Monday, January 31, 2005

Richuk Karovim II

My posting on the Slifkin matter has generated thoughtful comments that raise significant questions. I would like to elaborate on what I wrote previously and also indicate that a somewhat extended discussion of my views on book banning was included in the January 2003 issue of the RJJ Newsletter and posted below. With respect to the current matter:

1. Orthodox Jews are obligated to be obedient to Torah authority. This obligation obviously pertains to situations where there is disagreement with what Torah authorities are mandating. As a guide, we have the poignant incident involving Rabban Gamliel and Rebi Yehoshua that is recounted in Rosh Hashanah, Mishnah 2:9. If I were instructed by Torah authorities - specifically persons who have condemned Slifkin's writings - to withdraw what I have written on the subject, I would do so without hesitation. I would obey because obedience is an essential condition of our religious commitment.

2. Obedience does not necessarily negate our ability to express an opinion. I believe that we have a significant zone of freedom, a belief that should be evident from what I have written over a great number of years. Our thought processes are not reduced to sycophantic expressions. Our status as Orthodox Jews does not carry with it an obliteration of thought. There are limits, of course, one obvious one being that we are not free to challenge halacha. Another limit is the obedience referred to in point 1.

3. Even when obedience is required, there may be occasions when it is acceptable to maintain one's previous position, the proviso being that whether in word or deed, maintenance of a previous position does not beget action that is contrary to the obligation of obedience. There is, in other words, a certain latency to some views that are being abandoned. I know of no formula that can guide us in these matters. It may be useful to reflect on the follow-up to the Rabban Gamliel and Rebi Yehoshua story that is presented in Berachos 27b.

4. I am not competent to judge Rabbi Slifkin's writings, nor do I have a problem with sharp criticism of his work. As I wrote in the RJJ Newsletter, I take exception to the mindset that generates bans against a Torah-observant Jew whose aim was, as I understand it, to demonstrate the compatibility of Torah and science. If it is necessary to criticize him, it should be sufficient to say that he is to-eh (mistaken) and that what he has written is inappropriate. This view does not contradict what I wrote about the obligation to be obedient. I also should mention, as one commentator did, that we should be concerned about the impact of a ban on Rabbi Slifkin and his family.

5. I will not detail here the various difficulties I have with the process used here and elsewhere to issue bans. I will simply question whether the process was sufficient and appropriate.

6. Those who are ready to issue bans, especially when the language of the work that is being banned is not familiar to them, should be mindful of what has been said regarding Rav Yitzchak Elchanon's reaction to Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch's Commentary. His view was that the work was perhaps not appropriate for Vilna, but it was necessary and appropriate for German Jews. If this Commentary were written today, I wonder whether it would pass muster. As one critical example, there is his interpretation of Bereshis 25:27.

7. Perhaps we should not be concerned that bans make the already difficult enterprise of kiruv even more difficult. I have strong doubts about this. Can we ignore the impact that bans have on some Orthodox? We are losing people at an alarming rate and while modernity and an open society are certainly the primary factors, it is also certain that bans do damage on this front.

8. Several comments concern the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, presumably because of the close relationship that I had with him. I do not know how he would have reacted to Rabbi Slifkin's writings, although there is a strong prospect that he would have regarded them as heresy. Bans, however, are another matter. This is what I wrote in the RJJ Newsletter referred to at the start of this posting:

"The foremost of these Torah giants was the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood. In the twenty years of his fervent and fevered activity on behalf of the Torah world, he essentially was responsible for just one major prohibitory ruling, it being against Orthodox membership in rabbinical bodies with non-Orthodox Jews. This ruling came more than fifteen years after he arrived on these shores. In that great period of the development of American Orthodox Jewry, the Gedolei Torah were constantly occupied with major issues. They did not shirk their obligation to lead and they did not lead by prohibiting that which perhaps should have been criticized and not prohibited."

Cross-posted on Cross-Currents.

Obedience to Halacha and Book-Banning

Originally published in January 2003

A legal system carries with it the obligation to be obedient. Those whose actions are covered by a body of law are required to respect the law and the rulings of those who have the authority to decide. We may not agree with certain legislation or judicial interpretations of what is on the books, but we must be obedient. The alternative is either anarchy or the use of coercion to obtain compliance.
The obligation to be obedient extends to those who decide. When the law has been settled by prior legislative and judicial actions, judges are not free to impose their views and disregard precedent, although some do. They have more freedom when the law is not settled, but even in those situations there are conceptual and procedural guidelines that cannot be disregarded.

