Thursday, February 26, 2004

Madeleine Albright Syndrome

For years I have wondered about hidden Jews. There may or must be millions of them, people whose Jewishness was weakened by assimilation until there was nothing left of their Jewish identity and they no longer regarded themselves as Jews. For them or more likely their offspring, their background and heritage have been obliterated. In pre-Holocaust Europe there were many who through apostasy or the quick surrender of Jewish identity deliberately eradicated any memory of a Jewish past. Madeleine Albright’s family fits this profile.

There are other hidden Jews. During the Holocaust, some parents facing the likelihood of death gave their children to Christians for safekeeping. In an indeterminate number of situations, the outcome was that Jewish identity was permanently lost.

In a sociological sense, hidden Jews are not Jewish. They may be Jewish according to religious law, as Mrs. Albright is, but no one really regards them as Jews. Their history has been lost. Is it possible to figure out how many hidden Jews there have been over the past several generations?

In an essay published in 2001 in Tradition, I suggested that “it is likely that we have lost far more people via [abandonment] than the harsher route of persecution and extermination.” I argued further that:

“We can appreciate the toll taken by Judaic abandonment via the passive route of surrender of Jewish identity by examining Jewish life in the two centuries prior to the Holocaust. The world Jewish population at the eve of the destruction of European Jewry is said to have been between sixteen to eighteen million, hardly an impressive figure. From roughly the mid-eighteenth century until the Holocaust, Jews experienced relatively little loss from persecution. There was visible anti-Semitism in abundance and pogroms, yet the contribution of pogroms to Jewish population loss was negligible. In the same period, there were great improvements in public health, so that the infant mortality rate declined significantly and there were comparable increases in life expectancy.

“In view of these factors and what I am certain was the high Jewish fertility rate, the world Jewish population in 1933 should have been considerably above what it was. The reason why it wasn’t is that we had experienced much loss through one form or another of voluntary Judaic abandonment.”

This was speculative writing. The key point is that there is an issue to be addressed. Much of what we know is anecdotal, Mrs. Albright’s story and now John Kerry’s and over the years quite a few tidbits about celebrities and other notables, as well as family recollections about events that transpired a long time ago when a relative converted out or walked entirely away. Being Jewish is in today and nothing is more certain to out fragments of Jewish identity than our tribe being respected. This is in sharp contrast to our experience during the dark night of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, when being Jewish carried burdens and offered only spiritual rewards.

Can we retrace our history and determine whether the losses were as pronounced as I believe them to have been? We obviously cannot get anything close to a precise demographic picture of what was lost through apostasy and more positive forms of abandonment. After all, demographers cannot agree on how many Jews there are today in the U.S.

The disclosure of information regarding John Kerry’s background suggests that there is much that can be learned. His grandfather’s Jewishness and apostasy were uncovered by a genealogist at the Institute for History Family Research in Vienna and there must be a treasure trove of information there, as well as in archives located in the Czech city of Opava where the relevant documents were found. I imagine that there is much that can be gleaned from other sources and archives throughout Europe, including in the Former Soviet Union where there was a significant incidence of abandonment and therefore also a significant number of hidden Jews.

Important sources have been destroyed or lost over the years and the information they contained cannot be retrieved. Time is also running out on what can be recovered because the few experts who deal comfortably with this material are not going to be around much longer. Given the Jewish penchant for historical research – not here but certainly in Europe – there must be published material going back many years that sheds light on Jewish population trends prior to the Holocaust. Much information may be already available and what is needed is a coherent effort to put the pieces together. What is also needed are resources, human and financial, to permit an extensive scholarly investigation of the subject.

