Monday, June 21, 2004

Libraries as Orphans

This past Friday, I trudged an extra mile in heat and humidity to get to the public library nearest to my home. Well, not quite the nearest. There’s one much closer on the other side of Borough Park. It’s been shuttered for perhaps two years, presumably for renovations. No one seems to know when it will reopen. Meanwhile, the families that used it – and it was a busy place – will have to make do without an educational resource that was important to thousands of kids. Who cares? Libraries are orphans or perhaps stepchildren and they have to be satisfied with whatever they get.

I arrived at the library at about 3pm. The place was busy but not crowded. According to a librarian, the facility is usually packed at that hour on Fridays. Far and away, most of the people were charedim or very Orthodox Jews, mainly Chassidim. There were men with beards, girls with long skirts, boys with peyos. Of the ten computer terminals, six were being used by religious Jews. In the separate children’s reading room, chassidic mothers were reading to clusters of children. In sharp contrast to chassidic dress, the staff and others who were using the library had what can be called a contemporary look.

As I looked at the scene, I thought of an article in the Jerusalem Post that I had read two weeks previously while in Israel. It was by Ephraim Zuroff who demonstrated anew a capacity to write without sense or sensibility about religious Jews. Himself part of the Modern Orthodox fringe that constantly attacks Jews of a more religious orientation, Zuroff wrote that unlike charedim, the Modern Orthodox believe that a religious Jew “need not live totally divorced from one’s surroundings.” Charedim, he declared without qualification, “totally reject” this premise and seek “total segregation.”

This is total nonsense, if only because total separation is a sociological impossibility. As the library experience clearly shows, charedim do manage to be part of the larger society, at least in some key respects.

I did not go to this branch to test an absurd claim or to rebut those who constantly denigrate religious Jews. My purpose was more general and secular, to learn about public libraries, specifically how they are being treated by those who control their funding. The story is depressing.

Public libraries in New York City have experienced sharp cutbacks in funding, hours and services. They are essentially a bit more than half-day operations. In Brooklyn, they open at one pm and, on most days, close at six. Weekend and summer hours have also been severely curtailed. New York’s recent budget problems have much to do with this, although even in the best of times, public libraries were very low on the totem pole. When I attended yeshiva on the Lower East Side eons ago, I would drop in at the Seward Park branch of the New York Public Library, then as now an attractive building on East Broadway across the street from the famous Educational Alliance. The place was always hopping. There was – I think it is still there – a plaque on the building’s fa├žade proclaiming that the library was established through the generosity of Andrew Carnegie, the steel tycoon whose substantial philanthropy was largely targeted to build public libraries throughout the US.

Even now, philanthropy is a factor in library funding. Governments foot most of the bills, at least to the extent of ensuring that librarians are among the lowest paid civil servants. When belt tightening is required, libraries already accustomed to get by on very little take an extra hit. Isn’t it nice to pick on the weaklings?

In a way, librarians are responsible for their maltreatment. They are nearly all passive folks, people who believe in books and like what they are doing. It’s hard to find a less militant group of public employees and they pay dearly for their servility. Librarians never threaten to shut down a library. That task is assigned to budget cutters who prey on the weak.

There are funds aplenty for povertycrats and a multitude of schemes and scams concocted by those to whom pols kowtow. What is bogus is preferred over what is needed. More legitimately, there is now an urgent push to come up with additional billions for public schools. As for libraries, there is scarcely any spare change.

The upshot is that education and kids suffer, as do all of us. There is a steep price to pay for our miserly attitude toward institutions that serve as a barometer of the standards and civility of a society. It should not take much to figure out that libraries augment formal education, that they and books elevate children and transport them to worlds not seen and to ideas that were unknown. Why stifle the imagination and creativity engendered by reading? To save a small fraction of one percent of the city’s budget?

There’s much dysfunction in the lives of children, much pain and risk. Books are safe harbors and libraries are the place where most children find the books they want to read, the place where they develop good habits that give them a strong start toward a productive adulthood. We should not even for a moment want to limit the opportunity of children to find books to read. Is it preferable that they be on the street, hanging out and having an entirely different and often pernicious learning experience?

Of the rotten fruit of libraries being treated as orphans, none is more self-destructive than the further curtailment of summer hours. Every public library branch should be opened the entire day during the summer and there should be activities aimed at attracting additional children. Yet, there are now new cutbacks on top of the old ones.