It's obvious that there is slippage from the ideal of obedience. Violations of tax and traffic laws are commonplace and whether crime is on the increase or going down, there is always plenty of criminal activity. The point about obedience is not that there is perfect compliance or anything close to it. What is critical is the sense of legitimacy, of recognizing that civil society requires acceptance of what has been duly enacted or decided. This is what we mean by the rule of law and the ideal of the rule of law is scarcely undermined because there are violations. Wholesale violations - if relatively few pay their taxes or many jump traffic lights - would be another matter.

While it is a legal system, in key respects halacha differs from the codes of law that govern how societies operate. There is the fundamental principle of the Torah being given at Sinai, received by Moses and transmitted to subsequent generations by Torah leaders whose status was determined by their spiritual and intellectual transcendence and not by elections. In the development of halacha throughout our history, there have been in some places and in different periods processes at work that can be identified as legislative. Even in such instances, the halachic process differs importantly from the legislative process that is a key component of democratic societies.

The authority of halacha and therefore also the obligation to be obedient is fortified by it being our mesorah, the fundamental heritage that we have received. Because of this, halacha is accorded a different and also greater degree of legitimacy than what is accorded to the legislation and legal rulings of temporal political and judicial systems.

Yet it is also true that especially in the modern period and certainly in the context of broader Jewish life, the authority of halacha has been weakened because Jews can walk away from Judaism, as so many have during the past two generations.

As suggested, another distinguishing characteristic of halacha is that the authority of those who decide religious issues is derived from their personal qualities, from their spiritual dignity and intellectual stature and not necessarily from the formal positions that they may hold. This is evident in contemporary Jewish life. In an interview years ago, Israel Shenker, a noted writer at the New York Times, asked Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztl, about the source of his authority as a posek. Rav Moshe essentially responded that over many years Jews turned to him with their halachic questions, he wrote responses and somehow they came to be accepted.

We religious Jews readily accept the obligation to be obedient, an obligation that for all practical purposes comes into play when we are adversely affected by a ruling or may disagree with it. There is, just the same, a certain fragility to halachic decisions, in part because they can be ignored by the many Jews who do not accept halachic authority and, as well, because among religious Jews, rabbinic authority is dispersed rather than centralized. Rav Moshe was the foremost authority on religious Jewish law for the yeshiva world of which we are a part and for many others, yet his rulings are not always accepted by Orthodox Jews in other sectors of the community. In Borough Park where I live, there are chassidim who carry outdoors on Shabbos, claiming that there is an acceptable eruv in place and that they have eminent rabbis to rely on, this despite Rav Moshe's prohibitory ruling.

Even without communal division, halachic authority rests to an extent on the willingness of those who are affected by decisions to accept what has been decided. Likely, this idea of willingness seems to be inconsistent with the obligation to be obedient. Upon reflection, there is no inconsistency, although how to allow for both obedience and a measure of freedom within the context of the halachic system cannot be easily determined. Rav Moshe's modest comment to Israel Shenker may shed light on the subject, for he was acknowledging that his authority depended somewhat on the receptivity accorded to his rulings.

This sounds like the democratic principle of the consent of the governed, a concept that ordinarily refers to elections and representative government. While the halachic system is emphatically not meant to be democratic as that term is understood, there is a consensual factor in the way religious issues are decided. A notable example is the Talmudic requirement that religious judges be wary of imposing a prohibition that a majority of the community cannot accept. This rule may be designed to protect rabbinic authority from being weakened by massive disobedience or, as likely, to protect the masses against violating a prohibition that they cannot or will not accept. Whatever the reasons, at least in certain instances receptivity to potential prohibitions is a legitimate factor in determining whether a prohibition should become actual.

One such instance may be provided by the several books written all or in part by respected Orthodox Jews and whose contents have been challenged. We are confronted by the question of how to deal with publications that may be regarded as objectionable on hashkafa or other religious grounds. One approach is maximalist, to rule that the offending publications are entirely off limits, that they are not to be sold or bought or allowed into one's home. A more modest approach is to attempt to isolate the passages that are regarded as objectionable, to indicate why they are objectionable and to deliberately stop short of a ban.

