Friday, December 31, 2004

Who Pays for Israel's Orthodox?

The title for this piece is the title of a Hillel Halkin article a few days ago in the New York Sun. In response to a letter from a young fervently Orthodox Israeli woman named Sarah asking for support, Halkin - a significant writer who made aliyah many years ago - castigates Israel's "ultra-Orthodox" for taking "for granted that pious Jews are owed a living by someone," mainly the Israeli government which in return for political support transfers large sums every year to this community "in the form of child allowances to maintain its high birth rate and of transfer payments to its religious and educational institutions."

Halkin's flawed analysis - government support has no impact on the birth rate - raises two linked and familiar issues that have been used to clobber those whose lives are devoted to Torah study. One question is the appropriateness of this life style. The other is who pays for it. Thankfully, Halkin writes with a measure of sensitivity, a quality that is lacking in those who borrow from Russia's Communist past and refer to these charedi or fervently religious Jews as parasites.

It is hard for persons outside of our religious life to appreciate the intense commitment to Torah study, whether by those who arise early to study the Talmud or those who attend classes at night or use lunchtime or when they travel to study or who have chavrusas (study partners) or who devote themselves fulltime to this activity in yeshivas and kollels. Torah study is for religious Jews a fundamental obligation and yet it is an experience that is even greater, an oasis in the world of tumult, self-indulgence and crassness.

High Orthodox fertility has resulted in the rapid and substantial growth in the number of young men engaged in fulltime study. This obviously has serious financial consequences for families and the community. It is appropriate to ask whether so many students should remain for so long in yeshiva/kollel, provided that the basic concept of commitment to Torah study is respected.

Three points need to be made about the situation in Israel. The first is that the growth in the number of students was unplanned and, in a sense, unanticipated, although demographic data should have indicated what lay ahead. The seeds for government support of advanced Talmudic study were planted more than fifty years ago by David Ben-Gurion and his avowedly secularist Labor Party because they recognized that this activity was vital to Israel's well-being. Over the years, there arose a kind of social imperative impelling young charedi men to greatly extend their period of study, paralleling in an interesting way the far more widespread social imperative in modern societies impelling young adults to attend college and to continue at professional and graduate schools.

Secondly, the situation is changing as more young charedi men are entering the labor market, a development noted by Halkin and other writers and encouraged by key community leaders.

Thirdly, as Jonathan Rosenblum astutely pointed out several issues back in the Jewish Observer, Agudath Israel's magazine, the pace of change will be retarded by attacks against yeshiva study because community leaders will understandably conclude that the attacks are motivated by hostility to Torah study and not by a desire to improve the lot of the students and their families.

Who pays to maintain these families and charedi educational institutions? How much does it cost Israel's government and taxpayers? The figure must be high - it would be good to get a reckoning - but it must not include the cost of basic education because that is a governmental obligation. Also, expenditures on behalf of the charedi sector should be considered in the context of outlays for other segments of Israeli society, such as kibbutzim.

There is, importantly, the other side of the budgetary ledger, the funds flowing into Israel from Orthodox Jews around the world. For openers, there is their inordinately high proportion of tourists and what they spend, money that has an economic impact and contributes to the income side of the budget. Added to this are the expenditures by thousands of yeshiva and seminary students during their year or more in Israel, which is apart from the substantial tuition paid by their overseas parents to Israeli schools. Then there is what is spent by the Orthodox who made aliyah and the homes purchased by them and overseas religious Jews. The calculation should include contributions sent to individuals and to the hundreds of institutions and agencies that serve the Orthodox and often other Israelis. The richness and diversity of Orthodox communal life and the aggressive fundraising conducted by many institutions ensure that the transfer of hard currency into Israel by Orthodox Jews is quite substantial.

I am sure that I have omitted key sources of Orthodox contributions to Israel's economy and the Treasury. It is not possible to know what all of this comes to; hopefully, the subject will be tackled by economists. At the least, the total is in the hundreds of millions of dollars and perhaps considerably higher.

Accordingly, the financial relationship between the Orthodox or even just the charedi sector and Israel's government and people is far from one-sided. The answer to the question, "Who pays for Israel's Orthodox?" is that to a considerable extent the Orthodox do.

Beyond the determination of what belongs on one side or the other of the ledger, there is the transcendent value of Torah study to Israel and to Jews everywhere. What religious Jews understand and too few secular Jews now acknowledge is that the Torah and its study is a tree of life for all who grasp it. Sadly, this wisdom, confirmed by centuries of experience, is today beyond the grasp of most Jews.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Do We Want the Conservative Movement to Die?

My latest Jewish Week column (December 24) discusses the mounting troubles faced by the Conservative movement. I noted that Solomon Schechter schools, many of which are experiencing a declining enrollment and some have closed, are Jewishly superior to nearly all transdenominational Community day schools and that their decline and the more general decline of Conservatism does not bode well for Israel or kiruv activities. I also suggested that Conservatives needed to have a more unified and more vigorously led movement. A Rosh Yeshiva called to say that the column was "a hot potato," with people wondering why I felt it necessary to give advice to Jews who aren't observant. Perhaps I shouldn't be giving such advice. Perhaps it would be better if the Conservatives would move further away from our heritage and ultimately walk away entirely from Jewish life, taking the path already taken by at least half of American Jews.

Cross-posted on Cross-Currents

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

RJJ Newsletter - November 2004 - Torah Education

A key principle of Torah education, derived from Proverbs, is chanoch l'naar al pi darcho. Each child should be taught in the ways that best meet his needs and advance his intellectual and Jewish development. For us at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, this is a living principle that has guided us throughout the past thirty years. It is a principle that is manifested in our several schools and the range of Jewish educational approaches that they offer. No yeshiva anywhere has been more faithful to this ideal.

This principle has guided much of my communal life for more than fifty years, from the time when I met the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood of blessed memory and immediately enlisted in his extraordinary effort to create and sustain the network of religious schools known as Chinuch Atzmai or Torah schools for Israel. These schools operate in Israel at the elementary school level.

Even before this Herculean effort, he was the rabbinical leader and head of Torah Umesorah - the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools - the organization that was then the vital force in promoting basic Torah education in North America. In his lifetime, relatively few Torah Umesorah schools continued past the eighth grade.

The great Rosh Yeshiva obviously also had the responsibility to nurture and sustain Beth Medrash Govoha, the transcendent yeshiva that he established in Lakewood. The lesson that he taught through these diverse chinuch activities was chanoch l'naar al pi darcho. Seventeen years ago I wrote the following in an essay commemorating his twenty-fifth Yahrzeit:

"The Lakewood Rosh Yeshiva who was the foremost proponent of the ideal of Torah lishmoh, who had been educated and virtually raised in the Beis Medrash, who had been a prodigy in the great yeshiva of Slobodka, who had given brilliant shiurim in the advanced yeshivos of Slutsk and Kletzk, and who served before the Churban alongside of the spiritual giants of that period, would now have to decide on aleph-beis questions for schools located in cities with just a relative handful of observant Jews.

"Rav Aharon met the challenge and he did so by being consistent and by a remarkable understanding of the nuances of American Jewish life. 'Rav Aharon lo shinoh,' cried out the Satmar Rebbe, zatzal, in anguish at the hesped in New York. He knew that a modern day school was not a Slobodka or a cheder and he knew what could be achieved. The question to him was whether a Jewish educational institution was sincere and serious in aspiring to the goal of elevating its students in Torah knowledge and observance. This, too, is an aspect of Torah lishmoh. If it was serious and sincere, it would be proper, at the time, to countenance practices that would not be acceptable in other settings."

There has been a change in how our Torah leaders and community view basic Torah education. They have incrementally accepted the notion that at the yeshiva ketana and even mesivta levels, support for chinuch is essentially the responsibility of the parents whose children are being educated and not of the community. This approach, which runs counter to a tradition that goes back more than 2,000 years, arises from the feeling that unless the parents carry the financial burden, our schools will not be able to survive.

No one should challenge the view that parents - and certainly those who can afford to - must pay a fair share for their children's Torah education. The point is that there are parents who do not have the means to do so and they are experiencing great pain and hardship because of the acceptance of the alien view that Torah education these days is just one more consumer product. As I have written elsewhere, it is telling that our Roshei Yeshiva and respected Torah leaders have for more than a decade not issued any statements calling for support of basic Torah education, this at a time when there is a steady flow of endorsements for other causes.

We are witnessing the steady decline of Torah Umesorah, an organization that has bought into the American Jewish falsehood that fancy weekends and sterile projects are what our people need. We need to have the courage to recognize that the harshest criticism of Torah Umesorah has come from the Rosh Yeshiva who was the most active in its work. It is astonishing that the recent Federation decision to terminate basic grants to New York yeshivas and day schools has not evoked a public protest by Torah Umesorah.

There are in this country sporadic efforts involving Roshei Yeshiva to assist kiruv and immigrant schools. We also have the inspiring example of Rav Pam, ztl, on behalf of Shuvu, the religious school network for children of Former Soviet Union families. We need to have similar efforts on these shores.

There are substantial concentrations of marginally-involved Jews, especially in the New York area, for whom there are no day schools. For these children there is no chanoch l'naar al pi darcho because for them there is no chinuch. After more than a half-century of advocacy and work on behalf of basic Torah education, I am disheartened that because of our inaction, many children who would attend a day school if one were available for them are being deprived of their birthright, of their linkage to our great heritage.

