Friday, December 28, 2007

The End of Jewish Demography?

At the doorstep of 2008, it appears that there will not be a 2010 national Jewish population survey in follow-up to the studies conducted in 1990 and 2000 and earlier efforts to determine the number of American Jews, as well as their circumstances, behavior and beliefs. It takes years to prepare for a survey and also much money and both time and funding are in too short supply to undertake a comprehensive project two or three years from now.

Funding is only one reason why NJPS is heading toward the history bin. Another is that United Jewish Communities, the coordinating body for the Federation world and the past NJPS sponsor, is in crippled condition and scarcely able to get its act together. It also doesn’t help that the last NJPS received withering criticism, with both its methodology and key findings coming under fire. No one seems to have the stomach to try again. A final nail in the coffin is that the spreading use of cell phones has made population studies more difficult.

If NJPS is a thing of the past, Jewish demography is very much alive, although not necessarily well. It is like an obsession that we cannot shake off. We will continue to receive a flow of statistical claims regarding this or that aspect of Jewish life, some based on local surveys and others on broader research that purports to capture the full spectrum of our behavior and beliefs.

Because NJPS has come to reflect a narrower view of Jewish identity than is favored by certain demographers who are now in favor and because many in Jewish life have a stake in claiming higher numbers, the apparent decline of NJPS dovetails with the advancement, even domination, of big-tent Judaism, its notion being that we should include as many as we can, irrespective of how negligible their association with Jewish identity may be. I wonder whether NJPS’ fate would be different if it had announced that at the turn of the century there were as many as ten million Americans who may be counted as Jews rather than the five million that was its announced statistic.

It apparently does not matter any longer that many who are identified as Jewish say that they are not Jewish or that they practice another religion or that their children are being raised in no religion or another religion. A Jew is anyone we can claim by birth or marriage or household. The big-tenters are in the driver’s seat.

This is in a way good news for Israel, at least for those Israelis who believe that their country’s security depends on support from Washington and Washington’s support is likely to diminish if the number of American Jews diminishes. I think otherwise. It’s also good news for those who believe that intermarriage, advanced assimilation and even Judaic abandonment are no more than inconvenient circumstances that do not radically affect the statistics of American Jewry. In the new arithmetic espoused by the big-tenters, intermarriage means more and not fewer persons who identify as Jewish.

This attitude is consistent with the American ideal of tolerance and the right of people to choose how they are to be identified. It is reinforced by a huge emotional and financial investment by organized American Jewry which for communal and personal reasons is inclined to buy into an expansive definition of Jewishness. The process is not new. I identified it in the 1980s in a series of articles and have discussed the phenomenon many times since, arguing that while ultimately this house of cards will collapse, it is a condition that will remain critical in American Jewish life for the foreseeable future.

What is perhaps surprising is the creativity and boldness of the advocates of this form of Judaism. They were originally defensive, as if they were saying that though what we represent departs from communal norms, this is the best that we can achieve under current conditions. The contention now is that the departure from norms is itself a legitimate Jewish norm. This process has legs and it will almost certainly be with us at least well into this century.

There is, in short, increasing congruence between our demography and our communal activity, a development that is not seriously challenged by those of a religious orientation who believe that what is being supported in the name of Jewish continuity is bogus. The likely feeling is that they do not have the ability to counteract this process. It is also true that they – including some fervently Orthodox – have a comfort zone with those who are nearly 180 degrees away from them on the religious spectrum. As for Chabad, the fastest spreading American Jewish experience, in many localities it feeds off this phenomenon, something that it is loathe to acknowledge.

Given the huge emotional and financial investment in the notion that labeling something as Jewish is sufficient to make it Jewish, the prospect is for Judaism to be defined further downward.

What is happening is not entirely unique in Jewish history. What makes the contemporary Jewish experience distinctive is the scale, the number of persons who accept the view that the label alone can serve as a surrogate for Jewish substance. Aside from halachic or Jewish legal considerations, this is a fascinating sociological development. It also poses a challenge, intellectual and practical, to those who continue to believe in what Judaism has meant over the centuries.

One day, long after most of us are gone, there will be greater clarity and it will be obvious that much of what was promoted as legitimately Jewish was a mirage, that inflated numbers and activities not moored in our heritage forged perceptions that distorted the reality. For now, we live in the present and act in the present and the present reality is that the mirage is accepted by most American Jews as real.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Scholarly Abuse

While reading and reviewing two years ago a dreadful book on chassidic life, I came across a footnote citing a remarkably high incidence of sexual abuse among Orthodox Jewish women. The source was a May 7, 2004 article in the Forward reporting on a paper presented shortly before at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. I was jolted and intrigued by the assertion that more than 25% of married Orthodox women participating in the survey said that they had experienced such abuse. The statistic was at once startling and I thought questionable. I contacted the two principal researchers and requested a copy of the paper, only to be told that it was not available and would not be available for perhaps two years.

I did not know at the time that in the same period, a companion – or perhaps the same - paper had been given at the annual meeting of the Orthodox Forum, a Modern Orthodox group, and that it had been sharply challenged, the upshot being that in what I have been told is a rarity for the group, the paper, entitled “Sexual Life of Observant Jewish Women,” was not accepted for publication in the book that includes the 2004 Orthodox Forum papers.

In fact, sexual abuse was a minor concern in that paper. Now, the November 2007 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, certainly a major publication, includes an article derived from the same study that served as the basis for the earlier paper. This one is on the “History of Past Sexual Abuse in Married Observant Jewish Women,” with Dr. Rachel Yehuda listed as the first of five authors and with the highlighted finding that “sexual abuse was reported by 26% of the respondents surveyed, with 16% reporting abuse occurring by the age of 13.”

This is now the definitive word on the subject, to be Googled for nearly all of eternity and regarded as authoritative and cited in books, newspapers and other publications. This newspaper did its part with a badly flawed article headlined, “No Religious Haven From Abuse.”

It is not prudishness that begets my reluctance to write about sexual abuse. I do not want to cover up any form of wrongdoing. My reluctance arises from the likelihood that what I write will engender the false claim that I and the Orthodox cover up all abuse. We Orthodox live in a real world and there is sexual abuse in our community and while its incidence is, I believe, significantly below what it is in the larger society, what occurs is a serious issue that must be confronted. Any who protect a sexual abuser is guilty of a great sin.

There is a huge gap between acknowledging this truth and accepting the reckless scholarship and statistics of Dr. Yehuda, et al which constitute a form of group libel and severe cruelty toward observant Jews. They have an obligation, scholarly and ethical, to calculate how their presentation of their findings will be interpreted and distorted because of their flawed use of statistics. At the end of the day, we are left with the statistic that one in four married Orthodox women has experienced sexual abuse and this statistic is false.

Sadly, claims of abuse of one kind or another among the Orthodox have become routine, as if “Orthodox” and “abuse” are like love and marriage in the popular old song, you can’t have one without the other.

The Survey
The AJP article does not include the questionnaire, nor is it available online, which is surprising. The questionnaire is important because it indicates why I believe Orthodox women in droves refused to participate in the survey. A half-dozen polite requests to Dr. Yehuda for a copy were to no avail. Nor have I been able to access the promotional material that was utilized to attract participants. Dr. Yehuda acknowledges that while the survey was once online, it “is no longer on the website.”

A substantial effort was made to publicize the survey and to encourage self-identified Orthodox women to participate. As the AJP article puts it, “subjects were sought across a large range of religious Jewish communities by advertising through synagogue bulletins, Jewish organizations, newspapers, Jewish-oriented websites and listserves, and a network of medical professionals…whose practices consisted of sizable numbers of Orthodox Jewish women.”

This extensive and doubtlessly expensive effort, conducted here and in Israel, resulted in 380 completed questionnaires that constitute the survey. The authors acknowledge that they cannot “estimate the number or characteristics of women who heard about the study and refused participation.” It is a fair estimate that this number dwarfs by a hundredfold and probably much more those who participated.

Methodological concerns alone raise serious questions about reliability. While there is research on the sexual activity of American women, what Dr. Yehuda et al report is the first study of its kind on any ethnic, religious or nationality group or subgroup. As they write, “there are currently no statistics regarding the life-time prevalence of sexual abuse within religious communities,” and, “we are not aware of any other study examining sexual abuse…in any similar insular religious society.” Inadvertent as it may be, there is a sensationalist quality to what is reported in the AJP. Once more, we Jews – and, once more, just the Orthodox - are the chosen people. I wonder what the reaction would be if research based on a comparable approach reported that one in four women in other ethnic and religious groups had experienced sexual abuse.

The Data
In fact, the statistics about the Orthodox are distorted – and by a wide margin. The study is afflicted by a severe case of survey bias, by now a chronic problem in Jewish demography and acknowledged as a serious issue in sexual activity research. Survey bias refers to the powerful tendency of quantitative research to attract respondents who are not representative of the entire group and whose participation is enhanced by the nature of the research and the questions asked. Their responses tilt the data in a pronounced way, invariably in the direction favored by the research. There are major articles in the literature on survey bias in sexual activity research, with one review article authored by A. Catania and others and published in 1990 in the Psychological Bulletin stating that the responses tend to come from those who are “more sexually liberal” and “more likely…to report sexual difficulties.”

