New York’s ultra-Orthodox schools go under the microscope

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: Every student failed a round of standardized testing done in 2019 to students at the Central United Talmudical Academy.

 CHILDREN GET OFF a yeshiva school bus in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. (photo credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
CHILDREN GET OFF a yeshiva school bus in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.
(photo credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

NEW YORK – Although it’s decades too late for Rayne Lunger and her five brothers to personally reap the benefits, she is celebrating. New private school regulations in New York state mean fellow parents might not need to put up the battle that Lunger did for her daughter in order to ensure children receive a secular education in parochial school.

On Tuesday, New York’s Board of Regents approved, for the first time, rules aimed at addressing long-standing allegations that scores of ultra-Orthodox private schools, called yeshivot, are defying state law by failing to provide an education in English, math and other basic subjects, purposefully denying some 50,000 students a basic secular education.

The regulations, which lay out a process for interpreting and enforcing a state mandate requiring private schools to provide an education that’s “substantially equivalent” to that offered in public school, got the approval of the Regents’ preschool to 12th grade committee following a yearslong push.

Lunger was born and raised in New Square, an all-hassidic, or ultra-Orthodox, village in Rockland County, New York, ranked as the state’s poorest municipality.

Now 31 years old, Lunger recalled graduating high school with “the equivalent or less than” an eighth-grade education.

 AN ORTHODOX man walks by the Yeshiva Kehilath Yakov school in Brooklyn. (credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters) AN ORTHODOX man walks by the Yeshiva Kehilath Yakov school in Brooklyn. (credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

“But it was still light years ahead of what my brothers got,” she told The Jerusalem Post. “I did learn to read and write English and basic math; they did not. While in school, my brothers could recognize that their teachers were making mistakes in the way they spoke English. Everything was in Yiddish. I don’t want to speak for my brothers, and they were all impacted differently, but I see how much, as adults, some of them are struggling to overcome gaps in their education every day.”

“I did learn to read and write English and basic math; they did not. While in school, my brothers could recognize that their teachers were making mistakes in the way they spoke English. Everything was in Yiddish. I don’t want to speak for my brothers, and they were all impacted differently, but I see how much, as adults, some of them are struggling to overcome gaps in their education every day.”

Rayne Lunger

When it came time for Lunger’s daughter to start school, she wanted better. Lunger fought to get her into a religious school whose curricula followed public school education, in addition to Jewish learning.

Why do parents send their children to hassidic schools?

“My child is thriving, and I’m grateful,” Lunger said. “But the road to getting there was so difficult, and it shouldn’t be on individuals to fix problems that are structural.”

Lunger noted that a common question that comes up is “why don’t parents just send their kids somewhere else, if they are unhappy with the level of education?”

“This is what is missing in the conversation. It’s important to understand how young these parents are when they enroll their first child in school,” she said.

Typically, hassidic couples have an arranged marriage around age 18, Lunger explained. “Then the expectation is to have kids right away. So at age 21, the expectation is that they’ll send the kids to the school that’s part of the hassidic group they belong to.

“You have no connections outside of your own community, and no support,” Lunger continued.

“It’s really hard to apply [to] other schools to send your child there. Some people would have to move to a different neighborhood entirely, move away from their parents, which is a hard thing to ask young people to do.

“Additionally, the schools that provide a better education are culturally different. It’s hard to ask young people to completely change their lifestyle. They want to get their kids an education, but they don’t want it to come at the cost of changing their whole life.”

Naftuli Moster, the director of Yaffed, a group that’s been fighting for reform in hassidic yeshivot, called the passage of the regulations “a giant step forward in ensuring that all children attending non-public schools receive the education to which they are entitled.”

“This widespread violation of the law and the resulting egregious educational neglect was known to officials at every level for decades,” Moster added.

The Regents vote followed a New York Times four-page story, beginning on its front page, published on Sunday. The report found that some students at yeshivot have been denied basic education, such as in science or social studies, and subjected to corporal punishment – all while the schools reaped a total of more than $1 billion in government funding in recent years. The education at yeshivot, the report went on, deprives students of the means to make a living, leaving the hassidic community impoverished.

The report points to a round of standardized testing done in 2019 in reading and math done to more than 1,000 students at the Central United Talmudical Academy. Every one of them failed.