I last visited Rav Shneuer Kottler, ztl, in Lakewood a week before he died. Shortly before I left, he read to me the opening lines of a letter from the Chazon Ish to Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, ztl, the head of Vaad Hayeshivos, the representative body for advanced yeshivas in Israel. For reasons that I will not go into here, I did not read the letter until recently, the substance of which was a request by the Chazon Ish that a portion of the funds allocated to Vaad Hayeshivos be given to the elementary school yeshivas that are referred to as Talmud Torahs in Israel because they are financially endangered and "the survival of the Talmud Torahs is the survival of the Yeshivos."

This letter was written in 1947, a time when the advanced yeshivas faced great financial difficulty. Yet, the Chazon Ish understood that there was a communal obligation to support basic Torah education.

Article In The Commentator

The latest issue of The Commentator, Yeshiva University's student publication, includes My Teaching At Yeshiva.

Friday, December 24, 2004

More Trouble for the Conservative Movement

The lead story last week in The Jewish Week told of the financial problems faced by the Jewish Theological Seminary, the central institution of the Conservative movement. This is one more piece of bad news for what not long ago was the largest of our denominations, a sector of American Jewry that seemed to be in good condition. There was a second item pointing in the same direction, it being an ad announcing the formation of the New Jewish Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts. NJA will be a K-8 pluralistic day school that is being advertised as the successor to the local Solomon Schechter School. Put otherwise, one more Conservative day school will soon be gone, adding to the roster of those that have closed.

There is a double loss in this. From every Jewish perspective - curriculum, ambiance and religious outcomes - Solomon Schechter schools are superior to Community day schools. There are Community schools that have maintained a high degree of tradition but they are under siege and their character is changing, as is evident in Florida at one of the largest of such schools where, as elsewhere, local community leaders have exerted pressure to go easy on the Judaics and to re-market the institution as Jewish lite.

The decline in traditional belief and practice among most of the half of American Jews who maintain a sense of identity - the other half have walked away entirely - is a major feature of contemporary American Jewish life. We have come to believe that the best strategy for preventing further losses is to tailor Judaism to meet the lowered commitment of most of those who remain in the fold.

Inevitably, day schools and the Conservative movement, as well as other mainstays in our communal life, are affected by the changing character of American Jewry. We are witness to a dynamic process in which the Jewish character of non-Orthodox schools and the Conservative movement has diminishing appeal for those whose Judaism is being defined downwards. Therefore we have fewer Solomon Schechter schools, Conservative synagogues are merging or closing down altogether, and there is a decline in the number who identify with the movement. Worse yet, it appears certain that more bad news lies ahead. All of this is demoralizing and adversely affecting the capacity of Conservative leaders to turn things around.

What is happening is a serious problem for all of us - specifically including the Orthodox - because those who are defecting are overwhelmingly moving toward weaker commitment and less involvement. This does not bode well for Israel and will further complicate the challenges facing those who are engaged in kiruv or outreach.

The Conservative movement needs leadership and vision, which means that it needs people at the top who can inspire others to give and to act. It has gotten by on organizational arrangements that are inherently weak because its ranks were greatly swelled by Orthodox defections. This membership source has mostly - but not entirely - dried up, with the children and grandchildren of the ex-Orthodox themselves becoming ex-Conservative.

Demographic realities suggest that there is scant prospect that the outflow can be reversed, that even if the movement adjusts its standards to conform to the lower Judaic commitment of the remnants of our people, there will be few in the near term who will embrace Conservatism as a consequence. The Reform movement and our secular organizations have successfully staked their claims to the territory of low-expectation Judaism, a landscape that they have shaped.

What the Conservatives need to do and quickly is to become a movement, rather than a collection of semi-autonomous baronies that are short on cooperation and inspiration. The titular or perhaps de facto head is the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary whose primary day job is to lead that institution. The arrangement may be good enough for JTS, although reports of a financial crisis raise questions about this, but it certainly leaves the movement short-changed and short-handed.

Conservative congregational and rabbinical bodies have enormous autonomy, at times without paying heed to what is transpiring in the larger movement. This is true of the functional agencies, including the Solomon Schechter School Association, Ramah Camps and United Synagogue Youth.

The absence of central authority works well for Orthodoxy, although it generates much agita and problems, because what emerges are multiple points of vitality. This isn't true at all of the Conservative agencies. The Solomon Schechter Association is terribly underfunded and understaffed and plays a miniscule role in advocating for the expansion or strengthening of the movement's day schools. What vitality there is exists at the local level, as in Bergen County and Westchester. Local schools that are in trouble must fend for themselves, without even the benefit of a morale boost from outside.
Ramah Camps, long the pride of more traditional Conservatives, have for too long been beset by complacency and by exaggerated claims of Judaic benefits. If the Conservative movement had centralized energetic leadership, there would be more camps than the relatively small number in operation. But Ramah functions as a mostly independent organization where camp directors earn substantial salaries for easy work (while counselors are exploited) and where the attitude too often is that going to Ramah obviates the need to send the children to a Jewish day school.

Conservatives must believe more in their product and they must be prepared to invest far more than they have, both emotionally and financially. If the present drift continues, the movement's shrinkage is likely to accelerate. Are there Conservatives who are willing to step up to the plate to lead, to give, to inspire and to create?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Justifying Murder

My friend, Rabbi Avrohom Cohen, editor of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society which I publish as president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, has said to me often about our fellow Orthodox, "G-D gave us a beautiful religion and look what we are doing to it." His words have come back to me as I have received sharp responses to my current Jewish Week article criticizing Jewish Action, the Orthodox Union's magazine, for publishing a defense of Baruch Goldstein's murderous rampage a decade ago in Hebron. Have we sunk so low as to justify murder? Goldstein's defenders help drive Jews away from a religious life.

What saddens me most is that too few of those who speak or write on our behalf are prepared to challenge the mood of hatred and paranoia.

Cross-posted on Cross-Currents.

Monday, December 20, 2004

UnJewish Action

When Baruch Goldstein murdered twenty-nine Arabs who were praying at Ma-arat Hamachpelah (Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron ten years ago, his evil deed was strongly condemned by Israeli and American Jews across the religious and ideological spectrum. It mattered not at all that Goldstein was described as a talented and extraordinarily kind medical doctor, nor was his crime mitigated by speculation about his motives. Whatever they were, they could not be morally contorted into a defense of murder.

There were no doubt at the time some - probably very few - who privately justified the murderous rampage which culminated in Goldstein being killed. Horrific acts tend to generate lunatic fringes that make excuses for what is morally indefensible. There were then and certainly there are now those who believe that the Arabs got what was coming to them. As we are more removed from the shock of what transpired in 1994 and with the Intifada and suicide bombers, the ranks of those who believe that Goldstein killed and died for a just cause have grown. His gravesite has become a place of homage, a place for prayer and something of a shrine.

While there was and still is little that can be done to squelch the religiously-deficient and morally repugnant pro-Goldstein claque, for the most part the toxic attitude has been contained. It has been understood that the principle of free speech and free press does not create an obligation to impart legitimacy to that which is odious. The fantastic and disturbed musings of those who condone the murder of people in cold blood are appropriate fare for those who are engaged in abnormal psychology. Our media do not publish articles defending the assassination of Presidents or the murder of students in Columbine.

There is, however, a point to showing the affinity between suicide bombers and what Baruch Goldstein did, although the demonstration would not have any impact on the thinking of those who believe it appropriate to murder Arabs.

Jewish Action, the fine magazine sponsored by the Orthodox Union, has crossed into forbidden territory by giving a forum to an apologist for murder. I am certain that no official of the organization knew that in its latest issue, the magazine would publish a long letter - more than 1,000 words - by Toby Klein Greenwald arguing that there may have been legitimate grounds for Baruch Goldstein to kill. I am equally certain that one of the editors sympathizes with Greenwald's views and that is why a sick and sickening letter made it into the publication. That person should be censured and perhaps removed and there should be an apology in the next issue.

Hebron evokes powerful emotions among religious Jews and some who aren't religious. These feelings result, in turn, in a dilemma that many of us face. There is the view that Hebron is an essential part of our religious and national heritage and the Jews who live there are right and heroic. These same Jews tolerate and even embrace extremist attitudes and actions. They have created an environment that nurtures paranoia and hatred, an environment that nurtured Baruch Goldstein. When we give support to Hebron Jews we are, in effect, buying into a single package. What we like and what we would like to reject are inseparable as Siamese twins.

Many of us turn a blind eye toward the outrageous excesses of some Hebronites because we admire their courage. We seek to accommodate the antithetical and yet intertwined attitudes that we have about Hebron through a form of dissonance, through processes that attempt to block out that which makes us uncomfortable.

A couple of issues back, Jewish Action focused on the Hebron massacre of 1929 when rampaging Arabs murdered Jews. In an article, Toby Klein Greenwald referred to Baruch Goldstein's killings as an "incident." This provoked a letter from Jerusalem resident Howie Kahn who wrote, "I am sure that she wouldn't call the killing of Jews at the Park Hotel in Netanya on Seder night in 2002 an 'incident.' It was a planned massacre of innocent people in the midst of prayer, as was that perpetrated by Dr. Goldstein in Hebron."

