Friday, December 26, 2008

They’re At It Again

They weren’t off our communal agenda for too long or particularly missed, yet it is good to have back the battling demographers who confidently announce how many Jews there are and whose statistics are sharply challenged by other equally confident demographers.

This renewal of interest is linked to 2010 being around the corner and that should be the time for another National Jewish Population Study, following up on previous NJPS research conducted every ten years or so. But NJPS 2000 (actually 2001) was off the charts in cost and beset by an excess of mistakes, including lost data. Besides, the reliance on conventional telephone calls that is the staple of population surveys has been greatly undermined by the escalating use of cell phones, as well as other social changes that make it harder to track respondents and collect reliable data.

To fill the void, Len Saxe and colleagues at Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Research Institute have been gearing up for a different kind of population study referred to as a meta-analysis. For all of the fancy footwork and the certainty that the Brandeis team is top-notch, their approach is already being challenged. Gary Rosenblatt told the story in a terrific article several weeks ago.

Although the last NJPS is an object of derision, its estimate of the number of Jews may well be reliable. I believe that the project was the victim of its own hyper-earnestness, the determination to touch too many bases and to get everything exactly right. Its principal finding or estimate of 5.2 million core Jews, they being persons who identify as being Jewish according to defined sociological and not halachic criteria, appears to have been verified last year with the publication of research done by the Pew Charitable Trust on religious affiliation in the U.S.

To replace NJPS, the folks at Brandeis are promising a far less expensive project that they say will be more accurate. They also insist that NJPS undercounted American Jews and by a significant number. Their so-called meta-analysis relies primarily on local Jewish population surveys and other bits of research and information and not on their conducting interviews in the field. In a letter published last week in this newspaper, Len Saxe referred to this approach as “hybrid” and claimed that it would be “cutting-edge” and rely on “gold standard” research.

For all of this self-congratulatory language, I regard this revisionist approach as some kind of cholent and like all cholents the results are likely to be uneven. Apart from the not inconsequential fact that there are American Jews not covered by local demographic surveys, those that have been conducted are uneven in quality, vary in the questions that have been asked and all local surveys extrapolate data, meaning that the numbers that are provided are not actual but based on assumptions that may not be accurate.

In turn, the forthcoming Brandeis hybrid will add another layer of extrapolations, the aim being to support the claim that there are more core Jews than have been reported. Put otherwise, this team of researchers knows in advance how many Jews they expect to find. The justification for this approach is the notion, as reported by Rosenblatt, that “highly educated, wealthy, mobile Jews are far more difficult to reach at home in the early evening than older, less affluent Jews” and that this tended “to skew past surveys.” The convenient solution is to come up with a much higher Jewish population estimate.

I would argue that older, poorer, less educated and Orthodox Jews are less likely to respond to population surveys than highly educated and affluent Jews. The Brandeis revisionists know for sure that this isn’t the case, although I can’t figure out how they reached this conclusion, and they also know for sure that there are more than six million core Jews and that with fine-tuning the figure can be above seven million. As a by-product of this strange methodology, they are certain to conclude that the Orthodox proportion of American Jewry is actually below the already low figure that has been reported.

To accept such conclusions, it is necessary to disregard NJPS and other research and also to be in denial about the impact of intermarriage – NJPS was right about the 50%+ rate – and also the consequences of low Jewish fertility, the singles phenomenon and the inordinately high proportion of American Jews who are elderly. It is necessary, as well, to redesignate the status of one million or more persons who were born Jewish and who say that they no longer identify as Jews. All of this is a tall order. It is not scholarly cricket to employ sociological criteria when determining who is Jewish and then turn around and negate the sociological construct mandating that a person who does not self-identify as a Jew can yet be included in our population statistics.

Two decades ago, I suggested in a series of newspaper columns that American Jewry was evolving into a membership arrangement, with people free to join or leave, a theme that I have further developed over the years. The notion of membership fits in well with the approach taken by certain demographers. Because the forces that impel the legitimacy of a membership arrangement are dynamic, both in the experience of American Jews and in the conceptualization of demographers, it is inevitable that the membership concept that emerged in our mindset twenty years ago would undergo further evolution. What is being advanced by demographers and others who regard advanced assimilation and intermarriage as actually adding to our numbers can be referred to as an associational arrangement where any familial connection to Jews qualifies for inclusion in our statistics.

Soon enough, there will be claims that there are ten million or more of us, claims that even six degrees of separation qualify one as Jewish.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ehud Olmert and Rod Blagojevich

As I write, Governor Rod Blagojevich has been arrested but not yet indicted and although there is a loud chorus demanding that he resign or be ousted, he remains in office. As I write, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been accused of serious crimes by the Israel police but he has not been indicted. He has completed three months as head of the Israeli government since he tendered his resignation in mid-September, with three months or more to go until his successor takes office. Under Israeli law, Mr. Olmert stays on as Prime Minister. In Chelm, they had a more intelligent system of governance.

There are distinctions between the Blagojevich and Olmert situations. The Governor is a serial sleeze and a great fool, yet while he isn’t fit to be governor, it’s far from certain that key charges made by the publicity-hungry U.S. prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, will stick. Blagojevich’s wrongdoing bears a strong kinship to routine political transactions, such things as patronage and grants, although he may have crossed the line that separates the unethical from the criminal.

As for Mr. Olmert who is certainly shrewd and certainly entitled to his day in court, there is much evidence that ill-gotten pelf adhered to his fingers and that would be a big-time crime. Yet, he continues on, empowered to make life and death decisions for Israel.

What makes this more bizarre is that over the years, Israel’s usurpatious Supreme Court, aka the High Court of Justice, has interceded to block appointments to ministerial posts and even lower administrative positions on the dubious ground that the appointees are not ethically or otherwise qualified. By what ethical standard is Mr. Olmert fit to stay on?

The Israeli law regarding interim governments is seriously in need of reform, which puts it together with much else in Israeli law and society that begs for change. Six months is a long period for a caretaker government, especially since Israel is constantly beset by security and other major challenges. The arrangement is reckless. In this country, for nearly 150 years the Constitution provided that an outgoing president remains in office for four and a half months after the election. When the Great Depression hit, it was universally recognized that this was too long a period and the Twentieth Amendment was adopted, providing that the incoming president takes office on January 20 rather than on March 20. Even this shortened period is considered too long by many, especially this year in view of the economic crisis and urgent defense and diplomatic issues.

At the least, Mr. Olmert must be preoccupied with daunting personal legal issues and this preoccupation, as well as the possible impulse to better his prospects through daring action, may result in rash decisions. People do dangerous things when they are cornered and I doubt that prime ministers are exempt from this tendency.

This concern is not a fantasy arising from a dislike of Ehud Olmert. In an interview with Yediot Achronot given after his resignation, excerpts of which were published in the New York Review of Books (December 4), the Prime Minister deliberately undermined Israeli diplomacy through statements that went beyond what Israeli governments, including his own, had said publicly about Israeli peace negotiations and concessions.

Tellingly, the NYRB article is called “The Time Has Come to Say These Things.” Really, after you resign and when Israeli public opinion rates you lower than any sitting prime minister in the country’s history and as you are awaiting indictment? That’s the time to break new ground and to say things you did not dare to say previously?

In response to the question, “You must have done some soul-searching before your resignation?”, Mr. Olmert said, “I’d like to do some soul-searching on behalf of the nation of Israel.” Whether or not we agree with what he advocates, his caretaker status does not authorize him to offer public concessions. Negotiations with the Palestinians, Syrians, etc., must be left to the next government.

I believe that in his determination to salvage his reputation, Mr. Olmert has concluded that the peace gambit is his best option. This adds to the problematic nature of his lame-duck diplomacy. He says in the interview that Israel should “designate a final and exact borderline between us and the Palestinians so that the entire world, the United States, the UN, and Europe can say, ‘These are the borders of the State of Israel, we recognize them, and we will anchor them with formal resolutions in the main international bodies.’” What naïveté! How can he disregard what happened after withdrawal from Gaza? How can he disregard Hamas and Hezbolah? How can he believe that “formal resolutions in the major international bodies” will bring shalom al Yisrael?

Fortunately, he will be gone from the scene in three or four months. Let’s pray that Israel isn’t harmed in the interim. Let’s hope that the arrangement that allows him to stay on for so long will be altered. If our hopes and prayers do not do the job, likely we can count on the Palestinians to once more turn down a deal that should be too good to refuse.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Ultra Wrong, Ultra Offensive

After days of heavy promotion promising torrid revelations, Channel 2 aired a two-part investigative report that encompassed about ten minutes on sexual cheating among chassidim. The report was shown during a sweeps period that determines TV ratings, the obvious intention and hope being to attract additional viewers, presumably mostly from within the Jewish community. I imagine that Channel 2 succeeded in this goal; as journalism, the report was no better than an infantile flop. We now know that there is at least one former chassid from Williamsburg who has had extra-marital affairs and there apparently are others whose behavior isn’t kosher.

According to Richard Huff, TV critic for the Daily News who sharply criticized the report, the station “spent three months – a quarter of a year – uncovering this so-called scandal.” The significant investment of time and money resulted in our being told, in Huff’s words, that “there are some married Hasidic men and women who sneak away from their ultra-religious lives.” I do not know how religious they actually are. What I do know is once more we are the chosen people, with those who are identified as ultras being the primary choice.

