Monday, November 25, 2002

There is Joy in Mudville

The tzoris that has befallen the National Jewish Population Survey should evoke sorrow, if only because this long-awaited study can provide important information about American Jewish life. We will have to wait longer because the firm that conducted the telephone polling lost some early data and United Jewish Communities, NJPS’ sponsor, has suspended further release of the findings until it determines whether what is missing makes a difference.

While UJC, the umbrella agency for the Federation network, is in mourning, there is celebrating among those demographers who have been eager for the opportunity to pounce on NJPS. Several went on the attack weeks ago, the aim being to discredit NJPS before the rest of us could learn what is being discredited. These nasty folks now have an embarrassment of riches, thanks to UJC’s missteps. Doubtlessly, down the road we will get a bunch of statistics and their interpretation, but it is hard to see how the damage can be repaired. There is joy in Mudville, it being the natural habitat of the demography clan.

Some of what has gone wrong was inevitable. The notion of a Jewish population study sounds like a great idea, made more attractive by the year 2000 mystique. The U.S. extends across nearly four million square miles and, as has happened often in our history, we are dispersed within this diaspora. To make the task harder, there are the controversial “who is a Jew?” issues. To reach American Jews, however they may be defined, NJPS utilized a random digital dialing technique that required more than three million calls being placed in order to reach the 4,500 households that could somehow be identified as Jewish and which would respond to the survey.
In its vital methodological underpinnings, NJPS was the victim of the expanding reluctance of people to answer the phone or to respond to telemarketers. At the moment when organized American Jewry believes that it is more necessary than ever to get a profile and count of its members, it has become much more difficult to locate these Jews and to get them to tell us what we want to know.

NJPS critics underscore that there have been recent useful Jewish population surveys that were far less expensive and time-consuming. They have a point, though the other studies ask few questions and essentially have been piggybacked onto ongoing research, a method that raises the strong possibility of survey bias because the respondents are not representative.

NJPS’ wounds are also self-inflicted. Mirroring the over-organization of our community, its questionnaire is a behemoth encompassing 300 items, some of them complicated and more than a few that are intrusive or irrelevant or foolish. Too many cooks were involved in the making of the brew and now a price is being paid.

All contemporary demography, specifically including the U.S. census, requires the weighting of raw statistics to ensure that discrete and hard to reach population groups are adequately represented. Each NJPS respondent will not count equally in the final published data. It’s necessary to determine the right geographic distribution and also how to count singles, Orthodox Jews and others who may be underrepresented in the telephone polling. NJPS enlisted a considerable number of experts to help achieve these goals and this added to the project’s cost and complexity.

Weighting inevitably raises as many questions as it answers. The assignment of weights entails a measure of subjectivity, so that the data presented to us and the accompanying interpretations may be challenged, even by those who are not residents of Mudville.

As American Jewry has become less Jewish and, to an extent that is astounding, not Jewish as all, NJPS and other Jewish population studies are increasingly on shaky ground. There has been a steady enlargement of the boundaries of Jewish identity to include persons of dubious status. It’s impossible to arrive at any consensus as to whom to include or how to count, so that apart from any methodological difficulties, the findings are open to question by those who want to add the numbers differently.

We are now beset by the question of whether to include non-Jews living in what may be loosely called a Jewish household and who identify themselves as Jewish and also whether to include persons who were born Jewish who say emphatically that they practice another religion or no religion and no longer regard themselves as Jewish. Children in intermarried families raise a host of related issues.

It’s become a mess. Demographers have abandoned a halachic or religious definition of Jewishness, substituting a sociological approach that unfortunately for them opens up new cans of conceptual worms. NJPS could do everything right and still be in trouble.

As necessary as it may be to collect data about American Jews, the exercise has become problematic. We need to rely more on qualitative studies and less on quantitative approaches. As for the numbers, NJPS and others should present us with a smorgasbord, giving us the numbers according to different categories of Jewishness and other identifying characteristics and then allow those who want to partake of what is being offered to pick and choose and to come up with their own conclusions.
* * *
I am nearing my thirtieth year as president on a voluntary basis of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, which is in its 103rd year. We have four schools in an unprecedented arrangement and other distinctive projects. We also face severe financial difficulties. This year is the hardest that we have encountered in a long while, undoubtedly because of the economic downturn. As Chanukah arrives, I hope that I can ask readers to provide a measure of support to an institution that for more than a century has been a treasure of American Jewish life. We need help.

