NY Supreme Court gets involved in Jewish education controversy

The state’s highest court ordered agencies to complete an investigation into an ultra-Orthodox school’s curriculum by September.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

New York’s Supreme Court ruled last week that state agencies must complete within four months an investigation into a Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox school’s curriculum.

All private and religious schools, including Jewish institutions such as Yeshiva Mesivta Arugath Habosem, must provide a secular education that is “at least substantially equivalent” to the public school system.

Beatrice Weber, the divorced mother of a young student in the Brooklyn school who left the Hasidic community but must continue sending her child to the ultra-Orthodox school, according to her ex-husband’s demand, had filed a petition in 2019 with the state’s education department against the Department of Education (DoE) and the yeshiva for its abrogation of responsibility to teach obligatory secular subjects.

Education Commissioner Betty Rosa had dismissed Weber’s petition on the grounds that the city first had to look into the allegations. Some two years on, her appeal was heard by Justice Adam Silverman, who demanded that the relevant bodies finish the job by September.

In an interview last year with American cable news television channel NY1, Weber said the yeshiva provides less than an hour and a half per day of lessons altogether in subjects such as history, science, English and math, in a long school day filled with religious studies.

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“We kind of reached the tipping point, where he can read English better than his teacher,” she said.

In a separate opinion piece for The New York Times, Weber said that “the school is breaking the law, but the city and state officials aren’t doing anything about it.”

Proponents of the law have accused local politicians of dancing around the subject due to the voting power of the ultra-Orthodox public. They say that both former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and current Mayor Eric Adams have delayed inquiries into Jewish schools’ curricula.

Out of 28 yeshivas that were investigated the city’s Department of Education, only two met the state’s educational requirements, according to its 2019 report.

In March, the state’s DoE proposed a packet of regulations to ensure that non-public schools are providing the education to which students are entitled under the law. Over 150,000 objections poured in during the “commenting period,” many of them from the ultra-Orthodox community.

In an op-ed in the Albany Times Union last month, three prominent rabbis who head religious institutions outlined their reasons for rejecting state oversight of the curricula.

The regulations, wrote Rabbis Brudy, Bender and Reisman, “require instruction in nine subjects in addition to English, Math, Science and Social Studies. And they ascribe zero value – educational or otherwise — to the Jewish Studies curriculum that is the core of Jewish education.”

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They argued that the Jewish studies “require rigorous analysis and critical thinking,” and “include ethical and philosophical works, which provide students with foundational lessons in character development and a moral framework for life.”

They also quoted Dr. Martin Luther King as saying, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

“That,” they wrote, “is an apt description of the objectives and outcomes of yeshiva education.”