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New York political leaders offer muted response to uproar over yeshivas

Governor, mayor, Brooklyn borough president take no sides after damning investigation into education, new state regulations for schools; Jewish state lawmakers urge more oversight

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

Members of the New York state Board of Regents vote in favor of the P-12 consent agenda including the adoption of revised statewide rules that private schools, including Jewish yeshivas, face stricter enforcement of long-standing requirements that they provide academic instruction 'substantially equivalent' to that in the public sector, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, in Albany, NY (AP/Hans Pennink)
Members of the New York state Board of Regents vote in favor of the P-12 consent agenda including the adoption of revised statewide rules that private schools, including Jewish yeshivas, face stricter enforcement of long-standing requirements that they provide academic instruction 'substantially equivalent' to that in the public sector, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, in Albany, NY (AP/Hans Pennink)

NEW YORK — New York political leaders have offered a muted response so far to an uproar this week over ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools, or yeshivas, after the state passed new rules for regulating secular education at the schools and a damning report on the yeshiva system by The New York Times.

State education officials on Tuesday finalized rules that will boost oversight at yeshivas and other non-public schools, and require them to provide a minimum level of secular education in four core areas. The new rules, years in the making, have sparked outrage in ultra-Orthodox communities.

A New York Times investigation released on Sunday found dismal secular education at many yeshivas, which have hundreds of millions in funding in the past few years, and some instances of corporal punishment. The funding for yeshivas is minor compared to sums allotted to public schools, and the yeshivas’ shortcomings in secular studies have been debated for years.

New York State Governor Kathy Hochul, a strong supporter of Jewish communities, deferred responsibility for the issue on Monday.

“We believe that every child in the state of New York deserves to have a very high quality of education. People understand that this is outside the purview of the governor,” Hochul said. “There is a regulatory process in place, but the governor’s office has nothing to do with this.”

Hochul is running against Republican Lee Zeldin in the state’s gubernatorial race. Hochul holds a firm but not insurmountable lead over her opponent. Ultra-Orthodox voters can be a force in state politics, and yeshivas are one of their priorities.

Zeldin, who is Jewish, defended yeshivas and attacked Hochul on Tuesday.

“Yeshiva education teaches values that have their students living law-abiding, productive lives. New York is so wrong for passing its new substantial-equivalency regulations today. Hochul, for her pathetic part, has been totally AWOL,” Zeldin said.

Members of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities hold a protest before a Board of Regents meeting to vote on new requirements that private schools teach English, math science and history to high school students outside the New York State Education Department Building in Albany, New York, September 12, 2022. (Will Waldron/The Albany Times Union via AP)

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said he was “not concerned” about The New York Times investigation’s findings about yeshiva academics, but said the use of corporal punishments in schools was “not acceptable.”

He confirmed that an investigation into the issue was moving forward.

“That’s what the city has to do,” he said. “We’re going to make sure every child receives a quality education in this city.”

An investigation into yeshivas stalled for years under Adams’s predecessor, Bill de Blasio.

Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso tied the yeshiva system to the Holocaust.

“Less than 100 years ago during the Holocaust, Jewish people were being all but extinguished. Many have come to New York City not to preserve their way of life, but to revive it,” he said in response to The New York Times investigation. “Our city has been supportive and has rightfully extended them a courtesy on this mission.”

“Education is extremely important to my administration. As such, our office will be working with community leaders to ensure all children have access to a high-quality education,” Reynoso said.

US House Representative Jerry Nadler, a Jewish yeshiva graduate who represents parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, said he was “deeply saddened” by the investigation.

“I have long believed that all yeshiva graduates — and all children in New York — can and must receive a high-quality secular education,” Nadler said. “While many Jewish day schools and yeshivas do provide such an education, it is clear that some are utterly failing.”

“It is our duty to all New Yorkers to make sure that the law is enforced,” he said.

New York State Senators Chuch Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand have not commented.

New York City Comptroller Brad Lander called the lack of secular education in yeshivas “a tragedy,” and vowed to enforce the new Education Department regulations.

State Senator Liz Krueger, who represents parts of Manhattan and is Jewish, called the investigation “a damning indictment” of the schools and of the officials tasked with their oversight.

Several other state lawmakers, including Charles Lavine, Julia Salazar and Emily Gallagher, focused on the reports of corporal punishments in yeshivas. All three said they will introduce legislation to outlaw corporal punishment in schools, which is allowed; Salazar and Gallagher, who represent parts of Brooklyn, where many of the yeshivas are based, did not mention secular studies in their joint statement.

US House candidate Daniel Goldman, who recently won his closely-watched New York City Democratic primary, said the investigation “paints a damning picture of an inadequate secular education that does not comply with state law.”

Goldman, also Jewish, said he was “hopeful that the yeshivas referenced in the Times reporting will start work immediately within the forthcoming regulations.”

The Yiddish Der Blatt newspaper, based in the Satmar movement stronghold of Williamsburg, headed its upcoming issue with the word “War” in large red letters, saying state officials had attacked the community.

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