By Ezra Friedlander
Recently, we’ve been hearing much in the news about a group that calls itself Yaffed (Young Advocates For Fair Education). They sent a letter to New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina and seven district superintendents, calling upon them to investigate “the quality of secular education, and in particular English instruction, at (the listed) Yeshivas, and to take steps to ensure that pupils at these Yeshivas receive the essential and substantially equivalent education to which they are entitled.”
This group, led by Naftuli Moster, is causing a tremendous amount of controversy in our community, and I’d like to share my own thoughts here.
On the face of it, their proposal seems fair. What could be more beneficial to our community than enhancing the quality of its education, even secular education? In fact, my wife and I, who are parents of two young boys in the Yeshiva system, were recently also discussing this very same issue.
So what could be wrong with Yaffed’s proposal? Plenty!
In our community, mesorah (loosely translated as tradition, values, and fundamental beliefs) is the core of our educational system, a concept that has defined the Jewish people from time immemorial and has been the source of our continued survival. So when a person like Mr. Moster and his organization comes along, calling on the New York State Department of Education to investigate our Yeshivas, my only response is: “How dare you? What right do you have to interfere with such sensitive and sacred matters?”
Do Moster’s claims have any validity at all? That is irrelevant. His actions speak louder than his words. By what he has done, he has completely disqualified himself from the conversation. He is like a prosecutor who is representing his case to the jury but has gathered evidence illegally. Any judge would throw his case out of court without a moment’s delay.
I highly doubt that this organization truly cares about our youth. Or about the quality of our Yeshiva system. Because if they did desire to communicate effective change, they would not have gone about it by retaining the former Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union Norman Siegel (a man who I do respect on many levels) to represent their case. It seems to me that, the sole purpose of this whole campaign is to besmirch our community’s reputation and to undermine our system at its core. And for that I unequivocally condemn their efforts.
It pains me greatly that it takes this person and this organization to raise points about our system that do indeed need to be addressed. They are hardly the proper messengers to deliver this message. In order to bring about productive change, the demand must come from the parents themselves and not from outside forces whose very mission is to attack our system with a viciousness and mean-spiritedness that will put our Yeshivas at risk.
Frankly, I personally feel that, by and large, our Yeshivas do adequately meet the State’s educational criteria. And most of us are very much aware of the serious failings within the New York public school system, so I would advise the DOE to focus on their own schools. Be that as it may, my goal here is not to criticize that system. I’d rather focus on our own Yeshivas.
When discussing this same issue, my wife and I came to the conclusion that it would be disingenuous for us to demand that our Yeshivas take on additional expenses at this time. They are sadly underfunded and struggling to survive. Especially in the Chassidic world, where a minimum of four to six children in a family can be attending Yeshiva at any given time, tuition barely covers the necessities. So how can we possibly demand that they do more?
Is there room for improvement? Certainly. But the only way to improve the system is through the united efforts of the parent body. It is our responsibility to ensure that our children are properly educated to prepare for their future, including giving them the tools to succeed in life. The Torah demands that parents educate their children and the Yeshivas are essentially our shlichim in this endeavor. But the onus is essentially upon us. Parents should work together with the Yeshivos to create a curriculum that would allow their children to be properly trained to enter the workforce. That is, after all, the stated objective of this campaign for change.
It’s important to me that my children are prepared to earn a livelihood and I take that responsibility very seriously. If Mssrs Moster and Siegel would really care about this, I call on them to redirect their talents and energies to find creative ways to request that government funding be increased so that Yeshivas can enhance their curriculum. Doing so would at least give them a seat at the table to participate in this conversation. It would show that they truly care about our children.
The Jewish people have only survived through the millennia because of the wholesome purity of our chinuch system. And that is uncompromising. Back in 1892, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, (the Netziv) actually shut down the famed Yeshiva in Volozhin because Russian authorities, prodded by members of the Haskalah movement, sought to introduce secular studies to the Yeshiva. He closed down the Yeshiva rather than submit to their demands.
I’m certainly not comparing the DOE to the communist regime. I’m simply trying to demonstrate how sacred our Yeshivas are to our community and how outside interference can only be counterproductive. Moster certainly knows this. And calling on the DOE to investigate our Yeshivas tells me in no uncertain terms that his agenda is not to improve our Yeshivas, but to disrupt and destroy them.
Sadly, his claim, as legitimate as it might be, has lost all credibility. It reminds me of the halacha which states that a Sefer Torah written by an apikores (non believer) is not kosher and cannot ever be used. I’m not accusing him or anyone else of being an apikores, just that their actions have invalidated their initial intent.
It pains me to write this article because I truly believe that positive change can be accomplished when there’s unity and people work together for a common cause. But when it comes to our sacred mesorah and the education of our precious children, there is no compromise. We must ensure that they are brought up al taharas hakodesh.
Don’t blame the messenger? In this case, I do.
Ezra Friedlander is the CEO of The Friedlander Group, a NYC and Washington DC based public policy consulting group. Follow him at @ezrafriedlander on Twitter. For more information, contact [email protected] or visit www.thefriedlandergroup.com.