The One Jewish Advocacy Issue Our Leaders Won’t Touch
Non-support from mainstream groups underscores a deep culture clash within our community.
Lobbying for upholding the law: Naftuli Moster, who heads a non-profit calling for increased secular education in ultra-Orthodox schools, says “the state of general education in chasidic boys’ yeshivas is abysmal, and often non-existent.”
Would it surprise you to learn that tens of thousands of Jewish students in the New York area are being deprived of their legal right to basic educational tools and skills – and that our leading mainstream Jewish communal organizations, though aware of the situation, are not speaking out on their behalf?
It’s true. Key Jewish organizations, some of whom advocate for a wide range of worthy secular causes at home and abroad – addressing issues like mass incarceration, gun control and LGBTQ rights – are silent when it comes to boys in many chasidic and ultra-Orthodox yeshivas whose mandated secular education is at best, sub-standard, and in some cases non-existent.
A New York law for more than a century requires private schools to offer students, ages 6 to 16, basic education in secular subjects “substantially equivalent” to what public schools offer. But there are yeshivas that consider all secular studies “bittul z’man,” literally a waste of time, viewing Torah study as paramount. So despite the fact that yeshivas receive millions of government-funded dollars each year for secular studies, many students completing high school with strong Talmudic text skills have virtually no training in math, science or social studies. Some are unable to read or write English.
The result is that in New York State, an estimated 65,000 of these young men lacking rudimentary secular instruction are destined to a future of limited employment opportunities, which only adds to already high levels of poverty in segments of the chasidic and ultra-Orthodox (charedi) communities.
(Girls receive more secular education because they are not commanded to a life of Torah study and, more practically, they tend to be the breadwinners when the husbands are in the study hall.)
The great majority of the young men accede to the educational and economic restrictions of an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle that values adherence to Torah laws and a tight spiritual community over participating in mainstream society. But devotion to Jewish law and the ability to provide for one’s family need not – and according to our sages, should not – be mutually exclusive.
Rabban Gamliel, in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) instructs: “Excellence is the study of Torah together with a worldly occupation.” Maimonides, one of the most prominent Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages, went much further: “Whoever thinks he will study Torah and not work and will be supported from charity, profanes God’s Name and shames the Torah,” he asserted. (Mishneh Torah, Talmud Torah 3:10)
A Steep, Lonely Struggle
In some segments of the ultra-Orthodox community today, it is rare to live in both worlds.
Naftuli Moster, 35, grew up in Borough Park, one of 17 children in a Yiddish-speaking family. He attended Belz chasidic schools, receiving minimal secular education from elementary through middle school – and no secular studies in high school.
Curious as a child to learn more about the outside world, he became interested in becoming a psychologist. But as a student struggling with his course work at Touro College, he said he was “embarrassed and ashamed” in realizing how limited his prior education was. He persevered, though, graduating from Touro and receiving a master’s degree in social work from Hunter College. In 2011, while still in graduate school, he founded and is now executive director of Yaffed (Young Advocates For Fair Education), a non-profit devoted to systemic change in two directions – letting yeshiva students and their families know they have a right to a secular education and insisting public officials act on their obligation to provide one.
Bright, politically savvy, and determined, Moster has overseen the growth of his staff, budget and public profile in Yaffed’s first decade. But it has been a steep and often lonely struggle in actively lobbying city and state officials to comply with and strengthen the law, pitting him against the leaders of the utra-Orthodox community.
“The state of general education in chasidic boys’ yeshivas is abysmal, and often non-existent,” Moster asserts. He cites Yaffed statistics indicating that two-thirds of chasidic and charedi families support secular educational improvements in the yeshivas. But he says the families fear ostracism in their community if they oppose the views of revered religious leaders who adamantly oppose government interference and portray Moster in harsh terms as a turncoat and enemy.
The leaders assert that Yaffed’s legal efforts and high-profile billboards – one cited the mitzvah of providing one’s child with a proper education, and included the tagline: “It’s your mitzvah; it’s the law” – endanger their way of life.
Over the course of this struggle, a marginalized Moster grew increasingly alienated from his chasidic roots and has drifted away from strict observance. Some in the community now call him a “goy.”
The long-bitter issue, with each side accusing the other of anti-Jewish behavior, is back in the news now. Last month the New York State Education Department issued new guidelines in an effort to beef up requirements for schools to comply. Public comment is permitted until May 30.
Yaffed considers the new guidelines to be an improvement but still open to manipulation and loopholes.
