Sunday, January 31, 1999

Joseph Kaminetzky

(Written in December 1995)

The publication of Joseph Kaminetsky’s memoirs provides an opportunity to reflect on the life of an outstanding Jewish public servant, as well as on the present state of the day school movement.

I must confess at the outset a strong aversion to publications about personalities which present a steady stream of no more than half-credible stories describing their wondrous qualities and extraordinary accomplishments. This hagiography, which already constitutes too great a proportion of the reading material of the Orthodox Jewish public, distorts history and is a danger to the intellectual health of our community.

Happily, Dr. Kaminetsky’s book is not of this genre. Although it is informed by a certain sweetness, as is the author, it treats the telling of history as an enterprise which demands the truth. This is evident as Dr. Joe - as he is fondly called by many - tells of the struggle to build the day school movement, a struggle which inevitably entailed compromises, conflict and disappointment. On occasion, the reader may want to know more about certain episodes, especially since it is obvious that
Dr. Kaminetsky knows more than he is willing to put in the book. But he does not regard his memoirs as an invitation to settle scores or to put anyone in a bad light. His vignettes are brief history lessons which will be useful when the history of religious Jewish education in the United States is written.

Joe Kaminetsky’s early years were spent in East New York and Brownsville. He attended Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin for elementary school and, for high school, Talmudical Academy, then located on the Lower East Side. Upon graduation he entered the newly-established Yeshiva College as a member of its first class.

Despite family hardship, he was a first-rate student, ultimately earning both smicha (ordination) and a doctorate from Teachers College at Columbia University. He was active in Hapoel Hamizrachi and Yeshiva College, commitments which were maintained in one fashion or another throughout his professional career in Jewish education, at first at the Talmud Torah established by Rabbi Leo Jung at the Jewish Center in Manhattan where he served as principal, and also Manhattan Day School.

Dr. Kaminetsky’s life was permanently changed when he was asked by Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz to join the staff of Torah Umesorah (the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools) which he had established not long before. Day school education was not a new idea by the mid-1940’s. Rabbi Mendlowitz’s great contribution was in teaching that meaningful Torah education could be provided in all communities and instilling in talented young men a lifelong commitment to chinuch. His sense of mission was awesome and while he passed away four years after the organization was founded, he continues to be alive in the people and communities inspired by his message.
Dr. Joe eventually became Torah Umosorah’s National Director, as the day school movement grew rapidly, perhaps beyond the most optimistic hopes of its early leaders. When he retired in the early 1980’s, there was in fact a day school or elementary school yeshiva in just about every North American locality with more than a modest Jewish population.

What happened wasn’t fore-ordained. Yeshivas and day schools in New York and places of significant Jewish settlement were inevitable. What occurred in dozens of smaller communities resulted from the actions and dedication of people of vision, many of whom receive recognition in the book. I was particularly moved by “the wife of a Conservative Rabbi in Massachusetts who baked challah every week and sold it to her friends so that she could buy furniture for the day school.”

In many communities, Dr. Kaminetsky and his colleagues were the catalysts needed to get a day school launched, providing professional guidance and spiritual inspiration. They criss-crossed the country, traveling under arduous conditions, always bringing with them the message that a day school education is an imperative that is within the reach of every community. They encountered opposition and experienced failure, at times when plans for a new school were stillborn and, more painfully, when a school closed, usually because of a lack of funds. Still, the landscape of American Jewish life was altered.

This is the outline of a noble career, a noble life.

The special chemistry of Torah Umesorah needs to be understood, for the world described by Dr. Kaminetsky has changed and some of the elements that were vital to the day school movement can scarcely be recognized.

