the city politic

Who Cares About Hasidic Children?

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The most powerful elected officials in New York had little to say about a blockbuster report from the New York Times into failing Hasidic Jewish private schools. Others ignored the findings, obfuscated, or chose a narrower focus. A rare few called for change. Given the political realities at play, none of it was much of a surprise.

The Times investigation revealed what many in New York educational and political circles long suspected: a wide range of Hasidic Jewish institutions hardly teach mathematics, English, science, or history. Of the Hasidic yeshivas that administered state standardized tests — religious schools are not required to give the tests and many do not — the failure rate was 99 percent, according to a Times analysis. These tests were given to boys because Hasidic yeshivas segregate students by gender, offering girls a more secular education while boys focus chiefly on religious instruction.

In addition to poor educational standards, the Times found that these yeshivas still relied on corporal punishment. At some schools, boys have called 911 after being beaten. There is also the reality of isolation and alienation: For the Hasidic boys and men who may want to leave the community and venture into the secular world, their lack of education severely limits what they can do. Many can’t properly read or write in English.

These facts are damning on their own, but they become a public problem because Hasidic yeshivas receive state money — at least $1 billion in the last four years, according to the Times. This is a small fraction of what the city and state sends to public schools — the city’s Department of Education budget is $38 billion alone — but it’s enough to make them theoretically accountable to the many Democratic elected officials who ignore their failure altogether. Tax dollars are not supposed to be funneled to religious education but public agencies pay private schools to comply with government mandates and manage various social services. Hasidic yeshivas access these programs, collecting public money as a subsidy.

Governor Kathy Hochul, up for reelection this fall, avoided the issue entirely, claiming disingenuously that public education wasn’t her problem at all. “People understand that this is outside the purview of the governor. There is a regulatory process in place, but the governor’s office has nothing to do with this,” she said, referring to the State Board of Regents, which oversees standards in the state. (On Tuesday, the board announced that Hasidic yeshivas and other New York private schools must prove they are teaching subjects such as English, math, science, and history. Any schools found not to be in compliance could lose government funding.) While the board oversees the Department of Education and its members are appointed by the State Legislature, the governor has great power, through her bully pulpit and control over the enormous state budget, to influence education policy. If Hochul cared, she could announce her own investigation or pressure the Board of Regents to take more aggressive action. Like Andrew Cuomo, her disgraced predecessor, she abdicated responsibility.

Mayor Eric Adams similarly punted, though he at least affirmed a long-delayed city investigation into poor yeshiva standards was ongoing. “I’m not concerned about the findings of the article,” he said. “I want a thorough investigation. I want an independent review and that’s what the city has to do. And we’re going to look at that.” For Adams, the political calculus is clear. As a state senator, he represented the Crown Heights Hasidic community and maintained, in his rise to power, strong ties to Orthodox Jewish leaders. In 2021, he competed aggressively with Andrew Yang for the votes in those enclaves.

Two members of Congress, Hakeem Jeffries and Jerry Nadler, told the Times they were troubled by the findings of the story. “It is a paramount duty of government to make sure that all children — whether it’s those educated in parochial, private, or public schools — are provided a quality education,” said Nadler, New York’s senior Jewish member in the House. He currently represents Hasidic communities in Borough Park, Brooklyn, though his new district next year will shed them entirely. Jeffries, who also enjoys a close relationship with the Jewish community and represents a Brooklyn district not far from Crown Heights’ Hasidic enclave, called for a “a rigorous inquiry in order to make sure that the health and well-being of all children is protected.”

But neither Jeffries nor Nadler have any power to make a difference. It’s a city and state issue, with local officials having the most say. Few, despite the findings, want to summon the political will to force Hasidic yeshivas to reach basic math and reading standards. (Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand were silent.) That’s in part because Hasidic sects control small but influential voting blocs in parts of the city and Rockland County. For ambitious Democrats, courting them has always been paramount, especially in an era with fewer and fewer power brokers who can control hundreds or thousands of votes. An influential Hasidic rabbi can command members of his sect to vote in lockstep. Other politicians worry about perceptions of antisemitism; for defenders of Hasidic education, any attacks on their standards amount to a blanket attack on Jewish people. The Times has been accused, wrongly, of antisemitism.

