Wednesday, March 29, 2006

He Who Destroys a Single Jewish Life...

This column appears on the front and back page of this week's Jewish Press.

The November 1999 issue of The Jewish Observer, Agudath Israel's magazine, was devoted entirely to children at risk, the spreading phenomenon of youngsters from religious homes who stray from Judaism, at times by indulging in anti-social behavior, including drug abuse.

The discussion was meaningful and moving, touching on a subject that many of us sensed yet had no clear understanding of. The articles examined the nature of the problem and how to deal with it, including a significant essay by the eminent mashgiach (spiritual guide) Rav Shlomo Wolbe, who died last year. He observed that the Chazon Ish regarded the expulsion of yeshiva students a matter of life and death and therefore could not be decided by a single person.

The Jewish Observer has now reexamined the issue. We are moved once more by stories of tragedy and loss and comforted by the prospect of return and redemption. Our hearts cry for parents undergoing the at-risk experience and also for their children. There is gratitude for those who engage in the always difficult and too often painful efforts to reach out to at-risk children, giving them a lifeline of heart and soul and enormous empathy, even as they know that while some will be saved, too many will be lost.

The term "at risk" encompasses divergent situations, including children who have already been lost and engage in behavior that is hostile to Judaism and social norms, youngsters who have abandoned religious life and those who exhibit tendencies indicating that they may fall through either the Judaic or societal safety nets. It is impossible to know how many children from Orthodox homes fit into these categories and it is important not to exaggerate. If we consider all three categories, the number certainly is in the thousands, and it is growing.

There is a parallel at-risk phenomenon in Israel in haredi or fervently religious families and it may be more serious than what we are now experiencing here, if not in numbers then in the degree of hostility toward Judaism and destructive behavior.

What causes religious children to be at-risk? Obviously, there isn't a simple explanation and in some situations there apparently is no explanation. There are parents who are terrific at parenting, showing patience and wisdom and seemingly doing everything right who have children who fall through the cracks and add to the toll in our community. There are other parents who seem to violate all of the good parenting rules whose children evolve into gems.

Overall, good parenting yields good fruit. This means being patient and caring, despite disappointment in how a child is doing in school or behaving at home. Even so, the results may not be what parents had hoped and prayed for. In all situations, care must be taken to strengthen and certainly not weaken a child's self-esteem. This is the single factor that can provide protection against the emergence of at-risk children. Where self-esteem is lacking, it can serve as the germ that results in children being at-risk.

In pinpointing the crucial role of self-eseem, I am not dismissing other possible factors, such as the rejection of religious life or a child falling in with the wrong crowd or friend. Yet, where self-esteem is present, children can overcome emotional, educational and social setbacks. Where it is absent, even trifling issues can turn into crises.

Self-esteem or its absence is to a large extent part of a person's nature, something that is there like an ear for music or physical agility or not there. We see kids who are confident from nearly day one. They may not turn into good students and yet they feel good about themselves, while there are children who seem afraid of their own shadow, irrespective of how well they do in school or in friendships or at home. What life brings can alter a child's outlook, adding to or subtracting from the reservoir of self-esteem. Children who are emotionally fragile are inordinately affected by what occurs in their lives, by whether their emotional underpinnings are challenged or fortified.

Schools exist to educate clusters of children. Perhaps inevitably they operate at times in ways that counter the paramount precept of Torah education, chanoch l'naar al pi darcho - that each child should be taught in the manner that best ensures his advancement. It is difficult for educators to focus significantly on each student's individuality, on each student's particular circumstances and capabilities. If our schools are not equipped to devote time and resources to obtain optimum results for each student, they remain obligated not to undermine a child's self-esteem.

This isn't an easy task. Tests, grades and report cards are instrumentalities for the measuring of educational progress and not for the promotion of self-esteem. Much the same can be said about the rules and procedures that abound in all schools. They seek to establish conformity so that the school can go about its core educational mission. Inevitably, they suppress individuality and punish students, perhaps only emotionally, who do not conform. In the process, they may shake the confidence of those who are emotionally fragile.

