Thursday, July 29, 2004

The Betrayal of Jewish Day Schools

For two-thirds of the last century, Federations across the country refused to assist Jewish day schools. There were exceptions, usually arising out of special circumstances such as in Cleveland. The dominant pattern was neglect and it was not always benign. The Federation world was strongly committed to a universalistic agenda that favored hospitals and secular activities and had little room for overtly Jewish programs. Day schools were targeted for special hostility because they went against the grain of the melting pot mentality, against our goal of total integration into American life. Day schools were for many Jews an embarrassment.

The situation began to change in the 1970's as a confluence of factors - Israel and Soviet Jewry, the Black revolution and the attendant acceptance of ethnic identity and fears about Jewish continuity - resulted in a new willingness to focus on parochial Jewish concerns. Day schools benefited from this change, although it would be a stretch to say that they were embraced by Federation leaders. A survey of key Federation people conducted several years ago revealed more than residual doubts about the legitimacy of all-day religious schools. Still, most Federations provided support for day schools and while the amounts were generally meager, they were helpful. But once a threshold of support was set, it remained a constant, constituting as a consequence a steadily reduced share of the typical day school budget.

Because of the great concentration of yeshivas and day schools in its service area, the New York Federation could not readily come up with a formula that would provide meaningful assistance to these schools. The situation was directly addressed by Joseph Gruss of blessed memory, the great philanthropist who fervently believed that meaningful religious education is the key - perhaps the only key - to Jewish survival. Through his own foundation he developed programs that directly assist day schools and educators. The hallmark of his creative philanthropy was simplicity and fairness, as he abhorred the cant and self-promotion that inheres in grantsmanship. He insisted on a level playing field and day schools and their faculty have benefited enormously from his vision and generosity.

Mr. Gruss insisted that the New York Federation had to do its share. Through his determination the Fund for Jewish Education was established twenty-five years ago. The FJE is a Federation-Gruss partnership, with the former footing two-thirds of the bill or $3 million a year and Gruss half of that. The $4.5 million provides fringe benefits to eligible educators in Jewish schools, including term life insurance and contributions toward medical coverage, and also basic grants to participating schools. Because FJE funding is essentially fixed, these initiatives have declined steadily as a percentage of the cost of medical coverage and day school budgets. Furthermore, the basic grants have been reduced. In 1982 they ranged from $3,850 to $22,000 for day schools. The range last year was $2,600 to $14,700.

Another consequence of the failure to add to the FJE pot was that for more than a decade its programs have been closed to additional schools.

The obvious way of dealing with the escalating needs of FJE programs is to increase the available funds, perhaps by aggressively seeking other philanthropic partners. While there has been a bit of additional funding, in an important sense this path has not been taken by Federation officials. I believe that the reason is that they never had much liking for the Fund for Jewish Education. When FJE came into being, I was told that Federation felt it had been duped and coerced by Mr. Gruss, that in addition to it putting up the lion's share of the funds, the funding formulas followed Mr. Gruss' dictates. It also did not help that more than 90% of the day schools in the Federation's service area are Orthodox.

Now in a shocking betrayal of their communal responsibilities, Federation functionaries abetted by some lay "leaders" have terminated the basic grants, perversely using the low funding level as a justification for this scandalous action. Simply put, the argument being advanced - and it was bought in an article last week in this newspaper - is that since FJE provides so little, it's right to cut off support to day schools. This betrayal of day schools and of the great legacy of Mr. Gruss is expressed without any embarrassment. We are being presented with a rhetorical smokescreen by public relations flacks that is pure sophistry and distorts the truth. The Jewish community is being deceived by being told that less is more.

This is happening at a time when most New York day schools are struggling to meet basic obligations, when in too many institutions underpaid teachers are behind in getting their paychecks, when educational services and maintenance are being scrimped on, when there are schools at the brink of collapse. Do Federation functionaries not recognize that a grant as low as $2,600 is a significant sum for many day schools?

