Steve Lieberman, Ramapo raid targets area with more yeshivas planned,


RAMAPO – The Highview Road yeshiva raided during the FBI’s computer technology fraud investigation has long frustrated residents who now fear a potentialproliferation of  more yeshivas and some dormitories in the surrounding neighborhood.

Talmud Torah OHR Yochanan went into business one morning in October 2009 when several busloads of children were dropped off at 97 Highview Road, a single-family house with a narrow one-car driveway.

The school has yet to get final approval from the Ramapo Planning Board, yet it receives tuition and state assistance for more than 200 students as it operates under a temporary certificate of occupancy. The school added 93 and 97 Highview Road to its campus, plus two classroom trailers and converted the second floor into classrooms.

Wednesday afternoon, the school was among the 22 places raided by FBI agents and Rockland District Attorney’s Office detectives armed with search warrants demanding vendors and yeshivas account for computer-related equipment allegedly bought by religious schools with millions in federal subsidized education technology dollars. No one has been arrested and no criminal charges have been filed.

No one was at Talmud Torah OHR Yochanan on Thursday, The rabbis who operate the school have declined comment in the past.

Residents said the federal involvement gave them hope that other agencies were looking at Ramapo, even though local development plans and illegal schools are not federal issues.

“I think it’s kismet,” said Edie Williams, who has lived for 24 years on the corner of Spook Rock Road at Stemmer Road. “I think it’s a long time coming. It should have happened the long time ago.”

She and her neighbor, Alice Biancaniello, a 14-year resident, said their concerns are not based on religion but on the integrity of the neighborhood.

“If they are doing something illegal,” Bianchaniello said, “they should be held accountable. I am glad to see someone is taking action.”

The larger issue for the neighborhood is two development plans, including yeshivas and dorms proposed for 294-296 Spook Rock Road and 86 Highview Road.

The Rockland Planning Board heard public comments Wednesday night on the dormitory plan as more than 100 people packed the Town Hall meeting room.

Williams and Bianchaniello said they and their neighbors won’t give up the fight, though they feel the planning is fixed and Ramapo officials are not sensitive to the needs of the non-religious neighborhoods.


Bianchaniello said the Spook Rock neighborhood is diverse and a dormitories for 50 men 18 and older doesn’t fit the area. She said the school for 250 girls ages 3 to 12 at 86 Highview Road would add to the traffic congestion.

“I prefer schools weren’t added, but I can live with a school,” she said. “I don’t want the dormitories, I feel one with men is inappropriate. We’re a community. People don’t want to lose their sense of community.”

Diana Rodriguez, who rents a house at 294 Spook Rock Road, said the New Jersey owner has told her family it will have to leave as the house is being sold to people planning to use it for a school.

She said she’s lived there for seven years with her husband, three children, ages 11, 7 and 3, and two in-laws. She said the family just spent $5,000 on a driveway and won’t be reimbursed.

“We feel bad,” she said.

Separate corruption probes

Rockland District Attorney Thomas Zugibe emphasized Thursday that the E-rate investigation and raids had nothing to do with the corruption probes his office, the FBI and federal prosecutors have been conducting.

No imminent arrests are anticipated as investigators pore over the documents in this complicated case, Zugibe said, adding, “It’s inappropriate to speculate on the outcome of the investigation.”

Peter Katz, a critic of over-development and the Ramapo administration and chief technology officer for PKA Technologies in Suffern, said “it’s always disappointing when there are allegations of corruption and financial malfeasance around government programs that are designed to benefit the greater educational community.”

He said E-Rate rules and requirements are strict and require constant corporate vigilance that service providers understand.

“I know that the vast majority of E-rate service providers do not engage in unlawful behavior and illegal activities when conducting their normal day-to-day business operations,” Katz said, “and it’s shameful that there are some amongst us who would attempt to defraud the government for their and their clients’ illicit benefit. “

Adam Ragusea, Ga. Sen. Josh McKoon explains why he doesn’t see religious freedom legislation as discrimination, The Telegraph

Debate over so-called “religious freedom” legislation centering on same-sex marriage is reaching a crescendo in Georgia, where the clock is running out on the current two-year legislative cycle, and Republican Gov. Nathan Deal signaled earlier this month that he is reluctant to sign any of the pending bills without significant revision.

Two bills hang in the balance. SB 129, the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” is similar to the federal RFRA law signed by Bill Clinton and corresponding laws in 20 states. It would force state and local authorities to only burden the free exercise of religion via the “least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling government interest.”

The prospects for Georgia’s RFRA bill look especially dim, after an LGBTQ-friendly Republican legislator attached what proponents call a “poison pill” amendment in committee last year.

A bill with much better prospects is HB 757, which now wraps together two previously separate measures: the “Pastor Protection Act” and the “First Amendment Defense Act.”

The former is designed to stop government from compelling churches and church leaders from participating in same-sex marriages, while the latter would forbid government from taking “adverse action” against any person or faith-based organization “on the basis that such person or faith-based organization believes, speaks, or acts in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief regarding lawful marriage between two people, including the belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a union.”

Columbus attorney and state Senator Josh McKoon is the lead sponsor of SB 129 and a supporter of HB 757. He is arguably the most visible and articulate supporter of “religious freedom” legislation in the Georgia legislature — a fact that has made him a lightening rod for Twitter arguments with LGBTQ rights advocates.

The following interview with McKoon has been edited and condensed.

Let’s go ahead and march through the major provisions of HB 757. To propose a state law that says religious leaders cannot be forced to perform a wedding with which they’re uncomfortable strikes me as extraneous. Isn’t it a settled matter of constitutional law that the government can’t tell pastors anything about how they should conduct their services?

Yes, I agree with you on that. When the “Pastor Protection Act” came over from the House, I took to the well of the Senate and I referred to it as the “Politician Protection Act.” Because that’s essentially what it is.

It’s one of these things that comes up when we have an issue that people are concerned about — this general subject of religious freedom. There’s a lot of concern about it all over the state. Or, in an election year, and you’ve got members that will face primary opposition, they want to be able to say, “I voted for a religious freedom measure.”

And so yes, I agree with you on that. The notion that any clergyman is going to be forced by government to conduct their religious ceremony in any way against his will is — that would never happen. And there’s no court that would order that.

What about the second part of the Pastor Protection Act? Saying that a religious house cannot be sued if they don’t want to rent out their facilities to someone who wants to have a ceremony there that the religion might find objectionable.

This is a closer question. In most communities in the state of Georgia, if the church, the mosque, the synagogue, the temple has adopted standards of, “This is what this property can be rented for,” then I think they can typically address it that way.

At a Catholic church with a fellowship hall, you can let the Knights of Columbus rent the hall, you let the Boy Scout troop rent the hall, you let couples that are being married in the church rent the hall. If these things are laid out in clear language, “We’re not going to have a swap meet in the hall, we’re not going to open it up to things that are totally divorced from the church’s mission,” then I think you largely address that concern.

However, the city of Atlanta has [a nondiscrimination] ordinance, and there are other local governments that have ordinances that might reach to this issue and possibly set up an opportunity for that question to be litigated. So I can’t say that [this provision of HB 757] is totally unnecessary.

One part of the bill says that no business can be required to operate on either of “the two rest days,” and then in parenthesis it says “Saturday or Sunday.” That strikes me like it could be interpreted as an implicit state endorsement of Christianity and Judaism, considering that other religions have rest or prayer days on days that are not Saturday or Sunday, most notably Islam having its prayer day on Friday.

I think that’s an interesting point. I will say, I know there is a provision citing Sunday as a common day of rest in the Georgia Constitution. [Editor’s note: This provision only refers to the numbers of days after which the state legislature may convene itself for a special session if the governor does not do so — they can do it after three days “excluding Sunday.”]

I’m not aware of any litigation on that subject. I’m not telling you that that’s not something that might be litigated at some point.

I do know there was some discussion about broadening that, and the response essentially was, “Well there there’s existing statutory and constitutional law supporting Saturday and Sunday as common days of rest.”

Let’s talk about the “First Amendment Defense Act” part of the bill. It strikes me that the most significant thing this bill would do is that it would make nonprofits and other agencies eligible for state funding even if they don’t provide services equally to same-sex couples.

We had testimony in the [Senate] Rules Committee regarding domestic violence shelters: “What about a domestic violence shelter that will turn someone away because they’re in an abusive relationship but they’re in a same-sex relationship? Or they’re cohabiting with someone but they’re not married?”

