Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Targeting Chasidim

Image from the New York Times for illustrative purposes only
The New York Times has yet another investigative report on how the educational system in certain types of Chasidic enclaves operate. This time it is about  schools in Kiryas Joel, a community that is almost exclusively populated by Satmar Chasidim. And about how they use certain types of funds granted to parochial and private schools by Federal and/or state government. The Times heavily implied the misuse of these funds.

Honestly, I am torn. There is not the slightest question in my mind that Chasidic schools like this are being targeted by the Times. As the Agudah points out, this is the 18th negative article about them. I believe their concerns about the Times motives are valid. Even the ADL - not known as a bastion of Chasidus or any form of Orthodoxy - has expressed  concerns over the Times series of negative articles on Chasidim. Thereby exacerbating the already increased  antisemitism in this country. 

With respect to this article, why indeed are Chasidim being targeted for such investigative journalism when there are other schools that do exactly the same thing. Using those funds for the purposes that were intended. The following is in part a response by Kiryas Joel to the latest Times artilcle: 

The long-term leases the Times attacks in its article are for buildings solely used for our special needs students, and the leases were approved by the voters of Kiryas Joel and the Commissioner of Education. What’s more, the school district obtained independent appraisals as part of its process, and the facilities were leased at below market costs. Any improvements that we make to these facilities are approved by the State and they will benefit our students, and not our landlord. 

Furthermore, the Times writes that millions of dollars flow into the religious schools, but ignores the fact that we – like all school districts – are required to equitably provide these funds for services to the at-risk nonpublic school students within our borders. We have no discretion to keep this money for our public school students and every federal dollar spent is approved by the NY State Education Department. 

I’m sure this is all true. I think a good argument can be made that Times does have anti Chasidic bias. What about the charge by Agudah that there is anti Orthodox bias as noted in its own response (similar to the one made by Kiryas Joel) to the Times: which began as follows: 

This morning, the New York Times published yet another lengthy, prejudicial article against Orthodox Jews. 

Accusing the Times of being anti Orthodox is a tougher case to make. There has been nothing negative reported about any other segment of Orthodoxy. Why is that?  

I believe that this was all generated by NYSED’s decision to enforce its ‘public school equivalency’ requirement. Which has been strongly resisted by Orthodox advocacy groups  who believe that Chasidim have the constitutional right to educate their children as they see fit. NYSED would argue that the state has a right – if not an obligation - to insure that all of its students get a basic education in core secular subjects like English, math, and science. 

Upon discovery of Chasidic refusal to teach those subjects, the Times swooped in to find out what Chasidic education is all about. Once they started, they kept going and did a deep dive into various other aspects of it. And they have been reporting on it ever since – 18 times so far. 

So, yes. They are obsessed. I believe their reporting is skewed by what the educational problems they first discovered. First impressions tend to do that.

The Times is ignoring the collateral damage their obsession with Chasidic education may be causing - contributing to the uptick in antisemitic attacks. Those with a predisposition to hate Jews will not discriminate between  one segment of Jewry or the other. We are all guilty of what the Times reported.

What about the latest implications of wrongdoing? Is it accurate? Are they misusing government funds? There a couple of instances where there was a conflict of interest by people in the decision making process was discovered. But nothing serious or - to the best of my knowledge - actionable.

The one thing that stood out for me was the fact that money given to the school for purposes of finding a building for an expanding student base was spent leasing a building in Kiryas Joel owned by Satmar’s UTA (The United Talmudical Academy). 

There is nothing illegal about that. They needed a building and found one ‘in house’ so to speak that they could lease. Why should they go outside their own community if they don’t have to?

Nonetheless the Times implied that these funds were used improperly. Almost like the money was going from one pocket into the other. They also said that building a new building would have been cheaper than leasing one at - even at the below market rates they are paying. 

While it may be legal, the optics are bad. I have no idea whether UTA’s hierarchy would have provided space for Kiryas Joel’s students for free; or for a token amount; or at a much reduced rate had those government funds not been available. This does not make what they did illegal. But it does look bad. 

So does all this make the Times biased? Hard to deny after18 negative articles in a row.  Especially since - as Agudah puts it - there was no ‘smoking gun’ - nothing illegal was found. What it did show is that Satmar knows how to game the system better than just about anyone. The money paid by Kiryas Joel to UTA will surely be used by them for religious instruction. Which may be legal – having been ‘laundered’ legally this way. But I cannot think of worse optics than finding a way to use federal funds legally for religious education. 

That being said, I realize I will be seen by Satmar’s defenders as having my ow bias against Chasidim.  I should be defending them against the false implications of fraud by the Times. And Not piling on - adding fuel to the fire! 

But that is not my intent at all. I am simply saying that if Satmar wants to avoid this kind of media scrutiny, they would have done well to offer the same Limudei Chol curriculum to begin with. The same as the vast majority of other Orthodox religious schools do - instead of  trying to find ways to wheedle out of it – and continue with a system that leaves their people ignorant of basic subjects taught in all schools. And to avoid even the appearance  of ‘laundering’ federal funds by leasing a building from ‘themselves’. 

I know their exponentially growing community needs creative ways to finance their exponentially increasing educational expenses. But this should not be the way of doing it - legal though it may be. The optics are terrible.