Friday, December 30, 2005

Why Aren't the Orthodox Advocating for Day Schools?

I have been involved in day schools for more than fifty years, starting in my late teens when I volunteered to work for a newly established network of religious elementary schools in Israel. This involvement has encompassed research and writing, legal activity, service for a third of a century as president of America's oldest Jewish parochial school in continuous operation, development of philanthropic programs to assist day schools and advocating on behalf of these institutions. In short, I regard day schools as essential for the wellbeing of American Jewry.

At the level of rhetoric, many sincerely share this commitment. Unfortunately, in the translation of this commitment into reality, I have very little company or at least that is how I feel. This has been a lonely journey and never more lonely than in recent years. Among the Orthodox for whom religious education is a must, an alien attitude has gained prominence. It is that sending one's children to a yeshiva or day school is an act of consumerism and that like all other consumer products and services, it must be paid for by the purchasers, meaning the parents, irrespective of their ability to pay.

This attitude, which contrasts sharply with the traditional view that to a considerable extent religious education is a communal responsibility, has come to the fore at a time when the size of Orthodox families has increased dramatically, a circumstance that obviously adds enormously to their tuition burden. Even without tuition, Orthodox living is extremely costly. High tuition charges mean stress and pain in many homes. Since educational costs must go up and parents must foot nearly all of the bill, the amount of stress and pain increases regularly. The prospect is for escalating hardship in nearly all sectors of American Orthodoxy.

While several foundations provide meaningful help and day school capital campaigns can attract major gifts, communal support for the operating budgets of Jewish schools has declined. The record of American Jewry is shameful. In an article just published in the Jerusalem Post, Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, makes what he calls "the strategic proposal that the organized Jewish community in America guarantee a free Jewish education to the children of all members of the Jewish polity."

Dream on. Let us say amen and then recognize that there isn't a ghost of a chance that this proposal will come close to becoming a reality. Last year, the Fund for Jewish Education, controlled by the New York Federation, cut off basic grants to day schools, an evil act that scarcely drew a peep from Orthodox groups and leaders. Their message, inadvertently conveyed, was harm our schools and we will stand idly by.

Contrast this with what took place more than a generation ago - I believe in 1969 - when Irving Greenberg and others disrupted the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations and demanded support for day schools. Their protest bore fruit. But Orthodox groups and leaders have stopped advocating for day schools.

The picture isn't any better on the government aid front. Congress passed in 1963 the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the nation's first major piece of educational legislation. Although all three branches of the Federal government were controlled by strict church-state separationists, ESEA included parochial schools in benefit programs. This passed constitutional muster and parochial schools continue to benefit. While the Orthodox community was weaker at the time, it fought for this legislation.

Let's fast-forward nearly forty years to President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, the second major piece of federal education legislation. For all of the predent's religious leanings and the drift away in Congress and the Supreme Court from church-state intransigence, the new law managed to leave out all parochial school students and the Orthodox community did not bat an eyelash. In fact, there are grant programs that include religious schools without transgressing First Amendment restrictions.

Of course, yeshiva deans and Orthodox leaders and organizations would like to see day schools get public support. Unfortunately, they are too comfortable with the alien notion that this education is a consumer product and they are unwilling to mount the kind of effort that might produce results. Instead, they are content to have convention sessions and meetings on the "tuition crisis." Everyone then goes home and nothing happens.

I conclude this week a series of twelve full-page messages in the Jewish Press discussing financial realities confronting day schools and their parents. Two Orthodox weeklies, Hamodia and Yated Ne'eman, rejected these paid messages. While the grass roots response has been substantial, it is evident that the situation in many Orthodox homes is likely to get worse. While the pain is evident, what isn't seen is the growing number of families, most of them marginally observant, who walk away from day schools. One critical measure of the consequence of the failure to advocate for day schools is the sharp enrollment decline at schools with an immigrant or outreach orientation.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The ADL is Harming American Jews and Israel

The Anti-Defamation League is a fundraising and public relations behemoth, raking in more than any other American Jewish organization and constantly getting its name into print. If this would be the entire ADL story, there wouldn't be much to complain about, except perhaps to bemoan the folly of those who mistake fluff for substance and believe that their contributions yield meaningful benefits. Alas, there is more to the picture. To sustain the image that it is doing battle 24/7 against the forces of evil that seek to defame and harm Jews, the ADL needs to fabricate an atmosphere of fear, of enemies of the Jewish people lurking everywhere. As it exploits our fears, the ADL defends its turf, irrespective of the harm caused to Israel and Jews.

