When I was in yeshiva in Boro Park in the early 80s, I was asked by my Rosh Yeshiva, a Satmar Hasid, to go to Downtown Brooklyn to sign a few documents for state funds for the yeshiva. When I got there, I was told the money was for a summer program run by the yeshiva to teach English to new Russian immigrants. I knew nothing about this program and didn’t sign the forms.
When I returned and the Rosh Yeshiva asked why I’d refused to sign the forms I asked him about the program. He told me no such program existed. When I asked, “How can we take public money for a program that doesn’t exist?” he smiled and looked at me as though I’d landed from another planet.
I was reminded of this incident as I read the recent feature in the Sunday New York Times on public funding of hasidic schools in New York City which has raised an enormous backlash on social media and among many American Jews. Accusations of bias, unfairness, and even antisemitism, have floated across social media and Jewish journalism.
It seems to me that there are a variety of issues here that have become mashed into one large set of accusations based on various interrelated but not identical components.
- First, that it was unfair to accuse the school systems in haredi communities of failing to prepare students to attain the basics of citizenship and educational skills. This is hardly new.
- Second, that this became a featured story in the Sunday New York Times in the first place. Here, suspicion of antisemitism raises its head—as seems to be the case whenever Jews are written about these days.
- Finally, that the very accusation is based on chauvinistic assumptions about what constitutes “knowledge” given that haredi education is certainly intense and rigorous, albeit in matters that arguably fail to provide its students with basic 21st century life skills. This is especially true if they choose to live outside their enclaves which, in some ways, is precisely the point.
Regarding the educational curricula and policies of haredi schools, much of what appeared in the Times has been a source of controversy for decades. Naftuli Moster and his “Young Activists For Fair Education” (a.k.a. YAFFED) have been working tirelessly on this issue, while numerous essays in law journals have addressed these matters, including a recent 57-page scientific essay by Matty Lichtenstein published in the American Journal of Sociology. This is clearly not the creation of a bunch of editors at the New York Times.
What almost none of the article’s critics appears to mention is that this story is really about corruption; it’s about the city and state political figures and yeshiva deans who have duplicitously taken money from state coffers without abiding by state regulations, and the politicians who’ve looked the other way to insure a haredi voting bloc. As much as a Hasidic story, this is also a New York story of political malfeasance.
The nature of haredi education is a matter that’s largely internal to the Jewish community, even as legal issues sometimes extend to the courts. Private schools in general have great latitude in curricula so long as they abide by certain very broad procedural mandates. One can think of the Amish schools and Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) where the Supreme Court ruled that the Amish are not bound to put their children in compulsory education past 8th grade.
For the Amish, what we generally call “knowledge” is considered hubris and counter to the “plain life” to which they aspire. But the Amish refuse state funding for schools as a matter of religious principle while these haredi yeshivas take state funds yet fail to comply with educational regulations. And the state seems to look the other way. So this report isn’t merely an indictment of “Jews” (that is, the haredi schools in question) but equally of the state. It’s a case of collusion in which students are the victims.
The haredi schools are taking money from the state, and thus American taxpayers, without abiding by the dictates of state educational procedures. In fact, according to the article, R. Aaron Teitelbaum, one of the two Satmar rebbes, is quoted as having said back in 2018:
“The truth is, we either had very little secular studies or none at all. We will not comply, and we will not follow the state education commissioner under any circumstances.”
And yet his schools readily accept state funding. It is this corruption that merits a feature essay in the Times. Teitelbaum can certainly refuse to comply with state mandates and suffer whatever consequences may come his way. But if he takes money and doesn’t comply, that is corruption.
But let’s review some of the criticism and accusations against the Times. Two essays, one by Liel Leibovitz in Tablet and one by Avi Shafran in Religion News Service, are worth noting. Neither focuses on corruption, with Leibovitz ignoring it entirely and Shafran dismissing it as “a few dollars per child…for things like school safety and nutritious meals.”
Leibovitz asks us to consider the unwarranted hegemony about how we define “knowledge”—that is, secular knowledge—and how that definition doesn’t produce healthy adults overall, but a society riddled with drugs, abuse, and unhappiness. In other words, Leibovitz wants us to determine educational value by output and not input. While a legitimate concern for which I have some sympathy, his assessment of the “happiness” of the haredi world is purely speculative. He has never lived in it (I have) and his judgment is a purely romantic, or more likely opportunistic, view of one gazing in from the outside.
