Monday, May 24, 2004

The New Racism

When the news came fifty years ago of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education invalidating separate schools for Black children, I was standing outside of the Rabbi Jacob School on Henry Street on the Lower East Side. Everyone was elated, to some extent doubtlessly because nearly all American Jews felt that school segregation was evil and unconstitutional. Notions of racial inferiority were not our cup of tea, certainly not so soon after the Holocaust. The ideal of equality struck a responsive chord. Our reaction, however, was not as automatons expressing what we were conditioned to say. There was a deepfelt feeling that a unanimous Supreme Court had taken a great and necessary step to erase the stain of racism.

Fifty years later, Brown is under attack, specifically including from several Black scholars who have made it. They argue that Blacks might have been better off had school segregation been allowed to stand, provided that Black public schools would have facilities and funding equal to what governments provide to whites. The argument cannot be proven, of course, but Brown’s critics say that the continued high drop-out rate and other indices of Black educational failure provide powerful support for the claim that the focus on integration missed the mark.

This is historical revisionism, an exercise in rewriting the past and rejecting to one extent or another what has been accepted. Historians and other scholars indulge in revisionism because the passage of time affords a new perspective and may also uncover information that was not previously available. There is also obviously the desire to avoid being like a xerox. The past is reinterpreted because that is integral to the enterprise called history.

Brown wasn’t the grand slam home run that we believed it to be in May 1954. In a sense, the ruling was oversold, a fate that attaches to most major decisions. Nine Justices could rule that school segregation violates the Constitution but their reach scarcely extended to de facto segregation arising from residential patterns and certainly not to educational failure arising from social dysfunction. The importance of Brown was that it was a moral statement articulating a commitment to civil rights and human dignity. It also came to be a major building block in the still unfinished struggle to achieve racial equality.

This struggle has yielded abundant fruit, no matter what the naysayers are saying. Change for the better is evident nearly everywhere – in universities and executive suites, in law and politics, in suburbs and social attitudes. There is more than a residue of racism and this plus the too high rate of educational failure among Blacks give ammunition to those who denigrate Brown.

By 1954, the huge migration of rural Blacks to the cities was underway, a development that for all of its inevitability added enormously to the destabilization of Black family life which obviously had not recovered from the deep social and psychological wounds caused by slavery and state racism. In the aggregate, Black children have gone to school without the family structure and back-up available to most white children. Geographic dislocation, poverty and social breakdown have combined to heighten the prospect of educational failure.

There was another profound social shift that contributed to a similar outcome. Around 1954, reading and writing were increasingly replaced in the lives of children by watching, first by the ever-expanding wasteland of television and then by the interrelated cesspools of cable, movies, popular music and whatever other filth could be peddled by filthy-rich dreckmeisters who spout concern about human dignity and civil rights and then target their poisonous products toward those who are most vulnerable. Of course, white children are being hurt, but what is happening among a certain part of the Black community is devastating.

It is easy to get kids hooked on what is exciting and wean them away from study. Instant gratification is a far better bet for the young than years of schooling. There is a new racism that exploits young Blacks who are already vulnerable because of the high incidence of violence and drugs. The new racists condition young Blacks to have base values and to indulge in base behavior so that they will buy hip hop music with an exciting beat and violent lyrics and watch sitcoms that show Blacks as stupid and sex-crazed. Young Blacks are also exploited so that they will buy cheaply made ugly clothing at exorbitant prices and glitzy sneakers at five or ten times their worth.

I wonder how many who produce the sewage have gotten awards – including from the NAACP, Urban League and Jewish organizations – for their alleged promotion of civil rights and human dignity.

We expect schools to overcome all that is hostile to educational success. When schools do not succeed as well as we would like them to, we blame them and not the root causes, not family breakdown or drugs or the anti-educational pull of powerful cultural stimuli.
It is convenient to scapegoat schools. We scapegoat teachers. We scapegoat educational administrators. We scapegoat those who make governmental funding decisions. And now we have taken to scapegoating Brown v Board of Education. When will we ever learn, oh when will we ever learn?

