Friday, December 29, 2000

Lindsay And The Jews

(Originially published in the New York Jewish Week)

I served in the second mayoral administration of John Lindsay. There were achievements during those years (1969-1973) that I continue to be proud of, and battles that I lost. This is, I think, the first time that I have written about the experience and probably the last. For all of his administration’s shortcomings, it is important to note that Lindsay was a good mayor, and his detractors have misrepresented both the record and the man, who was kind and caring.

I believe that history will judge him favorably, despite a troubled relationship with some of New York’s Jews. He was mayor during a period of profound change in American society and politics, as well as in Jewish life, changes that made certain that his reform agenda would have rough going in a city that had special meaning to Jews everywhere.

The 1960s saw the abandonment of the fantasy notion of the melting pot, especially among New York’s ethnics, and the transformation of the genteel civil rights movement into the Black Power movement, with its rage and militancy. This was also the period of the Great Society, with its embrace of community action and proffer of programs based on the na├»ve assumption that tons of money, good motives and determined activity could break the cycle of deprivation that entrapped millions of Americans who had the wrong color skin.

Since the reality could not attain the lofty goals of the promise, these developments inadvertently contained the seeds of disappointment and anger, even violent protest. New York was nearly entirely spared such protests, though, in some measure because Lindsay walked the streets and showed that he cared. This was admittedly a preventative success but it was significant, if only because the maintenance of civil order through empathy and persuasion and without force is a high moral and political achievement.

While Lindsay could control physical eruptions, his administration could not control the new emotionalism of Jews, particularly those who lived in the outer boroughs and who came to believe that what was being done for the minorities was at their expense. In a sense, Lindsay and his inner circle operated on the premise that urban politics is a zero-sum game, so that money, appointments and other goodies could assure that there was enough to go around, that what was being done for blacks did not cost the Jews anything. This was a miscalculation because there was no reckoning of the emotional cost.

After 20 years of what seemed to be communal amnesia, Jews discovered or rediscovered in the 1960s the horrors of the Holocaust. This awakening deeply affected their reaction to contemporary events. Piggy-backing to an extent on the Black Power movement, there was a new sense of Jewish identity and activism. The struggle for the no-longer-silent Soviet Jewry added to the new Jewish ethnic brew. Even the Six-Day War in 1967, a reawakening for many American Jews, turned out to be unsettling, leading to new security issues that have yet to be resolved.

“Never again” was the slogan of the JDL and its bullies, but it is important to know that it was also the belief of many other American Jews as well.

When Lindsay acted to improve the lot of blacks and other minorities, emotional wounds were opened. School decentralization, vesting power in local boards representative of the communities, began at about the same time as the teachers’ union, which was predominantly Jewish in that period. Open admissions altered the City College system that had been a treasure of the Jewish experience in New York. A controversial Forest Hills housing project was to be built in a substantially Jewish neighborhood.

It hardly mattered whether Lindsay’s policies were right or wrong, effective or not. It didn’t matter either that minorities deserved a better deal and that black advancement was good and necessary for America. It didn’t mean much that the Lindsay administration was chock full of Jews at the top, at City Hall and the agencies, except perhaps that these Jews were accused of selling out. In fact, it didn’t count for much that a great number of New York Jews liked Mayor Lindsay and warmly supported his policies. None of this mattered to those Jews who were angry because open nerves were touched and emotional scar tissue was bruised once more.

Friday, December 08, 2000

Pick-And-Choose Judaism

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

Samuel Freedman’s “Jew vs. Jew” is the most important book on American Jewry since the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey highlights sent our community into a frenzy about Jewish survival. The book is fair-minded, a delight to read and it suggests, albeit inadvertently, why the statistics that are soon to emerge from NJPS 2000 are likely to be irrelevant, no matter how much attention they may receive.

We are, quite extraordinarily, in a post-assimilationist, post-intermarriage phase. Religion is trumpeted everywhere, adding to the impression that we have turned a successful corner and that the large investment in continuity activities has paid off. In some legerdemain of language and belief, mainstream American Jewry has embraced the notion that Jews are a religious people. It apparently matters little, if at all, that most American Jews have departed nearly entirely from traditional religious standards. There is, we are being told, a return to religion, not because of increased Sabbath observance or any other observance but because we now acknowledge that religion is in some fashion central to being Jewish.

It is in this sense that Freedman is right when he says that “the Orthodox model has triumphed.” As he underscores, “this is not to say the Orthodox themselves have prevailed.” Rather, “against a backdrop of ever-more complete assimilation,” there is growing acceptance of “the central premise of Orthodoxy that religion binds Jewish identity.”

The Orthodox continue to grow in numbers and influence and they pick up some adherents, but overwhelmingly their growth is internal.

For the foreseeable future their model will compete with the Reconstructionist model, the brand of choice for a great majority of American Jews who want some religion in their lives.

The significance of the Reconstructionist model is perhaps the best-kept secret in contemporary Jewish affairs, which isn’t surprising in view of the smallness of the formal movement and in view of the tendency to emphasize the Reform and Conservative movements, which claim several million members. The terms “Reform” and “Conservative” remain critical taglines in identifying American Jews, but it is certain that for most adherents of these denominations, a Reconstructionist pattern of religious life prevails.

This pattern encompasses a far-reaching set of practices and beliefs that are arrayed, in a figurative sense, in smorgasbord fashion. Each Jew is free to determine what to partake of. Judaism exists to serve the individual, an attitude that is in tune with the American ethos. Accordingly, intermarriage is a personal choice, and for all of its inescapable social consequences and even religious consequences, it does not remove the Jew who marries out from the pale of Jewish religious life if that Jew engages in other behavior that marks him or her as a religious person.

This is a form of “I’m OK, you’re OK” Judaism. If a religious element is included in one’s lifestyle, the religious standard has been met.

There is something seductive about this approach. Jews can at once be non-religious, perhaps even anti-religious, with regard to virtually all that has defined the religious character of our people for generations and yet also be considered religious because in some atrophied fashion they are engaged in religious behavior. Attention is paid to the small percent of the religious glass that is filled. This allows us to be comfortable about what is happening in Jewish life. We can have massive Judaic abandonment together with a measure of transmuted observance.

Some Orthodox are being drawn to the Reconstructionist model. This is most evident, perhaps inescapably, in outreach activities where much leeway is given to the unaffiliated, non-observant or limited-observant Jews who are being reached out to. There is an acceptance — and it isn’t just for a short while — of behaviors and attitudes that bear a close resemblance to a Reconstructionist sensibility.

While Orthodox outreach continues to speak of the goal being acceptance of a fully religious lifestyle, in most instances the final destination is an intermediate point that leaves the returnee no different from the vast numbers who accept the Reconstructionist model.

A recent New Yorker article makes the point in a Lillian Ross profile of Miss New York State of 1999, a devout Christian who through her new Jewish boyfriend finds her way to Hineni and Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, the charismatic outreach advocate who packs them in each week at Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun, the upscale Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

There is a more internalized acceptance of a Reconstructionist mind-set within Orthodoxy, notably its modernist fringe. According to this outlook, given much publicity when Sen. Joseph Lieberman became Al Gore’s running mate, there is much room for maneuverability within halacha, including how to observe Sabbath fundamentals. Although this is a special case arising from Mr. Lieberman’s unique situation, his behavior is far more reflective of aspects of Modern Orthodoxy than has been recognized.

The majority of Orthodox adhere, of course, to a far more rigorous religious regimen. This is the model that Sam Freedman has in mind when he writes of the Orthodox triumph. It remains, though, that this model is being challenged by the Reconstructionists, who while they are skating on thin historical and ideological ice, have made much progress.

In the cavernous realm of communal philanthropic activities aimed at shoring up Jewish identity, it is convenient to believe that resources are primarily being devoted to the promotion of the Orthodox model.

It is a remarkable irony that nearly all that is being done in the name of sensitivity to Orthodoxy — including some of the work I do — has the primary effect, if not also the purpose, of advancing the Reconstructionist model.

Wednesday, November 01, 2000

November 2000 - RJJ Newsletter

While leadership is vital in all organizations, it is most urgently needed in those whose missions are difficult to accomplish. Schools obviously fit this bill. They seek to educate children of varying aptitude, interests and background, while preparing them for adulthood. Along the way, they inevitably have to deal with troublesome staffing and curriculum issues, as well as budgetary shortfalls.

Their prospects for success depend considerably on the ability to recruit top-flight educational leaders. A principal can impart vision and discipline to a school, inspire teachers to do better and funders to give more and they can innovate in ways that enhance rather than disrupt the core educational services they seek to provide. A good principal can make a large difference; much the same obviously can be said about a principal who is not up to the job.

Throughout the vast domain of elementary and secondary education, it is readily acknowledged that educational leadership ranks are thin in talent. Schools everywhere face recruitment difficulties as they seek persons with the requisite combination of people, administrative and intellectual skills. Jewish schools are not exempt from the problem.

