We Need Engaged Citizens More Than Ever. New York’s Yeshiva Laws May Prevent That.
When I worked at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia a decade ago, I delighted in giving tours around the permanent exhibition, especially the part that highlighted the different things a U.S. citizen can, and in some cases should, do. Serve on a jury. Serve in the military. Vote. Run for office. It was an interactive experience, because citizens do: They decide legal cases affecting the lives of millions of people, or take an oath of office to uphold the Constitution on everyone’s behalf.
This is what is at stake in the seemingly esoteric political struggle over whether and how New York State can regulate the education in private Orthodox yeshivas.
As my colleague Josh Nathan-Kazis reported, the $168 billion budget for the state of New York was held up last week by one lawmaker, Simcha Felder, as he tried to insert a provision that would weaken the government’s ability to regulate education in Orthodox yeshivas.
“The new provision was custom-written for Orthodox yeshivas, and appears to only apply to them,” Nathan-Kazis wrote. “Felder, a state senator, threatened to derail the entire state budget if the provision was not included. Hasidic leaders have greeted it as a major win for their community, though its practical implications remain far from clear.”
Nathan-Kazis then quoted Aron Wieder, a Rockland County legislator and a member of the Belz Hasidic community, who said on Twitter: “The entire private school community from every religious persuasion, will forever remember [Felder] for protecting their freedoms.”
The arcane and somewhat ridiculous politics of New York State gave Felder this inordinate amount of power, but that’s not my point here. The issues at stake are far more important and far-reaching: What is the purpose of a public education? Does government have the right to expect that students educated in a private system — not just yeshivas, but any private system — master certain basics that are required of public school students? Where should the line between civic responsibility and religious freedom be drawn?
Proponents of yeshiva education (much of Felder’s political base in Brooklyn) have long argued that the rigorous training their students receive in Bible, Talmud and Jewish law provide sufficient analytical skills to make up for their short shrift in secular subjects, such as English, mathematics, history and science. And they assert that protecting this form of education is a matter of parental prerogative and religious freedom.
“Parents should have the ability to decide what sort of education their children receive,” Felder told the New York Times.
Well, not entirely. Ever since Thomas Jefferson opined that “democracy cannot long exist without enlightenment,” American education has been suffused with the notion that its purpose was to help students become good citizens to enable our government to function. Compulsory education was instituted for largely that reason.
Critics of the yeshiva system, which educates about 57,000 students in New York City and thousands more elsewhere in the state, say that it offers a subpar curriculum in secular subjects, allowing students to graduate without the most basic skills. The writer Shulem Deen, a frequent Forward contributor who fled from the Hasidic community as an adult, has detailed how 18 years of education left him with no marketable skills, only a rudimentary knowledge of English, and not a word about literature, science, geography, history or art.
His teenage sons cannot speak, read or write in English beyond a second-grade level, he says.
This glaring deficit is often placed in an economic context — an explanation for the high poverty rates in ultra-Orthodox communities, due to the inability of men (women often receive a better secular education) to be able to earn a living, fostering an unhealthy reliance on government handouts and private philanthropy.
But the citizenship context is just as essential. After all, as the education lawyer Michael Rebell told me, New York State law says that schools must not only prepare students for competitive employment. They must also prepare their graduates to vote and serve on a jury — to function productively as civic participants.
How can you vote if you aren’t taught about the mechanic and purpose of democracy? How can you make independent judgments about elected officials without a working knowledge of American government? How can you serve on a jury without a basic understanding of math and science?
It’s worth remembering that the idea of education as an incubator for citizenship was long perceived to be a conservative value, a way to enhance patriotism and love of country, a vehicle for creating among new immigrants a sense of the greater American whole. Now it’s those very conservative forces — among the ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn and some Christian evangelicals in the South — who are rebelling against the imposition of those values.
I suggest they visit the Constitution Center. I’m happy to give them a tour.