A Call to Action

Agudah’s Vice President for Media Affairs Leah Zagelbaum on What You Can Do to Help Avert Calamitous School Reform

By Rechy FrankfurterAmi Magazine (Reprinted with Permission)

One of the people I have gotten to know and admire in the course of my work as an editor is Leah Zagelbaum. Leah has held various positions in Agudas Yisroel, steadily working her way up to her current position as vice president for media affairs. In a recent conversation, she shared that she is hyper-focused on efforts being made by Agudah to bring awareness to the New York State Education Department’s proposed regulations, which would grant the state control over yeshivah and private school curricula, and what we can do about it.

When she mentioned that the window to submit comments opposing the proposed regulations closes on September 2, I realized how important it is to once again bring to the attention of our readers the danger that is now facing klal Yisrael; each of us can do our part to help protect future generations. This tremendous zechus and obligation lie not only with New York State residents, where these regulations are in danger of being imposed but with anyone and everyone concerned about acheinu bnei Yisrael and our ability to provide an independent chinuch system to our children. 

Interestingly, just as I finished interviewing Leah for this article I received an email with the subject line “We dodged a bullet” along with the link to an article entitled “Ethnic Studies Time Bomb Explodes.” The article contained the following: 

State legislators and then [California] Gov. Jerry Brown should have known that they were lighting the fuse of a political time bomb three years ago when they ordered up a “model curriculum in ethnic studies” for high school students.

The bomb is now exploding.

The State Department of Education has released a 303-page draft of indecipherable educational jargon and left-wing rhetoric, advocating the indoctrination of teenagers into believing that everyone who isn’t white and male is an oppressed victim.

That thrust is quite evident in the draft’s description of its intention, to wit:

“At its core, the field of ethnic studies is the interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity and indigeneity with an emphasis on experiences of people of color in the United States,” adding, “The field critically grapples with the various power structures and forms of oppression, including, but not limited to, white supremacy, race and racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia and xenophobia that continue to impact the social, emotional, cultural, economic and political experiences of Native People(s) and people of color.”

In critiquing “systems of power,” it advises, “These are structures that have the capacity to control circumstances within economic, political and/or social-cultural contexts. These systems are often controlled by those in power and go on to determine how society is organized and functions,” adding, “some examples of systems of power are: white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy.”

And so forth.

The draft reiterates these themes group-by-group, advising teachers on how best to inculcate their impressionable students. It also includes direct political propagandizing, such as citing President Donald Trump’s policies as examples of subjugation.

In addition to the obvious drivel that California is trying to teach its students, the words “inculcate their impressionable students” are frightening, as that is precisely what we are protesting about these guidelines. Once the government imposes its will on what we teach our children it’s a slippery slope, and tomorrow it can demand that we “inculcate” our children with similar ideologies and ideas that are anathema to Torah-true Jews.

We are unfortunately witnessing this right now in England, where Orthodox Jews are struggling with a government that seeks to impose subjects that threaten to force our schools to close down. This is happening in California and happening in England and other parts of the world. The slippery slope concern has suddenly become disturbingly more real. Some would argue we are already there. 

So, why did the email sender believe we dodged a bullet in New York? It’s probably because he thinks, like many, that the recent court victory of Agudah, PEARLS and Torah Umesorah, where an NYS Supreme Court declared similar guidelines “null and void,” has finally put this matter to rest. Unfortunately, this is incorrect. As Leah explains, “The guidelines were struck down on procedural grounds, not on the merits. This cannot stop a determined state from publishing new regulations and following proper procedures, which require public comment and a vote by the New York Board of Regents. And that is exactly what the state did on July 3. The regulations are nearly identical to the guidelines that were struck down. Essentially, the government’s position is that any institution that does not  provide secular studies in a whole slew of subjects, with precise time allocations for each subject, is not a school, irrespective of the performance of students or their secular studies accomplishments.   

“The period to comment is currently open, which means that anyone can tell the state what he thinks about the regulations. The state is required by law to review those comments before the regulations will be voted on by the Board of Regents. We don’t know the exact timeline of how things will unfold after that. What we know is that the comment period will end on September 2. This means that now is the time for concerned members of the public—parents, teachers, employers or any other stakeholders—to come forward and say, ‘This is why we object to the regulations.’ Here at Agudah we have been bringing attention to this important opportunity. 

