Tuesday, May 29, 2007

RJJ Newsletter - May 2007

Last year, I conducted an advocacy campaign on behalf of yeshivas and day schools. One of the messages was a full-page ad in the Jewish Press asking parents who had the means to do so to join together and provide Pesach bonuses to those who teach Torah to their children. That effort largely fell on deaf ears, perhaps because a good number of those who had the resources to provide help were busy preparing for their expensive trip to one or another hotel for the holiday. I can more readily understand why people go to hotels for Pesach than I can understand why it occurs to so few that underpaid teachers merit special assistance. Pesach bonuses are a rarity in yeshivas and day schools and that’s a shame, especially in view of the spreading affluence in our ranks.

What is at work, in a way, is an extension of the attitude that I constantly challenge in these bi-monthly exercises and in other writings. We have come to regard the schools that provide basic Torah education as a low tzedakah priority. If few of us are willing to help the schools, why should we expect that those who teach in them will be helped? In short, neglect breeds additional neglect.

Although it is unintended, we are enmeshed in a certain callousness. It is not that a conscious decision is made not to help the faculty. Rather, the issue is not considered. It is off the radar screen of Orthodox life. Pesach trips are on the radar screen, as are foolish trips by the tens of thousands to European destinations and other items on our expanding list of expensive self-indulgence. We do not realize the extent to which hedonism has become our false religion.

We must begin to open our hearts and pockets by assisting those who teach Torah. It is remarkable that the new Orthodox affluence coincides with the worsening of the economic position of many yeshiva and day school faculty members. Yeshiva salaries have always been low and they have stagnated in recent years, this at a time when tuition has risen significantly and scholarship assistance has declined. Salary stagnation is incongruous, yet it is the inevitable result of contributions being a declining share of the typical yeshiva budget. In the recent period, there has been a substantial escalation in the costs of insurance, energy, security and other fixed expenses. There is little in the till to pay for salary increases.

In my early years as the yeshiva’s president, a rebbe retired and the question arose about his severance pay, which at the time was set at $15,000. One board member objected to this payment. I said to him, “have you ever made an investment and after a number of years your broker called saying that he can sell at a $15,000 profit and you responded that $15,000 is chickenfeed?” The fellow retracted his opposition. Perhaps some of today’s yeshiva-world affluent would reflect on the situation of women teachers who earn $20,000 – and often less – and have family responsibilities. Perhaps they would think more about rebbes, many of whom earn below $40,000.

I am proud of what we at RJJ have done twice a year to give a little extra to our religious studies faculty. In other ways, as well, we have been caring to those who serve the yeshiva with devotion. I calculate that apart from bonuses, we have spent well over one-million dollars on severance pay and unfunded pension payments to retired faculty. In turn, we have been repaid in kind by the appreciation that these people have shown to us.

For all that we have done, we do not do enough. After the last Newsletter appeared, I was asked why we do not include those who teach secular studies. A good part of the answer is that we do not have the funds to cover the entire faculty. At least for some who teach these subjects, the answer is not good enough. Hopefully, the next time we ask parents and friends to join in what we are doing, the response will be greater and this will allow us to expand this vital project.

* * *

Manny Reich was the youngest and perhaps the brightest in a group of outstanding RJJ alumni who were known as “Mr. Dukas’ Boys,” a reference to our second president who was an eminent lay leader of American Jewry in the early decades of the last century. These boys attended RJJ on Henry Street about ninety years ago and after graduation they went to a short-lived dormitory yeshiva high school that was established by Mr. Dukas at Congregation Zichron Ephraim, now known as the Park East Synagogue, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Mr. Dukas was also president of this shul.

This experience forged in these boys a loyalty to RJJ that has not been matched by any other group of alumni. I remember the winter day about twenty years ago when about ten of these now elderly men trudged to the Edison Mesivta to dedicate a plaque in memory of their beloved Mr. Dukas.

