A powerful New York law firm has entered the fight over haredi education in the city, throwing its weight behind a group dedicated to bringing the curriculum at yeshivot in line with state-mandated curriculum.
The Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED) announced on Monday its new partnership with the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher global law firm. “Together, we will work to hold the New York City and New York State Departments of Education accountable once and for all for their failure to uphold and enforce vital federal and state laws protecting the rights of tens of thousands of hassidic and ultra-Orthodox children in New York to a basic education,” the announcement read.
The statement called for information from parents of students, and graduates of hassidic and ultra-Orthodox yeshivot that provide or provided little or no secular education.
The group said that within hours of releasing the call they had already received messages from complainants wishing to participate.
YAFFED was founded in 2012 by a group of people raised in ultra-Orthodox communities of New York City who seek to improve secular education in hassidic and ultra-Orthodox schools.
The organization seeks to ensure that yeshivot offer the subjects mandated by education laws, such as math, science and history, in addition to their Jewish studies.
“From elementary school through high school, we were provided with a rigorous curriculum in Judaic studies… Our general studies education, however, was limited to nonexistent,” the group said on its website.
Since 2014 the organization has been pressuring New York State and New York City officials to change the situation in certain yeshivot where they don’t believe education is up to scratch. Last year, as reported by The Jerusalem Post, the City of New York launched an investigation into 39 Brooklyn yeshivot for alleged failure to meet the state-mandated educational curriculum. More than a year later, YAFFED is unsatisfied with the lack of visible results.
“When a city agency conducts an investigation, they always release a report at the end of it with findings and a course of action,” YAFFED executive director Naftuli Moster told the Post.
He lamented that the New York City Department of Education had told him they were not planning on producing any report, for fear of jeopardizing their relationship with leaders of the haredi community.
The NYCDOE referred to a new haredi group called Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools (PEARLS), which has been critical of YAFFED, which is in turn highly skeptical of PEARLS’ agenda. PEARLS has been working together with the NYCDOE on the matter, and in August told The Forward that meetings between the two parties had led to “greater understanding” between them.
NYCDOE press secretary Devora Kaye told the Post Tuesday, “While we’re encouraged by the progress we’ve seen, there is more work to do and this process is under way. We continue to support that work and are committed to ensuring all New York City students receive a quality education.”
“Supposedly, PEARLS goal is to promote education, but really we think it’s to protect yeshivot from government agencies and to maintain the status quo,” Moster charged. As an outsider to the ultra-Orthodox world, he said the NYCDOE had failed to see that. He emphasized that the lack of a report of the probe was “unacceptable.”
“It prevents the public from learning anything about what is being done. PEARLS is also not willing to disclose the curricula that they are implementing. They’re not adding new subjects, they’re not adding time or years. High school kids won’t get any secular studies,” he said.
The only concrete step Moster said he was aware of was more teacher training.
“Yeshivot should be fully compliant with the state’s standards. If we want this to happen in three years, how is this a substantial improvement?
There is no timeline or benchmark, no transparency, no enforcement mechanisms,” he said, and noted that they were prepared to take legal action if that was the only alternative left.
Still leaving room for negotiations to reach an agreement, Moster said that with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher on board, they now have all the resources needed to fight such a large opponent as New York City, New York State, or haredi leaders if needed. “This firm can take them on,” Moster said confidently. “Anything short of a very big improvement with very specific benchmarks, a third party monitor and transparency won’t be enough and I won’t settle for it.”
YAFFED has received backlash from the haredi community for trying to change the Orthodox way of life, and particularly for having operated through channels outside of the ultra-Orthodox world.