New York City

New York politicians have historically taken a hands-off approach to regulating Hasidic yeshivas. Is this a turning point?

The New York Times reporting on the private schools – and new guidelines for state oversight – have spurred conversation

New York city and state leaders have historically taken a largely hands off approach to Hasidic Jewish private school education.

New York city and state leaders have historically taken a largely hands off approach to Hasidic Jewish private school education. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Days after The New York Times released a report that said many Hasidic Jewish private schools have been systematically denying thousands of children a thorough education in subjects like English and math, some New York lawmakers have condemned the underperforming schools and their leaders, drawn lines in the sand and began drafting legislation. Yet with some exceptions, New York city and state leaders have historically taken a largely hands off approach to Hasidic Jewish private school education.

And like so many other controversial issues that lawmakers have avoided wading into, this comes down to votes – at least in large part, according to Naftuli Moster, founder of Young Advocates for Fair Education or Yaffed. It’s been a decade since he launched the advocacy group dedicated to improving secular education at Hasidic schools, known as yeshivas, yet little action has been taken by the city and state prior to this week. Even many progressive lawmakers, normally eager for government regulation, have steered clear.

“It’s been very difficult to get them to take a public position,” Moster, a yeshiva graduate, said. “Take a district where they have to get elected against all odds – there’s a big portion of Orthodox votes in that district – and then once they get elected there’s this sort of sense that they want to play it safe and protect their reelection prospects.”

That’s true of all communities – but Hasidic neighborhoods are notably deliberate in their political organizing. There are an estimated 200,000 Hasidic New York residents – a term for "ultra-Orthodox" groups defined by religious conservatism and an adherence to tight-knit communities apart from secular society. Grand rabbis and political leaders will generally publicly endorse candidates, and a huge percentage of the community’s voters will listen, resulting in a reliable voting bloc. So city and state leaders court their support – particularly those running for office in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Borough Park, as well as suburban towns like Ramapo and Palm Tree, where the vast majority of Hasidic Jews in New York reside. Many of those individuals’ greatest political priority is to protect the independence and religious freedom of yeshivas, which educate children about Jewish texts and other religious materials. 

Now, many supporters of the system feel that independence is being challenged. On Tuesday, the State Board of Regents unanimously approved regulations that give teeth to a longstanding state law that requires private schools to offer an education “substantially equivalent” to public schools. They could demonstrate these standards are being met through a variety of pathways, such as performing well on state standardized exams or receiving accreditation from an approved outside organization. Like many other private schools, Hasidic Yeshivas currently collectively receive millions of dollars of public funding annually for programs like feeding students and providing after school care, which they could lose if they are not in compliance with new regulations. Enforcement would largely be left to local school districts.

It is seen as the most significant increase of government oversight on yeshivas in modern history. Yeshiva defenders have denounced the additional oversight as an infringement on their right to a religious education and said the Times cherry-picked a few particularly egregious examples and portrayed them as the reality. Some politicians and other prominent leaders who personally attended yeshivas cited their own positive experiences. Still, allegations that many of these institutions have failed to deliver adequate instruction in math, English, history and science in favor of intense religious instruction have dogged Hasidic yeshivas for years.

The Board of Regents spent years drafting various iterations of the rules after a group of former yeshiva students, parents and teachers organized by Yaffed sent a letter to New York City education leaders in 2015 about the lack of secular education in the schools they’d been part of. Then-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration opened a high-profile investigation into the yeshivas. Four years later, the city Department of Investigation ruled that de Blasio – who had deeply rooted political support in Ultra-Orthodox communities – and his administration had delayed completing the report. Findings released a few days later said only two of the 28 yeshivas officials visited were meeting basic secular education requirements. The probe also determined that nine yeshivas were moving toward substantial equivalency, 12 were developing their instruction, and five were underdeveloped in meeting state standards.

The Times story – the release of which was pegged to the Board of Regents’ vote – thrust the yeshivas into the spotlight this week, stoking tensions and spurring outrage from those both critical of the reporting, and those energized by it. The Times reported that every one of the 1,000 students at the Central United Talmudical Academy who took state standardized reading and math tests in 2019 failed. Children at nearly a dozen other yeshivas recorded similarly dismal results that year and boys performed especially poorly, likely because more of their time was dedicated to religious study.

Neither Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams had much to say about the Times’ report when pressed by reporters on Monday. Hochul, whose general election is months away, deflected questions and avoided making any controversial statements. 

“People understand that this is outside the purview of the governor. There is a regulatory process in place, but the governor’s office has nothing to do with this,” she said in reference to the Board of Regents’ vote. That’s not entirely true – while the department of education is tasked with setting much of the state’s education policy, she could influence members’ decisions or even announce that she’d be conducting her own investigation.

Refusing to single out yeshivas as uniquely bad, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rep. Lee Zeldin, slammed Hochul for evading questions. “Kathy Hochul won’t even tell you where she stands. All New Yorkers should have their own problem with that. If she supports it, she should say she supports it. If she doesn’t, she should say she doesn’t,” he said. “Why isn’t she defending everything that is so amazing about yeshiva education?”

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said his office will ensure the city’s investigation is completed but held off from defining what that would look like. As for the story itself, he said he’s “not concerned about the findings.”

“I’m not going to look at a story. I want a thorough investigation. I want an independent review and that’s what the city has to do,” Adams said during an unrelated press conference Monday morning. “The chancellor has made it clear that we are going to make sure every child receives a quality education in this city.” 

