Friday, June 25, 1999

Chasidim And Politicians: An Unhealthy Relationship

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

In a recent editorial, The New York Times lamented that the special election for an open state Senate seat in Rockland County “represents a new low.” While our newspaper of record was primarily upset that the commuter tax imposed on New York City suburbanites had been used as electoral bait, in fact the most sordid aspect of the contest was how chasidic communities were caught in the political crossfire and subjected to improper coercion, often because they rely more on government benefits than other groups.

This is a cautionary tale of what awaits chasidic groups if they do not exercise restraint in their involvement with public officials who are determined to win at any cost. Some of what happened is on the record already, as in the remarkable public threats against the chasidim made by Joe Holland, a Republican who had occupied the state Senate seat and who now is a local official. He was explicit in indicating what awaited Rockland’s chasidim if their leaders did not deliver the requisite votes for his designated successor.

Holland has not denied the comments attributed to him, although he has suggested that they were misinterpreted. In more private encounters, political operatives of Gov. Pataki and state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno were brutal in the pressure exerted on the chasidim.

For all of their distinctive qualities and the attention that they get, chasidim are small in number, indeed, a miniscule proportion of even the Jewish electorate. They may seem to be more numerous because they stand out in a crowd and also because they seek out politicians who, in turn, seek their support. In the process, they and the politicians exaggerate the number of votes they have and can deliver. There are dozens of housing projects that have more eligible black or Hispanic voters than there are in entire chasidic groups. Those who doubt the accuracy of this observation are invited to examine election results in such presumed chasidic strongholds as Williamsburg and Crown Heights. Even in their own bailiwicks, their impact is diluted.

But to say that they are small and far less important than is often presumed is not to suggest that they are entirely inconsequential. Chasidim gravitate toward politics and politicians toward them. This is evident in the photo-op visits of yarmulke-bearing candidates to grand rabbis, as well as in the familiar picture of chasidic groupies who hang around political headquarters.

Much of this is quaint, probably childish as well, with little bearing on anything that matters. Chasidim have the satisfaction of seeing attention paid to their leaders, while politicians have the satisfaction of believing that they haven’t left a stone unturned in their quest for votes.

Occasionally, there is a darker side, as the Rockland County story illustrates. In some local races, clusters of voters amounting to no more than several hundred can make a difference, which is why Rockland’s chasidim were sought out and subjected to uncommon pressure. Their small numbers and discrete living patterns ensured that politicians could figure out — literally to the last man and woman — how many of them voted and for whom.

In short, they became prey, and politicians exploited their vulnerability. They had to vote for a specified candidate. Else, there would be a price to pay.

Campaign contributions are another danger spot. This is territory where other ethnic groups have made their ignoble mark, as we know from the recent Chinese experience. American Jews have been deeply involved in political fund raising for decades, giving the impression at times that these contributions are a surrogate for charity.

Chasidim are, at the most, in the minor leagues as political contributors, although here, too, their concentrated numbers and penchant for political involvement result in heightened vulnerability. They are now being pressured for contributions in a way that would have been unthinkable less than decade ago. About three months ago, a prominent person in one of Brooklyn’s chasidic groups came to me to complain that the Giuliani administration was twisting the arm of chasidim, the message being that unless substantial contributions were forthcoming there would be retribution in the form of reduced benefits and support for chasidic projects.

Shortly after, I spoke to a respected Orthodox leader. To my surprise, he confirmed the report of Giuliani administration arm-twisting and then justified it on the ground that since there are limited goodies to be dispersed by City Hall, it is only right that the rewards go to those who have added to the campaign coffers. Unfortunately, there are people, both inside and outside of government, who believe that the kind of behavior engaged in by the Giuliani administration is appropriate, that there is nothing wrong when tiny and vulnerable religious groups are made to feel that their well-being is dependent on campaign contributions.

Small wonder, then, that in recent weeks there was a major Giuliani fund-raiser in Borough Park, as well as a dinner in Manhattan that attracted large numbers of chasidim. It might not seem odd to some that chasidim now contribute inordinately to political candidates. I regard this development as unsettling, even frightening.