My 1997 report on the financing of Jewish day schools clearly showed that basic grants are the primary mode of Federation support for day schools around the country. So far as I know, no other Federation has eliminated basic grants to day schools.

While the Federation world has never been seriously committed to meaningful Jewish education, it is still difficult to understand how Federation officials would take steps to hurt Jewish schools. The deed was announced in mid-July during the summer doldrums when most schools are all but shut down and few people pay much attention to matters such as this. The issue has received limited newspaper coverage and only the Jewish Press has criticized the harmful action.

The day school movement which not long ago in the aftermath of NJPS 1990 was trumpeted as the best bet we have to strengthen Jewish values and identity is in trouble and leaderless. The main Orthodox organization is preoccupied with adult education, grantsmanship, weekends and other diversions that allow it to ignore what is happening in day schools throughout North America. Astonishingly, this organization which once was in the forefront in insisting on Federation support for day schools has not issued a statement on the action of the New York Federation.

To make matters worse, funds taken away from struggling Jewish schools are to be redirected to "pilot programs" - itself a cliche for those who are clueless about Jewish education - that will subsidize mentoring and training projects. We can score one more for the already well-endowed Jewish education industry. We are awash in expensive training programs that lead nowhere, that do nothing for schools or educators and that are bereft of any standards to assess their effectiveness. The words "mentoring" and "training" are foolishly accepted as sufficient assurance that what is being undertaken and handsomely supported must be good.

The betrayal of day schools is cruel and it will be harmful. No public relations or sweet-talking will change this truth.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

New Posts

Posting has been light over the last few weeks, but within the next 48 hours, this week's Jewish Week piece will be posted, along with seven recent essays about contemporary Orthodox life.

UPDATE: Following are excerpts from three of the newly posted essays:

There are questions about kollels that should be raised, questions that accept the fundamental importance of these institutions in our contemporary religious life and yet do not accept uncritically the view that in a community where resources are obviously limited and priorities must be set, it is right to place so much emphasis on kollels while ordinary Torah education is increasingly being relegated to the status of a stepchild in Orthodox philanthropy.

It is also necessary to question whether the continued expansion of kollels is to be encouraged, without any regard being given to what the young men who study in kollels will be doing down the road.

There are kollels that make a major difference in the places where they are located and there are kollels that are, in effect, the breeding ground for the next generation of Torah scholars. It remains, however, that most kollels do not fit either of these profiles, that they exist for a host of other reasons, including ego gratification for their sponsors or because no one else knows what else to do with the rapidly growing number of married young men who need to be accommodated...

What is happening is part of the larger story of the abandonment by our community and leaders of ordinary yeshiva education, certainly at the elementary school level and, at times, above that...

I have made this point often and I recognize that, as in the past, what is being written here is likely to fall on deaf ears. As I write these lines, I am mindful of the example of the Great Roshe Yeshiva of Lakewood, that Torah giant who for all of the extraordinary burdens that confronted him worked tirelessly for basic Torah chinuch in Israel and North America. In a state of constant exhaustion, he raised funds for these institutions and was their leading advocate.

Has anyone seen even once during the past ten years a kol koreh from Roshei Yeshiva and Torah leaders proclaiming that it is a sacred obligation to support basic Torah chinuch? Just once? Their names are plastered everywhere, prohibiting this and advocating that, but when it comes to basic Torah education they are silent.

Full essay can be read here.

I have long believed that the functional division between kiruv and chinuch - outreach and Torah education - is a tragic strategic blunder. The two activities must be organically integrated in day schools (as they are in our Jewish Foundation School Division), else they cannot be effective...

Whatever directions kiruv may take, we need to examine why too many are moving away from Orthodoxy, why we are losing many who were "frum from birth." We must take a hard and honest look at what is occurring and see what we can do to reverse the trend.

