Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Along with much of the rest of the Orthodox community, the editorial board of The Jewish Link strongly criticized what it referred to as “The New York Times Hit Piece” in last week’s edition (September 15, 2022, “Why The New York Times Hit Piece and Subsequent Regents Decision Matters to All Jews”). However, there are important counterpoints not recognized in their criticism.

Specifically, there are three important factors that are relevant to the Chasidic education discussion that are rarely emphasized. The first is that New York’s investigation, which languished for years but ultimately led to the Times’ investigation, was precipitated by aggrieved graduates of the Chasidic education system. At least to some extent, this should belie the reflexive conclusion that the Times or New York State was motivated by antisemitism.

The second factor left out of the discussion is that, regardless of the failures of inner-city public schools, the Chasidic school system is the only one on record in New York State blatantly flouting the education laws that currently exist.

Third and finally, without any data on the subject, the general criticism (beyond the Link’s editorial) presumes that the overwhelming majority of Chasidim are in favor of their current lawless education system. Anecdotally, having worked with many Chasidim, I would posit that a sizable minority (amounting to thousands of graduates) strongly object to the inadequate secular education they were limited to.

The masthead of the Link states, “Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT.” In other words, communities that place strong value in secular education and host excellent Modern Orthodox schools. I question whether its staff and readers have a proper appreciation of the plight of Chasidic graduates.

I did not grow up Chasidic. However, I did not grow up Modern Orthodox either. I grew up in that right-wing Orthodox space between the two, the nuance of which is not always captured by mainstream media exposés. Regardless, having gone to right-wing Orthodox yeshivas, some of which remain the gold standard within that construct, I can say that my secular education was atrocious. Even worse than the inability of the schools I attended to properly educate me and some of my peers was the physical and emotional abuse I witnessed somewhat regularly. There is little doubt that my experience pales in comparison to the Chasidic educational experience.

As an aside, I have hakarat hatov to Touro College, which ultimately served as a bridge from my abysmal lower education to law school and ultimately a fruitful career. Some of my classmates in Touro were survivors of Chasidic schools.

I received a popular meme circulating WhatsApp and social media that asks: “What did the uneducated Chasid tell the educated college professor?” The answer to the riddle is: “Rent is due on the first.” It is funny. But it also underscores a tactical rebuttal so often utilized by Chasidim and right-wing Orthodox apologists. They will always point to their success stories as evidence that their system works.

Like any other demographic, Chasidim and right-wing Orthodox contingents contain many brilliant people. Sometimes that brilliance manifests academically and sometimes via business savvy. And so it goes that Chasidic apologists tend to point to millionaire entrepreneurs to justify their education system, while those in the yeshivish world often take pride in the Harvard law school student who arrived straight out of Lakewood.

However, no one serious about ascertaining whether an education system is working or failing would rely on anecdotes about its top successes. More likely, it would scrutinize the outcomes of the group’s middle 50%, at the very least. In essence, The New York Times does just that by analyzing thousands of standardized test scores, along with an alarming level of poverty in Chasidic communities. And the cringeworthy defense provided by the Chasidic community for the Times article was that “Hasidic neighborhoods were not as impoverished as government data might suggest.” As if adding a second layer of lawlessness in the form of unreported income brightens the situation.

In conclusion, it is uncomfortable for The New York Times and New York State to encroach on the privacy of insular religious communities that largely prefer to be left alone. But sometimes circumstances warrant intrusion.

Michael Gottlieb

Fair Lawn

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