The usual and, I think, facile explanation for this shortage is that salaries are too low to attract candidates of merit, especially in view of what is being offered in other professions. For all of the self-evident convenience of the financial argument, it somehow falls short of accounting for what is happening. The salaries of principals have risen considerably in recent years – far more rapidly than those being paid to teachers – and this is true of all kinds of schools. Jewish schools are among the industry leaders, their fragile financial situation and small enrollments notwithstanding. Candidates for top positions at day schools are now being offered pay packages that comfortably exceed what is being offered in nearby public schools which have far greater enrollment and governmental pockets to dig into. Salaries north of $150,000 per year would have been regarded as a fantasy not too long ago. This figure has been figure has been reached and even exceeded in quite a few places.

Ironic or not, as salaries have gone up the pickings appear to have gotten thinner, in some measure because the number of Jewish day schools continues to grow.

Status and job satisfaction probably are major factors. For all of the talk about how crucial day school education is, from the perspective of young people who are making career choices, rarely does Jewish education make it to the first list. The situation is not helped by the experience of too many principals who are worn out by the endless and usually hopeless attempt to satisfy parents who see the school exclusively through their children and by lay boards which too often define their responsibilities as a mandate to interfere. It is no great surprise that our best and brightest seek other pastures.

Matters are not helped much by the astounding number of day school principals who are fired each year. For the most resourceful, there is a silver lining in the cloud. Because of the shortage, those who get the axe are almost certain to quickly land another job, provided that they are willing to endure an itinerant life that requires them to keep their bags packed and their families on the move.

As the situation has worsened, salaries have continued to rise, so that the $200,000 per year figure has been breached. Philanthropic support is being given to efforts to provide training to current and aspiring principals, the hope being that skills can be upgraded as a result of the experience. It is fascinating to see how many principals have been fired shortly after they concluded this training. Whatever the efficacy of these initiatives, they have little impact on the recruitment pool, so that the shortage continues to grow.

The philanthropic initiatives are also prone to the hype and exaggerated claims that inform all grantsmanship. In the case of Jewish schools, there is the added bit of child’s play embraced by training programs that operate on the notion that a trip to Israel – usually a two or three week affair – will somehow transform a principal into an accomplished educational leader.

Perhaps the most interesting development is the willingness of some schools – primarily in the non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox sectors – to recruit educational administrators from outside the ordinary confines of Jewish education, by seeking persons who have served in public education or private schools. Such candidates are generally retirees or those who can be lured by an attractive offer and perhaps also by the challenge and the desire to work in Jewish education. This approach makes sense, although it is risky because it leaves the school vulnerable on the Judaic front.

These efforts and others are not going to alleviate the shortage anytime soon and they certainly cannot change the situation that results in too many principals with limited ability being in charge of schools that desperately require principals of much greater ability. Perhaps the best solution is to reshape the relationship between lay and educational leaders. Lay people can contribute to the schools they serve even – and perhaps especially – regarding educational matters, provided that they appreciate the limits inherent in the positions they hold. At the same time, principals who far too often believe that a school is totally under their exclusive control must be willing to ease up a bit and welcome the involvement of those who can ultimately enhance prospects for educational success.

Tuesday, October 10, 2000

Jew vs. Jew

Sam Freedman’s Jew vs. Jew is the most important book on American Jewry since the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey Highlights sent our community into a frenzy about Jewish survival nearly a decade ago. It is fair-minded, a delight to read and it suggests, albeit inadvertently, why the statistics that are soon to emerge from NJPS 2000 are likely to be irrelevant, no matter how much attention they may receive.

We are, quite extraordinarily, in a post-assimilationist, post-intermarriage phase. It’s true that religion is trumpeted everywhere, adding to the impression that we have turned a successful corner and that the large investment in continuity activities has paid off. In some legerdemain of language and belief, mainstream American Jewry has embraced the notion that Jews are a religious people. It apparently matters little, if at all, that most American Jews have departed nearly entirely from traditional religious standards. There is, we are being told, a return to religion, not because of increased Sabbath observance or any other observance but because we now acknowledge that religion is in some fashion central to being Jewish.

It is in this sense that Freedman is right when he says that “he Orthodox model has triumphed.” As he underscores, “this is not to say the Orthodox themselves have prevailed.” Rather, “against a backdrop of ever-more complete assimilation,” there is growing acceptance of “the central premise of Orthodoxy that religion binds Jewish identity.” There are some tricky nuances at work in Freedman’s formulation and they are apt to be missed. The triumph of the Orthodox model may turn out to be a famous victory, for Judaic abandonment and loss remain alive and, alas, well. The Orthodox continue to grow in numbers and influence and they pick up some adherents, but overwhelmingly their growth is internal. For the foreseeable future their model will compete with the Reconstructionist model which is the brand of choice of a great majority of American Jews who want some religion in their lives.

The significance of the Reconstructionist model is perhaps the best kept secret in contemporary Jewish affairs, which isn’t surprising in view of the smallness of Reconstruction as a formal movement and in view of the tendency to emphasize the Reform and Conservative movements which claim several million members. The terms “Reform” and “Conservative” remain critical taglines in identifying American Jews, but it is certain that for most adherents of these denominations, a Reconstructionist pattern of religious life prevails.

This pattern encompasses a far-reaching set of practices and beliefs that are arrayed, in a figurative sense, in smorgasbord fashion. Each Jew is free to determine what to partake of. Judaism exists to serve the individual, an attitude that is in tune with the American ethos. Accordingly, intermarriage is a personal choice and for all of its inescapable social consequences and even religious consequences, it does not remove the Jew who marries out from the pale of Jewish religious life if that Jew engages in other behavior that marks him or her as a religious person.

This is a form of “I’m ok, you’re ok” Judaism or perhaps a variation of the old joke about the conflicting parties and their friend who went to the rabbi and were told that all of them were right. If a religious element is included in one’s life-style, the religious standard has been met.

There is something seductive about this approach. Jews can at once be non-religious, perhaps even anti-religious, with regard to virtually all that has defined the religious character of our people for generations and yet also be considered religious because in some atrophied fashion they are engaged in religious behavior. Attention is paid to the ten percent – or whatever percent – of the religious glass that is filled. This allows us to be comfortable about what is happening in Jewish life. We can have massive Judaic abandonment together with a measure of transmuted observance.

Some Orthodox are being drawn to the Reconstructionist model. This is most evident, perhaps inescapably, in outreach activities where much leeway is given to the unaffiliated, non-observant or limited-observant Jews who are being reached out to. There is an acceptance – and it isn’t just for a short while – of behaviors and attitudes that bear a close resemblance to a Reconstructionist sensibility. While Orthodox outreach continues to speak of the goal being acceptance of a fully religious life-style, in most instances the final destination is an intermediate point that leaves the returnee no different from the vast numbers who accept the Reconstructionist model.

A recent New Yorker article makes the point in a Lillian Ross profile of Miss New York State of 1999, a devout Christian who through her new Jewish boyfriend finds her way to Hineni and Rebbitzin Esther Jungreis who packs them in each week at Congregation Kehillath Jeshrun, the upscale Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s upper east side.

There is a more internalized acceptance of a Reconstructionist mindset within Orthodoxy, notably its modernist fringe. According to this outlook, given much publicity when Senator Joseph Lieberman became Al Gore’s running mate, there is much room for maneuverability within halacha, including how to observe Sabbath fundamentals. Although this is a special case arising from Mr. Lieberman’s campaigning to be within a heartbeat of the presidency, his behavior is far more reflective of aspects of Modern Orthodoxy than has been recognized.

The majority of Orthodox adhere, of course, to a far more rigorous religious regimen. This is the model that Sam Freedman has in mind when he writes of the Orthodox triumph. It remains, though, that this model is being challenged by the Reconstructionists, who while they are skating on thin historical and ideological ice, have made much progress.

In the cavernous realm of communal philanthropic activities aimed at shoring up Jewish identity, it is convenient to believe that resources are primarily being devoted to the promotion of the Orthodox model. It is a remarkable irony that nearly all that is being done in the name of sensitivity to Orthodoxy – including some of the work that I am doing – has the primary effect, if not also the purpose, of advancing the Reconstructionist model.

Friday, September 08, 2000

How Day Schools Still Struggle

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

A new school year is beginning. For Jewish day schools, this is another year of record enrollment, with nearly 200,000 students in as many as 800 schools around the country. The growth trend is certain to continue, as more schools are opened, existing schools expand and parents who previously were at best lukewarm to these institutions enroll their children.

There obviously is also much growth because of the remarkably high fertility rate within the chasidic and yeshiva-world sectors of Orthodoxy.

But while there is reason to celebrate this growth, with those who have supported day schools seeing ample returns on their investment, there is another side to the story. With some exceptions — mainly the more modern schools — day schools remain the stepchildren of Jewish philanthropy, with inadequate facilities and staff, curtailed programs and a constant struggle to make ends meet.

More than ever, the operating budget is met through tuition and other payments, an arrangement that departs from the historic communal responsibility for religious education and ensures that a growing number of families will find day school education beyond their reach.

This is not the only reason why potential day school enrollees end up elsewhere.

Too many day schools — again, especially those that are more modern — regard themselves as private institutions with real or inflated claims of academic excellence they do not want to have tarnished through the admission of applicants who appear to be weaker students. The Judaic mission gets lost in the shuffle, and there is scant evidence that the academic program is enhanced by the exclusionary policy.

