Monday, September 12, 2022

Defending the Indefensible in the Name of Religion

Samples of the poor English language skills of their young students (NYT)
The blowback was unexpected. Not that I didn’t think there wouldn’t be any reaction to the New York Times investigative report on the sorry state of certain Chasidic schools. I did. But not to this extent. That’s because I also did not expect to read what I did. Those schools, beginning with the largest segment of the Chasidic world, Satmar - include a whole host of other Chasidic groups that apparently look to Satmar as their guide. The reaction has been huge and reported by a variety of media outlets. 

I knew the situation was bad. But I didn’t know it was this bad. The idea that the Times was biased in this report does not hold water. Not because they aren’t biased. They have proven many times that they are. But facts are stubborn things that do not bend to bias. What was discovered by a thorough investigation into what goes on behind the scenes at many of those schools was shocking. Accusations of bias does not wash any of that away. Nor do descriptions of how successful they are in other ways.

I therefore have to double down and ask what possible defense can Agudah make to justify their fight to preserve that kind of status status quo?

I  understand and even agree that the government should not interfere with our religious educational system. But is that really what the government is doing? How far do we go using that principle to defend those Chasidic schools? Most Orthodox schools do offer a secular curriculum to one extent or another. New York education officials were never really concerned about them. How can Agudah fight to preserve an educational system as horrendous as the one the New York Times has  clearly demonstrated to be the case?

Agudah argues that what should concern state educational officials is the actual product of such an education. And in the case of these Chasidic schools the product is an individual that is far more productive on the average than the product of public schools. That they do not produce any violent criminals or hard drug addicts. And that for the most part their community consists of people that are well adjusted and happy with their lot. Loving the life they lead. 

That may all be true for most of them, The Times actually conceded that point. But that does not address their dismal failure to produce individuals that can speak fluent English. Nor does it address the one billion dollars collected over 4 years in state and federal aid for their schools. All based on the assumption that they are providing the education expected of them – and every other school in the state.

The argument they make which Agudah defends about getting some of that education as part of their religious studies curriculum might have some merit. But to take math as an example, in some of those schools there is little more learned beyond basic addition and subtraction (in some cases multiplication and division.) Nothing beyond that is taught. 

The biggest ‘tell’ to me about the level of ignorance fostered in their schools is the following: 

…in 2019, the school, the Central United Talmudical Academy, agreed to give state standardized tests in reading and math to more than 1,000 students.  


Every one of them failed.  


Students at nearly a dozen other schools run by the Hasidic community recorded similarly dismal outcomes that year, a pattern that under ordinary circumstances would signal an education system in crisis. But where other schools might be struggling because of underfunding or mismanagement, these schools are different. They are failing by design. 

That last sentence is an important key to understanding the motives of Satmar type Chasidus. That they do not want their students to have a secular education isn’t only about learning more Torah.  It is equally about fearing the influences of the outside world so much that that they have implemented layers of protection to prevent that. 

In service to that goal they try to limit any contact with the outside world. One of the ways they do that is by not teaching them to speak English too well. The fear is that it would increase interaction and thereby eventually lead to assimilating out of Judaism. How bad are their English languages skills? From the Times:

Nearly three dozen current and former teachers across the state’s Hasidic yeshivas said most of the thousands of boys who passed through their classrooms over the years left school without learning to speak English fluently, let alone read or write at grade level.  


Another former teacher provided hundreds of pages of work sheets from the past five years that showed that 12-year-olds — in their last year of English instruction — could not spell words like “cold” and “America.” One boy, in response to a prompt about what he liked, wrote: “To cee wen somone pente.”   

Agudah officials will say they would never educate their children that way, but that Chasidm have the right to educate their children they way they choose. That is what they are fighting for. Adding that government interference with Chasidic education will lead to interference in all Orthodox schools. Even those that do comply with state requirements. 


I get that they have that fear. But that was never what the state sought. Their mission is to educate all students with a basic education that will enable them to be as productive as possible in the modern world.

Had those Chasidic schools just done what the vast majority of schools in the Orthodox world do, none of this would have happened. The fault lies with the large extremist Chasidic schools like those of Satmar that see any contact with the outside world leading to a fate worse than hell. And therefore go to the extremes of avoiding any education that might put them there.


Then there is that billion dollars they took over a period of four years in federal and state aid. The list of government sources of that aid is huge. See the Times for a list of the programs they tap into. The following is but a glimpse into the enormity of their take while pretending to comply with state educational guidelines required for it: 

Tax dollars are not supposed to go toward religious education. But public agencies pay private schools to comply with government mandates and manage social services. Hasidic boys’ yeshivas, like other private schools, access dozens of such programs, collecting money that subsidizes their theological curriculum...  


The Times identified dozens of federal, state and local programs and analyzed how much they have given to yeshivas, looking most closely at the last year before the pandemic.  


The analysis showed that New York’s Hasidic boys’ schools received more than $375 million from the government in that period.  


Hasidic boys’ yeshivas receive far less per pupil than public schools, and they charge tuition. But they appear to get more government funding on average than other private schools in the state, including other religious schools, the analysis found. And the money is flowing as New York City is cutting public school budgets. 

A word about PEARLS. This is a group organized to preserve the system using the First Amendaent's Free Exercise clause. Part of their stated mission is to get those schools to comply with substantial equivalency requirements. I’m not sure how successful they have been with the latter. But clearly their primary mission is the former. 

I have to ask Agudah what their response is to the fact that there was a 100% failure of the  standard proficiency tests in reading and math by the over 1000 students of  Central United Talmudical Academy (Satmar). How can they possibly defend that? Based on that, my sense of Agudah is that they don’t care much about their knowledge of English and math. They just care about letting those Chasidic schools teach what they want regardless of how it affects them or their image.


I also have to ask how Agudah can defend the deception of teaching subjects that they do not actually teach which enabled those schools to take enormous amounts of federal and state money?


I am sickened by the whole thing. They may have the right to live as they choose and cut themselves off from the rest of the world. But that right ends when it affects the rest of us. It ends when money is taken under false pretenses. There is no way they can wheedle out of that by saying they filled all the poverty requirements - since the main requirement was not fulfilled.

It is also quite telling that the Chasidic community chose to not respond to request by the Times to present their side of the story. They are not reticent to speak up when it suits their purpose. Their lack of willingness to respond is probably because they know what they are accused of is true - and deliberate. 


That Agudah considers the Times investigative report to be a smear campaign by a biased entity will not work this time. At least not with those of us that are not blinded by their propaganda.


It hurts me to say all of this. Because I actually support all the good work they otherwise do. Like the recent support  of Yeshiva University - even though they do not agree with their Hashkafa. And the myriad other things Agudah has done for the Jewish people over their many decades of service. But on this issue, they are so wrong that it ruins the reputation they built doing all of those other things. 

It is time for them to do stop defending the indefensible with the claim that they are defending all of us. And recognize the Chilul Hashem the Times has exposed.


As for the leadership of Satmar et al, they need need to shape up or ship out. If they choose to continue non compliance, they do so at their own peril. But they should be made aware that they are on their own.  It is also time for Satmar Chasidim to wake up and smell the coffee. Although some of them already have (possibly more than would publicly admit). But not enough to foster change. They need a critical mass of people - perhaps even a majority of them - in order to do that. If they don’t, they may very well  be on the path of destruction.


That said, I doubt they will do anything. Which is too bad.