In its extended productive period, Torah Umesorah represented a coming together in common cause of a remarkable group of Roshei Yeshiva, lay leaders and staff. The Roshei Yeshiva set the over-all policy and decided difficult questions. Led by Rav Aharon Kotler, the transcendent Torah leader of American Orthodoxy in the post-Holocaust years, their involvement in day schools was remarkable in view of their personal histories and the character of the institutions which they headed. Their Torah Umesorah activities entailed, in a certain way, a measure of compromise, for they were sanctioning schools whose standards were at times more than a notch below what they ordinarily would be willing to accept. Yet they all knew that the building of Torah in America required nurturing.

The Roshei Yeshiva were all clearly in the Agudah camp, at least by the 1950’s, while the lay leaders clearly were not. They were, in the main, Modern Orthodox, people with little Torah education who saw that Jewish continuity required more than the diluted Talmud Torah experience. Emphatically, the union between the Yeshiva deans and laymen was not an arrangement dictated by convenience or necessity. It arose from deep reservoirs of respect, at times affection.

The staff was a varied lot. It should be noted that Dr. Kaminetsky never sought to shine at the expense of colleagues. He was generous to his staff, according them respect and responsibility.

There were strains, some serious, in the tripartite arrangement. Dr. Joe served as “the mediator between the yeshivish world of Torah Umesorah leadership and the Modern Orthodox community.” In several key passages, he describes his own vulnerability:
“Although I felt sympathetic to the ideals of both the pure yeshivish and Modern Orthodox worlds, I was typed as a ‘modern’ by some of the Torah Umesorah kehillah.”

“In truth, in those early years, I did indeed find myself living ideologically in two worlds: the Modern Orthodox milieu of Yeshiva University and the more traditional yeshiva world of my early Brownsville days and of Torah Umesorah.... I was criticized now and then by the ‘kanaim’ - religiously conservative people who objected to any hint of ideological flexibility on the day-school initiative - while at the same time, many of my former friends at Yeshiva called me a ‘black-hatter.’ Yet the L-rd was good to me and enabled me to maintain a careful equilibrium between the two worlds and to work with both for the sake of Torah.”
Joe Kaminetsky weathered the storm and the tripartite arrangement endured, as its leaders were encouraged by the statistics of success. Each year, there were more schools, more students.

Even as the organization was celebrating the flow of good news, it was adversely affected by a confluence of forces - paradoxically including its own achievements - which left it in a weakened state. Although Dr. Kaminetsky provides only traces of this story, over an extended period Torah Umesorah was limited in the activities it could undertake, at times by the decision of Roshei Yeshiva and at times by external developments. As one significant example, thirty years ago, when government aid to parochial schools was a major issue, Torah Umesorah was an active participant. Slowly, its governmental role was lost, so that Agudath Israel became the address to turn to. Separately, outside organizations were formed to accredit advanced yeshivas, train day school teachers and provide other functions which might well have been within Torah Umesorah's sphere of activities.

The organization was left, of course, with its core day school responsibilities, but even these were changing as the need - as well as the impulse - to establish new schools dwindled and the existing institutions required a different kind of attention. By the 1970's, at the latest, it had evolved primarily into a service organization, placing administrators and faculty, providing curriculum guidance and helping school officials with all sorts of problems. Service activities are vital to any educational enterprise, as this writer knows from his experience as president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, but they rarely generate enthusiasm. As important as Torah Umesorah continued to be to many schools and communities, interest in its work waned.

By the 1970's, as well, the yeshiva world had fully emerged with an ambiance and attitude that set it apart from day schools. The gap between the different sectors of Orthodoxy was now less ideological and decidedly more behavioral; to the detriment of the day school movement, behavioral differences have defined the character of particular schools. The distinction between yeshivas and day schools became more pronounced, bringing with it diminished interest in day schools on the part of many in the yeshiva world.

As in communal life everywhere, there has been a sharp drop in voluntary activity. This has been especially apparent within Orthodoxy, perhaps because several social realities have resulted in people being far busier and less able to commit themselves. Family size has grown significantly, as have the number of events, organizations and causes. The upshot is that our best people are now check-writers and dinner-attendees and no longer community activists.