The problem is exacerbated by a space shortage in many places, an outcome that in large measure reflects the new popularity of day schools. While there is an unprecedented building boom — literally dozens of schools are expanding or have plans to do so — it appears that more applicants than ever are being turned away because seats are not available for them. The space shortage is, at best, an explanation and not a justification for a situation which inevitably means that children whose Jewish future may well be determined by the education they receive are less likely to remain involved and committed Jews because they are being deprived of an opportunity that should be their birthright.

Orthodox day schools are not immune from the dubious practice of turning down applicants. It may be that they are the greatest practitioners of rejectionism, especially in the New York area, which is the heartland of American Orthodoxy. Minor behavioral problems can readily result in the rejection or even expulsion of students by trigger-happy principals whose principles of Torah education are out of sync with the teachings of Torah leaders on the subject. It is, after all, far easier to turn away a child than to attempt to mold him or her into a confident and successful student.

This is only a small part of a problem that is engulfing much of the Orthodox day school world.

While there are exceptions, this world has lost its sense of mission. Scant attention is now given to opening new schools, unless they are located in exotic places where the public relations quotient is inverse to the potential to attract students. Near Orthodoxy’s backyard there is little prospect that conventional day school educational needs will be addressed.

There is a tremendous space shortage in New York schools, especially in Brooklyn and Queens, and it is worsening by the year. Once more, this is not a justification, only an explanation. The space shortage is not an abstraction. It is a real-life situation affecting a great many families and children and causing pain among people who are deeply committed to a religious life.

This is apart from the chronic financial crisis confronting yeshivas and day schools. Chabad makes an effort to fulfill the need, although its results are at times problematic. Much is now being accomplished by the greatly underappreciated Rabbinical Seminary of America, a Queens-based group that makes little effort to publicize its notable contribution in establishing new day schools. By and large, though, the Orthodox day school world seems to act as if day school education is someone else’s responsibility.

Following the lead of the non-Orthodox and Jewish establishment, there is in the Orthodox day school world a powerful instinct to develop special projects that are crafted to attract philanthropic support, even when these projects have minimal direct impact on what goes on in yeshivas and day schools.

Anything that is called “training” or involves Israel is given priority and, sad to say, Orthodox funders have taken the bait. They are demonstrating, as some of the more secular super-rich have done for years, that philanthropic millions can add up to a great number of zeros.

There is a further instinct to develop kollels for advanced students, which would be entirely acceptable if this preference did not come at the expense of conventional day school education, and also if the determination to establish kollels did not come with the fanciful notion that in some supernatural way, the existence of a kollel can readily transform all the Jewish education that is below it. Important as they are, kollels cannot serve as surrogates for the hard work of building Torah from the bottom up.

When the day school movement returns to its basic mission, it will hopefully be possible to address the neglected educational needs of Jewish families and children.

Friday, September 01, 2000

September 2000 - RJJ Newsletter

It’s shortly before the opening of a new school year and nearly three months since a friend asked for help to get a girl who was about to graduate from a local Beth Jacob elementary school into a suitable high school. After much effort, I succeeded, thanks to a caring principal who exemplifies the best in Torah chinuch.

There is a high school attached to the Beth Jacob that she attended, but it would not accept her, despite the ruling of Rav Pam, Shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaath, that except if a student’s behavior raises serious questions, Beth Jacobs must accept their own graduates. So much for Daas Torah. That’s for the next school or next person, for the more modern crowd, and not for those in the yeshiva world whose “frumkeit” demonstrates their fidelity to Torah standards. They are therefore at liberty to disregard the counsel of Torah leaders.

This is what the unprincipled principal of this girls school has decided to do. It is his school – something like a private summer camp – and he alone will decide who gets admitted.

This one student’s predicament is not unique. The situation is repeated each year in hundreds of religious Jewish homes, mainly in the New York area, and the number is expanding rapidly. While attention is being paid to the problem of yeshiva dropouts and Orthodox teenagers at risk, we hardly seem to be aware of the school admissions crisis. We know little of the pain suffered by families seeking admission into yeshivas and Beth Jacobs.

The shortage of seats accounts for much of the problem. This is, at best, an explanation, not a justification. It is extraordinary and entirely unacceptable that at a time when we confidently proclaim the centrality of Torah education, we cannot provide sufficient space to accommodate families who want their children to study Torah.

Additional seats are needed – and perhaps additional schools, as well - and it is the responsibility of Roshei Yeshiva, Torah Umesorah and community leaders to take appropriate steps to ensure that Jewish children seeking a Jewish education get one. Right now, there are other priorities, often in distant places and often with the prospect of minimal benefits. I think it appalling how the pain of families in Orthodoxy’s backyard evokes a puny response.

RJJ has a responsibility, as well, and I wonder whether we are doing all that we can to reach out and attract students who could benefit from the religious and secular education that we offer. It has distressed me over the years that at least in one or two of our schools, we haven’t been as open or creative as we ought to be.

Space is only one of the contributing factors. There are children who are turned away because they are only average students or because their families are poor or without good connections.

It has been said that parents who are determined to send their children to yeshiva or day school ultimately manage to find institutions that will accept them. This is true for many families, but it is not true of others. There are families that perhaps because they are not sufficiently committed to a full Jewish education give up after one rebuff or two. In other situations, parents limit their children’s Jewish education to the elementary school grades because they know that they will not find a suitable high school.

I suspect that the number of Jewish children in the New York metropolitan area who do not attend a yeshiva or day school despite their parents initial effort is quite high. We do not know who these children are. They are, at most, anonymous faces in the American Jewish crowd. Yet, there is evidence that we are losing children and families in this fashion in the comprehensive census of day school enrollment that I conducted a year ago. Outreach and immigrant day schools enroll a surprisingly low number of students, this despite exaggerated claims to the contrary. At the same time, chassidic and yeshiva world schools do not accept children from marginally Jewish homes and the number attending centrist Orthodox institutions is declining rapidly.

Nearly all Orthodox enrollment growth is internal, arising especially from the high fertility rate in the yeshiva world and chassidic sectors of Orthodoxy. The percentage of outreach students is in decline and perhaps this is also true of the absolute number of outreach students. As a practical matter, the credibility and effectiveness of kiruv in North America is being severely undermined by the inability or unwillingness of Jewish schools to accommodate children from kiruv backgrounds.

In Brooklyn and Queens, there is what I would term, with regret and hesitancy, a lower tier of day schools that have liberal admission policies and which operate at a perilously low level of academic and religious achievement. While their leaders and faculty struggle to do a credible job, these institutions are literally starved for resources. Especially on the Jewish front, they cannot adequately accomplish their mission, so that too often their efforts end in disappointment as their students and graduates are ultimately lost to Judaism. Of course, these are children who were admitted into a Jewish school and presumably we should be satisfied. After all, we have fulfilled out responsibility. Or have we? Of course, these statistics of loss are never discussed.

Friday, August 11, 2000

A Mutual Obsession

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

Isn’t it delightful that Jews have become the chosen people of The New York Times, the two-tenths of 1 percent of the world’s population selected for special attention by the world’s most renowned newspaper?

If there was any doubt whether we had achieved this status, it was removed not long ago when Deborah Sontag, the Times’ Israel bureau chief, wrote breathlessly about the scandal of the Jewish National Fund planting trees that either could not take root or were being uprooted shortly after they were planted.

We can now sleep well knowing that JNF has been exposed, knowing that it can no longer make saps out of those who plant saplings in the Holy Land in memory of people they weren’t especially close to whom.

As the world burns in nearly the four corners of the earth, the Times knows that Jewish stories are inherently newsworthy. Hopefully we will now go on to bigger fish, perhaps to telling us who opens the blue and white JNF pushkes and what happens to their contents.

My dream story is why hundreds of thousands of dollars —maybe millions — of good Jewish philanthropic money is squandered each year on Times’ paid obituary notices that certainly are not read by the persons named therein.

Our exalted place in the newspaper of record is not the result of protekzia or, as anti-Semites are wont to believe, a Jewish conspiracy. We earned our preferred position the contemporary way — through an excess of obsession with things Jewish by Times editors and writers that has been reciprocated by our obsession with the newspaper. The match is perfect.

If a newspaper could be psychoanalyzed, we would get a stream-of-consciousness revelation of inner conflict, confusion and Judeo-phobia among scores of Timesmen who are or once were Jewish, starting with the Ochs’ — or is it Oakes? — and the Sulzbergers. For years, one of the consequences of this identity crisis was the unwritten rule that barred Jews from becoming the Times’ chief correspondent in Israel, a taboo broken when Thomas Friedman went from Beirut to Jerusalem.

The Times occasionally has sought to make amends for its sins against the Jews, as in its scarcely publicized apology for its silence as millions of Jews were being slaughtered in Europe. I wonder whether it’s comforting to think that the time may come when Mr. Sulzberger owns up to his newspaper’s tarnished record of Israel reportage.

Perhaps I am being unfair. We had for a long time the pro-Israel columns of A.M. Rosenthal — the initials are another consequence of the Times’ Jewish identity crisis — and William Safire. Even this comfort zone has become attenuated, for Mr. Rosenthal has gone, and now writes for the Daily News, while Mr. Safire has written less often about the Jewish state, perhaps because he is too mired in Clintonmania to pay attention to events far away.