What percentage of married Orthodox women is represented by these 380 responses? According to the Orthodox Forum paper, “it can be estimated that there are approximately 250,000 to 300,000 women” in the U.S. and Israel who would be eligible for participation in the study. My estimate is lower. Whatever the number, the 380 represent a small fraction of one-percent of the potential response pool and, as will be shown, they are not representative of Orthodox married women. Without any doubt, they are also a tiny proportion of the eligible women who learned of the survey and were invited and encouraged to participate. We do not know how many considered participation and then decided against it, certainly in many instances because they were repelled by the questions that were asked. Yet, we now read unqualified newspaper accounts that one-quarter of married Orthodox women experienced sexual abuse.

If nearly all surveys are prone to participation bias and sexual activity surveys even more so, there is a yet more heightened prospect that Orthodox women will shy away from such questions. According to an item in Science & Theology News about this research, “nearly 25 percent of American women surveyed did not respond” to some of the questions. There is a touch of prurience to certain questions, at least from the perspective of many Orthodox women and certainly those who identify as fervently Orthodox. An example is questions relating to the wedding night experience.

In short, the 380 respondents are an atypical group who represent only themselves. How atypical is indicated by the curious statistic that 53% of those who self-identify as fervently Orthodox attended graduate school, apart from those who went to a religious seminary. Indeed, Yehuda et al note that “the high level of education, even among the ultra-Orthodox, suggests a survey bias that may be associated with a willingness to participate in research.” This doesn’t deter the trumpeting of the 26% abuse statistic.

There are other question marks, invariably with the acknowledgement that they may affect the survey’s representativeness. A bit more than half of the abuse reported in the AJP article involved improper physical behavior that did not include genital contact. In fact, in the authors’ words, “many researchers have historically defined sexual abuse as genital contact.” Hopefully without being accused of excusing wrongful actions, I wonder whether inappropriate conduct without genital contact should be included in the survey of Orthodox women. The issue is relevant because while in the general society standards of physical contact are more permissive and so there is a strong tendency not to regard such contact as sexual abuse, among the Orthodox and especially the fervently Orthodox, in the words of Dr. Yehuda et al, “the threshold at which someone may feel the victim of sexual abuse may be lower for those living in a more restrictive religious community.” It is of note that of the Orthodox women reporting sexual abuse, more than half said that it did not involve genital contact.

An additional area of doubt arises from the extraordinarily large number of respondents – 53% - who have been treated at least once by a mental health professional. This is a sensitive issue and it is sufficient to note that the statistic is substantially higher than what is known about American women and psychotherapy services.

Many of the Women Were Not Orthodox
The greatest flaw in the research and presentation is that 137 or 36% of the respondents were not raised Orthodox, becoming observant later in life, a statistic that is incompatible with the distribution of baalei tshuva or return to Judaism women in the Orthodox population. Of the 96 women who reported abuse, more than half or 49 were not raised Orthodox. The title of the article refers to past sexual abuse among married Orthodox women, the suggestion being that the abuse was experienced by persons who were observant at the time that it occurred. This is how the data were reported in this newspaper and how they will continue to be reported.

This issue is crucial in light of the statistic that nearly two-thirds of those who report abuse say that it occurred before the age of thirteen, when in fact many of the women were not Orthodox. Of note, one-third of the women raised Orthodox say that their perpetrator was a stranger, as compared to but 14% for those who were not raised observant. Contrary to popular wisdom which decrees confidently that the Orthodox tend not to report abuse, 44% of those raised Orthodox reported the incident. The comparable figure for those not raised Orthodox is 39%.

When the women not raised Orthodox are excluded, the abuse statistic declines to 19% and that is the point at which survey bias and other factors come into play, reducing the figure even further and probably substantially, although it is not possible to estimate an accurate figure. In sum, to the degree that this survey has any value, it appears to point to a lower, probably much lower, incidence of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community than in American society as a whole. To put it mildly, the message sent by the authors is quite different.

Sprinkled throughout the AJP article are declarations that the responses may not be representative. That isn’t sufficient because it is certain that they aren’t representative. As someone who read the AJP article emailed to me, “I don’t understand a field in which a major journal publishes an article that contains emphatic declarations that its data is utterly meaningless.” Of course, the declarations do not make it into the publications that cite the study.

Whether the substantial deficiencies were inadvertent or not, the authors bear a moral and scholarly responsibility for what appears under their names and for the harm, distortion and pain they have caused. Sexual abuse is terrible and never to be condoned. In condemning sexual abuse, we must be careful not to condone scholarly abuse. Dr. Yehuda and her colleagues should take the morally responsible step and retract their article.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Political Ideology is Not Judaism

It is understandable that Orthodox Jews – of course, not all – have gravitated toward conservative political positions. There is a high degree of congruence between their religious teachings and obligations and conservative opinion on key public issues. This is evident regarding gay marriage and abortion and, more generally, in attitudes toward contemporary culture and societal trends. Our religious life mandates restraint and modesty, while the powerful contemporary tendency is to expand the zones of permissiveness. Social conservatives are the primary force resisting this dynamic development and since Orthodox Jews are traditionalists, it is natural that they be in the same camp.

There is, however, nothing in our religious laws mandating an across the board embrace of right wing views. Environmentalism is one area where observant Jews should feel comfortable with what is primarily identified as a liberal viewpoint, if only because preserving the environment is inherently a conservative commitment. Gun control is another area where Orthodox Jews do not belong in the same camp with right-wingers. We Orthodox should be concerned about global warming and we should support gun control without feeling that it is wrong to reject what most conservative Americans advocate and without feeling that it is wrong to be in the same bed as liberals.

Unfortunately, the Orthodox drift toward right-wing positions seems to bring an instinctive acceptance of conservative political doctrine, as if it is a religious obligation to resist efforts to curtail the availability of harmful weapons or to protect the environment. There are Orthodox writers with no scientific knowledge who apparently believe that it is a mitzvah to accept the debunking of global warming warnings. There is no such mitzvah. Rather, those who cling to all that the right wing advocates are worshiping a false god.

Of course, buying into an ideological label, whether liberal or conservative, makes life easier. There is no need to reflect and choose. A self-ordained pattern of obedience serves as the substitute for a weighing of known information. Yet, allegiance to ideology exacts a cost. A case in point is Iraq. As an aspect of their strong endorsement of President Bush, many Orthodox and, notably the fervently Orthodox, enthusiastically supported the Iraq invasion, although from the outset it should have been apparent that the action would be harmful to Israel. Iraq is the catalyst for what the Bush Administration is intensively striving to achieve in its final year as it pressures Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians and to make additional concessions. This upsets many Orthodox who as yet do not recognize that there is a direct linear link between Iraq and Washington’s stance that Jerusalem should be divided.

Religious Jews should stop taking their political cues from conservatives. Nor should they take their political cues from liberals. On some issues we have good reasons to side with one or the other point of view. On the current red hot issue of immigration, including what to do about the illegals who are here, we Orthodox should pause to consider that xenophobia is not a mindset that has turned out well for Jews.

I do not advocate that the Orthodox become born again liberals and I know that there are some who never defected from this camp. Liberalism has been stained and not only by an approach to social issues that too often is antithetical to our religious values. What also undermines liberalism is the foolish notion that Plan A to deal with just about every pressing problem or pathology is to constantly increase governmental expenditures, as if throwing money at a problem solves the problem when underlying social causes continue to fester and even flourish. The throwing around money approach has been tried for decades, at a cost of perhaps trillions, and failure has not induced sufficient liberal reflection on the efficacy of the approach.

Further enervating faith in what liberalism advocates is its antagonism toward what is referred to as faith based initiatives that rely heavily on voluntary activity and have shown significant efficacy in meeting vital needs and ameliorating social pathologies. Too many liberals think that religion is bad and this attitude is bad for the liberal cause. Like it or not, at bottom the liberal attitude amounts to the proposition that it is better for needs to be unmet and pathologies to fester than to recognize the healing capacity of activities that are faith-based.

For the Orthodox, there is the additional factor of liberal opposition to government aid to religious schools, a stance that has harmed Jewish day schools and, probably more critically, harmed hundreds of thousands of minority group school children.

Although liberals give religious Jews reasons to be upset, there is no justification for the increasingly worshipful attitude toward conservative ideology. We have what to worship in our own tradition and outside ideology is not part of our liturgy. Each issue should be judged separately in terms of our interests and our values and not anyone else’s ideology.

It is noteworthy that on issues that they tend to embrace, liberals and conservatives can show a high degree of affinity. This is true of liberal acceptance of gay marriage and conservative opposition to gun control. Each of these positions is predicated on the notion that people should be free to do what they want to do. They should be free to engage in same-sex marriages and they should be free to walk around with guns.

This is a broad definition of freedom. It happens not to be our religious way. Each of our mitzvahs and obligations imposes restrictions and mandates obedience and these obligations are the primary exhibit of why no political ideology is a code word for Judaism.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Defederate Now

The General Assembly of what is now called the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of perhaps as many as 160 or even more federations, convened several weeks ago in Nashville, although scarcely anyone paid attention or cared. The event was, to be generous, less than overwhelming, with some jokesters wondering who was more dead, whether Elvis or the federations. Let the kibbitzers have their fun. If not well, the federation world is alive and the proof is that preparations are underway for next year’s expensive confab.

