New York – There was no science, no geography and no math past multiplication at the ultra-Orthodox Jewish school Chaim Weber attended. And the only reason he ever heard of the American Revolution was when a seventh-grade teacher introduced it as “story time.”
Naftuli Moster said he never learned the words “cell” or “molecule” at the ultra-Orthodox schools he attended, where secular subjects were considered “unimportant or downright going against Judaism.”
Now young adults, the two yeshiva graduates echo complaints critics have made for years about the rudimentary level of secular education at private schools serving New York’s Hasidic communities. Now, for the first time, the city Department of Education is investigating more than three dozen of the schools to make sure their instruction is up to the most basic standards.
But even the advocates who called for the investigation question whether the city will be able to pierce the close-knit, insular Orthodox community to force meaningful change.
“These schools have been operating for a very long time,” said Weber, one of 52 former students, parents or former teachers who signed a letter requesting the investigation into 39 yeshivas. “They have kind of perfected their method for pulling the wool over the eyes of authorities.”
The investigation itself is shrouded in secrecy. The names of the specific yeshivas that are being targeted have not been released because of fears of retaliation. And aside from Weber and Moster, who agreed to speak out, the names of those who called for the probe have also not been publicly released.
“I’m worried for my kids. They could be kicked out if I named the school,” said Weber, who said his 10-year-old son has learned simple addition but not subtraction.
What is known is that 38 of the 39 yeshivas are in Brooklyn, the center of the city’s Hasidic community.
State law mandates that the instruction in private schools must be at least substantially equivalent to what can be found in the area’s public schools, and the local district, in this case New York City, is given the oversight power.
Calls to several Brooklyn yeshivas and messages to community representatives were not returned. Members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community closely adhere to tradition and tend to limit contact with outsiders.
The push for secular education at the yeshivas has been spearheaded by an organization called Young Advocates for a Fair Education. Moster, its executive director, grew up in a Hasidic family with 17 kids and became an advocate for education after he enrolled at the College of Staten Island and saw how far behind he was.
“If we were to compare these schools to some of the worst performing schools in America these would be worse,” Moster said. “We’re talking about a school that simply doesn’t teach the basics.”
Yiddish is the first language in many of New York City’s ultra-Orthodox homes and the language of instruction in their yeshivas.
Boys at the yeshivas receive just six hours a week of instruction in English, math and other secular subjects up to age 13, according to the letter to city and New York state officials requesting an investigation. Secular education stops at age 13 as boys devote themselves full time to Jewish religious texts. Girls get more secular schooling because they don’t study the Talmud.
City Department of Education spokesman Harry Hartfield said last week that the department was finalizing requests that would be sent to the yeshivas for lesson plans and other materials.
He said that if a district superintendent determines that a yeshiva is not providing substantially equivalent instruction, the superintendent will work with the school to develop a plan to fix deficiencies.
Moster said that approach won’t uncover the truth. “These yeshivas are very good at producing whatever kind of proof you need,” he said.
Advocates also fear that the city will be slow to act because some elected officials rely on ultra-Orthodox voting blocs.
“They have political clout,” Weber said. “I’m not very optimistic that this will change a lot but you’ve got to try.”
The attorney for Moster’s group, former New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Norman Siegel, said he will file a lawsuit if the investigation does not yield meaningful results.
For ultra-Orthodox families, the cultural pressure to send their children to yeshivas, where tuition costs upward of $4,000 to $5,000 a year, is intense.
“A public school would be so unthinkable,” Moster said. “It doesn’t even cross anybody’s mind.”
But critics of the yeshiva system say the shoddy education dooms tens of thousands of New Yorkers to poverty.
A 2011 study by the UJA-Federation of New York found that 45 percent of Hasidic households in the New York metro region were in poverty. Among households of six or more people the figure was 64 percent.
The report said most of the households have at least one person working but “they are seriously constrained by low levels of secular education.”
Weber said he overcame his yeshiva education by hiring private tutors. He eventually went on to college and now works for a real estate firm.
“Eventually I did catch up,” he said. “But it was very hard.”