Setting that aside, he falsely suggests—again with no knowledge whatsoever—that yeshiva students must know math because a medieval glossator on the Talmud in the 13th century (known as Tosafot) discusses a rudimentary notion of Pi and thus the student must know enough math to understand that. What he fails to mention is that those cherry-picked medieval comments on mathematical calculations from the Middle Ages are most often glossed over in yeshiva classrooms—in part because the teacher doesn’t have the requisite knowledge to figure them out in any detail either. But how would Leibovitz know, he never studied Tosafot in a haredi yeshiva?
Leibovitz proceeds to note that yeshiva students know of the Sasanian Queen Shushandukht while public school kids would be scratching their heads. Really? First of all, not one in a thousand haredi yeshiva students would know what the word “Sasanian” even means (it’s the term for a pre-Islamic middle Persian empire). And secondly, I would wager that most yeshiva students who study the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) all day, couldn’t find Bavel on a map, let alone know anything about how the Babylonian sages lived their lives.
In the end, Leibovitz simply wants to use the Times essay to weaponize the “liberal” media’s latent antisemitism. The problem is that his understanding and experience of that world is so scant that it fails miserably, almost comically.
Shafran’s response is more standardly apologetic, minimizing the cases of abuse and malfeasance (“a few bad apples”); yet, unlike Leibovitz, he openly states that the Times piece is not antisemitic at all. Shafran focuses on the productive nature of haredi society, noting that people become storeowners, plumbers, therapists, “yes, even candlestick makers.” (His haredi readers will not get that reference.) This is true. The haredi world is a fully functioning subculture where Torah study is accompanied by professions that do not require a secular education (this is true of the Amish as well).
But that does not mean that some secular education doesn’t contribute mightily to good citizenship (even if some, or many, citizens lead unhappy lives for all kinds of reasons). Unlike Leibovitz, Shafran actually lives in the haredi world, and thus while he apologizes for it, he doesn’t romanticize, or overly distort it. His reading is thus contestable, but not comical.
He does overemphasize the old argument that Talmud study sharpens one’s critical thinking, which it does, but that’s no substitute for knowing how to write a cogent sentence in English if you live in America, or to decipher instructions on how to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture (ok, I agree, that’s exceedingly difficult regardless). As Matty Lichtenstein argues in her essay, the skills acquired through Talmud study only substitute for secular knowledge if they are transferred into a different register, which haredi yeshiva education intentionally and in principle does not do.
Maligning the many for the few is always an argument used to deflect social ills (most citizens are not, contra Leibovitz, abused, unhappy drug addicts). But how many students need to be traumatized, underserved, marginalized, or basically illiterate for something to constitute a serious social problem? That’s a serious question. Shafran defends his community’s behavior at great peril—certainly for the sake of the children ill-equipped to function if they choose to leave the enclave in which they were raised.
But again, neither Leibovitz nor Shafran addresses the reason this made it to the front page of the Sunday New York Times: malfeasance and corruption. I leave the reader with one more personal anecdote.
In 2016 I was hired as an expert consultant for a case being brought by the ACLU against a large (non-Hasidic) yeshiva in New Jersey that had taken $10 million of state funds to build a new dormitory and library. In order to get the state funds, the yeshiva claimed it was a non-sectarian institution. I read through hundreds of pages of yeshiva documents arguing that its classes were “secular,” taught secular skills, and that it didn’t discriminate against race or creed in its admission policies. It was, of course, absurd. After months of consultation, two days before the trial the yeshiva relented and eventually returned the money. They knew they had no case in court.
Are my experiences exceptional? I will let the reader decide. Taking money from state coffers while openly claiming “We will not comply” is both illegal and egregious (and, unless you hold by the halakhic (Jewish legal) opinion that theft is only a transgression if it’s theft against a Jew, it’s also forbidden and transgressive). If there is any antisemitism being fostered here, it’s not by the New York Times but by the yeshiva deans who engage in such activity and those who defend them.