Apart from history having its claims – shouldn’t we have a better picture of Jewish life during the past 250 years? – such an enterprise could shed light on the American Jewish experience, resulting perhaps in a reinterpretation of this history. It has been assumed for decades that while immigrant Jews and their offspring experienced assimilation during the first half of the twenty-first century, the process was retarded somewhat by an adherence to tradition and an aversion to intermarriage. Thus, the first great leap in intermarriage came after 1970 and even then the rate was far below what it was for other ethnic groups and far below the shocking statistics of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

It may be that we now know more about intermarriage and other acts of Jewish abandonment because in recent years many Jews who have experienced advanced assimilation and/or have intermarried want to remain somehow in the fold. They can do so because being Jewish has become popular and there are no longer social pressures to walk away if one marries out. This is in sharp contrast to the earlier period when conversion and hiding one’s religious identity usually conveyed social and economic benefits. Intermarriage invariably meant being cut off from Jewish identity.

Accordingly, early estimates of intermarriage or other forms of Judaic abandonment may be too low, while evidence of recent losses may reflect less of a disconnect with what happened on these shores in the first two generations after the massive migration of European Jews to the U.S.

Monday, February 23, 2004

The Education Industry

We’ll know that steps are being taken to improve the lot of those who teach in our schools when American Jewry stops having conferences and other talkfests about the plight of our educators and spends the funds saved on helping teachers and schools. That’s not likely to happen because conferencing is an addiction and addictions are hard to break. There have been over the past generation hundreds of get-togethers at which those who are not in the classroom express ersatz concern for those who are. Our media gobble up the publicity handouts, without pausing to consider whether any of the previous activities resulted in any good, that is except for the travel industry.

We now have had what is boastfully and inaccurately called the first Jewish Education Leadership Summit, sponsored by the Jewish Education Service of North America. Heartfelt concern was expressed about our teacher shortage and our short-changing of those who teach. This took place at a resort, doubtlessly because the good food and the nice accoutrements helped the participants focus on the situation of those who teach our children.

We have created an education industry. It grows in good times and in bad times, feeding off the naiveté of those who sincerely care about Jewish education. Few in the media or communal life or philanthropy ask why the situation has worsened even as great sums have been given to the “nonprofits” and other mainstays of our education industry. We feed the already well-fed without considering whether it might be better to help Jewish schools that are struggling to survive.

Our education industry is just a tiny part of the highly profitable “not for profit” world of educational entrepreneurship. Still, I suspect that there is a greater tendency to channel resources in this direction in Jewish life, if only because of our nearly pathological instinct to create organizations and hold conferences, as well as to employ rhetoric as a surrogate for meaningful action. Those who believe – and they are many – that our mega-bureaucracy is a sign of strength should know that there is an inverse relationship between the increase in organizations and the decrease in our numbers and commitment.

Nonprofit entrepreneurship clusters around nearly all social concerns, with government usually footing the bill. A recent issue of The New Yorker included an article by Dr. Jerome Groopman, the outstanding doctor and medical humanist, on the grief industry that post-9/11 was endowed with tens of millions of dollars of public funds to treat trauma victims. As matters turned out, organizations were the primary beneficiaries.

As I have noted in articles about Jewish poverty, the contemporary approach to social problems is for government and private funders to favor the “nonprofits” over those who are directly on the firing line. These organizations are adept at public relations and the media buy into and peddle their self-serving claims, while those who are most in need and the presumed beneficiaries of the services to be provided are relegated to a backseat. In the name of improving Jewish education, there is an expanding tendency to utilize outsiders and to ignore educators and their schools.

Millions are spent each year to train those who might teach – and then usually only briefly – while those who are already in the classroom but might leave because they cannot make ends meet are neglected. There are exceptions to this pattern, they being useful philanthropic initiatives that assist schools and educators directly. Predominantly, though, the tendency is to bypass schools and support outsiders who claim that their activities will improve what transpires inside of schools.

Why do we favor outsiders and entrepreneurs over educators? For one thing, the “nonprofits” and outsiders are expert at attracting attention, marketing their product and fundraising. In a real sense, these are their main activities. Educators and those who have responsibility for schools devote themselves primarily to what transpires inside their institutions. Their time and energy are consumed by daily pressures and tasks that involve students, parents, staff, government agencies and many others.

