The Flip Side of the Shtadlonus Coin: Delivering Government's Message to the Yeshivos
by Chaim Dovid Zwiebel
When a severe shigella outbreak hit a number of New York City schools in the late 1980's, the Health Department immediately set about apprising the population of the measures necessary to stop the spread of the debilitating illness. This year, city authorities mounted an all-out offensive against yet another serious health threat to school children and their families -- hepatitis A.
While the Health Department's plan of action for halting the hepatitis A virus may have vastly differed from the one it employed to quell the shigella epidemic, one aspect of its overall strategy remained the same. To get the word out to yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs, the agency once again sought the assistance of the education affairs office of Agudath Israel's Commission on Legislation and Civic Action.
As it did during the shigella crisis, Agudath Israel embarked on a campaign to inform local yeshivos and parents of the Department of Health's recommendations. Mordechai Avigdor, the organization's associate general counsel, spent countless hours on the project, disseminating information through press releases, mailings to schools, and meetings with school principals and administrators.
"Keeping yeshivos and day schools, not only in the New York area but throughout the United States, up-to-date on matters that concern them is a primary function of this office," says Agudath Israel's associate director for education affairs, Deborah Jacob.
This is an aspect of Agudath Israel's representation of yeshivos that often tends to get overlooked, Mr. Avigdor added. "When the public thinks of our shtadlonus on behalf of Jewish education, they usually focus on Agudath Israel's advocacy for yeshiva interests in the courts, in the legislatures, in the administrative agencies, in the White House or City Hall. They read and hear about the work of our Washington office, about our legal staff, about our interventions with this Commissioner or that Congressman, delivering the message of the yeshiva movement to government.
"I've found, though, that the flip side of the shtadlonus coin -- delivering government's message to the yeshivos, by guiding our mosdos through the dizzying maze of laws and regulations binding upon them, informing them of opportunities for government grants and educational assistance, alerting them to steps they should take when threatened with some medical or other emergency -- is of at least equal importance. This type of work may not grab the headlines, but it is absolutely indispensable."
It is not uncommon for Agudath Israel, in its capacity as liaison between government and yeshivos, to work both sides of the two-way street.
A prominent example occurred last year, when the New York City Industrial Development Agency adopted a new policy permitting religious schools to apply for tax-exempt bonds to help finance capital construction projects. The new policy came about as a result of extensive and intensive efforts by Agudath Israel, eventually persuading the city agency that tax-exempt bond financing for religious schools was both constitutionally permissible and sound public policy. Then, immediately after the IDA adopted its new regulation, Agudath Israel sponsored a workshop, attended by representatives of some 40 New York City yeshivos, at which agency officials explained the new policy and detailed the specific steps yeshivos should pursue if they wished to apply for the bonds.
Aside from sponsoring frequent meetings and workshops for school administrators, Agudath Israel keeps schools across the country abreast of the latest developments in federal laws, regulations and programs through the bulletins and newsletters its Commission on Legislation and Civic Action regularly sends out. This past year, newsletters focused on such topics as breakfast start-up grants, loan forgiveness and deferment for teachers, the availability of immunization booklets in Yiddish, the earned income tax credit, after-school speech centers, water and sewer charge exemptions and partial tax exemptions for real property of clergymen.
This last item, says Miss Jacob, was an important reminder to rebbeim that the New York State Real Property Tax Law provides for an exemption for real estate owned by a "rabbi..... who is engaged in the work assigned by the .... denomination of which ....he is a member ...". A formal legal opinion issued by the Attorney General's office in 1970, which is considered an authoritative source of statutory interpretation, considers teaching in a seminary or yeshiva as such work.
On a daily basis, principals and school administrators seek the Agudath Israel office's assistance and advice on a wide range of educational issues. Indeed, both Mr. Avigdor and Miss Jacob spend a good part of their workday fielding phone calls of this type.
"The number of calls we get each day is somewhat intimidating, frankly, but also quite gratifying," says Mr. Avigdor. "It indicates the growth of the Torah community and its institutions."
Often, those calls are the impetus for offering particular workshops to school officials. The most recent Agudath Israel-sponsored workshop, explains Miss Jacob by way of example -- scheduled to take place April 23, shortly after Coalition goes to press -- was organized in response to numerous questions that have come in over the years regarding a yeshiva's legal rights and obligations as an employer.
"There are many instances when a yeshiva, because it is a religious institution, is regarded differently in the eyes of the law," Miss Jacob noted. "We felt it was a high time to let school administrators know exactly when and how particular differences apply."
The topics to be covered at the seminar, which will be addressed by attorneys highly experienced in their respective fields, include general legal obligations in hiring and firing; legal protections available to yeshivos as religious entities; immigration-related employment issues; and unemployment, disability and workers' compensation insurance issues.
Government agencies are well aware of Agudath Israel's liaison role with the yeshivos, and often approach the Orthodox organization to gather information necessary to enable yeshivos and their students to benefit from various government services.
For example, as reported elsewhere in this issue of Coalition, when U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley issued a letter earlier this year clarifying his position on the constitutional permissibility of providing federal services for religious school students on school premises, the Department of Education asked Agudath Israel to survey the yeshivos to identify any problems with respect to the delivery of such on-site services. Similarly, when the Metropolitan Transit Authority decided several months ago to expand the hours during which transit passes could be valid for students enrolled in evening programs, the New York City Board of Education requested Agudath Israel to contact the yeshivos about the number of talmidim who participate in evening mishmor programs.
Observes Mr. Avigdor: "The job of running a yeshiva becomes more complex all the time. By acting as a liaison between the yeshivos and government, the Office of Education Affairs endeavors to make it easier for principals to focus on the most important task of all -- the chinuch of our children."