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Group Fighting Secular Education At Yeshivas Deploys Misinformation, Holocaust Imagery

Read this article in Yiddish here.

Imagine a world where “evil informants” are “sharpening their teeth,” where they fight to take children and “drag them into the abyss.” Holy books are engulfed in flames. Scary men in suits burst into classrooms unannounced and steal toys. Children are taught profanity for hours each day. Large metal doors clank shut and lock with a thud.

These are scenes from videos and newspaper ads that are part of a public-relations campaign benefitting a nonprofit called PEARLS, Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools.

PEARLS, which raised more than $2 million from a campaign of slick videos, emails and newspaper ads this summer and fall, says it is protecting yeshivas in New York from what it sees as an existential threat: a proposal that would create more scrutiny from the New York State Education Department. But critics say the group’s message is manipulative and deceitful, accusing its representatives of spreading misinformation about what might happen if the state tightens its oversight of yeshivas and other private schools.

M., a yeshiva graduate and parent who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of his children being ousted from their school, said PEARLS is purposely playing on fears particular to people who grew up hearing family stories of the Holocaust.

“I think it’s abusive to use that vulnerability to make them fight against a general education,” he said in a recent interview. “They fearmonger.”

PEARLS representatives deny that their campaign is dishonest, and say the risk to the Orthodox lifestyle is serious. The group’s supporters see the Education Department’s proposed changes as a potential opening for a flood of government intervention that could erode a carefully constructed and consciously insular way of life.

A spokesperson for PEARLS said other groups sympathetic to its cause sometimes make their own videos or ads, and its staff does not necessarily review all of the materials publicizing the organization’s fundraisers and marked with its logo. But he declined to answer questions about whether specific materials were made or approved by the organization.

This fall, both PEARLS and the groups supporting the regulations ramped up communications and solicited support from politicians as they awaited a vote from the Board of Regents. It’s still unclear when the body will vote. It meets monthly, and those following the issue were surprised to learn last week that the meeting agendas for Monday and Tuesday do not include a vote on the proposal. The Board of Regents will vote as soon as January, only after members have finished reviewing all of the letters from a public-comment period this summer.

The proposed changes would create periodic inspections for nonpublic schools. They would beef up enforcement of the New York law that says private schools must provide instruction that is “substantially equivalent” to that of public schools. For more than 160,000 Jewish day school and yeshiva students in New York, this would mean greater scrutiny of the ways in which they are taught secular subjects like English, math and science.

If inspectors determine that a school is violating the regulations, the state would stop providing services like transportation and textbook loans, and parents would have to enroll their children elsewhere. If they don’t, the students will be considered truant. Parents could face fines or, after repeat offenses, jail time.

Other private schools in New York, including The Chapin School and Trinity School, are also rallying their parents against the proposed changes. They are generally opposed to government intervention in private school curricula, in part because they would have to report curriculum changes to education officials.

The impetus for the proposed new guidelines was a complaint filed in 2015 with New York City’s Department of Education by a group of 52 yeshiva graduates, parents and teachers. The complaint said the students did not receive the “substantially equivalent” secular education to which they are entitled under the law. Their claim that they were not sufficiently taught English has been a major focus of the public outcry.

PEARLS formed as a response to the 2015 complaint. There were 39 New York City schools mentioned, 28 of which were investigated by the city. The city has not released the names of the investigated schools.

PEARLS operated at a net loss of more than $76,000 in 2018, according to tax filings, but still spent $114,000 on public relations consulting. And this year, PEARLS hired an agency for $12,500 a month to lobby members of the Board of Regents, the New York State Assembly, the New York State Senate and officials in the governor’s office, according to lobbyist registration documents.

The English-language videos the group made for secular audiences show successful yeshiva graduates at work in their chosen fields as accountants, entrepreneurs and property managers. There is footage of religious Jews packaging food and flowers to send to those in need. Students blow up balloons for science experiments and point to construction-paper cutouts of the human eye. All of this seems to show that yeshiva graduates are given the skills to succeed in the modern world.

