Thursday, May 22, 2003

Back in Court

There are religious Jews who favor strict separation of state and church and there are secular Jews who support a more flexible approach to this constitutional principle. In the larger arena of American Jewish life however, except for the Orthodox, the First Amendment clause is worshipped and regarded as an absolute. As American Jews abandoned Judaism, they created a substitute religion, with church-state separation as one of its major theological underpinnings.

There is a sort of parallel between our people’s free fall away from traditional practices and beliefs and the nearly fanatical embrace of a doctrine whose interpretation is hostile to religion. The most fundamentalist among the Orthodox are no more cemented to their faith than our strict separationists are to theirs.

In the more than two generations of our fidelity to the idea of total separation, nearly every movement and ideology and nearly every public policy has been reexamined and this process has resulted in changing attitudes and approaches. This is understandable because the life of the law is experience and not logic. We have had sufficient experience with church-state doctrine to justify a reassessment by those who advocate either side of the issue. But American Jewry has been intellectually dead for a long while and ideas do not count.

It also does not matter that we have day schools that may benefit from greater flexibility in interpreting the First Amendment. We sanctify the profane even when we are the victims, for on church and state relations alone we can say, “We believe with perfect faith.” Nor does it matter that many years of experience with programs that allow for a measure of governmental aid to religious institutions have shown that our constitutional system and values have not been impaired by exceptions to the strict separation rule.

Higher education is probably the broadest area of legally-countenanced public funding of activity that is tinged by some form of religious involvement. Laws and court rulings have accepted aid formulas that do not exclude religiously-affiliated colleges and universities. Whatever the reasons for this, church-state flexibility has not resulted in unwelcome outcomes.

Whether this opening will be expanded may depend on what the U.S. Supreme Court does in a case that it has just agreed to review. The case concerns Washington State’s “Promise Scholarship” program for students attending an accredited college in the state who meet specified standards. A student, otherwise eligible, was denied a scholarship when he enrolled in Northwest College, which educates students from a “distinctly Christian” point of view, and indicated that he would be majoring in pastoral ministries. He went to federal court, lost at the trial level and then prevailed 2-1 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

There is speculation that the Supreme Court took the case because conservative Justices want to expand the permissible zone of neutral governmental funding of activities conducted by religious institutions, perhaps even to invalidate state constitutional provisions that are even more restrictive than the First Amendment. We will have to wait a year to find out. Right now, I am not comfortable with what may be in the offing, for this is neither an urgent case nor one that has a good set of facts to make constitutional law. It would have been preferable to allow the lower court decision to stand.

I also would prefer that church-state conflict be de-intensified, that it not be a constant lightening rod for polarization. For all of the misguided extremism of its ardent proponents, separation of church and state is important. If some now want to throw out the baby with the bath water, that is an unacceptable reaction to the hostility that has been shown, including by Jews, toward religion.

We Jews speak a good game about tolerance, even as we are intolerant toward religion. On May 14, a few days before the Supreme Court took the Washington case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago affirmed the conviction of a Black man charged with selling marijuana and gun possession. During the trial, the presiding judge ordered spectators who were wearing hats to remove them. After an unnamed spectator said, “If Jews were to come in here,” the judge declared, “Jews will not wear yarmulkes. I am Catholic and the Pope would not wear a miter. Please leave, take if off and come back in, or do not come back in, the choice is yours.”

Judge Easterbrook who wrote the opinion of the Seventh Circuit commented, “the Constitution does not oblige the government to accommodate religiously motivated conduct that is forbidden by neutral rules and therefore does not entitle anyone to wear religious head gear in places where rules of general application require all heads to be bare or to be covered in uniform ways… Yet the judicial branch is free to extend spectators more than their constitutional minimum entitlement.”