“It’s an ongoing battle. Agudah has been objecting to these guidelines ever since the very beginning when some disgruntled yeshivah graduates started attacking yeshivos. Our executive vice president, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, has been involved throughout. He is the elder statesman when it comes to private schools. But in November 2018 it became an issue of government regulations, which is what we’re really concerned about now,” Leah tells me.

What is our main argument
or concern here?

It boils down to the larger ideological argument that the government shouldn’t be controlling how we educate our children beyond teaching reading, writing, arithmetic and items needed to function in today’s world. Can the government tell us how to teach that? For how long? Who our teachers should be? Should theater be mandated? Visual arts? Family science? The regulations state that this, and more, are under the government’s purview. And even the statement of what “is needed to function in today’s world” can be dangerous. By whose definition? California, apparently, feels that without children undergoing a deep study of “sexism, classism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia and xenophobia” one cannot function in today’s world.  

We want these types of critical decisions to lie primarily with each parent, not with someone sitting in Albany. 

Oddly, the government is only looking at the input, not output. They don’t really care about how successful our students are. They just want the schools to teach A, B, and C and that the students are at their desks “learning” those things for over four hours a day. Is there any other industry where we celebrate that it took more time or money to produce something and that the product is substandard? 

So our argument is that the government is overstepping its authority?

Absolutely. 

Is the Board of Regents bound by the content and volume of the comments that are posted?

They’re bound to read each one. There will undoubtedly be some sort of triage system that will rank the comments in some way. For example, there are thousands of people who are signing form letters. Those are great, because it means that the state hears that there are thousands of people who oppose the regulations. Then you have people who are taking the time to write personal letters that draw on their own experiences, and they articulate why they oppose the regulations in a more compelling way. Those letters, understandably, fall into a different category and will be viewed in a different light—or at least so we hope. Letters from educators, professionals, entrepreneurs, mothers, school leaders—they each tell a different and important story. If I could galvanize your readership and ask people to do something, I would say that signing a form letter is a must.

We’ve set up a number of portals to make it easier for people to send comments. On Agudah’s YeshivosByChoice.org website one can send a form letter with just a few clicks.  Torah Umesorah and PEARLS have similarly set up websites for this purpose. If you prefer text messaging, text 646-766-1110. Sending a text to this number causes the system to automatically reply by asking for your name, address and the number of children you represent. This information is then automatically forwarded as an email to the state. A wonderful Yid by the name of Leib Kaufman offered to set it up, and Agudah was happy to present this option for the many Yidden who don’t have internet access.  

The YeshivosByChoice.org website offers an option to send a form or personal email. Writing a personal letter takes you to a whole new level, because it gives you the opportunity to explain to the State Education Department exactly why you feel that they should take a giant step back and continue to let the yeshivos educate our children. 

Assuming that they rubberstamp the guidelines, chas v’shalom, can we then challenge how they were able to do so when so many people were clearly against it? In other words, do our comments give us any power after the fact, or are they just something that we hope will sway them?

Let’s hope that they persuade them to make the right decision. If they don’t,  there’s always the possibility of further legal action, but we don’t want to have to go there. 

It’s important that you explain to our readers why this is so critical. I myself have encountered many people who say, “What’s wrong with people learning how to read and write?” not understanding the implications. Even Modern Orthodox schools that offer advanced secular studies will be affected as well. One HALB parent told me that she cannot imagine how the school could possibly devote more hours to secular studies than it already does, and that these guidelines would mean the end of yeshivos because there wouldn’t be any time to learn Torah. People have to understand that this goes way beyond learning English. 

Yes. This is not about whether children should get a secular education or learn certain math or reading skills. We aren’t discussing what they should or shouldn’t be taught. We’re fighting over who gets to make that decision. Does the government get to decide what children learn, or do the parents get to decide what their children learn? 

When we spoke a year ago you recommended that I read a book written by Pauline Wengeroff entitled Rememberings. When I finally got to read it I was entranced, and I have since lent it to many people. To me, it summed up this entire battle. This woman was born in Russia in 1833 and describes her early childhood, when her father would wake up at four in the morning to learn before going to Shacharis. She talks about the minhagim in her home. It was an ehrliche home, and it comes through on every page of the book. Then the government started supervising education, and the effect on the atmosphere was immediate and drastic. The most heart-wrenching part of the story is at the end, when her children are baptized. It’s shocking to see how in one person’s lifetime the family went from being completely frum to renouncing Yiddishkeit, which directly ties in to who takes charge of our children’s chinuch. I’m not saying we are living in 1833 Russia. But this is an important cautionary tale. Klal Yisrael must have the autonomy to teach its children.