(I tried without success on three days to reach Bruce Teitelbaum, a key fund-raiser for Mayor Giuliani and perhaps his primary link with the Jewish community. My aim was to inform him of what I was writing and to ask for his comments.)

I know that the conditions that have forged the unhealthy relationship between the political world and the chasidic world will not at all be affected by my argument that this relationship is rotten to the core. My hope is that there will be a measure of restraint, perhaps from governmental and political officials who understand that the short-term fund-raising gains are likely to result in long-term problems.

More critically, there has to be a feeling of restraint on the chasidic side and on the part of those who connect them with government. The more that chasidim are enveloped in an atmosphere that requires them to dance to the tune of politicians, the greater the likelihood that the ante will be upped. Is it too much to expect chasidic and Orthodox leaders to recognize that abuse begets abuse and that unless the wrongful practices are stopped, substantial damage will be done to significant parts of the religious Jewish community?

Friday, June 04, 1999

Despite Hardships, Orthodox Schools Succeed

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

Education is one of the two key functions of Jewish schools. The other, often more important function is religious socialization, the process whereby young children are taught to understand and accept the principles of our faith. This role transcends courses and curriculum and explains why all who care about Jewish continuity now place so much hope in all-day Jewish schools, institutions that for nearly the entirety of the American Jewish experience were treated as unwanted leftovers of a Jewish past.

If Jewish schools produce graduates who go on to elite colleges and successful careers but who abandon religious commitment, they are failing in their mission. This does not mean that educational performance is to be neglected. It cannot, if only because these are schools, after all, and what they do mostly is impart knowledge and develop intellectual and other skills. Parents would be outraged if schools did not maintain educational standards.

Jewish schools and especially yeshivas confront potent and largely immutable difficulties as they carry out their responsibilities. They have a dual program, which means learning two or three languages, and increased costs. With few exceptions they are badly underfunded, a condition that is reflected throughout the educational program. Libraries, labs and nearly all of the other accoutrements of a good school are often inadequate or even nonexistent. Funds are not available to offer electives to gifted students or provide additional attention to special students. Extracurricular activity can consist of nothing more than recess. On the secular side, the faculty may consist of stringers or unlicensed seminary graduates.

In short, all of the ingredients for educational failure are abundantly on display in Jewish schools. Somehow, though, our schools manage to do a credible job — even more than that, including in the secular area. This is one of the primary findings of an ongoing study I am conducting of yeshiva and day school student performance on standard New York State examinations. The results are uneven, so that girls perform better than boys and students at chasidic schools do not do as well as those who attend elsewhere. There is, as is true of all human contrivances, a measure of failure and more than a little room for improvement. Overall, the record is laudatory.

Why this is so may be a mystery to outsiders who cannot see how a strong performance can emerge in schools that operate under such severe limitations or, more likely, have come to believe the worst about yeshivas. People who are familiar with the workings of our schools, including admissions officials at first-rate colleges and professional schools, know that for all of the time and financial pressures they face, Jewish schools produce exceptional graduates.

One reason for the unexpectedly strong outcome can be summed up in one word: commitment. This is manifested when underpaid teachers, in both religious and secular programs, devote long hours at home to prepare their lessons and find ways of reaching out to students beyond the ordinary classroom experience.

There is a culture of learning and study in Jewish schools that compensates — not entirely, but in large measure — for programmatic and even attitudinal shortcomings. Students in Jewish schools are, in the aggregate, serious-minded. They are less distracted by outside elements and certainly not by the social pathologies that have harmed too many bright students in elite secular schools. When students in Jewish schools set their mind to educational tasks, the outcome invariably is impressive. This affinity for serious study stands yeshiva graduates in good stead when they enter the job market or take graduate and professional training, often after they have concluded their seminary study.

This picture of yeshiva education is not the one we usually get. We are told of corruption, which must be severely criticized and never condoned, in a small number of schools, as if this is the pattern everywhere. We read of writers and people of accomplishment who look back with disdain at their yeshiva education, without any thought being given to the possibility that the skills or discipline acquired during the yeshiva years had anything to do with their later success. Worst of all, we are given a distorted and invariably ugly description of how yeshiva graduates fare financially. They are depicted as parasites when the truth is that nearly all adult Orthodox men, including those who are referred to as haredim, work in a wide range of professions. Many of the women, as well.