Attitudinal forces have exacerbated a worsening situation. The prevailing view is that day school and yeshiva education is a product being sold to consumers who happen to be parents and they should shoulder the burden, not outsiders. There are exceptions, such as schools for Russians and the small number of avowedly kiruv institutions.

Perhaps the Roshei Yeshiva could have rallied the masses, encouraging those who are generous with their time and resources to enlist in Torah Umesorah's behalf. The passing of the outstanding group of yeshiva deans, nearly all of whom were greatly committed to the day school movement, has been an additional burden. The Torah leaders in the generation after the Holocaust were men of exceptional stature who shaped the evolving Torah community and who provided guidance and inspiration, including a strongly positive message about their commitment to Torah Umesorah. Their successors are good and talented men, but still of lessor stature and of diminished capacity to inspire others to act. They are also overburdened, even harassed, by communal obligations, and with few exceptions, their involvement in Torah Umesorah is not as persistent as their predecessors' was.

Toward the end of the book, Dr. Kaminetsky challenges the notion that the day school movement is no more. Torah Umesorah's publications, curriculum material and book fair, its annual convention, the help it provides to schools regarding staff recruitment, its creative role in helping to resolve intra-school and communal disputes are all testimony to its ongoing importance. But the movement isn't the force that it once was if only because it does not have the requisite resources.

The weakening of Torah Umesorah parallels in a way the tshuva phenomenon which, as Dr. Kaminetsky underscores, provides new challenges and opportunities. More generally, the organized American Jewish community is far more favorably inclined to day school education than it used to be. There is a window of opportunity which will not remain permanently open. American Jewry needs the vitality of Torah Umesorah, of the day school movement.

Many - and perhaps most - of the new day schools that have been established in the 1990s are under non-Orthodox auspices and in too many places the existing Torah Umesorah schools feel vulnerable, if not also abandoned.

Torah Umesorah is needed and it needs, in turn, the kind of commitment from within the Orthodox community - from yeshiva deans and lay people - which was so crucial to its glorious accomplishments. It also needs people like Dr. Kaminetsky, rightly described by Torah Umesorah's present Executive Vice President, Rabbi Joshua Fishman, as “a man who gave his heart for the education of Jewish children.”

Saturday, January 02, 1999

Israel’s Overactive High Court

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week on July 17, 1998)

In a March 9, 1937 speech, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sharply criticized the Supreme Court for “acting not as a judicial body but as a policymaking body” that “casts doubt on the ability of the elected Congress to protect us against catastrophe by meeting squarely our modern social and economic conditions.”

FDR spoke of the “arbitrary exercise of judicial power” and implored that “we cannot yield our constitutional destiny to the personal judgment of a few men who, being fearful of the future, would deny us the necessary means of dealing with the present.”

This was strong language, especially since at the time there was widespread labor violence and the Supreme Court was about to decide on the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act.

In the workings of our democracy, Roosevelt’s court-packing plan was defeated, although almost immediately there was the famous switch in time that saved nine, as the Supreme Court reversed itself and upheld New Deal legislation. Roosevelt lost the battle but won the war. Despite the severity of his language, the president’s right to speak out was not challenged. There were no calls for a special prosecutor or any action to punish him. Democracy, it was recognized in all quarters, encourages freedom of speech, even for presidents.

There was a different reaction in Israel last month when Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Yigal Bibi attacked his country’s Supreme Court in a Knesset speech, saying “We have reached a situation in the State of Israel where there is no law, no judgment, no justice.” The mildest critics called for his ouster; others asked for a criminal investigation.