Isn’t it time for persons of weight and commitment to weigh in with the suggestion that there must be a better – meaning less expensive and more effective - way of organizing American Jewish life. Federating was the rage a century ago, the notion being that in every North American Jewish shtetl with more than a handful of Jews which means that there certainly were a handful of organizations, it was imperative to establish a central coordinating agency. The idea was compelling and though there was not much coordination as each constituent group had its own machers and did its own shnorring, for quite a while the federation concept seemed to work.

We know how much the Jewish world has changed. Hospitals which in all of the larger cities were the key federation constituents now act entirely on their own, relying on third party reimbursement for operating expenses and their own fundraising for capital needs. The ranks of the Jewish poor have shrunk and they are served primarily by the welfare state. As Jews acculturated, then assimilated and then experienced in droves massive Judaic abandonment, the federation world vanished from their mindset. Why keep a costly relic alive?

Worse yet, with some exceptions federations are arid places, bereft of ideas and creativity and blessed with an abundance of bureaucratic meaninglessness. The federation world is a world of endless meetings, conference-attending, study groups that go nowhere and much more of the paraphernalia of a worn out bureaucracy. In a sad way, the concept of federation and coordination is the enemy of creativity.

The center of vitality, of ideas and experimentation, in American Jewish philanthropy is now in private foundations that have significant endowments and significant excitement. True, as often as not, those who have created these entities were motivated by ambition and ego, by the determination to do their own thing. They wanted their distinctive signature, not federation’s, to be on their philanthropy. In New York and other places where there is an abundance of Orthodox, there are voluntary networks of programs and organizations that dwarf what the federations do to assist Jews in need.

Yet, the federation world churns on, determined in this town to promote the image that vast numbers of Jews partake of its largesse. If this were only true! Of course, no ad mentions the ignoble deed of terminating basic grants to yeshivas and day schools, a decision that was made four years ago. It gives me no comfort that in the recent period Orthodox notables who counseled silence as they negotiated what they believed would be a redress of federation’s wrongful action, now tell me that I was right all along.

The case for federation is often expressed in terms of support for Israel. My view, shared by a minority at the time, is that it was a grievous miscalculation to incorporate the United Jewish Appeal into the federation ambit because it removed from the consciousness of American Jewry a primary identifying link with the Jewish state. Some rent money may have been saved and other expenses reduced. What was lost is far greater.

Fundamentally, the case for federation rests on inertia or, expressed differently, on the inability to come up with an alternative. We have not been able to figure out how to adjust our organizational structure to the contemporary American Jewish landscape, the upshot being that we continue to feed that which we have fed for a long while.

One day, the federation world will come into the 21st century, perhaps first through the closing of some of these dinosaurs where are too few Jews who care about the arrangement. Change will come, though not soon enough. For the present, we are stuck with a system that makes little sense. What is needed is a new culture or ethos to arise within the federation world promoting the notion that it is time to begin defederating. As it was an imperative to federate when the Wright brothers were fiddling around with their invention, in a world dominated by Google, Facebook and exciting technological ventures that capture the attention of nearly all younger Jews, it is imperative to go in the other direction.

It is also time to do away with the United Jewish Communities, a fancy name for an organization that does not unite and has as the main item on its agenda an annual gathering of several thousand at a cost of more than several million. UJC costs nearly $50 million to stay in business. There is no justification for this. I believe that most key federation officials know this.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Beit Shemesh Story

I haven’t been much to Beit Shemesh, the once sleepy town not far from Jerusalem on the road to Tel Aviv, mainly because I haven’t been much to places in Israel outside of Jerusalem. One visit was about a dozen years ago when family members and I went with my friend Rabbi Jay Marcus, then the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Staten Island, to a ceremony in the main shul. Several years previously, Rabbi Marcus had opened in Jerusalem a post-high school seminary called Reishit for boys from the Diaspora. It had quickly earned a fine reputation and was planning to relocate to a not-yet-built campus in Beit Shemesh.

At the event, which was crowded with local Sephardic Jews, the town’s mayor spoke optimistically about the influx of English-speaking families, many of which recently made aliyah, and of the housing being built in Ramat Beit Shemesh, a new neighborhood. Villas and townhouses were available at remarkably low prices and they were situated among an abundance of trees and other greenery. For the newcomers, the proximity to Jerusalem was a plus and they could easily commute there or to Tel Aviv, either to work or for other purposes.

There were problems during the construction stage and even later on, as there was a rash of home burglaries and, as happens nearly everywhere, there was competition between the more affluent Anglos and the older and far poorer veteran residents. In time, relations improved, even as additional sections of Ramat Beit Shemesh were built.

What attracted the English speaking also attracted more native Israelis, notably younger charedi or fervently religiously families who found Jerusalem housing too expensive. There was a new influx, abetted I believe by the familiar tendency to overbuild whenever there is a housing boom, the inevitable consequence being lower prices and efforts to market the real estate to new cohorts of potential buyers. The ensuing religious diversity meant new competition and tension. There were different schools for the several subgroups and also other forms of separation. But if there was little social interaction, there was also little conflict.

This began to change with the arrival of stridently anti-Zionist and militant chassidim who in addition to wanting, even demanding, a higher degree of separation, wanted to impose lifestyle and other changes in Beit Shemesh. Their target was mainly other Orthodox Jews, who are usually identified as Dati-Leumi or religious-nationalists, people of a more modern orientation who are faithful in their religious observance and blessed with a host of admirable qualities, including a strong commitment to Torah study, a modest lifestyle, caring about others and an intense devotion to Israel. Although I do not identify as Dati-Leumi and have reservations about the intense nationalism, I greatly admire these Jews for their sincerity, values and goodness.

There clearly has been an escalation in tension between the Dati-Leumi and some charedim, with the former being on the receiving end of inexcusable behavior. There have been untoward incidents, including the taunting of Dati-Leumi school girls, spitting at them and efforts to disrupt certain events. When minor wrongdoing is not nipped in the bud, usually there is worse to come and it has come in Beit Shemesh in the form of reprehensible incidents on busses. Women have been beaten because they have taken an available seat next to a male chassid and refused to move.

It needs to be acknowledged that the number of perpetrators is small and, according to reports, they are younger people. It is too much, even wrong, to expect rabbis – whether serving in the communities that are involved or prominent outside rabbis – to issue statements condemning each minor act of wrongdoing. Human activity consists of an infinite number of ethical and behavioral lapses. We do not expect public officials to speak out about every minor wrong and it is unreasonable to have a different standard for rabbis.

Where there is violence, there is a higher degree of responsibility and this encompasses but is not limited to the obligation to speak out. Several Beit Shemesh incidents have passed this threshold and this means that rabbinical silence is not acceptable. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, dean of a Monsey yeshiva and director of an Agudath Israel project, put it well in a column last week in the Jewish Press, a newspaper that has much terrific reporting. He wrote that the recent Beit Shemesh incident when five young charedim beat up a woman on the Beit Shemesh bus and then when police arrived, other charedi men attacked them, represents “a colossal desecration [of G-D’s] name, especially since the criminals who committed this despicable act claim that their violent actions represent Torah values. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They disgrace our holy Torah and bring shame to all of us.”

In a companion piece, a religious woman who was beaten on a bus in Jerusalem asked “the men who go about beating women on buses: Do the bruises and humiliation you afflict on others, and the dishonor you bring to our Torah and our people, increase your ruchnius (spirituality)…or does it diminish it?”

It is painful and yet also good to read these words. We in the religious camp must hear from others and though this will mean additional pain, if respected Torah leaders speak out there is at least the possibility that the message will get across that what a small number have done is unacceptable and must not be excused. If there is silence, there will be more incidents and perhaps worse yet, more people will be driven away from Judaism.

The publications that serve the charedi community and which often for good reason are eager to pounce on wrongdoing in other Jewish quarters have a responsibility to report what has happened in Beit Shemesh. So far, this is a responsibility that has not been properly fulfilled

Sunday, November 04, 2007

RJJ Newsletter - November 2007

Rav Zeidel Epstein ז״ל served for nearly forty years as a Rebbi and Rosh Mesivta at the Yeshiva on Henry Street, teaching a high Gemara class and teaching, as well, by example and through his inspiring words how religious Jews should live ethical lives in accordance with their Torah obligations. When he retired, he and his wife moved to Israel, living in Jerusalem where his mussar or ethical discourses inspired additional generations of yeshiva students. He passed away in his one-hundredth year, shortly before Rosh Hashanah, mourned by talmidim and Torah leaders in Israel and here. A memorial assembly was held at the Edison Mesivta, with Rav Aharon Feldman, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel in Baltimore, the featured speaker.

In my remarks, I noted the tendency to speak about our revered Torah leaders by referring to their acts of chesed and their scholarly eminence. This tendency distorts, in my judgment, how we should regard these outstanding people. In truth, most of us do acts of chesed, at least from time to time, and some of us excel at times in Talmudic study. What distinguishes those whom we regard with great admiration and respect is the constancy of their behavior, their endless devotion to the Klal and their unceasing commitment to Torah study. I imagine that we could collect nice stories about Rav Zeidel. What was most remarkable about him was the normalcy of his piety and integrity. These qualities were his essence throughout all of his days. There were no peaks, so to speak, for he always lived at a high ethical level.