He then wrote: Tolerance usually is the best course in a pluralistic nation Accommodation of religiously inspired conduct is a token of respect for, and a beacon of welcome to, those whose beliefs differ from the majority’s. The best way for the judiciary to receive the public’s respect is to earn that respect by showing a wise appreciation of cultural and religious diversity. Obeisance differs from respect; to demand the former in the name of the latter is self-defeating. It is difficult for us to see any reason why a Jew may not wear his yarmulke in court, a Sikh his turban, a Muslim woman her chador, or a Moor his fez. Most spectators will continue to doff their caps as a sign of respect for the judiciary; those who keep heads covered as a sign of respect for (or obedience to) a power higher than the state should not be cast out of court or threatened with penalties. Defendants are entitled to trials that others of their faith may freely attend, and spectators of all faiths are entitled to see justice being done.”

Monday, May 19, 2003

A Question of Principals

A signed email sent by a parent at an important Modern Orthodox day school away from New York to other school parents raises issues that deserve attention. He asked why tuition is “going up 10% again next year” to a high of about $14,000, why the headmaster is being paid $250,000 and another educational administrator $150,000 and why a school administrator earns about $200,000 – all this while teachers continue to be poorly paid.

Questions like these are being asked by day school parents around the country, especially in the non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox sectors, and they are being asked with greater fervor, even anger, in this period of economic downturn as more parents are struggling to meet escalating tuition charges while they must also take care of other obligations. Administrative budgets are exploding at day schools – but not at yeshivas – as schools are adding personnel, at times paying them far above what even affluent school districts that rely on tax revenue and public funds pay those who run much larger public schools.

Something is badly out of whack, although it’s hard to tell from the cliché-ridden agendas of the burgeoning roster of conferences and events that allow our top educators to holiday at school or communal expense as they absent themselves from the institutions that they are being well paid to direct. Apparently, additional administrators are needed to cover for those who are undergoing the terrible sacrifice of attending conventions.

These issues aren’t going to go away. Even in the yeshiva world where tuition is relatively low compared to elsewhere and scholarships are relatively available compared to elsewhere, many parents are upset. For them, a yeshiva education is a religious obligation and few parents will remove their children, something that is happening in more modern schools. Still, the pain is evident and is taking a toll in the erosion of shalom bayis.

As administrative salaries have skyrocketed, faculty salaries have continued to lag and now they are even further behind what public schools pay their teachers and this is without calculating the value of fringe benefits. Those who are in the classroom and have direct contact with Jewish schoolchildren are getting the short end of the stick.

The reining in of principal salaries and perks will not of itself result in a large shift of available funds to enhance teachers’ salaries or, alternatively, hold back tuition increases. Day school finances are complicated and there are quite a few reasons for increased costs, this year including tremendous hikes in insurance and security expenses. Furthermore, the income side of day school budgets has been under increasing pressure because a declining proportion of income comes from charitable gifts. School boards feel compelled to raise tuition because there is no other source they can readily turn to.

Still, the holding down of the salaries of top administrators will make a marginal difference. Besides, it is wrong to coddle principals while teachers are neglected and often told to look elsewhere if they are unhappy. What day schools are paying for some of the high-priced talent is only one part of the disproportionate priorities that abound in day school education. Nearly all of our communal and philanthropic involvement in day schools adds to the sense that those who are already best off are the ones who are most deserving of added attention or benefit. There is an extensive and expensive network of projects that offers a smorgasbord of goodies to those who are coddled, including trips to Israel and other exotic places, training programs where they are presumably taught what they are already being paid to do and the ability to moonlight as consultants and mentors.

There are, for sure, principals who are not especially well paid and who focus on the job that they are hired to do. These good men and women do good work and deserve our appreciation. Unfortunately, in the world of day school principals the trend is in the other direction and it is abetted by placement officials who at times act as agents for the candidates, caring too little about the situation of schools that are seeking principals.

The way to respond to the growing dissatisfaction in the day school world is not to write to parents as the president of the school with the $250,000 headmaster has written that we “have historically maintained a high degree of confidentiality concerning compensation” and we always “strive to compensate all employees at appropriate rates within budgetary constraints.” In view of what is happening with tuition, parents have a right to know what is happening with the money that they pay and there is no way that the differential between what is being paid to teachers and to top administrators can be justified as appropriate.

There is a flip side to the coddling of principals. In the parts of the day school world that are most generous to its top people, the tendency is for jobs to be as secure as they are for baseball managers. School boards that dole out large sums to attract what is supposed to be super talent seem to come to the realization, often sooner than later, that they were had and they get rid of the person who not long before was being given an opulent welcome mat.