For all of the narishkeit contained in ADL files and the fear-mongering promoted by its appetite for publicity, anti-Jewishness and anti-Semitism are not even a minor problem on these shores, in large measure because of the tolerance that is embedded in the American ethos and also because we have so substantially assimilated that few of us remain targets for those who wish us ill. This may, G-D forbid, change and admittedly there are problem areas, particularly for religious Jews who are distinctive in their look and practices. The discrimination faced in the workplace and elsewhere by these Jews has never made it onto the ADL's civil liberties and civil rights radar screen. In this alone, there is a strong scent of hypocrisy in the organization's activities.

As anti-Semitism has waned in the U.S., the ADL has developed a penchant for picking quixotic fights, always careful to assure that its ubiquitous and publicity-hungry leader, Abraham Foxman, is the center of the story. There was the dubious battle against Mel Gibson's Passion. Foxman could not see that his campaign sent a message to millions of Christians for whom the movie had much relevance that their going to see it was a contribution to anti-Semitism. No friend of Jews for sure, Gibson did not have the decency to send a fat check to the ADL in appreciation for the tons of free publicity.

Another example is the silly donnybrook between Foxman and Congressman Charles Rangel over incautious but meaningless words used by the veteran legislator. Indeed, incautious and meaningless language that can be interpreted as unfriendly to Jews is fundraising nirvana for the ADL. As with others who have been accused by the ADL of far greater sins than they have committed, Rangel did not back down, the lesson being that however much we may believe the nonsense that Foxman is contributing to the dignity and freedom of Jews, it is easy to stand up to him because essentially he represents his ego and little more.

Astonishingly for so large a Jewish organization, the ADL is bereft of intellectual weight. In a sense, it is all instinct and no intellect. This is in contrast to the two AJC's which together with the ADL once formed the formidable triumvirate of Jewish defense agencies. While the American Jewish Committee is engaged in serious inquiries on the state of contemporary Jewish life and the American Jewish Congress is grappling with church-state issues in a changing legal and social environment, the brain of the ADL is the xerox machine and other PR paraphernalia.

Admittedly, much - maybe most - of what the agency does is benign self-serving shtick. There is an exception. The ADL cleaves today to a single idea, that idea is hostility to religion. In this alone, there is a clear and present danger for American Jews and to Israel.

The ADL is in the vanguard of the secular American Jewish hostility toward Judaism. Perhaps this is only opportunistic because there is gold to be mined among affluent assimilated Jews who are generous toward a cause that denigrates religion. Still, it must be asked how antipathy toward Judaism fits in with an agenda that purports to defend Jews against defamation. The image promoted by the ADL clearly results in Jews being defamed as a group that is at war with religion, a group that is fanatically determined to fight bitterly to prevent any place for religion in the public square.

The message being sent to tens of millions of Christians who have no dislike of Judaism is that we don't like them. Purposefully or not, we are tarnishing them as bigots and as people whose views we must oppose as Jews. It is warped to believe that this attitude protects Jews.

As with the ideology and rhetoric employed by all kinds of groups, specifically including political and other secular groups, there are actions and language that can make us uncomfortable and which need to be challenged. I am not unconcerned over the campaign conducted by media right-wingers, the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. They have fabricated a straw man of anti-Christian sentiment and used this fabrication to beat the drums for religion. What the ADL is doing is not to challenge their campaign but to do battle against Christians generally, thereby contributing to the wrongful notion that we are hostile to the religious beliefs of other people.

We now have Foxman's denunciation of Evangelicals, they being the Americans who are by far the most supportive of Israel. His attack is mean-spirited and intolerant. It is already evident from the response of rank and file Evangelicals that Foxman has damaged Israel. Evangelicals are questioning whether the aid and comfort they give to the Jewish state is warranted in view of the attack against them by a major Jewish leader.