I asked this person, “Are we aware of any such agency in the state of Georgia that has these policies?”

And essentially the response was, “Well no, but you know, this could happen.” [Ed. note: There was a publicized incident in 2011 in which a homeless shelter in McKoon’s city of Columbus, Georgia denied service to a lesbian couple.]

My response to that concern is twofold.

First, most of these entities — if they take government money — they’re taking federalgovernment money as well. There are strings that come along with that that would trump this supposed flaw in the First Amendment Defense Act.

But secondarily I would say, until we have some evidence that there is an agency that is adopting that policy or that posture, I think it’s sort of a red herring. If it’s occurring, then there needs to be a discussion about it. If it’s not occurring, then there’s certainly no expectation that they will suddenly — after having operated and received government funds and having one set of policies — that they’re suddenly going to adopt new policies.

It doesn’t strike me as unrealistic that, say, a Catholic hospital that draws some state or local tax dollars would institute a policy that would not allow spousal visitation from same-sex spouses.

There are some federal regulations that have been issued that essentially say that the patient is in control of who may visit them. That, in my view, would address that objection.

So what is the kind of situation that you think might actually happen that this section of the bill is designed to forestall?

In the Supreme Court case that redefined marriage last summer, the court didn’t just say, “We are going to recognize same-sex marriages.” The court said there’s a fundamental constitutional right to marry, and that right is to be equally enjoyed between opposite-sex and same-sex couples.

When you say there’s a fundamental constitutional right to be equally enjoyed between two different classes of people, then for someone to say, “Marriage is between one man and one woman” is at least arguably teaching discrimination.

And there’s one 1983 U.S. Supreme Court case — Bob Jones University vs. United States. In that case, Bob Jones University in South Carolina had policies that were racially discriminatory [in that they banned interracial dating or marriage among the student body].

Bob Jones took the position that, “Well our religious point of view, our theology teaches us that this is the appropriate policy.”

And the Internal Revenue Service said, “Well that’s fine, but you’re engaging in invidious discrimination that’s banned by the Civil Rights Act, so we’re going to strip you of your tax exempt status.”

The case went to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court said government has a fundamental overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination; therefore the IRS is empowered to strip them of their tax-exempt status.

There are many legal scholars who — in the wake of the same-sex marriage decision — have said that now any church or religious organization or religious school that teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman is engaging in similar discrimination and is therefore going to be subject to taxation.

Obviously state government can do nothing about the IRS coming in and saying you’re subject to income tax. What the state government can do is to make sure that neither the state nor local government begins to tax churches based on their teaching.

One of the purposes of this bill would be to make sure that, for example, the city of Atlanta [which has an ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation] does not decide that it’s going to assess property taxes on all property owned by religious organizations within the city limits of Atlanta.

I have to say, though, that harkening back to the Bob Jones University precedent invites a comparison to current events that isn’t exactly flattering to your cause.

The Christian tradition, for most of the 2,000 years of the church’s existence, taught that marriage is between one man and one woman.

Some of these twisted, racist [theological interpretations] that really came to the fore in the 1920s were used as a basis for [anti-miscegenation] state laws that abrogated the common law on marriage. The common law on marriage had always been that if a man and woman hold themselves out to be married — they go have their wedding at the church or wherever — and they can conduct themselves as husband and wife. They are considered married.

There was no racial component to that; there wasn’t much of an age component to that. That was it.

So, the notion that people of faith, throughout the entire history of the church, were saying, “Oh no, we can’t have interracial marriage,” is not accurate.

What we had was a strain of racist politicians in the ‘20s moving forward into the ‘50s and ‘60s adopting these laws banning interracial marriage.

So I think to say, “The bans on interracial marriage that came out in the early part of the 20th Century is analogous to a 2,000-year understanding of what marriage is” is not a fair comparison.

Let’s turn the page and look at SB 129 [the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act] which, unlike the legislation that we’ve been discussing up to this point, is not specific to the issue of marriage. I’ve read this bill many times and I don’t really get what it would do.

When Indiana was considering a similar bill, George Stephanopoulos famously got [Indiana Governor] Mike Pence on television and asked him repeatedly, “Under this legislation, would a baker be able to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding?” And the governor dodged the question.

