Friday, April 27, 2007

The New Orthodox Affluence

Although the Orthodox remain the most economically disadvantaged segment of American Jewry, largely because of the many who are in Jewish education or other communal positions as well as the many who have decent jobs that do not sufficiently meet their family and religious needs, there are expanding pockets of affluence, including individuals and families that rank among the superrich. For the Orthodox of a more modern orientation this may not be surprising because their career trajectory is not necessarily unlike that of other Jews or, for that matter, other Americans. That there are fervently Orthodox who have amassed great wealth is a bit surprising.

This development echoes in a fascinating way what occurred in the early decades of the last century when Jews who were a generation or perhaps two removed from the poverty that enveloped East European Jewish life went into business on these shores and prospered through a combination of ambition, hard work and creativity. Economic hardship and discrimination frequently blocked educational and professional opportunities. What was left was the opportunity of entrepreneurship and it was eagerly embraced. These days, among the fervently Orthodox, the downgrading of secular education, notably at the college and university level, closes off a great number of nominal career paths, leaving the more ambitious – and perhaps those who are in the right place at the right time – with business as the best bet.

A similar dynamic has been at work for years among chassidim, particularly within those groups for whom yeshiva study after marriage is generally for a limited duration, so that there is the familiar pattern of young men going into business when they are still in their early twenties. Many have succeeded in an impressive way. For all of the convenient talk of chassidic poverty, and it exists, I reckon that the chassidic sector of Orthodoxy is in better financial shape than the yeshiva world. Because identification with the Rebbe brings status and stature, affluent chassidim tend to be charitable and they concentrate their charity on the groups’ institutions and activities, primarily those that are educational. Relatively little flows outward.

Yeshiva-world affluence is a more recent phenomenon. There is now a cadre of superrich individuals in this sector, including billionaires. This new wealth is primarily derived from success in real estate, which is how some of the great American Jewish fortunes were made in an earlier period. The indicators of this new wealth are in transactions such as the still-pending effort to purchase Starrett City in Brooklyn, a deal by a firm located in Lakewood, New Jersey, to buy from Blackstone a hotel chain for eight-billion dollars and much else.

The Orthodox give more of their income to charity than other Jews. Still, with the exception of chassidim, it is questionable whether they sufficiently meet their religious obligation. My strong hunch is that they do not, especially with the upsurge in wealth. They are, however, bombarded by a multitude of institutions and causes beseeching support. Unlike chassidim, there is little coordination.

When the issue of charitable giving within the yeshiva world is viewed from the perspective of yeshivas and day schools, what emerges is a less than satisfying picture. These vital institutions are the responsibility of the yeshiva world which launched the day school movement more than two generations ago when Orthodoxy was considerably weaker and certainly less affluent than now. The yeshiva world also took responsibility for day schools with an outreach orientation and those that served immigrant populations.

Over the past decade or more, there has been a steady dwindling of charitable support as a percentage of the typical yeshiva or day school budget. As a consequence, parents, most of whom are struggling, are being required to carry an increasing share of the budget. There is, in short, no indication that the new Orthodox wealth affects religious Jewish education at the elementary and high school levels. In the New York area where there is a large concentration of yeshivas, facilities are often in woeful condition, as I can attest from my school visits. There are students who cannot find a school to accept them, while enrollment in immigrant and outreach schools has gone down. Despite increases in the cost of living and tuition increases, salaries at yeshiva-world schools have, in the main, stagnated.

This reality is not being addressed by yeshiva-world leaders, rabbinical or lay, unless expressions of pain over the tuition crisis is an acceptable surrogate for action. The large number of causes associated with the yeshiva world do not justify this inaction. Interestingly, in this sector and throughout Orthodox life, there is now a tendency to emulate the secular example to give priority to chesed causes over the educational. When yeshivas are funded, likely they are either special situations and not the run of the mill of religious schools or Israeli institutions. The latter are favored and not only because Israel is always a deserving tzedakah beneficiary. Rather, there is a mindset that seeks ego gratification through association with the outstanding rabbinical figures in Israel who are regarded as more eminent than their American counterparts.

There are exceptions to this pattern, as I well know, but not many. As Orthodox affluence increases, there is at once an opportunity and a responsibility relating to yeshivas and day schools whose fulfillment requires leadership and collective activity of the sort that has been lacking. Is it too much to expect that a religious community with members who can make billion-dollar business deals should have the spiritual and financial resources to address the tuition crisis and the hardships faced by the educational institutions that are its most glorious achievements?

