Monday, June 27, 2005

The Post-Jewish Phase of American Jewry

A recent item in "The Talk of the Town" section of The New Yorker tells of an inter-faith event in Brooklyn that included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer who informed the audience, "We have a mixed religious group in my family. I am Jewish, Chloe is Episcopal and Joanna is Anglican." Joanna is Justice Breyer's wife and Chloe who is his daughter is an Episcopal priest. What is interesting about the ecumenical family arrangement is how effortlessly Justice Breyer regards himself as Jewish and how comfortable we are in affirming this identity. He has been honored as an outstanding Jewish jurist.

The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey put American Jewry into a tizzy over intermarriage. There were - and still are - tons of continuity projects, yet we quickly regained our communal composure and came to believe that marrying out was not the end of the Jewish world. I wrote a decade ago that we had entered a post-intermarriage phase, that because more than a critical mass of Jews had married non-Jews, we were coming to terms with intermarriage. While our communal messages did not and could not deter intermarriage they had the consequence - at times intended - of sending the message that one could remain a Jew in good standing irrespective of family circumstances, including the children being raised in another religion.

The Breyer story is repeated in hundreds of thousands of American homes, with the details varying. In many, there is a touch of Chanukah and a Seder, perhaps also of Yom Kippur. In the aggregate, we have an enormously changed American Jewish landscape. The path of Judaic abandonment of traditional practices and belief and in marital choice is often accompanied by a sincere sense of Jewish identity and a determination to remain Jewishly involved. This feeling usually operates smoothly because in practical Jewish terms there is little difference between household members who are Jewish and those who are not.

We are also comfortable with what is happening because of the American imperative of personal choice and tolerance. We have thus moved away from being a religious or even ethnic group to being a voluntary membership arrangement. Self-identity is the defining criterion, not Jewish law or tradition and certainly not the impact that personal choices will have on the Jewish future. Even among many Orthodox Jews and especially within Chabad which is filling nearly every nook and cranny of American Jewish life, there is a comfort level with post-intermarriage Judaism.

We are now in the second generation of mass intermarriage. Because the impact of marrying out is both cumulative and expanding, we are inevitably moving from a post-intermarriage phase to what I would call the post-Jewish phase of American Jewry. We now have to live with and therefore rationalize the aftershocks of intermarriage, the statistics showing that in households somehow designated as Jewish, there are fewer people who assert that they are Jewish than there are persons who say that they are of another religion or no religion. Simply put, in the same way that a large critical mass of intermarried Jews in the 1990's altered our thinking about intermarriage and resulted in our coming to terms with marrying out, the even larger critical mass of non-Jews in what are designated as Jewish homes is impelling us toward post-Jewish American Jewry. We are establishing a comfort level with the millions of non-Jewish Americans who are linked to a Jewish household.

If not already, before long there will be millions who are one-quarter or one-eighth Jewish and additional millions who are Jewish only because they are related to someone who is Jewish. It is fascinating to see how scholars are giving their stamp of approval to a picture of American Jewry that includes millions who say they are not Jewish.

This is, of course, bogus in terms of our past and our future. It also will eventually be shown to be bogus sociology. A religious group must be moored in more than six degrees of separation. Ultimately, the numbers game - which is what it is, - although many of its advocates are sincere - will collapse because all ponzi schemes collapse. But not for quite a while, if only because our community has too much at stake and we are doing what we can to keep the numbers game going. The trumpeting of continuity and identity, respect for Jews, the American ethos of personal choice and the American Jewish organizational behemoth that provides an infinite number of connection points with activities that can be labeled as Jewish all serve to reinforce a post-Jewish articulation of the American Jewish experience. "Jew" is just a word or a tag, something like Gertrude Stein's rose or as a far greater writer once had Juliet express the thought, "What's in a name?". She implored, "Romeo, doff they name ... which is no part of thee." Being Jewish is no part of many who are so called.

We are comfortable with post-Jewish Judaism because except for the Orthodox, there is little choice. Our families, friends and associates have made the decision for us. We have a big tent approach to Jewish identity and the tent keeps on getting bigger because there are more people to fit in. As alien as the big tent is to our theology and experience, there is a logic to it because the newcomers who are scarcely Jewish or not at all Jewish scarcely differ in their Jewish practice from those who are definitely Jewish.

