In 2019, New York City released a report saying it had received a complaint about the quality of education in Hasidic Jewish religious schools and that city inspectors determined that only two of the 28 schools they examined provided an adequate education.
“But that report was very flimsy — it was only a few pages,” Brian Rosenthal, an investigative reporter at the New York Times, recalled during a recent panel discussion. “It didn’t name the schools. It didn’t say why they were not providing an adequate education and in what ways they were failing. It didn’t say how many kids were attending and it didn’t say what the city was going to do about it. And, ultimately, the city didn’t do anything about it.”
Rosenthal and fellow reporter Eliza Shapiro, who covers education at the Times, decided to look into the problem themselves.
Their 2022 series, “How Hasidic Schools Are Reaping Millions but Failing Students,” is the culmination of three years of work digging through public records about Hasidic schools in New York and trying to understand what happens inside classrooms and the factors shaping how these private schools operate.
In all, the journalists interviewed more than 275 people, including parents, religious leaders and former students and teachers. They filed hundreds of public-records requests and reviewed thousands of pages of documents, some of which had to be translated from Yiddish into English. They also built a database to track the types and sources of government funding the schools, known as yeshivas, received.
Their series shows that:
- More than 100 boys-only Hasidic schools, which enroll about 50,000 students across Brooklyn and the lower Hudson Valley, provided little instruction in core academic subjects.
- The schools received the lowest standardized test scores in the state.
- Educators regularly used corporal punishment, including slaps and kicks, during lessons, especially religious instruction. Several parents told the Times they gave teachers “tips” — about $100 a year, usually — to try to protect their children.
- Various government agencies fund the schools, paying out more than $1 billion over the past four years.
- In 25 of the about 160 Hasidic schools in New York City, special education students make up more than half of enrollment. The Times reports that some of the companies that provide educational services to Hasidic schools “have been allowed to collect more than $100,000 a year for providing part-time tutoring services to a single student with mild learning challenges.”
“The leaders of New York’s Hasidic community have built scores of private schools to educate children in Jewish law, prayer and tradition — and to wall them off from the secular world,” Shapiro and Rosenthal write in the first story in the series. “Offering little English and math, and virtually no science or history, they drill students relentlessly, sometimes brutally, during hours of religious lessons conducted in Yiddish.”
The journalists note that Hasidic schools “turn out thousands of students each year who are unprepared to navigate the outside world, helping to push poverty rates in Hasidic neighborhoods to some of the highest in New York.”
The series has had widespread impacts, some of them immediate. For example:
- The New York State Board of Regents voted to require private schools statewide to prove they are teaching nonreligious subjects such as English and math or risk losing public funding.
- New York legislators introduced several bills aimed at outlawing corporal punishment in private schools statewide.
- The state commissioner of education, Betty Rosa, ruled that a Hasidic boys’ school in Brooklyn was violating state law by failing to provide a basic education. The ruling, stemming from a lawsuit a parent brought against the school in 2019, required the school to work with the New York City Education Department to develop an improvement plan.
- New York City officials stopped doing business with 20 companies that provide education services primarily to students at private Jewish schools amid concerns about fraud.
- The largest private Hasidic school in the state agreed to pay fines and restitution totaling more than $8 million to avoid criminal charges. School operators admitted in federal court that, for years, the school “illegally diverted millions of dollars from a variety of government programs, paid teachers off the books and requested reimbursements for meals for students that it never actually provided,” Rosenthal and Shapiro reported.
Shapiro said she’s proud the Times investigation changed the conversation around Hasidic schools.
“It is so much harder for anyone to deny what we proved to be true: that scores of boys are being systematically denied a basic secular education,” she wrote in an email.
The Journalist’s Resource reached out to Shapiro and Rosenthal to ask them about their reporting process, including how they developed sources within such an insular community and the discussions they had with editors about how to ensure they wrote with sensitivity at a time of rising antisemitism in the U.S.
Shapiro answered our questions via email. As you’ll see in the Q&A below, her responses are full of reporting tips and behind-the-scenes insights.
The Journalist’s Resource: It had to be difficult for you, as a reporter, to gain access to people and documents within such a closed community. Can you talk about what you did to get that access — and keep it — during the course of your investigation?
Shapiro: This was one of our most significant challenges at the beginning of our reporting process. We already had some sources inside the Hasidic community and some that had left the community when we began reporting in earnest, and so we asked for introductions to as many people as possible — our first sources’ children, parents, siblings, friends, cousins. Over the course of two years, we expanded our network to include hundreds of people. There was never a day on this project when we weren’t talking to existing sources or meeting with new sources.
But this was not simply a challenge of building a deep and diverse source list. We had to contend with the fact that there was deep suspicion of the mainstream media within the community. We made clear to sources that we were not interested in a quick story or a sound bite, but that we were invested in understanding the Hasidic community as deeply and comprehensively as possible. Once people understood that we were committed to the reporting for the long haul, we found that people opened up more and were more willing to introduce us to others.
JR: How did you navigate the language barrier? And did it ever keep you from developing an important relationship or getting information you were looking for?
