Thursday, July 30, 2015

It May Be Legal. But is it Ethical?

‘What a great ‘Chop’! The word ‘Chop’ is Yiddish for ‘catch’. You will often hear this expression from people that see something clever being done to advantage. I have heard this expression used about gaining government funds on a technicality which makes it legal even though those funds are obviously not what the government intended it for.  When I hear that phrase in that context, it disturbs me. 

That’s because in essence they are supporting something which at the very least is tinged with the unethical. A Forward article points out Yeshivos and day schools in Lakewood are being granted the lion’s share of Federal E-rate subsidy funds. This might be an occasion for someone to say, ‘What a great ‘Chop’! 

E-rate funds are designed to subsidize internet connectivity for low income students. It is available for both public and private schools. Lakewood receives more of those funds per student than any other significant New Jersey city: $282 per student versus Newark which receives $82 per student.

Now I have no problem with Lakewood or any other school system applying for government funds legally. What ever formula the government uses to determine per capita distributions – I’m sure was applied to Lakewood.

But I have to question the ethics of using funds designed for use in an area that is completely condemned by the institution being granted those funds. Even if it is obtained legally. The loophole they are apparently using is that those funds may be used “for things like telephone systems and voicemail for administrators.” 

But Lakewood schools do not have any more phones and voicemails than any other school - public or private. There are some internet connected computers in some of these schools. But as the Forward reports in an example, one school of 1025 students that has only 5 internet capable devices. They  had received $700,000 in E-rate funds!

Again, I am not accusing anyone of fraud. But it is unseemly for a school system to be receiving federal funds whose primary purpose is for something their rabbinic leadership has severely condemned.

How severely opposed to the internet is Lakwoood’s rabbinic leadership? One may recall that Lakewood Yeshiva’s Mashgiach, Rav Matisyahu Salomon organized an Asifa (gathering) for that purpose. That Asifa featured Rabbi  Ephraim Wachsman introducing Rav Wosner with a quote from Rabbenu Yona’s Shaarei Teshuva. Which says that when Riv’vos Yisroel (multitudes of Israel) gather and decisions are made by the leaders for action of the group, anyone who separates himself from the group has no chelek (portion) in Olam Haba’a.  

Rav Wosner proceeded to condemn it with much force – forbidding the internet at all in the home and advocated expulsion from Yeshivos children who have it in their homes. At the time Rabbi Avrohom Schor threatened his Shul members with ‘expulsion’ from his Shul if they had it in their homes.

And yet this is what Lakewood’s Yeshivos are getting money for to the tune of millions of dollars. To add insult to injury, the trend in Lakewood’s schools is to move away from secular studies altogether. There are some high schools there that offer none at all. Despite the fact that New Jersey State law requires all private schools to offer a secular studies program equivalent to what is taught in the public schools. Are they getting E-Funds too?

I understand the need. Lakewood’s residents are comprised in large measure of Avreichim many (most of?) whom barely earn enough of a living to put food on the table for their large families. They have little funds available for school tuition. Those schools have to pay teachers and administrative costs. They need to get the money from somewhere. So they find ‘creative’ ways to do so by applying legally for state and federal help. They have become quite skilled in doing so.

It is also pro forma to tell every Avreich how to apply for Pell Grant funds and other government programs for the poor. Which in my view is also an ethically questionable exercise - considering that these people are poor by choice. Welfare programs are designed for people that are poor, but not by choice. Noble as is the goal of Torah study, it is unethical  in my view to subsidize it with funds intended for the poor.

I do not wish Lakewood any ill. It is a huge Makom Torah. At the same time, they ought not to be doing these kinds of things to help them out financially. Especially since I question the entire paradigm of pushing everyone into the Beis HaMedrash full time for as long as possible - instead of advising people to pursue their own particular niche. And providing an education that will help them do that. 

If they would do that, they would be smaller and better – retaining the elite for the Torah study while allowing the rest to get good jobs in the fields they are best suited for. That would provide more money for less – but more deserving Avreichim.  Wouldn’t that be a more ethical way of solving their financial problems?