Thursday, September 25, 2003

My Bush Dilemma and Yours

We are just months away from the presidential primaries and a bit more than a year away from the 2004 election. While he has slipped somewhat, President Bush still seems unbeatable despite the unresolved questions and difficulties arising out of Iraq and despite the still faltering economy and job market. The tide may turn, as his father learned, although the uninspiring cast of Democratic aspirants adds to the likelihood that this won’t happen. With the exception of Howard Dean - and now Wesley Clark - none has caught fire. Dean’s good fortune is predicated on the suicidal instinct of Democrats who allow a tiny cabal of leftists to seize control of the primary system. As for General Clark, it’s too early to judge how he might do.

We Americans who still regard ourselves as Jewish have a problem. For all of the noise made by right-wingers and neo-conservatives in our ranks, overwhelmingly we remain identified with the Democratic Party and with liberal policies. The question many of us will face is whether to maintain this loyalty and reject an incumbent president who has been caring about Israel in favor of a Democrat who is likely to be less hospitable to the Jewish state. The problem is intensified by the dislike, even abhorrence, in most Jewish circles of Mr. Bush’s domestic policies.

In an interesting way, there is a mirror image on a much smaller scale of this problem among politically conservative Jews who support the President on nearly everything else but are aghast at the pressure he is exerting on Israel to accommodate the Palestinians. To be sure, especially behind the scenes, the White House and State Department have taken a tough stand and bullied Prime Minister Sharon to take steps that he believes might harm Israel. This being said, there is no reason to expect any American president to embrace every position espoused by our own hardliners. The President heads the American government, not Israel’s.

The issue that already confronts us is whether to ignore Mr. Bush’s views on taxes, the environment and a range of social and economic issues and say, in effect, that Israel trumps everything else. Or do we reject a right-wing agenda that for all of the soothing talk about compassionate conservatism is as reactionary as anything that America has seen in more than two generations.

This question does not appear on the radar screen of about half of those whom our numbers - crunching statisticians (aka demographers) identify as Jews because these folk no longer care much about anything Jewish. Nearly all of them are liberal and they do not care at all for the President or, for that matter, much about Israel. As campus events have demonstrated, more than a few are in the anti-Israel camp. One of the potent corrosive by-products of our wholesale Judaic abandonment is the erosion of identification with Israel.

As for the rest of us, should we hold our noses and disregard a tax plan that seems to have been fashioned by rejects from Argentina, a tax plan that is built on bullying and deceit, a tax plan that is cruel to many, especially the working poor, a tax plan that will contribute to an annual deficit of at least one-half trillion dollars and hurt this country for years to come?

Jews and, of course, many other Americans, must now include in their political calculations the inevitability that some time soon there will be several vacancies on the Supreme Court. It isn’t necessary to spell out the ideological implications, for the battle lines are already being drawn. Nor is it necessary to spell out how the great majority of American Jews passionately feel about control of the nation’s highest court .

Because old loyalties are hard to break and, in any case, younger Jews have been raised to believe in liberalism, the strong prospect is that in November 2004 most American Jews will once more be in the Democratic camp. The one caveat is that if Howard Dean or some other entirely unattractive candidate gets the nomination, there is a good chance for mass defections. Whatever the scenario, I believe that the percentage of Jews voting Democratic will decline, continuing a trend that began several elections back.

As I reflect on these lines, there is something strange about the discussion. We Jews constitute a tiny and shrinking proportion of all Americans and the percentage will go down further, even if we count as Jews persons who say that they no longer regard themselves as Jewish or are of questionable status. Yet, in constant bursts of ethnocentric exuberance we continue to act and even think as if we are at the center of the political universe, that somehow we are crucial in determining electoral outcomes. The incontrovertible fact is that we can scarcely determine who gets elected in Williamsburg and Crown Heights, but in the fantasy world that some of us occupy - and not only the Orthodox - we have come to believe that we have major influence over who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Admittedly, the media – and therefore also politicians who follow what is being reported – contribute handsomely to this phenomenon by the exaggerated attention that they pay to us. This attention has the capacity to distort how 250+ million Americans who aren’t Jewish by any stretch of the imagination look at Jews. They think we are powerful because we do get so much attention and we do seem to be all over the place. In our mad and maddening ethnocentrism, too many of us think that this is a good thing, that it is good for Jews and for Israel that we are thought to have so much power. Why are these people so illiterate about history?

