The war on religion has reached my front door.
My Chassidic Jewish community in Brooklyn is confronted with an unprecedented level of hostility. Hate crimes abound. Chassidic Jews have been shot at, punched, kicked, violently shoved, or almost run over. During Covid, politicians prohibited our community from coming together to pray, celebrate, and mourn — even when masked and distanced — while permitting and even joining public protests. And now they are coming for our children.
The latest attack comes from The New York Times. On Sept. 11, the Times published a report of its year-long “investigation” into the crown jewel of our community, our education system. Despite the report’s thin trappings of investigative journalism, the charge — plainly stated — was that Chassidic-Americans are too corrupt, abusive of children, and illiterate to be treated as equal members of society.
The Times fired another salvo on Sept. 16, arguing essentially for vesting extraordinary authority in state government and local school boards to “protect” our children from our “failing” schools and better prepare them for the future. Oy!
I fear they have a very different vision for my children’s future than my wife and I do.
I am a retired partner at a global elite law firm and had the honor of serving as an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. My wife is a medical professional. We choose Chassidic yeshiva education for our children in Brooklyn, even at great family and financial sacrifice — commuting weekly to Washington, D.C., while serving at Treasury — because we are committed to, and did not wish to disrupt, an education that provides critical textual analysis applied to a broad and balanced curriculum infused with good values and optimism.
When you compare the harmony and hope in yeshiva schools to the public school landscape of drugs, alcohol, depression, suicide, violence, dismal literacy rates, and despair, our choice was easy.
Gratuitous Negativity and Inaccuracy
Rather than feature even one story of success within our system, the Times chose to push a dehumanizing narrative of ethnic stereotyping. Its 275 interviews over more than a year did not yield even one single voice among the tens of thousands of families touched by our yeshivas in profoundly positive ways.
It is relatively simple to dismantle the Times’ house-of-cards case against our yeshiva school system. First, it claims our schools provide a poor education. Test scores, graduate success, and the parents of roughly 100,000 students in more than 250 schools say differently. Unlike most public schools, where grade inflation runs rampant and roughly 25 percent of graduates are functionally illiterate, our system delivers a high rate of academic success, with most alumni committed to life-long learning.
Next, it claims the yeshiva system delivers this sub-standard education while bilking the state of New York out of millions, even billions of dollars. Rubbish. Yeshiva parents fund our system with more than $1 billion annually in private funds — on top of the taxes we pay to fund the public school system used by our fellow New Yorkers. In reality, the yeshiva system saves New York taxpayers hundreds of millions each year, receiving far less per pupil than public school students. Our students only receive a fraction of the more than $30,000 per student spent in New York City public schools and nearly all of it is earmarked for mandated services or things like busing or federally funded lunch programs that are available to all students.
Finally, the Times alleges that we are bad parents who insist on an education that traps our children in “a cycle of joblessness and destitution.” Nothing could be further from the truth. There are mountains of studies and statistics (ignored by the Times) showing higher incomes and monetary achievement for our students compared with their public school counterparts. Much more importantly, there is voluminous compelling evidence of longer lifespans and higher contentment and peace in our community.
Our detractors focus on poverty rates (rather than actual income) and eligibility for Section 8 housing or Medicaid benefits. But eligibility is often a direct result of Chasidim who typically marry at young ages and have larger families, so families may receive benefits during the years they have young children at home even when earning more than $75,000. “Fixing” their education won’t change the results, because it didn’t cause the problem.
Opting for Varied Curriculum
Our children’s yeshiva curriculum is based on the sacred texts of our religion and our people — the Talmud, Scripture, the Code of Jewish Law, and the vast scholarly and legal literature of Judaism. The subject matter covered is not exclusively religious and ranges from the esoteric to the mundane, covering a wealth of subjects in the humanities and sciences. This is precisely what we as parents want for our kids.
Success in our school system is high, but not easy. In addition to the intellectual and devotional elements of our curriculum, students must master numerous languages. My sons were fluent in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic by the time they completed elementary school. Granted, Aramaic may be useless if you’re standing on East 66th Street trying to get directions to the Hamptons, but, for a different group of travelers seeking a view of heaven, it’s the ticket.
As “the people of the Book,” Jews revere a lifetime of learning, study, and debate. What other group has hundreds of thousands of members — ranging from bus drivers to plumbers to doctors, lawyers, and billionaires, many rising at pre-dawn hours to this end — dedicated to a seven-year study cycle of the Talmud, and then rents out MetLife Stadium to celebrate the study’s completion with a standing-room-only crowd nearing 100,000?
The timing of the Times’ report was not coincidental. It was prominently placed in the Sunday edition just two days before the New York Board of Regents’ vote on its proposed “substantial equivalency” regulations, which represent an unprecedented and dangerous intrusion into the private school system of our Chassidic community and so many others.
The state education department, the Board of Regents, and local school authorities should not be empowered to impose draconian mandates on a school system they do not understand, against the interests of parents who are happy with the education this system provides and the values it promotes.
All schools can use improvement, and as a parent, I am always pushing my children’s schools to excel. But more government control of our children is the last thing our communities need. So here’s a better idea. New York’s Regents can go through the 2,711 folios of the Talmud, and the sources our children learn with hermeneutic rigor, and tell us what we’re missing. In return, our leading Chassidic educators can propose approaches to produce happier, balanced, focused, and academically successful public school students. The resulting dialogue would be far more productive than the unwarranted attacks on my community this week.
But I won’t hold my breath because this campaign isn’t about improving the education in Chassidic schools. It’s about promoting a narrative that casts people of faith as intolerant, ignorant, and uncivilized. In service of this anti-religion narrative, facts will be invented, statistics massaged, and enemies of the people conjured out of whole cloth. The Chassidic-American community is the target today, but expect these attacks to come soon to a church, mosque, synagogue, or meditation retreat near you.