Monday, December 23, 2002

Who Says the Orthodox Are Different?

Before there was the organization, there were suicide bombers and other terrorist acts in Israel and also teams of religious Jewish volunteers, mainly from the burial societies, who combed the terror sites for body parts that would be buried in accordance with Jewish law. Israelis are still threatened by terrorism and we American Jews now have a new organization - with office, staff and high-powered fundraising – to contribute to.

Last week my neighborhood was plastered with posters seeking support for this organization and for “our heroes,” as the volunteers were called. Those who do this grim work are doubtlessly good and well-meaning people who deserve our appreciation. Most of us would not undertake their task, yet there is nothing heroic about what they do. The term is more appropriate for Israeli soldiers, border police and others who risk their lives to provide security for their countrymen.

Of course, “our heroes” is meant to touch an emotional chord, thereby spurring the fundraising that is needed to sustain the organization. The contributions have no meaningful impact on what transpires in Israel.

This organization is part of a larger trend. Orthodox Jews are going the way of all Jewish flesh, transforming modest, albeit important and effective, voluntary activities into full-blown operations. They are yielding to the impulse to establish more organizations which spend far too much of their time on public relations and fundraising, much of which does little more than sustain the organizational infrastructure. In the process, they add to what has been expensive and dysfunctional in American Jewish life.
As with secular Jews previously, this transformation is abetted by the tendency to respond to emotional appeals. There is receptivity to Israel-linked organizations that allow the Orthodox to express their strong ties to the Jewish State. While they visit
Israel – many quite often – and their children study there, they do not live in Israel, a circumstance that induces some guilt that is eased by contributions to these new causes. Some of the new guys on the block may soon qualify for membership in the Presidents Conference.

Another thrust of the new trend and another point of convergence between the old secular philanthropy and Orthodox philanthropy is the primacy given to medical and other chesed activities. This was the direction taken by Federations and they were bitterly challenged by the Orthodox who insisted that day school education merited priority because it best provides for Jewish continuity.

It’s our religious obligation to help the poor and others in need, although it is also necessary at times to question how much goes for the organization and how much to the needy. Our tradition of tzedakah clearly encompasses such causes. But while I have devoted some of my communal life to chesed activities, the lesson I received from the great rabbis I have known is that in the allocation of our charity, paramount importance must be given to religious Jewish education.

I heard the same message several years ago in the Jerusalem office of Moshe Berlin who has just retired after thirty years of devoted service as the director general of the Rothschild Foundation’s programs in Israel. He played part of a tape from a 1950’s talk given by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in which he underscored without qualification the religious obligation to devote the larger share of one’s tzedakah to yeshivas and day schools.

It’s disheartening how many Orthodox Jews are departing from this standard, how they are following the path that was rejected not long ago when taken by Federations. There cannot be one rule for the Federations and another for the Orthodox.

Orthodox Jews obviously give more than other Jews to religious education. More than may be realized, however, comes from other sources. Furthermore, the Orthodox are increasingly attracted to other causes and Jewish schools are receiving a declining share of the tzedakah dollar. One interesting example of the trend is that while appeals for yeshivas used to be a feature in Orthodox shuls, they have become rarities.

In part, the large number of schools seeking support turns off contributors. More importantly, there has been a sea change in attitude among the Orthodox regarding support for basic religious education at the elementary and high school levels. Support for these schools has traditionally been regarded as primarily a community responsibility and not a parental obligation. Too many Orthodox Jews now look at basic religious education as a parental responsibility. This revisionist attitude dominates at non-Orthodox schools, but more Orthodox institutions are embracing it out of economic necessity. Nowadays, most day schools live off a combination of tuition and donations received from parents.

There are Orthodox Jews who can contribution who reason that since they paid full tuition for their children, so should all other parents. In fact, there is no greater act of chesed than providing a meaningful Jewish education to children whose parents cannot afford to pay or who because they are removed from Judaism will not pay any tuition or perhaps just a modest amount. But this is a message with little emotional appeal. Jewish education is finding it difficult to compete with causes that appeal to the emotions.

There are no posters in my neighborhood proclaiming that yeshivas merit priority in tzedakah allocations. We are adopting that which we fought against a generation ago. We apparently believe that there can be a different rule for the Orthodox than for the Federations. Who says that the Orthodox are different?