I am regularly accused of being an apologist for the Orthodox community by those who have left observance and are angry, while simultaneously accused of being too negative by community insiders who don’t want to discuss the problems. I hope my analysis will not disappoint either group. I’ve always tried to approach issues with nuance, and I believe I’ve gotten better at it as I get older and the more I learn and become exposed to. That being said, I’ve also come to understand that nuance is threatening to anyone who views the world with a more simplistic lens. So here we go…
A Hasidic Jew once told me about going to a rebbe of a large sect to ask permission to attend graduate school. The rebbe not only gave his effusive blessing, he said more people from the community should do this as well. He ended by saying that this Hasid should never tell anyone that he (the rebbe) had given such permission. Obviously this person didn’t follow the last part of the instructions, as the story was repeated to me.
There is something absolutely wonderful about this encounter — the encouragement to pursue higher education and professional dreams by the head of a strict Hasidic sect. Here, we’ve been led to believe this sort of thing is not allowed and the head not only gives permission, but wishes that more would follow!
At the same time, there is something absolutely tragic about this encounter. If the rebbe is supposed to be leading his flock, who is he scared of? Why isn’t he leading?
Years ago, I met with someone high up within a large blackhat institution. We discussed both the unfair treatment the Haredi community gets in the press, as well as the underlying problems that exist within it. He explained that everyone is always looking to the right of them and concerned with how they’ll respond. The fear is, “What will the more insular and stringent groups say or do if we do X or Y?” he explained.
I asked, “And the most right-wing factions are worried how the kanayim (zealots) will react if they do X or Y?” The leader concurred. At that point I interjected, “So the entire community is basically being held hostage by a select number of kanayim?” He sadly nodded.
The New York Times published a damning exposé on Hasidic schools of New York yesterday. It was their front page, top of the fold article on September 11. The article was an uncomfortable read, because it raises serious issues about failings in the community in terms of secular education and corporal punishment that we must deal with. Jewish law requires us to follow the law of the land, protect the vulnerable and teach our kids a trade, so they’ll be able to support themselves when they grow up. These are non-negotiable laws.
The article was an uncomfortable read for another reason: the framing of Jews as child abusers and sucking public funds to do so, is really problematic imagery. It fits right into antisemitic canards.
Frankly, the fact that this article played into them does a disservice and creates a distraction from the important topic at hand. First, we’ll unpack this unfortunate framing. Then we’ll discuss the issues in Hasidic schools.
Economic Uncertainty = Jews As Scapegoats
Not only are many elements of the article poorly framed, the group that’s being exposed bears the brunt of the vast majority of Jewish attacks, as antisemitic violence has risen in recent years, and these people are the most Jewish looking Jews. We all know that in times of economic hardship — like inflation and an impending recession — Jews have always been the perfect scapegoats.
But don’t take my word for it — here are just a few choice comments from readers on the New York Times’s Instagram page where the article was posted:
“This is a well-known fact but nothing gets done in fear of the Jewish community backlash.” (i.e. look at how powerful the Jewish cabal is).
“It’s a cult that we allow under religious pretext. It’s sad and sickening.” (That we allow.)
“And the women just become broodmares and house slaves.” (They hate their women.)
“Tragic. The cult is strong. These kids need help.” (They hate their children.)
“Ignorance is a powerful tool for brainwashing.”
“The similarity between the Hasidic and the Taliban.”
The last comment is interesting because there have been studies done for other minority communities about negative media leading to negative sentiments and increased violence against them (we’re actually raising money for such a study right now in our recently launched Hollywood Bureau). But when a group of mostly non-violent people get compared to violent terrorists, it’s not hard to imagine how such a sentiment could open the door to increased violence against them.
Increased Sensitivity To Reporting On Other Minority Groups
Investigative reporting on a religious Jewish community is not inherently antisemitic, but there seems to be increased sensitivity in recent years toward other minority groups and the backlash they might face with negative reporting. The lab leak theory of the Coronavirus was immediately quashed by traditional media outlets because the pandemic brought terrifying violence against the Asian community and members of the media didn’t want to fuel that fire. After the George Floyd murder and BLM protests, there has been a widespread understanding in media that when the black community is depicted as criminals, it increases police violence against the community. Even after 9/11, when media was far less sensitive to these issues, there was a growing understanding that Islamophobia was worse than ever and media played a role in preventing it. Similar concerns towards the Jewish community’s safety don’t seem to be taken into account in the following framings in this article:
Jews As Leeches
People are struggling economically right now, and citing $1 billion of taxpayers’ funds going toward yeshivas feels extremely large to the average reader trying to pay his bills. Broken down over four years, according to OJPAC, this $1 billion actually amounts to $2500 per student (including Covid funds and lunch vouchers). Without those add ons, it’s actually $1375 per student. This is compared $25,000 per student that the city funds public schools. This is a far less dramatic way to explain the numbers and would be far less inciting for a community under attack.
