Friday, November 25, 2005

Israel's Katrina

The Bush Administration and FEMA were sharply criticized because they ignored reliable warnings that a huge storm was on its way and then when the storm hit, their response was delayed and consequently there were additional victims and damage. Both of these lapses were measured in days. Yet, our government was faulted and deservedly so.

How are we then to judge Israel and the Sharon government's treatment of the Israel Gazans who were forced out of their homes? Three months have passed since the last Gush Katif settlers left. Although their total number was fewer than 10,000 - a figure that is certainly manageable - many continue to live in tents and hotels and enormous harm, perhaps permanent, has been done to family stability. The socio-psychological toll is mounting, with little prospect for a quick turn-around. The most fortunate of the ex-Gazans live in caravans or small homes, some in clusters and others in places that they scarcely recognize. Too many have not gotten what they were promised, as Israel's High Court of justice or Supreme Court has acknowledged in recent decisions in which Chief Judge Aharon Barak has admonished the government.

Unlike Katrina, where advanced notice was obviously limited, Mr. Sharon and his Disengagement Authority knew for more than a year what lay ahead. Timetables had been set and a substantial bureaucracy was created to see that Israelis who in good faith had built their homes in Gaza and contributed to Israel's welfare and security would be fairly treated. The fact that relatively few of the Gazans welcomed what was looming and not many signed up in advance on the dotted line does not in any way absolve the government from its obligation to see to it that those who were removed are properly recompensed and resettled.

It turns out that those who adhered to the government's timetable have not fared much better than those who did not. While the military and police did their job, generally with empathy, from the standpoint of Israelis, disengagement is a mess. What is striking about this is that Israel manages to build highways in what seems to be a jiffy and other expensive capital projects move quickly. Yet, it is beyond the capability of the government to provide adequate housing, even of a temporary nature, for approximately 1,500 families. As I write, there are children not yet in school, families in disintegration, much pain and heartbreak and people going to pieces. While the sad saga continues, Mr. Sharon and Ms. Rice break bread and decide, I believe understandably, how to make life easier for those who have moved into what Israel abandoned.

As with Katrina, a good chunk of the explanation for what has gone wrong is that public bureaucracies tend to be insensitive and inefficient, not because they want to be but because their focus is overly on rules and forms and not on those who desperately need help. Even accounting for a high dosage of bureaucratic ineptitude, Israel's post-disengagement record is dreadful, perhaps to some extent because of insufficient caring about those who have lost so much.

Israel is at the brink of winter and the rainy season and the winter usually is harsh so what awaits those who still await resettlement is greater hardship still.

Is there are role in this for American Jews? Probably not because we are not there, although the proper attitude might help. If we were polled about Katrina, I believe that at least 90% of us would criticize the Bush Administration. For nearly sixty years we have given the Jewish State much slack, usually but not always for good reasons. Relatively few American Jews empathized with the Israeli Gazans, regarding them as occupiers and fanatics. We should have another look at their situation and change our tune.

The primary thrust of American Jews, most of them Orthodox, who want to help these Israelis is to provide clothing and other items that will improve their lot. It is hard to argue with charitable initiatives, yet they make me uncomfortable because they may breed a culture of dependency among people who had been self-reliant. Once embedded, dependency is difficult to shake off.

We are also letting the Sharon government get off the hook too easily. It bears responsibility for what has gone wrong and is obligated to take corrective action. This is more likely to happen if we would not be Jews of silence regarding Israel's mistreatment of some of its Jews. Unless our media and organizations speak out, prospects are not good that the lot of the ex-Gazans will improve any time soon.

Unless there is a dramatic change in Israel's treatment of those whom it has made homeless, we need to consider diverting financial support for Israel from conventional causes to the emergency engendered by disengagement, perhaps by contributing to funds that go directly to providing new housing for the ex-Gazans.

