Monday, December 24, 2001

The Empire State No Longer

When I was a lad and growing up in these environs, New York was always referred to as the Empire State, the largest and most important state in the Union and the breeding place for progressive government. There was the legacy of Al Smith, FDR, Herbert Lehman, Senator Wagner, Fiorello LaGuardia and others and there were ideas and ideals that were at the vital center of democracy and the foundation for a better society.

There was, of course, an excess of hyperbole in this. As with most mortals who achieve fame, some of our idols had feet of clay. We also know – and knew even then – that New York had Tammany Hall, the mob, too much corruption, too much racism, too much poverty. By comparison with other places though, New York excelled. There was ample cause for civic pride. Public housing was mainly a success, public schools were doing a good job, the city colleges were crown jewels, there was opportunity for advancement and the Yankees were winning.

They still are. But however we are called, we aren’t any longer the empire state, not by a long shot. The lustre is off our schools and colleges and there is an exhaustion of ideas, unless one mistakes the goal of making money for an idea. September 11 brought about a good measure of unity and pride and Mayor Giuliani was transformed from sinner to saint, reversing the usual progression of those in high places.

It is easy to lose sight these days of what is rotten, of the traducing of basic values and of New York being in the stranglehold of practices that we should not tolerate. Our voting system is a powerful and shameful example. A year ago, there was anger over Florida’s ballot and the counting or not counting of disputed votes. That misfortune was the consequence of Florida’s misguided attempt to develop an improved system. What we have in New York is a determination to maintain that which is broken and wrong. Our voting machines are fifty-year relics. Many do not work, the ballot is usually confusing and too many of the poll workers – recipients of minor political sinecures – have a close resemblance to the sedated denizens of old-age homes.

What we have is antithetical to democracy. For all of the calls for reform, the situation worsens as New York is paralyzed, here as in much else, by both inertia and a determination to protect special interests without a care for the public good.

This is true also of the State’s complicated electoral process which is one of the most reactionary in the country. There is a mind-boggling set of arcane rules that have the sole aim of limiting the right of voters to choose. These rules are offensive and they would emit a foul odor even in a fetid den of corruption. While they have been whittled down by several judicial rulings, the essential elements of a corrupt system are in place.

And this is the Empire State!

Months ago, the Daily News ran a series on the malignancy known as guardianships, the arrangement whereby courts appoint persons to preserve the assets of those who are presumably not competent to handle their own finances. While the ostensible purpose is to help those who are placed in guardianship, the reality is that the system is an easy street for self-enrichment by guardians motivated by greed. The Daily News provided chapter and verse of the sordid details, including the story of a once prominent person with significant assets who is now reduced to eating cat food after the guardian looted the savings.

Under the cover of law and generally away from public scrutiny, judges are able to appoint cronies who may have larceny in mind to supervise other persons’ money. New York’s Chief Judge, Judith Kaye, has issued a report criticizing the system and she has instituted certain reforms. They are by far too modest. There is, of course, the collateral processes for settling estates which provide ample feeding opportunities for cronies and other abuses. Too frequently, estates get lost in a legal thicket and their value is frittered away.

When we appear before judges in their black robes on their high benches, the convention is to address them, “Your Honor.” These may be the two most dishonest words spoken in America.

As more people live longer and as more live alone, the potential for judicial-mandated abuse is going to expand because this once but no longer empire state cares too little to safeguard orphans, widows, the elderly, the incompetent.

Cemeteries are another area where New York’s anti-progressivism is evident in the protection of special interests at the expense of the basic value of respect for the dead and their families. Too many of the cemeteries are political feeding grounds. I learned how rotten the system is when I looked into the situation at Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn. My father is buried there in the section owned by the synagogue where he served as Rabbi. Also buried there are some persons who are not Jewish, thanks to cemetery officials.

Efforts to remedy the wrongs at Washington Cemetery and other cemeteries are of no avail because of entrenched special interests protected by rules and practices that should have been abandoned long ago. New York’s Cemetery Board is scarcely more alive than the people who are interred on cemetery grounds.

These are three examples of dozens that could be given. It may be that New York is no worse than other states, that state and local governments are rife with abuse, if not outright corruption, nearly everywhere. Whatever the story elsewhere, it remains that New York is now a regressive state. Human dignity and democratic values are secondary to special interests.

Monday, December 17, 2001

Unorthodox Economics

During my annual August hegira to Israel the summer before last, I began an analysis of the economic situation of American charedim, they being the yeshiva world and chassidic sectors of Orthodoxy. Much of the paper had been drafted by the time I arrived home and I turned to a study of Bureau of Labor Statistics data to determine how what I knew about the charedim meshed with work patterns in the general society. It became evident that workforce participation by charedi men is at least as high as it is for Americans generally. Many do not enter the labor market until they are well into their twenties, which parallels the behavior of Americans who pursue advanced degrees.

A similar point is made by Joel Rebibo in an important article on Israeli charedim that appears in the latest issue of Azure, the fine journal published by the Shalem Institute in Jerusalem. He writes that “among North American haredim, the age of entry into the workforce varies according to the particular religious stream. In Hasidic communities, for example, men tend to begin working in their late teens or early twenties; in the Lithuanian communities, on the other hand, they leave yeshiva in their mid-or late twenties. Overall, however, the pattern is a consistent one, in which very few students beyond the age of thirty remain in full-time study.”

It remains that there is a significant incidence of poverty among charedim in this country. The situation may be worse in the yeshiva world sector than amongst chasidim because the latter 1) do not as a rule stay in yeshiva as long and 2) they have what may be termed an instinct for entrepreneurship. Some writers, usually with an ideological axe to grind, have concluded that because many charedim are mired in poverty, it must be that workforce participation is low and that those who work settle for poorly paying jobs because they are bereft of skills and training.

In fact, while nearly all adult male charedim work, there is considerable poverty because of a confluence of factors. Many teach in yeshiva or have other low-paying positions because they regard this service as spiritually rewarding and fulfilling. Those in the regular job market are often hampered by job discrimination against religious Jews and, more importantly, by their lack of geographic mobility. Chassidic families are large and they are getting larger, a factor that obviously impacts on housing, food costs and much else, including yeshiva tuition charges. Simply put, an Orthodox college graduate or Ph.D. is certain to be in far more difficult financial straits than others with comparable degrees and jobs.

This is the reality and yet it is a certainty that knownothing bigots who venomously fabricate a picture of charedi parasitism will continue to spew out their messages of hate and that there will be newspapers eager to publish their material.

Because charedi families are large, they obviously have more weddings and other simchas to celebrate. It is presumably the desire to alleviate financial pressure on these families that inspired certain Rabbinical leaders of Agudath Israel to draft mandatory guidelines aimed at holding down the cost of weddings. For all of the good intentions, the idea misfires, although it has provided a field day for frum kibbitzers. More to the point, families in need will scarcely be affected or helped. Now that Agudath has reaped the publicity, hopefully it will pull back.

Restraint is admirable, as it is a cardinal principle of religious life. Living within one’s means is both sensible and appropriate. This is how an overwhelming number of charedi families act when they make simchas. There have been quotes aplenty that even a bare-bones Orthodox wedding costs $35,000. That’s nonsense. Apart from the evident downgrading of simchas in recent years, most charedi weddings cost much less. What can be expensive are other financial considerations, notably parental support to allow for extended yeshiva study.

Agudath has inadvertently promoted the inaccurate notion that the charedi world is awash in ostentation. That’s way off the mark, although there are some who regard showing off as a religious obligation This small group gets attention, including from Agudath leaders, and is an embarrassment. As an unfortunate example there is the forthcoming three or four day “gayvah” trip to Israel, ostensibly to study Torah there.

It does not take a sharp eye for sociological detail to know that the more modern Orthodox elements and the non-Orthodox are far more lavish in their weddings and bar/bas mitzvahs than the charedim, although the Agudath’s message is likely to result in a distorted perception.

The Rabbis seem to have lost sight of the critical difference between what is discretionary and what is mandatory. Making a wedding is obligatory; spending a ton of money or going beyond one’s means is not. If some do overspend, as a small number do, that’s no justification for the overheated reaction that we have seen or for the institution of conditions that are likely to be untenable.

Financial pressures on Orthodox families arise from mandatory expenses, notably tuition. This is what causes anguish in many homes – disrupting shalom bayis – and yet there is not a peep about this severe problem. Nor is there a word about other mandatory costs engendered by a religious life-style.

It may be that the Rabbi’s message is intended for those who are wealthy and indulgent, for those who go overboard. If so, a good place to start is at home, for the yeshiva world which is truly the glory of the Jewish people in its fidelity to the ideal of hatznea leches (modest living) is being harmed by the small number of exhibitionists whose antics are condoned, if not encouraged, by some leaders who should know better.

In fact, if reform is needed, the Agudath convention may be a good place to start.

Wednesday, December 12, 2001

A Reply and an Appeal

This column, about which I am already uncomfortable, is essentially a response to a note that I received and an appeal for support for the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. I am in my 28th year as RJJ’s president – a voluntary position – and only the fifth president in our 102 years. I can say that my predecessors have been persons of distinction.

RJJ publishes the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, a scholarly semi-annual publication devoted to an analysis of modern-day issues in the context of religious Jewish law. This is a successful project in that it has an impressive subscriber base and is well received. Volume 42 was recently published. The Journal is but one of our special projects for we also support the publication of important scholarly books through the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Press and provide food for the Jewish poor before Pesach. Since the Journal loses money and, besides, RJJ’s four schools certainly need philanthropic support, it is my practice to enclose a fundraising letter in the Rosh Hashanah issue.

In this year’s letter, I wrote that our situation is difficult because of the economic downturn and “also because I have found it necessary to devote a significant proportion of my time to helping yeshivas and day schools around the country. RJJ has suffered as a consequence.” One subscriber returned the letter, underlying the quoted portion with a yellow marker and attached a post-it averring that “I didn’t find this paragraph inspiring” and “to put that in a letter and then ask for $ is inappropriate. Please address this in your next letter.” The next letter is eight months off and since the writer did not include a name, this column serves as a reply.

I suppose that the writer has a point, although it could have been made in a more sensitive way. There are community leaders aplenty who devote themselves nearly entirely to a single cause for which they have accepted responsibility. They rarely roam far a field or accept new challenges. They reason that they have a job to do and other tasks should not interfere. There’s much to be said for this approach, if only because of the benefits that usually accrue to the institutions that are led by people who give it all they’ve got.

The RJJ tradition is to be engaged. Samuel Andron, the key person in the family that founded the school in late 1899 and RJJ’s first president, was one of the founders of what is now Yeshiva University. Jacob Dukas, his successor, was the head of the Hebrew Free Loan Society and a good deal else, while Joseph Golding and Irving Bunim were widely respected as outstanding community leaders who devoted themselves to a multiplicity of causes. And so I am following in rather respectable footsteps. More importantly to me, for fifty years I have been inspired by the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, Rabbi Aharon Kottler of blessed memory, the transcendent Torah leader of the past two generations. He had the burden of his own yeshiva yet he embraced other daunting responsibilities, here and in Israel. Lakewood was hurt financially because of this.

I have tried to follow the example of Rabbi Kottler because I believe that that is what he wanted of me. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to write with grace about one’s community activity. I will simply say that I have always been involved in an array of causes and activities. What has changed in recent years is that there have been additional challenges and responsibilities, including research and writing and an exhausting effort to assist other schools, many projects and activities outside of the United States.

The fact that RJJ has been hurt is not a sufficient reason for anyone else to care. Each cause must stand on its own merit. Our four schools and 1,100 students form an arrangement that I believe is unprecedented in American Jewish life. There are two core schools on Staten Island, separately for boys and girls, and an advanced dormitory yeshiva and Beth Medrash in Edison, New Jersey that is regarded as one of the best in the country. The fourth school is the Jewish Foundation School, a co-educational day school on Staten Island that was in danger of collapse because of a mountain of debt. To prevent its closing, in an extraordinary act of communal altruism RJJ assumed full responsibility for all of the debt, which has been paid in full. RJJ has also maintained the school’s mission and character and strengthened its program.

This is remarkable when we consider that the educational philosophies of the two institutions were widely divergent, even incompatible. The truth is that we weakened ourselves – financially and in other ways – to assist a Jewish school whose loss would have deprived many hundreds of children of the Jewish education they needed. It is also the fulfillment of what should be the guiding principal in religious Jewish education, chanoch l’naar al pi darcho. Children should be educated according to the ways that provide for their advancement.

During the year that this column has appeared, I have received hundreds of communications, some asking how they could help my work. These inquiries have added to my willingness, albeit in a state of discomfort, to ask readers to assist RJJ.

I began this column on a flight from Russia, concluding a difficult nine-day trip whose sole purpose was to look at Jewish life and to recommend how philanthropic assistance might be effective, particularly in the educational domain. I hope that the trip, which came at a crucial time for RJJ, will result in much benefit.

I hope as well that there will be readers who will provide support for an institution that has been a treasure of American Jewish life for more than a century, for an institution that welcomes the challenge of being vibrant in its second century.

Contributions can be sent to the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, 350 Broadway, Room 300, New York, NY 10013.

