Friday, May 26, 2006

Can Camp Fire Up Young Jews?

The impending "merger" of the Solomon Schechter High School in Manhattan with the newer and more successful Schechter High School in Teaneck means that there soon will be no Conservative high school in New York City, a datum that adds to the already imposing list of indicators of the movement's woes. Despite valiant and costly efforts, the Manhattan school never gained sufficient traction. In its early years when it was housed at the Jewish Theological Seminary it had the appearance of a neglected waif.

With exceptions, Solomon Schechters are in trouble around the country, as they are beset by declining enrollment and escalating budget deficits. Several have closed, while others have been transformed into Community or transcendental day schools, a transformation that invariably means a diminution of the religious character of the school. Additional Solomon Schechters appear to be on the ropes, with the movement unable or unwilling to provide aid or even comfort. Arnold Eisen will have his hands full when he arrives at JTS.

I sense that the Conservatives are returning to their earlier emphasis on Ramah camps, with day schools accorded a lesser role in the scheme of things. There is, of course, the recognition that for ideological or financial reasons, many and perhaps most within the more traditional wing of Conservatism do not regard day schools as the preferred mode of formal Jewish education. For them, supplementary education gets the nod. Thus, there is some logic to the expansion of Ramah camps, even as Solomon Schechter schools are closing.

Unlike the attitude a half-century ago when Ramahs were regarded as excellent vehicles for training Conservative youth, the current emphasis on camping arises from more prosaic sociological factors. There is the significant factor that in most families both parents work, which adds immeasurably to the attractiveness of sleep-away camps. In any case, there is the question of what to do with the kids during the long summer break and the attendant feeling in many homes that parents and children benefit from a period of less togetherness. Relative American Jewish affluence feeds the ability to pay the high fees that even the nonprofits charge. Of note, a study of Conservative parents conducted several years ago showed that they were more willing to spend for summer camps than for day schools.

Across the spectrum of American Jewry, summer camping has gained currency as an effective approach to Jewish continuity and identity among youth who are at-risk Jewishly, they being all of the non-Orthodox and quite a few of the Orthodox. The case in favor of camping is predicated in part on the recognition that for all of the marketing of day schools, only a small proportion of non-Orthodox children of school age are enrolled in these institutions. There is the corollary point that sleep-aways have a great advantage because they are 24/7 experiences and the totality of the camping environment has the capacity of inducing greater Judaic commitment.

Camps sponsored by the Orthodox, including Chabad and outreach organizations, have demonstrated the efficacy of camping. In Camp Agudah more than sixty years ago, I saw how boys from marginally observant homes were powerfully affected by their being enveloped in a strong and positive religious environment. Yet, there is a flaw in the current advocacy of camping because it does not take into account the reality that few non-Orthodox camps are willing to create the ambiance and programming that may serve as the foundation for a transformative Jewish experience. After all, kids do not go to camp to become more Jewish, at least not in most situations. They are there for the enjoyment of the experience, for being outdoors and with friends, for sports and a wide range of activities, for getting away. They are not there to be taught or influenced. In a book of essays called "The Ramah Experience" that I read in the early 1990's, Charles Liebman, the late eminent sociologist, noted that an official Conservative survey of Ramah alumni that was never published showed that Ramah had a negligible impact on Judaic outcomes.

More recent research by Amy Sales and Len Saxe of Brandeis University demonstrates that a key determinant of whether camping is Jewishly effective is whether the camp leadership regards this goal as central to the camp's mission. At least as often as not, they do not. Ramahs do have a religious mission.

In short, it is easy to oversell camping, in much the same way that we have oversold nearly all else that we label as "continuity," including many day schools that are minimalistic in their Judaic curriculum and ambience. What is critical, as I have underscored regarding day schools, is the willingness to be religiously purposeful. In short, we ought to be more careful about the products that we are promoting, not that they are without merit, only that not all of them are structured to achieve what we want them to achieve.

Camping is now in favor and there is abundant philanthropic interest in the field. To an extent, this comes at the expense of day schools, which are regarded in some quarters as yesterday's story. The Foundation for Jewish Camping is an effective advocate, attracting attention and funding. Somehow, it fails to include nearly all Orthodox camps in its reckoning of Jewish camps, a failing that to be gentle tarnishes its work.

