Ep. 238: Religious Liberty and Education – An Interview with Moshe Krakowski - EdChoice

Ep. 238: Religious Liberty and Education – An Interview with Moshe Krakowski

February 23, 2021

Moshe Krakowski joins us to discuss his recent City Journal essay, “The War Against the Haredim.” We cover misconceptions about religious education, claims made by YAFFED and more.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Religious Liberty and Education series. Today, I’m grateful to be joined by Professor Moshe Krakowski, the director of the Azrieli master’s program at Yeshiva University. He is the author of a recent City Journal essay titled, “The War Against the Haredim,” which is the subject of today’s conversation. Moshe, welcome to the podcast.
Moshe Krakowski: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Jason Bedrick: So, some of our listeners are familiar with the controversy that’s been brewing in the last few years over so-called ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, or day schools. But to provide some context, let’s start with, ultra-Orthodox is not a term that’s used in the community, the term that’s usually used is Haredi. But sometimes they are talking about Hasidic schools, sometimes they are just talking about Orthodox schools. Maybe you can give some background. Who are the Haredim and these other different groups? How are they different from each other?

Moshe Krakowski: Yes. So, let’s start with Orthodoxy. And in the United States, really the three biggest branches of Judaism are Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, and Orthodox is the most traditionalist and strict in religious observance. The Orthodox communities, though, are not homogenous. They are incredibly diverse even though they are the smallest of the three denominations. There are so many different groups within Orthodoxy and there are overlaps between them as well. But we can start with the broad distinction between what we might call Modern Orthodox and Haredi Orthodox.

So Modern Orthodoxy, which my institution, Yeshiva University, is the flagship institution associated with Modern Orthodoxy, sees religious and secular knowledge as both incredibly valuable, and aims for some sort of synthesis. In that, they also pursue secular culture. Modern Orthodox Jews will be very involved in secular culture. And so, when we trickle that down to schools, Modern Orthodox schools tends to have a very robust secular education, as well as a very serious religious education. The Haredi communities are different. And again, there’s a lot of diversity within Haredi communities but at a broad level, Haredi communities see the secular world, and secular education, and secular knowledge in purely instrumental pragmatic terms.
It doesn’t hold intrinsic value. It’s valuable to the extent that it will help me live out my life. So, for some people, and for some communities, that means living out my life by knowing lots of things and being aware of the world around me. And so, they might have more secular knowledge and education. And for others, it’s just, “I need what I need to get a job and no more.” And so, they may have less secular knowledge and education. But I think unifying them is a sense that culturally, they’re not going to adopt the cultural norms of society, at least not in a straightforward way. Of course, they live in America. They are part of American culture and so they’re going to adopt things whether they like it or not, and that’s true of everybody.

And you can see this most simply by looking at the vast differences between American and Israeli Haredim. Israeli Haredim are Israeli, and American Haredim are very American. And so, it’s not that no culture seeps through, that there’s nothing about them that makes them American, but in general, popular culture and things that are in the air for the rest of the society are not necessarily in the air for these groups. Within Haredi society, you have two major groups. You have the Hasidic groups and the Yeshivish groups. The Yeshiva world stems from the Lithuanian Yeshiva system in Europe, which was a very elite system of higher learning and devotion to Talmud study. The Yeshiva schools in America, broadly speaking, offer a fairly comprehensive, if limited, secular education through high school.

Not all Yeshivish schools have secular education through high school, but I would say that most do and many of them do it very well. I attended a Yeshivish high school called Shaar HaTorah in Queens, New York, and that school routinely scores among the highest in the region’s tests in the state. And that’s a very, very serious Haredi school. Hasidic schools are the reverse. I would say that about as many schools in the Yeshivish world that don’t offer secular education in high school, we’re talking about the same percentage in the Hasidish world that do. So only a few of the Hasidish schools will offer secular education all the way through high school, most will stop secular education after elementary school.

And even the secular education that is offered varies tremendously by Hasidic groups. So, unlike the Yeshivish world, which is very broad-based without central control in the same way as Hasidic groups. Hasidic groups are led by different sects with their different rebbes, the rabbinic leaders who lead those sects, and each sect chooses for itself the exact boundary line for secular education. And so, on the one hand, you might have Bobov or Ger, which are two very large sects. Ger is larger in Israel than it is in the United States. Bobov is very large in Borough Park, Brooklyn. So, they might have a fairly robust secular education, whereas something like Satmar or Vizhnitz—and Satmar is the largest Hasidic group—would have a much more minimal secular education because of the very extreme beliefs of the Satmar rebbe.