After graduation, Manny went to college and then to law school. He worked for a time for the Gottesman family, which brought him into close contact with Mendel Gottesman, another remarkable figure in American Jewish life, and this led to his involvement in Yeshiva College. Manny played a key role in its early years.

At some point he went into business on his own and he was successful. Many of our board meetings took place at his office on Seventh Avenue, across from Penn Station. In every way possible he supported and encouraged what we were doing.

Ultimately, the business was closed. It became evident that there was much pain in Manny’s life. His final years were at Aishel Avraham, a nursing home/assisted living facility in Williamsburg that is operated by a chassidic group. He liked it there but he became blind. I believe that in the last several years of his life I was the only non-family member to visit him regularly, along with my friend Didi Levitan.

By then, a granddaughter whom he was close to had married and was living in Tucson, Arizona. Ten years ago, she gave birth to a son and although she was not observant, she and Manny wanted a bris and asked for my help in arranging one. I contacted the local Chabad rabbi who was enormously helpful. Subsequently, I lost contact with the granddaughter, as she moved from Tucson. She called before Pesach, asking if I remembered her, and said that she now had a second son and was living in Las Vegas. With evident joy she told me that both boys were enrolled in a chabad day school and that she was also teaching a bit at the school. My joy equaled hers because of what Manny meant to RJJ. Manny’s spirit is now linked to the living, in fulfillment of what we say when a righteous Jew departs from this world, החיים בצרור צרורה נפשו תהא.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Our Working Poor

We live in a world of statistics, a world that we cannot escape. There is a need or at least an impulse to simplify social phenomena and there is no better path to simplification than to reduce these phenomena to sets of numbers. What emerges is at times reliable, as with data on gender or age. Or, the numbers can be accurate and yet they can also distort because they oversimplify complex realities, as with statistics on political affiliation or ideological preferences. Nuances are lost in the shuffle.

Some statistics are unreliable because they are subjective and vulnerable to false claims. Thus it is with data on poverty, where especially with group-based claims, the temptation to exaggerate may be irresistible. Irrespective of how the economy is doing or what the government is doing to assist the poor or social advancement, there is a remarkable consistency to claims of widespread poverty.

There are poor people, plenty of them, and their needs need to be addressed, which doesn’t justify the numbers games being played by povertycrats or the naïve reliance on self-reported income or on the equally naïve blindness to the reality of a massive underground economy that involves many who purport to be poor. Since the advent of the Great Society forty years ago, there are powerful incentives for group-based claims of poverty. More than a generation ago, I noted the change in ethnic rhetoric from claims of “making it” in America to claims of failure. The latter are rewarded.

Not surprisingly, we Jews are not immune from the exaggeration bug. It is in tune with the touch of paranoia that has become part of our make-up. There are claims suggesting that we are about the poorest of America’s ethnic groups and the proof of this is that we have large numbers of elderly, Russians and charedim and as a consequence of their status, they must be poor. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, we have failed on these shores.

I have just read a report prepared by Masters students at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service at New York University. Entitled, “Career Services for Near Poor Haredi and Immigrants Jews in New York City,” this well-intentioned document highlights the vital issue of defects in the federal poverty standard. It also touches on the situation of the working Jewish poor, notably charedim. I believe that more of these working poor are in the yeshiva-world sector than in the chassidic sector. Unfortunately, the writing is extremely poor and the statistics are chock full of errors and misinterpretation.

A case in point is Borough Park, where I have lived for nearly all of my life. We read that “it is home to one of the largest Haredi communities outside of Israel,” which is accurate and, then, “it is estimated that Jewish population may be as high as 250,000.” This fantasy figure is about three times the true number and, indeed, we are told on the next page that there are in Borough Park “26,698 households with 75,264 people,” a rather sharp population drop in the space of a few lines. Then we are told that 38% of the population is foreign born, of which 47% came to the U.S. between 1990 and 2000. Both statistics are wrong. Worse, yet, is the astounding claim that “the median household income is $35,904” and that 72% of the households earn below $60,000 annually. Finally, 25% of the households are below the federal poverty line.

