Saturday, February 10, 2007

RJJ Newsletter - Yeshivas

In December 1961, Mr. Irving M. Bunim of blessed memory, my distinguished predecessor, sent a handwritten letter to Mr. Harry Golding advising him that "I am not a candidate for the presidency of RJJ. I have enjoyed the honor for 17 years and have served this great institution of learning to the best of my ability. There comes a time, however, when one is entitled to relax from the duties of office and the time is now."

The letter which detailed Mr. Bunim's reasons for not wanting to continue in his voluntary position was not his first such expression, nor would it be his last, as year after year he wanted to leave and yet he stayed on because he was pressured to do so and also because of his extraordinary commitment to Jewish communal service. He remained RJJ's president until 1973 and then I became his successor.

I am in my thirty-forth year as the yeshiva's president, twice the number of years when Mr. Bunim wrote to Harry Golding. The challenges I face are different - and in many ways easier - and yet I understand Mr. Bunim's frustrations, indeed at times the anger that he expressed. To be an active yeshiva president is a formula for constant pressure and stress. The tendency in day schools is for the president to serve briefly, usually for two or three years, a practice that often results in instability and weakens the institution. Nearly all yeshiva-world presidents are figureheads with little responsibility. We can count on the fingers of a mutilated hand the number of active yeshiva presidents who have served for an extended period.

Years ago, I wrote in this space that the fragility of yeshivas creates a heightened likelihood of conflict among the key constituencies, they being the faculty and staff, officers and directors, parents, contributors and communal leaders. Each grouping, if not each individual, has its own focus, its own approach to the issues that the school faces. With few exceptions, yeshivas are small institutions which means that they are bereft of the administrative layers that reduce the severity of conflict when it arises. At times, relationships in yeshivas are too close for anyone's good. As in a family, when conflict erupts in a yeshiva, it tends to be more emotional and more fraught with danger than in other settings.

Mr. Bunim faced daunting problems arising from the sharp decline in enrollment resulting from the decline of the Lower East Side as a place of significant Jewish settlement and, as importantly, the establishment of yeshivas in neighborhoods and communities that for years had provided RJJ with much of its student body. This meant, in turn, crushing financial difficulties and conflict over personnel matters as the yeshiva was forced to downsize.

The problems I have faced arise from RJJ being located in different communities that have no inherent affinity to each other and also from RJJ serving families of different Judaic background and outlook. This entails fundraising difficulties, especially since our alumni base which is critical for the support that we need constantly atrophies and is not being replaced by younger alumni or contributors from Staten Island and Edison. At the same time, there has been the good fortune that in these thirty-four years RJJ has been bereft of serious internal conflict. Our important achievements flow substantially from this good fortune.

Mr. Bunim and I were nurtured in klal activity by the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood who even after his passing remained a living inspiration. In the words of Amos Bunim's moving biography of his father, there was a fire in Irving Bunim's soul, a fire that certainly existed before he came into contact with Rav Aharon Kotler, but it was also enhanced by that special relationship. I, too, had a special relationship with the great Rosh Yeshiva. For more than three times chai years, I have been inspired by the example of a man whose mission was to build Torah on these once alien shores.

Rav Aharon Kotler did not limit his klal and chinuch activities to the major yeshiva he established in Lakewood. There was also Torah Schools for Israel, the network of elementary school yeshivas that he established in Israel, and Torah Umesorah in North America, as well as much else. Mr. Bunim also had an encompassing view of his communal responsibilities and so do I. If my duties at RJJ have not produced the level of frustration that Mr. Bunim experienced, other obligations have taken up the slack.

As I have written often in this space and elsewhere, I am troubled by the neglect, even abandonment, of the cardinal principle that basic Torah education is a primary communal responsibility. We seem satisfied with the alien notion that parents, most of them hard-working and struggling to make ends meet, must bear the burden. This has brought about the tuition crisis that we constantly hear about and which worsens each year, as it must, unless we reverse a wrongful attitude that by now is embedded in our communal psyche.

Worse yet, we have come close to abandoning the ideal that yeshivas and day schools are the primary and most effective instrumentalities for kiruv. That's what Torah Umesorah was once about. Support for outreach and immigrant schools has declined, as has their enrollment, which isn't just a statistical datum but a fact that is translated into children and families who could have a meaningful Jewish future being cut off from our heritage. It is shocking how few care.

It is also shocking how few care about the cut off of support from the New York Federation, an action that added to the hardship faced by our schools. There is the collateral damage resulting from the message that yeshivas and day schools are of small consequence in our planning for what is called Jewish continuity. It is frightening that the pernicious anti-yeshiva and day school attitude espoused by secular Jews is not being challenged.

In November, I participated in a two-day conference arranged by Israel and a leading American Jewish philanthropist. The purpose was to explore how best to ensure a better Jewish future at a time when North American Jewry is experiencing massive losses.

I was one of about forty participants from around the world. The agenda we received said that the focus would be on what is called Jewish peoplehood and also Jewish education. I had the misfortune of thinking that any discussion of Jewish education would pay serious attention to yeshivas and day schools. In fact, they did not make the first cut. When protests from several of us resulted in some attention being paid, there remained much opposition, encapsulated by the words of a prominent American Jew who boldly declared, "I don't give a damn about day schools." All was not lost because the group endorsed the proposal made by a billionaire from Europe that secular Jewish day schools be established.

I am at the point where I increasingly wonder whether the view I have of Torah education is shared by others especially at the leadership level. By this I mean whether it is shared by other Orthodox Jews. I understand, although I do not accept, where non-observant Jews are coming from, what and how they feel as they denigrate the role of our religious schools. What I cannot understand or accept is the attitude increasingly prevalent within the Orthodox community.

There is an extraordinary lack of fairness toward yeshivas. Of course, we send our children to them - what option do we have? - and yet what is heard far too often is criticism of our schools. There is no doubt that they have flaws and not only because nearly all of them are badly underfunded. Schools are labor intensive institutions. Inevitably, there are people who are not first-rate. There are teachers who burn out. There is always the prospect that during the course of the long school day something untoward will be said or happen. It doesn't take a magnifying glass to locate the warts. There is much to criticize and too few of us are willing to forgo the opportunity. Instead of recognizing what yeshiva education has done to transform and strengthen American Jewish life, there is a tendency to see the flaws.

There is also an expanding tendency in Orthodox tzedakah to prefer causes that claim to send children to Jewish schools and to pay for part of the education over the institutions that provide the education. We are eager to forget that like all formal education, Torah education occurs in classrooms located in yeshivas and day schools and not in fanciful claims made in newspaper ads. Large sums are being provided to send public school children to our religious schools, with only a small portion of the fundraising income actually going to this purpose. This disgraceful situation has particular relevance to Staten Island.

That is why in my thirty-fourth year I feel as Irving M. Bunim of blessed memory felt in his seventeenth.