Greenwald than responded with the lengthy letter that has just been published. Despite several weak qualifications, her letter is a defense of Goldstein's action on the ground that it was "a pre-emptive strike" because there were credible reports that Arabs were planning to attack Jews. Accordingly, in her view it is an "open question" whether those who were killed were "innocent victims."

This is despicable stuff. The defense of Israelis is presumably the responsibility of Israel's military and security forces, not of individuals who are prepared to kill at random. Israel is in a state of perpetual danger and there are reports nearly each day of possible terrorist attacks. If we accept Greenwald's repugnant approach, nearly each day Israeli citizens would be gunning down innocent Arabs.

Whatever his motives and whatever his background, Baruch Goldstein was a murderer. What he did was evil. His killing of Arabs did not result in a single Jewish life being saved, nor in Hebron's Jews or any other Jews being more secure. Indeed, one immediate consequence was that Israeli Jews were less secure. Nor did his actions result in Jews having greater access to our holy sites. As my son Yosef has noted on his blog, Goldstein's actions led directly to the reduction in Jewish access to the Cave of the Patriarchs.

We in religious Jewish life must understand that it is no mitzvah to justify wrongdoing and it is certainly not a mitzvah to make excuses for murder. When we do so and even when we allow ourselves to be intimidated by those who preach hatred, we are turning other Jews away from our glorious heritage.

Friday, December 10, 2004

350 Years

It doesn't take much to get Jews to celebrate. We have plenty of holidays on our religious calendar and also religious life-cycle events. Then we have the other stuff, including dinners, conventions, conferences and much else in our robust communal life. Some of us are in a near state of exhaustion as we attempt to accommodate the many demands on our time and gastronomical capacity.

Because in September 1654 twenty-three Jews arrived by boat in New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil, we are now commemorating the 350th anniversary of what is said to be Jewish life in North America. Thankfully, the celebrating is mostly cerebral, with scholarship and good talk being the main entrees. Yet, even with intellectual fare, there is an obligation to see that what is being provided is of good quality.

Jonathan Sarna, the distinguished historian of American Jewish life, has written an important book, American Judaism, which is essentially a history of our religious life on these shores. The work has already been anointed as great and magisterial. For sure, much of the praise is deserved. Sarna is a terrific writer who tells a fascinating story with much empathy for nearly all who make it into his narrative. Since American Jews have been blessed (or saddled) with more machers than can be fit into nearly 400 crammed pages, inevitably there will be objections about some who have been excluded.

More critically, Sarna adheres to the scholarly model employed in the study of American Protestantism, an approach that probably is appropriate for the history of Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, etc. for whom congregational life was and continues to be the primary expression of religious activity. But the model is not sufficient for a history of Judaism, because there is a good deal more to our religious life - notably schools - than synagogues. It is true, of course, that in the American Jewish experience synagogues were far more important than religious educational institutions. This is a development that tells us much about the course of American Jewish history. Sarna needs to tell us why religious Jewish education was neglected for so long and what were the consequences of this neglect.

Consistent with Sarna's determination not to be judgmental, a religious history of American Jewry still needs to grapple with the decisive question of why we have lost so many. 1830 marks the halfway point in the 350-year history of American Jews. According to Sarna's estimate, there were then between 4,000-6,000 Jews in the United States. It is a good bet that no more than a handful of their descendents who are now living continue to identify as Jews. What happened to these Jews and why should be the subject of historical inquiry.

One-hundred years later, in 1930, there were nearly 4.5 million Jews. Another three-quarters of a century has gone by and the number of Americans who identify as Jews is about the same as it had been in 1930, this despite a fairly high Jewish fertility rate for much of this period, the continued influx of European Jews in the 1930's and after the Holocaust, and later on the substantial Israeli and Russian immigration to the U.S. I believe that Sarna and other historians of American Jewish life should reflect on where have all the Jews gone.

The important questions that he ignores were asked nearly a century ago in 1907 by Israel Friedlaender in a notable address that is the centerpiece of a special issue of Conservative Judaism commemorating the 350th Anniversary. Friedlaender, a major figure at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was murdered in 1920 in Ukraine while on a mercy mission. Amazingly, he does not make it into Sarna's book. After noting that "the expansion of American Judaism is not an organic growth from within, but a mechanic addition from without," Friedlaender asserts that this "is the gain of one who puts his earnings into a bag with holes." He then asks: "What will our second and third generation be a quarter of a century hence? American? Yes. Jewish? Perhaps."

He continues, "wherever our gaze turns, we witness the same spectacle - the decomposition of Judaism, of Jewish living and Jewish thinking under the influence of freedom…Judaism, which stood out like a rock amidst the billows of hatred and storms of persecution, is melting away like wax under the mild rays of freedom." In short, "the dawn of the Jews is the dusk of Judaism."

Friedlaender's subsequent analysis of the American Jewish prospect was evasive, but as Arnold Eisen notes, "his evasions are the ones to which we too resort." Eisen is also right that "it is positively eerie to read Israel Friedlaender's essay of a century ago, and consider how utterly contemporary his formulations remain."

Unfortunately, for all that is truly outstanding in Sarna's book, he writes as if he is oblivious to the loss of our religious identity, of our spiritual existence and heritage. That an historian of the first rank could approach this subject as Sarna does is a mystery.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

The Mail We Get

Is there a point when the flood of letters we receive from Roshei Yeshiva and notable Rabbis seeking our support for needy families, mainly in Israel, becomes a serious communal problem? We need to face this issue because the sums involved are large - in the aggregate, certainly many millions of dollars each year - and because the practice has been spreading without any sense of accountability.

Putting aside for a moment the accountability issue, there is much that is wrong with the situation we are in, ranging from the wrongful sale and purchase of mailing lists to the messages that accompany the solicitations, increasingly on the outside envelope and in bold print. Doubtlessly this is meant for those of us who are too illiterate or too uncaring to read and rely on the text of the solicitation letter. We are told in these messages and with reckless regard for the truth, that "Your contribution will save a life" or, "A child is waiting to hear from you" or some other bit of fiction.

Like much else in contemporary life, there is a constant need to up the volume, to increase the stridency of the message. In a recent 4-page, multi-colored communication sent out in the name of Rabbi Aaron Schechter, we are told, "A needy Jew came to our shores seeking help... He left empty handed... Are we free from responsibility for the tragedy now unfolding?"

As for accountability, there is little or none, not in determining the reliability of the cause for which the solicitation is being made and not in determining what happens with the funds that are contributed. Shouldn't we at least know what cut is being taken by the fellows who send out the solicitations? As has been often noted, quite strangely many of the letters seem to be written by the same person. Should we not know who the people are who pick up the envelopes that are mailed to the Roshei Yeshivas?

It should not be difficult to develop an arrangement that assures a far greater degree of accountability than we now have. Admittedly, this would require a certain restraint on the part of the distinguished people who so promiscuously allow their names to be used. Is it too much to ask or expect that they act with prudence?

There is a second question that Roshei Yeshivas especially should consider, namely whether they are inadvertently promoting the notion favored for so long by secular Jews that chesed activities are more deserving of support than yeshivas and day schools. Our Torah leaders need to consider whether they are sending a message that vital Torah institutions must fend for themselves as there are more pressing tzedakah obligations.

Cross-posted at Cross-Currents.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

A Question of Democracy

There is in all democracies the potential for conflict between the basic principle of majority rule and the necessity of leaders to lead. It is not for them merely to echo what the voters who elected them may desire, if only because changed conditions require leaders to act without knowing what the electorate might think or, at times, in opposition to those who put them in power. Nor can leaders blithely decide that the preference of the electorate is of small consequence. The ideal of representative government tips the balance somewhat but certainly not completely in favor of leaders being allowed to act independently, the notion being that elections serve as a reality check. Where public opinion is sharply divided and there is a good likelihood that much of the public will feel bitter and excluded if leaders go into uncharted territory, there is ample reason for caution.

We know that with his Gaza withdrawal plan, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has defied his political base and party, even turned his back on commitments made with gusto and without reservations. He is, in short, acting as a leader, sharply adjusting his sails because the world - or at least the Middle East - has changed and also because where he now sits and what he now sees differ from the perspective he had previously. It appears that Israelis support him by a wide margin, which is to say that on Gaza he is not getting too far ahead of public opinion.

Getting out of Gaza is a substantial challenge. Mr. Sharon and the rest of us do not know how difficult this will be. He is already faced with new issues and pressures that may make the Gaza withdrawal look easy. Across the globe there are calls for even bolder action by Israel, for substantial withdrawal from the West Bank along the lines of President Bush' Road Map and proposals that were advanced by President Clinton. Diplomats and editorial writers are underscoring the view that Yasir Arafat's death and the installation of new Palestinian leadership have created an opportunity that must not be allowed to pass. It has also said that Israel must act boldly because of the mess in Iraq, fears of Islamic radicalism, Iran's nuclear threat and the strong desire among European leaders and presumably the White House to find a way to reestablish the shattered Western alliance. Israel, in short, is being asked to make the world a safer place, perhaps by making Israel a less safe place.

There is no way of knowing whether further Israeli territorial concessions will result in the dawn of a new day of moderation in Islam or de-quagmire Iraq or convince the Ayatollahs to pray more and not make nuclear weapons. There are, for sure, abundant reasons for skepticism whether any Israeli actions might achieve these desirable goals. On the other hand, it may be conceded that Israeli concessions will beget a brave new world where, to borrow a bit from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Americans, French, British, Germans and Russians will once more be friends. However we may look at these global matters, what Israel does needs to be decided by Israel's leaders.

