Photo Credit: Flash 90
Ultra Orthodox Jewish youths studying religious texts at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

In an op-ed last week (“Chassidic Yeshivas Are Shirking Their Duty”), Dr. Yitzchok Levine lobs considerable artillery shells at the “yeshiva amendment” advocated by State Senator Simcha Felder and others. He asserts that chassidic graduates lack English literacy and emerge with scant or no background in math, history, and science. Dr. Levine opines that every Jew must master secular disciplines, pointing to the secular studies expertise of the Vilna Gaon.

Putting aside the omission of variant opinions on this millennia-old discussion (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, 246:4; Birchas Shmuel, Maseches Kiddushin, 27) and the question of whether the Vilna Gaon’s personal mastery of secular wisdom should serve as a model for us mere mortals (not many merit “Gaon” as a surname!), Dr. Levine’s criticism was undoubtedly well-intentioned, but perhaps not fully informed on two key points.

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Without a full understanding of what the new law says and what it could have said, I’m afraid Dr. Levine is firing his missiles at a phantom target. Until now, yeshivas were held to a nebulous standard known as “substantial equivalence to public schools.” This standard was neither clearly defined nor well-enforced. The law now says that elementary and middle school substantial equivalence shall consider inclusion of adequate instruction in

English that will prepare pupils to read fiction and nonfiction text for information and to use that information to construct written essays that state a point of view or support an argument; instruction in mathematics that will prepare pupils to solve real world problems using both number sense and fluency with mathematical functions and operations; instruction in history by being able to interpret and analyze primary texts to identify and explore important events in history, to construct written arguments using the supporting information they get from primary source material…the role of geography and economics in the actions of world civilizations, and an understanding of civics and the responsibilities of citizens in world communities; and instruction in science by learning how to gather, analyze and interpret observable data to make informed decisions and solve problems mathematically, using deductive and inductive reasoning to support a hypothesis, and how to differentiate between correlational and causal relationships.

Some may argue this level of state oversight is uncalled for in an independent school environment. Others may assert these standards are not rigorous enough. In any balance struck, there will be those who might have preferred the scales lean one way or another. But at least now there is an articulated standard, and Dr. Levine, and true secular education advocates, should applaud that.

The new law also states that the “totality of the curriculum” must be considered when evaluating non-public schools with a bilingual program whose instructional day stretches beyond 4 p.m. for grades 1-3, or 5:30 p.m. for grades 4-8. That officials must also consider the analytical skills, multi-lingual textual analysis, and critical thinking skills honed in the many hours “horiving” on a Reb Akiva Eiger’s kushia when evaluating whether a school is providing a well-rounded sound education doesn’t seem unreasonable.

We could be living under a far different law. Strictly construed, “substantial equivalence” can mean 5.5 hours of secular instruction and the teaching of subjects objectionable to our religious beliefs, as required in public schools. Indeed, bills holding non-public schools to this draconian definition of substantial equivalency were sponsored in New York’s state legislature the past two years. The penalty in the proposed bills for a school not conforming to this standard include closing it down. Do we want our schools relegated to unfunded, bureaucratic vassals of the state, required to teach secular studies from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. followed by an anemic limudei kodesh program?

Many of our yeshivos have excellent secular studies departments. Some may have some way to go. But our yeshivos are not public schools, and I – among others – will fight for them to continue not to be.

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