This advantage of outsiders is enhanced by the belief that schools that need improvement do not have the capacity for self-improvement, even if funding is made available. In a word, education is regarded as too important to rely on educators. There is something to this cynical or perverse notion, but it is also unfair because scant attention is paid to the track record of the medicine men who advertise wondrous cures for the social and educational problems that they are handsomely awarded to redress.

Most Jewish schools have what to be proud of. They are relatively free of the social pathologies that have harmed too many youngsters and robbed them of the capacity to study and learn. With exceptions, they contribute significantly to Jewish commitment and continuity. Most importantly, they almost inherently have a positive learning environment that prepares students well for their subsequent academic careers and adulthood. Yet, from certain objective perspectives they are limited and weak. They operate in facilities that often leave much to be desired and their academic curriculum and extra-curricular activities can seem primitive when compared with good public schools and private schools.

Most also operate under severe financial pressure and this is translated into curtailed support staff and maintenance. There are warts everywhere, as I know from substantial experience, and one need not seek to find them. All of this is further complicated by the geographic dispersal of day schools across the continent and the geographic imbalance arising from two-thirds of enrollment being located in what is roughly the New York metropolitan area.

Outside agencies, blessed with glibness and not saddled with operational responsibilities, seem to be an attractive alternative to those who sincerely want to improve Jewish education. Attractive they are; effective they are not. After too many conferences, projects and other sterile activity that have resulted in no more than miniscule improvements in Jewish education, it is time to stop coddling the education industry. It is time to remember that education occurs in schools and classrooms and in the interactions between teachers and students. If we are to improve Jewish education, this is where we must put our resources.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Good News on College Campuses

The college campus has long been a disaster area for Jews, the place where young men and women fresh out of high school abandon whatever residual commitment they have to our traditions and beliefs. Last year, much was made of a paper written by two young Orthodox Jews who described the corrosive impact of campus life on Modern Orthodox Jews. Since the start of the Intifada, we have had disturbing reports detailing anti-Israel activities at major universities, with Jewish faculty and students joining in efforts to bash Israel and to silence those who dare to respond.

Apart from the immediate pain and loss arising from religious abandonment and in many instances its displacement by hostility to Israel, what is transpiring on campuses is a harbinger of even worse news. Nearly all Jewish high school graduates head directly to college. By the time that they are 17 or 18, most have experienced advanced assimilation. If whatever little that is retained Jewishly is certain to be challenged by social pressures and the strongly secular environment of campus life, except for the Orthodox and relatively few non-Orthodox Jews, there will be few adult Jews who adhere to our heritage.

What has not been sufficiently examined is the linkage between religious commitment and support for Israel. As religiosity is discarded, there is a corollary change in attitude toward the Jewish State, as Jews who once were supporters of Israel show a lack of interest and, too often, even hostility. If it is true that the campus is inhospitable to religious continuity, it is inevitable that support for Israel among Jews will decline. This sociological datum apparently escapes the notice of demographers who bereft of scholarly integrity and, at times, influenced by the availability of funding have concocted the notion that secularism is a vibrant form of contemporary Judaism.

Efforts to counteract the baneful influence of the college experience are up against long odds that are made even longer because, as a Hillel study of Jewish freshmen showed a year ago, Jews tend to choose colleges far away from home, in large measure because they want to be away from their parents. Going to college is an act of breaking away, of abandoning roots, of attitudinal and behavioral changes. But if there is a key to strengthening Jewish commitment, it is forging a relationship between Jewish students and the State of Israel. Identification with Israel may in turn result in stronger religious identity.

I have seen as yet unpublished studies that provide evidence of a modest reversal of the historic pattern of Judaic abandonment on campus. Overall, of course, the news is not good. The outcome of campus life is for most Jewish students a weakening of commitment. But since some Jewish collegians have become stronger in their commitment and that is where our youth are, we must consider how campus activities can bring some Jews back to Judaism.