This is not some fussy point about democracy. Public support in Israel for additional West Bank withdrawals is obviously narrower than it is for a Gaza withdrawal. In terms of people and cost, West Bank complications and implications dwarf what Israel will face in Gaza. There are additional reasons for caution, probably the most powerful being the current disequilibrium in Palestinian and Middle East affairs. Because Arafat is gone and it is not known what and also who will ensue, Israel needs to proceed super-slowly. It is preferable to see what happens after the Gaza withdrawal, particularly whether Hamas will act with responsibility and restraint. There is a decent prospect for internecine Palestinian conflict and it would be terrible if Israel were caught in the middle with less land to serve as a buffer.

Ariel Sharon knows all of this. I suspect that he is telling much the same to the Bush Administration, but saying little publicly, his silence being recompense for the U.S. having provided strong political cover for Israel at the United Nations and elsewhere. In short, Israel has forfeited some of its leeway, even sovereignty.

It is customary in Jewish circles which strongly favor President Bush to regard his support for Israel as uni-dimensional, as being unencumbered by any pressures on Israel to make further concessions. This is a naive reading of the situation. Washington's public persona is one of constant support for the Jewish State and this is expressed with few reservations and with much sincerity. Yet, there is also the ongoing business of diplomacy, the quiet contacts that amount to a road map or agenda for further Israeli concessions.

When Prime Minister Tony Blair came visiting soon after our elections, he explicitly insisted on concrete steps by Israel to promote what he regards as Middle East peace. It is not credible to think that Mr. Bush told him, "Tony, not now. Let's see how Iraq works out and only then should we turn our attention to Israel and the Palestinians."

The prevailing diplomatic climate is as treacherous as any Israeli leaders have faced in a long while. Mr. Sharon should proceed without delay with the Gaza withdrawal because there are few reasons for staying there and many for getting out. Palestinians now control large parts of the West Bank. They should at long last proclaim a Palestinian State and take seriously the responsibility that statehood brings. Israel should move slowly as it assesses the character of the new Palestinian leadership and the extent of intra-Palestinian unity. Until the playing field is clearer there should be no additional territorial concessions. In democracies, leaders must lead. They also must be prudent and aware of the risks and they must be mindful of the responsibility to at least try to avoid exacerbating internal strife.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

It's Broken, But Can It Be Fixed?

Card players who have been dealt a bad hand can fold or they can bluff and play on. The sincere folks who lead United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for more than 150 Federations, have a bad hand and they know it. However, they cannot fold their tent because Jewish organizations don't exist to go out of business. So they bluff a bit and play on.

How do we know that UJC is in trouble? For one thing, just about everyone -including its leaders - say it is. Attendance at the just-held General Assembly was way down. Nearly all who came were on one or another communal expense account. Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres were expected but stayed home. There is much talk about a lack of focus, the absence of vision. It is said that UJC is attempting to do too much and that too much effort goes into the GA.

There's no thought of going out of business because, again, that's not the American Jewish way. If UJC were to close down, what might happen to thousands of other Jewish organizations that have been on life support for years? The subversive notion that the Biblical imperative "be fruitful and multiply" does not apply to organizations might take root and gain support. Before long, there may be a grassroots movement to properly inter all those brain-dead Jewish groups. For fifty years or since the eminent sociologist Robert MacIver wrote his famous report urging the consolidation of a number of Jewish groups, we have known that something was rotten in our organizational life. Our response then and now has been to create even more groups.

What ails UJC extends far beyond the confines of one organization. UJC has not suffered sudden vision loss. What it does not have now in focus and vision, it did not have when it was formed in the 1990's as the successor to the Council of Jewish Federations. It is a large, expensive bureaucracy whose member Federations are themselves bureaucracies. In the aggregate, an inordinate share of income is spent on in-house expenses, including fundraising and public relations.

The General Assembly is at its core a gathering of expense-account pseudo machers whose idea of vision is to be together with other pseudo machers. It is not a place for ideas or boldness and that is why our best and most creative people stay away.

Whatever the UJC's limitations, it's short-sighted to think that what is wrong or even dysfunctional emanates from the top of our organizational heap. The UJC is nothing more than an extension of the Federation system, an arrangement that may have made sense in the early years of the last century when our community was caught up in the imperative that a central agency was needed in every locality to coordinate the work of Jewish social service providers. Although some coordination was achieved, constituent agencies essentially continued to determine their own affairs, a process that has accelerated because of the dominance of public funding and the minimal funding received from Federation.

It is time to rethink the Federation network which gobbles up enormous resources with little payoff except in newer places of American Jewish settlement where the local Federations are generally vibrant. It's also time to reconsider the merger that resulted in the Federations swallowing up the United Jewish Appeal. The savings that resulted from this key policy shift have been offset by fundraising downturns. Most importantly, the virtual obliteration of the UJA brand name was a mistake because it reduced the capacity of American Jews to identity more directly with Israel. There was something distinctive about contributing to UJA and that has been lost.

The UJC/Federation issue transcends questions of structure or purpose. Our organizations have a life of their own, operating oblivious to the vast changes that have occurred among American Jews. We feed our organizations without paying heed to what is transpiring in the world outside of organizations. Simply put, there is a disconnect. We can debate how many Jews there are or what to make of intermarriage and other demographic issues. What is beyond debate is that we have lost a ton of people and among those who remain, overwhelmingly they do not give a hoot about our army of organizations. It boggles the mind to think that in the face of massive and continuing losses, we have 155 Federations in North America. They are, incidentally, just specks on our vast organizational map.

Our communal life has calcified, which is to be expected in view of the inertial forces that inhere in organizations. What is exciting in philanthropy comes from outside of the Federation world. The super-rich have decided that an independent path offers the best prospect for creativity. Inside of our organizational world, there is little room for ideas or boldness and there is scant opportunity for those who challenge the status quo.

I acknowledge that our huge infrastructure has convinced many who are not Jewish that we are a super-powerful and vibrant people. I recognize, as well, that there are organizations that are doing good things and that some of the old-timers - the AJCongress and the AJCommittee come to mind - have changed and adjusted to new realities. Overall, though, the picture is dismal. It is also true that among groups that are doing good work, such as Hadassah, there is an expanding demographic problem as the membership is graying and declining in number.

The crisis in UJC is not that it hasn't adjusted. The greater difficulty is that there is no viable course to take, no solution to what besets it. I do not see light at the end of the tunnel. For sure, though, our army of organizations will plow on, raising loads of money and emitting loads of pr copy. Too many of us will continue to believe that the emperor is clothed.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Jews as Enemies

From the first moment of our emergence as a nation in our final days in Egypt, we have been beset by internal enemies. Perhaps this is the fate of all nations. It seems, though, that the seeds of extreme discord are inherent in the idea of Jewish peoplehood, that we are stiff-necked and unruly and cannot avoid having within our ranks some who cause us harm. In short, Jews have been betrayed by other Jews.

The betrayal is at times expressed in words, as when Jewish writers give aid and comfort to our enemies. Walter Lippmann was world-renowned, bedecked in journalistic glory and greatly admired by American Jews, yet he was steeped in Jewish self-hate to the point of praising Hitler and attacking Jewish critics of Nazi Germany. There is also the example of Thomas Friedman, the Times columnist, who is less notorious and also less renowned, despite his over-developed sense of self importance. He recently referred to Gaza settlers as Israeli Hezbollah, adding to his long record of cruelty toward Israeli Jews.

Too often in Jewish history, betrayal has had tragic consequences. In the long and painful decades of the Inquisition, there were apostate Jews who were greatly learned and who played an active role in the persecution of our people. More recent episodes of extreme betrayal occurred during the Holocaust when kapos abetted the mass murder of Jews.

I do not know how to describe the outwardly religious Jews of the Neturei Karta whose intense hostility on theological and practical grounds to Zionism and Israel has been re-configured by the group's fanatical fringe into an embrace of those who direct and commit terrorists acts against Jews. Their most recent betrayal was abundantly on display as Yasir Arafat lay dying. These evil-doers who constantly seek media attention and invariably get it do not have a civil word to say about non-Jews, yet they make an exception for the sponsors of suicide bombers.

It's been said that only a tiny number engage in the most extreme and offensive acts. As is generally true of extremist groups, the likelihood is that Neturei Karta has a small fanatic inner core. But there are many others who are associated to one extent or another with the group and they have substantial ideological affinity with the fanatics. In an interesting way, the most despicable of the Neturei Karta are outside of Israel. The group is not tiny in Israel and it is hostile to the State, yet if only because there are terrorists in their neighborhood, Israeli Neturei Karta do not pay homage to those who murder Jews. There is at least one exception in Moshe Hirsch who has been on Arafat's payroll and who is as low as any Jew can be.

Whatever their numbers or dress or look, the Neturei Karteniks who identify with the PLO and Hamas are anti-religious, as well as anti-Israel, as they demonstrate when they participate in anti-Israel rallies that are held on Shabbos. They must figure that if they can desecrate G-d's name with impunity, as they frequently do, there is no reason why they cannot desecrate Shabbos. All is appropriate in the holy war against Israel, including giving encouragement to those who kill Jews. In our long history has there been a comparable situation of persons who masquerade as religious Jews endangering Jewish lives?

