Wednesday, Jun 22, 2022

Yeshiva Advocates Warn of Severe Harm if NY Regulations Approved

About three weeks remain for the public to weigh in on a proposed set of regulations that would for the first time place oversight over New York state’s nonpublic school system, including approximately 170,000 yeshiva students, in the hands of a state agency.

The Board of Regents, which answers to no one and is charged with running the state’s education system, announced the regulations two months ago. It is the third time in five years in which it is attempting to force yeshivos to cede the independence held since the first yeshiva was opened 120 years ago. The last try went up in flames, with a record 140,000 comments pouring in, nearly all of them vetoing the proposal.

The 60-day public comment period, which ends May 30th, is an opportunity to petition the Board not to enact the regulations.

Reb Avrohom Fruchthandler, president of Mesivta Yeshivah Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin/Kollel Gur Aryeh and a member of Torah Umesorah’s presidium, is pleading with yeshiva parents and students to send in their comments opposing the regulations, which also require yeshivos to perpetually defend itself against anyone who claims to be harmed by the school’s education, even if the person did not study there.

In an interview with the Yated, he outlined the concerns over the proposed regulations.

“The whole idea of us having to satisfy the demands of progressive educational bureaucrats should be anathema to us,” he said. “It would mean surrendering our value system to contemporary morals, our common sense to their bureaucracy, and our educational standards to the latest educational fad only to later replaced by the next one.”

We were also joined by his son, Reb Yehoshua Leib Fruchthandler, for the interview.

The first proposal from the state education department came in 2018, imposing a host of requirements on nonpublic schools, such as requiring a full day of secular studies for grades seven through 12, and threatening schools with closure if they failed to comply.

While most Catholic and independent schools are accredited, all besides for a handful of yeshivos are not. They are united, however, in opposing the broad oversight the agency is demanding, as well as allowing anyone to complain about them, which would trigger a review.

“This is one of the more egregious clauses in the proposal,” Mr. Fruchthandler said. “This unheard-of power allowing anyone with an agenda to trigger a review makes a mockery of all the supposed pathways provided towards establishing equivalency.”

When Education Commissioner Betty Rosa proposed the new set of regulations, she emphasized that she had learned from her mistakes, and this time made proposals that are in line with what the community can swallow.

She woefully failed. Even the Orthodox Union, whose schools are mostly accredited and will pass muster, objected strenuously to the proposal. Rabbi Moshe Hauer, the OU’s executive vice president, and Michael Helfand, a Pepperdine Law professor, published a sharply worded response, in which they urged their constituents to reject the regulations.

“The government, of course, has a responsibility to ensure that all minors receive adequate education so that they can be full and productive members of democratic society,” the two wrote. “But in fulfilling this responsibility, the state needs to make sure that its rules do not overreach. It needs to take adequate account of the distinctive dual-curriculum model of Orthodox Jewish schools and respect the religious way of life that these schools perpetuate. New York’s proposed new rules fail in this regard and would undermine the ability of some Orthodox Jewish communities to pass down their faith to the next generation.”

They wondered at the Board of Regents inclusion of courses in physical education and “kindred subjects,” patriotism and citizenship, highway safety and traffic regulation, and fire and arson prevention.

“While these are all valuable subjects,” the duo noted, “this list veers from the core requirements that ought to be legally necessary to allow a school to keep its doors open. And it sets a dangerous precedent: If Jewish schools are to embrace government oversight to ensure substantial equivalency, they need guarantees, built into the regulations themselves, that future bureaucrats will not simply continue adding to this list, using this proposed framework to incorporate even more peripheral pedagogical requirements into the substantial equivalency inquiry.”

The two harshest components of the regulations have convinced the entirety of the nonpublic school system to oppose them. Firstly, it empowers a broad category of “persons considering themselves aggrieved” to file an appeal with the commissioner against a school, leaving the school in an open-ended position of repeatedly having to defend the quality of its education even after okayed by the government.

Secondly, schools are accredited through outside agencies. AARTS, or the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools, for example, was established as an accrediting agency for rabbinical colleges such as a beis medrash, allowing them to access Pell and TAP grants. But the vast majority of yeshiva elementary and high schools are not accredited, and there currently are not enough accreditors and evaluators sufficiently familiar with the distinctive qualities of Jewish education to properly assess them.

