Lakewood Macher Sends Out Email Defending Private Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Schools In Backlash To New York Times

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On Sunday the New York Times published an article called, “In Hasidic Enclaves, Failing Private Schools Flush With Public Money.” The gist of the story will be familiar to New Jersey residents who keep up with the news out of Lakewood, which has about 130 yeshivas, or private ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools, serving over 30,000 students.  According to the NYT, these children, especially boys who receive less secular instruction than girls, “are suffering from levels of educational deprivation not seen anywhere else in New York.” When one school agreed to assess student proficiency in math and reading English, every boy failed.  Why? Because they spend only 90 minutes on math and English (they speak Yiddish at school) and that’s after 8-12 hours of religious studies six days a week. Starting in 8th grade it’s all Talmud all the time.

“The result,” says the Times, “is that generations of students have been systematically denied a basic education, trapping many of them in a cycle of joblessness and dependency.” This is partially funded by public tax dollars.

There has been blowback to the article among those who champion yeshivas. (Journalists Eliza Shapiro and Brian Rosenthal approached the leaders of the major yeshivas but they wouldn’t comment; they quote parents who say they value the way these schools shield their children from the dangers of modern culture. Also, the article is referring only to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas; modern Orthodox yeshivas are known for their academic excellence.)

The blowback has reached Lakewood.

Rabbi Aaron Kotler, the President Emeritus of Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha, the largest yeshiva in America, sent out an email this week criticizing the NYT article and the NYT in general, writing that the newspaper has a habit of “downplaying the Holocaust and humanizing Hitler and the SS.” (Full email at the bottom of the page.)

Yet NJ Ed Report has documented the same lack of secular instruction in Lakewood that we see in New York. One example: at a videotaped fundraiser for an 800-boy yeshiva called Orchos Chaim, principal Rabbi Eli Schulman says the mission of the school is to “focus on how can the davening take on more hashamayim.” (Translation: how can praying reach heavenly heights.) When the camera cuts to shots of classrooms, the whiteboards and posters on the wall are all in Hebrew and the chatter is all in Yiddish. And, yes, there’s the public money angle too: On one Lakewood Board of Education agenda, picked arbitrarily, the district awards over $200,000 in taxpayer funds to Orchos Chaim. (Two-thirds of the Lakewood Board of Education are Hasidic. although 94% of students are Hispanic or Black.)

The government’s response to the New York Times article was swift. Or maybe it was a coincidence that on Tuesday the New York State Board of Regents passed a set of rules that will require yeshivas that accept public money to only hire teachers who demonstrate competence in the subjects they’re teaching and to update requirements for instructional time in core subjects like math and social studies. In a statement, Naftuli Moster, executive director of Yaffed, which has pushed for more oversight of religious schools, called the regulations “a giant step forward in ensuring that all children attending nonpublic schools receive the education to which they are entitled.”

Is mandatory state oversight on the horizon for Lakewood yeshivas? Hard to picture because the ultra-Orthodox lobby is powerful. Rabbi Kotler and 10 other ultra-Orthodox men comprise the Vaad, which tells their community members who to vote for. They mostly listen. The Vaad controls Sen. Bob Singer and, some say, Gov. Phil Murphy. When some reporters asked Murphy what he thought of the fact that the Lakewood school board attorney, Michael Inzelbuch, got paid $2.1 million in (taxpayer–subsidized) salary for three years of work, he replied, “I have no insight.”  The only time I can think of when Gov. Phil Murphy responded negatively to the Vaad was in April 2020, at the height of the pandemic, when members approved a process to allow Lakewood Jewish weddings to take place during the state-ordered prohibition on large gatherings.

Educators in New Jersey over ultra-Orthodox yeshivas have pushed for more oversight, to no avail. Maybe this example set by New York will be the charm that triggers the Department of Education to set similar guidelines. One can only hope.

Email from Rabbi Kotler:

I am sure you have seen the incredible growth of business and social and economic success in Lakewood, with tens of thousands of high paying jobs, millions of square feet of Class A office built, filled and staffed by Orthodox.  This is a social success by any measure and outcomes that exceed that of South Jersey by far.  It has lifted the economic boat of the entire Ocean County region.

Somehow the Times appears to many to be grinding an ideological axe.

It has a long history of missing the mark: The Times has been cited for playing up Stalin and Communism as great advancements for humanity, to downplaying the Holocaust and humanizing Hitler and the SS.  I have some interesting articles on how The Times justified the Hitler Putsch against Ernest Roehm as a great step forward for Germany – when in fact that consolidated Hitler and Himmler’s power and led directly to the Holocaust.   The Times likewise gets called out in recent decades for humanizing terror and demonizing the State of Israel over and over.

I can send you some articles and links to books about the Times if of interest, some of it is shocking.

Such articles today are written by sincere well intentioned writers perhaps, but somehow miss the gist of the story with bias: American Jewish Orthodoxy on the whole is a success by any measure, with many flaws and problems.

On another point, The Times should be ashamed of how it positioned this article: The inference of Jews and money is an old one, and common in media, the APP once ran a series called “Cheated” that implied that the Jews are cheating the public schools. Shame on them.

Accusations of  bias has led to many folks losing trust in old media and the rise of groups like MAGA and others.

It’s sad and predictable.

Aaron Kotler

 

 

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