His warm feelings toward RJJ never abated and, in a fascinating way, they seemed to grow stronger in Israel. He was gratified by the rebuilding of the yeshiva and nourished by visits of former talmidim from the U.S. who continued to regard themselves as his talmidim. He greeted us in his Jerusalem home with the familiar smile, warmth and enthusiasm that were his hallmarks when he taught us in the classroom.

As he expressed in the introductions to his seforim and in other ways, he was grateful for the way the yeshiva treated him and other Judaic faculty members after their retirement. Year after year, he donated approximately twenty percent of his pension to the yeshiva.

Rav Zeidel was particularly gratified by the achievements of the Edison Mesivta. Just four years ago, when we dedicated the new Beth Medrash building, he wrote a letter of praise and encouragement, saying “My heart rejoices as I remember the early days” of his teaching at the yeshiva. He asked in instructions that he left to his family that his tombstone include his service at Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yaakov Yosef.

His love of us is engraved on our hearts and while his passing denotes the loss of our last major link to RJJ’s glorious past on the Lower East Side, he shall continue to inspire us. His memory is already a blessing.

* * *

Day school and yeshiva enrollment statistics are more than a bunch of numbers telling us how many students there are in how many schools and at what grade levels. They are portals into understanding contemporary Jewish life, providing vital information about the religious health of American Jewry and about what is transpiring in different communities. As a notable example, the well advertised problems confronting the Conservative movement are reflected in declining enrollment in Solomon Schechter schools.

I will conduct next year, please G-D, my third day school census, five years after the previous survey. Inevitably, there will be schools with fewer students, either because of demographic changes in the areas they serve or the establishment of competing day schools or some other factor. We will also learn about schools that have closed. About 20% of the schools included in the 2003 census had fewer students than they had in 1998 and about three dozen day schools in operation in 1998 had closed. Overall, of course, there were enrollment gains and that will be the story when the data is collected next year, primarily because of high fertility in the chassidic and yeshiva-world sectors.

The day school world is remarkably vulnerable to shifting terrain and fortunes, notably at the mesivta or boys high school level where parents are nervous about how their sons will navigate the crucial teen years and increasingly prefer small schools that invariably have but one class at each grade level. They want a school that fits their sons’ capabilities and orientation. The ambition – the term is used here in an entirely positive sense – of young Torah scholars to make a mark in the yeshiva world after many years of intensive study has also resulted in the proliferation of smaller mesivtas. As a consequence, some older schools have experienced enrollment declines. Our Edison Mesivta has fewer students than it had at its peak, this despite its strong staff and reputation.

As housing costs make buying a home in Brooklyn or elsewhere in the city and suburban areas beyond the means of many yeshiva-world families and as remaining in Lakewood is a desirable option for former kollel families, there is a strong prospect that Brooklyn yeshivas and Beth Jacobs will suffer enrollment declines. This isn’t inevitable, if only because experience teaches that demographic patterns frequently defy predictions. If decline occurs in these schools, likely it will be a slow process. It is certain that Lakewood schools are experiencing explosive growth. There was a two-thirds enrollment increase between 1998 and 2003 and next year’s census will show that the trend has continued.

What about Staten Island where the Jewish population has grown at a rapid pace, with the number now estimated at nearly 50,000? Our three schools – they are the only ones providing a basic or elementary school level religious education – have about the same number of students they had last year. In fact, enrollment has been steady for a number of years.

As is true primarily of modern and centrist Orthodox day schools, each year our Staten Island schools lose students whose families have made aliya, on the average between a dozen and twenty students per year. Aliya from the U.S. is rising, thanks in part – and perhaps in large measure – to high day school tuition and medical costs. The numbers may not affect in an appreciable way the overall American Jewish population statistics. They clearly have an impact on day school enrollment and this impact is cumulative, by which I mean that over the span of eight or ten years of elementary school enrollment, the numbers are substantial.

In Willowbrook, where the Staten Island Orthodox are mainly concentrated, the religious population is substantially middle-aged, so that there are fewer children of school age. There are younger families, but their number does not offset the impact of an aging population on school enrollment and this is unlikely to change in view of the paucity of available housing. When we consider the two factors just described, stable enrollment in our schools may be regarded as a measure of success and in an important way is. That is, until we take into account the growing number of Jewish families, many with young children, that have moved to Staten Island in recent years. Enrollment stability means that with each passing year, a smaller percentage of Staten Island Jewish children are now receiving a meaningful religious education.

The percentage of Staten Island Jewish children who attend a day school is among the lowest in the country and it is dropping. Sadly, Staten Island is not alone in this regard, as around the United States and especially away from New York and New Jersey relatively few Jewish children are in full-time Jewish schools. Even in the New York area, the picture is far from satisfactory. In Suffolk County, only a bit more than a handful of Jewish children are in any Jewish day school. As for Staten Island, when we consider how many families are ex-Israelis or the children of ex-Israelis, people who have ongoing contact with family members in Israel, speak Hebrew and have a traditional background, it is tragic how few children are enrolled in a day school.

Unfortunately, the socio-economic profile of Jewish Staten Island works against day school education, firstly because unlike nearly all other significant Jewish communities, Staten Island is bereft of the Jewish institutional and organizational infrastructure that to an extent can prop up Jewish life. Even Chabad is no more than a minor presence. Economically, the Staten Island community possesses neither the wealth nor the commitment that are important features of Jewish life elsewhere.

Already, thousands of Jewish children living on Staten Island have been lost and the toll continues to grow, this in a community that is located between Brooklyn and Lakewood, so that there are nearby human and other resources that presumably can be brought to bear to expand religious Jewish educational opportunity in the community. Whatever commitment there is to build new institutions invariably is directed at higher educational levels. Staten Island is now blessed with a number of kollelim and there are also several small mesivtas. As I have underscored over the years, each institution of Torah study is meritorious and thus there is much to welcome in the establishment of these higher level yeshivas. However, the notion that these institutions have a significant or direct impact on what happens at the basic level of Torah chinuch is not supported by experience and certainly not by Staten Island experience.

There is, in short, a desperate need to create new educational arrangements that will reach out to the great number of Russian and Israeli families with young children who can still be part of the Jewish future, if they would be given an appropriate religious education. I have given much thought to the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School establishing one or more schools with an outreach mission and each time that I have considered whether to go forward I have come to the realization that I no longer have the energy or time to undertake such additional responsibilities. In any case, the leadership and creativity must come from within Staten Island. I regard this decision as a personal failure and I cannot say that I am proud.

No one should be proud of the abysmal record of Oorah, the organization that is adept at public relations and fundraising as it promotes the claim that the money it raises goes to assist Jewish public school families that agree to send their children to a yeshiva or day school. Only a small percentage of its income goes toward this purpose. Furthermore, Staten Island is Oorah’s center of activity. Our schools have approximately one-hundred Oorah students this year and this is at least one-quarter and probably considerably more of all the students that Oorah claims to have placed, yet we will not receive anything this year from the organization. This will add enormously to the financial burden on our Staten Island schools.

Oorah’s wrongdoing is the saddest episode in my more than fifty-five years of devotion to Torah chinuch. I hope that one day I will write at greater length about the moral stain attached to this organization. For now, my prayer and hope is that there will be sufficient concern about the Jewish children whose Jewish future is greatly at risk.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Times Does It Again

Mazal tov! Syrian Jews have made it in America, thanks to a Sunday Times magazine article by Zev Chafets, another of the newspaper’s pseudo-experts on American Jewish life, and no less than in an issue devoted to money and wealth in New York City. Though talented, Mr. Chafets is lazy, apparently taking at face value what is fed to him by informants, without determining whether the information given to him is credible or accurate.

He is notably vulnerable to misinformation about statistics. The opening sentence on Syrian Jews reports that in Brooklyn, this community “is 75,000 strong and growing fast.” This is way off the mark, as he would have determined had he examined day school enrollment – nearly all Syrian children attend a Jewish day school – or analyzed census tract data. There is a familiar syndrome of ethnics exaggerating their number, at times by a great deal. Mr. Chafets should learn to take with a grain of salt some of the claims presented to him.

That didn’t happen in his previous article for the magazine on Lev Leviev, the billionaire Bukharian Jewish businessman and philanthropist who among a multitude of good deeds established the Gymnasia, a tuition-free Jewish school in Queens that primarily serves Bukharians. He wrote that Mr. Leviev provides the school with $18,000 per year per student, which is approximately three times the true figure. In the Syrian Jewish article we read that “an SY [Syrian Jew] in good standing can expect free K-12 parochial education and summer camps for the kids,” which is absurd and certainly news to the thousands of parents who are charged substantial fees for these services. Mr. Chafets took down what he was told and fed the information to Times readers who doubtlessly regard the misinformation as accurate because, after all, the Times would never publish something that is false.

I wonder why Syrian Jews were selected for inclusion in a theme issue devoted to money and wealth. No other ethnic group is given attention, although there is obviously enormous wealth in other ethnic quarters. Did the magazine’s editors decide that they could not publish a money issue without an article on Jews? Or was the topic Chafets’s idea? Whatever the explanation, the newspaper that we have come to love and hate – both for good reasons – demonstrated once more that it is afflicted with a serious case of Jew-phobia.

