Tuesday, December 06, 2016

It’s What He Didn’t Say

Who will teach them how to function in the  21st century?
Last week I was happy to report that Agudah seemed to turn a corner. This was indicated by a very positive yet unexpected experience that a moderate Charedi woman by the name of Mrs. Suri Weinstock who attended their recent convention had. The views expressed by the speakers on the topics they chose to address were similar to my own.

But there was one speaker that did not quite hit the mark. Even though I truly respect and admire the work he does as Agudah’s  Executive Vice President (and I know how very hard he works and the legitimate accomplishments he has had) I was disappointed in Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel’s  presentation at their recent convention.

This is not to say that he did not make some very valid points. He did. But it is what he didn’t say that was disappointing. As was the way he dismissed the motives of the people he criticized.

First let me say that I agree with Agudah’s opposition to an education bill in New York if it is constructed the way Rabbi Zweibel described it. It would require the same minimum 5 hours of secular education that public schools are required to have. This is what he said Agudah is fighting. I agree that implementing and enforcing this provision would hurt most Yeshiva high schools (including the ones I attended: Telshe and HTC - were they located in New York).

As Rabbi Zweibel noted, most Yeshiva high schools have longer hours in religious studies than they do in secular studies. Yeshivos would have to either add on to an already long day of classroom instruction or reduce the time allotted for religious studies. Both options are in my view untenable.

Educational mandates should not be about the quantity of time. They should be about the type and quality of the material learned. New York already requires that the curricula of non public schools be ‘substantially equivalent’ to those of the public schools - in order to receive any of the financial benefits that non public schools are entitled to. The problem was not the lack of a required curriculum. It was one of enforcement. It was non existent. Which allowed some schools to practically ignore those subjects.

Rabbi Zweibel did not address that problem at all even though he quite clearly said that these subjects should be taught. He even mentioned some of the core secular subjects that should be taught adding that most Yeshivos do teach them. They have a dual program of religious and secular studies.

As I said, if Rabbi Zweibel is correct about its time component the bill should be opposed. But what about those schools that don’t teach much of any secular subjects? The very subjects he says should be taught? There are currently 39 of those. While fighting the bill as currently structured may be justified, what about the collateral damage that Rabbi Zweibel agrees is harmful to the young people that attend those schools?

Rabbi Zweibel imputes blame to young ‘disaffected’ former Yeshiva students for the problems Agudah is now facing. Maybe so. But had these schools offered the curriculum they were required by law to offer, there would be nothing to talk about. Those ‘disaffected’ former Yeshiva students notwithstanding.

It would have better had Rabbi Zweibel also mentioned that these schools are deficient in the very things he said should be required. He didn’t.

He did however speak about the values that are taught in public schools that are in conflict with our own values. As if the new bill required religious schools to abandon their faith. I find it hard to believe that a country founded on principles of religious freedom would require any religion to abandon those teachings. Respecting the rights of all citizens even when their behavior is not in accord with our values does not mean we have to approve of their behavior. I don’t think this bill is about that.

Nor is his anecdote about how impressed New York State Education Commissioner Rick Mills was with the way young Orthodox men and women date each other relevant. We aren’t talking about teaching ethics (which is its own problem that requires serious attention). We are talking about providing our young the educational tools that will enable to function in society.

In my view, Rabbi Zweibel should have addressed – not only the flawed bill but the lack of any significant secular education of those 39 Yeshivos. Which he said is necessary for its students and is taught by most Yeshivos.

Why didn’t he do that? I can only speculate. Perhaps Agudah feels that Yeshivos have a right to teach as they see fit even if they disagree with them. And therefore they have a religious right to ignore the government’s educational requirements

What about providing those youth the tools to survive in 21st century America? How does Agudah answer that?

So yes, I am disappointed. It should be noted that if there is any improvement in those 39 schools (if and when the bill is defeated) credit is in my opinion due to those ‘disaffected’ former Yeshiva students’ that brought this issue into public consciousness. Had it not been for them, it would be business as usual in those schools.