The Inequality of Equivalency?

By Reuvain Borchardt

Yossi Gestetner, a business strategist and executive director of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council (OJPAC), discusses the public rhetoric regarding the battle over “substantial equivalency” in New York yeshivos, particularly the income data on graduates of Chassidic yeshivos that OJPAC has compiled.

Tell us about OJPAC’s stat-gathering on Chassidic employment.

The latest data we have is from 2019 and into the beginning of 2020, so it’s not skewed by the pandemic and economic shutdown. We do most of our stat-gathering on Kiryas Joel, because that is the largest area in the United States that is entirely populated by Chassidic Jews. It has close to 35,000 people. If we pulled data from Boro Park or Williamsburg, that’s not all Chassidic, and not all Jewish. So KJ is a great place in which to measure the employment and income figures of Chassidic Jews.

But there is an important caveat: The population of KJ tends to be a little younger than the rest of the Chassidic community because a lot of young people from places like Williamsburg will move to KJ after they get married. So there are a lot of young householders in KJ.

How does having younger people affect the stats?

Age impacts income level and the poverty rate.

A 25-year-old earns much less than a 45-year old — this is true across the United States. With all other factors, such as education levels, being equal, 25-year-olds everywhere earn less than 45-year-olds. Poverty rates are measured by taking the household income — which is usually of two working parents — divided by the number of people in the home. A family of five with a household income of $50,000 is living in poverty; a family of two with the same income is not.

Chassidic people tend to get married and become householders at a young age and have large families too. These factors must be taken into account whenever discussing poverty rates in the Chassidic community, or any other community for that matter. Any journalist, politician or activist who talks about the poverty rate without being aware of this, or ignoring it, is either not informed on the basics or is maliciously trying to shape a story that just isn’t there.

The people who criticize yeshivah education and want the government to regulate it say that yeshivah education leads to massive poverty in the Chassidic community. What do your numbers find as far as that issue is concerned?

The biggest driver of elevated poverty rates in the Chassidic community is that so many of our households are led by younger people who earn less due to young age, and who value building a family. Also, large families are less likely to have two parents working, because the mother is home taking care of the children. So whatever poverty levels there are are driven by these factors that the rest of society is less likely to have.

If yeshivah opponents want to limit how many children a family can have based on income, let’s talk about the public school system where you have millions of children whose education costs fall onto the public — and half the children in New York public schools are on Medicaid, too.

I don’t recall any host on NY1 or any paper’s op-ed page yelling and screaming, “How do you have children when having one child in public school costs taxpayers $25,000 a year?”

Let’s get into some actual numbers.

The poverty rate in KJ is over 40%, which would be very high compared to the national average, and we just discussed the drivers behind it, which is family- and age-based. But if you look at the poverty rate for Chassidic 60-year-olds in the last year of available data, it’s 12.3%, which is very close to the New York state rate of 11.5%. That’s significant because 60-year-olds have achieved full income potential, most if not all their kids are married, and their wives can be working by then rather than taking care of the kids. So their numbers are not skewed by these factors.

We put together a report based on the 2018 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census: Almost 48% of full-time, year-round male workers in KJ earned more than $50,000 a year, which is slightly below the 53% of this working group nationwide. How can we pull this off if education is so “bad”?

Looking at averages or medians is skewed due to KJ having many young working householders. In other communities, people in their low 20s would be in college, not working, or working but single and living in their parents’ home, and not counted as a householder. So it’s expected that a community like KJ, with so many young householders, would have a somewhat lower income overall. This is why we need to always look at raw data, which shows what portion of the population earns what, and not get misled by averages or medians (mid-points).

The same draft report that we prepared in 2020 shows that the median household income in the U.S. for householders under age 25 is $31,189, while the median household income for householders 45-64 is $72,912. So here again, you see how being young just kills income across the United States. This matters because 81% of householders in Kiryas Joel are under the age of 45. In New York state overall, that figure is only 34%. This is extremely significant. No amount of studying about Abraham Lincoln will overcome this age-induced income limit!

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Also, in KJ, 24% of all households have two or more workers while across New York that figure is 54%.

So again and again, if you eliminate the factors of Chassidic householders that are not related to education, the Chassidic community compares quite nicely to the general population in terms of earnings and poverty. This, coupled with strong community values and a sound education system, explains how a community with an apparent high poverty rate does not suffer from the same issues that are seen in other poor neighborhoods.

What sorts of jobs and businesses do yeshivah graduates typically have?