There are, I know, situations that are beyond our reach. This is a large country and an open society and people can choose where and how they live and how they wish to be identified. We could do everything right and yet there will be some Orthodox who decide to abandon a religious life. Besides, America has been enmeshed in a drug culture which entraps the young, some of whom are our own. It may also be that we are losing adherents because of our own failings. I will not develop the thought here, except to say that whether or not we are more prone to wrongful business practices and other ethical lapses than persons who are not Jewish or not Orthodox, the moral condition of Orthodox life is in serious need of repair. Moral laxity by presumably Orthodox Jews serves as a deterrent for other Jews who might consider returning to Judaism. Likely, it is also the case that our derelictions serve as an incentive or excuse for some who want to abandon a religious life.

At a Torah Umesorah dinner years ago, I said that while we focus on Kiruv Rechokim - reaching out to those who are distant - we are Merachek Kerovim, turning away those who are close. This is sadly too true, at times, of yeshivas and day schools.

Full essay can be read here.

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...

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.

Full essay can be read here.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The Jewish Home

[The following is an excerpt of an essay about Rav Aharon and Rebbitzin Kotler by Marvin Schick that was printed in "Birth of a New World" published in conjunction with the 50th anniversary dinner of Bais Medrash Govoha in Lakewood]

THE MODESTY OF THE HOME she [the sainted Rebbitzin] created was in harmony with the home which Rav Aharon conceived for Torah in America. The Rosh Yeshiva desired to restore the crown of the Jewish people to its former glory by making for Torah a glorious home in the Bais Medrash and the Yeshiva. As Rav Aharon's home in the Yeshiva was patterned after Volozhin and Slobodka and Kletzk, so too, the home of the great Rebbitzin was faithful to the glory that had once been the Jewish home. It could not be tainted in the slightest way by the spirit of materialism, yet, the paucity of material things did not mean that this was a poor home. Neither Rav Aharon nor the Rebbitzin "wanted" anything. They did not "want" in the sense of desiring material things and they did not want in the sense of lacking material things. Their home was as they wanted it to be.

They showed us that the Bais Medrash and the Jewish home are not dependent for their sanctity on physical splendor. More than ever this lesson is important for both the Bais Medrash and the home as our community and people become more indulgent and more intoxicated with wealth, splendor and ostentation.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The Rabin Murder

Blogger provides archives only to 1999. Certain articles of note that appeared prior to then will at times be posted. The following column was originally published in the New York Jewish Week in 1995.

As if another and so vile an example were needed, the Rabin murder illustrates how evil begets evil. The foul deed was preceded by foul language which tarnished the listeners who did not protest and it has already produced new verbal nastiness, much of it directed at religious Jews caught in a McCarthyistic web of guilt by association.

It will not do to deny that words spoken here and in Israel contributed to a climate in which murder was accepted, although I doubt whether there was a causal relationship between what was said and what happened. Other elements, primarily the growing desperation, even paranoia, among some who opposed the Rabin government, contributed far more to the act of murder. Causality or not, the language used by a minority of Rabin’s critics was reprehensible.

It is always a difficult question to decide the ethical responsibility of people who hear loathsome words which they do not share, yet who do not protest. The pat view that protest is always a moral imperative runs counter to social and psychological realities, especially when the hateful sentiments are expressed by a relative or in a setting which makes protest awkward, perhaps graceless. We listen at times in silence to sentiments which we abhor because the alternative is not appealing. At times, we hate ourselves for this, but the experience does not mark the listener as a racist and certainly not as an accomplice to murder.

Now that blood has been shed, those who defend or excuse the murder of Israel’s Prime Minister - and shockingly there are such people - speak words which are despicable and there is a higher obligation than before on listeners to reject what they hear, even at the risk of upsetting the social applecart.

Too much of what is hateful has been uttered by religious Jews who claim to speak in the name of G-d and Torah and who profess love for the Jewish people and their land. If this is what they mean by love, we can do without it. Their love and their hate are one and both are stained by the blood of murder.