Whether the Syrian Jews are all that wealthy is an interesting question that is scarcely explored in the article which opens with a full-page aeriel photo of a nondescript neighborhood. If Syrian wealth is to be judged by housing, the inescapable conclusion is that they are upper middle class but far from wealthy. The article includes four small snapshots of private homes, two of them quite modest. In dozens of communities in the New York metropolitan area, there are thousands of homes that comfortably outstrip in luxuriousness and elegance what Syrian Jews have in Brooklyn. For reference, see Sotheby’s display ad in the same issue.

Syrian Jewish wealth is no more than a secondary concern for Chafets. The main story is the community’s strong opposition to intermarriage. As in the Noah Feldman piece that is still fresh in our memory, Orthodox Jews come out badly. Chafets rambles on about “the Edict,” it being the official communal decree proscribing marrying out. Eleven paragraphs – several of them zaftig – are devoted to the tale of a lawyer who violated this norm.

It may be that the Times or the editors of the magazine are on a pro-intermarriage crusade. Chafets has married out, which isn’t disclosed in the article. I do not believe that an intermarried Jew cannot write about the phenomenon with the requisite sociological or reportorial detachment. However, when intermarriage is not the normal outcome of background and upbringing but a transformative experience for the writer – something that has engendered inner turmoil – it is questionable whether he or she can deal with the subject in a fair manner. Feldman was writing about his own experience and he is entitled to do so. Chafets is writing about other people and his career includes fascinating zigzags, one of which was serving in the Israeli government as a top advisor to Menachem Begin.

It is a fair question whether Chafets’ personal transformation transformed an article on Syrian Jewish wealth into an article on Syrian Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage.

In the article’s final section, Chafets dredges up stories of misdeeds by perhaps as many as three Syrian Jews, most notably the antics a generation ago of Eddie Antar who is strangely identified as “for many years the most famous SY in the world.” Did Antar scream out, “I am Crazy Eddie, a Syrian Jew?” What was Frank Purdue’s ethnicity? Or Tom Carvel’s? Antar operated a small chain of appliance stores, committed fraud and went to prison. Now, many years later and because Chafets was writing an article about Syrian Jews, he went to his files or Googles and dishes out the irrelevant dirt. We also read of another retailer who sold his business on the verge of bankruptcy and of a New Jersey Syrian Jew who has been charged with serious wrongdoing.

The Times would not permit the inclusion of such material in an analytical article about another ethnic group. I am sure of this. What gives the newspaper the license to allow Chafets to descend into the foul zone of bigoted journalism? Is it because Jews and especially religious Jews are always an acceptable target?

There is no answer. We have come to accept the Times as it is. The newspaper and the Sulzburgers are, for sure, the most venerated names in biased journalism.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Jewish Philanthropy

Philanthropy is the allocation of charity funds for communal purposes. It seems to be an easy task, even fun, a rich man’s avocation that we should all aspire to. What could be better than doling out money to grateful recipients who, in turn, anoint the donor a humanitarian and a person of great wisdom? There is at once power and glory in the activity. Don’t we all want to be philanthropists?

Maybe, although those who engage in this work will likely say that it isn’t easy and it often isn’t fun. Choices must be made in a crowded field of beseechers who are ready to proclaim that, if supported, their project will accomplish wonders. The late Jack D. Weiler, a good friend who for decades was in the top echelon of Jewish philanthropists and a respected community leader, told me more than once that at times he hated his charitable work because nearly without stop there were those who were trying to separate him from his money and he no longer knew who his friends were.

Before we sink into a morose morass and excessively bemoan the fate of the very rich who have foundations or other repositories of charitable funds at their disposal, it should be acknowledged that philanthropy can be easy and nearly a sure bet, as when funds go to construct a facility and the completion of the project is the fulfillment of the philanthropic goal. It also can be fun, as when scads of money go towards the popular philanthropic pastime of sponsoring a conference.

Where it is difficult is when a gift is intended to affect behavior, to improve a social condition that is in serious need of improvement. An example is support of school-based educational initiatives where the usual goal is to improve results, whether measured by test scores, graduation rates or what students do after they graduate. Grants are made because the status quo is unsatisfactory, perhaps even dysfunctional. But the status quo is not an ad hoc arrangement but a condition or syndrome that has taken root and is being reinforced by dynamic elements that have created the problem that is being addressed. Good intentions backed up by money invariably have limited efficacy, so that if there is improvement it is marginal and limited. A reasonable yardstick for measuring success must be established, taking into account the tenacity of the social pathology being addressed. This is a subjective exercise and almost always the recipients of the philanthropic funding earnestly claim that they have succeeded and deserve renewed – and perhaps increased – support.

Jewish philanthropy is much like all other philanthropy, with significant emphasis on capital campaigns and other safe initiatives. To be sure, what is safe may be worthwhile, as when major donors provide for the construction of day school facilities. There is also considerable risk-taking, as when funding goes to initiatives that purport to raise the level of Jewish commitment and involvement in an environment that is hostile toward this goal. Then, there is apt to be disappointment, as is evident from a midsummer interview with Michael Steinhardt in which he bemoaned what he assessed to be the poor track record of his private foundation. Characteristically, Michael was being too tough, this time on himself. He has significant achievements, Birthright perhaps the most important. Still, his introspection hopefully will trigger greater communal scrutiny of what is being accomplished through philanthropy.

Jewish philanthropy is severely tested by two circumstances, one quantitative and parochial and the other qualitative and general. Our robust organizational and institutional life breeds a huge number of causes seeking philanthropic support. Some of this arises from our geographic dispersal and denominational and other divisions. At least as much results from our being a hyperactive people blessed with enormous vitality and creativity. We are all over the place and we swarm all over those who have charitable funds to distribute. It seems at times that there are more Jewish causes than there are Jews.

What to support comes down to the preferences of the donors and a large dose of serendipity, of being in the right place at the right time. There is too little cooperation among major funders, a condition that Mr. Steinhardt has done his best to rectify, and this results in an excess of duplicatory initiatives.

The qualitative issues arise from the weakened condition of American Jewry at its points of contact with American society. Much of our philanthropy is now directed at efforts to promote greater Judaic identity among the vast majority of Jews who have moved significantly in the direction away from identity. The harsh realities of American life constantly impel these Jews even further away from commitment and involvement. Demographic statistics tell the sad story of who is prevailing in this encounter. In a sense, what we are experiencing in the desperate efforts to affect attitudes and behavior mirrors what I have described regarding the educational initiatives designed to counteract social pathologies. The difference between the two situations is that the odds are less favorable for satisfactory outcomes in Jewish life than they are in the educational domain.

I suspect that when Michael Steinhardt speaks of failure and disappointment, this is what he has in mind. Some of the blame for failure rests upon his broad shoulders because he constantly spreads the gospel that Jewish philanthropy can best be directed at those who are further away from Judaism rather than at those who are already involved but who may be lost. What he and others fail to see is that whether in day school education or other spheres of communal activity, what seems to be solid needs to be constantly reinforced and this reinforcement will strengthen those at the margins. Unless this basic truth is understood and implemented, our philanthropists will continue to experience disappointment and failure.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

There’s Little Left to Conserve

The closing of the Solomon Schechter high school in Bergen County a bit more than a year after the only such school in New York City closed down is a powerful illustration of the woeful and declining state of the Conservative movement. Coming shortly before Arnold Eisen is installed as Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the development may be regarded as his baptism under fire, a term that perhaps should be avoided in view of the Conservative abandonment of tradition and ritual.

There isn’t much prospect that the movement can recover, although Mr. Eisen is being welcomed as a savior and a man of much vision and energy. He will doubtfully have success as a fundraiser and in getting attention. But Conservatism is hemorrhaging members, as well as confidence, and it is confused. Last week, the Forward published (in the newspaper and on-line) a group of uninspired and essentially meaningless responses to the question, “How should Conservative Jews steer their ship into the future?” No one answered, first fix the leaks.

There is, for sure, no quick fix or even a slow fix. This diagnosis is the implicit message conveyed by Jack Wertheimer, until recently JTS’s Provost and a leading scholar of American Jewry, in the September issue of Commentary. The article is a small masterpiece, a must read.

The Bergen County story is a compound of diverse elements, including the failure of local rabbinic and lay Conservative leaders, a failure that parallels what is found in too many communities as synagogue rabbis do too little to promote day school education, in part because they see it as competition to their congregational schools and fundraising efforts. They put contributions to day schools near the bottom of the list of causes worth supporting. Those who made the decision to close the high school days before the start of the school year acted irresponsibly and foolishly. I am certain that they are in pain and it is cruel to add to their suffering, so I will limit my comments to the observation that they contributed enormously to the hardship felt by students and their families and also faculty and staff.

Around the country, possibly about one-third of the remaining sixty or so Solomon Schechters are in serious trouble and some are barely hanging in there. There is scant evidence that Conservative leaders appreciate how vital these institutions are to the movement. One explanation for this bizarre attitude is that at its highest levels, Conservatism operates as a collection of separate baronies, a dysfunctional arrangement that Mr. Eisen needs to challenge early on when his leverage will be at a maximum. Later on, he is apt to be weighed down by what many Conservatives consider to be the most serious issue, namely not how to retain and strengthen the traditional wing but how to retain and thereby weaken itself Jewishly the droves who are heading out of the door toward Reform or non-affiliation.