I imagine that none of this bothers Foxman. I imagine that his attack against Evangelicals has been a fundraising boon. The heck with the Jews. The heck with Israel. Long live the ADL.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Israel's Undemocratic Supreme Court

Unless they are toothless, Supreme Courts are sore spots in democratic societies because some of what they do is to review and occasionally invalidate laws passed by democratically elected legislatures and actions taken by executive administrative bodies that can be held accountable via elections or through other democratic controls. Supreme courts aren't elected and they aren't accountable.

When judicial review is employed sparingly and only in special situations, it can be justified as necessary in a scheme of checks and balances and as a way to protect fundamental rights. Sooner or later though, there is apt to be trouble, as in the recent U.S. Supreme Court onslaught against two generations of constitutional law.

As egregious as the Rehnquist Court was in striking down precedents and laws that merited respect, it was unthinkable for the Chief Justice to determine who fills vacancies on his bench. That function is given to the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate. Not so in Israel where in an arrangement that is as bizarre as it is inherently anti-democratic, the Chief Justice plays a decisive role in selecting his colleagues, an irresponsible responsibility that is relished by Aharon Barak, Israel's super-powerful Chief Justice.

As critics have pointed out, Israel's Supreme Court has evolved into an insular body with a self-perpetuating ideology, which is to say that its non-democratic character is multi-layered. Barak now has outdone himself with the apparently successful effort to block the appointment of his "good friend," Professor Ruth Gavison, who is described by David Hazony in the Jerusalem Post as "arguably Israel's most celebrated legal scholar." Lest it be thought that she is an observant Jew and that's why I am advocating on her behalf, Gavison is a secularist, a longtime proponent of peace negotiations with Israel's Arab neighbors and an activist for human and civil rights. She has chaired the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

She would seem ideal for Aharon Barak's team. But he came out against her a month ago in an extraordinary speech which went beyond the bounds of judicial propriety. While conceding that Gavison "is completely worthy of being appointed a Supreme Court Justice," Barak opposes her because "she is a candidate who comes to the court with an agenda - and that in and of itself is a bad thing…. Her agenda is bad for the Supreme Court" and "I don’t want candidates taking a position regarding the agenda."

I imagine that Mr. Barak and those who have passed his muster all have had frontal lobotomies ere they ascended the high bench. As for Professor Gavison's agenda, she opposes the Supreme Court interfering regularly in decisions made by the Knesset and the Government and this criticism obviously rankles Aharon Barak who holds the opposite view that judges must have free rein. The Gavison sin is her commitment to judicial restraint, a commitment that would put her in the company of some of history's greatest jurists. Under the Barak standard, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. would not have been eligible for the U.S. Supreme Court.

When Barak's intemperate speech evoked a chorus of criticism, Haaretz came to his rescue with a hatchet job. In a long article called "Ruthie's Agenda," we learn that her "fiery temperament is known far and wide," that she is "the dictionary definition of the total opposite of a judge's temperament," that she is "a very unpleasant person" who "lacks minimal judicial disposition." To boot, she possesses "a kind of innate asocial character." And that's only in the first paragraph!

There is a strong sexist aspect to the attack on Gavison.

I know people who have worked with Ruth Gavison and they describe her differently, as someone who understands the importance of compromise and accommodation and as a secularist and scholar who recognizes that in order to prevent Israel from being rent further asunder by cultural and religious conflict, secular and religious Israelis need to reach an understanding. She has the makings of an outstanding member of the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, as they say on these shores, she is chopped liver, thanks to Aharon Barak who is Israel's chief chef.

Sadly, Israel and, in a relevant way, world Jewry, will continue to be ill-served by a Supreme Court that promotes social divisions and exacerbates intra-Jewish conflict, a Supreme Court that has an ideological agenda, a Supreme Court that is unrepresentative and hostile to democratic principles.

Even the most accomplished apologist would have difficulty defending the Supreme Court's role of interfering in the daily routine of government, as it does nearly each day when it sits as the High Court of Justice. That's a high sounding phrase for three or more black-robed people imposing their views on Israel, without regard to questions of standing. What they don't like, they find reasons to strike down.

This system, referred to as "Bagatz" - it should stand for "beyond goofy and zany" - allows the judges to reject even relatively minor governmental appointees and to set aside a wide range of ministerial actions. Anyone with ideological stomach cramps can go directly to the High Court of Justice where injustice is doled out routinely. I doubt that there is another Supreme Court in the world that has acted in so usurpatious a fashion.