I thought I would put the same question to you. Is that a scenario that could happen in Georgia under your RFRA bill?

No, it could not, and let me tell you what the difference is.

Our legislation says that in order to use a RFRA defense, there has to be a legal action between the plaintiff and the government. The government must be a party.

The Indiana bill said the government did not have to be a party, that in a lawsuit between two private entities, someone could raise a RFRA defense.

And that’s a crucial difference between the two pieces of legislation, because if I’m coming into your bakery or your photography studio or what have you, and I say, “Hey you need to serve me,” and then you say, “No I’m not going to do it,” and then we get into litigation with one another, and the government is not involved, in Georgia RFRA is unavailable to you. In Indiana it would have been available to you.

Now, let’s use the city of Atlanta as an example [of what Georgia’s RFRA bill would do] because you’ve got a nondiscrimination ordinance that includes sexual orientation there.

You’ve got a photography studio in Atlanta. A couple that’s getting ready to have a same-sex wedding comes in and says, “We’re getting married on this date and we want you to be the photographer.”

The photographer says, “No I can’t do that because this violates my sincerely held religious belief.”

Let’s say that they don’t sue, but they go to the city of Atlanta and say, “You’ve got to enforce this nondiscrimination ordinance. This person is discriminating.”

So the city of Atlanta slaps the photographer with a fine. Well, now we’ve got an adverse action from the government. So the photographer sues the government and they assert the RFRA. And they say, “OK government, you’ve fined me because of my religious belief. You have substantially burdened my religious liberty.”

Well now, that doesn’t mean the photographer wins. That means that now the government has to come forward with two things: a compelling state interest, and that [the nondiscrimination ordinance] is the least restrictive means of achieving that interest.

Before we leave the ever-popular example of the bakery, it is my understanding that that scenario [of a baker refusing service to a same-sex couple with impunity] could actually occur in most of Georgia right now, considering that LGBTQ people are not a protected class under federal nondiscrimination law, and there is no state nondiscrimination law that applies to LGBTQ people. There are only a few scattered municipal ordinances.

And that is a point I have made on numerous occasions, because if my intention with bringing forward this bill was to enable discrimination of some kind, then I would not introduce a bill at all. I would just allow the current law to continue.

Are you happy with the status quo, in that regard?

I think the founders were very deliberate in giving us a clause in the First Amendment that says “free exercise of religion” versus “freedom of religion.”

Obviously a member of the clergy is not going to be required to officiate a wedding with which they disagree.

Then if we take another step back — let’s say it’s someone who advertises their services to sing at weddings. And I don’t mean with the band afterwards, I’m talking about somebody who’s going to sing a hymn that is part of the service.

If that person is approached by a same-sex couple that says, “We want to hire you to do this,” and [the singer] says, “No, I believe that wedding is a sacramental union that involves God, one man and one woman, and this is contrary to my belief,” are we going to say, as a matter of policy, the government is going to compel that person to participate in the order of service against their sincerely held religious beliefs?

I don’t think that anybody would suggest that we shouldn’t make room for people who have different beliefs or different ideas.

So your answer to my question is yes?

Well no, because if we talk about walking into McDonald’s and ordering a hamburger and being told, “I’m not going to serve you because you’re here with your same-sex spouse and that violates my religious beliefs,” I would say that is ridiculous.

What’s the difference between that and the [wedding] photography scenario?

I think there’s an enormous difference.

If you believe, as I do, that marriage is one of seven holy sacraments that the Catholic church offers, it would be no different than compelling me to take communion at a church where I’m not in communion with that church.

But is photographing a wedding necessarily participating in a wedding?

Well I suppose that’s the question, isn’t it?

Is the wedding singer who sings a hymn as part of the order service — is that person participating in the wedding? Just like the person who’s capturing the event on film, who’s in the midst of the ceremony — is that person not an active participant?

That’s why I think a simple yes-or-no answer doesn’t really do it.

“He’s saying that everybody should just be able to turn somebody away because of their sexual orientation.” That’s not the truth at all.

The truth is that I’m saying that someone shouldn’t be compelled to be part of a wedding ceremony that fundamentally violates their religious belief.

I mean, why would we do that in any other context? We would not compel a halal butcher to serve pork, and we would not compel a kosher deli to serve ham, because handling those products would violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

No, we don’t compel vendors to sell products of any kind. We do compel vendors to serve different populations equally.