Mr. Eisen will have plenty on his plate at JTS. I continue to believe that it would have been preferable to follow the Reform formula of dividing responsibility between the movement’s seminary head and its overall leader. Whatever one might think of the Yoffie-Ellinson arrangement, they make an effective team.

But rearranging the chairs on the deck of the movement’s Titanic will not be sufficient. Against all odds, Conservatives will have to decide that it is their obligation to conserve. Translated into policy, this means not yielding to political correctness or to the large majority of members who in practice and belief are little different from the Reform. For far too long, Conservative members – and I specifically include synagogue-goers – have understood that whatever rhetoric may be employed at the top or by congregational rabbis, in practice nearly all of our traditions and religious laws are negotiable.

After all that has been abandoned, prospects for a change of direction are negligible. We will now hear a message of renewal, of greater fidelity to mitzvos and a greater commitment to religious study. It is hard to see how any of this will be translated into the lives of most Conservative families. Certainly, the early signs are not encouraging. Probably because he wanted to dispose of the issue before he took office, Mr. Eisen rushed through a fundamental change in the movement’s stand on gay ordination. If what is popular is the way to go, patrilineality and a changed attitude toward conversion will be next. In this regard, the current student body at JTS provides strong indication that the movement is likely to move further away from halacha. Indeed, what still passes as the Conservative’s West Coast seminary is headed even more strongly in that direction, as is the movement’s rank and file.

When I have written in the past about the tzoros that have enveloped Conservatism and advocated a greater commitment to Solomon Schechter schools, some of my fellow Orthodox have questioned why I should care about the decline of a movement that purposely decided to abandon so much of what we are obligated to do as religious Jews. The attitude seems to be, nearly all Conservative Jews are lost or will be lost and that is the way it should be because the Conservatives have not been faithful to our heritage.

My answer is that we must care about what happens to these Jews because we do not want to lose them and that at least the traditional wing of the movement can be reached out to and should be reached out to. It is of note that to an important extent, the Orthodox tshuva movement depends on pockets of Conservative vitality. It is not accidental that as the Conservative movement has gone into a tailspin, there has been a parallel decline in the fortunes and outcomes of Orthodox outreach.

Monday, September 10, 2007

RJJ Newsletter - September 2007

Yeshivas and day schools are communal institutions, the primary instrumentality for fulfilling the Biblical obligation to teach children Torah and for providing that they remain committed Jews as adults. Without students, a yeshiva or day school is a name with a facility that exists without existing. Children transform a facility into a living reality. In a yeshiva, children also transform the facility into a sanctified place. As the Talmud teaches, the world continues to exist because of the breath of young children who are studying Torah.

A school is never a learning environment for just one child. It is comprised of a number of children, at times many. Yet, each child remains distinctive with his/her name, emotional DNA, intellectual DNA and a set of background features, including home and parents, as well as upbringing. Each child brings to the classroom his/her interests and abilities and, invariably, limitations. Each child is a complex being and a classroom is the coming together for a common educational experience of a number of complex beings. The great challenge of education is how to perform the common educational function that is geared to a collectivity of children without losing sight of the distinctiveness of each child. The obligation to fulfill both the communal role and the responsibility to each child is not a homiletical exercise. It is or should be a reality in each school and each classroom. What is required is considerable skill and the determination by the teacher to teach an entire class and to teach each student. For yeshivas, this difficult challenge is magnified because of the dual curriculum and, too often, because of the paucity of resources which restricts or eliminates entirely the ability of the school to give gifted children the extra that they need or special attention to the weaker students. The deficit is reduced but not eliminated entirely by the devotion of faculty.

The achievements of our schools are real and impressive. The evidence is everywhere, in thousands of homes and in the great number of graduates who live Torah lives as productive people in American society. Still, there are disappointments, even failures, and they arise from the distinctiveness of each child. Even when the education being offered is first-rate and accompanied by much caring, there are children who do not succeed either educationally or Jewishly or both.

Disappointment or failure may not be evident until after the basic K-12 school years have concluded. More often, there are issues that arise while the child is in school. There are students whose academic performance or behavior raises questions about the appropriateness of remaining in the school or classroom, as their poor performance or behavior may affect the performance or behavior of other students. There is the collateral issue of whether to accept applicants about whom there are doubts regarding prospective educational performance or behavior.

In the one-third of a century of these bi-monthly newsletters and in other writings, I have discussed time and time again my strongly held view that in admission and retention decisions and, more broadly, in the approach to students who do not readily fit in, our schools are too hasty in rejecting or punishing students. Too often our schools do not admit or expel or leave back or punish students on what I regard as insufficient grounds. Their justification for these harsh actions is that they protect the institution and other students. We hear too often the self-serving mantra that expulsion or other forms of rejection are for the good of the students who are being expelled or denied admission or punished. I have no illusions that further advocacy will result in greater acceptance of my view. The contrary outcome is the more likely. But the effort must be made because the spiritual lives of children are at stake.

If only because the klal or the community is greater than the prat or the individual, what a school requires has priority over the requirements of individual students. As an illustration, it is imperative that the curriculum be designed to serve an entire class and not one or two students. It may be necessary or wise to find ways to meet the needs of one or two students, but never at the expense of the entire group. When the need or behavior of a child undermines the communal enterprise of educating a class, it is a legitimate question whether he/she should remain in the class. It must be underscored that the determination that a child has a negative impact cannot rely on speculation or on what might occur down the road. The problem must be overt, real and serious and not a potential or a minor matter. If we rely on speculation, the mind is capable of endless conjecture, of treating as a reality that which is no more than a fantasy. It is insufficient and wrongful to harm a student because a teacher or principal decides that by remaining in the classroom the child will cause harm, even if as yet no harm has been caused.

When student matters are at stake, Torah education rarely proceeds with reference to the Shulchan Aruch or any halachic perspective. The guidelines are provided by educational or psychological theories that pay little or no heed to the special responsibilities of our schools. Students are to be left back or expelled or disciplined or denied admission, too often irrespective of the Judaic damage being done to the students. Principals who ask their Rabbi or Rosh Yeshiva for guidance on even trivial matters seem comfortable to take upon themselves the heavy responsibility of deciding the religious fate of a child. Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked halachic questions on matters large and small from dawn until well into the night. He often said, indeed complained, that he was infrequently asked about chinuch matters.

We have courses for Judaic faculty and training programs galore for principals. The training programs for principals are substantially bereft of a religious sensibility. Some of what is being taught through these initiatives is useful. Overall, the trend is to train principals to be good managers and not good spiritual guides. In one critical way, the theories that are being taught are alien to our religious perspective. Education inherently focuses on the learning process, on the acquisition of knowledge and skills. There are tests, evaluations of classroom performance, writing assignments and homework and all of these are designed to assess how well the student is doing as a student. The portion of the report card that deals with behavior is of less than secondary importance. This is appropriate for educational experiences that are nearly exclusively learning oriented, with a measure of student socialization thrown into the mix. Yeshivas and day schools also have the vital function of religious socialization, the goal being to ensure that the student will be a practicing and committed Jew in adulthood.

This key responsibility must be balanced against educational performance and even behavior in two distinct ways. Firstly, if the student is doing poorly academically but behaving properly and adhering to religious standards and growing in Judaism, with the possible exception of boys mesivtas or high schools, there is an obligation to retain the student. Educational performance is important and efforts must be made to bring about improvement, yet this consideration must yield to the more transcendent concern that the child continue to grow in Judaism. Secondly, if the student is doing poorly in school and is less than an angel in behavior but not directly harming other students, when retention or promotion decisions are made it is necessary to calculate the Judaic harm if the student is not readmitted or left back.

In short, the strong presumption must be that a student is to remain in the school. This presumption should be accompanied by heavy dosages of patience, a quality that may require that we ignore or downplay certain lapses in student behavior. We know that in kiruv activity, patience is rewarded or, to express the thought differently, without patience there is no kiruv. In a similar vein, without patience a child may be turned away from Judaism. In my experience, which includes the experience of family members who teach, patience with students is almost always rewarded. It must be given in a caring and not begrudging fashion. When a principal says to a student, “I am giving you one more chance and if there is even the slightest problem you will be out the door,” that is not patience. It is richuk kerovim, for the words are likely to harm the student.

As I have noted, my advocacy on behalf of students and their families has been to little avail, doubtlessly because the advocate is not of the spiritual stature that would lend force to his words. There is another factor and it is that what is wrong in the yeshiva world has taken deep root. We are facing the intransigence of people in authority in our schools who are rigidly observant yet who have become too cold – and at times cruel – as they are convinced that harshness is a necessary ingredient in Torah chinuch. There are schools and principals that go against this tendency, but far too many succumb to what is now a cultural imperative in much of Orthodox life to show that a school is first-rate when it is able to point to the number of applicants that it has rejected and the number of students who have not been retained.

I wonder whether it would help to invoke the authority of the Chazon Ish, one of the transcendent Torah leaders of the past century. It is well known that he declared that the expulsion of a student is a question of spiritual life and therefore the decision must be made by a Beth Din of 23. We know that most of our principals are determined that questions of admission and expulsion be made by them alone.

