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Complaint filed against Brooklyn yeshiva for dropping all 8th grade secular studies

Ohr Moshe in Borough Park tells parents it’s halting its few non-religious classes for lessons on observing Shabbat law

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A Jewish area of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, on April 24, 2019. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)
Illustrative: A Jewish area of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, on April 24, 2019. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

NEW YORK — A Brooklyn yeshiva has said it will halt all secular classes for eighth grade students, despite New York State law mandating secular subjects, drawing a complaint from an education advocacy group.

Talmud Torah Ohr Moshe sent a letter to parents last month formally notifying them it will drop its few secular classes for eighth grade boys to focus exclusively on religious studies.

The school made the decision in response to parent requests, the letter said. Yaffed, a New York non-profit that works to reform the yeshiva system, said it had received the letter from a parent at the school and filed a complaint with New York City’s Department of Education.

The school previously taught the students secular subjects including math, history, science and geography for 45-90 minutes at the end of the day. The school said it will replace those classes with lessons on adhering to Shabbat religious law.

“Following repeated requests from parents regarding secular studies, we sat together to discuss and give advice on what to do,” the letter said in Hebrew. “We decided to have a class teaching Shabbat rules and a wonderful class will be delivered.”

Parents also received an audio message in Yiddish informing them of the change.

The yeshiva teaches students in the first to eighth grades. It is located on the edge of Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, which has a large ultra-Orthodox population.

The change means the students will not receive any instruction in secular subjects. New York State mandates that all children in non-public schools receive instruction that is “substantially equivalent” to education at nearby public schools. The definition of the term, and the law’s enforcement, have been the source of ongoing controversy surrounding the yeshivas.

The change was first reported by the New York investigative news outlet THE CITY.

Ohr Moshe did not respond to a Times of Israel request for comment.

Naftuli Moster, the head of Yaffed, said the letter undermines the argument that yeshivas neglect secular education due to religious beliefs. Rather, it shows that the yeshiva system has moved away from secular studies gradually due to communal trends, lack of enforcement and the whims of leadership, he said.

The issue of secular education in yeshivas has long been a hot-button issue and source of controversy.

Critics of the yeshiva system say the schools fail to provide adequate instruction in secular subjects, including English and math, leaving graduates unprepared to enter the workforce.

In 2019, a New York City investigation of 28 yeshivas found that only two of them provided “substantially equivalent” education to secular public schools.

Former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio was accused of delaying the report critical of yeshivas for political gain.

The city’s new mayor, Eric Adams, took office last month and is still finding his footing amid a series of crises including a surge in COVID-19 cases and violent crime.

Jewish schools are the largest group of private schools in New York City, educating around 110,000 students.

Last month, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul proposed a budget for 2023 that included $295 million for non-public schools, an increase of 18% over the previous budget.

The budget included funding for health and safety, instruction in some secular subjects and security, according to the Agudah Orthodox group. Yaffed said it also included $657,000 for enforcing substantial equivalency rules. The budget has not yet been approved by state lawmakers.

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