Orthodox Jewish Groups Exploit E-Rate Library Subsidy Program

Internet Cafes Get Cash. But What Makes Them Libraries?

Ariel Jankelowitz

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published February 05, 2013, issue of February 08, 2013.
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Down a gritty dead-end alley in ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn, past a loading dock and a couple of dumpsters, a set of stairs leads up to a small room with bare walls and a dozen computers.

The plaque on the door at Kollel L’Horauh calls the room a library. As a library, it has received $135,000 in congressionally mandated library subsidies. But there’s no librarian, and the room’s “collection” consists of a subscription to a single digital database of Jewish books that is not even available on all the computers. In Brooklyn, not being a library is no barrier to receiving library subsidies. A Forward investigation has found that E-Rate, the federally backed library subsidy program, has committed $1.4 million to ultra-Orthodox religious institutions in Brooklyn that don’t actually qualify as libraries.

Nine such groups have received an average of $161,000 in commitments from E-Rate since 2010 — more than twice the average amount committed to libraries in New York State during the same period.

The library association legally tasked with serving as a gatekeeper for E-Rate eligibility in New York City chose not to exclude these ultra-Orthodox groups, which in some cases didn’t have librarians or card catalogs.

Ariel Jankelowitz

That wasn’t their only option. Elsewhere in New York, another gatekeeper agency has taken a stand to block questionable libraries from E-Rate. In 2010, around the same time that the Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox groups were seeking to become E-Rate eligible, a “flurry” of ultra-Orthodox congregations from Rockland County, N.Y., applied to join an upstate library association and become E-Rate eligible, too, according to John Shaloiko, executive director of the Southeastern New York Library Resources Council.

“We didn’t want to take just any organization in when it believes it should get E-Rate when it’s not really a library,” said Shaloiko, whose group serves as the E-Rate gatekeeper for a handful of counties to the north of New York City.

Prompted in part by concerns over the legitimacy of the ultra-Orthodox applicants, Shaloiko’s group drew up new library membership guidelines, requiring that area libraries have online card catalogs and librarians with master’s degrees, among other criteria, to join their association and become eligible for E-Rate.

The handful of ultra-Orthodox Jewish congregations that have applied to join the group since the adoption of the new guidelines have all dropped their requests after learning of the organization’s membership requirements, Shaloiko said.


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