It is tempting because it is in a way easier to condemn outright and to prohibit outright. This relieves those who issue the ban and those who might read the offending works of any obligation to consider what is objectionable and why this is so. This maximalist approach apparently is the fate of a well-intentioned but problematic two-volume work on Torah leadership. While the intention of those who issued the prohibition was probably not to condemn the author and subject him to public calumny, all that we have is very strong language of a prohibitory nature by eminent authorities.

This is not the end of the story, if only because at least in the contemporary world it is rather difficult to successfully ban publications. There is evidence that many who would ordinarily accept rulings from Torah authorities are anxious to read the book and more than a few of those who have read the book are wondering what all the fuss has been about. It is evident that the prohibition has whet the appetite of some who would not be interested in reading the work.

There is additional unfortunate fallout in the cheap talk that has been generated by the condemnation of certain works. We are constantly admonished about wrongful speech, about lashon hora. In fact, there is a mini-industry that has arisen within Orthodox ranks exploiting the obligation to be careful in speech. I wonder whether it is sufficiently recognized that when books are banned or other extreme actions are taken, much of what has been accomplished regarding proper speech is severely undermined.

Consideration needs to be given, as well, to whether prohibitory statements, specifically regarding books, impact adversely on efforts to draw marginal Jews closer to their great heritage. This is a priority goal of contemporary Orthodoxy and there have been significant achievements, although more needs to be done. Perhaps more than any other prohibitory action, book-banning can turn prospective returnees away from Judaism.

We often point to the life and example of the outstanding Torah personalities who led our community during the formative post-Holocaust years, people of great stature who gave us inspiration and direction. There is a lesson to be learned from how they exercised their vast and essentially unchallenged authority, how they led by example and teaching and not by issuing a constant stream of prohibitory rulings.

The foremost of these Torah giants was the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood. In the twenty years of his fervent and fevered activity on behalf of the Torah world, he essentially was responsible for just one major prohibitory ruling, it being against Orthodox membership in rabbinical bodies with non-Orthodox Jews. This ruling came more than fifteen years after he arrived on these shores. In that great period of the development of American Orthodox Jewry, the Gedolei Torah were constantly occupied with major issues. They did not shirk their obligation to lead and they did not lead by prohibiting that which perhaps should have been criticized and not prohibited.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Can Reform Be Reformed?

The Reform movement has been given a free pass. While the mounting tzoros of the Conservatives receives much attention and every hiccup within Orthodoxy becomes a major story, what happens within the largest of the denominations gets little ink. One-third or more of those who now are identified as American Jews identify themselves as Reform, which is three or four times as many as the number of Orthodox. But it seems that the latter get about one hundred times more attention. What the Orthodox write and say is carefully parsed to extract any unflattering nuggets, while what Reform leaders and rabbis say is routinely ignored.

I am tempted to attribute this neglect to the unwillingness, shared by Jews who are distant from religiosity, to treat Reform as a serious religious movement. It is wildly successful as a membership group and as a way-station for those who are further distancing themselves from Jewish life, most of whom will be lost entirely. Reform is not a religious experience that informs the lives of all but a small number who identify with it. Many and perhaps most who are classified as Reform Jews rarely see the inside of a synagogue. As a Reform rabbi put it in 1885, too many who join Reform congregations "consider their dues to the congregation as hush money, paid to be left alone for a year."

Even so, there are other contributing factors, including the high quality of the movement's leadership. We might expect that with its liberal outlook and disdain for authority, Reform would be the least centralized of the denominations. In its public persona it is the most centralized, in large measure due to the considerable skill of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, its titular head, who like his predecessor, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, is focused, blessed with administrative capabilities, intelligent and articulate. He knows how to deliver a message and how to present a picture of a coherent movement. Much the same can be said of Rabbi David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College, the movement's top educational institution.

One message is the necessity to return to tradition. It echoes what Reform leaders have said for more than one-hundred years, even as they led their flock away from tradition. In Cincinnati in 1885, Reform had its celebrated trefa dinner and then adopted the Pittsburgh Platform that rejected a host of religious practices and the idea of a Jewish state. At the same time, as Jonathan Sarna writes, "many Reform Jewish leaders joined the call for an American Jewish revival."

A half-century later there was the Columbus Platform which attempted to undo some of the rhetorical sins of Pittsburgh by advocating the "retention and development of such customs, symbols and ceremonies as possess inspirational value…and the use of Hebrew, together with the vernacular, in our worship and instruction." In recent years, there have been emphatic calls for greater religiosity, a development that quite astonishingly was applauded in The Jewish Observer, Agudath Israel's English-language magazine.