In addition to their core educational responsibilities, our schools have the collateral task of religious socialization, of molding children so that they emerge as responsible and capable adults who live good Jewish lives and function well in society. This task mandates greater flexibility toward weaker students, students from marginally observant homes and students who are emotionally fragile. Yeshivas and day schools must practice what they preach by showing patience toward such students. Our educators routinely counsel parents to be patient, but the same quality is too infrequently practiced by school officials. "Do as I say and not as I do" is apparently the motto of some educators. In the process, they add to the at-risk ranks.

There was a time when yeshivas went the extra mile to attract and retain students, accepting applicants from homes that were not up to religious standards. Their hope and even expectation was that they could bring about Judaic growth. Our schools also kept students who were not up to par academically. They served as instrumentalities for outreach, in a sense taking children who were at-risk Jewishly or in other ways and they strove to reinforce these students' religious and emotional foundations. Some of these students have become outstanding religious leaders, while many more have become wonderful religious adults. Had the attitudes that prevail now been in place decades ago, many of these children would have been lost to Judaism.

Now, the attitude in too many of our schools is to reject applicants, as if this demonstrates that they are stronger Torah institutions. They also are quick to expel students who do not readily fit in. I have heard principals say that they never expel a student until they have found a substitute school, as if expulsion alone is not sufficient to destroy a child's confidence and emotional underpinnings. In my experience, the truth is usually otherwise and students are expelled even when there is no other school that will accept them.

While the yeshiva world's attitude in years past was "Let's open our doors wide so that we will attract students who otherwise would not be taught Torah and lead religious lives," these days the doors are shut in too many places, even at schools that have seats to spare. These schools are afraid to risk their reputation by taking in non-at risk youngsters who do not come from ideal religious homes or backgrounds.

Is it any wonder that today there are more defections from Orthodoxy than there are those whom we are attracting through kiruv? We do a good job bemoaning the expanding at-risk population, while at the same time we contribute to this expansion.

Students who are harming other students should not be retained and there is no point to a yeshiva high school admitting boys who are not capable of keeping up with the class. What we are experiencing goes far beyond these situations. There are parents who say that their children will not go to a particular school if such and such a child is also admitted. These parents transgress the prohibition of lo ta'amod al dam re'echa - do not cause another's blood to be spilled - and they engage in lashon hara.

It is said that at-risk behavior arises from the impact on young people of a promiscuous society and culture; that television, cable and the Internet exact a high toll. It is therefore necessary to uproot every potential bad seed, lest others be harmed. I will not defend the world around us, nor deny that there are kids who are ensnared by its debased standards. I will challenge the view that this is the primary cause for at-risk Orthodox children and the collateral view that fear of potential harm justifies exclusionary policies.

Fear is a dynamic force, a mindset that respects no boundaries. It feeds on itself, creating fantasy scenarios that do not correspond to reality and yet may result in harsh actions. In Justice Louis D. Brandeis's haunting language in a reference to the Salem witch trials, "Men feared witches and burnt women." We fear the outside world - rightfully - and we are ready to harm children.

As much as we must be concerned about the impact of popular culture and social permissiveness, our at-risk problem arises far more from the erosion of self-esteem through what occurs at school and often at home. This is confirmed by the at-risk situation in Israel. A significant number of youngsters from fervently religious homes have abandoned their religious lifestyle, engaging in severe anti-social behavior, often including violence. The actions of these youths called shababnikim cannot be attributed to the Internet.

A 2001 article in Azure, a respected Israeli journal, quotes Chanania Chulak, the director of Ezer Mitzion, the volunteer organization that assists haredi families, as saying that shababnikim have turned Bnei Brak into "a crime center reminiscent of New York City's Harlem. People are afraid to walk the streets. Violent, criminal gangs in this city do whatever they please." After the article appeared, I called Chulak and he verified the quote.

In Israel, where exposure to popular culture in haredi homes is extremely limited, it is understood that at-riskness arises primarily from students not being able to keep up with the intensive yeshiva regimen or not being interested in religious studies or other similar school-based or home-based factors. But because modernity and its sins are a convenient and for some an irresistible target, we choose to ignore the role played by educational factors and attribute our losses to the Internet. It is convenent to ignore how exclusionary policies beget at-risk children.