Right. And I think the fundamental disagreement is that you’re saying that a person who is a wedding vendor should participate in any kind of wedding that comes forward.

What about somebody who comes in and says, “I want you to photograph our wedding,” and the person has been divorced before.

And [the photographer] says, “I believe marriage is forever. I believe you’re still married to your former spouse. I can’t be a part of what I believe is a bigamous wedding.”

I don’t think anybody would seriously argue that that person should be forced against their religious beliefs to perform that service.

But divorced people are not a protected class under federal nondiscrimination law.

And neither are [LGBTQ people].

True, though if I were a betting man I would bet that, within our lifetimes, they will be. But putting that aside, racial minorities are a protected class and is it not the case that the state would compel a wedding vendor to serve an interracial marriage even if it offended their religious sensibilities?

I’m not aware of any historic precedent — outside of people who are fundamentally racist, who are trying to twist theology for their own purposes — who would have ever taken that position.

I think you make a totally coherent moral/theological argument as to why government could compel participation in interracial marriage and not same-sex marriage. But your legal argument escapes me.

Consensus was achieved with the Civil Rights Act by Congress that a religious belief that countenanced racism would be forbidden. There is no such consensus on the definition of marriage.

Read more here:

Rukmini Callimachi, To Maintain Supply of Sex Slaves, ISIS Pushes Birth Control, NY Times

Full article


To Maintain Supply of Sex Slaves, ISIS Pushes Birth Control – The New York Times

Esther Bernstein, When Outsiders are not Outsiders: Enforcing Standards of Education in Hasidic Schools, Advocate

This is a story about school standards and what it means to enforce them. It’s not the story of local politicians dictating what belongs in a Texas public school textbook. It’s the story of members of the New York Hasidic community asking for the full weight of state and city governments to come to their aid.

Sometimes I play a game as I walk from the Herald Square subway station to the Graduate Center.

As I pass many ultra-Orthodox women who have come in from Brooklyn, I attempt to identify which neighborhood each woman is from. Her hair-covering (turban, kerchief over wig, wig alone), her tights (beige or black, seamed or seamless), her style of makeup, the length and style of her skirt, and her hairstyle all tell me if she lives in Williamsburg, Boro Park, Kensington, Midwood, Bensonhurst, or Crown Heights. Grad Center friends have good-naturedly scoffed at this game. These women all look the same; there’s no way I can possibly identify their neighborhoods. But the difference between my gaze and the gaze of my fellow students is that I’ve lived among these women, as one of these women.

Proximity and belonging alerts you to the nuanced differences among a group that looks almost entirely uniform to outsiders. My high school, one of the largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish girls’ high schools in Brooklyn with a total enrollment of just below 1000 students, drew from a mix of communities and neighborhoods. Even with our school uniforms of navy blue pleated skirts and blue-checked Oxford blouses, there were usually “tells” that identified girls’ specific neighborhoods.

Hasidic schools are less diverse than that because they each draw from only one community within the larger ultra-Orthodox community. Led by arebbe, a spiritual authority whose guidance directs almost every aspect of his followers’ lives, each sect of Hasidim has its own separate girls’ school and boys’ school – Satmar, Skver, Bobov, Belz, Kloesenberg, Tzanz, Stetchin, Stolin, etc. This reality reinforces the perception by outsiders of ultra-Orthodox communities as cloistered and insular, with every individual in that community conforming to every aspect and rejecting anything from the outside world.

A recent lawsuit filed in Manhattan district court challenges this insular vision. Seven plaintiffs, consisting of former students as well as parents of current students, allege that four boys’ yeshivas in Rockland County fail to meet the state and city general education requirements. Boys in pre-K through third grade receive instruction only in Torah and Talmud, in classes taught exclusively in Yiddish. From fourth through eighth grade, they receive instruction in rudimentary English reading skills and basic arithmetic. These secular studies classes last for two hours after a long eight- or nine-hour day of Torah study beginning at 7am, often only three times a week. After eighth grade, when most boys have their thirteenth birthday and become bar mitzvah, there is no longer instruction in non-Judaic subjects. As a result, the plaintiffs argue, boys graduating from these institutions are often forced to work menial jobs and struggle to support their families.