This requires rabbinic and lay leadership and here the Orthodox seem to be impoverished.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Double Standard

My exposure to Don Imus is limited to snippets of several programs, always as a captive audience as when I was in a taxi and the driver was tuned in. These experiences did not leave me wanting more, although now that the feeding frenzy off his apparently shattered career and reputation has subsided because there’s little left to feed off, several notables have declared that they appeared on his program and that it had redeeming value.

Broadcasting is infested by a huge excess of what is offensive and silly and shock jocks are but one zone of this infestation. The sewage reaps enormous profits for the media companies that air the stuff and it is beneficial, as well, to corporate sponsors. Imus’ comment about the Rutgers women’s basketball team was crude, sexist, racist and inexcusable. It was no more crude or bigoted than certain of his other exercises in ethnic disparagement. Of course, his equal opportunity offensiveness does not get him off the hook.

There seems to be an unwritten rule that distinguishes between inappropriate racial comments and inappropriate comments directed at religious and ethnic groups. The latter may evoke an occasional slap on the wrist; more often, there is a free pass. When Blacks are disparaged, it is off to the guillotine, the sentence invariably preceded by acts and words of penance, including contrition before the low ethical altar of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, both of whom are experts on bigoted expressions.

Senator Trent Lott was inordinately punished for foolish remarks about Senator Strom Thurmond. Michael Richards of Seinfeld fame got into deep trouble for his racist nightclub rant, assorted sports figures and announcers have been severely punished for allegedly racist statements and these and much else point to a double standard. Imus was not removed or even censored for his frequent disparagement of the Catholic Church, nor for the following anti-Semitic tidbit, in which referring to a previous program, he remembered “how the Jewish management at whatever, whoever we work for, CBS, or whatever it is, were bitching at me…. I tried to put it in terms that these money-grubbing bastards could understand.”

This strikes me as at least as offensive as the Rutgers crudity. Nor have people been much exercised over strongly anti-Semitic material in the Rutgers student newspaper. Why are defenders against ethnic disparagement less exercised when Pat Buchanan goes to town against Jews or any other group on his long hate list? Why is there so little concern about the spreading xenophobia expressed nearly daily by Lou Dobbs on CNN? What about Ann Coulter, the darling of right-wing loonies? The primary test of the consequences of ethnic disparagement should be whether it is a) calculated and b) likely to provoke prejudice and incite toward group hatred. By this measure, Imus should not be banned and Buchanan should.

The explanation for the double standard may be that our intolerance of racial offensiveness is a way of atoning for our long tolerance of racism and worse crimes against Blacks, as well as an attempt to combat the significant strands of racism that remain. It is also true that disparagement of Blacks, even when it is minor, is likely to be magnified because Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are always ready to be exploitative and the media are always ready to accommodate them. They are the turn-to guys for verbal emissions trumpeting the charge that once more Blacks are victims. That is one reason why the Duke lacrosse fiction spun out of control.

For all of his failings, I feel sorry for Jesse Jackson because he has become a cartoonish caricature of what he once was, a pathetic figure who trots out to do his tired act. Sharpton is far more effective and far more dangerous. It is easier to count the ways that Robert Browning loved Elizabeth than it is to count the ways that Sharpton has traduced ethics and decency. Yet, he is perhaps the leading spokesman for Black America, a deficit for Blacks that transcends in its malevolent consequences by a great margin the damage resulting from the Imuses of America.

If there is a need to combat media-based racism, a good starting point are the sitcoms and movies that portray Blacks in a negative manner. Then there are the foul-mouthed comedians. Most critically, there is hip-hop and rap music that promote guns and violence, specifically including against women, and just about every major social pathology that afflicts American life. It isn’t slavery alone and its continuing legacy in the form of racism that results in the ongoing destruction of Black families, that is responsible for so much violence of Blacks against Blacks, that robs Black children of equal educational opportunity and robs them, as well, of the hopes and dreams and light that education may bring.

There is nothing more racist today in American life than the trash that the media companies and Black performers market to Black audiences. As Bob Herbert just put it in the Times, “gansta rappers…have spent years encouraging black people to see themselves as (the “N” word) and women as whores.” What is the message being sent to Black youth by Black performers dressed as slobs who make vulgar gestures as they mouth guttural sounds?

So far as I know, Al and Jesse haven’t campaigned against the internal Black racism that impels Black youth to self-destruction. Bill Cosby has, but he has had little impact, I think because young Blacks don’t pay attention to him and therefore the media companies and corporations that target young Black audiences do not pay attention either.

