When the Satmar Rebbe stood up for civil liberties

The fight to change the new NY State education law was not only about oversight of school curricula, it was about a parent's right to choose his child's education.

Rochel Sylvetsky, | updated: 13:03

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Rochel Sylvetsky
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The recent change in New York State's Education Law was hotly fought for by haredi-hassidic parents and vehemently opposed by a group who contended that the children in haredi cheder were not being prepared for life in the modern world because they were not being taught most of the secular subjects in the public school curriculum. Using the leverage provided by the state budget which needed to be agreed upon before the legal cutoff date and political savvy on the part of the Satmar Rebbe and State Senator Simcha Felder, the change was passed into law just before Passover.

To hear that side of the issue, Arutz Sheva spoke about what lies beyond the fight to change the NY State education law - and the Satmar Rebbe's central role in the struggle - with Rabbi Yitschok Frankfurter, Editor in Chief and founder of Ami Magazine, aimed at a haredi audience but the most widely read Orthodox Jewish publication in the English language, printed in Israel and NY and distributed worldwide.

Arutz Sheva: What is the controversy about? What triggered it now?

Rabbi Frankfurter: "The NY State education law mandates 'equivalency education'  for private schools, meaning education equivalent to that given in the public school system.  This part of the law was not strictly enforced, it being tacitly accepted that private educational frameworks have differing priorities, but as far as the letter of the law goes, until the law was changed, the cheder curriculum could be construed as non-compliance.

It became an issue when some people who had left the haredi world decided not only to leave the community but to fight to change the community they had left.

This is not new. There have always been those, even in the Roman era, who left the observant Jewish fold and then decided to try to force it to change. 

These people pressured the NY State Senators to force all haredi schools to teach secular subjects as taught in public schools and since the Senators ignored them, were preparing a massive lawsuit to force the Senate to act on the issue. On the books, the law mandated equivalency, so this might have led to forced changes in haredi education. On the other hand, had the dispute gone to court, the whole religious liberty issue would have been brought up and the group might have found themselves the losers.

The change in the law, as proposed by Senator Simcha Felder and passed in the Senate in a somewhat watered-down version, allows the schools themselves to choose the equivalent subjects, neutralizing that danger. The bill broadened the criteria for evaluating the 'substantial equivalency' of the schools’ curriculum to the public school version.

Why was the equivalency requirement such a problem?

Rabbi Frankfurter:  "There's nothing wrong with wanting more subjects in the curriculum. That is a legitimate argument and a matter of choice.  The illegitimate part is getting the government involved in our internal affairs, as if we are in a totalitarian country. That danger united the entire community 

Parents for Education and Liberty in Schools (PEARLS), a coalition of parents, educators, and religious leaders which includes all of the city’s major hassidic sects was established and pressured for the change in the law. It passed in the Senate before Passover, so that the law now recognizes the substantial equivalency of the subjects these children learn all day.

Why not teach those secular subjects? Wouldn't it mean a better education?

Rabbi Frankfurter: "Partly unsuitable subject matter aside, time wise, there is no way secular subjects equivalent to those taught in public schools could be taught without sacrificing the level of devotion to Torah study.  We cannot let that happen.

This is the system that turns our children into talmidei chachamim whose level of critical thinking far surpasses that reached by those studying secular subjects. Our education also inculcates a value system that prepares our children to lead upright, righteous and fulfilling lives.

This is what successful education is supposed to be about. This is how successful education should be defined and measured.

How do you evaluate what happened?

Rabbi Frankfurter:  "We witnessed a major miracle in1946 when there was a revival of those Jews who survived physically and spiritually. There was a rebirth of Torah, especially in Eretz Yisrael. Nothing, of course, compares to what happened in Eretz Yisrael, but NY and London have large religious communities and are certainly important in that respect.  We fought to preserve that miracle.

The study of Torah has sustained this generation. That is what preserved Jewish identity through the centuries of the Diaspora and will continue to sustain us. There are people who, because of their own agendas, have tried to reform our Torah education and are still trying to do it. There's nothing new under the sun about this.

Today, there is a group which has made false accusations against us about other things as well, headed by people who have left Orthodox Judaism. They are more vocal and more sophisticated than in the past, and due to the web, everyone can write and be heard overnight.  It is a greater challenge for us. They falsely  accused us of other things and now of not educating our kids. 

Why should you have the right to decide what your children learn?

Rabbi Frankfurter: "The education of one's children? That should be a personal decision. In the United States, parents have the right to decide. Our system leads to happier children.  In the NY Post a writer wrote that if you ask kids, whether they want to learn more Math or Bible, most will say Bible. So even in that respect, we are a success story.

One of the fundamental beliefs in the US, upheld in the courts, is that parents have the right to bring up their children as they see fit. G-d forbid we should become like Communist Russia and have the government educate our children. The government cannot impose values on religious people. We will fight for that freedom.

But what will those children do when they grow up and have to support a family?

Rabbi Frankfurter: "What people have to understand is that not everything in education has to lead to the ability to make a lot of money. We are willing to sacrifice a high living standard as a community, especially in the chasidishe world, willing to forego financial success, and sacrifice in other ways – all this in order to preserve our values.

And there are many opportunities to earn a living. These children will have the freedom to say 'these are my values and I am willing to sacrifice for them, I would rather have a store than be a medical professional or an attorney.' 

It is a lie to say that the products of the haredi educational system can't earn a living. For those who don't stay in yeshiva full time as adults, there is the possibility of going into business, there are courses in the community centers, courses on the internet etc. for training in other fields, as well as courses for improving needed language skills etc.

What was the Satmar Rebbe Shlita's role in the change in the law, how does his view enhance our understanding of the issue?

Rabbi Frankfurter: "The Satmar Rebbe, Rav Aron Teitelbaum Shlita, is the real hero of the story. Simcha Felder is the NY State Sen.who drafted and submitted the law at the behest of the Rav Aron and with his hands-on guidance, with the backing of other Gedolim. 

When asked for his views, the Satmar Rebbe said:  'What should parents do who want more general schooling? Find another frum school that is still a yeshiva. They have a parental choice to do that but they must also have the ability to make a parental choice to send their child to a chassidishe cheder.'

What Agudas Yisrael, Lubavitch and all the others agreed on is that the government should not be involved in the subject matter taught in our schools. Orthodox Jews want freedom to practice their forefathers' faith as they believe it should be practiced– the cardinal rule is not to get the government involved, not like in Russia where doing that brought disaster. That is what we resisted and the Rebbe was totally involved in our efforts."

To   quote  NY media: 

When the final budget passed at 4 a.m., Mr. Felder’s influence seemed confirmed. The legislation carved out special standards for schools with especially long school days, bilingual programs and nonprofit status — in effect, yeshivas — in determining whether they offered educations equivalent to those at public schools, as required by law…

"Parents should have the ability to decide what sort of education their children receive,” Mr. Felder said in an interview on Monday, calling the bill the “beginning of a process that not only pertains to yeshivas but to alternative schools of any sort.”

Simcha Felder is a Democrat who caucuses with the Republican Party and whose vote is needed by Republicans to pass legislation under the present ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the NY Senate. The budget was held up by his insistence on passing the change in the law. Felder said he is loyal only to “G-d, my wife, my constituents and New Yorkers. I don’t care about political parties and more and more New Yorkers feel the same way.” He has proven that he meant it.