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.