It appears that Israel is somehow the catalyst for beneficial campus outcomes. I believe that the harshness of anti-Israel rhetoric and activities has shocked some Jewish students and they have then bonded and become more determined to defend Israel. In turn, the strengthening of identity with Israel which in a sociological sense means greater isolation from other students, results in a more general strengthening of Jewish identity. Furthermore, the intense hostility toward Israel and the singling it out for the strongest condemnation as the worst offender against human rights have convinced some Jewish students who have had doubts about Israeli policies that the Jewish State is being unfairly treated and that there are strains of anti-Semitism in Israel-bashing.

This subject needs close attention and Israel advocacy on campus deserves increased support. Through Birthright Israel and other projects, there already has been a significant expansion of Israel-linked activities aimed at Jewish collegians.

There was much skepticism about Birthright when it was launched and for good reason. The product was being oversold and it still is. Can a 10-day free trip to Israel bring about the attitudinal transformation that the project’s cheerleaders have claimed for it? Early on, I argued in a magazine article that Birthright be given a chance because we have little else to counteract the ravages of advanced assimilation among our youth. The Intifada substantially reduced student participation – the situation has improved greatly of late – and the Israel government and Federations have not lived up to their financial commitments. While research on Birthright almost certainly presents a too rosy picture of results, it is fair to say that the initiative has achieved a measure of success, which is not a small accomplishment during a period when nearly all Jewish youth are being impelled further away from Judaism. Birthright merits full support by Israel and the philanthropic community.

Another promising approach is Israel advocacy. There are already attractive initiatives that have encouraged students who identify with Israel to withstand the bullying and anti-civil libertarian actions of Islamic groups and their campus allies, including students and faculty and Jews whose hatred of Israel corresponds with their hatred of Judaism. What has taken place at Rutgers and other campuses provides evidence that when pro-Israel forces do not back down, they are going to have an impact, if only because they have a good case to make.

I know that some writers have urged American Jews to go slow on campus, to pull punches, to avoid direct pitches on behalf of Israel. They reason that forceful advocacy will be counterproductive. Of course, what we say must be measured, yet I believe that there is value to making a direct and strong case for Israel. There is no gain when Israel serves as a punching bag and there is much to be gained when we stand up for what we believe in. Israel advocacy can turn the tide against the tidal waves of hostility to Israel and in a modest way it can help us preserve some of what we may yet lose.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

The Jewish Poor II

To understand why greater attention is paid to those whose poverty claims are exaggerated while many in need often are scarcely helped, it’s necessary to understand how the U.S. has structured public efforts to assist the poor.

The United States was late in providing meaningful social services for the needy, although there were millions of poor persons due to the astounding number of immigrants in the post-Civil War period and the contemporary movement of Americans from rural areas into the cities. It was as if the country had blinders on.

The Great Depression changed this. Whatever we may think of President Roosevelt’s record in other areas, the New Deal helped millions of Americans through a conservative network of programs that operated within this nation’s constitutional, political and social frameworks. The New Deal wasn’t perfect, nor could it be. There were the inevitable welfare cheats and there were the many more who were insufficiently helped. Its focus was on the individual, on the needy person who was the direct consumer of governmental benefits. This approach was maintained in Harry Truman’s Fair Deal.

U.S. public policy took a sharp turn in the 1960’s as evidence of intractable poverty, particularly among urban Blacks, raised doubts about the efficacy of the traditional welfare approach. A new war on poverty was launched and President Johnson proclaimed the Great Society. The focus was now on community action, the belief being that the serious economic and other deficits experienced by Blacks could not be counteracted unless this large segment of Americans had the organizational infrastructure that was a key feature in the activities of other ethnic groups. Unless the most underprivileged had organizations advocating for them, especially at the local level, they would remain underprivileged.