In addition, a regular assessment takes about five years, which is far longer than the 60 days allowed by the regulations to fall into line.

Reb Avrohom Fruchthandler, a talmid of Rav Yitzchok Hutner, is known as a powerhouse administrator who has led Chaim Berlin’s finances for decades. He began the interview with pointed praise.

“Reb Yochonon,” he addressed me, “it’s a pleasure to see you with your chassidishe levush and you went to Stolin, a chassidishe yeshiva which is one of the 39 ‘failed schools’ — and you still write a beautiful English, better than I do.”

So why is the state education department coming after us if we have so many successful graduates?

They want to prove to us that shelo echod bilvod omad oleinu l’chaloseinu, that’s all. They hate us and there is nothing to stop them. Finally, in the third round, after they failed the first two times, they told us what they really wanted in the first round — to take over the yeshivos.

They want to have control over our yeshivos. This has been going on for many generations — since the Yevonim. They finally put it in the regulations. They don’t say that the chochmah in the Torah has any merit — in their 20 pages of documentation, not once is it mentioned that learning Torah has any value whatsoever. There are so many frum doctors, lawyers, and accountants — learning Torah makes you think. The dafim of Gemara do something to you. But for them, talmud Torah is not recognized at all.

Public schools don’t teach students how to think. Look at the results in our test scores compared to theirs; there is something wrong over here. But the bottom line is that they hate us.

Yehoshua Fruchthandler: They have no use for us. We don’t subscribe to any of their moral systems. We are the antithesis to everything they yell and scream about. We are much more successful than them, so they want to control us so we should fail. Did you ever read the book Animal Farm by George Orwell? This is exactly what’s going on — take the normal and make them crazy.

Take a child — he wants to know why he can’t go bungee jumping. So you tell him because it’s expensive. So he raises the money. So you say he doesn’t have time for it. So he figures out the time. The truth is that you just don’t want him to go. If you would have just told him in the beginning that it’s dangerous, you’d have saved him a lot of time. This is what they did here. They ask, “Why can’t you just teach this?” But the bottom line is that they just want control.

They started off three years ago saying that they would require yeshivos and private schools to have four and a half hours of secular studies every day — which together with recess and lunchtime means about six hours of limudei chol. People understood that this was a danger to the integrity of the private school system — even the Modern Orthodox, Catholic, and specialty schools understood this. What, in your opinion, is the most dangerous part of these new proposed regulations?

Avrohom Fruchthandler: The same problem — that they still have a right to add subjects as they go along. It’s not just the four subjects of math, English, science, and history. If the regulations pass, they can also add areas of thought that we don’t subscribe to, things that are the antithesis to us.

Then they are going to question if our teachers are competent. With them, as long as you have a degree in mathematics or history, you can teach it. With us, we look for teachers who love teaching, who love their students, who love the subject. Our rebbeim and teachers love children, and that comes through to the student; therefore, the student wants to learn what his teachers give over to him, because he feels the love and respect. The teacher is happy to be there.

We pay our teachers less, yet they come all the time. They have a 40% absenteeism — one public school teacher in Boro Park told me he has an average of 10% attendance rate on any given day since Covid. We don’t have even 4% absenteeism.

I have a funny idea. We should close down all the yeshivos, register in the public-school system, and then we’ll also have a 45% absenteeism. We’ll then go where we want to go and they’ll leave us alone.

They want us to be like them, but we don’t want to be as low as they are. Our graduation rates are at 99% because our attendance rate is 99%. Our students go through the whole school system, go on to higher education, get married, have children and grandchildren.

The fact is that there is nothing in the law that we can live with.

The education department looks at it like this — yeshivos have two hours a day of limudei chol, with the rest of the day for limudei kodesh. Yeshivos want them to look at Talmudic studies to understand the entirety of our education, but according to the constitution, they are not allowed to evaluate religious instruction; it goes against the First Amendment. How would you propose they measure a school’s success without running afoul of the law?

I would make it about the results, not the means of getting there. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say they decide they want 45 minutes a day of physical exercise, and they came up with a certain amount of weightlifting, a certain amount of running, bench pressing, pushups. But one person just wants to run track for an hour or he wants to play basketball or a different physical sport for a whole hour. I would venture to say that at the end of the period, this basketball player who only played full court basketball has exercised the same amount as the guy who can’t get the ball anywhere near the basket and did 45 minutes of everything else. What’s the difference how you get the exercise?