I abhor racism. It is sinful and must not be excused. There is a scene that I see on subways, usually at midday or so. It is of groups of young school children, smiling and chattering, holding hands and being obedient, along with their teachers who are obviously caring. Many – perhaps most – of these children are Black. Let us then fast forward by perhaps a half dozen years and we see a different picture, one of disintegration and of inexcusable behavior among pre-teens and teenagers. We also see a scene of educational failure culminating in massive drop-outs at the high school level. Are we to blame the teachers or schools for this?

Smaller classes make a difference, as do better teachers and educational enhancements. But the reach of schools goes only so far. If we are to more fully realize the promise of Brown, we need to have the courage to confront the new racists who promote an image of Blacks as an inferior people.

Monday, May 17, 2004

A Good Man

May is a cruel month for Orthodox Jews. We have an endless parade of dinners and fundraisers, perhaps to compensate for the event-deprivation resulting from the curtailment of weddings in the Pesach to Shavuos period. In their wisdom, Torah leaders have issued guidelines limiting the number of guests to be invited to a wedding. They have missed a more serious problem. Instead of fretting about the pocketbooks of those whose children are being married, they ought to show concern for those of us who are drowning in invitations. We need an Internet-based arrangement allowing each of us to set a quota of how many invitations we are willing to accept each month. Those who send out invitations would be required to check the website of each potential invitee. When the quota is reached, a message would pop up on the screen saying “no more invitations being accepted.”

Rabbis would be excluded from this arrangement. They are supposed to be spiritual leaders and physical servants.

Anyway, I am going to a dinner this evening, the Sunday before this piece appears. It is the Orthodox Union’s annual affair, this year’s in honor of Harvey and Judy Blitz. He is the organization’s president, a position that he will give up in six months, although he can continue for another two years. Judy who has impressive credentials of communal service, is the daughter of Rabbi Israel Klavan of blessed memory, for many years the esteemed executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America. Judy and Harvey are people of good values and midos who go about doing good deeds in a modest way.

It’s likely that Harvey will be the last alumnus of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs or COLPA to serve as the Orthodox Union’s president, a record that began many years ago with Julie Berman. COLPA was a small but extraordinary group of young lawyers and social scientists that was established nearly forty years ago – I was the first president – to promote the legal and political rights of religious Jews. It is no more, itself not a tragedy since we American Jews are blessed with at least a million other organizations, which is a major reason why there are so many dinners to go to. COLPA’s agenda and advocacy are missed, especially in the job market and other places where there is more than residual discrimination against religious Jews and there is no organization left to advocate their needs. There are many more Orthodox lawyers today than there were in the mid-1960’s, but they are too busy or unwilling to use their skills to address communal needs that require legal attention.

Harvey Blitz joined COLPA several years after its formation, as a young lawyer at Kaye Scholer. He made important contributions, notably in the landmark Otero case arising out of a housing dispute on the Lower East Side. The U.S. Court of Appeals in New York accepted his argument that special consideration could be given in allocating public housing units to prevent racial tipping that would be a strong disincentive for whites to move in.

Long before he became COLPA’s president, Harvey decided that life at a major law firm was not for him. He went to work for Equitable, the insurance giant, where his good work habits, strong mind and other qualities led to a string of promotions that culminated in his being in the firm’s senior management. His success has not gone to his head and, of course, he has not compromised his religious convictions.

It was natural for Harvey to become active in the Orthodox Union and once more he moved up the ranks. He was slated to become president when the Lanner affair broke four years ago. Because of mistakes that were made and intensive media attention, the Orthodox Union was in serious trouble. There were critical legal and financial issues, as well as the dilemma of how to deal with the scandal while preventing the organization from coming apart. Harvey acted decisively and yet with appropriate moderation, making no excuses for what was wrong. Now that the crisis has passed, it is easy to forget how perilous the situation was for an organization that in the blink of an eye had forfeited much of the good reputation that it had acquired over the previous century. It is a measure of his leadership that the Orthodox Union continues to play a vital role in American Jewish life.