Tuesday, November 27, 2001

The Numbers Game

The New Republic no longer features the journalistic oddity of two newspapers – at times the same newspaper – publishing on the same day conflicting headlines on the same story, something along the lines of “Economists See Deepening Recession” in the New York Times, while the Washington Post reports “The Economy is on the Mend.” There is more important business to attend to these days.

I wonder what the editors of this newspaper were thinking several weeks ago when the front page headline declared that “Jews Turning from Judaism” and “Those choosing other faiths doubles in a decade, poll shows.” The subsequent story filled in the lamentable details, including the astounding statistic that 1.4 million American Jews who say that they are Jewish by parentage now align themselves with another religion. An equal number say that they have no religion. Put simply, probably fewer than one-half of American Jews now say that they are Jewish by religion.

This is more bad news, following more than a decade of depressing data about Judaic abandonment and intermarriage. While page one of the Jewish Week proclaimed that Jews were turning away from Judaism, on page ten there was another story telling us that outreach programs aimed at the intermarried and their non-Jewish family members were showing positive results. The two stories add up to the bizarre and absurd proposition that while we are failing to retain American Jews, we are succeeding among interfaith couples. To add a bit of spice to this nonsensical brew, one of the “scholars” who conducted the first study is a participant in the second. There is an old saw that seems especially appropriate here, something like, “counters don’t think.”

There is more to the funny numbers. Barry Kosmin, another of the researchers for the bad news story and the director of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey that gave us the 52% intermarriage rate, has concluded that less is more, that there is actually good tidings in all of those Jews who live with persons who are not Jewish. When Jews intermarry, there is an increase in the number of so-called Jewish households, they being places that contain at least one identifiable Jew. As there are more intermarriages, there is a corollary increase in the aggregate number of persons living in such households. According to Kosmin, there are perhaps ten million Americans living in Jewish households, so instead of wailing about Jewish loss we should be celebrating the ever-growing number of outreach opportunities afforded to us.

Taking this illogical notion to its logical conclusion, if American Jewry continues on its present course, in a couple of generations there will be tens of millions of Americans who can somehow be included on our population rolls. We ought to beware of demographers who come bearing statistical gifts.

Hopefully, the much-delayed National Jewish Population Survey 2000 will not play as loose with numbers. From what we have seen so far, this crucial project has been devised and administered with much care. Hopefully, as well, NJPS 2000 will avoid the hype and super-heated claims that characterize most of contemporary American Jewish demography. Our demographers are headline grabbers who too often impose their own biases on the data.

I believe that more than half of American Jews have abandoned any meaningful sense of Jewish identity. Israel scarcely resonates in their lives, nor do they pay attention to our activities or messages. While a tiny number will return to Judaism, usually because of serendipitous circumstances and not planned activities, overwhelmingly these Jews are no longer part of the glorious story of our people. They are, as I have written previously, our lost tribes.

More shockingly, not far behind these Jews who have abandoned Jewish life even in an ethnic or secular sense, there is much of the remainder of American Jewry that is heading in the same direction. These are persons who consider themselves Jewish, care about Israel and Jewish identity, contribute to our causes and participate to some extent in our activities. They are endangered as Jews because they have tossed aside nearly all of what can preserve them as Jews, the traditions and practices and beliefs that made us into a distinctive people and ensured our survival even under the harshest of conditions. When we look at the data or listen to what these more than two million Jews are saying about intermarriage or religious commitment, we can understand why more terrible news lies ahead. No sugarcoating by demographers can counteract this reality.

Our primary strategy for preventing additional defections away from Judaism is to define Judaism downward, to legitimate that which is alien to our heritage and has proven in the past to be of no avail. As I wrote in Tradition this past summer, most of American Jewry is evolving into a membership group, with the option to leave or to stay in and to invite non-Jews to join under conditions to be determined by the individual members. Barry Kosmin said something along the same lines and this should frighten us. After writing that “Jewish identity must be seen in consumerist terms,” he urges that “American Jews today should be regarded as a loosely linked affinity group, one having a clear brand, a widely recognized logo and a known address.”

There is admittedly a certain transient efficacy to this approach because there is a large critical mass of Jews who embrace it and this attenuated view of Judaism is being abetted by a massive institutional infrastructure that gives comfort to de-Judaized Judaism. The truth remains that we are not going to salvage remnants of American Jewry by saying that anything goes, so long as it comes with a label that says “Jewish”. The demographers can say otherwise but they are no more than false prophets.

Friday, November 23, 2001

Hit and Run Judaism

Smart people know that instant gratification is stupid, that a quick pay-off that provides fleeting satisfaction is far less desirable than the lasting benefits that accrue through extensive work, commitment and investment. Instant gratification is, in short, for losers. We Jews are obviously smart so instant gratification is not for us.

Smart or not, in an escalating fashion American Jewish life is characterized by a ton of activities that are transient and ephemeral, that give an immediate high and then are gone with the wind. I call this phenomenon hit and run Judaism.

An obvious example is the scholar-in-residence game that abounds in congregational life. For a couple of thousand dollars or so, synagogues invite outside rabbis or academic types to come for a Shabbos, to speak and teach a bit and to entertain. When the Sabbath departs, so do these ersatz residents, either with a check in hand or a promise that it will soon be in the mail. These exercises are popular not because they result in any real benefit – that isn’t their goal – but because they are trendy, the thing to do.

Admittedly, except for the cost, these visits are generally benign, although they can engender kvetching spells by congregants who compare their Rabbi unfavorably with the hit and runner. They want to know why their Rabbi isn’t as learned or as good a speaker or as friendly as the fellow who has already skipped town. Sic transit gloria. While the regular rabbi is being pummeled, likely as not he is comforting the bereaved, visiting the sick, giving counsel to those in distress, attending a communal meeting.

There are able Rabbis who have abandoned the draconian life of the pulpit and enlisted in the greener pastures of the hit and runners. The more we esteem and reward those who make life a fleeting stage, the more we create disincentives for talented people to stay on for the long haul in positions that are vital for the well-being of the Jewish people.

A different variety of hit and run Judaism is found in outreach activity where the tendency is to rely on transient experiences to draw the uncommitted or marginally religious closer to Judaism. There are quickie courses, visiting teams of yeshiva students, occasional drop-ins by an outreach maven and once-a-month classes. For all of the good intentions that motivate these activities, they scarcely allow prospective returnees to appreciate the glories of religious commitment. Is it any wonder that outreach is in crisis, unable to build on the advances of a decade or two ago?

This isn’t meant to denigrate those who toil in the field. They are dedicated and there are solid accomplishments. There also are activities that are more permanent and therefore more effective, such as Beginnings Services in synagogues. My point is to suggest that certain tactics widely employed by the kiruv movement cannot counteract the powerful assimilatory forces that every day permeate the lives of nearly all American Jews. A smart man said to me recently that Chabad is succeeding in so many communities because when its people come, that’s where they stay. There are no greener or other pastures. Where they are today is where they shall be tomorrow.

The most pernicious hit and runners are the educational experts who have carved out a lucrative niche for themselves that is fed by gullible foundations and private philanthropists. The donors have bought hook, line and sinker the ridiculous notion that the best way to support or improve Jewish education is not by providing support to schools and faculty but to fund projects that are conducted by outside experts. As a consequence, teachers continue to be woefully underpaid and, except for those that serve an affluent clientele, day schools are forced to provide a dual educational program on a shoe-string.

What qualifies this arrangement as hit and run is that the experts manage to squeeze into their sterile schedules of endless conferences, conventions, meetings, etc. quick visits to Jewish schools. They arrive with their handbooks of cliches and depart by making a contribution of their checklists of things that school officials should do. Some of what they suggest is plain wrong or stupid; nearly all of the rest cannot be done because our schools are generally small and remarkably under-funded. There is also the problem that the experts are usually inexpert on the institutional culture that drives so many of the decisions that may appear errant to outsiders. After all, a school must accommodate the diverse needs, aspirations and ideologies of students and parents.

Unlike the congregational scholars-in-resident, the educational hit and runners can cause serious damage because their advice may well undermine parental or lay leadership confidence in the educators who are on the firing line. One of the remarkable and frightening developments in Jewish education in the recent period is the astoundingly high turnover rate among Jewish school principals, too many of whom are forced to leave. Actually, some – and they are among the best – leave willingly to seek employment in the growing array of organizations and projects that are looking for Jewish educational experts. This has exacerbated the leadership crisis in Jewish schools.

Admittedly, there is a parallel development in public education, as the tenure of too many able principles is short-lived. The effectiveness of educational leadership is curtailed when outside experts and consultants tell school officials who are bereft of the necessary resources that they must implement the vision of the outsiders.

Right now, the trend toward hit and run Judaism seems irreversible, especially since it is in tune with the instincts and practices of the philanthropic sector. Instant gratification is venerated in organized American Jewish life.

Monday, November 05, 2001

New York and Jerusalem

Because they cannot know what the next war will be like, generals always fight the last war, if only to protect their rear end if not their rear guard. What is true of generals is true of other government officials who prepare for tomorrow by trying to prevent a repeat of yesterday’s failures. There is, at the least, the advantage of being able to plead not guilty to being asleep at the wheel. Extensive and expensive security arrangements were put into place at the World Trade Center after the 1993 attack. To use the elevators, visitors passed through a security check that included verification that they were expected at the indicated destination. Each visitor was photographed separately and there were other preventative measures. The rest is history, tragic history.

What was missing was intelligence, both in the sense of effective undercover activity and also in the sense of brainpower. The CIA, FBI and other agencies that are supposed to protect us against subversion and terrorism are expensive bureaucratic organizations that are overstaffed by the underqualified. We ought not expect them to apprehend those who plan to attack us when they can scarcely uncover spies who are nesting on the CIA and FBI payrolls. As I wrote after September 11, if Israel’s intelligence capabilities were at the level of America’s, the results for the Jewish State would have been horrific.

In fairness, the FBI is changing. Agents are now outfitted in smart-looking flak jackets with “FBI” emblazoned on the back, presumably to abet the gathering of secret information, along the lines of Poe’s purloined letter. As they walk the streets, they look like extras in a television series. Is it too much to hope that our anti-terrorism apparatus attain the level of competence of America’s enemies, people who apparently know where the White House and Pentagon mail is sorted?

Perhaps we should be a bit reassured because our President, newly anointed with gifts that were nowhere in sight two months ago, has announced that he feels safe when he enters the White House. Our Vice President, however, is not to be found. Osama Bin Laden is more available to the media than Dick Cheney.

As our officials demonstrate that they can undertake the kind of measures that did not prevent September 11, there is the attendant weakening of the economic situation – here and abroad – which is to say that the terrorists have achieved another costly coup. Billions are being spent with little rhyme and less reason and there will be a heavy price to pay down the road.

The situation is especially critical in New York where thousands of businesses have been hurt, many of them gratuitously. I have an office a mile or so north of Ground Zero. Further north is the intersection of Broadway and Canal where police checkpoints stop and examine vehicles. Trucks which are vital to New York’s economy are experiencing long delays, adding to the cost of doing business and diminishing the desire to stay in the city.

I was in Jerusalem days after the Sbarro bombing at what is perhaps the city’s most important cross-section. Traffic moves as before, in line with the attitude that life must go on. A sign at the site indicated that Sbarro would reopen shortly and it has. Although there is much fear in Israel and there have been life-style changes, to the greatest extent possible there is a determination to maintain normalcy. New York should learn from Jerusalem.

There is something else about Jerusalem’s streets and streets throughout Israel. There are Arabs nearly everywhere, some planning or wanting to commit murder and many more willing to assist the murderers. This is an aspect of Israel’s story that the media – especially in Europe – distort as they present a picture of alleged rampant Israeli violation of Arab rights. Is there any other country which in the face of the most serious and proximate security concerns would be as open as Israel is?

It would be nice if the new awareness of the dangers of terrorism would result in greater appreciation of what Israel has endured. Our media proclaim that “America Is Under Attack,” which is true enough, yet nothing to compare with Israel’s vulnerability. Reporters are sympathetic when the U.S. explains that civilian casualties are inevitable in wartime, especially when the enemy hides among children, as the Taliban apparently does. Where are Hamas and other Arab terrorists located, if not among women and children? I imagine that Susan Sontag would describe these murderous cowards as courageous.

It is remarkable how few Arab civilians have been killed during the drawn out Intifada, how much restraint Israeli soldiers and police have shown in the face of severe violence that places them in danger. It is not difficult to imagine how our police and military would respond if they were being shot at, not occasionally but each day and at close quarters.

I do not think that Prime Minister Sharon was wise in his harsh speech criticizing the Bush administration and it certainly was inappropriate for him to raise the specter of Munich and appeasement. Yet, there was a measure of truth in his remarks and there is much to be scared about in what is coming out of Washington. Our concerns are heightened because of the dominance of the Powell Doctrine which proclaims the massing of overwhelming military power, then wimping out and leaving allies to hang and die.

