Long-Hyped New York Times Investigation of Hasidic Yeshivas Fizzles
“In Hasidic Enclaves, Failing Private Schools Flush with Public Money” is the online headline the Times slaps over its long-awaited “New York Times investigation” of Hasidic schools for boys. The print article, under the slightly more sober “Failing Schools, Public Funds,” appears at the top of page one.
It’s a measure of how disappointing the Times article is that it fails to deliver even on the basic headline claim that the yeshivas are “flush” with public money. “New York’s Hasidic boys’ schools received more than $375 million from the government,” the Times breathlessly reports. Yet there’s no evidence that the yeshivas are paying their executives large sums, that they are hiring fancy architects to erect palaces, or that they are otherwise living extravagantly on the public purse. In fact, the article admits (albeit in the 29th paragraph) that Hasidic boys yeshivas “receive far less per pupil than public schools.”
Among the subsidies the Times is complaining about are school lunches. This is remarkably hypocritical. When the city of New York made lunch free to all public school students, including those at affluent schools in neighborhoods such as Park Slope, Tribeca, and the Upper East Side, the Times editorial board praised the decision, saying that it “ensures that more children will get proper nutrition during the school day” and that “Missing meals and experiencing hunger impede a child’s ability to learn and achieve.” Would the Ochs-Sulzberger heirs prefer that only the Hasidic children go hungry?
A particularly striking irony of the Times coming down hard on the Satmar is that it’s a community that historically shares the non-Zionism that also runs strong at the Times. One might be tempted to say the Times and the Satmar deserve each other, but that would be unkind and lacking in empathy. It’s the sort of irony that might be caught in editing by a Hasidic editor at the Times, if there were any to give this article a sensitivity read before publication. As it is, the Times vaunted concern about “diversity,” sensitivity, and inclusion doesn’t extend to a reluctance to insult Hasidim in New York.
The whole project was a missed opportunity, because the story of New York’s effort to regulate its yeshivas does raise some interesting issues about the role of education and the history of New York’s compulsory education law.
The Times attacks the yeshivas for breaking the law, writing that the “schools appear to be operating in violation of state laws that guarantee children an adequate education.” But New Yorkers break the law all the time. You can barely walk down a street or walk through a park in New York without smelling marijuana being used in violation of federal law. Why does this law, of all of them, deserve the Times’ extensive attention? If the Times had done its homework, it might have investigated why and when that New York law was passed—amid an attack on Catholic education animated by anti-Irish bigotry.
The Jewish law studied in the yeshivas records, in the Talmudic tractate Kiddushin, the conflict over the purpose and content of education. The rabbis said a father was obligated to teach his son a trade. Rabbi Nehorai set aside the trades and taught his son only Torah. I write about this in the concluding chapter of the 2020 book Religious Liberty and Education: A Case Study of Yeshivas Vs. New York.
None of this is to say that the Hasidic yeshivas serving boys couldn’t be improved. But so could the public schools in these neighborhoods, which absorb far more taxpayer dollars. So why does the Times have such an investigative zeal for Orthodox Jews? The pretense is that the paper sincerely cares about the children in attendance or about the preservation of taxpayer dollars. I suppose that’s possible.
Whatever the underlying motive, the journalism is lame. It’s the sort of article that, rather than triggering improvements in Hasidic yeshivas, is more likely to generate a circling of the wagons. The Times investigation online, in the manner of an ambulance-chasing lawyer shopping for plaintiffs, carries a form for readers to submit their own horror stories. It amounts to a concession that this first installment, lengthy though it was, fizzled out when it came to producing anything close to evidence justifying increased state regulatory entanglement with religious schools.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.