Friday, September 30, 2005

Should We Give Up On American Jewry?

Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has written a terrific, must-read article for the latest issue of Commentary. "Jews and the Jewish Birthrate" is chock full of ideas and data that add up to a pessimistic view of the American Jewish prospect. While intermarriage inescapably contributes to this pessimism, Jack's primary focus is on fertility and related demographic factors. He notes that our median age is "seven years older than other Americans" and that "among Americans of all kinds ... Jews have the fewest number of siblings, the smallest household size, and the second lowest number of children under eighteen at home."

Furthermore, too many of us do not marry. Those who do, as often as not, marry non-Jews. We also marry later and have fewer children than other white Gentiles. In short, as Jews have become more appreciated by their fellow Americans and have made distinctive contributions, we also are moving in the direction of becoming extinct. Since we are certainly among the most avid readers of the New York Times and, I suspect, pay inordinate attention to obituary notices, we should have a good sense of what is happening at that end of the life-cycle. Many more of us are exiting than are entering and with the exception of the Orthodox, the new arrivals are far less likely to be Jewishly connected than those who have departed.

The "cumulative effect" of these developments, Jack writes, "is now being felt and will only become amplified as time goes by. In a community that has long since ceased to replace its natural losses, continued low fertility rates mean that the number of children in the communal pipeline will soon drop sharply, causing a decline over the next decade in enrollments in Jewish schools and other institutions for the young." He quotes sociologist Bruce Phillips that soon "there will be fewer practitioners of Judaism in the U.S.," a development that "will at some point become evident in the number and/or size of synagogues and other Jewish institutions."

The article explores the socio-psychological, behavioral and ideological factors that contribute to the disturbing fertility pattern which is in contrast to the high fertility of the Orthodox. Although separately Reform and Conservative affiliation outnumbers by huge margins the number of Orthodox Jews, "among synagogue-affiliated Jews, the Orthodox sector contains more children than either of the other two."

Apart from the Orthodox whose ranks will continue to grow, although aliyah and abandonment by some of a religious life will limit the gains, is it time to face reality and say that there is little to be done to avoid the inevitable loss of nearly all non-Orthodox Jews? Is it time to throw in the towel, perhaps by deciding that our resources should be directed toward helping Israel?

This isn't a new question. It was asked of me about a dozen years ago by Zalman Bernstein, the great philanthropist, after the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey left many of us shaking our heads about the future of American Jewry. Subsequent bad news has resulted in the question being asked again and again. The answer a dozen years ago and now is that while our losses are severe, there are lots of Jews who can be reached and the effort must be made. They number in the high tens of thousands and it is possible to strengthen their Jewish commitment, provided that we make substantial and meaningful investments in Jewish education - something that we have not done sufficiently - and provided that we recognize that continuity is not a term but a way of life that accepts our past, our heritage and our traditions. What American Jewry has called continuity since NJPS 1990 is largely discontinuity.

In any case, organized American Jewry is not prepared to call it quits, no matter what the bad news, nor is the Israeli government. We have contrived a self-deluding and generally delusionary picture purporting to show that while we have changed radically, we are doing rather well. Working with statisticians aka demographers and others who have a stake in putting a stamp of Jewish approval on our losses, we have convinced ourselves that severely watered down Judaism is a legitimate product. Because we have invested so heavily in false versions of Jewish life, we are impelled to keep the shell game going.

We need to continue to promote the notion that the emperor is fully clothed. What would our federation and organization worlds be like if we acknowledged that 80% or more of what we refer to as American Jewry is under water?

The Israeli government and the Jewish Agency know the score. The data they are looking at is based on research by Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University and it is bleaker than what Jack Wertheimer presents. Their strategy is not to indulge in self-delusion but to try to retard the frightening consequences of what we have wrought on these shores. They believe that Israel's welfare depends to an extent on a strong American Jewish community. They are scared out of their wits by what is transpiring.

Their plan is to build on Birthright Israel through a new program called MASA that will provide extended educational, work and other experiences in Israel for up to a year for Jews of college age. Israel and the Jewish Agency are committing huge sums for this purpose and they are also soliciting outside philanthropic support.

While Birthright has been oversold in some quarters, it has achieved promising results under difficult circumstances. Birthright remains a valuable approach to the predicament of American Jewry. It is a disappointment that the new initiative will be independent of Birthright, the reason perhaps being that we must never forego the opportunity to establish another Jewish organization. However MASA is constructed, we must pray for its success because we desperately need to reach out to Jews who are at the edge of being lost entirely.

Friday, September 23, 2005

When Abbas Stumbles Israel Pays

In his speech prior to the Gaza withdrawal, Prime Minister Sharon said that changed circumstances had made the move imperative. He did not spell out what they were, perhaps because he thought they were obvious or perhaps candor would have opened a can of worms.

