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By: Machla Abramovitz

The February 26thelections for NY City Public Advocate brought disastrous results for the yeshiva community. Jumanne Williams was elected, leaving behind Eric Ulrich, our community’s candidate of choice.

Elections for NY City Public Advocate were prompted by Letitia James’ concluding her term of office, after being elected following Eric Schneiderman’s resignation. The office of Public Advocate is not powerful in and of itself. However, the Pubic Advocate is first in line for the mayor’s position, should the mayor be unable to serve. The Public Advocate position also provides a launching pad for mayoral candidates.

Prior to the election, twelve distinguished rabbanimfrom the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities met with community leaders and activists in the Ahi Ezer Torah Center in Flatbush to compose a letter urging the yeshiva community to go out and vote for Councilman Eric Ulrich. Normally, they would not have endorsed any candidate, however the following circumstances prompted their involvement.

New Educational Guidelines for Secular Education

Over two months earlier, the NY State Education Department published its guidelines mandating the number of hours of secular education, as well as the subject matter taught in yeshivot and Bet Yaakov schools. Much of the mandated subject matter is antithetical to Torah values. Additionally, "special monitors" were appointed to inspect religious schools regularly to make sure they followed State guidelines.

These guidelines immediately impacted an estimated 115,000 children who attend Orthodox educational institutions in NY. They are the result of a three-year investigation instituted at the insistence of YAFFED (Young Advocates for Fair Education), a group of 52 former students and teachers from Chassidic schools, founded and led by Naftuli Moster. YAFFED accused the state of violating Section 3204 of the State Education Act that obligates public school districts to insure that private schools within their territory provide their students with a "substantially equivalent" secular education similar to that provided in public schools. YAFFED claimed that the Chassidic schools did not provide an adequate education to enable theirstudents to succeed in the secular world. This accusation resulted in a Department of Education probe into 38 Brooklyn yeshivot and one in Queens: 25% of the yeshivot that YAFFED targeted did not exist. Six yeshivot refused to open their doors to inspectors. On November 20th, two weeks after the Democrats won control of the State House, these guidelines were published. They caused a whirlwind of opposition. Critics say they transfer the oversight of nonpublic schools to local school districts that can result in local officials using them "as a license to intrude into the fundamental working and mission of religious schools."

Rabbanim and Community Members Meet

The rabbanimand activists were in crisis mode when the Ahi Ezer meeting took place. Although taking the matter to court was an option, there were political avenues to consider first. The unexpected opening of the position of Public Advocate provided such an opportunity. From among the 17 candidates running for the office of Public Advocate, Councilman Ulrich, whose daughter attends a Catholic school, was the only one who condemned DOE’s interference in religious schools and promised to fight to maintaining the autonomy and integrity of yeshivot and all parochial schools.

The winner, Jumanne Williams,on the other hand, was backed by the New York Times, which ran pronouncements stating, “Let’s turn New York City in to a progressive beacon for the rest of the nation. Do you have Jumaane’s back?” “Progressives” have traditionally not favored parochial education.

“Electing Ulrich as Public Advocate would have sent a powerful message as well as created an earthquake in New York politics,” says Brooklyn attorney and activist Asher E. Taub, who attended that meeting and who was a strong advocate for Councilman Ulrich.

Unfortunately, despite the endorsement by the rabbanim, not enough religious Jews came out to vote him in. Ulrich came in second. Taub noted that Williams obtained only 33% of 400,000 votes in this low-turnout election. Had the “guaranteed” Jewish votes been generated, Ulrich would have won handily.

"Williams is pro-BDS and known to be a bonified soneh Yisroel. He is now in a good position to become mayor. We pushed very hard, but we had no ground game. We didn’t have enough time from receiving the rabbinic endorsements to pushing out the votes. We only needed another 50,000 votes to get Ulrich in. Instead, we confirmed to the politicians that as a community we are powerless. We now have no one advocating for us, and the city is breathing down theyeshivot's throats, more so than initially thought," Taub commented.