The Times’ domestic coverage of Jewish affairs has shifted. There used to be an abundance of stories on conferences, speeches and press releases, the stuff that is the lifeblood of the dinosaurs known as major Jewish organizations. Theological issues are now covered in the religion column, while our communal life is generally treated as soft news or human-interest stories.

This has resulted in inordinate attention being given to the Orthodox, as in the recent article on intra-Orthodox squabbling in Borough Park over an eruv. I suppose that the Orthodox are more recognizable as Jews, or is the Times following the lead of the Jewish media?

As familiarity breeds contempt, excessive media attention inevitably breeds exaggeration of warts and failings.

This is the nub of what is wrong with the Times’ Israel coverage and its excessive focus on the Orthodox. I trust that I will not be accused of condoning any wrongdoing by suggesting that a person’s Orthodoxy does not belong in a newspaper story, except when as a consequence of the position that he or she holds or if the acts committed are integral to the story.

That is the standard the Times applies generally, except for the Orthodox. In articles on the New Jersey rabbi accused of arranging the murder of his wife, the Times had nothing to say about his denomination. But when a businessman with the first name Barry who happens to be Orthodox ran into financial difficulty because technology stocks nose-dived, his inconsequential tale ended up on the front page of the business section, where he was identified as Boruch Israel — to the surprise of his friends — and there was much irrelevant blathering about his being Orthodox. This triggered an immediate flurry of anti-Semitic postings on Yahoo!. Of course, the Times is not responsible for the misdeeds of others. Or was it in this case?

For all of its long, dreary record on things Jewish, The New York Times is by far the world’s most important Jewish newspaper, a status derived not from the truncated Judaism of the family that controls it or of the people who write for it.

Rather, it is for Jews the most important source for news. As we admire the Times for its strengths, we ought to be mindful of the other side of the ledger, the pain that it has caused to Jews and the pain that it will continue to cause so long as it is beset by a Jewish identity crisis.

Tuesday, July 11, 2000

Jewish Textbooks

The primary test – perhaps the only test – to determine the suitability of a textbook is whether it does the job, whether it provides students with the knowledge and skills that are required to go up the educational ladder and prepare for adulthood. Judged by this standard, the literature books developed by Mosdos and ArtScroll have succeeded. They are attractively produced, itself a critical factor to determine whether a textbook is an appropriate educational tool, and they contain challenging material.

They are not Jewish texts, although they are the product of what might be regarded as Jewish creativity. They are intended, in any case, for a considerably larger audience than can be provided by Orthodox institutions. If they do not succeed in penetrating this extended market, their economic viability is certain to be compromised. Just the same, it is to be hoped that a sufficient number of day schools and yeshivas will place orders, for this basic source of support is needed to provide encouragement to the visionary people who give birth to projects that are difficult to pull off and which until the very recent period would have been regarded as entirely outside the reach of the Orthodox community.

The literature textbooks – and I have looked at them – are quite selective, which is both intentional and inevitable. Whatever the economic goals that spurred their creation, there was from the outset a distinct ideological motive. Too many of the texts that are available for elementary and high school literature classes contain questionable material, not merely for religious Jewish youth but also for pre-teens and teens in public and non-public schools.

As for selectivity, that is the fate of all anthologies and literature texts. The roster of works that may be considered for inclusion dwarfs by far the number that can be included. Editors are required to make decisions. As much as they may want to avoid or deny it, their choices are influenced by personal tastes and their outlook.

It should be sufficient that what is included is suited intellectually for the intended grade level and that the accompanying material – as, for example, questions posed to students – are of sufficiently high intellectual caliber. Here, too, I believe that the two literature texts produced so far have met the mark.

Incidentally, I know that even in literature there are certain basic expectations and perhaps rules regarding inclusion, such as Shakespeare’s plays. However, elementary and high school students are not expected to master the Shakespearean canon; even here, there is room for selection and discernment.

This isn’t to suggest that the choices that are being made or, more precisely, what is being left out cannot be challenged. It would require thick blinders to be oblivious to what is occurring throughout much of Orthodoxy in the ever-greater distancing of the community from the host culture. While much of this can be easily defended in view of what the host culture now offers, there is a lamentable tendency to be too afraid, to think that the zones of exclusion have to be constantly expanded, lest we be accused of laxity. I doubt that it is necessary to exclude stories that simply refer to a boy and a girl or to non-Jewish holidays. While my reading of the textbooks leads me to believe that they are not informed by an over-developed penchant to exclude, the risk is there and we ought to be mindful of it.

This recognition raises cautionary questions about similarly sponsored textbooks in other fields, notably history and the sciences. These subjects are inherently different from literature in that there is core material that must be included and mastered. While there is room for interpretation, the curriculum requires that specific ground be covered in the texts that students are given.

History and science texts that are developed initially for an Orthodox market tread on sensitive ground. In history books, there is a need to treat such diverse subjects as the growth and importance of other religions, civil rights, Middle East conflict and the spread of freedom in the Western world. In science textbooks, especially biology, there are ethical and other issues that may raise serious difficulties for persons of an Orthodox point of view.

I would strongly caution against an exclusionary attitude. While I recognize that the question of how to treat evolution and what has been called creationism might best be left to competent Rabbinical authority, overall I would urge that our textbook writers not be overly sensitive.

I also am not enamored of the effort being made in more modern day schools to develop curricula that attempt to integrate Judaic and secular material. There are good reasons why these two parts of the educational program are separate and ought to remain so. Besides, on the evidence that is available so far, the integrated approach leads to a slighting of the Judaic material and to what I regard as an inadequate teaching of secular subjects.

It is difficult to know what lies ahead, for we are in the infancy of a new development. What we have seen so far is exciting and deserves to be encouraged.

Thursday, June 01, 2000

Gay Rights

For all of the obvious sexual overtones, gay rights have as much to do with culture and politics as with sexual behavior. The issue is caught up in the cultural wars that are a large part of contemporary life and it has become a magnet for the political correctness and counter-cultural crowds, attracting along the way those whose comfort zone is to rally against the status quo. As is true of other issues that have become great causes, it has become nearly impossible to challenge the gay rights movement without being accused of bigotry or worse.

There is no good reason why gay rights should not be given close, even critical, scrutiny. Those who believe that homosexuality is deviant or sinful must be able to express their views, free of the kind of unfortunate barrage that was unloosed against Laura Schlesinger. There is the First Amendment and we have been told often enough that it affords protection to those whose views we may regard as abhorrent. In fact, what Schlesinger and others of a similar outlook have said about homosexuality is found in medical and psychological textbooks.

The private sexual behavior of adults is a personal matter and this specifically includes homosexuality or other activities that maybe regarded as wrongful. None of us has the right to intrude in the private domain of others and there is no more fundamental right than the right to privacy. Privacy cuts two ways and it is, I believe, legitimate to ask whether the movement of gay rights into the public arena has removed the protection from outside scrutiny that homosexuality would likely enjoy if it were only a matter of private conduct. Gay rights is today the advocacy of attitudes and behavior, an invitation to others to embrace a particular lifestyle. This invitation may generate legitimate criticism.

The gay rights movement extends beyond claims of privacy and the right to be protected against discrimination in the job market. In promoting a particular lifestyle, there is a measure of invasion of the privacy of others. To be fair, we all experience invasions of our privacy regarding other matters. It may be argued that the promotion of gay rights is no different than the expression of other forms or expression of behavior. Persons who may welcome laws that ban discrimination against gays may also oppose laws that sanction gay marriages or other forms of legally sanctioned unions and they should be able to do so without being accused of bigotry.

The bigotry gambit is crucial to gay rights, for it is the club used to trample on the free speech righs of critics. In any event, gay rights is not a movement of the downtrodden, claims of victimization notwithstanding. There have been acts of discrimination and violence and they must not be condoned, but their wrongness can scarcely create statistics of mass victimization. There is nothing in the contemporary treatment of homosexuals that even remotely approaches the ongoing discrimination and worse faced by Blacks and other minorities. In the aggregate, gays constitute a privileged class. They are people of relatively high socio-economic status and achievement, indeed, a group that in key social and cultural respects can be regarded as an elite.

This privileged status is evident in social and cultural activities ranging from Broadway to Hollywood and many places in-between. In the media, publishing, fashion and design, advertising and marketing – in virtually every area that is crucial to public opinion formation – gays are in a strong position. They have access to the machinery of public relations as well as money, and they have substantial pools of talent which facilitate the successful marketing of what they are advocating.

Victimization claims are a key element in ethnic group politics, as members assert that the outside world is the enemy. There is a touch of paranoia in ethnic group claims, in large measure because ethnocentricity breeds distrust. Even so, the gay rights movement is unique in the gap between reality and fantasy. Rarely have so many with so much claimed to have so little.

As the gay rights movement has usurped the civil rights agenda, it has – perhaps inadvertently – relegated pressing social concerns to the back pages or oblivion. Little attention is given these days to the minorities or the poor, including the working poor who are perhaps the greatest victims in contemporary life. I believe that the reason for this is that in both attitude and behavior, homosexuality is closer to home for middle and upper middle class whites who can now convince themselves that they are fulfilling their obligation to assist the needy by enlisting in the gay rights cause.

