For New York City schoolchildren, there is such a thing as a free lunch in this town, unless you’re a yeshiva student. It’s a shame we’re back at this conversation, treating some of our city’s kids as if they’re a problem to be solved.
As our city and state grapple with the seemingly intractable problem of school segregation, and fight—still!—over equitable funding of school districts, Mayor de Blasio announced that all NYC schoolchildren are eligible, regardless of income, for free lunch. But not for yeshivas.
With the laudable and appropriate goal of removing the stigma of needing meal assistance, City Hall has also cynically relegated Jewish students to second-class citizenship. This is typical of an administration that announces broad policies sometimes motivated by good intentions, but usually lacking in vital details and being overly political and just three-quarters complete.
This exclusion is based on faulty assumptions that, at this point in our shared civic life, shouldn’t need repeating. Yet here we go again: Yeshiva education is not a luxury and not a choice. It’s a foundational mandate. Government shouldn’t make it more difficult for tuition-paying families when making it easier would make so much of a positive difference, while already doing so for other students.
I’ve coordinated large-scale policy rollouts, so I know that there are times when everyone involved gets in a room to talk about what’s happening. At some point, someone asks a question like, “Who is being left out of this, why is that and what’s the story with that?” Policy specialists, political minds, administrators and decision makers hash it out. It looks like what you’d expect. Or at least it should.
So what happened here? It’s difficult to discuss this when talking about something as positive as free lunch for students, but it has to be said.
It’s an election year, and the incumbent mayor—appropriately—wanted to do something big, but with politically motivated caveats. Free lunch for most—who happen to be my base vote, but not all—who may not be with me in November. And for those not included but want to be, can we talk about the upcoming election? Sure, excluding yeshivas can be explained away by the cost of kosher food, but big, effective programs are supposed to be expensive. Was there ever going to be a cheap citywide meals program? Wouldn’t it have been easier to get this right from the start?
Or perhaps this was less involved and less thought out than it should have been, aside from the yeshiva exclusion. Maybe City Hall saw this as an easy “gimme”—add some more meals to already-existing orders for schools, and don’t collect any money from the kids or families. The city was having a hard time collecting the money anyway, so it’d be a quick policy win in an election year. But did anyone speak up, and I’m thinking of one senior aide in City Hall in particular, to say, “There will be enormous blowback from yeshivas; we should include them too”? Or was it assumed that would be tackled afterwards, when the political message was clearly delivered?
Or did the mayor want to avoid doing for yeshivas while a cloud still lingers concerning two very clumsy donors who happen to be Orthodox? Do ongoing examinations of secular-studies programs at some yeshivas somehow preclude including all yeshivas in a new lunch program for over 1,800 public schools? By that logic, any union or lobbyist or advocacy group or developer who was ever embroiled in controversy would be barred from policy deliberations forever. Try not to laugh too loudly at that suggestion.
City Hall has already made its opinion known on the issue of equitable city services for yeshivas: Remember its initial opposition to providing school safety officers? For an administration that prioritizes fairness and values communities that speak with an organized voice, this most recent exclusion feels very willful and very deliberate.
You only get one chance to make a first impression, and that opportunity has been lost with this program. But apologies are always accepted, and there’s always a second chance to do the right thing.