We know that 9/11 revealed deep hostility toward the U.S. throughout the Islamic world. The size and geopolitical importance of this world generated, in turn, an understandable desire among American policy makers to seek better relations with Arabs and Moslems and this inevitably resulted in a changed approach toward Israel. Every American step to fight terrorism, starting with Afghanistan, and then the Iraq invasion has been accompanied by a corollary determination to strengthen ties with parts of Islam. This, too, has operated to Israel's disadvantage.

At best, Israel would have to take a back seat in the new U.S. diplomacy. Worse yet, Israeli actions would be required to fit into the changed American outlook. A dual dialectic was at work, firstly in the paradox that greater enmity toward the U.S. among Arabs and Moslems resulted in support for Israel being somewhat downplayed and, secondly, in that American friendship toward Israel was reconfigured into a diplomatic device whereby Israel would serve as an instrumentality for the achievement of the changed American goals.

Israel still had a trump card in Yasir Arafat. As long as he lived, there was greater freedom because Washington had announced that it would not negotiate with the Palestinian fakhir (aka faker.) Pressure in Israel was therefore tempered. When he went, that barrier came down, to be replaced by an urgent, even frantic, U.S. determination to shore up Mahmoud Abbas and to forestall Hamas. Since Arafat's death, Israel has yielded huge chunks of sovereignty.

The situation is likely to get worse, if only because Abbas' situation is likely to get worse. The cat was let out of the bag by Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when he announced that new construction in Maaleh Adumim - a next-door suburb to Jerusalem - was being suspended and would not be resumed until Washington gave its approval. This is on top of the humiliating China drone affair in which Israel yielded to the Pentagon and Washington bureaucracy its freedom to make key 1) diplomatic, 2) military and 3) economic decisions. The only saving grace in this matter was Defense Minister Mofaz who refused to obey the Pentagon's instruction that he come to Washington and personally beg the forgiveness of lower American officials.

As Israel withdrew from Gaza, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was forcefully pressuring Israel to do more - lots more and pronto. When Palestinian mobs overran what Israel had abandoned and destroyed synagogues, had they paused to read they would have been comforted by the words of State Department spokesman Sean McCormack who said that Israel's decision not to destroy the synagogues put "the Palestinian Authority into a situation where it may be criticized for whatever it does." So Israel is responsible for Palestinians destroying religious places! It is obvious that McCormack said what he was instructed to say by his boss.

The State Department has emerged all-powerful in determining how the U.S. looks at relations between Israel and Palestinians. If only because of 9/11, this is scary. As National Security Advisor, Ms. Rice was reckless in protecting this country against unmistakable indications that terrorists were plotting to harm the U.S. and she then covered up her malfeasance. She cannot be trusted with Israel's security.

Our media and organizations have little to say about these troubling developments. It is a precondition of Israel's dependency status that its leaders are more than circumspect about criticizing the U.S. Disagreements are covered up and the Israeli and American publics are deceived. American Jewish organizations and media go along with this deception. In an unintended way, Pat Buchanan has it right. There is an amen corner where we bless all that the American government does even when it is harmful to Israel.

We do have AIPAC to further the self-delusion that gives credence to the mischievous notion that there is an all-powerful American-Jewish lobby. In fact, we are in the dark about back-door U.S. diplomacy which provides arms and other support to Arab countries.

The AIPAC prosecution should dispel our exaggerated self-importance. Think about it. There has not been a single prosecution like this in the entire history of the country, although it is certain that what the two ex-staff members are accused of is daily fare in Washington. We delude ourselves and we allow too many others to think that we are in control of the White House, Pentagon and State Department by settling for the appearance at AIPAC's extravaganzas of the Secretary of State and other officials who mouth scripted cliches about U.S.-Israel relations. In fact, AIPAC is one of Washington's least effective lobbies because to be effective lobbying has to be discrete.

There is a saving grace in the far more discrete and far more effective efforts on behalf of Israel by Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians. They are tougher than we are in advocating Israel's case and they are better connected than we are. Israel needs them and hopefully they will remain allies despite incessant efforts by American Jewish groups to alienate them.

The factors that have weakened Israel's relations with the U.S. and curtailed its diplomatic freedom will not go away. Every time that Abbas stumbles, there is the prospect that a cost will be exacted from Israel. I know that Israel has never been blessed with free will in its relations with Washington. But the present situation is especially troubling. Israeli leaders must be more candid in describing what is occurring. Isn't this one of the requirements of democracy?

Friday, September 16, 2005

The Message from Lawrence

We received a wake-up call a couple of months ago in the effort of Lawrence day school parents to reduce their tuition charges by having the local school district take over the academic portion of the curriculum. Because of constitutional and practical constraints, the plan has no chance of success. It has gotten attention, thereby accomplishing the important goal of getting more of us to think about the growing tuition crisis in many religious homes.

