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

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

JTS Posts Warning in Beit Shemesh

Beit Shemesh, an Israeli neighborhood about 20 miles outside of Jerusalem, has been in the news quite a bit over the past year.

After the opening of the Orot Banot national-religious girls’ school in Beit Shemesh in September 2011, groups of radical Haredim gathered in front of the school, calling the girls names and spitting at them when they headed to and from school in clothing the extremists considered to be immodest by their strict standards. Some Haredi men were arrested on the suspicion of throwing eggs and tomatoes at students.

There was an international outcry at the end of 2011 after Haredim spat on an 8-year-old daughter of American immigrants and called her “a prostitute” for attending the school. After these and other harassment incidents in Beit Shemesh made international headlines, the US State Department updated its Jerusalem travel advisory in January 2012, advising visitors to “dress appropriately” when visiting ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, or to avoid them entirely.

Throughout ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods like Beit Shemesh there are pashkvils (advisory posters) admonishing about immodest dress for women and warning women to walk on the opposite side of the sidewalk from men. I never would have expected to see a pashkvil from my own rabbinic institution, but I learned today from the FailedMessiah blog that indeed the Jewish Theological Seminary is posting pashkvils in Beit Shemesh.

JTS Poster in Beit Shemesh
Source: Michael Rose, Judaica Book Centre via Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

According to my colleague Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky,the JTS pashkvil calls upon people not to use the Morasha le-Hanḥil edition of the Shulḥan Arukh as it violates the copyright of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The pashkvil is produced on official JTS letterhead and signed by the Seminary’s Librarian Dr. David Kraemer.

Dr. David Kraemer, Librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary
Dr. David Kraemer, Librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary



The pashkvil refers to the Seminary’s licensed edition of the publication as stolen property because of the copyright violation. As Rabbi Pitkowsky explains on his blog, “apparently, JTS gave permission to Mechon Rosh Pina to publish a manuscript from their collection, Rabbi Shemaryah Brandris’s commentary on the Shulḥan Arukh, Rosh Pina. Morasha le-Hanḥil has apparently published in their edition of the Shulḥan Arukh Brandris’s commentary without JTS’s permission.”

I would like to see posters displayed throughout Beit Shemesh from JTS, or other Conservative or Reform institutions, admonishing the Haredim for their lack of modesty and their bad behavior when they harass young women. However, I must admit that it’s funny to see a JTS pashkvil on the streets of Beit Shemesh. While I have my doubts, I certainly hope the Seminary is able to protect its copyrights in their book publishing endeavors. And I hope these posters remain on display long enough for the citizens of Beit Shemesh to actually read them.

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

Ultra-Orthodox Correct About Internet Dangers

When I first heard that a rally was planned for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews to protest the Internet, I didn’t think it would attract much attention. After all, the Internet has long been under attack in Haredi communities and their rabbinic leaders have forbidden it in the past.

The event on May 20 at Citi Field in New York (home of the Mets) drew a massive audience of more than 40,000 men, with an overflow crowd tuning in to a live video feed at the neighboring Arthur Ashe tennis stadium. Women were not allowed entry to the event, but many viewed it, ironically enough, on the Internet through a live stream broadcast.

The speeches, mostly made in Yiddish with English subtitles on the stadium’s large video screen, condemned the Internet and warned that its impure content poses a serious threat to the Haredi lifestyle and the modesty that the Torah demands.

The day after the rally I was contacted by Ben Sales, a reporter for JTA. He wanted my opinion of the event and a quote about how I understand the role of the Internet in Jewish life. My sense is that he presumed I would criticize the rally’s organizing group for not realizing the gift of the Internet or how it has improved our lives.

Rather than disapproving of the rally or criticizing the speakers for a shortsighted understanding of technology, I explained that these Haredi leaders are correct. And they are. The Internet most certainly jeopardizes their way of life. The Internet will cause Haredi Jews to sin and will tear away at the fabric of their modest lives.

The way the Haredi communities have maintained such strict adherence to their understanding of religious life is by erecting borders to protect themselves from outside influences. Within a controlled, ghettoized environment self-control is not required as much as it is in a free and open society. The Internet virtually removes the ghetto walls and nullifies the borders of the Haredi neighborhoods void. Thus, the perils of the Internet are real to this community.

Many assume that when Haredi leaders speak of the threat of the Internet to their adherents they are referring to pornographic content. I don’t believe this is the case. The Haredi community is well versed on the availability of content filters that will sift out such immodest material. In fact, most of the speakers at the rally forbid their followers from browsing the Web without a filter for inappropriate sites.

Filters take care of removing indecent photos of a sexual nature and images of immodestly dressed women. What an Internet filter will not remove for the Haredi Web surfers however is other material their leaders consider to be explicit. Content that challenges their core beliefs and structured way of life are of most concern to the rally’s organizers. If Haredi Jews cannot exert the self-control needed to avoid content of an immodest nature, they can rely on the filters. However, they will still be subjected to “intellectual porn” – the thoughts and opinions of Jewish scholars that will challenge their thinking.

Scantily clad women can be seen by Haredi Jewish men on their way to Queens when they look at billboards on the side of the highway or magazine covers on sidewalk newsstands. However, Torah commentary written by modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis is only accessible to them through an unfiltered and unmonitored Internet. Blog posts, op-eds and doctoral theses are the pernicious enemies that scare Haredi leaders most about the Internet. Viewing pornographic imagery may lead Haredi disciples to sin, but unfiltered use of the Internet leads them to virtually leave their isolated community and could cause them to go off the path, venturing outside of their real life community as well.

Most of the Haredi critics of the Internet recognize that the Internet is necessary in today’s world and cannot be banned entirely. The speakers at the Citi Field rally readily admitted that both men and women in their communities rely on the Internet and other forms of modern technology for business as well as for personal use (banking, shopping and as a medical resource).

The real threat of the Internet to the insular Haredi communities is that the Internet quashes the walls to the outside world that they have so steadfastly erected over the generations. The free flow of information that could undermine the Haredi way of life is the real concern. In that sense, the Internet certainly poses an ever present danger. It will be interesting to see the effects of the Internet on this community in the coming years.

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