This approach doesn’t help much either because it avoids the fundamental imbalance in the way day school resources are allocated. My modest proposal is for a one-year moratorium on conventions and conferences and all of the rest of the flotsam and jetsam that has become too large a part of the day school scene. Hopefully, this will be accompanied by a significant scaling-down by communal and philanthropic sources of the side-shows that they constantly favor. The funds that are freed up should be applied directly to the classroom experience, to the education of our children by the people who nearly always are underpaid and yet teach with devotion and skill.

Monday, May 12, 2003

Why a Double Standard?

There was an approach to mussar (ethical improvement) in pre-Holocaust Lithuanian yeshivas that required students to do something that was absurd, the expectation being that they would be mocked and this would lead to self-reckoning and moral betterment. The method is no longer in favor, doubtlessly for good reasons, but thankfully we Orthodox Jews have a far more reliable way of knowing how foolish and bad we are. Nearly each week the Jewish Week lets us and everyone else know how dysfunctional we are, how plagued we are by abuse and misdeeds and beset by nearly every known pathology. Alas, we haven’t improved – at least not sufficiently – and this means that the newspaper has to try harder to ferret out the sins of the Orthodox. Hopefully, we will get the message and relieve the Jewish Week of the obligation to be constantly nasty toward us.

In the interim, perhaps we should have a dinner expressing our gratitude to this newspaper which diverts so much space away from what’s happening in Jewish life in order to give us the opportunity to atone for our sins. After all, what’s one more dinner among Orthodox Jews? Of course, liquor shall not be served because this newspaper has just added alcoholism to our roster of pathologies.

Wherever Jews have lived, they have been influenced to one extent or another in both ideas and behavior by what happens in the society in which they live. Since drinking is a serious American malady, there are Jews who are alcoholics and some of them are Orthodox. Likely, as American Jews have assimilated, the distance in this regard between them and other Americans has narrowed, but Orthodox Jews are still far less prone to alcohol abuse.

It is worrisome that among teenagers, including Modern Orthodox, drinking has become more widespread. This is the result of deviant norms in the general society and social pressures, which is also true of drug abuse among younger people. Kiddush clubs and shul affairs at which alcohol is available have nothing to do with this. It’s disheartening when a respected rabbi who is a good person and president of a major rabbinical group declares that there is a serious drinking problem among the Orthodox. That’s untrue in its suggestion that there is a high incidence of alcoholism among the Orthodox. We should not make light of any pathology and whatever the number, the situation needs to be addressed, but not by exaggeration and not by playing into the hands of those who are determined to portray the Orthodox in a bad light. Excluding liquor at shul affairs will have no bearing on teenage drinking.

To make matters worse, in the well-trodden path of yenta-or is it yellow? –journalism, a story about an alleged drinking problem among the Orthodox is accompanied by the perverse claim that the Orthodox refuse to face up to the problem.

The truth is that the small landscape of Orthodox life is dotted by dozens of voluntary self-help groups, some of which exaggerate their accomplishments. It is this willingness to tackle problems that exposes the Orthodox in ways that are inapplicable to the other 90% of American Jews. There is no yenta journalist writing about the known fact that outside of Orthodoxy, most Bar Mitzvahs are far more bar than mitzvah.

We Orthodox Jews are in a bind because whenever we face up to problems in our small community we are providing an opportunity to the yenta journalists to go after us. A case in point is the latest charges alleging that a rabbi from a distinguished family who now lives in Israel was engaged in inappropriate behavior, some of it sexual, years ago in an American yeshiva and more recently at an Israeli school. When Yeshiva University learned of the allegations, it cut ties with the Israeli school and now an American beth din (rabbinical court) has met to examine the matter. It’s hard to figure out what else can be done by the Orthodox, yet that has not deterred this newspaper from twice making the story into a lurid front page article.