Not that there is reason to be optimistic that the larger Jewish community will alleviate the pressure on schools and parents. For decades, American Jewry cared little about day school education, regarding it as inconsistent with American ideals. This attitude remains a strong force in Jewish communal planning. There was a spike in support for day schools after the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey scared the daylights out of us about Jewish continuity. Even so, actual support remained modest, with the exception of contributions for day school construction, notably in the non-Orthodox sectors.

The record in New York is dreadful, even taking into account that the large concentration of day schools in the area makes it extremely difficult to provide significant support to the 300 or more schools in the New York Federation's service area. It's disgraceful that Federation cut back the little that it did by terminating basic grants to local religious schools. Much of the funding snatched from day schools has been allocated to silly projects of the sort that routinely find favor with those whose titles are inverse to their knowledge of Jewish life. In our long experience, it's doubtful that any community has had a shabbier record than New York.

What about the Orthodox? With more than 80% of day school enrollment, the Lawrence wake-up call was primarily aimed at them. Here, too, the record is nothing to applaud. Orthodox organizations and leaders have stood idly by as steadily rising tuition and steadily expanding family size have combined to create a crisis in an expanding number of religious homes.

The prevailing attitude is that a religious Jewish education is a service or product that like other services and products must be paid for by the consumers - meaning the parents - irrespective of their financial situation. This attitude is alien to our tradition and cruel to people who live good Jewish lives and struggle to make ends meet. Our callous attitude takes a heavy toll in shalom bayis or family relations. There is pain and tears and even tragedy. It is asinine to suggest that Torah education is akin to a product that we purchase in a store.

Our approach to tuition is also based on dubious economics, on the view that the cost can rise each year without there being a point at which price resistance results in diminished demand for the product. There obviously is price resistance among the non-Orthodox. The Lawrence episode suggests that at least among the modern Orthodox, a point may be reached where a growing number of parents say that they have had enough. The growing interest in home schooling in other parts of Orthodoxy is another sign that cost matters. One fascinating offshoot of the tuition crisis is the phenomenon of "tuition refugees," a term that refers to families of limited income that have made aliya in order to avail themselves of low-cost Israeli education and avoid the huge bills from American Jewish schools.

As day school costs and tuition go up, there is a corresponding decline in the ability of our community, including the philanthropic sector, to devise ways of helping the families most in need. There are 210,000 dayschoolers, grades K-12. At an average figure of $8,000 per student, the annual operating bill comes to more than $1.5 billion. If we estimate that half of the students are legitimately in need of meaningful financial assistance, the scholarship tab would be huge, certainly beyond what can be raised through contributions. The determination of each school to raise funds is a critical factor in determining whether scholarship assistance is available. In most non-Orthodox and modern-Orthodox schools, fundraising takes a back seat, so that scholarships are hard to come by.

Schools that make a serious fundraising effort would likely have better results if the consumerist mentality were abandoned and replaced by the attitude that it is a mitzvah to help basic religious education. It would also help if Rabbinical leaders and the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools publicly reject the consumerist attitude and call for communal support for yeshiva elementary schools and high schools. It has been years since yeshiva deans last declared that there is a religious obligation to support local yeshivas and day schools. Synagogues that once made appeals for local schools have in most neighborhoods stopped doing so. This, too, is wrong.

The good news is that there are first stirrings of improvement. The other news is that at least in the short run - and perhaps much longer - the rejection of the consumerist mentality will not go far to alleviate the situation, as day school costs rise each year. It is unrealistic to expect that help for needy parents may be around the corner. What is wrong in day school funding is cumulative, the product of neglect over the past generation. If there is to be improvement, inevitably it will come slowly.

Our community and schools must think of other approaches and solutions, which also is what the Lawrence message is about. As difficult as it may seem, schools must establish endowments. Even a modest start will yield fruit down the road, as endowment funds tend to grow. Too few day schools officials recognize the critical role that endowments can play in stabilizing a school's finances, so enmeshed are they in the daily struggle to get by.

We need to be creative and bold and explore income approaches that have not been on our radar screen. Although this was not the intention, ultimately this may be the legacy of Lawrence.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

These Are Our Children

We read little about yeshiva and day school admission and retention policies, though this is a subject of extreme importance each year in hundreds of observant homes. It appears that, as with other issues in Orthodox life, it is best to avert our eyes from matters that deserve our attention - as if by averting our eyes the attendant problems will go away or be less painful.

Hopefully, what I write here will result in Torah leaders, and those who make admission and retention decisions in our schools, giving more careful consideration to the impact of these decisions on children and their families.

Schools are educational institutions. They exist to teach, to impart knowledge and skills to students and help them prepare for creative and successful adult life. There is a corollary function, somewhat separate from the educational, which is referred to as socialization - the inculcation of children in behavioral patterns that are crucial to their proper development. These include discipline, elements of obedience, and respect for authority and for other children. These often aren't easy tasks, certainly not in societies beset by a wide range of social pathologies, as ours is.