But not with Harvey as president. This was never his cup of tea, even though he felt a duty to accept a position that was contrary to his and Judy’s nature. I am going to the dinner to join in a tribute to an old friend who has honored our community.
It is risky to single out individuals for praise because those who are not mentioned may feel that their accomplishments are being dismissed. That fate befell my recent article on Jewish life in Moscow when I briefly praised one woman and the school she heads and my words were interpreted by some as disrespectful of the efforts of others.

I would ordinarily not add or change what I have written because I believe that if I praise A, that should not be taken as criticism of B. The Former Soviet Union is different because those who have come from afar to serve the Jewish people are sacrificing much. This is especially true of Mrs. Dara Goldschmidt, a gifted woman who came to Moscow fifteen years ago as a young mother. She has accomplished wonders as the head of the Eitz Chaim school. She does not need my approbation, nor my neglect. I hope that these few words compensate for the omission. Incidentally, she is about to come here with a group of girls who will perform in several localities. It’s a mitzvah to give encouragement and support to her and her school.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Iraq, Islam and Israel

Ever since the U.S. prepared to go into Iraq, too little thought has been given to how developments there might affect Israel. The assumption in Israel and perhaps among most American Jews who identify themselves as Jewish has been that the overthrow of Sadaam Hussein and his murderous regime is a good thing and for that reason alone, his riddance is good for Israel. More generally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and war in Iraq are regarded as separate matters. Even with the bad news coming out of Iraq, there continues to be a failure to connect the dots.

What happens in Iraq is of direct and important consequence to Israel. While the Bush Administration is severely and rightly criticized for faulty intelligence and dubious war calculations and now also for the horrific abuse of prisoners, the greater failure is the paucity of intelligence – both in the sense of information gathering and also the rational understanding of events – regarding how U.S. military action would provoke Islamic and nationalistic fervor among Iraqis. Therein lies the mess this country is in, as well as the greater dangers confronting Israel.

All of this should have been foreseen, for the brutish and fanatical side of Islam has been on display for quite a while, even before 9/11. More than a year ago and before the start of military action, I questioned whether defeating Iraq and deposing Hussein “are important goals for Israel.” After acknowledging that “it is not smart to go after a President who is both popular and a friend, especially since the administration’s war plans are aimed at combating terrorism, a goal that Israel and American Jews share,” I wrote:

“The problem is that there are critical issues affecting Israel that ought to be discussed. For openers, there is the problem of Islamic fundamentalism engulfing post-Hussein Iraq, a state which for all of the butchery of its dictator is essentially secular and has not been particularly hospitable to Islamic fanatics. While this does not make Hussein any less an evil man, it does affect political realities that should not be ignored.”

I would be happier had my doubts been misfounded, perhaps the product of a too critical and pessimistic outlook. But the news is not good. We may have thrown out the baby with the bath water. More than the deteriorating American position in Iraq, there is the rapid acceleration of rabid Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism. For Israel, there are new perils on top of the familiar dangers arising from Palestinian terrorism and endless Arab hostility. Iraq has been destabilized, unless we regard the uniting of Shi’ites and Sunnis in a coalition of the willing to do battle against the U.S. as a salutary development.

Iraq poses no military threat to Israel and that’s not likely to change any time soon. The danger is more elusive and scary because it arises from a violent ideology that is not restrained by the strategic or moral considerations that ordinarily inhibit extreme actions. Israel can protect itself quite well, albeit with casualties, against the enemies that it has had to contend with for more than a half century. Security fences and pre-emptive strikes, however, are flimsy protections against theological madness, against a mind-set that recognizes violence as a noble value.

