Yeshivos in New York: a crisis of complacency
The train is speedily approaching and New York state’s yeshivos are directly in the headlights.
With less than two weeks left to comment on new regulations proposed by the state’s education department, community activists are intensifying efforts to rally the community in opposition. What’s at stake is the very character of New York’s yeshivos: For the first time, the state wants to mandate nearly five hours of secular studies per day for upper elementary classes — and slightly less for high schools — along with control over which subjects are taught and which teachers may be hired.
Since the curriculum at many yeshivos calls for four and a half hours of limudei kodesh per day, this means the complete transplanting of time spent on Gemara, Chumash, and other Torah subjects for secular disciplines like science and math.
The Board of Regents, the bureau that oversees all education matters in New York state, must allow the public to comment before moving ahead. A 60-day comment period ends on September. 2.
Askanim have responded by urging community members to write letters objecting to the proposed changes, but they are facing significant headwinds. Representatives of PEARLS (Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools) have been canvassing summer camps, bungalow colonies, minyan factories, and public shiurim to inform people of the threat students will face in the 2020 school year if concerned people don’t act now.
Unfortunately, there are widespread misconceptions about the nature of these proposed changes. Therefore, we’ve compiled this list of myths and realities.
Myth: The Board of Regents’ only goal is to improve secular education.
Reality: This is a common misconception. The regulations, as written, are so extreme that not a single yeshivah or girls school in the community, even the more liberal Modern Orthodox schools, will be able to abide by the details. To those who say yeshivos need to improve secular studies, that is an ongoing debate. But these new regulations will permanently alter the character of Orthodox schools.
Myth: Why should concerned citizens send a letter? The state is not governed based on petitions.
Reality: This is not a petition. To the contrary, the state is legally required to ask citizens to comment on the proposed regulations, and then read and respond to every letter. One of the 17 Regents has told a representative of Agudath Israel that the office is adding staff to read the 50,000 or so letters that have already arrived.
Myth: The court annulled the regulations already.
Reality: Incorrect. In April, a judge ruled that the state must subject the new rules to a public comment period. That only happened because the state initially claimed that the guidelines merely reflected its understanding of the 120-year-old law that requires private schools to be “substantially equivalent” to public schools.
Myth: The education commissioner resigned, so it’s all over, right?
Reality: Wrong. While MaryEllen Elia did indeed resign last month during the same meeting in which the yeshivah regulations were adopted, she merely carried out decisions made by the Board of Regents. Her resignation changes nothing.
Myth: So the yeshivos will lose some government funding. It’s not as if the world is coming to an end.
Reality: This is about much more than funding. While yeshivos receive very little in funding from the state government — a little bit more than $1,000 per child, which is spent mostly on busing, textbooks, and security, as compared to $28,000 for public school kids — this new decree challenges the foundations of the yeshivah system. Yeshivos that do not comply with the impossible-to-fulfill regulations will have their licenses yanked and parents will be informed by the local school authority that their child is truant. If parents persist in sending their children to yeshivah, they could potentially face arrest on child-neglect charges. This, unfortunately, is a very real scenario.
Myth: You must live in New York to submit comments.
Reality: Anyone who once learned in a New York yeshivah or who has children or grandchildren in the yeshivah system can send a letter. Fathers and mothers may each send their own letters, as can each member of the family who has graduated.
Myth: It can’t be that bad. The Catholic school system, and other independent schools, are also threatened. They’ll never allow this to happen.
Reality: Yeshivah students now represents the largest cluster of private school students in the state, a milestone reached in 2018. Catholic schools, in fact, are working with yeshivah advocates to oppose this regulation.
Myth: This cannot be legal. I can’t imagine thousands of yeshivah parents being imprisoned for exercising their religious right to send to the school of their choice. I’m sure the courts will strike this down or the legislature will get involved.
Reality: In New York’s new progressive climate, the Torah community has reached a decades-low nadir of power. YAFFED, the organization that originally complained to state officials about the educational standards in the yeshivah system, regularly tells lawmakers that its constituents are the “silent majority.” An avalanche of letters would be one way to disprove that claim.
Myth: These letters are all the same and won’t be taken seriously.
Reality: The Board of Regents is constitutionally required to take the letters seriously. They must record advocates and opponents of each new regulation, regardless if the comment comes in a boilerplate letter or a handwritten note. Logic dictates that if the state receives many letters opposing the new regulations, regulators would have a hard time imposing it.
Myth: There must be a catch since no one seems very inflamed by this issue.
Reality: That’s the problem. A crisis of epic proportions has gradually crept up and many people are unaware of how serious the problem is.
Myth: I’m sure some other solution will be worked out after the public comment period.
Reality: Perhaps. Hashem has His ways of keeping His promise that the Torah will never be forgotten from Klal Yisrael. On an earthly, practical level, however, writing a letter is the best solution to address this existential threat to the Orthodox way of life.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 774)