Alleged Fraud with Tech Fund in Haredi Schools

The importance of increasing access to technology in our schools became a top priority during the Clinton Administration. In that vein, President Clinton and VP Al Gore sought to incorporate technology into the classroom and ensure equal opportunity for students to benefit from technology by creating E-rate. In the years since its creation, these federal grants have helped public and private schools across the country connect to the Internet, increase the number of computers in classrooms, and provide technology training for teachers.

Julie Wiener, a former Detroit Jewish News columnist who is now associate editor of The Jewish Week in New York, recently uncovered potential fraud relating to the E-rate program in ultra-Orthodox schools in New York. In a three-part exposé Wiener, together with special correspondent Hella Winston, explained how several ultra-Orthodox day schools and yeshivas in the New York area have been receiving millions of dollars of technology through the E-rate program, but never actually putting that technology to use in their schools because of their community’s disdain for the internet.

Julie Wiener, associate editor of The Jewish Week, discovered the potential fraud with the E-Rate program.

Wiener’s four-month investigation revealed that of the almost 300 Jewish schools benefiting from E-rate, ten schools (all but one Chasidic) collectively were approved for nearly $9 million in E-rate-funded services in 2011, which amounted to almost one-third of the Jewish total. One yeshiva submitted requests in 2012 for 65 direct connections to the Internet including 40 computers, but no computer or Internet connection were ever installed. Wiener’s investigation also found a disparity in the amount of technology funding the New York area’s ultra-Orthodox schools were receiving. She writes, “While Jewish schools enrolled approximately 4 percent of the state’s K-12 students, they were awarded 22 percent of the state’s total E-rate allocations to schools and libraries.”

After reading the three-part series I had a chance to talk with Wiener about her investigative reporting and what she hopes will happen now that these schools’ alleged misuse of a federal technology fund has become publicized. “I’d like to see more investigation and oversight on the part of the FCC and the USAC [Universal Service Administrative Company, which oversees E-Rate], including more audits and actual visits to make sure the equipment that’s actually paid for is being used. I also want more people to know about E-rate. There are more schools that could benefit that haven’t even heard of the program.”

Wiener, who has been writing about Jewish education and technology over the past few years, says she first honed her investigative skills at the Detroit Jewish News in the mid-1990s. She answered some questions about the E-Rate story:

HOW DID YOU FIND OUT ABOUT E-RATE?
My colleague Hella Winston, who has done a lot of coverage of the ultra-Orthodox community, got a tip from someone several months ago and then found the E-rate Central site, where all the data is contained. The idea immediately appealed to us, because the Asifa – the May 2012 [Haredi] rally against the Internet – was still fresh in our memories, and also, I had been covering the whole issue of technology in Jewish education and yet had never before heard of E-rate. Initially, it felt overwhelming to go through the enormous amount of data, but fortunately I was taking a class at CUNY Journalism School this fall, which both inspired me to do data-driven articles and empowered me.

WHAT WAS THE PROCESS?
We decided early on to narrow our focus to New York State. That’s because this was already an enormous project, and because we are based in New York. We also knew that New York has the largest number of fervently Orthodox schools, and when we started we were unsure if the E-rate application process and rules vary from state to state. It turns out they don’t, but it still made our lives easier to focus on New York. I am hoping other journalists will follow our lead and look at E-rate use in other states with relatively large Jewish populations.

We spent a lot of time researching E-rate online, going through various audits and rulings, and congressional testimony about it. We also researched the schools and service providers online. To learn more about what goes on inside the schools, we spoke with the Jewish Education Project and various alumni of these schools. Hella has a whole network of people who have left or currently live in the community. We were reluctant to approach the schools, or even the E-rate consultants/USAC people until very late in the process, as we were worried someone might tip off the schools, making it difficult for us to obtain information, or even, if there was fraud happening, making a cover-up easier. Also, the program is so complicated and confusing that we wanted to make sure we understood it well before we interviewed anyone.

WHAT RESPONSE HAVE YOU GOTTEN SO FAR?
Overall the response has been very positive. Many of our readers are horrified that this is happening and concerned about this community – which doesn’t even use the Internet – getting tens of millions of dollars that other schools might make better use of. Assuming that at least some of this money is being misused – and it is hard for me to imagine it is not – this is hardly a victimless crime: USAC denied over $2 billion in requests last year, and for the past few years only the highest-poverty schools have been eligible for Priority 2 services – connections that make it possible to bring the internet into individual classrooms. Also, the money comes from a tax that we all pay into – the Universal Service Fund.

We’ve certainly gotten a number of angry comments from the ultra-Orthodox community – mostly along the lines of, “Why are you always picking on the ultra-Orthodox?” and “Why put this in the papers rather than just notifying the authorities?” There have been very few substantive critiques from the ultra-Orthodox as no one has explained why these schools need such costly tech services or how they are using things.

