Friday, September 27, 2002

The New Jewish Philanthropy

Of the important developments in American Jewish life during the past twenty years, few are more important or less examined than the shift in our philanthropy away from a Federation-dominated network to well-endowed and independent private foundations established by wealthy donors. We do not know how this new arrangement differs in its allocations from the Federations or, for that matter, how much the private foundations spend annually, something that we do know about Federations. The information is there since there are annual reports to IRS, but no one – at least not to my knowledge – has added up the figures or extrapolated from them funding priorities and trends.

We know, of course, that the Federations are alive, although certainly not well. Their problem is not the lack of money, as many continue to contribute and they sit on huge endowments. Unfortunately, they are mired in a bureaucratic mess that they cannot escape. At a cost of millions, they will shortly congregate in what is immodestly called the General Assembly, a yearly exercise in the being of nothingness, where they shall proclaim their self-importance to a shrinking audience.

This is a pity because Federation machers are people of good will and commitment. They are trapped in an arrangement that provides for no exit and which survives because of its bulk and the power of inertia.

Rather than fighting to change what is broken, the super-rich have set up their own shops which are bereft of old commitments. Their operations are generally lean and flexible. Because nearly all of these private foundations have been established by persons who are engaged in Jewish life, their agendas focus on such apparent goodies as Jewish education and continuity.

That’s the good news. The other news is that with few exceptions, our new age philanthropists are headed in the wrong direction. While they have bypassed the Federation network and its vast collection of agencies and also the dozens of “major” organizations that dot our communal landscape, they have not been exempt from the Jewish imperative, “organize, organize and organize some more.” They have bequeathed us additional agencies, as if we already do not have far too many. In the process they have created a new cadre of bureaucrats, often talented people who have been recruited directly from schools or other front-line positions, ensuring thereby that the leadership and talent shortage in the most vital sections of Jewish life will worsen. We can’t blame the ex-educators who now are better paid, have easier jobs, sit in plush offices, travel all over the place and also have the privilege of telling those who remain in education and on the front line what they are doing wrong.

The foundation world – referring not merely to those that are Jewish – forms a subculture in which certain norms dominate. Conferences and trips are in, as are studies, research and reports. Anything that can be described as training, including the training of those who do the training, is favored. Our philanthropists have embraced these and similar norms. Thus, it’s far better to train at considerable expense a small number of prospective teachers than to encourage good teachers to stay in the field. It’s small wonder that the teacher shortage in Jewish schools is more critical than ever.

When will we learn that education is something that takes place in the classroom. Education is the interaction between teachers and students, not the interaction between a foundation that has money to spend and agencies that have been created to go after it.

Worse yet, the new philanthropy has become the engine for the anything goes approach to Jewish continuity. An activity that has a Jewish identity label attached to it is accepted, no matter how devoid it is of Jewish content or how hostile it may be to our traditions. Words like identity, commitment, continuity and survival are the open sesames to Jewish philanthropy.

A tragic illustration is being provided by the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education or PEJE. This is a cooperative effort by more than a dozen of our super-rich to encourage day school expansion. The enterprise has been badly compromised by the decision – made with near unanimity – to support schools that admit students who are not Jewish by any definition.

This dangerous position highlights a serious flaw in our reliance on day schools as effective vehicles to combat advanced assimilation and Judaic abandonment. There is already much evidence showing that many day schools are too feeble Jewishly to make a difference. Their Jewish studies curriculum hardly exists and their Jewish ambiance isn’t much better. They are essentially private schools under Jewish auspices. Like the talmud torahs and other supplementary schools that were the handmaidens to Jewish loss, even as they were being promoted as our salvation, our weak day schools will scarcely contribute to Jewish survival.

Unfortunately, the PEJE super-rich are comfortable with minimalistic Judaism, with defining our standards downwards. We must object to this awful development. There is no way that the curriculum or Jewish character of our day schools will not be adversely affected by the admission of non-Jewish students. This is a development that must be resisted, not because of any hostility toward people who are not Jewish but because of concern for the future of people who are. As it is, we face an uphill battle to maintain Jewish commitment and PEJE has made the struggle more difficult.

