Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Forty Years Later

This column appears on the front page of this week's issue of The Jewish Press.

Forty years ago, I wrote an article called "The New Style of American Orthodox Jewry" that was published in Jewish Life, then the magazine of the Orthodox Union. Its opening words were, "It is common knowledge by now that Orthodox Jewry in this country is making rapid advances and is, in a real sense, the healthiest segment of American Jewry."

This was written at a time when the Orthodox were fewer in number than we are now, and many who identified themselves as Orthodox were so by affiliation and not by practice. They were no more than marginally or nominally observant and soon they or their children would fall away. Among those whose religious commitment was on firmer ground, there was sharp internal conflict over Israel, relations with the Conservative and Reform movements and other critical issues. Day school enrollment was a third of today's number and the influence of religious Jews in Jewish communal life was limited, as secular and non-Orthodox groups were dominant. The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel did not have Washington offices.

All told, it was perhaps premature, if not arrogant, to describe Orthodoxy as I did in 1966.

I was prescient, but not prophetic. What I sensed were developments with roots in the 1950's. The new Orthodox style was assertive and independent, even militant, as the Orthodox broke away from positions embraced by the larger community.

When Congress in the mid-1960's enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and included parochial schools in grant programs, Orthodox leaders testified and advocated on behalf of this breakthrough legislation. The National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) filed briefs in support of the statute and challenged the claim that opponents spoke for all of American Jewry. Our aim was to promote the interests of religious Jews, not to be popular.

For all of their bruising internal battles, the Orthodox were able to set aside their disagreements and even bitterness to present a unified position on government aid to parochial schools, as well as the emerging field of the rights of Sabbath observers and religious persons. We directly confronted the Federation world, challenging its wretched record of non-support of day schools and hostility to religious causes and institutions.

It's telling that in 1969, Rabbi Irving Greenberg - even then the hyper-Modern Orthodox leader - led a group of young protestors who disrupted the annual meeting of the Council of Jewish Federation and Welfare Funds to demand aid to day schools. Their advocacy bore fruit.

There were other achievements, arising from our unity on public issues despite our diversity and discord on religious issues. We were willing to go it alone, to be outsiders. Because we were outsiders, we had greater influence.

It is forty years later. We have two Washington offices, access at the White House and in other high places. There are more of us - and more of us have the capacity to be influential. On some levels, there is less intra-Orthodox friction. Federation leaders and Jewish machers break bread with us. They are our buddies. In short, we have made it. We are insiders. Everything should be coming up roses, at least in the public domain.

The record shows otherwise. President Bush and Congress, whose political conservatism matches the political ideology of most Orthodox Jews, gave us the first major piece of Federal education legislation since the 1960's, the "No Child Left Behind Act." All religious schoolchildren were left out. In New York, where presumably we have clout, until the recent tax relief legislation there wasn't anything to follow up on the significant achievements of the 1960's and 1970's, primarily the textbook and mandated service programs that have assisted our schools.

Protection of Sabbath observers is all but a dead issue, although discrimination against them is still practiced in abundance. The New York Federation has sharply cut back the relatively little it does for yeshivas and day schools. In 1967 I chaired a conference on "Government Aid to Parochial Schools How Far?" - the expectation being that what had been achieved was a prelude to greater accomplishments. They never materialized.

What happened? Why are we so feeble, even as we have access and visibility, even as we broadcast claims of influence?

As with most historical questions that ask why this or that happened or did not happen, there is no simple or single answer. No one planned to derail that which was unfolding a generation or more ago. Part of the explanation is in lifestyle changes, in conditions that have reduced our ability to advocate what we believe in. Not in our religious life but in public affairs. Volunteerism is in decline in America and so is the role of ideas. Within Orthodox life, askanos or lay leadership is nearly as dead as the dodo. Most of us who might be active or creative are too busy and we leave the job to organizations whose agenda inevitably revolves around their self-interest, to the detriment of the larger community.

This is evident in the evaporation of intra-Orthodox cooperation in the crucial area of public affairs. Yes, there is greater internal unity than there was when sparks flew over membership in rabbinical bodies with the non-Orthodox and the draft of young women into the Israeli Army. But there was, back then, an ethos of cooperation on public affair issues. Our major organizations joined in COLPA's briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts.

There is little contact today, however, whether directly through meetings or over the phone. Strange as it may seem, among the yeshiva-world Orthodox there is a greater likelihood of sitting down with Federation and secular leaders than with other Orthodox. In short, the abandonment of cooperation has resulted in the diminution of our influence.

This is linked in turn to the root cause of current Orthodox feebleness in public affairs. What I wrote forty years ago holds the key to what has changed. We had then broken away from mainstream American Jewry, explicitly not wanting to be part of what had harmed the prospect for Jewish continuity. We insisted on our independence, on the right to advocate religious interests and to challenge the establishment. We weren't interested in being popular or having access. Being outsiders was just fine, if that status would yield results. Emphatically, we did not exalt being outsiders as a goal unto itself; rather, we recognized that by their abandonment of what had kept Judaism alive, the Jewish establishment made us into outsiders.