To an extent, Jewish schools have a somewhat easier road because we as a community are steeped in traditions of learning and study and are less affected than other groups by social breakdowns. But we obviously are not immune from what transpires in the world around us. Yeshivas and day schools increasingly deal with the consequences of the corrosive effects of popular culture on children and the changing character of family life.

Our schools have additional roles. Their socialization function extends beyond efforts to shape good conduct and encompasses proper religious behavior, including appreciation of mitzvos and their fulfillment. In a sense, our schools train children to be both good citizens and good Jews.

On top of this, there is the dual curriculum, the obligatory religious subjects in addition to the obligatory secular subjects. This factor alone complicates enormously the challenges facing our schools.

To accomplish their goals, schools operate as standardized institutions. There are attendance requirements, class hours, material to be covered, homework, tests and grades, dress codes and many other rules. It cannot be otherwise. Children, however, are anything but standardized. They have different aptitudes and attitudes, different skills and interests, as well as varying backgrounds. Some blossom early, others later on and, still others, hardly ever. Some are well behaved, others are not. Some are happy, others are not. Some are outgoing, others are shy. Some excel in music or art or athletics, others do not. How to accommodate the great diversity within a standardized framework is what makes education at once exciting and difficult.

With their additional curriculum and socialization responsibilities, Jewish schools are confronted with additional elements of diversity. There are students who are good or interested in Jewish subjects, but who are not good or interested in secular subjects. And there are students with skills and interests the other way around. There are weak students who exemplify proper midos, children whose substandard report cards are offset by outstanding coduct. How are our schools to handle such situations?

There are no easy answers. But there are, I believe, two guiding principles. The first, expressed in Proverbs, is "chanoch l'naar al pi darcho," which means that a child is to be educated in the ways that best meet his needs. In practical terms, this means that while not all children are superstars, they are our children who need our educational attention and deserve our caring, not our rejection.

The second principle is that children belong in school, not out of school; that it is the obligation of Jewish schools to maximize the capability of admitting and retaining students.

These principles are not sentimental expressions. They are our halacha and our hashkafa, our religious law and our religious outlook. These principles are binding on yeshivas and day schools and their officials. This means that as we so often counsel parents, patience and flexibility must be shown toward students. If they are not in a clear fashion harming themselves or other students, they are to be retained.

The trend in our community is in the other direction, especially in the New York area where space limitations have joined with heightened frumkeit and the desire of some schools to have only top-notch students to create an eagerness to turn away or get rid of weak and "problem" students. In not much more than a blink of an eye, students are expelled or not admitted. Out of sight is out of mind, without regard to the impact on students and their families, and without regard to how admission and retention policies expand the pool of at-risk children in Orthodox homes.

Of course, these policies operate without regard to halachic considerations. At best, the process is ahalachic, if not contrary to our religious laws. The great posek and religious authority, HaGaon Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt'l, said often in public speeches that he was infrequently asked about chinuch or Jewish educational issues, a point that is supported by his published responsa.

Orthodox Jews bombard rabbis and roshei yeshiva with questions, even about trivial matters. When it comes to admission and retention issues in our schools, mum is the word. Questions aren`t asked, religious guidance is not sought. As a rule, one person - usually the principal - is empowered to act. At the annual convention of Torah Umesorah - the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools - an event that is primarily for principals, there are dozens of sessions touching on nearly every issue arising in Torah education. There are few or no sessions regarding halachic standards for the admission and retention of students, nor about the processes that are to be employed in arriving at these decisions.

It apparently is acceptable for one person to decide. The Chazon Ish, one of the transcendent Torah authorities of the past one hundred years, thought otherwise. When asked about expelling a yeshiva student, he said that the question was one of life and therefore had to be decided by a bet din consisting of twenty-three eminent rabbis. The letters of the Chazon Ish regarding chinuch should be required reading for all who decide on the fate of our students.

Why do we tolerate arrangements that depart from appropriate Torah standards? The answer is that there are cultural norms within the yeshiva and day school world that have gone unchallenged. With the passage of time, they have become embedded and accepted. What is inappropriate and unchallenged becomes the ordinary way of doing things. We are accustomed to the notion that children can be refused admission or expelled by one person. Any challenge to the improper status quo is paradoxically likely to be regarded as a challenge to Torah authority. What is wrong is now regarded as right, even though one-person decision-making is bereft of Torah legitimacy.

It is difficult for parents whose children are expelled or refused admission to give voice, except quietly, to their pain and distress. In most instances, they have other children to care about, other childrn to send to the schools that have rejected a sibling. It is interesting and telling that while the Orthodox community has a stellar record of chesed activities, so that there are wonderful organizations filling nearly every nook and cranny of physical and emotional needs, to my knowledge there isn`t even one organization advocating on behalf of yeshiva and day school students.

The starting point for improvement is a willingness to speak out, a willingness to challenge the wrongful status quo. Unless we articulate our concerns and pain, there will be no change and the ranks of at-risk children will swell. What I write here is based on hundreds of situations that have come to my attention over the years, often from parents pleading for help. I hope this challenge to what is wrongful will encourage others to speak out.