When they endorse anything goes Judaism, whether in day schools or, in fact, as is occurring throughout our communal life, our super-rich are demonstrating once more that millions in philanthropy can add up to lots of zeros. As they are ignorant about our heritage and blind about our present, they are being irresponsible about our future.

Thursday, September 19, 2002


We have come a long way from the days of yore and gore when the convicted were drawn and quartered or burnt at the stake or subjected to other horrors, often as part of a spectacle conducted before mobs comprised of ordinary folks. Criminal justice is now more genteel, more attuned to procedural rights that protect the accused. But criminal justice is never a pretty affair. Its aim is punishment, a goal that is unfortunately necessary to maintain civil society but also a goal that can give nourishment to base instincts.

For all of the trappings of law, there is much that is amiss in contemporary criminal justice. Prosecutors have too much power and like everywhere else, power is corrupting. While for understandable reasons the focus is usually on capital cases where persons have been wrongfully convicted and even executed, the incidence of wrongful convictions is far more prevalent in lesser cases than many of us recognize. From the FBI down there are credible reports of doctored evidence, as well as evidence of prosecutors withholding information that might cast doubt on what they want juries to believe.

An instinct for cruelty enters at times into the workings of criminal justice, affecting prosecutors, as well as the media and the public. The promotion of spectacle that accompanies important cases is a manifestation of this instinct. There is an obligation to resist the temptation to add to the punishment and pain of those who are accused of wrongdoing. Sadly, it is common to yield to the desire to be bloodthirsty.

A good example is what has become known as the “perp walk,” the practice of parading manacled persons accused of crimes before the cameras, the only purpose of which is to get publicity for prosecutors and to inflict more pain on the accused and their families. The term is offensive to the ideal of justice since those who are paraded have been accused but not convicted. But why worry about such things in a period when prosecutors act like judges and juries and the media inflame the public?

Added to questionable standard operating procedures in high-profile cases is the ugly practice of rousing the accused very early in the morning – of course, after the press, our guardians of liberty, have been alerted – and all the better if this can be done in front of children and spouses. It’s good to be cruel so long as it’s all in the pursuit of justice.

We have come a long way from the gore of yesterday, but those deprecations were visited on persons who somehow were convicted, while ours are now reserved for those who have been accused and not yet convicted.

While many have contributed to the descent into sadism that characterizes the new criminal justice, top honors toward the institutionalization of cruelty go to Rudy Giuliani who as U.S. Attorney in Manhattan reveled in exacting an extra measure of pain, at times from persons who were not guilty. Mary Jo White, lately of the same office, added to the trend. Her colors were on display in a late August interview buried in the Business section of the Sunday Times. Asked, “Why make a public spectacle of the arrest of a non-violent executive,” a reference to the arrest of John J. Rigas, aged 78 and ailing, of Adelphia Communications and his sons after they offered to turn themselves in, she replied:

“It’s obviously to send a strong message that the government is serious and acting vigorously, to deter other corporate executives. It’s done dramatically in part to restore investor confidence. It certainly catches people’s attention in the right places, from the prosecutor’s point of view.”

Similar humane wisdom provided an answer to another question: “The early hour of the arrests seems gratuitous. Is there a reason for the timing?” We’ve reached the brave new world of the accused being guilty until being proven innocent.

Much of what is wrong arises from the adversary nature of our legal system. Prosecutors represent one side in a case and like lawyers generally they are likely to claim too much. We might wish to see restraint from those who are sworn to uphold the Constitution; in fact, there are prosecutors who show restraint. Unfortunately, their ranks are thinning, as the world of prosecutors has become enveloped in a subculture where spectacle is regarded as appropriate and where gratuitous pain evokes approval rather than criticism. Pain is inflicted for pain’s sake, which is the definition of sadism. We are expected to welcome this development and why not since few judges are willing to rein in our Inspector Javerts.

Prosecutors who seek to transform their cases into circuses of cruelty are aided and abetted by the media who readily accept the most sordid accusations as the whole truth. In their desire to gain audience share, the media take pleasure in inflicting pain via headlines that are like pointed daggers. Little and decreasing concern is shown for the rights of the accused. We have had the sickening feeding frenzy directed at Martha Stewart. In their excesses, the media as always hide behind the First Amendment to justify their sins.

Of course, Ms. Stewart and other newly certified public enemies who are now being subjected to humiliation were themselves essentially the product of media hype. In this age of celebrityship, there are benefits to be reaped from idolizing the rich and famous and there are benefits to be reaped from tormenting them. It’s all for the bottom line.

Or to revise and perhaps improve the old apothegm: “Those whom the Gods would destroy they first made famous.”

Friday, September 06, 2002

Accommodating Religion

America is awash in mores and rules mandating accommodation to all sorts of groups and interests. Tons of money are spent to assure access to the handicapped and educational opportunities for children with special needs. We have laws that guarantee the civil rights of minorities, proscribe discrimination on account of sexual orientation and ensure equality in nearly all aspects of American life. Pluralism and tolerance are in and while there are violations of the norms, they are just that – violations.

We Jews especially embrace the ideal of tolerance and pluralism. We employ these words to justify or legitimate as Jewish our wholesale departure from the religious standards that have defined Judaism for centuries. There is, according to this view, a plurality of Judaisms and each merits tolerance, if not acceptance.

There is one important exception to this glorious rainbow proclaiming pluralism and tolerance and it happens to be the area of religion. Long ago, the doctrine of church-state separation was transmuted from requiring neutrality toward religion to advocating hostility. What religion can achieve for itself through ordinary political channels comes begrudgingly, if not surreptitiously. There are many manifestations of the secondary status of religious groups. One of these concerns discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere.

At breakfast in Jerusalem this summer, a middle aged man came over and thanked me for saving his job thirty years ago. He was working at Avon and when the company learned that he was a Sabbath observer, it wanted to fire him. I intervened and his job was saved. What I did was the beneficial fruit of the remarkable achievements of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) in breaching the iron wall of discrimination against Sabbath observers through legislation and litigation. We showed that it was possible to accommodate without difficulty religious persons at the workplace and other settings. Orthodox Jews – and member of other religious groups – are now hired by companies that previously turned them away. As a consequence, they are now afforded the opportunity to participate fruitfully in American life.

But for all that was accomplished, my feeling is that those of us who fought this battle have essentially failed. I should perhaps be satisfied with a half-filled or even one-third filled glass because significant numbers of religious Jews have been helped. Unfortunately, the empty portion of the glass represents the victims of discrimination, the many religious Jews whose lives have been harmed.

Laws are important, especially in combating discrimination, yet their reach is limited. Unless they take root in the ethos of the society and in the mores and minds of its citizens, they are likely to be treated as alien objects, rules that are to be ignored or even deliberately disobeyed. The harsh truth is that religious accommodation has not taken root. There is a die-hard notion that employers should be allowed to determine the hours and conditions of employment, irrespective of the religious convictions of potential employees. Likewise, the prevailing view is that hospitals, cemeteries and other institutions whose functions inherently touch on religious matters should be able to set their own rules.

The difference between civil rights violations and discrimination against religious persons is that while the former may still be widely practiced, they are also widely regarded as illegal and immoral and therefore illegitimate. The refusal to accommodate religious persons does not beget societal condemnation. It is regarded as understandable and imparted with a veneer of legitimacy.

As a consequence, religious Jews continue to be fired or simply not hired. Perhaps worse, great numbers are relegated to back office or other positions with little prospect for advancement. As the economic situation has worsened, the unemployment rate among the Orthodox has soared. There is pain everywhere in this community. Presumably, the know-nothing “scholars” who write about Orthodox life and confidently attribute the prevailing economic hardship to yeshiva education and to what they regard as parasitism among the very Orthodox will now be able to elicit proof for their hateful theory by pointing to the high unemployment rate of the Orthodox.

The attitude of organized American Jewry has been, at best, one of benign neglect. Over the years, few in the Jewish establishment have cared much for the notion of religious accommodation, not in the workplace or anywhere else. They have other battles to fight, other people to help. The needs and rights of religious Jews are, for them, scarcely a civil right.

Sadly, the situation isn’t much better within Orthodox life. COLPA has faded from the scene and major Orthodox groups do not regard discrimination against the Orthordox as a priority. Other areas yield better public relations and fundraising results. It is telling that the Seventh Day Adventists who also have a large stake in the matter spend $1 million a year on legal efforts assisting its members to combat discrimination. Jewish expenditures hover near zero. Our major advocates are New York’s Attorney General Elliott Spitzer and a courageous, insistent and talented senior member on his staff.

