Wednesday, August 18, 1999


Summer is the main season for boondoggling in Israel, an expensive pastime that has the sole virtue of being for ordinary folks and not just the rich people. Although it is practiced throughout the year, boondoggling reaches its peak in July and August when thousands of Diaspora Jews trek on expense-paid hegiras to the Holy Land. Federations, foundations, the Jewish Agency and other repositories of philanthropic funds that are intended for the betterment of Jewish life foot the bill.

Betterment there is aplenty, as airlines, hotels, restaurants and all who live off the tourist trade in Israel reap economic advantage. The prime beneficiaries are educators, community workers, students and whoever else manages, with or without protektzia, to connect with any of the dozens of organizations that offer free trips as they exult in self-delusory ecstasy that a stay in Israel brings about extraordinary transformational results.

This has not been an especially busy year for the boondoggle business, as 1999 is wedged in between Israel’s 50th Anniversary and the Millennium. Recently, though, there was an especially lamentable example of the tendency to spend limited Jewish communal money on these extravaganzas. More than 350 Jewish educators from around the world came to Israel for two weeks as the guests of the Jewish Agency. They were wined and dined; the culminating event was an expensive catered affair at the magnificent Haas Promenade in East Jerusalem which was followed by a fireworks display.

It may be that the Israeli army had spare cherry bombs that it wanted to dispose of. More likely – and I am told by educators that this was the case – the Jewish Agency had unspent money and it could not think of any better way to use the funds at hand.

I am not against going to Israel. We should all go, as often as we can, to experience the glory of our heritage and, less importantly, to help the country’s economy along the way. I also accept, to a degree, the premise of Birthright Israel, that a community-financed trip to Israel may make a difference in the lives of marginally committed teenagers.

What I object to is the lavish expenditures to bring Americans and other foreigners wholesale to Israel and the comparable use of Israeli funds to send Israelis abroad on what usually amounts to shopping and pleasure junkets. The programs that involve educators, community workers, etc. are an egregious example of the broader tendency that encompasses, as just one more illustration, the hundreds of academics who are invited, all-expenses paid, to Israeli conferences on arcane subjects. There is a good prospect that somewhere along the line there has been a conference in Israel on the effects of Greek architecture on the small towns of Southern North Dakota.

What I also object to is the pollyannaish fantasy that sending principals, teachers and others will result in their being better at what they are paid to do. In a way, this is an updated version of Operation Magic Carpet, the bold 1950’s program which brought hundreds of thousands of North African Jews to Israel. There is, however, nothing magical about the contemporary quickie excursions. They are scarcely dissimilar from the visits to Israel by ordinary tourists, the main difference being that the tourists pay for what is being given to them.

While there is zero evidence that these trips improve job performance or lead to other communal gains, they are failsafe arrangements. The trip to Israel alone is proof of success. Nothing more is required, although it is customary to ask the participants to complete a questionnaire which asks about their degree of satisfaction. It is also customary for the junketeers to respond that it was a wonderful and meaningful experience and ought to be repeated.

Because it is failsafe, people in the philanthropy business constantly dream up new variations on the theme. Leadership training has become popular. Jewish kids of college age are selected and while few have demonstrated anything that can be called leadership potential, it is expected that they will emerge from ten days or two weeks in Israel as nascent Jewish leaders.

All that is being proved is that tens of millions of dollars of Jewish philanthropy can add up to lots of zeros.

These activities limit what foundations and Federations can do to advance Jewish life. People involved in day schools claim that for all of the talk of additional philanthropic support, the situation is no better than it used to be and it may be worse. The funders insist that they are doing more. Presumably, both positions cannot be right. Or can they? The explanation lies in the preference of funders for tangential projects, rather than direct support to the schools. Trips to Israel are one manifestation of the trend. There are also family education, workshops, conferences, all of which allow philanthropic givers to believe that they are aiding Jewish education when, in fact, the schools are not being helped.

Day schools are badly underfunded, even with the parents being pressured to pay rapidly rising tuition charges. It is difficult to determine the extent to which the high cost of day school education is a disincentive for marginally religious parents. It is certain that inadequate facilities, limited academic programs and a slew of other shortcomings are a disincentive in many cases. American Jewry is not willing to make the investment needed to make day schools attractive alternatives to families that are Jews at risk.

Instead of sending principals to Israel, the money should be utilized to directly assist struggling day schools. This will make them better institutions of Jewish learning. In the process, principals will be capable of doing a better job.