Yes, E-rate can be used for some non-Internet expenses, but the fact is that these schools are billing a lot of money for the Internet too and some have spent millions of dollars over the years. I find it interesting that none of these schools or service providers will talk to us, that there is no effort to show that they have the equipment they’ve billed E-rate for and how they are using it to benefit their students. Also, we live in a democracy, and the public has a right to know how tax dollars are being spent, particularly nowadays when government coffers are stretched so thin.

DO YOU THINK THERE IS FRAUD?
I have to be careful here, because I don’t want to be accused of slander or libel. However, I think that at the very least something inappropriate is happening. It makes no sense why schools that don’t give students access to the Internet – or even, in many cases computers – are disproportionately benefiting from this program, particularly when there are other schools whose needs are not being met. I am also puzzled as to why the USAC and the FCC have allowed this to go on for so long.

I should note that I doubt that, if there is fraud, the money is enriching individuals or going to fund luxuries – my guess is that it is sustaining the fervently Orthodox community which is financially struggling because individuals have very large families and don’t see public school as an option, most receive minimal secular education or career training, and many men study full-time, rather than work. While I sympathize with their need for money, it is not fair to ask the government to subsidize this lifestyle. If they invested in secular education or even considered enrolling in public schools, and if they encouraged people to pursue the training necessary for modern careers, they would be in a very different situation.

WHAT DO YOU HOPE WILL COME OF THIS ARTICLE?
I hope FCC and USAC investigate this matter and seriously audit these institutions – both the service providers and the schools. I also think it’s important for the public to be aware of the E-rate program – something that is little-known outside the circles of IT people at schools – and the Universal Service Fund, particularly at a time when all tax dollars are being increasingly scrutinized.

The Jewish Week’s three-part story on E-Rate and the Ultra-Orthodox schools in New York begins here.

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Being Honest About Ritual Circumcision

I don’t get squeamish watching a bris take place. And I’ve seen my fair share. However, I have been getting squeamish lately over the many news items concerning the legality and morality of ritual circumcision, a required Jewish life-cycle event for thousands of years.

When discussing brit milah (Jewish ritual circumcision), I believe it is important to be open and honest. I firmly believe that this mitzvah (commandment) is of paramount importance to the Jewish people and that we must ensure that it is done safely throughout the world to ensure that it continues for generations to come.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published a report revealing that a total of 11 newborn males were infected by the herpes simplex virus in New York City between November 2000 and December 2011. Of these 11 cases, the parents of 6 of the newborns acknowledged that the mohel (ritual circumcisor) had performed metzitza b’peh during the bris.  Metzitza b’peh is when the mohel places his mouth directly on the newly circumcised penis and sucks blood away from the wound. The vast majority of physicians have ruled that this aspect of the brit milah ritual must be forbidden for the obvious health risks involved.

Many people presume that only the most ultra-Orthodox communities still include metzitza b’peh in the bris ceremony. However, this month I heard of a bris that took place at Keter Torah Synagogue, a local Sephardic congregation in West Bloomfield, Michigan in which the mohel in fact performed metzitza b’peh. It is imperative that Jewish physicians and other Jewish professionals in the health care industry as well as rabbis insist that metzitza b’peh is no longer practiced. The health risks are evident and with Jewish ritual circumcision under attack, it is unwise to allow an unhealthy and dangerous aspect of the ritual to persist.

Just one year ago, there was a ballot measure to ban circumcision in San Francisco. That measure would have outlawed circumcision on males younger than 18, except in cases of medical necessity. No religious exemptions would be permitted according to this measure. While that measure was shot down, a German court this week banned the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons. This ban on ritual circumcision applies to the Cologne region of Germany. According to MSNBC:

The court in the western city of Cologne handed down the decision on Tuesday in the case of a doctor who was prosecuted for circumcising a four-year-old Muslim boy. The doctor circumcised the boy in November 2010 and gave him four stitches, the Guardian reported. When the boy started bleeding two days later, his parents took him to Cologne’s University hospital, where officials called police. The doctor was ultimately acquitted on the grounds that he had not broken a law. The court ruled that involuntary religious circumcision should be made illegal because it could inflict serious bodily harm on people who had not consented to it. The ruling said boys who consciously decided to be circumcised could have the operation. No age restriction was given, or any more specific details.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany called the ruling an “unprecedented and dramatic intrusion” of the right to religious freedom and an “outrageous and insensitive” act.

Several Conservative Jewish groups including Masorti Olami, Masorti Europe and the Rabbinical Assembly of Europe have joined with the Central Council of Jews in Germany in condemning the decision of the district Court in Cologne. In a joint statement, they explained:

The circumcision of 8 day old male babies remains an important and meaningful rite in the lives of Jews all over the world. No other country has outlawed circumcision and this new legal decision impinges upon the religious freedom of Germany’s citizens be they Jewish or Muslim and the rights of other parents who wish to circumcise their sons.

