education in general.”
Among the newly proposed regulations that have drawn the fiercest opposition from yeshivah advocates, is a provision that even after a yeshivah has been determined to be substantially equivalent, “persons considering themselves aggrieved” by the determination may challenge it.
“This is not in accord with the general legal requirement of standing in any other area of law,” said Weinstock. “Why should someone who has never attended, sent a child to, or even stepped into a particular yeshiva, be essentially given standing to file a complaint and trigger an investigation of that yeshiva? It opens the floodgates for spurious complaints from rabble rousers who have animosity toward our community — of which, sadly, there is no shortage.”
In urging the Orthodox community to send letters opposing the regulations, Weinstock points to the success of the 2019 letter campaign.
“This public-comment period is legislatively mandated; the Board of Regents must look at our comments before voting on these proposed regulations. We have already shown how effective we can be. Now it is once again the responsibility of each yeshiva parent, student and graduate to spend just a few minutes to stand up for the yeshiva education we pay dearly for, and within which invest our time and kochos for the upbringing of our children.”
People may sign onto a standard letter supporting yeshivas at voice.pearlsny.org or voice.agudah.org . Letters can also be submitted via PEARLS or Agudah by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com ; texting START to 845-606-4040 or 888.595.1529; or mailing to PEARLS, 12 Heyward Street #313, Brooklyn NY 11249 or mailing to Submission, Agudath Israel of America, 42 Broadway 14th floor, NY, NY 10004.
All comments must be submitted by the organizations to the state Education Commissioner by May 30.
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