SOURCE: IMAGE Magazine (Cover Story)
By Sara Trappler Spielman
Before dawn broke on Tuesday, March 12th, buses around New York State loaded with over 700 yeshiva and day school students, faculty, parents, school officials and lay leaders from Westchester to Rochester, Brooklyn to Long Island, representing over 50 schools in the TEACH NYS network. All headed to Albany on an annual mission with a single cause: to increase equitable government funding for non-public schools participating in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education and for additional security funding.
Teach NYS was founded in 2013 and was the first branch to open in NYS as a flagship member of Teach Coalition, which now has different member states. Part of a vast network of community leaders and parents across the county, participants work to keep costs down for sending children to non-public schools.
A day of advocating, advocacy, and lobbying at Empire State Plaza had incredible impact on lawmakers across NYS. This was the largest day school group, including ten Sephardic schools, to descend on any State Capitol in the country and their legislators saw how seriously the Orthodox community seized the issue of better, safer, more affordable schools.
“It’s very important because they’re negotiating the coming budget which has a deadline of March 31st,” said Avi Spitzer, Director, Lay Network Development at Teach NYS. “It’s the busiest time in Albany for state senators and NYS assembly members, the two legislative bodies in Albany that negotiate the state budget. It’s timely and extremely important that we schedule these annual missions to Albany in March.”
Currently 450 days schools and yeshivas receive funding from Teach NYS’ efforts. The biggest issue students and community members stressed at meetings with elected officials that day was the need for STEM funding in nonpublic schools, a reimbursement program that started in 2017. The legislature approved 5 million initially to help non-public schools hire qualified STEM teachers. Last year, through Teach NYS lobbying, they tripled it to 15 million. They’re now asking for 91 million, which reflects the amount needed to fully fund NYS STEM teachers’ salaries based on 1,800 applications the NY State Department of Education received in August. This can help ease the financial burden and overall operating budget for schools.
“Are all of you ready to fight for fairness today?” Allen Fagin, Executive Vice President of the OU, asked the audience at the morning general session. Thirteen percent of students attend non-public schools and yet NYS spends only one percent on those schools. We’re here in Albany to tell elected officials that it’s not fair.”
Fagin called it “a historic moment in time.”
Cal Nathan, Teach NYS Executive Committee Member, shared on stage that even though, as a parent, tuition is not sustainable, “I wouldn’t trade my kids’ education for anything.” He also told students, “Politicians love to hear from kids.”
Senator Todd Kaminsky spoke about how critical this mission is because they’re now figuring out how to spend tax dollars and want to invest in the future. “By everyone coming here it shows you want to help the community and future. Your presence alone is meaningful and the narrative is important.”
“A hundred and seventy five billion is a lot of money and a lot of people are asking for assistance, but not everyone comes up the way you do,” said Senator Andrew Gounardes. “NYS is the tenth largest economy in the world and I reject pinning parochial schools against public schools.”
“We’re coming here today together and our prayers and voice are more powerful as a Jewish community when we work together,” said Moishe Bane, President of the OU.
Senator Anna Kaplan spoke about her journey to the US from Iran, saying that “anything is achievable if you set high dreams.”
Sephardic community members took time off from work and running businesses to fight for funding. Two Brooklyn schools, Yeshiva of Flatbush and Magen David Yeshiva, sent students from their debate team and student council to express their concerns at lobbying meetings. Representatives from Barkai Yeshiva were present as well.
“It was heartwarming to see our elected officials’ warm response to the students,” said Sam Sutton, President of the Sephardic Community Federation, which founded Teach NYS, where he’s founder and co-chairman, and merged with the OU in 2013. “There’s no doubt that they were moved and will be advocating for our cause.”
At a lobbying meeting with Senator Julia Salazar’s Chief of Staff, Sutton said “Everyone in the room is a Sephardic Jew” and he “wanted to welcome her to the community.” The senator has publicly said that her father’s side of the family has some Sephardic ancestry.
Student council members from Magen David spoke at that meeting about their current limitations of STEM funding, affecting younger grades that only have partial materials needed with only one lab per school. Students requested STEM education for young grades too, explaining that with labs, experiments and technology, they can apply to be successful in life by learning circuits, building websites or becoming architects and engineers.
“I’m a big believer that we should be getting more money from the government for our community, whether it be for our schools or needy people,” said Abraham Sultan, a Sephardic community member who graduated from Yeshiva of Flatbush, where his children now attend. He has paired up with NYS Assembly Woman Alicia Hyndman to help this cause.
On the bus ride home after a long, but exciting day, Allison Heskiel, an 8th grade student at Yeshiva of Flatbush, shared her and other students sense of accomplishment after speaking to Senator James Skoufis. “He seemed interested and wants to help,” said Heskiel, who’s on the middle school debate team and attended the mission for her first time. “It felt good to see someone interested in what we were advocating for. It felt good to have a voice, especially to someone so important making decisions.”
Mosie Habbouba, a student last year at Magen David who now is a high school student at Yeshiva of Flatbush, went on last year’s mission too. “There were more people this year because last year it was snowing,” Habbouba said. “I signed up because I enjoyed it last time and it’s important because we’re a big target and need security. Also, people say STEM is the next big job, but if students don’t have as much advanced technology because we don’t have funds, they won’t be as prepared in the field.”
At the afternoon general session’s closing remarks, NY State Attorney General Letitia James gave a shout out to Yeshiva of Flatbush, whose students she met in the lobby. “Nothing happens in the globe without young people,” James told the crowd. “By being active participants in politics and government, you have the ability to make things happen.”
Jamie Lassner, Director of Student Life at Magen David Yeshiva spoke at the afternoon session. “I’m proud of the impact students had on senators. We can be the change we want to see in the world.”
Maury Litwack, Executive Director of Teach Coalition, was beaming with positivity. “Today was amazing and the reason why is because it’s not only the activists, but there’s a buzz. People are talking about it at their Shabbat table, asking if people are voting or meeting with local elected officials or doing anything about these issues. For us it’s a slam dunk.”