Jason Bedrick: Let’s focus then on Satmar and some of the similar groups like that, the Haredi yeshivas that have a very minimal secular education. Now, I should say, your interest in Haredi education, academically, you’ve been studying this at Yeshiva University for many years, long before this controversy erupted. You were operating mostly alone and toiling very quietly on this without getting much attention for a long time until this controversy erupted, which we’ll get into shortly. So, let’s look at those schools, tell us what is going on. Because, I mean, you’ve seen there’ve been newspaper articles, like The New York Times actually even said that these students are graduating and they’re illiterate. They graduate and they know nothing about the modern world supposedly. So, what is it that they’re actually studying in these yeshivas all day?

Moshe Krakowski: Right. A little bit of background explanation is necessary on a couple of fronts, right? So, I just said that there are a lot of different sects that do things different from one another. But when it comes to the religious education, obviously there are differences, but they’re doing very similar things. And the religious education is what most of the day is about. So, they start the day very early. For younger children, the day might start at 8:15, 8:30 and go until 4:15. By the time they’re in middle school, they’re already coming at 7:30 in the morning and staying until 5:30 or 6:00. It’s a very, very long day and it’s a very, very intensive day.

And students start learning Bible and biblical Hebrew, and learning Yiddish, and to write and to read in Yiddish, and this is in Hasidish schools. Most Yeshivish schools do not use Yiddish, they use English. But in Hasidic schools where there is a strong religious belief in the value of Yiddish, they use Yiddish in their lives outside of school, and they use Yiddish in school except in secular education. So, they’re learning to read and write in Yiddish, they’re learning to translate biblical Hebrew from the original. And as they progress, they start moving through some of the more complex areas of Jewish texts.

So, they turn to the Talmud, starting with the Mishnah which is the core part of the Talmud, the symbol part of the Talmud, and then to Talmud by third or fourth grade. And Talmud is a very, very difficult, rigorous, and incredibly fascinating subject. It’s basically a series of legal arguments about Jewish law interspersed with homiletic tales, and good advice, and medical information from 2,000 years ago. It’s in Aramaic, that’s a particular type of Aramaic, and it’s exceptionally difficult. It’s terse, it has no punctuation. There are very subtle, deep arguments that take place at a very, very sophisticated level, and it’s not easy.

And in order to master Talmud, you really have to study it very intensively. And so that dominates. By the time they’re in middle school, that dominates the religious part of the day. And as I pointed out in a number of places, many people who even receive this education do not appreciate the degree to which this is an unbelievably sophisticated academic endeavor that has incredible value. Now, in the cognition literature, there’s a dispute and a debate about the degree to which one area of learning can transfer to another area of learning. And it seems that it’s not so easy. But when we talk about the skills that students develop in Talmud, it’s not that these are different skills than what they need in other domains. These are exactly the same skills.

So, reading texts carefully, making inferences from the texts, asking questions about a difficult task. Argumentation is now considered the key skill for both reading, comprehension, science, even math in the general ed literature. And students are learning how to construct arguments from evidence, how to reason about what the text says or doesn’t say. These are all skills that we really want our students learning in other domains, which these kids do extremely, extremely well. I’ll give an anecdote to this effect. An anecdote is not data but nonetheless, when I went to college-

Jason Bedrick: But the plural of “anecdote” is “data.”

Moshe Krakowski: Yeah. So, I needed to find a partner. And when I went to college, so I had attended only Haredi educational institutions. However, my family was certainly more educated than most Haredim in terms of higher education and interested in those sorts of things, and my parents wanted me to go to college. I went to the University of Chicago, which is well-known for having a very rigorous, great books curriculum that is very focused on really mastering the classics and philosophy, and everybody starts the first semester with Aristotle and Plato. Is actually the quarter system there, the first quarter.

And I found when I got there that in most of the classes, which are all very small seminar classes, they don’t have huge classes for the most part, or at least they didn’t way back when, that I was way ahead of the game. That I was really… I was like, I sat down in this philosophy class and I was like, “I know what to do here. This is what I’ve been doing all the time.” And I was ahead of my peers for at least a little while before everybody else figured out the rules of the game too.

