And just as the Board of Regents gets set to consider new regulations for these private religious schools.
Published by Simcha Eichenstein in NY SUN on September 7, 2022.
The New York Times has assigned two reporters to dig up dirt on chasidic yeshivas across New York State. They’ve been at it for months and are poised to release their innuendo-ridden piece any day — timed, it seems, to coincide with the Board of Regents’ consideration of intrusive new regulations of yeshivas.
I am a New York State assemblyman, whose district encompasses the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Borough Park and Midwood. Chasidic myself, I am proud of the communities I represent and invite you to walk down the streets of Borough Park’s main business strip on 13th Avenue. You will see bustling shops, small businesses, and eateries.
You will also see children laughing and playing, and families walking together. Here is what you won’t see: crime, graffiti, gangs, homelessness, drugs, and violence. Aside for antisemitic violence, of course, which stands at a 40-year high, with assaults up 167 percent since last year alone.
My grandparents, and those of my classmates, came to these shores after enduring the Hell of the Nazi era. Many of them saw their families butchered in front of them, and yet they vowed not to become embittered or broken. The best revenge to Hitler, they would tell me, is not to repay death with death.
Rather it is to replace evil with kindness, to transpose crematoria with life. That is, to rebuild their schools, their synagogues, their families, their way of life. So they established their own schools that would not only teach the three Rs, but would instill the morals and tenets of their slaughtered parents to their own children.
This came with sacrifice. Many arrived in America literally with nothing but the shirts on their backs. Self-funding the education of their children while paying taxes, instead of sending them to the local, free public school, meant forgoing luxuries — and even some necessities — for a higher purpose. This was the foundation of the communities I represent today.
The New York Times isn’t interested in any of that. At least not according to a summary prepared and circulated by the Times to at least some of the chasidic institutions. The summary makes clear that the forthcoming article in the Times will defame an entire community based on sometimes anonymous critics, cherry-picked data, and outright lies.
This op-ed article is based on that summary, as well as what I and other members of the chasidic community have learned based on our conversations. These suggest that the Times visited but a single chasidic yeshiva out of about 440 yeshivas in New York state.
The Times will allege that textbooks are “censored” — although what they really mean is that chasidic schools choose to utilize books that accord with the values of the parents who exercised their constitutional right to choose yeshiva education for their children. And why not? Chasidic schools are religious institutions.
The Times is also going to accuse chasidic yeshivas of encouraging families to vote, as if a basic civic duty is scandalous when undertaken by chasidim. With voter turnout in New York City at historic lows — just 23 percent of eligible voters turned out in the November 2021 election — one would think the Times would applaud efforts to turn out the vote.
And they would, if it were anybody other than chasidic Jews. While ideas to remediate this civic issue abound, as an elected official, I wish Jewish — and all — communities would vote in far higher numbers.
The summary circulated by the Times asserts that it spoke to hundreds of persons. It concedes that the majority of those to whom they spoke are not members of — or have left — the chasidic community. Wonder why?
Look in the mirror, Gray Lady. When you have a track record of demonizing Orthodox Jews, why would any sensible chasidic or Orthodox Jew want to speak to you?
Then come the “numbers,” which can only evoke the quote attributed to Mark Twain, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Results from 177,652 tests for Jewish schools over several years were obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request from the State Education Department.
Additional results included 639,003 tests from other nonpublic schools, and 11,271,467 tests from public schools. Bottom line: the chasidic girls schools, and the boys schools which administer the Regents, had an average score of 80.7. Public schools averaged 73.3. This has been reported before.
Not, though, by the Times, which can’t be bothered to include any data that casts yeshivas in a positive light. One noted professor who specializes in this educational field described K-12 yeshiva education as “genuinely remarkable … closely resembling upper-level humanities coursework in a university.” Did the Times even bother to seek to interview him?
As someone who spends much of the year in Albany studying funding allocations, I found the Times’ summary description of the funds that chasidic parents or yeshivas receive to be particularly dishonest. By way of background for the uninitiated, New York State spends $25,520 per pupil, more than any other state.
