Brooklyn, NY – An investigative series by DNAinfo.com New York (http://bit.ly/YkVJJ7) has revealed that many Hasidic yeshivas are offering little or no instruction in secular subjects such as English, math and science, even though the schools are legally required to do so.
A number of former yeshiva students confirmed the report’s findings. Shmueli Lowenstein, 25, attended Oholei Torah in Crown Heights as a child, but says he was not taught phonics or mathematics. “I did not grow up learning English or any kind of secular studies at all,” Lowenstein said. “Everything was done in Yiddish until seventh or eighth grade, and then they would switch to Hebrew. I don’t think I ever received a paper with English writing on it, except for maybe a permission slip for a school trip.”
Under state and federal law, both public and private schools in New York are mandated to provide “equivalency of instruction” in fundamental subjects like American history and mathematics. Yet, not only do many Brooklyn yeshivas fail to fulfill this basic requirement, they, in fact, offer only one or two hours a day of secular instruction, if at all.
According to Zalman Alpert, a librarian at Yeshiva University and an expert on the Orthodox community, “There are a number of schools which have absolutely no pretenses of it – kids from 3-years-old to 18 have no secular education at all.” Essentially, Alpert said, the Haredi school system is the “largest unregulated school system in America.”
More children attend Jewish parochial schools in Brooklyn than attend Catholic schools in both Brooklyn and Queens. An estimated 1.1 million Jews reside in Brooklyn, and because of the large number of Orthodox Jewish families in Brooklyn, enrollment at Brooklyn yeshivas has increased by more than 12,000 students in the last four years, according to state records.
In an interview with DNAinfo.com, Rabbi Sholom Skaist of Williamsburg’s United Talmudical Academy (UTA) admitted his school does not dedicate much time to secular subjects. “We teach math, English, some social studies and some science,” Skaist said. “They do not have secular studies in all the grades, only from fourth to eighth grade.”
Heshy Gelbstein, 18, a former student at UTA, said, “I can’t read. I don’t know anything about the outside world – I have to struggle every time I have to read a menu for a restaurant. I have a good spelling, but not a good grammar. I lose the words. When I start talking English in front of someone who knows a good English, it’s like I’m speaking Spanish to someone who knows only English.”
Because of the high poverty rate among many Jewish families in Brooklyn, most Brooklyn yeshivas are receiving financial allocations for their students from the federal, state and city governments. These include free lunch programs, educational resources, and federal Title I and Title III monies earmarked for poor students and English instruction for students whose primary language is not English.
Federal officials from the United States Department of Education’s Student Achievement and School Accountability Program have repeatedly demanded that the city and state provide better oversight of how the private schools are spending their federal funding. Ultimately, the New York City Department of Education is responsible for ensuring that federal monies are spent appropriately, and that the private schools are adhering to the “minimum standard of instruction” as required by law.
A spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education declined to comment on the lack of compliance on the part of yeshivas, but did say, “We were notified of a situation last year regarding requirements. As a result, we engaged in the process outlined by New York State.”
But one Williamsburg resident said she finds it impossible to believe that education officials are clueless about yeshivas skirting the law. “What’s going on is illegal, it’s totally illegal,” said Libby Pollack. “Unless somebody just arrived to Ellis Island, there’s no such thing that they grew up here and they don’t speak the language of the land. It’s a disgrace, and it’s the norm in Hasidic Brooklyn.”