Photo Credit: Nati Shohat / Flash 90
Hasidic school children in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY.

The New York State Board of Regents voted unanimously on Tuesday to require private schools to comply with the state’s minimum academic equivalency standards, which include a requirement to provide secular subjects such as English and math. The move is likely to impact dozens of yeshivas in New York City and other areas.

The Jewish community responded with a firestorm of protest led by Agudath Israel, which wrote in an open letter to the New York State Education Department, “Our religious requirements have not been adequately addressed. . .Our 300,000 pleas of our communities have not been given the attention they deserve. Our people simply cannot abandon our religious values. With the help of G-d we will not permit it to happen.”

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The vote followed by one day an article by The New York Times that attacked the educational standards in the yeshiva world and which community members charged was, in actuality, “about our way of life.”

In a statement responding to the article, Agudath Israel of America decried the “one-sided New York Times hit piece” on New York State’s Hasidic community and its educational institutions.

“The article is riddled with bias, ignoring the vast majority of Hasidic parents – those who cherish their yeshivas – instead citing a minority of people who have rejected the community’s values, and passing them off as representative of the whole,” the organization declared.

“The true viewpoint of the tens of thousands of parents who send their children to Hasidic schools is represented, in part, by the recent historic 350,000 letters during the state’s public comment period, the vast majority of which pleading for no interference with the yeshiva educational system for which they pay and value. Could the New York Times not speak to one of those parents?

“In this article, everything beautiful is turned ugly. While challenging college classes are lauded in society, our disciplined, rigorous, and intellectually challenging Torah studies are denigrated. Disgusting innuendo abounds. The supposed poverty data, which form the foundation of much of the piece, have been debunked so many times as to become tiresome. And then there are the outright falsehoods, too many to list, being cataloged now by writers, fact-checkers, and defamation lawyers.

“There are certainly some who have had poor experiences in a yeshiva. But the New York Times has written a piece that could find almost nothing positive in a community that has raised generations of successful entrepreneurs, professionals, and blue-collar workers. Generations of successful human beings – even if success is defined in purely material terms,” Agudath Israel wrote.

In its article, the NYT reported that “Over the past five years, the New York City Police Department has investigated more than a dozen claims of child abuse at the schools, records show. It is not clear whether anyone was charged in the incidents.”

How many is “more than a dozen” — thirteen? JewishPress.com attempted to obtain comparable data for the city’s public school system, but the figures on comparable complaints in the New York City public school system are not readily available, despite the reams of documents devoted to the subject of how to file a complaint for child abuse, sexual abuse and abuse of authority.

The Board of Regents’ decision was triggered by and followed years of complaints from the Young Advocates for Fair Education group that accused yeshivas of graduating students who could not read and write English. The group was founded by a disgruntled former yeshiva student who blamed his school for not preparing him for life in the secular world.

It is true that some yeshiva students graduate without the requisite skills, but there are many more who go on to earn degrees as lawyers, doctors and other highly skilled professionals.

Failure to acquire basic skills is not a tragedy unique to the yeshiva world by any means. Let’s compare the population numbers and the skill sets of public school students.

There are approximately 200,000 Hasidic Jews in New York, comprising approximately 10 percent of the state’s total Jewish population and a fraction of the 8.38 million residents (2020) living in the City of New York.

If one looks at the skills set in the public school population, one can see there is more than a bit of bias on this issue. A mammoth percentage of the public school children in New York City — and across the state — are seriously deficient in the very same subjects the yeshiva world allegedly neglects.

New York State Education Commissioner Betty A. Rosa announced in November 2021 that out of a total 1,195,169 enrolled students across the state, just 41.9 percent – 500,415 students – in grades three to eight took the exam in reading, and 39.9 percent – 476,753 students – took the math exam, according to the Staten Island Advance.

According to the NYC Department of Education, in August 2021, approximately 20 percent of high school seniors did not graduate (81.2 percent graduated). The dropout rate was 4.8 percent.

In 2019, less than half — just 45.6 percent — of NYC students in grades three to eight actually passed their math exams, and 47.4 percent passed their English exams.

To see the complete statistical report on the 2019 proficiency statistics, click here.

In March 2013, CBS News quoted officials from New York’s community college system who said, “nearly 80 percent of New York City public high school graduates – nearly 11,000 students — need to relearn basic skills before they can enter the City University’s community college system.”

Those “basic skills” included reading, writing and mathematics, according to the report.

According to the Literacy Partners organization, about 18 percent of New York City residents (1.6 million adults) do not speak English fluently. “Among all US counties, Queens County had the nation’s fifth largest low-English-proficiency population in 2009-13. Of those who need literacy education, only 40,000, or 3 percent, are receiving it,” the group said on its website.

So why is The New York Times drilling down on the relatively tiny Hasidic population, and why is the New York State Department of Education so dedicated to pressuring the private school sector to conform to the secular public school curriculum?

Numerous writers on Twitter pointed out the disparity between the taxpayer funds-per-student allocated to public schools as compared to those in private schools, in response to NYT claim that yeshivas are “lavishly funded” with taxpayer dollars.

“The thing that troubles me most about the Times’s story on yeshivas is that I don’t think I’ve ever seen as detailed a Times front page story analyzing why NYC spends ungodly amounts on public schools and only 25 pc graduate college-ready, very generously defined,” wrote Professor David Bernstein, executive director of the Liberty & Law Center at Antonin Scalia Law School in Arlington, VA.

Brooklyn’s State Assembly member Simcha Eichenstein called the paper’s two-year investigation a “pitiful rehash of cherry picked data and inaccuracies, peddled by the same group obsessed with Orthodox Jews. “What’s clear is that the NYT is not interested in the positive value of our schools, just spreading lies for clicks,” he wrote.

Former NYC Council member Chaim Deutsch pointed out in a tweet that Hasidic New Yorkers are “doctors, lawyers, businessmen, elected officials, journalists and more…There are thousands of stories of success in the community. Instead, the Times chose to focus on a few unfortunate cases. It’s a shameful & transparent attack on Orthodox Jews,” he wrote.

State Senator Mike Martucci of New York’s 42nd district noted in a tweeted statement that the paper “hasn’t run similar exposes on other schools who also accept taxpayer money for mandated services. Instead, a liberal paper focused on a traditional Jewish community with a conservative voting pattern. For The New York Times, that is sadly par for the course.”

Martucci added that he has personally toured many yeshivas and spoken with “countless students” and found them intelligent, engaging, and inquisitive.

“Much of the press and many politicians who regularly display antisemitic tendencies are on a mission to undermine and malign the Hasidic community,” he wrote, adding, “I find their tactics reprehensible and their thinly veiled antisemitism appalling.”

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Hana Levi Julian is a Middle East news analyst with a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Southern Connecticut State University. A past columnist with The Jewish Press and senior editor at Arutz 7, Ms. Julian has written for Babble.com, Chabad.org and other media outlets, in addition to her years working in broadcast journalism.