Local elected officials were predictably mealy mouthed. Adams’s successor as Brooklyn borough president, Antonio Reynoso, was derided online for a statement tying the flight of Hasidic Jews from the Holocaust to an inability, many decades later, to mandate basic secular instruction in classrooms. “Less than 100 years ago during the Holocaust, Jewish people were being all but extinguished. Many have come to New York City not to preserve their way of life, but to revive it,” he tweeted. “Our city has been supportive and has rightfully extended them a courtesy on this mission. Education is extremely important to my administration. As such, our office will be working with community leaders to ensure all children have access to a high-quality education.” The statement was generalized and largely meaningless, ignoring the specific findings in the Times investigation or the complaints from Hasidic activists that their children haven’t been properly educated in math, science, or reading.

Reynoso provoked ire because he is, unlike Adams or Hochul, aligned with progressive Democrats in the city. He has long been a Working Families Party Democrat. He is also ambitious, and will probably want to run for higher office. Another progressive and Reynoso ally, Councilmember Lincoln Restler, was entirely silent, issuing no public tweets or statements. Restler’s district includes the Satmar Hasidic community, one of the most politically powerful Hasidic sects in the country.

For other progressives without designs on another office — or those who don’t have to answer to Hasidic voters — the statements of condemnation were clearer. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan state senator, was openly furious. “As a legislator, as a taxpayer, and as a Jew, I am horrified that we continue to let this out-of-control system expand, and do so with hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money,” she said. “Every single one of these students has a constitutional right to a sound basic education, and they have been denied that right. They are being denied the ability to learn English, math, science, and other fundamental skills needed to survive in our society. This has got to stop.”

Two state lawmakers who operate to the left of Krueger were not nearly as condemnatory, however. Julia Salazar, a state senator, and Emily Gallagher, a state assemblywoman, both belong to the Democratic Socialists of America and represent overlapping Brooklyn districts. Each of them, like Restler, have the Satmar Hasidic enclave within the confines of their districts. In 2020, Gallagher narrowly defeated an incumbent who had the backing of the two Satmar sects in the Williamsburg and Greenpoint district. Since then, she has sought to forge closer ties with community leaders. Salazar, similarly, has worked more closely with Satmar leaders.

The two lawmakers issued a joint statement that focused far more on the allegations of corporal punishment — a frightening element of the Times story, but not the main focus — than the abysmal educational standards. The glaring inability of students to properly write in English or perform mathematics was alluded to in the statement’s final sentence, but in a nonspecific manner. “Child abuse is unacceptable, and we are drafting legislation to clarify that corporal punishment is prohibited in all educational settings, including private and religious schools,” they said. After noting they were proud to represent Williamsburg in the legislature and a Hasidic community that is often “misunderstood and maligned,” the two added that they “unequivocally reject the notion that religious freedom and respect for tradition requires the denial of basic education to which every human has a fundamental right.” Fair enough. But curbing physical violence in the classroom, something Hasidic leaders don’t necessarily support in the open, is far different than telling them they’ll have to radically change how they instruct boys. For Salazar and Gallagher, it’s an easy way out.

Will Hasidic yeshivas provide adequate secular education in the future? As welcome as the new Board of Regents rules might be, it will fall to local school districts to enforce them. And the rules are vague enough — no minimum time for secular instruction or clear timeline for schools to come into compliance — that they can be skirted. Since many Hasidic children attend schools in the city, it will be up to Adams’s Education Department to decide whether math and reading standards will be raised there. If he is to act, he will be going up against a community that has long been in his political corner. That kind of courage — for Adams or most local politicians — is usually in short supply.

Who Cares About Hasidic Children?