As with all else that we are doing to stem the tide of Jewish losses, there is an obligation to establish performance standards for camps, as well as the means to measure outcomes. It is not sufficient to say that because camping is 24/7, the results have to be good and camps merit support. It also isn't sufficient or acceptable to exclude from communal and philanthropic support those outreach camps that have a proven track record.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Our Numbers Games

The Forward of May 7, 2004 carried a story with the headline, "Survey Released on Jewish Women's Sexuality." I recently tried to locate this study in a publication or on the Internet, only to learn that it hasn't been published and won't be for another year or two, meaning three or four years after it was "released." Months earlier, I had no greater success trying to get a Hillel report on the attitudes of Jewish collegians, only to be told that what I saw about it in a newspaper was prematurely released data. The report is still not available. A couple of weeks ago, there was a story on American Jewish youth released by the American Jewish Committee, a group that has produced top-notch scholarship. This study is also not available.

I could give additional examples. There is something badly amiss in the burgeoning world of quantitative Jewish research. We are awash in statistics, in parades of numbers that purport to tell us all that we need to know about contemporary Jewish life. Our newspapers dutifully report the figure and feature "Jews by the Numbers" graphics. Federations, private philanthropists, organizations, think tanks and research centers are actively engaged in quantitative research. It is impossible to keep up with the barrage of statistics because there are so many and also because the documentation frequently isn't available.

It is easy to see why we invest heavily in numbers games. There is an aura of objectivity and precision. We know - or think we know - what a number or percentage represents. There are no vague adjectives or adverbs to fret about. Quantification seems to simplify complex sociological phenomena. When research findings are reduced to a handful of key numbers, we are capable of understanding the world around us.

The aim of research is to enlighten and to permit scholars to examine the findings and to see how they fit in with their work. This goal is undermined when research is reduced to press releases, as too often is the case in our community, and there is no way to examine either the methodology that was employed or the substance of the findings. The damage is usually not repaired if the full study is first available much later. By then, newspapers and nearly everyone else are off to other races and no longer interested.

Senators Joseph Lieberman and John Cornyn have introduced the Federal Research Public Access Act that would require government agencies to publish online articles containing research funded with Federal grants. The obvious point is that scholars need to have access. Our community should abide by appropriate scholarly standards in the research that we are financing. The rush to release isolated statistics extracted from a report that is not year completed may serve public relations ends, but what we are getting is p.r. and not scholarship. I have been involved for nearly two decades in the Avi Chai Foundation, established by Zalman Bernstein who set a high standard for Wall Street research. He imposed that standard on research conducted or supported by his philanthropy. Avi Chai does not release data before the research and report are completed.

There are other lapses. Too much of what is now produced for communal consumption is shoddy or half-baked, as when organizations or projects seek to prove that what they are doing is meritorious, in much the same way that pharmaceutical companies employ what they refer to as research to demonstrate that doctors prefer their products. There is a Gresham's Law at work, with bad research driving out good research, a tendency that has been exacerbated because the handful of respected demographers have more opportunities for research than they can handle in a responsible fashion.

There is the corollary failure to connect the dots, to consider how what has been learned in previous studies has a bearing on new research. As an example, there is the claim that Birthright Israel, an initiative that deserves support, is a transformative experience, this despite parallel research that shows an ever-bleaker picture of Jewish identity and commitment among the teenagers and young collegians who are Birthright's primary clientele.

Even with good intentions and adherence to scholarly standards, much of our research would be problematic. This is a primary lesson of the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, which although significantly discredited continues to serve as a source for those who find certain of its data to their liking. The difficulty with NJPS and current Jewish demographic research that aims to examine overall trends in American Jewish life is that it is no longer possible to accurately count American Jews, which is to say that except for when the focus is narrowed to a particular group, it is scarcely possible to figure out who should be surveyed.