While those who articulate this message are sincere, there is a disconnect between what is being advocated and what is being practiced. It is as if the invocation of a religious message constitutes its fulfillment. There are Reform leaders who speak out for day schools and this is taken as evidence that Reform Jews are sending their children to such schools, a conclusion that is not supported by enrollment statistics.

Reform Jews fall roughly into two groupings, congregational members and those who do not join. When all who identify as Reform are surveyed, the statistics that emerge indicate adherence to religious practices that hovers not much above the zero mark. The numbers are better - but not that much better - when only congregational members are included. Of course, many - and perhaps most - have a Seder, whether it is kosher or not, and many mark Yom Kippur, whether or not they fast. The reality is that Reform Jews are, in the aggregate, less Jewish than ever before and the movement's leadership knows this.

Nor is there prospect for improvement, if only because the barn door has been open for far too long and America is an open society. The likelihood is that for a great number of today's Reform, the next step on their itinerary is the abandonment of Jewish identity, something that has happened already to the offspring of Reform Jews.

Whatever the disclaimers at the top, the movement has enthusiastically embraced intermarriage, as is evident from the overwhelming number of Reform clergy who officiate at such ceremonies. Sarna reports that "a 1985 survey of Reform Jewish leaders found that only a minority of them considered it 'essential' for a 'good Jew' to marry a Jew." Things haven't gotten better in the past twenty years.

In addition to the impact of patrilineality and quickie conversions, Reform membership has been swelled by intermarriage. Sarna cites a 2002 article by Michael A. Meyer on "the role and identity of non-Jews in Reform temples" which indicates that "more and more, non-Jews - partners/spouses, grandparents, children, in-laws and siblings - are involved in the life of synagogues in some ways." Sarna adds, "They attend and join synagogues, sometimes hold dual membership in synagogues and churches, and even become active in synagogue life, taking on positions of leadership. In synagogues with large numbers of intermarried Jews among their members, non-Jews may constitute a quarter or more of those attending services."

Reform is certain to go where the flow is and the flow is not in the direction of more tradition, no matter what the public message. In a recent session at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion on the National Jewish Population Survey, a faculty member called for Reform to embrace a new concept of Jewish peoplehood that rejects Jewish particularism "and makes sense in a multi-cultural world."

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Richuk Karovim

I have not read any of Rabbi Nosson Slifkin's books but if I had, I doubt that I would be competent to judge the validity of his science or, for that matter, his hashkafah. I have looked at the overly long defenses of his work that he has posted. Whatever one thinks of his writings, the ban issued against his work is inappropriate and wrongful. Much the same can be said about several other celebrated recent condemnations of books, specifically including Rabbi Nosson Kaminetsky's controversial works. There should be a more balanced and appropriate way of expressing disagreement with writers who are certainly shomere torah v'mitzvos without resorting to cherems and the like. In the present period, bans are counterproductive and not merely because they are likely to generate interest in the works that are being banned. More importantly, they turn off people whom we want to attract and others whom we want to keep. It is no secret that the kiruv movement is not what it used to be, primarily for reasons that arise from the openness of contemporary life and yet it is obvious that resorting to cherems and bans do not help the cause. It is also obvious that the outflow away from Orthodoxy is greater than the numbers whom we are attracting via kiruv. The condemnation of Rabbi Slifkin's work and other works by Orthodox Jews has the collateral effect of turning people away from our religion.

We may not be able to do all that we want on the kiruv rechokim front, but we can do a better job in not being m'rachek karovim.

Cross-posted on Cross-Currents.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Our Housing Crisis

Except for the elderly and perhaps those who are ill, housing is not a Jewish communal concern, which is understandable because where people live and what they buy or rent is governed by socio-economic factors that ordinarily do not require communal intervention. Free market arrangements have worked reasonably well for most, as home-seekers have found affordable housing.

Along the way, there have been population shifts. It's been said that America is a nation of movers. We Jews are among the most frequent movers, which may be our fate in the Diaspora. There seems to be an Eleventh Commandment, essentially embraced by those who disregard much of the previous Ten, that prohibits living near one's parents. When the suburbs were developed in the post-Holocaust years, urban Jews - many of them newly affluent - came marching in, bringing with them offshoots of the communal infrastructure that they had in the core city, although often in a more secular form. As Jews moved physically, they also moved religiously, generally away from religiosity.