The letters of the Chazon Ish are a remarkable lesson plan for those in chinuch and they constitute a far more important, far more Jewish and far more spiritual source than the conventional material utilized in most training programs. I have arranged for the translation of many of the Chazon Ish’s published letters. He had no children, nor did he have in any formal sense any students. In the words of Rav Aharon Kotler’s hesped, “He was not a Rav or the head of a yeshiva or a teacher.” Nonetheless, he was intensely and intimately involved in Torah chinuch in Eretz Yisrael for nearly twenty years, from the time of his arrival from Lithuania in the mid-1930s until his death in 1953.

This was a harsh period for advanced yeshivas and religious schools for younger children. The number of students was low and powerful social forces were impelling older students away from Torah study and even observance. The Chazon Ish served as the spiritual guide to many teachers and students. What explodes in these letters was his love for the students and his deepfelt concern for their spiritual and physical wellbeing. He was always direct in the advice that he gave; at times he seemed to be stern. But he always counseled patience and his words conveyed enormous empathy. They demonstrate that concern for yeshivas and concern for individual students are not antithetical. They are integrated dimensions in the obligation to teach Torah. There is evidence that his counsel and intervention resulted in abundant fruit in the growth of yeshivas and in the spiritual rescue of children.

The following excerpts from a handful of letters should convey the points that I am trying to make. The first concerns the role of Torah education:

We were the People of the Book, the people who sought eternal life, the people who knew the Master of the Universe, the people who knew their purpose and obligation in life, who knew to dismiss carnal pleasures, the people who loved Torah and mitzvos, the people who strove for perfection of character. But we have become mixed among the other nations and we have learned from their behavior. We must return our youth to the Jewish way, to help them find the great treasure we have lost. Our primary duty is to educate the next generation and to return their hearts to their father in Heaven.

After hearing about the financial crisis faced by the Beth Jacob School for Girls:

Considering that everything on earth was created male and female, that the universe cannot reach perfection without the perfection of both of them, and that the Torah way of life cannot be assured among young men and women unless it is assured among both – but it is unnecessary to dwell at length upon the obvious and well-known. However, it is for this that I have made an effort to join you in carrying the burden, and I am here enclosing Y lirot to help you in covering the debts of the Bais Yaakov.

To the administration of a yeshiva regarding a certain student:

Though the boy has not shaken off his childishness and childish laziness, and a lack of seriousness follows him wherever he goes, he has no trace of active wickedness, chas veshalom.

He is willing to hear reproof and constructive criticism about striving in Torah and yira, but his receptivity is not yet a permanent fixture, and he needs such comments frequently.

You cannot be strict with him, but must appeal to him with soft words.

If he does not know the shiur properly, it is only because he is negligent, not because the concepts are too deep. But putting him back into a younger class will not achieve our goal; rather it risks breaking his spirit.

I earnestly request that you work on him with love to attract him to serious study and solid yira, with double reward from Hashem.

Two letters regarding students wavering in their religiosity:

A certain student at Yeshiva X has been accepted by Yeshiva Y which has asked for a letter of recommendation. His name is Z and he is a baal kishron, a smart, talented and pleasant person. But he is disturbed by his yetzer (as smart, talented people tend to be), which demands much of him. As a result, he needs constant alert attention.

Such boys in particular are likely to have a future of gratifying greatness. Therefore, let the administration know his good side in advance, so they accept him, and then perhaps it will be a good idea to tell them of the above.


In your yeshiva, you have a young student X, who is very quick and deep-thinking and could become great. But the known difficulties of the times and the great obscurity of truth in our dark exile affects such boys particularly, diverting them into the hands of strangers and foreign ideas, but a good education effectively enlightens them and helps them grow into great luminaries.

On a practical level, I think it best that he learn under Y, who will know how to work with his personality and attract him to Torah. As for remuneration, I may be able to contribute towards it.

On counseling patience:

It was hard for me to hear that you have no patience to deal with people’s needs, and that this has caused individuals to leave the yeshiva, all the more considering how many have already left, for other known reasons. I think it would be better to let things go, to have patience and to appeal to the bachurim in every possible way, for the whole purpose of a yeshiva is to give intelligence to simpletons and to give understanding to those who are lost.

There is no room to blame the wilder students, for people are born undisciplined. Rather, we must make every possible effort, at any cost, to keep the students enrolled. Sometimes, we must push away with the right hand and embrace with the left, and sometimes we must invite them with both hands.

A student who required special attention:

Nowadays, rescuing a child by giving him a Jewish education is understandably no less than saving him from drowning in a river. Considering the child’s age, it should be possible to develop and advance him in a short time to the level of a regular student, but this requires special methods and attention. You might arrange for people to learn with him for half an hour in the morning, in the afternoon and more. This could be done by the older talmidim at the yeshiva.

I hope for their sake that they have the privilege to perform this mitzvah of rescuing a Jewish soul.

A remarkable letter about a student who was denied admission:

A certain student named Y from Yeshiva X in Yerushalayim came to see me last Friday. He was bitter and unhappy because for family reasons he left Yerushalayim and applied to your holy yeshiva, but the administration told him that they could not accept him. He has no place to go, and I found myself in a position of having no answer to give him. The only true answer was that I have no way of helping him, for he was given his rejection by the administration, and outsiders who do not know the reasons for accepting and rejecting have no place interfering in the matter. But such an answer is just what is meant by, “Is that how one answers a bitter person?” Therefore, I was forced to tell him that I would do something for him, though I did not promise him concrete assistance. I am fulfilling my promise with this letter, but considering that this talmid’s situation troubles me greatly, especially in our times when those applying to yeshivas are fewer than one per city and two per family, if you have anything to tell him that I would like to hear, please do not deprive me of the good news.

As the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood said in the concluding words of his hesped of the Chazon Ish, may we “be privileged to follow in his path and cleave to his ways.”

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Futurists

The future is very much present in the present of Jewish life. During the summer, I attended the Conference on the Future of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, sponsored by the Jewish People Planning Policy Institute, an impressive think tank established by the Jewish Agency. During the same period, I contributed to a symposium on the future of Orthodox education in North America. We are awash in conferences, meetings, papers, etc., dealing with this or that problem area in Jewish life and implicit or explicit in this activity is the goal of projecting or improving the Jewish future. The pessimistic demographic data on Jewish life in the U.S. and elsewhere in the diaspora has created the imperative to better understand what is happening and to figure out how the Jewish future can improve on today’s reality.

One obvious problem is that we are not prophets, a good thing in view of the Talmudic observation that since the destruction of the Temple prophecy has been given over to fools. The more immediate difficulty is that inescapably we are in the present, in our thoughts and activity and in our attitudes and commitments. As much as we may want to be creative or visionary – that is, to offer and improve on what is – what we want for the future is predicated on what we now see and feel.

This is why any conference of futurists begets wildly diverse wish-lists and why upon quick examination, there is a high correlation between what people prefer for today and what they prefer for generations yet unborn. Religious Jews want a world that is more religious while secularists want the role of religion to be diminished, if not obliterated entirely.

We are people who have been around for a very long while and who have truckloads of traditions, obligations and memories. It should be axiomatic that the Jewish future needs to be organically linked to the Jewish past, with the present serving as a connection point between what was and what will be. There is a Conference on the Jewish Future only because there was a Jewish past. This fundamental truth escapes or is deliberately cast aside by a great many Jews, especially in the diaspora, including persons in leadership positions.

During the summer, as well, I read a lengthy working paper called “Redesigning Jewish Education for the 21st Century,” the first fruit of the newly-established Lippman Kanfer Institute, a think tank on Jewish education located at Jewish Educational Services of North America. JESNA has been touted as American Jewry’s main educational agency, although its services are scarcely known to nearly all who toil on behalf of day schools.

Think tanks are the new darling of the Jewish philanthropic world, a development that demonstrates once more our proclivity to regard organization-establishment as a vital activity. It also coincides with mounting and continuing Jewish loss. Each day when the sun sets we likely have fewer Jews than there were when the sun rose, yet we take comfort in having more organizations. If Lippman Kanfer’s working paper is a guide, the intellectual state of American Jewry has suffered a further decline. The paper is an embarrassment. Cliches abound and they are accompanied by proposals that will have no impact on American Jewish education. This is a paper that literally is dead on arrival.

It is a puzzlement how experienced people who have some accomplishments under their belt could have produced a total dud. Some of the explanation may be found in the introduction where we are told that “for many weeks the paper lived on a wiki – a web-based tool for collaborative writing and editing.” Thanks to technology, we have now advanced significantly beyond the many cooks spoiling the broth stage of intellectual confusion. May I respectfully suggest that our think tanks outlaw wiki-ing. Inevitably, the process leads to a mishmash of ideas that are going nowhere.

Another clue to what went wrong is provided in the first word in the report’s title – “Redesigning.” The aim was not simply to improve Jewish education but to make it over. Brief homage is paid to what exists, yet the thrust is to create a future in Jewish education that is profoundly different from what we now have. The final page of the text consists of a brief quote from Alan Kay, a luminary whose achievements I confess to be unaware of, who imparts the following bogus wisdom: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” This is nice-sounding nonsense. It is also fundamentally anti-Jewish, for our people have a past, as do our educational enterprises. This is a past that we ought to be proud of and build on.

Relying on the vapidness of much of their Jewish present, our futurists want their abandonment of the Jewish past to become our community’s norm. They cannot incorporate into their fantasies the glorious heritage that has kept the Jewish people alive, despite our small numbers and despite alternating severe losses resulting from persecution and advanced assimilation. Our future must be redefined and much of our past discarded.

