BROOKLYN – Every morning at school, 7-year-old Uriyah Sidof prays for extraÂ recess.
Literally, he prays for it – at LamplightersÂ Yeshivah, the Jewish Montessori school he attends in the heart of Hasidic CrownÂ Heights, extra minutes of recess are doled out as a reward for especially heartfelt prayer.
Recess provides Uriyah with a welcome break from the hard work of timed mathÂ tests, English language drills and science projects, subjects the majority ofÂ the 84,000 children who attend Jewish parochial schools in Brooklyn never get.Â Lamplighters is an exception – most Orthodox Jewish schools offer limitedÂ instruction in English, math and science, and some don’t teach them at allÂ despite being legally required to do so, DNAinfo.com New York has learned.
Shmueli Lowenstein’s experience is much more common. The 25-year-old is aÂ former student at Oholei Torah, the most prominent yeshiva in Crown Heights,Â where, he said,Â “I did not grow up learning English or any kind of secularÂ studies at all,” and subjects like phonics and math were “nonexistent.”
“Everything was done in Yiddish until seventh or eighth grade, and then theyÂ would switch to Hebrew,” Lowenstein said. “I don’t think I ever received a paperÂ with English writing on it, except for maybe a permission slip for a schoolÂ trip.”
Under New York state and federal regulations, stories like Lowenstein’sÂ shouldn’t be possible – all New York schools, public and private, are requiredÂ to offer “equivalency of instruction” in basic general subjects such as AmericanÂ history and math.
The state allows religious students to omit evolution questions on theÂ Regents exam, but there is no waiver to exclude science from the curriculum.
Oholei Torah would not answer questions about its curriculum.
But more than a dozen parents, teachers and students told DNAinfo.com NewÂ York that many of Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish schools fall shy of even thatÂ narrow requirement, offering only an hour or two a day of pro-forma instructionÂ for general subjects, if any.
“There are a number of schools which have absolutely no pretenses of it – kids from 3-years-old to 18 have no secular education at all, ” said ZalmanÂ Alpert, a librarian at Yeshiva University and an expert on the OrthodoxÂ community.
“Many other schools in Borough Park and Williamsburg are testing the watersÂ about either doing away with secular studies altogether or ratcheting it downÂ another few levels.”
What the situation amounts to, Alpert and others say, is a school systemÂ bigger than Boston’s operating virtually without oversight, making it easily theÂ largest unregulated school system in America. This week, DNAinfo.com New YorkÂ will take you inside that system, one the majority of New Yorkers and even theÂ education officials charged with policing it know next to nothing about.
As with anything in New York, big here means huge. More children attendÂ Brooklyn’s Jewish parochial schools than attend Catholic schools in Brooklyn andÂ Queens combined, and unlike their Catholic counterparts, yeshivas areÂ growing.
Although significant Jewish enclaves exist in all five boroughs, Brooklyn isÂ home to the majority of the city’s 1.1 million Jews, and the vast majority ofÂ its most religious ones. In Kings County alone, the Orthodox emphasis on largeÂ families has helped spur an education crunch of epic proportions: In just fourÂ years, the borough’s Jewish parochial schools have seen an enrollment increaseÂ of more than 12,000 pupils, according to state records.
“In some schools, they’re taught very similar to public school … where theÂ English department is fairly normative,” Alpert said, citing the UnitedÂ Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Crown Heights as a prime example. “But those schools areÂ very few in number and they’re rapidly disappearing.”
Though several yeshiva principals declined to comment on their curriculumsÂ for this story, Rabbi Sholom Skaist of Williamsburg’s massive UnitedÂ Talmudical Academy told DNAinfo.com New York the school does teach generalÂ subjects – just not very much.
“We teach math, English, some social studies and some science,” Skaist said. “They do not have secular studies in all the grades, only from fourth to eighthÂ grade.”
Like other children in high-poverty schools both public and private, many ofÂ Brooklyn’s Jewish parochial students receive federal, state and city aid, in theÂ form of free- and reduced-lunch programs, educational materials and federalÂ Title I allocations to educate students from poor families.