Little thought was given to whether the sad condition of Blacks arose from other circumstances, such things as the destruction of family life, as demonstrated by Patrick Moynihan in the 1970’s, or the drug culture or racial discrimination. Even less thought was given to whether the new arrangements might be harmful to Blacks because they were built on paternalism and would reinforce a sense of dependency.

The new welfare system funded and coddled groups in the hope that they would be catalysts for individual advancement. This arrangement did not replace the old system as much as it displaced it. Funding was targeted to agencies that were created to serve distinct ethnic groups. There was in this a strong incentive to maximize agency income by self-serving rhetoric which proclaimed that though the services that were being provided were effective and beneficial, previous estimates of poverty among their members were too low. In a sense, the multitude of agencies living off the public dole were able to claim at once that they were succeeding and that they were failing.

Other ethnic groups, including Jews, followed the path taken by Blacks and other minorities. The common theme was “We have not overcome. We have failed.” Over time, povertycrats came to believe their rhetoric and whether they believe the exaggerated claims that are fed them, politicians are conditioned to pander to organized groups.

As discussed last week, we are awash in exaggerated claims of poverty among Russian and elderly Jews. Such claims connect with sentiments that are understandably regarded as noble. But while we overly trumpet the needs of certain Jewish subgroups, in line with the national attitude we are neglecting the working poor for whom governmental funding is not available. There are a great number of people who go to work each day and yet who do not earn enough to provide adequately for their families. Nor do they fit into Federal poverty guidelines, which is also to say that there is a reduced incentive for our poverty agencies to advocate their cause.

The working poor are faces in the crowd. There’s little available for them under the anti-poverty arrangements. The situation of the Jewish working poor in New York is particularly dire because these are in the main Orthodox Jews with large families and costly tuition and other obligations arising from their religious commitment. They are helped to an extent by voluntary Orthodox groups which in fact constitute the primary network for assistance to all of the Jewish poor of New York. At the end of the day, they struggle to get by and many do not succeed. Their ranks are growing and we are headed toward a crisis.

The assumption among those who are hostile or ignorant is that these Orthodox Jews are poor because they do not work, preferring what has been nastily described as a parasitic existence. It’s also said that those who work are handicapped by the education that they received. Since there are thousands of Orthodox who work for communal institutions, including schools, and receive low salaries, while we benefit from their devotion and invaluable service, there is something repugnant about the snide comments made about these Jewish working poor.

Many others are in the general work force where they earn more than those who have communal positions and often cannot get by on their salaries. Put otherwise, $100,000 in gross pay is a good salary, yet the typical Orthodox breadwinner who earns this amount and has five or six children in school cannot get by on the net income that he is left with.

The economic downturn has made things worse and this has been particularly devastating for the significant number of Orthodox Jews in the computer field. They are handicapped because of geographic immobility. On top of this, there is continued discrimination against Orthodox Jews in the job market on account of their Sabbath observance and distinctive dress. While this discrimination is illegal, companies get away with their mistreatment of religious Jews because too few in organized Jewish life care about the problem.

When we include the large number of Jewish working poor, it is evident that there are many poor Jews, albeit not in the mix advocated by those agencies whose focus is on the availability of public funding. Now that our most well-heeled poverty agency is raising large sums from private sources, is it too much to expect that it will turn its attention to our working poor?

Monday, February 02, 2004

The Jewish Poor I

One-hundred years ago, hundreds of thousands of Jews were crowded into the tenements of the Lower East Side, living in squalor and beset by physical and mental illnesses. Many worked at jobs that paid far less than what they needed to subsist on and many died young. There were few public programs to turn to and communal resources could scarcely meet the needs of these immigrant families. We did not need surveys to tell us that these Jews without money were poor.

We now wallow in population studies, all of questionable reliability, but none less reliable than the one featured two weeks ago in the lead article in this newspaper which proclaimed the breathtaking mythology that “poverty among New York City’s Jews is at historic highs.” This is incredible nonsense. Are we poorer than we were in 1904? Are we poorer than we were during the terrible years of the Great Depression? Why are we being fed a fabricated claim?

