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The NYT and Hasidism in the Month of Elul

The problem with the New York Times’s provocative investigation into the schools in New York’s Hasidic enclaves is not the content, but the context.

This tiny subculture has captured the media’s attention as potential hosts of COVID risk events (weddings), when there’s a new movie or TV show about the rare Hasid who opts out for a more secular life, and when there’s a case of “Jewification.” That’s my term for when Hasidim who’ve been priced out of one neighborhood move into a new one, which then has to come to terms with their “otherness”. And now the New York Times gives us a fourth reason for the media to zero in on the Hasidim: their “failing yeshivas.”

No other community that I know of has as many fascinating characteristics as the Hasidim and yet has been as consistently covered in the media for its failings.

Where is the coverage of Hasidic pop, rock, and world bands in the New York Times music section? Where is the coverage of the Shtetl Gallery of Hasidic art in Williamsburg in the Times art section? When have we read in the Times, with its passion for social justice, about this community’s free loan societies, where people can borrow anything from extra pans to a wedding gown—all free? Has the Times lifestyle section ever run a feature on the Hasidic community’s emphasis on lifelong improvement of one’s character? No.

As for schools failing in secular education—the sad truth is that is happening all over the city in schools that are far more flush with public money than the yeshivas, and where secular education is the only focus. When we learn of that subset of New York city schools which are failing we are led to conclude it’s a lack of resources, and more money should be invested–not the subculture. Yet when the Times covers “failing yeshivas”—and they for sure do exist—I don’t read any calls to invest more resources in them.

The Times’s investigation comes during the month of Elul, as observant Jews begin an annual period of self-examination, repentance, and making amends, culminating in the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This might also be the moment for the New York Times editorial board to meet with Hasidic community leaders and develop a more balanced view of this much misunderstood, too often maligned, and hardly “failing” community.

About the Author
Todd L. Pittinsky is a professor at Stony Brook University (SUNY) and a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County. His most recent book is "Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy" (with B. Kellerman, Cambridge University Press).
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