I didn’t collect statistics on this, but anecdotally, if you flip through a phone book or attend business conferences, I think you see all types of businesses across the board. Just like in all other communities, some industries are disproportionately represented. All communities have some industries they engage in more and others they engage in less. But overall, you can live in this community pretty much from birth to death and have your goods and services provided for by members of the community.

I’d also like to mention that when we point to the anecdotal and statistical evidence of a nice outcome, the anti-yeshivah agitators go to the next thing. They say, “Outcomes don’t really matter. The law is the law! You have to have an education that is ‘substantially equivalent’ to public schools.” So when we start debating the law and say that the law now doesn’t define what substantially equivalent means, they say, “So we need to change the law, to be able to enforce it.” That, of course, means people are now not in violation of the law or else why change the meaning or enforcement of the law? When crushed on this, they say, “Well, your child should get a well-rounded secular education.” So we then start pointing out how Judaic studies encompass so many concepts and skill sets that would be taught in “secular studies,” like analytical reasoning and geographic and mathematical concepts, and then they go back to arguing about outcomes. They can’t win any argument, so they jump to the next argument.  Round and round they’ve been going for over a decade, because whether it’s agitators on social media, or those who amplify them in the New York press, or people in politics, I think, by and large, the people who take potshots at the yeshivah system are looking for an easy target. They’re not interested in facts and practical outcomes.

None of this means that every yeshivah is perfect or that schools and parents should not work on any improvements that they feel are needed. But misplaced adjustments to “help” students do not legitimize blatantly lying about the law, curriculum, and outcome, or to have the state dropping a hammer on yeshivos as a [group]; especially not when the schools to whom we need to be “substantially equivalent” are a mess in many ways.

Speaking of people whom you refer to as “anti-yeshivah agitators,” what do you believe is the true motivation of these people, whether it’s Naftuli Moster of Yaffed or NY1 host Errol Louis, whom you are obviously referring to? Do you think they want to shut yeshivos? Are they concerned about Orthodox children? Are they anti-religion?

Obviously, it’s tough to pass judgment on what somebody’s motive is or is not. But one way to measure it is based on rhetoric. Another is standards.

Rhetoric is when 45 chareidi Jews tragically died in Meron, the Twitter account of Naftuli Moster didn’t have one tweet expressing pain over the tragedy. Instead, he had a couple of tweets as to whether people were or weren’t warned about potential problems in Meron and how this once again proves how chareidi leadership did something wrong. By contrast, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did release a condolence letter. So the rhetoric can tell you a lot about a person’s motive or interest in something.

The other thing is the standard: Your standard of talking about issues impacting Orthodox Jews should mirror the tone and focus that you have for members of all other communities. If it’s not the same; then you are not legit.

Also, bullies like to pick an easy target. The visibly Jewish community in New York, and more so Chassidim, while they are seen more and more in the streets and in business, is still a small community. It’s a community in which so many people are not even focused on what is said or written about them in the press. So it’s an easy target. There’s no way that someone like Errol Louis would highlight and promote an agitator like Naftui Moster if that person were to be from the Muslim community, Latino community, African-American community or any other community out there.

The language, the rhetoric, the standards that Moster uses essentially is anytime a member of this community did or was accused of  doing something wrong, it’s, “Here we go again, look, something’s wrong with yeshivah education.” In recent months, he cooled off on this — not sure what his game plan is — but he behaved this way for years and often was echoed by some members of the press.

If the motive of these people was the education of this community, their rhetoric would be different, they wouldn’t be pouncing on any negative action. They wouldn’t be denying basic statistics that can be looked at, and Naftuli Moster would have been out there advocating for schools to be allowed to reopen after racial-justice protesters were allowed to gather and take to the streets in New York; a moment that many education advocates and parents started pushing for schools and daycares to reopen. Both liberals and conservatives, not just people from religious backgrounds, tried to get schools and daycares to reopen for the summer or the September 2020 school year. I don’t recall Moster being out there, pounding on the table, pounding out tweets, that schools must reopen right away. He was missing in action because it isn’t about education. It is about whatever his agenda may be, or whatever axe he has to grind.

As for Errol Louis, let’s think about it this way. Imagine a Jewish talk show host were to promote an African-American or Latino or a Muslim with the same rhetoric and incendiary commentary against their community as Moster does on his former community. Errol Lewis would probably decry such a host as the worst kind of media personality.

(Photo by Issac Y.)

Some people have tied the rhetoric on social media regarding yeshivah education to the increased numbers of antisemitic attacks we have seen in recent years. Do you feel there is any connection?

The reason OJPAC as a brand, or I, as an individual, try to keep the conversation honest and serious regarding Orthodox Jews, is that if a community is dehumanized and degraded, it leads to hate attacks in the streets, discrimination in the private sector, and abuses by the government. For example, after the onset of COVID, which originated in China, there were more hate crimes against Asian people because rhetoric has consequences.