Admission and retention issues are most acute at the high school level, although they crop up in the lower grades, even in preschool. Applicants are turned down and students are left behind because it is said that they aren't socially ready, as if being turned down or denied promotion eradicates shyness and promotes self-esteem. In public schools there are what have been called social promotions. Some of our schools specialize in social demotions.

In the lower grades, day schools with a modern orientation are more rejectionist than yeshivas. It is at the high school level that yeshivas, including Beth Jacob schools, go into high gear, turning down applicants - including their own elementary school graduates - because they aren't strong enough or do not come from good enough homes or allegedly do not have good enough character. There are schools that want to maintain a reputation as accepting only the best, without reference to whether halacha permits such a policy or much reflection on what the rejected students and their parents are supposed to do. Are they to go to a public school? Or perhaps they should set their sights on kiruv schools and institutions for at-risk students?

Each year, well after the period when girls are admitted to high school, dozens of Beth Jacob elementary school graduates have as yet not been accepted by a Beth Jacob high school. Rav Pam of blessed memory used to decree that each girls` high school must accept a number of these applicants.

Since his passing, the situation has worsened. The main Beth Jacob high school in Boro Park, which is an excellent institution, frequently serves as the place of last resort for these girls. But it is reluctant to accept applicants from schools that are attached to high schools because of the belief that such schools have a moral obligation to accept their own graduates.

If only because of the intensive focus on Gemara or talmudic study, admission issues are more complicated at yeshiva high schools. There isn`t much point to accepting applicants who will not make the grade. Inadvertently, therefore, yeshiva high schools feed the at-risk phenomenon.

The apparent solution is to support and strengthen and also not belittle high schools that accommodate boys who do not fit into the ordinary Judaic curriculum program. These schools serve a vital function; with few exceptions, they are poorly supported.

The retention side of the coin is different. There are boys` and girls` high schools that are quick to expel students for even minor infractions or for the kind of acting out that is characteristic of many, perhaps most, teenagers.

Patience is for parents, not for those who educate our children. Students have been expelled because of rumors about their behavior. As in other aspects of our religious life, we talk a good deal about the Chofetz Chaim and not engaging in rumor-mongering. Unfortunately, there is a large gap between what is preached and how we act.

In these matters, nearly always the principal has the authority to unilaterally decide the fate of students. Halacha takes a back seat. I cannot imagine that there is a halachic basis for a Beth Jacob high school rejecting a girl because she is not a strong student. In fact, is there a halachic basis for a boys` yeshiva expelling a weak student who excels in midos?

Let me underscore once more that when a student is disruptive or in some fashion adversely affects other students, there are grounds for expulsion. In these situations, as well, parents are entitled to be heard before the decision is finalized and principals are not entitled to decide unilaterally. Schools obviously have more leeway in determining whom to admit, although here, too, it is unwise and probably inappropriate to allow one person to decide.

In view of what is at stake, I cannot understand why any principal would want to have sole authority in such matters. Why should a principal object to a three-person committee, perhaps consisting of a local rabbi, a respected lay person and a school official, determining whether a student should be expelled? It is likely that in most instances - but certainly not all - the principal's recommendation will be accepted.

To bring about the procedural changes that are sorely needed, we first need to bring about attitudinal changes and this is predicated on a willingness to openly discuss issues and arrangements that have essentially been closed off to discussion. Unless we challenge the erroneous and non-halachic view that one person can expel a student, what is wrongful will continue to be regarded as appropriate.

I do not urge this change because I want to undermine the authority of principals. My concern is our children and their families. My concern is that we fulfill the obligation to recognize that these children are our responsibility. Their self-esteem must be our primary concern. When we destroy or even weaken a child`s self-esteem, we run the risk of destroying that child.

We are a religious community. We are rightfully proud of our kiruv activity. We proudly trumpet the Mishnah in Tractate Sanhedrin, which teaches that he who saves a single life, it is as if he has saved the entire world. We in the yeshiva and day school world might well ponder the Mishnah's next clause, that "he who destroys a single life."

As I have emphasized, the issues raised here require discussion. I hope that readers will offer their comments and experiences, even if there is disagreement with my point of view.

This Rabbi Needs to Reform

It's understandable that as the head of the Jewish organization with by far the largest number of certified 100% non-Jews as members - and the number is growing rapidly - Rabbi Eric Yoffie is often confused about our religion. Besides, to borrow from an old Yiddish saying, his Reform clergy have too many weddings to dance at. One night it's two fellows tying the knot; the next night it's two gals. On night three, a 50% patrilineal Jew may be wed to someone born fully Jewish while on subsequent nights there are half Jews marrying other half Jews or quarter Jews or there may be some other arithmetic arrangement. Every so often, there are nuptials for two glatt kosher Jews.