Contributions can be sent to Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. 350 Broadway – Room 300, New York, NY 10013.

Monday, November 18, 2002

Money and Education

Other than ersatz status, does $20,000 per tot buy a vastly superior nursery program,
TLC and other goodies that are not provided at nurseries that cost half that amount or even less? This is one of the less than intriguing questions arising from the revelations about Jack Grubman, Sanford Weill and the 92nd Street Y.

I am asked from time to time whether increased per student expenditures have a significant impact on the quality of Jewish day school education. The same issue arises more importantly regarding public education, but that is a subject for another article. While it’s obvious that more money usually buys more and better, the issue isn’t all that simple, as I learned in a recent visit to two day schools serving a community away from New York.

At one school, the annual cost per student is about $20,000, which is more than twice what it costs to educate a public school student in the same state. It’s also about three times the average cost of a Jewish day school education in the U.S. The added funding means better paid teachers, small classrooms, more administrators, two teachers per class and other extras. At this nondenominational community day school, students are challenged and there is a sense of educational superiority. Tuition is about $15,000 and, with scholarship assistance, income from this source does not cover the budget. About $1 million must be raised each year for a school of fewer than 150 students.

The second school is Orthodox, has about 200 students in separate boys and girls divisions and is housed in terribly inadequate facilities. Tuition is about $6,000, but a majority of the students receive scholarship assistance. Funds are not available for special educational services or other enhancements. There is a constant struggle to meet obligations. The administrators are overburdened and underpaid, which is true of the faculty, although from the look of things, students are happy and learning.

The community school is clearly the stronger of the two. It’s a safe bet that its students do better on standardized tests and other measures of academic achievement. We do not need tests for us to know that its students are better read and more culturally aware. The extra money spent on educating students makes a difference.

The second school is typical of a large number of Orthodox yeshivas and day schools, as well as some that aren’t Orthodox. Starved for funds, they make do in buildings that are poorly maintained and which do not contain some of the basic accoutrements of an educational institution. The philanthropic support they receive from outside sources is a pittance as most large donors believe that it’s a greater mitzvah to feed the rich than to assist the needy.

Better and stronger does not mean that all of the $20,000 buys extra value or a better product. To determine whether added funding brings added benefits, we must factor for self-selection, for the capabilities of students when they are first enrolled in the school. The community school students are already better read, more sophisticated, etc. when they commence the regular school grades.

A similar point is made about the Judaic benefits of yeshivas whose students come from observant homes. They are already religious, while in non-Orthodox day schools a significant proportion of the students usually are not. While yeshivas add to religious socialization and knowledge, there is a pre-selection so that they cannot take full credit for the level of religiosity among their students. Likewise, day schools that cater to highly educated and motivated families whose children are introduced to books and cultural stimuli at a young age cannot take full credit for the academic accomplishments of their students.

They might take credit for what their students learn and practice about Judaism. Unfortunately, the Judaic minimalisim of many day schools results in minimalistic Judaic outcomes. Parents and school officials tend to assess educational progress in terms of general academic achievement, with Judaics taking a back seat. Judged by a Jewish educational standard, the $6,000 per year school in the community that I visited is performing at least as well as the $20,000 a year institution. While the more expensive school may well be doing a decent job Jewishly, it’s not delivering added value commensurate with what it is charging.

To a degree that is imprecise, some of the high tuition charged at posh schools arises from the snob factor. What is being paid for is a brand name, as well as an education, and brand names cost more. This is evident when the super rich want to ensure that their tykes gain entry into elite pre-schools. There are, for sure, nurseries that charge $5,000 which do as good a job as the four-times as expensive 92nd St. Y. The Y can overcharge for its product because it is confident that it can find buyers who are willing to overpay as the price for allowing them to boast.

A similar instinct – albeit not as foolish – is at work when parents insist on sending their teenagers to elite private colleges, deliberately foregoing public universities that they wrongfully regard as inferior. I have heard parents say that they cannot send their children to a Jewish day school or high school because they have to save in order to send their kids to expensive colleges.

At the end of the day, higher per student expenditures for day schools are often translated into meaningful benefits in the form of electives, tutoring and counseling, libraries and athletic facilities, extra-curricular activities and more. But we need to recognize that these schools exist for Jewish reasons and this aspect is frequently neglected, especially in the more expensive day schools. We also need to see that some of what is being paid for is nothing other than a brand name and snob appeal.