Perhaps we Orthodox Jews are just the victims of bad luck or timing. On the other hand, there was no yenta journalist sniffing out the story of sexual misconduct by the head of Reform’s rabbinical seminary or a key figure at the Jewish Theological Seminary. How would the Jewish Week react if a shnook on Wall Street who is Orthodox made a bundle and as part of an effort to influence the recommendations of an influential stock analyst gave a $1 million contribution to the yeshiva to which the analyst’s son was applying for admission. There would be joy in yenta land. Sandy Weill is no shnook and he is at the top of the heap on Wall Street and that’s in effect what he did regarding the Y of 92nd Street – a Jewish institution – as part of a foul arrangement which resulted in billions being lost by investors, including Jewish institutions. No yenta journalist for that story.

Our yenta journalists have morphed into Jews of silence regarding Wall Street wrongdoings that involve non-observant Jews who somehow participate in secular Jewish life. There is nothing about Imclone, Sothebys, Rite Aid and other scandals in which Jews have been accused of wrongdoing. Why the silence? Let me stress that I would get no satisfaction out of any of the people involved in these matters being subjected to journalistic attack. I just want to know why there is a double standard.

Yenta journalism is a two-way process, involving reporters who put Orthodoxy under a microscope and their sources. We speak too readily to journalists who have unfavorably portrayed us. This is specifically true of three rabbis who are deservedly respected. I recommend that the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union stop proclaiming that Orthodox Jews no longer beat their wives; the spokesman for Agudath Israel speak far less because his organization is supposed to be led by Torah leaders and not by spokesmen; and the spiritual mentor at Yeshiva University’s Seminary cease making self-serving statements that have little purpose other than making his colleagues look bad.

Saturday, May 10, 2003

RJJ Newsletter - May 2003

The yeshiva world, of which we are a part, and chassidim constitute the charedi or fervently religious sector of Orthodoxy. Other Orthodox Jews are labeled as Centrist and still others as Modern. All told, the Orthodox are about ten percent of American Jewry or 500,000 persons. There is something bizarre about so few people being divided into all of these subgroups, but that is how it often is in religious life and certainly among Jews.

The labels used to identify American Jews arise from a development that has profoundly shaped American Jewish life for more than a century. Instead of being regarded as one Jewish community, among which some are more and others less observant, we have been placed into denominational categories that cannot be avoided in any discussion of contemporary Judaism. This is unfortunate because such labels serve as impediments or barriers to outreach and much else. If we did not have them, we would still have much religious diversity, as is true of the Sephardic community, and there would be much disagreement regarding practice and belief, as is evident in Israel where labels are not as embedded as they are here.

For all of their shortcomings, labels are functional which, of course, is why they are used. They facilitate sociological analysis and understanding by focusing on commonalities. Thus, the yeshiva world and chassidim are identified as charedim because for all of their differences, what they share in belief and practice justifies the linkage. This is evident in dress and appearance (which wasn’t always the case) and a wide range of behaviors and attitudes. In general, the two sub-groups have grown closer over the past generation.

There are also differences. While the prevailing view is that chassidim are the more charedi and there is much to back up this notion in dress, food issues, secular education, and separation of men and women, in some ways chassidim are more flexible, even more lax.

For all of their being in a world apart and seemingly impervious to everyone else, there is a certain openness to chassidim, a certain willingness to be engaged in the outside society that, in the main, they are hostile to and which they regard as hostile to them. They are quite ready to leave their cloistered existence in their eager embrace of political activity which they seek to convert into communal and personal benefit. We are all familiar with the visits and photo ops by politicians to the homes of chassidic rebbes who are surrounded by their followers.

Openness also characterizes their involvement in the business world. Here are Jewish men, many of whom can scarcely speak English or read a document, opening up all kinds of businesses and interacting with all kinds of other people. In their entrepreneurial instinct, chassidim manifest self-confidence, a willingness to work hard and a determination to succeed. There obviously are powerful cultural underpinnings that impel them in this direction, amounting to a shared expectation that business is the way to go.

In these respects, the yeshiva world is more closed off. Roshei yeshiva seldom meet with political candidates. The walls of the yeshiva – those that are physical and those that are metaphysical – serve to limit, if not cut off entirely, many outside contacts.