Those in Orthodox life who make excuses for these extremists bear some responsibility for what they do. Instead of Neturei Karta being ostracized, there are sincere religious Jews who insist that while certain actions go too far, Neturei Karta's message has elements of legitimacy. It is acceptable, of course, to criticize Zionism and Israel. It is something quite different to be associated with terrorists.

For too long, a code of silence has insulated the extremists against criticism from certain segments of Orthodoxy. There is a related issue involving the Satmar Chassidic group and there, too, there is a code of silence that inevitably encourages those who are prone to violent language and behavior. Satmar and Neturei Karta are not the same, yet it is true that much of the extremist group is embedded within Satmar, receiving financial and other support.

When a Torah scholar - a man in his nineties - came recently to this country, his visit triggered a barrage of hate-filled pamphlets, his apparent sin being that he is tolerant on certain religious and ideological issues. When he spoke at a large gathering in Borough Park, buses from Williamsburg brought hecklers who attempted to disrupt his speech. These were not isolated incidents but part of a pattern that has been allowed to fester because it is considered inappropriate for the Orthodox to criticize other Orthodox.

Within religious groups that tolerate hate, the most violent words and actions are often directed against others who are fairly close on the religious spectrum. Not unexpectedly, the most vicious manifestations of conflict erupt into occasional physical violence. This is happening within Satmar. There are two warring factions and they have not been averse to getting physical. Unless these people come to understand that they must act with restraint, what awaits us is, G-d forbid, bloodshed and Chilul HaShem.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Are We on a Collision Course with America?

To put what follows into context, along with 55 million Americans and three out of every four Jews, I was on the losing side on Election Day. The traducing of basic constitutional rights, despoilment of the environment, reckless fiscal and budgetary policies, coddling of the rich and a cynical attitude toward the poor, as well as doubts about the impact on Israel of President Bush's actions in the Middle East, all contributed to my decision to vote differently from nearly all of the people I am close to. I take it that all agree that this is what democracy is for and about.

I hope that I am wrong, that Mr. Bush will attempt to unite the country. His strong performance has been attributed in part to the unexpectedly large turn-out of Christian fundamentalists and social conservatives for whom gay marriage and the deprecation of tradition are loathsome. I suppose that we will now get additional sermons on moral rectitude from the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh on such pressing subjects as proper sexual behavior and drug abuse. As mothers tell their children, "Do as I say, not as I do."

However we view values as an election factor, it has now taken centerstage in our public discourse. Overwhelmingly, we Jews are out of sync with much of the country in our strong advocacy of a social agenda that is at once hostile to our religion and also hostile to the beliefs of a great number of Americans, including those who have provided substantial political and other support for Israel. In the process, Jews have been bad news for the Democratic Party because we have helped to push it away from the political center. We have gotten too many voters angry at Democrats. In recompense, we have given the party relatively few votes because we have few votes to give.

There are danger signals in our ideological extremism and rigidity. Presently, we benefit enormously from Evangelical enthusiasm for Israel (whatever its problematic theological sources) and from the embrace by popular culture of artifacts that somehow are identified as Jewish. Being Jewish in some sense is an in-thing these days.

I doubt that these lines of credit will be permanently available. We cannot stretch to the limit our deviation from what most Americans are willing to accept without running the serious risk of a backlash against Israel and Jews. There are danger signals and we are ignoring them.

I do not advocate that we abandon positions that we deeply believe in simply to avoid run-ins with the extreme right. As we preach moderation for others, we need moderation in our own ranks. At the top of the list is gay marriage which American Jews support in substantial numbers with substantial zeal. Gay marriage is not a civil right. It is a civil wrong, a practice that runs counter to the understanding of marriage in all civil societies for thousands of years.

There is more fundamentally the transformation of American Jews from a religious community into an association of persons somehow identified as Jews whose members are increasingly hostile to religion. We reject our tradition, the practices and beliefs that made us distinctive and ensured our survival. This rejection of religion especially informs our positions on public policy. The tenacious opposition to faith-based programs is an extension of our obsessive and absolutist embrace of church-state separation as a cardinal principle of secular Jewish faith.

We refuse to accept that there is a beneficial, creative and, in any case, inevitable role for religious groups in the public square. In every area of social concern that generates government interest and funding, it is not possible to avoid the active involvement of religious groups in efforts to help those in need. Yet steadfast in our opposition to faith-based programs we plow on, never reflecting on whether our absolutism makes sense and never caring about whom we may alienate.

There is a touch of hypocrisy in this. Those bastions of Jewish secularism known as Federations avidly seek public funds. When there is talk of cutbacks, these agencies bemoan how the needy will be hurt, how the safety net is being destroyed. Federations tell us that nowadays most of their activities are targeted toward Jews, which is to say that what Federations do bears a close resemblance to what the Jewish community is objecting to when we oppose faith-based initiatives. The primary difference between Federation activities and those conducted by more overtly religious groups such as churches and Orthodox Jews is that the latter rely heavily on volunteers, do not pay bloated salaries, indulge far less in self-promotion and avoid the steady diet of conferences and other sterile activity that is choking American Jewish life.

We Jews like to preach tolerance. Why can't we be tolerant toward publicly funded initiatives that rely on religious groups to accomplish what government and society need to get accomplished? We are beset by demons that impel us to believe that the roof will fall in if faith-based groups receive public funds. Since the coming of the Great Society forty years ago, such groups have received tens of billions in public funds and so far as anyone can tell, the Republic still stands. All that our intolerance toward religious groups will do is to breed opposition to Jews and Israel.

Religion is a vital force in American life and it belongs there. So does the separation doctrine. To believe in separation, as I do, does not require that we accept the notion of absolute separation. When government is neutral and the purposes are secular, we should welcome the role of religion in the furtherance of the public good. Unfortunately, we Jews who have removed religion from our lives are now bent on removing religion from public life. There is in this much peril for us and for Israel.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

A World Jewish Disgrace

If the World Jewish Congress was in fact what its name suggests it to be, Edgar Bronfman would now be the organization's former president. But since the WJC is in large measure his plaything, as he demonstrated recently when he ousted critics who questioned certain financial transactions, the strong likelihood is that he will stay on as long as he chooses to, this despite his vile statement in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle of London that our concept of peoplehood and opposition to intermarriage "begins to sound like Nazism, meaning racism."

I am told that he has apologized somewhat in a letter to the newspaper. No matter. He should do the honorable thing and resign. He used language that has never been used, except by our most bitter enemies, thereby crossing a line that previously was never reached, much less crossed, by a presumed Jewish leader. We have thrown communal fits for far less offensive words. Many Jews are still riled at Jesse Jackson for his "Hymietown" remark. As the Jewish Chronicle editorialized, "Nazism? It takes a truly staggering ability to ignore what Nazism was, even to utter the word in the same breath as a comment on attitudes to intermarriage."

It is not just the one word that disqualifies Mr. Bronfman. His notion that we who oppose intermarriage are racist is only a bit less offensive. Have we forgotten the "Zionism is racism" episode at the United Nations? Are we deaf to the ongoing calumny directed against Jews and Israel by those who call us racist? Edgar Bronfman has given aid and comfort to those who hate us, to those who are bent on harming Israel and our people. It is a good bet that down the road his despicable words will be thrown back at us.

The only decent thing for him to do is to quit.

Mr. Bronfman's sin has been multiplied by the skimpy coverage given to his remarks by the American Jewish media and by the corollary absence of sharp editorial criticism. Our publications have much to say when a solitary rabbi says or does something foolish or offensive or when an inconsequential incident occurs in a small shul. Why the timidity when a man at the top of our massive organizational heap behaves in a wrongful manner?

One certain answer is that it's the money. We American Jews respect wealth, no more so than in our institutional and organizational life. Those who possess great wealth are supposed also to possess other admirable qualities, including judgment and wisdom. Simply put, Mr. Bronfman is given more slack because, after all, he is a billionaire.

It matters, of course, that in addition to being a successful businessman he has ably served the Jewish people over a significant number of years. He has come across as thoughtful, as someone who is more than a cut above the army of organizational officials whose idea of leadership consists mainly of more conferences and an overdose of sterile activity. Additionally, Mr. Bronfman has significant achievements under his belt. This is all the more reason why he should resign.

I cannot figure out what he was trying to say about intermarriage. For all of the stalwart Orthodox opposition on religious grounds and the diminishing number of Conservative Jews who take a similar position about intermarriage, as a practical matter the sociological battle against intermarriage has been lost. For nearly a decade we have been in a post-intermarriage stage, a point in our history when the subject gets decreasing attention on the communal agenda. Unlike a decade ago when we were awash in continuity activities and other initiatives aimed at deterring marrying out, there is now at least tacit acceptance of the status quo that includes massive intermarriage.

We have come to accept counting in those who marry out, which includes their offspring and spouses. This is true of Israel's Law of Return which in turn has a direct bearing on all Jewish activity in the Former Soviet Union. It is true of our demographic studies, the concern not being who one's parents were or the religion of the spouse but whether those who are surveyed regard themselves as Jewish. This is true as well of our communal activity, for we scarcely preclude any longer from leadership those whose lives have been Jewishly compromised by intermarriage. Edgar Bronfman illustrates the point; he has been married five times and two of his wives were not Jewish.

