WASHINGTON (Oct. 28)
About two dozen Jewish schools in the New York area came under fire on Capitol Hill this week, as a congressional subcommittee investigated allegations that the schools abused a federal educational grant program.
The colleges and yeshivot, many of them Chasidic, stand accused of abuses including listing people not enrolled in the schools as applicants for federal Pell grants.
In addition to the subcommittee investigation, the Education Department notified some of the same schools last week that their ongoing participation in the Pell grant program was in question because of eligibility requirements.
Earlier, the department levied fines on some of the schools, which include yeshivot and colleges with Judaic studies programs.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Governmental Affairs subcommittee on investigations, convened hearings Wednesday and Thursday to look into the allegations.
The hearings were to be the first in a series dealing with allegations of fraud and abuse in the Pell grant program. They were also called to look into how carefully the Education Department oversees the program.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Nunn announced that a subcommittee investigation had made a number of “disturbing” findings among the yeshivot in question.
The investigation found that many yeshivot listed their tuition costs at artificially high levels so that students could qualify for more aid, paid students a stipend simply to attend classes, and disbursed Pell grants to unenrolled students.
Yeshivot were also found to have paid “brokers” who provided the schools with students eligible for aid, and falsified and forged documents to receive federal funding.
SHOULD FEDERAL AID BE USED?
Nunn also questioned whether the federal aid program, which is supposed to help students obtain a bachelor’s degree or specific vocational training, should apply to yeshivot, which admit that they are non-vocational and focus instead on religious studies.
“While the study of one’s religion is certainly a laudable pursuit, one must question whether federal student aid programs should be used to fund such schools,” Nunn said.
The Jewish community was shaken over the investigation’s focus on Jewish schools, a concern the senators addressed at Wednesday’s hearing.
There was “no singling out” of any religious group for this investigation, said Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine), a member of the subcommittee.
“I don’t care what the affiliation of the institution is receiving federal money it should be investigated.
But officials at Jewish religious-school organizations expressed concern this week that Jewish schools were being targeted.
Bernard Fryshman, the executive vice president of the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools, said in an interview Wednesday that his schools have “not had any problems at all.”
But the allegations against the approximately two dozen yeshivot have “inevitably” had a spillover effect onto other Jewish schools, he said, noting that the issue was “very serious for us. It hurts innocent people.”
“The good reputation of yeshivas is being besmirched by the alleged irresponsible actions of a few individuals and organizations who are not part of the mainstream yeshiva/seminary movement,” Moshe Zev Weisberg, the president of the Yeshiva Administrators of Financial Aid organization, said in a statement.
‘WITCH-HUNTING’ AGAINST JEWISH SCHOOLS
The statement by Weisberg’s group, which represents traditional seminaries, noted that none of its 65 member schools was under investigation.
“This ‘witch-hunting’ against Jewish schools must simply stop,” Weisberg’s statement said.
According to Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), the grant program that bears his name has awarded almost $64 billion in grants since it began more than 20 years ago.
Rabbis from two of the yeshivot under investigation were scheduled to testify before the subcommittee Thursday, but they did not appear.
The rabbis are Simche Waldman, the administrator of Bais Fruma in Brooklyn, and Michoel Meisels, dean of Sara Schenirer Teachers Seminary in Brooklyn.
In a statement read by Nunn, the rabbis asserted their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Nunn, while acknowledging the rabbis’ right not to testify, voiced agitation at their absence.
“We have not heard the whole story” if the rabbis refuse to testify, Nunn said.
He added that the subcommittee could choose to compel the rabbis to testify if it also gave them immunity from prosecution.
Cohen called their actions “disconcerting.”
“We should look into whether an institution under investigation can continue to receive federal funding when it does not cooperate” with the investigation, Cohen said.
The subcommittee did hear from representatives of Molloy College, an institution under investigation. A majority of the students attending off-site programs of Molloy, a Dominican school, are Russian Jewish immigrants.