Given the value placed on home ownership, the contemporary Jewish housing picture partakes of some of the principal features of the population shifts of a generation and two ago. There is also a difference in that with soaring housing costs, much of what is on the market is beyond the reach of many younger families and this inevitably affects the choices they make. This development is tied to the extraordinary reversal in the pattern of American socio-economics, as for the first time in U.S. history the parent generation is overall more affluent than their offspring. A growing number of young families face severe pressure as they make their housing decisions.

There are those who have the resources - at times with parents chipping in - to purchase costly homes, else the asking price for such homes would decline appreciably. A greater number are being impelled to seek less expensive dwellings. For younger Jewish families this can mean relocating to areas where Jewish connections are tenuous, if they exist at all. It is true that many of the Jewish families that are now moving have assimilated to the point where they scarcely care about the character of Jewish life. Yet, there are those who do care and when they are forced to relocate to areas with a weak Jewish infrastructure, there is likely to be a weakening of their Jewish ties.

When younger families move away from the inner city and the suburbs where they were raised, there is apt to be a negative impact on day school enrollment, synagogue attendance and organizational membership. Day school enrollment has gone down in at least two dozen communities, primarily because younger families are not staying and the cost of housing is clearly an important factor.

There's probably little Jewish officials can do to improve the attractibility of their communities by trying to create affordable housing. This activity is not in the playbook of Federations and community planners, especially since public funding is not available for any initiatives that they may sponsor. The efforts that I know of to encourage younger families to remain or to move in seem to have gone nowhere. The social, psychological and economic determinants of housing decisions are impervious to pleas for people to come or remain.

Orthodox Jews are limited in their social and geographic mobility, if only because they require a developed institutional life. In practical terms, this means that they choose to live among other Orthodox, thereby encountering additional hardships when they seek housing. For them, the impact of sharp increases in housing costs is especially pronounced. It helps not at all that typically their housing needs vary greatly from the needs of typical Americans - whether Jewish or not - because of their remarkably high fertility. A three-bedroom unit is often on the small side, particularly for chassidic and yeshiva-world families. Even without the added burden of far more expensive housing, many Orthodox families are in financial crisis and under relentless pressure because of tuition charges and other costs related to their lifestyle.

As with other services, the chassidic sector is better organized to deal with housing needs as they seek new places for satellite communities and attempt to expand existing neighborhoods. Satmar, the largest of the groups, illustrates the point. There are plans for a second community in Monroe, New York, near Kiryas Yoel. In Williamsburg, private entrepreneurs have built hundreds of 3-6 bedroom housing units and many more are underway or being planned. They are located on the outskirts of Williamsburg in the direction of Bedford-Stuyvesant. It appears to be only a matter of time until chassidim are a significant presence in one of the prime Black neighborhoods in the country.

Flatbush is the primary yeshiva-world neighborhood. Housing that is on the market is beyond the reach of most younger families and helps to explain why former kollel families are deciding to remain in Lakewood after their yeshiva study has been concluded. One interesting development is the establishment of a new community in Waterbury, Connecticut, a rundown city that is being rejuvenated as young Orthodox families are clustering around a relatively new yeshiva and purchasing homes at a fraction of what such housing would cost in Brooklyn.

The Orthodox will, in short, at least attempt to adjust their sights to conform to housing realities. In the process, there are neighborhoods and cities that are being weakened by population losses, while other places are being strengthened. There is no comparable development among the far greater number of Jews to whom living among Jews is a far lesser concern. Their response to the housing crisis is impelled by calculations that paid little attention to Jewish considerations. As housing prices continue to rise, there are major consequences for the future pattern of American Jewish life.

Monday, January 17, 2005

RJJ Newsletter - January 2005

I was at a meeting recently of good people who care about day schools and who have done more than their share to help. The discussion centered on how what they do for day schools might be improved. Several participants underscored the obligation to insist on excellence. Like nearly everyone else, I aspire for excellence in our schools and yet the discussion was deeply troubling for me.

This is my thirty-second year as RJJ's president. That isn't all that I do, nor is it all that I have done in more than fifty years of communal service. What differentiates the RJJ experience from all of the rest is that this is a humbling responsibility. When I write or do research or am involved in all kinds of programs, generally my feeling is that I have done my best and have come reasonably close to accomplishing what I set out to do. This is not the case with respect to RJJ. Nearly each day I have had to settle for less than I wanted to accomplish. Nearly each day I have faced the reality that, in one way or another, our schools do not function as well as I would like them to.