Friday, August 06, 1999

Discord In Rejuvenating Ukraine Jewry

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

A new struggle is now being waged in the former Soviet Union. It is no longer about emigration, that struggle having been won with more than a million Jews resettling in Israel or the U.S.— one of the great success stories of contemporary Jewish life.

The new conflict is not taking place in public view here but in unfamiliar distant places; once more, though, the stakes involve Jewish survival.

I learned about some of this struggle in a recent visit to Ukraine, a land steeped in Jewish history and blood, where an estimated 500,000 Jews continue to live.

In Kiev and Dnepropetrovsk, I saw how people of extraordinary commitment are rebuilding meaningful Jewish life in a race against time to reverse more than two generations of extreme communist repression of everything Jewish.

What I saw is only a part of a heroic picture. In Kharkov, through the valiant efforts of the Orthodox Union and others, a vibrant community has emerged.

To one extent or another this is true throughout the former Soviet Union, in all places where Jews live in significant numbers. Schools have been opened and shuls restored. There are children’s homes, programs for the elderly, food for the poor, community centers — in short, the framework for Jewish communal life. The Jerusalem Post has estimated that there are perhaps 400 Jewish organizations and institutions in Ukraine alone.

All told, there may be more Jews now in the former Soviet Union than the number that had been estimated 20 years ago when Jews were first allowed to leave. Whatever the number of Jews remaining in the FSU, it is certain to decline, as age and assimilation exact an irreversible toll.

On the positive side, emigration to Israel, especially among the young, is a significant factor.

This outcome and much of the beneficial activity to assist Russian Jews result in large measure from the role played by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Jewish Agency. They have committed funds and personnel, working with Chabad and the mainly Orthodox groups that are leading this new struggle for Russian Jews. This was evident in Dnepropetrovsk, where Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky of Chabad has created an impressive infrastructure of Jewish life.

JDC’s cooperation with the Orthodox groups is predicated on the simple calculation that if it wants to accomplish its goals in the FSU, it must work with the groups that are in the field. Neither ideology nor theology come into consideration. As a result of the good relations that have developed, immense benefits have come to Jews living in the FSU, as well as to world Jewry.

This apparently is not good enough for the Reform movement. Eager as always to rain on any Orthodox parade, American Reform leaders have demanded that JDC terminate support for programs directed by Rabbi Yaakov Bleich of Kiev, the chief rabbi of Ukraine. This eruption, the latest in an endless series of anti-Orthodox rhetoric and advocacy, was a response to Rabbi Bleich’s position that Jewish communal property in Ukraine should not be given to the Reform movement, which never owned any of it.

Still a young man, Rabbi Bleich went to Kiev nearly a decade ago on behalf of the Karlin-Stolin chasidic group, which has its roots in the area. Small in number and with quite limited financial resources, these chasidim have sacrificed much as they have built a revived Jewish community in the city of slaughter, where Babi Yar is located.

Rabbi Bleich is a heroic figure. He is intelligent and knows that he cannot go it alone. He has established good relations with the non-Orthodox; and in his own activities and rulings has shown understanding and tolerance.

Truth to tell, his activities are sorely underfunded. The buildings that house the schools are desperately in need of repair, and Rabbi Bleich could accomplish much more with additional support. As it is, he relies on volunteers, primarily from the U.S., who come as counselors for his camps and to work in other programs.

This pattern of Orthodox volunteerism is evident throughout the FSU. Young Orthodox men and women of commitment forego financial gain and physical comfort as they embrace the opportunity to serve Jews in far-off places.

There is a message in this for the Reform, if they could wean themselves from the great temptation to take potshots at the Orthodox from their places of comfort and prosperity. Rabbi Bleich cannot prevent the Reform from coming to Ukraine and establishing its own projects. This is a movement that is far more affluent than the Orthodox and, we are told, three to four times more numerous. If, as we hear, Reform young people are imbued with a new sense of Jewish commitment, let some of them go to Ukraine and elsewhere in the FSU to help set up schools and camps, tend to the elderly and feed the poor.

Likely, such activities would attract JDC and Jewish Agency support.

This has not happened, and isn’t likely to, because the Reform movement lacks a sense of sacrifice. Its leadership attacks the Orthodox, in some measure because there are those in the media who foolishly pay attention, but primarily because that is the only option the movement has.

Jews in Ukraine and the FSU, overwhelmingly irreligious as they may be, respond to the loving kindness and giving spirit of the Orthodox because there has been so much hardship in their lives. They welcome the goodness that is being shown by people from the outside.

People respond to goodness, not to press releases issued thousands of miles away that have as their only message an attack on those who are doing good.