Ironically, the perception of Hasidim as hostile to outsiders creates a resistance on the part of some outsiders to take sides, or even understand the gravity of the situation. There is, of course, the charge that targeting these schools is an anti-Semitic reaction to the sects’ resistance to assimilation into mainstream American society, but the charge falls apart when the issue is examined closely.

YAFFED (Young Advocates for Fair Education) is the force behind the lawsuit. Critically, the lawsuit does not just target the four yeshivas named in the suit but also the New York State Board of Education, the Board of Regents, and individuals within those entities. The point Naftuli Moster, a formerly-Hasidic graduate of one of these schools and the founder of YAFFED, is trying to make is that it is not only the responsibility of the Hasidic community to fix the system which is systematically failing to educate their children, but to draw the attention of the government bodies meant to protect these boys.

The focus on boys’ schools is a strategic reaction to quite a fascinating twist on gender discrimination. In many ultra-Orthodox girls’ schools, the level of secular education is far higher than in the boys’ schools. Torah study is the domain of the men in ultra-Orthodox communities, and they are expected not to waste time on anything else. While girls learn lessons of the Torah and study the text itself to varying degrees, the guarding of girls’ minds against “unnecessary knowledge” is less stringent. Girls do not learn anything considered directly impure, but they do learn English speaking and writing skills, more advanced math skills, and some basic sections of the sciences. The perception of girls as less capable and less culpable in Torah study ironically works to their advantage in this case.

Section 3204 of the New York State Education Law outlines the obligations of non-public schools: instruction provided by a competent teacher; English as the language of instruction and of textbooks, except for three years after enrollment for students who “by reason of foreign birth or ancestry have limited English proficiency”; instruction for the first eight years in “at least the twelve common school branches of arithmetic, reading, spelling, writing, the English language, geography, United States history, civics, hygiene, physical training, the history of New York State and science”; specialized training beyond the first eight years in some of the same areas and the additional areas of “the principles of government proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and established by the Constitution…”

The amount of regulation the state has over non-public schools has been debated in court many times. In the early twentieth century, as states became concerned about the influx of immigrants entering American society, laws tightening control over education were passed. In 1922 an amendment to Oregon’s Compulsory Education Act was proposed which would have required all children to attend public schools with few exceptions. The Ku Klux Klan and at least two Masonic organizations strongly advocated for the bill as an effort to shut down Catholic schools. The bill passed but was overturned in the 1925 Supreme Court case Pierce v. The Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. Supporters of parochial schools never argued against state regulation of education, but rather argued that compulsory enrollment in public schools interfered with their right to instill community values in their children. The final decision, in favor of the private school’s right to provide alternate education, noted that “the child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” Current New York State law reflects this and allows private schools to set their own course of study as long as the education meets state standards. Yet, as Moster’s case illustrates, in many situations, laws are not enforced.

Things may have remained this way, with Board of Education officials allegedly turning a blind eye to the severe lack of education in yeshivas, if not for the wave of young people leaving the Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox communities. These young men are so lacking in basic skills that it takes years to catch up in order to get their high school equivalencies, attend college, or even work a fairly simple job. They find it hard to make themselves understood in conversation, they have virtually no English writing skills, and they can barely compute past fractions. They also have no knowledge of history or of natural sciences, and at times their understanding of the natural world or of social norms is even counterfactual.

When is it right to force change on a minority group, if ever? Moster has been told by one community leader, whose opinion is echoed by others, that he has “disqualified” himself from making these claims because he left the Hasidic community and has chosen not to identify with them or their values. However, this ignores the many men who remain in the community but desperately wish they had received better education. Change is not being forced on them; they are clamoring for the change themselves.

Even without trying to move out of the insular community and into mainstream American society as Moster has done, these men find it almost impossible to earn a living due to their limited education. Many Hasidic families wind up on welfare, which has often been derided as opportunistic laziness or outright fraud by city officials and by the media. But most of them don’t want to be on welfare. They want to work and earn their living, they want to be able to use the intelligence and skills they know they have, but they are hampered by the tremendously sub-par education they received as children.

