Bid For Better Secular Ed For Yeshivas Heats Up

By Amy Sara Clark (The Jewish Week)
December 10, 2014

Yeshiva education reform activist Naftuli Moster, who grew up as one of 17 children in a haredi family in Borough Park, has hired civil rights attorney Norman Siegel to help in his fight for better secular education for chasidic boys.

On Monday, Siegel sent a letter to city and state officials on behalf of Moster’s nonprofit Yaffed (Young Advocates for Fair Education), charging that yeshiva boys get only about 90 minutes a day of secular education while government officials have knowingly looked the other way. Public school students generally receive about five hours of instruction a day.

“In many of these yeshivas, English and mathematics are taught from around age 7 to age 13 for an average combined time of only 90 minutes and on only four days a week,” the letter said. “Apparently, other required subjects are not taught at all, let alone taught in English. From age 13, most boys do not receive any English instruction.”

For most of the boys in question, Yiddish is their native tongue.

Siegel, a former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, is no stranger to the chasidic community. He’s represented chasidic victims of sexual abuse as well as Ehud Halevi, a chadisic man who received a $100,000 settlement from the city in May after a surveillance video filmed two Crown Heights police officers beating him in 2012. Siegel, a secular Jew, also grew up in Crown Heights, attending school just blocks away from Moster.

“On a personal level it struck home,” Siegel said. “But more important, I am a lawyer. When I am presented with facts that raise a serious issue I try to hold people accountable.  That’s what lawyers do, they hold people accountable.”

Moster, 28, and pursuing a masters degree in social work from Hunter College, told The Jewish Week that hiring Siegel reflects a change in strategy for Yaffed, which Moster founded in 2011 to hold New York to its stated commitment to provide nonpublic schools with a curriculum “substantially equivalent  to that provided in the public schools.” Moster says it does not.

First he tried to create change from within chasidic communities, but was branded a troublemaker. Then he contacted city and state officials, to little effect.

So Moster hired Siegel to take on the cause, and on Monday the law firm of Siegel, Teitelbaum and Evans sent a letter to a number of city and state officials, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina. It asked them to make sure the city’s yeshivas comply with state educational standards.

Moster became passionate about improving secular education in chasidic yeshivas when he discovered how woefully unprepared for college his own yeshiva education had left him. He completed the yeshiva equivalent of high school not knowing how to do long division or write an essay. He didn’t know there were three branches of the U.S. government, had never heard of the American Revolution or the human circulation system.

“There’s this whole atmosphere [within some chasidic communities] that non-Jewish education doesn’t matter,” he told The Jewish Week in an interview Monday. Most of the kids treated the secular education period as “90 minutes of recess.” And nobody stopped them — unlike during the rest of the day when discipline was strictly enforced.

“We would do anything not to have to learn English and math,” he said.

Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, which advocates on behalf of charedi and other Orthodox communities, said the amount of secular education provided by chasidic schools varied greatly but that most yeshivas offer a very good education that gives children “strong reading and textual skills.” Such skills, he said, prepared him well for law school.

Government officials understand that, Rabbi Zwiebel said. “Recognizing in fact that the Orthodox yeshivas have a highly rigorous program, there has been a lot of flexibility that has been shown to these schools in the past,” he said.

“Most of the children who grow up within the school network become responsible, successful adults who are able to function in society, able to earn a living and become successful businessmen,” he said. “I think that Naftali Moster’s experience is the exception to the rule.”

Moster, though, said he gets reports from people familiar with schools across the city and in Rockland County and that the problem is widespread.

“I’m talking across the board. Borough Park, Williamsburg, Monsey, New Square and Kiryas Joel. We’re talking about tens of thousands of boys. This is not a small number,” he said.

Moster is focusing on boys’ education because he said chasidic girls get a much better secular education. “I would be happy to take on the issue of the girls education, but it’s not as pressing. Most girls schools do meet the minimum requirements.”

Moster said if the Siegel letter is unsuccessful in bringing about change, Yaffed will move on to legal action.

In response to the letter, the New York City Department of Education sent a statement saying that Moster met with superintendents from two heavily chasidic districts, 15 and 20.

“However,” the statement read, “he did not lay out concerns about a specific school, and there are over 250 Jewish day schools in New York City. Without a specific issue, it’s neither reasonable nor appropriate for superintendents to visit every nonpublic school in their district. Superintendents cannot just show up at private schools for random inspections without a reason.”

“While the DOE will look into any complaints that arise about specific private schools,” the statement later continued, “in the end, the State Education Department, who authorizes these schools, has the final authority.”

A spokesman for Attorney General Schneiderman declined to comment because the issue might “be the subject of future litigation.” The New York State Department of Education referred the matter to New York City’s Education Department. As of Tuesday evening, Cuomo’s office had not yet responded to a request for comment.