Yaffed and the War on Jewish Education

by Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Jeff Ballabon

There is an ongoing machlokes l’shem shamayim, an “argument for the sake of heaven” within the Jewish world, concerning the correct blend of religious and secular education. Some Jewish schools aggressively compete with the finest prep schools in the country. Others aim to satisfy more basic levels of secular instruction while focusing more intensively on Jewish studies. Yet a third group minimizes the study of secular subjects, producing graduates barely fluent in English, much less geography or biology.

It is appropriate for this topic to be actively debated and discussed, for Rabbinic leaders to encourage schools to follow their educational paradigms, and for parents to choose schools for their children which best meet their own priorities and beliefs. But no matter where we fall in our own philosophies of Jewish education, it is irresponsible and dangerous to direct the heavy hand of government against the choices of others.

That is the approach taken by the “Yaffed” organization, which claims to promote discussion by “rais[ing] awareness” in the community, but in reality aims to end it via coercive action. Yaffed sued New York State in Federal court, demanding that the state Education Department force Jewish schools to change their curricula — and this was a key motivator behind recent state draft requirements for private schools which, at least initially, appeared to relegate religious education to an afterthought.

Jewish survival has always hinged on Jewish education, and our history is replete with notorious examples of government interference — often with active assistance and even prodding from Jews. Whether those Jewish antagonists had a chip on their shoulder towards Judaism or were motivated by genuine concern for children, the results have always been disastrous. From the Greeks and Romans to Tsarist and Communist Russia, educated Jews — that is to say, Jewishly-educated Jews — know that government intervention in Jewish education has been a consistently destructive force.

It has become commonplace for the outside world to cast Jews with secular university educations as more highly educated than those without. Yet as alumni of both elite Ivy-League Universities and revered yeshivos, we know that the scholarship, energy and forward-looking motion within Judaism today arises primarily from those who sacrifice an advanced formal secular curriculum in favor of additional Torah study.

This is one reason why we chose schools for our children that heavily favor Torah subjects and long hours in the beis medrash at the expense of some secular studies. We fully respect the right of other Jews to make other choices. We demand the right to make our own.

This does not mean that the content of our schools’ curricula should not be debated. On the contrary, it is something which must constantly be monitored, discussed, and optimized — but within our community, never imposed upon us from the outside.

We are disturbed, therefore, to encounter an attitude of indifference or acceptance even among some Orthodox Jews, who disagree with those who consciously choose a more cloistered existence — and who believe that these government regulations will lead to no harm. The machlokes about the balance of limudei kodesh and limudei chol may be l’shem shamayim, but there is nothing l’shem shamayim about government interference in a community’s yiddishkeit. It’s also remarkably short-sighted to imagine that if we permit increased government intrusion, it will stop at a few more hours of limudei chol in chassidische chadorim.

The obvious dangers of the Yaffed approach should be self-evident to anyone paying attention to the state of education outside our community. Schools, textbooks and mandatory curricula have become petri dishes for social engineering — culturing growth in directions diametrically opposed to a Torah worldview.

Jewish schools in Great Britain are threatened with closure if they fail to teach “tolerance and respect” for “alternative lifestyle choices,” or if they offer a religious viewpoint on Creation “as having a similar or superior evidence base to scientific theories.” In the United States, schools teach “Palestinian” history while referring to “Holocaust Fatigue” to dismiss the need for education regarding the Nazi genocide. And a Canadian teacher was dismissed for mentioning to a group of high school seniors, during a discussion of differences between personal opinions and the law, his personal belief that abortion is wrong.

The only ordained rabbi on Yaffed’s Advisory Council is Eric Yoffie, President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. That the Reform movement pursues an aggressive statist, anti-religious-freedom, progressive agenda is just as relevant to Mr. Yoffie’s involvement as his history of aggressive hostility towards traditional Judaism and its rabbis, both in America and Israel.

In Great Britain, the government claims that “even though children may have to go to a different school, and this might not be the school of the families’ choice, the enforcement action would ultimately be to the benefit of children.” In other words, state authorities explicitly posit that they are better qualified to determine what is “to the benefit of children” than the children’s parents.

That, of course, is the tacit mindset behind the recent decrees of the New York State Education Department. That is why although the current regulations may not create an immediate problem for our schools and our children, unless we join forces to push back, the next step certainly shall. For governments to tell our schools how to teach our children should offend not only a subset of the Orthodox community, but anyone who values civil liberties, religious freedoms, and parental rights.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Managing Director of the Coalition for Jewish Values (CJV). Jeff Ballabon is chairman of B2 Strategic and advises CJV on strategy and policy.