Of course, they’re all very bright kids there. They all got around to understanding how to approach things in class eventually, but I had to step on everybody, I think, in part, or at least likely more than a small part, because of what I’d been doing before. So that’s the religious part of the day. And I think people don’t realize this because they think of religious education, what could that be? Instruction in God or… And of course there is, there’s that as well. But the dominant thing that students are doing is actually a very, very sophisticated analysis of legal argumentation from a text that’s 1,500 to 2,000 years old, in a foreign language that nobody really speaks anymore.

Jason Bedrick: I think you mentioned something which is that there is a misconception about religious education. That it’s just reading Bible stories and memorizing whatever the dogma is of your religious sect. But for Jews, at least Haredi Jews, it is this intense engagement with a text where there is a lot of uncertainty, there is argument, there are different positions. And then you might have a dispute between two rabbis, and then you’ve got the medieval commentators that are disagreeing with each other over how to understand that dispute. And so very soon, what started with two different opinions suddenly becomes four and then becomes eight, right? Anyway—

Moshe Krakowski: In one of my recent conference presentations, I had a picture from one of the classrooms of a school whiteboard, where there were two different opinions in the Talmud itself, and then four different medieval commentators explaining each of those opinions and what the dispute was about differently. And so, the rebbe, the religious instructor had on the board, this incredibly elaborate chart.

And because the dispute itself dealt with a question of how many violations of a particular law somebody might’ve committed, the entire labyrinth chart was filled with eight different columns because four times two. And then in each column, the different possible violations of the law spreading down, and the students really need to keep this in their heads and be able to understand and reason about it. So yes, it’s actually quite complex. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t dogma as well, of course there is.

Jason Bedrick: Sure.

Moshe Krakowski: And they are expected to adhere to the beliefs of Orthodoxy first, then Hasidism second, and maybe their particular Hasidism and the beliefs of their Hasidism third, and those are communicated throughout the day and it certainly influences the types of interpretations they offer throughout the time of day. So, you’re not going to find the same exact interpretations in an academic Talmud program in college as you will in a Hasidic group, but those are more questions of the rules of the game as it were, meaning, how we structure this learning endeavor rather than the degree of sophistication of the actual learning of the text.

Jason Bedrick: So, let’s get into the controversy itself. There is an organization that was formed several years ago called Young Advocates for Fair Education. And this was founded by mostly ex-Hasidic people who were upset that they felt they were deprived of a high-quality secular education. The founder of this organization said that when he went to college, he tells the story in The New York Times, that on the first day of college, one of his professors was talking about molecules, and he had never encountered that term, “molecule,” before.

And he looked around the class and he realized that everybody else had and he was very embarrassed, and he just felt that this was a major obstacle for him to overcome. Now, as it happens, he did graduate summa cum laude and then go on to get a master’s degree. But the argument they make is that there are a lot of yeshiva students who graduate, are unable to speak English, with no means to get a job, that they are more likely to be living in poverty and to be dependent on the welfare states. So, what do you make of these claims that YAFFED is making about the Haredi yeshiva system?

Moshe Krakowski: Yeah. So, I mean, they’re wrong. They’re just straight up wrong and it’s sad and upsetting that they have driven the discussion of this. And that’s actually why I wrote the article. And I didn’t pursue this research because of YAFFED. As you noted, I’ve been doing this for a very, very long time, well before this was of any interest to anyone. But the more that I engaged in research in the particular schools that YAFFED had called out, the more that I saw that their specific claims were demonstrably false. And I started to get a little bit upset about it, which is why I waded into the public sphere, which I, up until this point, had not done because nobody would have cared about it anyway, but also because I’m not a particularly political or activist sort of person. I really just felt there was something wrong and I needed to speak up about it.

And I’ll explain what I mean. So, let’s start with what’s going on in schools. So YAFFED likes to assert that people don’t speak English. And it’s true that Hasidim choose to speak Yiddish as their dominant language, particularly the boys. However, it is not true that they don’t speak English. Most Hasidim speak English quite well. Not without an accent, not so that you wouldn’t know that they’re Hasidish, but they speak English. There are some communities, Satmar again is one of the dominant ones in this regard, who are very strict about not speaking English. And so, despite the fact that they receive English instruction in school, when they come to that English instruction in school, they’re coming to it really not just English as a second language, but English as a completely foreign language.