The diversity in outlook is reflected in the attitude toward Torah study and earning a livelihood. While chassidim emphatically dismiss secular study, especially for boys – and some yeshivas are heading in that direction – the tendency in most chassidic groups is to promote kollel study for only the best students and not as a universal expectation. Although it is the norm in many chassidic communities for a married young man to spend a year or more in a kollel, wives are not expected to work after the first child is born and the young fathers generally go to work. Or, they may work before marriage and there is no loss of face or status for a young chassidic man of 21 to be working.

There is, parenthetically, a fascinating parallel between the spreading entrepreneurship of chassidim and the experience of American Jews in the last century, primarily in the second and third generations after they came to the U.S. Many ambitious American Jews went into business out of one necessity or another – they had to work or they faced discrimination – and as a consequence this created the foundation for extraordinary economic advancement. So, too, is it now for chassidim. There is, of course, a good measure of poverty in their ranks, but there also are greater pockets of affluence than is commonly recognized and they are expanding.

In contrast, the yeshiva world exalts full-time Torah study after high school and after marriage. Wives often continue to work after they have become mothers. Within this sector of Orthodoxy, parents of a 21-year young man who is working often have to fumble for words to explain why he is not in yeshiva. The transcendence accorded to Torah study is our glory and our strength and it is beautiful to behold young men removing themselves from a world that is profane and devoting themselves to lives of study and sacrifice.

It remains, however, that nearly all kollel students sooner or later must enter the job market and when they do the contrast with the chassidic sector becomes even sharper. For those who go into chinuch or klal work, whether to teach or do outreach or work for an organization, there is a trade off. Salaries are low but they are somewhat compensated for by the ability to teach Torah, to serve the community and to remain within the comfortable confines of the Torah world.

For the even larger number whose work takes them outside the community, although many go into business, in general any entrepreneurial instinct has been stifled. One senses that there is a lack of confidence among ex-yeshiva students that they can succeed in the outside world. Many tend to accept jobs that are not financially or emotionally rewarding.

This has led to a potentially tragic, even explosive, situation. As we know, among yeshiva world families, parental support often constitutes a significant share of income. There is much that is praiseworthy about this and it is an arrangement that does not merit criticism, if only because what parents do to help their children is no one else’s business. It’s been said, however, that inter-generational support cannot continue endlessly, that those who now rely on parental assistance will not be able to do the same for their children, that even if grandparents fill the void, they can only stretch out the arrangement for another generation. It seems inevitable that within two generations, the financial illogic of inter-generational support will overwhelm the arrangement.

If we add the numbers – what is being earned in salary, the cost of tuition and housing and religious life, family size, etc. – this conclusion seems to be irrefutable. But what happens one or two generations down the road is not my present concern. History has a way of defeating logic and those who predict what lies ahead often are seen to have been fools. When we consider how our community has changed during the past two generations, there should be at least a sense of modesty in projecting with confidence what lies ahead.

My concern is the present, the former yeshiva students who are now young adults with family responsibilities and who already seem to lack confidence, some even seem depressed and nearly defeated by life. They struggle to meet obligations and many do not succeed. Of course, their wives struggle as well. This is sad, even tragic. I see fellows in their thirties and forties who not long before were vibrant and full of fun and energy who now seem to be always tired and sad. This worries me and it should worry the leaders of the yeshiva world.

If only because of its role in chinuch and kiruv, the yeshiva world is vital to the beneficial development of American Jewry. This vitality is, in turn, dependent on the young men and women who are being raised in yeshiva world homes. Their devotion to Torah living and Torah study is complete and tremendously inspiring. They are our pride and glory. We have an obligation to do more to ensure that when they enter adulthood they will be properly equipped to deal confidently with the challenges they face.

Monday, May 05, 2003

Little Tashkent

Nothing in American Jewish history parallels the experience of Bukharian Jews who have come from the Asiatic republics of the Former Soviet Union, settling mainly in parts of Queens that I prefer to call by the title of this piece. With the exception of the chassidic remnants who arrived after the Holocaust and have remained fervently observant, all Jewish immigrant groups that came to the United States have assimilated, some more rapidly than others. Jews who arrived in the great post-1880 tide of immigration went through several stages of Judaic abandonment, so that their losses were not fully felt until the third or fourth generation.

