Friday, January 25, 2008

Two Faces of Israeli Religious Life

While in Israel last week, I went to Matan, the center for women’s Torah study located in the Katamon neighborhood in Jerusalem, to listen to Daniel Epstein a terrific teacher and significant philosopher. He had studied under Emmanuel Levinas, the great Jewish-French philosopher at the Sorbonne. Epstein’s lecture that day focused on Martin Heidegger and Vladimir Jankelevitch, a philosopher entirely unfamiliar to me. These are intellectual luminaries whose writings are scarcely accessible to me when translated into English. Epstein was speaking in Hebrew. I was in over my head. However, the experience had sociological importance and it is this aspect that I focused on.

When I am in Israel, usually three times a year, I visit religious, educational and cultural activities that I can learn from. Invariably, I am bowled over by the richness of what is available, the extraordinary number of study groups, lectures and public events in Jerusalem alone that reach for spiritual and intellectual growth. At Matan, there were about eighty persons seated in a small auditorium. Nearly all were women and most, but not all, were religious, coming from the dati leumi or national religious sector of Israeli Orthodoxy. The average age was about sixty and the audience was there not simply to listen or to take notes. As Daniel Epstein spoke for seventy-five minutes, all but a handful were writing the entire lecture, as they had done in previous weeks and would do in future sessions.

I have never seen anything like this in the U.S. For Israel, the occasion was a tiny slice of the abundant smorgasbord of informal religious education that is the daily fare in Jerusalem alone. Those who came to gain knowledge were simply dressed. A similar profile is evident when perhaps nearly one-thousand mainly seminary-age students come each week to Yeshurun Synagogue on King George Street in Jerusalem to listen to Rabbi Motti Elon. At these occasions, there is an evident feeling of anticipation and joy.

Invariably, those whom I see are ordinary religious Israelis, including persons who made aliyah or their children and not charedim or the fervently Orthodox, although they certainly have an abundance of study opportunities, at least for men. What is also striking is the articulateness of those who lecture. Their skill is constantly on display, not because they are showing off but because they are gifted teachers and that is a large part of the explanation of why many come to listen and learn.

Yet, there is a flip, even sad, side to this picture. The religious community in Israel is blessed with a surfeit of persons with intellectual and spiritual attainments who would like to make their mark. Their ambition is not pointed in the direction of material acquisitions but to a respected place in the educational sphere or communal life. Unfortunately, there apparently are not sufficient opportunities to satisfy this need. One senses among the religious intelligentsia pockets of melancholy and disappointment and only more so because these people are chasing their dreams in the Jewish state. There are feelings of unfulfillment because too many do not and probably cannot receive recognition or positions commensurate with their skill, learning and dedication. I meet people who are flitting from one dream to another, always somewhere over the rainbow.

There are other religious persons whom I see in Israel, younger people in the yeshiva world sector. They are in the main students who are here for a year or two of yeshiva study or kollel families, Israeli and from abroad, living here temporarily or permanently. The picture I have consists entirely of what I see and does not include what these students are doing when they are in the Beth Medrash or study hall. It obviously does not include the far greater number of yeshiva and kollel students whom I never see. Doubtlessly, what I am saying here covers the relatively small number who in my judgment do not display spiritual behavior befitting their status. What I and I believe others see is an instinct for hedonism, a desire to live it up, to have a good time running around and spending.

This is evident in restaurants and hotels and in public places. Instead of modesty, there is boisterousness and what may be described as prostkeit, which I translate as spiritual squalor. Admittedly, these are young people and young people have an excess of energy. These students may simply be out to enjoy life before family responsibilities and other realities induce a settling down. Still, it is not the Torah’s way.

I acknowledge again that I am unfair, that by a comfortable margin yeshiva and kollel students behave appropriately. Yet we cannot ignore the crude behavior that we often come face to face with. It seems that among too many in the yeshiva world the
cellphone is as much an accompaniment as any sacred text.

There is no obligation for young Torah students to live monastic lives or to be steeped in despondency. Joy is a good trait. There is, however, a religious obligation to know who you are and where you are and to be modest in public. Those who study Torah are familiar with the precept of marris ayan, of how onlookers may mistakenly misinterpret certain behaviors. There is a religious requirement to show restraint, to avoid the prospect of misinterpretation.