And so, if you are a Satmar kid and you’re studying English in school, but you are not allowed to use English outside of school, you’re not going to develop phenomenal English skills. So, there isn’t any school where they’re not learning English, where the kids are not being taught English. That’s not true. And the degree to which there are some Hasidic groups, again, not even most Hasidic groups, only a handful, that do not speak English outside of school, again, it has nothing to do with education. It has to do with a religious choice that as far as I know, the state has no right to regulate. Meaning, what people are complaining about is this religious choice outside of school, which is fine. You can complain about a religious group, but it isn’t a schooling issue.

Jason Bedrick: It’s not a legal issue either in the sense that we don’t have a national language. If there were a community that, say, they wanted to run their own schools and have those schools taught in Spanish or Navajo, and to speak Spanish and Navajo in their homes, the government doesn’t have the ability to step in in most cases.

Moshe Krakowski: Right.

Jason Bedrick: But here, YAFFED wants them to step in. And one of the things they point to is test scores. So, do we have any evidence regarding the test scores of the yeshiva students? Or for that matter, the public-school students that are in those same neighborhoods, especially the ones that are like those students, some of the Haredi yeshiva English language learners?

Moshe Krakowski: Right. So, I’ll preface my answer by saying, I think that if the state had requested of schools, and we can talk more about what the state actually did request. But if state had said, “We think that every kid who graduates from elementary school needs to be able to pass an English language proficiency test,” you wouldn’t have gotten any opposition. Well, I can’t say any opposition. You might’ve had some half-hearted cries from Satmar, but even they would have been fine with that. So, I just want to clarify. When we talk about the state coming in to regulate and what YAFFED asked for and what the state actually is trying to do, we’re not just talking about speaking English, despite the fact that people at YAFFED may complain that they don’t speak English.

If it was just about that, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation. But that being said, one of the things that I did was just look up the English proficiency rates and the math proficiency rates in a district in Williamsburg. Thankfully, all of this is available online. And I don’t remember the exact numbers that I found, but they were even for non-English language learners… So, people who are not categorized as English as a second language, it was something like 7% proficiency in those neighborhoods. And again, I don’t have it in front of me. I don’t remember the exact numbers.

Jason Bedrick: This is at the public school?

Moshe Krakowski: At the public school, correct. In the public schools in those districts. And for English language learners, it was like 0% and 1%.

Jason Bedrick: Precisely was a 7.6% for the non-English language learners. And for the English language learners in a couple of neighborhoods, it was 2.1% and 1.4%.

Moshe Krakowski: Right.

Jason Bedrick: And then in one neighborhood, it was actually 0% proficiency in language arts.
Moshe Krakowski: Right. Right. Again, I’m not complaining about the public schools. They deal with an incredibly diverse body of students who come from all sorts of different backgrounds. It’s not so easy for them to educate students successfully given a lot of different constraints, but it’s hard to argue that Hasidic kids in Williamsburg could do worse than 0% proficiency. That’s not actually possible. So, when we compare them to their peers in the same neighborhoods, we don’t see that they’re doing worse. That being said, their neighborhoods are doing very badly. And so, if you’re a kid who grows up in that community, you might say, “Well, I wish that we had done better than what the public schools are doing.”

And that might be a fair critique, but that’s not a policy critique because it’s hard to understand why it’s fair to ask of private schools to do better than their public-school peers. That being said, I want to emphasize again that there’s remarkable diversity. So, we’re not talking about all the schools. YAFFED famously listed 39 schools. They actually, in their report, they list what each school teaches. And the reason I even got involved with this to begin with was being in one of those schools and seeing that they teach tons of stuff that YAFFED claimed they didn’t. And the more I investigated, the more I realized that YAFFED just kind of made this all up and they don’t actually have firsthand experience.

I later saw documents from the city that indicated that in interviews that were on the record, YAFFED members only had firsthand experience with 11 schools. And of the 39, only 28 actually existed. Many of them were just administrative offices for schools already on the list, or preschools that are not under this requirement, or post-high school institutions that are, again, not under this requirement. A couple of them were just random, a nutritionist office and a butcher shop.

Jason Bedrick: One was a butcher shop. Yeah.

Moshe Krakowski: Yeah. The Satmar fleisch geschaft. So yeah. So, they didn’t really have a lot of firsthand knowledge. And I think that happens a lot. When you have people who have gone through various experiences of their own, they tend to generalize widely from their own experiences and sometimes incorrectly. And so, for example, in this one school that was the trigger for me to get involved to begin with, they had said they only teach English and math. And I was watching one of the best classes of civics that I have seen. Because I teach a class in my department called problem and project-based learning, and what they were doing was exactly that.