There was nothing new in the remarkable unconcern for freedom of expression in the reaction to Bibi’s speech. On previous occasions, criticism of the Israeli Supreme Court had actually triggered police investigations, not to mention barrages of calumny directed against those who dared to exercise a right that is basic in any democratic society. That’s what happened, for example, in November 1996 when Dror Hoter-Yishai, chairman of the Israel Bar Association, said, among much else mildly critical of the Supreme Court, “I don’t know if you are aware of what is happening there today. Twenty-five appeals a day are heard. It’s a joke. Who can rule on 25 cases? Who can even read 25 cases? And we’re talking about life-and-death issues! This is simply scandalous.”

There is appropriateness to criticism of the Supreme Court serving as the linchpin for the restriction of free expression. In the name of democracy, the most fundamental democratic right is being denied to those who criticize an institution whose role can scarcely be squared with the idea of democracy.

The unique role of Israel’s Supreme Court is not a minor matter. As the High Court of Justice, it sits as a permanent board of review for nearly every issue that is called to its attention, thereby traducing every known juridical conception of what cases can be brought and by whom. Any complainant can go directly to the High Court of Justice with a bagatz petition, without much regard being paid to standing or any of the other considerations that limit the role of courts in all other democratic societies.

As one of many extraordinary examples of this hyperactive, superjudicial role, several years ago the court barred the granting of the Israel Prize to a prospective recipient whom it deemed unfit. Can any of us imagine the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the president cannot bestow the Freedom Medal — this country’s highest civilian award — on someone of his choice?

Justice Robert Jackson once wrote in a Supreme Court dissent that the majority ruling was more fit to be studied by students of social psychology than of law. For Israel, I would amend the subfield to abnormal psychology. It is irrational, wholly aside from its anti-democratic aspect, to make a nation’s highest court the nesting place for quacks and malcontents.

Of course, the most significant illustration of Supreme Court activism in Israel concerns religious matters, with the judges increasingly applying civil standards to what had been regarded as governed by religious law. The picture many of us have of the court acting in defense of basic liberties is a distortion of a complicated issue and it excludes the key question of the role of the judiciary.

The view accepted everywhere by courts and judges that they should interfere only sparingly in the outcomes of the political process arises not merely from the abstract, albeit correct, notion that they are neither democratically chosen nor restrained. There is the important collateral consideration that what often seems to be the messy or inequitable workings of democratic institutions is, in fact, a preferable way of governance.

Democracy is a system where the warts are readily on display. What we often do not like, such as the deals and compromises, are features which underpin Churchill’s famous aphorism that democracy is the worst system of government except for all of the others. Deals and compromises probably mean that few are entirely satisfied, yet they also mean that few feel that they are entirely excluded from the workings of the political system.

Courts rarely have the capacity to script compromises, to give a part of the pie to all sides. This may mean little when ordinary matters are at stake. When the issue being contested goes to the heart of belief, the spoils of judicial victory can beget strong dissatisfaction.

Israel’s judicial activism in religious affairs can at times be nothing more than meddlesome or foolish, as when the High Court overturned Jerusalem’s willingness to close off a street to traffic on the Sabbath. Increasingly, though, the stakes are higher, particularly because of an expanding tendency to rule that rabbinical court judges must apply secular law as they issue religious rulings. This is, I believe, unprecedented in all of the Jewish experience, including in lands that were inhospitable to Jews.

It is scary to think that the day may come when rabbinical judges are subject to criminal penalty because they refuse to abide by civil law as they do their religious duty.

It is also scary to think that if published in Israel, this article could trigger a police investigation.

Friday, January 01, 1999


(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week in late 1998)

According to those who measure the wealth of nations, on a per capita basis Israel is now one of the most affluent. The signs of this affluence are everywhere in the country, in the modern and ever-expanding highway system, in a building boom that has made the construction crane the national bird of Israel and, most tellingly, in the luxurious lifestyle of many Israelis.

Any lingering doubts about this lifestyle should have been dispelled by a remarkable set of statistics that appeared a few weeks ago in this newspaper. One out of four Israelis older than 18 and a total of between 600,000-700,000 were expected to travel abroad in August. According to Israel’s Tourism Ministry, favorite destinations include New York, London, Paris and Rome, places where the living – especially for tourists – isn’t cheap. Israeli newspapers carry ads for excursions to Alaska and other exotic locales at $5,000 a head.