Shapiro: From the first weeks of our reporting, we started to work with a native Yiddish speaker and professional translator who was invaluable throughout the process. That translator, along with many sources who were fluent in Yiddish and English, helped us navigate the language barrier.
JR: What advice would you give education journalists in terms of how they should think about or cover private schools differently?
Shapiro: We were shocked by the extent to which Hasidic yeshivas were able to operate with almost no government oversight while collecting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars a year. There is enormous opportunity for education reporters to investigate how public money is flowing to private schools that in many cases are barely accountable to elected officials and government agencies.
JR: What was the most challenging part of writing or organizing the stories for this project?
Shapiro: One of the biggest challenges we faced was that there was simply very little information available about Hasidic schools. Before our reporting, there was no list of even how many Hasidic schools there were. We had to build that ourselves, and we also had to obtain information about schools that kept very little records in English. After we got information, synthesizing the enormous amount of reporting we had gathered and choosing what to include in our series was extremely challenging. We had so much more reporting than we could have ever used, and we had many long and spirited discussions about what we absolutely needed.
Part of that challenge was that we had to introduce our readers to the Hasidic community, and explain why schools play such a crucial role in Hasidic life. This required months of reporting and a fair amount of space in our stories, but we obviously had to marry that with our original findings about the quality of the secular education, the fact that some of the schools still relied on corporal punishment, and the enormous amount of public money flowing to these schools.
JR: Can you share an example or two of a challenge you faced getting financial data and how you overcame it?
Shapiro: There has never been any reporting showing how much public money goes to New York’s Hasidic yeshivas, and doing so was an enormous undertaking. Our first challenge was identifying which schools should be included in our accounting. There was no list of all the Hasidic schools in the state. We spent weeks meeting with sources and researching schools to identify Hasidic yeshivas across the state, being sure not to include any schools that were religious yeshivas but not technically affiliated with a Hasidic group.
We also had to report to figure out the different funding sources that benefit yeshivas, which was a reporting task itself. We spoke with current and former teachers and administrators at Hasidic schools, along with education officials who understood private school funding, to figure out the potential funding sources.
Government officials were quite wary of sharing information about the schools, and most of the funding information was not publicly listed. In a bizarre way, there was a benefit to the fact that we started this reporting shortly before the pandemic. We filed dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests to city and state agencies, and in some cases it took a full two years for us to receive some of that information. New York City agencies in particular are notoriously slow at fulfilling public records requests, and in some cases we had to work with our lawyers to get information about how the schools were funded. In some cases, we were able to use school ID numbers to track funding, but in other cases, we had to use fuzzy matching on names and searching of addresses to find matches. Ultimately, we analyzed data on more than 50 different funding sources.
JR: What are two or three tips you’d offer journalists considering starting similar projects in their communities?
Shapiro: Understanding the communities you are writing about as deeply as you can is essential. So much of our reporting as we got further into the project was talking with sources not only about their experiences with yeshivas but about their lives in the Hasidic community — what their daily routines were like, how their family lives worked, what work was like for them, what they loved about the community and what they wished could be different. The knowledge we gained from those sources is infused throughout our reporting, and we believe made the series much stronger.
It is also important to be extraordinarily sensitive and nuanced when writing about religious education. We actively sought out parents and advocates who wanted to keep Hasidic yeshivas just the way they are, with little secular education, and reflected their views in our reporting.
JR: What conversations did you and Brian have with each other and/or your editors about how best to frame or tell this story at a time of rising antisemitism in the U.S.?
Shapiro: We had these conversations constantly, at every stage of the project, from the first day we decided to work on this series together to the day before the article was published, and also in the months since. We are both Jewish and have been extremely alarmed by rising antisemitism, and we made sure to tell readers that Hasidic people have experienced horrific antisemitic violence in recent years. A big part of the reason we felt so compelled to tell this story were the pleas from within the Hasidic community. We spoke with scores of parents, teachers and former students who asked us to shed light on the lack of education and what it meant for the community. We spoke with many people who had given up hope that community leaders would improve the schools or that the government would actually step in and enforce education law.
Some of our sources made clear to us that our reporting represented their last hope to improve the education, and the lives, of their children and family members. But before publishing anything, we had repeated conversations with each other, with our editor and with other leaders in the newsroom to assess every word and ensure that we were not painting with a broad brush or “othering” the Hasidic community. We gave drafts of the articles to experts for sensitivity reads. We met with several Hasidic leaders and, at their request, removed certain words and phrases from our article that are used in many other mainstream outlets.
We also had debates amongst ourselves about specific words, phrases and concepts. One thing that talked about often was how to make clear to readers that we were writing about a very specific community, the Hasidic community, and not the larger Orthodox Jewish community and certainly not the larger Jewish community. We did not publish any article until everybody was comfortable that we had done all we could to be as careful and sensitive as possible.
JR: To help other journalists better understand how certain language can be problematic, will you share some of the words and phrases you removed from your stories and why?
Shapiro: So, for example, one word we decided not to use is “sect.” Most people, including in the Hasidic community, use “sect” to differentiate between different Hasidic groups, like the Satmars and the Bobovs. But after talking with sources in the community, we decided that using that word could feel like otherizing, almost exotic. We made sure to use “group” instead.