Monday, April 30, 2001

Day School Blues

A recent visit to a day school that serves immigrant families provides additional evidence that while in some respects this is the best of times for Jewish education in the U.S., in other respects it is also the worst of times. In a community that is driven by the imperative of public relations, we usually get to hear only the good news.

There is much to celebrate. Day school enrollment is growing steadily in New York and elsewhere and it will easily pass the 200,000 mark when the next school year begins in four months. While much of this increase results from Orthodoxy’s high fertility rate, there is also significant growth in the non-Orthodox sectors. Day school education is now accepted, at times enthusiastically, in places and homes where it was once regarded as the wrong way to go.

Moreover, there is an extraordinary building boom in the day school world. I estimate that in the 2000-2005 period, at least 200 or one-quarter of the day schools in the U.S. will be in one stage or another of expanding or improving their facilities. This represents a huge capital investment of perhaps one-billion dollars.

So what can be bad? The school that I visited gives part of the answer. It is one of a considerable number of low-tiered day schools that cater to immigrant, outreach and poor families. Its operating budget for nearly 300 students comes to about one-million dollars or $3,500 per year per student. The annual cost for a public school student in New York and New Jersey is above $10,000 and there are constant complaints that the public schools in these states are badly underfunded. There are Jewish day schools, some with a limited Jewish studies component, that charge well in excess of $10,000 per year. Then there are the immigrant and outreach schools and those for the poor that attempt to provide a dual education program at a cost of about one-third of what is being expended elsewhere. These schools and many yeshivas cover only a small part of their budgets through tuition income.

It would take a miracle for such schools to have strong and attractive programs, with the enhancements and facilities that are expected elsewhere. Trees may grow in Brooklyn; miracles do not. Too many schools struggle to get by and have no resources for special or, at times, basic needs. Furthermore, their weaknesses are self-perpetuating, as more affluent and more Jewishly-secure parents obviously do not send their children to such institutions. The philanthropic sector does little to help on the ground that it is wrong and futile to assist schools that, after all, are not doing a good job.

There is an unfortunate tendency among philanthropists to support the richer and stronger schools, they also being the institutions that offer the least scholarship assistance. As a reward for their decency and caring, yeshivas and day schools that reach out to the poor and marginally-involved Jewish families receive the short end of the philanthropic stick.

Support for day schools is further undermined by the expanding tendency to embrace the worst practices of public education. Tens of millions of dollars a year are allocated for trips, conferences, training programs and the rest of the effluvium of educational bureaucracies that specialize in the perverse notion that the best way to support education is to fund activities that do not occur in the classroom.

The Orthodox philanthropic sector that is the mainstay of support for lower-tiered schools increasingly focuses on educational initiatives in Israel and on establishing kollels. The attitude is that basic religious education will somehow be favorably transformed as a consequence. The major transformation so far is that weak schools have become even weaker and some may be forced to close.

Nor are the more affluent day schools problem-free. Non-Orthodox institutions operate in an environment permeated by secularism and assimilation, by an outlook that proclaims that Jewish life can be traditional even as our traditions are being abandoned. To be sure, there are non-Orthodox schools that maintain a definite religious commitment. But too many are minimalistic Jewishly and they are unwilling to attempt to upgrade the religiosity of their students and families.

These Jewishly-substandard schools may turn out to be less effective than the old Talmud Torahs or congregational schools that flourished throughout nearly all of the twentieth century and were the handmaiden to massive Jewish loss. It’s a stretch and then some to believe that such schools will make a meaningful contribution to Jewish continuity simply because they are called day schools.

As more schools lower their Jewish expectations to accommodate the reduced religiosity of their parent body, we will be confronted by incontrovertible evidence that they have failed Jewishly. We already have some data pointing in this direction.

As we celebrate the progress being made by day schools, let’s not forget why they exist and what we need of them. Let’s also not forget the poorer schools whose commitment and accomplishments are not being matched by communal support or even understanding.

Monday, April 23, 2001

Money Does Talk

Offenses against language and sensibility come with the social activity known as fundraising. This is true of fundraising for political purposes and it is true of fundraising for philanthropic purposes. Attention is paid to those who have money and little or no attention is paid to how they came about their wealth. Those who give – more accurately, those who are asked to give – are called public servants, humanitarians, community leaders and they are extolled in language that often comes as news to those who best know these newly-anointed saints, including their family members and close friends. Money does talk.

Because the six-million American Jews have what seems to be a nearly equal number of organizations and causes to support, a good part of our communal creativity and energy is devoted to ferreting out those who might part with some of their riches. They are targeted by shnorrers, aka directors of development. We have an incredible number of fundraising events. While they do little for Jewish continuity, they are a boon for plaque-makers, caterers, printers and many other entrepreneurs. On occasion, a meaningful sum is left over for the cause that is the cause of it all.

