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April 13, 2016 7:20 am

The New York Times Tries Explaining Its Flawed Crusade Against Yeshivas

avatar by Ira Stoll

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A hasidic family in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Photo: Wikipedia.

A Hasidic family in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Photo: Wikipedia.

A dispatch in the metro section of the New York Times is the latest installment in the paper’s campaign, in its news columns, against Jewish religious schools in New York. (For earlier, similarly one-sided salvos on the same front see here and here.)

The Times’ ostensible inspiration is a small advocacy group and its lawyer, who complain that “39 yeshivas were violating state law by not providing students, particularly boys, an adequate education in secular subjects like English, math and science.” The advocacy group reportedly refuses to name the 39 yeshivas publicly.

This report is faulty, because it quotes four different people complaining about the supposedly inadequate education offered by the yeshivas, but not a single person defending the schools from the accusation.

When I asked the Times about why no defenders of the schools were included in the article, an editor at the Times, Amy Virshup, responded, “We saw this as an article about the city and the status of the investigation, so when we went to get comment, we went to the subject: the city.”

That’s preposterous. Imagine how Ms. Virshup would feel if I held a press conference outside police headquarters denouncing the police for dragging their heels in arresting Ms. Virshup for committing a series of brutal murders. And then if a newspaper covered that story by quoting four angry grieving mothers of murder victims, along with a quote from the police about how they aren’t dragging their heels — but without giving Ms. Virshup or her lawyer a chance to proclaim her innocence. It would be totally unfair.

The executive editor of the Times, Dean Baquet, weighed in on precisely this point — the importance of giving people criticized in stories the chance to respond — in a public statement just last week. Mr. Baquet was reacting to a Times article about writer Gay Talese, in which Mr. Talese, along the way, called Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones “duplicitous.” Mr. Baquet complained, “Nikole was not given a chance to respond to that, nor was I.”

Mr. Baquet invoked “issues of race and gender” and wrote that the Times story “was flawed and Nikole was treated unfairly.” He also called it “clumsy and unfortunate.” He did this even though the story reported, “In reply to requests for comment, Ms. Hannah-Jones said by email, ‘Thank you for reaching out, but I’ve said all that I am going to say about this.’”

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that there is a double standard at play here. When the person being criticized is a black woman New York Times reporter, the official Times position is that the newspaper has a responsibility not merely to ask for comment, but to be painstakingly specific in doing so. In that situation, the newspaper didn’t shrug off the criticism by replying, “We saw this as an article about Gay Talese, not about Nikole Hannah-Jones.”

Yet when it is Orthodox Jewish educators who are being criticized, the Times gets into a post-publication defensive crouch, and, rather than being forthright in acknowledging that the article was flawed and unfair, reaches for some nonsensical explanation about the newspaper’s view of what the story was really “about.”

The failure to seek or get a response from the Jewish educators was only one of the problems with this Times story. Another flaw was the article’s conclusion, an anonymous negative quotation. Here it is:

A mother spoke about her concerns for her son’s education, but asked to be identified only by her first initial, S., because she feared a backlash from her insular community She said that her 9-year-old son attends a Hasidic yeshiva in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and that he was already losing interest in secular subjects because they were valued so little at the school.

“I think New York City is failing my kid,” she said.

The Times doesn’t subject this anonymouse in the article to any of the skeptical scrutiny that other news sources are often subject to. It doesn’t, for example, ask the obvious follow-up question, which is that if the school is so problematic, why is the mother choosing to send her child there, and, because it is a private school, probably even paying tuition to do so? Nor is there any context about the government-run alternatives to the yeshivas — that is, the New York City public schools serving Williamsburg, or how this child might do if he were enrolled in one of them (possibly even worse).

The anonymous quote appears, despite the existence of a recent and highly publicized supposed New York Times crackdown on the use of such anonymous quotes in news articles. “Tightening the screws on anonymous sources” was the headline of a recent article on the topic by the Times public editor. According to that article:

“Anonymity should be, as our stylebook entry says, “a last resort, for situations in which The Times could not otherwise publish information it considers newsworthy and reliable.” That standard should be taken seriously and applied rigorously. Material from anonymous sources should be “information,” not just spin or speculation. It should be “newsworthy,” not just color or embellishment. And it should be information we consider “reliable” — ideally because we have additional corroboration, or because we know that the source has first-hand, direct knowledge. Our level of skepticism should be high and our questions pointed. Without a named source, readers may see The Times as vouching for the information unequivocally — or, worse, as carrying water for someone else’s agenda.

When I asked the Times how the quote from “S.” fit with its new policy, the newspaper’s Ms. Virshup replied, “Our new anonymous quote policy requires that any anonymous quote be cleared by the department head or a deputy. This one was cleared by Metro editor Wendell Jamieson. The article doesn’t hinge on S.’s quote, but she adds perspective that we could not get unless we granted her anonymity.”

It is hard to see how adding a fourth yeshiva-basher to the gang of three that the Times already has quoted in the article really “adds perspective,” unless the perspective the Times means is that of an anonymouse.

Times policy says “it continues to be a hard-and-fast rule that at least one editor must know the specific identity of any anonymous source before publication.” I asked if an editor knew the specific identity of “S.” Mr. Jamieson initially refused to answer. Then, when pressed on the issue, he said, “The policy is that an editor know the identity of each anonymous source, and that the department head approve the use of each anonymous source. The policy was followed in this instance and, as far as I know, every other instance in my department in recent memory. I am obsessive about it. Surely you’d agree that to further discuss this source would be to possibly violate our agreement to grant said source anonymity.”