How far removed we are from understanding the obligation to accommodate religious persons was brought home to me this summer. The yeshiva that I am president of received its name immediately after the death of New York’s only Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Jacob Joseph. His gravesite in Union Field Cemetery in Brooklyn has become a place of prayer and pilgrimage for many religious Jews, mainly Chassidim. His one-hundredth yahrzeit fell on July 4th, obviously a legal holiday. Strenuous efforts were made to have the cemetery open and they finally succeeded because they included substantial payments to cemetery employees. What made the episode unsavory was the attitude of a key official of the New York Board of Rabbis who in correspondence prattled foolishly about kovod ha-briot and other clich├ęs without showing any understanding of the obligation to respect religious sensibilities.

We obviously have a long way to go to learn the basic ethical rule that, like other groups, the needs of religious persons must be accommodated. For American Jewry, it isn’t sufficient to hypocritically proclaim our belief in pluralism and tolerance and then to countenance their violation.

Thursday, September 05, 2002

September 2002 - RJJ Newsletter

Jews are a charitable people and religious Jews are the most charitable of all. Giving to the needy and providing for communal activities and institutions is instinctive, a part of the ethos of the Jewish people. Admittedly, there are Jews, including some of means, in which this instinct is underdeveloped, so that parsimony rather than charity governs how they respond to pleas for financial help. In the aggregate, we are generous. How we assist the poor, care for the sick and elderly and support our communal infrastructure make us the envy of other groups who marvel at our philanthropy.

As American Jews moved away in droves from religious observance toward a secular version of Judaism or, as often, abandoned Jewish identity entirely, they retained a transmuted notion of charity that gave priority to humanitarian and secular causes. Hospitals and other medical-related activities were given top priority and not far behind was support for colleges and universities which were the contemporary articulation of the Jewish emphasis on education. A large Federation network was developed to espouse secular giving and to channel contributions to causes that embodied this ideal.

Orthodox Jews who were long quiescent eventually protested against the Federation’s scheme of allocation, arguing that it shortchanged Jewish causes and especially day school education. It was said – and I played a role in this – that meaningful religious education had become the stepchild of Jewish philanthropy. The activities and commitments that have sustained us were being starved. Our advocacy was tough and we did not yield at all to the argument that, after all, there is a Torah obligation to feed the poor, help the sick and frail, give dignity to the elderly, in short, to highlight chesed activities in the distribution of communal charitable funds.

We did not accept this argument because we recognized that Torah education merited priority and not because we undervalued chesed. Ultimately, our advocacy had an impact and there has been an increase in Jewish philanthropic support to religious schools, although this increase has not been even remotely commensurate with the budgetary needs of these institutions.

We have, in any case, convinced others that yeshivas and day schools merit support. What is the record of the Orthodox community?

We obviously do not need to be sold on the importance of a yeshiva or day school education. Nearly all of our children attend full-time religious schools and the exceptions are special situations that scarcely challenge the rule. Yet, I believe, that in the recent period something has been lost within Orthodoxy, namely the more than two-thousand year tradition and heritage that religious education for our children is a communal responsibility and not merely a parental obligation. We have shifted bit by bit over the past generation, so that at the yeshiva ketana and
high school levels, the cost of a Torah education is overwhelmingly and at times exclusively the responsibility of the parents who are regarded as the consumers of an educational product and like all consumers they must pay for what they take or get.

I have fought against this attitude for more years than I can recount. It is a battle that I have lost. In fairness, the more “frum” a school is, the more likely it is to retain a caring scholarship policy. Although they know that increased scholarship assistance inevitably means increased pressure on them, yeshiva officials at many schools show kindness toward parents in need. It remains, though, that the exigencies of yeshiva finances have resulted in a toughened stance, the upshot being that hard-pressed families are being pressured to pay a larger share of the cost of educating their children. As family size continues to increase in Orthodox ranks, an ever-greater toll is being exacted in the form of the disruption of sholom bayis and in family emotional and physical health.