The implication of one and perhaps several religious Jews in the assassination and the larger number - but certainly not large number - who have condoned it has triggered a wave of scapegoating that should fill the heart of any bigot with joy. I am told that the Washington Post has been worse than the Times, although our newspaper of record has made its distinctive contribution to legitimating guilt by association. Its low point was reached shortly after the murder with a Z’ev Chaefetz op-ed column. Chaefetz - and I write this with care - has used language in writing about Judaism which parallels what Louis Farakhan has said.

In the present mood, Orthodox Jews, especially in Israel, are in for a rough time, the mea culpas of Rabbis notwithstanding. In the present mood, Arafat is to be embraced, Netanyahu scorned. In the present mood, civil rights are for one end of Israel’s spectrum, not the other. In the present mood, a large majority of Israelis appear ready to sign on the dotted line and to give back everything in the name of securing a lasting peace.

In the present mood, it is easy to forget that while thousands of Jews applauded Rabin’s murder, millions of Arabs cheered. It is also easy to forget that the PLO charter continues to advocate the destruction of Israel, that Egypt is steeped in anti-Semitism, that throughout the Arab world the strong sentiment is that peace agreements with Israel are interim strategic measures, that all of Israel is actively coveted by its neighbors.

In the present mood, it is convenient to downplay much of what happened prior to November 4. In the midst of an adulatory eulogy in the Times, Thomas Friedman wrote something that is telling, though in his characteristic smugness he got it wrong. In contrast to President Clinton who, he wrote, “is always hugging people” and “feeling their pain, Yitzchak Rabin never hugged anyone outside his own family. He did not feel your pain. He gave you pain.”

Is this to be the new standard for elevated political leadership? It is one thing for a president or prime minister to tell his people that tough times are ahead and that the pain has to be shared through tax hikes or budget cuts and something quite different for the head of a government to inflict emotional pain, to feed the fears of those who have reason to fear and to demonize his opponents. That’s political sadism, not political leadership.

If Israelis are willing to strike a bargain with the PLO, they ought to have the capability and the decency to reach out to and be tolerant toward Jews who live in real, not imagined, danger, Jews who for a generation provided buffer and protection for the heartland of Israel, Jews who have sacrificed much because of their devotion to Israel. In all of the torrent of negative writing about the Hesder yeshivas attended by a handful of these newly-dubbed religious fanatics, not a word has been said about their military service and about the disproportionate and devastating casualties they have suffered through service in the tank corps.

Instead, they have been depicted as an outlaw group. As they have been marginalized through brutal suppression of their demonstrations and, more compellingly by being labeled as fanatics, a sense of desperation has taken root and some have said or done awfully wrongful things for which they should be punished. Overwhelmingly, however, these people have been the glory of the State of Israel - a view expressed often by Yitzchak Rabin - and so they remain.

There is also the need for self-examination by the settlers and their avid supporters. The frame of mind which instructs that every inch of land under Israel’s control cannot be yielded in a peace agreement is the breeding ground for fanaticism and then for irrationality and paranoia.

What Israel urgently needs now is an internal peace process in which all sides yield.

1966 Letter to Tradition

A reader has e-mailed a letter published in the Fall 1966 issue of Tradition. The letter is a response to an article in the prior issue by Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, who was appointed Chief Rabbi of Britain later that year.


Rabbi Jakobovits in his "Rabbis and Deans" (TRADITION, Summer 1966) gives vent to the feelings of frustration and despair that seemingly envelop much of the Orthodox rabbinate of North America. Probably these feelings increase in proportion to the intelligence and vigor which the individual rabbi brings to his task. It is not difficult for even those who may disagree with much of his diagnosis to sympathize with Rabbi Jakobovits and to understand why his observations have drawn an encouraging response from many readers of TRADITION. But this sympathy should not blur the gratuitous nature of many of Rabbi Jakobovits' remarks, and after much consideration I offer these comments on the rabbi's unknowledgeable dicta regarding Roshei Yeshiva.