While our new tolerance of intermarriage is contrary to our history and traditions and while it is inevitable that ultimately most whom we now accept will be lost to Jewish life, for the moment it is expedient to accept intermarriage because to do so puffs up our numbers. We are willing to accept all who apply because the more persons we can claim as Jews, the greater the perception of Jewish influence. We believe that Israel will benefit as a consequence. As Mr. Bronfman said in the interview, "anybody who wants to be" a Jew is a Jew.

The nonchalance with which we greet intermarriage is evident even among the Orthodox who despite their sincere rhetoric participate with few or no qualms in social and communal contacts involving the intermarried and their spouses and offspring.

It has been reported that Mr. Bronfman is writing a book to be called "A Jewish Renaissance for a Significant Future." We can easily guess what he will say about intermarriage. Can we hope that by the time this outpouring of knowledge about Jewish life is in the bookstores, its author will be the past president of the World Jewish Congress?

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Boston v. New York

The subject of this piece isn't baseball, although it is worth pondering whether our intense interest in the sport - as spectators, with occasional exceptions like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax - is the result of the powerful acculturative forces that have shaped the American Jewish experience ever since Abner Doubleday's time. It's surprising that, as yet, none of our mega-rich have dedicated a pavilion at Cooperstown.

My subject is more parochial, to be precise Jewish parochial schools or day schools, as they are now called. Boston and New York are not in the same day school league. Including its suburbs, Boston has fourteen day schools with about 2,500 students. Enrollment in New York City alone comes to 82,500 or just 7,000 students shy of all U.S. day schoolers outside of New York State. In the larger New York metropolitan area, day school enrollment is about 125,000.

They aren't in the same day school league in another way. Thanks largely to the local Federation, three philanthropists are giving $45 million to Boston area day schools, the announcement coming not long after the Fund for Jewish Education (FJE) which is dominated by the Federation here decided to terminate basic grants to yeshivas and day schools. This astonishing betrayal of a trust was accompanied by a barrage of public relations sophistry, including - to be generous - the strange assertion that the grants which amounted to about $3,000-$20,000 per participating school were being cut out because the amount given was so low.

One reason why this wrong and harmful decision was made is that in dollar terms alone it is a challenge to figure out how to help New York's day schools. In a sense, there are too many of them and too many students for the local philanthropic sector to digest. This scarcely justifies taking away the little that had been given. Besides, there is the noble example of Mr. Joseph Gruss of blessed memory who was American Jewry's greatest Jewish philanthropist. The FJE came into being because he figured out how to assist New York's day schools.

At FJE as elsewhere, there are people who talk a good game about Jewish education but who fail or refuse to understand that education takes place in schools and classrooms, not in offices or meaningless conferences or outside projects and training programs. I believe that the fact that 97% of New York's day school enrollment is Orthodox, the lion's share of this in chassidic and yeshiva-world schools, did not increase the inclination to provide direct help to day schools.

The betrayal of our most valuable and vulnerable institutions would not have occurred had Orthodox leaders fulfilled their responsibility. The picture is not pretty. When the Orthodox were far weaker a generation and more ago, yeshiva deans sanctioned public pressure on Federations to support day school education. Much of this effort was channeled through the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools or Torah Umesorah which then championed basic religious education in communities throughout North America.

The recent record is far different. Federation and FJE signaled in advance their intent to terminate basic grants, yet neither Torah Umesorah or yeshiva deans said anything in protest of a decision that would clearly harm schools for which they have responsibility. This silence served as a signal to those who were bent on harming day schools that they had a free hand to proceed. Even now, as there are indications that those of us who have protested have had an impact, there is silence from Torah Umesorah and the deans. This is shocking and it should be unacceptable.

Many in the yeshiva-world are yielding to the pernicious notion that except for special situations such as immigrant and outreach schools - interestingly, their enrollment has declined - basic religious education at the elementary and secondary levels is a consumer product and like all other consumer products it should be paid for by those who benefit directly, namely parents, irrespective of their financial situation. It is telling and disheartening that at least for a decade, yeshiva deans have not issued even one statement declaring that basic religious education is a communal responsibility, in line with the way our religious life has been conducted for more than 2,000 years.

As a consequence, the betrayal of day schools has been inadvertently abetted by those who should be in the forefront of day school advocacy. The further upshot is that our schools now face even greater hardship. Many cannot meet their payroll, this despite severely underpaying their faculty and staff and skimping on maintenance and nearly everything else. The financial stability of these institutions seem shakier than it has been in a long while. The fundraising environment is not good because day schools are not favored by most donors and those who might provide support are besieged by requests for help, too many of them warmly endorsed by those who should be calling for support of basic Torah education.

The burden has shifted to parents and this imposes a severe hardship on most Orthodox families, both financially and emotionally. Hard working parents - often both work - with a houseful of children are not able to make ends meet and they are increasingly being told by yeshiva and day school officials that the school needs full tuition, irrespective of parental ability to pay.

There is another cost, one that is scarcely seen or felt. In the New York metropolitan area there are thousands of marginally involved Jewish families that would choose day school education if decent and affordable schools were available where they live. Unfortunately, there are few such schools. What can be accomplished was driven home by Lev Levayev who came to Israel from the Former Soviet Union. He had the vision to establish in Queens a school for FSU children. In its third year, enrollment is above 600. Apparently, he does not accept the notion that a Jewish education is a consumer product.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Leaving Gaza

Making wrenchingly difficult decisions is a key part of the job description for Israel's prime ministers, a circumstance that has not resulted in a shortage of aspirants for the position. Ariel Sharon's predecessors could not have known before they acted how their decisions would turn out, whether Israel's security would be helped or harmed by what they were about to do. If we look at the record over a span of fifty-six years, while there have been mistakes, by a large margin they have been on target.

Israel must now decide what to do about Gaza, specifically what to do about the parcels of land settled by the small number of Israelis who came there with the advice and consent, as well as support, of successive Israeli governments. It's hard to imagine a tougher decision, but not because of security considerations. Having Israelis in or out of Gaza scarcely changes the security equation.

What's tough about leaving Gaza is the pain of those who will be forced to leave, good people whose love for Israel is pure. The case against withdrawal was made repeatedly by Ariel Sharon when he did not sit where he now sits and when he did not know what he now knows. The Israelis in Gaza are not fanatics, although there is a strong tinge of fanaticism and extremism among some who advocate their cause. Israelis in Gaza have worked hard and honorably. In Gaza, Jewish children have been born and in Gaza Jews have buried their dead, including victims of terrorism.

Those who advocate withdrawal, as I do, need to be respectful of these Israelis whose emotional wounds are now open. Mr. Sharon has been respectful, certainly last week in a major address before the Knesset. A powerful argument can be made in support of Benjamin Netanyahu's call for a referendum on withdrawal. Isn't that the democratic thing to do? Yet, there are compelling reasons why that path should be avoided. In democracies, leaders are elected to lead and they are held responsible for the decisions they make. Mr. Sharon has steadfastly resisted the referendum gambit, perhaps because his understanding with the Bush Administration requires him to move forward. Because of the psychological support and diplomatic cover given to Israel, little attention has been paid to the pressure the U.S. has put on the Sharon government to make territorial concessions. Interestingly, one question that hasn't been discussed is how Israel would react if Mr. Bush is defeated. Would this be a signal or excuse to reverse course in Gaza?

Why withdraw? One reason is that staying in Gaza adds nothing to Israel's security, but it exacts a high human and financial cost. Israel has overwhelming force and as has been just demonstrated, it can severely punish Palestinians in Gaza for any terrorist attacks.

Ariel Sharon has earned Israeli and Jewish support and we should have faith in him and the impressive number of Israel's military and intelligence leaders who endorse withdrawal. In Gaza, the security fence and other actions, the Prime Minister has shown a fierce and creative determination to do what is necessary to protect Israelis. The hardliners in the anti-withdrawal camp have undermined their cause by charging that Sharon is selling out Israel, that he is a traitor.

I care not about what titles or offices they hold. Those who in veiled and sometimes not so veiled language say that Israel's Prime Minister can be killed because he wants to withdraw from Gaza or other territory should be arrested and put on trial.

While opponents of withdrawal say that under certain conditions they might accept giving up territory, they have never spelled out what these conditions might be. Their position always is, "not now." They have opposed every negotiation that entails giving up any territory. Their idea of negotiations is for Israel to unilaterally set the terms for Palestinians and to yield no land. Diplomacy is not a game called solitaire. Those who oppose negotiations are giving us a formula for a state of permanent war.

In opting for a Gaza withdrawal, Mr. Sharon clearly is mindful of even more daunting problems confronting Israel. The threat coming from Iran is one of the most serious that Israel has faced. The war in Iraq has further destabilized the Middle East and clearly this is to Israel's detriment. The Islamic world is aboil and while the wounds suffered by adherents of Islam are nearly all self-inflicted, this reality scarcely provides any respite or solace for Israel.

All told, what is compelling about staying in Gaza is the human dimension, not the military or diplomatic or security dimensions.

