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New York Times article gave us the what, but not the why

I. The What

Here’s what The New York Times exposé of education standards in the chasidic community missed: There are reasons why ethnic communities choose to stay insular. This is not to excuse the shockingly low testing results among chasidic boys, but it is a context worth adding to broaden the conversation.

We believe that all American citizens, regardless of race, creed or sex, should attain a fundamental level of English literacy, arithmetic, basic science, US history and civics. If chasidic boys don’t know how to read and write in English, that must be remedied. Literacy is an essential tool to almost any type of business or educational endeavor. It is also far more difficult to attain as an adult than as a child. Robbing children of literacy can potentially close many doors in their future — which, of course, the NYT article argues, is somehow the intention of chasidic society, to keep itself insular and removed from society at large.

Critics of the article have argued that the data is neither robust nor representative. Others say they know first-hand of cases that prove the story’s descriptions to be true. We’ll leave that aside, not having specific knowledge of the issue, but we have no reason to doubt the veracity of the Times’ educational data.

If there is any misuse of public funds, that requires a full and complete investigation and remedy. The article, while critical of the sums the chasidic schools receive, did not point to any illegality. Further, the article did not report how much the chasidic communities save the taxpayer due to the absence of public funding for addiction programs, crime and teenage pregnancies, all which are absent in these communities.

II. The Why

What the reporting failed to investigate is why chasidic families opt for insularity. It failed to investigate the values that the chasidic community holds dear, more precious than the educational standards their children are failing to meet. No better example could have illustrated this than in the actual issue of the NYT in which its exposé appeared. On the back page of the issue was a full page advertisement featuring a silhouette of a naked woman. This is why the chasidic community turns inward; it views secularism as a purveyor of values it doesn’t want in its communities.

The truth is that many minority communities seek to uphold their way of life amid a mainstream culture different to their own. It’s why second or third generation Hispanic families may still speak Spanish as their first language in their homes. The tricky balance is for a subcommunity to maintain and protect its unique characteristics while also being able to interact with mainstream society to the extent that its members are productive.

III. Journalistic Standards

Unlike some critics of the article, we do not believe it was anti-Semitic; we uphold the newspaper’s responsibility to cover its city’s multitude of communities. New York’s chasidic Jews are a part of New York’s fabric. Negative reporting of it is not necessarily anti-Semitic. That said, there were aspects of the article that were troubling.

First was the portrayal of chasidic Jews as controlling New York politicians, and as chasidic Jews voting according to their leaders’ guidance. None of this is unique to chasidic Jews or even to minorities. Every community has the right to lobby its representatives to fight for its interests — and every community does so. The idea that chasidic Jews are uniquely easy to manipulate for voting purposes because of their lack of secular education is both ignorant and offensive. A lack of secular education doesn’t make chasidic Jews fools and they are certainly not the only group to follow guidance in how to vote.

Second, the article “buries the lead,” to use journalism jargon. While the literacy rates among chasidic boys were bottom of the barrel, the graphs in the article all showed that New York’s public school rates of literacy overall were shockingly low, with almost no cadre above 50%. That’s where the vast bulk of the Dept. of Education’s funds are going. Chasidic boys are an important story, but they’re the smaller part. Isn’t the mass failure of New York public schools the bigger story? Was the story about chasidic schools written to deflect attention from the larger problem? If so, why did the NYT choose a Jewish story?

Finally, the article is being published against a horrific rise in wholly unprovoked violent physical and verbal crimes against New York’s religious Jews. That doesn’t mean the Times was wrong to publish its piece, but we fear that this negative portrayal may contribute to a further ratcheting up of crimes against Jews.

Especially as we are in the midst of our High Holy days, and more Jews will be on the streets of New York, easily identified dressed in their Yom Tov garb, we pray that New York’s Jews stay safe from the hateful attacks that have sadly become quotidian. The NYT publication of pictures of chasidic boys who were unnamed and whose schools were unnamed reinforces the ways the NYT sees them as aliens. This is never the right messaging, but certainly not in a time of rising anti-Semitism, not least in New York City.

Copyright © 2022 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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