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Andrew Yang dives into education controversy

By Hannah Dreyfus, New York Jewish Week via JTA

NEW[dropcap] YORK — New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang has affirmed “parental choice” and charged that there is a “complete lack of trust” between the haredi Orthodox community and the New York City government.

[caption id="attachment_507769" align="aligncenter" width="450"] NYC mayoral candidate Andrew Yang.[/caption]

Organizations that oppose government scrutiny of secular education at the Jewish private schools were quick to praise Yang for his comments.

“We commend any candidate who affirms the importance of parental choice and who recognizes the healthy results of yeshiva education,” said Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, director of New York government relations for Agudath Israel of America.

“This is indeed an issue of fundamental importance to our community.”

An organization that advocates for reform at city yeshivas disagrees.

“What broken trust?” asked Naftuli Moster, executive director of Yaffed, who described the relationship between the current administration and the haredi Orthodox community to be “more friendly than any city administration in the history of New York City.”

Yang, a businessman and a former Democratic presidential candidate, discussed the issue earlier last week with the Forward, saying “we shouldn’t interfere with their [yeshivas’] religious and parental choice as long as the outcomes are good.”

In a statement to the Jewish Week, Yang said:

“There has been a complete lack of trust recently between the ultra-Orthodox community and City and State government,” he said.

“We need to revamp this relationship and acknowledge that educators at Yeshivas and City education officials are all working towards the same goal – to ensure NYC students receive high-quality education.”

[dropcap]Yang is perhaps the first in a crowded field of candidates to broach the yeshiva issue, which has embroiled the haredi Orthodox community since the administration of Mayor Bill De Blasio announced in 2015 that it would investigate a complaint alleging that dozens of Brooklyn yeshivas were violating state law by giving their students a subpar education in English, math and other secular subjects.

Both sides in the debate declared partial victory in late 2019, when a long-delayed city Dept. of Education report found few yeshivas offering secular educations “substantially equivalent” to state requirements, but also that the majority were making progress.

De Blasio’s terms in office have demonstrated the importance, and pitfalls, of nurturing relations with the Orthodox, who form powerful voting blocs in neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Crown Heights and Williamsburg.

Last year, dozens of Jewish organizations and leaders criticized de Blasio for singling out the “Jewish community” in a tweet criticizing a large chasidic funeral held in defiance of coronavirus restrictions.

De Blasio later apologized for the comment, even as he himself did not always follow his own government’s COVID restrictions.

Moster cited several policies instituted by the de Blasio administration that were well-received by the Orthodox community. They included repealing regulations surrounding a circumcision ritual, permitting the use of government vouchers at religious schools, and increasing security funding for yeshivas and synagogues.

In his statement to the Jewish Week, Yang went on to promise that if elected mayor, he will “always respect religious freedom including the freedom of parents to do what’s best for their kids educationally. Thus, we shouldn’t interfere with their religious and parental choice as long as the outcomes are good.”

Moster called subpar secular education at yeshivas as “a major civil rights issue, an education policy issue,” as opposed to an issue of religious freedom.

Richard Bamberger, a spokesperson for a group that advocates for school choice and decreased supervision of New York City yeshivas, welcomed Yang’s comments.

“We are gratified that many of the mayoral candidates have acknowledged what we have always known: Parents choose yeshiva education for their children because they are confident that they will graduate with the skills and the knowledge to have a successful life,” said Bamberger, who represents Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, or Pearls.

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