Monday, November 24, 2003

Religion-Baiting in Our Courts

Racial profiling is unacceptable because it stereotypes and demeans people for no reason other than that they share racial or ethnic characteristics. It seems that at least in New York courtrooms, it’s acceptable to profile Chasidic Jews and to assign to them by virtue of this identification alone certain negative attributes.

Thanks to the first-rate reporting of William Glaberson of the New York Times, we know that city attorneys in the Gidone Busch wrongful death case engaged in demagoguery and worse as they attempted to undermine the testimony of religious Jewish eyewitnesses who said under oath that the police had acted wrongfully when they mowed down Busch in a fusillade of bullets on a Borough Park street.

It’s a near certainty that without the inappropriate defense tactics, the jury would have ruled against the Busch family, for jurors are extremely hesitant to find against the police. They may have decided that they could not second-guess the police who at the time that they fired may have felt threatened, even if they should have acted with far less force.

City attorneys suggested in their questioning that those who testified in support of the lawsuit had, in effect, lied, not because they had anything to gain by lying but, as Chasidim, they would readily depart from the truth in order to help one of their own. Putting aside such pertinent considerations as 1) Busch was not Chasidic, 2) the witnesses did not know him or his family, 3) not all of them were Chasidim, 4) immediately after the shooting, eyewitnesses reported that the police fired without sufficient cause and 5) generally, Chasidim are respectful, even fearful, of police authority, we should be repelled by the profiling of religious Jews. The witnesses were labeled as unreliable not because there was any evidence impeaching what they said or because they had given a different version previously. They were untrustworthy on account of their being religious Jews.

This is odious stuff, although I am confident that as bigots always do, city attorneys celebrated their famous victory.

Sadly, what happened in Busch has antecedents. The trial of Shlomo Helbrams who was accused and I believe wrongfully convicted of kidnapping Shai Fima was permeated with Chasidic-baiting as the zealous prosecutor who was unrestrained by the trial judge inflamed the jury against religious Jews. Here is a remarkable tidbit from the summation by the prosecutor as he explained why he had not sought the testimony of Michael Apter, a Chasid who had knowledge of the alleged crime:

“And they want to know, the defense wants to know, why we didn’t call Michael Apter? Remember the term ‘mesirah’? Boy, if anybody was to practice mesirah, it would have been Michael Apter.”

As erroneously defined by the prosecutor, mesirah means, “It’s wrong for one Jew to say anything that would get another Jew into trouble.” We can ignore that bit of misinformation for the more breathtaking issue is the prosecutor telling a jury that he did not call a possible witness because the person is a religious Jew who would be sure to lie. In effect, the decision not to seek this testimony is employed as an argument against a person accused of a crime. This should have been a reversible error.

In a 1993 case called Malek v. Federal Insurance Company, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned a jury’s finding in favor of an insurance company and against the Chasidic plaintiff because the trial judge had allowed the company’s lawyer to impeach the plaintiff’s accountant on account of his religious beliefs and affiliations. During cross examination, the accountant was asked whether his firm’s lead accountant is “a member of the Hassidic community” and also “do you act as a CPA for other members of the Hassidic community?”

In reversing, the Court of Appeals wrote, “because it is apparent from these questions that defense counsel attempted to show that Schneck’s [the accountant] character for truthfulness was affected by his religious beliefs and that such questioning may have prejudiced the Maleks, the District Court erred in permitting the defendants to pursue this line of questioning… We are particularly troubled about this line of questioning, especially where the impeached witness’ religious affiliation is the same as that of the plaintiffs.”

Regrettably, this was a solitary decision against religious profiling and Chasidic-baiting. More often, what shouldn’t be tolerated is being tolerated, as in the celebrated Skwere prosecution where in addition to greatly distorting the amount of financial misappropriation, the prosecutors sought in court papers to demonize a community, suggesting that the poverty of its members and modest ways resulted in a criminal conspiracy.

The escalating juridical excesses against Chasidim may be viewed as the inevitable outcome of how litigation is conducted. In civil cases, each side is expected to do it can to prevail and the heck with fairness and truth. In criminal cases, prosecutors rarely regard themselves any longer as public servants whose primary obligation is to seek justice. They are out to get their prey and nearly every tactic can be used, including the already familiar device of piling on extraneous but severe additional charges in the hope, often realized, that cowed defendants will cop a plea lest they run the risk of long sentences. This isn’t justice. It’s an injustice and the practice is spreading cancer-like because too many prosecutors have learned that they can act without restraint.