Those who engage in Torah study need to recognize that acting as big time spenders in a raucous fashion makes an impression on those who are witness to this behavior. Especially in Israel where overwhelmingly Israelis face constant financial pressure and emotional strain arising from the security situation, what are they to think of religious Jews when they see inappropriate activity?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The World of Jewish Day Schools

Cheryl Brown and Chaya Braun – their names have been changed, but the facts are real – are in their second year of elementary school teaching and each is receiving $6,000 this year. For Ms. Brown, the figure represents a salary increase as she goes up a step on the pay scale for New York City public school teachers and also benefits from the raise provided in the new union contract. For Ms. Braun, $6,000 is what she will be paid this year for teaching at a Jewish day school.

There are other distinctions, including Ms. Brown being in a classroom a greater number of hours than Ms. Braun and also having a Masters degree in education, something that the Jewish school teacher does not have. She also receives full medical benefits and is on an attractive pension plan, two vital fringes that do not exist in Ms. Braun’s educational world.

There are, of course, yeshiva and day school faculty who earn considerably more. But the gap between what public school and Jewish school teachers are paid is substantial and it is rapidly expanding. Although certain affluent day schools pay well, they are a small minority. Few Jewish school faculty come even close to what teachers are paid in public school systems, even if they have impressive degrees and credentials.

At boys yeshivas and the religious faculty in day schools, low salaries have a limited impact on the school because there is a substantial recruitment pool of kollel students seeking positions. The story is different on the secular studies side because it is increasingly difficult for our schools to find competent teachers for conventional academic subjects. They used to rely on public school teachers who were moonlighting, but this source is drying up because the low pay has reduced the incentive to take a second job.

Many of our schools rely on recent graduates from the religious seminaries for women. This is becoming more problematic, as increasingly some of the best and brightest of these young women are choosing more lucrative careers. They know that their income will be crucial if they marry a kollel student or yeshiva teacher.

The near penury of many of our schools is evident as they scrimp on everything, including facility maintenance, enhancement for strong students and special attention to those who are weak. Despite their formidable difficulties, yeshivas and day schools do a credible and often a terrific job. This is primarily due to the extraordinary devotion of their faculty, women and men who are greatly dedicated to their students and work, spending a great deal of time preparing for their classroom responsibilities and often making themselves available to their students after the school day is over.

Commitment goes just so far. The penurious condition of most yeshivas and day schools exacts educational and other costs. It also adds to the burden on parents facing high and ever-increasing tuition bills as contributions constitute a declining share of the typical school budget.

There are bright spots. Over the past decade, 200 or one-quarter of all full-time Jewish schools in the U.S. have built new facilities or significantly improved their existing ones, reflecting the need to create additional seats to accommodate enrollment growth and also the willingness of people of means to make significant gifts to capital campaigns. Unfortunately, this generous spirit is scarcely evident on the operating side because the predominant view continues to be that day school education is a consumer product whose costs must be borne by the parents.

In the recent period, in a few communities local philanthropists have stepped up to the plate, making grants specifically to alleviate financial pressure on parents. Boston, Western Massachusetts, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Denver come to mind and I believe that there are others. Such gifts are an appropriate response to the expanding research pointing to day school education as the optimum way to promote Jewish commitment and continuity.

The story is much different in the New York/New Jersey area that constitutes more than two-thirds of all U.S. day school enrollment, with the percentage certain to grow because of the extraordinary high fertility in the chassidic and yeshiva-world sectors of Orthodoxy. The two-thirds statistic provides one explanation for the failure of New York and New Jersey Jewish schools to attract meaningful philanthropic and communal support.

In this area, there are non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox schools catering to more affluent families that charge high tuition and despite their success at fundraising seem to believe that “scholarships” is a dirty word. In line with the old saying that the rich get richer, the schools that charge the highest tuition and offer the least scholarship assistance are, in general, the most successful at fundraising.

At the other end of the spectrum there are New York and New Jersey schools that average no more than $5,000 per student in annual tuition – and there are those that take in less – and this for a dual curriculum. These institutions and most mainline Orthodox schools that serve families that have a household of children and must meet rising tuition obligations on a limited income need and deserve communal and philanthropic support. The scope of the problem – the number of students and the aggregate cost of their education – is a powerful barrier to any arrangement that might result in meaningful support. But this is no excuse for inaction, for providing no assistance.

