Orthodox Leaders Warn NY Times Against Publishing ‘False and Defamatory’ Article About Yeshivas

By Reuvain Borchardt

NEW YORK — A lawyer for an Orthodox Jewish organization is warning The New York Times against publishing a “false and defamatory” investigative report critical of Hasidic yeshivas, set to hit newsstands days before the state Board of Regents will vote on new regulations on secular-studies curricula in private schools.

“There appears to be a high likelihood that your story will contain defamatory statements and implications about the Hasidic schools, including … statements that single out and stereotype the Hasidic community without providing proper contextual data, and implications that the Hasidic schools are engaged in illegal activities,” writes attorney Erik Connolly of the Benesch law firm in Chicago, in a letter to the Times dated Thursday, written on behalf of the Tzedek Association and obtained by Hamodia. “In addition, we understand from emails you have sent to individual schools, that the article will also include statements of fact that are simply not true. The publication of such an article would not only be defamatory, it would also cause irreparable harm to the Hasidic community and further stigmatize its members.”

The Times article, by reporters Eliza Shapiro and Brian Rosenthal, will focus on Hasidic yeshivas in Brooklyn and the Lower Hudson Valley, serving about 50,000 students.

According to a summary of the article emailed by the Times reporters to the yeshivas and obtained by Hamodia, the article will allege that “students in these schools are deprived of [secular] education unlike students anywhere else in New York,” that students are these yeshivas perform poorly on standardized tests, the schools receive “enormous sums of public money,” and that “many religion teachers use severe corporal punishment.”

The article will also discuss “the Hasidic community’s political power … and how the schools play a central role, including by sending sample ballots home and giving students prizes for bringing back ‘I Voted’ stickers into school.”

But in the letter Thursday, Conolly warns the Times against publishing an article with “false and defamatory statements and implications.” The letter, published below in full, disputes the Times’ allegations, arguing that “Hasidic schools teach a variety of secular subjects,” that “all teachers are qualified, background checked, and vetted,” and that “there is an unequivocal policy in these schools that corporal punishment will not be tolerated and any teachers who use corporal punishment will be fired.”

The letter also says that public funding for yeshiva students amounts to $1,000 per student, compared with $25,000 the government spends on average public school students.

“Through the communication,” Connolly writes, “we hope to begin a dialogue that will prevent any defamatory article from being published, and believe there is a path towards working together to do so.” Connolly warns that while “I write today only on behalf of [Tzedek] Association, should you publish a defamatory and inciteful article, I will likely write again on behalf of the schools themselves.”

Connolly is a noted defamation lawyer, who, according to a 2020 Times article, “won the largest settlement in the history of American media defamation in 2017, at least $177 million, for a beef producer whose ‘lean finely textured beef’ was described by ABC News as ‘pink slime.'” Connolly is also representing a voting machine company in defamation cases against conservative media outlets following the 2020 presidential election.

Yeshivas and their allies have been seeking to preemptively portray the Times article as false.

In a New York Sun op-ed Wednesday, Boro Park Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein wrote, “The Times will defame an entire community based on sometimes anonymous critics, cherry-picked data, and outright lies.” 

“The Times is also going to accuse chasidic yeshivas of encouraging families to vote, as if a basic civic duty is scandalous when undertaken by chasidim,” Eichenstein continued. “With voter turnout in New York City at historic lows — just 23 percent of eligible voters turned out in the November 2021 election — one would think the Times would applaud efforts to turn out the vote.”

Connolly also warns of publishing the article during a time that Hasidic Jews in New York have faced rising hate-motivated assaults.

“Antisemitism is on the rise in New York and the number of hate crimes targeted at the Hasidic community have increased in recent years,” Connolly writes. “[Tzedek] believes that your article will contribute to the negative perception of the Hasidic community and in turn fan the flames of antisemitism.”

Similarly, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel of Agudath Israel recently wrote to Shapiro and Rosenthal“The timing of this article is terrible. Hate crime statistics, specifically crimes targeting Jews, are spiking dramatically — and most of these crimes are being directed against Hasidic Jews. Is now the time to publish a major article in the most prestigious newspaper in the world portraying the Hasidic schools — and, by extension, the entire Hasidic community — in the most negative light imaginable? Obviously, no one in his right mind would accuse reporters with your surnames of being anti-semitic, but don’t you realize how an article like this will fuel the anti-semites of the world to escalate their attacks against Hasidic Jews?”

The Times article is expected to hit newsstands this weekend, days before the state Board of Regents is set to vote on new regulations that would, for the first time, give governmental bodies direct oversight on the secular-studies curriculum of private schools.


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