Yesterday, a Jewish school in Brooklyn, NY was found hosting students learning in apparent violation of Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order. While Agudath Israel of America neither runs nor controls any yeshivos, if any yeshiva violated the Executive Order as it stands, there are no excuses for such behavior. Period.
That said, this incident speaks to a larger issue. Courts in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Kansas have struck down Executive Orders that shuttered religious activities, on the grounds that such orders unlawfully prohibited the free exercise of religion. Yeshivos in our community serve both educational and religious functions, as they transmit our core religious values. Moreover, children have been home for months. Orthodox families tend to be larger, and many live in small, urban apartments. The mental health toll of this pandemic on children and parents alike has been crushing.
As COVID-19 cases in New York have dropped for over a month now, and the state is allowing professional sports to resume and jewelry stores to reopen in its Phase 1, the state must prioritize seeking unambiguously safe ways to reopen schools and summer camps for children. We have offered to government that even if a prudent reopening would mandate significant changes in the structure of the classroom or camping experience, this would be far better than the sweeping prohibitions currently in place.
We similarly urge the Governor to find safe and responsible ways to allow prayer. Toward that end, Agudath Israel has also met with leading members of the executive branch on this issue. To be clear, the goal is not to encourage opening prematurely or unsafely, but to work with government to ensure that these vital areas are prioritized to open with the utmost caution, but expediently.
Religious expression and children’s education should not be last on the list of priorities for safe reopening. In fact, by both legal and moral imperative, they should be among the first.
We urge New York to consider and accelerate these requests, while we simultaneously urge our community to obey the current Executive Order, as difficult as it is for us and all Americans, until it is updated.