The tax relief legislation just enacted in New York resulted largely from the efforts of the Sephardic Community Federation, a Syrian Jewish organization that deliberately presents itself as an outsider. Without its advocacy, there would be no legislation. This group is also searching for creative approaches to the constitutioal issues raised by governmental activity that assists parochial schools. Here, too, mainstream Orthodoxy is asleep.

The abandonment of advocacy is also evident in the neglected field of protecting religious persons in the workplace and elsewhere. This neglect has harmful consequences because hard-working religious Jews are often stuck in jobs that offer no advancement, while others cannot get jobs for which they are certainly qualified. Strangely, the rank and file of Orthodox Jewry derives little comfort from the stream of organizational press releases announcing phantom achievements.

One fantasy advanced by those who have little to show in the legislative and legal arenas is that there are behind-the-scenes achievements that are so "top secret" that they cannot be discussed. Of course there are private arrangements, but to maintain that the key interests of Orthodox Jews are being advanced in this fashion is to promote a falsehood. Legislation and litigation are public activities.

What about the Federations and the expanding world of Jewish foundations? There, too, we have abandoned advocacy in exchange for meaningless access, as in the shameful silence when the New York Federation two years ago terminated basic grants to yeshivas and day schools. There is the collateral shamefulness in the snide attitude toward the few of us who are willing to challenge what Federation did to hurt Jewish schools that are struggling to get by.

I might note that in recent years, even as certain of the Orthodox have achieved access to Federation, there is growing Federation support for intermarriage-related activities and other dubious projects that are promoted as "continuity."

Our recent paltry record can be contrasted with what was achieved about forty years ago. Camp Sternberg, which has assisted thousands of Orthodox families, was established because pressure was put on Federation. Nowadays, Federation gives a pittance to Sternberg.

But that's not the story I want to tell. Several years after Sternberg opened, Federation attempted to gain control. This effort was publicly resisted and defeated. Ohel Children's Home is another example from around this period. Its establishment and recognition by governmental agencies came about because dedicated people who were more interested in meeting our communal needs than in being popular fought Federation's efforts to derail Ohel.

If situations like Sternberg and Ohel would arise in 2006, it is doubtful that our leadership would have the courage to fight for our community's needs. There would be Orthodox insiders cautioning, "Be quiet, don't make trouble. We have friends at Federation and we will make a deal."

After all, they haven't fought Federation on behalf of yeshivas and day schools -why, then, should we expect them to take on the establishment when the stakes are even smaller?

As Jewish philanthropy has shifted toward private foundations established by persons who have amassed great wealth, once more the Orthodox community is missing an opportunity, although insiders have exploited their contacts to benefit the institutions and organizations in which they are involved while failing to advocate on behalf of our schools and other broad communal needs.

Working with one foundation, I have achieved much for yeshivas and day schools, without using my contacts to benefit the institutions affiliated with the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, which I serve as president. It saddens me that there isn't another person in Orthodox life who has even attempted to do likewise. If we do not make our case to philanthropists who have the means to help, how can we expect them to support our schools?

The record is worse yet with respect to restitution and Holocaust funds, a field where "top secret" does apply as Orthodox insiders have quietly sed their access to produce immense benefits to their own groups, while purposely neglecting the more legitimate needs of our schools and the larger community. I am certain that this is a story that will never be fully told.

Today's Orthodoxy - call it the new new style of American Orthodoxy - craves access and acceptance and has a fawning relationship with those who are hostile to religious values and practices, as was evident at the Siyum Hashas when honor was accorded to Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and others who have fought against religion and what Orthodox Jewry stands for.

Our new style is epitomized by Agudath Israel's Am Echad project which is no more than an empty slogan that brings no one closer to Yiddishkeit while it purposely sends out the message to secular Jews - many of whom are not Jewish according to halacha - that despite their opposition to what we believe and practice, we are one people. This despite their acceptance of intermarriage, advocacy of gay marriage and much else that is alien to our idea of peoplehood.

Are we one people today, given the wholesale abandonment of religiosity? Forty years ago, when intermarriage was a small fraction of what it is now and when most Jews still practiced certain essentials of our faith, our Torah leaders did not trumpet an empty slogan of Am Echad. Rather, we asserted our independence.

In the 1950's, when by all counts we should have been weak and when our independence resulted in the loss of support for our yeshivas, we fought, under the transcendent leadership of the great rosh yeshiva of Lakewood, Rav Aharon Kotler, and other Torah giants, against the induction of women into the Israeli Army and we rejected membership in boards of rabbis with non-Orthodox clergy.