Friday, November 15, 2002

Obedience to Halacha and Book-Banning

(Originally published by Jewish Law Commentary)

A legal system carries with it the obligation to be obedient. Those whose actions are covered by a body of law are required to respect the law and the rulings of those who have the authority to decide. We may not agree with certain legislation or judicial interpretations of what is on the books, but we must be obedient. The alternative is either anarchy or the use of coercion to obtain compliance.
The obligation to be obedient extends to those who decide. When the law has been settled by prior legislative and judicial actions, judges are not free to impose their views and disregard precedent, although some do. They have more freedom when the law is not settled, but even in those situations there are conceptual and procedural guidelines that cannot be disregarded.

It's obvious that there is slippage from the ideal of obedience. Violations of tax and traffic laws are commonplace and whether crime is on the increase or going down, there is always plenty of criminal activity. The point about obedience is not that there is perfect compliance or anything close to it. What is critical is the sense of legitimacy, of recognizing that civil society requires acceptance of what has been duly enacted or decided. This is what we mean by the rule of law and the ideal of the rule of law is scarcely undermined because there are violations. Wholesale violations - if relatively few pay their taxes or many jump traffic lights - would be another matter.

While it is a legal system, in key respects halacha differs from the codes of law that govern how societies operate. There is the fundamental principle of the Torah being given at Sinai, received by Moses and transmitted to subsequent generations by Torah leaders whose status was determined by their spiritual and intellectual transcendence and not by elections. In the development of halacha throughout our history, there have been in some places and in different periods processes at work that can be identified as legislative. Even in such instances, the halachic process differs importantly from the legislative process that is a key component of democratic societies.

The authority of halacha and therefore also the obligation to be obedient is fortified by it being our mesorah, the fundamental heritage that we have received. Because of this, halacha is accorded a different and also greater degree of legitimacy than what is accorded to the legislation and legal rulings of temporal political and judicial systems.

Yet it is also true that especially in the modern period and certainly in the context of broader Jewish life, the authority of halacha has been weakened because Jews can walk away from Judaism, as so many have during the past two generations.

As suggested, another distinguishing characteristic of halacha is that the authority of those who decide religious issues is derived from their personal qualities, from their spiritual dignity and intellectual stature and not necessarily from the formal positions that they may hold. This is evident in contemporary Jewish life. In an interview years ago, Israel Shenker, a noted writer at the New York Times, asked Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztl, about the source of his authority as a posek. Rav Moshe essentially responded that over many years Jews turned to him with their halachic questions, he wrote responses and somehow they came to be accepted.

We religious Jews readily accept the obligation to be obedient, an obligation that for all practical purposes comes into play when we are adversely affected by a ruling or may disagree with it. There is, just the same, a certain fragility to halachic decisions, in part because they can be ignored by the many Jews who do not accept halachic authority and, as well, because among religious Jews, rabbinic authority is dispersed rather than centralized. Rav Moshe was the foremost authority on religious Jewish law for the yeshiva world of which we are a part and for many others, yet his rulings are not always accepted by Orthodox Jews in other sectors of the community. In Borough Park where I live, there are chassidim who carry outdoors on Shabbos, claiming that there is an acceptable eruv in place and that they have eminent rabbis to rely on, this despite Rav Moshe's prohibitory ruling.

Even without communal division, halachic authority rests to an extent on the willingness of those who are affected by decisions to accept what has been decided. Likely, this idea of willingness seems to be inconsistent with the obligation to be obedient. Upon reflection, there is no inconsistency, although how to allow for both obedience and a measure of freedom within the context of the halachic system cannot be easily determined. Rav Moshe's modest comment to Israel Shenker may shed light on the subject, for he was acknowledging that his authority depended somewhat on the receptivity accorded to his rulings.

This sounds like the democratic principle of the consent of the governed, a concept that ordinarily refers to elections and representative government. While the halachic system is emphatically not meant to be democratic as that term is understood, there is a consensual factor in the way religious issues are decided. A notable example is the Talmudic requirement that religious judges be wary of imposing a prohibition that a majority of the community cannot accept. This rule may be designed to protect rabbinic authority from being weakened by massive disobedience or, as likely, to protect the masses against violating a prohibition that they cannot or will not accept. Whatever the reasons, at least in certain instances receptivity to potential prohibitions is a legitimate factor in determining whether a prohibition should become actual.