The New York Times has featured numerous nuanced examinations of the cultural and economic factors affecting the large percentage of Hasidim on welfare (between one-third and fifty percent in Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel). An article in the 21 April 1997 issue cites an anonymous 27-year-old father of four who confirms the cultural pressures and then admits that, “I hope to get off, I am trying to get off.” There are multiple factors contributing to the phenomenon of welfare dependence in Hasidic communities, and YAFFED is attempting to address the factor of education.

YAFFED’s suit does not seek to introduce any innovations to state regulation of private schools, merely to enforce existing laws. The laws cited in the suit focus on the duty to provide an education giving students an opportunity to succeed, which the plaintiffs claim to be able to prove is not happening in these yeshivas. However, these laws have been in effect for years, and the Board of Education officials should have been enforcing them.

An oft-cited criticism of this endeavor, made both by Jews who oppose this kind of reform to their own schools and by outsiders who think the effort is too narrowly focused, is that enforcing an education “substantially equivalent” to public schools is almost laughable. Public school education has many problems, and there are multiple groups doing necessary work to correct the phenomenon that we as CUNY teachers know all too well – that public school education, especially in economically disadvantaged areas, does not necessarily prepare students to succeed either.

But the reasons for the failure of public schools to adequately prepare their students differ from the reason for the failure of Hasidic schools. In public schools, lack of funds is often pointed to as a cause of this failure. Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox schools point to lack of funds as well, claiming that since they do not receive government funding and must rely on tuition from families paying for as many as six or seven children at once, they will obviously be operating on a lower level. But the state does provide funds for private schools. The ways they can do so are limited because the state cannot actively fund religious education. One method of government funding for private schools is through textbook allowances. Under NYSTL, the New York State Textbook Law, private schools follow the same process as public schools do for requesting textbook funds. And yet Hasidic yeshiva students never see any textbooks, because the yeshivas do not take advantage of what the state offers them, and the Board of Education seems not to have noticed this discrepancy.

Before enlisting the help of lawyer Norman Siegel in filing a lawsuit against the various government officials for failing to do their jobs, Moster contacted the Department of Education to alert them to the conditions of education in these yeshivas. That was in 2012. Three years later, in summer 2015, when YAFFED saw that nothing would be done, they issued a letter signed by 52 former students and parents of current students, resulting in a promise from the Department of Education that the situation would be investigated. With no results from that investigation over six months after this promise, YAFFED is working on bringing the matter to court.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the community, either against themselves or against their family. Should it become known that they are involved in this case, their sons or brothers may be made unwelcome in these schools, which effectively cuts them off from their community. Reading some comments on YAFFED’s Facebook page, articles in some Jewish publications, and other conversations in various places, one would assume that the general response of religious Hasidic Jews is anger at YAFFED’s efforts to change the community.

However, the picture painted by vocal opponents to enforcing standards of education in yeshivas ignores the many voices of Hasidic men who remain in the community and yet are clamoring for this change. Most men who speak up, whether on their own behalf as they struggle to find work or on behalf of their sons currently in yeshiva, remain anonymous. The few who do identify themselves publicly as supporters of YAFFED’s work are drowned out by the voices of those opposing it. But the actual balance of supporters and opponents within the Hasidic community itself is obscured by the necessary invisibility of some supporters.

The structure of a community necessitates a certain amount of conformity from an individual in order to continue being considered a part of that community. People want to be part of communities for various reasons, and they make certain small sacrifices in order to be part of it. As graduate students and academics, we may not agree with all the norms of our communities, but we will at times choose to conform in certain small ways in order to maintain our status as members of the community. Members of Hasidic communities have many different and individual reasons for wanting to remain in the community, and until now, they have been forced to sacrifice their education in order to do so. As the lawsuit makes its way through the courts, as the story develops and gains more publicity, more and more Hasidim are coming forward to voice their support and to agree that the laws should be enforced for the good of their children.

But to claim that YAFFED and other advocates are motivated by anything resembling anti-Semitism or Jewish self-hatred, by a dislike of any community which keeps to itself and does not readily integrate with American society, is just wrong. It is the people in this community itself who want the change, but they lack the civic education enabling them to take any action. Those who left and pursued education on their own are simply giving them the voice, the tools, and the power to effect change.

The state, the institution which should have been making sure that these laws were enforced all along, is just as guilty as those standing on the sidelines and claiming that unless someone asks for help, we should leave them alone. It is unacceptable that any elected official would willingly allow any entity to blatantly disregard a whole set of laws. And when others outside of the community become aware of what is happening, it is horrifying to think that the reaction may be an assumption that the entire community wants things to stay the way they are.