If anyone believes that government intervention is a good thing should read Paulina’s book. It shows us exactly what can happen. That’s why it’s so necessary that we speak out. 

Yes. 

There are two aspects to this: That we have the legal right to educate our children and don’t want outside intervention, and that we as parents are satisfied with our children’s chinuch. If you were to advise people on how to write a letter, which aspect should they emphasize?

I wouldn’t tell them exactly what to say, but I would suggest that they speak from the heart. 

Should we also point out that many of us went through the yeshivah system, and look how successful we’ve become? Which message would have the most impact? 

That is a strong point. Indeed, we have much to point to, whether it is how our schools perform on the Regents examinations, or the many businesses and fields of study our children successfully navigate. I can’t tell you what will have the most impact, but the bottom line is that if you oppose the regulations, you have to let the State Education Department know about it. Whatever the underlying reason, they need to know that our community doesn’t want these new regulations. We are not the only community that is opposed to them. An association of independent schools sued the state, and so did the Catholic Conference. 

The Catholic schools publicly stated that they would boycott the very first version of the guidelines shortly after they came out in November 2018. Muslim schools have similarly voiced opposition. The feelings have been unanimous and across the board.    The reasons for opposition are varied, but the government needs to hear that it has to take a giant step back. 

If you don’t want the yeshivos to be turned into a reflection of the public schools, regardless of whatever reason one cites—grades, competency levels, graduation rates, school safety, offensive subject matter, or the number of hours of study—there is still one underlying theme: We object to the regulations. 

What kind of schools are the independent schools?

Most are secular elite prep schools. They may not have the hashkafic concerns we have, but they do feel it will destroy their independence and ability to run their schools. 

How many students are affected by these regulations?

The entire non-public school population in New York State is approximately 400,000. Of those, approximately 155,000 students, or 41%, are in frum yeshivos in New York State.

What’s the ratio of public school to private school students in the state?

According to the State Education Department there are 2.62 million students in New York State public schools, and with 400,000 non-public schools, that gives you a ratio of 6.5:1 

Who has the power to take the next step and make the decision?

The State Education Department and the Board of Regents, which is made up of 17 members, will vote on these regulations. These members are elected to a five-year term by a joint session of the state legislature. There is one Regent for each of the state’s 13 judicial districts and four at-large members. Regents do not receive a salary for serving on the board. 

Is there any information on who these members are?

Yes. Bios on each member and more details can be found at www.regents.nysed.gov/members.

What about the views of the individual members on this topic?

They have a range of opinions, as one would expect. Unfortunately, some have little understanding of Orthodox Jews and yeshivah education. We are trying to give them a respectful but impactful education!

Can their vote be overturned? Is there any recourse if it’s not in our favor?

Only legislatively or through the courts.

Can the comments that are now being lodged be considered reason for an appeal? In other words, do they have any legal weight?

My colleague, Avrohom Weinstock, Esq., the Agudah’s Chief of Staff and Associate Director of Education Affairs, continues to educate me on this issue. He says that under New York Consolidated Laws, State Administrative Procedure Act—SAPA § 202, for an agency like NYSED to pass regulations it must take into account and consider the comments. So they do have legal weight, with the word “consider” being subject to interpretation. We are hearing that they are surprised by the responses being generated and that it is making an impact. Also, keep in mind that the Regents are elected by legislators who are in turn elected by the public, so it’s indirectly against their interests to enact something that is radically against the public will. Of course, this is far from a guarantee. 

It would seem that reaching out to the members of the Board of Regents themselves could be a very important part of this process. 

The Agudah’s New York Government Affairs Department, headed by Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, is meeting with members of the Board and elected officials every week to explain what this means to our community. Many of them don’t even know what a yeshivah is and think that it involves children sitting in a circle and chanting all day. They don’t understand the level of education that takes place, and that just because the subjects are religious and in a different language doesn’t mean that it isn’t education. When they actually visit a yeshivah it completely changes the conversation. 