The ultracizing of a large portion of the small number of Orthodox Jews is an interesting phenomenon. The term, by now a media staple in reports about religious Jews, has two intrinsic meanings, referring either to Jews who are very Orthodox or to those who are extreme in their religiosity. As the proper noun has evolved, it primarily conveys an image of extremism, even fanaticism. As sociology, the usage is bush league, though there are third tier sociologists of Judaism who cling to it for dear life. In its journalistic invocations, it is plain offensive.

There are, of course, Orthodox Jews of various shadings of religiosity, in much the same way as there is diversity among adherents of other religious persuasions. Sociology is a bundler, packaging people who are not quite alike into convenient categories that are given labels and which facilitate scholarly analysis. This is justified when the labels reflect reality. When they distort reality or are intended to promote a negative view of the group, whatever justification there may be for the label vanishes.

In any case, Orthodox Jews exist along a continuum of religiosity, with an abundance of nuances. Yeshiva-world families in Israel and here are routinely designated as ultra-Orthodox, although there are significant differences between the two groupings. As an example, modernity has had a far greater impact on American families so designated, as should be expected and as is evident in the approach to secular studies and higher education. Put otherwise, many American yeshiva-world families would not be designated as ultra-Orthodox in Israel. Orthodox Jews who are not labeled as ultras also display substantial divergence in attitudes and behavior.

The ultra appellation for Orthodox Jews may be contrasted with the scholarly and journalistic treatment of other religious groups, as well as ethnic groups. Although extremism in belief and practice is now a common experience among many such groups, only the Orthodox are ultracized. There are a large number of Catholics around the world who rigidly reject Vatican reforms and liturgical changes and they are not called ultras. Nor are Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestants or Mormons who insist on polygamy or Hindu sects that engage in violence or Sikh extremists or fanatical religious groups in Japan or an array of Chinese groups that display behavior that may be regarded as extremist. I have not mentioned Islam with its hundreds of millions of adherents because obviously by no stretch of the imagination can any of them be called ultras.

So, we Orthodox – or some of us – are alone. There is no brotherhood of ultras, only Jews who practice religion in a traditional way are herded into a single category that identifies them inaccurately and offensively.

Why the determination to adhere to an inaccurate and offensive term? To put the issue differently, Blacks – many of whom now insist on being called African-Americans – vehemently resisted being called Negroes and now that term is surely as gone with the wind as the Tara Plantation. Why should there not be comparative sensitivity to the sensibilities of religious Jews?

I do not delude myself into believing that a switch in terminology will rescue Jewish journalism from the inclination to depict Orthodox Jews unfavorably. As in all bigotry, nastiness has taken root and unless there is a strong determination to bring about change, no matter what terms are used, the product will not be much different. For years,
Haaretz had a staff reporter named Shachar Ilan whose principal beat was to beat up on the Orthodox. Without let-up, he fulfilled his assignment, to the apparent delight of the newspaper’s editor-in-chief. With a change in editorship last year, there has been some improvement.

There is a great need for improvement in Jewish journalism on these shores, but the prospect is not promising. When a Reform rabbi hired a killer to murder his wife, the story received far less attention than the space allocated to allegations of sexual abuse by an Orthodox teacher. This newspaper publishes articles by a writer whose primary assignment appears to be to expose alleged Orthodox sexual abuse, with story after story presenting allegations as proven facts. Under its new editor, the Forward has in recent weeks lurched further in the direction of intense hostility to the Orthodox.

The likelihood is that the bottom hasn’t been reached, that a small community that is the guarantor of Jewish survival will remain under constant attack. Yet, I offer the modest proposal to proscribe the use of ultra when writing about the Orthodox. It is a wrongful term and it is an offensive term.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Kiddush Hashem

A Jew who is killed because he or she is Jewish has died in sanctification of G-d’s name. Rivkah and Gavriel Holtzberg and those who were murdered with them at the Chabad House in Mumbai died Al Kiddush Hashem. The Holtzbergs sanctified G-d’s name in their lifetime, as well, through innumerable acts of chesed, of caring and kindness. They opened their home to Jews from many countries and divergent religious commitment. They taught by example what a Torah life encompasses. They served G-d and they served their fellow man.

Even in the newspaper photos, what leaps off the page are pictures of two wonderful young people who exuded chen, a difficult, even impossible, word to translate into English for it speaks of both inner and external qualities of goodness that are expressed through doing good deeds in an entirely natural way, as if there is no other possible way to treat another person. Their special qualities come across in the testimonials written in recent days by persons who benefitted from their kindness. One speaks of their “putting their own personal pain aside to build a home for others.” Another of “their wonderful optimism” and their “consideration of others and their selfless work.” A women who is not religious writes how they led “ by example in showing people like me how Judaism can be.”

This quality is apparent in many Chabad centers around the world, where especially in the recent period, young couples have come to serve as the movement’s emissaries, providing spiritual and other nourishment to local Jews, usually small in number, and a greater number who are passing through. Mumbai illustrates this vital aspect of Chabad-Lubavitch activity. Where else can we find chassidic and secular Jews in a common lodging and eating at the same table?

As commerce has become more global, especially encompassing much of Asia, and as travel to exotic places has become routine, Chabad facilities have grown in importance. Some serve vast numbers of Jews, whether they be young Israelis recently released from military service or Jews from every place of Jewish settlement traveling on business or for pleasure. Chabad centers at times provide meals and assist in other ways hundreds of Jews in the space of a single week.

The Mumbai tragedy will not deter young Chabad families eagerly seeking new or remote places where they can fulfill what they regard as their mission in life. Yet, with terrorism being a constant in today’s world and the prospect for the quieting of the fanaticism that has engulfed much of Islam being at most a remote possibility, we must be concerned about the security of Chabad emissaries, not only because of Mumbai copycats but even more because terrorists of all stripes target Jews only because they are Jewish. It is an urgent question as to how Chabad centers that serve as the main expression of Jewish life in far off places can be made more secure.

I imagine that requests are being made to governments to provide security and I imagine that some governments are responding positively. It is in the nature of things that protection is removed after a period of time when attention is no longer being paid. However, the war against Jews is an old and continuing story and our enemies take advantage of opportunities to harm us, this despite our total population being far less than a statistical error in the Indian census. We who are no more than two-tenth of one-percent of the world’s population are vilified, victimized and targeted.

The Kiddush Hashem that was the daily fare of the Holtzbergs and of many Chabad families in the field is heightened by the ongoing sacrifice of their being away from parents and close family members, at times in places where kosher food is scarcely available. There are trips home for simchas, conferences and special occasions and these breaks from the difficult routine that is their daily experience help them cope with the challenges and stresses that they face. They do not assuage the emotional difficulties arising from separation.

Increasingly, Chabad families are located in places where there are no religious schools for the children who must be taught at home by overburdened parents. When children become older, generally before they are Bat or Bar Mitzvah, they are sent to schools back home, primarily in Israel and North America. This may result in educational improvement, but it adds to the feeling of separation and the emotional hardship experienced by parents. In the Holtzberg’s situation, as we now know, there were additional reasons for emotional pain, none of which removed the smiles on their faces or diminished their chen or commitment to service.

In the current world economic crisis, doubtlessly most shluchim or emissaries are encountering unprecedented financial problems. Chabad services in the field do not have a dollar sign attached to them. There is, of course, fundraising and it can be intensive. In good economic times, it can be expected that Chabad kindness will be reciprocated by charitable contributions. Under present circumstance, the financial road has become much more difficult and, as with all other aspects of Jewish communal life, the likelihood is that the situation will get worse before we see any improvement.

Kiddush Hashem is never in vain, no matter how great the loss. Jews must never seek martyrdom, nor may we regard the sanctification of G-d’s name as trivial. The Holtzberg lived lives of kedusha. As we mourn their deaths and those who were killed with them, we know that they will live in the memory of the Jewish people, in our hearts and souls, as their goodness will inspire others to live sanctified lives.

Friday, November 21, 2008

How to Survive the Crisis

We know that the economic downturn is far more severe than the run-of-the-mill recessions that crop up every decade or so. What we do not know is what lies ahead, how bad it will get and how long it will last. Right now, despite a multitude of bailouts in which a billion dollars seems to be treated like petty cash, major financial institutions and corporations and hundreds of thousands of home owners are under water.

Jewish life is obviously affected. Many of us have seen our life savings sharply reduced. On most days, when the sun goes down we are worth less than we were when it rose. Our vast army of institutions and organizations depend on philanthropic support and this in turn depends on Wall Street and the health of the economy. There is already much communal pain, with more to come. Likely, when the final reckoning is in, our communal landscape will be altered.

The starting point for dealing with the crisis is to know that it’s there. This should be easy since the bad news is everywhere. It isn’t because of inertial forces and the tendency to hope that salvation will somehow come. I am all for emunah – for faith – but not at the expense of reality.