The big tent concept can also be defended as necessary for outreach, whether through Israel experiences, campus activities or other reaching out to Jews of minimal or no religiosity. The outreach message is directed at the masses, at Jews and non-Jews alike. Even Orthodox outreach is predicated on the big tent, certainly to a greater extent than its practitioners recognize.

In the blink of an historical eye we moved into a post-intermarriage phase and now we are in a post-Jewish phase. I wonder what the next stopping point will be?

Friday, June 10, 2005

Jews Without Books

Wherever there is education, there are calls for reform. When changes come, as they must, they are invariably criticized as inadequate or, worse yet, as making a bad situation even worse. There are then new calls for reform and the cycle of change regenerates. The good news is that, at times, there are improvements, which means that we have the capacity to make things better.

Apart from the usual suspects that impede reform such as inadequate funding and an inadequate pool of adequate teachers, schools are weakened by the imperative of standardization, by the inescapable requirement that curriculum and other educational patterns apply to nearly the entire student body. There are exceptions in resource rooms and special education, but in the main formal education is structured and standardized, while students are anything but. There are important differences in intellect, skills, interests and background that affect classroom performance. There is probably no way to devise mass education without heavy reliance on standardization, yet a high cost is being exacted.

In this country, educational reform is a highly developed enterprise, as is evident in the ongoing efforts to compel state governments to provide equitable funding, particularly to schools that carry the additional burden of educating children of the lower socio-economic strata. It is also evident in the education industry that consists of hundreds of non-profit agencies that have no responsibility for schools telling those who do have responsibility for schools how they can do a better job.

In Israel, there is a crying need for educational reform at the elementary and high school levels. As elsewhere, there are reform cycles consisting of commissions, reports and recommendations, most of which lead nowhere because the government is not willing to come even close to providing the needed funding and also because the Histadrut or labor federation strongly resists change, apparently preferring to maintain a system of low-paid teachers who are given mandatory costly privileges. The result is too many failing students, a condition that has existed for nearly all of Israel's history and which is a shanda or disgrace.

Within the year, there was the report of the Dovrat Task Force which recommended far-reaching changes, including the desperately needed expansion of the school day and the undoing of the well-intentioned but harmful coupling of junior high school to high school. My favorite recommendation is the curtailment of the expensive network of teacher training programs, half of whose graduates never end up in classrooms. The Task Force is also pressing for a substantial increase in faculty salaries.

Given Israel's budgetary realities, it is not likely that the recommendations with large shekel figures attached to them will be implemented. Sympathy for the hard choices facing Israel's policy makers should not becloud the dreadful attitude toward basic education. Despite the nearly constant need to integrate newcomers and evidence that too many youngsters are falling through the cracks, I have been told that the portion of the Israeli budget devoted to basic education has declined. There is no justification for this shabby treatment, particularly when great sums are expended on physical infrastructure. The amount of governmental spending on construction is phenomenal. In a different way, the neglect of education is also phenomenal.

Likely, there isn't much for American Jews to do to improve this situation. We aren't citizens and we do not have a voice in Israeli policies. But we contribute to a great number of causes, although except for Orthodox Jews we rarely contribute to schools that operate below the college level.

A few days ago I visited six public schools in Jerusalem, three that are designated as State Religious or Mamlachti Dati and three that are designated as State or Mamlachti. Two are high schools; four are elementary schools. The schools with something of a religious orientation were better run and more impressive. The primary purpose of these visits was to examine their libraries. Here, too, the religious-secular gap is wide, but the six schools share the common feature of having too few books and, of those in stock, too many are old and of little use. We ought to keep in mind that Jerusalem is not a development town, so that it's a good bet that the situation is worse elsewhere in Israel.

There was a time when Jewish homes contained mini-libraries. In the early 1960's, I was given access to data regarding entering freshmen at New York University, including the number of books in their homes. Jewish students had far more books in their homes than their non-Jewish peers. I believe that this is still true of religious as well as socio-economically advanced families. It is not true of many Israeli homes, specifically of those in the lower socio-economic strata and immigrant families. Children in these homes need good schools and easy access to libraries, preferably in their schools. They need to be able to enter the wonderful world of books, a world that provides the framework for educational and intellectual advancement and successful adulthood.