Although this incredible approach to judicial authority has been sharply criticized for nearly the entirety of Israel's existence, it is maintained because the judges on the Supreme Court of Israel are power hungry. In the words of one of their former prominent members, this is the right way to do judicial business because the Knesset and Israel's leaders cannot be trusted.

That is some sentiment for a democratic society!

Letter to Haaretz

The following letter was sent to Haaretz in response to an article published on Sunday:

It is astounding to read these opening words in Tamaara Traubman's article on Professor Robert Aumann's receiving the Nobel Prize in Economics for his mathematical research into game theory: "At the yeshiva high school where he studied, he was told he was not very good in mathematics, and they advised him to choose something simpler, like auto mechanics."

In fact, in a long interview published earlier this year in Macroeconomic Dynamics, a scholarly journal, Professor Aumann was 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."

He has said much the same on other occasions.

Dr. Marvin Schick
Rabbi Jacob Joseph School

Friday, December 09, 2005

Who Is Myopic?

Up close, Michael Steinhardt is terrific. He's serious about Jewish life, charming, lots of fun and, of course, smart. From a distance, the picture is somewhat different. What is impressive is his boldness, his reaching out for new ideas and big projects aimed at counteracting the bad mathematics of American Jewish life Birthright Israel is the best example of this side of the picture. The other side includes an embrace of anything goes Judaism that is unfortunately accompanied by a debunking of our traditions and values.

According to Gary Rosenblatt's sensitive report last week, Mr. Steinhardt spoke recently to a group of Yeshiva University alumni and criticized the Orthodox for being myopic. While he is not a poster boy for the delicious aphorism, "If you want to know what God thinks about money, look who he gives it to," it is a stretch to say as Richard Joel, Yeshiva's president said, that he has "the largest heart in the Jewish world." As the Jewish world is powerfully driven by the twin imperatives of fundraising and public relations, rich people tend to have wonderful qualities that expand as their wealth expands. There are abundant examples of dreadful people who get such awards as "Humanitarian of the Year."

Anyway, Mr. Steinhardt - a good man - faulted the Orthodox for "not fulfilling their communal, moral and religious obligations to support the rest of the Jewish community." Is he kidding? What else is maintaining a significant and expensive network of day schools if not the fulfillment of a religious, moral and communal obligation? It is no answer to respond that the Orthodox are providing for their own - in large measure they are - because in addition to religious education being a religious, moral and communal obligation, day school education benefits all of American Jewry. Also, nearly all of the special education, outreach and immigrant schools and programs for youth at risk available in our community are under Orthodox sponsorship.

Mr. Steinhardt further questions "why so little Orthodox philanthropy went to non-Orthodox causes, like Jewish federations, from whose programs Orthodox Jews benefit." Here, too, the record does not support the criticism. For openers, the Orthodox benefit minimally from federations and what benefits they receive have generally been reduced in value and, at times, in dollars over the years, no matter what contradictory puffery is emitted by the federation world. Who benefits from federations and whether these benefits are meaningful is an important question that begs examination in view of the place of the federation network in American Jewish life.

In channeling contributions to causes that they sponsor, the Orthodox are following Michael Steinhardt's example. I'll bet my next to last buck that no more than a pittance of his formidable philanthropy goes to federations, the reason being that he wants to have control over what he gives to. There is a collateral reason, which is that he does not have an excess of faith in the efficacy of the Jewish establishment, believing that he can do a better job placing his bets and money on his own initiatives. These factors are increasingly true of other major donors who continue to give to Jewish causes. Why should the Orthodox think or do differently?

The primarily voluntary social service network established by the Orthodox dwarfs in the number of people reached and served, specifically including the non-Orthodox, what the federation world does. The gap becomes wider each year. If I would list each significant Orthodox chesed initiative and provide a single sentence describing what it does, a month of columns would not come close to containing sufficient space to do the job.

The major issue posed by the Steinhardt challenge is involvement, the failure of Orthodox Jews to be sufficiently engaged with the non-Orthodox. He asserts that this is contrary to Maimonides' teachings, in the words of the article "that one must not remove himself from the community." Maimonides is relevant to the issue, but he teaches exactly the reverse in describing a situation that echoes contemporary American Jewish life. Those who wish to explore whether I am accurate can examine Laws of Ethics (Hilchot De'ot), chapter 6, 1.