We only have ourselves to blame. We have mistreated libraries and there are few who advocate their cause.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

The Supreme Court Decides Not To Decide

It’s fun but not too enlightening to read the Supreme Court’s tea leaves. When the Justices are obscure, as they often are, it’s not because the nine eminences are teasing the rest of us who must solve the puzzle that they have concocted. More likely, they haven’t figured out what they want to decide and they buy time through one device or another, including procedural copouts.

That’s what has just happened in the Pledge of Allegiance case, as five of the nine played chicken by ruling that Michael Newdow does not have standing to challenge the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge on behalf of his daughter because he does not have full legal custody of her. This despite lower court rulings that under California law – where the girl lives – Newdow has sufficient custody to bring the suit. The Pledge and the two terrible words are safe, at least until the next challenge, presumably initiated by a parent whose custody is unchallenged. Maybe then the Justices will tell us whether an innocuous reference to a Supreme Being subverts our Constitutional system.

We are likely to learn down the road what went on in the present case, why it took months for the Court to produce four uninspired opinions that lead to nowhere. Proponents of the Pledge are claiming victory since the status quo has been maintained and millions of schoolchildren can continue to recite the unexpurgated version. We know that three Justices who reached the constitutional issue believe that the First Amendment does not preclude innocent language that strongly resembles what is publicly announced at the start of every session of the Supreme Court.

There is a sure fourth vote on the side of religion, it being that of Justice Scalia who recused himself because of incautious public remarks about the case that were uttered before he listened to the arguments of Newdow that he wasn’t going to listen to in any case. It seems that the Supreme Court’s code of etiquette regards public utterances about a pending case as a more serious violation than duck hunting with the Vice President who is a party in a case that is now before the Court.

The five Justices who ducked the issue preface their procedural ruling with an expression of how the Pledge of Allegiance serves as a unifying symbol for the nation. Their words may indicate that “under God” is kosher, although if any of the five feels this way, it is hard to figure out why he did not vote. The Pledge issue is straightforward and does not require additional legal research or fact-finding and we already have a good idea of what the public thinks. It could be that the High Court is split, perhaps sharply, and a majority of the Justices believe that it is prudent not to issue a ruling in a hot-button case during a heated presidential campaign.

Irrespective of whether the Pledge ultimately passes constitutional muster, the case points to the increased vulnerability of religion when judges rule on its place in the public square. Of the four opinions, Justice O’Connor’s strikes me as the strongest. She makes the interesting point that while “citizens of this Nation have been neither timid nor unimaginative in challenging government practices as forbidden establishments of religion,” in the fifty years that “under God” has been included in the Pledge, this is only the third legal challenge to its constitutionality. She concludes that it is “telling that so little ire has been directed at the Pledge.”

It is also telling that a solitary atheist motivated by animosity toward religion can get judges to give weight to a constitutional argument that had not been previously advanced in any serious way, not even by the usually alert and aggressive guardians of the First Amendment, such as the ACLU. We are at the point when courtrooms have been transferred into nesting places for anti-religious sentiments.

If the Pledge survives intact, as I believe it will, it will be because the two terrible words are being re-marketed in Justice O’Connor’s phrase as “ceremonial deism,” as a slogan that is explicitly labeled as not intended to convey religious sentiments. We will speak about history and tradition and about how the words “under God” do nothing more than give solemnity to public occasions and unite Americans.

As the judiciary locates new civil rights and liberties that limit the role of religion, there are competing and even antithetical developments elsewhere in our governmental system. President Bush does not beat around the bush in proclaiming that he is religious and his administration is religious and his agenda is informed by a religious sensibility. For more than three years, the White House has steadily looked for ways to advance the goals of the Christian Right.

What has emerged at the governmental level might be regarded as extreme bi-polarity. The Executive branch and the House of Representatives lustily sing Onward Christian Soldiers and other variations of a religious theme, while federal courts circumscribe the place of religion. This is one manifestation of the dualism in contemporary American life. At once, gay marriages are being legitimated and religious messages are being sent out by government. We are a badly polarized country and the center, vital or not, is being eroded.

The Supreme Court has too often added fuel to America’s ideological fires, serving as a divisive force rather than as an instrumentality for greater unity. This has been true of the Rehnquist Court, particularly its infamous ruling on the 2000 election. By not ruling on the Pledge, the Justices missed an opportunity to create greater unity on an issue where there already is a large consensus that favors “under God.” Newdow’s lawsuit opened a wound and now it remains open because the Justices did not fulfill their responsibility to decide.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Ten Years After the Rebbe's Passing

The tenth Yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is in two weeks. His Chabad movement has grown enormously since his death, contrary to the predictions of scholars and journalists who believed that without a successor there would be serious trouble in chabadland. There has been conflict regarding authority and financial matters and, of course, regarding Messianism. Yet, Chabad is considerably larger than it was a decade ago, in some measure due to opportunities in the Former Soviet Union that it has fully exploited, but more importantly because the Rebbe instilled operational arrangements, a culture of shlichut or service and a belief system that have impelled young Chabad representatives to go into new communities, including in the United States.