It is probably true that there is little harm in all of this. False praise, ostentation and a shvitzer ambience are a small price to pay to keep our communal enterprises afloat. There’s nothing terribly wrong when we barter fleeting moments of ersatz glory for charitable contributions. For all of the obvious organizational fundraising excesses, they are insignificant when compared with what goes on in the political world where contributors seek to purchase access and influence and do not care about being given a plaque or any other honor. As public recognition is a key component of philanthropic fundraising, stealth is the hallmark of its political counterpart. With some exceptions, political contributions are not intended to promote good government but its reverse. The intention is to leverage gifts by obtaining governmental benefits worth many times more than what is being contributed.

The political process is tailor-made for contributors whose motives veer between the unethical and the illegal. Politicians often serve as the willing dupes of those who know how to exploit the need for campaign funds for personal gain. There is something pathetic, even comical, about politicians as they hustle to do the bidding of contributors. What isn’t funny are the consequences for the fundraising process. There is corruption galore and favoritism rules. Ethnic and religious groups are particularly hurt when operators claiming to represent them gain access. Orthodox Jewry in New York has been hurt by the eagerness of the Guiliani administration to embrace hustlers who cannot pass even the most attenuated spell test.

The already celebrated Marc Rich affair represents the unholy union of the evils of political fundraising and the excesses of philanthropic fundraising. American Jews have been embarrassed by the cupidity and stupidity of influential persons who should have known that what they were doing was far outside the pale of propriety.

For all of the fall-out from this affair and other cases of fundraising abuse, there is little reason for optimism that it will be possible to rein in practices that sully both philanthropy and politics. Where money is the prey, rectitude does not have a prayer.

Congress may enact, as it should, McCain-Feingold or some variation of what they propose. When this happens, there are certain to be hymns celebrating a great victory against fundraising abuses. When the dust clears – and it won’t take long – the no-goodniks will be back at their old influence-peddling stand, figuring out the loopholes and using money to purchase access and favors. It’s a good bet that politicians of all stripes will be eager to accommodate them.

We ought not forget that the current reform movement seeks to undo certain reforms enacted after Watergate, reforms that are now believed to have contributed to a worse situation than what previously existed. A generation hence, there will be a Senator Water and a Senator Gate who will introduce legislation seeking to undo abuses resulting from legislation enacted in 2001.

When I played courtyard basketball as a kid, my timing was invariably off. It’s apparently even worse when I write about basketball, thanks to Charlie Ward who immediately repaid my kind words about his religious commitment with a flurry of anti-Semitism. I feel like I was deliberately fouled, but while I perhaps should not write about basketball and find Ward’s remarks entirely offensive, I continue to believe that religious commitment is admirable.

Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Dissing Religion

There are museums that have an instinct to display works that disparage religion. The Brooklyn Museum is one such place. Its latest sacrilege is a huge photograph showing a naked woman at the Last Supper. Predictably, Mayor Guiliani is once more on a tear, establishing a so-called decency panel. This collection of sycophants and misfits has generated an excess of irreverence and has scarcely advanced the cause of religion. It’s hard to figure out what the lame duck mayor has accomplished other than the dubious achievement of being a foolish lame duck.

Though his remedy is excessive and doomed to failure, Mr. Guiliani has a point. There are talented artists aplenty who never have the opportunity to exhibit in our exalted cultural emporia because they aim for esthetic fulfillment and not for momentary shock or monetary gain. There are mediocre artists who know that dissing religion is a reliable meal ticket, an attention-grabber for museums that seek to boost their attendance. The Brooklyn Museum is one of the architectural wonders of the western world, with top-flight exhibitions to boot. It should not have to stoop so often to the tawdry. But it wants to attract more viewers and this results in offensive displays of works by artists skilled at self-promotion who have the cultural illiterati to serve as their claque.

The Mayor again took the bait, thereby providing tons of publicity for that which he purports to loathe and ensuring a far greater turnout for a display that on its merits would have attracted little interest. An explanation of this behavior is better left to students of psychology.

For all of City Hall’s folly, the Brooklyn Museum is wrong and it is contributing again to an anti-religious field day. Cultural arbiters should be able to distinguish between what is constitutionally protected – as virtually all art is – and what they select for display. The art world is, after all, deeply implicated in processes of selection and exclusion, of subjective choices of what is to be preferred or ignored. There is no compelling reason to give preference to what is hostile to religion, unless those who make the choice are hostile to religion.

This latest incident illustrates the ingrained American hypocrisy about religion. We talk a good game and we want our Presidents to go to church. We also revel in symbolic acts that convey the notion that we are a religious people. In fact, we are not, if only because hedonism and consumerism are antithetical to the spiritual dignity that is essential for a religious life.

We had another display of this problematic approach to religion when Jeff Van Gundy, the coach of the Knicks, criticized the pre-game private prayer sessions conducted for some of his players. To make matters worse, said the coach, players from the opposing teams join in these sessions. “Everybody is hugging before games, praying together.” I guess it’s preferable for players to choke the coach or slug each other or engage in off-court antics that may land them in jail. These are the appropriate American role models, not the huggers or the prayers.

Van Gundy acknowledges that he was wrong to speak out, but he continues to believe that prayer sessions are inappropriate. Charlie Ward is probably the Knicks leading prayer, although as a player he is no more than a solid journeyman. He always displays a quiet dignity which suggests that there are other things on his mind, as if he knows that what he does as a Knick is only a game and the spiritual dimension of his life is far more important.