How pathetic and dangerously foolish are we to believe that it is in our interest to get all that attention, that it is in our interest to have others think that we control so much.

Monday, September 22, 2003

A Guide to the Perplexed About Jewish Demography

Now that the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey has been released, let us at long last discard the fanciful notion that it’s possible to figure out how many Jews there are in the U.S. Any field of study that produces estimates as divergent as we have gotten from our population mavens can scarcely be regarded as reliable. We have been sold an expensive bill of goods.

It’s unlikely that the NJPS mess and the incessant in-fighting among our demographers will put a damper on our yen for population surveys. We have been obsessed for two decades and we remain in the grip of a mindset that cannot be easily changed. There are too many funders who are too eager to endow those who speak of factor analysis, standard deviations, regressions and other arcanum. They are now our intelligentsia, our great scholars. Once we were the people of the book. Now we are the people of the numbers.

Since we’re stuck with the numbers game, here is a brief guide for those who may be perplexed by the confusing claims and in-fighting.

There is no reliable way to count us – This is a huge country and we are dispersed throughout it. Our surveymeisters are not the U.S. Census Bureau which attempts to reach all Americans and has the resources and legal backing to do so. Our surveys rely on voluntary responses elicited through Random Digit Dialing, a technique that depends on making a huge number of calls in the hope of ferreting out a small number of Jews who will answer a set of questions. RDD, a dubious device to begin with, has been fatally undermined by growing resistance to telemarketing, so that in recent surveys the response rate has been significantly below the minimum level for reliability. Furthermore, RDD is based on pre-estimates of how many Jews there are in particular localities, extrapolations and other stratagems that reduce even more the reliability of the data that is produced.

We can’t agree on who is Jewish – Not long ago, it was relatively easy to figure out who is a Jew, whether as defined by religious law or sociological categories. This is no longer the case. If we cannot agree on who is Jewish, how can we count Jews? Many who were born Jewish say they no longer are, while many others acknowledge Jewish identity but are not at all connected to the community. There are children of the intermarried who are not being raised as Jews in any sense but live in what might be called a Jewish household. There are also a couple million or so Americans who aren’t Jewish by any standard but who live in what is referred to as a Jewish household because at least one person living there is somehow Jewish. How many we are depends decisively on who we include and who we do not.

Our numbers are fewer and also greater than the announced figures – Some say that we are being undercounted, while others argue that we are being overcounted. In the mad world of demography, both claims are probably correct. NJPS was under pressure not to show a sharp decline in the number of core Jews and so it inflated that figure. But it also undercounted the far greater number of somehow-Jewish persons who have moved away from Jewish life.

We’re in for more inflation – No group wants to say that its membership is declining. Given Jewish political involvement and the erroneous notion that U.S. support for Israel depends on our clout, we have additional incentives to inflate our figures. Then there is the growing influence of secularism which casts its net quite widely, reaching Jews that are excluded in most surveys.

The Reform numbers are a fantasy – Don’t believe the wildly exaggerated figures that say that 40% of core Jews are affiliated with Reform. Look at the endless rows of empty seats in Reform congregations and it’s easy to figure out that there’s something fishy. Reform statistics are puffed up by a) people who aren’t Jewish, b) many who are but do not go to synagogue and c) the understandable tendency of persons who are remote from Judaism to respond to survey questions about affiliation by selecting Reform because that’s the planet closest to them.