I do not know of any data relating to the incidence of homosexuality among American Jews or their attitudes on the subject, although I imagine that statistics are available. NJPS 2000, which is now underway, does not include questions on the issue. The assumption, in Jewish circles and outside, is that Jewish support for gay rights is extremely high, even in its more radical demands, such as the acceptance of gay marriages.

This is not surprising in view of the familiar American Jewish embrace of all that falls within the ambit of political correctness. As for traditional Jewish views of family life or religious strictures relating to homosexuality, it will be a small miracle if such concerns give the large majority of American Jews and their organizations even a moment for pause. Nearly all of our religious heritage has been jettisoned and what remains is mainly antithetical to what Judaism has meant over the centuries.

For all of the astonishment over the recent Reform acceptance of gay unions, that decision was taken on a well-trodden road. The tenuous links that remain with the Judaic heritage will be further tested, for modernity is a powerful dynamic force that permits no equilibrium. For the present, the acceptance of gay unions should make those of us who believe in a unified American Jewish community consider whether this transparent unity deserves to be maintained.

Friday, May 19, 2000

How Israel Touts Shoah Revisionism

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

On the day that a British judge ruled that Deborah Lipstadt had not libeled David Irving when she called him a Holocaust denier, I read an article by Yoram Hazony in The New Republic pointing out how Israeli school textbooks are downplaying the horrors of the Holocaust, including substituting graphic photos of living skeletons for photographs like one captioned “A concentration camp” showing three or four apparently healthy men walking around.

Hazony is the president of the Shalem Center, a neo-conservative Israeli think tank that has earned respect for the quality of its research and fairness of presentation. His article is a powerful, yet balanced, piece of writing that presents a distressing picture, with Israeli Holocaust revisionism the most unsettling feature. As Hazony puts it, similar pictures in German textbooks “would have the Jewish world up in arms.”

Historical revisionism, impelled by ultra-secular writers, is the order of the day in Israeli academic and educational circles. Some of this writing is blatantly anti-Israel, resembling the pseudo-histories published in the U.S. that blamed this country for the Cold War. While the collapse of the USSR and the revelations that flowed from Soviet archives have put the fabricators to rout, the story in Israel is quite different as the revisionists have, at least for the moment, gained the upper hand.

As Hazony documents, the rewriting of Israel’s history — including the elision of Zionism from textbooks — is not countercultural. It is encouraged by government officials and powerful secular elites. But while the rewriting of Israel’s history is a matter that can be left for Israelis to work out, Holocaust revisionism is the business of Jews everywhere. Israel must be called to task for the sin of attempting to minimize the unspeakable tragedy that befell the Jewish people.

The onslaught against historical truth in Israel has gained momentum during the past year, ever since Prime Minister Barak gave control of the Education Ministry to Yossi Sarid, an ultra-secularist with a determined left-wing agenda. There have been socialist and left-leaning governments in Western democracies since World War II and none has empowered an ideologue of Sarid’s stripe to do what he has been permitted to do in the educational domain.

His most grotesque act so far has mandated that high school students be taught poems written by a Palestinian extremist, including one that describes Israeli Jews as “flying insects.” Can any of us imagine a like situation in any other country?

Sarid’s rabid secularism encompasses an antipathy to religion that was well advertised prior to his appointment. He now has the clout to translate this outlook into policy and he has not been modest about using it, as in his harsh actions against Shas and other religious schools. Still, I wish that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’ leader, would not have verbally attacked Sarid, if only because I believe that, as in some form of Gresham’s Law, the spiritual message is demeaned when it is combined with a political message.

In truth, Rabbi Yosef’s words were misinterpreted and they also must be understood in the context of his heroic effort to reverse decades of discrimination in Israel against Sephardic Jews and to restore the grandeur that for many generations was their legacy.

There is no gainsaying that Sephardim have been treated as second-class citizens. Their housing has been inferior, as are the schools that educate their children, many of whom have been on a fast track to educational failure and its inevitable follow-up, social pathologies.

Through Shas and its network of social services, youth organizations and schools, Rabbi Yosef has given many Sephardim a new sense of self-respect and also hope. Students in Shas schools perform significantly better than those from similar backgrounds who attend state schools. They remain in school longer and are far less prone to succumb to drugs or other social ailments that have eroded the fabric of Sephardic life.

The improvement has been noted by parents who want more Shas schools and services and by ultra-secularists whose determination to reject Judaism’s religious past exceeds their determination to revise Israel’s historic record. They now have a champion in Yossi Sarid. It obviously is better to tolerate educational failure and social failure than to have Jewish kids exposed in a meaningful way to Judaism.

While our media have jumped all over Rabbi Yosef, Sarid’s anti-religious bias has evoked little critical comment. The explanation, I believe, is that American Jews overwhelmingly share this bias, even as they promote themselves as tolerant and free of bigotry.

So we get a constant drumbeat proclaiming that the Orthodox are coercive. Since only the Orthodox say that this isn’t so, the charge must be truthful. Of course, it isn’t coercive to use governmental leverage to wean children away from religion. And it isn’t coercive to require Israeli textbooks to include material that is hostile to Israel. From the look of things, it is also OK to incorporate Holocaust revisionism into these texts, to alter student understanding of Auschwitz. Crematoria? There were smiling Jews in those pictures.

Thursday, May 04, 2000

Yossi Sarid

On the day that a British judge ruled that Deborah Lipstadt had not libeled David Irving when she called him a Holocaust denier, I read the following in The New Republic.

“Also spirited out [of history textbooks] are the grisly photographs traditionally used to give students a graphic taste of what the destruction of Europe’s Jews really meant. Instead, there are new photos . . . . the photograph captioned ‘A concentration camp’ shows three or four apparently healthy men walking around; the one captioned ‘The Auschwitz camp’ shows nothing worse than the backs of hundreds of people in striped clothes walking in formation; the one captioned ‘Jewish women released from a concentration camp’ shows a group of seemingly well-fed, smiling matrons. The Jews digging their own graves at gunpoint, the mounds of bodies, the gas chambers, the living skeletons after the war? These pictures appeared in the old books, but now they are gone.”

There is no point asking readers to identify the country whose textbooks are being described, since many probably read Yoram Hazony’s essay on Israeli textbooks when it appeared about a month ago. Hazony is the president of Shalem Center, a neo-conservative Israeli think tank that has earned respect for the quality of its research and fairness of presentation. His article is a powerful, yet balanced, piece of writing and it is devoid of polemics. It presents a distressing picture, of which Israeli Holocaust revisionism is the most unsettling feature. As Hazony puts it, similar pictures in German textbooks “would have the Jewish world up in arms.”

Historical revisionism, impelled by ultra-secular writers, is the order of the day in Israeli academic and educational circles. Some of this writing is blatantly anti-Israel, resembling the pseudo-histories published in the U.S. that blamed this country for the Cold War. While the collapse of the USSR and the revelations that flowed from Soviet archives have put the fabricators to rout, the story in Israel is quite different as the revisionists have, at least for the moment, gained the upper hand.

As Hazony documents, the rewriting of Israel’s history – including the elision of Zionism from textbooks – is not countercultural. It is encouraged by government officials and powerful secular elites. While the rewriting of Israel’s history is a matter that can be left for Israelis to work out, Holocaust revisionism is the business of Jews everywhere. Israel must be called to task for the sin of attempting to minimize the unspeakable tragedy that befell the Jewish people.

The onslaught against historical truth in Israel has gained momentum during the past year, ever since Prime Minister Barak gave control of the Education Ministry to Yossi Sarid, an ultra-secularist with a determined left-wing agenda. There have been socialist and left-leaning governments in western democracies since WWII and none has empowered an ideologue of Mr. Sarid’s stripe to do what he has been permitted to do in the educational domain.

His most grotesque act so far has mandated that high school students be taught poems written by a Palestinian extremist, including one that describes Israeli Jews as “flying insects.” Can any of us imagine a like situation in any other country?

Mr. Sarid’s rabid secularism encompasses an antipathy to religion that was well advertised prior to his appointment. He now has the clout to translate this outlook into policy and he has not been modest about using it, as in his harsh actions against Shas and other religious schools. Still, I wish that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’ leader, would not have verbally attacked Mr. Sarid, if only because I believe that, as in some form of Gresham’s Law, the spiritual message is demeaned when it is combined with a political message.

In truth, Rabbi Yosef’s words were misinterpreted and they also must be understood in the context of his heroic effort to reverse decades of discrimination in Israel against Sephardic Jews and to restore the grandeur that for many generations was their legacy.

There is no gainsaying that Sephardim have been treated as second class citizens. Their housing has been inferior, as are the schools that educate their children, many of whom have been on a fast track to educational failure and its inevitable follow-up, social pathologies.

Through Shas and its network of social services, youth organizations and schools, Rabbi Yosef has given many Sephardim a new sense of self-respect and also hope. Students in Shas schools perform significantly better than those from similar backgrounds who attend state schools. They remain in school longer and are far less prone to succumb to drugs or other social ailments that have eroded the fabric of Sephardic life.

The improvement has been noted by parents who want more Shas schools and services and by ultra-secularists whose determination to reject Judaism’s religious past exceeds their determination to revise Israel’s historic record. They now have a champion in Yossi Sarid. It obviously is better to tolerate educational failure and social failure than to have Jewish kids exposed in a meaningful way to Judaism.