There are tons of hard currency floating around the country, giving impetus to shopping sprees that none of us would permit ourselves or our children to indulge in. Much of the story is old, as for years Israelis have earned tremendous sums from tourism, personal transfers of funds and the philanthropic income of a great number of communal institutions and organizations. Of late, foreign investment in Israeli industry, primarily the technology sector, has added importantly to the flow.

While this is testimony to the creativity and hard work of Israelis, it remains that the country is flowing in money, if not also in milk and honey.

For all of the incontrovertible evidence of affluence, Israeli leaders continue to shnorrer, maybe because the role has become part of the job description. Prime Minister Netanyahu is promising change, although at a pace that ensures that it will be business as usual for a long time to come. At a celebration commemorating Israel’s half-century, he said that in another fifty years Israel would support overseas Jewish communities. That is, whatever remains of meaningful Jewish life in the Diaspora. When we consider what has been lost in the U.S. and elsewhere since 1948, it isn’t abstract speculation to wonder what might be left to be salvaged when the twenty-first century reaches its midpoint.

The appropriate issue is, in any case, Israel’s present economic condition, how it presents itself to world Jewry and how world Jewry responds. While there have been changes in Federation and other philanthropic funding formulas, these have been modest and they reflect, in the main, ideological preferences rather than a coming to grips with the fundamental question of whether Israel needs or deserves all of the philanthropic support that it is receiving. In my view, it does not. Our charity can be far better spent at home. A change in philanthropic priorities will not deprive Israel of other lucrative sources of income.

Admittedly, a substantial proportion of Israelis are economically deprived. Successive Israeli governments have lavished great sums on all sorts of construction projects, while expenditures on human needs, including such vital things as teachers’ salaries, have lagged far behind. Inequality in the distribution of wealth and inequities in public spending are common to all societies and they are scarcely susceptible to improvement via the philanthropic patterns that characterize Israel-Diaspora relations. In fact, the evidence shows that our charity has inordinately added to the wealth of the privileged, without having much of a salutary impact on the have-nots.

There are ways to directly assist needy Israelis and there is great merit to giving charity in this fashion. But it is a fantasy to think that our institutional philanthropy will improve the lives of the neediest Israelis.

Those who advocate the maintenance of the philanthropic status quo apparently believe in the “so what?” argument. So what, they reason, if the support given to Israel enriches a society that is already affluent. Israel is the Jewish State, our greatest treasure, and whatever we give advances its welfare. Furthermore, its people have sacrificed and struggled and they continue to pay a high emotional price because they live in a dangerous neighborhood surrounded by enemies. Israelis have earned the comforts that they now enjoy.

This argument has merit only if we black out certain realities. It’s not a mitzvah to abet and encourage spending sprees and hedonism. It’s not a mitzvah to support the construction of communal and public buildings in nearly every nook and cranny of the country and it is certainly not a mitzvah for American Jewish philanthropy to underwrite luxurious living while much of our own communal sector desperately needs assistance.

At the communal and institutional level – but not at the personal level – the contrast between Israeli and American Jewish life is startling. The U.S. is presumably awash in affluence and American Jews are near the top of the socio-economic ladder. Yet, a large majority of our schools are in shabby facilities and except for some community centers and synagogues, there is little to write home about. When our Federations get around to supporting continuity and education projects or other initiatives that aim to promote American Jewish survival, invariably the portions that are doled out are parsimonious. Grants usually are a few dollars north or south of the $10,000 mark. What is more, the recipient institutions are expected to report that they have achieved wondrous results.