Friday, October 26, 2001

It’s Not Racist to be Against Al Sharpton. It’s Racist to be for Him

Let’s try to imagine the following scenario. A white clergyman or public figure joins with rabble-rousers to accuse a prosecutor of kidnapping and raping a young girl, smearing excrement on her and committing other horrible acts. From the outset, the accusation had little credibility and eventually it was exposed for what it was, an ugly fraud. Let’s imagine further that the clergyman or public figure, a man who had already been accused of playing fast and loose with taxes and charitable funds, was ordered after a drawn-out trial to pay modest damages to the wronged prosecutor and he evaded that obligation. It is certain that there would be universal condemnation of his behavior.

Well folks, welcome to the Al Sharpton story or really only a part of the sordid story. Only the color has been changed. But instead of being universally condemned, Sharpton is a leader, given respect and regarded in certain quarters as a statesman. Candidates grovel for his support and the names–in-the-news glitterati cozy up to him. In this brave new world of celebrityship, being famous trumps being decent.

Moral standards are not a variable to be determined or altered by skin color or nationality or religious background. If what Sharpton did would be considered as far beyond the pale for a white public figure, his behavior cannot be regarded as less odious because he is Black. That is why to make excuses for Sharpton is blatant racism.

He has, of course, a large following, as was amply demonstrated in the Democratic primary, and his endorsement was a key to Freddy Ferrer’s strong run. The flip side is that it is fair game for those who are repelled by Sharpton’s history and antics to punish a candidate who provides him with a featured role. Mr. Ferrer has a decent record and I was planning to vote for him, but he rightly paid a price for the opprobrium attached to his political bedmate.

That’s why the pre-primary posters of Ferrer and Sharpton suggesting that Reverend Al would have great influence in a Ferrer administration were entirely appropriate. Sharpton was not merely a third-rate pol giving a meaningless endorsement. Had Ferrer triumphed, he would have been a powerhouse.

My modest suggestion is that before candidates go hat in hand beseeching Sharpton’s blessing, they go to Duchess County - it’s a short trip – to speak to Steven Pagones, the victim in the Tawana Brawley affair. They then might understand why Sharpton’s outrageous behavior and his cruel refusal to express remorse continue to evoke pain and anger. Even without the permanent stain of this matter, Mr. Sharpton’s career would scarcely merit a good-citizenship award. There are the pesky questions about money, the demagoguery and the inopportune embrace of anti-Semitism, as in the harassing of Jewish merchants in Harlem.

There are times – perhaps moments of weakness – when I feel sorry for politicians.

They are underpaid, work long hours, get kicked around by opponents and the media, live in glass houses and must become expert at toadying, including to nobodies and crooks. Their lives are on the run. Sooner or later, nearly all of them lose, with the more fortunate losing sooner. Those who are elected are constantly forced to say things they don’t believe, embrace people they detest, attend meetings they want to avoid and do favors for the undeserving.

But then I think of the other side of the picture, especially their lemming-like instinct to give access to people who represent no one other than themselves and whose agenda inherently undermines the public good. This is especially apparent in relations with ethnic groups where the practice is to elevate those who spread money around. It matters not at all that what is being sought is personal gain or that the so-called ethnic leaders may constitute a community of one. Importantly, Al Sharpton is different because he has a huge following, which distinguishes him from the rest of the pack in this regard and ensures that candidates will do handstands to get his support. Then, again, none of the others have befouled public life as he has.

Not surprisingly, our community – and here I mean the Orthodox – has not been immune from the tendency of politicians to give prominence to no-goodniks who cynically understand that they can parlay their contributions and Orthodox exterior (inside they may be rotten to the core) into personal gain. This is a sordid story that has become more sordid in recent years because of the gullibility and cupidity of political leaders.

As one critical example, two scoundrels gained extraordinary access with Governor George Pataki. They made their political contributions and the Governor – not merely members of his administration – but Mr. Pataki himself – was all too eager to embrace people of low repute. He was warned about this, but to no avail. The smell of money was stronger than the smell of corruption. He raced through the red lights, signaling to lower officials that it was appropriate to do favors for scoundrels.

There are other examples, including in the current city administration that is nearing its end. While we have a long way to go to equal Mr. Sharpton’s depredations, there are reasons for deepening concern about the unholy alliances between unsavory characters in our community and politicians.

Monday, October 15, 2001

Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Revised, 2001)

This article is written with acknowledgements to those in the media, academia, intelligentsia and cultural elites whose moral perversity has made the world a safer place for terrorism.
In Algeria, thousands of men, women and children have been slaughtered as sheep by Moslem fanatics who committed these deeds because of Israel and the Jews…. Iran and Iraq fought a brutal war in which hundreds of thousands were killed, including a great number of young children, only because of Israel and the Jews…. The Royal Family of Nepal was murdered because of Israel and the Jews…. Basque separatists have conducted a terror campaign in Spain because of Israel and the Jews…. In Nigeria, Islamic fundamentalists are fomenting unrest because of Israel and the Jews…. In what used to be Yugoslavia, Bosnians, Serbs, Croatians and Albanians – both Christian and Moslem – have taken turns murdering each other, all because of Israel and the Jews…. Kurds have rebelled in Turkey because of Israel and the Jews…. In Peru, Shining Path guerillas murdered and terrorized Indian peasants and they did this because of Israel and the Jews…. Islamic fanatics in the Philippines have attacked Christians because of Israel and the Jews…. For decades, Hindus and Moslems have battled each other, with Sikhs at times also in the fray, throughout the Indian Subcontinent and they have done this because of Israel and the Jews…. The Moslem Brotherhood murdered European tourists in Egypt because of Israel and the Jews…. The Khmer Rouge killed nearly one million-fellow Cambodians in a genocidal rampage undertaken because of Israel and the Jews… Saudi Arabian officials and sheiks are corrupt and often cruel because of Israel and the Jews…. The brutal suppression of dissidents by the Chinese government in Tieneman Square occurred because of Israel and the Jews…. Chinese nationalists in Indonesia have been terrorized by Moslem fundamentalists because of Israel and the Jews…. Hafetz Assad of Syria destroyed the city of Hama and slaughtered tens of thousands of its citizens because of Israel and the Jews…. Greece and Turkey have battled over Cyprus because of Israel and the Jews…. Saddam Hussein butchered untold tens of thousands Iraqi Shiite Moslems and Kurds and he did this because of Israel and the Jews…. Catholics and Protestants have fought in Ireland and Sinn Fein has engaged in terrorist acts in England, all because of Israel and the Jews…. China has conquered Tibet and crushed its religious and cultural life because of Israel and the Jews…. There is violence in Kashmir because of Israel and the Jews…. Tamil separatists have conducted a war of terror in Sri Lanka because of Israel and the Jews…. Sunni and Shiite Moslems have killed each other for generations because of Israel and the Jews…. In Somalia and throughout Sub-Sahara Africa, hundreds of thousands are dying of starvation because of Israel and the Jews…. Iraq invaded Kuwait because of Israel and the Jews… The United States and its allies responded in defense of Kuwait and the Gulf War ensued, obviously only because of Israel and the Jews…. in Rwanda and Burundi, Hutus and Tutsis slaughtered each other because of Israel and the Jews…. Islamic fundamentalists are rebelling in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other Asiatic regions of the Former Soviet Union because of Israel and the Jews…. Chechnyan Moslems have fought a brutal war against Russia because of Israel and the Jews…. There is civil war in the Congo because of Israel and the Jews…. Another civil war is being fought in Liberia and there too it is because of Israel and the Jews…. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan because of Israel and the Jews…. The Taliban have brutalized Afghanistan and persecuted Christians because of Israel and the Jews…. The autocratic government in Myramar has stifled freedom because of Israel and the Jews…. Aum Shin Rikyo, a fanatical sect, attempted germ warfare in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan because of Israel and the Jews…. North and South Korea are divided and continue to be enemies and this certainly is because of Israel and the Jews…. There is a Moslem led rebellion in Sudan because of Israel and the Jews… Timor has been wracked by civil war because of Israel and the Jews…. On September 11, 2001, Islamic murderers carried out coordinated terror attacks in the United States, killing 6,000, and their actions could only be undertaken because of Israel and the Jews.

Monday, September 24, 2001

The World is Changing. What About American Jewry?

In our transformed world we see or should see things that we previously chose not to see. Since human activity is dialectical, perhaps some good will come from an incomprehensible tragedy that now conveys only loss and pain. Perhaps our values will be elevated, certainly we will be less caught up in the frenzy of making money and spending it. Perhaps, as well, we will reconsider attitudes that are deeply ingrained in our belief system.

For as long as any of us can remember, American Jewry has ardently embraced and advocated extreme liberal positions. Our liberal ideology has been our surrogate religion, a belief system to be followed with complete faith. It has replaced the beliefs and practices that defined Judaism for generations. They could be discarded – and have been – but we have not tolerated any tampering with our new religion. In a sense, our identification with this ideology has been fanatical.

There were, of course, doubters and some of them have been important. What came to be known as neo-conservatism is largely a Jewish product. For decades, Commentary, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, has taken aim at virtually all of the canons of liberal thought. Though direct hits have been scored, there is scant evidence that AJC leaders have paid heed or, as another example, that the centrism of The New Republic which is widely read by Jews has had any impact. Much the same can be said about the major shifts within the Democratic party or changing attitudes about welfare and crime. None of these has penetrated the thick ideological armor that protects our organizations against political heresy. We continue to worship at the same liberal altar and we mouth the same litany. We are true believers that there is nothing that can shake our faith.

It also has been of no import that some of the warmest support for Israel comes from conservatives and fundamentalist Christians. It means nothing at all that liberal Protestant denominations have been virulently anti-Israel, at times coming close to advocating the delegitimization of the Jewish State. Nor has it registered that the nation’s most liberal newspapers have been uniformly hostile to Israel. We who preach tolerance and spend a fortune on defense organizations have stood idly by as Jewish groups on college campuses have been vilified and intimidated, while deprecations against Jews, Judaism and Israel have been given free rein as Arab and Islamic preachers of hate have been abetted by left-liberal elements.

We have been perfect in our obedience to our new religion, bogus as it is. We have proclaimed, this is our god and we shall praise and glorify it.

Now we are in a changed world, but not entirely. After the terror and trauma, it remained for the most liberal writers and editorialists to suggest that Islamic terrorists acted because of Israeli policy and U.S. support for the Jewish State. The same ideological core has sparked demonstrations on campuses at which Israel has been attached.

Isn’t it time for some reconsideration, or at least some open discussion of whether our ideological commitment has given us bedfellows who are not merely strange, but are also our enemies? It may be – and this is increasingly true – that Israel is not important to many liberal Jews. But for our organizations who avow support for Israel as they ritualistically affirm every ideological cliché that they can find in their psalter, it is necessary to ask why they cannot abandon ideological relationships that are no longer justified.

I do not advocate that Jews do an about face and embrace conservatism, whether neo or hard core. There are right-wingers and conservatives aplenty for whom anti-Semitism is boilerplate and who are second to none in their hostility to Israel. We Jews should never be comfortable with the right wing. The fact is that a great deal of conservative talk radio is hateful and repulsive. There is also much on the liberal agenda that certainly merits support, such things as workers rights, civil rights and environmentalism.

What we need to do is separate ourselves from all ideologies, to become in a sense Israel firsters. We need not have a position on every public issue. At times, communal silence is golden.

Israel is in crisis. Individual Jews are free to make their ideological and political choices, for good or for ill. But the organized community has a moral obligation to act with restraint on all issues, except those that concern Israel or the welfare of Jews. This moral obligation means at least that we should not constantly alienate those who support Israel and we certainly must not constantly give aid and comfort to ideologues who are hostile to Israel.

A policy of ideological neutrality is not novel. Leaders of other ethnic and interest groups routinely curb their involvement in extraneous issues because they know that their primary responsibility is to the people and causes they serve. I believe that Martin Luther King refused to take a position on the Vietnam War, arguing that to do so would detract from his leadership of the Civil Rights movement. Unfortunately, for Jewish leaders to make an adjustment and abandon long held ideological commitments might require a transformation that exceeds the transformations already wrought by the World Trade Center tragedy.

Friday, September 14, 2001

A Painful Reality

As in so much else in this period of devastation and trauma, Mayor Guiliani touched the right note when he cautioned against the terrible events resulting in hatred toward other people. He was thinking, of course, about Arab-Americans and his theme has been echoed, perhaps tiresomely, by Washington officials. Group hatred is not welcome in the United States, even – and maybe especially – when we are engulfed by grief and anger, by emotions that naturally trigger expressions of hate. Because our country’s enemies appear to be distant, it is in a perverse way satisfying to find proximate targets for our rage.

But it is one thing to yield to a base instinct and something quite different to be realistic and truthful about what has occurred. The terror that we have experienced was not the random acts of several dozen or even hundreds of fanatical Arabs. The terror was planned and systematic and whatever the number of conspirators, it required the complicity of governments and the availability of nesting places throughout Arab and Islamic life. The terrorists were nurtured and sustained by a malevolent mood that is far too reflective of Arab and Islamic thought.

To deny this reality is to secure points with the political correctness crowd, to appear to be humane and liberal. It is also to deny a truth that we must acknowledge if we are to do more than attempt to eliminate some terrorist cells. The terrorists are not loners or outsiders or peripheral to Arab and Islamic life. They are members of terror cells and networks, some that are located in mosques, including on Foster Avenue in Brooklyn.