What is happening in Iraq is a major headache for Jordan and, more generally, for Syria and even Egypt. For all of their nasty rhetoric, encouragement of anti-Semitism and coddling of terrorists, frontline Arab states are terrified over the possible contagion of an Islamic ideology that cannot accept the legitimacy of these substantially secular regimes. Egypt and Jordan may sincerely accept the notion that Israel has a right to exist, although at times I wonder. Even more, they know that Israel’s existence provides them with an extra measure of protection.

The Islamic menace transcends the Middle East, as events throughout Europe and large chunks of Asia make clear. The twenty-first century, still in its infancy, is likely to be dominated by violent eruptions emanating from Islamic fanaticism. No victory or string of victories is likely to quiet the fever that emanates from a theology that is entirely at odds with the dignity and freedom that we accept as basic human rights.

I do not feel comfortable writing in this vein. I do not believe that Arabs should be demonized or that all who embrace Islam are mindless fanatics. Likely, there are many – perhaps they are a silent majority – who want peace and who have aspirations that resemble what we aspire to. The problem is that in revolutionary situations and especially in societies that are driven by violence, political outcomes are not determined by majority rule. What is too often decisive is the willingness of those who are intoxicated by ideology to fight for their cause, whatever the cost. In the Islamic world, there is now no light at the end of the tunnel, no reason to expect that somehow, as President Bush predicted, those who reject democratic ideals will be transformed into advocates of civil liberties.

If this admittedly pessimistic interpretation is valid, it may be that there is little for Israel to do except to sit tight and continue to muddle through. There should be no expectation that concessions will result in a meaningful peace or lasting security, for concessions have no more efficacy than tossing raw meat to a pack of hungry animals. The satisfaction of today’s needs will not mitigate tomorrow’s demands.

Admittedly, experience shows that there is no right or sure formula for Middle East diplomacy, that decisions are largely a patchwork of guesses. Since every peace plan can easily be dissected and its risks exposed, there is something to the argument that Israel should stand pat.

I believe that this is an invitation to others to attempt to determine Israel’s destiny, specifically for the U.S. to put great pressure on Israel, something that is going to happen sooner or later. The Likud vote rejecting Mr. Sharon’s plan is a vote that adds to Israel’s vulnerability. What the Prime Minister is proposing is risky, to be sure. There is even greater risk to staying in Gaza.

Monday, May 10, 2004

RJJ Newsletter - May 2004

After a half-century of uninterrupted growth in Orthodox day school and yeshiva enrollment, the understandable assumption is that our schools are flourishing around the country. In fact, Jewish schools are a bit like real estate: Location counts – not for everything, but certainly for a great deal. The overall statistics of enrollment growth mask what is happening in quite a few communities where Orthodox schools are experiencing a drop in students, as well as the inevitable corollary financial hardship that comes with reduced tuition income.

As noted in the previous Newsletter, I am conducting another census of U.S. day schools, the aim being to have complete information on these vital institutions. A report is slated for release in the fall. What can be reported is that in a surprising, even shocking, number of places, Orthodox school enrollment has been going down. This is the primary pattern outside of the New York metropolitan area and several other large cities.

This unhappy picture is the outcome of demographic developments that may not be reversible. There is a shrinking pool of children available for Orthodox schools in most cities with fairly sizable Jewish populations, this despite the high fertility rate among Orthodox Jews. Especially after marriage, younger Jews are moving away, partly in fulfillment of the apparent American Jewish belief that children should not live near their parents. It is also the case that Orthodox parents with young children are attracted to the richer religious communal life in the New York area and larger cities.

Historically, Orthodox day schools were able to recruit children from marginally religious homes, some only nominally Orthodox and others located in the more traditional segment of Conservative Jewry. This has changed dramatically, as the nominal Orthodox have faded away and as the non-Orthodox have opened day schools, thereby drawing away students who otherwise might attend an Orthodox institution.

