Commentary: State policy threatens the enduring tradition of Jewish education

Published by Elya Brudny, Yaakov Bender and Yisroel Reisman in The Times Union on May 30, 2022.

Midnight on Tuesday marks the deadline to submit comments about the State Education Department’s proposed regulation of private schools. Already more than 160,000 members of the public have written to express their opposition to these regulations. Let us explain why.

For 2,000 years, Orthodox Jews have prayed daily that “we and our children, and our children’s children, and all Jewish children be sincere students of the Torah.” If these regulations are adopted, it will be that much more difficult for our prayers to be realized.

The state has twice previously over the past four years proposed new rules for yeshivas and other private schools. Undeterred by the rejection of those efforts, the state recently released a new set of proposed regulations.

These regulations require local school boards to inspect and approve – or disapprove – yeshivas and other private schools. They require instruction in nine subjects in addition to English, math, science and social studies. And they ascribe zero value – educational or otherwise – to the Jewish studies curriculum that is the core of Jewish education.

Almost all Orthodox school-age children attend a Jewish school. This is not a recent development. Organized elementary school learning, beginning at the age of six, was regarded as compulsory in Jewish communities thousands of years ago. 

The Jewish school day typically begins with Jewish studies classes, which generally run into early afternoon. English, math, science and social studies are customarily taught four afternoons a week.

The morning curriculum includes the study of Biblical and other Judaic texts, which deal with a wide array of subjects and require rigorous analysis and critical thinking. These Jewish studies classes have been described as “the application of the scientific method to the study of texts.” They also include ethical and philosophical works, which provide students with foundational lessons in character development and a moral framework for life.

The state justifies its regulations under the guise of ensuring “substantial equivalence” between the yeshivas and the local public schools.

Yeshiva students already have a heavy workload and a longer school day than their public school peers. These regulations would require yeshivas to shift hours and resources away from those classes and towards courses that parents do not want and that educators do not suggest are core requirements.

Martin Luther King said that “the function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” That is an apt description of the objectives and outcomes of yeshiva education.

Ours is an extraordinary success story. In addition to and in conjunction with the development of Torah scholars, the yeshiva system produces large numbers of highly successful professionals in every field, not to mention entrepreneurs and businesspeople who employ thousands of New Yorkers. Most importantly, yeshiva graduates become lifelong learners, engaging in daily study long after they leave school.

The regulations and those who drafted them are not impressed by such things, because the sole focus is to measure curricular inputs while ignoring educational outcomes.

Fifty years ago this month, the Supreme Court in Wisconsin v. Yoder upheld the rights of Amish parents to retain for their children a “mode of life [that] has come into conflict increasingly with the requirements of contemporary society exerting a hydraulic insistence on conformity to majoritarian standards.” The Court recognized the “fundamental interest of parents, as contrasted with that of the State, to guide the religious future and education of their children.”

Twice daily in our prayers, we recite the Biblical commandment to teach our children: “Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul has yet to comment on the state’s proposal. We hope she does, and soon, because if adopted the regulations will undermine the fundamental tenets of both our faith and our liberty.

Rabbis Elya Brudny, Yaakov Bender and Yisroel Reisman are rabbis and deans of Yeshivas Mir, Darchei Torah and Torah Vodaas in New York City.