cover feature of Mishpacha Magazine by Eytan Kobre
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The meeting’s timing and venue — 11 p.m. at the home of a leading Brooklyn rav and rosh yeshivah — were highly unusual. But, then again, the issue that brought Agudath Israel head Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel and attorney and communal askan Avi Schick for a late-night consultation at the home of Rav Yisroel Reisman, rosh yeshivah of Torah Vodaath and rav of Agudath Israel of Madison, was itself unprecedented.
There was a single item on the agenda: finding a way forward amid what the participants called an “existential crisis” for New York State yeshivos, a state of emergency requiring the immediate attention and proactive involvement of the world’s largest frum community outside of Eretz Yisrael. With the New York State education department’s (SED) issuance in mid-November of guidelines imposing impossible-to-fulfill obligations for secular studies in nonpublic schools, the state’s 400-plus religious Jewish elementary and high schools have been left staring into the abyss.
For the past three years, 30 mosdos in Brooklyn have been dealing with a complaint filed with the NYC Department of Education by a group called YAFFED, which seeks to undermine the autonomy of the yeshivos and alter their emphasis on limudei kodesh. But the new SED guidelines are a problem of another dimension. Applying to all yeshivos across the state, they radically redefine what the law requires of yeshivos and reverse the presumption of compliance that has existed since 1897, when the law requiring nonpublic schools to provide an education that is “substantially equivalent” to that of public schools was first enacted.
A very real danger suddenly looms: Noncompliance with the new guidelines could result in the yeshivos losing millions of dollars of critical state funding for busing, textbooks, lunches, and security —with parents already saddled with heavy tuition burdens having to foot the bill. And an even more ominous threat hangs in the air, too: the shuttering of schools across the Orthodox spectrum, with students who fail to transfer out to other schools being declared truants.
Rising to address a challenge the likes of which the yeshivos have never seen, Rav Reisman and Mirrer Rosh Yeshivah Rav Elya Brudny have been at the forefront of alerting the community to the gravity of the threat. Each of them has addressed the frum community via video, explaining what’s at stake in these guidelines, and have taken their case to the world at large in a jointly authored opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.
Why have these leaders gone so uncharacteristically public on this issue instead of pursuing the time-honored path of quiet diplomacy? For one thing, that path has thus far proven to be a dead-end.
And according to Rav Reisman, time is of essence — the danger is immediate. “SED is likely to move quickly to select one or more yeshivos to make examples of,” he explains. “In a matter of weeks, they’ll begin their inspections and will try to shut down schools to show they mean business. The schools can always sue to stop them, but who has the financial resources for protracted litigation? Unless we raise an outcry now, those schools can be irreparably harmed.”
Rabbi Reisman invited Mishpacha to attend the meeting in his home in order to give readers the important story-behind-the-story of the attempts made to advocate the yeshivos’ cause to New York Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 740)