Providing help to school libraries is low on the philanthropic totem pole. Most who are capable of giving large sums to Israeli causes have an edifice complex, preferring to put their names on buildings, too many of which are not needed and scarcely used. There is little interest in the more ephemeral, yet also more enduring world of libraries and books. Israeli education has for too long short-changed children. Hopefully, there will be meaningful reform, including funds in school budgets for the purchase of books for school libraries. Hopefully, as well, there will be American philanthropic support for school libraries. A good and easy way of providing help is through the PEF Israel Endowment Funds (317 Madison Avenue, New York 10017) which has established a program to assist libraries in conjunction with the highly regarded Center for Educational Technology in Tel Aviv. Such gifts will go a long way to help Israeli children in a meaningful way.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The 'Acceptable' Prejudice

We Diminish Ourselves By Denigrating Non-Jews

The following appears in this week's issue of The Jewish Press.

Whether at home or in the office, while shopping or traveling, or in other places and ways, for even the most insular among the relatively small number of American Jews who are distinctive in appearance and severely limited in their outside contacts, interactions with Gentiles is an ongoing experience. In work settings, schools, health care situations and other common interactions, what is evident is a sense of civility and respect. This is, of course, as it should be.

There are halachos or religious laws that provide guidance for these contacts. I am not competent to discuss them. Curiously, few who are competent have much to say about the complicated and expanding array of issues arising from our inevitable engagement with non-Jews, that is, unless we accept as guidance - as we must not - statements that non-Jews are no good and anything deprecatory about them is the appropriate hashkafa or religious outlook.

We have speeches, pamphlets and books expounding and expanding on nearly every nook and cranny of how we are to live as religious Jews in contemporary society, yet there is little to turn to on a question that affects most of us on a daily basis. We need to be enlightened regarding what is permitted and what is not, specifically how to deal with situations that are faced with regularity.

We need direction about what Talmudic Sages refer to as Darchei Shalom, the idea that for purposes of civil society, it is necessary to be civil and even caring toward non-Jews. There is the apparently corollary principle of aivah, of avoiding enmity. We are instructed - Rambam writes that we are "commanded by the Sages to bury their dead, visit and help their sick, provide charitable assistance." We certainly must greet them, as Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky and other Torah leaders of past generations made a point of doing.

In our yeshivas and day schools, students are not taught these religious obligations toward non-Jews or other religious sources that mandate elevated behavior and the avoidance of Chilul Hashem or the desecration of G-D's name in our interactions with Gentiles. I am extremely reluctant to criticize yeshiva faculty because they invariably work with great dedication under difficult conditions and are woefully recompensed for what they do. However, in this area there is an excess of mis-teaching, of the use of language and the conveyance of attitudes in a fashion that is inappropriate and harmful. There is a tendency to emphasize brief statements about non-Jews that have limited or no halachic import and which are taken out of context, while clear teachings that require civility in our behavior and language are ignored.

We need to have courses and material that teach our teachers how to teach about non-Jews. A good place to start is the discussion in Tractate Baba Kamma, p.113, utilizing the valuable ArtScroll notes.

In an article on the Black revolution and Orthodox Jews published forty years ago in Agudath Israel's Jewish Observer, I argued that while there is no obligation for Jews to become involved in the civil rights movement, a position that I have maintained ever since, there is also nothing objectionable about making a contribution to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Transcending the utilitarian principles of Darchei Shalom and avoiding enmity is the theological teaching that we are all created in the image of G-D. It is, admittedly, a challenge to translate this vital concept into a code of daily practice. At a minimum, it proscribes racism, a point that was also made by Rav Kaminetsky in a speech that was recorded. In a word, racism is sinful.