One such instance may be provided by the several books written all or in part by respected Orthodox Jews and whose contents have been challenged. We are confronted by the question of how to deal with publications that may be regarded as objectionable on hashkafa or other religious grounds. One approach is maximalist, to rule that the offending publications are entirely off limits, that they are not to be sold or bought or allowed into one's home. A more modest approach is to attempt to isolate the passages that are regarded as objectionable, to indicate why they are objectionable and to deliberately stop short of a ban.

It is tempting because it is in a way easier to condemn outright and to prohibit outright. This relieves those who issue the ban and those who might read the offending works of any obligation to consider what is objectionable and why this is so. This maximalist approach apparently is the fate of a well-intentioned but problematic two-volume work on Torah leadership. While the intention of those who issued the prohibition was probably not to condemn the author and subject him to public calumny, all that we have is very strong language of a prohibitory nature by eminent authorities.

This is not the end of the story, if only because at least in the contemporary world it is rather difficult to successfully ban publications. There is evidence that many who would ordinarily accept rulings from Torah authorities are anxious to read the book and more than a few of those who have read the book are wondering what all the fuss has been about. It is evident that the prohibition has whet the appetite of some who would not be interested in reading the work.

There is additional unfortunate fallout in the cheap talk that has been generated by the condemnation of certain works. We are constantly admonished about wrongful speech, about lashon hora. In fact, there is a mini-industry that has arisen within Orthodox ranks exploiting the obligation to be careful in speech. I wonder whether it is sufficiently recognized that when books are banned or other extreme actions are taken, much of what has been accomplished regarding proper speech is severely undermined.

Consideration needs to be given, as well, to whether prohibitory statements, specifically regarding books, impact adversely on efforts to draw marginal Jews closer to their great heritage. This is a priority goal of contemporary Orthodoxy and there have been significant achievements, although more needs to be done. Perhaps more than any other prohibitory action, book-banning can turn prospective returnees away from Judaism.

We often point to the life and example of the outstanding Torah personalities who led our community during the formative post-Holocaust years, people of great stature who gave us inspiration and direction. There is a lesson to be learned from how they exercised their vast and essentially unchallenged authority, how they led by example and teaching and not by issuing a constant stream of prohibitory rulings.

The foremost of these Torah giants was the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood. In the twenty years of his fervent and fevered activity on behalf of the Torah world, he essentially was responsible for just one major prohibitory ruling, it being against Orthodox membership in rabbinical bodies with non-Orthodox Jews. This ruling came more than fifteen years after he arrived on these shores. In that great period of the development of American Orthodox Jewry, the Gedolei Torah were constantly occupied with major issues. They did not shirk their obligation to lead and they did not lead by prohibiting that which perhaps should have been criticized and not prohibited.

Monday, November 11, 2002

Yenta Journalism

Months before her eye-opening articles on Wall Street analysts, Gretchen Morgenson – the outstanding financial columnist of the New York Times – wrote an inconsequential piece that appeared on the front page of the business section detailing the sharp decline in stock price and the problems of an internet company and the entrepreneur who ran it. There was no suggestion of wrongdoing, although Ms. Morgenson managed to dig up the fellow’s Hebrew name, Orthodox affiliation and charitable activities. These bits of information had nothing to do with the story.

Last year, this newspaper published an article on a prominent businessman who was engaged in a business dispute that involved Israel. Presumably, this was newsworthy material for a Jewish publication. More problematically, we were treated to every bit of nastiness that the writer could extract from the files about this Modern Orthodox Jew.

These are two examples among many of a puzzling and disturbing phenomenon. When an Orthodox Jew is the subject of a business or crime story, attention is given to the subject’s religiosity, even when, as is nearly always the case, his or her religiosity has nothing to do with the story. As a rule, the information provided is no more than gossip presented in an unflattering way.

This tendency can be contrasted with how journalists have written about the current wave of corporate scandals. Inevitably, some Jews – not many – have been among those accused of misdeeds. I haven’t seen any references to their religious affiliation or activity. Ms. Morgenson has been silent about their Hebrew names, where they attend service, and the charities that they give to of the Jews implicated in Tyco, WorldCom, Enron and other businesses in the corporate hall of shame.

Why the disparity in coverage? Why the yentering in stories about the Orthodox?

There’s no easy answer, although I believe that discrimination – at least in a benign form – is part of the explanation. The hyper-attention to the religiosity of Orthodox Jews who may have committed misdeeds or are being portrayed unfavorably for other reasons is in an important sense the natural byproduct of their religiosity. Their religious identification stands out and that is how they are identified by the media.