I am appalled by the announcement by Lakewood yeshivas and Beth Jacobs that all children in homes that are Internet-accessible and have not received the requisite approvals from local rabbis will be expelled. All children! The very thought should be repugnant. In order to possibly prevent some children from being at risk, we are prepared to take innocent Jewish children and make certain that they will be at risk! Not only is this wrongful policy announced, it is lauded in the recent Jewish Observer issue devoted to the at-risk problem - and by a respected Torah personality.

The "if in doubt throw it out" attitude that used to be applied to food products is now being applied to Jewish children. This attitude must be challenged. I know this entails a risk, but it is one that must be taken in the face of unfolding tragedies in Jewish homes. If but one child is saved because of this protest, the risk will be worthwhile.

This exclusionary attitude is contrary to what transcendent Torah leaders taught and practiced in this country a generation or more ago. Thirty years ago, in response to my question whether the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School should admit students from marginally observant homes, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, zt"l, the great rosh yeshiva of Chaim Berlin and a genius in understanding students, responded that he had encouraged such students to go to the movies and even take their parents along because this approach would benefit them and make their transition to fully observant Jews more likely.

Yeshivas must get back into the business of kiruv rechokim and out of the business of richuk kerovim. The place to start is to abandon the exclusionary mindset, the notion that throwing out or rejecting a Jewish child is of minor consequence. They're gone and the yeshiva world continues in its self-congratulatory mold, even as our losses mount.

I suspect the Lakewood announcement is mainly rhetoric, that children will not be expelled, no more than they were several years ago when a similar pronouncement was made about a minor league baseball stadium. There are serious admission/retention issues that the Lakewood community must address and there is unfortunately an at-risk problem in this sacred Torah center. Whatever the situation in Lakewood, the message that is being sent is that expelling Jewish children is an appropriate course. This message will have a collateral effect elsewhere in justifying the already wrongful policy of closing the doors on marginal children who have the capacity to grow in Yiddishkeit.

There is a Brooklyn-based program that raises funds to take Jewish children out of public schools and place them in our schools. Some time ago, the program announced that public school students would not be sent to Orthodox coeducational day schools, irrespective of whether there were other religious schools available for these children to attend. They are now going a step further by cutting off support to the leading yeshiva for students from families who came here from the former Soviet Union because this respected institution has separate boys and girls divisions operating under a single roof - and that isn't kosher. As a result, the school is experiencing substantial hardship.

I have spoken out for years against our exclusionary tendencies, admittedly to little avail. The situation continues to worsen. Aren't there any yeshiva deans and rabbis who are willing to take the risk by protesting against policies that put our children at risk?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Trading Places

We're not yet at the point where Israelis are raising money for the poor Jews of America. There are no synagogue appeals in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak for American Jewry; no red, white and blue pushkas in Israeli homes; no United American Jewish Appeal.

But in a practical sense, Israelis are already assisting their downtrodden brethren in the goldene medine who are suffering severe spiritual privation. In the words of Amos' prophecy: "Behold, days are coming… when I will send hunger into the land, not a hunger for bread or thirst for water, but for the words of God."

The role reversal extends beyond the financial as Israeli officials attempt to shape activities aimed at strengthening Jewish life in the United States.

The New York Jewish Week's Gary Rosenblatt reported last week that President Moshe Katsav had convened a conference in an "attempt to establish a World Jewish Forum to counteract the various threats to Jewish survival in the Diaspora."

In addition, Israel is a major force in birthright israel. And with the Jewish Agency, it will play an even greater role in MASA, a far larger initiative that contemplates bringing to Israel each year thousands of American Jewish youngsters of college age for up to a year of meaningful educational, cultural and religious experiences. If MASA takes off, the annual expenditure could be in the tens of millions of dollars.

ALL OF this is in response to the spiritual bankruptcy of nearly all of American Jewry. From the outside there is a picture of a vibrant community, chock-full of organizations and activities. But that's a mere fa ade. It is not now crumbling because it is propped up by a multi-billion dollar infrastructure. Beyond the fa ade, however, there is enormous decay.

Israelis know this. They are not buying the cooked books of demographers which give robust population figures, or claims that we are in the midst of an American Jewish renaissance.

While Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman were primarily responsible for the creation of birthright, it is substantially an Israeli operation because that is where the activity takes place.

It is important not to exaggerate birthright's success, yet the project deserves support because it is a desperate effort to ward off further Jewish losses, and also because the results so far have been moderately encouraging.

This success arises from the program being an encounter with our birthright, with our land and our religion. Without apology, it includes religious experiences.

Let's hope that MASA will follow a similar path, and that the two efforts will be linked to avoid duplication. More importantly, good coordination between MASA and birthright israel could yield optimum results.

I WONDER about the likely outcome of the latest Israel-based initiatives to influence American Jewish life.

The great physical distance separating the two communities is a formidable barrier to effective Israeli intervention. The road will be harder still because our American Jewish establishment prefers to stick to what hasn't worked.

President Katsav plans a follow-up gathering during Succot. Gary Rosenblatt is right to ask: "Will the list of invitees include a significant number of young, creative thinkers and doers, and not just the usual organizational leaders?"

Another key question is whether American Jewish participants will again sabotage aid to Jewish education, especially to day schools. Through the Jewish Agency and other channels, Israel has for years provided support for US Jewish education, but not on a scale to make a difference (except in a handful of schools).

What is now contemplated is a larger effort which might include advocating US government aid to parochial schools. This is a nono for most American Jewish leaders, who regard such support as a violation of their "sacred" secular beliefs.

We have created a fantasy scenario of what government aid entails, and embraced and marketed this fantasy as reality. There are 40 years of experience under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which includes parochial schools in some of its grant programs. There is also state legislation providing government aid to parochial schools.

If we were intellectually honest we would explore what this positive experience teaches our community about government aid. We might learn that when aid is available in religious schools for secular activities, the constitutional roof does not fall in.

AN INTEREST-FREE loan program to assist day school parents with tuition is reportedly about to be unveiled. Any effort to ameliorate the expanding Jewish tuition crisis deserves consideration.

I sense, however, that this is not the way to go - even with $100 million available for loans - because the dollars and numbers do not work out in view of the size of day school families, the number of years (as many as 14) that children are enrolled in day school and the rising cost of tuition.

Yossi Abramowitz, a leading advocate of the loan approach, seems to think that it will go a long way to resolving the tuition crisis. American day school education is now a $2 billion dollar a year enterprise. While Abramowitz favors loans, he opposes government aid, saying that "if we go after [tax] credits and vouchers, we'll divide the country over church-state issues for a mere $1,000."

If he did the arithmetic, he would see that "a mere $1,000" per day school student amounts to more than $200 million dollars a year, which is a far larger sum and far more meaningful than a one-time loan program.

While it may be unrealistic to expect Israelis to fund our educational needs, we ought to be pragmatic about ways we can help ourselves.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Are We Losing It?

"Paradise Now," a movie that appears to celebrate Palestinian suicide bombers is nominated for an Academy Award and there are Jewish protests. Steven Spielberg's "Munich" is released and more than a few Jews react as if our security is in danger. A British play making a martyr of Rachel Corrie, the anti-Israel activist who placed herself in front of an Israeli bulldozer and was killed, is scheduled for an obscure Manhattan theater and there is much hair-pulling. Lord Richard Rodgers, a noted British architect who was given the plum Javitz Convention Center expansion assignment, promotes a boycott of Israel and there is semitic wailing. It is hard to keep up with events at college campuses as academic appointments of persons who are said to be hostile to Israel evoke opposition from pro-Israel groups. There is additional Jewish opposition arising from anti-Israel speakers being invited to speak at various campuses. Even Brandeis University isn't spared.

What's going on? We seem to have an enemies list longer than Richard Nixon's. Are we losing it in the sense that we are engulfed in a world of Israel-hatred, maybe also the hatred of Jews? Is what was previously a bad situation getting worse?

Are we losing it in the emotional sense, flipping out over minor incidents and even mirages? Put otherwise, are we living through a real nightmare or just having bad dreams?

There are reasons to be worried. All of the world isn't quite against us, but too much of it is, starting with the vast and increasingly fanatical Islamic world. European governments aren't friendly, nor are many Europeans. If the reaction to the Danish cartoons doesn't scare us, what will? Our emotional stability is not helped by the steady drumbeat of severe criticism of Israel emitted by various cultural elites, members of what may be referred to as the intelligentsia who manage not to be too intelligent about horrific acts that are occurring with regularity in too many other countries.

