Friday, May 24, 2002

Are Kosher Laws Kosher?

Ethnic groups are like people who cannot discard old possessions, even long after they have lost any residual utility. This urge to hold on to possessions has deep emotional roots that are more powerful than any feelings of nostalgia. There is a sense of loss when a possession is discarded. While few of us are Collier brothers, few of us know when to get rid of what is not needed. Perhaps Andersen should provide a new form of consulting service.

My wager is that Jewish groups, mainly Orthodox, will react to the latest court decision invalidating a state’s – this time New York’s – kosher inspection law by pressing for an appeal or new legislation that attempts to circumvent the ruling. It would be far better to let the old system die. It is an anachronism and we should rid ourselves of what is not needed.

Not that the decision is correct. The three judges in black robes on an elevated bench in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan held that the supervisory scheme excessively entangles the state in religious matters and therefore violates the First Amendment. This conclusion flies in the face of a century of experience under the law, a consideration that I would imagine to be relevant in determining how a statute operates. I guess that Oliver Wendell Holmes had it wrong and the life of the law is logic and not experience.

While the smitten law did little harm, it also accomplished little good, which is one reason why it should be given a decent burial. Some may lose their jobs; I imagine that the Jewish people have survived greater calamities.

The statute and the regulatory process it established are intended to protect consumers against fraud, not to promote religion or observance. Even in its heyday, the process did not amount to much. Small fish were caught, usually on minor violations. They paid relatively minor fines which scarcely made a difference. It’s a stretch to claim that the arrangement has had an appreciable impact on counteracting kosher food fraud.

Kosher food laws do not result in a state agency certifying that an establishment or product is kosher. We cannot walk into a butcher shop and find a certificate issued by the New York Department of Agriculture vouching for the kashruth of the place. Certification is a communal or, at times, private matter. People who want to eat kosher rely on the assurances provided by communal organizations, such as the Orthodox Union which has a splendid record, or, more problematically, on individual rabbis.

Since there is money to be made from certification, inevitably there are scoundrels who exploit the system. There are unscrupulous “rabbis,” including one who has a cozy patronage job with the state, who are available to certify as kosher food places that violate basic rules of kashruth, as when they serve bread during Pesach. The state cannot do a thing to prevent this, with or without kosher laws. Which brings me to the old joke about the hotel owner who said to his mashgiach who was demanding more money, “For what I am now paying you, I can afford to be kosher.”

Justice Felix Frankfurter who has not been treated kindly by history cautioned frequently that there is a world of difference between the constitutionality of a law and its wisdom. That which is foolish may still pass constitutional muster. So, too, with kosher inspection legislation. Here, as elsewhere, religious Jews in particular should recognize that the government has a limited reach, that to rely on the enforcement power of civil authorities is to welcome failure. Of course, even failure provides a measure of comfort because, after all, there are laws on the books that appear to give what the group wants.

In opposition to what is the prevailing view in Orthodox ranks, I believe that irrespective of any question of constitutionality, political and legislative channels should not be used to accomplish goals that are the internal business or responsibility of the group and not of the larger society. For this reason, I continue to oppose “Get” legislation. Substantial experience has shown that such laws have no more than a miniscule impact on matrimonial battles involving religious Jews.

It is always tempting and comforting to take the governmental route. That’s the way interest groups usually act. It is comforting to believe that after the legislative battle is won, the communal problem has been solved. The truth is that what we cannot accomplish or enforce within our community, government cannot achieve for us.

We should continue to use governmental processes to secure arrangements or benefits that promote our pursuit of happiness within the larger society. We need to have laws and administrative arrangements that counter discrimination or which promote legitimate opportunities for fruitful lives. That is why laws protecting Sabbath observers in employment are both necessary and proper. Unfortunately, we have our priorities mixed up, so that this vital right which affects thousands of religious Jews goes begging within our community. Last week, there was a conference on religious discrimination in Washington, sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trust. A representative of the Seventh Day Adventists said that his group now spends one-million dollars a year to counteract job discrimination against Sabbath observers, which is about one-million dollars more than the Jewish community is spending.

A good example of legitimate legislation is the item included in New York’s budget providing funds for in vitro fertilization procedures. This expenditure which was advocated by a number of groups triggered a pathetic editorial outburst by the Times against “powerful blocks of Orthodox Jewish voters in Brooklyn and Rockland County.” In the mindset of our favorite newspaper, when other groups demand expenditures for health or other benefits, that’s kosher. When Orthodox Jews make the pitch, there is the smell of political corruption.

