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A Cynical Giveaway

They’re cheering in Kiryas Joel and other ultra-Orthodox enclaves in New York over a new provision in the state’s otherwise austere and demanding budget for 2011-2012. But the governor, the legislature and the Jewish leaders who pushed for this special-interest giveaway ought to be ashamed of themselves.

At the same time that public colleges and universities were handed a 10% cut in state aid, the legislature managed to find $18 million a year for tuition for needy students who attend private religious schools. But not just any student. And not just any school.

Even though the state’s Tuition Assistance Program is supposed to aid students in accredited schools of higher education with a grant of up to $5,000 a year, the new budget plan contains a provision allowing TAP funds to flow to seminary students in undergraduate programs, even those not chartered by the state’s Board of Regents. But most seminaries, Jewish and non-Jewish, only accept students who have completed college. So who might apply for this new money?

“The way the rules were written, they were pretty much designed” for the undergraduate yeshivas, an aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo told The New York Times.

Think there are many Reform Jews in those undergraduate yeshivas? Many women?

The lawmakers, rabbis and lobbyists who have been pushing for this change for a decade argue that it’s legal, and that’s probably true, since they took great pains to write a law that funnels the money to the student, not the school, and therefore likely passes constitutional muster in its narrowest interpretation.

They also argue that it’s a matter of fairness, addressing an injustice that penalized students just because they attend yeshivas. But the laws of our government are supposed to have a secular purpose, and taxpayer money is not supposed to directly promote religious education — especially when it has a built-in gender bias. If a particular Jewish community, or an individual, believed in the necessity of ensuring that needy yeshiva students receive enough financial aid to study, well then donate the money privately.

When now-Governor Cuomo campaigned in Kiryas Joel last fall, he was videotaped sitting at a table with the community’s spiritual leader, Rebbe Aaron Teitelbaum, surrounded by an arc of bearded men who cheered and nodded in approval when he spoke of his support for this TAP expansion. After the rebbe is shown waving his hands expansively, his translator bent toward Cuomo and said: “The rebbe says it’s not only for Kiryas Joel. The rebbe’s not prejudiced. He wants it for everybody.”

Everybody? Really?

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