Conservatives are in a bind – A shrinking number of Conservative Jews are ex-Orthodox and a growing number are at odds with the movement’s ideology. The inevitable result is steady attrition. Younger Conservative rabbis and seminary students are pushing for further liberalization – gay rights, for example – but experience has shown that this will contribute to and not staunch further losses.

The Orthodox aren’t growing as fast as they think – NJPS data suggests that there are 415,000 Orthodox, an unexpectedly low figure in view of their extremely high fertility rate. It could be that as with its predecessor, the latest survey underestimates Orthodox family size. It’s certain that Orthodox outreach has not resulted in the gains claimed by exuberant kiruv workers, while defections away from Orthodoxy have continued at an alarming pace. One factor that has not gotten attention is the impact of aliya on Orthodox numbers. While aliya may not be significant in the overall data of American Jewish life, it is critical for the Orthodox in view of their low numbers and the high percentage of olim who came from this sector.

We are going to have more population studies and some good may come from this activity, particularly if the claims are not overstated – admittedly that is a tall order – and if the focus will be on what Jewish life is about and not on producing numbers. If there is to be a new NJPS in the next decade, it is obligatory that those who conduct it avoid the blockbuster project and questionnaire that the Federation world cleaves to.

Monday, September 15, 2003

There is a Time to Be Silent

Although I am intrigued because some of its dialogue is in Aramaic, I don’t expect to see Mel Gibson’s movie about Jesus. That should disqualify me from reviewing it but not from commenting on the controversy that has erupted as Jewish groups have denounced it as dangerously anti-Semitic, something that should be condemned and perhaps even banned unless it is drastically revised to remove the charge of deicide and other calumnies against Jews arising from events that occurred 2,000 years ago.

There are good reasons why many in our community feel strongly about the film. They associate it, understandably, with the Passion Play and other milestones in the blood-soaked history of Christian persecution of Jews. Gibson’s retrograde brand of Christianity and the passion he brings to this project add to the fear that the movie will open wounds that have scarcely been closed.

I do not discount the harm that can result from the unholy union between Christianity and anti-Semitism. Gibson is not a friend and there is too much in his family’s story that is unsettling. But his theology and passion do not invest the movie with the importance that we are assigning to it, although there is a good prospect that the barrage of criticism will result in more attention being paid and more people going to see it. I fear that we are making too much of a fuss about something that is likely to be fleeting and that the collateral damage resulting from our heated protests may be by a considerable margin greater than the harm caused by the movie.

I fear that once more our fears are clouding our communal judgment, that instead of reflecting and assessing whether all of our sharp criticism is needed, we sound as if the enemy is at the gate. It may be that because Gibson is a movie star and therefore also a celebrity, we are making more of a fuss about this matter than we did about Nazis marching in Skokie and other anti-Semitic occurrences.

Because we are aroused by the memory of Christianity’s transgressions against Jews, we are unable to recognize that American soil is not hospitable to the kind of intolerance that we were subjected to in Europe. I expect to be reminded that Spanish Jews said much the same about their country and so did German Jews later on about theirs and we know what transpired. None of us can divine what may happen in generations that are not yet on the horizon of time, but I am confident that the U.S. today and as far ahead as we can foresee is not Spain or Germany and Mel Gibson is not a threat to Jewish security.

What is to be accomplished by our fervent protests, other than putting us in the vulnerable position of attempting to squelch freedom of expression and increasing the film’s likely audience? If the movie is revised to edit out what we deem objectionable, we will be exposed to the charge that we have used our clout to prevent Christians from viewing the original.

Protests are likely to come mostly from conservative Christians – evangelicals, fundamentalists and others who compose the coherent and powerful Christian right – who have been among the most vocal and effective supporters of Israel. This was evident a year and a half ago in the great Washington rally on behalf of Israel.

This relationship is, of course, as overt a case of strange bedfellows as one can locate in the intertwined domain of ideology and politics, given the hyper-liberalism and ultra-secularism of most American Jews. Some conservative Christians, including Catholics, have questioned whether they are getting enough in return for the aid and comfort they give to the Jewish State, especially since on such transcendent issues as church-state separation, gay rights and abortion, Jews are in the vanguard opposing what these religious folks fervently believe in.