“The schools appear to be operating in violation of state laws that guarantee children an adequate education,” the investigation, which spanned two years, continued. “The leaders of New York’s hassidic community have built scores of private schools to educate children in Jewish law, prayer and tradition – and to wall them off from the secular world. Offering little English and math and virtually no science or history, they drill students relentlessly, sometimes brutally, during hours of religious lessons conducted in Yiddish.

“The result, a New York Times investigation which spoke to 275 hassidic yeshiva graduates and family, has found, is that generations of children have been systematically denied a basic education, trapping many of them in a cycle of joblessness and dependency.”

On average, the Times found, the boys’ schools spend just 90 minutes a day, four times a week, on reading and math skills, only for children between the ages of eight and 12. Some of the schools actively discourage secular study at home, disallowing students from owning English-language books or sometimes even from speaking English at all inside the home.

In line with Lunger’s account, the Times found that girls have it a bit better. Still, most were not able to pass standardized tests, which yeshivot, like all private schools in New York, have not been required to administer.

Shulim Leifer, a 37-year-old father of three who grew up attending yeshiva in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, home to one of the largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities outside of Israel, said the Times report was “triggering and disturbing.” And completely factual.

“In my experience as a child, every single claim the Times wrote was definitely the case,” Leifer told the Post. “In fact, the 90 minutes claim is a best-case scenario. The majority of hassidic yeshivas don’t give any time on any day to any secular study.”

Leifer, who freelances in communications and business operation strategy, calls himself “an accidental activist.” “I’m the guy beating my drum on the education issue. I’m able to make a living, I’ve had relative success, but there’s no question that as an adult I am now at a disadvantage because of the education I didn’t get.”

THE TIMES article and the ensuing state crackdown have sparked debate in New York’s ultra-Orthodox circles.

In a statement to the Post, Yael Reisman, director of communications and field building at Footsteps, a New York-based nonprofit that provides support to people who have left or want to leave the hassidic community, expressed belief that the investigation could be a catalyst for change.

“Footsteps is grateful to The New York Times for shining a light on the systemic issues in the hassidic yeshivas which serve men and boys in the State of New York,” Reisman said. “The investigation’s findings paint a picture Footsteps and our members are all too familiar with – when one lacks basic education and has only a cursory understanding of how the rest of the world works, it’s very hard to gain solid footing once you embark on a journey of your own choosing.”

But some leaders of New York’s hassidic community are denouncing the Times investigation into the state’s religious Jewish schools and say that Tuesday’s vote impedes religious freedom.

New York Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein challenged the metrics in the Times report by claiming the exam results from New York yeshivot don’t match the Times’ reporting. Tablet’s Liel Leibovitz exposed other flaws in the Times’ accusations, noting that while the yeshiva education is different, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically worse.

“The Times let a disgruntled minority speak for an entire system,” Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization, wrote in a Religious News Service opinion piece. “Its reporters relied on interviews with ex-hassidim, some of whom remained anonymous. Why did the article’s writers not speak with any of the vast majority of hassidic parents or former students who cherish the education offered by their yeshivas?

“The writers say members of the hassidic community wouldn’t speak with them. That’s unsurprising, considering the Times’ record of negativity toward haredim. But a reporter’s job is still to work to find the necessary interviewees to present all sides of an issue.”

“The state’s confirmation that it intends to dictate the curriculum and faculty at private and parochial schools is deeply disappointing, and we oppose it,” said Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, a group that advocates for yeshivot.

“Those who want state control can choose the public schools,” the group added. “Parents who pay for a private or parochial school education do so because they believe in the mission and educational approach of those schools’ leaders.”

Other ultra-Orthodox Jews, unsure whether the investigation and new state rules will make any difference, or whether change is even necessary, recognize the nuance in the issue.

Shlomo Felberbaum, a hassidic father, has outspokenly lauded the report on social media, stirring controversy among his peers. But he also challenged his Twitter followers to say something nice about hassidic yeshivot.

“I’ll start,” Felberbaum wrote on Wednesday. “The intense study of Talmud is a solid exercise in cognitive skills. It does not replace basic skills or a basic sec ed, but it certainly broadens the mind. No student would lose out studying Talmud instead of Shakespeare.”

Michael Elsen-Rooney/New York Daily News/TNS contributed to this report