Next on religious-liberty beat: Orthodox Jews organize against their former high schools

An important intra-Jewish dispute in the New York City area has been featured in parochial papers like The Forward and The Jewish Week, as well as in mainstream local news outlets, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the PBS-TV “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” broadcast.

What happens next? Follow-up coverage should examine a significant religious liberty angle that’s  been downplayed or omitted in media accounts.

Three years ago, graduates of yeshivas operated by the strict Haredim or so-called “ultra-Orthodox” Jews, including Hasidic groups, founded Young Advocates For Fair Education ( Their legal advisor is Norman Siegel, former executive director of the New York City Liberties Union. These Jews complain that their limited high school educations left them ill-equipped to support themselves as adults, and demand that the city and state education departments enforce laws on minimum school standards.

Last year YAFFED organized 52 parents, former students and former teachers to send officials the names of 39 New York City yeshivas where, they contended, boys receive inadequate general education. The officials promised an investigation but no progress has been reported. The campaign gained traction this year with two crackdown bills introduced in the state legislature in January and then in May.

Though state law mandates basic course requirements for religious as well as public schools, Haredi leaders strongly resist change, seeking to perpetuate their traditions and protect youths from secular influences. News accounts indicate politicians go along.

YAFFED Executive Director Naftuli Moster and Johns Hopkins University Professor Seth Kaplan co-wrote an op-ed in the Forward titled “Why Do Jewish Leaders Keep Ignoring Ultra-Orthodox Education Crisis?” They pleaded with non-Orthodox communal organizations like the UJA-Federation of New York to take up the cause.

Kaplan and Moster reported that these schools routinely teach only 90 minutes of English and math four days a week in younger grades, and after age 13, the boys get “no secular education at all” as they enter intensive Talmud  and Hebrew studies. Yet most boys won’t become rabbis or Jewish educators and  lack training for either practical vocations or college admissions. The piece said students often cannot speak proper English (Yiddish still predominates in community homes), and cannot “pass state exams, which they don’t usually take.”  

The writers warned that weak Haredi schooling and high birth rates mean that eventually “maybe even a third or more” of Jews “will be unable to earn a decent living, unable to contribute financially or practically to Jewish institutions, and unable to partake in American life as ordinary citizens.” The piece notes:

Hasidic leaders have long resisted any change to this regime, because they fear greater exposure to the world. Yet, Jewish teaching is clear on the need for every adult to work. As the medieval sage Maimonides warns: “All Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin. Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.” The marked growth of a Haredi community in which students lack basic work skills will mean that within about two generations, a significant portion of the Jewish population -- maybe even a third or more -- will be unable to earn a decent living, unable to contribute financially or practically to Jewish institutions, and unable to partake in American life as ordinary citizens. The poverty rate will be higher than anytime since the middle of the 20th century; studies commissioned by the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and the UJA-Federation of New York already show a rising proportion dating back to at least the 1970s.

Already, “a remarkable three-fifths of Hasidic households in the New York City area are poor or near poor.”

If YAFFED’s effort rouses officialdom to action, this could create a major church-state conflict (or in this case yeshiva-state) under the Constitution. News coverage has not highlighted the U.S. Supreme Court’s  closely parallel religious liberty case in 1972, Wisconsin v. Yoder. Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote for the six-member majority while liberal Justice William O. Douglas dissented “in part.” (Two justices did not participate.)

The Old Order Amish defendants in that case clearly violated Wisconsin’s compulsory high school attendance law by withdrawing their children after the eighth grade. Also beyond dispute was that they did this due to their belief that youths must prepare for careers on insular family farms and shun outside competitiveness and worldliness. Testimony portrayed what the court called “a very real threat” that could undermine the survival of “a successful and self-sufficient segment of American society.”

Thus the Supreme Court gave priority to devout parents’ religious freedom claims over against the state’s education requirement. Douglas, however, objected that a child’s viewpoint should have been considered, since “truncated” schooling limits options so “his entire life may be stunted and deformed.”

Does such reasoning about farming sects apply to similarly close-knit andtradition-bound Haredim living in cities who need 21st Century jobs?  

Have the yeshiva authorities considered use of the Yoder ruling in future challenges? What do legal analysts think? 

Keep watch, reporters, there is a story here.

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