The rabbis pushing for Ulrich included Rabbi Shimon Alouf, Rabbi Haim Benolial, Rabbi Elya Brudny, and Rabbi Yaakov Bender. Volunteer activists had been closely monitoring the politicalnegotiations taking place between three Torah institutions, Agudath Israel, Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools (PEARLS), and Torah Umesorah, and State Commissioner for Education MaryEllen Alia. It was a frustrating, painstaking process that resulted in few gains for Orthodox Jewish schools.

A Reason for Activism

Rabbi Yosef Churba, Rosh Yeshivahof Yeshivat Magen Abraham, was one such activist. “When I got involved in early December, the State was demanding over seven hours of secular studies daily – 1.7 hours more than required in public schools. That meant that students wouldn’t open a siddur before 4:30pm. The Department of Education was essentially looking to eliminate limudei kodesh from our schools.”

Infuriated, he immediately posted an online petition []accusing the Commissioner of this intent. Within a short period, 35,000 to 55,000 individuals signed the petition, which now boasts 71,000 signatures. The petition had an impact: At the subsequent Department of Education meeting, Commissioner Alia noted the petition and insisted that her intention was not to eliminate religious education, and that she was prepared to work with the schools to upgrade their secular studies to "substantially equivalent" to those taught in public schools. The law lies within the authority of the State Legislature. Governor Andrew Cuomo can amend the law with the stroke of a pen.

To prove her position, Commissioner Alia reduced the hours to 4.2 daily [depending on the grades] but imposed on yeshivot additional all-encompassing regulations. Essentially, the guidelines incorporate the Regents Learning Standards. Schools must apply whatever instruction is necessary for a student to achieve State standards. The State can force schools to fire teachers it deems unqualified. Additionally, inspectors oversee all educational aspects. They determine whether teachers teach critical thinking skills, and evaluate curriculum, textbooks, lesson plans, hiring policies, teacher training, supervision, student testing, and remediation. Subjects that advance progressive beliefs are mandated. These include evolution, comparative religion, and cultural relativity. Yeshivot are permitted to provide religious education, but only after achieving these standards.

YAFFED is also challenging the Felder Amendment that was passed through the State Legislature by State Senator Simcha Felder last April, claiming it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which protects freedom of religion and bars the government from favoring one religion over another. The amendment places authority for yeshivot under the jurisdiction of the state, rather than local education officials allowingcharedi schools to determine if their curricula meet the statutory requirement to offer “substantial equivalent instruction.”

Schools not in compliance will lose funding for busing, textbooks, nursing, special education, security, clean water, and other benefits. Depending on the size of the school, parents may be forced to pay additional $2,000 – $4,000 tuition per child. More significantly, if a school fails to comply, parents will be told to send their children elsewhere lest they are deemed truant; theschool will be shut down, and parents fined, and possibly sent to prison.

Private Schools at Risk,
Despite Outshining Public Schools

I asked Rabbi Churba: given progressives’ disdain of private schools, does the Commissioner consider Jewish schools an easy mark to begin chipping away at private schools in general?

“I don’t think so,” Rabbi Churba responded. “Moster contested this issue for many years. He was continually pushing his point in City Hall and Albany, proving to the mayor and governor that the state does have jurisdiction over private schools to force them to provide an equivalent education to public schools. Only now did they run with it. There is no question that Chassidic yeshivot have to step up to the plate; but whether we agree with themor not, every Orthodox Jewish school is now in the same position.”

The irony, of course, is that fewer public school students passed their regents exams this year than last, meaning that fewer students graduated high school. According to State Education Department stats showed that pass rates dropped in areas of both math and English. City Education Department spokeswoman Danielle Filson blamed the drop on more challenging tests. Regardless, yeshiva and Bet Yaakov students maintain a 90% pass rate, despitetheir added limudei kodesh workload. “When public schools keep to their guidelines, then they should bother us,” Taub says.

