A recent report by DNAinfo.com reporter Sonja Sharp starts out with a lie. She writes that “[M]ost Orthodox Jewish schools offer limited instruction in English, math and science, and some don’t teach them at all despite being legally required to do so.”
The hallmark of any good lie is that it contains a half-truth. In Ms. Sharp’s reporting, it’s actually an 18% truth. The problem exposed by interviews in the article is in Yiddish-speaking Hasidic schools in Brooklyn. This is not a problem with “most Orthodox Jewish schools,” and, in fact, is far from the truth.
The truth is that most Orthodox Jewish day schools in North America meet the minimum criteria set by state and local governments and, in many cases, exceed those standards and offer highly-regarded secular programs.
According to a recent study commissioned by the Avi Chai Foundation and conducted by Dr. Marvin Schick (“A Census of Jewish day schools in the United States 2008-2009”), there are approximately 580 Jewish day schools in America that are classified as “Orthodox.” This classification includes Centrist, Chabad, Hasidic, Modern, and yeshiva versions of Jewish Orthodoxy. Hasidic schools, almost all of which are in New York, count for 105 of those schools, representing 18% of the Orthodox schools in this country. That’s hardly “most.”
To be fair, Hasidic schools in New York City (including those in, and mostly limited to, Brooklyn) represent approximately 43% of that city’s Orthodox student population, so there is reason for concern if what Ms. Sharp reports can be corroborated by something more than anecdotal reports from disgruntled alumni of a few institutions. However, it’s important to clear the name and reputations of the majority of Orthodox schools, even though they share a semantic and religious relationship with Hasidic Orthodox schools.
Students at Orthodox Jewish schools graduate to go on to universities perennially ranked in the top 50 in America, including Yeshiva University, Columbia, Brandeis, Penn, and Maryland, to name a few with significant populations of Orthodox students.
Students at Orthodox Jewish day schools score in the top percentiles on standardized tests and are frequently recognized by outside institutions for their excellence in secular subjects, including science and math.
We do not mean to downplay the crisis of poor secular education in a relatively small number of schools. Rather, we hope to highlight that this is a problem limited to a sub-set of the Orthodox world, and is NOT, by any means, reflective of the facts on the ground for most Orthodox schools in New York or North America, as Ms. Sharp claims.
It is true that there may be a problem with the quality of secular education within certain Hasidic schools in Brooklyn, and we encourage officials responsible for such matters to work with those schools to upgrade the quality of secular education. However, we want to set the record straight and alert readers to the facts. Contrary to Ms. Sharp’s contention, most Orthodox schools offer instruction in secular subjects that is at least on par with the public system, and, in many cases, is significantly better.
Rabbi Maccabee Avishur is the Associate Director for Teaching and Learning at Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership
By Rabbi Maccabee Avishur