We are sorely in need of communal triage, the separation of the wheat from the chaffe by determining what is essential for the well-being of our people and what is not. We can start with a sharp reduction in our yen for conferences, conventions and other expensive activities that accomplish little in the best of times and should be discarded now that programs that are Jewishly meaningful will have to be cut. The travel and hotel industries will be impacted but that is not our concern and their fate will not be determined by what we do. We can also safely do away with the legion of experts and consultants, most of them well fed, who have responsibility for nothing except for reports that invariably are dead on arrival. Pork is treife, yet pork-barreling is a significant feature of our communal life and the extent of the waste is staggering. Our philanthropies and activities should be focused directly on those who need help, whether because they are poor or not Jewishly knowledgeable or because they cannot fend for themselves.

If some good comes out of this crisis it will be because of the turning away from attitudes and behaviors that while richly funded achieve very little.

My greatest concern is for our educational sector, notably the day schools that with some exceptions always struggle to get by. As hard as it may be to believe, the majority of U.S. day school children are educated in institutions where the annual expenditure per child for a dual curriculum is below $7,000. Teachers in these schools are all underpaid and they are often paid late. There isn’t much to cut from their budgets. They are now going to be hit harder than other communal activities because in addition to a reduction in contributions, parents who are out of work or have suffered sharp financial reversals will not be able to meet their tuition obligations. I fear that there will be an enrollment decline, especially in schools that educate children from marginally Jewishly-involved homes.

One place to cut is the lucrative and ever-expanding world of Jewish Education, Inc., that select universe of academics, consultants, trainers, etc., who are not responsible for the education of a single child, yet who feast on the limited resources available for day school education as they tell those who are in the schools and classrooms how to do a better job. There is something cynical about this exercise.

At a time when a growing number of day schools around the country cannot meet their payroll, it is morally incumbent that our charitable giving be directed directly to the places where children are taught. We have an excess of training programs that cost many millions of dollars a year. Let’s put the training train in mothballs, at least until the crisis abates.

The signs are not promising. It is disheartening that in several weeks Torah Umesorah - the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools - by far the most important organization in the field - is sponsoring a conference for lay leaders and executive directors at a luxurious resort in Palm Beach Gardens in Florida. It is claimed that the gathering will be useful in providing fundraising guidance. Forgive me for my skepticism. However, if such knowledge needs to be imparted, there is a far better and less expensive way to achieve this goal. Since more than two-thirds of Orthodox enrollment is in New York and New Jersey, there can be a one-day conference in New York. The event would draw a far larger audience than would be found at the resort, at a tiny fraction of the cost. School officials in other parts of North America can participate via video conferencing.

There is scant likelihood that this approach will be taken. Rather, I will be sharply criticized for stepping on the toes of an organization that should know better.

It is still early in the school year. I believe that every day school that teaches, in the main, children from immigrant families or has an outreach mission or whose student body comes mostly from poor homes is already in serious trouble. I fear for what lies ahead between now and June.

Unless the crisis is recognized, great damage will occur in this vital educational sector. Hopefully, after recognition there should come the understanding that there is no greater philanthropic or charitable obligation today than to support the institutions that do more than any other activity to ensure Jewish continuity.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Jewish Journalism and Sexual Abuse

The opening words of the lead editorial two weeks ago in this newspaper declared, “We do not believe that there is more incidence of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community than there is among other denominations or groupings of Jews.” Reassuring words, perhaps. Then comes the next sentence which states as fact and not just belief, “But among the Orthodox, such cases tend to be underreported to the authorities.”

It is difficult to write about sexual abuse. The topic evokes strong emotions. Those who are accused, whether by prosecutors or in the media, are presumed guilty. There is a strong prospect that my words will be misunderstood, even distorted.

This is what I believe: Sexual abuse is sinful and criminal and when children are the victims, the crime is heinous because of the scars that remain. Those who cover-up are guilty of a grave sin, even if they do so out of motives that they regard as just, because there is the likelihood that covering up will result in additional victims.

Those who are accused must be regarded as innocent until proven guilty, yet because of the risks involved and the high obligation to protect children, when credible charges are made, it is incumbent to remove the accused from the classroom or other settings that result in on-going contact with children. This holds true even if the accused is never formally charged. Furthermore, schools and other places where children are supervised by adults must instruct faculty and staff that all physical contact with children, except for medical purposes, is absolutely forbidden, whether the contact is intended to punish or encourage the child or for any other purpose. This unfortunately means that to avoid suspicion of untoward conduct, spontaneous acts of encouragement and appreciation would not be permitted.

The Orthodox are part of the real world and there are credible cases of sexual abuse of children, as well as times when the wrongdoing has been covered up. This must be acknowledged, as must the truth that there have been charges that have not held up. We must pay heed to the too many instances of trumped up accusations of sexual child abuse of children documented years ago by Dorothy Rabinowitz in her many Wall Street Journal articles. Dozens were falsely accused and many innocent people were convicted. Lives were ruined, families destroyed. There were suicides. These, too, were victims and their pain must not be shoved aside in the understandable determination to protect children.

There is the additional question of the reliability of memory, especially when charges are made years later. Scholars have debated the issue of repressed memory. In short, children must be protected, as must the innocent, and this requires a challenging balancing act.

I faced the issue of reliability in mid-September when, as often happens, a family seeking admission of their child to a Jewish high school contacted me. He had been rejected and although the odds of success were slim, I said that I would call the principal. I did and the results were as expected. When I relayed this to the parents, their immediate angry response was that they would now go to the authorities and charge that their son was sexually abused at a different school last year.

Accuracy is not the only factor in determining whether sexual abuse reportage adheres to journalistic standards. As I wrote years ago, even if every negative story about an ethnic group is accurate, the coverage may be biased. If a newspaper publishes an article each day about a violent crime committed by a Black person, the cumulative impact would be bigoted journalism because the message conveyed would be that this is representative of all Blacks. The same is true of stories regarding Orthodox abuse, particularly when each story dredges up what had previously been published.

If this newspaper believes that there isn’t a higher incidence of Orthodox abuse, how to explain why perhaps 98% of the space devoted to allegations of abuse of children concern the Orthodox? You can’t have it both ways. Perhaps more importantly, the newspaper cannot focus on alleged Orthodox abuse and then claim that the tendency among the Orthodox is to cover-up. To put the issue otherwise, if 1) the incidence of abuse is as great among the non-Orthodox and 2) there are few newspaper stories and cases involving the non-Orthodox, then 3), doesn’t this amount to a cover-up of abuse among the non-Orthodox?

My assessment is that there is a greater tendency these days to report abuse among the Orthodox because unlike most other American Jews and Americans they are not just faces in the huge crowd of American society. There are entry points in Orthodox life for those who feel that abuse has occurred. There are visible and vocal professionals and others who now constantly beat the drums on the subject.

These include Assemblyman Dov Hikind. In a letter published last week in this newspaper, he wrote, referring to the Orthodox, that “I firmly believe that there are likely thousands of people who are affected by sexual abuse in some form or another” and that “the total number of cases of rabbinic sexual abuse in our community is closer to ‘hundreds’ of individuals.”

A community leader told me that Hikind is guilty of “a blood libel.” If his statistics are accurate, given the tiny size of our community compared to the Catholic Church, the only possible conclusion is that our rabbis are out-abusing priests by a large margin. With all of the information that he claims to have, why aren’t there many more stories? Why aren’t there many more prosecutions? Has he gone to the authorities? If he hasn’t, he is being irresponsible.

The more important point is this: Sexual abuse is an awful crime. The subject requires vigilance and, at times, courage and not bogus numbers and biased journalism.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

RJJ Newsletter - November 2008

It is too early to assess the full severity of the economic downturn that has engulfed this country and much of the globe. It is not too early to know that whatever lies ahead, what has already happened is very bad news and there is a strong likelihood that additional bad news is in the offing. It also is not too early to recognize that our community has been greatly hurt by recent developments and this is inevitably and directly translated into enduring pain at institutions and activities that are crucial to the religious wellbeing of American Jews. Most urgently, yeshivas and day schools are in trouble. In the best of times, nearly all are underfunded and on financial thin ice. The ice has gotten dangerously thin in recent months.

What are our schools to do when contributions are down, when a growing number of parents say they cannot make tuition payments, when the institutions that have worked hard to build up endowments see that these funds have been significantly depleted?

The starting point – the beginning of wisdom – is to recognize that there is a crisis, that what happens on Wall Street and at other key economic sectors has a direct bearing on yeshivas and day schools. Having blinders on is never a formula for intelligent planning and action. These days, having blinders on is reckless and worse.

Yet, that is how too many in our community are reacting to what is occurring. This is generally their modus operandi, since invariably our schools live a penurious existence and also because these are people of faith who believe that somehow salvation will arrive. They should know that their enumah is not compromised when they are realistic, when they are alert to outside developments that impact on their responsibilities.

However we view the response of individual schools to the crisis, what is especially troubling is the absence of communal leadership. This is inexcusable and yet in line with the absence of yeshiva-world leadership over what is already an extended period. Why isn’t Torah Umesorah involved, advising yeshivas how to cope and perhaps taking action that might help struggling schools? Is it too much to expect that its Rabbinical Board which is comprised of prominent Roshei Yeshiva will at long last urge religious Jews to focus their tzedakah on basic Torah chinuch?

Perhaps I am being unfair. A month from now, Torah Umesorah will hold an “Inaugural Presidents Conference,” at a luxurious PGA resort in Palm Beach Gardens in Florida. The organization is urging day school leaders, particularly lay leaders, to participate in “a weekend to cultivate relationships, share ideas and realize visions” and doubtlessly to have good food and a good time. At the risk of raining on someone else’s parade, may I respectfully suggest that the hundreds of thousands of dollars that will be spent on an event that will not enhance the economic situation of our schools would be better spent if given directly to yeshivas and day schools?

With eight months left in the school year and a growing number of yeshivas and day schools indicating that they are in trouble, without communal leadership and action we are in for very bad news, notably in the chinuch sectors that educate children in immigrant families or have a kiruv mission or primarily serve families that are at risk Jewishly. I fear that there may be schools that will not make it through the school year.

For most of our yeshivas, the options for responding to the financial crisis are limited. With relatively few exceptions, they are underfunded and understaffed, with faculty and office help being badly underpaid. Still, it is possible and certainly necessary to institute economies, such things as energy saving, reduction in mailing costs and recognizing that successful fundraising is dependent on trust and direct contacts and not on a school sending a costly gift to thousands of names purchased from some outside source.

Yeshivas should especially consider how they can cut back on the costs associated with the annual dinner. The invitations can be more modest, the gifts given to the honorees and others who attend can be less costly and I believe that other savings can be instituted. In the aggregate, our schools spend a million dollars or more on the annual Torah Umesorah convention that takes place after Pesach. Since many of them are behind in payroll, I wonder whether there is a halachic justification for such an expenditure when underpaid teachers are not being paid on time.

As in nearly all fundraising, our schools rely on known contributors, people who have given in the past. In the current environment, some will give less and others will say that they cannot help at all this year. It is necessary to seek new contributors and while this is a difficult challenge, it is not a hopeless task, provided that lay people participate and both the professional staff and lay leaders are willing to work hard at fundraising. I repeat what I have already said: fundraising that depends on expensive initial outlays is not the way to go.

Even the most determined and well-planned efforts to raise funds are not likely to close the budgetary gap. The larger community needs to see its responsibilities. I know that the prospects are not great. Too many Orthodox Jews do not assist yeshivas and day schools that serve their community when the economy is strong. Are we to expect them to give when the downturn has furnished them with an excuse?

One of the insufficiently commented upon aspects of Orthodox life is that as the community expanded in size and wealth, its appetite for self-indulgence and hedonism expanded at a far faster rate. I know people for whom giving a modest contribution to a yeshiva is a difficult exercise and yet who can plunk down thousands of dollars for a luxury cruise or other extravagances.

Few of us come close to fulfilling our tzedakah obligations, a point that was made repeatedly by Rav Moshe Feinstein of blessed memory. Can we hope for improvement now?

Here, too, our Torah leaders have a responsibility that they have neglected. They are ready to sign all kinds of statements, yet for far more than a decade there has not been a single proclamation that there is a religious obligation to support basic Torah chinuch. Why can our Torah leaders not do what the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, Rav Aharon Kotler of blessed memory, constantly did during the twenty years of his elevated and fruitful activity on these shores? Although he was totally exhausted and burdened by other major communal responsibilities here and in Israel, he constantly advocated support for basic Torah chinuch.

In the larger framework of American Jewish philanthropy, there is an abundance of private foundations. In recent years, there has been a greater willineness to support in one way or another day school education. Unfortunately, this commitment has been undermined, at times nearly entirely, by a powerful tendency to neglect the education that is being provided in classrooms and to feed instead the large and growing army of experts, consultants, trainers, outside projects and much else that I have referred to as Education, Inc. In the aggregate, many tens of millions of dollars flow annually in this direction as we support trips, conferences, evaluations and a range of activities, including reports that are dead on arrival, that do not abet the schools that are educating our children in Jewish living. Is it too much to hope that at least until the crisis abates, this philanthropy will be directed more directly to the schools and the education provided in classrooms?

I am not optimistic. The other day the mail brought an announcement that the Jim Joseph Foundation, now one of American Jewry’s largest Jewish foundations, has made a $4.9 million grant to the Steinhardt School at New York University to help prepare researchers and practitioners for “leadership positions in a wide range of Jewish educational settings, from Jewish day schools and yeshivas to foundations, universities, and cultural organizations.”

What are the prospects that yeshivas and day schools will derive any meaningful benefit from this large grant? I think that they are nil. In fact, there is a cascade of other leadership training projects for yeshivas and day schools. Training is one of the darlings of American Jewish philanthropy. The sad thing is that the late Jim Joseph whose generosity established this foundation focused on direct aid to Jewish schools.

How Are We Doing?
We have just assessed the impact of the financial crisis on yeshivas and day schools. How are RJJ and our four schools affected? As for contributions directly to RJJ, in September and October our fundraising was down by about fifteen percent, which is below what other yeshivas and day schools have reported, but still considerable. Since most of the gifts were received before Rosh Hashanah, what happened on Wall Street and elsewhere in October had little impact on contributions.

The next significant fundraising period is December when end-of-the-year contributions are customarily made. Since investors have not fared well in 2008, we fear a steep decline during this period.

There are reasons for heightened concern in each of our schools, particularly since they led a frugal existence even in the good years. There are reasons for great concern about what lies ahead. It is critical for parents and persons in the communities served by our schools to recognize the consequences of the decline and to make a special effort to help.

The Elections
We had a mock presidential election at our Girls School. Unlike the one that took place this past Tuesday, the results have not been announced, but we think we can guess how our students voted. As for the main event, we have the following thought.

In a democracy, reasonable people reach different conclusions about candidates, parties and issues. That’s why we vote. When the votes are counted, the principle of majority rule must determine the outcome and whoever is the winner is imparted with legitimacy because the democratic process was adhered to.

Senator Barack Obama is now the president-elect, as he won the election fair and square, and he deserves our respect. During the campaign, it is clear that a large majority of Orthodox Jews supported Senator McCain. There have been reports that at certain yeshivas and day schools, faculty members have used classroom time to disparage Mr. Obama. While this is clearly inappropriate, the larger point is that now that the election has concluded, there is a difference between using the classroom for political discussion while the subject is relevant and using it at other times to express partisan views. My concern – and I refer not to our schools but more generally to yeshivas and day schools - is that nasty, even racist, language may now be used. It should be as clear as can be that such comments are entirely unacceptable in any setting and certainly in a setting that is devoted to Torah education.

Friday, November 07, 2008

America the Beautiful

Except, I think, for Blacks, race was not a good reason to vote for Senator Obama and it certainly was not a good reason to vote against him. Candidates should be judged by their character and the policies they advocate, not by the color of their skin.

Yet, it is right to celebrate on account of his race the Obama victory, to rejoice that this country has traveled so greatly away from the admittedly ineradicable stain and shame of slavery and racism which is its offspring. Although history cannot be changed, the consequences of what flowed from the past can be altered and in the election of Senator Obama we have a forceful repudiation of the sins of the past. America has overcome.

As I write these lines, I think of the day in June 1954 when as a Beth Medrash student at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on the Lower East Side I rejoiced along with other students when the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional. That was a transformative moment in the history of this country, a major step on the road that has now led to the election of a greatly gifted man who just happens to be Black. I rejoice because equality is a G-D-given gift, as well of course a constitutional requirement. I rejoice also because there is gladness in the heart and tears in the eyes of millions of Blacks who are witness to a reality that even not long ago seemed not to be blowing in the wind.

Racism and bigotry will remain facts of life, as will poverty and other social pathologies. People are morally frail and bad things happen. No election and no cluster of elections can alter human nature. But something noble has happened and whatever tomorrow brings, today is a time to marvel at the grandeur of this great country.

There is another reason to celebrate. Our politics have become nasty, with negative campaigning the preferred way to run for office. Senator McCain, a good man, unfortunately went down that road, redeeming himself somewhat with his gracious concession speech. Senator Obama chose a different script, taking the high road and elevating in the process our political discourse. In the process, as well, he seemed to grow in stature, which is remarkable after more than a year of exhausting campaigning. It seemed, at times, that he was transformed, that he came to the recognition that if elected, he would urgently want to be a unifier, a president who at least attempted to reach out to all Americans.

There is in him the prospect for greatness. He will be tested early and severely by multiple crises, economic and foreign. I sense in him a determination to be moderate, which may surprise those at either end of the political and ideological spectrum.

There will be times when Mr. Obama will disappoint some or many who voted for him and I suspect that, in a sense, he will disappoint himself by the choices that he makes. This is a large country with a crowded agenda of crucial issues and what seems to be an infinite number of interest groups. Like all presidents, he will be forced to go in directions that he prefers to avoid. In the pursuit of major goals, he may have to yield on matters of lesser importance.

For Jews, the Obama ascendency raised alarm bells regarding his attitude toward Israel. Although it appears that he did about as well among Jewish voters as recent Democratic presidential candidates, a number who voted for him did so with misgivings. Putting aside for this column the too frequent descent into bigotry and even lunacy that characterized certain anti-Obama Jewish pronouncements, such as the reprehensible ad last week in this newspaper that linked him to the Holocaust, there are legitimate reasons for concern.

Any new president is a question mark regarding Israel, for whatever he has said or voted for in the past is of little relevance to the challenges and pressures he will face in the White House. He will have information he did not have previously and diplomatic responsibilities that are new and difficult. Furthermore, in assessing Mr. Obama’s Middle East policy options, we should be mindful that for about a decade the shape of a peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians has been on the table and what has prevented it from being entered into is the absence of a Palestinian partner. We may not like this reality, but our objections to the terms of any peace agreement cannot change the record. Of note, as well, just the other day Prime Minister Olmert put forth a list of Israeli concessions that are far-reaching and perhaps frightening.

We should keep in mind also that although President Bush is certainly a strong friend of Israel, during the past year his administration has put great pressure on Israel to make new concessions and Condoleeza Rice is now in the Middle East doing lame-duck arm twisting.

Iran is the focal point of Jewish unease about Obama. He has stated flat out that he is willing and even eager to negotiate with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which is a direct reversal of President Bush’s policy and contrary to Israeli wishes. It is not entirely clear why Libya and North Korea, countries that have been rabidly anti-American and which invested heavily in developing nuclear military capabilities, were deemed as suitable candidates for negotiations while Iran was not. The question is sharpened because diplomacy apparently brought about beneficial outcomes in U.S. relations with these countries. Just the same, it is necessary to be vigilant regarding the next administration’s approach to Iran, which is not to say that we American Jews should advocate military action.

For the moment, and I hope for a long time to come, there are reasons to celebrate what occurred on Tuesday.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Bullying the Pulpit

I am a three-a-day shul-goer who has never heard a rabbi endorse a political candidate from the pulpit or seen a partisan statement posted in the facility. A synagogue is a place to promote Judaism, not politics. Like most rules, this one has an exception, it being when a candidate is overtly anti-Semitic or hostile to Israel. In such a situation, the powerful likelihood is that I and other attendees would not have to be prompted.

This brings me to the emerging, yet so far feeble, effort of a small number of conservative Christian clergy to challenge Internal Revenue Service rules mandating the loss of tax-exempt status by religious bodies if the pulpit is used for political endorsements. For all of the fire and brimstone of these passionate religious leaders, few have stepped forward, I imagine because most are fearful of the consequences. As often happens, money trumps conscience.

Predictably, the clerical announcement has drawn the ire of the New York Times and other fierce but selective proponents of free speech. In an angry editorial that also castigated Senator Obama for being receptive to faith-based initiatives, the Times viewed the challenge to the IRS as a threat to church-state separation. Echoing what is certainly the dominant “Jewish” sentiment, the Forward was even more forward in bemoaning the dangers that will befall the Republic. Relax ye faithful defenders of faithlessness. Our Constitution is not under siege.

I say onward Christian soldiers. As for our flock, in an earlier front-page article the Forward inadvertently gave credence to the challenge to the IRS rules by reporting on a conference call arranged by Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism between an IRS representative and about 150 Jewish leaders who are chomping at the bit to endorse Mr. Obama without endangering the precious tax-exempt status of their affiliations. To borrow from the rhetoric of those who criticize the Orthodox for excessive legalisms, the conference call was an inquiry into how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The focus was on how Jewish and other clergy, as well as other non-profits, can enter the political thicket and be partisan without putting at risk their tax exemptions. An example is the following asked of the IRS man: “Can a rabbi endorse on his personal blog?”

One question that didn’t have to be asked concerned the familiar tactic of endorsements in publications being accompanied by the relevant affiliation, with an asterisk in small type pointing to the disclaimer in even tinier type at the bottom of the page, “For identification purposes only.” According to the IRS, this is kosher, as are a fascinating array of cues, winks, hints, nuances, suggestions, etc. that are described in the agency’s tax guide for “Churches and Religious Organizations.”

Any legal arrangement that is chock full of holes and loopholes as is the tax code on this issue should be suspect. Because enforcement is determined nearly always by subjective factors, there should be added reasons for concern. Liberal, as well as conservative, clergy have been knee-deep in partisan activity for eons and certainly this was true of Reverend Martin Luther King and his church, as well as scores of Black churches and religious officials. Our society benefitted enormously from their advocacy. If a redneck sheriff is up for re-election, I would hope that Black clergy would be in the forefront of the campaign against him. The primary obligation must be to eschew selective enforcement based on ideological preferences.

The claim is made that tax-exempt status is a trade-off, with nonprofit groups being given a significant benefit in return for their foregoing partisan activity. This is a seductive argument, based, however, on a flawed appreciation of the centrality of the First Amendment in our democratic scheme. There is no trade-off because free speech is not the consequence of a bargaining process in which our government can tell the nonprofits, “We will give you this, if you give up that.” Free speech is constitutional bedrock and while in emergency and very limited circumstances it can be curtailed, it can never be forfeited. The separation clause in the First Amendment is not at war with the free speech clause.

Indeed, church-state separation may insulate the clergy and religious groups against governmental action that seeks to restrict what might be said from the pulpit or in another religious setting because free speech is fundamental and not a gift from the IRS or Congress. Tax exempt status cannot be employed as a bully pulpit to coerce silence.

The Supreme Court has not ruled on this issue, but lower courts have upheld the IRS rules and tax experts generally believe that should the Christian clergy be punished by the IRS and then appeal to the courts, the result will be the same. This is the view of Marc Stern, the respected general counsel of the American Jewish Congress. My bet is in the other direction, given how the Supreme Court when it was less conservative than it now is invalidated legislation restricting campaign contributions. The present composition of the High Court may tip the judicial scales in favor of the clergy. Perhaps the American Civil Liberties Union and other customary champions of free speech will join in the challenge.

To repeat: I do not believe that politics and religion are a good mix. When they are entwined, religion is reduced from what should be its spiritual heights to an enterprise that too often is not accompanied by good motives or good deeds. As a matter of constitutional right, however, the clergy are invested with the same freedoms that the rest of us have and that includes speech that we do not like.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Judicial Mischief

The Judaism-is-racism canard has been resurrected in a far less virulent form by judges in Cook County, Illinois, in a case involving a contested estate which demonstrates once more that at times the two most dishonest words in the English language are “Your Honor” when spoken in a courtroom before a black-robed figure sitting on a high bench. The case also demonstrates how religious issues constantly crop up in the public square, as well as how those who are hostile to religion contrive new arguments seeking to portray religious commitment as antithetical to democratic and humane values. In the process, bitter divisions in American life are exacerbated.

The case involves trusts established by Max Feinberg who died in 1986 and his wife who died in 2003. According to the opinion of an appellate Cook County court, they left “considerable assets” in their estate, a circumstance that doubtlessly has contributed significantly to the complex and nasty litigation involving their descendants. I imagine that when the legal skirmishes run their course, what will remain will be considerably less than it was originally because the squads of lawyers will make sure to feast well off the carcass of the estate.

Max Feinberg included in his trust a “Jewish clause” which stipulated that “a descendant of mine other than a child of mine who marries outside of the Jewish faith (unless the spouse of such a descendant has converted or converts within one year of the marriage to the Jewish faith), his or her descendants shall be deemed to be deceased for all purposes of this instrument as of the date of such marriage.”

The Feinbergs were survived by two children and five grandchildren. All but one of the latter had married a person who is not Jewish, a demographic distribution that I believe is far more common in American Jewish life than is generally recognized. For understandable reasons, certain of the grandchildren are contesting the Jewish clause. In fact, the case involves a host of other issues, including claims of misappropriation of millions of dollars and fraud. As a necessary preliminary question, the trial court ruled on the anti-intermarriage provision, the decision being that it is invalid. In an interlocutory appeal, the appellate court recently ruled 2-1 that “such a provision is not enforceable because it is contrary to public policy.”

The decision is startling because it runs squarely counter to the sensible notion that unless bequests or trusts clearly violate a societal norm, great latitude must be given to those whose money it was and who left instructions about how what they earned should be dispersed. The judicial landscape is unfortunately occupied by judges who are determined to make law and public policy fit their prejudiced notions of what is appropriate. The majority ruled that “the provision’s clear intent was to influence the marriage of Max’s grandchildren based on a religious criterion and thus to discourage marriage by the grandchildren other than to those of the Jewish faith.”

It is unclear why this is against public policy. What is clear is that the majority distorted the facts since the trust kicked in after Mrs. Feinberg’s death, by which time the grandchildren had all married and their future behavior was not affected by the Jewish clause. Furthermore, the decision is counter to what has been regarded as settled law since 1975 when the Ohio Supreme Court upheld a similar provision in a case referred to as Shapira.

Because the main opinion invalidated the clause on public policy grounds, it did not decide whether it was also invalid on constitutional grounds, they being the notion that a clause promoting religious in-marriage is akin to the notorious restrictive covenants and other by now invalidated legal arrangements that promote racism. This astonishing argument was made in a concurrent opinion that mocks the assertion by the dissenting judge that the Feinbergs strove “to preserve their 4,000-year-old heritage,” saying that this position “could just as well result in the courts being required to enforce the worst bigotry imaginable.”

We Jews have a great deal of close knowledge of “the worst bigotry imaginable.” It is bad enough that a judge cannot see the distinction between actions, legal or other, whose intent is overtly racist by being specifically directed against Blacks and actions whose sole intent is to promote Jewish continuity. To refer to this as the worst bigotry imaginable is an obscenity and it is made more obscene by its being asserted by a person who speaks in the name of the law.

Admittedly, similar assertions have been made by our enemies. The implications of this concurring opinion and even the majority opinion are enormous. We need only consider that within organized American Jewish life, which obviously encompasses in the main persons who are not Orthodox, there is a broad consensus that intermarriage should be discouraged. Is this bigotry? Indeed, what the Feinbergs attempted to do was rather benign when compared with pro in-marriage rhetoric and activities that abound in our communal life.

Because the Feinberg ruling is interlocutory, essentially meaning that it is an intermediate decision on a legal point that is vital to the continuing course of the litigation, I am not certain whether it can – or will – be appealed. It is likely that at least down the road the case will reach the Illinois Supreme Court. If the intermarriage issue is still relevant at that point, hopefully our organizations will bestir themselves and become involved. This isn’t likely, if only because the marital course taken by four of the five Feinberg grandchildren coincides with marital decisions being made in many American Jewish families.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Yad Vashem Issue

Museums need to prioritize, to decide what to display, which is also to say that they need to decide what is to be excluded. Resources, notably space and funds, are limited and this creates the imperative to be selective. The primary determinant is, of course, the nature or mission of the institution. A museum devoted to Islamic culture will not display Hopi Indian artifacts, at least not until a dissertation writer expounds on the impact of Islam on Hopi life. In the life of most museums, there are plenty of close calls regarding what to include.

For all of the sincere determination to be objective in the choices that are made, it is not possible to exclude entirely individual tastes and interests, both subjective factors, and perhaps also a dose or more of bias. The proof is in the many disputes regarding what museums exhibit, as well as the changes that are made when there are key personnel changes.

Yad Vashem is, in a strict sense, a museum, a description that inadequately describes its mission as our people’s primary evocation of horrors that while visually portrayable remain beyond comprehension. A second challenge is the vastness of the destruction of European Jewry, the numbers and places and key events and major personalities. Another difficulty arises from the sensibilities and passions that engulf the remembrance of the tragedy that befell our people.

In attempting to meet these challenges, Yad Vashem officials must constantly be mindful that the institution is not theirs. They must purposefully strive to banish whatever scholarly or aesthetic prejudices they may have as they perform their institutional responsibilities. This isn’t easy because the field of Holocaust history is rife with conflict and some of this is not pretty. What is urgently needed is a bias against bias.

It may be inappropriate to use adjectives when describing Yad Vashem’s achievements. One is unavoidable: impressive, a term that applies especially to sections of the museum that are less well visited, including the Valley of the Communities, the Children’s Memorial, the Hall of Remembrance where candles commemorate the camps where Jews were slaughtered, the Hall of Names where the names of each murdered Jew is inscribed, the memorials to Righteous Gentiles and an expanding array of research and documentation services assisting those who seek information about murdered family members. There is dignity in the way Yad Vashem operates.

The Holocaust History Museum, which is the main exhibition space, provides an extensive verbal and pictorial narrative of the Holocaust, from the events leading to Hitler’s rise to power to the establishment of Israel. This facility is new, having replaced in 2005 the previous History Museum that had been Yad Vashem’s mainstay. The new museum covers the same ground as its predecessor, but in a softer and yet more moving and effective way.

In the choices they have made, Yad Vashem officials have invariably struck the right note. A notable and unfortunate exception is the slighting of religious life and leaders, a point that has been made by Mrs. Esther Farbstein who has written extensively on the subject, notably in “Hidden in Thunder,” a significant work that has been published in English in a two-volume edition. A granddaughter of a previous Gerrer Rebbe and the wife of the Rosh Yeshiva of the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Mrs. Farbstein has urged Yad Vashem officials to correct this unfortunate neglect. In a recent email to me, she wrote that there has been progress, yet more needs to be done.

A far more publicized issue concerns Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson, whose militant group pressured both the American Jewish establishment and the Roosevelt administration to take stronger action to assist and rescue European Jew, as many thousands were being murdered daily. It has been estimated that these efforts resulted in as many as 200,000 Jews being saved, certainly a significant achievement.

This is a Holocaust chapter that should be included in Holocaust museums and especially Yad Vashem. Yet, this hasn’t happened, in large measure because it is convenient to treat Kook as an outcast. In a sense, what has happened is payback time by the establishment. Recently, however, the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington reversed course and it is including a Bergson exhibit. Fifty Holocaust scholars from around the world have urged Yad Vashem to follow suit. Unfortunately, Yad Vashem is adamant and this constitutes a betrayal of trust by those who need to understand that the place where they have titles and offices is not theirs but the emotional and historical property of the Jewish people and it is necessary for those who make decisions to be sensitive to the sensibilities of all Jews.

In a surprisingly tendentious Jerusalem Post article called “Why Kook is Out,” Dr. Yehuda Bauer, the noted Holocaust historian who is the director of Yad Vashem’s International Center for Holocaust Studies, defends the decision to exclude the Bergson group. Much of the article offers an extensive and I believe historically warped defense of Stephen Wise, a prime target of the Bergson group. Bauer argues that it is not the function of Yad Vashem to pay attention to Kook since he operated outside of Europe and “Yad Vashem can only cover what happened to the Jews in Europe – not the action or inaction of the Jews outside.” This is, to be gentle, a questionable assertion in view of what Yad Vashem already displays about Jewish activity outside of Europe.

It is not Yad Vashem’s role to debate the merits of Hillel Kook and those who worked with him or to enter into any of the other scholarly thickets and controversies that are the province of historians. The pity is that there is so much the institution does right. It should be big enough and sufficiently honorable to do the right thing regarding the Bergson group.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Right is Wrong

As the Brits might say, we’re supposed to be mum about the Mum-to-be. This from the family value folks who preach against sexual promiscuity and the failure of parents to take responsibility for the behavior of their children. I happen to share many of these family values. What I do not share is the blatant hypocrisy of the Sarah Palin claque, those who have quickly elevated the Alaska Governor to undeserved sainthood.

Bristol Palin’s pregnancy is, as we have been told, a private matter and she should not be the target of media probing. Her right to privacy is not diminished by her status as the daughter of a now very prominent national figure.

The problem is that her privacy has been violated by those who are marketing her mother as a paragon of good values. They employed the teenager as a centerpiece at the Republican Convention and then went further by flying in from Alaska the teenage father-to-be who appeared to be in a daze. We know little about him or the wedding plans, whether it will happen before election day or after or perhaps not at all. I imagine the decision will be made by those who decide which option will be best for the McCain-Palin ticket. Perhaps there will be a White House ceremony when the lad reaches the age of consent, presided over by James Dobson, the eminent head of Focus on the Family and the great advocate of sexual abstention.

There are reasons to support John McCain. He is a war hero who is not being swift-boated. He has a good record on Israel. He has often shown admirable independence and political courage, rising above the crude partisanship that degrades political discourse. Sarah Palin is not among the reasons and not only because she is not in the slightest prepared for the great responsibilities that soon may be hers.

There is another responsibility, parental responsibility. Parents cannot control or monitor what their teenagers do every moment of the day. Yet, in a legal and moral sense we insist – and rightfully so – that parents have responsibility for what their children who are minors are doing. We hear the constant refrain, “Do you know where your children are?” Was Sarah Palin completely unaware of Bristol’s relationship? We are told by those who are carefully crafting her image that she is a soccer mom and a hockey mom. We need to know what kind of real Mom she is, how concerned she was about her daughter’s behavior.

Our society is plagued by teenage pregnancy. The emotional, social and financial costs are enormous and the harm to parents and children is more often than not enduring. What message is being sent to teenagers by the adoration visited upon Sarah Palin by the vocal champions of sexual abstinence and restraint? Is it that if your mother is famous and an advocate of right-wing ideology it is okay to be promiscuous?

While conservatives and religious fundamentalists are holding their noses, as well as their tongues, on Election Day they will toe the ideological line. What makes Sarah Palin right to them is that she is right-wing. Ideology enslaves the mind by doing away with the difficult task of thinking, of reflecting and making choices based on what is right. Life is simpler when the mind is put into mothballs, when ideology dictates how we are to view a wide range of public issues.

The sin of ideology worship is not monopolized by the right wing. Last week I criticized the liberal antagonism toward religion, the tendency to constantly oppose involvement of religion in the public square, including the vital and irreplaceable role played by faith-based groups in providing critical social services. A significant number of American Jews are in this camp, the Orthodox being a notable exception. They have moved in the main far toward the right, a process that I first discussed in a 1967 article, “The New Style of American Orthodox Jewry” that was published in Jewish Life, then the magazine of the Orthodox Union. Their ideological conservatism encompasses opposition to gay marriage and abortion, as well as a wide range of family values and social issues.

Regrettably, too many Orthodox have bought whole hog into the right wing agenda, including on environmental issues, civil rights and civil liberties, the treatment of workers and governmental responsibility to the poor. Isn’t it possible to be strongly against gay marriage and strongly for increasing the minimum wage? I know of no Orthodox Jewish breadwinners who can get by on the current minimum wage.

Religious Jews do have something of an ideological guide, although it is much more than that. It is called the Torah and there is nothing in it that mandates opposition to gun control or to the protection of the environment or, for that matter, going gaga over Sarah Palin. Total fidelity to a political ideology is a form of idol worship, as I argue in a 1974 Jewish Press article in which I described the growing enthusiasm among religious Jews for political conservatism. I wrote:

“My principal objection to the new embrace of conservatism is that [Orthodox] Jews have adopted a new pseudo-religion to replace the one that they have recently rejected. The false gods of conservative politics have succeeded the false gods of liberalism and little has changed since too many of us remain political idol worshipers. We are in the process of elevating our gratification with conservative rhetoric and policies to the transcendent status of a religion. Once again, we are true believers, and once again the object of our belief is false. Idol worship is alien to Judaism and this includes political idols.”

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Our War Against Religion

In the days before the Democratic convention, Jewish notables issued, in the words of the headline in this newspaper’s lead article, “stern warnings” to party leaders. They weren’t concerned about Israel, despite questions that have been raised about Barack Obama’s views, nor about strengthening the safety net for tens of millions of Americans. Their target was faith-based initiatives, the social service programs sponsored by religious groups that assist the needy and receive public funding. In the pages of Forward, we were treated to the pseudo-wisdom of Abraham Foxman whose shallowness as a thinker is matched by the skimpiness of his achievements. The ADL boss groused that “religious institutions have been eligible to receive billions in government social service grants.”

Because these non-conscientious objectors are secularists and overwhelmingly Democratic in their political orientation, I wonder whether down deep they prefer another Republican victory in November, as this would allow them to continue to complain. They should read Peter J. Boyer’s important article in last week’s The New Yorker called “Party Faithful” and subtitled, “Can the Democrats Get a Foothold on the Religious Vote?” Boyer describes how Democrats alienated faith-based voters and the toll that this has taken on election day and the new efforts to draw some of these voters back to the party.

The critical issue for Jews is not political expediency, whether we do or should favor this or that candidate or party. What is most at stake is intellectual honesty, the truth about how best to meet the enormous challenge to tend to the vast number of Americans who are poor or needy in any of a great number of ways. If we would follow the “stern warnings” of our leaders who wage a constant war against religion, poor and needy people of all ages and groups would be hurt.

Boyer cites “a remarkable speech” given two years ago by Barack Obama before a liberal Christian group “in which he offered a frank critique of liberal queasiness regarding faith,” saying that “there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical.” He then challenged secularists who “are wrong when they ask believers to leave religion at the door before entering into the public square,” insisting that “a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state.”

We Jews are in the first rank of these police, as we have been for at least sixty years. This is our surrogate religion, the idol that we worship as we remain steadfastly faithful to faithlessness. We reflect not on this orthodoxy, nor do we pay heed to realities or liberal voices that suggest that our fanaticism is misplaced. Nor do we reflect on the potential harm that our anti-religious stance may cause to American Jewry.

There is in this a remarkable disconnect. This newspaper has reported the anguish in the Federation world arising from cutbacks in governmental funding to some Jewish social service agencies. We are told that the Jewish needy will suffer. There is not a peep from our anti-faith vigilantes regarding First Amendment issues, not even regarding programs that have an overt and distinct Jewish character, as when a Federation facility or agency has a synagogue on its premises.

Nor have we been concerned – and for good reasons – about public funding for Black churches that provide vital social services to their members. Surely, such activity strengthens the identity of individual recipients with the church. For even better reasons, we have enthusiastically applauded the civil rights activism of churches, although clearly this advocacy inherently eradicates the boundaries between church and state.

Our opposition to faith-based programs is selective, based largely on our ideological preferences. We save our fire primarily for those who do not share our liberal agenda. We issue stern warnings because we are fearful that Democrats may reach out to Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants who have become alienated from a party that they once supported and have come to believe is hostile to their interests and faith.

When Catholic hospitals tend to the sick, they serve a necessary public function which is not diminished by the presence of crucifixes and religious attire. The same is true of faith-based sponsored activities that fulfill governmental obligations to assist the poor, the mentally ill, the handicapped, the elderly and frail, children in broken families and many others. Without faith-based initiatives our society would be far worse off and this is not an abstraction but a reality in millions of homes. Without faith-based initiatives, many who need help would have nowhere to turn.

Faith-based initiatives generally do a better job than governmental-based social service initiatives because they provide a caring environment that is often absent when bureaucratic barriers impede what government is trying to accomplish.

It is time for American Jewry to grow up, time to acknowledge that Barack Obama was right when he said that “Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation – context matters.” It is time that we not be the only “religion” in America whose agenda promotes a war against religion.

Sadly, there is little prospect that we will change course. Our hostility to our own religion has become hostility to other religions and now, hostility as well, to the critical needs of millions of Americans. We can only hope that our intolerance will not one day result in the defamation of Jews by other Americans.

Monday, September 08, 2008

RJJ Newsletter - September 2008

Torah and mitzvos constitute an ideal world, a world in which our obedience to the commandments frees us from slavery to our ego, desires and impulses and also from slavery to the outer environment which compels us to yield to hedonism and fleeting pleasures. The world of Torah and mitzvos is ideal not in the sense of a utopia that exists in the mind and is beyond our reach. By ideal is meant a state of perfection achieved through obedience and service to Hashem. This world is at once nearby and elusive. It is, in the words of the Torah reading in several weeks, not in heaven or in a distant place but very close. It is within our grasp through fulfillment of the mitzvos, yet because of failings that are inherent in the human experience, we fall short.

There is thus a gap between our ideals and our reality, a disconnect between how we are required to act and how we do act. The life of a religious Jew is a struggle to control and overtake the appetites and inclinations that create the disconnect between what is required of us by Torah and mitzvos and our behavior. In varying degrees and ways, our thought, speech and actions compromise our compliance with Torah obligations. The distinctive characteristic of a religious person is to know this, to acknowledge the disconnect and to work at self-improvement. Among those of us who are righteous, the gap between the ideal and practice is narrow, in some measure because these individuals are blessed with elevated attributes but surely also because of their struggle to draw close to the ideal. That some of us succeed provides assurance that the disconnect can be challenged.

However, the powerful forces that induce wrongful thought, speech and action are always alive in our lives. As the Talmud teaches, the more we triumph over wrongful inclinations, the more these inclinations seek to entrap us. These negative forces serve as justification for what is wrongful, so that we come to think of inappropriate behavior as appropriate. We are taught that when a sin is repeated and then repeated again and again, it becomes permissible in the mind of the transgressor. The justification of wrongdoing serves as the guardian and advocate of wrongdoing.

For improvement, this barrier must be recognized and then challenged. Rambam accordingly underscores that the process of teshuvah requires the conscious acknowledgement that what is wrong is wrong. This is never easy, yet our religious commitment provides an opening and opportunity for halachic and hashkafic improvement so that we can triumph over wrongful inclinations. This opportunity is particularly heightened in the period beginning with Elul and extending through Yom Kippur when we are more alert to the obligation to engage in self-assessment and, at least for a while, to draw closer to the standards and behavior required of us as observant and obedient Jews.

The prayers and confessions recited during this period are essentially personal expressions that relate to personal shortcomings. This is as it should be because departures from Torah standards in thought, speech and deed are, in the main, personal defects and it is a hallmark of religious life that we take responsibility for our behavior. Even when the expressions are in group terms, as in the Avinu Malkeinu recitations, the reference is primarily to the individual wrongdoing of the many and not to the collective sins of the community as a community.

For our communal sins, by which is meant not the aggregate of individual wrongs but departures from appropriate Torah behavior that have become ingrained in our community so that many of us are entrapped by wrongful societal and communal imperatives that are difficult to resist, there is a paucity of liturgical language and opportunities for acknowledging the wrong. There are, of course, gatherings, more often for women than for men, where effective speakers implore us to improve in one way or another. These are sincere occasions and they evoke a desire to change while the speeches are being heard. Yet, they are also invariably and without intention superficial occasions, if only because the words that are spoken are divorced from reality, the reality being potent forces that compel adherence to practices that do not necessarily conflict head on with Torah requirements but which are nonetheless divorced from the life of Torah and mitzvos.

What is involved is not a blatant violation of halacha. Rather, there is an embrace of values and attitudes that are discordant with Torah values. A useful illustration is hedonism, the excessive and relentless pursuit of material things and pleasures. The consequence of hedonism is not the commission of an overt sin – although there is a negative impact on the giving of tzedakah – but the dimunition of our community as a sacred people. It is remarkable that at a time when there is a sincere and enhanced commitment to Torah study, there is a parallel sincere and enhanced commitment to living it up.

At the communal level, there is a disconnect between Torah values and societal appetites and impulses that pull in a discordant direction and there is too little in our liturgy and mussar that may serve as restraint on wrongful communal behavior. Nor is the Elul through Yom Kippur period, whose salutary effect on individual reflection and teshuvah is evident, a time for greater fidelity to Torah norms at the communal level. There is no apparent narrowing of the communal disconnect between the ideal and reality. In fact, in one crucial respect, the communal disconnect is enlarged during this period.

