2021 New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang has set himself apart from his opponents early on and with a clear demonstration of the lengths he is willing to go to obtain the ultra- Orthodox bloc vote. For the sake of this vote, Mr. Yang seems to be willing to sacrifice the futures of tens of thousands of boys in the yeshiva system.
When asked how he would address the issue of secular education in yeshivas, Mr. Yang told the Forward, “As mayor, I will always respect religious freedom including the freedom of parents to do what’s best for their kids educationally. We shouldn’t interfere with their religious and parental choice as long as the outcomes are good.”
I ask, Mr. Yang, what could be the “good outcomes” of allowing educational neglect?
And it is neglect. In 2019, after years of delay, the New York City Department of Investigation released a report in which it found that all but two of the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas it investigated failed to meet even the minimum requirements to be considered substantially equivalent to public school, as required by law.
What this means is that ultra-Orthodox boys are spending up to 13 hours a day in school, without even learning English or basic math. This severe lack of education leaves these young men vastly unprepared to find employment and increases their chances of dependence on government aid.
According to the UJA-Federation’s Jewish Community Study of New York 2011 (the latest year for which data is available), 43% of Hasidic households in the New York area are poor, compared to 15% of Modern Orthodox households.
While Hasidic boys receive minimal to no secular education, Modern Orthodox students generally spend a significant portion of their school day learning English, math, history, and science. Clearly, this increased focus on secular education makes a difference.
To further investigate this link between a lack of secular education and poverty rates, we can look to a few villages in upstate New York that utilize the same yeshiva system as those in New York City, and are similarly ignoring government regulation to enforce the required secular education.
In Kiryas Joel, an entirely Satmar village that offers the same education as the Hasidic UTA schools in Brooklyn, a 2019 Census Bureau showed the poverty rate to be 45.1% and the annual per capita income (in 2019 dollars) to be $8,788. This is compared to the overall Orange County rates of 12.3% in poverty and annual per capita income of $34,959.
Moreover, in Kaser Village, a village consisting almost entirely of Hasidim of the Skverer sect in Rockland County, 70.8% live in poverty and the annual per capita income is $5,969. This data comes in stark contrast to the rates in the surrounding county of 12.5% living in poverty and per capita income of $39,286. It seems clear that the substandard level of secular education received by many Hasidic people is not preparing them with the financial means to provide for their large families.
While many Hasidic school leaders claim parental choice in their defense of these substandard educational programs, the fact is that most of these parents were also denied a basic education and simply may not know any alternative. Claiming that these parents are “choosing” this education for their children is misleading.
The truth is that the real decision making is primarily done by Hasidic leadership. By ensuring that their adherents cannot understand the news outside of their carefully curated Yiddish-language offerings, ultra-Orthodox leaders alone determine their community’s political future, thereby ensuring the survival of their power and their way of life at all costs – costs borne by those denied the secular education to which they are legally entitled.
The fact of the matter is this: if Mr. Yang does not reconsider his stance on the issue, he becomes an enabler of educational neglect. Denying Hasidic people an education is denying them the choice to lead self-sufficient lives.
I understand that Mr. Yang may not fully grasp the dearth of education Haredi boys receive or the related hardships they are forced to endure. The first-class education Mr. Yang had access to at Phillips Exeter is a far cry from the subpar 90 minutes or less of secular education offered at most Hasidic yeshivas. I therefore urge him to meet, not only with the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox population who have signaled to him the support of their undereducated masses, but also with those who have been harmed by the yeshiva system of educational neglect.
Research and equity considerations, not political favors, should be the guiding force in policymaking and enforcement. Yaffed has spent the last decade working with both Hasidic community members and legislators to advocate for a substantially equivalent education for Hasidic boys. These experiences have taught us a great deal about the nature of the problem and how it can be rectified. We extend an open invitation to Mr. Yang and all other candidates to discuss what we’ve learned.