It is hard to discard old possessions and the Times has difficulty ridding itself of hang-ups about things Jewish. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if at long last Timesmen could exorcise the demons that trouble them?

Monday, May 20, 2002

Rich and Wrong

In his attention-grabbing “The Booing of Wolfowitz” Times column, Frank Rich repeated a question asked by Michael Getler of The Washington Post: “Is it possible that so many major American news organizations are getting this story wrong?”, the story being media coverage of Israel and the Middle East. Rich’s answer is that while there have been mistakes in the coverage, “the conviction that the American press is engaged in a conspiracy to spread Palestinian propaganda and insidiously counter Israeli interests“ is an exercise in looking for new enemies in all the wrong places.

Who has claimed that there is a conspiracy? - which is one of the points that Rich has wrong. Another is why Wolfowitz was booed when he read a scripted text that I doubt he believes in at a rally to support Israel, an event that was not meant to be a forum for moral equivalency. Still, maybe we Jews are a bit unhinged; after all, so many major news organizations can’t be wrong.

Or perhaps they are. Six months before Rich’s column, the Times celebrated its 150th anniversary with a special section that included a stunning article by Max Frankel analyzing the “century’s bitterest journalistic failure,” or the “turning away from the Holocaust.” This article should be required reading in journalism classes and Jewish schools. It stands for the proposition that major news organizations – print and broadcast – can all get one of the major stories of the century wrong, thereby disproving the thesis implicit in the question asked by Getler and Rich.

We have more proximate examples, albeit with far smaller consequences. Major American news organizations got it all wrong in several important stories arising from Israel’s incursions into Palestinian territory. Israeli restraint was met by media excesses and distortion and while it would be a stretch to claim a conspiracy, it remains that nearly all in medialand gave Israel a raw deal.

During the long siege at the Church of the Nativity, talking heads with grave voices confidently announced each day that those inside the church were without fresh water and food and were subsisting on a diet of boiled grass. The print media said much the same. Whatever may have happened there 2000 years ago, there apparently was a modern day miracle, for when the siege ended and the 200 or so persons inside left, with the exception of one or two who were wounded, all were hale and hardy.

There was a similar fairy tale regarding Yasir Arafat’s ordeal in Ramallah. We were told that there was no electricity in his compound and there were all kinds of hardships, too many to mention here. It made for good copy, though the world was essentially being fed a fabrication. Though old and ailing, Arafat emerged in good condition, ready as always to manipulate the media.

Then there is Jenin and the massacre that wasn’t. In one of his increasingly frequent senior moments, Dan Rather intoned repeatedly that Israel had leveled the entire camp, while other journalists spoke and wrote of a great number of civilians being killed. When the U.N. announced the inquiry that ultimately was aborted, most Jews who fervently support Israel had come to believe that terrible things had happened in Jenin. As we now know, all of the major American news organizations got the story wrong. Israeli soldiers acted with an heroic determination to protect civilians, in contrast to the way the U.S. conducts its military operations in Afghanistan.

I haven’t seen media mea culpas for these stories, although admittedly I may not have been paying sufficient attention. By any fair judgment, the major media have done a remarkably lousy job covering the Middle East, although one would hardly know it because part of the diseased culture of journalism is the code of silence regarding the failings of those who are esteemed in the profession. This code of silence is no more ethical than the parallel code which often protects police officers engaged in wrongdoing.

If doctors would be as error-prone as reporters are, morgues would be overflowing. If journalists are vital to the flow of information and for the proper workings of a free society, even as they are protected against any prior restraints they should not be immune from accountability or for being judged by standards that measure their professionalism and integrity.

Apart from infirmities that are now endemic in journalism, such as distortions created by deadline pressures, media coverage of the Middle East has been severely compromised by the bias of reporters. There is evident sympathy for the Palestinian cause, the popular view being that Israel is a militaristic and even imperialistic state. There is also the lamentable tendency to accept as factual lies told by Arab spokespeople with straight faces and mournful voices. It is remarkable how many lies have been widely accepted by reporters.

As enraging as this is, the phenomenon at least occurs outside of the ordinary precincts of Jewish life. What I find more troublesome is the fidelity of most Jewish media, including this newspaper, to the general norm of journalism which protects reporters from criticism from within the fraternity. When the Times published a picture equating Israel with Naziism, it did something that was totally repulsive and the newspaper should have been called to account by the Jewish media.