If we are still here to discuss our future, it is because there are those who have been faithful to the past. Our futurists will continue to conference and write papers. The great expansion of Jewish wealth assures that our philanthropists will fund new think tanks. Heaven knows how many there already are. The result of all of this babel will be additional calls to invent the future.

This is the bad news. The good news is that for all of the money and exertion invested in these initiatives, the future of the Jewish people will not be decided by them. The eternity of the Jewish people will not be denied. We exist today because we are faithful to our past and it is this past that ensures our future.

Friday, August 31, 2007

In Uncharted Waters

Born out of frustration with conventional public schools and barely out of infancy, the charter school movement is already enmeshed in grown-up controversy, ranging from accountability and curriculum to the key question of whether this new arrangement makes much of a difference in student performance. As with other educational reforms, the argument is between those who are wedded to the traditional structure of public education and who therefore fight to maintain the status quo and those who believe that without new structural arrangements, there is little hope for meaningful improvement. Public school supporters claim that charter schools have yielded little benefit, while the advocates of charter schools claim that they have.

The argument will continue, with inconclusive results. As with school vouchers, statistics will be produced by each side and we will be treated to a procession of numbers’ games. Likely, charter schools will turn out to be a mixed bag, with success stories and also evidence of failure. Much will depend on leadership. Already, more than a few recently crafted charters are no more. The prospect is that the number in operation will increase significantly because there is a long line of those wanting to get into the act and their ambition is buttressed by continued evidence of public school failure, despite huge increases in governmental funding.

I imagine that for a long while, the charter school concept will continue to operate in uncharted waters.

Even more uncharted is how the approach may be adapted to the needs of particular ethnic groups, including those with a religious orientation. This is a thorny and tricky subject, if only because charters must have open admissions. Those under religious sponsorship have the additional burden of complying with church-state strictures.

I have been asked why as a strong advocate of day schools I have not jumped on the charter school bandwagon. The question is odd. It should be obvious that a religious day school and a charter school are substantially different entities. Presumably, those who want to exploit the availability of charters believe that the arrangement offers a solution to the two most serious issues confronting day schools, they being the high and steadily increasing tuition charges and, secondly, the unwillingness of many parents who are Jewishly involved but not Orthodox to send their children to a religious day school. In the event, I have always responded that those who think that the charter concept is the way to go should pursue that approach.

Peter Deutsch, a former congressman from Florida who is an observant Jew, is an ardent charterist. He has opened in Broward County in his home state the first of what he hopes will be a national network of Hebrew language charters to be called Ben Gamla schools, after the High Priest in the Second Temple period who decreed that it is obligatory to establish in each locality schools that provide a basic religious education for Jewish youth. The name is ironic, perhaps anomalous, because Ben Gamla ruled that such schools are a communal responsibility, whereas Mr. Deutsch and other Jewish charter advocates want the government to foot the bill.

The greater problem is that if the burden is placed on government, the institution can scarcely resemble a day school, even those whose Judaic mission is greatly diluted. To ensure that the first Ben Gamla in Florida does not stray even slightly onto a religious Jewish path, the school is being scrutinized by an army of watchdogs, including the ever-alert guardians of the Constitution, public education officials and Jewish church-state vigilantes.

In a new demonstration that things Jewish are placed under a microscope, the New York Times has just published a long front-page feature article on Ben Gamla. There are, we are told, 350 charters in Florida and several thousand more nationwide. Only one is under Jewish sponsorship and that is the one that the Times focuses on. I know that there are Jewish children of all ages who believe that media attention is a form of flattery and should be welcomed. There is little hope of a cure for this infantilism.

It will be interesting to see how Ben Gamla fares down the road. What we have seen thus far is discouraging. Notice of its opening attracted an enormous pool of applicants, many not Jewish. Citing statistics provided by school officials, the Times reports that 20% of the first year enrollment comes from local day schools. My information, which I regard as more trustworthy, is that the figure is substantially higher, which accounts for the fierce opposition that Ben Gamla has encountered from local day schools.

There is a strong possibility that if Mr. Deutsch goes forward with his ambitious expansion plans, the result will be that large enrollment losses at existing day schools will force a number of them to close. This is a powerful consideration in Broward County where overcrowding in public schools and their reputation as weak education providers have contributed to sharp enrollment increases in Jewish schools. Likely, parents of no more than marginal religiosity will reason that the option of tuition-free charter schools is preferable over high-tuition day schools.

The case for Jewish charters would be stronger if linkages were established with Jewish day schools, providing a religious course of study on day school premises for charter school enrollees who want a meaningful religious education. From the look of things at Ben Gamla and day schools that have explored the charter option elsewhere, this does not seem to be in the offing.

The situation requires monitoring and we are sure to get it in abundance. It is hard to avoid the conclusion at this juncture that charter schools are not the solution to the difficult issues confronting the day school world. Greater support for day schools is the solution.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Pox Brittanica

Boycotting Israel is now the rage in England, uniting lower class trade unionists with snooty academicians. Of course, the craze falls far short of Princess Di mania and even other contemporary descents into the cruel nastiness that appears to be a key element of British character. The country has an abundance of kooks, creeps and cranks who attach themselves to strange causes, some of them evil. While Communism and Nazism destroyed millions of lives, not to mention all traces of freedom, there were eminent people in the United Kingdom who endorsed and even embraced Stalin and Hitler.

This is scant solace for those of us who are repelled by the current frenzy of Israel-bashing. Nor is there any comfort in the Manchester Guardian item I read while returning the other day from Moscow, informing readers that twenty-four leading trade unionists, parliamentarians and academicians, as well as Nobel laureate in literature Harold Pinter, have applauded the closing down of an opposition Venezuelan television station by Hugo Chavez, that country’s emerging petty dictator.

The land that gave us Magna Carta and fundamental rights has become a cursed land. Maybe it was never much better. Maybe Shakespeare’s great paean to England in Richard the Second – “this scept’red isle… this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” – was no more than literary exuberance by our greatest writer. Whatever England once was, in the words from the same speech by John of Gaunt, it has “made a shameful conquest of itself.”

I don’t give a farthing about the exclusion of Israeli academics from conferences in the United Kingdom or the refusal of British academics to journey to the Holy Land and I cannot see why anyone else should care. These expensive exercises are with few exceptions no more than a way of giving tax-free vacations to persons who are in the right place. They add preciously little to scholarship. Still, the underlying premise of the boycott is the delegitimation of Israel. That is serious business, as is the question of how to respond.

Although anti-Israel boycott fever is with the exception of the post-1948 antics of the Arab League a new phenomenon, hostility to Israel is not a new development in western Europe. As is known, the turning point came in 1967 with Israel’s triumph. Many in Europe liked Israel when Jews were perceived as weak; they could not accept the notion of Jews or Israel being triumphant.

The familiar response on our side to anti-Israel advocacy has been insipid and ineffective. We rely overly much on fact sheets prepared for those who are Israel advocates for use in their communities, on campuses and wherever else the Jewish State is being targeted. There are talking points about Israel being a democracy and the Arab states being anything but, about Arab citizens being treated better in Israel than they are in Arab countries and about the danger of terrorism.

This tired and lame approach has two flaws and they tell the entire story. First, those who think ill of Israel are not interested in the facts, no more than we are interested in their recitations. Their minds are made up and they are not going to be convinced otherwise. Second, it is demeaning for us to couch our responses in language that amounts to the argument that we haven’t been beating our wives.

Admittedly, there is little we can do about the first limitation. We can show more toughness and self-respect, more determination to go beyond routine advocacy by fighting for what we believe in and what we know is right. We should tell the Brits without equivocation that they are hypocritical and infested with anti-Semitism. This is what the Anti-Defamation League has done in a set of hard-hitting ads in the International Herald Tribune, which is where I saw them, and perhaps elsewhere.

It is likely that the anti-Israel claque in England will up the ante. As in other countries, it is being fed by a constant stream of negative reporting, specifically by BBC whose hostility to Israel extends over many years and is relentless. It featured the other day a long retrospective on the Six Day War that was one-sided and bigoted. Given the steady diet offered by the media, it is remarkable that there remains a body of opinion in England that is favorable to Israel.

As Jews who care about Israel should be more assertive in their reaction to the boycott and whatever else Israel-haters conjure up, the Israel government must go beyond the formulaic and meek responses cranked out by its battery of public relations experts. Israel must be tougher and angrier.

I am not a super-nationalist, far from it. I do not believe in either the religious or political necessity to hold on to every scrap of land. Israel needs to negotiate and this means with its enemies. It should take risks for peace and a separate Palestinian state may serve Israel’s interests. I also believe in the security barrier and in the obligation to challenge those who challenge its right to exist. The boycott is such a challenge. It is not sufficient to abide by the niceties of diplomatic exchanges. If the boycott movement gains further traction, as I think is likely, Israel must think and act out of the box, in a sense exploiting the greater freedom a country has when it decides to defy diplomatic custom.

If Israel wants to get across the message that it has taken enough guff from the sanctimonious British, one way to go is for it to call home for an extended stay its ambassador to the Court of St. James.

Interestingly, we now know, as some have surmised, that England’s Middle East policy has been severely compromised by corrupt huge arms sales to Saudi Arabia and, I believe, other Middle East “allies.” And these are the people who preach morality!