Whatever excuses can be offered on behalf of our adversary system, it remains that there is an important difference in the scale of wrongdoing between harming a single litigant or defendant and impugning an entire religious or ethnic group. Religion-baiting has no place in our courts, no more than would racial-baiting. We need to confront those who invoke group hatred in order to win their cases. If we are complacent about what happened in Busch, we can be pretty certain that more of the same awaits us.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Whither – Or Is It Wither? – The Conservative Movement

There’s no quick fix for what ails the Conservative movement. In all probability, there is no fix at all, even far down the road. Membership and synagogue attendance will continue to decline and, more importantly, internal conflict and religious and theological confusion will place an even greater strain on the movement’s leadership. This is bad news for American Jewry, including the “We told you so” crowd. With few exceptions, those who are defecting are not heading in the direction of greater religiosity. They are moving further away from Jewish commitment and continuity.

The Conservatives made a bet against history and they have lost. They calculated that by shedding a portion of our heritage they could concoct a brand of Judaism that retained much of our theology and practices in a way that would accommodate droves of Jews who were not comfortable with the rigors of Orthodoxy. They eliminated the mechitza and in a series of ever more radical departures from tradition, they yielded to feminist pressure and also chipped away at Sabbath observance.

It’s accepted that the turning point came in the mid-1950’s when its halacha committee sanctioned driving to synagogue on Saturday. Since dates and events facilitate the understanding or presentation of history, this decision is a legitimate way of looking at the story of Conservatism. But the emphasis that has been placed on it masks two realities, the first being that there was much that preceded it which separated the Conservative movement from our religious tradition. The other is that advanced assimilation was already impelling Jews further away from observance. This situation was dynamic, so that irrespective of any official laxity in halacha, the outcome would have been the same, as Conservatives were abandoning the world of their fathers.

There is an interesting clue supporting this view in what happened during the same period among Orthodox-affiliated Jews who were nominal or marginal in their religious commitment. They once constituted much of American Orthodoxy; now they are gone with the wind.

For quite a while, it seemed that the Conservative bet had paid off. Hundreds of synagogues – many of them large – were built to accommodate the exodus to suburbia and expanded membership. There was intellectual ferment at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative rabbinate included many of quality and learning, often men who had studied at yeshivas. Yet, there were disquieting signs. The Conservative laity which once consisted of Jews who were Jewishly literate and knowledgeable experienced a steady erosion as the older generations passed on and their offspring knew less and could care less. Nowadays, perhaps half of those who are identified as Conservative are by affiliation alone and they practice rather little. Even among the other half, there has been a considerable decline in observance.

Inevitably, Conservative rabbis of a more traditional bent have retired or passed away. The younger rabbis are in the aggregate distant from the attitudes and theology that once characterized the movement. If Seminary students are an indication of what’s blowing in the wind, as they must be, what awaits us is a Conservative rabbinate that is committed to conserving very little. The internal battle over Gay Rights is one omen of what lies in store. There is also a geographic divide, as New York reflects the views of those who are struggling to keep the movement within somewhat traditional bounds and California which is growing more powerful within Conservatism is being led by those who advocate greater liberalization.

Under these unpromising circumstances, there may be little that Conservative leadership can do to stem the tide, to abort what is already in the womb of time. I have, just the same, several suggestions, beginning with the abolition of the halacha committee. Its sole function is from time to time to put a veneer of religious acceptability on additional departures from traditional practices. While its abolition will not result in Conservatives becoming more observant, it will mean that violations of religious law will result from the actions of individuals and not from the permissiveness of rabbis who in the name of halacha are anti-halachic. In a sense, the Conservative movement should learn from Chabad synagogues, notably the newer ones in outlying areas whose members drive to shul on Shabbos, without either the approval or reprobation of local rabbis.

Secondly, there must be downsizing, starting with the reduction of synagogue size. Cavernous sanctuaries are not inviting. The Havura phenomenon needs to be revitalized. Downsizing also means lower financial expectations. The Golden Calf syndrome in Jewish life inevitably results in younger families being turned off and turned away. Membership needs to be affordable and not every activity needs to have a dollar sign attached to it. Here, too, Chabad can point the way because while they very much want people to contribute, they don’t make it a precondition for coming to services.