The point was made about a dozen years ago by Yoel Unger of Denver, an RJJ alumnus who has served as president of the local Orthodox day school. He remarked that it is inevitable that nearly all yeshivas and day schools are, in a sense, mediocre. That is a sharp word, perhaps too sharp, yet it captures something important about the realities confronting our schools. If we look at them in terms of certain objective standards or when we compare them with other schools, they fall short of the mark.

Excellence? What about just good? What can we expect when nearly forty percent of U.S. day schools have fewer than one-hundred students, when this factor and other realities mean that the typical classroom in a Jewish school has students who are strong and motivated, others who are average and still others who are weak and yet there is but one teacher and one curriculum for these three groupings? What can we expect when the faculty is nearly everywhere greatly underpaid and often not paid on time? What can we expect when dual curriculum schools must get by on funding that would scarcely pay for a single curriculum in public schools? What can we expect when there are no electives, when if there is a library there is rarely a regular librarian, when labs are at best primitive, when the facilities are not properly maintained? What can we expect when in most schools there is no counseling staff, this at a time when societal conditions and what is going on inside too many families and inside the minds of too many children make it imperative that counseling services be a key component of a school's programming?

These realities - and there are others - may make "excellence" a term for a school in utopia. There are, of course, Jewish schools that have electives and well-maintained facilities and provide much else that is missing in the typical day school and yeshiva. Invariably, tuition at these schools is twice or more above what most of our schools charge and three times or more above what most of our schools take in. Invariably, richer schools are the stingiest in providing scholarship assistance for needy families, their attitude being that parents who cannot pay full fare should send their children elsewhere.

I have been humbled by these realities and there is a good deal of pain. There are occasions when I have tried to change and improve what is happening in schools for which I have some responsibility and the experience has been akin to knocking one's head against a stone wall. My batting average would scarcely get me into the lower minor leagues.

Most schools have what can be described as a culture that inhibits change and too often this contributes to the tolerance of incompetence on the management side. There is the failure to return calls or respond to communications or thank contributors or to reach out to people and much else. This, too, has been humbling.

Yet, for all that is deficient and for all that is not what it should/could be, there is another set of realities in our schools which provides rewards. They do not remove what is humbling, difficult and painful; what they do is to make the effort worthwhile.

When we look at our schools and analyze their parts, invariably they come up short. When we look at them in terms of results, the story is different. When we look at the graduates of our Staten Island schools, we see the fruit of our labor. We see young adults - many already with families of their own - who have grown in Judaism and who are giving to our community and to our society. We see many who live in Israel. We see young men and women who are chock full of devotion to Torah and to the Jewish people. I hope that the communities that we serve will see the glory of our achievements.

How do yeshivas and day schools succeed despite their glaring shortcomings? Some of the answer is in the power or mystique of Torah living, its capacity to elevate and bring about outcomes that transcend what might be expected if we just look at the realities. Faculty plays a major part in bringing about these outcomes. We all probably have stories about teachers who weren't all that good or who were burnt out or lazy or uncaring. Far many more are people of talent and devotion who do a good deal more than what their job ordinarily requires of them. These are people who care about their students and their families. Despite being underpaid, they devote extra time to prepare and to reach out. They give love. I am especially mindful of the great contribution to the Jewish people of those Judaic teachers who are graduates of Beth Jacob seminaries. These are women, mostly young, who are at the lowest end of the pay scale and at the top rung of accomplishment.

For all of their limitations, these are the three great achievements of our schools:

- They provide a caring environment that is relatively free of the severe social pathologies that are causing great harm and pain in contemporary life.

- They provide for Jewish commitment into adulthood.

- They provide a learning environment that for all of their deficiencies forges a lasting connection between the student and a commitment to study that is of great benefit after the yeshiva and day school years are concluded.

There is another side of the ledger and while it does not remove the pain or the difficulties, there is reward for our labor.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Charedim and the Internet

As the pace of social and technological change quickens, the attitudinal and behavioral gap between most Orthodox Jews - especially charedim or the fervently religious - and the people amongst whom they live continues to widen. This is evident in dress, language, use of time and the reaction toward certain technological innovations. Interestingly, secularists and charedim alike often refer to the rejection by the latter of modernity.

