Rav Elya Brudny Warns of ‘Un-American’ Regulation of Yeshivos in NY

With less than two weeks for the Torah community to make its voice officially heard on the regulations that New York state has proposed for yeshivos and other private and religious schools, a prominent rosh yeshiva is warning of dire consequences for yeshivos and parents if the regulations are adopted.

Rav Elya Brudny shlita, a rosh yeshiva at Flatbush’s Mirrer Yeshiva, framed the issue in an interview with the Yated as another chapter in a saga of a long line of governments throughout the galus that tried to interfere in chinuch but will ultimately fail.

Rav Brudny has increasingly been seen as one of the leading voices among gedolim in America. He has been at the forefront of the community’s battle on this issue, together with Rav Yisroel Reisman, the rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaath.

Sept. 2 is the deadline to comment on the proposed regulations. They were first published on July 3, which means that the state chose the summer months, when schools are closed and parents are distracted, for public comment on regulations that would radically transform yeshivos.

The regulations mandate four-and-a-half hours a day of secular studies instruction in the upper elementary school grades, require that twelve specific classes be taught at all elementary school students, and it would open the door for government to dictate the “values” that yeshivos must teach. They also give the government a say in the hiring and staffing decisions made by yeshivos.

Comments in opposition to these proposed regulations can be sent to the State Education Department at www.pearlsny.org or www.torahumesorah.org, or by calling or texting 917-920-2444.

It is interesting that the rosh yeshiva would get involved in political matters such as this.

Chas v’sholom. This is not political. There’s a law that has been on the books for more than a hundred years that instruction at private schools has to be substantially equivalent to the public schools. This law has never been a problem before, because most yeshivos provide a proper education. The state knows that we are producing healthy kids who are honest and hardworking; kids who graduate and who go on to earn an honest living.

We just want to be mechanech our children the way our parents and grandparents were mechanech, and for thousands of years before that.

What happened a few years ago is that the state decided to impose specific requirements for what constitutes “substantially equivalent.” This came after a formerly frum individual filed a complaint against roughly thirty chassidishe yeshivos with the New York City Department of Education.

The state’s education commissioner released new guidelines for substantial equivalency in November, but the problem started before then. The commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, refused to engage in real dialogue with leaders of the yeshiva community, or other private schools. Instead of working with those most impacted by the new rules, she ignored them.

The result was that she imposed guidelines that amounted to a gezeira against our community. The guidelines specified the required number of hours yeshivos are expected to teach secular studies. They also required classes that our mosdos do not teach and that the vast majority of our children are protected from.

To give a concrete example of the lack of any true dialogue, when Rav Yisroel Reisman and I went to meet with Commissioner Elia, during a visit arranged by Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel of the Agudah, she was polite, she gave us our chance to say our thing, and she promised more conversations. But a week later, she very abruptly issued the guidelines, without taking into account anything that we had said.

The miracle was that the guidelines were so outrageous that everybody — the Catholic schools, the independent schools and, l’havdil, the yeshivos — took her to court. The judge threw out the guidelines right before Pesach. The decision was based on the grounds that the education commissioner and the state education department did not have the authority to unilaterally impose these new guidelines.

After the court threw out the guidelines, the commissioner again had the opportunity to work with us, and again she declined. Rabbi Zwiebel reached out to her in the most gracious and professional manner seeking dialogue, but again the commissioner did not engage with us.

Instead, she repackaged the guidelines that had been rejected by the court into proposed regulations that she is asking the Board of Regents to adopt.

Before the Board of Regents can consider the regulations, the public has the opportunity to submit comments about the regulations. The regulations were officially published on July 3, and the public comment period ends on Sept. 2. That was another sign of disrespect from the state education department — when the community is away on vacation and all the schools are closed, those are the weeks they gave us to study their proposal and to submit comments.

The shtadlanim have been working very hard to organize the community to submit comments. They have also been meeting with those who have input into this process going forward, to make sure that this time the state education department listens to us.

We need rachamim, because if chas v’sholom the intransigence that the commissioner displayed will continue at the Board of Regents, it will be something that no frum Yid can live with. This will put us in a terrible position, as we will be painted as a people who live outside the law. That is a direction that we don’t want to go. We want to live within the law. All we ask is that we be permitted to observe our religion in peace.

So the hard work continues. There’s shtadlanus going on at many different levels. There’s an organization, PEARLS, which is a coalition of both the chassidishe mosdos and the litvishe mosdos. Both the Agudah and Torah Umesorah are working very, very hard. There are regular joint meetings of these three organizations. The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of the Agudah and the Vaad Roshei Yeshiva of Torah Umesorah have met. Rav Reisman and I have met with the chassidishe leadership, including both Satmar rebbes.

We continue to work to be unified. But the community has to realize that this is a very big sakana, and everybody should do their part to try and prevent it.

Rav Reisman said that when he and the rosh yeshiva met with Commissioner Elia, he was surprised by her ignorance about the community. She thought we were one monolith.

Right. We told her that our yeshivos give Regents exams. She didn’t know that. Can you believe that? She was a week away from imposing her onerous new guidelines on the yeshiva community, and she had no idea who we were or how we operated. She just had no idea that Torah Vodaath, Chaim Berlin, Mirrer Yeshiva, Torah Temima, the Cheder — all these mosdos give Regents exams. She didn’t know that.

What does this say about her? She’s the leader of education in the state and she’s imposing these regulations on an entire community without knowing the basics about them.