The Darchei Shalom requirement does not establish the obligation to treat non-Jews in the way that we are obligated to treat Jews. In much the same way that the concept and reality of family impose responsibilities that are not extended to outsiders, the ideal of a sanctified community establishes norms that do not pertain to those who are not members of our community. In a broad sense, this can be referred to as consanguinity or the state of a close and therefore special relationship. As a notable illustration of this idea, the Torah requires that we not impose interest charges on loans we make to fellow Jews, a requirement that is entirely inapplicable to loans to Gentiles.

Whatever the boundaries of what may be referred to as sanctified parochialism, there is no excuse and certainly no justification for the coarse and deprecatory language about non-Jews that is heard far too frequently in our circles. The following lines echo what I have written elsewhere on this important and painful subject. They were impelled by several incidents that I regard as untoward, as well as what I was told by a noted Harvard University professor who is a committed Jew about a student from an Orthodox home and strong day school background who had abandoned religious life because, he said, his experience at Harvard showed him the falsehood of what he had been told and taught about Gentiles.

Likely, there was more - perhaps much more - to this young man's story and journey. Doubtlessly, other factors were at work. Yet, what strikes as too close to home is the student's reference to derogatory remarks about non-Jews, the sort of gratuitous and nasty fare that is too common in our religious life and our schools. Such remarks have become part of our vernacular. I have heard far too much inappropriate talk, specifically including by people who declaim readily about shmiras halashon, of the need to be careful in speech.

It is lamentable that we have to stress the obvious principle that no individual or group is elevated by putting down other people. Groups and individuals are elevated by what they do, not by the behavior of others. For Jews, the concept of chosenness arises only out of our living sanctified lives in accordance with the Torah's commandments. When we speak pejoratively of Gentiles, we may in a sense diminish them, but, for sure, in the process we are diminishing ourselves.

We also come dangerously close to the forbidden zone of Chilul Hashem, of desecrating G-D's name, by deprecating for no reason other than that they are not Jews those who are created in the image of G-D. It pains me to say that some of the things I have heard are a form of nivil peh, of vulgarity.

There are deep and still open emotional and physical wounds arising from our encounters with the outside world, most horrifyingly in the ineradicable experience of the Holocaust. The admonition expressed here is not intended to soften our feelings about the murder of millions of Jews or the centuries of persecution that preceded the European Churban. Nor should we turn a blind eye toward contemporary anti-Semitism or to cultural excesses and life-styles that are antithetical to Torah values.

In fact, derogatory language against Gentiles generally is not intended to express hostility to that which merits hostility. In a curious way, the impact, if not the intent, of blanket negativism toward non-Jews makes the inadvertent point that it is not anyone’s wrongful actions that are evil but merely one's status as a non-Jew. This notion is at once absurd and abhorrent. It is also rather poor strategy for the Jewish people. After all, there are only a handful of us and I very much doubt that G-D put us on this earth to wage war against six billion of its inhabitants.

Even if, as I have suggested, the tale of the Harvard student has more to it, it remains that some in our ranks are repelled by the words that they hear about Gentiles and, as a consequence, they move further away from Judaism. Surely, kiruv efforts are being undermined by inappropriate language and attitudes. A respected rabbi who has achieved much in outreach told me recently that he knows of a great number of instances where insensitive or racist remarks by religious Jews resulted in persons who were in the process of returning to Judaism being lost.

Those of us in religious Jewish life who have become inured to and accepting of the language that I regard as wrongful are likely to be critical of what I have written here. My suggestion is that they reflect on the example of Torah leaders whom we turn to for guidance. In my experience, I never heard such transcendent leaders as the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood or Rav Moshe Feinstein or Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky or Rav Pam ever employ the kind of language that is so promiscuously used these days by lesser figures in our community.

They should reflect, as well, on Rambam's concluding words in his chapter on our obligations to non-Jews. (The Laws of Kings, chapter 10, par. 12). He cites a passage from the daily Ashrei prayer, "G-D is good to all and His mercy extends to all His creations" and then concludes, "The ways of the Torah are ways of pleasantness and its paths are peace."

Finally, we must always be mindful that no one is ever elevated by putting down someone else.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Is Outreach Out of Our Reach?