The World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorists succeeded in large measure because of outside help from around the world and, of course, because of the incredible incompetence of the FBI and CIA, two over-funded and overrated agencies that put a new spin on the meaning of the word “intelligence.” Can we think the unthinkable of what Israel’s fate would be if, surrounded as it is by millions of enemies and an army of murderers no less fanatical than last week’s terrorists, the quality of its intelligence were at the level exhibited by American agencies?

Instead of searching questions being asked about Arab life, truth is being obscured in a pile of feelgood statements. As an aside, albeit one that has important implications for Jews and Israel, politicians go by the numbers and they are not about to say harsh things about Arabs or any other group that can supply votes. This explains a key statement made by Mr. Bush during one of the campaign debates and some interesting maneuverings in the current New Jersey governor’s race and the city’s mayoral campaign. The Arab population is growing rapidly and the Jewish is declining. We are just beginning to feel the political after effects of these demographic developments.

While it is easy to understand the attitude of Arab governments that provide cover for terrorists as Yemen has done in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole and Saudi Arabia previously, it is puzzling why this country has not taken a tougher approach, why we have not directly acknowledged the reality that key segments of the Arab world are implicated in contemporary barbarism.

Part of the answer is that the question misses much of recent diplomacy. The pre-Intifada efforts to reach new agreements between Israel and the PLO were predicated largely on the near desperate feeling that it was necessary to forestall the further spread of Islamic fanaticism.

But the Arab states, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been duplicitous. They want to have good relations with the U.S. and they also want to be in bed with the extremists when it suits their purposes. Similar realpolitik considerations explain why one U.S. administration after another has turned a blind eye to harsh truths about the Arab world. We want or need their oil, their investments, their political support and whatever we give in exchange, it includes a begrudging acceptance that they can provide a safe haven to terrorism.

When terrorists have been caught, law enforcement agencies have engorged themselves on self-congratulation. They have little interest in probing beyond who planted the bomb, pulled the trigger or committed whatever other terrorist acts. They tend to look at terrorist acts committed on U.S. soil as criminal justice matters and not as events that affect the security of Americans. Prosecutors are too often lazy and smug and when they think that they have gotten their man, they call a press conference and bask in all the publicity. They do not extend themselves to learn who paid the triggermen, who planned the mission, who were the accomplices. This tendency was abundantly on display in both the Meir Kahane and Ari Halberstam murders, as well as in more high profile cases. The fact is that our government has learned very little about the right-wing terror network that was involved, in one way or another, in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Unless there is the resolve to confront the culture of fanaticism and violence now embedded in Arab and Islamic life, there is scant prospect that we can successfully deal with the enemy that has caused so much devastation. We can launch military attacks on Afghanistan or Libya or any other country that harbors and nurtures terrorists, but even if all of these efforts succeed we will continue to be faced with networks of murderers who plan to do evil deeds.

And as we continue to rightfully preach against group hatred, we must at long last recognize that there are vast cells of terrorism on the shores of the United States.

Monday, September 10, 2001

La Bella Bambina

There are thousands of Holocaust stories, most of them never to be told. This is one of the stories.

In September 1943, 1,000 refugee Jews who had fled to France after Germany invaded their countries realized that they no longer had a safe haven. Led by guides, they went by foot across passes in the Maritime Alps into Italy, arriving at the border villages of Valdieri and Entracque in the Piedmont region. For the younger men, the trek took about a day; for others, considerably longer. The men generally remained in the mountains, some joining the anti-fascist partisans. The women and children were hidden in nearby villages and because they were not safe from the moment they arrived, they had to move frequently and secure false documents identifying them as Gentiles.

At the time, Hitler had not yet tightened the Gestapo noose around Italy. That was to happen before long. Still, there were Fascist forces everywhere, seeking to arrest foreign Jews and the refugees needed assistance. Some was provided by local Jews, mainly living in Cuneo.

They could also count on the kindness of native Italians, most of them good Catholics who gave shelter and food, at times at personal risk. In this they were led and inspired by their local priest, Don Raimondo Viale, a young man who although scarcely known or remembered was one of the saintly figures during this dark period. He died in 1984 and his cemetery inscription identifies him as the priest of the partisans.

For all of the help that the Jews received, life was harsh, especially for the men. The situation deteriorated when Hitler decided that Mussolini was lax in persecuting Jews and acted to bring the Final Solution to Italy. The Gestapo was sent in to do the job, with the assistance of the local Fascists. Many of the Jews who had trekked from France were seized. About 350 of the 1,000 were deported in the familiar packed railway cars, first to Drancy in France and then to Auschwitz, where all but nine were murdered. A memorial in Borgo San Dalmazzo lists the names of the deportees. This is one of the ways that the local people have remembered what transpired decades ago. There is an outdoors installation in Borgo with a moving inscription in both Hebrew and Italian that expresses gratitude to the residents who did not stand idly by as Jews suffered. Local officials recently staged a march into the mountains, commemorating what happened in September 1943.

Enzo Cavaglion, the head of the tiny remaining Jewish community in Cuneo and the keeper of its historic synagogue, has been the central figure in the memorial efforts. Largely because of his ceaseless advocacy, within the past year Yad Vashem designated Father Viale a Righteous Gentile, which he surely was.

As the situation of the Jews grew more precarious in the dying days of Italian Fascism, it became increasingly necessary for them to move from place to place. The clashes between the partisans who were emboldened and the Fascists became more frequent and violent, which added to the risk for Jews and for those who helped them.

There was a widow among the refugees who had already lost two grown children in a bombardment on the first leg of their flight from Belgium to France. She was together with her two daughters, their husbands and a three-year-old grandson. One of the daughters was four month’s pregnant with her first child when she made her way across the mountains. Father Viale asked a Catholic family to provide refuge for the pregnant woman and other family members, while the men were to remain in the mountains with the partisans.

In February 1944, a beautiful girl was born in their house. She was apparently the only Jewish child born among the refugees during the nearly two years that they were in the region. The arrival of the bambina, named Frimetta Amalia Maria Gabriella on her birth certificate, brought much joy to the Jews and the Italians who harbored them.

Her father who was with the partisans, was obviously overjoyed and although he was warned of the great danger, he came down from the mountains to visit his wife and child. On the seventh day of Pesach 5703, after the partisans had attacked Fascist forces, he insisted on making a visit. He was caught and shot by a Fascist patrol. Father Viale obtained release of the body and Victor Korn was temporarily buried in the Catholic cemetery at Borgo. After the war, the good priest returned with family members and he was re-interred in the Jewish section of the Cuneo cemetery. He is now buried in Israel.

All of the surviving refugees left the region after the war, many returning to their original communities. A good number were eventually admitted into the United States where they made new and usually successful lives. It is not likely that many of the survivors are now alive. In recent years, a few of the survivors have returned to Cuneo to participate in commemorative events and to show gratitude to those who harbored and protected them.

This August, the woman who was the precious bambina went back for the first time. Accompanied by three of her four children and her husband, she had an emotional reunion with the elderly woman in whose home she was born. There were words of thanksgiving and visits to the memorials, the grave of Father Viale and the place where her father was murdered. Flowers were planted and prayers were said. For family members, there was a special feeling of joy for the gift of the extraordinary woman – la bella bambina – for Malka Schick.

Tuesday, September 04, 2001

Why I Won’t Boycott the Times

On most weekday mornings I read the New York Times at about 6:30, an exercise that begins with a visit to the obituaries to see whether anyone named Marvin Schick is reposing in that hallowed space. On the day that he shall be there, I do not expect to read on. Fortunately or not, that fate has not been mine and so I do read on, first tarrying a bit at the obituary notices to determine whether someone I know has passed away.

That’s what I was doing soon after the Rabbis Lookstein announced with appropriate fanfare a ten-day boycott of American Jewry’s favorite newspaper. To my astonishment, the first notice was placed by Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, which is their synagogue. On a more recent day, there were two obits by KJ and the Rabbi Lookstein names were once more on display. I know that both father and son are very honorable men and I would not want to accuse them of hypocrisy or even inconsistency. But I believe that they are missing the main opportunity.

If the aim is to punish the NYT in the pocketbook, there’s no better tactic than boycotting the obituary page where every word costs dollars. Our multitude of organizations spend a fortune on these notices, which are about the most expensive spot in the newspaper. I learned how costly years ago when in a rare moment of empathy for the many dead organizations that are members of the Presidents Conference, I called the Times to see how much it would cost to provide each organization a final resting place in the newspaper. I reckoned that these groups were staying around only because no one had told them that they had died.

The lady in the obituary department asked, “when did these organizations die?” I said that “some passed away in 1948 when Israel was established, others years later, but all had not been among the living for quite a while.” She wanted to know why I had waited so long to mourn these losses, to which I responded, “because I was waiting for them to wake up.“ I was told that the notices would be accepted, provided that I paid in advance. And so I prepared an elaborate text for each, giving something of its history and long-forgotten achievements. The bill amounted to more than a half-million dollars, a figure that was so shocking that I quickly decided that it would be cheaper (at least for me) to allow these organizations to continue to pretend that they are among the living.

Why are the Rabbis Lookstein being selective in their boycott? I know that it isn’t easy to boycott the obits in view of the desire of so many Jews to be memorialized in the newspaper. The Rabbis certainly cannot suggest that no congregant pass away during the ten-day boycott period, else the synagogue will be forced to place the obituary notice in Der Yid and not in the paper that has all the news that's fit to print.

While I’d be happy to join in an extended, even permanent, period of abstinence in obituary-placing, I plan to maintain my regimen of reading the NYT. How else am I to know the daily capacity of New York’s reservoirs or who Maureen Dowd is barbecuing. How else am I to experience the unique connubial compatibility of Mr. and Mrs. Deborah Sontag? Two hostile hearts beating as one.

Isn’t it wonderful that the Times places Jerusalem in Asia, along with Bejing, New Delhi and other exotic places, rather than identifying it as occupied territory?

It bothers me not at all that the Times’ Middle East coverage raises the blood pressure of many Jews. This is a vital medical service for me and thousands of other Jews whose aging bodies need something extra to get the blood flowing to distant parts. Isn’t it better to have Jews with ruddy complexions, raring to go and jumping around after they read the Times than to settle for a sedentary life on Collins Avenue waiting for a booking at Riverside Chapels?

For all of our primal kvetching, we Jews haven’t appreciated the Times or done enough to win it over. We haven’t thanked the writers who give special attention to the Orthodox, whether the story is about a minor communal fracas or someone accused of a crime. When not long ago the Times reported that 40 people had been arrested in a criminal conspiracy and identified only one of the accused who was a Chassid, the newspaper was telling the world that only the Orthodox are legitimate Jews, that the rest – Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc. – are all bogus and therefore are not to be given legitimacy.

It’s Rabbi Eric Yoffie who should be complaining and so should all of the other non-Orthodox who are being neglected. Could it be that Rabbi Yoffie whose youth groups are boycotting Israel does not want to get around to the more important business of boycotting the Times because the Sulzbergers, good Protestants as some of them are, remain members-in-good-standing at Temple Emanuel?

Israel certainly hasn’t done enough to deserve the Times’ support. If the Jewish State would just become a totally gay society, I am certain that the Times would embrace it warmly, man to man so to speak, and give it all of the support that it deserves and maybe some that it doesn’t.

Saturday, September 01, 2001

September 2001 - RJJ Newsletter

The yeshiva world has been central to my life for more than half a century. This world encompasses yeshivas and many organizations and institutions, as well as the families that identify with this sector of Orthodoxy. The yeshiva world also is the embodiment of a particular outlook that relies on the leadership and guidance of Roshei Yeshiva. This world has been the focus of my communal work ever since I met the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, the transcendent Torah personality in the entire American Jewish experience, fifty years ago. His wisdom, courage and determination placed our community on a course that elevates Torah study and Torah living. Nearly forty years after his passing, the great Rosh Yeshiva remains alive in our lives, inspiring new generations.

There is glory in Klal Yisroel, especially in the yeshiva world. It is evident in thousands of homes where Torah study is paramount and chesed is innate, where there is modesty and dignity and Jews walk humbly before G-D.

There is also evident difficulty, even pain, in much of the yeshiva world, as we sense from the ever-increasing flow of letters we get importuning us to assist families whose situation is desperate. Our families have grown constantly larger. This inevitably means great financial pressure, probably in a majority of our homes. Tuition obligations alone engender extraordinary stress and to these there are added the regular costs of a religious Jewish life, as well as social expectations that increasingly affect the behavior of both parents and children. The Jones may not be Jewish, but living up to the Jones isn’t just for others, for Gentiles. Conspicuous consumption is more than alive in our homes and in our minds and it takes a particularly brutal toll among families of limited means and extended obligations.

Thousands of our fathers work long, hard and honorably, knowing that at the end of the day they shall not earn sufficiently to provide for their families. Many of our mothers also work and what they earn only eases the pressure; it does not remove it. Stress is a constant presence in a great number of yeshiva world homes. Mothers have the additional responsibility of tending to the children, helping with homework, giving each child love and care, while understanding that each child is distinctive and needs special attention. Fathers seek time to learn with their children and time for their own Torah study and, of course, to daven three times a day in shul. While these pressures envelop many families, parents and often children find ways to engage in acts of chesed, to give tzedakah, show kindness to neighbors, as well as relatives, friends and even strangers.