It’s true that Jews are on edge, maybe even a bit paranoid. We cannot shake off the remembrance of horrors past and our nightmares become more vivid when we contemplate the dangers confronting the Jewish State. Israel is surrounded by enemies, has hundreds of thousands of Arabs within its borders and Islamic militants throughout the region have declared that peace agreements or no, their mission will remain the destruction of Israel.

We have, in short, reasons aplenty to be scared, good reasons to be angry, good reasons to boo a good man like Paul Wolfowitz when he reads words written by others that are unsettling. In the final analysis, we are trying to relieve the Times of the ethical burden of apologizing down the road once more to Jews for underestimating the danger to Israel.

Monday, May 13, 2002

Jewish Life in the Former Soviet Union

Winston Churchill’s famous definition of Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma is an apt description of the current state of Russian Jewry. After seventy years of Communism and anti-religion, the Holocaust, widespread intermarriage and Jewish abandonment, great population movements and the wear and tear of an eventful century, it’s nearly impossible to figure out how many Jews remain in the Former Soviet Union. There is broad disagreement, with estimates ranging from perhaps two million to as low as 500,000.

Much depends, as in this country, on defining who is a Jew, a question that is more complicated in the FSU than it is in Israel or the U.S. Who passes these days for a Jew in Russia makes the American Reform advocates of patralineality look like a bunch of frummies. What is certain is that the number of Jews has declined dramatically. More than one-million left Israel for Israel after 1989 and there has been substantial emigration to Germany and elsewhere. Previously, many came to North America and also to Israel. Since those who remained tended to be older, there obviously has been population loss, an outcome further advanced by a birthrate that is below zero population growth.

Emigration to Israel is now a trickle, while some who left have returned, a recent development that may accelerate because of Israel’s security problems and the improved economy in Russia.

With the important exception of the spiritual domain, there were few advantages to being identified as a Jew during the long Communist night. That has changed. Jewish identity has made it a lot easier to leave, which is why persons of questionable status decided that they were Jewish. Nowadays, there are substantial benefits for Jews who remain.

As the Iron Curtain came down and the doors of what was the USSR opened, emigrating Jews were met on their way out by a small army of organizations and functionaries that were on their way in. Most came with good intentions, although there was also an excess of vanity and the recognition that there were ripe fundraising and public relations opportunities to be exploited. Furthermore, the desire to serve Russian Jews was not matched by an understanding of the landscape or the situation of the people who were to be served. Projects and institutions that were launched with fanfare have already disappeared, while some that remain are just going through the motions.

Still, the Israeli and Jewish presence is substantial, even startling. The major players include the Israel government which provides funding for educational, cultural and other activities and also the Jewish Agency. As elsewhere, Israeli officials and Jewish Agency personnel often operate as if the other is the enemy. There are too many other organizations, foundations, funders to list here. I estimate that the Jewish philanthropic investment in the FSU, including expenditures by Israel and contributions from local Jews, come to more than $200 million a year. No wonder that Russia and Ukraine are being so nice to Jews.

The Jewish Agency illustrates the vastness of the network of Jewish activities in the FSU. During a recent trip I was told that Ukraine alone has 700 employees and a budget of
$9 million.

For FSU Jews, this philanthropic investment is translated into free benefits, including food packages, trips, special schools, cultural activities, summer camps, programs for the elderly – in short, the full range of activities that are available elsewhere in organized Jewish life. In St. Petersburg and Kiev there are public schools with distinct Jewish divisions. Students who enroll in them receive differential treatment. As a consequence, Jews are better off than their non-Jewish neighbors, especially in the large cities.

Because activities supported by Israel are designed to promote aliyah, as immigration to Israel has been curtailed there is a strong prospect that there will be a corresponding reduction in the willingness of the Israel government to continue to support at a high level projects in the FSU. Whether others will fill the likely gap remains to be seen.

From the time that Jews were permitted to leave, there has been a mild debate whether Jewish communal life in the FSU has any future. Another way to look at the question is whether it makes sense to provide philanthropic support for projects that are intended to build and sustain Jewish life in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere. For the moment, the issue is being resolved in a sense by the determination of Jews to remain and to build a communal infrastructure that includes schools, large synagogues, community centers, and an array of local organizations. Much of this may turn out to be illusory if the vast majority of Jews of questionable status wither away and the next Jewish generations are a pale Jewish shadow of their predecessors.