Thirteen years ago, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald gave his final speech as president of the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals. Relying on data from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey - that gloomy research which set off alarms throughout American Jewish life - he estimated that, on the average, each year each outreach professional had produced fewer than a single person who returned to Judaism by keeping Shabbos and eating kosher. Rabbi Buchwald - he is Effie to me - revisited the issue in a recent speech before the Rabbinical Council of America. This time around, he had "some good news to share." He now estimates that the number of baalei teshuva [returnees to Judaism] had doubled since 1990, so that "each outreach professional now produces about 1 2/3 baalei teshuva a year."

I wonder about the reliability of this more upbeat assessment. Effie knows that outreach is exaggeration-prone. He knows that Judaism is losing far more than we are gaining, that "the hard cold fact" is that since 1990 "80,000 Jews a year walked away from their Judaism." In short, we have "nothing less than a tragic Jewish meltdown." We need to ask why kiruv or outreach is "abysmally unsuccessful."

No one is better suited than Effie to deal with this question. For a generation he has led the pioneering Lincoln Square Synagogue's beginners service. He established the National Jewish Outreach Program, which he continues to head, to market the beginners service concept, turn Friday Night Into Shabbos and other creative outreach activities. His achievements transcend the organizational. Kiruv is his life mission and he brings to the challenge a wonderful blend of humor and seriousness as he has directly touched the lives of thousands, many of them at Aidel's and his Shabbos table.

Not all of these contacts result in the desired outcome, but certainly not for lack of commitment. We live in an open society with multiple exit points and too much that impels too many Jews to exit Jewish life.

Effie believes that outreach is less successful than it can be because we are at once "too demanding" of those who are exploring a return to Judaism and too enamored of quickie outreach activities which we foolishly believe can produce instant results. The return to Judaism is a spiritual journey that inevitably entails a number of stages and difficult issues. It is a journey that requires patience. Outreach workers must use multiple strategies and even then they often do not succeed.

Education and especially day schools have become a familiar mantra in contemporary Jewish life. There is no quarreling with the concept; the problem is the execution. Too many factors, including high tuition and inadequate philanthropic support, have reduced the capacity of day schools to be effective vehicles for outreach. The sad decline of the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools means that this organization that had been the driving force in creating schools that could reach out is now AWOL. Nor does it help that outreach functions nearly everywhere in North America as an independent activity, without an organic connection to religious education. Many of the day schools that have engaged in outreach activity are too feeble to do the job we need them to do and too many day schools established to serve the non-Orthodox are too feeble religiously to do the job we need them to do.

Even with adequate funding and all necessary resources abundantly available, outreach is a difficult enterprise because, to borrow from Paul Cowan's apt phrase, the majority of American Jews are orphans in history. The Ten Lost Tribes never returned and millions of lost American Jews are not returning. Perhaps in some distant future there will be a Hillel Halkin to discover their remnants in ashrams in the Far East.

Yet, there are Jews who can be reached and we are obliged to reach out to them. The starting point should be involved Jews who are at risk, the synagogue attendees and day school families and others who participate in our religious life but who may be lost. As noted, the openness of American society and modernity make this task far more difficult and it does not help that too often yeshivas and day schools contribute to the deficit through indefensible admission and retention policies. Our schools too hastily expel "problem" students and they turn away applicants who should be accepted. I am ashamed that the field that I have given so much of my life to contributes to Judaic loss.

Outreach must encompass more than what schools can provide and more than what adult education can provide through the study of texts. Study often results in growth in commitment and observance, yet Effie is right that we need to reveal the joy of Jewish living and the nobility of Jewish living. We need to employ music and song far more than we now do in our effort to attract those who have moved away.

One of the glories of our religious life is the incomparable array of voluntary chesed or charitable activities sponsored by religious Jews that help people in need. Few people outside of Orthodox life know about Tomche Shabbos which provides free food in a dignified way to thousands of families each week. They know too little about the hundreds of yeshiva and day school students who visit the frail and sick and lonely in nursing homes and senior facilities. They know too little about the Bikur Cholim volunteers who each day tend to those who are hospitalized. We must think of ways that involve those whom we want to reach out to in our chesed activities. We need to link their spiritual needs with our spiritual elegance and achievements.

That is the standard that Effie Buchwald has lived by in his truly noble efforts as our premier outreach leader.