Fundamental political fights don’t come along often in New York. Our contretemps are typically shallow, fleeting and manufactured by hired popguns like me.
But there’s a genuinely important dispute involving the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community to which we should all pay close attention. It cuts to the core of what it means to be an American in the 21st century, and it might ultimately decide the degree to which the state can determine what we are allowed to value and how we are permitted to think.
The debate is over yeshivas: Do they provide an adequate secular education for their students?
A group calling itself Young Advocates for Education says they don’t; the Orthodox rabbis say leave us alone, we’ve been at this for 3,500 years. The issue is so concerning to the Orthodox community that Orthodox state Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn recently held up the state budget process to defend yeshivas from more regulatory oversight.
Felder, a Democrat who has conferenced with Senate Republicans for six years, was successful, but expect the fight to continue. He and the yeshivas, which receive public funding for transportation and security costs, were trashed by some in the media for their principled stand, and once a cultural outlier is identified by the progressive movement, the movement rarely lets go. Political feminists are targeting yeshivas for educating girls differently from boys.
But the real question here isn’t reading or writing, it’s whether Americans can choose to live their lives culturally independent from progressive mainstream orthodoxy. Are we allowed to follow our own consciences, or do we all need to think similarly now?
Ask California baker Cathy Miller. She, like others, was sued for declining to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of her religious beliefs. Miller won, but not because of her religious convictions, a Superior Court judge explained in his decision. She won because “artistic expression” was at stake. How very California.
It doesn’t end there. Catholic hospitals across the United States are being sued for their clear-eyed views in refusing to perform sex-reassignment hysterectomies on healthy biological women.
Elizabeth Castro and Grace Schairer, two Pennsylvania public high school students, were prohibited in 2016 from starting a pro-life club. Their fledgling association was aborted by school administrators who said it was “too controversial.” The girls sued and the school settled the matter out of court.
San Francisco progressives tried to use a referendum to ban circumcisions, labeling the ancient practice “genital mutilation.” They, too, failed, guaranteeing, for now, that one’s heart isn’t the only thing that can be left behind in the City by the Bay. Similar challenges are sure to continue.
The complaint against yeshivas is being spearheaded not by an outsider, as in other cases, but by social activist and former pupil Naftuli Moster, who, along with his 16 brothers and sisters, attended religious schools while growing up in Borough Park.
Moster argues that his yeshiva secondary education left him woefully unprepared for secular college classes, which very well may be true (though he probably knows the Talmud backward and forward, which is no small thing). The enterprising Moster nonetheless succeeded in college and is said to be considering a run for state political office, from which he can force change by law rather than by persuasion alone.
There’s a simpler option: Moster can send his children to different schools and move on with life. It’s called voting with your feet, and it’s the American way. At least it used to be. It’s amazing how well it worked.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.