Even someone as brilliant as Yoffie must feel the strain, if only because Reform services frequently include the participation of clergy of other faiths. To do the job properly, it's necessary to know the ceremonial rules of Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Evangelicals, Presbyterians and other groups. On occasion, there are Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Bahai and Islamic ceremonies. How are these rabbis to keep up with all of this ecumenicism? It helps, I suppose, that they need not fret much about what Jewish religious law requires.

It's fair to ask, why am I beating up on Rabbi Yoffie? Does it matter much that Yoffie exaggerates the number of Reform Jews? Most of us know the truth and down the road, the rest of us will find out. What has upset me is an article that he wrote for the Forward prior to the Gaza withdrawal using the ruling of several Israeli rabbis that religious soldiers could not participate in removing the Jewish Gazans as a springboard for a sharp attack against religion in Israel. Yoffie could not wait to see what actually transpired, as religious military personnel showed their loyalty to the state.

In fact, his criticism of several rabbis might be acceptable had he been capable of moral equivalency. Yoffie asks, "why should religious soldiers refuse to carry out orders, Israelis ask, when for years those on the left have served in the territories, manned roadblocks and protected settlers - despite their opposition to the occupation?" Let’s put aside the inconvenient fact that, as we all now know, few religious soldiers refused to carry out the orders they were given. We might also suppress our qualms about his describing the Israeli activity in the territories as "the occupation," a term that puts him in sync with Israel's enemies. What is most irksome is his blind spot in not acknowledging that more than 1,000 leftist soldiers declared that they would not serve in Lebanon or Gaza. Dozens were court-martialed. I am certain that Yoffie wrote no article condemning these Israelis or those who inspired their disobedience.

We are supposed to forget this and also to forget Yoffie's nifty act several years ago when he instructed members of NIFTY, the Reform movement's youth organization, to stay away from Israel when the second intifada broke out. While other Jewish organizations cancelled trips, my recollection is that Yoffie was alone in urging members of his movement not to go. Now Yoffie is lecturing about appropriate behavior in Israel!

In fairness, he is not across the board hostile to religion. It's just Judaism that is irksome to him. Shortly after the Forward attack, he spoke to the Evangelical Lutheran Church at its annual assembly, apparently the first non-Christian to be so honored. After claiming that "the work that we [Reform] engage in is similar in many respects to the work that you engage in" - quite an exaggeration because Evangelical Lutherans are very "frum" - he asked "our many friends in the Christian world" not to "demonize or isolate Israel." In violation of church rules, Yoffie received a standing ovation and then the spiritual descendants of Martin Luther adopted a watered down resolution against Israel. We must be thankful for small blessings.

Religious Jews have not been treated as kindly, although we may derive comfort because Yoffie did not post his calumnies against them on the front door of Temple Emanuel. But he did write "the hesder yeshivot need to be disbanded," without as much as a phrase or nuance showing empathy for Hesder students and alumni, many from families that made aliya and all of whom have served in the military. Hesder has suffered substantial casualties. Rabbi Yoffie could not find a single kind word to say.

Religious schools are another of his targets, their problem being that they do not teach democratic values and therefore contribute to divisiveness and worse. The good rabbi is out of his depth. Israel's school system is a mess and a disgrace, as is evident from a succession of governmentally-sponsored commissions that have examined how to improve a system that is not working for too many Israeli children.

Especially among Sephardim who are not Orthodox, there are many parents who send their children to religious elementary schools to avoid the dysfunctional atmosphere in state schools. In June, I visited a state school in Jerusalem and I was shocked by what I saw. The Reform leader's suggestion for reform would result in a certain kind of equality in which good religious schools would be deprived of their independence and forced to sink to the much lower educational level that prevails in many state schools.

Does Rabbi Yoffie believe that destroying Hesder and weakening religious elementary schools will strengthen Israel?

Rabbi Yoffie's final target is the Chief Rabbinate which "needs to be abolished or radically reorganized." I say amen to this and also to the further suggestion that "Israel would be well served" if rabbis "were chosen on the basis of learning and personal piety." Truth to tell, under this appropriate standard, Rabbi Yoffie and his colleagues would not stand a chance of being selected.

Monday, September 05, 2005

RJJ Newsletter - September 2005 - Sanctity

(In writing this brief essay on kedusha or sanctity, I am cognizant that the subject is beyond my reach, both in terms of intellectual capacity and knowledge and personal conduct. The concluding paragraphs discuss how contemporary conditions affect the ability of religious Jews to attain a state of kedusha and this is a subject that is within my reach. I ask forgiveness if I am trodding on ground that should be off limits to me.)

In our religious vocabulary, perhaps no word is as frequently used or is as expressive as kedusha. The sanctity of marriage is referred to as kiddushin. We sanctify Shabbos by making Kiddush, our dead are memorialized through the Kaddish prayer and Kedusha is central in our daily liturgy. In the blessings before the performance of a mitzvah, we assert that we have been sanctified by the commandments.