A brit milah, as the circumcision ceremony is called in Hebrew, is one of the first mitzvot (or commandments) that God asks of Abraham. Just as Abraham observed the commandment, so too have his Jewish descendants over 1000s of years. While the Masorti movement consistently balances the needs of modernity against the needs of halacha or Jewish Law, there is no overwhelming proof that the circumcision of newborn boys causes any “irreversible damage against the body” as stated in the German court’s decision. On the contrary, medical research has shown that circumcision can reduce the risk of HIV infection, penile cancer and other urinary tract diseases.

The over 1.7 Million people in the 900 congregations and organizations in 45 countries represented by the Masorti (Conservative) Worldwide Movement call upon the Government of Germany to quickly work to reverse this grievous course of curtailing religious freedoms and dictating fundamental actions of faith communities.

Source: etsy.com

It is my belief that a war is being waged on ritual circumcision. In order for it to be preserved for future generations there must be compromise. We must be honest that it is an odd religious ritual in the 21st century, but it is a core part of both the Jewish and Muslim religions. In order to try to curtail some of the controversy surrounding brit milah, I propose the following:

1) Any individual who will perform a brit milah must have a signed certificate that they went through a course of training in which health and safety guidelines were learned.

2) Any individual who will perform a brit milah must sign an agreement that metzitza b’peh will not be performed under any circumstances as it endangers the livelihood of the infant boy.

It must also be acknowledged that ritual circumcision is a medical procedure and it is unique in that it is most often performed in a living room or synagogue. I would love it if there were some certification program in which mohalim had to be re-certified every ten years to ensure compliance. Brit milah is often learned through an apprenticeship and there’s nothing to ensure that an elderly mohel is still physically able to perform the ritual adequately.

Finally, we must acknowledge that the idea of friends and family gathered in a living room watching a newborn baby undergo a medical procedure is not for everyone. Conceding that brit milah should be performed in a hospital would only encourage parents to have the circumcision performed before the required eighth day and that is not advisable. Rather, mohalim should give the option of performing the brit milah in a more private setting and then the religious ceremony can take place for the larger assembly. While this would alter the traditional nature of the brit milah ceremony, it would also guarantee that there’s an understanding that the ritual is also a medical procedure that deserves both privacy and a safe and sanitary environment.

By continuing to pretend that there’s nothing odd about a newborn baby boy having a surgical procedure in a living room in front of dozens who eagerly wait for the bagel and lox spread to open is a mistake. We must acknowledge that this is a unique religious ritual in the 21st century. We must admit that there is some pain for the infant, but that it is not long lasting (an anesthetic should be encouraged but not required). We must ensure that there is some uniform compliance on the part of the practitioner (mohel) for the sake of the health and safety of the baby. And we must insist on a complete ban on metzitza b’peh with no exceptions.

With these guidelines in place, we will be better positioned to counter any legislation — whether in San Francisco or in Germany — that could put Jewish ritual circumcision in jeopardy.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Apple Removes Jewish App in France

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The NY Jewish Week

It’s the age old question: Is so-and-so Jewish or not? I’m not talking about the controversial “Who is a Jew” question that gets into matters of lineage. Rather, the dinner party question of whether a celebrity is Jewish or not.

Occasionally I blog about Jewish celebrities here and I peek at the analytics that show what search strings people used to land on my blog. There is an overwhelmingly high number of referrals to my blog from searches from all over the world like these: “Is Justin Bieber Jewish?” “Is Madonna Jewish?” “Is Bruce Springsteen Jewish?” “Is Lenny Kravitz Jewish” “Is Benjamin Millepied Jewish” and so on. What does that mean? It means that people from all over the globe are curious about which celebrities are Jewish.

Well, if people are curious about which celebrities are Jewish and which aren’t… There’s an app for that. But not in France anymore.

The French version of the “Jew or Not Jew” app, called “Juif ou pas Juif?” in French, was selling for 0.79 euro cents ($1.08) in France when Apple decided to kill it. An organization in France called SOS Racisme argued that the app, which was designed by a Jewish man, violated French laws banning the compiling of people’s personal details without their consent. Apple agreed. The app still sells outside France, including in Apple’s U.S. App Store where its price is $1.99.

SOS Racisme released a statement explaining that it called on Apple to remove the app from its online store and to be more vigilant about the applications it sells. In an interview, published Wednesday in Le Parisien newspaper, the “Jew or Not Jew?” app developer Johann Levy said he developed the app to be “recreational.”

“I’m not a spokesman for all Jews, but as a Jew myself I know that in our community we often ask whether a such-and-such celebrity is Jewish or not,” Levy, a 35-year-old Franco-British engineer of Jewish origin said. “For me, there’s nothing pejorative about saying that someone is Jewish or not. On the contrary, it’s about being proud.” Levy said he compiled information about famous people around the world from various online sources.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller