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.