It is not only for the sake of these Israelis that we need to pressure Mr. Sharon and his allies. The pull-out from Gaza and four small and isolated West Bank settlements is a first-stage Road Map activity that is to lead to further territorial concessions and population withdrawals. The U.S. has upped pressure on Israel. Given the public statements of Mr. Sharon and Amir Peretz, the new Labor Party leader who is a pronounced dove, it seems inevitable that before long there will be additional West Bank evacuations. In a sense, therefore, Gaza serves as a test-run. If Israel cannot get it right for 10,000 evacuees after a year and a half of advanced notice and planning, what can we expect when 50,000 are to be removed?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Shmutz Is Shmutz, Not Jewish Continuity

The desperate effort to maintain flickers of Jewish identity among the great number of American Jews who have married out or demonstrated in other ways their wholesale abandonment of identification with our religion, people and community has resulted in what I have termed anything goes Judaism. What counts these days is the label, not the contents, and it matters little that the label bears little resemblance to what Judaism has stood for. Nor does it matter whether what is being marketed is offensive.

As discontinuity packaged and marketed as continuity continues to yield little beneficial fruit and as surveys show further loss, our identity efforts have become more desperate, more removed from anything that can legitimately be described as Jewish and more tolerant of what is hostile to Jewish continuity.

I accept that Orthodox or conventional outreach touches only relatively few of the Jews who need to be reached out to, if only because most of those whom we continue to call American Jews are not paying attention. Yet, I am struck by the sagacity of the Talmudic sages who cautioned that as with physical salvation, spiritual salvation is a retail enterprise, the saving of just one life at a time. I believe that along with traditional learning and prayer, the Orthodox would achieve more if they focused more on the power of music and the impact of chesed activities as ways of reaching out.

Because the stakes are high and the odds are strongly against reversing contemporary trends, it is good that a huge investment is being made in Birthright Israel and Masa, the new Israel government and Jewish Agency initiative to bring thousands of young American Jews to Israel for learning and cultural experiences that will last for up to a year. The financial cost is immense and while the payoff will be limited, these activities will have some beneficial impact, in large measure because they are hospitable and not hostile to our traditions.

The overall picture remains disheartening. There is a spreading inclination to accept what is bogus, as in the Kaballah fraud that is the rage, or perhaps worse yet in the soft core dreck of Heeb and activities that debase our community.

Jews are not the only American ethnic or religious group experiencing severe membership loss. The melting pot may not melt away ethnic distinctiveness as quickly or as completely as once was believed to be the case, yet in this land of opportunity, social mobility and freedom, acculturation, assimilation, intermarriage and other yardsticks of ethnic decline are not mirages. What distinguishes us from other groups that are losing members is that uniquely we think that by embracing what is thrilling but base we somehow can salvage some of what is being lost. While other groups have standards or at least a sense of shame, we have few standards and little shame.

A case in point is the Boston Jewish Film Festival, which is billed as New England's largest Jewish cultural event. According to Sara L. Rubin, its executive director, "more than ever, this year's festival speaks the current language of our younger audiences." Translated this means that more than ever the festival is removed from Judaism and more than ever it is outrageous and open to obscenity.

One of its feature films is Sarah Silverman's "Jesus Is Magic," which just opened in New York, with A.O. Scott, the Times reviewer, noting that when Silverman opens her mouth, "the vilest, filthiest things you've ever heard come pouring out of it." Apparently she does speak the language of some younger audiences. The movie also contains this line in one of its songs, "I love you more than bears love honey/ I love you more than Jews love money."

I emailed my reservations about the Boston festival to a deservedly respected local Jewish leader, asking why the community is sponsoring such material. The good news, conveyed in his response, is that the movie has "nothing to do with proselytizing." The other news is that "it's actually worse about African Americans and Hispanics ... plus it's outrageously obscene." I was also told that "this stuff attracts outliers and unaffiliated Jews." This may be the most distressing part of the episode. Silverman is not the first to demonstrate that a dirty mind and dirty mouth attract attention, yield financial benefits and transitory fame. And she won't be the last. What is hurtful is the eagerness of persons who are responsible for Jewish continuity to embrace obscenity in the name of reaching out.

Again, no other ethnic group has stooped as low as we have. Nor has any mainstream film festival. I imagine that except for those that deliberately market obscenity, what is obscene is off limits. I should mention here that the Boston Jewish leader also told me that there is "actually worse stuff on the program" than Silverman's trash.

I wonder whether those who decide programming for the Jewish community reflect on the implications of what they are willing to do. Are there any limits to how low we will stoop? Do we care that other Americans look at what we are promoting and too many have come to believe that Jews stand for cultural degeneration? Do we care that while people may come to our programming which features dirty jokes, there is no evidence that such activities result in an even attenuated form of Jewish identity? Put otherwise, are we able to recognize that our indulgence in shmutz is for shmutz's sake?