The plight of the Orthodox rabbi is real; and, yet, there is no logic or evidence in support of the notion that the problem is somehow rooted in the very recent ascendancy in this country of a small group of hard-working Roshei Yeshiva. The relative success of the deans has not come at the expense of the rabbis, and their loss of function or debunking them will not result in a return to the rabbinate of the functions that are thought to be within its competence.

The key to Rabbi Jakobovits' displeasure is what he regards as "The denigration and usurpation of the role of the practicing rabbi by yeshiva deans" which has undermined the place and functions of the rabbinate. His solution is "the restoration of rabbinic authority."

No, "denigration" and "usurpation" suggest a conscious and deliberate effort by the deans to (1) lower the prestige of the rabbis by (2) unfairly assuming their functions. How the activity of the Roshei Yeshiva has denigrated rabbis is hard to understand, particularly when we consider that a generation ago, when Roshei Yeshiva were not as prominent, many observers of American Judaism predicted the disappearance of Orthodoxy, except if the rabbis have been more lowly regarded because they have suffered by comparison with the deans. As to usurpation, the charge is totally unjustified. The few Roshei Yeshiva have not taken over functions performed by rabbis.

No one will gainsay, I suppose, that the weakness of the rabbinate is part of the more general problem of its dysfunctional (or, non-functional) nature. Except rarely, the rabbi is not the appointed leader of a community (the institution of community being a considerable broader one then the synagogue) but the hired spiritual leader of a synagogue, an institution whose major manifestation is usually a building. Rooted in a synagogue which in turn is rooted in land, the rabbi, with few exceptions, has not been able to establish an organic relationship with the total Jewish community, and thus handicapped he has been separated from the coronary functions of community. For this the Roshei Yeshiva are not at fault and they must not be made to bear the burden for the unfortunate image of rabbis as "expedient fund-raising agents." In fact, I think that there are some rather common-sense explanations for this development; however, if we are to conceptualize, we should recognized that, divorced from community dynamics and without living relationship with Jewish communal functions, functions which throughout much of the history of American Jewry were not alive in the areas where so many of our rabbis practiced, a considerable number of rabbis have rather welcomed the function of fund-raising.

The Roshei Yeshiva have filled a vacuum and are contributing mightily, and at great sacrifice, to the development of a viable Orthodoxy, a functional Orthodoxy. In doing this they contribute to the possible evolution of a more functional rabbinate; no doubt in the course of their activity they become involved (often reluctantly) in many things that take them outside of the yeshiva, including fund-raising. The growing health of religious Judaism is a tribute to their work. We are far better off because of them; this is the meaning of the respect in which they are held by the bulk of the rank and file of committed Jews. To substitute for this meaning the charge of usurpation is not merely to indulge in unfortunate name-calling; additionally, it is to distort the historical record. What Rabbi Jakobovits objects to is the loss of rabbinic authority which he sees as transferred to the deans. I have already said that by and large American rabbis are not communal appointees. Apart from this it is amazing to hear that non-functional rabbis are, by virtue of their contracts, vested with an authority superior to that of Roshei Yeshiva whose authority is earned by virtue of their deeds (and not simply because of "mere wisdom or learning" as Rabbi Jakobovits suggests). And this amazement grows when we recall that a charge leveled against Roshei Yeshiva, most often from the Orthodox left, is that they restrict themselves too much to the yeshivot and do not vigorously lead the Orthodox community at a time when there is a paucity of leaders. In short, what they are advised to do, if we accept Rabbi Jakobovits' classification, is to usurp rabbinical authority. At any rate, the few rabbis who are the heads of kehilot and whose activities encompass a broad range of communal functions, such as chinuch and kashrut, need not and do not feel themselves threatened by the Roshei Yeshiva.

The short answer to Rabbi Jakobovits' complaint that rabbinic jurisdiction - essentially the determination of Jewish law - has been transferred to "academic scholars" is that American rabbis regularly serve as the transferring agents when they go to Roshei Yeshiva for guidance on halakhic matters.