Jews As Cultish Separatists
Antisemitism allows for Jews to always be the perfect enemy. We’re too rich, when being rich is considered negative and too destitute, when poverty is derided. A popular trope is “Jews are separatists,” and one of the first few paragraphs of the article feeds into this idea, “The leaders of New York’s Hasidic community have built scores of private schools to educate children in Jewish law, prayer and tradition — and to wall them off from the secular world.” The verb “wall off” implies imprisonment. Another word that could have been used in its place is “protect.” I think whether one feels imprisoned or protected makes a world of difference in whether one is part of a cult or part of a healthy and happy close-knit society.
Our organization’s Makom branch deals with hundreds of ex-Hasidic Jews to help them find a positive place in the Orthodox world. The vast majority of our Makom members felt that their homes and societies were prisons and cults. But it’s not because a Hasidic lifestyle is intrinsically that way, it’s because our members come from homes where they did not feel seen, heard or held, and where love was conditional upon them following the rules and in many cases, schools that reinforced this negativity. This phenomenon is called emotional neglect and it leads to insecure attachment. In other words, when you come from a dysfunctional home, it feels like a prison you can’t wait to escape from. This is a fair and important topic to discuss, but it doesn’t account for the numerous Hasidic Jews who feel protected and embraced by their way of life due to being raised in healthy homes. Framing this community as “walled off” is dangerous language.
Jews As Misogynists
The article notes that pictures of girls and pictures of pigs are blotted out of textbooks in certain schools. Let me state quite unequivocally that I am no fan of women being removed from Haredi publications. But the choice of these two words — girls and pigs — written side by side could easily imply equivalence, when that is not the motivation at all. Removal of women is due to a stringent interpretation of modesty. Pictures of pigs don’t need to be removed according to Jewish law, but probably due to a Kabbalistic interpretation they avoid seeing pictures of pigs.
Random Hasidic Children Looking Distressed
There are definitely abused children in the Hasidic community, as there are abused children in all communities. Most of our Makom members were abused, so I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of the topic.
And yet, the pictures in the article of random Hasidic boys on the street looking distressed are DEEPLY unhelpful.
The picture of this boy on the left looks like a deer caught in headlights. His teacher’s hand near his neck looks foreboding.
So too, the Hasidic boy on the right is just making his way through the street. We have no idea what was on his mind when the photographer snapped the picture. Maybe he’s late to class. Maybe he just got into a fight with a friend. Perhaps, like celebrities, these grimaces are due to a camera being shoved in a face. There is definitely a colonialist approach to how this community is being viewed and depicted. Like with Pocahontas, the smart, brave secular folks must save them. Which leads me to my final point on this topic.
Lack Of Generosity Towards The Community
I understand that an investigative report is not written to stroke the egos of the people it’s written about —and the community is very suspicious of reporters and do not easily let them in. Even so, the goal of an investigative report, I hope, is to create change. And no one is open to change when you shout at them how bad they are. The community has real issues to face, but they also do some things in exceptional ways. The hospitality in the community, the generosity of so many of its members, the number of organizations that exist to help in every way you can possibly imagine is exceptional. It’s like nothing that I’ve ever seen anywhere else. I believe some more detailed descriptions about these positive elements of the community would have made the difficult parts easier to swallow.
Facing the Challenges
And now, let’s get to the difficult parts within the schools themselves. I already mentioned the children from dysfunctional families who don’t feel seen, heard, held or unconditionally loved. They often develop a rage within, because so many of their basic needs were unmet in their formative years. I believe many of the activists against the yeshiva education system are coming from this vantage point. But there’s another response to family dysfunction that we need to address – the family member who never wants to discuss the problems. The family member who covers up the issues and wants to pretend everything is OK because the problems are too painful to face. I believe we see some of that dysfunction from the slavish defenders of these schools. This is also an unhelpful response.
I don’t have an exact number of how many schools are problematic and how many have made positive changes vis a vis child safety, secular education and financial transparency. We’ve begun to dig into this issue through our Tikun branch — our branch dedicated to communal repair. What we’ve discovered is that child safety curriculums and protocols have made their way into some schools, as well as independent financial audits, so the schools can operate with transparency and accountability.