There is no reason to believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that we are nearing the bottom of the barrel. Unless more of us speak out, the Boston Jewish Film Festival will be a way-station in the ongoing process of American Jewish debasement.

Have we no shame?

Friday, November 11, 2005

Satmar v. Satmar

There is a potential for conflict in all social relations and it exists not because people are selfish or foolish or have other shortcomings - although these are factors - but because it is natural for people to look at the world they are in through their pair of eyes and no one else's and in terms of their own interests. The negation of self-interest may strike us as moral and often it is, yet it is not what we ought to expect and it is not always the moral thing to do. While it is generally preferable to avoid conflict, at times the preference should be in the other direction.

Since conflict is inherent in human relations, with proximity enhancing the prospect of its appearance, the crucial question is how disagreements are handled, whether with a sense of restraint or in a no-holds barred fashion, with the goal being to defeat the other side. Societies invest much in conflict resolution and for good reason because there is always the danger that disputes will turn violent or exact other serious costs.

That religious groups are not immune from internal discord and personal disputes is a proposition too obvious to need explication. The added ingredient of ideology or theology to self-interest increases the prospect of serious intra-group and inter-group conflict. This prospect increases in turn the obligation of those who lead religious groups to be careful about the rhetoric they use and the actions they endorse, lest religious and ideological conflict get out of control as true believers believe that their mission is sacred and they must prevail.

The dangers of religious conflict are sadly on display in Williamsburg within the Satmar chassidic group as followers of rival claimants for dynastic succession are battling it out in synagogue, court and wherever else their twain meets. There has been violence and arrests and because neither side is particularly blessed with a sense of restraint, what lies ahead is frightening.

Apart from the obvious reasons why this behavior needs to be condemned, it is especially to be regretted on two additional counts. Overwhelmingly, the rank and file of Satmars are not directly involved in the fray. While they look quite different from nearly all of us, like most of us they are primarily concerned with livelihood, raising a family, and enjoying the blessings - material and other - available in this land of freedom and opportunity. Of course, they also are determined to live religious lives. Except for a few, Satmars go to shul to daven and not to throw punches.

Secondly, Satmars have a remarkable record of chesed, including toward those from whom they are distant, as is apparent in their extraordinary activity to assist those who are hospitalized or have other needs. There may be no other Jews who have as powerful an instinct for charity.

Violence and wrongful behavior do not alter this record, yet they deflect from our appreciation of the good that these chasidim accomplish. It should be clear that charitable activities do not provide a scintilla of justification for violence or the unwillingness of community leaders to show leadership by calling for restraint and peaceful resolution and not for warfare.

In the classical way that one wrongdoing results in additional wrongdoing, the Satmar conflict is further marred by the two competing sides relying on secular courts to vindicate their claims. There has been a stream of litigation, doubtlessly all of it costly because as with doctors, chassidim want the best lawyers. This is in clear contravention of powerful halachic or religious legal strictures that designate religious courts or Beth Dins as the appropriate forum for conflict resolution. Litigation in secular courts is described as a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of G-d's name, because it amounts to the declaration that religious authority cannot be relied on to resolve disputes.

Sadly, in chassidic circles there is a spreading tendency to engage in civil litigation when conflict erupts, mostly over dynastic succession. There is no excuse for this and the practice must be strongly condemned. By contrast, in the yeshiva world sector of Orthodoxy there is a commendable tendency to resolve disputes - again, invariably regarding succession - via the Beth Din route. Admittedly, the stakes are higher in intra-chassidic disputes because the outcome determines who leads a community and controls its institutions, while in the yeshiva world the outcome affects a single institution and usually determines who inherits the bills and the burden of fundraising.

Violence inherently is a Chillul Hashem and media attention adds to the desecration. Even without fistfights and worse, it's deplorable that the Satmars cannot find restrained ways of conflict resolution. Are there no rabbis to turn to for counsel and religious rulings? Certainly, there are respected religious figures in Israel with whom Satmar has good relations. Why aren't they being asked to listen to the competing sides and determine how to go forward?