Unfortunately, this also means that the timing of the comment period puts the yeshivos at somewhat of a disadvantage. The fact that the regulations were published on July 3, after schools were ended for the year, and the comment period ends on September 2, which is immediately before most schools start again and encompasses the entirety of summer vacation, means that elected officials and board members can’t walk the halls themselves to see what’s really going on. They can hear about it, but they can’t actually see it. That makes it a little more difficult to present the truth to the people who will be making the decision. 

Haven’t they already been given tours in all the years we’ve been fighting this battle?

There are plenty of elected officials who have been given tours, but some have been more involved than others. 

It’s important for people to realize that this isn’t a local issue that affects only New York.

 It’s very important. One of the questions that comes up frequently is “I don’t live in New York, should I say anything?” The answer is yes, because the other states are watching, and even if it’s against the law and these regulations were to stand, chas v’shalom, it would set a precedent and create a threat to chinuch across the country. This is a trend that’s not limited to the US. You’ve seen what’s been happening in England. There’s a strong progressive agenda that is threatening the chinuch of our children all over the world

Is there a certain number of comments you’re aiming for?

No. The more, quantitatively and qualitatively, the better. 

Shouldn’t we encourage bachurim and girls to post their comments as well? There’s a huge number we can tap into worldwide.

Yes. Everyone has a voice. A high school student with the capacity to articulately do so can explain why he or she is opposed to the regulations, but anyone with a unique perspective should share it. One woman wrote that she came from Russia and valued education very highly. She enrolled her children in the local public school, but they were bullied and weren’t safe. Two weeks later she enrolled them in local yeshivos, and they emerged with a stellar education and are now raising beautiful families of their own. We have seen hundreds of different letters of why parents value having the opportunity to provide an education that is not the public school. I encourage all your readers to take a minute to share their thoughts about why yeshivah education matters to them, for whatever reason. 

Is there an organized effort in the summer camps to get parents to submit comments?

AJCO, the Association of Jewish Camp Operators, has a campaign to get parents to write letters, spearheaded by Rabbi Shimon Newmark, Director of Camp Agudah. And just yesterday we spoke about setting up more tables in different areas. We’re also planning on setting up a table outside BMG when the zman starts. 

No one is being forced to write a letter. If you don’t agree with our efforts, then don’t sign it. All we are doing is trying to make it easier for the parents who do, and giving them the information of what this is about. A lot of people don’t realize what is occurring or what the regulations say. That’s what advocacy is all about. We have to let the public know what we are facing and make things easier for them. 

Going back to the book Rememberings, Pauline writes that her father, who was a very ehrliche person, welcomed the intervention because he thought that there was a lot of room for improvement in the chadarim—not foreseeing the havoc it would bring. It’s very haunting, because her father had no idea that his only son, the apple of his eye, would end up being baptized and living in the US as a Christian preacher. Pauline, however, realized that the changes in the system were the catalyst that led to the negative societal changes. This is what she wrote: 

“One day my father returned from Minchah with wonderful news: a doctor of philosophy named Lilienthal had been commissioned by the Ministry of Education (under the cultivated and humane Minister Uvarov) to travel throughout Russia and to investigate the competence of the melamdim, in whose hands rested the early education of Jewish youth. My father, a strictly observant Jew, was not too upset about the impending reforms; he himself had long been dissatisfied with the poor methods of instruction in the Jewish schools of Brest, and had been wishing for many improvements….”

On the next page she writes, “My mother worried darkly about all these changes.” 

To which Leah replies:

Talk about chochmas nashim! l

Discussion
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  1. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, the great leader and prophet of our generation, is the highest authority under Gd, and the wisest of men in our times. He has defined the purpose of education first and foremost as the instilling of MORAL VALUES, not the accumulation of academic information. He has spoken very strongly about the importance of a PURE education for all Jewish children who will one day be responsible to be the lights unto the nations.

    Thank Gd, the Jewish private schools are succeeding in providing the kind of education that is necessary to create moral upright citizens who are a blessing to the state of NY, the US, and the entire world. I have no doubt that this will not change, and that those that work to help the Jewish people receive Torah true education during this time of crisis, will be greatly blessed by Gd etc.

    There is much more to say of this subject but I trust that the above will suffice.

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