Downsizing may mean a smaller movement. Conservative leaders should worry less about losing members and more about the loss of identity. Smaller can be stronger, particularly if the movement attempts to recapture lost ground by becoming more religiously purposeful.

Next, the commitment to day schools should be ratcheted up. It is telling that enrollment in Solomon Schechter schools has been stagnant and too few schools have been established during the past decade, a period marked by increased acceptance of day schools. In various communities, the emphasis has been on establishing Community or trans-denominational schools. It’s my observation that Solomon Schechter schools do a better job than Community day schools.

Most importantly, unless the Conservative movement is to morph into an extra-strength brand of Reform, it must take a stronger stand on Shabbos and the observance of mitzvot. Because the barn door of American Jewish life has been opened wide for so long, whatever the movement does, it will experience further membership loss. So be it. To survive, the Conservative movement has to learn to swim against the tide.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Education is in Schools and Classrooms

A call from the daughter of a friend told a familiar story. She is on the board of the local day school attended by her children and the school is looking for a principal. The incumbent will be leaving, not because the board wants him to or to go to another school that is offering a better deal. He is headed to even greener pastures, to a new foundation that is committed to Jewish education. There is no better way for foundations and projects that are committed to Jewish education to demonstrate this commitment than by raiding schools, thereby adding to the already severe shortage in Jewish educational leadership. Many of our best educators are now ensconced in offices away from schools and the exodus is growing.

We cannot fault foundations or organizations for going after the best talent available and we must not fault those who seek advancement or an escape from the pressure cooker existence of day school life. But we also must recognize that the trend has consequences. Too many of our schools cannot find educational leaders of good quality. They are settling for candidates of limited ability, at times even hiring persons who aren’t Jewish. The situation has worsened during a period when foundations are funding programs to recruit and train principals for Jewish schools.

The deficit resulting from this loss of talent could theoretically be offset if the former principals would use their new positions to convince funders to be more generous to those who remain on the front line in schools and classrooms. That’s usually not the case. Instead, they become critics of the system they abandoned and they embrace a foundation culture that prefers expensive and distant projects over direct support for schools and educators.

With several notable exceptions, foundations have forgotten that education occurs in schools and classrooms and in the interaction between teachers and students and not in organizational offices or in training programs or in conferences or in the pseudo-expertise of those who do not have the responsibility of running a school or managing a classroom.

There is plenty of room for improvement in most Jewish schools. It could hardly be otherwise in view of the multiple tasks – including a dual curriculum – that they must perform and in view of their scarcity of resources, as well as the extraordinary challenges arising out of limited enrollment. What day school educators accomplish in view of these circumstances is remarkable.

When we give funding priority to those who talk about teaching over those who teach we are engaged in self-delusion. Admittedly, this attitude mirrors a trend that has dominated American public life for more than a generation as preference has been given to nonprofit organizations and projects that will allegedly help those whom society wants to help. In a real sense, we do not trust those who need help, whether they be the poor or educators.

This trend is wasteful and at best of limited efficacy, although those who are adept at grantsmanship manage to convince governmental and philanthropic funders that enriching them is the way to go. Is it any wonder that after spending tens of billions of dollars to address various social problems through the intervention of these intermediate nonprofits, the problems that they are designed to deal with have become worse.

We in the Jewish community go perhaps a step further in our obsession with projects, an obsession that is evident and pernicious in Jewish education. Even as philanthropic support has risen substantially, relatively little directly reaches schools, as we strongly prefer those who talk about education over those who teach. The attitude apparently is that education is too important a function to be left to educators, that the best way to help schools is to give grants to those who rarely go into a classroom. Intended or not, this attitude conveys a certain contempt for teachers.

As the cost of day school education has skyrocketed – faculty salaries play only a small part in this – the share of the school budget met by tuition and other mandatory parental payments has risen dramatically. In short, tuition has risen sharply because 1) the product costs more and 2) others are giving less. It is also true that as a percentage of school budgets, scholarship allocations have declined steadily. In practical terms this means both that day school education has become too expensive for a growing number of families that might be inclined toward meaningful religious education and also that fewer parents are receiving meaningful scholarship assistance.