Education is a critical thought process, an analyzation process, a thirst for knowledge process. Parts of Gemara have geometry. The Gra wrote about geometry. In Kelayim we are taught all about farming. There’s nothing about science not discussed in detail in the Mishnayos. It all boils down to whether the kid is physically fit after working out for an hour. If pushups and weightlifting and running gives him the exercise, why can’t he instead play basketball and get the same amount of exercise?

Talk to our students. What are our Regents marks? How come you can’t teach everything in five hours what we teach in two hours?

They can’t stomach our success. They see the records of yeshiva and other private schools. Why have they stopped approving the opening of new charter schools? The answer is because the teachers want control, and the charter schools aren’t hiring their teachers. Charter schools start in August and we start in Elul —they can’t accept that. A former head of the department of education told a friend of mine “I don’t believe Jews are smarter. But you have separate schools for boys and girls, so your children are learning. Once our kids hit 13, it’s over.” (As we spoke, he called the friend to confirm the story.)

Yehoshua Fruchthandler: It’s become abundantly clear over the past 10 years that their curriculum is less and less necessary for success in the age of technology. The dangers of technology to children have also become abundantly clear; everyone agrees that unfettered internet access for children causes terrible things.

The state education department is a dying institution, and to make themselves relevant, they’re coming after the people who are being successful. They were coming after the charter schools and now they are coming after the yeshivos, which are a much bigger target.

Avrohom Fruchthandler: Let me make another point. What if you have a child prodigy violinist? He doesn’t learn geometry, trigonometry, or chemistry, but he becomes the greatest violin player. If someone is phenomenal at mathematics, they have no problem if he learns mathematics the whole day. What does he need biology for? To become an Einstein — that’s okay.

We let our kids pick the area of education they want and they excel in them. And then they come out as productive, normal people, who are respectful of others’ person and property. Do we ever make demonstrations and march through the streets? Their schools do. How many of their students get married and have kids?

Let someone finally call a spade a spade — they’re one big flop and we’re successful. And they can’t stomach that. So instead of trying to leave us alone so we should succeed, they want to bring us down. We’re not interested.

By us, the essence of religion is taught in the school and the house. The rebbi becomes like a father. Not by them. Our teachers have students in their houses seven days a week. Do they have that? With them, they seek ways not to teach. With us, we find ways to come in and teach. This was highlighted during Covid. That’s the difference.

In the same meeting that the education department proposed its first set of regulations, they also established a blue-ribbon panel to study how they can start passing students in public schools, even though they fail their exams.

Yehoshua Fruchthandler: They want to lower the standards for themselves while changing it for us.

The frum community has to be proud of themselves. We’re more industrious, productive, and successful than any other sector of the world.

Avrohom Fruchthandler: You want to hear a true story? One of our guys tried to sell one of the city’s wealthiest businessmen a computer system, and he went to visit him. He asked the businessman, “Can I meet the head of your computer department?” He said yes, and called someone in. A guy walks in with curly payos and a vest. Our guy was shocked.

The businessman told him, “Why are you shocked? This guy is intelligent. He runs the computer department, doing things that even the manufacturer doesn’t know you can do on the machine. That’s why I have him.”

Yehoshua Fruchthandler: There’s an accounting firm specializing in healthcare — it’s all frum accountants. They have the best computer software for nursing homes — the best in the world.

Avrohom Fruchthandler: Yochonon, 117 years ago, when Chaim Berlin started, people said we were going to fail and we will never succeed. They said that this is America, and things are different. We all know the stories. Since we started, how much have we and other yeshivos multiplied in students? The country now has 300,000-plus kids in Orthodox Jewish schools, with 170,000 in New York. We started off with less than a thousand. How can you win over us? Why don’t we say the facts? They’ll put us in jail for saying the truth? Let them.

So why are they coming after us now? Like you said, Chaim Berlin is 117 years old — why now?

They are not being fair to us. They are ignoring all the good things we have accomplished. They are looking to control everything. We’re an embarrassment to them. We’re insulting them. They are not looking to make things better for us; they are looking to cover their mistakes. That department is a failure in every manner, in any measurement— decency, honesty, morality, education, it’s one big failure.