While our media have jumped all over Rabbi Yosef, Mr. Sarid’s anti-religious bias has evoked little critical comment. The explanation, I believe, is that American Jews overwhelmingly share this bias, even as they promote themselves as tolerant and free of bigotry.

So we get a constant drumbeat proclaiming that the Orthodox are coercive. Since only the Orthodox say that this isn’t so, the charge must be truthful. Of course, it isn’t coercive to use governmental leverage to wean children away from religion. And it isn’t coercive to require Israeli textbooks to include material that is hostile to Israel. From the look of things, it is also okay to incorporate Holocaust revisionism into these texts, to alter student understanding of Auschwitz. Crematoria? There were smiling Jews in those pictures.

Friday, April 21, 2000

Barak’s Immodest Diplomacy

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

Of the bastard progeny emanating from the despicable murder of Yitzchak Rabin, none is to be more regretted than the curtailment of criticism of Israeli leaders who wear the mantle of peace-makers. What is legitimate, even routine, in most democracies has become difficult, something to be avoided, lest the critic be accused of promoting violence against public officials.

Put simply, those who believe that Israel’s security is being compromised by Ehud Barak’s territorial concessions must couch their criticism in careful language.

Of course, many critics of the peace process undermined their credibility by seeming to prefer a permanent state of war over any peace agreement. Holding on to every cubit of territory gained in war was apparently more to their liking than the prospect of an agreement with the Arabs.

But a new realism has infiltrated the mind-set of the settlement and nationalist camps, so that when Barak took office, there was widespread recognition in these circles that concessions had to be made, that not every settlement or spot of land justified forfeiting the opportunity to make peace.

Curiously, at the other end of the ideological spectrum, a mind-set of absolutism paralleling what has now been abandoned by what is conveniently called the right wing has taken root in the most dovish elements of Israeli society. In this influential camp, approval is given to all that comes packaged in wrapping that is labeled “peace.” Details scarcely matter, nor is any price too costly to pay.

With Barak in control, Israel seems poised to give Hafez Assad and Yasir Arafat nearly all of their key demands. All of the Golan Heights to the Sea of Galilee and nearly to Tiberias is under consignment to Syria, with the Palestinians getting most of the West Bank, some of Jerusalem and reparations for Israeli sins.

We are assured that Israel’s security is guaranteed because it will say so in various documents. American troops, dollars and commitments are promised as co-signers. With malice toward none, not even toward Assad’s butchery, and equal blindness to history, we are asked to believe that today’s assurances are tomorrow’s insurance policy.

In a trenchant front-page column, Gary Rosenblatt recently asked whether Barak is going too far. I have additional questions regarding the prime minister’s negotiating style and whether Israel should pause to consider the lesson to be drawn from Oslo.

It cannot be gainsaid that Mr. Barak was elected on a peace platform and that until Israel’s voters decide otherwise, he has a mandate. But I wonder whether it includes disregarding commonly accepted rules of diplomacy.

There are good reasons why diplomatic negotiations are ordinarily not conducted at the summit during their preliminary stages. Until the contours of an agreement are reached, it is prudent to negotiate at a lower level. This allows the person on top to avoid direct pressure to make concessions and to reflect on what has been achieved by seasoned diplomats. In an excess of hubris, Barak decided to negotiate directly with the Syrians, brushing off Assad’s absence and the brush-off aimed at him by Syria’s foreign minister. Of course, those who are convinced of their invincibility need not pay heed to such inconsequential matters.

This misjudgment was compounded by a failure to take into account the implications of President Clinton’s final year. He is about nine months away from being an ex-president, and even closer to lame-duck status. The imperatives of the constitutional calendar impel Clinton to yearn for a decisive feather in his cap in the form of Middle East peace agreements, an accomplishment that whatever it may mean for Israel would fortify his place in history. Israel is gratuitously vulnerable to intense pressure from an administration that is winding down.

To make matters worse, Barak has a quirky penchant to set deadlines, a tactic that puts pressure on himself and Israel but no one else. If the deadlines are not met, he and Israel are judged to have failed on the peace front.

I doubt that a crash course in basic diplomacy would improve the situation, in view of Barak’s oversized estimation of his talent. But we should be willing to say that this is not the way to conduct diplomacy.

Israel must continue to strive for peace, taking risks along the way. There is a collateral obligation to understand what has happened since Oslo. That agreement was a testing-the-water exercise, which is why it was to be implemented in stages. For all that Israel has yielded — and more is to come — anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric has scarcely abated in the Arab world. We have grown accustomed to Arafat’s duplicitous use of moderate language when speaking in English and his strikingly different Arabic messages.

I guess we are supposed to shrug it off, as Israel’s leaders apparently do, and imagine that all the hate directed against Jews is just play-acting, that giving the Golan to Syria will mean that its textbooks will be purged of their anti-Israel content and the country’s media will no longer employ Der Sturmer-like cartoons and Nazi-era language to describe Jews.

Are we seriously to believe that signed agreements will result in a vast attitudinal transformation in the Arab world, that the spigot of hate will be turned off? It hasn’t happened as yet in Egypt.

We have just had something of an apology from the Pope for the Church’s sins against Jews. Adequate or not, there is universal recognition that centuries of drumming the message of anti-Jewish hatred into the Christian mind established an environment conducive to the Holocaust. If we — including Israeli leaders — believe that teaching children to hate is dangerous business, how can we fail to consider the frightening implications of the culture of hatred that permeates nearly all of the Arab world?

Friday, March 03, 2000

Unholy Description Of ‘Kadosh’

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

The point to be understood about racism or other forms of bigotry is that, as hateful as they may seem to others, these views are regarded as truthful by those who express them. So it has been regarding what is written about Orthodox Jews. The term “ultra-Orthodox” — innocent to those who use it — is meant to convey fanaticism and worse, yet it has been incorporated into the vernacular as the appropriate way to describe a great many religious Jews whose main sin is to live according to the dictates of their religion.

Bigotry is a dynamic social and emotional force. Left unchecked, it feeds on itself and grows and becomes uglier. While anti-Orthodox bias has become routinized, it escalates as it takes on ever-nastier overtones.

An example is the remarkable New York Times review of “Kadosh” (Hebrew for “sacred”), a movie by Amos Gital, an ultra-secular Israeli.

Movies are a form of expression, therefore also protected speech. Amos Gital has the right to make whatever movies are conjured up by his disturbed fantasies. But the right to speak does not mean that what is spoken is right, as is evident in the nearly universal condemnation of hate speech. Mr. Gital can go about bashing the Orthodox, but we should recognize his hate for what it is.

Stephen Holden, the Times’ reviewer, knows that “Kadosh” is a work of fiction, at least in the particular story that is being told. But he takes the ugly incidents depicted in the movie as reflections of what life is like among the very Orthodox. After telling us about rebellious Rivka, who is forced to marry Yossef, “a boorish, rabble-rousing fanatic who rattles around Jerusalem in a sound truck broadcasting millennial screeds, “Mr. Holden writes:

“Their wedding night scene would be the stuff of grotesque comedy if it weren’t so cruel. After hastily removing as few clothes as necessary, Yossef climbs on the bed, pulls the covers over them and without so much as kissing his bride, or even looking her in the face, brutally lunges at her as she screams in agony. Later, when he suspects her of infidelity, Yossef goes ballistic and viciously beats her with a belt.”

This is fiction, of course, just a movie by someone who doesn’t like the Orthodox, except that the reviewer continues: “The sort of oppression endured by the women in ‘Kadosh,’ of course, is not limited to ultra-Orthodox Jews. It is just as virulent among Moslem fundamentalists and extreme sects in other religions. At its heart is a fear and loathing of sex that originates largely from a primitive notion of women’s bodies as essentially unclean.”

So the fiction is reality because Orthodox Jews — or at least the “ultra” variety — rape their wives, beat them with belts, etc. We Orthodox can perhaps take a measure of comfort in that we are in the company of other religions.

Stephen Holden doesn’t have data to support his remarkable assertion, as there isn’t any. I would bet 10 to 1 that if a study was conducted, the incidence of spousal rape and abuse would be 10 times greater among the non-Orthodox. But the truth would hardly matter, for a network of stereotypes about the Orthodox has been formed and it has become embedded in the way that these religious Jews are described.

While Mr. Holden breaks new ground in the viciousness of his words, his path has been well prepared by a stream of articles in the general press and nearly every Jewish newspaper in the world. It is easy to believe the fantasy, as devoid as it is of any reality, because the myth has been transmitted via so many presumably reliable publications. When our own media stop regarding Orthodox Jews — or many of them — as fanatics who engage in bizarre, abusive and wrongful behavior, we might expect that outsiders will have a more balanced view. Until then, as a reviewer wrote in, of all places, Israel’s daily Haaretz, “We have become our own anti-Semites.”

As I have noted often, the Orthodox have problems. They are not entirely immune from the pathologies in the world around them. Because there is a high degree of intra-communal awareness and a heightened sense of responsibility, the tendency is to address internal problems, as is apparent in the large number of Orthodox-sponsored voluntary groups that provide an impressive array of social services.

