18 NYC yeshivas do not adequately teach secular studies, investigation finds


(New York Jewish Week) — The New York City Department of Education has found that 18 yeshivas are falling short of secular education standards, a landmark ruling in the ongoing fight over government oversight of Hasidic day schools.

Letters sent to the yeshivas by the education department on Friday mark the culmination of an eight-year investigation that has pitted the city against the leadership of its large Hasidic communities. Arriving after years of activism by secular education advocates — and pushback from the yeshivas’ defenders — the letters represent the most significant determination by a government agency that the schools are failing to teach secular studies to their students.

City officials launched investigations into 39 yeshivas following a 2015 complaint filed by some of their graduates charging that they had been left unprepared by their schools. Several schools were quickly dropped from the investigation, and the city determined in 2019, after a first round of visits, that two others were in fact offering a “substantially equivalent” education to what students could expect in local public schools, the legal requirement.

The deadline to complete the long-delayed investigation into the remaining 25 was Friday. The education department concluded after additional visits that two other yeshivas were meeting the legal standard, and certified five others as meeting the standard because they are associated with high schools that passed muster.

But 18 schools, the city concluded, were not offering a substantially equivalent education. Fourteen of them must have the determination affirmed by the New York State Education Department because of a 2018 law meant to blunt the investigations; the city released no details about its investigations into them.

For four of the schools, the city’s conclusion is final. At two of them, the letters show, investigators saw no instruction in English, giving credence to the complaint filed in 2015. Some of those schools also ignored requests for follow-up visits or more information. One appears to have changed its name in the midst of the investigation — with the education department being told the school had closed.

But at two schools, according to the letters, instruction in English across a range of subjects was observed on multiple dates, and the schools supplied extensive documentation about their curriculum and materials. Still, the city officials were left unconvinced that the schools were meeting all of the requirements to demonstrate equivalence.

“We were really worried, and they took it seriously for the very first time, after decades of negligence,” Beatrice Weber, the executive director of the most prominent of the activist groups calling for changes to the yeshivas, Young Advocates for Fair Education or YAFFED, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “For the very first time, there’s this public … understanding that this is not following the law.”

What consequences the schools may face remains unclear. The city has given the four yeshivas where its determination is final a timeline to show that they can offer a “substantially equivalent” level of secular education by the end of the next school year. But the letters do not mention any further consequences if those deadlines are not met. Earlier this year, a state court ruled that the state Education Department lacks the authority to close the schools if they fail to provide a secular education, though it could deprive them of public funding.

“The findings profoundly change the playing field, though the game has a long way to go,” David Bloomfield, a professor of education law at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, told JTA. “This is the first time there have been official findings of over a dozen yeshivas violating the law on secular instruction.”

He added, “So now the cure is clearly in government hands. How long and how complete that process will be is open to question.”

The letters show that city investigators confirmed what journalists have twice documented and advocates have long argued: that many yeshivas barely teach secular subjects, required under state law. Currently, the schools spend nearly all of their day teaching a traditional Jewish studies curriculum in Yiddish, with a heavy focus on Talmud. Secular studies, according to the letters, occupies only a small portion of the curriculum, with few resources devoted to the teaching of subjects like English and math.

One investigation found that secular studies at a yeshiva was taught by an educator whose prior experience includes one year of serving as a substitute teacher in the city education department as well as working in a public library.

The schools and their defenders maintain that students obtain necessary skills across a wide range of topics, from math to the arts, within their Jewish studies curriculum. They also say the schools deliver benefits that public schools do not.

“Yeshiva graduates are steeped in moral values. Their minds have been trained to think critically and creatively. They are literate in multiple languages and scholars of the great texts that define Judaism. Their love for learning lasts a lifetime. Their charitable giving and deeds know no peer,” Agudath Israel of America, a haredi Orthodox advocacy group, said in a statement about the city’s investigations. “While these items may not appear on any government checklist, they are critically important educational qualities, at least to the parents who send their children there.”

The city determinations follow years of public advocacy and court filings by activists, many with roots in haredi Orthodox communities, to force yeshivas to teach secular studies. They also come after an investigative series in The New York Times examining subpar secular education standards in New York City-area yeshivas, which revealed a similar story to that told by the New York Jewish Week in 2015. And they come during the administration of Mayor Eric Adams, who has received support from Hasidic leaders and, earlier this year, said public schools should “learn what you are doing in the yeshivas to improve education.”

YAFFED applauded the city’s conclusions, saying in a statement, “We hope that the completion of this investigation compels the city and Mayor Eric Adams to act on behalf of thousands of students who are being deprived of their right to a sound basic education.”

Haredi groups, meanwhile, have contended that government oversight of secular standards at yeshivas constitutes overreach into a successful system, as well as a violation of their communities’ prerogative to educate their children as they wish. In response to the education department’s letters, Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, or PEARLS, a defender of the yeshivas, said in a statement that the investigation was based on “a skewed set of technical requirements.”

“Parents choose yeshiva education for their children because of the religious, moral and educational philosophy and approach of those who lead yeshivas,” the statement said, according to multiple reports. “They will continue to do so, regardless of how many government lawyers try to insist that yeshiva education is best measured by checklists they devise rather than the lives yeshiva graduates lead.”

Weber said that she, too, believes the yeshivas had a lot to offer — and that the city’s investigation should leave their defenders optimistic about the future.

“Two of the schools were substantially equivalent based on the review,” she said. “It’s possible to do it and be culturally sensitive, and be accommodating of the Hasidic culture. As much as this review may be upsetting to individuals in the Hasidic community, there should also be a realization that it is possible to do it.”