Sunday, December 30, 2018

There Is No War on Jewish Education

It seems the issue won’t die. I thought I had written my final words on the subject. But I guess I haven’t.

It all began with YAFFED (Young Advocates for Fair Education). They sued NYSED (New York State Education Department) for not enforcing its educational requirements in those Yeshivos that offered no secular studies. YAFFED felt (correctly in my view) that those schools were short changing their own people – handicapping the majority of them to function well in the modern world.

This was seen as an outrage by many members of the right, accusing YAFFED of attempting to destroy Orthodox Jewish education as we know it. 

Yes. They stirred up a hornet's nest. But in my view the need to change the educational paradigm in those school needed that kind of stirring. The fastest growing segment of Jewry has been getting away with producing illiterate Jews - ignorant of some of the basics of the society in which we all live. 

Things were not about to change without it. Orthodox leaders outside of that community seemed not to care what was happening in those enclaves. Most schools outside of them had been more or less complying with government regulations for decades.

They also believe that as a matter of the first amendment's freedom of religion clause, people should be allowed to educate their children any way they wish. In any case since the government didn't care enough to enforce their own regulations, why should they mix in? So they let sleeping dogs lie.

But now that those dogs are no longer sleeping, all hell seemed to have broken loose. And they  blamed YAFFED - accusing them of a nefarious ulterior motive of trying to destroy the entire Yeshiva system. 

What happened is that NYSED issued a whole new set of guidelines about what equivalency to public schools is. And that seemed impossible to implement. That was the perception by virtually all Orthodox educational institutions. They banded together to challenge those guidelines. That perception ended rather quickly once NYSED clarified their new rules saying that they were misunderstood. And that most Orthodox schools were already in compliance.

That satisfied high schools under OU jurisdiction. It is also a fact that the hours that NYSED actually required for grades 7 and 8 (which is where all the concern originally was) were well within - or very close to what is the case in most Orthodox day schools. But this has not satisfied some on the right that continue to fear that any requirements at all are an infringement of their first amendment rights. Perhaps even more importantly they ask, who should be in charge of our chidlren's education? The state? Or our own religious leaders?

Which brings me to an article in the Jewish Press authored by Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Jeff Ballabon. It is entitled,. YAFFED  and the War on Jewish Education.

First, I strongly object to that title. There is no war on Jewish education. At least not in this country. Not by YAFFED and not by the government. But I guess that is how they see it. Here in part what they see happening: 
Schools, textbooks, and mandatory curricula have become petri dishes for social engineering – culturing growth in directions diametrically opposed to a Torah worldview.
Jewish schools in Great Britain are threatened with closure by the government if they fail to teach “tolerance and respect” for “alternative lifestyle choices,” or if they offer a religious viewpoint on Creation “as having a similar or superior evidence base to scientific theories. 
Yes, there is always a danger that social engineering might become the motive. And that should be fought vigorously if it ever begins to happen. But that is clearly not the motivation behind what NYSED is requiring. Which is what most Orthodox schools already comply with anyway. And have complied with for decades in its earlier incarnation. If Rabbi Menken and Mr. Ballabon fear that any government involvement at all presents the dangers they are concerned with, where were they for the past 7 decades or longer? We do not live in Czarist Russia. Any comparison to those times are disingenuous or at least badly mistaken.

That said, I agree that it would be best if we could do it ourselves. If we could assure that every Jewish child in every Orthodox religious school was provided with a decent secular education then we should do it. And we should have done it long before now. But the plain fact is that in some cases, that is not being done. And it won't be unless the government enforces their own very reasonable requirements. If they don’t, those schools will be continue to not provide it

Interestingly, an organization called PEARLS (Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools)  was formed when this issue first popped up. One of their goals is to work with NYSED  to bring the non compliant schools into compliance. But it took YAFFED to create them. 

I support what PEARLS is trying to do in that respect. But I also support the government right to enforce the minimum standards it sets forth to provide a decent secular studies curriculum for all citizens. Which has always been the case although never enforced.

That should be the goal. Not challenging NYSED  on first amendment grounds. Because if they succeed in their stated goal to keep the government entirely out of our education we all lose. And the biggest losers will be the increased number of Jewish souls that will be illiterate and living a life of ignorant bliss that will eventually come crashing down on all of us. it will perpetuate the culture of poverty and dependency in which so many of them will increasingly be doomed to live.

A final word. Who is to blame for all of this turmoil? Not YAFFED. No matter what their motives might be. It is the arrogance of certain religious leaders who believe they could ignore government educational requirements that have always been in place but never enforced. Just because they got away with it, does not make them right. Had they complied like the rest of the Orthodox religious schools, is there anyone that believes that this would have happened? Not me. Not even for a New York minute.