In fiery speeches on the steps of New York City Hall, advocates for secular education in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas accused city and state elected officials of allowing Hasidic communities to flout state education laws in exchange for political support.
At the April 6 press conference organized by the advocacy group Yaffed, civil rights attorney Norman Siegel railed against politicians who he said refused to force Hasidic yeshivas to follow state laws that require private schools to teach secular subjects.
Siegel threatened to bring a civil rights lawsuit in federal court if the city does not force the yeshivas to change their practices.
“It’s about people putting politics over the rule of law, and putting political expedience over the rights and future of thousands of young Jewish boys,” said Siegel, a former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “There is a very powerful political bloc in this city, the Orthodox Jewish community, and the elected officials, they don’t want to touch this issue because they want that vote.”
Angered by what they say is a lack of progress in a New York City Department of Education investigation into secular studies at Hasidic schools, Yaffed executive director Naftuli Moster and Siegel blamed elected officials’ desire for Orthodox votes for what they said was a lack of progress.
Standing on the City Hall steps, Moster said that he suspected that the office of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio was obstructing the DOE investigation, though acknowledged he had no direct proof. He said that his requests for meetings with the mayor had been denied.
In a statement to the Forward, a spokesman for the mayor said that the DOE’s investigation into the yeshivas was “active and ongoing.”
“The mayor believes strongly that every child in our city deserves a first-rate education,” wrote mayoral spokesman Austin Finan. “The assertion that DOE has not sent requests for information to schools is inaccurate. We will not comment further on an ongoing investigation.”
A spokesperson for the DOE did not respond to an inquiry about the progress of the investigation.
The DOE initially agreed to investigate Hasidic schools last summer, in response to a public letter sent by Yaffed. Yaffed says that the DOE had not followed up on plans made in January meet with Hasidic families that the organization offered to gather. The DOE has been unclear on whether its investigation will include site visits or just questionnaires, and press reports have conflicted on whether or not the investigation has even begun.
“I used to think I was a progressive, but if all these folks are progressives, I guess I ain’t progressive,” Siegel said, gesturing towards the mayor’s office, behind him. “The bottom line is, they have a responsibility to investigate this issue and make it right.”
Yaffed, which last week launched an “evidence drive” to shame the DOE for its apparent lack of progress on the investigation, drew roughly a dozen supporters and a similar number of representatives of the media to the noon press conference.
Only one elected official, New York State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, was present at the conference.
“I am here today because I believe New York students are guaranteed under the law a sound, basic education,” Glick said.
Yaffed has not yet sued the city or the Hasidic yeshivas over the secular education issue, and Siegel said that he hoped to avoid a legal fight. “We don’t want to declare war on the yeshivas or the DOE,” Siegel said.
Siegel told the Forward after the press conference that he was concerned about the impact of federal intervention if Yaffed files a lawsuit. “Because of the history of government coming into Jewish communities, I’m not sure I want to rush in,” Siegel said.
Still, he said that time was running out before Yaffed goes to court. “If we don’t hear form anyone in the next few weeks, that will increase the likelihood that we’ll go to court,” Siegel told the press.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.