The further truth is that despite their hard work, many of these graduates have difficulty making ends meet. Those in communal positions, including teachers, are badly underpaid. Family size is a critical factor, as is the cost of living an observant life — tuition and other expenses. Residual job discrimination takes a toll, as does their nearly total lack of geographical mobility. As a consequence, many of the Orthodox take a second job, wives work (usually part-time), parents help out and there is a measure of reliance by a minority on communal and governmental benefits.

None of this alters the basic picture of hard work or the extraordinary ongoing value of their yeshiva education. Of course, more Orthodox Jews are poorer than the non-Orthodox, but instead of seeing the dignity — indeed the spirituality — of thousands who struggle to make ends meet and each day do their jobs well, their goodness is denigrated, at times by know-nothing writers who employ the mantle of sociology to transmit their bigotry.

I suspect what I write here will have no impact. We are far from the point when the cascades of hatred flowing toward the Orthodox will cease. Still, the effort must be made and the truth must be written. At long last, is there any decency left in our community? Are we incapable of stopping the bigotry?

Tuesday, June 01, 1999


(Originally published in the Jewish Week in 1999)

It is easy to jab at Birthright Israel, the plan to promote Jewish continuity by providing a brief Israel experience to Jewish youth who haven’t been to the Jewish state. Charles R. Bronfman and Michael H. Steinhardt are marketing an idea in search of a program. What we have so far is a catchy slogan, good public relations and the old and odd notion favored by philanthropists that throwing lots of money after a problem is the best way to resolve it. We have, in short, the key ingredients for success in the contemporary period, success being determined by the ability to attract attention. The announcement of the program and its promotion are the program.

Just the same, Birthright needs to be given a chance, even though what we know about its particulars inspires little confidence in its efficacy. Every continuity initiative confronts daunting odds because of the powerful assimilatory forces that have directly resulted in so much Jewish loss. These elements are active in the lives of nearly all Diaspora Jews and they are not going to disappear because world Jewry now feels endangered and is taking steps, mainly feeble and belated, to promote Jewish identity. All that is being done in the name of continuity is today inherently tenuous and tentative, even experimental. This holds true even for many day schools and while I have been one of their most enthusiastic advocates, I know that their reach is limited because the families that are being attracted to them are Jews at risk.

Israel experiences are a legitimate means of advancing continuity. If Birthright is not oversold, if the religious factor is not deliberately downplayed and if its key people are willing to make adjustments, some good will come from the venture. Under the present plan, eligible youth will be offered a round-trip ticket and funds for a brief stay, typically ten days, that hopefully will be a learning or cultural experience which whets the appetite for greater involvement in Israel and/or Jewish communal life. Those who choose to stay longer will be responsible for any additional costs.

It is expected – and almost certainly this will be the case – that the typical trip will fit into school schedules, primarily the flow of campus life. Even the most ardent votaries of Israel experiences recognize that ten days can hardly counteract the corrosive impact of thousands of prior days of assimilatory relationships that have impelled so many away from Jewish commitment.

The assumption, probably correct, is that thousands of teen-age and college-age Jews will not look a gift horse in the mouth. Birthright’s offer will be accepted, which raises the critical question of what these youngsters are likely to do when they arrive in Israel. There is also the collateral question of whether Israeli institutional and organizational life has the additional capacity to serve the expected influx. While Michael Papo, the project’s president, told me in a useful telephone conversation that there already is unused capacity to accommodate additional young foreigners, I think it unlikely that there are or will be facilities and programs for the thousands who may accept the opportunity.

The problem is illustrated by Livnot Ul’hibanot, a Jerusalem and Safed-based program that has a good track record with American college students of a secular orientation. Presently, Livnot enrolls perhaps as many as two hundred participants a year in its three-week program that combine work and study. I doubt that it can expand its reach quickly or that it would be desirable to do so, lest it weaken its effectiveness.