A few other issues in the Times attack on the yeshivas are worth mentioning briefly. The Times identifies a lawyer, Norman Siegel, “a longtime advocate for civil liberties,” complaining about the yeshivas. I asked, “Why not describe him as someone who ran three times for public advocate and lost?” The Times replied, “Norman Siegel could be described many ways. ‘Longtime head of the New York Civil Liberties Union,’ for example, would also have fit. We picked the one that was most germane to the article.” This is telling; the Times editors seem to view the complainers as pressing a civil-liberties issue. Others might see it as a three-time loser attempting to infringe on the civil liberties of the religious schools to choose their own curricula.

Finally, the Times article reports: “Most Hasidic Jews speak Yiddish at home, and nearly a third of students in Jewish schools in New York City speak limited English, according to the Education Department.” I asked the Times its source for the claim, “Most Hasidic Jews speak Yiddish at home.”

The Times’ Ms. Virshup replied, “The fact that most Hasidic Jews speak Yiddish at home comes from experts like Samuel Heilman of Queens College, and our own former colleague Joe Berger.”

Professor Heilman told me that he was contacted by the Times about this only on Monday, April 11 — after I started asking questions. The Times article was published online April 6 and in print in New York editions on April 7.

Mr. Berger wrote to me Monday night, “ In writing about Hasidim for over 30 years for the NY Times and before that for Newsday, my experience has been — and I’ve repeatedly been told by authoritative Hasidic leaders — that for most Hasidim Yiddish is their first language. This may be less true among Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim, many of whom are baalei teshuvah. But in Williamsburg and Borough Park, Kiryas Joel and New Square the lingua franca is still Yiddish. I’m not sure an actual survey has been taken — and if you know of one please let me know — but prominent Hasidim in Borough Park confirmed my observation today.”

For what it’s worth, a 2011 study by the UJA-Federation of New York counted 239,000 Hasidic Jews in the eight-county area that includes New York City’s five boroughs, Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester. Federal census data covering the period 2009-2013 in the same eight counties report 87,404 people who speak Yiddish at home, the vast majority of whom also reported that they speak English very well.

Now, these are two different studies, so one can’t necessarily conclude the Times is wrong, at least about these eight counties, when it says most Hasidim speak Yiddish at home. The federal census data are subject to some adjustment in both directions. The census only counts people 5 years and older, so there may be some population of Yiddish-speaking hasidic young children who are uncounted. But the census data also counts all Yiddish speakers, not only Hasidim, so to get the number of Yiddish-speaking Hasidim, you’d have to subtract some portion of probably mostly elderly, European-born non-hasidic (mitnagdic?) refugees and any stray remaining bundists or members of the Workmen’s Circle holding out in the Amalgamated Houses or Brighton Beach or the Lower East Side or wherever they are.

To be sure, there are plenty of additional Yiddish-speaking Hasidim in New Square, Monsey and Kiryas Joel. The federal census reports another roughly 37,000 Yiddish-speakers in Orange and Rockland counties, which include those towns and villages. But their Jewish schools are not reportedly the target of the complaint mentioned in the Times story. The same caveats about adjusting the numbers both ways would apply there, too.

Mr. Jamieson responded to my follow-up questions in part with an email asserting, “You have an ax to grind.”

Since Mr. Jamieson raised the point, let me be direct: I do. I am a religious Jew and a paying ($977.60 a year!) New York Times home-delivery seven-day-a-week customer who is furious, disgusted, dismayed and deeply disappointed at the hostile, shallow, inaccurate, flawed, defamatory and tendentious way that the Times covers my people and the Jewish state, in violation of the newspaper’s own stated standards and policies.

I’ve now achieved the dubious feat of writing a piece of press criticism that is twice as long as the original article it is criticizing, so I should probably wrap it up. But one last thought: It’s certainly possible that some yeshivas could indeed do a better job in educating children in math, English and science, and that some parents and former students are upset about it. But I know, too, that plenty of other schools that aren’t run or attended by Orthodox Jews are also doing sub-par jobs at teaching those topics, without even trying to teach the children any Talmud along the way. It’s certainly not clear to me that bringing down the government bureaucracy, Norman Siegel, or the New York Times on the Jewish schools will do anything to improve the education offered to the children there. That is an idea you can’t find in all the Times coverage of this issue, all three articles’ worth. Maybe they can dig up an anonymous source next time to convey that thought to readers. I would be happy to volunteer to be interviewed even on a non-anonymous basis.

If the Times is going to choose to cover, rather than ignore, the topic of Jewish education, it would be nice to read some success stories, instead of just the complaints and scandals. In the long view, this whole situation is such a success story, and quite an incredible one at that.

A few generations ago, very few people would have predicted that there would be hundreds of thousands of Hasidim and dozens of schools serving them in the New York area in 2016. They predicted this community would disappear as rebbes passed away and younger generations became Reform or secular. Instead, it has undergone a tremendous population boom, driven not only by large families, but also by an influx of voluntary new adherents drawn by the power of a tradition that the Times as an institution, deep down, finds both alien and threatening.

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