Originally published in the Jewish Press. This version is without the edits made by the Jewish Press for space and style reasons.

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13 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    Perhaps the issue is nuanced.
    1.Does the religious freedom priority trump all others? (If a religion placed a high value on the destruction of the US, would the state have an interest in seeing that value not being taught?)
    2.Does the acceptance of state funding have any impact on the school’s leave us alone position?
    3.As members of a larger “partnership’ do orthodox Jews need to accept any community standards ?(e.g. democratically elected representatives setting minimal secular education standards)
    4.When the community ignores “outside laws”, when does a member have a right (duty?) to move outside to seek to end harm?

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Has NY State sent any written clarification yet about required secular curriculum hours, as we were led to expect?

    Governor Cuomo has evidently made his peace with the teachers’ unions in NY State, and he has trumpeted his intent to implement a very progressive agenda overall. As I already thought, he feels his path to higher office is to swing further left. If we still have leverage with him, I suspect others have more.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    This is an excellent argument and reminds that innocuous regulations breed more regulations and invariably mask an ideological agenda

  4. Pragmatist says:

    It’s worth noting that YAFFED has lied about the situation consistently enough that they should have no credibility in this matter. When the Guidelines came out, they claimed that Agudah (as though Agudah were the only ones saying this) was “fear mongering”. They claimed that the guidelines don’t actually require a full day of secular studies. When they were pointed to the guidelines they still insisted that it’s “fear mongering”. The proof? “They obviously don’t mean it.” They also claimed that Dr. Elia wasn’t implicitly threatening to set the truancy folks onto parents who send their children to “non-compliant” schools, despite the fact that she brought this up not only in the press conference in which the new guidelines were promulgated, but also in other interviews.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    Recent history shows government-by-bureaucracy to be an expansive, unstoppable force until it meets up with an immovable object. Around the world, we see power madness united with “progressive” ideology. Now that the “progressive” fiction of objective government experts acting only in our best interests has been exposed, we’re obliged to become that immovable object. As they sang, “we shall not be moved.”

  6. Bob Miller says:

    Joel Rich wrote on January 4, 2019 at 6:27 am:
    “Does the religious freedom priority trump all others? (If a religion placed a high value on the destruction of the US, would the state have an interest in seeing that value not being taught?)’

    We’ve seen for a long time that the cultural and political Left has its own substitute for religion that has all attributes of a religion except belief in God. This ersatz religion is dead set against traditional American values and our Constitution and has proven eager to destroy people and institutions standing in its path. Its devotees in state and local government have had no problem whatsoever in mandating curricula that undermine critical thinking, morality, and patriotism. It portrays itself as acting in the interests of the broad community, but is really subversive to the core. It tries to shout down and obliterate all opposition from mere citizens, whom it holds in contempt. It ignores or falsifies laws on the books. If all the above is not destructive to the US, what is? So which side is NY State on?

  7. Steve Brizel says:

    Joel Rich-the SCOTUS has twice ruled that the state has no basis for interfering with how Amish educate their children based on the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. IMO, it is not a question of haggling over reduced or increased hours for a particular subject The acceptance of state funding for buses and secular textbooks should not be viewed as a club enforced by bureaucrats enforcing regulations with a raison de etre to regulate more and an ideological agenda by which the state dictates a progressive and militantly secular agenda in yeshivos-Yakov has two Tatties or two Imas should never be part of the price of accepting state aid for buses or secular textbooks.

  8. M Cohen says:

    The board members and leaders of YAFFED are some of the leading LGBT activists in NY. You can be sure they do not care how many hours a day Chassidim learn Bava Kamma. They are interested in pushing their social and cultural agenda i.e. “normalization” of deviancy into the only place left where its still called deviant. Don’t be fooled. They have fooled the whole world and we are like the last men standing. Let’s stand strong!