I know of 4 separate secular curricula that have made their way into a large number of New York schools, but back to the opening story — none of the people we’ve spoken to in any of these areas want to be public about the positive changes that are occurring (Menachem Bombach, in Israel, is the only Hasidic educator I know who publicly discussing the positive changes he’s brought about in his schools). The people we’ve spoken to in New York are all afraid of zealots trying to stop their progress, so they’re operating quietly and under the radar. This is a huge problem both in terms of promoting positive change and in terms of having accurate information to report.
We are currently in Elul — a month of personal introspection. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this article came out now. Self-evaluation, apologizing and committing to do better are the hallmarks of this time of year and I would say, the foundation of being a religious Jew. It is not shameful to make a mistake. It is shameful to not face and correct those mistakes that we’ve made.
We can feel proud of all the things the community does right while also taking responsibility for where we are falling short. Doing a mitzvah publicly is considered a kiddush Hashem — a sanctification of God’s name — and community leaders can use this opportunity to do teshuva — to apologize for where they have fallen short, to validate the people who are hurting and to create a systemic plan to ensure child safety protocols, checks and balances and improved secular education across all schools. It would be a tremendous kiddush Hashem. And when you’re self-reflective about where you need to grow, you become more trustworthy when you explain the positives that already exist.
The Jewish people are too strong and resilient to be held hostage by a select number of zealots. May the new year ahead bring courage, clarity and a renewed commitment to living up to our beautiful way of life.
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What a great article. Comprehensive and honest. I hope many people read it and THINK about the issues raised.
First I am not surprised aboutThe NY Times comments.
They have always been very critical and negative of the Jews.
I found this article to be very Honest, Meaningful and Educational. Hope many will take the time to read it. Thank You !
As saddening and infuriating the Times’ article was, and even though it’s nothing but a misleading and unfair jab at the chassidishe community, I’m still glad they did it. For one reason: it compels us to examine these issues.
After all the opinions are put out on the forum, and the omissions of the Times are exposed (did they mention that public school kids get at least five times as much money than yeshivas? And that the vast majority of the money received pays for school lunches and kitchen maintenance? And that a weaker secular education is NOT the cause of substance abuse, as shown when you compare to the rate in the public school system? And that traditionally raised kids tend to be much better behaved and have healthier relationships? Forgot about that part)
But let’s get a bit more specific- should yeshivas’ administrators be compelled to change the curriculum? Should all the girls and boys be required to learn algebra? Should they have more than 8 hours a week over 6 to 7 years in the “English” learning? Should science be taught as a subject? How about a gym class?
If yeshivas start adding more to the English studies- which is not likely- will the state subsidize it?
I don’t have the answers. But we need to face these points.
One more thing— about instances of abuse.
About 10 years ago, HaModia printed a two-page “Kol Koreh” (public service announcement) calling on anyone who who knows of definite abuse by faculty, is not only allowed, but required to report it. It was signed by hundreds of rabbis across the country. I looked very carefully at that list. I did not see even one chassidic rabbi that signed it.
Ouch (or should I say “Oy”)
I found it very interesting how you explained one of the issues in terms of everyone in orthodox society being afraid of those to their right.
One of the main issues I see in orthodox society is a fear of being different. While this carries with it certain positive ramifications as well (for example, someone who has a more negative view of divorce based on societal norms may be more motivated to seek counseling), it can become a huge problem when people, especially those in leadership positions, operate from a place of fear.
Fear has no place in our lives. We have enough to worry about without worrying about what others think of us. As a society we need to develop, and develop in our children, more backbone, to seek objective truth and to stand up for it without fear.
Your thoughts are interesting and semi-acceptable but, why did all of the children fail the standardized tests in reading and math? It is the responsibility of a parent, teacher, and community to prepare a child to be a citizen of the world. The lack of skills to do so is negligent. There are many non-Jewish religious groups that put a high value on their religious teachings and beliefs ,but do not deprive their children basic knowledge of the rest of the world. Knowledge is power. I would like to think that all Jews, whether reform, non-practicing, conservative, or ultra orthodox have access to the power of knowledge . That is what makes Jews unique in the world. Knowledge is not just Torah and Talmud. There is so much more, and statistically it seems a portion of jews are denying this gift of knowledge to themselves and their community. Ignorance is not bliss, it is irresponsible. Heartbreaking
Learning Talmud intensely provides the student with critical thinking skills, something sorely missing in many public schools. A good argument would be to compare the success of graduates of these yeshivas versus graduates of public schools in the same communities. Allison didn’t mention how successful Hassidim have been in many proditab
Sorry, hit enter by accident. Was saying that many of those who attendees these schools are doing extremely well in any number of businesses and trades. They rarely abuse drugs or alcohol, or get in trouble with the law. Their lives are family and community oriented. What’s wrong about that?