Putting aside the question of whether the Orthodox have room for more on their communal plate, are they obligated to be engaged in the fashion insisted on by Michael Steinhardt? Many are, in fact, engaged, whether in education, outreach, charitable activity or in other ways, as I am. But must we ignore the widening chasm as secular Jews move further away from our traditions and values? The Jewish establishment has made a sincere effort to accommodate the Orthodox on kashruth and, at times, Shabbos. Yet the secular and the Orthodox are further apart than ever in values and ideas. Are the latter required to ignore the funding of or involvement in activities that debase Judaism? Are they to ignore the overwhelming support among our secularists for gay marriage? Or the widening opposition to even a minimum place for religion in American public life? Are the Orthodox to be blind to the all-out war waged by the Jewish establishment against aid to parochial schools? What about intermarriage and its consequences?

The sad fact is that when the Orthodox and non-Orthodox interact, there's a good prospect that the food will be kosher but the values will be chazer treif. As assimilatory forces alive in American Jewish life take an ever-increasing toll, there will be even less common ground and reduced prospect that Orthodox engagement will have an impact.

This may sound too pessimistic. Mr. Steinhardt also criticized the Orthodox for believing that the non-Orthodox "are a lost cause." This isn't the case, although prospects for Jewish continuity among a majority of American Jews are bleak. Interestingly, in a meeting several months ago, not set up at my initiative, Mr. Steinhardt was pessimistic about the Jewish future of non-Orthodox Jews.

The Yeshiva on Henry Street

Allen and I came to the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on Henry Street on the Lower East Side in November 1943, eight years after our older brother Arthur. Allen is my twin and we were nine, fourth-graders for "English," as secular studies were then called in all yeshivas and the way they are still called in many of our schools.

We were in first grade for Hebrew, a circumstance arising from the sudden death of our father on Purim in 1938 which resulted in our family being dispersed as our mother who had four children ages 3-7 and was left penniless struggled to rebuild her life and make a home in Boro Park for her children.

Our first grade rebbe was Rabbi Nachman Mandel, already a veteran teacher, although he had another sixty years of classroom activity ahead of him before he retired after teaching for about a generation at a Los Angeles yeshiva.

While we progressed nicely, it wasn't easy to adapt to the age differential and this plus my rambunctious nature led to Rabbi Hillel Weiss, RJJ's gifted and devoted principal who had studied with our father at the great yeshiva in Pressburg, telling our mother that another school should have the privilege of educating her precious twins. For four years we were at Toras Emes in Boro Park, a beneficial experience, and then we returned to RJJ for the tenth grade and remained through high school and then for five years in the bais medrash.

By 1943, RJJ was well into its fifth decade. Referred to by its loyalists as "the Mama Yeshiva," it was the oldest Jewish parochial school in continuous operation in North America. There had been good times and bad times, the latter especially during the Depression years when enrollment declined in the small number of American yeshivas and day schools, with some of them being forced to close. Those who survived lived a penurious existence. Several RJJ attempts to establish a high school had floundered because of financial difficulties.

The country had mostly recovered from the Depression by 1943 and RJJ was on a path toward unprecedented growth. The yeshiva was imbued with new vigor, thanks to Rabbi Weiss and talented faculty and staff and a new high school, this despite the enormous decrease in the Jewish population of the Lower East Side.

That decline was hardly evident in the Jewish enclave below Delancey Street. On East Broadway and directly behind RJJ there was the Forward building, the tallest structure on the Lower East Side. The Morning Journal, another Yiddish daily, was published a few doors away. On the corner there was the Garden Cafeteria, then open on Shabbos and therefore unreliable and avoided by yeshiva students, although its food was cheap and inviting.

Seward Park was on the other side of East Broadway, serving as a hangout for yeshiva students playing hookey and as an outdoor gym. It was also a meeting place for the remnants of American Jewish Socialism, old men who would argue about the revolution that wasn`t coming.

We also hung out at the Seward Park Library and spent time at the Educational Alliance, the historic settlement house which then catered almost exclusively to Jews, and where RJJ rented space in the 1950's as its enrollment grew.

