Yeshiva Darchei Torah students introduced U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to a few Jewish blessings, what they think of poetry, how they learn in one-on-one settings, what they build and how they pray as the federal Cabinet member toured the Far Rockaway boys’ school on Wednesday.
It was the second Jewish Day School DeVos visited in two days having been at the Manhattan High School for Girls on May 15. She also spoke at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation on May 16. It aids those in need throughout the Archdiocese of New York, regardless of race, creed or color.
In Rabbi Yehuda Deutsch’s third-grade class, DeVos listened as the rabbi taught the boys about the blessings for food and the importance of the food that is blessed ranging from wheat to pomegranates.
Moving to the library, Eileen Cohen, a literacy coach who is part of the schoolwide literacy program, was teaching fourth-graders about poetry and the poem “Sun” by Valerie Worth. “To be a writer of poetry, we must be readers of poetry,” Cohen said. DeVos sat with a few students and spoke to them about what they are learning.
She spoke to teachers in the school’s special education wing, where one school official noted that a conference room had been transformed into space now being used for learning.
Taking a hike across campus, DeVos saw the Weiss Vocational Center where students learn a range of skills from electrical wiring to plumbing. Junior Yehuda Reisman showed DeVos how copper piping is made malleable using an acetylene torch. “Thank you, thank you for what you do,” she said to Rabbi Moshe Lubart, one of the vocational instructors.
Martin Hettrich, head of the school’s science department, led a class in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lab through a chemical reaction experiment as DeVos watched and then had the students crowd around her for a photograph.
Taking in the school’s large bais medrash — prayer room — DeVos spoke with a few students about their devotion to Judaism. She did not speak to the media, but two Darchei parents and board members Michael Fragin and Eli Schwab did answer questions.
Calling the visit “historic,” Fragin, who works as a political consultant and serves as the deputy mayor of Lawrence village, said that having DeVos there showed private school parents that possibly their issues are being addressed. “It’s really beautiful,” he said, “and this is the kind of thing that a parent like myself has waited for a long time. For a lot of our issues to be taken into consideration.”
Fragin noted that private schools of all denominations receive “very little” of the money New York state doles out for education. He pointed that the state spends “in excess of $25,000 per student” and “in some districts they are spending $30,000 per student.”
“Parents here are spending a lot on their children’s education; education is the most important thing in the Jewish community,” he said. “We also look to the government for various services and funding where appropriate, and if we could expand that pie of funding that’s really critical overall for the Jewish community.”
In the decade and a half, that Fragin has children in the school (three attend, one graduated), Darchei Torah has more than doubled its enrollment from less than 1,000 students to more than 2,000, he said. He believes that the federal government could help similar schools to thrive and succeed like Darchei Torah.
A graduate of the school, Schwab, now a lawyer, declined to answer a question about DeVos visiting two private schools and not public schools, but was flattered that the Secretary came to Far Rockaway. “We’re all honored that the Secretary of Education chose to visit this school,” he said. “We’re all proud of this school.”