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Charges of waste and fraud have long followed E-Rate, which was the subject of a congressional investigation in 2005. Recent investigations published in the Forward and The Jewish Week of New York have drawn attention to Orthodox Jewish communities’ exploitation of the program. The Forward reported in February that ultra-Orthodox institutions in Brooklyn that don’t qualify as libraries have received $1.4 million in E-Rate library subsidies. Later in February, The Jewish Week of New York reported that Orthodox schools in upstate New York and in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Boro Park and Crown Heights had received millions in E-Rate subsidies despite not providing students with Internet access. The Jewish Week stories also raised questions about possible fraud involving E-Rate service providers to these schools.
The Forward’s latest findings, the result of an analysis of publicly available data, show an apparent imbalance in the distribution of E-Rate funding in New Jersey that overwhelmingly favors Lakewood’s ultra-Orthodox community. The Forward attempted to interview officials both at both private schools and at public schools in Lakewood for this story. None would agree to comment.
The new questions raised about the large amounts of E-Rate funds benefiting the Orthodox Jewish community come as the program struggles to meet its funding requests nationwide, which far outstrip available dollars. The program now rejects requests for expensive services like wiring and network hardware from all but the most impoverished schools, and experts say it could further limit subsidies in the coming years.
Two decades ago, Lakewood was a small New Jersey town with large African-American and Hispanic populations. It was also home to Beth Medrash Govoha, a non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox yeshiva. Founded in the 1940s, the yeshiva serves as an amalgam of college and graduate school for ultra-Orthodox young men, teaching high-level courses in Talmudic law. The institution is the leading one of its kind in the United States, and enrollment there has ballooned to nearly 5,000 men in recent years.
The growth of the yeshiva spurred a parallel growth in the Orthodox population of Lakewood, and in the size of the town overall. The town’s population grew by 53% between 2000 and 2010, according to U.S. Census data, making it one of the largest municipalities in the state.
Enrollment in Lakewood’s public school system, meanwhile, has remained relatively flat. Yet the growth of the Orthodox community in Lakewood has brought a profusion of private Orthodox elementary and high schools to serve the mushrooming religious population. Those schools began to receive significant amounts of E-Rate subsidies in 2008.
Since 2010, schools and libraries located in Lakewood have received a total of $15 million in E-Rate commitments, more than schools in any other part of New Jersey. Schools and libraries in Newark, the next-biggest E-Rate recipient in New Jersey and a much larger city than Lakewood, have received $14 million over the same period.
In one sense, it’s possible that Lakewood’s E-Rate commitments are catching up to the town’s rapid growth. Lakewood’s schools and libraries still lag behind a handful of large cities in cumulative E-Rate commitments over the 15-year lifetime of the program.