This does not mean that we should arise each day breathing fire and ready to do battle with all whom we regard as hostile. As in all social relations, it is necessary to pick our spots, even necessary at times to ignore some who may give offense. Else, we will be occupied with nothing other than constant challenges to those whom we have labeled as hostile.

We have to choose our battles, meaning also what not to protest against. A good place to start is the two prominent and intertwined zones referred to as academic freedom and freedom of expression. Unless what we perceive to be hostile is entirely unambiguous and does not entail issues about which there is legitimate public debate, we should not protest when Arabists are appointed to university positions. All we have a right to ask for is that students not be punished for offering opposing views and that the faculty promotes a variety of scholarly opinions. Possible exceptions - and they must be rare - are academics who are Holocaust deniers or who aided the Nazis. It is not sufficient to oppose an Arab or Islamic scholar simply because we can locate views that we regard as hostile.

If only because any other strategy results in even greater harm to our interests, we should not challenge speaking invitations to those whose views about Israel we do not like. All we need to do is insist that our side get a fair hearing. Our strategy needs to be pro-free speech. I recognize that hostile speech is often harmful and that contrary to what some civil libertarians believe, additional speech presenting the other side is often not a sufficient antidote.

It should be noted that what appears regularly on the Israeli stage and in Israeli movies, as well as in Haaretz, isn't any less hostile to Israel than what we often object to in this country. Amira Hass and Gideon Levi, both Haaretz journalists, emit a constant stream of anti-Israel venom.

When governments are implicated in anti-Israeli acts and policies, there is an obligation to protest. If anything, we have been too reticent in our objections to positions taken by European governments and leaders. We also need to be unsparing in our resistance to divestment and boycott campaigns of the kind that have become routine in England and elsewhere in Europe. This is serious business and also nasty business and, at least in this country, we have the tools to strike back because of federal and state legislation that forbids participation in anti-Israel boycotts.

It is good that we reacted sharply to Lord Rodgers' significant involvement in boycott activity. But it is troublesome that Jewish leaders have now rushed to judgment and given him a clean bill of health despite his hosting in his office just a few weeks ago a meeting of architects and planners who promote the boycott of Israel. His subsequent explanation, after his assignments were put at risk by our opposition, that he did not know what the meeting was about is not credible and it is naie and wrong to so quickly let him off the hook. Rodgers'hiring of Howard Rubenstein does not inspire confidence in his probity. We should not fall prey to the dubious wiles of public relations mavens.

Finally, rather than focusing obsessively on every possible anti-srael statement or event, we might focus more on providing support to those who support Israel. They are our friends, particularly Evangelicals and other Christians who have given Israel enormous assistance, both political and financial. Shamelessly, we have endeavored, as through reckless statements by Eric Yoffie and Abraham Foxman, to alienate these friends. Their anti-vangelical attacks are more harmful to Israel than a play about Rachel Corrie.

Friday, March 03, 2006

RJJ Newsletter - Wealthy Charedim and Tuition Costs

There has been an explosion of wealth in the charedi sectors of Orthodox life, a development triggered by the booming real estate market and also by hard working and creative religious Jews who have made the most of business opportunities. In terms of numbers, the larger story is still of needy families, usually parents with many children at home who struggle to meet tuition and other obligations. Even a relatively well-paying job is not sufficient to make ends meet. Kollel families and those in chinuch contribute their share to the ranks of needy religious Jews. Yet, this reality does not alter the corollary reality that there are significant pockets of Orthodox affluence, including a number of persons who are super-rich. Why, then, are most of our yeshivas always strapped for funds, even as they operate close to the bone? Why is tuition increased each year, adding to the painful burden on many families if there are religious Jews who possess the resources to sustain our most vital institutions? Put otherwise, why isn't the budget gap in the typical yeshiva closed through voluntary contributions? Are contributions keeping pace with the expansion of wealth?

These questions shed light on crucial aspects of Orthodox life. There are two charedi sectors - chassidic and yeshiva-world - and right now they are largely on different financial tracks. Historically, the chassidic sector was significantly less acculturated and certainly less affluent than the yeshiva world, which isn't surprising since Chassidim have very limited secular education and more limited contact with the host society. Yeshiva-world families have tended to be better educated in non-religious subjects, with university and professional degrees being common, which is also to say that this sector is far more engaged with the outside world. As a consequence, yeshiva-world graduates tended to fare better than Chassidim.

This pattern has changed somewhat, not regarding acculturation but with respect to work patterns and relative affluence. Except for top students, Chassidim are less likely to remain for long in kollel or in yeshiva after marriage. They also have in the aggregate a remarkable instinct for entrepreneurship which in some curious fashion is actually enhanced by their lack of secular education and even by their limited interaction with the host society. Since professional and other career paths are closed to them, there is a greater likelihood that Chassidim will opt for the business world.

In the yeshiva-world, kollel is valued and regarded by many as imperative. When this experience concludes, the usual career path leads to chinuch or other communal work - generally low paying activities - or as an employee working for others. These are generalizations, of course, yet they accurately reflect what is occurring in these two Orthodox sectors.

Because of their attachment to a Rebbe and to their group's institutions and activities, Chassidim tend to direct their charity to internal causes. This purchases for them status within their group and few things are of equal importance than the acquisition of status. The internalized targeting of tzedakah is abetted by the tendency of chassidic schools to be large, which means that there are fewer institutions to support. The relative centralization of authority and activity in chassidic communities also contributes to this end.

This is sharply in contrast with the yeshiva-world where there is an absence of centralization and a huge number of meritorious chesed projects and chinuch institutions soliciting help, including an abundance of small mesivtas, Beth Medrash programs and kollels. Speak to any person of means within the yeshiva-world and he will tell you that each day he is badgered by institutions and causes pleading for help.

Furthermore, instead of focusing primarily on the yeshivas for which they have direct responsibility, Roshei Yeshiva and other yeshiva-world leaders tend to be all over the place, trying to raise funds for both communal causes and individuals in need. What they do not promote - unfortunately as I have noted with alarm and sadness - is the obligation to support basic Torah education.

On top of all of this, those who are affluent in the yeshiva-world too often see greater gratification in helping religious institutions and causes in Israel, probably because there is greater status to be achieved by attaching themselves to Israeli Torah leaders of unquestioned stature. What they contribute to American causes is often directed at special chinuch or chesed situations. Basic Torah education at the elementary and high school levels is not very much on their radar screen. The consequence is that most yeshivas do not benefit from spreading Orthodox affluence and therefore parents of limited means are obligated to shoulder the burden through increased tuition.

What emerges is a stark contrast between the two charedi sectors. Chassidic institutions charge lower tuition, are more generous with scholarship assistance, rely far more on voluntary contributions and manage to raise substantial funds for new and improved facilities. In the yeshiva-world, there are large institutions that for decades have struggled with inadequate facilities.

These factors address the questions raised in the opening paragraph. There is an additional consideration, which is whether the charitable giving of those who are affluent falls short of what they are required to give. While there obviously are people of wealth who meet their tzedakah obligations and even give more than they are required to give, there is reason to believe that in their calculation of income for tzedakah purposes, many of the affluent consider only the funds that hit their personal accounts and do not take into account the value of the assets that they own.

This issue is touched on in an interesting tshuvah (responsum) of Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztl, (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah, vol.3, no.85) concerning the propriety of someone who collects tzedakah telling another person who also collects tzedakah that such and such a person is affluent and is worth approaching for a contribution. Rav Moshe rules that such behavior is not inappropriate, "since it is certain that [the wealthy person] has not yet given ma-asser, inasmuch as most people do their tzedakah calculations at the end of the year." He then adds that since "in general it is not common for the wealthy to give ma-asser and certainly there is no reason to think that they have given a fifth of their income, it is an additional mitzvah to inform others."

In short, until the affluent recognize that chinuch, including basic Torah education, must in this period be regarded as the top tzedakah priority and contribute the share that they are obligated to contribute, our schools will continue to operate in a state of penury and the bulk of the financial burden will be on parents who are already struggling to meet their obligations.