Demographers adhere to a loose - by which I mean encompassing - sociological definition of Jewishness, rather than to a far narrower halachic definition, and it probably could not be otherwise. Because of the wholesale abandonment of Jewish identity and connectedness, this inevitably results in the undercounting of the number of Jews, the point being that there are a lot of people who are Jewish who do not respond to any Jewish messages, including surveys. The further consequence is that there is an over-counting of adherence to Jewish practices and beliefs or other forms of involvement in Jewish life. These points help us understand why NJPS and other national surveys have generated much controversy.

There is a clear need to conduct quantitative research. There is no need to rush to publication, to make the research in which we have invested so much a shoddy enterprise that instead of serving scholarly ends serves the tawdry goal of publicity and promotion.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Is This American Jewish Sociology?

When Wendy Shalit in a notable Sunday New York Times Book Review essay sharply criticized several Jewish novelists for their stereotypical writing about Orthodox Jews, the fictionalists were able to respond that, after all, they were writing fiction.

No such fig-leaf is available to journalists and those with scholarly credentials whose writing is permeated by distortions born out of hostility toward religious Jews.

There obviously are Orthodox who do wrong. There are scoundrels and immoral people. That's life, the unavoidable consequence of human failings that multiply as social interactions expand.

This truth provides no justification for the lies, stereotypes and other tools of the trade of bigots who also have a pen.

When the Orthodox challenge those who depict their community as steeped in wrongdoing, they are further accused of a cover-up, notwithstanding the further truth that there isn't another sector in Jewish life that comes close to the Orthodox in reaching out and attempting to deal with those whose behavior is dysfunctional. Sadly, too many Jews, most of whom are bedecked with liberal and humanitarian credentials, eagerly lap up everything that is hostile to religious Jews.

I HAVE just read Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston. Winston is a strong writer, a talent that is not paired with scholarly skills. As she tells the stories - actually part of the stories - of some who abandoned hassidic life, she shows little concern as to whether what she is being told about entire communities is the truth.

If another writer would write in a similar vein about Italians or Blacks or other ethnics, there would be the serious charge of bigotry.

Alas, Orthodox Jews and especially hassidim are fair game.

There are more than a handful of hassidim who have left the fold. This phenomenon was evident in European societies that were far more closed than America's is. Winston should have sufficient sociological curiosity to place the hassidic experience in the context of the experiences of other ethnic groups, for example what we know about defections among the Amish or Mormons or, for that matter, other Jews.

If we assume that Winston's reporting is the full story of what has transpired in the lives of those who people her book - an assumption that I will not make - truthfulness would not relieve her of the transgression of stereotyping.

A stereotype essentially is an accurate statement about wrongful behavior committed by one or more members of a group that is presented as characteristic of the entire group. Winston accepts what her storytellers tell her without wondering whether, because those who defect are likely to have axes to grind, their tales are often not the whole truth. We certainly should not accept as the final word what an angry person says about his father's words or behavior.

By accepting as gospel truth what she has been told, Winston provides abundant fodder to those who depict hassidim as sexual abusers and predators and as crooks. I am confident that Unchosen will be cited by writers who are out to show the perversity and perfidy of hassidim.

As an example - and I think that it is vile - there is this about Moti, one of the defectors, who in Winston's telling was "easy prey for some of the older men in the community. On many occasions, these men would grope and fondle him in the men's mikvah."

This is followed by additional claims of widespread sexual abuse. I do not know what happened to Moti and I do know that there is a measure of sexual wrongdoing among hassidim, although I guess that it is significantly below what occurs elsewhere. It should matter to those who care about the truth that the men's mikve experience is a quick dip in public view, a circumstance that enormously reduces the likelihood of groping and fondling.

Winston's lead character is Yossi, a failure in marriage and at various jobs who has a raging libido and foul mouth and, perhaps unbeknownst to the writer who is giving him a day in the sun, is presented as dysfunctional and repugnant. Yet, his words about his father and experiences are accepted without question. Yossi is Winston's muse for the following in which inanity and falsity vie for first place:

"Young Hasidim are formally taught almost nothing about sex until the weeks immediately before their wedding when young men and women attend classes taught by specially designated members of the community. Those who have had the advantage of an especially savvy older or married sibling, had access to pornography, or, tragically, been the victims of sexual abuse may have some prior knowledge of the subject. But many are shaken by what they learn, and some - especially the most sheltered boys - actually faint on the spot after hearing what they will have to do on their wedding nights."