Birthright apparently accepts the notion that money is the primary inducement. In the words of its promotional material, “money is not the only issue but it is a central one.” The flip side is that the lack of funds is the main deterrent. In fact, surveys including the 1990 NJPS, provide strong evidence that funding is scarcely the issue. In the main, Jews do not visit Israel because they are not particularly interested in Israel. In nearly all of their contemporary places of settlement, Jews are quite affluent and Jewish youth by the many tens of thousands each year are able to find the means to traipse to exotic and mundane places, from the Himalayas to Fort Lauderdale. They do not, in the aggregate, put Israel on their itinerary because the Jewish state does not resonate in their lives. It is also of note that the Orthodox, by far the least affluent of Jews, come to Israel in droves.

There will be Jews who make the visit because of the Birthright opportunity and this may well be salutary. But by targeting the first-timers, emphasizing the quick-fix aspect of the experience and reaching out to Jews who are scarcely, if at all, involved in Jewish life, Birthright may be foregoing the opportunity to make a more lasting contribution.

Jewish youth everywhere outside of Israel are Jews at risk, a status that is shared, perhaps not equally, by young Jews who already are engaged in communal life through synagogues, day schools, community centers, youth groups or in any of a number of other ways. These Jews have opportunities aplenty to go to Israel, whether with their parents or alone or with school groups or as participants in the March for the Living and other projects. In the U.S., most Federations provide subsidies for Israel experiences and the expanding world of private Jewish philanthropy is especially keen about including Israel programming in their repertoire of activities. Community-sponsored and subsidized Israel experiences have become a big business, so that Birthright Israel can hardly claim to be operating on virgin territory.

It’s a good bet that the presumed success of these ventures has contributed to the belief that this is the primary way to reach out to the young and unaffiliated. The Bronfman Foundation has been in the forefront of the Israel experience movement. Evaluations of these activities present a rosy picture of what can be achieved through a relatively brief stay in the Jewish state. I have read several of these and they tend toward an excess of self-praise which is off-putting and can scarcely pass as serious scholarship.

Their major deficiency goes to the heart of what is errant in the conceptualization of Birthright Israel. The evaluations, perhaps out of necessity, are conducted shortly after the experience has been concluded, which means that they at best measure short-term impact when the respondents are still enveloped in the aura of the experience. This is notably true of the claims made by March for the Living, a rather new initiative whose life-span does not yet allow an assessment of long-term impact.

March for the Living is aimed at high school students, a great number of whom happen to be in a Jewish school, an environment that presumably strengthens their Jewish commitment. When they return from Israel and Poland where they visit Auschwitz and other death camps, their understandable response is to say that they have been profoundly affected by the experience. This response is truthful, yet it begs the question, for when the high school years are concluded, the next phase in the formative process for these students is the college campus, an environment that is universally regarded as a disaster area for Jewish life.

Because Jewish youth who have been to Israel and those who have not are nearly all Jews at risk, their lives will inevitably be affected, perhaps permanently shaped, by powerful and inescapable assimilatory forces. If the goal of Birthright is to enhance the prospect for meaningful Jewish continuity, it makes sense to use Israel as the instrumentality for Jewish reinforcement among those who might make the best use of the opportunity. In economic and programmatic terms, the greatest benefit may be derived from concentrating Birthright’s resources on young marginal Jews who have been to Israel, thereby strengthening a commitment that while already evident is certain to be severely challenged.

This point was acknowledged, in a way by Michael Papo who indicated that studies show that a follow-up or second trip cements the relationship with Israel and forces a deep sense of Jewish peoplehood. It may be that because Birthright’s resources are limited, preference is being given to those who have not been to Israel. But it also may be the case that the emphasis on the first-timers arises from a desire to reach out to unaffiliated Jews rather than to those who are affiliated. This would be a serious mistake.

Because of the severely weakened state of Diaspora Jewry, the success of initiatives to encourage Jewish commitment depends on whether they are linked to other activities that promote the same goal. Birthright can reinforce the progress achieved through meaningful Jewish education and youth groups; in turn, it needs to be reinforced by collateral activities in other zones of communal life. It cannot be regarded as a stand-alone venture.

