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The Best of Times, the Worst of Times  

Why the Times' attack on Yeshiva University should scare all believing Jews 



ack when politicians were occasionally the source of enduring wisdom, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan admonished, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” That memorable phrase was an elegant way of saying one should not make stuff up to advance an argument.

These wise words came to mind recently when three legislators in New York released a letter critical of Yeshiva University. The letter accused YU of obtaining a significant amount of “state funds” under false pretenses, claiming that YU mischaracterized its religious status to obtain public funds it wasn’t entitled to.

Just as the letter was released on social media, the New York Times posted an article headlined “Was Yeshiva University Entitled to $230 Million in Public Funds?” complete with a quote from one of the letter’s signatories suggesting that fraud was committed and calling for a criminal inquiry. The Times even sent an alert to subscribers promoting the article.

In reality, neither the Times article nor the letter it reported on had any basis in fact.

YU didn’t receive public funds. It issued bonds through a New York state entity called the Dormitory Authority, which serves as a conduit for colleges and universities that are looking to borrow to pay for construction and other projects. The school pays the Dormitory Authority a fee for its role in connection with the bonds and must repay them — as YU has already done.

In plain English, YU borrowed money from private lenders in the form of bonds issued by a state authority, and repaid them. There were no public or taxpayer funds involved.

The claim that YU obtained this financing under false pretenses is also nonsense, because the Dormitory Authority allows religious institutions to float bonds. A quick review of the Dormitory Authority’s website reveals that bonds have been issued for many religious institutions.

The letter’s claims are so off-base that it raises the question: What is really going on here?

The answer is that the legislators’ ire was motivated not by any facts relating to Dormitory Authority bonds but by their opinion of YU’s opposition to a student club that its roshei yeshivah determined was contrary to halachah. The status of that student club is the subject of ongoing litigation between former students and YU.

In defense of that lawsuit, YU has pointed to its pervasive halachic practices in explaining why it could not accommodate the student club and should be exempt from doing so. This does not mean that it is too religious to qualify for bond financing.

Government may try to cabin things into either-or boxes, but reality is often more complicated. Can’t an institution be “educational” and also “religious”?

Senator Moynihan cleverly illustrated the folly of government trying to create neat constitutional categories by noting that federal law at that time permitted states to provide books to parochial schools but prohibited the provision of maps. He rose to the Senate floor and asked what the law should be for an atlas, which is a book of maps.

IN SOME CORNERS of the yeshivah world, there may be disinterest in YU’s problems — if not Schadenfreude. After all, in 1970, Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l spoke out publicly against the very change in YU’s charter that has triggered their current problems. In 1995, Rav Chaim Dov Keller ztz”l took to the pages of the Jewish Observer to publicly caution YU’s leadership about the very problem they are now confronting.

YU was warned, one might think; so why should we worry now that the chickens may have come home to roost?

This would be a mistake. There are two reasons why the extraordinary attack on YU should concern the entire frum community, one spiritual and the other practical.

The maggid Rav Yaakov Galinsky ztz”l reconciled two seemingly conflicting gemaras. One, in Bava Basra (99a), explains that when Klal Yisrael fulfilled the will of Hashem, the Keruvim in the Kodesh Hakodoshim miraculously faced each other, but when Klal Yisrael was not fulfilling Hashem’s will, the Keruvim faced apart. Yet Yoma 54b relates that when the Romans breached the Kodesh Hakodoshim, they found the Keruvim facing each other. How could that be? Klal Yisrael certainly was not fulfilling the will of Hashem during the time of the Churban.

Rav Galinsky offers a beautiful explanation. He clarifies that the position of the Keruvim was meant to signal whether the Jewish People were acting in accordance with Hashem’s desire. But that is only as a message from HaKadosh Baruch Hu to Klal Yisrael.

When outsiders are involved — as when the Romans entered the Kodesh Hakodoshim — the message sent via the positioning of the Keruvim to those outsiders is that Klal Yisrael is still favored in the eyes of Hashem. To the world, we are always the children of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, receiving the love a parent exhibits for a child.

The lesson taught by Rav Galinsky is clear. Those seeking to undermine Torah must be sent a message that we are all one Am Yisrael, proceeding with achdus and in unity.

More temporally, the entire Orthodox community is now under attack, and so the entire community needs to band together to fight back.

For months, the New York Times and others have been attacking yeshivos and yeshivah education. They attempt to cloak their efforts as motivated by a desire to increase secular studies offered in yeshivos.

The nasty attacks on YU, however, make it clear that what bothers yeshivah critics is not a lack of secularity — that is not a charge that can be leveled at YU — but the presence of G-d. They simply can’t countenance our stubborn insistence on living lives in accordance with our faith. Our way of life is under attack.

TO BE SURE, other major newspapers don’t harbor the Times’ animus toward our community, and legislative leaders in Albany have never exhibited anything but respect toward the Orthodox. But their caucuses are not trending friendlier, and legislation today is less likely to show a deference to religious practice than that seen previously. That reflects the broader shift in societal attitudes toward religion.

There is a certain cognitive dissonance in society’s approach to religion. On the one hand, it is the best of times. It has never been easier for frum professionals to gain acceptance to the leading firms in their fields. Major corporations across industries and throughout the United States do business with companies owned and run by frum people. Religious individuals are doing well.

It is also the worst of times. Our mosdos find themselves under a microscope, as outside forces exploit the tensions between societal and halachic values to delegitimize them. Religious institutions are worse off today than in earlier eras.

New York is currently home to the largest concentration of Orthodox Jews outside of Eretz Yisrael. It is host to nearly five hundred frum schools and a greater number of shuls. Some 165,000 students study in its yeshivos, and thousands more post-high-school. The major organizations that serve Jews around the world are headquartered here.

The coordinated attack by powerful legislators and the most powerful newspaper in the world should serve as a reminder — or wake-up call — that there is a fragility to our communal existence. And not just because of the offensive launched against YU — the flagship Modern Orthodox institution — without any concern for the facts, or fear of any pushback or backlash.

Younger elected officials and younger New Yorkers generally harbor less positive attitudes about religion and the Orthodox community than their predecessors. The constant drumbeat of negativity exacts a terrible reputational toll. Even as we are grateful for our career and business successes, we cannot let those successes obscure the threats to the core freedoms that are the foundation of our religious lives.

To return to Senator Moynihan, whose foresight and insight has stood the test of time: He observed that “the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

At this point, neither the culture nor the politics of New York is likely to save us. We need to get better at defending ourselves before it is too late.


Avi Schick is a partner at the Troutman Pepper law firm and the President of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 946)  

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