I will not say that no hassid has ever fainted under these circumstances, no more than I would say that nothing untoward has happened to other people under whatever wedding experiences they had endured.

For Winston to present this as typical of group behavior is stereotypical writing at its worst.

There are problems in the hassidic communities and they ought not be shoved under any carpet. The alternative to shoving under the carpet is not to exaggerate and distort.

The alternative is to deal truthfully and with empathy with the problems that arise.

Friday, May 05, 2006

A Grand Desecration

Even before Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, was buried and even before his funeral began, representatives of his battling sons were in court, showing once more no concern for the important halachic principle that reliance on secular courts to resolve disputes between religious Jews is a Chilul Hashem or desecration of G-D's name. Few halachic transgressions are more serious, yet some people who are demanding about other religious obligations are lax when it comes to this cardinal principle of our faith. It may be impolite to ask the Satmars what license they have to desecrate G-D's name, but in view of the seriousness of their violation, the greater wrong is not to ask.

Sadly, intra-chassidic conflict is escalating, increasingly ending up on legal dockets. Rabbis Aharon and Zalman Lieb, the Satmar disputants, are by now fixtures on legal briefs and it is certain that they will continue to utilize the services of lawyers and attract media attention. Brooklyn State Supreme Court has for more than a decade been the primary venue for legal fisticuffs among battling Lubavitchers and that, too, isn't likely to end any time soon. Succession issues brought the Bobovers to court, although thankfully that path seems to have been abandoned.

Chassidic life is evolving. Social and religious factors, including family size, suggest that what we are witness to in Satmar will be duplicated in other groups. As in all social settings, conflict within Chassidic groups should not be surprising. What should be troubling, particularly for the Orthodox, is the willingness to slug it out in court and in public. There is no inclination for restraint, nor is there a willingness to rely on Beth Dins or religious courts for conflict resolution.

The Chilul Hashem committed by Satmar leaders is an issue that we should not duck and pretend as if it is an internal Satmar matter. The key characteristic of activity that is described as a Chilul Hashem is its public nature and therefore for religious Jews the reaction cannot be see no evil, hear no evil, know no evil. Religious leaders and groups must not sit idly by as the Shulchan Aruch or our Code of Religious Law is purposely violated. They should declare that Satmar issues and similar conflicts must be decided by religious courts, perhaps Israeli Beth Dins, and not in courts in Orange and Kings counties.

I expect to be criticized for publicly advocating this course, critics saying that it's wrong to air such views in public. The Satmar conflict is being aired in public because the Satmars have put it there. The respected rabbinical body of Agudath Israel should call for restraint and reliance on religious courts, a message that should be echoed by other Orthodox groups and individual rabbis. Newspapers serving the charedi or fervently observant Orthodox - Hamodia and Yated Ne'eman - should include in their eulogistic coverage of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum words to the effect that what is obligatory for other Orthodox Jews is obligatory for Chassidic groups.

As if to illustrate the familiar point that one sin begets another, the public relations firm hired by Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum's supporters, sent out a press release during shiva inviting the media to come to Williamsburg where its client would be leading services on Shabbos. The press was asked to "be respectful of the religious observances and practices" of the chassidim and to limit their photography to stills and prints.

Likely, Satmar will split into competing but not distinct parts, each with its leadership and communal infrastructure. At the rank and file level, there will be some dual loyalty and much family and other interaction between adherents of each of the sons. This pattern has been evident for a while as there has been a degree of autonomy among the various Satmar subgroups during the nearly thirty years that Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum headed the movement.

It was his important achievement that the sense of a Satmar community was maintained during his long tenure. He was no more than a pale shadow of his uncle and predecessor, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, who essentially founded the movement and imbued it with vitality and its distinctive characteristics. Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum was an epic figure, a man of surpassing intellect, vision and charisma who was respected, even admired, by many who could not accept his ideology or theology. He ingrained in the Satmar ethos an instinct for charitable giving that may be unparalleled in contemporary Jewish life.