Secular Jews, on the other hand, are essentially faces in the vast American crowd, Jews who are scarcely distinguishable from the much larger number of Americans who aren’t Jewish. Their Jewish activity – if there is any – is ordinarily one aspect of how they fit into society.

For Orthodox Jews, religion is the center of their world, a factor that is alive in their lives and dominant each day. Religious standards determine how they spend much of their time and other resources and often the kind of work that they do and where they live. In one way or another, their religiosity affects their dress and appearance. While there are exceptions, increasingly the Orthodox are identifiable by their distinctive dress. Their situation is akin to that of Blacks whose color sets them apart. Orthodox Jews and especially the charedim of the yeshiva world and chassidic sectors live in a world apart.

As journalistic restraint is appropriate in reporting on race, there should be a similar standard regarding news stories about Orthodox Jews. Their religion is not pertinent unless it is a key element in what is being reported. I am not suggesting that religion or, for that matter, race or other ethnic identities, should never be included in a story. Certainly, if the police are looking for a suspected perpetrator who can be identified via an ethnic or religious characteristic, that information is relevant. When a person’s misdeeds are connected with religious responsibilities, whether in a clerical or lay capacity, such information is pertinent, as it is when either a religious institution is implicated in wrongdoing or the victim of wrongdoing. Otherwise, such information is almost always gratuitous.

This is equally true of the general and Jewish media. The latter are not exempt from the obligation to show restraint. The fact that they report Jewish news does not give them a broader license to delve into matters that are not pertinent to the story. To the contrary, accusations of misdeeds by Jews in business or some other fashion are not newsworthy material for Jewish publications, else our newspapers would have space for nothing else. Such stories belong in the general press.

Unfortunately, the Orthodox get special treatment in the form of gratuitous nastiness. This is a form of discrimination and while it may be benign, it’s not excusable. We must not accept the yenta journalism that now characterizes far too much of what is included in our newspapers. Instead of covering our massive organizational infrastructure, the yentas who are also reporters forage for bits and pieces of information about individuals or minor disputes in shuls. A content analysis of our newspapers would show that though the Orthodox constitute about 10% of American Jews, their adventures and misadventures constitute a substantial proportion of stories about communal life that appear in Jewish weeklies.

Yenta journalists are generally not secular; they often have close ties to the Orthodox. As is always true of yentering, there are those who are willing to report rumors or half-truths and whatever else constitutes the meat and potatoes of the yenta profession. Gossip is reported as fact and the fact that too often what the yentas put into writing has been shown to be a distortion scarcely serves as an impediment for further yentering.

While yenta reporter are apparently gleeful about the gossip machine in which they play a central role, we must recognize that they do damage. They hurt people gratuitously. Half-truths are not half of the truth but untruths. Yenta reporters have written distorted stories about Yeshiva University and Modern Orthodox congregations. We need to understand that yentering is a social disease and the pathology is especially serious when it comes packaged as journalism.

Monday, November 04, 2002

The Unethical Ethicist

Anyone who allows himself to be called an ethicist is in need of serious moral improvement. The term is pretentious and arrogant, suggesting that the designee possesses much wisdom and is of high moral character. Randy Cohen who once was a humorist – a vocation that presumably required some skill – has been installed as the resident ethicist at the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times. As applied to him, the term is an oxymoron.

For all of its evident drawbacks, Cohen’s weekly column is a huge draw, something of an upscale version of “Dear Abby.” Admittedly, the comparison is a disservice to Miss Van Buren and the late Ann Landers. He is not in their league in terms of common sense or experience or empathy and he knows little about the subject that he purports to write about. Ethics is for him a way of expressing personal preference.

Much of what he responds to are slam dunks, questions about the propriety of cheating or engaging in deceit. Mr. Cohen stumbles when the issues are more complex, when they touch on ambiguities or dilemmas and it is useful, if not necessary, to weigh conflicting values and to balance conflicting needs. On such occasions, he sounds like a malfunctioning Delphic Oracle, as likely to be errant as to be on the mark.

It is especially unfortunate when someone labeled an ethicist is blind to nuances or does not understand that there are questions that cannot be answered, at least not with a quick judgment or quip. Mr. Cohen plows ahead, without saying – at least not in the column – that he does not know what the proper course might be or that there isn’t a single correct approach or that more than one response can be given.