  9. Michael Broyde says:

    Like Joel Rich, I think this article needs more nuance. Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Jeff Ballabon, criticize those who support any and all governmental regulation in Jewish education and adopt a view seeming to oppose any and all governmental regulation of religious education. I see five problems with the “absolutely no regulation” approach.
    1. Allowing religious schools without any governmental regulation will be a bad idea as it will give rise to schools that preach anti-Semitism as a core religious value to their children. We want governmental regulation to prevent dangers to us and none of us want “First Aryan Church Schools” at all, and even more so, we need regulation to make sure that no governmental funding goes to schools that promote violence against Jews.
    2. The idea that the government should not regulate schools for content, but should continue to subsidize the lunches and buses and heat and textbooks and much more of these schools is unprecedented. States are seeking to regulate institutions that seek money from the state, less parents’ choices. There is — for good reason — a connection between funding and curriculum. They did not speak about funding issues at all.
    3. Religious freedom is at its weakest when dealing with the rights of parents to impose their views on their children. Government is rightfully concerned with the welfare of all children and no one should want to live in a society where crazy parents have the right to make crazy choices for their children in the name of religion. Consider just substituting the word vaccines for education and you see where this leads us. Do they favor regulating religious schools on health and safety matters?
    4. The state’s desire to regulate education is driven by the state’s desire to avoid poverty in the community. That is a reasonable fear and incessant poverty is a problem in all communities, even ours. Calls for educational freedom that do not address the problems of long term poverty are incomplete.
    5. One of the central problems of Jewish education remains cost. Governmental regulation will, I hope, increase payments as well. The model in which the government sets and pays for the secular curriculum (and the building) has many advantages and maybe this is a first step (Yes, this is the most speculative observation!).
    I hope that they will write one with more nuance that discusses school regulation in the context of funding issues, parental rights, health and safety issues, and the problems of unfettered religious education endangering Jews.

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      Jeff wrote much of this… it’s interesting how much we think alike on this issue.

      1. It’s shocking that anyone would justify the government riding roughshod over religious freedom in order to give it power to impose on freedom of speech, as well. If the price of being able to teach Vayikra 18 is that others can teach things we find abominable in their schools, it’s an easy choice (and for those who didn’t notice, the door to that barn was opened wide long ago). “Promote violence” is a very, very tough standard to define, and there is no shortage of well-funded plaintiffs waiting to accuse the Torah of preaching violence. We need to make sure we are protected from actual violence, that’s a no-brainer. But we should never support any laws that limit “hate speech.” Never. One simply has to be realistic about the double standards applied to all things Jewish on every subject to understand how suicidal (literally) this idea is.

      When one adds to this the fact that the Beacon High School in Manhattan already held a moment of silence for terrorists neutralized before they could slaughter Jews, there is literally nothing to be gained here.

      2. By no means do we believe that government should subsidize our schools. Our schools should not receive government subsidies — and we should, of course, receive 100% tax breaks for the money we spend on our schools. Government should pay for transportation and security, as these are provided to all children in all schools, but as far as education we should neither be required to pay for public schools we do not use, nor receive public grants for our schools.

      There is a theme consistent across a number of Rabbi Broyde’s criticisms that takes for granted something insidious: that the government should be confiscating our money to pay for schools that deliver a curriculum the government determines. On the contrary — parents should be permitted to choose how to educate their children, including, at the very least, not having to pay taxes on the money they spend on private education. The current system makes us beholden to the very people taking our money and then forcing us to conform to their priorities.

      If, as in the current situation, they are confiscating our money by force, then we should try to recapture it any legal way we can.

      3. Rabbi Broyde is reaching for a non-existent extreme. Crazy parents are the exception – bad government is the rule. Is there an entire school for crazy parents out there? Probably, but it takes governments to build the truly bad public schools common in many cities.

      Government regulation of public places or health and safety issues is a completely separate bucket, and is irrelevant to this discussion — both in terms of logic and law.

      4. That (avoiding poverty) is the stated excuse, but in practice the state uses education for many other purposes, including to socialize children into an entire array of ideas hostile to our faith. If it’s to avoid poverty, it’s pretty clear the state is doing a miserable job — once again, we should trust parents first.

      Here’s an article that just appeared, from the Haym Solomon Center’s Ziva Dahl: Education Is Quickly Becoming Propaganda In Our Primary And Secondary Schools.

      5. It’s hard to imagine a less realistic calculus than the one Broyde offers here: if they regulate us more, we will get more funding? Is there any example anywhere in the United States of government programs being more cost effective (or mission effective) as they become more highly regulated? That is roughly as common as the number of times, throughout thousands of years of history, that government intervention in Jewish schools has proven to be a positive force, helping Jews to be Jewishly educated, Jewishly committed, productive both religiously and civilly.

      The correct solution involves less government intrusion, accompanied by taking less of our tax money to fund public schools, leaving us better equipped to fund our own.

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    .theyeshivaworld.com/news/israel-news/1663733/boro-park-yeshiva-graduate-scores-top-grade-on-israels-cpa-exam.html fascinating story especially for those claim that a Chasidishe yeshiva education renders a graduate incapable of earning a living.

  11. Steve Brizel says:


    R Broyde and all others -we now know what one Federal District Court thinks of the vitality of the rationale and holding of the Yoder decision and its rationale and the lack of standing of the plaintiffs’ claims in the Yaffed case

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