This is statistical nonsense. Even those who believe the world is flat have a better grip on reality. Similar defective statistics are offered for other neighborhoods with a significant Jewish population.

Exaggeration of poverty is not a victimless wrong. Because funding to assist the poor is limited, false claims reduce the prospect that those who are truly poor will be helped in a meaningful way and they nearly eliminate the prospect that the near poor and working poor will be assisted. The exaggeration of Jewish poverty deflects attention away from the growing number of Jewish working poor, a phenomenon that is causing severe emotional and financial distress in too many homes. There are many Orthodox families that cannot get by even when both parents are working.

Contrary to the view of several sociologists with ideological axes to grind, job-market involvement of charedim is certainly at least as high as it is for American adults generally. Unfortunately, too many of these jobs are low-paying, primarily those in religious education or other communal work. For families earning what might otherwise be regarded as decent salaries, the extraordinarily large family size and the high cost of Orthodox living, notably yeshiva tuition, take a heavy toll.

I am told by Willie Rapfogel, the executive head of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, that at the forty food pantries sponsored by his organization, there has been a significant increase in the number of working Orthodox families that come for assistance.

The conventional wisdom is that what is most needed is job training and counseling and the NYU report details much of what is available in the neighborhoods that it focuses on. The problem with this approach is that it obviously will not be the path taken by those in Jewish education. Also, the conventional jobs available after job training ordinarily do not yield sufficient income to pay the bills and yeshiva tuition. It would help if our community would tackle the pervasive job discrimination against Sabbath observers in certain better paying fields.

At the end of the day, the working religious Jewish poor will remain in a bind. Additional means of assistance to these families must be developed. One approach, perhaps best suited to the philanthropic sector, is tuition assistance to those who teach in our schools or serve our community or work hard in the private sector and cannot make ends meet. These are good people and they deserve more from us.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Health Commissar

Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, New York City’s Health Commissioner, is not tzu-frieden (Yiddish for “satisfied”) with performing the routine important responsibilities of his agency, such things as rats in restaurants, tens of thousands of children who get no or inadequate health care and a multitude of problems experienced by patients in hospitals. His ambition and ideology take him to more arcane pastures where political correctness yields media attention. For all of his obvious talent, he is as much an exhibitionist as he is the guardian of public health.

One recent crusade was aimed at verbal transgendering, a process that would allow persons to alter their gender not through surgery but by simply declaring that they are now of the other sex. When that strange idea was quickly quashed, the good doctor remained transfixed on the concept of “trans” and so he was off to the races battling against transfats in restaurants. It may be good to reduce or eliminate entirely reliance on this ingredient, although the intrepid health police who constantly bemoan a succession of real or imagined health crises might ponder the powerful implication of statistics showing an astounding increase in life expectancy. The rest of us may ponder whether Big Brotherism is good for our political health.

Dr. Frieden’s latest target is child care. The Health Department has drafted a ton of regulations that fill forty plus pages. The implementation of many of them would have a devastating impact on non-profit child care, particularly services sponsored by religious groups. I believe that this is the intention.

There are rules for everything, down to the most minute detail. At least twelve cover diaper changing. One regulation mandates that “children shall receive no more than six ounces of 100% juice per day.” Another says that cribs cannot be stacked. Signs must be posted about everything and all kinds of permits are required. Training galore is mandated and there are impossible rules relating to staffing and space. In Dr. Frieden’s child-care dystopia, bureaucracy runs amok.

The implementation cost for government and child care providers would be astronomical and it is a good bet that many facilities could not continue to operate. What is at issue is not whether such facilities must adhere to health and safety standards, nor is there any question that steps need to be taken to ensure that child predators are not employed and that staff is screened to determine whether any have a criminal record. The issue is the large number of unneeded requirements that would cause havoc to the child care system.

