US Orthodox group launches campaign against New York Times yeshiva coverage

Agudath Israel of America’s ‘Know Us’ initiative aims to push back against critical series of articles on Jewish schools, using billboards, white paper report, online outreach

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Members of US Haredi Jewish communities hold a protest before a Board of Regents meeting to vote on new requirements that private schools teach English, math science and history to high school students outside the New York State Education Department Building in Albany, New York, September 12, 2022. (Will Waldron/The Albany Times Union via AP)
Members of US Haredi Jewish communities hold a protest before a Board of Regents meeting to vote on new requirements that private schools teach English, math science and history to high school students outside the New York State Education Department Building in Albany, New York, September 12, 2022. (Will Waldron/The Albany Times Union via AP)

NEW YORK — A leading US Orthodox group this week launched a campaign pushing back against New York Times coverage that has criticized the local Jewish religious school system.

The campaign from Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella group, aims to provide an alternative narrative on the Orthodox community to the general public.

The New York Times in recent months has published a series of high-profile articles that are harshly critical of the schools, known as yeshivas. The coverage has said the yeshiva system deprives children of secular education, exploits public funding, contributes to poverty and mistreats students, among other allegations.

The most recent article, published Thursday, said yeshivas were taking advantage of a policy designed to make special education more easily available by siphoning off funding for other purposes.

Many Hasidic Jews, including community leaders, have decried the Times’ reporting as defamatory and accused the newspaper of placing undue scrutiny on the Hasidic community out of bigotry or political considerations. Proponents also argue that government meddling is an infringement on religious protections.

Agudath’s new campaign, called Know Us, calls the coverage a “smear campaign” and says the articles “present a grossly distorted picture of our yeshivas and our way of life.”

“They disparage our way of life writ large — everything from the way we educate our children, handle marriage, divorce and custody disputes and even the way we support our families while holding fast to our faith and traditions,” Agudath said.

The New York Times building in New York City, May 13, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The campaign includes a website, social media outreach, billboards, a whitepaper report and an informational video. The first billboard was put up next to the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan, and others will appear at Times Square and near The New York Times building.

Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, the director of government affairs for Agudath in Illinois, said the coverage has affected Jewish communities across the US.

“The New York Times is not just read by people in New York, it’s read by people across the country and it impacts Orthodox people,” he said. “We want the broader society to get to know us. Most bigotry and hate or bias is borne out of ignorance.”

“Most people don’t interact with Orthodox Jews on a regular basis, in fact, many have never met an Orthodox Jew, so their entire impression of what our community is like is what they read in print media, on TV, in movies,” he said. “It’s a very far from [an] accurate picture and it creates misconceptions and it feeds into false narratives.”

Agudath argues the yeshiva system is the foundation of successful communities, saves public funds overall because parents pay tuition while still paying taxes, and has lower rates of abuse than public schools.

Illustrative: A man walks by school bus with Yiddish signage in Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York City, January 1, 2014. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

It says the coverage unfairly singles out the yeshiva system, leaves out alternative viewpoints and yeshiva advocates, uses unreliable sources and contains inaccuracies. The Times has said it interviewed hundreds of people for its coverage, including 175 current or former yeshiva students or employees, and based its figures on public data.

At least one member of Agudath’s leadership has met with New York Times editors to discuss the coverage.

The campaign also attacks Yaffed, a New York nonprofit that advocates for yeshiva reform and contributed to The New York Times reporting. Critics have said the articles mostly focus on the viewpoints of people who have left the community, while the overwhelming majority of its members support the yeshiva system.

Agudath’s campaign also links the critical coverage to climbing antisemitism in the US and criticizes coverage of Jewish summer camps, last year’s gubernatorial race, polio and a positive article about religious diversity in New York City that omitted Orthodox Jews.

The first article in the series was a major front-page investigation that was also published in Yiddish. The newspaper’s editorial board also published a piece arguing for yeshiva reform.

Soroka said Agudath launched the campaign at this time due to the ongoing “relentless barrage” of articles against the system and community.

The coverage has prompted joy and relief in opponents of the system, who see it as a long-needed focus on the system and argue that change has been impeded by political considerations.

The article series, and New York State’s moves to regulate yeshivas, have sparked fierce backlash in Orthodox communities, though.

The yeshiva issue was a central factor, along with crime, in pushing many Orthodox voters to support Lee Zeldin, the Republican candidate for New York governor. Zeldin played up his Jewish background and support for yeshivas throughout the campaign, generating widespread support in Hasidic communities, but lost the election to Democrat incumbent Kathy Hochul.

In this September 20, 2013 file photo, children and adults cross a street in front of a school bus in Borough Park, a neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York that is home to many ultra-Orthodox Jewish families. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

The debate has mostly focused on ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, not on Modern Orthodox schools, which provide more secular education.

Other recent events have also put pressure on the system and have been prominently featured in the newspaper.

In October, a major yeshiva admitted in US federal court it had defrauded the government of millions of dollars, including by misappropriating funds designated to feed needy children.

Also in October, New York State officials for the first time ruled that a yeshiva was violating the law by not providing sufficient secular education.

In September, the state finalized rules that will boost oversight at yeshivas and other non-public schools and require them to provide a minimum level of secular education in four core areas. The move came after a years-long process that preceded the New York Times series. A group of yeshivas and supporting organizations have filed a lawsuit against the state, seeking to overturn the new rules.

New York State officials have been mostly quiet on the issue during the recent controversy.

As of 2020, there were around 160,000 students studying at about 450 yeshivas in New York State. Yaffed has projected that by 2030, 30 percent of Brooklyn schoolchildren will be ultra-Orthodox, nearly all of whom study in yeshivas or related religious schools.

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