Rabbi Jakobovits' solution for this problem (I am, of course, unconvinced that there is a problem) is based primarily on his analysis of three desiderata that are inherent in the exercise of rabbinical jurisdiction and which are not present (when they decide questions) in "yeshiva deans who are remote from the concerns of contemporary society." The three requisites are relevance, sweet reasonableness, and a measure of tolerance. How and why practicing rabbis are automatically vested with these virtues I do not know; nor can I accept the crude, stereotypic, non-intellectual, blanket description of Roshei Yeshiva, particularly the ironic assertion that they are lacking in tolerance. Is this true of Rav Moshe Feinstein, a Rosh Yeshiva in the United States for about thirty years? Is he remote from contemporary society, "shielded from pressures of public opinion, and conditioned by the unquestioning loyalty of ... (his) yeshiva students"?

Rabbi Jakobovits says some sensible things about the role and training of a posek. Unfortunately he misdirects his attention to Roshei Yeshiva who, in fact, by and large, are not poskim. Perusal of Hapardes and Hamaor will show that it is the rabbis who produce the responsa. Indeed, the two cases included in the blanket condemnation of deans find Rabbi Jakobovits in support of the rulings of a Rosh Yeshiva and in opposition to many rabbis. Thus, the "violent agitation" that he speaks of against liberal decisions regarding artificial insemination and the Manhattan eruv mostly came from rabbis - and the leading rabbi-critic, the Satmar Rov, has credentials as the appointed leader of a community that may well be unmatched by any other rabbi in America.

Another charge is that yeshivot dicourage rabbinical careers. There is no evidence to support the allegation and I know of no Roshei Yeshiva who prefer that their musmachim go on to college to become accountants and lawyers rather than practicing rabbis. It may well be that the constant talk of American rabbis, of the low state of their profession, of the compromises and hardships, contributes significantly to the unattractiveness of the profession in the eyes of yeshiva graduates; my notion is that all this has little to do with rabbinical recruitment, that external factors such as the accessibility and attractiveness of other professions usually determine yeshiva student attitudes toward the rabbinate as a profession.
It is hard to understand Rabbi Jakobovits' criticism of yeshivot for not producing Zevuluns, devout businessmen and professionals. For, in fact, this is what the American yeshivot of today are doing their best; each year they graduate many hundreds of committed Jews who go on to college and then a career. Rabbi Jakobovits seems to recognize this elsewhere in his discussion; at least he should not criticize the yeshivot for discouraging rabbinical careers and also for not producing sufficient number of Zevuluns.

The indictment that yeshivot (and by implication, Roshei Yeshiva, too) stifle a sense of communal responsibility is unfortunate - and untrue. For example, "the dearth of Torah-committed members in our major Orthodox synagogues does not excuse the yeshivot - it indicts them," is both reckless and in disregard of the historical record as we know it. It is much more valid, although still somewhat shoddy from the historical standpoint, to indict the rabbis and synagogue leaders for their failure to develop a chinukh system which might have prevented the depletion of the synagogues.

Finally, I cannot accept Rabbi Jakobovits' tortured conception of communal responsibility "as expressed, in the first instance, by active membership in established congregations." Membership in a synagogue alone indicates nothing about the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the Jewish community; certainly most synagogue members are nothing more than just that. On the other hand, deprecation of shtibels as "communally ineffective" is an unjustified canard that unfortunately finds acceptance in certain supposedly sophisticated sections of the Orthodox community. There may be some good reasons for criticizing the shtibels, but I doubt that the lack of communal responsibility is one of them. I happen to belong to a shtibel consisting of about one-hundred young American men. I also happen to believe that no synagogue in America has a better record of community support than this shtibel.

These and other similar comments by Rabbi Jakobovits mar whatever value there is in certain of his points regarding the state of the American rabbinate. By gratuitously and unfairly condemning Roshei Yeshiva he lost an opportunity to discuss, in an enlightened way, the means by which we can have a true restoration of rabbinic authority.

Marvin Schick
Bronx, New York.