All around there were shtiblach, Jewish organizations and signs of a vibant Jewish life. Across the street from RJJ there was Anshe Maimad where exceptional Talmudic scholars who were esteemed in pre-Holocaust Europe but lost on these shores studied, argued and earned a pittance saying Kaddish for those who paid for the privilege.

RJJ itself consisted of a building dating from around 1915, a connecting annex that was built in the 1920's and, separated by a small yard, a renovated high school building that was the gift of the Golding family and which, as I recall, was opened in the early 1950's. Poor maintenance was the common denominator for all of these facilities.

On the corner of Henry Street and Rutgers there was a small playground - it's still there - dedicated in memory of Captain Jacob Joseph, a Marine who was killed in Guadalcanal in 1942. He was the great-grandson of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, New York's only chief rabbi, after whom the yeshiva is named, and the son of Lazarus Joseph, a Democratic Party leader who was a state senator and then New York City's comptroller while being active in RJJ.

The yeshiva was nearly always broke and behind in paying salaries to underpaid faculty and staff. Tuition was low and nonexistent for more than a few students but RJJ also had as officers and directors people of considerable means and reach. I am in my thirty-third year as president - a longer period than any of my more distinguished predecessors - and I have never been able to figure out why the school could not get its financial act together.

In 1943, the United States was at war. Irving M. Bunim, who two years later would become RJJ's president, was intensely engaged in Vaad Hatzala, the notable Orthodox rescue organization. I remember students saying Tehillim on D-Day in June 1944 when the Allies landed in Normandy. I also remember the yeshiva being engulfed in a sea of tears when the news came in April 1945 that President Roosevelt had died. Yet the Holocaust scarcely penetrated the psyche of the yeshiva, reflecting the inability of American Jewry at the time and for much of the generation after the Holocaust to come to grips with the destruction of European Jewry.

By the war's end, the yeshiva world was in transition. Beis medrash or seminary programs were established or enlarged and there were students who continued in kollel after they married. New faculty were hired, many of them refugees from the great European yeshivas that somehow found a sanctuary in Shanghai during the Holocaust. Among the veteran faculty, in RJJ and elsewhere, there was a sprinkling of "Haskalahniks," men who were well educated in Bible, Hebrew and Jewish history, but not particularly observant. This reflected the reality that for much of the first half of the twentieth century there was a limited pool of prospective Judaic teachers.

My second grade Hebrew teacher, Mr. Markoff, taught at RJJ for about fifty years. He was kindly but firm. For the third grade, I had Mr. Reisberg. They taught the fundamentals of dikduk or Hebrew grammar and they and others account for the fact that RJJ students and alumni were generally more adept in Hebrew language and grammar than students at other yeshivas. Less welcome during this period was the willingness of some teachers to hit students, a practice that thankfully is no longer tolerated in our yeshivas and day schools.

RJJ blossomed during the late 1940's and into the 1950's, thanks to the tireless work of Rabbi Weiss who gave fully of his heart, soul and even of his meager financial resources. Through Mr. Bunim, he developed a relatonship with the Great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, Rav Aharon Kotler, a number of whose students - including Rabbi Mendel Krawiec, who was the highest rosh yeshiva - joined the faculty.

I remember Rav Aharon coming to RJJ, being introduced in awe by Rabbi Weiss and speaking to the students, few of whom understood what he was saying. Yet many were touched by the experience. A number of the familiar pictures of this greatest of Jews ever to set foot in North America are from these talks at RJJ. They show a man who though in his sixties looked close to 100, with a fire glowing from his face. I tremble whenever I look at these pictures and I tremble as I write these lines.

In truth, the quality of the Hebrew Department was uneven. There was a Hebrew Language division that dated back to RJJ's second decade and which justifiably or not was regarded as a place for weaker students or those who did not care. In the main Judaic Division where Yiddish and English were the languages of instruction, there were teachers who couldn't teach. Some were refugees whose level of knowledge was far too high for the students in their classroom and others whose nerves were shot.

These faculty members could not effectively relate to American boys. I can still see the pain etched on the faces of these good men who had lost so much in the Holocaust and who were now lost in an environment that was alien to them.