Action for the Future

Taub noted that it is precisely the Public Advocate’s job to point out these kinds of hypocrisies. Taub is, therefore, eyeing the next Public Advocate election, in August. “A Public Advocate is the city screamer. He highlights the inequities going on in NY. Liberals and progressives claim to be concerned about low-income people of color. Why then is the state oftheir public housing such a disgrace? Public housing is plagued by rampant mold, and lead-imbued paint. There’s no heat, no hot water, and rats. Running a Public Advocate is essential, even if he has no chance of winning, since Democrats are sure to combine forces against him. Still, if you put him on the campaign and he’s constantly hammering away at all these issues, even if he loses, he’s a winner. The question is, will he do it, and will he have the backing of 175,000 firm Orthodox votes? To ensure that happening, we must obtain the backing of every rav, rebbe, and rosh yeshiva.The goal is to teach Jews to vote, and to make them understand that the situation is critical.”

If that doesn't work, the Orthodox communities may be forced to take drastic action, which Taub is not convinced people are willing to do. “Don’t pay any state or city taxes. If everyone puts their house on the market at the same time, that would crash themarket. The city will come after us, but at least we’ll make our voices heard.”

Before pursuing civil disobedience, legal challenges must be tried. Negotiations with the State having stalled, yeshivot feel they must take the matter to court. Until now, they felt they could combine efforts with the Catholics, whose 500 schools soundly rejected the guidelines and state intrusion into their schools in a letter posted
mid-December. However, it seems that the state is targeting Orthodox Jewish schools and not the Catholics, given that the guidelines “stemmed from a 2015 survey that found some ultra-orthodox Jewish yeshivas were barely teaching their students English or other secular subjects,” according to a Times Unionarticle. Catholic schools have not yet pursued legal action against the state.

Legal Action Underway

A preliminary injunction against the state was filed March 12thby Avi Schick and Timothy A. Butler (Troutman Sanders, LLP) on behalf of Agudath Israel, Torah Umesorah, and PEARLS, five yeshivot (Chaim Berlin, Torah Vodaath, Tiferes Yerushalayim, RJJ, and Chasan Sofer), and five parents. It came on the heels of a suit challenging the legal authority of the state by 11 member schools of the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS), an association of 198 independent schools and organizations representing about 183,000 students.

The injunction challenges the guidelines' legality based on three allegations: SED exceeded its legal authority, and even if such authority existed, the Commissioner failed to abide by the rulemaking process for creating new regulations. Subsequently, the guidelines are unenforceable and violate the parent plaintiffs' constitutional rights of free exercise of religion, due process, and free speech.

The injunction also points out that the "substantially equivalent" provision has been in existence for 125 years, and there was never any claim made that it provided regulators "with any direct authority over private schools." On November 20, 2018, "with the press of a button, the new guidelines appeared on NYSED's website and established a new licensing regime that imposes mandatory state standards on private schools,” the injunction states.

Matters are moving forward quickly. On March 15th, the court heard and denied NYSAIS's request for a Temporary Restraining Order because the judge claimed, "No immediate harm would occur in the next few weeks." NYSAIS’s request, though, was put on a fast track that requires SED to respond by March 25th. Plaintiffs acting on behalf of yeshivot filed their papers shortly afterward; SED’s reply papers are due on March 28th. “We hope to have a hearing on the 29th,” Yossi Grunwald of PEARLS stated.

We Must Protect
our Religious Values

"We will do whatever it takes to protect our religious values and the yeshiva system,” says Rabbi David Niederman of PEARLS. “Over the past century, we have produced hundreds of thousands of successful alumni and law-abiding citizens. The overwhelming majority of alumni continue to show their confidence in the yeshiva system by enrolling their children. There is no reason, let alone any justification, for government intrusion into our yeshiva system and deprivation of our parental and religious rights. These guidelines must be opposed.”

Given how few Sephardim came out to vote for Public Advocate, despite the rabbanim’s endorsement, the question begs asking: how aware is the Sephardic community of the dangers facing their Torah institutions?

“Parents understand what's happening, but so far we don't have clarity as to what we, as parents, can do to stop this,” Rabbi Churba says. “We are all standing behind Agudath Israel and Torah Umesorah. However, we're waiting for direction
from our gedolim. Should parents bring lawsuits against the State? We’re all on pins and needles waiting to hear what we should do.”