New York City, in turn, spends more than any other large district in the country, at $28,828 per pupil. This is just for schooling, before pandemic recovery money, child nutrition, Title I, or any other mathematical alchemy the Times conjures to boost the sums it seeks to attribute to yeshivas.
A back of the envelope calculation suggests that New York’s 400,000 nonpublic school students save taxpayers $10.2 billion a year. Every year. A substantial part of that savings is attributable to chasidic and other Orthodox Jewish students.
As an Assemblyman, I wonder how New York could balance its budget every year if not for the savings afforded by nonpublic schools. Yet the Times desperately tries to paint a picture of yeshivas receiving enormous sums of government funds.
Given that the government doesn’t even cover its fair share of mandated services, though, the Times cleverly combines funding streams and programs over five years to conjure up a $1 billion figure. It includes one-time pandemic relief funding and child nutrition costs for low-income children. Do chasidic children not deserve to eat?
The Times is also apparently set to allege that corporal punishment is “common” in chasidic yeshivas. The source is often anonymous. The allegation is false. I attended chasidic yeshivas for my entire childhood, and I send my 4 children to chasidic schools today.
I certainly condemn abuse, but corporal punishment is not a feature of chasidic schools. And if it happened as an aberration, decency demands not painting an entire school system with it. In the past few months alone, a Brooklyn public school teacher was convicted of targeting children to have them send sexually explicit videos of themselves.
In the same period, a Queens gym teacher was arrested after being videotaped beating a 14-year-old; and a Long Island public school teacher was charged with raping a 15-year-old he was tutoring in his home. Sensational stories can always be found by someone digging for dirt.
Never, though, would I ever say that it is common for public school teachers to be child pornography watchers, pedophiles, physically abusive or rapists. Why does the Times refuse to extend the same basic integrity to chasidic schools?
The Times’ “chasidim are poor” assertion is tired and has been debunked numerous times. Even if we were to use income as a proxy for evaluating education, which is debatable, stating that chasidim have higher than average federal poverty levels, a variable metric based on family size, has nothing to do with absolute income.
The 2022 Federal Poverty Guidelines set the poverty threshold income at $23,030 for a married couple with one child, and in excess of $60,000 for families with nine children. It’s no secret that chasidim are family oriented and have larger than average family sizes.
Unless the Times is advocating that government not only control private religious schools, but also chasidim’s ability to have children, this data point has nothing to do with education.
Moreover, even in the poorest of chasidic neighborhoods, using the simplistic federal poverty measure makes the critical error of not factoring that chasidic heads of households tend to be far younger, and a 30-year-old is generally less far along in his career than a 60-year-old. Eighty-two percent of adults in Kiryas Joel are under 45, compared with 47 percent of adults in New York State.
Finally, the Times cherry-picks a sample of schools to paint all yeshivas as lacking educationally. The Times doesn’t disclose where these schools are situated, or which schools it omitted from its sample and why.
And don’t expect to read anything about public school performance, absenteeism, or dropout rates. Criticisms are reserved for yeshivas. If this is all about whether yeshivas are substantially equivalent to the local public schools, it would only seem logical to read a bit about those local public schools, as well.
The Times is going to use misleading poverty numbers to malign charedi — or fervently religious — Jews. What it won’t consider is the 2015 Pew Study concluding that a charedi Jew was three times (24 percent) as likely as the average American (8 percent) to earn $150,000 or more and that charedi Jews generally have higher incomes than the general public in America.
Or that charedi Jews experience higher well-being than almost any other demographic in the United States. Religious Jews also seem to live longer. One study found a “more than six years of difference in life expectancy at age 55 by religious affiliation… and Jews have the lowest mortality of any religious group.”
These studies suggest we may want to look less at how precisely yeshiva schedules and methodologies mimic those of public schools as the objective for perfection, and more at what results they produce. Crazy, right?
On a personal level, the research reflects what I see clearly every day in my own community on 13th Avenue, Brooklyn, and in chasidic communities across the state. It’s true, chasidim are different. We dress differently, and focus on prayer, study, and acts of kindness in ways that are different.
We certainly have our flaws and challenges. What I see, however, is a beautiful community. One that contributes to what makes New York a wonderfully diverse place to live. Unfortunately, the Gray Lady sees only in black and white, and chasidim are the villains.