Yeshivas in the News

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As Jews we’re famously committed to education—it’s right there in the Shema, after all (“And you shall teach it to your children, when you are home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise up”). And for immigrant communities, Jews included, education has meant upward mobility, accomplishment, safety.
But if anyone thinks these values lead to agreement in practice, or that all Jewish communities experience them alike, two big news stories this week are a humbling corrective. The first (in case you were a mile underground and missed the clamor) was the publication Sunday of a blockbuster New York Times investigation into the failure of many Hasidic boys’ schools in New York City to give their students even the most basic secular education. The result is that many emerge with English and math skills so deficient as to render them unemployable; a large part of the community subsists on welfare. Though the schools are private, they receive millions of dollars of state money (among other things, for secular programming) and are subject to state law requiring that private schools provide an education “substantially equivalent” to that of public schools.

In the second story, Yeshiva University, locked in a long-running battle over whether it must recognize LGBTQ student groups on campus, appealed to the Supreme Court and was rebuffed, albeit temporarily, by a 5-4 vote directing them to return to the lower court.

Both stories are occasions for some deep thinking about education and about community and its limitations. Who gets to say what education is for? Should it serve merely its community, or the broader society? And if education belongs exclusively to a community, as players in both these cases contend—if its job is to preserve the community’s values and prepare its next generation—then who gets to say who counts as part of that community?

You won’t find those premises questioned, or mostly even mentioned, in the fierce back-and-forth and round-and-round debates that have dominated online conversation about both these stories, especially the Hasidic education report. Indeed, the week before the article’s appearance was filled with preemptive cries of outrage from those alerted by a Times request for comments. At Moment, as it happens, we’ve been excavating those broader questions for some time—it’s one of the main reasons for our Big Questions format, which is ideally suited to get behind the headlines. Not long ago, we asked a broad range of thoughtful citizens: What is the one thing students should leave college knowing? We asked university presidents, rabbis, scientists, activists—Jewish and non-Jewish. The answers varied from former St. John’s College president Pano Kanelos (they should know how little they really know) to Bard president Leon Botstein (they should know how to frame a question) to “1619 Project” journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones (they should know to be skeptical of authority) to high school English teacher Julia Fisher (they should know the canonical texts).

If one theme emerged clearly, it was that education—encompassing who students are, what they need to know, and what kind of life they want to live—is tied up in who counts as part of the community. In another recent Big Questions feature, Moment asked about this concept, too, gathering reflections on this question: What is the meaning of community in the 21st century?  The question of who belongs in your community, and who gets a say in it, turns up in other debates too, such as the looming one over affirmative action in college admissions, a question we subjected to a recent “Moment Debate.”

In my years as an education reporter, I used to tell people that “Every issue, properly framed, is an education story.” (Since I’ve been at Moment, I’ve also been known to argue that every issue, properly framed, is a Jewish story.)  But beyond education and community, there’s a third big factor in these stories: religious liberty. That theme emerges clearly in the Yeshiva University story, where the school’s argument against inclusion of LGBTQ organizations is an appeal to the school’s religious liberty—in this case, to define their vision of education, including the values expressed, as they see fit. Where the school’s religious liberty rights end and the students’ rights begin is another bottomless question, made more so by the First Amendment tradition that maximizes that religious liberty.
We’ve returned many times to the questions posed to education and community by religious liberty. Society changes—more quickly in recent years than many would have expected—but the questions remain.

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