There is no way for Federation and private Jewish philanthropy to come up with the many tens of millions of dollars that are needed annually to assist the most hard-pressed schools. This is no justification for the New York Federation terminating basic grants to these schools. There is now widespread agreement that my criticism of Federation was justified. It is time for Federation to do the right thing and to support the institutions that are our best guarantor of Jewish survival.

Monday, January 07, 2008

RJJ Newsletter - January 2008

Without exception, surveys of American Jewry indicate that the number who were born Orthodox and are no longer observant exceeds the number who were raised non-Orthodox and have become Orthodox and by a wide margin. I use the term “indicate” rather than the more definitive “show” because serious methodological issues undermine the reliability of our population studies. There are reasons to believe that there is an overcounting of those who have abandoned Orthodoxy and an undercounting of American Jews who have become observant.

The overcounting of those who are no longer religious results from the inclusion in population studies of persons who were only nominally Orthodox, Jews who because of family ties or other circumstances were affiliated with an Orthodox synagogue but who in practice were not Orthodox as they deviated significantly from halachic requirements. For decades, these nominal or marginal Orthodox constituted a substantial part of American Orthodoxy and although they no longer do, they have had a major impact on the statistics of Orthodox abandonment.

The undercounting of returnees to Judaism arises primarily from the number that has settled in Israel, so that neither they nor their families appear in our population surveys.

Still, those who have left outnumber the returnees and perhaps by a wide margin. Some of us doubtlessly question this claim and regard it as counterintuitive and contrary to what they see or have experienced. We all have stories to tell about the beneficial fruit of kiruv activity. In fact, those who have become observant are on our radar screen. Those who have walked away from religious life often are not, except when those who have left Judaism are relatives or others to whom we have been close.

It remains that we are losing more than we are gaining. This is terribly disturbing, especially at a time when Orthodox life is flourishing and has so much to offer, a time when Torah study has expanded and when being religious is comfortable behavior, while within our community religious abandonment can be like a sore thumb sticking out. Certainly, the economic and ideological factors to which religious abandonment has been attributed in the past are no longer the potent factors that they once were.

How can we be losing more in the present period than we are gaining? There is no simple or ready explanation. To an extent, the subject is a mystery. Explanations are offered and they may provide clues. Yet, we are often in the dark about a complex phenomenon that can happen in a blink of the eye, leaving those who thought that they knew well someone who stopped being religious perplexed as to why so profound a behavioral and attitudinal change has taken place.

In some instances, it seems that a combination of factors contributed to the change. In others, it just happened. We can prepare a roster of possible explanations encompassing the home situation, what happened in school, economic circumstances, friendship patterns, a traumatic experience and much else. More often than not, we are still left with a mystery.

I believe that the single most compelling circumstance is modernity and especially American society and the choices and mobility that it offers. There are opportunities to change one’s lifestyle, there is an extraordinary degree of geographic mobility and even social mobility and all of this is abetted by the American ethos of tolerance and choice. As we hear often enough, this is a free country and people are free to choose how they identify themselves. In a sense, religious identity is a membership experience, something that people can sign up for or resign from. There is an abundance of opportunities for most of us to wander outside of our religious sphere.

We are, in a word, influenced by the American environment which in behavior and attitude has an impact on nearly all of the Orthodox. Some take all of the bait and are lost.

Although the lion’s share of religious abandonment is attributable to the world around us and not to the inner circumstances of our religious life, that doesn’t get our community entirely off the hook. To an extent that cannot be measured or even estimated, we are responsible for the bad statistics. We have become expert in talking about kiruv rechokim, as if conventions and speeches are surrogates for activity. Along the way, we have embraced the operational concepts of what I referred to as far back as twenty years ago as richuk kerovim, the alienation of those who are close.

We talk a good game about at-risk children, without doing much to address the problem, even as the at-risk phenomenon grows. This is also our mode of operation regarding the tuition crisis and other troubling issues facing our community. Talk serves as a substitute for activity and, in a way, as a barrier to doing anything concrete about difficult problems because after the speeches and talk we convince ourselves that we have actually done something. Those who believe that convention speeches or kiruv conferences in luxury hotels meaningfully affect what happens in our community are engaged in self-delusion and in deluding others. It may be that the starting point for meaningful activity is to stop having conventions. In what the Bikur Cholims do or what Hatzalah does and much else that we can be proud of as religious Jews, talk has not served as a substitute for action. People of vision and courage have taken steps. It is only in chinuch and kiruv where talk is mistaken for addressing a problem.