It is necessary to know what happens after the Israelis leave. Much will depend on the actions of Hamas and other Palestinians. But there are question marks about Israeli policy. Dov Weisglass, Mr. Sharon's close confidant who negotiated on his behalf in Washington, said in a recent interview that a primary aim of a Gaza withdrawal is to scotch, at least for now, the notion of a Palestinian state. If that is the intention, Israel is making a huge mistake. The one thing that Israelis should unite on is that while there are no guarantees, a Palestinian state has a better prospect for contributing to Israel's security than the current status quo. States have responsibilities and while, of course, they often are violated, as long as the Palestinians are stateless there is an enhanced prospect for continued terrorism.

Yasir Arafat has done his best - and since he is outstanding in the treachery league, he has been quite good in this regard - to deter the establishment of a state for the people he purports to lead, even as he has lined his pockets and Palestinians have sunk into greater misery. It is paradoxical and yet telling that some who are most antagonistic to him give him aid and comfort on this score.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Politics of Orthodox Jews

Like bees to honey, the media are attracted to Orthodox Jews, paying more attention to them than to the ninety percent of American Jews who aren't Orthodox. Where the media tread, politicians who are always on the prowl for support are sure to follow. Thus, we have had a spate of stories reporting on how the Orthodox are being wooed this election season.

Some of this attention is the inevitable consequence of Orthodox distinctiveness, notably the charedim with their particular look and dress. Other Jews are mainly faces in the crowd of nearly 300 million Americans. The Orthodox tend to cluster in neighborhoods which makes it easier to send messages to them. This characteristic plus other clannish features add to the feeling that they vote in a bloc and therefore efforts to garner their support can bring a significant pay-off.

It is the case as well that the Orthodox - again, especially charedim - actively seek political attention and involvement, not so much because they care about who gets elected as they care about what benefits they can get from those who are in office. This isn't a new phenomenon, as there are critical antecedents in the Jewish experience in pre-Holocaust Europe. Little heed is apparently paid to the admonition in Ethics of Our Fathers: "Do not become overly familiar with the government." (Chapter 1, 10)

Whatever the motives of the Orthodox who eagerly enter the political thicket, it is hard to figure out the calculation of those in politics who eagerly covet their support. The Bush campaign has sent high level Republicans to meet with the Orthodox and the Kerry people have reciprocated, albeit with less fire power. The obvious inference is that this is a group whose votes may be crucial to the election, an inference that is scarcely supported by experience or an understanding of Jewish demographics. In Williamsburg and Crown Heights, two chassidic strongholds, the locals cannot get anybody elected and they have to hope, at times in vain, that those who are elected will not be hostile to their interests. I would imagine that the clout of these religious Jews is not greater when the stakes are presidential.

The way to make sense of what is occurring is to understand that in electoral politics the importance of prospective voters - whether they materialize or not is another matter - who can be visualized in group terms is invariably exaggerated. What is true of labor unions or other ethnics is true of the political approach to Orthodox Jews. Their group nature enhances the attention they get irrespective of whether they can deliver votes.

Even if the demographers are wrong and the Orthodox comprise more than ten percent of American Jews, as I believe they do, their proportion of the American Jewish electorate is clearly below ten percent, if only because a great number are not yet eighteen and cannot vote. Among those who are of voting age, for a variety of reasons there is a heightened tendency for chassidic and other very Orthodox Jews not to register.

Orthodox Jews are overwhelmingly concentrated in New York and this is another factor that vitiates their importance in presidential elections, at least in the one that is about to be held. Most analysts assume that New York will go for Kerry, in which case inroads Republicans may make among the Orthodox will not affect the outcome. Admittedly, there is evidence that New York is still up for grabs and if Mr. Bush prevails here, the state's electoral votes will not be of much consequence because he will win in a landslide.

Doubtlessly, some of my Orthodox buddies will not be thrilled that one of their own is saying that the Orthodox political role is substantially exaggerated. I would hope that a dose of reality does not hurt. Perhaps it might even result in scarce communal resources, including leadership resources, being devoted to communal needs and not to political pursuits.

What is more important these days than illusions about Orthodox political clout is the movement of this sector toward political conservatism. A good case, based on his support for Israel, can be made for American Jewish support of President Bush. Even his harshest critics concede this point. For the Orthodox - or at least most of them - there is congruence between Orthodox traditionalism and Republican conservatism that is evident in an array of social issues, including gay rights and marriage and abortion.

While most American Jews have an intense dislike of social conservatism, they should be able to recognize that for the Orthodox social conservatism is a powerful magnet. Liberal Jews should not expect the Orthodox to vote liberal and Democratic because, after all, that has been the "Jewish" thing to do.

What troubles me about the embrace of conservatism is that it comes with an enthusiastic identification with right-wing ideology. Shouldn't there be some red lights, some caution signals? Shouldn't Orthodox Jews be deeply concerned about the fascisti of the National Rifle Association and the many clusters of anti-Semites who for decades have nested comfortably in the Republican right-wing? Shouldn't heed be paid to history's lessons that the right-wing is no friend of Jews?

I am not asking for an embrace of liberal ideology. There are question marks there as well. My point is that we religious Jews should spurn political ideologies, that we should be wary of both the left and the right. There is a powerful need to take stock about what the right-wing stands for. It is terrifying that there are Orthodox who believe that right-wing positions are a code word for Judaism. I cannot find this in any Code of Jewish Law. I would rather stick with Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch's great admonition uttered 150 years ago and doubtlessly not reproduced here with full accuracy, "Juden haben nicht kein rechts." Translated this means both that Jews have no rights and they have no right-wing.

The Spy That Wasn't

After reading not a single coherent article in the Times or elsewhere about the Lawrence Franklin/AIPAC affair, I have concluded that the incoherence arises not so much from journalistic defects as from the equally familiar circumstance that those who are doing the leaking are spewing out tons of misinformation. First we were breathlessly told that Franklin, a mid-level Pentagon analyst, had spied for Israel. That quickly changed to the tale that he had just passed classified information. Before long, the news was that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is the FBI's real target and Franklin is cooperating with the investigation.

We are not likely to get the full story. What we already know is unsettling and not because Israel or its advocates on these shores may have done anything wrong. What is unsettling is the prospect that our government has been spying on some of its citizens whose alleged crime is their association with Israel.

Ever since Jonathan Pollard was caught red-handed, American Jews have been uptight about the kind of charges initially leveled against Franklin. After all, what shocked us once could happen again and this possibility purchased the silence of most of us, though not of the ADL's Abe Foxman or several others who quickly smelled a rat and aggressively challenged what soon was revealed to be bogus.

We now know that for at least two years the FBI - an overstaffed and underperforming bureaucracy whose record against terrorism is dreadful - has had AIPAC high on its most wanted list, tailing several of its officials and tapping their phones. Apparently, in certain quarters Israel advocacy is regarded as anti-American, maybe also illegal.

There are suggestions that the anti-AIPAC crusade is a rogue operation organized by officials who do not like the neo-cons and others who are well-connected with both Israel and high echelons in the Pentagon. It's more likely that the White House and Justice Department have been in on the act, authorizing the wiretaps and investigatory tactics that we may have thought were reserved for Al Quaeda.

It is also unlikely that the FBI's targeting of AIPAC has been limited to the two staffers who have been named. There is evidence that routine contacts between pro-Israel Americans and Israeli officials are grounds for suspicion, that when someone from the Israel Embassy meets a Pentagon analyst in a Washington restaurant, it's not only the food that isn't kosher.

I fret whether Malcolm Hoenlein's phone calls are being intercepted. If they are, those who do this dirty work have been privy to conversations between the Presidents Conference leader and me that invariably begin with Malcolm asking, "How are you?" followed by my response, "Lousy." Is it a crime to be a kvetch?

Before we yield to paranoiac musings and start thinking that Jews have been singled out for mistreatment, let us acknowledge that John Ashcroft's Justice Department is an equal opportunity violator of constitutional rights. This is not a boon period for those who continue to believe that accused persons have the right to counsel and other protections and that the Bill of Rights guaranty of the right to assemble is on its face a prohibition against preventive detention of the kind practiced recently in New York. Irrespective of how we feel about Bush v Kerry, what took place during the Republican Convention is a stain on New York, a stain that is made more reprehensible by Mayor Bloomberg's arrogance. It is no comfort that the old Guinness Book record of arrested bicycles was smashed by New York's finest.

Back to the sins being conducted against AIPAC: This is a story that deserves our continued attention and also a communal response because what our government has done is wrong and not because AIPAC is vital to either Israel's security or the interests of American Jewry. For all of the organization's posturing and self-importance, its impact on U.S. policy in the Middle East is, at most, negligible. AIPAC exists and thrives because checkbook Zionism provides some succor to some American Jews who feel ardently about Israel and who need to find outlets for this faith. It is comforting for them to go to big bang and big buck conferences and to listen to politicians and officials tell them how important they are.

From Camp David onward - and certainly previously - there has not been a single critical development relating to Israel's security that has been significantly affected by AIPAC. If the organization had not existed, there still would have been a Camp David, the nastiness toward Israel of the first President Bush, President Clinton's peace proposals and the favorable policies toward Israel of the second President Bush.

AIPAC has done a good job convincing itself, its coterie of supporters and some who hate Israel that it wields influence in the making of U.S. Mid East policy. Among those who have been convinced is Pat Buchanan whose soft-core anti-Semitism is routinely featured by the media.