For all of its strong presence in our religious life, kedusha is an illusive term and concept. We who are observant appreciate that Shabbos is made holy by being separated from the other days of the week. But how are we transformed by this holiness, especially when as sunset approaches on Saturday, too many Orthodox Jews are literally jumping out of their skin for Shabbos to end? Are we transformed during the week by the 20-30 second rote repetition of Kedusha or by the blessings we say as we prepare to do mitzvahs? It is easier to understand how transgressing a negative commandment deprives us of sanctity than how performing a positive commandment makes us sanctified.

In the concluding paragraphs of the discussion of the laws of forbidden sexual relations, Rambam underscores how difficult it is for most to refrain from behavior that is antithetical to our obligation to be a sanctified people, how monetary greed and certain desires expand our zones of impurity by being nearly constant companions in life's journey. It seems that a neutral state in which we avoid improprieties but do not attain a state of kedusha is a significant achievement.

This dilemma posed by Rambam is perhaps addressed, albeit indirectly, by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in the concluding chapter of his epic discourse on ethical behavior, Mesilas Yesharim ("The Path of the Righteous"). He posits that the initial manifestation of kedusha arises from an individual's purposeful effort to overcome moral defects. This effort is rewarded in turn by kedusha being imparted as a gift from G-D. There is a feedback reaction in that the striving to overcome what is incompatible to kedusha results in the attainment of kedusha, again as a gift, further intensifying thereby the individual's determination to achieve an even higher state of sanctity.

Another formulation of this idea was expressed by Rav Yitzchak Hutner, ztl, in a notable letter to a student in which he cautioned against the common error of believing that our people's spiritual giants were born in a state of holiness and did not have to struggle to achieve the spiritual eminence that we identify with them. What we see is the reward for their effort and struggle.

All efforts to attain kedusha are characterized by separation, but not merely separation from what is hostile to sanctity but also from what is worldly and permitted. Each mitzvah is, in a sense, an act of separation because it entails a limitation on how we employ our capabilities, including time, speech, thought, emotions, physical functions and our resources. Each mitzvah is a barrier or separation point, pulling us away from the profane and ordinary and bringing us closer to kedusha and G-D. As we become servants of G-D, we become free because we are freed of the mundane impulses that are hostile to kedusha.

In every period, for Jews the attainment of kedusha has been a challenge. We sense, though, that there was greater fulfillment - meaning greater piety - in previous generations, perhaps because poverty and hostility toward us from those amongst whom we lived created what might be called automatic barriers or separation points. While kedusha was certainly not imparted to us on a silver platter, it was more readily within our reach.

We are fortunate that we are far more comfortable and we are fortunate that we are far less confronted by those who despise us. We are less fortunate because modernity impels us toward all kinds of engagements and away from the havdalah or separation that is the inescapable precondition for kedusha. This is evident in the lure of popular culture and the powerful pull of hedonism. It is no mitzvah to be poor, yet constant preoccupation with monetary matters - which is nearly inescapable under contemporary conditions - is scarcely a path toward piety and sanctified living.

Less obvious but as potent are social processes arising from technological advances that are inherently morally neutral and yet serve as the enemy of separation. In this respect it is necessary to underscore once more, as the Talmud teaches, that the obligation to be sanctified which generates the need to separate ourselves is not to distance ourselves from what is forbidden but from what is permissible.

Although social scientists have correctly noted that people are far less connected in a fulfilling sense than they once were - we only need to look at what has happened within families - there is a powerful yearning for togetherness and for shared experiences that we hope will make life more pleasant. Of course, we do not have hermits or monks in our religious tradition, yet the herd instinct or the desire never to be apart creates ersatz or fleeting experiences of togetherness and also undermines the prospect for kedusha.

The cell phone is illustrative. It is obviously a hugely valuable device and still its escalating abuse is an issue that must be acknowledged. Too many Orthodox Jews are addicted to the cell phone. In the recent period I saw a rabbi respond to a call during Kedusha and also a fellow davening near me answering his phone during the silent Shmoneh Esreh. It is now common to see Jews with talis and tefilin chattering away on their cell phones.

Even when the motivation may be appropriate, the desire for connectedness can drive us away from sanctity. There is a growing number of quickie trips by religious Jews on a fast track to see Torah leaders in Israel; there is the mass exodus to Uman in Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah; and we have an endless stream of publicized events that purport to inspire via video messages from Torah leaders hundreds or thousands of miles away.

These occasions are usually sincere and they may be inspiring as they are being experienced, but even if they are not accompanied by an improper urge to have bragging rights, they certainly are not transformative. They are occasions of instant gratification, of a powerful desire to satisfy a religious impulse that arises not from one's spiritual nature and wanting to be separate but from one's physical nature and wanting to be together.

Transformation is the key to the attainment of kedusha and this requires a lot of hard work. We are not required to move to an isolated island, although Rambam recommends this as an option under certain conditions. We are allowed and even encouraged to be engaged with the world but also to be separate even as we are engaged.