So, they had… All of the kids in the class were taught all of the rules of how our governmental system works. And they divided up in the class into a senate, and a house of representatives, and a president, and a supreme court, and a vice president. And they could pass laws in their class for the governance of their class. And the teacher allowed them to run the classroom, but only as a representative democracy with a congress, and with a supreme court that judged things. And to see these kids arguing over the wording of the law and whether one part was constitutional or not constitutional after they had developed their own classroom constitution, while they were learning other subjects was actually really impressive.

And I talked to these kids and I videotaped them. And they could tell you probably more than an incoming congressman about how the system works. And it was very impressive to me. Not that every class is impressive, some classes were really bad and not very good. But like most institutions, there were some classes that were really good, some classes that were not really good. And then I was in the same school observing history class, learning about World War II, watching the kids try to derail the teacher and get him to talk about the Holocaust the whole time instead of the different battles.

Regular stuff that you see in schools. Granted the Holocaust thing because half of these kids’ grandparents probably, or great-grandparents at this point, probably went through the Holocaust, but that really bothered me. And the more that I looked into it, the more that I saw that there were things in there that were just wrong. And so that’s a really important point is that they talk about the Haredi schools, but the Haredi schools, as I said earlier, include the Yeshivish schools, which give a solid secular education, and many Hasidish schools that also provide a solid secular education through eighth grade where there’s no kid in that school who doesn’t know what a molecule is.

And I have copies of the textbooks that they use, and the materials, and the curriculum for the year, and what they focus on. And this year, we’re going to focus on the… They don’t do a lot of science, but like the circulatory system for this year, or etc., etc. So, when you boil it down to which schools are really only providing math and English, you down to only a handful of schools, granted some of them are very large schools because they represent large Hasidic sects. But even so, we’re talking about maybe five or six schools aside from maybe tiny, little startup schools. But maybe five or six big schools that actually are similar to the way that YAFFED represents all Haredi schools.

And even in those schools, it’s not true that they’re not learning math and English. They are learning math and English, but they are doing it in a context where they’re not going to speak English outside of school. And so, it creates a bigger challenge. So, I think before we ever get to questions of policy, to questions of what role the government has in regulating education, whether there’s an issue of religious freedom here, whether there’s an issue of the erasure of private schools, which it’s not an accident that the first organization to sue the state was the independent schools who are not religious.

Jason Bedrick: To clarify, after YAFFED was agitating to have the state intervene, the states promulgated some new rules, which is really actually a new interpretation of a very old law that had essentially been defunct for a century, which is the substantial equivalence law that says, “Whatever the private schools are doing, it has to be substantially equivalent to what the public schools are doing.” And nobody really knows what that means. That’s up to the department to figure it out. I mean, do they have to teach the exact same curriculum, or is it a matter of seat time, or is it a matter of passing a test within a certain range? What they decided was to focus essentially on seat time in… what was it? I think 12 or so different subjects that they said were essential.

Moshe Krakowski: It wasn’t the seat time, I read the regulations. It dictated how much time in which subjects, but it also dictated things like who could teach it.

Jason Bedrick: That’s right.

Moshe Krakowski: I mean, it was very, very—

Jason Bedrick: And that government bureaucrats would basically come into your school and make sure that you were doing this. And so that’s why there was a lawsuit filed first by independent schools, then also Catholics and other Jewish schools, some Orthodox, some not, that all intervened and it was decided on procedural grounds. In other words, they didn’t reach the merit of some of the religious liberty claims, they essentially said that the way the department went about adopting these rules kind of bypass the public. Then they essentially tried to do the same thing again, but they had a comment period. They got more than 150,000 comments against the rules and regulations.

This, obviously, from a community that didn’t learn civics growing up, right? They don’t know how to engage in democracy. But they had more than 150,000, which I understand was a record for these sorts of open public comments. And so now, there’s been a lot of turnover at the department in terms of leadership. It’s not clear right now what is going to happen going forward, but they certainly could take a more robust view of what substantial equivalents requires, and then go after the private schools. And so, yes, there’s been a lot of resistance from the private the schools.

Moshe Krakowski: Right. So, my essential point here is that even before we get to the thorny or philosophical public policy questions of what is the appropriate role for the state in private education, and in oversight of schooling, and its obligations to its citizens, before we even get there, we have to first know what the facts are, and the facts are not the way that they are described. Meaning, first, identify that there is some actual problem that goes beyond about 40 people associated with YAFFED. And when we look at what’s going on in the vast majority of schools that are getting secular education, even in Satmar, and in Vizhnitz, and in other places, I would bet that they are capable of passing proficiency tests at a higher rate than their own public-school peers in the same area.

But certainly, not for all of the very many other schools that are doing much, much more. On top of that, they like to point to poverty statistics, but this is not a suffering community. I didn’t point this out in the article, but if you look at the average household incomes in Williamsburg and Borough Park, so granted not everybody who lives there is Hasidic, but those are dominantly Hasidic areas. So, I have it somewhere here, but both of those areas are actually among the highest in terms of average household income in the city. I don’t know. I’m not going to find it now, but anybody can go look it up themselves. Look up the ZIP codes or whatever, or however they break it down for Williamsburg and for Borough Park and you’ll see that actually in terms of household income, they’re very high.

Now, why didn’t I use that in the article and instead, I pointed to the data from Kiryas Joel? So Kiryas Joel, for those who don’t know what that is, it’s a small Satmar… Well, it’s not so small in terms of the fact that it’s a large concentration of Satmar Hasidim, but it’s a small town objectively that is entirely made up of Satmar Hasidim. So, if we look at that area, we can really only focus on Hasidim. And in fact, the Hasidim who are considered to be the least secularly exposed. And people like to point to the fact that their household income is one of the poorest. However, we’re talking about men’s education. Nobody disputes the fact that women get a robust education in this community.

So, you want to look specifically at the men and you want to look also specifically at those who choose to work full-time. Why? Because in this community, there is a religious belief that one should, for example, study Torah and Talmud as an occupation and not go into the workforce, or maybe only go into the workforce part-time so that you can study the rest of the time, or that you should not go into a secular work environment and only stay in a Jewish work environment. So, you might work in a business part-time and study part-time. So, for those who choose, those men who choose to go into a full-time job, they are making exactly average for the state. So even in the very poorest.

And the big New York Times article that talks about them being poor also pointed out that none of the signs of poverty that we typically associate with poor communities are present, not the physical disrepair. Everything is nice. Everything is well-maintained. There’s almost no violent crime in Hasidic communities. There are certain types of violent crime, but not the types of violent crime that are associated with poverty. And so you’re looking at a community that doesn’t look poor. Everybody is well-taken care of. They’re healthy, they’re happy. They have food on the table. There are robust sources of communal support for people in the community to make sure that everybody is well-taken care of. In terms of health, they have some of the strongest health resources and organization in the world.

In fact, when I and my family went through a very terrible medical situation a number of years ago, we turned to the Hasidic experts to get resources and to find out who and which hospital and which doctor would best be able to help us. And so, you’re not looking, let’s say, Kiryas Joel, let alone in Borough Park or Williamsburg where the household incomes are much higher. Again, we don’t know if that’s coming from the men, or it’s being driven up by non-Hasidim, very unlikely. So, there’s very, very little evidence that there’s actually something bad going on here. You have a happy, healthy, functioning… People are living out their religious life. They’re very happy with their way of life. They’re not suffering. They’re not failing to put food on the table. I don’t see a reason for anybody to get involved.

Jason Bedrick: I would point out, there may be a case—and we don’t have really good data on this—there may be a case that they are more likely than other communities to rely on government assistance. Although to a great extent, that has to do with the fact that they have very large families. And all of these government programs, the poverty line that the government uses increases based on the number of children you have. So, if you have eight children, in many cases, you could be making over even like $100,000 a year, and you can be qualifying for assistance. And one interesting thing that I think is not talked about often enough is that we don’t consider the public schools a form of public assistance.

The public schools that they are not accessing, in New York City, spend north of $30,000 per pupil, right? So, if you had eight children in the public school system, that would be almost a quarter of a million dollars. So, I find it highly unlikely that any of these families is receiving a quarter of a million dollars in welfare and SNAP benefits. But if we’re going to be comparing their rate of government assistance against, let’s say, a secular counterpart, we should certainly calculate the extent to which other communities are utilizing the public school system.

Moshe Krakowski: Yeah. And I think in the article, I calculated that if every Hasidic kid enrolled in public school in New York State, it would cost the state just under $3 billion to educate them. Yeah. So, it’s a huge amount of savings to the state. But I think there’s another very important point here, which is, as you said, we don’t know what the rates of state assistance are in this community. And everybody says, “Oh, well, I know lots of people are doing,” and maybe that it could certainly… If you told me that the rates of state assistance are higher in the Hasidic community than in other similar communities that are not Hasidic, I wouldn’t be surprised.