When support is provided for Israeli projects, the level of giving takes a quantum leap. It is expensive to engage in philanthropy in Israel. There are an untold number of institutes, few of which add to our knowledge of human affairs. Typically, the salaries paid to personnel are astronomical by American standards. There are also discrete educational programs which cost about a million dollars each for no more than a handful of students, some of whom are part-time. Amazingly, American Jewish philanthropists are in love with these kinds of activities, although they would never permit a comparable level of extravagance back home.

All told, the non-profit sector in Israel lives handsomely off governmental and philanthropic doles and there isn’t anything like it in these former colonies. Our philanthropists are being sucker-punched and yet they come back for more. So what, they seem to be saying, if the money is wasted, at least it’s being wasted in Israel. No thought is given to American Jewish waste, the wasting away of a Jewish future for so many of our people because we refuse to invest the necessary resources in reaching out to those who can still be reached out to.

The most guilty are the American Orthodox. They pour money into schools and projects in Israel that are already on the receiving end of tremendous governmental funding, while the schools that serve their children and communities are being neglected. As one especially painful example, while the yeshivas and day schools which educate Russian Jews in the U.S. are literally at the point of collapse, there is energetic fundraising for the Israeli institutions that serve Russian Jews and which receive governmental support.

The interesting thing about what is happening is that it is built on a structure of self-justification: Because we invest so little, we continue to suffer great losses among American Jews and because of these great losses we continue to believe that the only place where our philanthropic funds should be invested is Israel.

1998 General Assembly

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week in October 1998)

I will be in Indianapolis in mid-November as a scholar-in-residence at a local congregation. This visit comes exactly a year after the Council of Jewish Federations came to town for its 1997 General Assembly. This year’s GA is in Jerusalem, appropriately to celebrate Israel’s fiftieth year and conveniently distant from urgent issues in American Jewish life, including the by now old questions of why we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to maintain a bloated, ineffective and ultimately unneeded organizational infrastructure.

At last years General Assembly, there was the unscheduled demand for greater support for day schools, thanks mainly to the effort of George Hanus of Chicago who in an excess of sincerity and naivete apparently believed that grass roots pressure could induce Federations to provide substantially enhanced assistance to our most vital educational institutions. Mr. Hanus’ advocacy was easily parried by one of the most reliable devices in the repertoire of our communal undertakers. They readily opted for the establishment of a task force to examine the matter. Now, there is scarcely a word about day schools and their financial needs.

The beauty of the task force arrangement, from an organizational but not Jewish or moral perspective, is that it allows people who do not want to do something to appear to be taking action even as they bury that which is being proposed.

The day school task force has been a dud, even by the extremely low level of expectation that surrounded its creation. Its members are nearly all from the establishment, people whose calendars are already crowded with meetings and other instrumentalities of gratuitous busy-ness that is the life of almost all of our machers. These are people who can be relied on not to rock any boat. They also have few discernable credentials in the field about which they are supposed to make recommendations. There have been two or three meetings and I have been told by several persons who attended that they have been real sleepers, not in the sense of providing the unexpected but in the sense of allowing participants to catnap without missing a beat.

The task force’s staff work has been delegated to Jewish Education Services in North America or JESNA, an agency which apart from other serious infirmities has been at the heart of the wrongs committed for so long against meaningful religious Jewish education. This staff has produced a handful of briefing papers which the chairman of the body has described in a burst of hyperbolic extravagance as being of “great value.” He has also written that these papers can “serve as component documents for the final report of the Task Force to guide communal decision-making and policy formulation.” The nail is already in the coffin.

The instinct to proclaim that which is mediocre as valuable is one of the charming characteristics of organized Jewish life. For a half-century, we have been told that the emperor is well-clothed, even as much of our communal is in tatters. We have lost the commitment, even the most minimum involvement, of at least half of all of American Jews – three million or more people – and we continue to be fed the same diet of organizational junk food, an endless expensive smorgasbord of conferences and conventions, task forces and reports, meetings and trips. It would be remarkable if anything but suffocating mediocrity emerged from the dysfunctional arrangements that we have tolerated, fed and celebrated for far too long.