The ultra-Orthodox and chasidic communities are campaigning against the guidelines on the grounds that the “equivalency education” law conflicts with their religious beliefs.
Moster is calling on the broader Jewish community to step up and rebut these claims. “It’s time to stage an intervention,” he says.
A letter of support for Yaffed signed by close to 100 New York rabbis during last year’s mayoral campaign asserted that “every child deserves a basic education; to deny that right in the name of religious freedom is unacceptable.” A similar letter, with some 150 signatures, will be released this week, during the public comment period.
Moster welcomes the letter campaign but told me “signatures are not enough. We need much more hands-on involvement from the broader Jewish community.” He’d like to be invited to speak at synagogues, have rabbinic clergy mobilize their congregants to submit comments to the education department before May 30, and have leaders beside him to show support at Yaffed press conferences.
But some city officials, well aware that the large ultra-Orthodox and chasidic communities tend to vote as a bloc, have pledged not to enforce the basic education mandate.
This is the education department’s second attempt to increase compliance. When introduced several years ago, spurred on by Yaffed’s aggressive advocacy, there was vigorous resistance from the ultra-Orthodox and chasidic communities. Twenty-six of 28 yeshivas visited by government officials were found to be offering woefully inadequate secular studies. Fifteen yeshivas refused entry to the investigators.
Yaffed and its supporters are pushing for accountability, but the yeshivas and their advocates have employed a variety of methods to hold their ground, from asserting that yeshivas do comply with the law, to defying it altogether.
The Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel (NY), Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, acknowledged in a 2018 speech that “we all know the truth” that young boys in his movement’s yeshivas have secular studies “at most an hour and a half,” and, in the high schools, “no secular studies at all.”
He told his followers: “The Jewish people will not surrender to the wicked, whoever they may be, even the state education commissioner.”
An Establishment Failure
Jewish establishment professionals privately bemoan the situation but are reticent about discussing it publicly. They don’t want to tangle with a segment of the community whose political clout has grown dramatically and whose inner dynamic remains a mystery to outsiders. Noted one prominent Jewish communal leader: "There is sympathy with [Naftuli] Moster and his group, but not a willingness to wade into these waters. It's a failure on the part of the Jewish establishment.”
Noting studies that indicate a steep increase among the ultra-Orthodox and a decline among liberal Jews in the coming decades, Steven Bayme, whose career with the American Jewish Committee spanned 38 years, observed: “Looking down the road, it’s clear that the charedi community is growing demographically and will only become more important. So generally speaking, Jewish organizations aren’t seeking greater divisiveness.”
Among the comments I heard from other mainstream Jewish professionals regarding the ultra-Orthodox: “this is what their community wants”; “they won’t listen to us anyway”; and “it’s up to them to follow the law, it’s not our business.”
Nancy Kaufman disagrees. The former CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women and current board member of the New York Jewish Agenda, a non-profit group of communal leaders addressing issues critical to New York, says ensuring a secular education for the yeshiva students is “a social justice issue, and it’s discrimination against a group of people whose religious leaders” insist on maintaining the status quo.
She points out that Jewish communal organizations are not shy about lobbying the government on a range of other issues, including Holocaust education (which many of the yeshivas don’t offer). And she notes that chasidic and ultra-Orthodox families and educators who complain about government interference are not reluctant to seek government assistance for food stamps and other social service programs.
The controversy speaks to the sharp contrast in mainstream Jewish and ultra-Orthodox cultures, and how the compulsory education law in question should be interpreted. The 1895 law seeks to “ensure that children (ages 6 to 16) receive instruction that will prepare them for their place in society.”
One argument espoused by the chasidic and ultra-Orthodox leaders is that their yeshivas do prepare students for their place in society – a society whose primary mission “is to inculcate in students a particular worldview, a set of norms, and a culture, not of an academic discipline, but of the charedi community,” noted Moshe Krakowski, a professor of education at Yeshiva University, in an essay in The Forward.
Advocates of reforms insist that religious schools can and do offer curricula and skills that advance both secular and Torah studies. (Indeed, the motto of Yeshiva University, where Krakowski teaches, is “Torah U’Madda,” sacred and – not or- secular texts.)
Nancy Kaufman says she has made some progress of late with the execs of mainstream Jewish organizations who have agreed to meet with her, but they remain non-committal, saying they will give the issue further study.
It seems clear, though, that no further study is necessary. What is needed is the recognition that it is a basic Jewish tenet to obey the law of the land and to give children their right to a basic education.