As an aside, one rule is dangerous. It requires that “parents shall have unrestricted access to their children at all times.” Putting aside whether this is wise or unreasonable, there is the serious issue arising from the expanding frequency of divorce and attendant child custody battles. In all educational settings, there is a daily real-life problem of guarding against intrusion by unauthorized parents who may seek to remove the child.

Whenever government seeks to institute or expand a regulatory scheme, there should be a three-prong test to assess its reasonableness. The first is a showing based on experience and data that what is being proposed is needed, that there is an existing deficiency that warrants correction. Secondly, there is an obligation to consider the cost, primarily financial but other costs as well, of implementing the scheme. A cost-benefit analysis might indicate that the expense of doing what is suggested outweighs any possible benefits. Thirdly, care must be taken to ensure that implementation does not result in collateral damage.

The draft regulations fail on all three counts. There are no data or research or experience providing a basis for many of the proposed regulations. Secondly, the cost would be in the stratosphere, far beyond the reach of nonprofit providers that get little or no public funding. Thirdly, what would emerge is a bureaucratic nightmare, with children and poorer families being the principal victims because many child care facilities would be forced to closed.

The draft proposals appear to target programs sponsored by religious groups. They rely substantially on staff that may not have the training and licenses that health bureaucrats favor. If there is a deficit, it is amply compensated for by an abundance of devotion. Religious groups have strongly protested, arguing in part that the proposals intrude on their right to operate in accordance with their religious precepts and also that they cannot comply with many of the rules. A meeting with Dr. Frieden resulted in a “Dear Colleagues” letter in which the Commissioner agreed that his agency “would not apply curriculum-related requirements, including teacher/staff qualifications, to religious schools.” While the agency will continue to monitor health and safety conditions, as it should, Dr. Frieden acknowledged that there are issues “that we need to discuss further.”

This is progress, but not even close to enough. Child care not sponsored by a religious group would be subject to requirements that many programs cannot fulfill. Even with the concessions made to religious groups, they would not be able to comply with dozens of regulations that dramatically increase their costs. I wonder whether the Health Department piled on in the initial draft in the expectation that if it had to pull back somewhat because of protests, what would remain is a vastly expanded regulatory scheme.

While primary responsibility for the imperialistic view of his office’s mandate rests with Dr. Frieden, Mayor Bloomberg cannot be absolved. For all of the good he has done and achieved in his tenure, there is a coldness and arrogance in his approach, a deafness toward those who are most directly affected by some of the actions that his administration takes.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Dumping on Olmert

My reluctance to join the dump Olmert bandwagon arises not from the mild contrarian streak occasionally on display in this space. Nor is it the product of admiration for Israel’s battered, bewitched and beleaguered Prime Minister. He was the wrong person in the right place when the job fell into his lap after Ariel Sharon was felled by a stroke. It was also a bad stroke for Israel and, likely, for Mr. Olmert’s unsalvageable reputation.

Wars are chock full of mistakes, such things as death by friendly fire, wrong or inadequate intelligence, strategic miscalculations and troup or armament shortages. Those who triumph rarely are subjected to searching public scrutiny of what went wrong, for victory mutes questions. The losing side – or the side that doesn’t win even if it doesn’t lose – isn’t spared. There are public inquiries and calls for heads to roll, as in fact they usually do.

Israel fared far better in the Second Lebanon War than most Israelis now acknowledge. Enormous damage was inflicted on Hezbollah. Its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said as much when he declared more than once that he would not have authorized the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers had he known how fiercely Israel would respond. But that isn’t good enough, especially since some of the miscalculations were serious and blatant. Israel was not prepared militarily, there was an over-reliance on air power, cluster bombs were misused and there was a complete failure to tend to the hundreds of thousands displaced in the county’s North.

