(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week on December 30, 1998)
Twelve columns a year limit what I can say in the space, which is the response I usually give when I am asked why I am not more critical of aspects of Orthodox Jewish life which merit criticism. What I have to say on the subject is best said in other forums. Besides, there are others – too many, I think – who are eager to rise to the occasion, too often with reckless disregard of even an atrophied standard of fairness.
A case in point is Michael Steinhardt’s recent speech at Yeshiva University charging the Orthodox with a willingness to take from the larger Jewish community while they give little in return. I suppose that the charge would not have attracted the coverage it got were it not for the status and wealth of its author. Still, Mr. Steinhardt is a serious man and he was not on virgin territory when he spoke. His accusation is a restatement of reams of rhetoric directed for years at the Orthodox. I am certain that he will not be the last to find the Orthodox guilty of a form of communal parasitism
It apparently matters not at all that the charge is untrue, that giving to the overall Jewish community and to individual Jews irrespective of their religious orientation is Orthodoxy’s strong point. Like other distortions, half-truths and outright fabrications, frequent repetition provides sufficient empirical support for what, in fact, is false. The Orthodox must be guilty as charged because, after all, the accusation has been given wide circulation. It is also true that, perhaps out of resignation, the Orthodox have said little to refute the claim that they are selfish.
There is much exaggeration in the widely-held view that the Orthodox – especially their institutions – are on the receiving end of substantial Jewish philanthropic support. In the aggregate, Federation assistance across the country has been minimal, specifically including day schools whose financial needs increasingly are being met by mandatory charges and parental contributions. With minor exceptions, the record of private Jewish philanthropy is not much better.
We now recognize that day schools are crucial to our communal wellbeing, to any prospect for Jewish continuity. This alone should induce gratitude for the Orthodox contribution to the larger community. They sustained the belief in day schools in the face of harsh neglect and they established these institutions in dozens of communities through their personal giving and sacrifice. Even with the more recent creation of non-Orthodox day schools, the Orthodox schools account for more than three-fourths of the enrollment, including many non-Orthodox students. The Orthodox schools have especially reached out to the needy, as well as to immigrant and marginal families, by maintaining scholarship policies that demonstrate concern for families that cannot afford full tuition or who are unwilling to pay it.
Mr. Steinhardt has devoted some of his considerable talents and fortune to expanding day school opportunity, a commitment that should provide a generous appreciation of what the Orthodox have achieved. If he wishes to consider the issue that he has raised apart from the field of Jewish education, a good place to begin would be the activity of the hundreds of Yeshiva University undergraduates who over the years have served as staff members at the Hebrew Academy for Special Children summer camp. HASC is about to pay tribute to Dr. Norman Lamm, YU’s president, in recognition of the devotion of these students.
If the Orthodox-bashers are willing to travel to Brooklyn, they could learn about HASC’s widely-admired year-long programs that serve special children, including many Blacks. They might also visit organizations like Tomche Shabbos with its warehouse for distributing free food packages to needy Jews. Or, they could drop in at Ohel and look at its foster care services and residential care programs for adults. They might see Hatzolah in action, with its emergency medical services. In every neighborhood, they will see bikur cholims caring for the elderly, frail, needy and sick without any regard for the religiosity of the recipients.
For the critics of Orthodoxy who might find Brooklyn and the outer boroughs too remote, the Manhattan hospitals provide daily evidence of the effective and creative work of bikur cholim volunteers, including, at times, the assistance given to patients who happen not to be Jewish.
A listing of the network of Orthodox-sponsored and sustained charity agencies – just their names and a one-line description for each – would easily exceed the space allocation for this column. There are thousands of volunteers who give abundantly of their time, means and spirit. Their organizations are often stunningly creative in fashioning new ways of reaching out to the needy. There are telephone hot-lines for the emotionally stressed, facilities for new mothers, projects to assist needy brides, hundreds of free-loan funds and so much else.
Here is where the Orthodox excel and yet their detractors go to great length and to town charging unconcern for those who are not in their religious fold. One explanation for the disconnect between the reality and the false picture given by the critics is that the Orthodox avoid the American Jewish model for philanthropic activity. Although some of their larger programs have unfortunately yielded to temptation, the essential approach is to avoid public relations and the conventional trappings of organizational life and to focus instead on direct and personal service to the needy.
The Orthodox do not as much reject participation in some of the community’s better known philanthropic agencies as they conduct their charitable activity in the same way that they go about their religious activity. They adhere to what they saw in their parents’ generation and homes. They believe that the way to help people in need is to be with them, to embrace them, to feed them, to cloth them, to bathe them, to be available to meet their emotional and physical needs. Their critics are ignorant about these activities. They assume that what they do not know cannot exist. In fact, any hospital visit would readily disclose the Orthodox commitment to all Jews.
Beyond this, in the reckoning of those who attack the Orthodox, chesed activities are not taken into account because they are viewed as a separate, less important, zone of Jewish life, something that has little to do with the issue of what the Orthodox give to the larger community. What counts – perhaps all that counts – is whether the Orthodox accept religious pluralism, a formulation that converts the Orthodox refusal to accept what they regard as religiously counterfeit into the refusal to assist or give to other Jews. The critics transmute giving into acceptance and by doing this they are able to render Orthodox accomplishments as irrelevant.
This distortion feeds on the already considerable dislike for the Orthodox. As is true of prejudice generally, the bigotry that is being exhibited toward the Orthodox is predicated on a strong foundation of ignorance. Yet, as Mr. Steinhardt spoke, there were hundreds of Orthodox Jews in this city alone engaged in personal and meaningful acts of charity. The next speech attacking the Orthodox for not caring should be given in a hospital or nursing home or in one of the group residences or to gatherings of the poor or to parents of day school children who are only accepted by Orthodox institutions. These are people who because they believe and know otherwise, need to be told that the Orthodox do not care.