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.