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December 11, 2018

The bigger problem with the city’s yeshivas: Inspections aren’t enough to fix what ails many of them

November 28, 2018
State Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia visits Daily News Editorial Board on Tuesday May 16, 2017. (Susan Watts / New York Daily News)

As the years-long investigation into the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish yeshivas drags on, the New York State Education Department just released new guidelines that compel these schools to improve the quality of secular instruction offered to students. The guidelines, issued by Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, include inspections on a five-year basis. If the yeshivas fail, they could have their funding pulled.

I used to teach English, science and social studies in Orthodox yeshivas. Intervention is sorely needed, but I don’t have faith that these measures will succeed.




My schools were better than the ones in question; secular studies were at least offered, three hours a day, four days a week. The students are equally observant to Hasidic Yeshivas with a similarly rigorous Talmud knowledge expected. I tried to bring some of the material I learned in college in the mornings into my classroom in the afternoons, while “sanitizing” my knowledge for the more conservative and austere atmosphere.

It wasn’t always successful because the culture of the place powerfully resisted change.

The improvements recommended by the state need cooperation from parents. Most edification occurs after dismissal. Only 10% of my students, on average, did homework, and that was in large part because their parents weren’t interested in making sure they got it done. In my last marking period, I painfully failed 75% percent of my children.

Not a single parent called to complain or fought for their child. And this was in a better school, one that offers English. I cannot imagine how a parent who chose to send their child to a yeshiva that didn’t offer secular studies would stand over her or his son to do homework, after a long day of work as they juggle other children and responsibilities.

There is also an issue of time: The community has to choose how to spend the day’s limited hours — whether to help students grow in Torah knowledge or in fields like reading and math.

In a scenario where inspectors visit yeshivas, armed with guidelines, I envision administrators paying lip service and agreeing to the terms of people they see as an interference, and then returning to the status quo the second the state examiners leave.

The root of the problem here is that many yeshivas have a disregard for outside non-Jewish laws that propel community members to find workarounds.

I was hired as a teacher without training, a bachelor’s degree, a background check or a written contract. They let me — a stranger — around children. By law, I was a mandated reporter of child abuse, needing to tell the authorities if I suspected any crimes. On my first day, I was shown the textbook library and told to “figure it out” — a tall order for a neophyte educator who had to prepare students for the Regents and the general outside world.

Thankfully, I was always paid on time. But the consistent lack of attention to detail or even a whiff of standards and norms aren’t out of place in that world.

Even more than standards, yeshivas need educated educators. My coworkers and I had never earned master’s degrees in education. My employers were also similarly uneducated. They didn’t support the subjects we taught. My principals never offered pedagogical help. They were there for disciplinary issues, in case a student acted up, but never to help a young adult grow in learning.

When I repeatedly asked for funding for continuing education workshops, I was rebuffed. I wanted to improve as a teacher, but there were no opportunities.

Inspections are necessary. But they are woefully insufficient.

Reiter is a NYC-based teacher and writer.

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