The problem is not with school policy, although there is room for improvement. What is difficult to accept is the abandonment of the principle that basic Torah education is a basic communal responsibility. Whether through voluntary contributions or taxes imposed by community officials, over the centuries religious schools were supported in the main by outsiders and not by parents. We never embraced – at least not until recently – the alien concept that a Jewish education is a consumer product.

Even with increased parental financial participation, yeshivas need outside support if they are to meet their basic obligations. There are charitable persons who understand this, yet the painful truth is that outside contributions constitute a declining and by now relatively small share of the income of most schools. Voluntary contributions increasingly come from the parents themselves who either give themselves or get, as for example in what has become the customary dinner charge. Outsiders are growingly reluctant to contribute to ordinary yeshivas and day schools. They will support special situations, such as kollels, schools for special children and some advanced yeshivas. But elementary and secondary yeshivas and day schools are generally off the philanthropic radar screen.

Tzedakah is an obligation for all observant Jews. There is a good deal of discretion in what people may do with their charitable dollars, although there are halachic guidelines that govern tzedakah, including the obligation to give to the needy who ask directly for help and also pidyon shevuim. Too many of us make the mistake that organizations which purport to provide medical services or help the needy are accorded the same priority status as the needy themselves. This errant view of tzedakah parallels nearly perfectly the attitude of the Federations that we used to criticize.

As between Torah schools and organized chesed campaigns, the schools must be given priority. That is what I heard from the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood and it was a message he proclaimed constantly as he molded the nascent American yeshiva world into the robust Torah community that has developed. A similar message was expressed by other Torah leaders of the last generation. Several years ago, I heard a tape of a shiur given in the 1950’s by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik and he made the same point.

This fundamental standard that is crucial to the well-being of the Torah community is now being abandoned by people who obviously appreciate the importance of chinuch. Shuls everywhere

have cut down or stopped altogether making appeals for yeshivas. They prefer making appeals for chesed activities. We are, in any case, now bombarded by a flow of appeals for chesed organizations. These agencies are in the main important, but with few exceptions they are a good deal less important than Torah institutions.

This should be self-evident in the yeshiva world, which adds to the question of why this world is embracing the secularist approach to tzedakah that we once rejected.

There is no easy explanation. Likely, the complexity of the Torah community, including the great number of institutions and causes seeking support, serves as a disincentive to answering appeals for yeshivas and day schools. I believe that the ant-traditional consumerist view of chinuch that I have criticized has resulted in the unwillingness to support outside schools. This unwillingness works in two ways. There is the attitude that the operational cost of our schools should be covered by the parents. Secondly, parents who are required to pay large sums for their children’s tuition are increasingly adverse to the notion that they should help other schools, even if they can afford to do so.

A third explanation is that for understandable reasons we have yielded to the emotional exhortations that are an inherent element of chesed campaigns. The impulses that govern how non-observant Jews approach their tzedakah decisions have begun to overtake us. Put otherwise, on the emotional front an appeal for a yeshiva cannot hold a candle to an appeal for a chesed cause.

What is the position of Torah leaders in all of this? Where are they as high tuition charges are causing pain in too many good and modest Torah homes? Where are they as many yeshivas are in financial crisis, a crisis that has become deeper because of the economic downturn that has resulted in a significant number of Orthodox parents losing their jobs?

I recognize that there is more than a small prospect that should Torah leaders advocate support for yeshivas, their words would go unheeded. At the least, though, they should trumpet the message that support for basic Torah institutions is both a communal requirement and a tzedakah priority. As far as I know, they have not sent out such a message. I do know that in some fashion they have acquiesced to the notion that tuition is a parental obligation, even for poor parents.

We receive a constant stream of letters from Torah leaders importuning us to support this or that chesed campaign, mainly for individuals but at times also for organizations. There are questionable aspects to these campaigns that I hope to deal with in the next Newsletter. What concerns me now is the lamentable fact that our Torah leaders are giving more momentum to the emotional chesed bandwagon.

Chesed activities constitute a glorious achievement in contemporary Orthodox life. In a somewhat similar fashion, they were considered to be a glorious aspect of the Federation and secular Jewish world. It was wrong in the past that Torah education was not regarded as a priority and the same attitude is wrong today. There cannot be one rule for the secularists and another for us.