More recent newcomers, mainly from Russia, Ukraine and also Israel, are assimilating more rapidly then their immigrant predecessors. Russian Jews had little in the way of Jewish identity left when they entered this melting pot, other than the knowledge that they were somehow Jewish, positive feelings toward Israel and an awareness that being Jewish brought significant benefits, in sharp contrast to what it meant to be Jewish under Communist rule.

In addition to their fluency in Hebrew, the ex-Israelis obviously had immeasurably greater Jewish knowledge and awareness. Unfortunately, as yet little is known about how they have fared on these shores, though it seems that they are experiencing substantial assimilation. Unlike the Russians, they have received little communal attention or support, perhaps because there is no special reason for being sympathetic toward them. Their situation would be worse were it not for the Chabad movement, which especially in Florida and California has provided meaningful religious and social services to the Israelis and their families.

When Jews from the FSU’s European heartland poured into the U.S., organized American Jewry reacted quickly to provide assistance, the intense feeling being that it was a sacred obligation to do so and it would be sinful to miss the opportunity. There were special fundraising campaigns, allocations were shifted, new programs were initiated and tons of space in our media provided information on their situation. Something miraculous had happened and we rushed to assist these Jews who were no longer the Jews of silence.

Attention came in the form of direct financial assistance, family services, job training, religious outreach, scholarships and educational opportunities. Day schools around the country opened their doors to Russian children and local Federations helped meet the extra costs. In New York, the Orthodox established yeshivas that catered to Russians, while older schools that specialized in outreach revamped their programs to accommodate the newcomers. It does not demean these efforts to note that we now know that from a Jewish standpoint, the results were disappointing. I once visited an Orthodox high school outside of New York that had 20 Russians in the graduating class. Only one could say that the four years in a decidedly religious environment had had much of an impact on her or her family. As the Talmud teaches, the process of saving lives is always retail, one life at a time. Saving one life is equivalent to saving an entire world.

The Bukharian story is different from that of the European or White Russians. Their sense of community and tradition had survived during Communism, perhaps because they lived in distant Asian republics and did not feel the full force of the Kremlin’s anti-religious measures. While few of the Bukharians were Orthodox in their practices, it was also the case that few had intermarried.

Many still are not observant. For others, there has been a powerful religious revival and in substantial numbers. Its roots are not in conventional outreach but within the Bukharian community, which ensures that what is happening will be more lasting and likely to gain in intensity. I have just visited two Bukharian schools in Queens, one in its second year and the other a bit older. Both were established by Bukharians and are led by respected Rabbis. While several smaller schools serving this community are about to close – and others may follow suit – the new schools are growing. Their strength arises from their being integrated into the Bukharian communal network that includes synagogues, youth activities and family services.

Bukharian families are prone to abuse situations, often arising from the dominant – even authoritarian – role of fathers, some of whom have resorted to violence. Three high school seniors told me two years ago that they were about to get married because that would allow them to escape abuse at home. While progress has been made, more needs to be done.

That may depend on outside support. In the main, Bukharians have been left to fend for themselves, receiving only a fraction of the attention and help that was given to the White Russians, which is remarkable in view of the far greater potential for positive Judaic outcomes. It’s hard to pin down the reasons for the neglect of what is the most widespread return to Judaism phenomenon that American Jewry has seen, whether it is because philanthropists and others who might assist are ignorant of what is going on in Little Tashkent or because Bukharians are not as glamorous a group as the Russians or because those who are usually in the forefront of outreach are committed elsewhere and are not searching for new opportunities to do good.

Orthodox leaders and philanthropists continue to focus on older day schools that have for years engaged in educational outreach. These schools adjust their sights - but not their curriculum or leadership – to serve whatever group is now available for outreach. Now that the Russians cannot provide the numbers that they once did, Bukharian students are being recruited. While these schools are well-intentioned and have devoted personnel, I doubt that this is the way to go.

It’s welcome news that Bukharians are providing for their own schools, including important financial support. Just the same, it is disheartening that few outsiders, with the exception of a small cohort of Queens Jewish leaders, seem to care.