In a way, this candor backfires, as when the media focus on a problem area — drugs are the current favorite — and make the situation seem worse than it is.

There are difficult spots, to be sure, but more than any other group I know of, the Orthodox attempt to deal with what is painful or aberrant.

It is now acknowledged that population surveys systematically undercount the Orthodox. Reports of their deviance or wrongful behavior invariably are exaggerations. If we accept as credible all of the statistics, it appears that at least 150 percent of all Orthodox Jews are dysfunctional. Happily, this statistical anomaly is readily explained when we recognize that many Orthodox exhibit multiple behavioral disorders.

Wednesday, March 01, 2000

A Statement on Jewish Education

(Originally published by the American Jewish Committee)

It is comforting to know that after a century of day schools on these shores, a corner has finally been turned and American Jewry is prepared to embrace these institutions by providing them with the spiritual, intellectual, and — hopefully — financial resources they require. There are good reasons for optimism, for believing that we are at long last on the right path. Day school enrollment is up, notably in the non-Orthodox sectors where it has been lagging, and the trend is certain to continue as new schools are established and additional families that must be regarded as Jews at risk recognize the importance of a meaningful Jewish education. The naysayers appear to be gone with the wind or at least silenced and marginalized. Day schools have become legitimate, the in thing. Stories about them fill the pages of our publications. Philanthropic support has increased, and the vast new wealth attained in the recent period has resulted in a building boom in the day school world.

Everything is apparently coming up roses for day schools, as the longtime votaries of these institutions sense that their dreams are being fulfilled, their advocacy heeded, their efforts rewarded.

But if all is hunky-dory in dayschoolville, why did Jack Wertheimer write a scathing essay for Commentary with the provocative title "Who’s Afraid of Jewish Day Schools?" and why has the Jewish Council on Public Affairs retreated from its limited acceptance of modest and indirect government benefits to sectarian schools? More disturbingly, perhaps, after all of the attention and effort, why is enrollment in non-Orthodox day schools only 40,000, a small percentage of the school-age children in Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated homes? What are we to make of the statistics of enrollment in non-Orthodox high schools? The figure is fewer than 2,500. Furthermore, there are parallel statistics which indicate that, in non-Orthodox schools, enrollment is heavily geared to the preschool and early elementary grades. More tellingly, are we certain that day schools can do the job that we want them to do, that they can arrest and effectively counteract the powerful assimilatory forces that are integral to the lives of all Jews at risk and that ultimately impel many of our youth away from a lasting Jewish commitment?

In a word, where is the evidence to back up the heady claims being made by day school proponents? In the main, this evidence comes from the experience of the Orthodox, most of whom have life patterns that are significantly different from those of other Jews.

The purpose of these questions is to provide a necessary antidote to the unbridled optimism that informs too much of the discussion of Jewish education, especially the day school sector. It is not my aim to rain on the day school parade. There is, I suppose, a touch of heresy in the questions I am asking, for all of my adult life I have been an advocate of day schools.

They spring, in fact, from a fierce belief that day schools are far and away the best that we have in Jewish education and about the best that we have to counteract Judaic abandonment. I hope that these questions and others like them will force us to think more deeply about the day school phenomenon, what these schools are about and what they can accomplish in an environment that for most Jewish families is antithetical to the mission of meaningful religious Jewish education. There is good news about day schools, to be sure, but the good news is only part of the story.

Even as we focus on the problematic side of the day school equation, as I will, it remains that a great deal has been achieved in recent years. It’s just that the work isn’t done, not by a long shot. Day schools need cheerleading because they have been starved for affection, because after being treated for so long as the stepchildren of Jewish communal life they need tender loving care. It is good for their spirit, maybe also for business as day schools become stylish for Jews who had shunned them.

Even as their status has improved, the economic lot of most of these institutions has not. Excluding yeshiva-world and Hasidic schools, the strong tendency is to view the education that is being provided as a product that is sold to consumers who happen to be parents. As with other goods and services, the expectation is that the consumer will pay the regular price, irrespective of financial ability. This means, of course, that some children, mainly in middle-class homes, are being turned away.

Despite the confident claims that the number is substantial, it is impossible to figure out how many potential students are not enrolled in day schools because of parental financial constraints. American Jewry, after all, is not quite in the poorhouse. There are bar/bat mitzvahs of non-day schoolers that, when all costs are factored in, are about as expensive as eight or ten years of day school tuition. Cost is obviously important for some American Jews who remain on the day school sidelines, but probably not for most of those who prefer private schools or strong public schools for their children because they believe that these institutions are stronger and that supplementary education is sufficient.

While economic considerations may themselves not be a disincentive for most parents who reject the day school option or who limit their children’s attendance to the early years, the poor financial condition of too many of these schools and the limited philanthropic support they receive result in unattractive facilities and curtailed academic programs that do not offer the enhancements or variety available at the competing, non-Jewish institutions.

Philanthropic support has gone up, of course. However, the new funding is usually targeted for discrete projects and not to the institutions themselves. In the federation-centered philanthropic arrangement, the tendency was to give direct subventions to day schools. As inadequate as this assistance may have been in many instances, the schools themselves were helped, to one extent or another.

The new boys on the block—the emerging and increasingly powerful world of private Jewish foundations—do not believe in this approach. Like foundations generally, they are project-oriented. Teacher-training and curriculum development are perennial favorites in this philanthropic sector, as they are in public education. A reliable barometer for determining what to invest in in Jewish education is to examine, rather uncritically, what is preferred in the public sector, without much heed to the obvious circumstance that, despite endless rounds of reform, public education does not appear to be in good shape.

The upshot is that there are private Jewish foundations blessed with good intentions without much of a clue about Jewish education that scurry around as they replicate what is currently correct in the education field, without regard to effectiveness or overlap. The day schools themselves tend to get lost in the shuffle, so that there are institutions all over the Jewish educational landscape that, while poorly housed and poorly fed, are blessed with philanthropic dollars that allow administrators, teachers, and students to travel to Israel, attend conferences, take special courses, and engage in other rather pleasant activities that allegedly enhance the educational product. All of this is marketed as advancing Jewish education.

Unless there is greater appreciation of the value of philanthropic networking and also of the need to give direct assistance to underfunded schools, we will be in for a stream of announcements hyping wondrous grants and activities, all of which will result in little im-provement in schools that cannot attract parents who are comparison shoppers and who are turned off by the, at times, pathetic facilities and puny programs.

For all of their limitations, day schools have a splendid track record. The indicators of weakness are easy to point to—inadequate buildings, poorly stocked libraries, outdated computer rooms, and limited curriculums—and yet, when they are measured by student performance on standardized tests or college admissions or career success, day schools do well.

And this is without factoring in the Jewish benefits.

There is something wonderful and mysterious about the success of day school students, something that cannot be explained by the ordinary accounting that informs too much of society’s understanding of what makes for good education. Top-flight facilities and elaborate and innovative academic programs are, of course, to be desired, but they do not provide any guarantee that the product will work, no more than their absence can serve as a certain predictor of educational failure. Everything else being equal, it’s good to have the accoutrements, but everything else is never equal in education. What counts most for educational effectiveness is the environment, whether the school is a place where study and intellectual curiosity and growth are paramount, whether there is a culture that promotes learning.

Jewish schools succeed far beyond what might be expected of them because they are inherently infused with a spirit of educational purposefulness. The ideals and attributes, as well as the positive approach to texts, that imbue these places of learning serve these youngsters, their families, and society well during their formative years and later on. The strongly positive study ethic leads to a strongly positive work ethic.

Day school accomplishments are not myths. What is fanciful are the reasons given by community officials who justify their lack of enthusiasm for day schools—in Wertheimer’s phrase, they are afraid of day schools—by exaggerating the problems of these institutions and ignoring their successes. A prime example is the charge that day schools do not promote social integration. Jewish schools are inherently exclusionary in that they are for Jewish students, which is to say they are not for 98 percent of the population. But it is wrong to build on this inevitability the claim that day school graduates do not ultimately fit in with the rest of society. They do, as is evident in the academic world, in professions, in the workplace, and many other settings.

Some day schools fail on the Judaic side, particularly in their religious education and socialization of young Jews at risk. In too many places, the religious ambiance and program is threadbare or minimalist, so the schools can scarcely promote an abiding Jewish commitment. The sense of educational purposefulness that is richly evident on the secular side is not matched by a corresponding sense of religious purposefulness.

This deficit is manifested in several ways. The Jewish program takes a backseat to the core academic curriculum, often amounting to no more hours than are provided in typical supplementary schools. As in supplementary schools the course work is basic, focusing on Hebrew language skills, a touch of Bible study, attention to the holidays and, at times, to certain observances. What is lacking is spirit and intensity, the recognition that a concerted effort must be made to raise the religious consciousness of the children, else their Jewish instruction ultimately will be lost in a sea of assimilatory tidal waves.

What is or should be distinctive about Jewish schools is their Jewish component. As important as the regular academic program may be, it is not the reason why the institution is brought into being. When a school community—its lay leaders, educators, and parents—lose sight of this, the day school is apt to be regarded as a begrudging choice whose attractiveness diminishes as grade level rises. Small wonder that a considerable proportion of non-Orthodox day schoolers are transferred out before completion of the full complement of elementary school grades. As for Jewish high schools, even for most day school families it is not on the radar screen.