Intra-Orthodox competition is another factor. This is an old story that goes back to the 1970’s, although it has become more complex as the Orthodox –10% of U.S. Jews – have become more diversified and splintered. In some communities, the mission of the flagship day school to serve the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy and some of the non-Orthodox has been undermined by the determination of those who have veered toward greater religiosity to have schools that reflect their attitudes and behavior.

More recently and particularly at the high school level, there has been a reaction in the other direction, as schools reflecting a more modern outlook have been established. The expansion of the Chabad day school network has contributed as well to the escalating enrollment problems of older day schools. Interestingly, this development has picked up steam since the Rebbe’s passing.

While the increased concentration of the Orthodox in New York and a handful of key urban areas is not likely to change and in certain respects it is a welcome development, there is an inescapable downside. Concentration has unhappy economic consequences, including more limited job opportunities and higher housing costs, two conditions that already are causing great distress in the lives of too many New York area Orthodox, notably in the yeshiva world sector. This issue receives too little attention in the yeshiva world, I believe because rabbinical and lay leaders fail to understand the challenge and their responsibilities. It’s of note that several Chassidic groups are planning the establishment of new communities for young families somewhat away from the expensive environs of New York.

At the communal level, the precarious condition of many day schools could presage the deterioration of religious life in the communities where they are located. Without stable day schools, more families will move away and few observant families will move in. Prospects for meaningful kiruv could be lost, with Chabad filling the vacuums with its increasingly feel-good brand of Judaism.

This is a large and free country. People can relocate as they please and they have the freedom (with some socio-psychological restraints) to determine what schools their children attend. Any pitch imploring religious parents to enroll their children in schools that desperately need to bolster their enrollment is not likely to be received favorably. Again, it may be that there is nothing to do to help struggling communities and their schools. I have urged that those who are responsible for the day school movement and kiruv focus more on neglected areas in the New York region where there are large concentrations of Jews and few Jewish schools to meet their needs.

The Orthodox day school movement and yeshiva world that directs it have settled on kollels and adult education as the best way to prop up communities in distress. These are meritorious approaches because the promotion of Torah study is always meritorious. Available evidence suggests, however, that kollels and adult education do little to strengthen communities or day schools unless there are meaningful corollary efforts to assist the schools.

Long ago, in the 1940’s and 1950’s when the Orthodox prospect was less promising than it now is and to a large extent newly-founded Orthodox day schools were reaching out to parents who were minimally observant, great Torah leaders gave inspiration and strength to the educators and lay leaders who accepted the responsibility of day school education in their communities. These Torah leaders recognized that communities and schools could be build only from the bottom up, not from the top down.

We ought to speak to the educators and lay leaders in communities across the country and ask them how we might assist them in their sacred work as they struggle against great odds to sustain the schools that sustain religious life.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Springtime in Moscow

I was in Moscow last week, eleven months after my last visit. There is evidence everywhere of economic growth, in the hotels packed with foreign business people and the elegant shops and new malls, as well as in the renovation of old apartment houses. No more than elsewhere are these developments translated into an improved standard of living for most of the population. But many have benefited already and the good times are leading to better wages for working people. Economic progress has also resulted in huge traffic jams that threaten to choke the heart of the city.

Much of the wealth of Russia is concentrated in the Moscow region. What happens there isn’t representative of the rest of the country where there are large pockets of poverty. Overall, though, there have been gains nearly everywhere. It is no wonder that Russians strongly support Vladmir Putin.

With an instinct for entrepreneurship and creativity, Jews have taken advantage of the new economic opportunities. While attention has been paid to the billionaire oligarchs whose time probably has passed, perhaps more importantly there has been an accumulation of wealth among Jews in a number of business fields. This is evident in Moscow which has by far the largest concentration of Jews in the Former Soviet Union. Although FSU Jewish population figures are largely guesswork, it’s no guess that Moscow’s Jewish population has grown steadily and Jews have relocated there because of the financial opportunities.