I remember well how the great Rosh Yeshiva loved the Americans, both older people who were at times borderline observant and the students who then formed the yeshiva world. He really wasn’t able to communicate with most yeshiva students, yet he was able to palpably sense their goodness and their edelkeit and to gain strength from their values and sincerity, even in a sense from their naivete. As he inspired them, they inspired him. As in his aspirations for Torah study, his vision of a Torah community was achieved.

The struggle that is now endemic in many yeshiva world families adds to their glory, and to the kedusha of the entire Torah world. Each day is for them a day of service of G-D, a day that includes so much that is good. This is the great story of the yeshiva world, as it essentially came into being in the 1940’s and 1950’s. As I write, I think of the memorable hesped of the Philadelphia Rosh Yeshiva, shlita, of Rav Shneuer Kotler, ztl, words that echo still: “You can now go before your father and say ‘I have fulfilled your mission, I have fulfilled your mission.’” So too can much of the yeshiva world say to the great Rosh Yeshiva, “We have fulfilled your mission.”

The story of obedience, tznius and service to G-D, is the primary contemporary story of the yeshiva world. But sadly it is not the only story and it is a story that is not sufficiently told or appreciated. We increasingly see another picture and although it involves relatively few, it has in some disturbing ways become the dominant picture. This is a story that includes wrongdoing and its tolerance and perhaps worse yet, the glorification of excess and the corollary abandonment of the essential Torah ideal of hatznea leches. We are living through the distortion of basic values and their replacement by practices and attitudes that are antithetical to proper Torah living.

A few rotten apples usually spoil the barrel. It isn’t surprising that the relative few among us who value money and ostentation cause so much shame and pain among Orthodox Jews. However these people may look, their exterior is totally contradicted by their inner selves. They receive attention, which they eagerly covet. To outsiders – and, at times, even within the yeshiva world – they seem to be representative of the larger community. To an extent, there is an interesting explanation to this. The ideal of hatznea leches inevitably results in what is good and just in the lives of yeshiva world families being expressed quietly and with dignity, even being hidden. The glory of the yeshiva world is in the ordinary Torah living of thousands of families, not in publicized events and the hoopla that has become too common. It perhaps may be suggested that there is an element of Hester Panim in the hidden character of proper Torah living. Modest behavior is inherently not calculated to attract attention. Usually, but not always, exposure is given to those who seek exposure.

The problem we now face arises in large measure from the prominence given to what is vain and immodest to the core. Contrary to what has been for so long the profile of the yeshiva world, we now have a fast crowd, people who share not at all the ideal of hatznea leches. It increasingly seems that among young Orthodox Jews, including some who were educated for extended periods at our best yeshivas, there is an instinct to put on display values that are hostile to Torah living. These people set the pace and style and call the shots. We now have our own jet-setters.

What is especially painful is the way that certain Roshei Yeshiva and other prominent Torah personalities are too eager to associate with persons and conduct that should be anathema to them. Instead of avoiding the fast crowd, they give it encouragement and words of praise. They are buying into the hoopla and even adding to it.

This is a sensitive story and it is difficult to provide details without running the risk of giving offense. The Torah world is sufficiently under attack and admittedly it may be best to refrain from criticism. On the other hand, what is now occurring in parts of the yeshiva world is both powerful and dynamic, which means that it is expanding and that unless the present situation is counteracted and arrested, we are certain to witness further deterioration in our community.

The pursuit of money, the constant tumult, the lack of restraint – these and other unwelcome attributes have become a lot more prominent in the recent period. I believe that many of us sense that this is the case and know what I am referring to when I write about our fast crowd. Among Orthodox Jews within my circles of contact, there is a lot of quiet talk about behavior and attitudes repugnant to Torah values.

I have reflected much over what I am writing here and I have come to believe that to be entirely oblique about what is wrong is not sufficient. Accordingly, I will touch briefly on certain of the cornerstones of the behavior and attitudes that need to be rejected.

It is wrong for yeshivas to honor persons who have been charged with serious crimes, something that has happened on more than one occasion recently. I believe that it is inappropriate for Mashgichim to give mussar or ethical discourses in which they implore us to act with restraint in homes that are drowning in ostentation and worse. I believe that it sends the wrong message when so-called missions to Israel and the Former Soviet Union are accompanied by an excess of hype and noise, as if there is no purpose in going unless tons of publicity are generated. Yated Ne’eman, essentially the yeshiva world’s newspaper, illustrates how far we have sunk into practices that should be alien to people who proclaim hatznea leches as an ideal. We are routinely treated in its pages to institutional exhibitionism as schools and causes place page after page of ads, trumpeting themselves and making bloated claims. I do not blame the newspaper, yet we ought to recognize that a pattern has been established. The message we get is that without screaming in public, there is no way to get attention. Of course, it may be that some of us are trying to emulate the prophets of Baal on Har Carmel who yelled ever more loudly to their false god.

What I have written here is but a small part of a growing problem. More than specific actions or events that merit criticism, what is troubling is the emergence of what I have referred to as a fast crowd, mainly younger people who have money or want others to think that they are affluent. They act with little restraint. For all of their vanity, as well as the sham that is their exterior, they have become far too prominent in our community and far too representative. They hurt all of us, even though overwhelmingly yeshiva world families adhere to appropriate principles and practices.

As I write, I think of the remarkable incident reported twice in the Talmud. Rav Yosef, the son of Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi, became deathly ill and slipped into a coma. When he regained consciousness, his father asked him, “What did you see in the next world?” He answered, “I saw an upside down world. Those who are on top in this world are below in the next world and those who are lowly here are honored there.” His father said, “My son, you have seen a clear world,” a world where people occupy the positions they merit.

There is in this a merit of consolation about our present situation, for in the world of truth, truth will prevail. But we live in this world, which is not a world of truth, and we face the reality of giving prominence and honor to those who do not deserve to be esteemed. The world of Torah, even on this earth, is the world of truth and it should not be too much to ask that at least in the four cubits of halacha, we maintain appropriate standards.

Monday, August 20, 2001

Who is a Rabbi?

Let’s face it, nowadays anyone is or can claim to be one. This is an open society, standards are lax, the times are permissive and we Jews have an identity crisis. A rabbi can be unlearned and even irreligious, as too many now are, and if it hasn’t happened yet, we will soon have rabbis who aren’t Jewish.

In fact, quite a few Jews who do not claim or use the title are commonly referred to as rabbis. These are Orthodox men who look the way rabbis are expected to look or who are called rabbi on the assumption that this is the appropriate way to refer to them. I know this from experience. Because I am Orthodox, was educated in an advanced yeshiva and serve as president of a yeshiva, I have been addressed as rabbi thousands of times.

There’s something mildly mischievous in this because it adds to the already abundant confusion in contemporary Jewish life. Every so often, laxity in the use of rabbinic titles results in more serious harm, as was evident not long ago when the New York Times featured on the first page of the Metro section a story about two shady businessmen who had engaged in petty graft. The headline declared, “Health Official Fined For Gifts from 2 Rabbis.” The article was largely based on a press release from the New York State Ethics Commission which in its opening paragraph clearly identified the wrongdoers as business people. When later one their names were given, they were referred to as Rabbis. The commission’s spokesman told me that there was some discussion as to whether this was appropriate. The decision to use the title was based on the belief that the accused parties would be offended if they weren’t so identified.

True to form, the Times pounced on the opportunity to add to its malignant record on all things Jewish. For those who think that this is unfair, even a bit paranoid, some days later a clergyman of another religion pled guilty to embezzling nearly one- billion dollars in a scam aimed at his religious followers. There was no room for this story in the newspaper that publishes all of the news that’s fit to print.

As Orthodox Jews who look like or claim to be rabbis engage in business activities, it is certain that some will act wrongfully and perhaps be subject to criminal charges. If the media readily identify them as rabbis, the Orthodox community and, in a real sense, all of American Jewry will be hurt through guilt by association. Is it too much to expect a measure of discipline, to suggest that people in business not call themselves rabbis and to ask that when such persons act in a personal capacity, however they look or whatever they claim, that they not be identified as rabbis?

I know that it’s unlikely that this goal will be achieved. The rabbinical designation does not make a story kosher; it makes it juicer, something that’s more likely to be read. Besides, there are bad people who insist on being identified as rabbis. Some of them, in fact, legitimately are rabbis, even though they scarcely may be religious and their actions cause shame and pain.

We cannot decertify them or strip them of their titles. We are stuck and as much as we Orthodox Jews might protest, to an extent their sins stick to us.

Much of our unfortunate predicament arises from the relationship between businessmen masquerading as rabbis and politicians who are either gullible or too eager to embrace the worst elements. This is an old story to which we Jews have made a small, albeit unwelcome, contribution. There is at once something pathetic and disgusting about how politicians toady up to religious hucksters, how individuals with spurious claims can gain political access, usually because they spread some money around.

The two scoundrels who the Times reported on gained extraordinary access with Governor George Pataki. They made their contributions and the Governor – not merely members of his administration but the Governor himself – was all too eager to embrace people of low repute. Mr. Pataki was warned about this, but to no avail. The smell of money was stronger than the smell of corruption. He raced through the red lights, signaling to lower officials that it was okay to do favors for the scoundrels.

A similar story has worked at the highest echelons at City Hall. For all of Mayor Guiliani’s self-proclaimed righteousness, he has given access to bad people, specifically a bullying Orthodox businessman who has benefited enormously from Mr. Guiliani’s patronage, even as the public good has suffered.

Since Mr. Guiliani’s term is nearing an end, this individual – working with the Mayor’s fundraiser and enforcer – is seeking to gain access to the next administration, an aspiration that is shared by other community hustlers. One need not be a prophet to know that new unholy alliances will soon be established. The New York Times is going to have a lot of schmutz to print. Of course, Jewish media will not want to be left out of the feeding frenzy and they will likely go the extra mile to give coverage to Orthodox wrongdoers, even as they turn a blind eye to what is happening among the ninety percent of American Jews who aren’t Orthodox.

We Orthodox Jews are in for a steady diet of shame, blame and pain.

Wednesday, August 01, 2001

An Essay on Contemporary American Jewish Life

(Originally published by Tradition in the Summer 2001 issue and reprinted by Jewish Law Commentary)

This essay is a brief and tentative exploration of a dilemma that will remain a powerful force in our communal affairs for years to come. While our intellect and powers of observation allow us to understand the situation we are in - including the harm that is being done to our community - it is beyond our reach to bring about significant improvement. All of our organizations and institutions, as well as our money and other resources, including our planning skill, intellectual capabilities, and even our determination cannot be employed, at least not now, to alter patterns in Jewish life that we surely would like to change, if only because they cut off too much of American Jewry from the great legacy and story of our people.

For ten years, organized American Jewry has been in the grip of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey and its shocking statistics of Judaic abandonment and intermarriage. Thousands of articles and an unknowable number of meetings and speeches have considered the implications of NJPS and what can or should be done to counteract a trend that threatens to destroy much of American Jewry.

American Jews have developed a penchant for opinion surveys. Each revisits the desolate 1990 terrain, providing new echoes of the earlier study.1 We abound in continuity activities that claim to have the capacity to reverse the dreadful statistics and ensure Jewish survival on these shores. Birthright Israel and other Israel experiences are being supported handsomely, while the non-Orthodox have discovered the presumed curative powers of a day school education. Continuity and identity have become our marching orders.

It isn't asked too often whether most of American Jews can be saved or, for that matter, want to be saved. We do not ask whether salvation means distancing American Jews from the allures of intermarriage and a life-style that nearly totally rejects tradition and bringing them closer to the glorious Judaic heritage or whether it means simply identifying themselves as a Jew, without any meaningful religious content in their lives. We do not ask these questions in some measure because we believe that we are in the midst of a battle to save American Jewry and during battles it ordinarily is not the right thing to do to ask whether the effort is worthwhile.

More likely, we do not ask these uncomfortable questions because we do not want to be made uncomfortable. We have convinced ourselves that we can succeed and that we are succeeding to at least some extent. The necessity to save Jews at risk is mother to the invention that Jews at risk want to be saved - that is, in our sense, not theirs.

We reason, quite understandably, that if the abandonment of Judaic practice and commitment was the catalyst for Jewish loss, surely the enhancement of practice and commitment will reverse the process of loss. This reckoning is buttressed by reports from the field, by tales of outreach success and by evidence that in non-Orthodox and even secular circles, there is a turn or return to Judaism. We optimistically extrapolate from the limited, yet surely wonderful, success of the kiruv movement, concluding that if we somehow could reach all of American Jewry, the statistics of success would be greatly multiplied.

Unfortunately, the calculus of contemporary Jewish life does not easily accommodate this optimism. Intermarriage, as I shall underscore, is substantially an incremental and irreversible process. Increasingly and inevitably, persons identified by our demographers as American Jews are at best Jews in a social and not halachic sense. A great proportion of American Jews, including those identified by demographers as core Jews, pay no attention to the Jewish messages directed at them. Of the Jews who are still emotionally or experientially engaged in Jewish life - they being the Jews at risk who might be reached - there is a decided moving away from core Jewish practices and beliefs. Judaism is, in short, being defined downward. We are pleased - and rightly so - when assimilated Jews participate in a seder or have a Chanukah menorah, but we fail to see that more than 90% of the glass is empty and that there is scarcely any replenishment in sight.