We who are religious Jews are told constantly that restraint and moderation are hallmarks of our religious life. We proclaim that the ways of the Torah are pleasant. It should bother us enormously when the message received by the overwhelming majority of American Jews who are not observant is that our religion is not pleasant, that restraint is not practiced and that their rejection of religious life is justified. Their criticism is often not justified, but it should matter to us, including the Satmars, that we are giving them potent ammunition.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

RJJ Newsletter - Tuition Crisis

There is at long last heightened awareness of the tuition crises confronting a great and growing number of religious families. After years of silence about the subject, despite powerful evidence that constantly rising tuition begets enormous pain, there is talk that something needs to be done. This is good news, yet before we start celebrating we need to recognize that we are far from being out of the woods, that any effort to provide meaningful relief to families that deserve relief faces long odds.

I have raised the tuition issue for nearly the entirety of my one-third of a century as RJJ's president. As much as I may want to think or claim otherwise, my advocacy has essentially failed. Torah Umesorah - the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools has been extremely negligent in this area and its once glorious record has been tarnished. Roshei Yeshiva have been occupied with other causes and other issues. Over the years I have been a lone voice protesting against the wrongness of an attitude that makes yeshiva education into a consumer product and the wrongness of an attitude that results in stress and pain in some of the best families that we have.

As this newsletter is being written, I am at the halfway point in a campaign, expressed through a series of full-page messages that are appearing in the Jewish Press that aim to challenge the prevailing notion that basic Torah education is not a communal responsibility. It is telling that Hamodia and Yated Ne'eman, the English-language weeklies that serve the yeshiva world and certain chasidic sectors, turned down these messages because they did not want to go into controversial territory. What we need, in fact, is more discussion and debate and not only about tuition but about a wide range of issues affecting American Orthodoxy.

We have become afraid of controversy, even afraid of disagreement. In my youth, at the Agudah conventions and elsewhere, Gedolei Torah often disagreed with one another and they did not shy away from dealing with subjects that might breed dissent. They also had no problem with laymen taking positions on key issues, including those that were controversial. Without advocacy that is accompanied by a good dose of passion, there is scant prospect that the tuition situation will be improved.

Even with the most effective advocacy, the odds are quite long against significant improvement in the short term. As one of the as yet unpublished Jewish Press messages underscores, yeshiva and day school education in the New York metropolitan area alone costs about one-billion dollars a year. That's without taking into account capital expenditures for new and improved facilities or the cost of Beth Medrash and seminary programs, kollels and certain other religious educational activities. The obvious point is that Torah education is now extremely costly and expenses will continue to rise, with parents bearing a growing share of the burden because our schools must pay their staffs and bills.

While personnel costs obviously account for by far the largest share of the typical yeshiva budget, three other expenses provide insight into the hardship schools face as they try to make ends meet, a hardship that in turn is passed on to parents, too many of whom are trying to make ends meet. After 9/11, there were massive increases in the cost of insurance. It was also necessary for schools to devote scarce resources to ensuring security and this too has been costly. In the wake of Katrina and other events, energy costs have gone through the roof; as winter approaches, many schools are wondering how they will meet their fuel bills.

Torah education is a costly matter and getting more costly, although nearly all yeshivas and many day schools actually underspend because they are forced to cut back on vital services. Even if contributions rise, we have a long way to go until there will be meaningful relief. But we must begin. In part, our schools must pay more attention to fundraising and be more creative in this area. This means that lay leaders of yeshivas and day schools do not fulfill their responsibility when their role is essentially limited to setting tuition, limiting scholarship assistance and hoping that the annual dinner will be successful. They have to do a better job at fundraising than most of them are now doing.

However, if the status quo regarding communal support is not challenged and changed, even with the best of intentions few lay leaders will be able to avoid making decisions that essentially mean that parents have to pay more each year, irrespective of how limited they are financially.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Johnny and Joey

When across the span of two full generations a student who has achieved scholarly eminence recognizes the influence of a teacher, the glorious fruit of educational excellence are revealed. Shortly before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, Robert Aumann - Johnny in his student days and to his friends - was interviewed by an admiring Hebrew University colleague for a fascinating long piece that has been published in Macroeconomics Dynamics.

