(RNS) — The flyers in the synagogues in my Staten Island neighborhood read: “Chaverim Jr. — We’re happy to announce we are accepting new members. Please call… Thank you.”
“Chaverim” — “friends” in Hebrew — is the name for many volunteer groups in Orthodox Jewish communities that assist their neighbors — Jewish or not — free of charge, with roadside assistance and other help. In my community, a cadre of boys 12-16 years old do things like repair bicycles and scooters and move furniture.
The members of “Chaverim Jr.” are all Haredim — what the media likes to call “ultra-Orthodox” — Jewish boys. Many, if not most, are Hasidim, a subset of the Haredi world. They all attend religious schools, called yeshivas, whose curricula are expected to be more closely regulated by the New York State Education Department. Others are under ferocious attack by, among others, The New York Times.
On Sunday (Sept. 11), the Times dedicated four full pages, beginning on its front page, to a story that cherry-picked data and haphazardly generalized about standards and practices in some of the state’s yeshivas. It also accused Hasidic educational institutions of employing unqualified and violent teachers, censoring textbooks, forcing boys to memorize meaningless material, manipulating elections and hoarding public funds.
The education at yeshivas, it went on, deprived students of the means to make a living, leaving the Hasidic community impoverished.
The Times focused on the few dollars per child that yeshiva students receive for things like school safety and nutritious meals for qualifying students. This number represents a tiny fraction of the more than $28,000 spent on each New York City public school student: The story never let on that private schools in New York save the city’s taxpayers more than $1 billion each year.
Many of the metrics in the Times article have been challenged by, among others, New York Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, who in the New York Sun noted exam results from New York yeshivas that don’t match the Times’ reporting. Tablet’s Liel Leibovitz exposed other flaws in the Times’ accusations, noting that while the yeshiva education is different, it is not necessarily worse.
More importantly, the Times let a disgruntled minority speak for an entire system. Its reporters relied on interviews with ex-Hasidim, some of whom remained anonymous. Why did the article’s writers not speak with any of the vast majority of Hasidic parents or former students who cherish the education offered by their yeshivas?
The writers say members of the Hasidic community wouldn’t speak with them. That’s unsurprising, considering the Times’ record of negativity toward Haredim. But a reporter’s job is still to work to find the necessary interviewees to present all sides of an issue.
As to the hopelessness of Hasidic students’ economic prospects, that dire conclusion is belied by a look at any Hasidic community, where you will find men and women who choose to become teachers or to engage in religion-centric professions. Others choose higher secular education, entering fields such as medicine or law.
Many more run small and large businesses of every sort. And there are plumbers and electricians, car repairmen, computer programmers and IT specialists. I could introduce you to accountants, speech and physical therapists, bus drivers, social workers, Amazon sellers, butchers and bakers — yes, even candlestick makers.
Among my neighbors who are Hasidic, I count therapists, successful businessmen and at least one jewelry designer. Another, when I met him on a Sabbath walk and asked him what he does for a living, responded nonchalantly, “I’m a personal trainer.”
Any lack of parity between some yeshivas and public schools doesn’t seem to have adversely affected the prospects of the yeshiva graduates. Somehow (apologies, Paul Simon), their lives of Jewish education haven’t hurt them none.
That’s likely because, on the whole, yeshivas’ rigorous, text-based religious studies hone students’ critical thinking and imbue them with a keen sense of personal responsibility, not to mention inspire their donation of time and energy to help others through efforts like Chaverim and its junior varsity.
“The critical thinking, textual analysis, reading comprehension, argumentation skills; the historical knowledge, the foreign language acquisition, the legal concepts; indeed, the Jewish culture, tradition, and ethical behavior … embedded in these schools’ religious study are genuinely remarkable,” said Moshe Krakowski, who directs Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration.
Aaron Twerski, a Hasid who served as dean at Hofstra Law School, authored more than 60 law journal articles and is considered an authority on tort law, wrote an impassioned letter decrying New York state’s new rules for yeshivas as interference with Jewish education.
Instead of noting any of that, the Times castigates yeshivas for editing textbooks in ways that, while they might seem strange to strangers, accord with their particular worldview. The article notes the Hasidim’s encouragement to their people to vote, which the paper never seems to judge a problem when it comes to “the Black vote” or “the Hispanic vote.”
The Times said that many of its interviews contain descriptions of corporal punishment, though it cites only one corroborated case, in 2019; the school in question cooperated in the government’s investigation, which found the allegation unfounded. If such punishment exists in any school, of course, it is inexcusable. But contrary to the Times’ insinuation, it is not the norm in Hasidic schools.
The Times cites test scores but remains all but blind to real-life outcomes. Rather than look for actual or imagined faults in Hasidic yeshivas, they would do better to try to understand why Haredim, including Hasidim, are in fact successful in so many careers, and why they report high levels of satisfaction in their lives.
There are larger issues here: parental autonomy over children’s education, as well as First Amendment guarantees of free exercise of religion. Haredim consider intensive Jewish education to be nothing less than a religious requirement.
Some in the Haredi community see the recent Times piece as antisemitism. That’s unreasonable. The writers, by their surnames, are likely Jews. The paper’s publisher has Jewish roots. None of them can be accused of antipathy toward Jews.
And yet the subtle and false message of the article, especially its print headline, “Failing Schools, Public Funds,” is that some Jews are irresponsible and misappropriaters of funds, does echo age-old canards about Jews.
The disparagement here, though, is aimed by some Jews against some other Jews. My decades as media liaison for a national Orthodox Jewish organization have long led me to conclude that Haredi Jews have become, in effect, “the Jews’ Jews.”
The Times piece, sadly, confirms that fact.
(Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization. He blogs at rabbishafran.com. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)