This is crucial to an understanding of the situation that confronts us. It matters, for sure, that there are Jews at risk who say that in some fashion they want to live a religious life and also that there are parts of our heritage that they eagerly want to transmit to the next generations. But it matters, as well, that what is increasingly meant by religion and heritage is something that bears a shrinking resemblance to what these terms meant a generation ago. The seder and menorah observance should not be made to seem trivial, but Sabbath observance is now the province of a frighteningly small proportion of American Jewry. Even among Jews who say that they want to be more Jewishly committed, the Shabbos that most readers of this Journal celebrate is a distant or unknown experience.

Even the sincere commitment to more meaningful Jewish education is not without complexities. While it is too early to draw conclusions about how the day school experience will impact on the future lives of children in families that are at risk, the early evidence is not promising. The 1990 NJPS already pointed to a substantial intermarriage rate among those who had attended day school and most of these had attended an Orthodox institution. It is hard to be optimistic that results will be stronger among those who are non-Orthodox. Too many of the new day schools are minimalistic in their Judaic program and expectations. They function more as private schools under Jewish sponsorship than as religious educational institutions. As I have underscored elsewhere, there is a strong prospect that certain day schools will be the Talmud Torahs of the twenty-first century.2

This emphatically does not mean that we should not encourage the expansion of day school education in non-Orthodox sectors or even that we should downplay their capacity to yield positive Judaic fruit. In fact, day schools are a good illustration of the dilemma that faces us. We must not be blind to our current situation or caught up in the euphoric attitude that is so readily promoted by the outreach community. Our accomplishments are nearly all now entwined in a dialectic: We reach out, as we must, and there will be some successes, but it is now also inevitable that outreach encompasses persons who are not halachic Jews. As we succeed in some instances, the effort and resources required to produce this progress come at the expense of the expanding acceptance of approaches to Jewish life that are, at best, problematic from the standpoint of religious Judaism.

We are trapped. We cannot walk away and say that our responsibility ends at the boundaries of our own community. Yet, as we make an effort to salvage what we can among Jews at risk, we cannot avoid contributing to outcomes that undermine our sense of Jewishness. It has long been evident that the compromises made throughout the 20th century powerfully compromise the ability to reverse the destructive assimilatory trend away from Jewish commitment and practice. It now turns out that much of what is being done with devotion and sacrifice to upgrade the quality of Jewish life requires further compromises on the part of those engaged in the effort. As we seek to strengthen Jewish life, there is the paradox that in some ways and in other quarters we may be weakening it.

The notion that we are not able to reverse powerful social forces runs counter to basic communal instincts. This is part of the larger and already familiar story of how for about two centuries western societies have been imbued with an optimism derived substantially from technological and economic progress that leads people to believe that no social problem is insurmountable. We have learned from experience, much of it unhappy, that social engineering is quite different from technological engineering and the capacity to accomplish the latter says nothing about our ability to accomplish the former. It is child's play to conceive and bring into being Easy Pass, Palm computers, fiber optics and other technological wonders as compared with the task of, for example, eliminating poverty and other social pathologies.

My concern is the Jewish dimension, not the world around us, although we know that the world around us is relevant to what happens within our tiny community. We Jews are an aggressive, talented, intrepid people who are blessed with a certain chutzpah which induces the belief that we can master social forces that operate within our communal life.

We religious Jews seem to believe that there isn't a Jewish problem that cannot be solved if our hearts and minds are in the right place and we commit sufficient resources. Our reach is, in fact, limited, probably severely. In trying or hoping to influence the larger Jewish community, we are the prisoner of what has already transpired, of events that continue to be far outside of our sphere of influence.

If I am pessimistic, it is because I am also realistic. For all of my belief that there is little that we can do to substantially affect the dialectical situation we are in, it remains that yiush - the abandonment of hope - runs entirely counter to the commitments that have been the central theme of my life for fifty years or since I met the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, Rav Aharon Kotler of saintly memory. I believe that people can make a difference and the great Rosh Yeshiva made an enormous difference in the twenty years of his feverish activity on this soil.

But it is one thing to acknowledge that people can bring about improvements, even major improvements, and something quite different to suggest that they can counteract embedded social forces that are impervious to their efforts. We can accomplish much in the linked areas of chinuch and kiruv - Jewish education and outreach - but we engage in self-deception if we believe that we can influence in a Jewish way the vast number of Jews who have abandoned entirely any involvement in Jewish life.3 Thus, the great Rosh Yeshiva was able to stir and motivate a lethargic Orthodoxy. Yet, he had no direct impact to speak of on the legions of secularized American Jews who were rushing headlong away from their heritage.

Our efforts will ultimately bear fruit, but they will affect only a small proportion of Jews who are on the margins of Jewish life and in ways that cannot be fully planned for or predicted. And it is certain that a very great number of American Jews will pay no heed to anything that our community attempts to do to increase their sense of identity and commitment.

American Jewish demography or population study is at the heart of the dilemma that limits our capacity to act. One way to illustrate the importance of Jewish demography is to point out that it's been a long while since we paid any attention to what used to be called Jewish thinkers. When was the last time we heard of a book on Jewish life or thought that was regarded as a must read? Nearly every day we read of the statistics, survey predictions and other wisdom generated by Jewish demographers. These are the people we pay attention to, although in truth they really are nothing more than statisticians who usually happen to have degrees in sociology. Their knowledge of Jewish history is scant and, besides, they consider history irrelevant to what transpires in American Jewish life.

The demographers now set our agenda, as they conjure up new sets of numbers and define what it is to be a Jew. In the way of the statisticians fraternity generally, there is much intramural quarreling. The pettiness of their intellectual property induces a like pettiness as they vouch for the completeness and accuracy of their data. Alas, while we do not respect them, they cannot be ignored. Attention is paid.


We soon will have the results of the Year 2000 survey and we will be told - hopefully accurately - whether all that was mobilized by our multi-billion dollar organizational and institutional infrastructure has resulted in an improved or more optimistic set of statistics.4 We will be told whether the intermarriage rate has been lowered or, alternatively, whether the barn door of Judaic abandonment has been open far too long and far too wide to allow our belated efforts to reverse the trend to have widespread impact.

Even if NJPS 2000 hands out an "improved" report card, as I expect will happen, it may not matter much - except in the inevitable public relations barrage - in some measure because statistics of this kind, like most other statistics, should not be regarded as infallible. More importantly, it matters far less than it used to what the intermarriage rate is. The damage has already been done. We are in what may be regarded as a post-assimilationist, post-intermarriage phase of American Jewish development. The prevailing attitude is that intermarriage is a widespread fact and American Jewry can just the same go on with its business of preserving American Jewry.

It needs to be underscored that, contrary to the new attitude that is taking hold in American Jewish life, the incidence of intermarriage cannot be measured as other departures from our religious norms are measured. Intermarriage is cumulative in its consequences and largely irreversible in its impact on subsequent generations. From an halachic standpoint, it hardly matters whether the offspring of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers marry non-Jews. If they do, they have not intermarried. This is a circumstance that our demographers ignore or avoid, so that the data they present masks our contemporary situation at least as much as it reveals it.

To this we must add the consequences of dubious conversions, patrilineality and the willingness of our survey-makers to include non-Jews who live in what are called Jewish households in the Jewish population statistics. When I speak of non-Jews living in Jewish households, I am referring to persons who have not been converted in any fashion and who do not regard themselves as Jewish.

What I am getting to is this: When we study other forms of religious Jewish behavior, such as Sabbath observance or kashrut, we can easily tally how many observe the religious norm and how many do not and we can then compare the results with data from earlier surveys. Admittedly, social realities limit what is likely to happen down the road, so that people who did not keep kosher in 1990 are not likely to be observant ten years later. But their earlier behavior is not a religious barrier that prevents them from becoming observant. This is not true of most intermarriages, for reasons that should be obvious.

Although NJPS 1990 was scary, its profile of wholesale Judaic abandonment via intermarriage or the more familiar expedient of walking away entirely from Jewish life was not unprecedented. While we understandably look at Jewish history as the story of our survival despite persecution, slaughter and other misfortunes, it is also true that every page in our history has wide margins that tell the story of Jewish abandonment. There is no way to know for sure, but it's likely that we have lost far more people via this route than the harsher route of persecution and extermination.

In some places or periods, the two routes have intersected, for Judaic abandonment has both an active and passive form. The active form is the purposeful renouncing of Judaism through apostasy while the more passive form occurs when people stop regarding themselves as Jews and surrender all Jewish practice, belief and identity. In harsh times, apostasy has been the more likely generator of Jewish loss. But even in societies where tolerance was fairly strong - as, for example, in 19th century England - apostasy occurred because there were adverse social, economic or political consequences to remaining Jewish.

We can appreciate the toll taken by Judaic abandonment via the passive route of surrendering any sense of Jewish identity by examining Jewish life in the two centuries prior to the Holocaust. The world Jewish population at the eve of the destruction of European Jewry is said to have been between 16-18 million, hardly an impressive figure. Let us consider this: From roughly the mid-18th century until the Holocaust, Jews experienced relatively little persecution. There was anti-Semitism in abundance and some pogroms, but the contribution of the pogroms to Jewish population loss was negligible. In the same period, there were great improvements in public health, so that the infant mortality rate declined significantly and there were comparable increases in life expectancy.

In view of these factors and what I am certain was the high Jewish fertility rate, the world Jewish population in 1933 should have been considerably above what it was.5 The reason why it wasn't is that we had experienced so much loss through one form or another of voluntary Judaic abandonment. Accordingly, it would seem that the contemporary American Jewish experience is an echo of what happened previously - and really not very long ago.

Yet, while there is perhaps nothing unique about a 50% intermarriage rate, there is something about American Jewish intermarriage that represents a departure from nearly all previous Jewish intermarriage patterns and complicates our population profile. The only large-scale analogy I am aware of is the Jewish situation in Babylonia in the inter-Temple period, when a large proportion of adult Jewish men, including communal leaders, had intermarried.

Our image of intermarriage has been shaped by popular culture and probably also by personal experience. This image may have once been accurate, but it no longer is and it certainly is not compatible with the new and increasingly accepted notion that the practice is compatible with the maintenance of Jewish identity and the promotion of Jewish continuity. Intermarriage was regarded as a rupture with Judaism that eradicated any sense of Jewish identity. In the familiar, though perhaps stereotypical profile, parents and family members would rent their garments, say kaddish and perhaps observe shiva. There was a shared understanding between the Jews who intermarried and the Jews who they left behind which amounted to an agreement that the intermarried would no longer be regarded as Jews.

In the 1980's, this image of intermarriage changed, although the seeds were planted earlier. As the practice became more widespread, it also became more familiar in the sense that it started to become more acceptable. If not in the community as a whole, then in a great number of homes, intermarriage lost its shock value and it gained acceptance and even legitimacy in a way that contrasted sharply with the historic pattern. As much as the new attitude of tolerance toward intermarriage seemed to be a reversal of deeply embedded social, psychological and religious imperatives, its emergence should not have been surprising. Yet, even today there is scant appreciation of the mutation in Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage, perhaps because the community rhetoric and programming continue to be so unaccepting of intermarriage. As much as I wish that it were otherwise, the community's announced opposition to intermarriage runs directly counter to the attitude of most American Jews.

The spread of intermarriage meant that more outsiders, mainly family members, were affected, so that we have now reached the point where few families - including among the Orthodox - are entirely outside of the pale of this experience. Relatives of the intermarried continue to say - by decreasing margins - that if they had the ability to choose, they would clearly prefer marriage within the faith. But by 1990, fully 80% of American Jews said that if it occurred, they would accept intermarriage in their family. What had long been anathema is now at least tolerated. The trend is strongly in this direction and it is not going to be reversed, either by rhetoric or hair pulling or programming that is designed to counteract the prospect of intermarriage. Several years ago, two-thirds of Conservative teenagers from that movement's more traditional wing indicated that they see nothing wrong with intermarriage.

The process of change was obviously abetted by practical considerations. Secular Jews who had already traveled far along the road of assimilation could not accept the cultural or communal norm that had been fully accepted in previous generations mandating that the intermarried be disowned. Their children were, after all, their children, whether they married a Jew or Gentile or did not marry at all. There was no tension any longer in the acceptance of a practice that had been taboo because there now was a growing critical mass of American Jews who refused to regard intermarriage as deviant behavior.6

Intermarriage was transformed from a most serious violation of Jewish law and norms - something just short of idolatry - into one of many departures from traditional religious practice. This can be see as a natural extension of the process whereby American in ever-increasing numbers distanced themselves from their religious obligations. Sabbath observance is now nearly the exclusive province of the Orthodox, while kashruth is observed by not many more Jews. Other mitzvahs are regarded as anachronisms, as old-world relics that are ill-suited to modern sensibilities and environments. Why should intermarriage be viewed differently from other freely taken decisions not to be a practicing Jew?

