April 3, 2013
Stealing From Special Needs Children and the Taxpayer: Can It Get Any Lower?
Just when we thought Orthodox scandals couldn’t get worse, we learn that millions of taxpayer dollars have been illegally diverted to Jewish institutions by unscrupulous and self-interested parties. Bnos Bais Yaakov, an ultra-Orthodox school in New York, was one of the city’s largest recipients of funding for disability services.
The Island Child Development Center billed New York State more than $27 million over the past 6 years, allegedly for individual instruction for approximately 200 disabled children ages 3 to 5 as part of a state-funded special education pre-kindergarten program. However, on March 18, the office of New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli released the news that the Island Child Development Center, handled the largest misappropriation of funds to the tens of millions of dollars. There is no proof that any student had actually received individual instruction, and there is also an egregious connection in the disbursement of funds between Island Child and its management:
Not only were government funds stolen but thousands of special needs children, who have no way to fight back, have had their services denied in a cynical, cruel manner.
There is another scheme currently going on that benefits a relative few in the Orthodox community while cheating Orthodox students as well as other students in low-income areas of their funding. This involves the government program E-rate, which provides funds (drawn from long-distance service fees) for schools and libraries serving low-income students to improve their Internet/telecommunications capabilities, from which Jewish schools received $30 million in 2011. Paradoxically, Yeshivat Avir Yakov, a haredi boys’ school in which there are no computers in the classrooms (and where the Internet is considered to be evil), has received $3.3 million in E-rate funds since 1998. Often, these funds have gone to small companies that serve the Orthodox community: Some Orthodox groups have listed themselves as libraries in order to be eligible for these funds. In the case of Yeshivat Avir Yakov, their 2012 application proposal included wiring 25 classrooms and more than 40 computers and other devices with Internet access, along with more than 260 cell phones, all for a school whose community opposes the Internet. Bais Ruchel D’Satmar, an all-girls’ Satmar school in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, had its principal plead guilty to fraud in 1999 and even today has no internet, yet it received $1.5 million in E-rate funds in 2011. As for the above-mentioned Bnos Bais Yaakov, it has received $100,000 through the E-rate program since 1998 and has requested over one million dollars this year. (Funding for 2013 has not yet been determined.)
Many in the American ultra-Orthodox community believe they do not have to be loyal to American law. If they believe they are furthering the interests of their religious community, then it is justifiable to cheat on taxes or rob the government. Others still think that we should keep quiet about these scandals coming out of our community and stop “airing out our dirty laundry.” This approach is not only an immoral but strategically flawed, and it will only cause more pain for all. We need ultra-Orthodox leadership that is ready to stand up and openly declare that there is a crisis. Instead, the opposite message emerges from the community, claiming that everything is under control. If we look at the issues of child abuse, domestic violence, and financial malfeasance, among others, we would see that the situation is anything but fine.
In his magnum opus, the Ramchal taught:
We are experiencing over and over again the tragedy of a flawed Jewish ideology which rejects modern society and the laws and orders that come along with it. A Torah education that comes out of a school that is run by thieves has no value, as the Rambam taught:
We must consider the values that we impart to our students, and remember that we are required to take care of the most vulnerable in society. Can anyone say that the examples cited above are consistent with a true Torah existence? We must take responsibility for our community. The first step is for us to ensure the entire frum community owns up that there is a real problem.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, the Founder and C.E.O. of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” In 2012 and 2013, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."