In July 2015 the New York City Department of Education (DOE) announced it would investigate the quality of secular education provided at more than three dozen yeshivas. The Jewish religious schools, primarily operated by ultra-Orthodox groups in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, Borough Park, and Crown Heights Hasidic communities, were accused by former students and teachers of denying students, particularly male students, state-mandated instruction in English, math, social studies, and science.
The issue resurfaced again in April 2018 and again in July. In April, a State Senator representing Borough Park held up passage of the state budget until yeshivas were exempted from state education mandates. A spokesman for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is currently seeking re-election, praised the exemption claiming “the Legislature passed a law that sought to balance the unique needs of yeshivas with the high educational standards we require for every New York student” and reported that the Governor remains “committed to achieving that balance.”
In response to the exemption, a group called Young Advocates for Fair Education, representing many of the yeshiva alumni and teachers who made the initial complaint to the NYC DOE, filed a lawsuit in July arguing that the state, in violation of its own constitution, was illegally permitting ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools to deny their students the kind of education needed to function in the broader society. The lawsuit named Andrew Cuomo, State Education commissioner MaryEllen Elia, and Chancellor of the State Board of Regents Betty Rosa, as defendants. According to the complaint, 115,000 children attend ultra-Orthodox yeshivas in New York State. There are over eighty Hasidic yeshivas in New York City alone. A survey of yeshiva graduates and parents conducted by Young Advocates for Fair Education found that only a quarter of respondents reported that they received any secular education while attending ultra-Orthodox yeshiva high schools.
On August 15, 2018, New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, released a letter addressed to State Education Commissioner Elia complaining that half of the schools cited in the initial 2015 complaint had either refused to meet or simply did not respond to requests for meetings, with city investigators. Education officials were denied admission to fifteen of the schools when they made announced visits. In the letter, Carranza reported that the DOE had interviewed parents and students involved in the initial complaints about the lack of secular education at the yeshivas. According to students and their parents, secular instruction basically stopped when boys reached the age of thirteen. In cases where it did continue, the schools treated it as voluntary.
Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox Hasidic communities have long had a cozy relationship with Andrew Cuomo. In 2010, at a meeting with Hasidic community leaders in Williamsburg, he acknowledged “a special relationship that goes back many years” and promised that if elected Governor, “we can have an excellent partnership and do a lot of good work together.”
Soon after being elected Governor, Andrew Cuomo began handing out goodies to his religious supporters. In 2011, he signed legislation making men studying to become Orthodox rabbis at yeshivas eligible for financial aid under New York’s Tuition Assistance Program. The TAP awards were worth up to $5,000 per student, and essentially subsidized religious instruction.
In 2014, rival Williamsburg Satmar sects united to endorse Andrew Cuomo in his last reelection bid and promised to deliver their community’s “block vote” in the Democratic primary and the general election. Spokespeople praised Cuomo for “standing up for increased aid to our schools.” Once reelected, Cuomo endorsed a plan for $150 million in education tax credits and scholarships to support private and religious schools. In 2016, Cuomo agreed to $72.5 million in additional funding for nonpublic schools, including $2 million to establish a State Office of Religious and Independent Schools inside the State Education Department. In 2017, he threw religious schools another $25 million to pay for security. The Orthodox Union praised Andrew Cuomo for his “steadfast” support of the “non-public school community.” In another decision that appears to be political payback, in 2018 Cuomo signed a law fast-tracking creation of a Hasidic only town, Palm Tree in Orange County, with its own Kiryas Joel Union Free School District. Residents of Kiryas Joel/Palm Tree is a satellite of the Williamsburg Satmar Hasidic community.
According to the website Politico, one of Andrew Cuomo’s main financial supporters is Mayer Hirsch, a Kiryas Joel developer. In July 2015, limited liability corporations controlled by Hirsch, donated $250,000 to Cuomo’s campaign chest a week after Cuomo vetoed a bill that would have restricted new development in the Satmar Hasidic village. It was the largest campaign donation Cuomo received in 2015.
A number of the schools cited in Carranza’s letter for barring New York City DOE monitors are affiliated with the Williamsburg Satmar community including United Talmudic Academy, Bais Ruchel D' Satmar High School, Talmud Torah Bnei Shimon, Yeshiva Bnei Shimon Yisrael, and Talmud Torah of Kasho.
According to Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, “The way Governor Cuomo tells the story, he is the greatest thing for public schools since the invention of the pencil, but sadly, the reality falls far short of the spin.” In a speech at the state Democratic Party convention nominating Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo’s primary opponent, Ansari argued “Andrew Cuomo, simply does not get it. He has ignored the stories of inequitable education that Black, brown and low-income parents, families and communities from across this state have shared year after year. By dismissing our stories, he has disrespected us. The sad thing is that our children have paid the price.”
Note: The relationship between Andrew Cuomo and these religious communities is long, complicated, and often hidden. I have tried to document it as best as I can. More research definitely needs to be done.
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