Satmar has internal problems apart from the question of succession, including sharp disagreements over ideology. It also has its share of problems arising from deviance from group or social norms. There are those who drop out or act up or engage in wrongful activity. There are mental health problems, many children with special needs and the consequences of an extraordinarily high fertility rate. In short, Satmar operates in the real world.

For all of the difficulties faced by the group - and I believe that the degree of deviance is relatively low - there is a remarkably high degree of retention of identity and commitment. In Satmar shuls there is, as Rabbi Hertz Frankel has noted, the common sight that is rare for nearly all other American Jews of four generations being together. Another measure of the community's vitality is the statistic that 20,000 or ten percent of all students enrolled in elementary and high school yeshivas and day schools in the United States attend Satmar schools.

These are impressive achievements and there are others. Whatever internal discord lies ahead, it is to be hoped that it will be conducted in a framework of peaceful coexistence and that Satmar rabbis and lay leaders will come to understand that there is no excuse for perpetrating a Chilul Hashem.

The Abuse of Research in the Jewish Community

American Jewry is awash in statistical research. Scarcely a week goes by without a new contribution to the numbers game. Since statistics are not supposed to lie and numbers always have the appearance of objectivity, there is an understandable tendency to accept the data as holy writ. Few of us bother to examine the research behind the data or, in fact, whether the research is available for examination.

A case in point is a purported survey of Jewish women's sexuality that was reported on in the Forward on May 7, 2004. We were told, among other things, "that 15.7 percent of Jewish women claimed to have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 13 and 9.9 percent after 13." These statistics are cited by Hella Winston in a recently published book called "Unchosen." What concerns me here is something else: the dubious presentation of statistics.

After I read Winston's book and got a hold of the Forward story, I assumed that certainly the study from which the data come must be readily available, either in a scholarly journal or some other publication and if not in either of these, then on the Internet. It turns out that there is no such publication, no paper. Two years after the Forward article, one of the principal researchers told me yesterday that the document is nearing completion and will probably be published in about two years. Is this acceptable? Is this scholarship? By the time the publication is available, the data shall have been cited perhaps dozens of times by other writers and researchers, without any of them being able to check whether the data are being properly used by those who cite the original statistics.

It turns out that while Winston uses the data to refer to sexual abuse among Chassidim, the research actually covers other subgroups of Orthodoxy, including, I was told, a significant number of baalei teshuva who doubtlessly were not Orthodox when they were thirteen.

What we have here is an abuse of scholarship, one more example of how statistics are being presented in ways to make Orthodox Jews look as if they engage inordinately in wrongful behavior.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

RJJ Newsletter - Lack Of Intra-Orthodox Cooperation

New York has enacted legislation providing tax relief to families with school-age children. It was passed over the veto of Governor Pataki who advocated a different approach that would have provided greater and more direct assistance to a smaller number of yeshiva and day school parents. Either approach would result in a modest, yet significant, benefit and for this we should be grateful.

I would have preferred legislation that puts money directly into school coffers, patterned after the New York Textbook and Mandated Services legislation of more than a generation ago. While direct aid to schools under religious sponsorship raises constitutional issues that the new legislation likely avoids, I believe that the high-cost security and energy needs of parochial schools would have provided a sufficient constitutional leg to stand on.

One of the interesting features of recent developments is that the various segments of the Orthodox community essentially went on their separate ways. The new legislation offered a critical opportunity for Orthodox leaders and groups to sit down and try to work out a common strategy. Dream on. Orthodox leaders rarely meet these days across the communal divide, nor are they inclined to pick up the phone to discuss with persons outside of their small zone issues of critical importance. It seems at times that it is easier to get them to break bread with secular Jews than with fellow Orthodox of a somewhat different religious stripe.

Variety and conflict are inherent in religious experiences because people of faith inevitably disagree over what their faith requires. It should not be surprising or disturbing that we Orthodox Jews are awash in disagreement over halachic and hashkafic issues. Our history and responsa demonstrate that wherever Jewish life flourished, there was conflict regarding practices and, at times, even beliefs. There was, of course, consensus over fundamentals.

In the American experience, intra-Orthodox conflict was muted for an extended period, mainly because the Orthodox were weak and meek. With the emergence in the post-Holocaust years of a more assertive Orthodoxy, there was heightened conflict over Israel, relationships with the non-Orthodox, secular education and other matters. There was also a pattern of cooperation regarding a host of communal activities. In a sense, unity and disunity coexisted.

Decades ago, there was intense, even nasty, battling over membership in religious bodies together with non-Orthodox clergy and congregations, as well as the draft of young women into the Israeli army or the requirement that they do national service. These conflicts were serious business and they left scars. Yet, they did not impede cooperation between the different segments of Orthodoxy, as for example in the building of the day school movement in the U.S. or support for Chinuch Atzmai, the network of independent religious schools in Israel. Rav Aharon Kotler, the transcendent Torah leader, was at the center of this activity and though he was fiercely committed to intense Torah study and rigorous standards, he strenuously reached out to leaders across the spectrum of Orthodoxy.

When the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs or COLPA came into being forty years ago and I become its first president, conflict between the modern Orthodox and yeshiva world was not a barrier to cooperation on government aid to parochial schools or efforts to protect Sabbath observers against workplace discrimination. COLPA's briefs were signed by all Orthodox groups.

Nowadays, although differences remain over various practices and beliefs, there is a higher degree of unity at both the personal and communal levels. The Synagogue Council is no more, while conflict over Israel has abated. The Daf Hayomi experience and ArtScroll have forged a bond that unites Orthodox Jews in Torah study. It is true that yeshivas and day schools often operate like incompatible institutions and there are yawning differences regarding dress and other behaviors, specifically including how best to react to the outside world. But the separate communal segments are not at war.

Unfortunately, they also do not cooperate and interact as they once did. Each segment of Orthodoxy is on its own, making Shabbos for itself and frequently acting as if there are no other parts to be reckoned with. Leaders do not meet or talk and there scarcely are any forums for group interaction. This for a people who comprise perhaps 10-12% of American Jewry. The absence of intra-communal contacts certainly arises more from lifestyle changes than from ideology. Families are larger, we all have many more events to go to, most of us want to engage in Torah study and we can scarcely keep up with the barrage of messages coming our way through email, cell phones and whatever else technology has wrought. We are struggling to catch our breath and scarcely have time or energy for the sort of communal activity that once was esteemed.

Still, organizational ego serves as a barrier. In a way, each segment of Orthodoxy which represents no more than 2-3% of all of American Jews is saying that its four cubits are what count. This also means that increasingly we are saying that there is no one Orthodox community.

This diminishes our capacity to achieve mutual goals. It is telling - or should be - that for all of the noise coming from certain Orthodox groups that trumpet their achievements, over the last generation American Orthodoxy has achieved very little in the legislative and legal arenas. By dividing ourselves into little boxes, we have put on display our smallness. Interestingly, the New York legislative achievement is substantially the result of the efforts of people in the Syrian Jewish community.

Our current instinct to go it alone also results in the distortion of the past in order to make it compatible with how we now act and feel. An English language book has just been published on the life and teachings of the great Roshe Yeshiva of Lakewood. I trust that it has much merit, but it also puts on display the problem we face. There is a photograph from the first Chinuch Atzmai dinner which was held more than a half century ago. Amazingly, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik has been cropped out of the picture. What makes this distortion especially egregious is that he was at the dinner because Rav Aharon Kotler pleaded with him to come and be the main speaker. I might add that his speech was a memorable occasion that I still cherish fifty years later. It served as an expression of how our most eminent leaders from different segments of Orthodoxy knew of their obligation to work together.

I am saddened by our inability to recognize that those who accept Torah and mitzvos are all part of a single community and that whatever our inevitable differences, we are obliged to cooperate. For fifty-five years my communal life has been predicated on the principle that whatever my personal choices, I am part of a community whose well-being requires a high degree of internal cooperation. I was active in both Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union throughout the 1960's. In COLPA, I strove to link our disparate parts to achieve crucial goals. In all of my chinuch activity - the commitment that most defines what I stand for - I have been involved across the spectrum of Orthodox life. RJJ is an embodiment of this commitment.

What I stand for is a perspective that increasingly is shared by fewer and fewer people.