I had read two prior critiques of the NYT piece, one asking if the Times couldn’t find a better day to tear apart the Jewish community than on the anniversary of 9/11. The second was by Jonathan Tobin asking how much was vitiol vs how much was a valid critique of schools that scored lower on standardized tests than those in the ghettos. The two approaches made me wonder what Jew in the City would have to say. Thank you for your measured evaluation.
You bring such clarity to the problems the community faces. Wonderful and educational article.
Fantastic commentary. Made me rethink some of my reactions to the NYTimes article as well. It has disturbed me that there are more comments about the funding than the children and I am concerned about the threat to remove funding from schools if they do not meet basic standards (how is this going to help?). I do believe that there needs to be SOME oversight over ALL private schools, charter schools,and homeschooling, to ensure that secular subjects meet basic standardst. All children have a right to that. But there is no need to demonize an entire community in the process.
Not mentioned here – the amount of discussion of standardized tests and how they may be biased based on cultural differences between those creating the tests and the culture of various non-dominant cultural communities. Yet this does not even come up – were those tests culturally inappropriate for the Hasidic community? Has anyone even looked at this?
I realized my message above may not be clear – what I mean to say is that for other communities, the validity of the tests is questioned based on cultural differences, while for the Hasidic community, they are not.
Thank you for your thoughtful and excellent commentary. I am going back to re-read the article with a new perspective.
I was encouraged by the transparency of the article, and alarmed by the power/influence of the more zealous of the community. There is a danger in the self righteousness of those who dispense religiosity as though it were a commodity to be monopolize.
I don’t believe that ANY private religious school should receive public funds, irrespective of which religion it is. Having said that, it is clear that this is just another hit piece by the NY Times against the Jewish community; appalling, but not surprising. I ended my subscription quite a while ago.
I received a fabulous Hebrew and secular education in a typical Yeshiva school. While boys tend to spend more time learning Hebrew than English subjects, basic English instruction is provided. Like you said, change is happening from within, not from The NY Times expose or from NY State mixing into to our lives. The rhetoric has got to stop as has sensationalizing Hasidim as living off the taxpayer. I pay a lot of taxes for the public school system and don’t see any shining reports in their annual reviews. When will this all stop????
I am extremely disappointed in your response. Your focus should be on the children who are being denied a good education. Yes, the NYT is antisemitic and this shouldn’t have been published on 9/11. But your focus misses the point of the investigation. That’s what should be the main concern. That, and lying about the funds. Hasidic children deserve to have an education that will allow them to live fully in the country in which they reside. They need basic skills and should be able to speak English.
Thanks for your comment. As I noted in my response, I too am disappointed that the NYTimes fell into the trap of peddling tropes when some of these details I pointed out could have been avoided and the article would have only been about the actual topic.
Did you submit either a letter to the editor or a opinion column to them?
Allison, you need to approach the NYT to ask them to publish a rebuttal from you. If they’re as dedicated to fairness and balance as they claim they are, they will publish it.
So, I think you are being a bit too apologetic, and you freely say that some see you in this light. I admire you for trying to find a middle ground on this issue. From reading your article, I believe that you feel that the Hasidic Yeshivas in Brooklyn and NY State should be teaching secular studies to the children. I think that you believe that they should not be violent towards the kids. I also think that perhaps you are not making this clear enough.
You spend a lot of time explaining that you feel the Times article borders on Anti-Semitic, and some of the comments above accuse the Times of being just that. I have been a Times reader for many years, and I do not believe it to be Anti-Semitic in any way. Were there problems with the article, yes for sure. You point out a few. But I just don’t see them as Anti-Semitic.
You bring in some proof by quoting some of the comments in Instagram. There will always be Anti-Semitism out there, and many of these quotes are just that, but just because some Times readers are Anti-Semitic, does not mean that the paper is, or that this reporting is.
The main points of the article are VERY valid and your piece here glosses over them, and seems to suggest that they are a secondary point of the article. The fact is that the Hasidic Yeshivas are not educating their children in anything other than Torah and Talmud. The children are not able to do much in the world, and the vast majority of them are living in horrible poverty. It is also a fact that the Yeshivas use corporal punishment on the children, sometimes brutally. You do not dispute this, yet you highlight what you see as the problems with the reporting as the most important thing. I think that the issues being reported are really what is important.