It would be fanciful to expect American Jews to alter their views on public policy in order to accommodate conservative Christians as a quid pro quo for the latter’s identification with Israel. But why should we put on display additional hostility and run the risk of alienating those whom we now need?

Admittedly, Christian support of Israel is predicated on theological premises that have less to do with affection for Jews than with what I regard as esoteric calculations about Armageddon and eschatology, all of which is a foreign language for nearly all of us. Yet, conservative Christians have been friendly in ways that are truly remarkable, including humanitarian programs that assist Jews in the Former Soviet Union and subsidies for aliyah to Israel.

If Gibson’s film posed a clear and present danger to Jews, we would be obligated to protest without regard to what collateral harm this might cause to Christian-Jewish relations. The movie is, however, little more than a side-show that is being given temporary hype by the familiar injection of celebrityship and media attention. As Solomon has said, there is a time to cast stones and a time to cry out. He also said that there is a time to be silent and I believe that this is one such occasion.
Last week’s issue contained a letter from Rabbi Haskel Lookstein critically commenting on what I was quoted to have said in an article reporting on a study I conducted on the impact of the economic downturn on Jewish day schools. Rabbi Lookstein, a man who deserves respect for his leadership of Ramaz, claims that “most of the day schools that charge a high tuition also have a very large scholarship program.” As I have written to him, the truth is exactly the reverse and there is an inverse relationship between tuition costs and scholarship availability. Because of economic, social and psychological factors, the priciest schools are the most parsimonious when it comes to financial aid to needy families.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

RJJ Newsletter - September 2003

There was a ready explanation when the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey indicated that more Jews had moved away from Orthodox affiliation than those who had become Orthodox. It was evident that during the extended decline in religious commitment and practice among American Jews throughout much of the 20th Century, a considerable number of the lapsed Orthodox had been Orthodox in affiliation only. Although they were no longer particularly observant, they retained the Orthodox synagogue affiliation that had been something of a family tradition. Their children, however, had moved into Conservative ranks or even further away. That is why the 1990 data showed significant Orthodox abandonment, even during a period when there were abundant signs of Orthodox vitality.

Still, NJPS was – or should have been – disturbing because it also showed that for all of our large spiritual and resource investment in kiruv, there were fewer returnees to Judaism than our outreach professionals had claimed. Of course, the value of kiruv cannot be reduced to numbers, especially in the contemporary American Jewish environment. We must always be mindful of the well known Talmudic teaching that saving a single life – and this includes spiritual salvation – is equivalent to saving the entire world. Yet, the statistics that showed more modest kiruv achievements than we thought to be the case were unsettling.

We still do not have the results of the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, a project that has been so poorly managed that when its findings are released, as is expected shortly, they are certain to be challenged as unreliable. There is, in any case, a sense that is shared by people in kiruv that the outflow away from Orthodoxy and religious commitment is more pronounced than the beneficial results of outreach. In short, we are losing more than we are gaining and whatever population growth we are experiencing essentially results from the high Orthodox fertility rate. While we can fault the powerful assimilatory pull of our host society, we can no longer say that our losses are in the main comprised of Jews and their children who are Orthodox in identification alone and not in practice and belief. We are now losing core religious Jews.

The yeshiva world has made kiruv a priority activity. Along with others in outreach, we have achievements that we all ought to be proud of. There is, just the same, a need to take stock, to consider whether kiruv activities are properly focused and whether approaches that were once effective are as relevant today as they were years ago. The yeshiva world and others engaged in kiruv must reflect on why we are losing so many, particularly among our young and particularly in an era when economic and other forces that in a previous period impelled religious Jews away from their heritage are no longer significant factors.

I have long believed that the functional division between kiruv and chinuch – outreach and Torah education – is a tragic strategic blunder. The two activities must be organically integrated in day schools (as they are in our Jewish Foundation School Division), else they cannot be effective. Incredible as it may seem to some, the number of outreach students in Orthodox day schools has declined, this despite fanciful claims to the contrary, notably by a group that boasts about having taken many thousands of students out of public schools and placed them in yeshivas and day schools. This is a dangerous falsehood.

It obviously is more difficult to reach out to non-observant and unaffiliated Jews than it once was. A great number of American Jews no longer regard themselves as Jewish. Those who still do, mostly observe very little and are secular in their orientation. They scarcely listen to any of our messages. Intermarriage has taken an ever-escalating toll, which is also to say that it inevitably reduces the number of Jews who can be reached via kiruv. This is a critical point that is being lost on much of the kiruv community. Increasingly, we are reaching out to Jews whose halachic status is in doubt.

The kiruv movement must engage in self-examination and, as I suggested in the previous newsletter, Orthodox leadership needs to have a lesson in American Jewish geography. It is not smart or effective to concentrate, as we often do, on small communities that are distant and where the intermarriage rate may be 75% or more, while at the same time we neglect larger communities, such as Staten Island, that are in our own backyard and where kiruv can be effective, especially if it is tied to chinuch. Of course, it is more exotic to go out West and exotic locales are conducive to more effective fundraising.

Whatever directions kiruv may take, we need to examine why too many are moving away from Orthodoxy, why we are losing many who were “frum from birth.” We must take a hard and honest look at what is occurring and see what we can do to reverse the trend.

There are, I know, situations that are beyond our reach. This is a large country and an open society and people can choose where and how they live and how they wish to be identified. We could do everything right and yet there will be some Orthodox who decide to abandon a religious life. Besides, America has been enmeshed in a drug culture which entraps the young, some of whom are our own. It may also be that we are losing adherents because of our own failings. I will not develop the thought here, except to say that whether or not we are more prone to wrongful business practices and other ethical lapses than persons who are not Jewish or not Orthodox, the moral condition of Orthodox life is in serious need of repair. Moral laxity by presumably Orthodox Jews serves as a deterrent for other Jews who might consider returning to Judaism. Likely, it is also the case that our derelictions serve as an incentive or excuse for some who want to abandon a religious life.

At a Torah Umesorah dinner years ago, I said that while we focus on Kiruv Rechokim – reaching out to those who are distant – we are Merachek Kerovim, turning away those who are close. This is sadly too true, at times, of yeshivas and day schools.

I will say once more, although I have no hope that my words will have an impact, that in too many instances yeshivas and day schools have become catalysts to Judaic alienation, as when they expel students because of even minor failings, whether behavioral or academic. We estrange these children and often their parents, as well.

The yeshiva world reveres the memory and teachings of the Chazon Ish. I do not understand why we violate so routinely his determination that the issue of expelling a student from a yeshiva is a question of “nefashos,” of life, and therefore requires a beth din of twenty-three. This teaching is routinely ignored, especially by yeshiva and day schools principals who feel that they can unilaterally decide which students shall stay and which shall not. This is an unconscionable violation of Torah law and together with other dubious practices relating to admission and retention costs us dearly among students and their families.

We point routinely and, at times, boastfully to the Talmudic ruling that saving a single life is equivalent to saving an entire world. There is, of course, a second part to this ruling, which is that destroying a single life is equivalent to destroying an entire world. Isn’t it time that we were faithful to this teaching, as well?

Monday, September 08, 2003

Why Can’t Those Who Write Get It Right?

How should the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be taught in Jewish schools? This is a topic that is scarcely discussed although it deserves attention. Is it always necessary to be staunchly pro-Israel and critical of the other side or is there room to present the Palestinian case and to be critical of certain Israeli policies?