There were many students who did well, with a significant number going to Lakewood. Some have become noted roshei yeshiva. Of the "non-learners," a great many developed into serious religious lay people who in their adulthood have been more committed to Torah study than they were in yeshiva. In sharp contrast to the present attitude of showing the door to students who do not fully measure up, in the 1940's and 1950's there was greater tolerance and this sense of tolerance has yielded much good fruit over the years.

All of the old religious faculty are gone, with the exception of the saintly Rav Zeidel Epstein, a true tzaddik from his earliest days who well into his tenth decade continues to inspire RJJ alumni.

For all the merit of the religious studies program, at least at the high school level the English Department was the primary magnet, attracting an ever-growing number of students from outside of the Lower East Side. What made this more remarkable was the length of the school day, which ran until 6 p.m., including Sundays. This was arduous, especially for those who traveled as much as two hours a day, but it did allow for a serious and fully developed secular studies program.

Directed by Herman Winter, a remote but capable man, the whole of the secular studies curriculum was greater than the parts. Most of the teachers were good but far from outstanding, with several exceptions, including Joey Gansler, our fabled math teacher. Mr. Winter had been on Stuyvesant High School's faculty and some of its retirees taught at RJJ, with at best mixed results because there were those who were too old and feeble to cope with hyperactive yeshiva boys who by mid-afternoon and later were more than a bit antsy.

What made the English curriculum exceptional was its seriousness and a number of special touches. Although high school enrollment was modest until the early 1950's - my June 1952 graduating class had about two dozen students - there were electives and extra-curricular activities that included a remarkable range of clubs for students to participate in. In a word, what elevated RJJ was an environment that encouraged study.

There were brilliant students, although this would not be evident if we judged by the grades they received. Nowadays, a 90 on the report card for a good student can beget tears and protests, which is understandable as we are in a period of severe grade inflation. RJJ was draconian in grading. There were two semesters per year and three grading periods per semester. Except in reward for spectacular performance, the practice was to give no more than an 85 for the first grading period, 90 for the second and 95 for the final period. I recall that an 85 average was needed to get into the school's coveted Segula or Honor Society.

Grades provide another notable contrast between today's and yesterday's yeshivas. Parents did not complain if their children did not do as well on tests or papers or the report card as the children and/or parents thought they did. There was a different relationship between parents and school. Unlike today when many parents act as surrogate big brothers and sisters to their children and help with or do the homework, children then did their own work and parents were largely thankful that their kids were in a yeshiva and respected what the school and teachers decided.

RJJ parents were also grateful because there were special manifestations of chesed - of tzedakah and kindness. In addition to the caring and dignified tuition policy, many students were provided with free clothing and food. There was the special project conceived and funded by Joseph Applebaum and continued to this day by his family of distributing kosher food to needy families before Pesach. Camp Deal, now named Camp Dora Golding after its great benefactor, added another touch of caring as RJJ boys were given two wonderful weeks at the handsome sleep-away camp.

Yet, already in our time, the yeshiva was in decline. Further Jewish population losses on the Lower East Side contributed to this, as did the establishment of yeshivas and day schools wherever religious Jews lived in significant numbers. The sudden death of Rabbi Weiss in 1954, was the turning point in RJJ's fortunes. He held the yeshiva together and when he passed away, the atmosphere changed for the worse.

Yeshivas are fragile institutions, bereft of the bureaucratic layers and processes that cushion against the damage that can result from internal conflict. I will not detail here what occurred after Rabbi Weiss's death and it is likely that I never will. But a high cost was exacted as faculty, administrators and even lay people contributed to the potent brew.

The yeshiva was at once fortunate and harmed because lay officers and directors were intensely involved in its operations. This is a final contrast between the yeshiva world in an earlier period and today's pattern. The steep decline in volunteerism throughout American life is reflected in our schools and other institutions.

When I left RJJ in 1957, feelings of hakoras hatov - gratitude - were accompanied by feelings of hurt over what I had witnessed. Although I was already knee-deep in communal activity, Henry Street was not much on my mind. Nor would it be for another fifteen years, when Mr. Bunim, exhausted from his valiant effort to keep the yeshiva going, called to say that RJJ was in a state of collapse and asked me to come into the picture.

A latent sense of hakoras hatov and the belief that I could salvage from the remnants of Henry Street enough to build Torah education elsewhere led to my becoming the yeshiva's president. A third of a century later I am still doing my best to keep the best of Henry Street alive.