This form of racism directed specifically at Blacks is not benign. Its impact is evident in the statistics of Black life. There is therefore a second double standard when we ignore how Blacks are being harmed by Black self-disparagement.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Show Us The Money

Newspaper reports of the turmoil at the World Jewish Congress that credit WJC leaders with negotiating twenty-billion dollars in restitution payments – an astounding sum – and an unrelated phone conversation with a man who has had a long and distinguished career of voluntary communal activity, including in the restitution field, have got me thinking about how little has been disclosed and how little most of us who are attuned to Jewish public affairs know about a subject that has been critical in Jewish life for at least half a century.

It isn’t surprising that the linkage of post-Holocaust activity and money have not brought forth an excess of moral or elevated behavior. The opportunity for enrichment ordinarily does not induce restraint or propriety. The attachment of the prospect for financial gain to the Holocaust has not resulted in Tikkun Ha-Olam. What has been improved is the financial status of some individuals and well-positioned organizations and causes. Profiteering began shortly after the death camps ceased performing their evil and it hasn’t stopped, although the opportunity to profit is no longer the province of black marketers. It has become the handiwork of persons with nice professional and organizational titles.

The latest exhibit is the piggishness of Burt Neuborne, a respected law professor at NYU, who has submitted a bill for millions for his work in the Swiss Bank case. While he is rightly being pilloried, he has not been alone at this ample feeing trough. I suspect that his uncharacteristic avarice was triggered by what others – lawyers, accountants, experts and especially a notable who has served as a special master – have extracted from a fund that was supposed to benefit those whose accounts were looted. Relatively little has been dispensed in that direction, while there have been missteps all along the way, to an extent because of the rulings of the well-meaning but naïve federal judge handling the litigation.

The results may be worse in the litigation involving the Italian insurance giant which after years of stonewalling hired a phalanx of lawyers to deceive and to wear down the claimants. It has come away virtually unscathed, despite its sinful behavior. Here, too, judicial naiveté has contributed to an unsatisfactory outcome.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of the Swiss funds remain to be distributed, which should not be surprising as two generations after the Holocaust there are too few claimants to press and prove their claims. The preference has been to direct unclaimed funds to those who are said to be poor. As a consequence, Jews and thousands of non-Jews (by any standard) in the Former Soviet Union have been the primary beneficiaries. If poverty is to be the criterion for the allocation of these funds, Israel’s poor should have priority because there is greater Jewish poverty there than there is in the FSU and certainly than there is in this country.

It is always a safe bet to advocate for the Jewish poor. However, utilizing restitution funds for this purpose is wrong and not because there aren’t poor Jews, although for sure FSU and U.S. Jewish poverty claims have been exaggerated. After those whose property or bank accounts were looted have been paid, priority in the allocation of all Holocaust- related funds should go to Israel and to the nurturing of religious life.

The Nazis did not seek to exterminate European Jews because they were poor or not poor or because of this or that organization. They sought to eradicate Jews, to destroy a religion, a nation and people. Whatever may be said about the appropriateness of seeking restitution for crimes whose barbarity and cruelty transcended what may be classified as evil, any funds that are allocated toward the Jewish people must be utilized to promote our sense of nationhood and peoplehood and to strengthen our religious life. Israel clearly meets this test. It is noteworthy that the first restitution funds were payments made to Israel by West Germany. Even now, Israel is a powerful claimant, certainly more powerful than any organization with restitution in its title. The religious communities and institutions that are the successors to what the Nazis destroyed are far more powerful claimants than any organization.

Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people live, because of Israel and because of our religious life, not because of any restitution bureaucracy. Perhaps it was impossible to avoid the establishment of a cohort of organizations. If so, this inevitability resulted in a second inevitability, described a century ago by Robert Michels as the iron law of oligarchy, referring to the tendency of organizations to become ends in themselves, with their mission being relegated to a secondary status.

I imagine that, in the aggregate, those in the restitution business have attempted to act honorably. There have been mistakes, some significant, and there has been too much feeding of the pets of those who are inside. Too little has been disclosed. There is an absence of transparency, a situation that is unpardonable for organizations that are nothing other than trustees for the Jewish people. Restitution funds are not private philanthropy. They are the property of the Jewish people.

If the twenty-billion dollar claim is accurate, restitution funds exceed what the UJA has raised in this country since the establishment of Israel. I suspect that the figure is greatly exaggerated by those who are prone to pat themselves on the back. In the event, the amount is huge and the failure to disclose is an egregious wrong. The Jewish people have a right to know how much has been taken in, how much has been spent and who have been the recipients. Strangely, our media, including this newspaper, have been bereft of curiosity. We know about in-fighting at the WJC, but nearly nothing about what has happened with the restitution funds.

It is time for a full public accounting.