This question gains some force when we consider that Jews who eat non-kosher food or work on Shabbos may be sinners in a religious sense but continue to be regarded as Jews by even the most Orthodox. Some of them are even community leaders and people upon whom our community readily bestows honors.

Further abetting the acceptance of what had long been unacceptable is the recognition that in many instances of intermarriage, the non-Jewish spouse is no less observant than the Jewish marriage partner, which isn't saying much given the likely level of observance of the Jewish spouse.

These factors add up in the minds of non-observant Jews to the powerful argument that the intermarried should not be ostracized or relegated to some kind of Jewish leper's colony. If the main religious symbols of contemporary Jewish life are a Chanukah menorah, Passover seder and some form of Yom Kippur observance, intermarriage does not prevent anyone from fulfilling these obligations.


This is a more intricate and multi-nuanced story than I have presented so far. For most American Jews who have intermarried, including in recent years, the old pattern of removal from Jewish life has substantially prevailed. Marrying out for most Jews has not been accompanied by a desire or willingness to maintain meaningful forms of Jewish identity. For these Jews, as a rule, Jewish causes are not contributed to, Israel is not visited or given much attention, Jewish publications are not read and Jewish messages are ignored. The erosion in Jewish consciousness that preceded intermarriage took a heavy toll in eroding any sense of Jewish identity. Intermarriage added very little to the damage that had already been done.

Accordingly, the theme that I am developing of intermarriage being reconciled with Jewish identity concerns a minority of the intermarried. Yet, this minority constitutes a group whose position in contemporary life has important implications. These Jews honestly regard intermarriage as a personal decision and they believe that communal opposition to an individual's personal choice may be understandable, but it is entirely unacceptable. These Jews sincerely value freedom of choice and, as I have said, they are confident that they can integrate a measure of Jewish continuity into the life pattern that they have established. These Jews read some of our publications, give to our causes, visit Israel at least occasionally and strongly identify with the Jewish state, join Jewish organizations and, at times, even congregations. Some have become Jewish leaders and their ranks are certain to grow.

For these Jews, the fact that they engage in these forms of Jewish behavior as they remain intermarried validates the legitimacy and utility of their position. They have pulled off the neat trick of being dualistic, of abandoning most of Judaism as they seek to maintain Jewish identity, of chucking off most of the Jewish past as they sincerely claim to want to ensure a Jewish future. Along the way, they have gained adherents among other intermarried and, more critically, among Jews who still believe that intermarriage is not good for the Jews.

For certain, this phenomenon is transitory. From the standpoint of halacha and Jewish history, it may also be said to be illusory. But it is real from the sociological standpoint and it is an experience that is alive today in the minds and lives of a rather great number of Jews. As much as religious Jews want to believe otherwise, they have to acknowledge and contend with a phenomenon that is confusing - for them unprecedented - but which will not go away simply because intermarriage is proscribed.

In a way that may be paradoxical, the faith of intermarried Jews in the compatibility of their marriage choice with continued Jewish affiliation has been strengthened by communal efforts to counteract intermarriage. In the ways of the law of unintended consequences, there are assimilated Jews who have taken to heart the messages and activities aimed at promoting Jewish involvement - but only up to a point. The particular thrust of the messages was to discourage intermarriage and the secular Jews to whom they were addressed did not pay heed. They would marry whom they wanted to marry, irrespective of what this might mean to Jewish continuity.

But this does not mean that the fervent messages of the past decade or so have fallen on deaf ears. For one thing, even the nature of intermarriage has changed, so that now there is the diminished likelihood that the Jewish spouse will convert to his/her partner's religion. At the wedding itself, a rabbi or cantor might officiate, perhaps together with a clergyman from the non-Jew's religion. The important thing is that marriage out of the faith no longer necessarily meant that the intermarried were no longer of the faith.

Their sense of continued Jewish involvement was furthered by the aspects of the messages that they did listen to. They heard the talk about visiting and supporting Israel, studying Jewish texts, belonging to congregations and organizations and whatever else might sustain their Jewish commitment. In the aggregate, therefore, our continuity efforts have substantially resulted in strengthening the view of many intermarried Jews that they can have their cake and eat it. This isn't a criticism of either these Jews or of the community; it is simply a picture of a social and psychological process that is still in development.


The new attitude toward intermarriage is in harmony with the American ethos of tolerance and individualism, of people choosing how they live their lives, including who they live with. It goes against the American grain to tell a man and a woman, both adults, that because of the circumstances of their birth or parental religious affiliation, they cannot marry the person they want to marry.

At a practical level, inter-ethnic marriage has long been a feature of American life. The Irish and Italians and Germans and so many other groups have intermarried in abundance and while it is true that the practice has brought some of these groups to nearly the vanishing point, it remains that Americans are comfortable with the idea of choice in marriage.

Even among the Orthodox - or many of them - there is evidence of an indirect or grudging acceptance of behavior that we regard as antithetical to Judaism. We do not subscribe, of course, to the notion that for Jews religious beliefs and practices are matters of personal choice, that the Torah and Shulchan Aruch are mitzvah smorgasbords from which we can pick and choose. But at least in our secondary associations - and, frankly, occasionally in some primary associations - there is a surprising comfort level with the reality of intermarriage. Intermarried relatives are invited to Orthodox weddings, Orthodox Jews participate in Jewish organizations with Jews who are intermarried and we do not protest much, if at all, when we are told that the children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother are Jewish. Little thought is given to whether this is right. Isn't it interesting or telling that in a previous period in the American Jewish experience when Orthodoxy was far weaker and far less strict than it now is, strictures against contact with the intermarried were more strongly maintained?

I might add that there are Orthodox day schools that accept children of doubtful halachic status, a practice that has been sanctioned by notable Torah leaders from the yeshiva world.

There is, in short, a good deal of dualism or compartmentalization within the religious Jewish world, amounting to the religious rejection of intermarriage but social acceptance of the practice. I suppose that there really isn't much choice here, for unless the Orthodox are willing to close themselves off from other Jews, there will be this kind of dualism.


To appreciate the openness of American life and how it facilitates intra-communal dialogue and contacts between secular, even anti-religious, Jews and the Orthodox, we can contrast the 19th century German Jewish experience with contemporary American Jewish life. Under the inspired leadership of Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch, much of German Orthodoxy separated itself from the nominal communal arrangements and established an Austritt Gemeinde. This separate entity sealed itself off in a communal sense from the rest of organized Jewry.7 It was possible to do this, I think, because there were attitudes and cultural norms alive in German life that permitted separation. Germans were, after all, not quite noted for their spirit of tolerance.

American Jewry has witnessed departures from halachic and traditional norms that dwarf in severity what occurred in Germany. Yet, the American Orthodox reaction has been fairly muted, except for the occasional public attention that is given to differences between the Orthodox and the other denominations. For all of the angry language, the Orthodox participate actively in organized Jewish life and so far as I know, no Orthodox leaders have followed the path of Rabbi Hersch and called for a separate community. Rather, as its contribution to the debate on pluralism in Israel, Agudath Israel has mounted an expensive "We are one people" campaign. While its impact has been nil and this won't change, the campaign demonstrates in a stark way that in America, the cultural norm is to get along, to tolerate, if not to accept.8

This helps us to understand an interesting aspect of the American Jewish push for pluralism in Israel. While the Reform and Conservative movements have their agenda, for many marginally religious American Jews who bear no animus toward the Orthodox, there is a strong feeling that Israel should follow the American pattern and allow freedom of choice on religious matters. What these Jews are emphasizing is not so much the religious dimension as their belief in the rightness of individual choice.

The openness of American life, which encompasses extraordinary patterns of social, geographic and economic mobility, is yet another building block in the process of accepting and legitimating an individual Jew's decision to marry outside of the religion while retaining the personal freedom to continue as an involved Jew.


Individual choice adds yet another layer of complexity to the American Jewish population puzzle. I have pointed out how Jewish abandonment has been shaped by events in the external society. Where and when there was persecution and repression - even just social repression in the form of stifled opportunity - Jews were far more likely to abandon Judaism, either through apostasy or walking away.

The losses we have suffered via these routes are staggering and they include what we have lost in this century. If halachic - but not social - standards were applied and if genetic testing could be employed to identify who is a Jew, in all likelihood we would locate a great number of people who were born Jewish but who do not regard themselves as Jews. As one bit of evidence, there is the curious situation of Jews in the Former Soviet Union. Although perhaps as many as two million Jews have left, there is credible evidence that there are now more Jews living in the FSU than the number that had been estimated when the doors to emigration were opened.

Jews hid their Jewishness because they believed that the downside of being identified as Jews was too great a burden to bear. In other instances, nothing was being hidden because there were halachic Jews who were unaware of their status. This phenomenon, which is more widespread than has been appreciated, may be referred to as the Madeleine Albright syndrome. This is the worldwide syndrome of perhaps hundreds of thousands of persons who are Jews fully in an halachic sense and not Jews at all in a societal sense. This situation is at once 180 degrees away from and yet also the mirror image of the vast number of Americans who are now Jews in a societal but not halachic sense.

So far as I know, no one has declared that the former U.S. Secretary of State is a Jew, although both of her parents were born Jewish. What about Cardinal Lustiger, now one of the great princes of the Catholic Church? These and a large number of other people who were Jews at birth are, with perhaps few exceptions, lost entirely. We do not include them in our population statistics, in our communal planning or in our Jewish thinking. They are our Ten Lost Tribes. In two generations at the latest, the halachic status of their offspring will correlate perfectly with their social status.

Jews abandon Judaism when they calculate that it is in their interest to do so. Attention has been given to this social process. Is there a social process operating in the other direction whereby Gentiles calculate that it is in their interest to be regarded as Jewish? We rarely address this question, doubtlessly because for 2,000 years it was a rare day when it was advantageous to be a Jew. But such days did happen. We know from even earlier developments in Jewish history that there were occasions when being a Jew was what today would be called a good career move. There was the Persian experience as recounted in the Megillah. After the downfall of Haman and the triumph of Mordechai and Esther, we are told that many converted to Judaism or claimed to be Jewish - I do not know which - for the fear of the Jews had fallen on them.

Rambam tells us in the laws dealing with conversion, that in the Kingdoms of David and Solomon there were Batei Dinim - courts of Jewish law - consisting of unqualified judges who engaged in wholesale conversions, either because the new converts were fearful of Jews or they wanted to be part of the Jewish success story.

For more than 2,000 years, Judaism attracted few converts, in part because we placed the barrier very high but also because while we offered spiritual benefits, there were few temporal attractions. This has changed dramatically in the recent period, especially in the U.S., but to an extent also throughout the Western world. To be Jewish is an in thing. Jews who marry out of the faith no longer have to become apostates. The non-Jewish spouse may well consider conversion to Judaism. If not, there still often is a measure of identity with patterns of Jewish life.

Even in an age of celebrityship, it is remarkable to have Hollywood stars studying Kabala - or what they are told is Kabala - and Michael Jackson going to the Carelbach Synagogue on Simchas Torah. There are other illustrations of this trendy attraction to things Jewish. Are there any implications to the growing incorporation of Yiddish words into the American vernacular? I'm sure that we can think of many other examples.

Because much of what is happening is trendy, inevitably it is transparent, which means that it will not be long-lived. But for all of the transient nature of the new embrace of what is believed to be Jewish identity, it remains that we live in the present and we act in the present and while we religious Jews are always mindful of the heritage that we have received and which we will bequeath to the next generations, we too make our choices in the contemporary world. It is important to know that ultimately the attenuated sense of Jewish identity will be gone with the wind, but until this happens it will be a crucial factor in the planning and lives of American Jews.


It is risky and probably foolish to predict what lies ahead. There are always surprises and disappointments. We can be certain of Jewish survival, in whatever numbers. And, I think, we can be certain that the developments that I have outlined will continue to be factors in American Jewish life for quite a while. The attitudes which legitimate intermarriage and which tend to reconcile Jewish abandonment with Jewish identity are being constantly reinforced.

All of this is to say that it is hardly possible to calculate how many Jews there are. From a strict halachic perspective, our numbers are decreasing, probably rapidly. From a secular perspective, our numbers are increasing, especially if we include in our accounting all of dubious religious status and people who are not at all Jewish but who live in Jewish households.

What are we to make of all of this? What are we to call these Jews who at least for the present have redefined what it is to be a Jew? The kind of Judaism which is being marketed is not religious, not in the Conservative or perhaps even the Reform sense. In terms of the behavior and attitudes of a vast majority of American Jews, the dominant denomination is Reconstructionism. To most American Jews who regard themselves as Jewish, our religion is a large menu of beliefs and practices and it is for the consumer - the individual Jew - to decide what to believe in and what to practice.

According to some writers, we are now an ethnic group. I have difficulty accepting the term, in part because the distinction between what is ethnic and what is religious is unclear. Intermarriage is defined by these writers as ethnic behavior. The concept of ethnicity suggests an identification that is more deeply rooted and lasting than what we are witnessing in American Jewish life. While I believe that the arrangements that have evolved will not dissipate quickly, I very much doubt that they can survive as long as ethnic groups are expected to survive.