If I understand you correctly, you’re not quibbling over the details, but saying that they should not have any control of the yeshivos.

How can they? They are not here to give over our religion. I’ll tell you what — if we opened a school for dentistry, you have a full right to have control. If we opened a school of carpentry, let them control it. But this is our religion. How can they control it? We teach in history that Jews did not cause all the world’s problems. This is ki heim chayeinu, this is divrei Torah — no, you can’t control it. A dental school? That you can control. Medical school, you can control. The New York State Bar, you can control — give it to them right away.

During the last regulations, the Catholics told them a simple no — you are not stepping foot in our building. This time, the education department told them that they have the proper accreditation. Why not give us 10 years or five years to get accreditation? No, you only have 60 days.

Are yeshivos planning an accreditation agency for elementary and high schools, similar to AARTS which accredits rabbinical colleges?

Yehoshua Fruchthandler: Reb Yochonon, solutions we can talk about tomorrow. On June 2, I can talk to you about solutions. Right now, 200,000 people need to use the comment period to express their views to the government.

Avrohom Fruchthandler: I would add that last time, the Catholics said they’re not letting evaluators into their schools. This time, they gave them a way for them to come in by having their own accreditation agency. But now, they woke up over this regulation, which would allow anyone to complain about a school’s education system, even if they were not harmed by it.

So you have a two-pronged complaint. Number one, they are not allowing yeshivos to get accreditation until after a lengthy process. And even if yeshivos do get their own accreditation, you’re saying that you can’t live with allowing anybody to complain.

Yehoshua Fruchthandler: If we’re in control, if our community gets to accredit yeshivos, that is one thing. But if they get to have the right to approve of what we do, it’s not something we can live with. We see already that many Yidden are moving to Florida. People are scared to raise their children in New York.

We’re in golus, and the Eibishter wants to see how we are going to respond to this. Do we mind a government takeover of the yeshivos, or do we not mind?

Avrohom Fruchthandler: Rav Hutner used to say, “You have to show the Eibishter what you want.” Submitting a comment is showing the Eibishter what you want, that the yeshivos should remain kodesh — under us, not under them.

Yehoshua Fruchthandler: You asked before why are they coming after us now. Why now? Because we’re in golus. The Eibishter gave us many years of calm, and now the government is slowly waking up.

Getting down to tachlis, what can people do right now?

Avrohom Fruchthandler: The best thing is to write a letter in your own words — or at least use the prewritten template — at how appalled you are, how much you produce for society, and how they are attacking our religion. Our religion is transmitted through our schools, and we far exceed them in productivity and morality throughout life.

Yehoshua Fruchthandler: This is about Yiddishkeit. It’s not math. It’s Yiddishkeit.

We have to get the message over to the Yiddishe community — this is not a chassidishe problem, it’s not a thing that will pass over. This is everybody’s problem. We have to fight it, and the only way to fight is by writing a letter. Right now, they have to see one currency and one currency only — how many ballots can I win or lose backing this issue?

Avrohom Fruchthandler: And this is not going away. We have to surpass the 140,000 comments we got last time. If we get 130,000, they will say that we got weaker. If we get 200,000 — now they see what we want. This is about the yeshiva education, not about secular studies.

Rav Meir Shapiro once said, the Torah writes that Pharaoh decreed to kill all sons. Rashi explains that this means even the Egyptian boys, but the Onkelos says he only meant the Jewish boys. Rav Shapiro explained that Rashi was an ehrliche Yid. Pharaoh said all boys, so that is what he wrote. But Onkelos was a ger — he knew that even if Pharaoh said all boys, he really meant the Jews.

I told this over to Rav Hutner and he loved it.

They mean us. They talk about all schools, but they mean the Yid. And we have to stand up and fight by writing letters — all we want is a letter. It takes one minute.

We have to wake people up. I am putting an ad in the papers which says, “Who will control your child’s chinuch? The state education department or roshei yeshiva and menahelim? We have a few days to say who we choose.” That’s all.

These people are beating around the bush, but all they want is l’hashkichom torasecha, that we should stop learning Torah. To everyone who celebrated Chanukah — what are you doing now? Mi Lashem eilai?

Yehoshua Fruchthandler: The Eibishter is asking, “Are you mine? If you are mine, then write a letter.” Our education is all about the Eibishter, not about anything else. And if you let them take control, you are giving it all up.

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