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A Law Tailored for Orthodox Jewish Schools Is Unconstitutional, Lawsuit Says

A Jewish boy walks to a yeshiva in Brooklyn, where students primarily focus on the Talmud and, critics said, neglect secular subjects like English, math and science.

A lawsuit filed Monday argues that New York is illegally looking the other way when it comes to ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools, loosening restrictions that will ultimately leave students without a basic knowledge of English, math and science.

The lawsuit, filed slightly more than a month before the first day of school, is the latest action in a yearslong debate over how to regulate yeshivas, the private religious schools that focus primarily on studying Jewish texts.

Under state law, nonpublic schools have to provide an education that is “substantially equivalent” to that of public schools, including instruction in English, math, United States history and science. But in April, Simcha Felder, a state senator whose Brooklyn district is heavily Orthodox, held up a state budget deal until the Legislature agreed to an exemption for yeshivas, freeing them from some of the state’s stricter regulations.

“The law is unconstitutional because it’s tailor-made for Orthodox yeshivas, so for a religious group,” said Naftuli Moster, a yeshiva graduate who founded Young Advocates for Fair Education, the group that filed the lawsuit. “That’s a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

The lawsuit names Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as a defendant, as well as the state education commissioner and the chancellor of the State Board of Regents.

“Earlier this year in the budget, 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,” said a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo. “We remain committed to achieving that balance.”

Proponents of the yeshiva system said that the schools do provide a good education, and that the amount of time spent on arithmetic or English isn’t a good proxy for a quality education.

“This is a foundational religious liberty,” said Michael Tobman, a spokesman for the Alliance for Yeshiva Education. “This is not appropriate for judicial action, or judicial meddling.”

Of the 115,000 children who are educated in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas in New York State, many attend schools that do not meet state secular standards, according to the complaint. There are about 83 Hasidic yeshivas in New York City, with the remaining 38 spread throughout the state. According to a survey of yeshiva graduates and parents conducted by Young Advocates for Fair Education, only a quarter of respondents in high school said they received any secular education.

In 2015, the city Department of Education said it was opening an investigation into about 36 private yeshivas to see if they were providing adequate secular education according to state law. But in the three years since that announcement, the city has not released any results. Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said the investigation is still active and the department would deliver the report “soon.” The city has visited 15 schools so far, according to Ms. Rothenberg.

A year ago, when asked when the education department planned to release a report on its investigation, a spokeswoman, Toya Holness, said the investigation is continuing. “We are treating this matter with utmost seriousness,” she said.

Mr. Moster’s group seeks to have the state return to the stricter secular requirements imposed by the previously existing law. Mr. Moster noted that girls already receive a better secular education than boys in the Orthodox system, because girls are not allowed to study the Talmud or become rabbis. The fact that girls successfully learn English but remain part of their community is significant, he said.

“It just proves that secular education doesn’t contradict Jewish education or Jewish values.”

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