Nor should its sponsors be intoxicated by its immodest claim, “This journey lasts a life-time.” There are tens of thousands of Jews who have been to Israel whose Jewish commitment, even in secular form, is gone with the wind and for whom Israel is scarcely more meaningful than Timbuktu.

A trip to Israel is not the birthright of a Jew, although identity with Israel is, a point that is powerfully demonstrated by nearly 2,000 years of our history. The birthright or heritage or legacy bequeathed to us by previous generations was religious at its core. It was this religious sensibility that kept Israel alive in the imagination and prayers and therefore also in the lives of Jews who never stepped foot on the Holy Land, nor had even the slightest prospect of going there. Only as a consequence of our religious identity can we claim Israel as a birthright and only if it is able to foster a religious commitment can Birthright Israel claim to be promoting Jewish continuity.


(This article was originally published in the New York Jewish Week in 1998)

Long before the last Lubavitcher Rebbe passed away – and perhaps even before he succeeded his father-in-law as Rebbe – the Chabad movement which he headed had developed an arrangement that over the years has propelled it into what is now by far world Jewry’s largest organization. Nothing else in Jewish life approaches it in scope of activity or in the number of Jews who are being served.

What is also impressive is the quality of much of what Chabad does. It publishes each year a large number of books, magazines and other material and it manages to do all of this while maintaining a high intellectual standard, which is also true of what Chabad presents on the internet. It is evident that a great number of talented people are involved in creative ways in presenting the Chabad message.

Likely, much of this is news to most of us. When reading about Lubavitch, the Moshiach issue attracts the greatest share of attention, which is understandable since in the last decade of his life the Rebbe constantly trumpeted the theme, at times obsessively, and some of his more ardent followers took the message to be personal rather than a bit of abstract theology. This question has now been somewhat muted, but certainly not settled, by the ruling of a Chabad beth din. The focus can now turn to the more mundane, yet quite significant, matter of understanding the phenomenal growth of the movement.

There is a tendency to regard Chabad as a centralized operation located in Crown Heights, with all key decisions controlled at the top. This is a simplistic view, which helps to explain its attractiveness. In any case, Chabad is a classic example of decentralization, a reality that was masked during the long years of the Rebbe’s charismatic leadership. Now that he is gone and the movement is directed by administrators who have had a long run at internecine conflict, it is a stretch to maintain the notion of centralized authority.

Decentralization has been the key to Chabad’s growth. For decades, emissaries and their families have been sent to localities or positions where, as a rule, the expectation has been that they will serve until the end of their days. In an earlier period, the emissaries usually settled in large cities and the movement’s authority was vested in them. If another Lubavitcher wanted to come into the area and engage in Chabad activities, the Rebbe’s blessing was always sought but the ultimate decision of whether the person could come was made by the local emissary who was in charge.

This arrangement has produced an excess of nepotism within Lubavitch as relatives of emissaries frequently get the plum assignments. This has also meant that younger Lubavitchers, including some of the most gifted, have had to seek out new places and services, which goes a long way toward explaining why the movement is constantly expanding.

If this appears to be something like a franchise system, it is. Like franchises in the business world, there are common features, including the ubiquitous pictures of the Rebbe, the distinctive look of Lubavitcher men, standard services and events that are often pre-packaged and promotional material. As is also true of other franchise arrangements, the success of each separate enterprise depends to a considerable extent on the talent and drive of the people who are put in charge.

In this regard, Chabad is well served by a talent pool which feeds on the expectation developed at an early age among the best and the brightest of young Lubavitchers, that their mission in life and greatest accomplishment is to become emissaries. Chabad’s post high school educational process is less geared to the creation of scholars as it is to molding people who can go into the field. Through travel and contacts with fellow Lubavitchers in various settings, as well as work experience, young men and women mature quickly. By their mid-twenties, many are self-reliant and seem ready to establish, if not also conquer, new Chabad worlds.