There are other misleading but self-serving claims, such as New York Jews are poorer than other whites and that “while New York’s overall poverty rate fell significantly between 1991 and 2002 – from 25 percent of households earning the Federal poverty level or less to 21 percent - it nearly doubled among Jews during that period.” All of this is presented uncritically, without regard to methodology or logic or experience or whether those who peddle these self-serving exaggerations should be trusted.

Before I am skewered by our povertycrats and more gently assailed by those in our ranks who believe that it is a good thing to exaggerate our poverty claims since “everyone else does it,” let me readily acknowledge that there are many poor Jews. It’s not possible to know how many because surveys of the poor are inherently suspect and the one that is now being featured inflates the numbers for certain subgroups while it neglects the situation of the considerable portion of our poor who are not included in the Federal definition of poverty. These are our working poor, many of them Orthodox Jews with large families whose income is insufficient to allow them to meet their basic needs.

As economists and sociologists have reported, the situation of America’s working poor is deteriorating and approaching catastrophic proportions. As elsewhere, the working poor of our community get far less attention than those who are classified as poor but who are better off because they know how to exploit the flawed arrangements that have been established to help the financially needy. Those who are classified as poor but who receive a multitude of benefits, including Medicaid, housing subsidies, food vouchers and much more are in many instances significantly better off than many who work full time. When poverty agencies present misleading statistics, they are at the same time neglecting a great number of the working poor.

The flawed survey rests on two shaky pillars: Data regarding the Jewish elderly and Russian Jews. Both are minefields and it is necessary to tread carefully. Our elderly are in the aggregate financially comfortable. They are, however, afflicted by serious problems, including physical disability and sickness, loneliness and depression, and a lack of mobility which makes them needy and deserving of social services but not necessarily poor. There is also a tendency toward insecurity which induces the sincere but misleading belief that they are at the door of the poorhouse. Our inborn respect and empathy for the elderly result in unwarranted credence being given to exaggerated claims of senior citizen impoverishment.

It’s true that most of the elderly live on more or less fixed incomes, but it’s also true that they have relatively fixed costs. They are not battered by rapidly escalating costs of housing and medical coverage and they are scarcely affected by conspicuous consumption. There are programs that provide them benefits that are not available to non-seniors, irrespective of their financial health, and they have benefited over the years from tax provisions that encourage multiple savings and pensions accounts. For the first time in U.S. history, there has been a socio-economic reversal in that the parent generation is better off than their adult children.

There are elderly poor and they deserve help but this is no justification for fanciful claims. From an economic standpoint, Jews have done well in America. Let’s not proclaim that we have failed.

Russians are the other shaky pillar of the flawed survey. There are poor Russian Jews and here the elderly stand out because they did not have educational and other opportunities for advancement. Among the rest, the story is one of much opportunism and remarkable socio-economic mobility, although much of it is masked by the familiar pattern of the relatively newly arrived being overly engaged in the underground economy. This is in fact true of other ethnic groups that make exaggerated poverty claims. In the event, for Russians – and others – the development of poverty statistics on the basis of self-reporting is, to put the matter gently, a flawed technique. People who are on the dole should not be asked, in effect, whether they are eligible to be on the dole.

The recently released Federation population study of New York Jews sharply challenges the estimates advanced by local Russian Jewish groups of how many Jews from the Former Soviet Union now live in the city and this data also directly contradicts the absurd claim made by the promoters of the poverty study that tens of thousands of Russian Jews have moved back to the city because they are impoverished.

There are other flaws implicit in the essentially self-reporting of poverty, including a failure to recognize that of the two components of the charedi – or very religious – sector of Orthodoxy, the yeshiva-world component is probably in worse financial shape than the Chasidic component and the gap is growing rapidly. This situation and the corollary situation of the working poor will be discussed in a second article.