But if you told me that they were lower, I wouldn’t be surprised either. It’s important to note that we don’t actually know. And that like a lot of things that people assert, until you actually have data on this, it’s a little bit unfair. There are a lot of other minority communities that use assistance at very, very high levels and we don’t judge them for it. And we don’t say they can’t participate in life in the way that they would like to. So that’s number one and number two, and this is I think the most important point, this has nothing to do with education. The use of assistance is not the result of the inability to make money.

The use of assistance to the extent that it exists is the result of wanting to study Talmud, wanting to engage in a profession that is Kosher, wanting to do all sorts of different things that are religiously meaningful. And we’re long gone from the days and the depression and when they started public assistance where it was sort of considered a shame that you had to be on the dole. And there’s the famous example of that boxer who had to go on public assistance and then he gave back the money afterwards when he made it big. Now, it’s just part of the calculus that people make across, not just in the Hasidic community, but across all communities, of benefits.

It’s like a mortgage tax deduction or something. There’s a calculus that people make of, what do I get from the government? How much I’ll tax credit this versus what I’m making. And is it even going to be worth it for me to go up in income bracket because they’re going to be taking this much more out of my paycheck? The idea that there’s something shameful about making those sorts of calculations, I think, does not hold water. And I think that like other people, they make rational decisions about choosing work or choosing religious study that are made available by living in a wonderful state. The United States of America is, as the Hasidim called it, the medina shel chesed, a state of kindness and charity.

And so certainly if those laws were changed, it might change behavior, but it doesn’t have anything to do with education or the ability to get jobs. And that’s just something that as much as the YAFFED may feel that they were harmed, objectively, is just not true. People in this community can get jobs. Maybe they’re not training them to get medical degrees as a first option, that might be something that’s harder to do, but certainly to earn an income, to earn a living in an honest and straightforward way. There was a funny clip that was circulating a while ago, maybe a few years ago, of Moishe, the tire guy, that these people came to the guy, a Hasid with a big, long beard.

And what does he do, his job? He started a tire repair business. He changes tires. And they were just interviewing him and then he’s like, “You know what? It’s an honest living. I don’t have to rely on other people. And that’s what I do.” So there tends to be a very elitist sense of what the appropriate job in the world is, but the idea that people are suffering because of their education, I think does not hold water. And it does not hold water either that most Hasidim have never heard of what a molecule is. I can’t speak for Naftuli Moster, maybe he hadn’t, but the Hasidim who I’ve met know what a molecule is.

Jason Bedrick: So, I highly recommend to our listeners that you read the whole piece. There’s a lot of items that we didn’t get to on the podcast today. And especially, I would point them toward the end of the piece, Moshe, where you get into that we’ve been here before, right? That in the late 1800s, the U.S. government thought, “Well, these are Native American communities. They’re not really educating their kids properly.” Properly, of course, means the way we educate our own kids. “And so, what we need to do is ‘kill the Indian and save the man.’ We need to go in there and we need to take their kids away and put them in Indian schools.”

I live in Arizona, but there is a road not far from where my house is that is called Indian School Road. And that’s because there actually used to be a school run by the government under the Indian Child Welfare Act, where children that were essentially ripped away from their communities, had their hair cut, given, as you put in, “civilized clothes,” and were told, “You’re no longer allowed to speak Navajo or whatever your language is in your home. You’re no longer allowed to have your Native American name. We’re going to give you all a white name.”

We’ve been here before, and it’s a very dangerous road to go down. So, I highly recommend reading this piece. Moshe, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Our guest today has been Professor Moshe Krakowski, the director of the Azrieli master’s program at Yeshiva University. You can find this essay in City Journal. It was titled, “The War Against the Haredim.” Moshe, thanks again for coming on.

Moshe Krakowski: Thank you so much for having me.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors, or activists, or just interesting individuals you’d like us to interview for the Religious Liberty and Education series, please send them to media@edchoice.org, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media at EdChoice and don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.

Receive Educational Choice Updates Straight to Your Inbox.

Email Newsletter Signup

Follow Our Progress.

Receive Educational Choice Updates Straight to Your Inbox.

Email Newsletter Signup Engage

Privacy Policy