NEW YORK (JTA) — What should happen when a yeshiva does not teach its students the legally required amount of secular studies? And who should be held responsible: the school, or the parents who chose it?
Both of those questions were at the heart of a bombshell ruling in a New York state court last week that, if it stands, will transform how the state can regulate private schools. It also poses a challenge to advocates for increased secular education in yeshivas, who have spent years pushing the state to more strictly enforce its standards in schools.
It’s the latest major development in a years-long battle between an education department that seeks to compel secular education standards across private schools and haredi Orthodox yeshivas resisting coercion from the state.
In a trial that pitted several yeshivas and their advocates against the state’s education department, a judge in Albany ruled that the state no longer has the power to effectively force yeshivas to close for not teaching secular studies in a way that is “substantially equivalent” to education in public school. According to the ruling, state law says it’s the responsibility of parents, not schools, to ensure that children receive a “substantially equivalent” secular education.
But the court also ruled that the education requirements themselves still stand. The yeshivas and their supporters had taken the department to court, hoping that the judge would fully strike down the regulations that mandated secular education standards.
Both advocates and critics of the yeshivas are celebrating parts of the ruling and lamenting others. What’s clear is that the state’s mechanism for enforcing secular education standards in private schools will have to change, though what shape it will take remains to be seen.
“It highlights and it notes that the statute itself requires parents to ensure that their children receive a substantially equivalent education, but it doesn’t impose an obligation on the schools to provide that,” said Michael Helfand, a scholar of religious law and religious liberty at Pepperdine University, explaining the ruling. “If that’s the case, there’s no authority under the statute to close the school because the school failed to provide a ‘substantially equivalent’ education.”
The regulations at issue were approved in September, soon after The New York Times published the first in a series of articles investigating Hasidic yeshivas, reporting that a number of them received public funding but fell far short of secular education requirements. The yeshivas, and representatives of haredi Orthodox communities more broadly, have decried the articles as biased and inaccurate.
According to the new regulations, if yeshivas (or other private schools) did not provide a “substantially equivalent” secular education to their students, the state could compel parents to unenroll their children and place them in a school that meets state standards — effectively forcing the school to close.
The judge who wrote last week’s ruling, Christina Ryba, found “that certain portions of the New Regulations impose consequences and penalties upon yeshivas above and beyond that authorized” by law. Ryba wrote that the regulations exceed the state’s authority by forcing parents to withdraw their children.
She added that state law does not mandate that children must receive the requisite secular education “through merely one source of instruction provided at a single location.” She added that if children aren’t receiving the necessary instruction at yeshivas, they can still get it elsewhere, in some form of “supplemental instruction that specifically addresses any identified deficiencies.”
What that ruling means, Helfand said, is that the state will have to turn to other methods to enforce those standards, such as choosing to “tie particular requirements to the way in which schools receive funding.” The state could also investigate parents, not schools — which he described as a much more arduous undertaking.
“It would then have to slowly but surely make its way through each individual family or each individual child [and] ask questions about what they’re supplementing,” he said. “It’s very hard to see exactly how the New York State Education Department could, given this ruling, ensure that every child is receiving a basic education.”
For yeshivas and their advocates, he added, “It’s not the constitutional victory that I think some hoped for but it’s a very practical victory that in the end may stymie the state’s ability to actually impose significant regulation.”
That’s the way advocates of yeshivas — including parties to the petition — appear to be reading this ruling. A statement from Parents for Education and Religious Liberty in Schools, known as PEARLS, one of the petitioners, said the ruling gives “parents the right to send their children to the school of their choice. …In sum, it provides parents and parochial schools with both the autonomy and the protections that the regulations tried to strip away.”
Another advocate of yeshivas that was party to the case, the haredi umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America, saw the ruling as “not the complete victory many were [praying] for,” according to a statement, because it didn’t strike down last year’s regulations entirely. But the group was grateful that Ryba did rule out “the egregious overreach the Regulations sought,” including the “prospect of forcibly shutting down schools.”
Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudath Israel’s director of public affairs, told JTA that the organization was “obviously relieved” by the ruling but feels the battle isn’t over. At the beginning of the year, Agudath Israel launched a campaign called “Know Us” that aims to counter what it calls a “smear campaign” by The New York Times.
“But with elements out there bent on pressuring yeshivos to accept their own personal educational philosophy, we remain on the alert for any future attempts to limit yeshivos or parental autonomy,” Shafran wrote in an email.
While Agudath Israel may see the ruling as a partial victory, that doesn’t mean advocates for secular education necessarily see it as a total defeat. Young Advocates for Fair Education, known as YAFFED, which submitted an amicus brief to the court in support of the Department of Education, said in a press release that the ruling “is of grave concern to all parents with children in non-public schools.” Beatrice Weber, YAFFED’s executive director, said the ruling will require the group to shift its strategy, which has until now focused on compelling the schools to teach secular studies.
But she is heartened that the core requirement to provide a threshold level of secular studies still stands for parents — and she’s skeptical that haredi communities will take the risk of asking parents to violate that requirement en masse. In the end, she believes more yeshivas will, in fact, become “substantially equivalent” in order to remove that risk.
“This victory they’re celebrating is really putting them in this corner,” Weber said. “We’ll see what they decide to do but none of the claims of [the regulations] being a violation of religious freedom — none of that was accepted.”
Weber acknowledges that the burden for secular education has now shifted to parents, and “there’s not going to be someone knocking on every door” to make sure parents comply. But she noted that many haredi families interact with the state because they receive forms of public assistance, which she said could provide a built-in mechanism to pressure them to comply.
“Any time they touch the government it’s going to come up,” she said. “Many Hasidic families deal with government programs a lot — whether it’s Medicaid, whether it’s food stamps. I can’t see community leaders saying, ‘Whatever, let the families figure it out.’”
A spokesperson for the state education department declined to say whether the state plans to appeal the ruling, or what it means for future oversight of yeshivas. But in a statement, the department said the ruling “validates the Department’s commitment to improving the educational experience of all students.”
The statement added: “We remain committed to ensuring students who attend school in settings consistent with their religious and cultural beliefs and values receive the education to which they are legally entitled.”
Whatever the future holds, Helfand says the ruling reflects a new way to read the law that, for years, has driven tensions between the state and yeshivas.
“I would have expected people reading the statute not to distinguish between whether ‘substantially equivalent’ is a parental obligation or a school obligation,” he said. “The fact that the court was able to slice the obligation in such a precise way — it’s something we haven’t seen before.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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