As important as day schools are, some of the rhetoric about their transformative potential among Jews at risk is overblown. It takes determination to bring about transformative results and where it is lacking, as it is in many day schools, we ought not expect miracles.

It is evident that day schools—all of the non-Orthodox and some of the Orthodox—are caught in a dilemma. If they aim too high Jewishly, they are likely to turn off Jewish involved families that are on the fringe regarding day schools. Their children will not be sent if the day school is regarded as "too Jewish," as significantly above the Judaic level of the home.

But if the schools aim too low, as is now often the case, they probably can attract more students, but their defining-down of Judaism will inevitably result in disappointing outcomes. Several researchers have noted that the admission into non-Orthodox schools of children who are further removed from Jewish commitment than the core school population may result in the dilution of a day schools’ mission and effectiveness.

It is facile to suggest that day schools should aim down the middle of the Jewish road. Rather, it is better for their leaders, advocates, and parents to understand that a day school education is not a quick fix or a guarantor of lasting Jewish involvement. Statistically it provides better results than any other educational approach; even so, the ability of day schools to succeed in a Jewish sense has been compromised by the compromises made in American Jewish life during the century that has just ended.

If day school education is oversold, support for the product will be short-lived, as evidence appears pointing to its limited effectiveness. But, because they are the best shot we have to limit our losses, perhaps also to recapture lost ground in a modest number of Jewish homes, there are reasons enough to rally around them and to open new schools and expand those that exist.

As for their Judaic content, critical as it is, after visiting a great number of schools and reflecting on my ardent advocacy of the concept of religious purposefulness, I have come to recognize that change in the desired direction is severely limited by imperatives of time and curriculum and by parental expectations. Change will not come in response to outside advocacy, except perhaps very slowly. It can result only from awareness within the community that comprises each school that it is in the interest of all to enhance the sense of religious purposefulness.

Since this is a long shot in many places and, at best, a slow process everywhere else, Judaic enhancement for day school students can come from programming that does not challenge the imperatives of time, curriculum, and parental expectations. As a practical matter, this means outside programming that reinforces and adds to what can be derived from the day school experience. This programming should encompass youth activities, camping, Israel experiences, innovative synagogue services, extracurricular activity such as Shabbatonim and whatever else can bring children into an informally linked network of Jewish contacts and consciousness-raising. The hope is that with day schools as the centerpiece, children will grow in Judaism and this growth will be maintained as adulthood approaches.

It follows that the debate over the relative merit of different types of continuity activities is an idle, perhaps unhealthy, exercise. We need to invest—financially and emotionally—in a range of activities, hopefully in a linked fashion.

It follows, as well, that because the reach of day school obviously does not extend to the vastly greater number of homes and children who prefer supplementary education, if we are not to concede defeat about the Jewish prospect of such children, they too must be brought into the ambit of networked activities. In the aggregate, the Jewish prospects of day schoolers are brighter, yet statistically reality compels that careful attention be paid to Jewish children in supplementary schools.

As for children who receive no Jewish schooling, Jewish messages and programming generally do not enter their homes or lives. While serendipity occasionally brings about unexpected results, it is rather difficult to plan or program for serendipity.

But we can target the children in Jewish schools and their families. The debate over priorities—over assigning relative value to different continuity activities—arises from communal parsimony and not from a determination to weed out activities that are ineffective. The American Jewish community is affluent, and it manages to sustain a huge infrastructure that is as impotent as it is unnecessary. If priorities are to be set and funding shifted, they should be in the direction of day schools and other Jewish education and away from the feeding of a bloated infrastructure.

The triage mentality that now dominates communal thinking and philanthropic actions relating to Jewish education guarantees that results will be slow and puny.

We are lacking the will, not the resources, to try more and to accomplish more. Even where there is sufficient commitment, as in the private foundations, there is too often a lack of an understanding of the field or of the need to have cooperative ventures. As we seek to attain a newer level of support for Jewish education, we must recognize that new arrangements are needed. What didn’t work in the past will not work in the future. If we package yesterday’s result, we will forfeit the opportunity for a brighter Jewish tomorrow in many Jewish homes.

Friday, February 04, 2000

Population Crisis

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

If all had gone according to plan, phones would be ringing in homes across the U.S. to select 5,000 presumed Jewish households for the year 2000 National Jewish Population Survey. For these chosen people, hopefully representative of the other six million or so American Jews, there would be an intensive follow-up barrage of questions about Jewish involvement and other matters of interest to demographers.

As we know, NJPS 2000 has been delayed, in part because it is the victim of a nasty fight within the small unfriendly fraternity of statisticians who fancy themselves experts on Jewish communal life. Although vast resources of time and money have already been expended, critics have at least temporarily undermined a much-heralded project that promised to reveal the state of American Jewry at the dawn of the new century and millennium. We will have to wait a bit longer to learn whether the doleful news conveyed by NJPS 1990 has been confirmed a decade later.

Despite heady and inaccurate assertions to the contrary, the 1990 findings were questioned early on, including by this writer. The central claim that the intermarriage rate had risen to 52 percent was challenged by Steve Cohen, primarily on the ground that second marriages and other sociological factors that tipped the data in the direction of a higher intermarriage rate should not have been included in the calculation. Now at Hebrew University, he continues to be a tough critic of NJPS, although when it suits his purposes he relies on the 1990 data.

In a Jan. 10 communication to an overseas foundation, Cohen conveyed statistics derived from NJPS 1990 that purport to show a remarkable rate of abandonment of Orthodoxy. One of the widely acknowledged flaws of the 1990 study is its significant undercounting of the Orthodox. Perhaps more to the point, the 1990 data did not distinguish — perhaps it could not — between persons who were raised in homes that were Orthodox only by affiliation and homes where halacha was the norm.

The over-reliance by NJPS on persons whose expertise is factor analysis, probabilities and other statistical arcana has limited the reliability of the project. There are scholars whose forte is understanding the social forces that impel contemporary Jewish life and who are not immersed in numbers games. They have been essentially excluded from the technical committee that has a key role in developing and interpreting NJPS. Apparently, in Jewish circles, thinkers do not count.

Still, a sincere effort has been made by Jim Schwartz, NJPS 2000 director, to solicit suggestions from many sources regarding the questions to be included in this year’s survey. Attention is also being paid to a comprehensive follow-up analysis of the data. In both respects, these are improvements over NJPS 1990, when there was a rush to publish and publicize a highlights document that, with great fanfare, announced the 50-plus percent intermarriage rate. The bulk of the 1990s findings have been the victim of benign neglect.

Even with the best people and the best intentions, NJPS cannot escape methodological pitfalls that undermine its reliability. American Jews are dispersed in hundreds of communities across nearly four million square miles. The survey is intended to determine, among much else, how many Jews there are in these many places. But in order to determine the distribution of telephone calls — how many in Brooklyn or Orange County, Calif., or Broward County, Fla., etc. — it is necessary to know with some precision in advance of the survey how American Jewry is distributed geographically. The upshot is that NJPS consists of much guesswork and extrapolations.

For all of the hoopla accompanying NJPS, it is, at best, an approximation of the contemporary Jewish reality.

What emerges from the survey has some reliability, although the product is compromised by the necessary use of the telephone as the means for collecting data. At bottom, NJPS is a form of telemarketing, a species of social interaction that is widely regarded as repugnant and shunned in many homes. While a relatively short list of questions has been prepared for the tens of thousands of households, 99 percent of them not Jewish, which will be called initially, it will be followed by a large questionnaire directed at the 5,000 households that presumably contain at least one Jew.

The hope is that the second round of questions can be completed in about 30 minutes. This would require that the draft questionnaire be reduced considerably and even then it would be a stretch to get the job done in a half-hour.

It’s even a greater stretch to believe that there will be many respondents willing to undergo this kind of intrusive telephone interrogation.

On the substantive side, there is the inescapable issue of whom to count as Jewish. Putting aside patrilineality, non-halachic conversions and other contentious issues that frame the “Who is a Jew?” debate, it remains that a large and constantly growing number of persons in what is loosely termed a Jewish household are not Jewish by anyone’s definition. These include non-Jewish spouses in mixed marriages and most of the children of such marriages who are not being raised as Jews. When the intermarriage rate is calculated by including persons in a Jewish household who do not regard themselves as Jewish, it obviously is significantly higher than it would be if the rate were based only on the behavior of core Jews.

This point is critical to the conflict over NJPS 2000 and it forms the basis for the argument that the true intermarriage rate is probably 35-40 percent.

There is much that is murky about our population statistics, a situation that will worsen as Judaic abandonment takes an escalating toll on Jewish identity. We ought to recognize that no matter how careful and objective NJPS may be, the notion of a fully accurate demographic picture is a pipe dream. NJPS is at most a partially reliable profile and exaggerated claims on its behalf are just that.

Rather than trying to resolve the irresolvable, NJPS should proceed. Its data should be made immediately available to diverse camps who can then interpret the numbers as they see fit. We should eschew any single approach. Ultimately, the story will be sorted out and we will learn what happened to American Jewry as the 20th century was winding down. In the meantime, let our community go about the far more important business of salvaging what we can.