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.