These were not popular decisions. They did not make us insiders; instead, they fortified our status as outsiders. They were also courageous actions and ultimately they had beneficial results.

I do not advocate that we be militant for militancy's sake. We must continue to do outreach and we must reach out to secular Jews in other ways. Much of my time is spent working with persons outside of Orthodoxy, but this emphatically does not entail the stifling of advocacy of our causes, particularly the needs of our schools.

We must have the dignity and the courage to assert our differences. We must have the wisdom not to embrace access and popularity at the expense of our dignity and independence.

When we crave acceptance by those who in their lives and communal work reject what Torah Judaism mandates, we are less effective. That is or should be the lesson of the last forty years.

As we say in our tefilos, "Baruch hu-Elokainu she-baranu l'chevodo, v'hivdilanu min ha-toim, v'nasan lanu toras emes, v'chaye olam nata b'socheinu." "Blessed is He, our God, who created us for His glory, separated us from those who stray, gave us the Torah of truth and implanted Eternal Life within us."

Friday, June 16, 2006

Has the Day Passed for Day Schools?

A year ago, we were occupied with the scheme hatched by Five Towners upset over the very high and ever-rising day school tuition charges. That quarter is now silent, not because there hasn't been another increase and the problem is being addressed, but because running into brick walls is not an experience that induces continuity.

There are signs that day schools are a declining priority on the communal agenda. True, New York has enacted a tax credit that includes day school parents and this resulted in large measure from the advocacy of the Sephardic Community Federation. It is, however, an achievement that will have a minimal impact. As for the community, with few exceptions day schools are once more neglected stepchildren. Following the trauma, even panic, resulting from the frightening 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, there was a meaningful uptick in communal support. Even prior to NJPS, in New York the great philanthropist, Joseph Gruss of blessed memory, invested enormously in day schools and leveraged his support to get Federation to join in the Fund for Jewish Education which helped a large number of yeshivas and day schools.

The trend is now in the other direction. In the important expanding field of private Jewish philanthropy, except for a small number of key foundations, day schools are little more than a footnote. At the Federation level, the annual extravaganza known as the General Assembly devotes no more than one panel session to day schools. Two years ago in a transcendental awful decision, the New York Federation terminated basic grants to yeshivas and day schools. The response from those who still pass as Orthodox leaders was silence.

The nearly universal attitude is that day school education is far less a communal service than a product provided to a select group of parents who should pay the bill. As a consequence, there is pain in many homes and schools and scarcely anyone cares. A growing number of parents on the margins of our religious life reject day school for their kids because of the high cost. We do not see their faces in the vast American crowd. What we see is expanding enrollment, fed primarily by the high Orthodox fertility rate, particularly among the fervently Orthodox.

This masks other realities, such as enrollment decline in Solomon Schechter schools, in some measure because of the problems afflicting the Conservative movement. Some Solomon Schechters have closed and others are headed in that direction. A few days ago, I received an email from a Solomon Schechter that I helped last year, pleading for support as "we are desperately seeking funds so that we can open in September." Apart from the four schools that I serve as president, I am involved in one way or another in dozens of day schools, right now including a large institution with a noble record that is experiencing much difficulty.

I sense that the day school situation is rougher than it has been in a long while. In the Rosh Hashanah letter to be sent in September to alumni of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, I write that "although my RJJ activity is voluntary, it has encompassed at times forty or more hours a week, which is to say that I am not a typical yeshiva president. Yet, it has always been difficult to put together the resources we need to meet our obligations. This lets me understand how hard it must be for the vast majority of yeshivas and day schools that do not have a president or lay leaders as active as I am."

As a postscript, over the past five years I have appended a note to the column published during Chanukah asking for support for RJJ. Total contributions over this entire period do not exceed $5,000.

Financial hardship has long come with the territory called religious Jewish education. What is worrisome is the declining interest in these schools, in their now being ranked behind camps, Israel and other activities as instrumentalities for promoting Jewish continuity. There is some logic to this among the non-Orthodox because their children are found only in relatively small numbers in day schools. What is tragic is the Orthodox abandonment of day schools, of course not for their own children but as outreach vehicles for children from marginally observant homes. The sad, steep decline of Torah Umesorah is an important factor in this unfortunate story and it also highlights the failure of Orthodox leaders at both the Rabbinic and lay levels.

This is reflected in the continued and inexcusable Orthodox leadership silence two years after the termination of the basic grants and, perhaps more shockingly, in the sharply declining enrollment in schools serving immigrant and outreach families. The day school census I conducted in 2003 showed a significant drop in enrollment since the 1998 census and there are clear indications that the trend is continuing and perhaps accelerating. While mainstream Orthodox schools once served such families, most now accept only applicants from fully Orthodox homes, either because of space reasons or because of ideological considerations. Thousands of children who could be part of a glorious Jewish future are being lost to Judaism.

