Naftuli Moster steps down as head of group battling yeshivas over secular education


(New York Jewish Week) – Naftuli Moster, who as founder and executive director of Young Advocates for Fair Education, or Yaffed, has fought to improve secular education standards at Orthodox yeshivas, is leaving his position after 10 years.

In a statement Thursday, Yaffed said Moster plans to step down on Sept. 30, 2022, although it did not give a reason. 

“After ten years leading Yaffed, and with new regulations poised to be adopted soon, I am ready to move on,” he wrote in a statement posted to his personal website

Moster, who grew up one of 17 children in a haredi Orthodox family in Borough Park, Brooklyn, said he founded Yaffed in order to spare other yeshiva students “the disadvantages that I and countless others needlessly suffered.” Yaffed maintains that haredi Orthodox yeshivas, with their almost exclusive focus on religious studies, do not provide the “substantially equivalent” secular education required under state and city law.

In a decade of advocacy and law suits, Yaffed got the attention of city and state education officials, who launched various probes of the yeshiva education system. At the same time, Moster became a target for anger in the Orthodox community, whose advocates said Yaffed was inviting scrutiny in violation of their rights to religious liberty.

Last week, a New York State Supreme Court justice ruled in favor of Yaffed and an Orthodox Jewish mother it had assisted in her complaint against a Brooklyn yeshiva. The judge ordered the city’s Department of Education to conclude an investigation into the yeshiva that has stalled for seven years.

I had no advocacy skills or community organizing experience going into this work. I had no government relations experience, no media, budgeting, legal or education policy experience. I was just a young adult who was seriously handicapped by my lack of education,” Moster wrote in his online statement.

“Over the years I have had the privilege of engaging with Yeshiva graduates, parents, and even Hasidic rabbis and prominent community members, some right in my own living room, some who never told me their real names out of fear it would leak and they would suffer reprisals,” he continued. “Their message has been clear: most Hasidim want change. They want to see improvements in their education system but they are afraid to speak up.”

After his yeshiva studies, he graduated from CUNY College of Staten Island and went on to receive a Master of Social Work degree from Hunter College in 2015. 

Moster was the president of Yaffed from 2012 through 2016, and has served as the organization’s executive director since 2016. 

Yaffed has secured a number of wins in the years since the organization was founded. The public comment period for new guidelines proposed by the state Department of Education for yeshivas and non-public schools to prove substantial equivalency ended on May 31, 2022. Yaffed believes these updated regulations will be adopted by the Board of Regents in the fall and will hold yeshivas accountable for students who leave the yeshiva system without adequate skills in English, math and other secular subjects. 

Opponents, like Agudath Israel of America, say the proposed guidelines invite the government “to come in and unreasonably control how and what we should be teaching our children.”

Moster declined to share what is next for him professionally. 

On his website and in a brief interview with the New York Jewish Week, he lamented the “obstacles, harassment, threats and ostracism” he faced as head of Yaffed, and said mainstream Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and UJA Federation of New York rarely came to his defense.

“One of the most hurtful things to happen to me in the last few years did not come from Haredi leaders and their mob,” he shared in a statement with the New York Jewish Week. “It was the silence from the ADL and UJA and others when my peers and I were accused of antisemitism.

“These accusations, which were also recklessly made against reporters and the very few brave elected officials who spoke up, had real consequences in hurting our efforts, and the leaders of those groups should be called out for allowing that to happen,” he added. 

The Anti-Defamation League of New York/New Jersey and UJA Federation did not respond for comment by press time.

In the announcement of Moster’s departure, Yaffed also announced that it had secured a $1 million pledge to be paid out over five years to continue the organization’s work. 

“Under Naftuli Moster’s tireless leadership, Yaffed became a formidable entity and key participant in Jewish communal conversations. A thought leader and community organizer, Mr. Moster gained the respect of colleagues across wide swaths of the Jewish community, communal leaders, policy makers and elected officials,” wrote board chair Anita Altman in a statement from the board.