Friday, July 02, 2004

What Do We Believe

We know a great deal about the attitudes and behavior of American Jews. Thanks to an endless parade of surveys that has descended on us like a plague of locust, we know – or think we know – about our religious practices, how we vote and our political affiliations, income and work patterns, where we live, marital status and family size, educational background and ideological inclinations. Scarcely anything is left out, except perhaps which sports teams we root for and it could be that this has been studied as well. Even as a majority of us are abandoning Jewish identity, we are the most examined people in the history of mankind. The closest competition comes from dinosaurs and other extinct species.

As the National Jewish Population Survey, the big daddy of them all, conclusively showed, survey research can be quite inconclusive. Some of this is the result of human error or bias. For Jews, there is the difficult and nowadays probably irresolvable problem of figuring out who is Jewish. As Gertrude Stein did not say, although her life could illustrate the point, a Jew is not a Jew is not a Jew.

There is one large gap in what we presume to know about Jewish attitudes and actions. So far as I know, our reaction to contemporary trends has not been studied. We do not know what American Jews think about the excesses of modernity, such things as cable, movies and television and popular music or, to go further, the sexual activity of teenagers. There are no statistics regarding what we think of contemporary dress or the decline of public modesty and the coarsening of language.

Put otherwise, as most of us have abandoned nearly all else that defined Judaism over the generations, is there a residual attachment to what might be called religious values? Do we reject the notion that there are limits, that hedonism is antithetical to Judaism, as is the absence of restraint in personal behavior?

We obviously believe that in financial dealings, ethical standards are required. We also believe in being truthful and caring. In the aggregate, Jews are charitable people. All of these are elements of what can properly be called values. We also accept the notion that there are restrictions in sexual activity, primarily those that are implicit in the idea of a civilized society, such things as barriers against incest or the use of force in sexual relations. I wonder whether the limits that we accept encompass sexual activity that is coercive when it involves teens and even preteens, children who are being encouraged to do that which is harmful to them because the popular media provide an inducement toward wrongful behavior.

Put simply, is there anything about being Jewish today that accepts previous Jewish attitudes toward personal conduct and modesty?

If I had to hazard a guess, it would be that our embrace of modernity is total. There is no evidence that secular American Jews believe that standards have been lowered too much, that liberty has been transformed into licentiousness. Except for the Orthodox, there is nothing in our publications or on the agendas of our many conferences indicating concern about what children are being introduced to at a young age. We avoid criticism of modernity, perhaps because it is associated with ideological conservatism and everything about conservatism is treife. In our understandable desire for freedom, we have become slaves to appetites and passions and we have abandoned nearly all that defined the Jewish belief system.

These are real life issues, not abstractions. Our endorsement of civil rights, important as it is, does not, except quite occasionally, affect our daily activity or the way we live. Dress and language do and this is also true of popular entertainment and contemporary mores. They are daily presences, particularly in the lives of young people. Yet, the issue of standards appears to be a non-issue. We get excited if teenagers are exploited by the tobacco industry and yet there is silence when they are exploited by popular culture.

Weeks ago, I wrote about the destruction of Black youth, about how their educational prospects are being eroded by a debased, yet exciting, world outside of schools and classrooms. While Blacks are especially vulnerable because of other pathologies including family breakdown, we need to recognize that white youth are also being destroyed by popular culture.

In advocating that American Jews cling to traditional Jewish values affecting life-style, I am not advocating that we support governmental action that enforces Jewish or any other values. Apart from powerful constitutional and legal considerations that appropriately limit the reach of government, as a practical matter the enforcement of values won’t work. Values are ephemeral; they exist in the mind and heart and, in our case, in the history of our people and in our soul. They cannot be imposed in the way that taxes are levied and collected. Unless people believe in certain values, there is little prospect that their actions will be consistent with such values. In a word, coercion doesn’t work.