There are Orthodox lay leaders whose primary goal is establishment access. They look at their role not in terms of advocacy but in terms of "let's make a deal." If they have made any, likely its for the benefit of the institutions they are involved in, not for the full range of yeshivas and day schools. While they refuse to advocate for day schools, they snidely criticize those who do. It should occur to them that if the Orthodox do not advocate on behalf of these most vital institutions, it cannot be expected that the rest of the Jewish world will pick up the slack.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Tony Judt's Jihad Against Israel

We do not need Tony Judt, a Jew and eminent historian who directs the Remarque Institute at New York University, to demonstrate that high status in the intelligentsia is no guarantor of political wisdom or moral judgment. Over too many years and in too many places, too many with brains to spare have harnessed their gifts and skills to abet evil ends. In his stream of virulently anti-Israel articles which question, in effect, whether Israel has the right to exist, Judt has been the eager handmaiden to evil.

He is resourceful, peppering publications all over the globe with his long list of transgressions committed by the Jewish State, which he now describes as an "anachronism." Israel's failure to heed his advice results in ever-more heated condemnations. In recent weeks alone, readers of the New York Times, Haaretz and The Financial Times have been treated to his fervid advocacy.

The question raised by this toxic body of writing is not whether Israel's policies are right. There is plenty of room to challenge the security barrier, treatment of Palestinians, settlements, the notion of unilateralism and much else and, there is criticism aplenty in Israel's political arena and the media. Judt's target is not particular policies or actions, but Israel itself.

In a much-cited October 2003 essay, "Israel: The Alternative", that was published in the New York Review of Books, he described Israel as "fascist," a term that I doubt he has applied to any other country. The essay is a smorgasbord of ugliness. Judt asks, "but what if there were no place in the world today for a 'Jewish State'?" The question is sinister, echoing Hamas' platform. It also is rhetorical, so that the answer comes with the question. Any doubt about this is resolved by Judt's advocacy of Israel's disappearance and replacement by a single "binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians."

"What if," he asks again rhetorically, "the binational solution were not just increasingly likely, but actually a desirable outcome? It is not such a very odd thought." What is odd and I think reprehensible is Judt's failure to consider the political, demographic, human and moral consequences of Israel's disappearance. Jews are to live in peace alongside of Arabs, something that Arabs have not been able to achieve among themselves. We are to ignore the history of Islam and we are to ignore current events in furtherance of what may amount to, G-D forbid, another final solution.

Judt's latest jeremiad appeared about a month ago in Haaretz and was reprinted in a somewhat shorter version in The Financial Times. Haaretz always has a warm welcome mat out for those who write against Judaism and for those who write against Israel and the two streams of hatred are closely linked, serving as two sides of one intellectually counterfeit coin. Judt begins, "by the age of 58 a country - like a man - should have achieved a certain maturity. After nearly six decades of existence we know, for good and for bad, who we are, what we have done and how we appear to others, warts and all… In short, we are adults." However, "the State of Israel remains curiously (and among Western-style democracies, uniquely) immature." About 3,500 words later, he concludes, "at the age of 58 the time has come for it to grow up."

Perhaps it's time for Judt to grow up. He received a BA in 1969 from Cambridge, which should mean that he was born about the time that Israel was established, so that he is 58 or so. Could it be that his coming into the world at about the time that Israel was established has resulted in some severe moral dysfunction?

Judt's specialty is French history. He should know that Vichy transpired long after the French Republic celebrated its 58th birthday. He also should know that according to Mr. Lincoln, this country had a Civil War more than four score years after it achieved independence. He also should know something about German history and the Holocaust. In short, Judt's point is historical gibberish or, in his term, immature. Nations are always unfinished business. There are unsettled domestic matters and new issues on the agenda, while the surrounding world always presents new challenges. It should be evident to even one who thinks ill of Israel that it has had no respite since 1948, that there are always life and death decisions to be made and that, at times, the path taken turned out not to have been the best. Israel is like the young orphaned child who facing severe hardships had to grow up at a very young age.

Judt's formula for Israel is far worse than what Edward Said and Islamic academics have advocated and yet he has not been as challenged as they have been. Some of us are in an uproar when a minor Islamic scholar is named to a minor academic position, yet we are quiet when academic superstars promote poisonous anti-Israel ideas that inevitably have an impact on students, including those who are Jewish. I wonder whether some form of ethnic profiling is at work.

We ought not protest every anti-Israel statement or slight on campus, else we would be occupied around the clock and to little avail. When a major figure beats up on Israel and advocates its disappearance, the stakes are different. That is why Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America is to be applauded for protesting Brandeis University's disgraceful presentation of an honorary degree to Tony Kushner, the noted playwright whose views parallel Judt's.

Could it be that naming a Jewish boy Tony is not a good idea?