Whatever others may do, Chabad or Lubavitch is certain to remain an important force in FSU Jewish life. Throughout the Communist era, there was clandestine Chabad activity, which is a heroic chapter in the history of the Jewish people. When Communism collapsed, the Lubavitcher Rebbe took advantage of the contacts that had been made and the willingness of dozens of emissaries and their families to relocate and undertake the difficult task of rebuilding Jewish life. Chabad is now the dominant Jewish force throughout the FSU. According to a survey conducted by the Jewish Research Center of the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, it is also the best known and most respected.

Chabad’s influence already encompasses every community in the FSU with a meaningful Jewish population and involves hundreds of workers and dozens of facilities. Its role is enhanced by the substantial philanthropic support it receives from major philanthropists, notably Levi Levayev, and Jewish businessmen in the FSU. Its influence and prestige have been helped by the close association forged between its key leader, Rabbi Berel Lazar, and President Putin. Rabbi Lazar is a young man who now effectively serves as the Chief Rabbi of Russia. He is learned, talented and blessed with a winning personality.

It may not please those who do not like Chabad’s ideology or practices to learn that the future of Jewish life in the FSU will depend greatly on Chabad’s role.

Monday, May 06, 2002

Chassidim and Politics

As I detrained at Washington’s Union Station to walk to the rally for Israel, I met George Klein and Representative Jerry Nadler. I asked George to introduce me to “my Congressman,” a request that evoked surprise. I live in Borough Park and Mr. Nadler’s base is the Upper West Side. How could two such disparate areas be carved into a single district?

They have been linked for a decade, as the Congressman immediately told George or ever since the last redistricting a decade ago. Shortly, it will be decided to what and to whom Borough Park will be attached for the next ten years. Those who make the decision will calculate where the neighborhood’s body count of about 100,000 – most of them religious Jews – can best serve political expediency. If history is a guide, it’s a good bet that the place where I live will not be linked to a nearby area, such as Flatbush, with which it has affinity. The Chassidim and other Borough Parkers are there to be exploited.

I do not intend any criticism of Mr. Nadler who is widely regarded as hardworking and honorable when I say that my neighborhood is without congressional representation, not because his views or votes are out of sync but because we are not part of his mindset. He spends no time to speak of here, nor is he intellectually or emotionally involved in this part of his district. He could as well represent Beverly-Fairfax in Los Angeles.

While we do not know as yet what shenanigans will attend this year’s redistricting – New York is to lose another two seats – the lines for the State Senate have been drawn. Borough Park is being split into two districts, the apparent aim being to ensure that it does not elect one of its own. The original plan was to divide the neighborhood into five. Governor Pataki’s intervention changed that and we must be grateful that only a bi-section will be our fate.

Wherever Chassidim live in significant numbers, the pattern has been similar. Nearly fifty years ago, Williamsburg was literally cut in half to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a project that could easily been diverted to avoid such an outcome. As the Chassidic population has grown, they are increasingly removed from the elected officials who presumably represent them.

What is striking about this is that from appearances alone, Chassidim are politically active and get attention. Candidates for office make ritualistic photo-op visits to Grand Rabbis where they are invariably greeted by squealing Chassidim who act as if Franz Josef himself has arrived. At political fundraisers and at headquarters on election night, Chassidim are always visible, as they comfortably mix with people of a radically different outlook, including with women who are, let us say, not dressed according to Orthodox Jewish tradition. How can people who seem to be intensely involved in the political process get the short end of the stick?

The answer is that Chassidim do not look at elections in terms of party affiliation or even ideology. They trust candidates equally, which is to say that they distrust them equally. What they most want out of political activity are benefits that can be translated into grants to their institutions, housing for their poor and like matters. If this means support for a super-liberal candidate with a feminist, pro-gay rights and permissive agenda, so be it. It follows that a candidate’s ethnicity isn’t of much consequence.

This approach is an extreme articulation of interest group politics. To the extent that the aim is to secure benefits, even advantage, for the group, this is a legitimate form of political participation. While we may wish that it were otherwise, interest groups are not obligated to consider what is best for all of society. They are obligated to look out for themselves and so long as their political transactions are kosher, they can be faulted for the choices they make but not for their right to choose as they see fit.

The problem is that, as with other ethnic groups that focus on grantsmanship, this approach is vulnerable to exploitation by povertycrats and others who are interested in self-promotion and enrichment and who shrewdly leverage campaign contributions that are made at once in their own name and on behalf of the group to gain access, including at the top. What usually emerges are relationships that cannot pass the smell test of people whose olfactory capacity is totally impaired.