All I advocate here is that we who have cared about the young and who disapprove of all that smacks of violence, should take stock and recognize that the damage being done to the young is enormous and we haven’t seen the worst yet. Popular culture is a dynamic force and like all dynamic forces, it will continue to expand unless there are people who stand in its path, not with the force of government but with the force of their beliefs.
The calendar tells me that it’s time for a break, hopefully to do other writing and also rest a bit. There may be an article during the summer; in the main, this is the last piece until about September. I hope that readers have enjoyed this weekly exercise and that you will all have an enjoyable summer.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

RJJ Newsletter - July 2004

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum and the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland have produced a fascinating book, “The World That Was America, 1900-1945.” It is a work that in pictures and words shows how our people’s great Torah legacy was transmitted to these shores and took root in the first half of the last century. The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School is, of course, a part of the story. Because choices had to be made regarding what and whom to focus on, there obviously are opportunities to question and quibble and also to challenge what is presented as fact. As an example, RJJ was established in 1900, not in 1903 as the book asserts. Whatever its limitations, “The World That Was America, 1900-1945” succeeds, in large measure because of the fairness and generous spirit of the author. This is an inspiring work.

In an immutable sense, the period that is covered was a time of tragedy for religious Jewry, of course because of the European Churban and additionally in this country because of what was irretrievably lost. If at any point during this period statistics were gathered on the affiliation of American Jews, they would show – probably by a considerable margin – a greater number of Orthodox Jews than there are today. Such numbers were misleading for they masked massive erosion and loss. Alien seeds were planted in the first decades of major Jewish settlement in America and they grew into the poisonous fruit of Judaic abandonment that has darkened the American Jewish prospect. What little there was of meaningful Torah education was inadequate to stop the toxic trend. There were few yeshivas and day schools and they were, in the main, of limited effectiveness because the number of yeshiva high schools was fewer still. More tellingly, the Beth Jacob schools for girls were not established until the latter part of this period.

Yet, Rabbi Scheinbaum is right to identify these years as a time of development, a time of important first Torah stirrings. Other seeds were planted by people who in his moving words “refused to accept negativity, did not succumb to apathy, and overcame challenges with resolution and fortitude.” Most were rabbinical figures who came from Europe, primarily yeshiva deans and Chassidic rebbes. There were also pulpit rabbis and organizational heads. The group also included lay leaders, including from our cherished history, Irving M. Bunim.

The Torah giants who provided inspiration and direction during these formative years and then into the decades that followed are all gone, succeeded by men of doubtlessly lesser stature and yet who also inspire through their personal qualities, learning and dedicated communal activity. What has changed enormously is the diminished role of lay people, especially in the world of Torah education. We have check-writers, loyal individuals who are ready to serve and people who come to meetings and follow the direction of Torah leaders. What we do not have or want to have from lay people are their ideas or their initiatives and we do not look to them for creativity and inspiration.

It is as if the relationship that existed in the period covered by Rabbi Scheinbaum was an aberration, a departure from proper norms that was tolerated because religious Jewry was in a weakened state and we took whatever help we could get. Now that we have grown and are more confident, the feeling is that we must go back to the arrangements that we presume to have characterized the role of lay people in previous generations. In fact, in pre-Churban Europe, lay people played important roles, including as leaders.

I think of my youth and how the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood enlisted outstanding lay people as junior partners in his multiple efforts to build and strengthen Torah life here and in Israel. Our current downgrading, even denigration, of lay leadership in the Torah world has resulted, in my view, in a near paralysis of creativity within the day school movement, something that is not evident in the New York area where the high fertility rate produces constant enrollment growth. Elsewhere, the story is of attrition and even worse. Whereas lay people were once vital in the work of Torah Umesorah, they aren’t any longer and there has been a high cost to pay for this in communities where that organization once played an active role.

If we think about it, our greatest creativity and vitality are evident in chesed activities and that is an area where lay people have a direct impact. The picture is different for yeshivas and day schools. I wonder what might be written about the contemporary period if fifty years from now a project similar to Rabbi Scheinbaum’s and the Hebrew Academy’s were undertaken.