Obsessions cling to people. In fact, they tend to grow, to become even more dominant in the minds of those who are attached to them. There is no reason to believe that we will kick the habit of favoring in the name of caring about Jewish education those who don’t teach over those who do. More than ever, we are giving priority to activities that occur outside of schools.

I have made this argument more times than I care to remember, apparently to no avail. I am as prone as those whom I criticize to an obsessiveness about Jewish education. This has been much of my life and my passion for fifty years and while I wish that I had more company, so be it. I will continue my advocacy, even if it falls on deaf ears. We must challenge the misguided view that extremely low salaries in Jewish education are acceptable and that scholarship opportunities should go only to those who have suffered catastrophe or the like. Most of all, we must challenge the attitude that the feeding of those who are not responsible for the education of our children is the preferred way of supporting Jewish education.

We need to learn at long last that education takes place in schools and classrooms.

Monday, November 03, 2003

It’s Not Always Anti-Semitism

Words – spoken and written – are our primary means of communication. As social relationships and others contacts have expanded and as work increasingly shifts away from labor and takes the form of communication, there is an even greater reliance on spoken and written expressions, a trend that obviously has been advanced by technological developments such as the cell phone, email and the Internet.

None of us are angels and few of us are holy persons so that all that we do is likely to be morally compromised, to one extent or another. We tend to be sloppy or impulsive, at least occasionally, in the language that we use, which is why we are frequently admonished to be careful. We can be incautious in speech, saying things that scarcely reflect what we believe or think. In all relationships and especially in families, there is always the possibility that stress or anger may evoke words that are accusatory or hurtful. Relationships endure because there is the ability and willingness to separate the wheat from the chaff, to recognize intent and context and to look at the larger picture of what bonds people together and ignore or forget that which is hurtful and passing.

In public life and often in legal matters, words that were expressed long ago remain on the record and may be given greater prominence than they merit. Which brings me to anti-Semitism. Our tiny remnant seems besieged in a world of anti-Jewish sentiment, a world that encompasses all of Islam and much of Europe, not to mention a fairly regular diet of incautious remarks or actions on our home front. In the recent period, we have also had revelations about Richard M. Nixon and Harry S. Truman. When he isn’t forgiving the Prime Minister of Italy for his anti-Semitic words, Mr. Foxman of the ADL has what seems to be a full-time job sending letters all over the globe excoriating those who have defamed the Jews. It’s hard to keep up with all the bad news.

There is disturbing news, but I wonder whether it justifies our hyper-sensitivity as we parse spoken and written words in order to extract tidbits of anti-Semitism. The exercise is increasingly pathetic and even pathological as we become exercised over inconsequential words. I date this folly to the extravagant reaction to Jessie Jackson’s Hymietown crack years ago. There is much not to admire about Mr. Jackson, but the phrase did not merit a communal fit. We have been off and running ever since as we no longer distinguish between hardcore anti-Semitism and incautious language of the kind that, in fact, is employed when we speak among themselves.

In private discussion, there are verbal and psychological processes that engender the use of disparaging language. We need only think of how often in telephone conversations between friends A and B, there are hurtful things said about friend C. If telephone discussions could be replayed, countless friendships and other relationships would be shattered and if painful words hurled in anger or pain by spouses would be viewed as accurate expressions of feeling, the already high divorce rate – said to be 50% - would zoom into the stratosphere.

Of course, there are good reasons why Jews react so emotionally to inappropriate language. Yet, we need to show more restraint in reacting to words that should not have been expressed and we need to understand that there is an unfortunate tendency to be careless in private conversations when the topic is other ethnic groups. We who are ready to jump all over outsiders who say disparaging things about Jews should examine how some – and more than a few – Jews speak about other ethnic groups.

This isn’t to excuse Presidents Nixon and Truman or anyone else for nasty things said about us, but we must not forget that there is a public record to judge them by and it is a far better gauge of their sentiments than incautious words. This is obviously true of President Truman who may have had a bad day at the office or perhaps the kitchen was too hot and took pen to paper and produced the already infamous diary entry. Inexcusable though they were, the words do not alter Truman’s splendid record.

This episode raises the fundamental question of how to criticize Jews without violating standards of decency that proscribe anti-Semitic utterances. The gist of Truman’s outburst was that Jews make demands for themselves while they could care less about the situation of other people who face hardship and suffering. On any scale of group altruism, Jews would certainly score very high and yet it is the case that we are ethnocentric, as we press endlessly for our interests and show far less concern for others. In fact, that’s the way it should be. Our moral obligation is to worry primarily about our own and not about others. And so it turns out that in a clumsy way, President Truman hit on the truth.

The same could be said about Greg Easterbrook’s recent blog on, of all places, the website of The New Republic in which after decrying Hollywood’s glorification of violence and debasement, he wrote that “Jewish executives worship money above all else.” That’s nasty business and it isn’t any less nasty because there is a high incidence of Jews in the various cesspools that constitute popular culture. Still, we must recognize that Jewish writers have criticized the role of Jews in Hollywood, a role that is or should be a source of embarrassment to most of us.

We have major enemies in all of the Islamic world and among the Quislings in the West who have turned against Jews and Israel. Let’s not trivialize anti-Semitism by getting exercised over every trivial expression that incautiously says unkind things about Jews.

Saturday, November 01, 2003

RJJ Newsletter - November 2003

We are a parochial school, a term that isn’t used much these days. The term refers to elementary and secondary schools that have a dual curriculum consisting of religious and academic subjects. RJJ wasn’t the first Jewish parochial school in the U.S., but those that preceded us exist no longer and we will soon enter our 105th year.

When we were established, religious Jewish education was mainly a ramshackle arrangement of private classrooms or cheders. Students attended public school for much of the day and then came, often reluctantly, for religious lessons. This arrangement was severely criticized as unprofessional by Jewish educational reformers who believed in standard curricula, trained and licensed teachers and other attributes of a well-organized educational system. In the early years of the last century, these reformers set up what became known as talmud torahs, institutions that had standards aplenty. From anecdotal and more precise sociological evidence, the students who came in most instances could care less. Over the years, probably several million children attended talmud torah. Relatively few emerged from this experience as Jews strongly committed to our great heritage.

Yeshivas and day schools were, to an extent, a response to the feeble Judaism offered by these after-public school programs, although they also echoed in attenuated form what religious education was like in the old country. For decades, day schools struggled to gain students, ultimately being accepted in the post-Holocaust period as preferable vehicles for preserving Jewish continuity and commitment. Organized American Jewry now recognizes the value of day schools, a state of mind that does not bring with it adequate financial support.

While day school enrollment continues to grow, it remains that the lion’s share of this growth comes from the high Orthodox fertility rate. Day schools are still off-limits for a majority of Jewish youth whose parents want them to have some formal Jewish education. Supplementary school (formerly known as talmud torah) enrollment data is hard to come by, but the figure certainly exceeds enrollment in day schools. Simply put, a majority of Jewish children who are in formal Jewish educational settings are receiving a product that, with some exceptions, has proven to be ineffective.

We are faced with a dilemma. Though day schools are preferable, because of high tuition and real or imagined social and educational considerations, too many parents will not enroll their children. Staten Island whose Jewish population is growing rapidly because of the influx of younger – mainly Russian and ex-Israeli – families serves as a case study.

Despite the population growth and a low intermarriage rate, enrollment in our three schools (and there is scarcely anyone else) has not grown. We could and should do a better recruitment job. Still, the larger pattern is not going to change.

Several respected rabbis who have done fruitful work in kiruv have recently suggested that the supplementary school/talmud torah issue be revisited, that unless we address the reality that many Jewish parents will not opt for day school, a great number of additional Jews will be lost. They argue, perhaps not convincingly, that it’s possible to structure after-school classes that are both religiously purposeful and more attractive to marginal families than the old talmud torahs.

Their position may be based more on emotion than on logic, more on the desperate feeling that almost anything must be tried than on the confident assertion that in today’s world of multiple diversions, kids would be willing to go to a Jewish school after they complete their public school work. At the least, the burden is on those who urge that after-school classes can stem the fierce assimilatory tide.

It’s also true that desperate situations may require desperate or long-shot measures. While I am not persuaded that any form of supplementary education has much promise, I am persuaded that those who have made the argument ought to be given the opportunity to demonstrate the efficacy of their ideas. Little is to be lost – except some money – if support were given for pilot projects or experimental activities. If such activities were multi-dimensional, encompassing formal religious education and informal activities that enhance Jewish identity, such as youth groups, summer camps, Israel experiences and Shabbatonim, it is at least possible that beneficial outcomes will emerge from a form of Jewish education that heretofore has been a Jewish dead end.