In short, AIPAC's success as an organization but not in policy matters arises from American Jewish anxiety over Israel. It also benefits from our people's obsession with the notion that the more organizations we have, the stronger we are. I do not begrudge those who indulge this fantasy. In a sense, it is pretty benign, although we ought to wonder what would happen if we got rid of nearly all of our expensive organizations and somehow - admittedly this is a pipe dream - the funds that were saved through the cessation of so much sterile activity would go to good Jewish causes, including education and direct support for Israel.

I know that few will agree with my assessment of AIPAC. Just the same, I hope that there will be concern about what our government has done through its surveillance of this organization. The fact that the Bush Administration has been good to Israel is no justification for its being bad to AIPAC.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Counterfeit Judaism

Birthright Israel is a good program. It would be better still if the claims made on its behalf were not saturated in hype. Birthright is the best bet we have on the communal agenda to reach Jewish teens and collegians and to counteract the powerful assimilatory pressures that are active in their lives. These young people are, with few exceptions, unlikely to be attracted to any of the conventional forms of outreach.

It remains that the same forces that make Birthright worthy ensure that when its participants return from their ten-day free trip to Israel, they will once more be enmeshed in activities and associations that impel them away from Judaic commitment. Still, the modest beneficial outcomes produced by Birthright justify the effort and expense.

While the Birthright pattern varies according to who the sponsors are, in the aggregate the trips do not shy away from introducing the participants to tradition and religious life. At the Jerusalem hotel where we were staying several weeks ago, Kiddush was made Friday evening for the Birthrighters and it was evident that they were moved. A jarring note was struck by the sweet-looking young man wearing a tee shirt with a blatant vulgarism. I know that such language has lost much of its shock value, even its meaning, yet Kiddush is an act of sanctification and vulgarity is not compatible with sanctity. While Birthright has merit, it isn't immune from the spreading tendency to give a stamp of approval to whatever is called Jewish, no matter how hostile it may be to our teachings and traditions.

In an effort to reach young Jews who are distant from Jewish life and to maintain their shred of Jewish identity, what is Jewish is being constantly defined downward. We do not have confidence in our practices and beliefs and so we delude ourselves into believing that we can salvage Jewish life by abandoning Judaism. We are embedded in an era of anything goes Judaism. Defining Jewishness downward is a dynamic process; even if we think that rock bottom has been hit, there is a lot further down to go.

This attempted remaking of Judaism is sustained by a large critical mass of persons whom our demographers characterize as Jewish, a number that dwarfs the ranks of religious Jews, including the traditional sector of Conservatism. These people like what they are being told and what they see. They like the idea of being Jewish without having to be Jewish in any distinctive way. Our community is investing great sums in promoting this illusion. This ersatz brand of Jewish identity gains strength as well from the American ethos of tolerance and the companion notion that people can choose how they want to live or be identified.

We are confusing the right to personal choice with the right to redefine a religion that we are essentially rejecting.

There is now also the contemporary fixation with outrageous behavior and exhibitionism. Jewish life cannot be exempt from being attracted to what has shock value or at least the capacity to gain media attention. Nowadays, anything and anybody can be Jewish. American society now has what is being called a bar mitzvah ceremony for kids who aren't Jewish by anybody's definition. There is lots of bar and no mitzvah at these events, which is to say that they bear a close resemblance to what passes for a bar mitzvah in many Jewish families. When what is being imitated is itself false, the product is counterfeit.

There is no telling how far this process has to go, how much further we can depart from what resembles Jewish life and still call it Jewish. If the Madonna story is a guide, we may not have seen anything yet. In her latest incarnation, she is a student of Kabballah or, more accurately, a student of a bogus product called Kabballah by charlatans who know a sucker when they see one. Filthy and filthy rich, Madonna is convenient prey. She is smart; what remains to be seen is how long it takes her to recognize that she is being duped or when she will be off to her next self-reinvention.

In the meantime, red bendels or strings have become a fashion craze, with celebrities showing that they are into Kabballah. What long was the province of a small number of Orthodox Jews is now part of the anything goes mentality. It may be a only a matter of time until practices that are fundamental to our faith will be defiled by the impulse to be outrageous or by the notion that in order to ensure Jewish identity, little is now out of bounds.

There is a tide in the affairs of men and societies. Tides are powerful forces that cannot be resisted by wishing that they change course. Yet, change is inevitable. As Robert Lowell observed in reference to Shakespeare's observation, "but there is no gulf stream setting forever in one direction." My guess is that a reversal of the anything goes mentality is still distant, if only because a great investment is being made in marketing and sustaining that which is fake.

There is nothing to be done to prevent the promotion of counterfeit Judaism. Those of us who respect tradition can reject what is antithetical to our heritage. We need not yield to those who are selling a bill of phony goods, even if they claim they are doing so in order to preserve Judaism. We must not be intimidated into accepting or being silent about conduct that ultimately will destroy Jewish continuity.

Religious Jewry has survived in the United States and elsewhere because of a willingness to be different, even unpopular. Judaism is a religion and not a popularity contest. It is a religion that has preserved those who have been faithful to it.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Some Laws Are More Kosher Than Others

New Yorkers who eat kosher and who rely on government to protect them against deception can breathe easier because the state has a new kosher food law, replacing the one that courts declared treife on constitutional grounds. By my rough calculation, there may be as many as a minyan who fit into this category. The rest of us who eat kosher will continue to rely the old fashioned way on certifying agencies such as the Orthodox Union which does a splendid job and on entrepreneurial rabbis, a few of whom care more about the money than about upholding religious standards.

The law that was recently enacted by the ever-compliant Stepford Wives body known as the New York State legislature and reluctantly signed by Governor Pataki who had championed his own bill, is a decent piece of work. It hopefully will survive legal challenge, which is more than can be said about Mr. Pataki's mishmash legislation. Still, I am intrigued by the legislative finding, proclaimed in the new law, that many consumers in New York who purchase kosher products "do so for reasons unrelated to religious observance." I guess they like the higher prices.

I believe that under their police powers, states have the right to deter consumer fraud and therefore kosher food laws should pass legal scrutiny. Because regulatory schemes may rely on religious definitions and standards, the government could be trespassing on forbidden territory. Even so, I believe that the New York law is kosher. I doubt, however, that it is either necessary or wise.

Whatever relevance they may have once had, kosher food laws are no longer needed. They do not protect kosher consumers, although by creating the erroneous impression that they do, they paradoxically may abet deception against consumers.

All governmental enforcement of laws that seek to protect against fraud is selective. We need only think of enforcement of the tax code. It follows that at most only a fraction of the kosher food industry is subject to meaningful regulation. As noted, most of us rely on communal or private rabbinical supervision. Governments can do little to prevent fraudulent certification by persons with credentials. There are several "Orthodox rabbis," including one who has a state job, who certify restaurants and bakeries that are open on Shabbos and serve bread during Passover.

The enactment of the new law is an exercise in pushing through an open door, which is the kind of thing that state and local legislative bodies love to do as they seek to accommodate ethnic and interest groups by passing laws that do not deliver anything of significance. This allows both politicians and group leaders to boastfully claim that they have achieved something of importance for group members.

Such exercises divert attention away from pressing issues where governmental action might result in significant benefits. While Orthodox organizations earnestly advocate unneeded kosher food laws, they are doing nothing to improve the scandalous situation in cemeteries around the state where the religious rights of observant Jews and the sensitivity of many families have been severely compromised by the wrongful actions of cemetery officials. We have recently been treated to the sordid story of a former cemetery in Westchester County that was uprooted to make way for a shopping mall. The graves - at least some of them - were shipped to Israel.

This is but the tip of the iceberg of the moral and financial corruption that constitutes the cemetery situation in New York, a situation that cries out for religious advocacy and governmental action. Unlike kosher food, there is no open door here. The sordid situation at cemeteries is resistant to reform because those who control them gain much from arrangements that permit them to operate with minimal governmental scrutiny. There is much petty - at times not so petty - graft arising from endowment and perpetual care funds controlled by cemetery officials.

It would not take much legislative prowess to address the situation and it should not take much to get Orthodox groups to advocate reform. All that would be needed is the determination to confront the scoundrels who gain from the rotten status quo. Sadly, such determination is lacking, although there are Orthodox groups that are willing to do kazatzkas on their heads when a Jewish cemetery is defiled in Israel or overseas.

A second area that cries out for reform is the enforcement of laws that protect religious persons against workplace discrimination. New York State has a good law which is widely disregarded by employers, shockingly at times including governmental agencies. As is evident from a recent matter involving Sikhs and the Police Department in which Rabbi Haskel Lookstein played a vital and salutary role, it is possible to promote the legitimate interests of religious persons. Sadly and even incredibly, other groups are better organized on this front than Orthodox Jews, although for sure we Orthodox do great in public relations.

The upshot is that job discrimination is a lingering problem affecting too many religious Jews and causing pain in many homes. The Orthodox community does little to promote greater enforcement of existing laws. There is an unwillingness to challenge major employers who discriminate against religious Jews, particularly in limiting their advancement opportunities. We need to do the grunt work of preparing complaints and cases and this is far more difficult than pushing through an open door. As a consequence, there is today substantial discrimination against religious Jews in the job market.

More generally, religious Jews need an approach to legislation that promotes our ability to live religious lives. We do not need legislation that attempts to enforce our religious standards or has the government doing the job that we are loath to do. I have taken this position for a long while, without much success. Our leaders and groups prefer to push through open doors. While this may be psychologically satisfying, it is of scant benefit.