Finally, the Times reports on the misuse of public funding by the schools. On this topic I can speak firsthand. For three years I was the IT director of a major Modern-Orthodox Yeshiva in New York City. One part of my job was to deal with a Federal program called E-Rate which gave funding to schools and libraries for internet, phone, and computer services. It was (and I am sure still is) a rigorous application process. During my time there, I became somewhat of a subject matter expert and for a number of years after I left that job, I still consulted with people on the E-Rate application process. During my time at the Yeshiva and after, I learned first had how much money these Yeshivas pilfered from the government. The Yeshiva where I worked got very little funding as it is a very financial sound institution. E-Rate funding is based on the number of children in the school under the poverty level. I would go to meetings and seminars about E-Rate and I saw the representatives of these schools, who’s entire population live in poverty, take hundreds of thousands of dollars for Internet service when they do not have and actually forbid having internet service. To me this is stealing, of which the Torah has a lot to say.
Bottom line is that I respect you and all that you are trying to do with your organizations. I just think that we cannot apologize for some of the things the Hasidic community has done and is doing.
Thanks for your very insightful comment.
Thanks for your comment, Phil. I moved up my yeshiva commentary higher up than I originally had it in an earlier draft because I was afraid people might not think it was being highlighted enough. It doesn’t need much commentary. My commentary is do the right thing, be brave, don’t let zealots influence you to not do the right thing. At the end I brought it home by reminding leadership of teshuva and this being that time of year to do that.
Yes there will always be antisemites as there will always be Islamaphobes and racists and yet these other minority communities are getting a different treatment because media has recognized that there are real consequences in continuously reporting on them in negative and stereotypical ways. I wish the NYTimes had avoided some of the things I pointed out so the article could have been only about the topic at hand – the need for some schools to change. I do want to push back here: There are schools that have actually been implementing safety curriculums and secular education curriculums over the last many years. I don’t think the reporters actually recognize how much internal and organic change has come about. Yes we need much more, but change is happening and it’s really hard to change a society, especially one serious living with inter-generational from the holocaust more than any other community.
I was a bit disappointed in your response to The NY Times article. Instead of addressing the glaring educational deficiencies in Hasidic yeshivas, highlighted in the article, you decided to look for ways that the story may have been written with an anti semitic slant.
You yourself made a point of writing about an instance of a Hasidic leader ‘giving permission’ to a student who wanted to attend a graduate school education, BUT he didn’t want anyone to know that he gave his approval! Why was it a secret? If the Rebbe was truly interested in helping improve the collective lot of his Hasidic followers, he should have been encouraging every student openly and unafraid of the community criticism that would surely ensue. Hasidic communities are among the poorest in New York State. The best way to help these communities is by offering their students an opportunity to acquire an education that would allow them to function in the secular world and earn a living in our society.
The story of the rebbe was a criticism of living in fear. I believe fear of zealots is a big part of why the progress has not gotten as far as it should have. The article began and ended with this message and had my thoughts on doing the right thing at the top. The antisemitism part of the article was to tell the NYT that they actually lost focus on the topic by dabbling in these tropes. The people who already feel under attack could say “look – we ARE under attack” as opposed to only discussing the issues.
I’m a Modern Orthodox Jew and it seems to me that the fact that Chassidim speak Yiddish as their first language is a far bigger problem than the lack of secular studies. If the advocates of secular studies got all of the things they want, the Chassidim would have 4 classes a day in English, math, social studies, and science from 1st through 12th grade. If each class is 45 minutes, that’s 3 hours the Chassidim would spend in an English-speaking environment. Many of the Chassidic students would probably be able to read and write English at a decent level, but would probably be very uncomfortable speaking English. (In the average public school or Modern Orthodox school, how many minutes a week does the average student speak in class? It’s probably less than 20 minutes. For some students, it’s 0 minutes, if they don’t have teachers who call on the students who don’t raise their hand.) I’ve met some Orthodox men from Lakewood where many of the boys’ yeshivos have no secular studies after 8th grade, but the men speak English as a first language. I think they’re much better prepared to get a job in a secular workplace than a Chassid whose first language is Yiddish but had 12 years of secular studies. I know I would prefer to be in the former situation over the latter. Nobody is going to force Chassidim to speak English outside of secular classes, nor should they. But with Yiddish as the language they speak 95% of the time, most of them are going to feel uncomfortable speaking English and speak it with a Yiddish accent, which will probably cause many employers to be less likely to hire them. I don’t know of a solution to this problem.