Twenty-five years ago, as Mayor John V. Lindsay was nearing the end of his term and I my service as his administrative assistant, Philip Klutznick – one of the paramount leaders of American Jewry – came by on a courtesy call. As we waited for the Mayor, Klutznick and I talked about Jewish communal life. I asked what he thought about the establishment in which he was a key player and he said that it was awful and that he would never accept such mediocrity in his own business affairs.

Long before, in the 1950’s, one of the world’s eminent social scientists, Robert McIver, examined our organizational life and in a much-publicized report sharply criticized the duplication and waste that was rife in American Jewish life. Our response was to take an organizational edifice that already was too large and doing harm and build further on it, organization by organization and conference by conference, so that at the end of a century that has seen staggering losses in American Jewish identity we now have more “major” organizations than the American Irish, Italians, Blacks, Hispanics and who knows who else combined. It’s true that we have made it in America. We have taken a people whose hallmark was spiritual beauty and intellectual greatness and forged us into a clutter of organizations whose hallmark is fundraising and public relations.

We are so embedded in a morass of mediocrity that no one has a clue how to extract us from the fix we are in. There was a time, not long ago, when people who commanded communal respect called for a reversal of our misguided proclivity to waste so much of our resources on organizations. These voices are now largely muted, perhaps because the recognition has come that it is fruitless to tilt against a gigantic windmill. Instead, there has been a proliferation of private Jewish philanthropies which bypass much of the establishment.

There are times when I wonder whether my own quixotic quest should be abandoned, whether the time and energy that I have left should be directed elsewhere. Apart from the relevant consideration that the lion’s share of my time is devoted to day schools and to other communal activities and not to rhetoric and advocacy, I am not certain whether it would be right to stop championing a cause that has so few champions and that is critical to the wellbeing of American Jewry.

Day schools and yeshivas have always been in this country the neglected stepchildren of our philanthropy. This continues to be the case, even in the expanding private philanthropic sector. With maybe two exceptions, the new initiatives are paltry and misdirected and they are infused with a bias against the religious educational institutions that have been the most effective guarantors of Jewish continuity.

I have no illusions about the effectiveness of my advocacy. The time for daydreaming ended along time ago. But there is a reality that still must be faced and which I believe obligates those of us who care about the future of American Jewry to stay the course, irrespective of how unpopular our positions may be.

The Agunah Problem

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week in 1998)

We know that there are thousands of agunot – Jewish women whose husbands refuse to give them a get or religious divorce – because we have been told so often that there are that many. It matters not at all that there is no scholarly examination of the subject or credible evidence to support the claim. To challenge the figure as unproven or improbable is to risk being charged as anti-feminist and cruel and insensitive to the situation of these chained women.

Just the same, the figure is false, a statistic created out of thin air because it gives greater urgency to the cause and provides ammunition to those who attack Orthodox divorce procedures and, more broadly, Orthodox Judaism.

The notion that there are thousands of agunot in the U.S. crosses the boundary from improbability to impossibility when we consider the small number of Orthodox Jews in this country. I will not go into the entire calculation here, except to say that its components include the number of children in Orthodox families, the high percentage of Orthodox who are elderly and the low divorce rate among religious Jews. While the rate has been rising, it remains significantly below what it is in the general society and among other Jews.

Perhaps the most celebrated agunah case in recent years concerns a woman whose story was widely reported in the media, general and Jewish, including this newspaper. Not long ago she wrote to me expressing gratitude for the help that I gave her. Although it is contrary to my practice, I quote some of her words because it is unfortunately necessary these days to state that my view that the agunah statistics being unreliable does not arise from insensitivity toward agunot.
She writes, “There are not enough words that I can say that would express my gratitude to you. For a person to help someone they have never met and to care is really overwhelming to us.”