Commissioner Elia has already resigned, less than two weeks after the proposed regulations were published. But you are right. It certainly shows disdain for the chareidi world, to try to transform our schools before you even take the time to understand them. But that is unfortunately the culture we are living in. Even though America is a country that embraces everyone, we are living in a culture that is not optimal for chareidi Jews.

There’s a lot of misinformation out there, including some who think that the state just wants our community to have a better secular education.

That may be the state’s official line, but the rules they are trying to impose and the way they are going about it says otherwise. What they are really doing is trying to standardize us, so that our schools mimic the public schools. They want us to teach the same subjects, to utilize the same curriculum, and to have a say over our teachers.

But I really believe that they can’t tell us how to educate our children. They can have an interest in ensuring that our students graduate with the basic knowledge and skills in core areas — such as reading, writing, and arithmetic — things that we need in order to function in society.

The askanim and the different organizations are working to present a plan that works for all. We can come up with something that a reasonable government will accept. But we need someone in Albany to be a willing partner.

When it came to the guidelines, we only went to court as a last resort. Nobody wanted to go to court, it’s just that the commissioner left us with no other choice. Rabbi Reisman and I wrote several follow up letters to her after our meeting. Rav Yankel Bender signed those letters to the commissioner as well.

Now that the commissioner has resigned, we are hopeful that the Board of Regents will acknowledge that they must first understand our yeshivos, with our dual curriculum and great successes, before they try to require us to alter the emphasis of our chinuch.

There is a public campaign underway to encourage the yeshiva community to submit comments in opposition to these regulations. What is the goal of these letters?

State law requires public input before any regulations can be considered. And then there has to be a response to the comments. This is all part of the process. It is important to submit comments, and they are effective. We know firsthand that the state is stunned by the unprecedented volume of comments that have already been submitted. They expected less than 5,000 responses. They have already received more than 65,000

Yaffed has been telling lawmakers that they’re the “silent majority.”

And now we’re demonstrating how transparently false that is.

In the rosh yeshiva’s opinion, what would be the repercussions for the community if we do not make our voices heard in opposition to these regulations?

If regulations were enacted that gave the state even half of what they are seeking now, it would be a bechiya l’doros, an everlasting tragedy. It would be a gezeira that if we had the previous gedolim — this is what yeshivos were closed over. If the state would get its way, it would be a churban.

But they can’t get their way because we’re not going to go along. We will not permit the chinuch of our children to be controlled by the government. That’s been our tradition for thousands of years. The Yevanim tried already.

What does the rosh yeshiva say about people who, because of their mesorah, don’t have any secular studies or have very little of it?

Klal Yisroel is going to remain united on this issue. Like in any matter, we might not all do things exactly the same way — the chassidishe yeshivos might have a mesorah of less limudei chol and the litvishe yeshivos might have a mesorah of more limudei chol. But we’re unified in that we’re not going to allow a distortion of our chinuch or the government to take control of it. That concept that Torah is the ikar sheb’ikarim and everything else is secondary is uniform, and we will not deviate from it.

Rav Reisman and I have met with both Satmar rebbes, and they talked to us about the Divrei Yoel’s approach to his mosdos, which came from the Chasam Sofer and provided for two hours a day of instruction on the fundamental, core subjects. PEARLS has worked to provide curricular materials that are totally appropriate and do not introduce anything that is objectionable into a classroom and that gets the job done educationally.

There’s a misconception going around that the Catholics have a lot of power and they won’t allow this to go through.

That is certainly a misconception. We are working with the Catholics, as well as other impacted private schools. But the enrollment in Catholic schools has been shrinking while the yeshiva enrollment is boruch Hashem growing. For us, these regulations would undermine the essential mission of our chinuch. For the Catholics, these regulations do not present an existential issue.

The Catholics do not have a dual curriculum like we do, with separate faculties and even administration. Ours are the only schools in America who insist on not learning secular studies in the morning. All of us, not just the chassidishe yeshivos.

Is there political solution that is possible?

Of course, we are leaving no stone unturned is our search for a solution. But we have to remember that New York is an extremely progressive state. The leadership today is very progressive, very liberal. We haven’t always built the necessary bridges, because we’re so far from them in hashkofah — whether it’s promiscuity, gender issues, right to life issues, end of life issues. Yet, we have to invest more in our relationships with this leadership, and do shtadlanus with them.

It also probably does not help that our people are unabashed supporters of President Trump. That doesn’t work favorably for us in local politics. About 95 percent of us live in progressive blue states where President Trump is a pariah. So while we must daven for shlomah shel malchus, and while we have tremendous hakaras hatov for what the president does for individuals or what he does for the yishuv in Eretz Yisroel, we have to understand the reality that all politics is local.

There was an election recently in Flatbush between two minority candidates, and one of them accused her opponent of being backed by Trump followers, meaning us. Boruch Hashem she lost, but this was the language in the race.

Whenever a gezeira confronted klal Yisroel we always turned inward for lessons. Is there a ruchnius’dige lesson we should draw from this?

One hundred percent. Whenever these kinds of things happen we have to make a cheshbon hanefesh. Any cheshbon hanefesh, the Gemara says, must look at bittul Torah. Over here, where the actual gezeira is to make us stop limud haTorah, we have to look into ourselves and say, maybe there are things we must improve.

Maybe the baalei batim should strengthen in kevias ittim for Torah. The Siyum Hashas is coming up soon, maybe it’s a time for introspection and teshuva. Maybe yeshiva bochurim should be mechazek in learning. Maybe the summer vacations are too long. There are so many different manifestations the Eibishter could use to remind us of the bittel Torah.