For all of the messianic fervor, it’s evident that in the field and away from Crown Heights and at Tzfat and perhaps Kfar Chabad in Israel, the emissaries overwhelmingly acknowledge that the Rebbe is not alive, although his persona and teachings are powerfully alive in their lives. The Moshiach matter is far more muted than it was several years ago. Few Chabad people openly disavow messianic sentiments, if only because the theme was central to the Rebbe’s message and actions in his final years and also because it is understood that conflict over messianism could rupture the movement.

On a practical level, the Rebbe’s great contribution is a decentralized system that resembles franchising, a concept that I employed while the Rebbe was alive. Chabad emissaries are given substantial leeway in the communities they serve. As in all franchise systems, there are common features, including large pictures of the Rebbe, a standard look and dress for Chabad men, Menorah ceremonies and other rituals. There is also the Chabad message of tolerance and feel good Judaism.

While Chabad is, of course, a religious movement, overwhelmingly those who participate in its activities are not particularly observant. Chabad’s approach is to make these Jews comfortable, an attitude that raises sticky questions regarding issues that are fundamental in Orthodox life, such as driving on Shabbos and intermarriage. The emissaries do not actually accept such deviant practices, but they also do not directly condemn them. In daily dealings with rank and file Jews, Chabad is in an important sense atheological. The important goal is to attract the unaffiliated and there is much success in this regard. Hopefully, there will be movement along a continuum of increased observance. It is not possible to know how many Jews have become observant throughChabad. The number cannot be high because of what we know about American Jewish demography.

This issue matters less to Chabad people than to others in Orthodox life. The Rebbe preached that solitary observances – women lighting Shabbos candles and men putting on Tefilin – performed occasionally or even just once have a redemptive capacity. It is small wonder that the Rebbe’s and Chabad’s message is warmly received by many tens of thousands of Jews who want to be considered good Jews but who also do not want to become observant. It helps, as well, that Chabad families in the field invariably show kindness towards those with whom they have contact. In a world where many are lonely or unhappy, this counts for much. It is not surprising that within the world of Chabad there are in a sense two tiers of Judaism, one with a distinctive religious character for Chabad families and another for those who are served by Chabad. There is separation in education and social contacts and two sets of rules for religious behavior.

Whatever its components, the formula is working. As Jews move into new areas in the U.S., likely as not the primary local religious presence is Chabad. There is a parallel expansion into other areas where Chabad has exploited the inability of shuls and schools to attract personnel and to raise the necessary funds to keep going. For much of the Rebbe’s long tenure, there was at least a de facto downplaying of day schools, as the movement focused on supplementary education, camps and Chabad Houses. This has changed and there now is a growing network of Chabad day schools.

Expansion inevitably results in the need for additional personnel. Whether because there is no other option or this is the preferred way, there is today an almost total reliance on young families – husband and wife teams – that are given the opportunity for leadership and creativity and, in a sense, entrepreneurship. There is a culture of lifetime service in the field that permeates the inner world of Chabad. This bears some resemblance to missionary arrangements in other religions, although it is almost certain that through his assessment of what the situation required, the Rebbe reached the conclusion that this was the way for Chabad to achieve its goals.

This development is abetted by an educational/training approach that prepares young chabadniks for communal service. Unlike the emphasis in American Jewish life on training programs that yield scant fruit, Chabad teenagers are encouraged to go into the field and to spend time at various seminaries around the world where they develop useful contacts and feelings of self-reliance. It is extraordinary to see the extent to which young Chabad people are confident in their ability to accept challenging assignments and to succeed. The degree of responsibility given to young people is remarkable and while there are instances of failure, the larger picture by far is of success in locations that seemed to have had little Judaic promise.

By success I mean the ability to reach out to uncommitted Jews and to get them to participate. It is another question how this approach will work out in the long run. If the performance of solitary mitzvahs is redemptive, the long run is already here. If the issue is maintaining Jewish life and commitment into future generations, time will tell whether the Rebbe – one of the epic figures in 20th century Jewish life – created a movement that ensures that the children and grandchildren of those who now participate in Chabad activities will themselves participate in Jewish life.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Notes on Satmar

Except for an occasional newspaper article, usually arising out of an incident, little attention is paid to Satmar, the chassidic group located mainly in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. There were several scholarly works decades ago, but so far as I know there hasn’t been much since the passing in 1979 of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the towering figure who led Satmar for about 70 years.