By all means, we should go to see Gedolei Torah, always mindful of the enormous demands on their time and strength, and we should visit places that are vital parts of our religious heritage. However, these occasions should not be tainted by the glitz that informs so much of contemporary society and contaminates much of our religious life.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Why AIPAC Must Go

We now have a better idea of what the FBI was doing prior to 9/11 while it was doing little to protect the United States against terrorist attacks despite information in its possession that attacks were being prepared. Our G-Men were trailing, wiretapping, investigating and entrapping staff members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who constituted a clear and present danger to U.S. security. We good Americans can breathe easier because Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman have been apprehended and charged, as well as cashiered by the organization that they faithfully served. Perhaps never before in American history have individuals been indicted for the high crime of being yentas.

We don't know whether other American Jewish advocates for Israel have had their phones tapped as the FBI protected this country against the Zionist entity because the Feds aren't telling and we aren’t asking. Malcolm Hoenlein stands virtually alone in questioning the indictment, although Tommy Lapid made salient points in the Jerusalem Post. From the Anti-Defamation League, ever vigilant against ephemeral threats to Jewish rights, there is silence, I speculate because challenging the bogus charges might be bad for fundraising. Jewish newspapers that report whenever an Orthodox Jew hiccups at the wrong time in shul have not done their job. They have not asked questions that need to be asked.

Rosen and Weissman are to fend for themselves. Let's not ask, as Lapid did, whether apparently credible reports about terrorists planning to murder Israelis are to be ignored. Let's not ask how it’s possible to indict those who verbally receive allegedly classified information without indicting those who provided it. Let's not be vulnerable to charges of dual loyalty.

I have read the indictment and it is a lot of hot air emitted by an ambitious Federal prosecutor who like too many others cares too little about fairness or justice. Lawyers for Rosen and Weissman say that they are confident that their clients will beat the rap. I am betting on the prosecutor because these days judges are loathe to curb prosecutorial abuse.

What Rosen and Weissman are accused of doing is routine in Washington and in every capital. Our media print and broadcast far more sensitive and top-secret information. Has anyone been charged for leaking to Sy Hirsch? What do we think U.S. military attaches, intelligence operatives and other officials do every day in Israel and wherever they are stationed? But we Jews aren't supposed to ask inconvenient questions. As AIPAC has decided, Rosen and Weissman are a small price to pay to have the Bush Administration make nice to AIPAC, even as it intensively squeezes Israel to make additional concessions.

It's astonishing how AIPAC's ranks have held, how it has weathered the storm by publicly declaring - and this is especially shameful - that Rosen and Weissman acted wrongfully. This is another illustration of how lemming-like members make their organizations into idols which they worship with full faith. Maybe we should not be surprised. AIPAC is predicated on self-importance and self-delusion, on the mirage that what it does makes a difference for Israel. In fact, it has no impact on Israeli diplomacy or on relations with Arabs and Palestinians or on Israeli security. It raises nearly $50 million, funds that could be better spent directly in Israel. The organization serves as a surrogate for American Jews who cannot figure out a better way to help the Jewish state except through photo-ops. If AIPAC disappeared, Israel would not suffer one bit. Maybe some of its members would find more useful things to do.

This is not likely to happen. Internal loyalty is high, as was evident shortly after Rosen and Weissman were sent packing. AIPAC had its annual expensive extravaganza and a huge chunk of Congress came, much the same way that a huge chunk of Congress goes routinely to sterile events. So did Miss Congeniality and America's Acting Viceroy in Israel, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who to the applause of the self-important cooed about how the U.S. would never let Israel down even as she was telling Mr. Sharon in direct language that the Gaza withdrawal is no more than a first step. AIPAC showed its true colors, yellow and not blue and white, when it excised Hatikvah from the program, perhaps to appease the Neturei Kartaniks in its ranks.

Under marching orders from Israel, AIPAC is now gearing up to pressure the White House and Congress to give Israel an additional $3 billion to pay for the withdrawal and consequent rebuilding. This exercise in dollar diplomacy is reckless on several counts. There are clear indications that American public opinion leans strongly against taxpayers giving additional money to Israel. A CNN poll, admittedly framed in anti-Israel language, yielded shocking results. Congressmen and Senators favorable to Israel are cautioning that it's folly to ask for new grants. But AIPAC marches on because it has nothing else to do.

The most serious defect in the new initiative is that it leaves Israel extremely vulnerable because in exchange for any U.S. help, including in the attenuated form of loan guarantees which mean that Israel will get no funds from the U.S. and have to pay interest, Israel will be compelled to agree to strong U.S. conditions requiring far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians. As in the past, U.S. aid or loan guarantees will be in stages and at each stage Israel will be instructed as to what it must do.

Inadvertently or not, AIPAC does not strengthen Israel but serves as an agent in the scary loss of Israeli sovereignty. It sends the message that we American Jews are all-powerful. If its leaders want to help Israel, they should declare victory and their organization should go out of business.