This is because Elul and Rosh Hashanah coincide with the opening of the school year, the period when there is a spirit of renewal as children begin another year of Torah study and, hopefully, a year that will result in further growth of their religious commitment. Ever since the Talmudic period, it has been accepted that the establishment of schools for religious study is a communal responsibility. This means that there is a communal responsibility to provide the opportunity to study Torah to all children. This communal responsibility extends to children from marginally observant homes whose parents are willing to send them to a yeshiva or day school, children who in today’s usage would in the main attend schools with a kiruv orientation. We do have such schools, although they are scarcely provided for by our community and few Orthodox Jews any longer pay much attention to them. It is no wonder that enrollment in these schools has declined and since few mainstream yeshivas and day schools now accept such children, an ever-increasing number of Jewish children are being deprived of the opportunity to be nurtured in our noble heritage which is the great treasure of our people.

That is one communal disconnect in Torah education and it is a disconnect that is most pronounced at the start of the school year in the month of Elul.

Another disconnect is that during the same period, retention and admission decisions are made by school officials. This is a period when our well-advertised ideal of providing a Torah education to our community’s children is put to the test. Such decisions are also made throughout the year, often in the form of students being told that they must leave. While there are situations that justify parents being told to find another school for their children, what has erupted in our ranks is a culture of rejection, a set of attitudes that have become embedded and which result in an expanding array of situations where it is regarded as the right and “Torah” way to deny admission or re-admission. I regard this culture of rejection as anti-Torah. It encompasses children from homes that are not sufficiently religious, children with even mild behavioral problems, children who are not sufficiently bright, children who have committed minor misdeeds, children from poor homes and much else.

The number of children who have been affected by the culture of rejection is in the thousands. I wonder whether during Elul there are principals or other yeshiva officials who pause and reflect on the relevance of this period as they reject students. Are there principals who say that precisely because it is Elul it is necessary to admit a child who has a particular shortcoming? Are there principals who say that because it is Elul it is necessary to give a student another chance? I know that some do, but far too many do not. I am astounded by the willingness of principals to cavalierly reject students in the month of Elul. How easy it is for them to expand the gap in Torah chinuch between our rhetoric and the ideal on the one hand and the reality on the other hand. The culture of rejection in Torah chinuch is at its strongest during the period of teshuvah.

Why do I write of a communal disconnect when the decisions to accept or reject students are made by individuals? Let the principals and deans bear the burden of guilt, not the community. At a Torah Umesorah convention years ago, Rav Elya Svei, the Philadelphia Rosh Yeshiva whose illness has deprived us of the guidance of the outstanding figure in American Torah chinuch in the past generation, noted that Rav Mendelowitz, ztl, of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath would fast on the day that he was required to fire a rebbi. Perhaps principals should be obligated to fast on the day that they expel a student. The question, however remains, in what way is our community responsible for the actions of principals and deans?

One answer is that they are community leaders and what they do carries a communal imprimatur. Another reason is that the culture of rejection arises in some measure because parents pressure schools to turn away certain students.

I know that these words will have little or no impact, that they repeat a message that I have been sending for more years than I can remember. We have ignored the sacred words of the Chazon Ish that I have printed in this space. Still, I believe that the message is necessary and we are obligated to challenge the culture of rejection. I should note that over the years I have been involved in a number of admission and retention decisions where I have prevailed in the direction of retention and admission. In each of these situations, my faith in the student has been rewarded.

We often do not see the outcome of a rejected child. He or she is gone and out of sight and definitely out of the thoughts of those who made the decision to reject. The sin is therefore easier to bear and yet greater in consequence. When Joseph was sold by his brothers, they first cast him into a pit so that he was out of their sight and they went on with their shepherding. Years later in Egypt, they did not recognize him and the reason they did not recognize him is because in a meaningful sense they did not recognize him as their brother when they committed their original sin.

As Jacob was about to be reunited with the son he thought had died, he initially saw the agalos or wagons that Joseph had sent and this prompted him to think of the last time that the father and son were together and studied the laws of eglah arufah, what is required of the elders of a community when an unidentified corpse is found. They must proclaim, “Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see.” Rashi asks, “Can we even imagine that the elders of Beth Din are murderers?” He responds that what they are proclaiming is that “we did not see this man and we did not send him away without sustenance and proper accompaniment.” Their transgression was the failure to see and to provide sustenance, which is a metaphor for Torah. The elders were all righteous people and Torah leaders and they therefore bore a great responsibility. Not seeing can be sinful.

Those who make retention decisions in our schools and who partake of the culture of rejection are in the aggregate good people. Yet, they sin when they do not see, when they send away. Elul should be a time when they see and do not send away because this is a time of drawing closer to G-D and Torah and mitzvos, a time for teshuvah.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

RJJ Newsletter - Charter Schools

Charter schools are now the rage in education. Thousands have been established in the recent period and many more are on the way. The hope – and, for sponsors, the expectation – is that these publicly-funded institutions will do a better job than conventional public schools which in turn will be impelled to improve because of the competition they face. This is a nice theory and like other ideas that promise educational or social reform, the reality is complicated and achievements fall somewhat short of expectations. The record so far for charter schools is uneven and quite a few have already closed, yet there is evidence that overall they perform better than the competition. This isn’t surprising because charters have the advantage of relative smallness and a sense of mission, particularly those that focus on discrete groups.

In accordance with an iron law of Jewish life, wherever we live as a minority among other people, sooner or later we Jews are certain to join the parade. There is a nascent Jewish charter school movement, which consists of much talk, little action and a great deal of media attention. So far, there is one such charter, it being the Ben Gamla school in South Florida which opened last September to much fanfare and scrutiny. There will be others, but overall the Jewish or, more accurately, Hebrew variety will remain no more than a drop in the charter school bucket.

Because of church-state considerations, a Jewish charter is constitutionally not kosher, no more than a Catholic charter school would pass muster. Accordingly, any that have our label will specialize in teaching Hebrew, perhaps both as a separate language and in connection with certain academic subjects. As a public institution, admission will be open to all and while the Hebrew angle will be a disincentive for many non-Jews, it is a good bet that a fair number of such students will be enrolled, maybe because their parents believe that anything with a Jewish label is likely to be superior.

At Ben Gamla, there is an optional after-school component that is privately funded and teaches Judaic subjects. How this can improve over the familiar supplementary school or Talmud Torah model that is almost universally regarded as a failure is an interesting question that does not deter the Jewish charter school advocates. They give us a new recipe for failure that is being marketed as having the capacity to accomplish what is beyond its reach. Of note, when Ben Gamla opened its doors, two-thirds of the students attended the after-school program; half of these dropped out as the school year progressed.

Why all of the Jewish charter school hoopla? Part of the answer is that we are joining a much applauded bandwagon, a movement that is the new kid on the education block, has momentum and is attention-grabbing. As with start-up companies whose stock soars even though there are no earnings to speak of, a Jewish charter has the enormous advantage of having a virtually non-existent track record. If a new charter attracts three-hundred students in its first year, about Ben Gamla’s number, there is reason to celebrate and the celebration is scarcely dampened by evidence that a considerable number of enrollees transferred out of a Jewish day school, meaning that they are now receiving an inferior Jewish education than previously and also that the schools they left are now on shakier ground because of their enrollment decline.

As American Jewish losses have mounted, with many already having chucked off any sense of Jewish identity and many others headed in the same direction, we have become at once desperate and creative in devising minimalistic Jewish activity that we claim or hope will impel some who are moving away to remain in our fold. In the process, we cast aside as immaterial the argument that this approach is certain to fail. Paradoxically, the weaker the activity is from a Jewish standpoint, the more fervently we embrace it. We are desperate and desperate people are willing to try anything. To be sure, charter schools are not the weakest in our current array of activities.

The best argument for Jewish charters is that only a small proportion of children in non-Orthodox homes are in a day school. True enough, but why make the percentage even lower? The issue is further enmeshed in the tuition crisis that is a reality for most day school families. As tuition rises, the charter option becomes more attractive, especially in places like South Florida where there is an abundance of ex-Israeli families.

While the debate over charters seems to involve the Orthodox only tangentially because overwhelmingly they must adhere to the yeshiva/day school model, the Orthodox community does have a stake in the development of charter schools. There was a time when the Orthodox and notably what is referred to as the yeshiva world felt a strong sense of responsibility for the religious education of children in marginally Jewish homes. There was a linkage between Torah education and kiruv and we established and helped to sustain schools that were aimed at families with children who would not fit in an ordinary yeshiva setting.

This is no longer the case. We continue to talk a good game about the paramount importance of day school education, but it is nearly all talk without corresponding activity. Enrollment at schools with an immigrant or outreach population has declined enormously and this process is continuing.

The notion that kiruv can be effective without sufficient day school opportunities for the families that are being reached out to is astounding and in a sense is a form of heresy. The responsibility for what we are not doing must be attributed to our Torah leaders. They preach about day schools and basic Torah education but they are absent without leave as they direct their energies and influence elsewhere. As I have pointed out, they work mightily to promote basic Torah education in Israel, which of course is praiseworthy, but they then neglect the obligation to do so in their own backyards.

It isn’t surprising then that charter schools have gained momentum or that many believe that charter schools and not day schools are the wave of the future.