Clearly, in late 2018 and early 2019, the rhetoric regarding measles was horrendous and reckless. And somehow 2019 happened to be one of the worst years in recent memory of endless hate attacks on Orthodox Jews in the street, including deadly ones. So there certainly is a connection. One of the people who shot up the kosher supermarket in Jersey City had barked online something about landlords from Brooklyn.

This doesn’t mean people are not permitted to discuss policy. But if your standard of how you write about a topic is not the same for Orthodox Jews as it would be to members of any other racial or ethnic group, then you’re not serious at best, and at worst you are intentionally trying to malign people who share an identifiable way of life.

Let’s say a person in the media feels that everyone should get a solid secular education and they don’t think all yeshivos provide that. How, in your opinion, can they say that in a way that you would not deem to be antisemitic or holding a double standard?

If somebody in the media wants to make sure that people get secular education, they should look at the huge percentages of students in public schools who don’t even show up, and do something about it. They should look at how so many students in the public school system fail to achieve basic reading and math proficiency and do something about it. When they figure out how to take care of all of that — and generally the people who claim to care about public schools just call for more money and lower education standards — I’ll see if I want to take up their advice and activism regarding Orthodox Jews.

OJPAC was founded in 2013 to combat bigotry and rhetoric against the chareidi community. Can you compare the situation in 2013 to 2022?

There’s the better and the worse. The worse is the proliferation and increased use of social media. This has increased the amount of inflammatory language. In the past, somebody would need to wait for a town hall once a month attended by five retirees to sound off on Jews, if you will. Now, you just need to go post something on social media, people can “like” it and get fired up with rage. Negativity and bigotry spread more easily today than 10 years ago. That’s just the nature of how we communicate.

The better is that there are plenty of newsrooms and editors and reporters — many of whom I know for more than a decade — that the way they would go about stories involving visibly Jewish people today is much better than 10 years ago, or even three years ago. Even the coverage of polio, while not stellar, is much better than how measles was covered! In the past, anything involving Orthodox Jews would be a story because it’s amusing to pounce on a visibly Jewish person. But these days, if it doesn’t fit a certain threshold, the story might not make it to press, just as it wouldn’t if it involved a member of a different racial or ethnic group.

In the past, every other Orthodox Jew in the news was called a “rabbi.” You don’t see that term used as easily these days as you did a decade ago. These days when there are stories involving Orthodox Jews in general and more so chareidi Jews, you will find reporters making calls, reaching out for comment or for a contact — sometimes in good faith, sometimes at least to pretend that they care. But at least they’re trying.

Do you think this is due to OJPAC?

I think this is a direct result of OJPAC’s effort in helping to steer the conversation in the right direction by use of data, facts, figures, articles, press releases, and being available. Many people in the community are also more active now in communicating with the public — whether it is on social media, talking on camera, or on background. Yes, I think it’s a direct result of OJPAC’s mission to popularize this type of work, but this would obviously be less impactful without the support and involvement of people; different organizations including those at the ADL-NY/NJ and local Federations, and people in leadership positions who understand the value and need of speaking out and providing information and providing context.

The day that the polio case was reported, State Senator James Skoufis from Orange County up released an insane and inflammatory tweet and statement regarding vaccination in the Chassidic community. It was an uncalled-for broadside that is not supported by the data that was released during measles and those available regarding polio. He received lots of criticism in forms of social media activism and calls, and the tweet was down within hours. There is no way that this would have happened three or five years ago so effectively. But then again, if more people were involved in speaking up than we have now, I don’t think the state senator would have sent such a tweet in the first place.

Is there anything else that you want to add?

I think the part which is important for the public to appreciate is that we are not anymore in a New York of 50 years ago where Orthodox Jews in general, and more so chareidi Jews, were not even seen that much. Members of this community are seen in increasingly large numbers in business, and civic work, and politics, and just in shopping centers, and so on and so forth. And there is a direct line between the rhetoric about people from a specific community to the outcome in terms of hate in the street, discrimination in the private sector, and even abuses by local governments. Sometimes it can impact you directly on an individual basis when walking on the street or trying to do business, and other times it impacts you on a more communal basis as we see in suburban New York and New Jersey regarding zoning, parks, sidewalks, shuls and basic housing development.

People should try to be a little bit involved if they can. If you email, call, comment and attend a town hall or a Community Board meeting you can make a big difference. Don’t be inflammatory but add a comment of protest. You’ll be surprised how many of these things matter.

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