Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Essays

The Satmar Option

Hasidic Judaism and the Future of Religious Liberty

Rita Koganzon

Members of the Satmar community observe the anniversary of the rescue of Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, founder of the Satmar dynasty, from the Holocaust; Lev Radin/Alamy Stock Photos.

Although few Americans have personally encountered a Hasidic Jew, if they have read the New York Times recently they might recall being treated to an ongoing series of front-page exposés accusing the Hasidic community of a whole range of offenses, from defrauding federal and state welfare programs to coercing unwilling parents into keeping their children in schools run by fanatics to operating a failing and abusive shadow school system, all right under New York City’s nose. The current burst of aggressive reporting regarding Hasidic Jews could be seen as a revival of a campaign that began during the COVID-19 pandemic, or even earlier, to hold to account—or to malign, depending on your view—this strange community. Their specific crimes, according to the “newspaper of record,” are basically twofold: miseducating their children and stealing from welfare programs. But their deeper offense—older, less rectifiable, and much less forgivable—is their refusal to assimilate to secular modernity as their coreligionists have.

These two crimes are intimately connected in the Times’s presentation, so much so that the headline of the debut article in its series links them immediately: “In Hasidic Enclaves, Failing Private Schools Flush With Public Money.” The article’s subhead is more specific: “New York’s Hasidic Jewish religious schools have benefited from $1 billion in government funding in the last four years but are unaccountable to outside oversight.”11xEliza Shapiro and Brian M. Rosenthal, “In Hasidic Enclaves, Failing Private Schools Flush With Public Money,” New York Times, September 12, 2022, Every subsequent article is quick to remind readers of the raw deal they are getting as taxpayers: Hasidim take your money, but they don’t follow your laws.

The reality is, as always, more complicated. It is not entirely clear to anyone what exactly the law in question means—including to the state government tasked with enforcing it. The state law requires private schools to offer a “substantially equivalent” education to that provided by public schools. This couldn’t mean an identical education, or there would be no rationale for private schools. So how much deviation from the public school standard is permissible? Is it permissible to spend half the school day on religious studies? Three-quarters? All of it? Can private schools offer their instruction in a foreign language? Do they have to post test scores comparable to public schools, and if so, comparable to which ones—the successful public schools, or the failing ones? Any of these standards of “substantial equivalency” could set problematic precedents for other private or even public schools. But what confirmed Hasidic Jews’ guilt for the Times writers was that, unlike other insular groups who repudiate mainstream educational norms, this group has the gall to accept government benefits while shirking adherence to government regulations.

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