As for the Times’ report that teachers in some yeshivas allegedly use corporal punishment on students, Adams said that this is “not acceptable”and urged people to report any incidents to authorities.

New York City Comptroller Brad Lander said he expected that the new regulations would clarify the state and city governments’ responsibilities regarding yeshiva education. While state law has always dictated that private school education should rise to the same level as public, prior iterations of the law were vague and political actors could avoid providing strict oversight. The new regulations could now make it harder for them to do this regardless of political considerations. “So it’s not a question of ‘how do you feel,’ ‘what’s your opinion,’ it’s a question of what’s the city’s obligation under the law to provide adequate oversight that schools are fulfilling their obligation,” Lander said. 

Lander, who’s Jewish, said he believes yeshivas can thrive while offering both religious instruction and secular material that meets the state’s standards. “It is possible to do it, and it’s an obligation of all of us to make sure that people are meeting their state obligations and that these kids are getting everything they deserve,” he said to reporters on Monday. “It should not be the case – it cannot be the case – that political calculations override both our moral and legal obligations.”

Many political leaders have issued statements over the last couple of days, including Rep. Jerry Nadler. He said his experience attending a yeshiva conveyed the intricacies of the Jewish religion while also giving him the secular skills to succeed. 

“I have long believed that all yeshiva graduates – and all children in New York – can and must receive a high-quality secular education and the skills necessary to thrive in the world,” Nadler said in a statement. “While many Jewish day schools and yeshivas do provide such an education, it is clear that some are utterly failing.”

Sen. Robert Jackson, who recently proposed a substantial equivalency bill in the Legislature with Yaffed, shared a lengthy statement stating that some yeshivas are misusing public dollars by failing to meet state education standards and that “a corrective course of action” must be implemented.

“Yeshivas are not being asked to cut back on the teaching of Jewish law and tradition that their institutions are grounded in; however, such teaching does not supersede meeting the legal requirements of a sound and basic education,” he said.

State Sen. Julia Salazar and Assembly Member Emily Gallagher announced that they are drafting legislation to clarify that corporal punishment is prohbited in all educational settings.

“We are proud to represent Williamsburg in the New York State Legislature and we have deep respect for our Hasidic neighbors who are often misunderstood and maligned, but we unequivocally reject the notion that religious freedom and respect for tradition requires the denial of basic education to which every human has a fundamental right,” they said in a joint statement.

Salazar has not taken a consistently critical stance on yeshiva education. She introduced legislation in May which would allow yeshivas to form their own accreditation agencies. Critics like Yaffed charged that could result in them having the power to side step the new state regulations. The bill did not make it out of committee this session. Salazar did not respond to City & State when asked if she’d like to comment.

Yeshivas are by no means a monolith. In the days after the Times story hit the internet Saturday, both current and former members of New York’s Hasidic community surged into online spaces to convey stories from their own experiences in these schools. While many shared how the schools fell short in meeting their educational needs, many others strongly defended the institutions, labeling the report as false or inaccurate. Many expressed concerns that it would only increase the fervor of antisemitism against the Hasidic community. 

“This is a very large school system. There are over 440 schools in the state of New York and it isn’t monolithic, it isn’t a one size fits all,” said state Assembly Member Simcha Eichenstein, whose district encompasses Borough Park and Midwood. “They all operate independently. Just to paint them all with one brush is just wrong and incorrect. It’s just not true. Different school systems have different schedules, different curriculums.” 

Eichenstein, whose children attend yeshivas as he did himself, strongly condemned the Times’ article, describing it as inaccurate, biased and “cherrypicking,” However, the most troubling aspect is how it tries “to paint a picture on an entire community as if corporal punishment is the norm, or even used in our schools,” he said. 

“I would never, ever, ever be okay with anyone placing their hands on my children … If some of these less than a handful of stories that the Times have is true, of course I condemn it, but what are we talking about? Are we talking about a period of over 40 years?” Eichenstein said. “But to paint a picture that this is what we do as a people, it’s contradictory. It goes against our Torah values.” 

As for the new regulations, he said the government shouldn’t have a right to regulate religious schools and that he believes in a separation of church and state. If the new rules are implemented regardless, the education department needs to consider all of the material taught in yeshivas instead of cherry picking through a secular lens.

Former New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm said it’s been strange seeing so many of his old colleagues saying they were previously unaware of the issues outlined in the Times report. He recalled all the pushback he received when he served in the council and advocated with Moster and Yaffed to call for greater oversight of yeshivas years ago.  A former public school teacher and chair of the education committee, he was one of the few public officials to push the Department of Education to investigate allegations that some yeshivas in the city may have been neglecting secular studies.

“I just felt that this cried out for attention, but I couldn’t get any of my colleagues in the council on board with it. And the reason was, they were all afraid of the Hasidic vote,” Dromm said. “Every Jewish leader that I spoke to told me, every single one, that I was doing the right thing and that I should continue to do it and that they themselves could not speak out on the issue because it was too sensitive.”

He said it’s good that city leaders are now speaking out in greater numbers, but it’s especially important for those representing Hasidic communities to speak out – even if there is political pressure. Even more important though, he said, are the tangible steps that will come next.

“We don’t need another investigation. They’ve already done an investigation for seven years and we know what the results of that investigation are: Nobody was willing to do anything,” Dromm said. “Action is needed.”