Ward does not accept his coach’s strictures about prayer. This is not the first time that his religious commitment has placed him at odds with the dominant ethos of the sports world. Several years ago, he challenged the policy of allowing women reporters into the locker rooms after the games when the athletes were dressing, showering, etc. Ward did no more than claim for himself a sense of modesty that most of us naturally insist on in our own homes. Furthermore, it has often been suggested that privacy is a basic right. Still, he was rebuffed, largely because the political correctness crowd believes that to deny women reporters the right to enter dressing rooms when male reporters are permitted to enter violates the notion of equal protection. This tenuous position was embraced years ago by a local federal judge who no one regards as a pillar of the judiciary.

As Steven Carter has argued, this country needs to respect religious sensibilities and to recognize that religion is usually (but not always) a force for good.

Monday, April 02, 2001

Cooperate, Yes. Federate, No.

One hundred years ago, the federation movement was in full bloom in American Jewish life. Communal leaders believed that it wasn’t sufficient for Jewish-sponsored hospitals, social service agencies and educational institutions to go it alone. It was necessary to have centralized planning, coordination of services and one main address for philanthropy. Federations were established throughout the land and, as American Jewry dispersed, the number grew, so that there are now far in excess of 100 federations in the U.S.

New York was a laggard in this development, doubtlessly because of its immense Jewish population and the difficulty of bringing a great many service agencies into a cooperative arrangement. Eventually, New York joined the federation parade

Inevitably, federation fever led to the corollary impulse to create a super-agency to coordinate the work of the local coordinators. We were blessed with what in its latest incarnation is known as the United Jewish Federation. In a way, this intensive organizational activity proved that we were good Americans, for in the 1830’s the great Tocqueville noted that Americans were a nation of joiners.

As the federation movement gained momentum, few questioned the efficacy of our communal handiwork, the assumption being that we were reaping substantial benefits and saving money. In fact, our pride was shared by outsiders who admired the range and quality of services provided by Jewish agencies and our fundraising success.

When the federation world made its move to incorporate the United Jewish Appeal into its ambit, the naysayers were relatively few and they were easily subdued. We were in a state of euphoria and each year the celebratory tone was highlighted by a multi-million dollar extravaganza known as the General Assembly, it being a gathering of 3,000 pseudo machers, functionaries and assorted hangers-on in the federation world.

The federation world was being undermined by powerful forces that it could not counteract. Governmental programs, especially those launched by the Great Society, provided funding opportunities that dwarfed federation subventions. These opportunities were usually accompanied by regulations mandating services irrespective of religious affiliation, this at a time when a new sense of ethnicity in Jewish life was pressuring federations to go in the opposite direction. Then came the extraordinary expansion of private Jewish wealth which has resulted in an impressive roster of well-endowed family philanthropies that are committed to Jewish causes but which go it alone.

Functionally, federations were de-federating. Hospitals recognized that they could do far better on their own and while they did not disaffiliate, their relationship with federations is without substance or meaning. Much the same is true, to one extent or another, of many Jewish social service agencies. In reality, federations have little left to coordinate. The concept that led to their creation has dissipated, but the expensive organizational shell that was formed to house the concept remains in business.

Far more than the cost or waste, federations – and especially UJF – are tired organizations. Instead of encouraging creativity they stifle it. The emphasis is on the bureaucratic, on endless rounds of meetings, task forces and commissions, reports that few people read and have zero impact, press releases that exalt and exaggerate the mundane and conferences and conventions, which provide federationniks the opportunity to run into familiar faces. I guess that maintaining these trivial pursuits passes for Jewish continuity within the Jewish establishment.

In New York, the situation is worse than it is elsewhere. For all of the public relations claims, the federation network has little to do any longer with providing for needy Jews. There is, instead, an Orthodox-sponsored voluntary network of service agencies that deal directly on a daily basis with thousands of Jews who are in need.

There are communities where federations still have vitality, where they play a useful role. Sadly, even they are entrapped in the federation world’s bureaucratic imperative and their resources and energy are sapped.

One especially damaging feature of the current arrangement is the inadvertent barrier established between American Jews and Israel. We are asked to make our gifts to a joint campaign, which is to say that after the substantial expenses of running the federations are taken off and local and U.S. allocations are made, a declining share goes to UJA and Israel.

The problem is less financial than psychological. Israel is endangered, perhaps more seriously than in 1967 and 1973. During these earlier crises, there was an outputting of financial and emotional support for Israel, largely through UJA. There is nothing of the sort today and I believe that to an extent this is because UJA is no longer a meaningful entity to us, no longer in our frame of Jewish reference. Instead of an emotional outpouring about Israel, we get a stream of press releases and xeroxed statement about what we should write to our representatives in Washington.

There are powerful reasons why the federation world should be dismantled. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon because of inertia and apathy and because too many functionaries have a stake in maintaining the dysfunctional status quo. But the system cannot endure as it is.