Inevitably, the picture is more complex, if only because eons of experience have shown that like other mortals, the Orthodox are influenced by their surroundings. At times they accept local mores and attitudes, as when they invest heavily in both time and money in going on vacation. They also adapt social change to meet the expectations of their lifestyle and ideology, as when they defer - perhaps for an extended period - entry into the labor market and continue their yeshiva study. Not one of the social scientists who purport to describe Orthodox life has noted this parallelism.

There are situations where modernity is rejected. This is true of whole chunks of popular culture that are regarded as antithetical to Torah values and obligations. Technological changes that are inherently non-ideological but which have behavioral implications pose a problem for the Orthodox, particularly when as is usually true of such changes, there is utility to what has been innovated. The cell phone is one example. It obviously is functional but there are incidental, yet significant, religious issues relating to its use, including time and place. But the phone itself is ideologically neutral and the abuses that occur are secondary, resulting from the behavior of its users.

The Internet raises more fundamental issues and not only for religious persons, as is evident from global efforts to clamp down on child pornography and other illicit activities that are linked directly to the Internet. There are additional issues for religious Jews, mainly charedim, and this has generated a stream of rabbinical statement prohibiting Internet use or severely curtailing access. These statements are inherently compromised by the utilitarian nature of the Internet, a circumstance from which charedim are not exempt. Those who are in business - and quite a few are - are likely to find the Internet indispensable, as do religious Jews who want to make payments electronically or access needed information or order airplane tickets.

Karine Barzilai-Nahon and Gad Barzilai, an Israeli wife and husband team now on the faculty of the University of Washington, have examined Internet use by Israeli charedim. Their findings have just been published in The Information Society Journal. I was furnished (not by the authors) a copy of their paper about six months ago and made extensive notes at the time.

Not surprisingly, the Barzilais find that there is significant use of the Internet by charedim, exceeding what is generally viewed to be the case and the number is growing. Their data is drawn from an Israeli on-line service named Hevre which serves as a virtual community enabler that allows groups to make their own virtual community space. Of Hevre's nearly 700,000 customers, the Barzilais identify 14,000 as charedim.

There is no doubt that the Barzilais are on target. Yet their study raises several issues. Their research appears to go to the edge of violating the privacy of Internet users and this should be of concern to those who regard privacy as a primary value that is being eroded by technological advances which permit governments and others to access information that should remain private. Was Hevre authorized to provide the information that it gave the Barzilais? This question obviously applies to all subscribers, not just charedim.

On a different methodological front, it is questionable whether the statistics that we are given are reliable. We are told that in addition to their own religiously-oriented virtual communities, charedi "users of secular platforms comprise about one-third of the entire ultra-Orthodox population." This isn't possible in view of the low rate of Internet subscribers in charedi population centers such as Bnei Brak (6.4% as compared to 33% in Tel Aviv) and also in view of the large number of children in charedi families. It also should be noted that there are Israelis in the thousands who live in Bnei Brak who aren't charedi.

Other statistical questions arise from the establishment of Orthodox or charedi websites that attract visitors who themselves are distant from charedi life. An important example is Chabbad's pioneering and extensive use of the Internet.

A major problem with the Barzilais' paper is the rash of statements about charedi life that are foolish or offensive. We are told that within charedi society "deviations from communal aims and traditions are severely punished, e.g. by excommunication." After noting that a charedi reporter said in an on-line forum that "spiritual authorities have lost their legitimacy and power," the authors add, "had such an opinion been printed or aired in one of the ultra-Orthodox media channels, the reporter would have been excommunicated." Not reprimanded or even fired but excommunicated! Has anyone been excommunicated in Israel in the past fifty years? I suppose that we should thank the Brazilais for not claiming that those who deviate would be burnt at the stake.

There are other incredible statements relating to charedi Internet use by gender and the conclusion that the fact that very few users have been expelled from charedi platforms is proof of "a high level of discipline." Discipline, we are told, is "perceived as the only alternative to blasphemy." Indeed, if the Barzilais would reflect on it, their contention that there is significant charedi Internet use contradicts their repeated statements about discipline, surveillance and punishment.

In short, we have a useful article that is seriously flawed by a tendency to treat charedi life in terms of absolutes and stereotypes when in fact there is far more variety than meets the unsophisticated sociological eye.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Staten Island

There may be two Staten Islands or perhaps two different Jewish Staten Islands, one of them described in The Jewish Week a couple weeks back as "thriving Jewish life," which echoed previous sunny reports. The other is the Jewish community that I have been intensively involved in for thirty years although I live elsewhere, a circumstance arising from the decision of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School to relocate there in the expectation that the Verrazano Bridge and the establishment of a young Orthodox community in the Willowbrook section would serve as magnets for many additional Jews and Staten Island would develop Jewishly as Teaneck and the Five Towns have.

