For years, one hears constant legal claims or social accusations made against people of a majority religion seeking to guide a town in accordance with their religious beliefs in the US. Such examples include Ave Maria, Florida for Catholics and Dearborn, Michigan for Muslims. In both cases, a host of “civil rights” organizations seem to rise out of nothing against them, and claim in the name of freedom and American law that they are trying to maintain the “separation of church and state.”
However, no such legal wrangling and shouting is made over the town of Palm Tree, NY, also known as Kiryas Joel, which is a Jewish-only town just southwest of Newburgh where since 1977 following the transfer of the Hasidic Satmar sect to the area, the majority of people speak Yiddish (and some no English at all), almost everybody collects welfare as it has some of the lowest reported incomes in the nation, and the Rabbis rule the town based on Talmudic law.
It is most curious that neither the state of New York or the so-called “civil rights” organizations that beleaguer Catholics, Protestants, and even Muslims and other religions have had something to say about the town, its leadership, and its open existence as a Jewish-only town run by Jewish law.
However, this may be changing as the state of New York has began to crack down on Jewish schools, called Yeshivas, for ignoring subjects not related directly to the Torah or Talmud and leaving students unequipped with basic skills, including illiteracy and the inability to do basic math. As one story noted it is a serious problem, with the Yeshivas “digging” in resistance to the state, with the strongest resistance coming from Kiryas Joel/Palm Tree:
The state’s effort to ensure that religious schools are teaching core academic subjects has set off a fierce backlash in Kiryas Joel and other Orthodox communities in New York, outraging parents who see the mandate as a threat to Torah-focused education and their culture.
As of Thursday, more than 55,000 people had signed an online petition from yeshiva parents to declare their opposition to the new enforcement push announced last month by the Education Department. The petition tells Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia: “We trust our Rabbis, our principals, and our leaders to create the school schedule and curriculum that works best for our children.”
The state has ordered that all nonpublic schools in New York undergo reviews to verify they are providing a “substantially equivalent” education to that of public schools, a longstanding requirement in state law. Schools that are found not to be spending enough classroom time on English, math and other secular subjects are expected to correct those deficiencies, and risk losing state funding for textbooks and busing if they don’t.
Yeshiva parents are objecting to what they see as government interference and a violation of religious rights. They also have zeroed in on what they say are excessive demands in the state guidelines, which appear to require seven hours per day of secular instruction for grades 5-8.
Rabbi Yoel Loeb, who has eight children attending Hasidic schools in the Kiryas Joel area and has lobbied Elia to preserve that teaching tradition, gathered with other opponents on Thursday outside the Education Department in Albany, where the department held its first training session with school administrators to implement the new policy.
He said earlier in an interview that the Hasidic community can’t compromise with state officials on its intensive religious study, which he said was the secret to its cohesion and durability.
“This is the only way the Jewish religion will survive for the next generations,” he said.
Loeb also pointed to the low levels of crime and drug abuse in Orthodox communities as evidence of the effectiveness of their schools.
Satmar Grand Rebbe Aaron Teitelbaum, leader of the Satmar Hasidic branch that makes up a majority in Kiryas Joel, vowed defiance of the Education Department in a speech in Yiddish to throngs of followers in Brooklyn last month. “We accuse the state education commissioner of harassing all God-fearing Jews, the Jews who want to educate their sons and daughters in the ways of Torah that we have received, generation after generation, from our rabbis,” Teitelbaum said, according to an English translation.
Kiryas Joel School Superintendent Joel Petlin, who runs the village’s public school for special-needs students and will be in charge of reviewing Kiryas Joel’s yeshivas, gave a prepared statement in response to the petition drive: “I recognize the backlash from the religious school community, and I’m hopeful that the Education Department and Legislature will devise a method by which education programs can be measured, and improvements can be made in private schools, while protecting the rights of parents to educate children in the religious schools of their choice.”
The New York State Catholic Conference welcomed the state’s scrutiny of Catholic schools, saying their test scores and graduation and college-placement rates often exceed those of public schools. But it wants the Education Department to conduct the reviews, not the school districts in which they are located.
Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, said in a statement: “We are eager to demonstrate our success to parents and New York State, but it is unacceptable for local public school boards, which are competitors, to have authority over the operations of our schools.” (source)
The chief rabbi for Kiryas Joel/Palm Tree, Aron Teitelbaum, called one New York politician, James Skoufis, “wicked and evil” for supporting such inquiries. Skoufis replied that the only evil was the preferential treatment given to the town, which he declared that he would end:
Aron Teitelbaum, the chief rabbi of the Satmar community in Kiryas Joel, essentially declared “war” on the state, and called Sen.-elect James Skoufis “wicked and evil” during a speech in front of thousands on Wednesday.
In a 90-minute speech, Satmar Grand Rebbe Teitelbaum criticized new mandates requiring never-before-seen oversight in private religious schools, including yeshivas.
He directed religious leaders to ignore new state mandates to teach non-religious studies in the same manner taught in public schools.
Skoufis responded: “There’s going to be a new sheriff in town and if there’s anything wicked, it’s this preferential treatment some politicians give Kiryas Joel. That’s going to end on my watch.”
Teitelbaum accuses the state of trying to prohibit Jewish education and infringe on their constitutional rights.
Yaffed Executive Director and education activist Naftuli Moster disagrees, and said in a written statement: “As it is, the state did give Orthodox Yeshivas special considerations. So what he seems to be saying is that he wants even more special treatment. Rabbi Teitelbaum should pursue cooperative and constructive relationships, based on mutual respect, with the government and with his neighbors. There does need to be a balance. You can’t get into a balance if you’re declaring war on New York state.” (source, source)
As the State of New York has continued to investigate the Yeshivas, new evidence has surfaced of a parent of a child at a school in the town, who reported anonymously to local news that his son, aged 11, has been left illiterate in English and unable to do basic math because he learns nothing of basic educational skills at school:
A parent of an Orthodox yeshiva student in Orange County is alleging the school isn’t teaching basic studies like math and English, even though it’s now required by the state.
The Hasidic father asked that his identity be concealed in a News 12 exclusive about the private school system in the ultra-Orthodox community of Palm Tree, formerly known as Kiryas Joel.
The man says his 11-year-old son goes to Yeshiva Sheri Torah on Larkin Drive in Monroe and claims the fifth-grader barely knows the alphabet, doesn’t speak English and can only add and subtract single-digit numbers.
New state Education Department guidelines require that private schools provide an education equivalent to a public school and teach subjects like math, science, English and social studies.
The father claims the yeshiva isn’t. He says when he asked about it, he was told to stop or else his son will be removed from school.
Indeed, it is highly curious that this town has been given clearly a long bout of preferential treatment that is not and would not be afforded to other groups.
It will be interesting to watch this case and the response of those involved, as based on what information is available, a crackdown on the Yeshivas would not be in violation of the “freedom of religion”, but rather enforcing the long-agreed up on standard that all other religious groups are held to in the US and has acted as such a precedent for well over a century.