Why politicians flock like lemmings to low-lives who offer contributions, not infrequently in cash, is a question that cannot be answered by simply saying that they are fools. While many are, there are those who are quite bright and they are among the worst offenders in their servility to donors who may have larceny in mind. Likely, politicians are caught in a process that they do not know how to escape. Their predicament is made worse by their reliance on enforcers who usually are close buddies and whose job it is to put the squeeze on potential contributors.

As Chassidim have pressed candidates and officeholders for grants and benefits, they have been confronted by counter-pressures for contributions. This is an open invitation to gain entry and influence, ostensibly in the name of the group but really for personal aggrandizement. This has happened with sordid results in the Koch and Guiliani administrations as these Mayors warmly embraced sleazes and signaled to their staffs and commissioners that they should be given preferential treatment. Much the same has happened during Governor Pataki’s tenure.

The Chassidim are still in a relatively early state of communal development. They have legitimate needs that merit attention from the political world. What they must learn, else there will be grief, is that as in all else they must act with restraint.

Friday, May 03, 2002

May 2002 - The RJJ Newsletter

Yeshivas and day schools are, with few exceptions, fragile institutions. Their enrollments are low, certainly by public school standards but also as measured against most private schools, they are badly underfunded and must make do with inadequate facilities and limited educational enhancements as they seek to scrape together the funds that will permit them to scrape through. Financial crisis is their natural state. It is a small wonder that our schools do as well as they do, that they can offer a dual curriculum, successfully educate students and produce young people who are able to make a meaningful contribution to society and the Jewish community.

To make up for what they lack, our schools rely on the dedication of their staff and the voluntary work of lay people. Teachers who invariably are underpaid, if not also paid late, make an extra effort to reach out to students. A similar commitment is often evident among office staff and administrators. This dedication compensates in some measure for inadequacies that should severely limit the capacity of our institutions to perform well.

Still, yeshivas and day schools have little margin for error. They are punished, at times mercilessly, for every lapse, whether in their academic performance, fundraising activities or how they present themselves to the parent body and community. What might be regarded as a trifling deficiency in other settings comes to be important in our fragile schools. They pay a high price for their defects, as when they fail to understand the obligation to be in touch with parents and the community that nurtures them or when school officials, professional and lay, who are responsible for an institution fail to communicate among themselves.

It probably seems odd to elevate the failure to communicate to the top level of serious shortcomings that adversely impact on the fortunes of yeshivas and day schools. Should we believe that because principals or administrators or lay leaders do not pick up the phone or write or email a school will suffer financial or other harm? The answer – and emphatically – is yes. Our schools are hurt because too often the people in charge live in self-centered, self-contained worlds and out of arrogance or ignorance they do not interact with others who also have a stake in the school. An all too typical example is when a contributor does not receive a thank you note or even a receipt or when the letter that is sent is formulaic and lacks any feeling or personal touch.

After a life-time of activity in the day school world and nearly thirty years as RJJ’s president, I am convinced that the failure to communicate is at the heart of what ails our institutions.

I participate in a foundation that gives priority to Jewish education. It is integral to its culture that persons who are involved in its work share information, seek the opinion of colleagues and constantly interact. Apart from this process resulting in the greater likelihood of goals being achieved, the arrangement forges effective relationships and is consistent with any sense of menshlichtkeit. In one way or another, most effective institutions operate in a similar fashion.

Our schools, however, too often follow another approach. The rule seems to be in yeshivas and day schools that sharing information and seeking counsel are cardinal sins or at least inappropriate. There are day school principals who apparently operate under the mistaken and probably perverse notion that our schools are their private candy stores which they can operate as imperious autocrats. Is it any surprise that lay leaders take revenge in an extraordinary number of situations by exercising their prerogative to remove the principal? There are today a number of training programs directed at day school principals. The cost is high and, from the evidence so far, their effectiveness is minimal, if only because the basic lesson of why and how to communicate is not gotten across.

Regrettably, a similar attitude afflicts many lay leaders and others who are responsible for our schools. They do not attempt to convey their message or describe the situation they are in, even to their immediate constituency, including the parent body and the community they serve. Incredible as it may seem, there is even a failure to communicate among themselves.

What follows inevitably is the neglect of opportunities to benefit the school or to nip problems in the bud. Too often when a letter arrives at a school office suggesting the possibility of governmental or philanthropic support it is not passed around to those who should follow-up. Much the same can be said about fundraising. In short, our schools and their officials add to the problems that our institutions inevitably face.

What I have written here scarcely does more than touch the surface of a critical problem that has gotten worse in recent years. I am disheartened because what we are trying to accomplish is being undermined.