There have been a couple of big stories about the intersection of secular law and Orthodox Jewish education within the past week. On Sunday, the New York Times ran a major investigation into Hassidic schools which receive millions of dollars in state education funding but do not provide their students with a basic grounding in English, math, science, or history. I spent the first eight years of my life in Brooklyn one neighborhood over from Boro Park and until very recently still had relatives in the old neighborhood. Step into a Hassidic store in Brooklyn and you can easily verify the fact that there are third generation American-born Hassidim who can barely speak English. A couple of days after the story appeared the New York State Board of Regents passed new regulations requiring all schools to teach a basic curriculum and vowing to ascertain that this was indeed being done. We will see whether this happens or not.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Yeshiva University’s appeal to the Supreme Court seeking a stay of a state court’s order that it must recognize an undergraduate LGBT student club. Late last week Justice Sonia Sotomayor entered a temporary stay pending review by the entire court. On Wednesday the Court denied the stay by a vote of 5-4 with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh siding with the Court’s three liberal justices. The decision was not on the merits of the case but rather based on the fact that Yeshiva had not exhausted its appeal possibilities within the New York State courts before turning to the Supreme Court. This means that for now, Yeshiva has to recognize YU Pride and give them the benefits that other student clubs receive.
Yeshiva University is the flagship of Modern Orthodoxy while the Hassidic schools represent what can legitimately be described as “Anti-modern Orthodoxy.” In both cases, however, the legal issues hinge at least in part on the fact that the schools receive public funds. There is no question that if Yeshiva University did not receive government funds it would be free to deny recognition to the LGBT student organization. Hassidic elementary and high schools would still probably be required to teach a semblance of a basic secular curriculum even if they did not receive government funds but there is also no doubt that the public outcry is heightened by the fact that the schools are receiving public funds which seem not to be used as intended.
After the holidays I’ll hold a session of my “Contemporary Jewish Controversies” class looking at these issues.
Tomorrow night September 17 we will be joining B’nai Shalom of Olney, Tikvat Israel, and Shaare Tefila for Selichot services and program. The evening’s events will take place at Tikvat Israel, 2200 Baltimore Rd. in Rockville, beginning with Havdalah at 8:30 pm. If you cannot attend in person you can view the livestream here.
Our guest speaker will be Wayne Hoffman, executive editor of Tablet magazine and author of The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer's to Solve a Murder, published by Heliotrope Books. This book is the true story of his efforts to uncover the details of his great-grandmother’s murder while watching his mother decline due to Alzheimer’s disease. He is also the author of three novels. Mr. Hoffman’s talk will begin at around 9 pm followed by a brief Selichot service at 9:45. Participating in the service will be the rabbis and cantors of the four congregations.
While I have switched my day off from Tuesday to Monday, our board meetings this year are on Monday nights. So this coming week I will be working on Monday and taking Tuesday off instead.
I am having drop-in hours on Thursday afternoon from 2 to 4 at the shul. You do not need to make an appointment -- that would negate the whole point of drop-in hours -- but I’d urge you to check and make sure I am there regardless as sometimes there are unavoidable pastoral or other emergencies which might take me away from the building.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment. I have been spending more time in the synagogue recently but if you want to speak with me it’s best to make an appointment rather than assuming I will be there when you stop by.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian