The FBI raids this week on Ramapo-area yeshivas have given new ammunition to critics who question both the quality of secular education in that slice of the Jewish educational system, and how those private religious schools spend public money.
Authorities raided 22 yeshivas and businesses across Ramapo as part of a probe into how they used money from the federal E-Rate program meant to help schools buy computers, Internet access and educational technology.
“E-Rate is a symptom of a much larger problem of how these yeshivas use this (public) money,” said Naftuli Moster, head of Yaffed, an organization that advocates for improved secular education in yeshivas. “The underlying issue is the lack of oversight, which is what leads to all of this.”
Lawmakers and government officials share in the blame because they have allowed public funds to flow — unchecked — to yeshivas, he said.
“They want the votes, so they’re willing to turn a blind eye, until you have FBI raids and arrests,” Moster said. “When it comes down to it, they’re not doing the community any favors.”
The 100 or so Jewish schools that serve 24,000 students in Ramapo vary widely. Some offer advanced secular studies, others none at all. Some are housed in new, fully equipped buildings while others are in illegally converted homes. Some charge upward of $20,000 in annual tuition and others just a fraction of that.
What they have in common is a need to raise money to pay for programs. Tuition costs are a challenge in the traditionally large families that are common in Orthodox and Hasidic communities. Those same families often have low incomes.
A 2013 analysis by The Journal News found that almost 70 percent of Kaser residents were living below the poverty line, with New Square close behind at 58 percent. Both also had among the largest families in the nation, with 12 to 15 children per family not uncommon.
Educating those children is central to the community’s identity and survival, experts said.
“Jewish education is the core and the heart of their future,” said Samuel Heilman, a professor at Queens College who has studied Hasidic communities. “But paying for it is a huge problem.”
Yeshivas, like all private schools, are eligible for public funds for certain programs and services.
That has led to tensions in Rockland, particularly in the East Ramapo school district. Advocates for the public schools have long complained that yeshivas in Ramapo receive a disproportionate share of taxpayer dollars from a school board dominated by Hasidic and Orthodox men who send their children to private schools.
The East Ramapo school district spends millions annually to bus students to 143 private schools, according to a report by state monitor Hank Greenberg,
Greenberg’s 2014 report on the district concluded: “As public school budgets were slashed, spending on programs benefiting private schools increased.”
There have been other investigations into how public funds given to Jewish educational programs are spent. A federal investigation into the theft of tens of millions of dollars by New Square officials and residents started in 1993 with a $11.6 million scam to steal college assistance funds involving a mentoring program through Rockland Community College.
Not too long after that, Shulem Deen was teaching in a New Square yeshiva. Deen, who later left the Hasidic community, recalled in his memoir a scheme in which he participated that involved federal money meant to pay for tutoring for struggling students.
The money called for tutoring in secular academic subjects, he said, but he was instructed to focus instead on religious lessons and write reports indicating that he taught math or English.
“I asked if this was a scam,” Deen recalled Thursday. “They said, ‘Oh no, it’s not a scam. We don’t do that anymore.’ In their mind, it wasn’t a scam, there was nothing wrong with it.”
That belief is found among some, but not all, members of highly insular Hasidic communities.
“The mindset is that if there are government funds, they are meant to be taken and there is not always a strict sense that the money has to be used for what it is intended,” he said.
Teachers are paid poorly and many yeshivas use a system of vouchers that can be redeemed in community stores instead of giving instructors a regular salary, Deen said.
Tuition is charged on a sliding scale that takes into account how many children are in a family and how much the family earns. Deen recalled that he paid a total of $1,000 monthly in tuition for his five children when he was working as a computer programmer.
In the days since Wednesday’s raids, advocates from within religious communities maintain that most educational facilities follow the law. Many make legitimate purchases of computer equipment and use technology to teach.
Other advocates bemoan the harm to the community’s image by people or institutions suspected of theft and fear the taint will spread to the majority of schools that were not involved in any scams.
Heilman said that as the Orthodox and Hasidic communities have become more assimilated, they have become more involved with government and politics — which carries opportunities for corruption.
“Chutzpah comes with power,” said Heilman. “When it comes to fraud and crime, the people who do it think they’re smarter than everyone.”