For now, in the wake of the Winograd Commission interim report, the focus is on Ehud Olmert. While the document is not as severely critical of the Prime Minister as some news stories suggest, it is bad enough, with more coming down the road when the final report is released. Not all of the criticism is justified. Olmert relied on the assessment of IDF generals. Isn’t that what civilian leaders are suppose to do? The question carries little weight because Israel is deeply in the grip of an accusatory culture. Finger – pointing is a popular diversion. This sad reality has consequences that transcend Mr. Olmert’s political fate.

His four immediate predecessors as prime minister were under serious police investigation and while none was indicted, their ability to lead was compromised. The police have been pursuing Olmert as relentlessly as Kenneth Starr went after William Jefferson Clinton. That’s apart from the multiple investigations being conducted by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss who has usurped power in the false belief that the end justifies the means in his crusade against alleged wrongdoing.

When Mr. Olmert’s successor takes office, it’s a good bet that within a day or so the police will open a file and begin a new round of investigations. If Benjamin Netanyahu is Olmert’s successor, there will be an already opened and crammed file awaiting him. The investigations of prime ministers are accompanied by investigations of Israel’s presidents and an impressive assortment of high-ranking cabinet members. It’s a miracle that talented people engage in political activity and since miracles rarely happen, in fact, increasingly Israel’s best and brightest are unwilling to serve in government.

The accusatory mentality has been evident since the early days of the State. It has roots in the country’s party system and, I believe, in aspects of Jewish life that are not praiseworthy. This mentality has run amok in recent years, to an extent because it was not challenged. The low point – there is intense competition for this designation – came recently with the insane prosecution of Haim Ramon who had been Justice Minster for wrongful kissing, a high crime in the eyes of high police officer officials who were far less concerned by a murder committed by one of their own and by police ties to Israel’s Mafia. In Israel these days, ordinary politics can be a prosecutable offense that lands a minister and even a prime minister in prison.

It’s time for Israel to come to its senses and distinguish between wrongs that should be treated as crimes and misdeeds that should result in civil penalties. I have long advocated this change which is in line with the practice in nearly all democratic counties. Another needed reform is to allow ordinary democratic processes to determine who leads, who serves in the cabinet and so on. In its interim report, the Winograd Commission specifically noted that it would not make any recommendation for leadership changes. Although it is not likely, hopefully, Israel’s undemocratic Supreme Court will follow suit.

In a trip to Israel nearly forty years ago, I visited the old Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. The sight of a handful of scrawny animals that seemed to be on their last legs did not deter some visitors from exclaiming how wonderful the experience was. The lesson was that any thing with an Israel label attached to it must be praised and certainly not criticized. We have given Israel a free pass on nearly everything because it is the Jewish State and has been endangered from day one. Israel is now in its sixtieth year and its time to grow up, to change that which does not work.

The accusatory state has consequences in the lives of individuals and in the life of the nation. It is a dynamic force and that is why finger-pointing has become a national sport. When it is linked to unbridled police power, the result is corruption. When it is linked to unbridled judicial power, democracy is undermined.

Mr. Olmert should leave, not because of Lebanon and not because of the investigations. He was never up to the job and Israel has been hurt. He should be replaced, but heaven save his successor from the accusers, whether they be in police uniform or judicial robes.

Friday, May 04, 2007

A Familiar Issue

Wherever Jews have lived in significant numbers in the Diaspora, there have been questions about their relationship with those in power. Should they keep their distance and remain a people apart? Or should they seek to wield influence by being insiders, the goal being to safeguard or improve the lot of their co-religionists? This isn’t an easy issue, certainly not when the rulers are oppressive. Those are times when Jews have had to decide whether to be in opposition or to seek to ameliorate a bad situation or perhaps to stay on the sidelines and hope and pray for the best.

Too often in our history, these have been life and death questions, at least going back to the destruction of the Second Temple 2000 years ago and the dispersal of Jews throughout the Roman Empire. At time, the response to these questions made little difference in Christian Europe, as Jewish blood was shed irrespective of how we sought to relate to those who ruled.

