Ask most longtime journalists in the city that have known or worked with me and you will likely hear that I’m a competent journalist, but couldn’t spell cat if you spotted me the ‘k’ and the ‘t’.
Which was all the more reason I was flummoxed last week when Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein (D-Borough Park) asked me to be one of the judges for the 16th annual spelling bee for third-, fourth, fifth and sixth graders at a local Borough Park Yeshiva.
But this was no ordinary yeshiva. It was one of the 28 Orthodox Jewish schools investigated by the City’s Department of Education (DOE) on the allegation that these schools were grossly denying students a secular education.
The findings, for those that actually read the DOE report, was that there were five yeshivas that were underdeveloped and not providing substantially equivalent education. The rest of the schools were either providing substantially equivalent education, “well-developed in moving towards providing substantially equivalent instruction” or “developing in their provision of substantially equivalent instruction.”
The issue revolves around allegations made by disgruntled former Yeshiva student Naftuli Moster, who founded the anti-Yeshiva organization YAFED (“Young Advocates for Fair Education”).
I go back some with Moster. As a mainstream Jew and somewhat Bohemian musician/writer on the flipside of my being a journalist, I met him in passing while hanging out with other former ultra-religious Jews. Some are Bohemian musicians/writers like myself. Others belong to Footsteps, which provides a safe haven and social services to ultra-religious Jews that have left the fold.
Generally speaking, I have always been supportive of these individuals. For example, some identity as LBGTQ and I support that. I’ve also written on the need in the orthodox community to do a better job addressing drug and alcohol problems in their community.
But I drew the line on going after yeshivas because Moster, like many that turn away from any strict form from which they were raised, seemed more disgruntled than anything else to me. Additionally, although I always attended public schools, I attended an orthodox Hebrew School after regular school four days a week until I was bar mitzvah that was taught by local yeshiva students. And in my experience, some of the smartest people I know grew up attending yeshivas.
So while many in the local mainstream and political media picked up and continue to run with the narrative that many Yeshivas are not providing solid secular education, I have always believed this is a false narrative that at best has become a naive reporter cause celebre, and at worst, a swipe against the Hassidic community with antisemitic undertones.
And Eichenstein, who sends his own children to one of the Yeshivas on the list, is as bewildered as me as to why the local mainstream media is so stuck on this false narrative.
Thus he invited me to judge at the spelling bee at this yeshiva to see for myself how the school is run with the promise I wouldn’t name the yeshiva for fear it would become targeted even more in the media.
The principal, who likewise didn’t want his name used, immigrated from Poland in 1996, and attended the Yeshiva himself, where he learned English and other secular subjects.
The school teaches a variety of subjects including English and writing skills from letter writing to essays, he said.
“We try to cover all the basics and some of the older grades do the STEM curriculum [science, technology, engineering and mathematics],” said the principal, adding that if a student excels in one subject – say math – they are given extracurricular learning in that subject.
In American history students are currently learning about the Louisiana Purchase leading up to the Civil War, the principal said.
As for the spelling bee, let’s just say I would have been knocked out with the word, cantaloupe, which a fourth-grader spelled easy as pie. And it would have been fifty-fifty if I would have spelled the words millisecond, deficiency and hemisphere correctly.
To learn these words, perhaps I need to go back to grammar school.
Or maybe even sign up for a course at a local yeshiva.