I think that what we are evolving into outside of our relatively small religious core is something of a voluntary membership association. Americans are a nation of joiners and groups have always been critical in this society. Some of the loyalties developed through group attachments are fairly long lasting, as is apparent in individuals whose families have for generations been strongly identified as Democrats or Republicans. Much the same has been true, at least in the past, of labor union affiliation. One can go to Detroit or the Pennsylvania coal mines and find evidence of three or even four generations of membership in the same union. Judaism has become to many nominal Jews a voluntary association. We can stay in, pay dues, join in group activities and perhaps impart our sense of loyalty to the next generation. Or we can switch out, in much the same way that party affiliation can be switched. The choice is the individual's. Right now, many American Jews who have rejected nearly all of what it previously meant to be a Jew continue to sign up as Jews, but on terms that are acceptable to them. This, too, provides a strong measure of reinforcement.

There are Americans who aren't Jewish by anyone's definition who are signing on as Jews - at least that's what they think - usually because they are in a relationship with someone who is Jewish. The religious demands of joining are minimal and so the dues to be paid are no longer much of an issue. It doesn't hurt that, as noted, we are in a period of unprecedented Jewish popularity. Jews rank very high among Americans for their industry, intelligence, values, reliability and much else.

As I have said, this will ultimately unravel. But for the present it is real and it begets a great deal of confusion. We are likely to be more confused as we continue along the same road. Many of us understandably regard this as tragic. At the least, though, we may want to keep in mind that even the confusion about status and other questionable aspects of our population profile are not all that unique.


There is nothing we can or should do to make Jews unpopular as part of a stratagem of alleviating the dilemma that has enveloped our community. There is also little we can do to prevent the large majority of American Jews from defining Judaism as they see fit. This is a free country and with respect to religion, we are for now fated to have the bad along with the good. At once, we are allowed to practice our religion according to precise halachic requirements, while other Jews are free to redefine our religion downwards. In the context of American life, we do not and cannot have a monopoly on determining who is a Jew and what is a Jew. Even from the perspective of American Jewry, our reach is quite limited. We are, in a sense, limited to the four cubits of Torah and halacha.

It has been a while in America since it was possible to say with a straight face, es is shver tzu zein a Yid. It isn't hard to be a Jew, not in the way that the phrase once meant, although it is hard at times to be true to certain of our traditions in a society awash in materialism and powerful assimilatory phrases. For most American Jews, to be a Jew is as easy as apple pie and nearly as American.

Can we Orthodox counteract the dilemmas that are overtaking us in our interactions with the rest of American Jewry? Can outreach avoid being the two-edged sword that it has become? Must we in our relationships with assimilated Jews compromise religious standards and further becloud status issues that already pulsate throughout American Jewish life? Can we, in short, get out of the trap that we are in, the dialectical trap that dictates that the progress we make among assimilated Jews brings with it the high cost of adding confusion and complexities in our communal life?

Put differently, can we engage in outreach activities without being the inadvertent handmaiden to the acceptance of intermarriage and Judaic abandonment, so long as they come in a Jewish identity wrapping?

If we were to embrace an Austritt philosophy, we might avoid the trap or dialectic, although I am less certain about this than I once was. This might entail the abandonment of formal outreach as it has been conducted over the past two decades, a cost that understandably might be considered as too high because it would mean the spiritual abandonment of most of American Jewry. Furthermore, Austritt is not in the cards, for it is not in accord with the American ethos.

It would seem that we must take the losses as part of the effort to achieve religious gains. That is how it is when a community is entrapped.

Still, it isn't necessary to sail further into a sea of uncertainty. What we attempt to do in outreach - and I mean here the full range of our engagement with the rest of American Jewry - must be informed by an intelligent and realistic assessment of our predicament. There is too much of a disconnect in contemporary Orthodoxy. We at once bemoan the adverse developments of the past decades and then act and think in outreach as if they did not happen, as if we were back in 1980 before the great leap in intermarriage rates and before patrilineality, quickie conversions and wholesale Judaic abandonment.

We somehow seem to have forgotten that 50% is not an inorganic statistical particle. It is a dynamic force affecting everything we want to do as religious Jews relative to other Jews.

It may be that some form of disengagement - stopping short of Austritt - would not foreclose the ability to reach out to other Jews. Instead of formal outreach through distinct organizations established for that purpose, we might more effectively engage in outreach of a more subtle nature, avoiding thereby the confusion and status issues that have undermined what we are doing to reach out to assimilated Jews.

We are told that when Rabbi Hirsch came to Frankfurt, Orthodox life had evaporated to nearly the vanishing point. This is probably an exaggeration, but it remains that there was a steep decline as the Enlightenment and new freedoms accorded to German Jews took a heavy toll in sharply reduced religious commitment. When Rabbi Hirsch passed away decades later, Frankfurt had a vibrant Orthodox community and this was true of other German communities under his influence. It is logical to derive from this that Austritt was not a total barrier to upgrading the religiosity of some Jews who had walked away from a religious life.

There are examples from the American Jewish experience pointing in the same direction, communities that grew religiously without the public relations, fundraising and formal outreach activities that have become familiar fare in Orthodox life.

It could be that the most effective strategy for relations with the Jewish world outside of Orthodoxy is for our communal life to be fully invested with a sense of religious purposefulness and spiritual dignity, qualities that strengthen Orthodoxy from within and serve as magnets that attract outsiders who may come to appreciate the glorious Judaic heritage. If we go about our lives as religious Jews with spiritual dignity, somehow our commonplace religious activities will touch the lives of assimilated Jews and have a religious impact.

The kiruv movement has convinced itself and much of the rest of Orthodoxy that the outreach net must be cast far and wide through activities that proclaim the outreach message in figurative neon lights. This approach is understandable and consistent with the contemporary emphasis on public relations, yet we have reached the point when we should question its wisdom. There is also the understandable but mistaken notion that unaffiliated and secular Jews are ripe candidates for kiruv. Overwhelmingly, American Jews do not want to be reached, cannot be reached and among those who can or want to be reached a growing number are not Jews according to halachic standards.

Instead of looking so far afield, we should look at what occurs within the ordinary boundaries of our communal life. Each year tens of thousands of Jews who aren't Orthodox - not by practice or affiliation - come to our synagogues, perhaps only once for a simcha or out of curiosity, or perhaps more frequently to say Kaddish or because of convenience. If the services are conducted with spiritual dignity and the atmosphere is one of quiet caring for these Jews, a number will respond and perhaps be drawn, to one extent or another, to greater Jewish commitment.

This quiet, ordinary approach relies on the intrinsic capacity of our religious life to be attractive. It may seem to be a variation on the familiar question of whether our communal focus should be on outreach or inreach, the latter meaning attention to Jews at risk who already are in our shuls, schools and other instrumentalities of organized Jewish life. The resemblance is more apparent than real. It is painful and troubling to continue to lose Jews whose families have shown a distinct commitment to an halachic lifestyle, especially when the losses occur among day school and yeshiva attendees. This is an aspect of Orthodox life that deserves attention and fixing, yet it is different from the activities that I have in mind.

What I am getting at here is something else, the inherent capacity of our institutions - especially our religious institutions - to reach out to assimilated Jews without broadcasting a formal outreach message. What needs to be on display is all that is good and fulfilling in religious Jewish life and not an overt outreach message or a pitch for funds.

This may require a substantially different orientation for many of our synagogues, especially the larger ones that seem hidebound in adhering to approaches that guarantee their shrinkage. There is also a need to establish Orthodox synagogues in the great number of under-served communities across the country. This is something that Chabad understands, but few others in Orthodox life seem to recognize the opportunity and responsibility.9

Synagogues are not the only contact points for the more subtle form of outreach that I am advocating, although they have the greatest intrinsic capacity to reach out to assimilated Jews. Day schools have a role to play, as do chesed activities and all else that is impressive in organized Orthodox communal life. Admittedly, relatively few Orthodox day schools continue to have an outreach orientation. There are now other priorities and this is manifested in the decline in enrollment in outreach and immigrant day schools. There is a corollary decline in the number of non-Orthodox enrollees in conventional Orthodox day schools.

The more muted, ordinary form of outreach would reduce the growing prominence in Jewish life of status issues but they cannot eliminate them entirely. This is an open society and there really is no place to hide, but this is not to say that every strategy has equal validity or creates the same level of difficulty. We ought not go deep into a morass that results in the constant expansion of the complexities that now abound in American Jewish life.

Throughout every period in Jewish life, when Jews flourished there were questions of status. Indeed, from the period of Joshua on for generations it could not be determined whether significant groups of people who had accompanied us in the land of Israel were legitimately Jewish. The Talmud discusses the controversy over the status Kuthim. This, too, took a long time to resolve.

So there is anguish about Jewish loss and confusion and anguish about a reinterpretation of Judaism that is hostile to what we believe in and ultimately hostile to Jewish survival. Just the same, it is well to focus on the long story of Jewish history, on glorious attainments, on our tradition, on the heritage that we have received and doubtlessly will impart to new generations.


1. As this essay was being prepared for publication, the American Jewish Committee released the results of the "2000 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion," which was conducted in September 2000. The results essentially confirm the findings of NJPS 1990, except that they may be interpreted as somewhat more pessimistic, especially regarding intermarriage.

2. It is convenient, but also deceptive, to mouth the day school mantra, to proclaim that a day school is a day school and that therefore inherently its mission and program promote what I have called religious purposefulness. There are day schools that do not meet even an attenuated standard of religious purposefulness. I recently visited one of the largest Reform day schools in the U.S., a school that is growing rapidly in an important community. Apart from sporadic tefila and Hebrew language instruction, there is no Judaic curriculum. There, as elsewhere, the hours devoted per week to any form of Jewish studies is well below the minimum standard of six hours that had once been set for Talmud Torahs or Jewish supplementary schools.

3. It should perhaps be underscored that the capacity of chinuch and kiruv to counteract, even in a modest way, embedded social forces that have resulted in massive Judaic abandonment is predicated on the linkage of these two related and yet distinct activities. It is often assumed that at least in the world of Orthodox Jewish education, such a linkage exists. In truth, the story is otherwise. Religious education and outreach are increasingly conducted as discrete activities. As a consequence, the effectiveness of kiruv has been sharply undermined, although one would hardly know this from reading the exaggerated claims that flow regularly from those who are engaged in outreach.

4. NJPS 2000 has been delayed, so that even the preliminary results are not expected to be released until late in 2001. Disputes among demographers and others who are involved in the project are largely responsible for the delay. The way these disputes have been resolved and the analysis flowing from these resolutions have a bearing on whether the statistics and their interpretation can be regarded as authoritative. The delay also arises in some measure because the random telephone dialing method that has been employed to locate the requisite number of American Jewish households to be included in the survey did not in the allotted time result in a sufficient number of Americans identifying themselves as Jews. It may turn out that even with the most attenuated definition imaginable of Jewish identity, fewer Americans than expected now say that they are Jewish, perhaps because they do not want to be identified as such. It may be that, as I suggest further on in the text, there is a growing number of Jews who in fact do not know that they are Jewish. In an interesting way, the NJPS 2000 experience bears out the thesis of this essay.

5. A respected friend who read a draft of this essay has questioned whether demographers would agree "that 18 million is such a small figure." He further notes that "it has been estimated that in 1700 there were only one-million Jews in the world; consequently, 18 million two-hundred years later does not strike me as a terribly small figure." I believe, however, that it is impossible to have an accurate count of world Jewry circa 1700. Furthermore, because of the factors noted in the text - high birthrate, improvements in public health, etc. - the Jewish population should have risen far more substantially than it did.

6. The recent American Jewish Committee survey alluded to in a previous footnote yields some remarkable data regarding the current attitude toward intermarriage. Fifty-six percent of respondents disagree with the statement, "It would pain me if my child married a gentile," while 81% agree that "The Jewish community has an obligation to reach out to intermarried couples." Furthermore, 50% think that "it is racist to oppose Jewish-gentile marriages." Depending on the number of response options offered, either 42% or 57% believe "Rabbis should officiate at a marriage between a Jew and a gentile even if a gentile clergyman is involved in the ceremony." On the subject of marriage, incidentally, when asked whether a Rabbi should officiate at a same-sex marriage if both are Jewish, 46% responded yes, 44% no and 10% were not sure.

7. There was, of course, ongoing contact with other segments of German Jewish life and Rabbi Hirsch and his community were clearly engaged in activities that included the German Orthodox who did not accept the Austritt approach. In a sense, this approach was as much - or more - ideological than a description of how German Orthodoxy functioned on a day to day basis.

8. When not long ago the Reform movement moved somewhat in the direction of greater acceptance of religious tradition and practice, Agudath Israel and its English language publication, The Jewish Observer, warmly welcomed the development. Of course, the Reform were not abandoning their tolerance of intermarriage, promotion of patrineality and their acceptance of quickie conversions or, for that matter, attitudes and behavior that have resulted in a rather considerable number of Reform adherents not being Jewish according to the halachic view of Agudath Israel. The Agudah was responding less to the Reform's religious changes as to the American imperative of indulging in public relations and evoking the image of tolerance.

9. The Chabad phenomenon deserves more attention than it has received, for it is by far the largest Jewish movement worldwide and it has grown considerably since the Rebbe's passing. Chabad's activities have profound implications for the issues discussed in the essay.