We haven’t faced frightening choices in the American experience, but we haven’t fully escaped the issue. It echoes in the current debate over whether we should support President Bush’s Iraq policies, a stance favored by many Orthodox, or come out in opposition, as the Reform have done. Silence may be the preferable option.

Although we are few in number and persecution has been a frequent presence in the territory called Jewish, in many settings we have been close to the throne, perhaps because of the syndrome described more than a generation ago by C.P. Snow when he wrote that our tribe is blessed with an abundance of talent and brains. As we succeeded in commerce and intellectual spheres, inevitably some of our flock gravitated toward the higher echelons of power, at times because they were co-opted. It is also certain that ambition – on our part – has been a key factor in drawing Jews to places of political influence.

In regimes that did not operate along democratic lines, which is to say nearly every regime in the pre-modern period, our engagement with power has been risky business, if only because changes at the top resulted in attitude changes toward the Jewish population, as we learned in Egypt before the Exodus. We need not always have our bags packed, but there is a lesson to be learned from our history. Power or influence is inevitably dialectical. In Spain, the zenith of Jewish influence was quickly followed by expulsion and the Inquisition.

In the recent period, Russia is the most treacherous place for the Jewish engagement with government. The departure of more than one-million Jews was followed by the stabilization and then the strengthening of Jewish life, so that there are now more Jews returning than leaving. This remarkable turn-around is substantially the handiwork of Chabad (Lubavitch), by far the major force in Jewish life in the Former Soviet Union. Chabad is led effectively and with much spirituality by Rabbi Berel Lazar, the Chief Rabbi who has forged an extraordinary relationship with President Vladmir Putin. Their relationship has yielded enormous benefits and while Rabbi Lazar constantly has to navigate in difficult waters, there is an obligation to be grateful to President Putin, irrespective of what we may think of certain of his policies.

Last week the Forward featured a story describing intra-Chabad disagreement “over how to deal with Moscow.” The crux of the dispute is Russia’s effort to secure repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, enacted by Congress a generation ago, which restricted U.S.-Russian trade as a response to Russia’s restrictions on its Jewish population. The law is now of little practical consequence, although it is a thorn in Russia’s and Mr. Putin’s side. The Russian leader believes that he has done more than his share to respond to Jewish needs. Rabbi Lazar can testify that this is the case.

The sticking point is a cherished Chabad library seized by the Communists and now located in the Russian State Library. The Lubavitcher Rebbe earnestly sought its return. Rabbi Yehudah Krinsky, the leading figure in American Chabad, and other movement rabbis in this country believe that it would be a violation of the Rebbe’s wishes to consent to the repeal of Jackson-Vanik without the return of the library. They are lobbying Congress against repeal and there is a good prospect they may prevail given Congress’ tendency to yield to lobbying efforts. As a consequence, there is a measure of conflict between Rabbi Lazar and Krinsky, two good and eminent persons who have worked closely for many years.

The same Forward issue includes an editorial concerning Boris Yeltsin that touches on Jackson-Vanik. Chabad is identified as “a mystical movement,” a description that must be a mystery to the great many whose lives are touched by Chabad’s work. Worse yet, there is a nasty reference to the 1991 tragic accident when a Black child was killed by a car in which the Rebbe was riding and anti-Jewish rioting ensued. We read that “the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motorcade ran down a child in Brooklyn,” language that suggests the accident was deliberate.

My view is that Rabbi Lazar is right in working for Jackson-Vanik’s repeal and not only because the law is no longer needed. He deserves to be supported because he is on the spot and we should not substitute our judgment for his. There is zero downside in supporting what Mr. Putin is asking for because it is a certainty that maintaining Jackson-Vanik on the books will not get the library to Crown Heights. There is a better prospect that repeal will bring about this goal or some compromise arrangement. This should be a no-brainer for the folks at 770.

I admire the devotion of those who toil on behalf of Jews in the Former Soviet Union. They deserve our encouragement and we must not make their lives more difficult, not even in pursuit of the return of a cherished library.