This doesn’t refute entirely the fairy tales being told to and endorsed by Judge Edward Korman of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn who has fallen hook, line and sinker for the claim that FSU Jews are experiencing grinding poverty. There are quite a few poor Jews, but certainly not in the numbers that have been claimed and even they are being helped by communal social service projects. Arkady Mil-Man, Israel’s ambassador to Russia, told me that 95% of Russian Jews have visited Israel. The figure is an exaggeration, yet it points to the economic situation of Russian Jews, as do the long lines of Jews waiting for visas at the Israel embassy.

Another bit of evidence is provided by the thousands who have returned from Israel after making aliyah. Their usual reason, as one young woman told me, is that there are better prospects for a good livelihood in Russia.

It is too early to know how Russian Jewish life will evolve. One positive sign is the strong attachment to Israel, fed by the close familial ties between the Jews of both countries. Israel’s enormous investment in FSU Jewish education and other activities has paid off handsomely. Another good sign is the flowering of Russian Jewish communal life, with Lubavitch-Chabad being the dominant force.

These developments might suggest that seeds have been planted for the emergence of a vibrant Jewish community. There is another side to the picture. Overwhelmingly, Russian Jews are secular, as must be expected after more than two generations of Communism. To boot, a majority of those who are identified as Jews qualify for this identity under an expansive interpretation of Israel’s Law of Return, so they have a tenuous connection to Jewish peoplehood.

Apart from Chabad, efforts to encourage religious commitment appear to be floundering. Some religious institutions and programs have closed and others are on wobbly legs. There are notable exceptions, as in the advanced yeshiva outside of Moscow and the impressive girls school in the city directed by Rivka Weiss. Most Russians who have been influenced in a religious direction now live in Israel, a salutary circumstance that obviously detracts from religious life in the old country. Another factor is the inherent weakness of religious activities that rely heavily on itinerant educators and functionaries, usually from Israel and the U.S. When they are gone, too often so are their accomplishments.

Chabad is different. Its people come to stay. There are now hundreds of Chabad families, mostly young couples with young children, spread throughout the FSU all the way from Siberia to Vladivostok in the Far East near Japan.

There has been nothing like the Chabad FSU experience in modern Jewish history, as no movement has been as dominant. There are Chabad schools, synagogues, camps, community centers and social service centers in nearly every place of Jewish settlement and the number grows steadily. Many Chabad institutions are housed in attractive facilities, which is testimony to philanthropic support, increasingly from Russian Jews.

On one large tract in a key part of Moscow, Chabad is now building separate facilities for a boys seminary, a high school, a large social service center and the Museum of the History of the Jews of Russia.

In Russia, Chabad is led by Rabbi Berel Lazar, an impressive young man of talent and vision who has emerged as a key world Jewish leader and is accepted by most as the country’s Chief Rabbi. His close relationship with President Putin has obviously advanced the Chabad cause and added to his prominence. Rabbi Lazar has a lot more going for him than political connections.

In his zone of authority, Chabad’s messianic message is muted, a reflection I believe of the diminished role of messiansm in the Chabad-Lubavitch scheme of things, as additional time goes by since the passing of the Rebbe. It may also be that a movement whose everyday business is not theology but the conduct of communal affairs has less interest in trumpeting messianism.

It is also the case that with the wide variety of secular responsibilities, Chabad in Russia – and elsewhere where it serves secular Jews – has a decreasing or perhaps ambivalent religious character. In most places outside of Israel, Chabad has fudged the “Who is a Jew?” issue, as it is being confronted by the reality that as it spreads its net even further, there is a diminishing supply of halachic Jews to reach out to. What may happen in Russia is that Chabad will develop into a bi-polar arrangement, with one segment consisting of core Chabad families and perhaps some other religious Jews and the larger consisting of secular and quasi-Jews who are attracted to Chabad because of the important services that it provides.