That hasn't happened, at least not yet. A yeshiva high school that not long ago had parallel classes and attracted students from throughout the metropolitan area closed down shortly before this school year. Over the years, other Jewish schools have failed to make it. The record would be worse had the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School not intervened to help in an unprecedented way a large day school that was at the brink of financial collapse. Most seriously, enrollment in the three elementary schools serving the community has declined, this at a time when the Jewish population has soared.

Thriving? I would say that the description is more than an exaggeration.

A new $33 million dollar Jewish community center is scheduled to open in about two years. That is a good sign, particularly for those who believe - against abundant evidence to the contrary - that JCC's contribute substantially to the Jewish character of a community. They are nice fixtures and can accomplish a bit of good, but not much more. In any case, a JCC on Staten Island scarcely offsets the big-time problems on the educational front.

Staten Island's Jewish population is the fastest growing of New York's boroughs, up 27% in a decade and approaching 50,000. First there was a wave of ex-Israelis and recently there has been significant Russian migration, as upwardly mobile Former Soviet Union families have made it their second place of settlement on these shores, purchasing single-family homes that cost a good deal less than homes nearly everywhere else in the city and the suburban areas. This is, incidentally, another bit of evidence that claims of widespread Russian Jewish poverty spread by our povertycrats and Russian organizations and eagerly gobbled up by our media do not present an accurate picture. I recently visited a Russian "Jewish" school in Brooklyn with more than 1,000 students and a long waiting list where tuition is $6,000, excluding other charges, and scholarship assistance is not available.

Importantly, the intermarriage rate of Staten Island Jews is about 15%, far below the rate nearly everywhere else. Israelis maintain close family and other ties to the Jewish state and tend to be traditional. At this stage of their American development, Russian Jews continue to be insular and this retards their acculturation and the likelihood of marrying out. It is certain, however, that as time passes, insularity will diminish significantly and there will be a corresponding increase in intermarriage.

What is problematic about the Jewish prospect goes beyond the weakened educational system, although that is a particularly worrisome factor. There may not be as large a Jewish population anywhere on the globe that is as lacking as most Staten Island Jews are in the basic infrastructure of Jewish life. Elsewhere there are synagogues, supplementary schools, much informal Jewish education, Jewish newspapers, a host of organizations and activities that help to maintain a sense of Jewish connectedness. Staten Island's non-Orthodox synagogues are few and in trouble and do not attract more than a small number of the newcomers.

The vastness of Staten Island and the fact that the Russians and Israelis have settled in areas with limited or no Jewish resources add to the concern that these Jews or their offspring may ultimately fall away.

There are places of fruitful activity, including an outreach community in the New Springfield section, an outreach organization that arranges for marginally religious families to send their children to day school, a large Young Israel and Chabad. The atrophying of the educational base has greatly undermined these activities. A large majority of the newly-arrived families are not being reached at all.

What Staten Island needs, perhaps desperately, is more and better leadership at both the rabbinic and lay levels. It needs people of commitment and vision whose communal activities, whether paid or voluntary, are focused on their community and not on presumed greener pastures elsewhere. There are good and talented people but if they and others look outside of Staten Island for the fulfillment of their aspirations, they will not do the job that is needed and their community will be shortchanged.

Compared to other places of significant Jewish settlement in North America where invariably there are major pockets of Jewish affluence, Staten Island Jewry is in the aggregate a community of modest means. However, there is a giving spirit, notably among the Orthodox and this is impressive. Unfortunately, here too there is a pronounced tendency to look far afield and to concentrate much of the giving on outside causes. I refer not to contributions to Israel but to U.S. charities.

Since the Jewish population will continue to grow, if only because of the low cost of housing, there is a heightened obligation to address communal needs. This isn't easy because of Jewish infrastructure weaknesses. A $33 million dollar Jewish community center may attract media attention but it will do little to connect tens of thousands of Jews to their heritage. Unless the existing day schools are supported and strengthened and other educational institutions are established, there will be bad news.

There is a pressing need for a day school that will meet the expectations of the newly-arrived families. Plans are underway to create such a school. We will soon know whether they reach fruition.