Asked at the outset to identify "the milestones on your scientific route," he responded, "My interest in mathematics actually started in high school - the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva on the lower east side of New York City. There was a marvelous teacher of mathematics, by the name of Joseph Gansler. The classes were very small; the high school had just started operating. He used to gather the students around his desk. What really turned me on was geometry, theorems and proofs. So all the credit belongs to Joey Gansler." This is thrilling to old RJJers, adding to the enormous pride in the recognition being given to Johnny Aumann. Joey Gansler was a masterful teacher and also quite idiosyncratic, the subject of stories and jokes told by students long after they last sat in his classroom. His life ended tragically and yet Professor Aumann's tribute makes us understand that his teaching brought forth extraordinary fruit.

I am in my thirty-third year as RJJ's president - only the fourth in the school's on--hundred and six years - and the responsibility is difficult and voluntary. My focus here is not on the recent period but on the years immediately after the Holocaust when despite great improbability, RJJ rose to greatness, the lesson once more being that people of devotion and talent can overcome long odds. Doubtlessly, this assessment is not shared by all who attended the school in the 1940's and 1950's, yet it is close to the mark, especially when we consider that all educational enterprises have shortcomings. Inevitably, there were flaws, and yet there was a great deal that worked in a truly impressive way.

What was improbable about RJJ's achievements in the 1940's and 1950's? Enrollment in the 1940's was below what it had been thirty years earlier. Previous efforts to establish a high school had ended in failure, primarily because of a lack of funds. Certainly, there was little money in the till. Faculty were badly underpaid and they were not paid on time. The Lower East Side was way past its prime. It was hard to recruit top-flight educational leaders. The school's new principal was Rabbi Dr. Hillel Weiss, a late 1930's refugee from Germany. He was an imposing man but how could he run a school for American boys, much less mold it into an outstanding institution?

That's exactly what he did. This exceptional noble man turned out to be a great educational leader. He was a person of integrity and good judgment. He recruited some talented people and he was aided by an enormously dedicated staff, including Louis Sternfield and Hyman Brill on the educational side and Abraham Block and Samuel Bernstein in the office. RJJ somehow scaled the heights and its reputation grew. Students came from across the metropolitan area - quite a few from Borough Park, Johnny Aumann and me among them - and many were attracted by the excellence of the academic program directed by Herman Winter, the "English Principal" and a Stuyvesant High School faculty member who recruited effective teachers, including Joey Gansler.

RJJ's new stature was at least as pronounced on the religious education side as Rabbi Weiss worked closely with Irving M. Bunim, my predecessor as RJJ's president and an outstanding lay leader of the emerging American Orthodox community. Mr. Bunim's close relationship with Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the transcendent religious leader who established the great yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, contributed importantly to RJJ's achievements. Torah scholars, nearly all of them refugees from the Holocaust, were added to the faculty. For years, a significant proportion of Lakewood's stellar students came from RJJ.

This, too, was an improbable outcome. How could these new faculty members who were certainly Talmudic scholars but who scarcely spoke English relate to American students who were meshuga about baseball and other alien pursuits? In truth, at times they did not and the results were not always salutary from either a religious or educational standpoint. Yet, there was abundant success and it is evident today because in the world of Torah scholarship there is a significant cadre of RJJ alumni who have made their mark. This is, of course, true also of alumni who have achieved prominence in academia and other fields.

Well into the interview, Johnny Aumann was asked, "who are the people who have most influenced your life?" After speaking about his family, especially his remarkable mother, and then mentioning once more Joey Gansler, he said, "On the Jewish side, the high school teacher who influenced me most was Rabbi Shmuel Warshavchik. He had spent the years of the Second World War with the Mir Yeshiva in China, having escaped from the Nazis; after the war he made his way to the United States. He had a tremendous influence on me. He attracted me to the beauty of Talmudic study and the beauty of religious observance… Warshavchik's enthusiasm and intensity - the fire in his eyes - lit a fire in me also."

Fifty years after I was in his shiur, I continue to feel the warmth of Rabbi Warshavchik, an elegant man who was a devoted and excellent teacher who like other Talmudic scholars who were refugees served as a spiritual link between the great pre-Holocaust yeshivas and the yeshivas that were taking root on American soil. There was a special chemistry to RJJ in these years and it means much that Johnny Aumann at the peak of his fame has helped to bring back memories of a truly glorious experience.