His latest column, out a few days ago, illustrates what’s wrong. Asked by a reader whether to vote for a former boss running for public office who is “rude and condescending” but whose politics are right or for his opponent “whose politics are completely opposite mine,” Cohen responds that it is a “civic obligation” to “vote for your unlikable ex-boss.” Apparently, character does not count at election time, for it is now a civic obligation and the ethical thing to do to support a candidate whose character is flawed. This from a so-called ethicist. Can it ever be a civic obligation to vote for a particular candidate?

Cohen’s misadventures in ethicsland lend themselves to parody and Calvin Trillin has just jumped at the opportunity in the New Yorker with six “Unpublished Letters to the Ethicist.” Since Cohen kicked up a storm with a know-nothing response that is hostile to religion and offensive to Orthodox Jews, it’s interesting that Trillin’s first letter describes himself as being brought up in a Jewish home, but not observant. “Last summer, in a rash moment, I said publically that if Martha Stewart got indicted I would go back to the synagogue.” Now that she may be indicted, C.T. is in a quandary. His older daughter says that he will have to attend services regularly, have a kosher home and not drive on Shemini Atzeret. He asks the ethicist “whether a Friday-night service or two would do the trick.”

While it is easy to poke fun at Cohen, his skewed view of ethics is not always a laughing matter. Two weeks ago, he gave us a lesson in intolerance falsely marketed as ethics, when he advised a woman who had negotiated a deal with a “courteous and competent real-estate agent” to tear up the signed contract because “he refused to shake her hand,” saying that as an Orthodox Jew he does not touch women. It’s apparently ethical in Cohen’s warped understanding of ethics to tear up a signed contract. It’s also ethical to disregard the freedom of religious expression of the agent and it’s even ethical to suggest that contrary to law and social policy, Orthodox Jews who won’t touch women be victims of discrimination. Since, according to Cohen, they are sexist, it is appropriate to fire or refuse to hire Orthodox men who won’t touch a woman.

Cohen is silent about Orthodox women who refuse to touch men. Is their act of religious faith and modesty also an expression of sexism? At the June 2001 Yale graduation – President Bush was the featured speaker – a young Russian Jewish woman who was graduating politely told the official conducting the ceremony that when she received her diploma, she would not shake the hands of the men on the receiving line. Apparently, this official and others were not offended.

The Times and Cohen have received as many as 1,000 communications, nearly all critical of the column. The critics include persons who are not Orthodox and feminists who on other occasions have been critical of the Orthodox. If there would be a touch of decency or ethics in Cohen, he would apologize. That’s not likely to happen because he is motivated by hostility to religion and to Orthodox Jews and he readily converts his intolerance into pseudo-ethics. In responses to email, he has inappropriately compared the Orthodox conscience-based refusal to touch a woman to racial discrimination. In the mindset of one who is hostile to religion, there is scarcely room for the accommodation of religious belief, for allowing Orthodox Jews and persons of other religious persuasions to go about being faithful to beliefs and practices that harm no one.

The New York Times would not appoint a person who is ignorant about music to be a music critic or an unlettered person to be a book reviewer. It’s anyone’s guess why the newspaper chose someone totally ignorant about ethics and intolerant to boot to be its arbiter of ethical conduct. Whatever the explanation, the outcome is another stain in the Times’ inglorious history of the treatment of Jews.

Friday, November 01, 2002

November 2002 - RJJ Newsletter

The previous newsletter discussed the expanding tendency of Torah leaders to promote chesed causes, usually on behalf of individual families in Israel or here. The point that was underscored is that a message is being sent that chesed takes priority in tzedakah allocations over chinuch, an attitude that is similar to the approach of Federation and others in the secular camp and which was fiercely criticized by Orthodox Jews who contended that yeshivas and day schools should receive the lion’s share of our tzedakah. The essay concluded with the observation that there cannot be one standard for the Federations and another for our community.

This view raises several uncomfortable questions. The issue is important because the funds that are being raised in individual chesed campaigns amount to millions of dollars each year and the figure is almost certainly growing in view of the avalanche of letters that we now receive from respected Torah leaders. At the least, the subject deserves greater attention than it has received. The following comments are intended to encourage our consideration of this issue.

