Published in The Hamodia on Septmeber 8, 2022.
For months, Chassidic schools in New York state knew that they were in the crosshairs of The New York Times. In recent days, they received a formal notice that the journalistic rifle has been cocked, and by the time these words appear it is possible that the shot — cloaked in the form of an investigative report — will already have been fired.
In an email sent to various yeshivos by the reporter working on the story, the Times insists that “our highest priority in preparing this article is to ensure that it is accurate, comprehensive and fair,” and that “we want to get it right. If you believe we have something wrong, please tell us so immediately.”
The letter gave an outline of what the article intended to state — basically a repeat of an old laundry list of complaints made by the malcontents with an axe to grind — but did not reveal what the article wouldn’t include.
This in turn leaves us with some pointed queries for a media outlet that usually prefers to be the one posing the questions.
For instance, the email asserted that the newspaper had “interviewed more than 275 people, including 175 current or former students and parents and 50 current or former teachers, school employees and other educators. Dozens of the people we interviewed are still in the Hasidic community.”
Will the Times, in its professed desire for transparency, elaborate on how they chose these specific 175 parents and students to interview — and which ones to quote — in a way that would fairly represent what it describes in the same email as a network of schools serving about 50,000 students and their tens of thousands of parents? Will the feelings and opinions of the average parent and student also be voiced in the article, or will their viewpoints be drowned out by the catcalls of detractors who actually represent a minute minority?
Will the article take into consideration the reality that the overwhelming majority of alumni of these institutions choose to send their own children to the same type of schools, if not the very same institution? Will it acknowledge the fact that parents within the Chassidic community have the option not to send to the schools affiliated with the group they belong to — and a significant percentage do indeed send elsewhere, for a host of reasons, proving that that the reason children are in these schools is that their loving parents feel that this is the best place for them?
In his response to the email his organization received from the Times, Rabbi David Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America, pointed out that in reality, the “network” described in the Times outline doesn’t exist.
“The overwhelming majority of these schools are independent entities, with their own governing bodies, their own administrations, their own policies and practices,” Rabbi Zwiebel wrote. “To make generalized allegations and draw generalized conclusions against 150 independent schools on the basis of what you found at a tiny percentage of those schools is a classic case of tarring with an overly broad brush.”
Will the Times change the tone of the article to reflect this vital correction?
In preparing this story, did the investigative reporters take into consideration that — as reported extensively in these pages — one of the most serious and oft-repeated complaints being made within the community against these yeshivos is that they turn down too many parents desperate to send their children to these very schools?
The Times email acknowledged that “the schools provide intense religion-based instruction, which help the students to learn Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic, plus moral values, logic and legal principles.” Will the media outlet have the courage to take it a step further and analyze the lifelong impact of instilling moral values in children? Did the writers of the report talk to law enforcement officials about violent crime among yeshivah students and alumni? Did they try to observe how the average yeshivah student interacts with other people, let alone how he speaks to his parents, grandparents or elderly neighbors?
In gauging the successes or failures of the yeshivah system, how many of the thousands of former students who credit the education they received for the fact that are today highly successful businessmen (as illustrated by the recent Satmar expo), educators, and professionals did the Times try to interview?
When the article — presuming that it does end up getting published — discusses the amount of government funding these yeshivos receive, will it also give comparative figures for the average public school student? The financial support and reimbursement that goes to yeshivos for mandated services, textbooks, busing and similar services typically amount to under $2,000 per pupil. The amount that New York State spends per public school pupil is $25,520; in New York City, that number jumps to $28,828 per pupil.
Or will the Times conveniently leave these numbers out? The comparison would highlight how much money the state saves each year due to parents sending their children to yeshivos, choosing to pay steep sums as opposed to availing themselves of free tuition.
Will — for the sake of transparency, of course — the reporters explain why, in the email to the yeshivos, in crunching the numbers of government aid to yeshivos in an article supposedly about the level of secular education, they included such things as pandemic stimulus funding, nutrition, and child care?
In their email, the Times reporters state that the article “will talk about the Hasidic community’s political power, which we studied via voting records, and how the schools play a central role, including by sending sample ballots home and giving students prizes for bringing back “I Voted” stickers into school.”
At a time when concerns about attempts at voter repression are increasingly being expressed throughout the country, is The New York Times insinuating that there is something unscrupulous about a perfectly legal and legitimate get-out-the-vote effort? Has the Times considered the idea that involving students in a get-out-the-vote campaign is an ideal lesson in civics?
We live in an era in which targeted attacks against specific groups based on race, religion, or ethnicity rightfully elicit howls of outrage. If an identical or similar article appeared in a mainstream publication about a group of schools primarily serving a minority group such as African Americans, Asians, or Muslims, wouldn’t it be widely decried as bigoted and racist? Why, in an age of political correctness, have Chassidic Jews remained fair game for such attacks?
As Rabbi Zwiebel wrote in his email to Ms. Eliza Shapiro and Mr. Brian Rosenthal, the two Times reporters who had contacted him, “The timing of this article is terrible. Hate crime statistics, specifically crimes targeting Jews, are spiking dramatically — and most of these crimes are being directed against Hasidic Jews. Is now the time to publish a major article in the most prestigious newspaper in the world portraying the Hasidic schools — and, by extension, the entire Hasidic community — in the most negative light imaginable? Obviously, no one in his right mind would accuse reporters with your surnames of being anti-semitic, but don’t you realize how an article like this will fuel the anti-semites of the world to escalate their attacks against Hasidic Jews?”
There are many more legitimate questions to be asked, but in the interest of space, we will leave them for another opportunity and conclude with one final question for The New York Times:
If you do go ahead and publish the article, will you have the courage to answer these questions?