Friday, December 02, 2005

A Question of Ethics

Now that the usual suspects have gone after the Catholic Church and the St. Rose of Lima School in Queens for the firing of an unmarried but pregnant preschool teacher, perhaps we can explore in a fair way the issues raised by this incident. This means being fair to the Church and not bringing in its obvious vulnerability on sexual abuse and other matters.

The question of whether the school or Michelle McCusker, the fired teacher, violated the contract they entered into when she was hired in September is not a civil rights issue. Whatever legal or administrative bodies will adjudicate her claim, the contract issue does not of itself raise any novel questions.

Nor need we dwell on the ridiculous claim advanced by the New York Civil Liberties Union which is representing McCusker that she is the victim of sexual discrimination since the Church does not equally take action against male employees who engage in premarital sex. Even with advances in biology and medical science, not all of them salutary, pregnancy remains a condition reserved for the females of our species. Inequity, such as it is, arises from this circumstance and no other. I trust that we can understand that there are laws and situations - abortion is a useful example - that apply to but one gender.

Our focus should be on the moral dimension, beginning with the question of whether an applicant for a teaching position who knows that she is pregnant, but this is not yet physically evident, is obliged to inform the school of her condition. This apparently is McCusker's situation. Even if we accept society's interest in promoting equal opportunity in the workplace for pregnant women, perhaps we should view schools in a different light regarding prospective teachers because the education of children is likely - probably certainly - to be disrupted when in the middle of the school year the teacher will be out for two or three months or longer on pregnancy and maternity leave. Isn't the school's legitimate interest in the education and welfare of children sufficiently compelling in such a situation, although pregnancy certainly would not be a legitimate cause for firing a veteran teacher? Accordingly, wasn't McCusker morally obligated to inform St. Rose of Lima that she was pregnant?

This issue, incidentally, is faced routinely by yeshivas and day schools, particularly the large number that recruit young Orthodox women, including the recently married. Some schools are reluctant and even refuse to hire such women. Whether such a policy is justified, I believe that an applicant who is pregnant is obligated to inform the school.

St. Rose of Lima acted, of course, on a separate ground. It did not want an unmarried pregnant woman on its faculty because, as its principal put it in a letter to McCusker, "a teacher can not violate the tenets of Catholic morality." It's this view that generates criticism of the school and the Church, including from Jews of a secular orientation, which is another way of saying the great majority of American Jews.

Two considerations should compel a reconsideration and result in the conclusion that the school is within its rights.

We incessantly trumpet church-state separation, the refrain being that the involvement of government in religion or religion in government is strongly to be avoided because the mix is dangerous. This is the basis of opposition to government aid to parochial schools, which in turn is the reason why St. Rose of Lima must charge tuition and raise funds to meet its budget. The flip side of separation is that government must not interfere in the affairs of religious institutions, except in the most extreme situations, as when a religious entity acts contrary to public safety and welfare. Else, church-state separation is a one-way street, entirely to the detriment of religion.

The Catholic Church has its beliefs about marriage and child-bearing and has the right to articulate these teachings as it staffs and operates its schools. In fact, the values promoted by the Church in the McCusker situation are in an important way echoed outside of the theological domain and they coincide with broad social goals. It does not take a prudish outlook to acknowledge that sexual activity among schoolchildren, including preteens, and teenage pregnancy are serious social concerns. There are publicly funded programs dealing with such matters.

While McCusker was a preschool teacher, the issues raised by her situation have applicability throughout the entire range of grades. What message would be sent to seventh and eighth graders if their unmarried teacher were pregnant? Would those who have rallied to McCusker take the same position? To put the question differently, how many parents of a liberal orientation would welcome their children being taught in a private or public school by someone who is pregnant but not married? Perhaps I am wrong, but my guess is that there would be strong parental opposition as concern for the children trumps concern for the possible rights of the teacher.

It is too early to know whether this case will go anywhere or whether Jewish organizations will take a position. If there are proceedings, hopefully Orthodox groups will support St. Rose of Lima's right to terminate Ms. McCusker. It is too much to expect that secular Jewish organizations will support the Church. The best we can hope for is that they stay away from the issue and thereby avoid adding to their already formidable record of opposition to religious values.