Many in the Orthodox community – men and women – have done far more than I have, which is one reason why I believe that in most Orthodox homes experiencing marital breakdown, the situation is quite a bit better than it is elsewhere. The divorce process is usually expeditious and the costs, financial and emotional, are lower because there are caring people who intervene to bring about a fair resolution to an unhappy situation.

These efforts fail at times and then the get issue is entwined in a protracted battle that can encompass finances, children and whatever else is brought into the fray by one or the other parties. It is true that the husband may use the get as a weapon, which is an unpardonable sin. (Although it is a far less frequent occurrence, the wife can also use the get as a weapon.) But it is also true that without the get, there is often delay, unreasonable demands, nasty tactics, as domestic disputes turn into mini-wars with no holds barred.

In Orthodox marital disputes, the tendency of outsiders is to focus on the get and to pay scant heed to other matters that may feed the conflict, even though these other matters may be quite substantial and certainly important to the parties.

All of this is elementary or should be, yet it makes no appearance in the discussion of the agunah problem. There is no pretense of scholarship, as polemics hold sway and the Orthodox are pummeled once more. This is in line with the prevailing motif in American Jewish life as serious scholarship about the Orthodox is replaced by pop sociology which has an ax to grind. With few exceptions, statistical validity, sociological insight and historical accuracy are abandoned in service to the powerful impulse to bash the Orthodox.

An interesting example of the genre is provided in the vastly overrated documentary on Chassidic life, “A World Apart.” There are on-screen comments by academics who know not of what they speak. One scholar says that as late as 1939, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzienski, the saintly leader of East European Jewry, urged Jews not to emigrate to the United States. The comment struck me as implausible in view of American immigration policy at the time and what I know of Rabbi Grodzienski, specifically the searingly poignant introduction to the third volume of his responsa that was written virtually on the eve of the Holocaust, on 3 Nissan 5699, March 23, 1939. There is nothing in this document to support the assertion made by this scholar. Months ago I wrote to him and asked for the source. A response has not arrived, I believe because the source does not exist.

In the same film, there is an astonishing comment by another academic describing how young Chassidic men learn about the sexual act before they marry. I do not know whether to characterize this comment as tawdry or dumb or offensive. Probably, it is all three.

The same fellow makes an appearance in the latest study of Conservative Jewry in an essay on children in two Conservative synagogues. He tells of a “Teen Shabbat” which featured a speech, quoted at length, given by a young woman who in her freshman high school year enrolled in an Orthodox yeshiva. She describes how she “was faced with a new life-style, one that I had never before explored. The first few months of that year were strange for me. I was taught to pray differently, dress differently and open my mind to new possibilities. And this is where my inner conflict began.”

She continues: “I remember one day I spent an entire morning in my rebbe’s office, crying. I was so confused and did not know how to deal with my frustration. I felt as though I was living inconsistently. For nearly nine hours every day, I would go to school to learn and act like an Orthodox Jew. However, when I would return home at the end of the day, I had to switch gears once again and resume my usual life-style. As I utilized an entire box of tissues, I told my rebbe about this conflict I was facing. And the entire time I spoke, he just sat there, listening, with a subtle smile stretched across his face. Then he began to speak, and the words that followed were ones that will remain with me for the rest of my life. ‘Elisheva,’ he said ‘nothing is wrong with you. In fact, this is a very good thing. You have shown me that you are thinking, something most kids your age do not know how to do.’ ”

And how does the scholar interpret these remarks and that of another student? “Because the high school is under Orthodox auspices and the teachers are Orthodox, what the students revealed in their remarks about Conservative Judaism they learned from their families, congregational life and primary school – not from high school.”

And what about the words of the rebbe “that will remain with me for the rest of my life”?

What we are facing is a syndrome of pseudo-scholarship, which accords with too much of what is happening elsewhere in American Jewish life, particularly in American Jewish journalism.