These are legitimate questions, even if we believe as I do that there are powerful moral and practical reasons why it’s the job of Jewish education to engender in students a strong and positive identification with Israel. Moral equivalency must be rejected, if only because it has become a rhetorical device for many who engage in Israel-bashing. Besides, the general media are so often hostile to the Jewish State. Why should our schools serve even inadvertently as vehicles for further negativism toward Israel? It remains, though, that teaching about the Middle East is not all that simple and need not always be one-sided. Depending on the grade, the intention of the teacher and the issue that is to be covered, at times it may be appropriate to air viewpoints that depart from unconditional support and avoidance of criticism.

These issues were played out at Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox day school in Los Angeles. What happened there became in early August a mega-story in the Los Angeles Times (LAT). In turn, it was a page 3 piece in this newspaper that presented a sanitized version of what transpired and distorted the extent to which Shalhevet students, including in lower grades, were subjected to anti-Israel messages. It’s the last report that provides the title for this article.

I have been to Shalhevet three or four times as part of an intensive effort to help Jewish schools around the country. While I have reservations that are not at all rooted in its being Modern Orthodox about its educational philosophy and there is much confusion at the school as it attempts to implement the dubious theories of Lawrence Kohlberg about the moral development of children, none of this has anything to do with what I write here.

Compared to the usual Los Angeles Time’s coverage of Israel, the Shalhevet story was about as fair as one can hope for from a newspaper that has published Streicher-like anti-Semitic cartoons. The “hero” of the piece is Alexander Maksik who was then a seventh grade English teacher who had both an abundance of arrogance and a disdain for ordinary curriculum requirements, as he was determined to have his twelve-year-olds read material that was strongly hostile to Israel.

As told in this newspaper, Maksik attempted to show his students “the human side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” by assigning material that “revealed the harsh treatment of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers.” The LAT story described the performance of a mixed Arab-Israeli acting troupe, apparently invited to Shalhevet by Jerry Friedman, the school’s omni-present and omni-dominant founder. Unlike LAT, the story that was published here did not tell us that in one scene “two male actors, a Jew and a Muslim, pretended that they were urinating. They looked at each other. Aha, one said, so you too are circumcised. We’re both circumcised.” A second scene depicts a budding romance between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman. Another scene shows “sleeping Israeli soldiers arising and begin making plans to kill Palestinians.” Doubtlessly, this is appropriate fare for young students in a Jewish school.

We actually never learn much from either article about what Maksik taught during the two years that he was at Shalhevet. He placed much emphasis on “Habibi,” a novel by a Palestinian writer that in addition to portraying Israeli soldiers as rough bullies includes a young Palestinian girl’s first kiss and her budding romance with a Jewish boy. As he taught the book, Maksik insisted that his students write from the Palestinian point of view. He said that to refuse to do so is to be narrow and close minded. None of this appears in the article that we read here, nor do we get Maksik’s complaint that “the only articles on the school’s bulletin board are about Palestinian suicide bombers…. All the news is about the horrors to Israel. There’s never discussion of any other side.”

It could be that space limitations made it impossible to include much of this. But it’s unbelievable that there was no mention of Maksik’s supremely insensitive and even obscene response when he was asked, “would you have students read ‘Mein Kampf’ at this school?” This humane and caring soul readily said that he would assign Hitler’s odious anti-Jewish manifesto because “there would be no better place to teach it.”

It’s not hard to imagine what our community’s reaction would be if a seventh grade – or any other – public school teacher assigned Mein Kampf. We would be up in arms. (Incidentally, I am one of the very few people I know who has read Mein Kampf.) More importantly, why was this aspect of the story omitted from the sanitized version that was published here? This is inexcusable.

Maksik was not renewed by Shalhevet for a third year. We are told that he is now teaching at the American School in Paris. I am not sure whether Mein Kampf is on his reading list, but I very much doubt that he has the freedom to force his students to read material that is hateful to them.
Charles Liebman and I taught together at Yeshiva University in 1961-62 and we were the same age. Even then, his focus was on the sociology of religion, the field in which he made a major and lasting contribution. After he made aliyah to Israel, although not close our relationship continued over the years and I last saw him in Moscow this past June. He was a good person and an eminent scholar and when he passed away last week our community lost someone of true merit.