At least a few also receive Title III funds specifically earmarked forÂ English learners, which is hardly surprising in communities like WilliamsburgÂ where the lingua franca is Yiddish and even adults often struggle toÂ communicate outside of that language.
“I can’t read, I don’t know anything about the outside world – I have toÂ struggle every time I have to read a menu for aÂ restaurant,” said HershyÂ Gelbstein, 18, who got the majority of his education at United TalmudicalÂ Academy.
“I have a good spelling, but not a good grammar. I lose the words. When IÂ start talking English in front of someone who knows a good English, it’s likeÂ I’m speaking Spanish to someone who knows only English.”
Neither the city DOE nor its counterparts in Albany or Washington could tellÂ DNAinfo which of Brooklyn’s private schools benefited from Title III federal aidÂ for English instruction, although the DOE said the total Title III allocationÂ for private school students in the city is about $10 million. According to aÂ 2009 report by the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, almost $1.9Â million in Title III money funded English instruction for students at the city’sÂ Jewish parochial schools.
Still, Title III is just the tip of the iceberg. The United States DepartmentÂ of Education has repeatedly chastised both the state and the city for failingÂ either to retain adequate control over the much larger and more widespread TitleÂ I allocations, about $50 million of which are parceled out to the city’s privateÂ schools every year, or to account for how those millions are spent.
Year after year of reports from the United States Department of Education’sÂ Student Achievement and School Accountability Programs show federal educationÂ officials practically begging the city and state to exercise more control overÂ how private schools in their jurisdiction spend federal money.
“The [New York City Department of Education] staff indicated that privateÂ school principals have the final authority on which of the eligible studentsÂ receive Title I services,” the 2012 report says, citing one of many DOEÂ practices in direct violation of federal policy. “The [New York State EducationÂ Department] must require all its LEAs [Local Education Authorities] servingÂ private school children to maintain control of their Title I programs.”
Equivalency of instruction, too, falls at the city’s feet. Federal and stateÂ officials confirmed that the New York City Department of Education is ultimatelyÂ responsible for ensuring both that the city’s private schools spend governmentÂ money appropriately and that they provide the minimum standard of instructionÂ mandated by law.
“If a child attends a nonpublic school or is being educated at home, theÂ board of education of the school district in which the child resides must beÂ assured that the child is receiving instruction which is substantiallyÂ equivalent to that provided in the public schools,” said state DOE spokeswomanÂ Antonia Valentine.
In Brooklyn, that means the New York City DOE.
Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the city DOE, declined to respond toÂ specific questions about the admission by the head of United Talmudical AcademyÂ and other allegations of insufficient secular instruction.
It was unclear whether the “situation” involved any of the schoolsÂ DNAinfo.com New York asked about.
Libby Pollack, a Williamsburg native who was educated in the Jewish schoolÂ system, thinks it’s impossible that officials don’t know what’s going on.
“What’s going on is illegal, it’s totally illegal,” Pollack said. “UnlessÂ somebody just arrived to Ellis Island, there’s no such thing that they grew upÂ here and they don’t speak the language of the landÂ – it’s a disgrace, andÂ it’s the norm in Hasidic Brooklyn.”
Pollack isn’t alone – the organization YAFFED (Young Advocates for Fair Education), aÂ coalition of former yeshiva students, has spent more than a year trying to soundÂ the alarm to education officials. They say that Jewish parochial schools shouldÂ be free to teach what they please, so long as they also teach what the stateÂ requires.
“Pick a random Hasid off the street and just talk to them, it will be obviousÂ that they’re lacking in education,” Pollack said. “With sex abuse, a lot ofÂ people try to deny it, but here [with education] you can’t deny it – it’s notÂ something that could be hidden. If a person did not get an education, it’s goingÂ to come across.”
Back at Lamplighters, English, science and math is integrated into religiousÂ studies, said Director Yocheved Sidof, whose two oldest children, Uriyah, 7, andÂ Mayan, 4, attend the school.
“We give our children a sense from a very young age,” she said. “The wholeÂ world is one, the whole world is God’s work, it’s not separate.”
Source: DNA Info