As they seek opportunities that have not been spoken for, the young emissaries need a measure of good fortune to go along with their abilities. Although overall the results have been impressive, inevitably the record has been spotty. I remember coming upon the Chabad House on a major Midwest college campus where 7,000 Jews were students. The emissary, whose family I know, had been there nearly twenty years and he looked like a beaten and lonely person. Campus-based Chabad Houses, which were much in vogue in an earlier period, have not been a Lubavitch success story, I think because campuses have not been fertile ground for Jewish outreach.

The Mitzvah Mobiles or “Tanks,” which used to be familiar Lubavitch apparitions, seem no longer to be in style, a change that few would regard as a loss.

Inevitably, some emissaries do not succeed in the field, at times because they have had to settle for dead-end positions, serving in communities with few Jews who will pay attention to their activities or message and with little prospect for success. Shabbos, one such Lubavitch wife told me, is the worse day of the week because without the car and telephone, she and her family are alone and cut off from the world. The emissaries - especially the women – cherish the trips back home, usually to Crown Heights.

While Chabad has had a handful of rogue operators who use the movement’s imprimatur for self-enrichment, they have been few in number and they are greatly counterbalanced by the men and women who have sacrificed so much and who strive to do good. Because communal service is the highest ambition for Lubavitchers and status is given to those who choose this path, there are not too many Lubavitchers who have become affluent through business activity.

Fundraising is, of course, essential to the Chabad enterprise and, here too, decentralization is an important factor. Emissaries in the field learn immediately that they cannot count on 770 Eastern Parkway to pay their bills, so they hone their fundraising skills. In the process, they acquire greater confidence, as well as greater independence from central authority.

In the aggregate, what is raised to support all that the movement does must come to a staggering figure. My low estimate is a half-billion dollars, although there is no way to know the true figure. The emissaries’ fundraising accomplishments provide evidence of their skill, especially since nearly all of what is raised comes from people who are not Lubavitchers.

What we know about the consequences of advanced assimilation should suggest that the Lubavitch Chassidic outlook and ambiance is not one that Jews in communities across the continent are seeking. The beard and dress and much else should be turn-offs for Jews who are not observant, who live modern lives and certainly are not seeking an old-world look. Yet, a great number are attracted to Lubavitch, a phenomenon that requires an explanation.

What the emissaries offer is a presence, at times the only Jewish presence, in a community. They perform pastoral duties that traditionally have been the responsibility of pulpit rabbis, including visiting the sick, elderly and frail, helping the needy, arranging for life-cycle events and counseling. They provide basic religious services, such as Menorah lightings and Passover seders, in a friendly environment that emphasizes a soft sell.

Above all, there is a certain sweetness and kindness in the contacts between the emissaries (and their families) and the people who are their clientele. This is evident in the personal services that are given, as well as in the expanding network of Chabad synagogues and day schools.

The lesson is that even as more American Jews are moving away from Judaism’s core observances, many feel comfortable with Lubavitchers because of the kindness which they experience. In a sense, what Lubavitch offers even more than formal services and activities is the ability to fill an emotional need that overcomes whatever hesitancy non-observant Jews may have about dealing with these Chassidim. In a world where loneliness is pervasive and insecurity erodes happiness, caring and being available go a long way.

The flip side of non-observant Jews being comfortable with Chabad is that the relationship usually does not have a lasting religious impact on these Jews and their families. Assimilation continues to undermine Judaic commitment in too many homes that are involved with Chabad. With the possible exception of Sephardim and ex-Israelis who in some communities are the mainstays of Chabad, increasingly the movement is reaching out to American Jews of questionable religious status, Jews of the sort whom the Rebbe insisted should not be accorded Jewish identity when the Who Is a Jew? issue was debated in Israel. This is an inconsistency that has not been addressed.

There is, more generally, the compelling question of the efficacy of Chabad’s brand of feelgood Judaism, of an approach that does not challenge or disturb the status quo and thereby becomes an inadvertent handmaiden to ongoing assimilation. It is, of course, meritorious to make Jews feel good about themselves and it certainly is important to reach out in a tolerant way to marginal Jews. But what we now ask or expect of other Jewish activities must also be asked and expected of Lubavitch: In what ways are the Jews served by the movement being influence toward greater Judaic commitment?