MOSHE HILL Originally published in QJL January 04 2023
For the dozens remaining who actually pay attention to The New York Times, there was a particular trend in stories that they were going for: the problems in the chasidic community in New York. The Times has more to say about one small community’s student population than they do the entirety of the public school system, which supposedly educates tens of millions. One organization seeks to shed light on the disparate attacks on Jewish schools.
KnowUs launched with a billboard ad and a white paper detailing the outsized attention The Times is giving to the chasidim, along with the aspects of the community that they get wrong. The billboard displays simple facts that members of the ultra-Orthodox community need to deal with. Anti-Semitic attacks have doubled on the streets, and 12 articles targeting them have been published in three months.
Backed by the Agudath Israel of America, KnowUs has a simple request: “Please Stop Attacking Our Community.” TheNew York Times made a sensational front-page cover story on September 11 of this year about Jewish education. The 8,000-word story became the rallying cry for those who care about Jewish education, and for anyone who advocates for school choice in a state where the public school system holds a monopoly over the educational tax dollars.
In the White Paper that can be found on the KnowUs website, Agudath Israel breaks down the attacks on the chasidic and chareidi communities and addresses the inaccuracies in that and other pieces. “Make no mistake,” the White Paper says, “the inaccuracies and innuendo spouted are not harmless – they defame hundreds of thousands of parents and scandalize how they choose to raise their children.”
Agudath Israel questions the research methods of The Times in their hit pieces. The Times makes claims that their findings are indicative of chasidic schools, when in reality they only visited one school, and did not disclose how many of those they interviewed are actually in the chasidic community. Moreover, the main source of information is from members of an organization called Yaffed, which was “found to fundamentally upend Orthodox and Hasidic education.” Interviewing people who hate a community to get an honest accounting of said community is not journalism, it’s activism. Yaffed literally awards college scholarships to people who spread negative messages about yeshivaheducation. It’s not exactly the best source of information.
The rhetorical attacks focus on a few issues. First, that chasidic families are stealing resources by claiming to be impoverished. Second, that the educational outcome is incredibly poor. Both of these arguments are based on a double standard that The Times would never apply to any other community, especially communities of color. The fact that Jews also take advantage of the massive welfare state that New York has created is not a problem with the chasidim, but with the system itself. (This argument assumes that anyone applying for these benefits is doing so legally and without trying to con the system, like saying they are a single-parent family when they are not. Conning the system should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, regardless of the community you belong to.) The system allows for certain benefits for people below a certain poverty level. That level fluctuates based on family size, income, and benefit to be applied for. A family with seven children is eligible for more than a family with two.
Then there’s the education, both the outcome and the school itself. Chasidic schools have been accused of both not providing an equivalent education to the public school system, and the use of corporal punishment in their institutions. In fact, one school that was deemed an abusive school in terms of corporal punishment was not deemed a chasidic school in terms of education, because the average Regents exam was higher than the public schools in the county. This was shown as The Times trying to graft the narrative.
The Times claims that there have been “more than a dozen” complaints over child abuse in a five-year period. The Times ignores that in the same five-year period, there have been 16,671 complaints in the New York City Public School System. A simple hand-wave of “the chasidic community is so insular, I bet not everything is reported” assumes that all the complaints in the public school have been reported as well.
Then there’s the education outcome, which is admittedly poor in many schools. However, the school system, especially in New York, has long since become a social training ground more than an educational ground. In the public school system, more emphasis is placed on social justice ideology than actual education. The public school system in many cities, not just New York City, yields worse and worse results with each passing class. The policies implemented during COVID set students back even further, policies that many non-public schools were able to avoid because they were not beholden to the teachers’ union.
Agudath Israel findings emphasize the social aspect of the school system, much in the same way any public school would. Graduates of the ultra-Orthodox school system live longer, engage in less crime, and have more civic engagement than their fellow public and even non-public school counterparts. The quality of Talmudic training also provides yeshivah students with a more analytical mindset, as testified to by educational experts to the New York State Supreme Court.
KnowUs is shedding light on these attacks because pointing at those who look different and act differently as the source of society’s ills sells newspapers. The New York Times would call that racist, bigoted, or any other variety of words if it happened to any other group. Since it happens to ultra-Orthodox Jews, it’s something that can occur a dozen times in a few months. They assumed no one would notice, but KnowUs did. The Jewish community needs to support those who shed light on the people attacking us.