1. Let us assume, perhaps incorrectly, that all of the individual solicitations are legitimate, that they are for deserving persons who are in extraordinary financial difficulty and that Torah leaders whose names are being used have given their authorization. There still is the question of whether these situations merit priority over the financial – at times desperate financial – needs of Torah institutions.
There is - or so it seems – much tragedy and extreme hardship in our relatively small community. There is a stream of sad news telling us of catastrophic illness and of the death of parents, often at a young age, who leave behind young children and scant financial resources. It is one of the glories of religious Jews that we act quickly to assist widows and orphans. There are campaigns that in a matter of weeks have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars or even as much as $1 million.
If only because of personal experience, I am not callous toward those who have suffered loss. I have played a role in a number of chesed campaigns. But I am troubled by a question that was raised not long ago in the name of a Rosh Yeshiva on the way to a simcha in Lakewood. He apparently wondered how he and the yeshiva world could justify raising $1 million for a single family when, in the example that he gave, an outreach high school for boys at risk was about to collapse under a mountain of debt and few seemed to care.
2. When a Torah leader sends out letters regarding a chesed situation with which he is personally familiar, we can be confident that the need is real and probably great. It’s apparent that these situations are no longer the rule. While most solicitation letters used to be written in Hebrew and personally signed – with a convenient English translation provided – nowadays, a personal letter is often dispensed with and all we get is a signature to someone else’s letter.

The situation has become more problematic because many of the letters we now receive seem to be not the work of those who are identified as signers but rather the product of someone who is adept at writing these messages. Invariably, the tone and style are the same. At the least, there is a credible question regarding the legitimacy of certain of these solicitations. We do not know whether the signatures that we see were actually authorized or perhaps lifted from another source. Put otherwise, increasingly these communications partake of mechse k’shikra, the appearance of deception.

3. Confidence in these letters is not buttressed by reliance on what I regard as the vulgar technique of printing messages on the outside envelope that abet fundraising but which, in all likelihood, are false. We are being manipulated by the likes of “a little boy is waiting to hear from you” or “you can save this life” or “can’t you see the tears?” And so it goes. Chesed apparently is exempt from the fundamental Torah principle that all that is sanctified must be conducted with hatznea leches, a sense of modesty.

4. The Rabbis and Roshei Yeshivas whose names are on the return envelopes are busy people. It’s a good bet that they do not open the envelopes or record the contributions or make the deposits or disburse the funds. These functions are performed by others, at times by persons who are close to the families for whom funds are being raised, but with increasing likelihood by individuals who control the mailing lists, draft the standard letters and who have little to do with the persons on whose behalf the solicitations are being made. It’s anyone’s guess how the funds are being distributed or how much reaches the families. We don’t even know whether those in control of the funds are trustworthy people.
5. The practice of buying and selling contributors’ lists needs to be examined. The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School has an unyielding policy that prohibits this practice. We do not believe that it is appropriate to reward our contributors by peddling their names elsewhere. In fact, more than ethics are involved. There are practical reasons the practice should be curtailed.

Yeshivas are being hurt because tzedakah is generally not a zero sum game in which contributions to one cause have no bearing on what may be given to others. When chesed campaigns are emphasized, inevitably less is available for Torah institutions. There is a second negative impact in that there are potential contributors who refuse to contribute because they are convinced that if they do, their names will be put on a list and the list will be sold to others. We may think that these individuals are wrong; at the least, we have to understand their motivation and how it affects yeshivas.

6. In order to ensure that the chesed solicitations that have become a significant feature of our communal life are conducted with probity – both in appearance and reality – we should insist on several precautions. We need to be assured that the Rabbis and Roshei Yeshiva who are the primary signatories to these letters and to whom the contributions are being sent have given their authorization and that they have knowledge of the situations that are being described. It is apparent that in more than a few instances a Torah leader who is the key person in the campaign is at best a kli shlishi, a third hand source, someone who has been contacted by a person he knows who claims to have been contacted by a rabbi in Israel who has knowledge of the family for whom funds are being raised. If they do not have personal knowledge of these situations, they ought to say so and tell us on whom they are relying when they ask for our contributions.

We also need to put into place a better arrangement regarding the collection and distribution of funds so that we can have greater confidence that what is occurring is legitimate. It is not sufficient that the Torah leaders who receive these contributions turn the letters over to someone who appears at the door and that is the end of their responsibility. We and they must be concerned about what happens after the contributions are received.
It may be helpful for Torah leaders to establish a three-person vaad or committee of respected individuals who will oversee in some fashion this critical stage of chesed campaigns.

Doubtlessly, there are other issues that can be raised about a development that has not received the scrutiny it merits.