By Abe Deutsch
Yeshivas throughout New York are under attack. A small group of disgruntled former students, encouraged and amplified by those with their own agendas separate from yeshiva education, has spurred state and city education officials to scrutinize the education that religious schools are delivering to their students, with an eye on imposing unprecedented new rules about what can and cannot be taught.
As a proud parent of eight children who have attended yeshivas, I have been following media accounts of the criticism of yeshiva curriculum with dismay. It is disappointing how so many of the people offering these critiques and demanding changes to our schools have so little understanding of the institutions they are attacking. Their stridency is matched only by their lack of honest curiosity.
With due respect to the many who have expressed their opinions about yeshivas, no one better understands what takes place in their classrooms than the parents and educators of the students who attend them.
The critics are arguing that they are just focused on improving secular studies at some Hasidic yeshivas. But they have opened a can of worms over parental and community choice that far transcends a handful of diverse communities in Brooklyn. I may live in Williamsburg, but Gravesend, Kensington, Boro Park, Midwood, Crown Heights and Marine Park are also impacted. The government is now studying options that would broaden its role to dictate curricula in religious schools across New York. Yeshivas from the Upper West Side to Kew Gardens to Riverdale to Staten Island, and statewide should be alarmed.
Today’s discussion may be about our five boroughs, but as sure as the sun rises in the east, tomorrow it’ll be about Nassau County’s Five Towns and schools in Westchester.
As a yeshiva parent, alumnus, and child of alumni, I am not surprised why generations of families continue to enroll their children in them. I chose a yeshiva education for my children, and I hope they will do the same for their children, because yeshivas teach students how to live a life filled with meaning, and provide a moral and ethical framework for their years beyond school. The core of that teaching is the Torah and the Talmud. It is an education that has allowed my family to thrive in the modern world while maintaining religious practices and beliefs that that have sustained the Jewish people for thousands of years, often through extreme hardship.
For decades, yeshivas have rooted my community in the values and traditions that define us as Hasidic Jews and keep us connected to one another. Yeshivas are our most treasured stewards of a heritage that values the lifelong pursuit of knowledge, honors the importance of community and kindness to others and nurtures an intellectual curiosity and a commitment to lifelong learning. My parents believed it was essential that my siblings and I received a yeshiva education, and I am grateful for their choice.
Those critical of Hasidic yeshivas argue that the education they provide does not adequately prepare boys and girls to be productive citizens. The reality is that these children are in school and learning for ten or more hours a day, several hours longer than their public-school peers. While the curriculum mix is different from what public schools offer, the focus on critical thinking and problem solving prepares them for success in a wide variety of pursuits – and to be thriving, upstanding citizens of their communities. Just because it’s different, doesn’t mean it’s not valid. New York’s embrace of increasing diversity includes the communities that choose yeshiva education.
These critics tend to ignore the many successes of former yeshiva students. I’m a proud graduate of United Talmudic Academy in Williamsburg. I owe much of my own professional success to my education, which instilled in me the drive to overcome challenges with hard work and discipline. The instruction I received from my Talmudic studies contained countless lessons related to conducting business, and equipped me with the knowledge to rise up through the ranks of a real estate management company and eventually start my own plumbing business.
I am not alone in my experience. In addition to those yeshiva graduates who follow religious callings, many of my classmates went on to become successful professionals and businessmen. My grown children’s experience has been similar, as they have pursued careers as business managers and bookkeepers.
Like all schools in New York City, yeshivas are always seeking ways to improve. Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools (PEARLS), a coalition of parents, educators, and religious leaders which includes all of the city’s major Hasidic sects, has brought together diverse constituencies to pool resources and expertise to upgrade secular studies programs for Hasidic schoolchildren.
As a yeshiva parent and graduate, I welcome these improvements. But the city and the Department of Education must acknowledge the unique role yeshivas play in our community. No institution is perfect. But those who criticize our yeshivas must first understand them – and why parents like me cherish them – before they talk about how to change them.
Abe Deutsch lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.