Sense of siege in Kiryas Joel amid FBI raids and scrutiny of yeshivas

Even before FBI investigators descended last week on the Satmar Chasidic village of Kiryas Joel, there was a growing sense in this insular community that it and its unique way of life were under attack.

Two months earlier, the FBI had been in the village investigating alleged fraud of a government program, and community leaders also have been facing a mounting campaign by dissidents to increase state oversight of yeshiva curricula.

“We need to know what kind of danger we’re in,” the Satmar rebbe in Kiryas Joel, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, said in a widely publicized May 4 speech about the threat of closer state supervision of yeshiva curricula. “These are bad times for us Jews, terrible. We need to pray to God that they should not interfere with the upbringing of our children.”

Publication of the video, which generated a firestorm in Orthodox circles, came the same week that a New York State legislator, Ellen Jaffee, introduced a bill that would bring better enforcement of state rules that require non-public schools, including yeshivas, to ensure they are providing education that is “substantially equivalent” to that offered in public schools. Yeshivas like those in Kiryas Joel, located about an hour north of Manhattan in New York’s Orange County, long have flouted state standards on secular subjects, foregoing even basic subjects like English and math in upper grades.

For a long time, Teitelbaum said in his speech, there’s been an implicit understanding between state authorities and the leadership of Chasidic communities like Kiryas Joel that the state wouldn’t interfere in communal affairs.

But that implicit agreement may be breaking down as it becomes more difficult for authorities to ignore abuses – sexual, educational or financial – allegedly taking place within these closed communities. The prospect of outside interference threatens one of Kiryas Joel’s raisons d’etre: Chasidic control of the community’s affairs.

“Until now there were also strict laws, but because we live in a kingdom of benevolence [a reference to government authorities] to put it bluntly they simply turned a blind eye to what’s going on by the Jewish children,” Teitelbaum said in his speech, which was delivered in Yiddish and then translated into English for widespread dissemination. “They didn’t want to look, the benevolent kingdom. Now, too, they’d continue doing that, the government would have continued, they’re happy not to look and not to know. But these worthless people are stirring up in various ways and are demanding in court, forcing the government that they should take a stance.”

The newfound scrutiny is being pushed largely by dissidents, in some cases ex-Chasidim, who say they are acting in the best interests of the community – whether to protect children from sexual abusers or to give them the basic educational skills necessary to succeed in life.

“I’ve been to those yeshivas, I know exactly what the effects are,” said Naftuli Moster, executive director of Yaffed, an organization he founded that lobbies lawmakers to force Orthodox yeshivas to offer quality secular studies in addition to Torah studies.

“You’re not gaining anything by depriving people of an education. The very Satmar rabbi that made that speech also encourages people to earn a living, to his credit, but at the same time he’s the one who has jurisdiction over the yeshivas that are depriving Chasidim of the very tools necessary to earn that living,” Moster told JTA. “So what do people end up doing? Oftentimes they resort to criminal activity and other shenanigans to earn that living.”

Two months ago, FBI investigators were in Kiryas Joel, nearby Rockland County and Brooklyn investigating alleged fraud by Chasidic institutions in the federal government’s E-rate program, which funds the purchase of technology equipment and internet service by schools and libraries. Authorities reportedly are looking into whether the yeshivas actually spent the money they obtained from the federal government for technology in the schools.

The Satmar Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel has been the subject of two FBI raids in two months, lending to a sense of siege in the insular community. (Uriel Heilman)

The Satmar Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel has been the subject of two FBI raids in two months, lending to a sense of siege in the insular community.

Adding to the pressure, on Tuesday, the New York Daily News and WNYC public radio published and broadcast a joint investigative story scrutinizing the outsized number of low-income, Section 8 housing vouchers that have gone to the Chasidic community in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn – a Satmar neighborhood with close ties to Kiryas Joel.

The WNYC story attributed the voucher aberration to Chasidic “self-dealing that’s impenetrable to outsiders” and cited lawsuits arguing that the Chasidim obtain housing vouchers through unfair or unlawful means. The story also noted that Chasidim are taking the vouchers with them to places outside the city, like Kiryas Joel.

This perfect storm of scrutiny has community leaders on edge. In his speech, Teitelbaum expressed fury that fellow Jews are the source of much of the pressure.

“Due to our many sins, it’s very painful to talk about it, there stood up several worthless people from our own who have studied in Chasidic yeshivas, and sadly they arrived I don’t want to say where. They decided to wage war against the whole ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of New York,” the rebbe said. “They went and snitched to the governments of New York City and New York State with complaints that the students of the yeshivas, of all yeshivas (elementary and middle school) are not learning enough general studies as required by law.”

Yaffed’s Moser is a Brooklyn native who grew up in Chasidic institutions. The sex abuse video presumably was recorded by an insider at United Talmudical Academy and was posted on Facebook by Boorey Deutsch, an Orthodox activist against sex abuse in the community. The alleged E-rate fraud was the subject of investigative stories in 2013 by the New York Jewish Week and the Forward.

Joseph Waldman, a longtime Kiryas Joel community leader who heads a local welfare organization, said the unprecedented assault on the Chasidic community stems from local non-Jews’ fear of its rapid growth – just as the biblical Egyptians feared the rapid growth of the Israelites in Moses’ time.

“That’s the reason they were trying to make the trouble for the Jews in Egypt: The first thing they were afraid was the Jewish families growing so rapidly,” Waldman told JTA. “Here, they are fearful that they’re going to be overwhelmed either by the growth of the environment or by political clout through the bloc votes.”

“They want to stop the community from growing,” he said. “That’s the reason for all the problems.”

Buoyed by charedi growth, Jewish school enrollment in NY up by 4.4 percent in one year

Enrollment in New York State’s Jewish day schools and yeshivas increased by 4.4 percent last year.

According to data compiled by the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council from statistics provided by the New York State Education Department, more than 143,000 students were enrolled in 405 K-12 Jewish schools in the state during the 2014-15 academic year.

Not surprisingly, enrollment and growth was highest in counties with the largest charedi Orthodox populations. Brooklyn enrolled 80,132 students, up from 78,759 the previous year. Other top-enrolling counties were Rockland (23,618), Orange (10,997), Queens (10,503) and Nassau (7,592), all of which experienced increases over the previous year.

Enrollment declined slightly in Manhattan, however, with 4,360 students enrolled, down from 4,408 the previous year. The greatest increase was in Rockland, where enrollment rose by 7.1 percent. Rockland County’s large haredi Orthodox population has spurred controversy in recent years, particularly in the East Ramapo Central School District, where the Orthodox-majority school board has cut the public school system’s budget dramatically. In addition, haredi schools in both Rockland and Brooklyn have been criticized in recent years for allegedly failing to meet state requirements for secular education.

Going back two years (2012-2013 vs. 2014-2015), the percentage rise in Jewish school enrollment was 7.9 percent statewide.

The growth in Jewish enrollment came despite an overall decline in nonpublic school enrollment in New York state.

According to a news released issued by Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, the 143,156 students in Jewish schools receive, on average, “well below $1,500 in tax-funded services a year; compared to more than $19,500 per each public school student” saving taxpayers “at least $2.57 billion in education funding last year.”

The council claims that the private Jewish community “also directly funds the public school system,” due to property tax revenues from “properties owned by members of the Orthodox Jewish community.”

N.Y. voters pass bond measure offering up to $38 million for Jewish schools

Voters in New York state passed a schools bond act that may provide up to $38 million in reimbursements to Jewish day schools and yeshivas.

The Smart Schools Bond Act of 2014, one of three referendums on the state ballot Tuesday, authorizes the state comptroller to issue and sell up to $2 billion in bonds to finance educational technology equipment and facilities, the construction and renovation of pre-K facilities, and the installation of high-tech security features in school buildings.

The measure passed by a vote of 62 to 38 percent.

Included in the law is up to $125 million in technology funding for non-public schools in the state – namely religious and independent schools. That translates into about $250 per student, which may cover such material as interactive whiteboards, computer servers, desktop and laptop computers, tablets, and high-speed broadband or wireless Internet.

There are about 151,000 Jewish day school and yeshiva students in New York, according to an Avi Chai study published last week. That translates into up to $38 million for Jewish students. The actual sum will vary by district.

Before the vote, Jewish day schools and day school advocates mounted a campaign to get parents to the polls to vote in favor of the measure. The voting drive was preceded by lobbying last winter in Albany, the state capital, to get the technology funding for non-public schools.

“Obviously we’re very happy,” said Jeff Leb, New York state director of political affairs for the Orthodox Union, which lobbied in favor of the measure. “I don’t think this will go a very long way in alleviating the day school tuition crisis, but hopefully it will free up some money that schools no longer have to spend on technology because that will come from this bond.”

Schools Work Hard to Make the Grade


The Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School West team labored close to two years on their assignment. They administered surveys, compiled data and poured through reams of material. This homework, however, was completed not by students, but by staff and faculty. And the project was not so much required as extra credit.

The Agoura school’s administration voluntarily underwent the rigorous process in order to become accredited by the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles (BJE) and two secular accrediting bodies. The resulting 318-page tome, which reflected input from administrators, faculty, parents and families, detailed every aspect of the school’s operation from governance to finances to faculty credentials and student curricula.

Ten years ago, the BJE made history in the world of Jewish education by developing and conducting the first-ever accreditation process for Jewish schools. Prior to that, schools might have undergone the process with state or national agencies, but did not have a mechanism to demonstrate that they were accomplishing their Jewish educational goals. Today, 30 Jewish day schools and yeshivas and 40 religious schools in Los Angeles are BJE accredited.

The process is spelled out in a manual created by Emil Jacoby, the BJE’s former director and now senior consultant. It takes early childhood centers, yeshivas, day schools and religious schools through a thorough, standardized process to ensure that each school is fulfilling its missions and goals.

Jacoby designed the manual to integrate BJE requirements with those of other accrediting bodies. For day schools and yeshivas, BJE accreditation occurs simultaneously with Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and/or the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS).

Accreditation “insures that schools have a clear sense of their mission and goals and values,” said BJE Executive Director Gil Graff.

It also gives schools credibility that comes from being reviewed by an impartial independent group of experts, Jacoby said, and assures outsiders that they can trust the school’s claims about its focus and philosophy.

For Heschel West principal Jan Saltsman, accreditation translates into necessary accountability.

“We are accountable to our students, to our parents, to the larger community,” Saltsman said. “With CAIS, WASC and BJE, we are held accountable. If you don’t have the accreditation, who are you accountable to?”

In addition to legitimacy and credibility, it also brings financial benefits. Only BJE-accredited schools are eligible for a share of $1.6 million in Jewish Federation funding, which the BJE disburses to support Jewish schools, or the $350,000 of Federation dollars, which the Bureau earmarks for day school scholarships. Also, the BJE itself provides about $100,000 in grants for schools to pursue projects identified through the accreditation process.

The three-part process begins with a school performing a detailed self-study and presenting the results in a written report. A visiting team of experienced educators then evaluates the school during a three-and-a-half-day site visit. (BJE visitors, who volunteer their time, are matched to the institution by denomination.) The BJE accrediting commission then reviews the visiting team’s report to determine a term of accreditation. The maximum term is six years, and institutions are typically revisited at the halfway point. For subsequent accreditation, they must demonstrate progress made on previous recommendations.

The BJE manual has served as a model for other bureaus of Jewish education, including those in Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. It was recognized by the Jewish Educational Service of North America (JESNA), an umbrella organization that shares best practices in Jewish education. The National Association for the Education of Young Children, which accredits early childhood programs, cites the BJE’s manual in its own accreditation instructions.

Yeshiva Ohr Eliyahu in Culver City received first-time joint accreditation from BJE and WASC in April of last year.

Clarisse Schlesinger, the school’s assistant principal of general studies, described how the whole school learned about ESLRs (pronounced es-lurs), the acronym for Expected Schoolwide Learning Results. Every school must articulate its ESLRs — the core concepts its students are expected to master — as part of the accreditation process. Each grade learned about Ohr Eliyahu’s ESLRs in age-appropriate language. So first-graders, for example, could affirm “We love to do mitzvot” and “We can write in Hebrew and English.”

“Examining ourselves in this way was terrific,” she said. “We learned a lot … and identified areas we thought we could improve.”

As a result of the analysis, the school made several changes, including adopting a new kindergarten-through-eighth-grade math curriculum and giving Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, Ohr Eliyahu’s dean and executive director, more time to interact with parents, teachers and students. They also received a BJE grant to help enhance their library.

Now, Schlesinger will switch from reviewee to reviewer. She will represent WASC on a review committee evaluating an Armenian school in Orange County later this year.

Goldberg, who is also Ohr Eliyahu’s principal, said he was grateful to the BJE for encouraging the school to undergo accreditation.

“The idea of evaluation and self-reflection is critical, but unless you’re encouraged, you don’t always make time for it,” he said. “We grew a lot from the process.”


Sin City Shaliach

The table is sumptuously laid out for 16, with appetizer plates and enough silverware to promise a multicourse meal. With smells of chicken soup and sounds of seven children playing, it’s just a typical Friday night in … Las Vegas.

What’s a nice Jewish family like the Harligs doing in Vegas?

Rabbi Shea Harlig, father of seven and founder of the Desert Torah Academy, is first of three Chabad shlichim (emissaries) sent here, and he doesn’t find anything unusual about living in the center of Sin City.

"Half of the people who come here [to Las Vegas] don’t live here … they don’t want to be here for Shabbos," Harlig, 35, tells The Journal. Some of the seven guests around his Friday night table are perfect examples of people not in Vegas for its pleasures: a businesswoman from New Jersey who got stuck here on a marketing conference, an author brought in by the Jewish Community Center to discuss her new book.

Harlig is a man of many firsts. His family was the first to observe Shabbat here. They were the first to arrange for the shipment of fresh kosher meat to be sold in Vegas. They established the first Vegas synagogue to have three daily minyans. When they came here 10 years ago, the kippah-wearing Rabbi and his bewigged wife, Dina, 31, stood out for their conspicuous display of Orthodoxy, in a city that conspicuously displays anything but.

Today, the Harligs are proud that all those firsts led to the mini-Chabad empire that they have built up in Vegas. It’s come a long way from the small in-house gathering the Harligs used to host when they arrived in the city, armed only with the blessings of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and a bit of seed money provided by Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, West Coast director of Chabad Lubavitch.

Now, the center of Vegas Chabad is a $1.5 million building, which was donated by Sheldon Adelson, owner of the luxurious Venetian on the famous Strip. This building houses the school (complete with a state-of-the-art computer lab, physical education instruction and 120 students), a mikvah, offices and a shul. On any given Shabbat, one finds a surprising number of men sporting black hats and long beards, and the services are spirited in a way that is reminiscent of shteibls in religious enclaves like Crown Heights — not hot and sunny places where palm trees line the streets and bright lights beckon to reckless endeavors.

There are also two other Chabad houses in different suburbs, as well as various social, welfare and community services. "Many people realize that in order to keep Judaism going, you need Chabad outreach activities," Harlig says. "Although they might not be prepared to practice everything, they understand that you have to give the next generation an awareness of Judaism — and that is what Chabad does."

Harlig — a self-avowed driven man — says that his job running Chabad of Las Vegas doesn’t allow him to keep a regular schedule or take time off. "There is always someone else who needs help or needs counseling, and some days it’s a struggle. But I have friends from yeshiva who went into business, and they are struggling too. The difference is that I am struggling to do holy work, and I would rather struggle to do that."

For an ambitious man, Harlig is deceptively low-key. "Sometimes people ask me, ‘Did you believe this was going to happen?’ I didn’t know what to expect. My job is just to look around and see what needs help and what needs improvement."

He’s always looking: buying bus tickets home for Jews who lost every last cent at the gaming tables, bailing out newly indigent gamblers from jail, even helping people find jobs. He plans now to expand his adult education programs and to acquire a 9,000-square-foot building for another Chabad house in Summerlin, a suburb of Vegas.

It’s a long way from Brooklyn, Harlig’s hometown, where he grew up knowing that he wanted to be a rabbi, and it was only a matter of where to go to help Jews return to their faith. He considered moving to Copenhagen, but then decided that Las Vegas would be more of a challenge.

The Harligs’ work has made being religious in Vegas less challenging, but they struggle to give their children the same kind of Jewish education that they would have received had they stayed in Brooklyn.

To this end, Rebbetzin Dina, who is an efficient, creative and energetic educator, holds "a.m. and p.m." Torah contests with her children every Shabbat, where the children compete to give the best retelling of the parsha during Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch. The children play "Torah Torah Mitzvah" instead of "Duck Duck Goose," and they sing hearty renditions of the Chasidic songs that they learned in camp back East, where they spend most summers.

But as there is no religious high school for them in Las Vegas, the Harligs have resigned themselves to the fact that, come high school, their children will have to be sent back to New York for a "real" Yeshiva education.

Yet, in true Chabad style, Harlig imagines that all problems will be solved with the coming of the Messiah. "I envision when Moshiach will come, all the hotels will be big yeshivas. All the rooms will become dorm rooms, the big dining rooms will be where we will eat and the casinos will become learning halls. That is why I think these hotels were all built — so that they can become yeshivas."