Elected officials work with community leaders, as they do in many neighborhoods and communities. They know the votes they need to get re-elected rest in the hands of these leaders. Of course individuals are free to vote on their own, but in Hasidic communities, the rebbe usually names which candidate to vote for before each election. His followers, educated in yeshivas where no civic education has been given, do not have the tools to evaluate the candidates’ positions and views or to form their own opinions on crucial issues.

Had YAFFED been a group of only people who had left the community, and had their efforts been met with resistance and only resistance, the argument that outsiders want to change the community out of prejudice might be valid. The plaintiffs who have never dissociated from the community in any way, and the growing multitude of voices rising in support of YAFFED’s efforts, prove that this is not the case. Rather, through an effort to reform the schools and enforce laws of education, YAFFED is attempting to empower members of the community to make their own choices and to let their elected officials know what those choices are.



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Rob Boston, Innocence Abused: A Lethal Combination Of Church And State Fails Pennsylvania’s Children, Americans United

Last week, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane released a damning grand jury report about the rampant sexual abuse of minors by priests in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese – and the failure of anyone in authority to stop it.

News of the report hit me hard. I was born and raised in Altoona. For 16 years I attended a Catholic church in that diocese. I spent eight years in a Catholic school appended to one of its churches.

The nuns occasionally punished us in ways that were inappropriate, but I never suffered the kind of abuse detailed in the report. Still, I felt like I’d been socked in the gut. As I read the report, I kept coming across the names of familiar towns, churches and people.

The report is not easy reading. It goes into explicit detail about the horrors inflicted on these children. Be aware of that if you decide to take a look.

I was especially disgusted by how the powers that be in both the church and the state failed the victims. If you’ve seen the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight,” you know how church officials reacted: They created, then hid, secret files on problem priests. They did not report them to authorities. They attacked the victims. They shipped molesters off to other parishes where, inevitably, the priests sought more victims.

In Altoona, Johnstown and in other communities, government officials simply refused to act. They were completely deferential to the church. The report discusses a priest named Leonard Inman who was known to be soliciting boys for sex. Altoona police began to investigate, but all it took was some pressure from the diocese, and they backed off.

“The Grand Jury finds that Inman was actively engaging in prostitution and oral intercourse with minors at Cathedral of Blessed Sacrament Altoona,” reads the report. “Altoona Police were aware of allegations and investigated the matter. The Diocese sought to protect the image of the institution rather than protect children or hold Inman accountable. No charges were ever filed in part due to the undue influence of the diocese over local officials.”

Things were so bad in Altoona and Johnstown, the report asserts, that church officials actually had the power to pick candidates for certain municipal jobs. At one point, a law-enforcement official asked why there was no follow-up in an especially egregious case of clerical abuse in Cambria County. A judge told him, “You have to understand, this is an extremely Catholic county.”

This is a pattern that has played out in other parts of the country. In Orleans Parish, La., a priest was accused of molesting several teenage boys in the 1980s. Investigators brought the matter to the attention of Harry Connick Sr., the local district attorney. Connick declined to press charges, later admitting that he didn’t want to embarrass “Holy Mother the Church.”

People sometimes ask us at Americans United why we are so intent on separating church and state. Religion, some of our critics assert, is a good thing. Why shouldn’t it be able to help out the government and vice versa? What’s the harm in letting church and state get a little closer?

Our usual answer is often along the lines of, “That’s not what the founders intended.” But there is another answer, one that is hard for many Americans to face but is nonetheless true: Sometimes religious groups do things that are not good – things that are, in fact, evil, vile and disgusting.

When a church does these things, when its top officials knowingly violate the law as surely as its clergy violated the bodies of innocents in Pennsylvania, only one institution has the power and the resources to hold it accountable. That institution is the state.

Yet when church and the state are linked, when they are in partnership, when they are reliant on one another and when a mutual dependency is fostered, the government can’t assume the aggressive stance that’s necessary to enforce the law. So the law is laid aside and eyes are turned away – even as more and more kids are victimized.

That’s a difficult lesson. It’s one my hometown has had to learn. We must take steps to ensure that no other communities are forced to learn it anew.


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