The Yiddish materials, whose goal is to motivate Orthodox parents to donate money or otherwise join the fight against the proposed regulations, take a different tack. Videos show an education inspector confiscating religious study materials, basketballs and even glasses of milk, and yeshivas consumed by flames. There is much more talk of betrayal: “heretical renegades,” “informants,” “bitter, indescribable consequences,” “forces of immorality,” and “evil propaganda” are obstacles to “the holy organization PEARLS” and “pure education.”

PEARLS from The Forward on Vimeo.

There are also factual discrepancies between the English and Yiddish materials. A Yiddish-language newspaper advertisement reads, “PEARLS works for all schools, both those that teach English for several hours and those who don’t teach any English at all.” That message conflicts with the one presented to the English-speaking public, which generally suggests the latter does not exist.

Asked about that discrepancy, Rabbi David Zwiebel, a board member of PEARLS, said: “To the extent there are such schools—and I think we’re speaking about a universe of one or two — many, many of those children come from homes where they actually speak English as a first language, so they’re not deficient in that.”

But yeshiva graduates who filed the original complaint say there are dozens of schools in New York that barely teach secular subjects.

Dr. Eddy Portnoy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research said that the approach PEARLS and its supporters have taken on this issue is similar to patterns of messaging he has seen before in the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community.

When Williamsburg, Brooklyn, began to gentrify 20 years ago, Portnoy recalled, posters in the community known as pashkevilim compared the influx of hipsters to 9/11. More recently, activists trying to stir opposition to a consent form that parents would sign to acknowledge the risk of infection associated with oral suction after circumcision claimed the city was trying to outlaw circumcision altogether.

“This is using the most dramatic, over-the-top verbiage in order to frighten their constituency into supporting a movement,” Portnoy said, adding some of the imagery in the current PEARLS campaign, like burning books, is meant to evoke memories of the Holocaust.

In an October speech delivered in Yiddish, Zweibel, the PEARLS board member, claimed that lesson plans that do not teach tolerance of homosexuality would not be considered acceptable under the proposed state protocols, according to an audio recording obtained by the Forward. But the regulations do not mention homosexuality. In fact, the guidelines say inspectors must be “sensitive” to the role that “traditions and beliefs” play in curriculum and instruction.

Zweibel declined, through a spokesperson, to answer questions about this speech. In an earlier interview, he had denied that the group’s campaign was spreading falsehoods.

“To the extent that there’s anybody who is misinforming and creating false alarms here, they shouldn’t do it. I’m looking at the regulations and the scenarios of what would happen in context of noncompliance.” said Zweibel. “That requires no embellishment.”

Moshe Krakowski, director of the Azrieli Masters Program at Yeshiva University, said the fears underpinning the PEARLS campaign are valid. Opposition to the new regulations has less to do with the actual amount of secular education required by the state, he said, than with “someone else telling us how to raise our kids.”

PEARLS and other Orthodox groups, like Agudath Israel of America, collected more than 85,000 letters from yeshiva parents opposed to the regulations and submitted them to the Board of Regents during a public-comment period this summer.

Dr. Ruchama Fund, a psychologist, yeshiva parent and graduate who signed a letter from a group of medical professionals opposing the proposed changes, told the Forward that she heard about the regulations from newspapers and from people in her social circles, who are “horrified.”

“The worst-case scenario is that the aspects of an education that we value, that Torah Jews value, will be interfered with,” she said.

For people who support the changes, the way information spreads in Orthodox communities poses a unique challenge. Many people don’t use the internet. Several Hasidic yeshivas require that families do not visit the public library.

Naftuli Moster is the head of Young Advocates for Fair Education, the group that originally wrote the complaint about secular education at yeshivas. He said an “important aspect” of this battle is “the censorship and the inability for accurate information to come to the Orthodox media.”

That has been a boon for PEARLS.

The group “cannot exist when there’s sunlight,” said S., a yeshiva parent and graduate who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “The facts bode very poorly for them.”

_Jordan Kutzik contributed reporting and Yiddish translation.

Molly Boigon is the investigative reporter at the Forward. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @MollyBoigon_

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