Satmar is an important force in American Jewish life. At least one out of every ten yeshiva or day school students at the elementary and high school levels – 20,000 in all – is in a Satmar school and the number is growing. Keeping pace is the establishment of new synagogues and schools in Brooklyn and now also in Queens, as well as in Monroe, the suburban community forty miles outside of New York that Rabbi Teitelbaum established in the 1970’s.

The group’s extraordinary fertility rate – ten or more children in a family is not uncommon – results in constant pressure for new housing. There are several satellite communities in New York and more will be formed. In Williamsburg, chassidim are pushing into Bedford Stuyvestant, without the ethnic acrimony that has characterized relations with Hispanics on the south side of Williamsburg. Interestingly, Satmar family size is lower in Borough Park, perhaps because this is a more upscale community and in tune with a familiar pattern, socio-economic status impacts on family size.

Rabbi Teitelbaum was an intellectual giant and also charismatic and determined, qualities that were evident as he rebuilt Satmar after it had been nearly decimated in the Holocaust. He was known for his fierce opposition to Zionism and to the notion that Israel is a Jewish state, as well as for his unswerving insistence on rigorous religious standards. His views influenced other chassidic groups, but not Belz or Ger in Israel or Lubavitch, and also the yeshiva world sector of Orthodoxy. He conditioned his followers to be generous and that is a key communal trait of Satmar.

The present Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, succeeded his uncle twenty-five years ago. Now nearly 90 and ailing, perhaps his major achievement has been to keep his flock intact, this despite continuous and dangerous conflict between two sons who are jockeying to be his successor. What lies ahead may not be pretty. In a sense, Satmar has turned into quasi-autonomous fiefdoms, an arrangement that is true of several other chassidic groups.

Perhaps because of the restrained style of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, Satmar’s anti-Israel message has been muted. I sense that here and in Israel, charedim (the fiercely Orthodox) have veered toward greater acceptance of Israel, but not of Zionism. There is Neturei Karta, a fringe group that has had links to Satmar, whose hatred of Israel impels it toward making common cause with Palestinians. These odious outwardly-appearing religious Jews are willing to transgress Shabbos restrictions in order to participate in anti-Israel activities. The connection between Satmar and Neturei Karta may be tenuous, still it behooves the chassidic group to more overtly disavow support of those who break treife bread with suicide bombers.

From its inception Satmar has been enmeshed in political activity, seeking good relations with secular officials. There obviously is little ideological affinity. The tendency is to support incumbents, the idea being to swap votes – or the expectation of votes – for public benefits in housing and social services. Political activity has yielded some gains, yet for all of the perception that Satmars and, more generally, chassidim are politically sophisticated and have much clout, they aren’t astute as they go about their interactions with government. Often they come away with little, although because they go in for photo-ops and other public displays, they create the perception of being powerful.

Large families invariably beget financial hardship. There is considerable poverty among Satmars, especially in Williamsburg. Its incidence is below what some of the community’s critics and leaders claim. The Satmar economic infrastructure is substantially based on private enterprise, not governmental funds, as is evident from the great many housing units being built with private capital. Satmars benefit somewhat ironically from their strong devaluation of secular education, particularly for males, and the concurrent arrangement whereby relatively few young men remain in yeshiva more than two or three years past the high school period. As a rule, only the best students pursue an extended course of advanced religious study.

These factors plus a powerful culture of entrepreneurship result in creative and aggressive men seeking business opportunities at a young age, with quite a few succeeding and some spectacularly. There is already a large Satmar middle-class and also pockets of affluence. What has occurred bears an interesting resemblance to the American Jewish experience in the first half of the twentieth century when poverty and limited educational and professional opportunities resulted in many young Jews going into business, setting the foundation for the extraordinary economic success we have achieved on these shores.

There are no statistics of how many Satmars leave the fold, some abandoning religious life altogether, nor do we know how many remain outwardly tied to the community in dress and other practices and yet whose behavior deviates significantly from religious norms. Attrition is certainly a problem, as community leaders recognize, and this should not be surprising in view of the openness of American society and the many powerful features that may entice especially young chassidim away from religiosity.

As the third generation of Satmar life unfolds in the U.S., the pattern so far has been of a community that is holding together, in a sense via a consensus that modernity must be resisted. Whether this will be sufficient to maintain group cohesion as new challenges arise is an interesting question. But even if Satmar splits, the strong likelihood is that the overall sociological character of the group will be maintained.