As I have said frequently in this newsletter and elsewhere, we are comfortable with admission and retention policies at yeshivas and day schools that add to the at-risk phenomenon. Our strategy for those who do not fit in as perfectly as we would like them to is to cast them out.

Even when our schools do not act in a purposeful and wrongful fashion to reject students, showing patience towards those who are below the expected norm, the heightened emphasis on and intensity of limudei kodesh or religious studies in yeshivas serve to make it difficult for some students to remain. The hours devoted to religious studies have been increased, a process that is continuing in many schools, and this is a problem for students who are not strong in limudei kodesh and/or cannot concentrate on religious texts for hours on end. Our schools now expect more of students. In the past, those who were weaker could still have a comfort zone within the yeshiva. This is far less the case today. This adds up to self-esteem issues and the collateral issue faced by parents of whether they should continue to enroll their children in the school that they attend.

Yeshivas and also their parents and students are accordingly caught on the horns of a dilemma as our schools seek to attain the admirable goal of improving limudei kodesh standards and achievements.

It may be of note that the at-risk phenomenon and drop-out from Judaism rate are greater problems in Israel than here and this may arise from the significantly greater limudei kodesh intensity in Israeli yeshivas than in ours. In a recent article, Jonathan Rosenblum wrote that the perception that the at-risk and drop-out phenomenon among charedim or the fervently Orthodox is more pronounced in places like Betar and Kiryat Sefer which are homogeneous fervently Orthodox communities than in localities that have heterogeneous populations has been confirmed by recent research. The obvious explanation is that in the latter places, religious youngsters have more slack and feel less pressure if they do not excel or do not fit in perfectly than they do in the localities where the norm is for success in Torah study and complete adherence to behavioral standards.

As our schools have become more risk averse, fearing the possible harmful influence of those who do not fit in as well as we would like them to, they have also declined as instrumentalities for kiruv. This is a major change from what once was in the yeshiva/day school world. In view of the powerful outside conditions that impel too many away from religious commitment, we may not be able to do very much to stem the tide of loss. But we can do much more, particularly in North America, to attract Jews who are not observant to religious life. We have much to offer in our religious life, in the sanctity of our homes and the nobility of our obligations. There is no justification for the de-linking of kiruv and chinuch, for the dangerous attitude and practice that somehow the former can be successfully conducted even as we neglect the latter.

I believe that the yeshiva world contributes directly to the disparity between those whom we lose and those whom we gain by neglecting the powerful lesson taught in an earlier period of yeshiva/day school development, the lesson that there is no better way to attract families to Judaism than through providing children with a meaningful Torah education.

Not long ago, day schools and yeshivas were recognized as the primary instrumentalities of kiruv. The transformation of American Orthodoxy into a vibrant and more confident community is largely attributed to this role which was nurtured and encouraged by Torah leaders. What exists today is a pale shadow of what once was and the consequences of this abandonment are evident in the declining achievements of kiruv.

The situation in Israel is different. Although the losses from Judaic abandonment are substantial, kiruv activities are far more successful than they are here. Much of the explanation is in the significant efforts to recruit children to religiously oriented elementary schools and high schools. These efforts receive major backing from American sources, including yeshiva deans and lay leaders. This dwarfs what is attempted on these shores and that is why we are not gaining many who could be brought closer to Judaism.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Who’s Afraid of Yechiel Eckstein?

Making Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a voting member of the executive committee of the Jewish Agency for Israel is a significant issue only if the Jewish Agency is significant. In some ways it is. JAFI has a huge budget, projects in perhaps several dozen countries and lots of valuable property in Israel, including its impressive fortress-like headquarters on King George Street in Jerusalem. Yet, it is no more than an organization and while on occasion it acts as if it is the government of and for the Jews, it isn’t. Its primary role was permanently transferred to the government of Israel on that eventful day in Iyar 5708, sixty years ago. In recent years, its decline has accelerated.

It is, however, a crown jewel in the crowded world of Jewish macherdom, a world where people with titles covet additional titles, as well as trips, meetings, photo ops and being briefed on Israeli security and diplomatic developments that any of us can read in the newspaper. I have this fantasy that the machers who have risen to the top of the bureaucratic heap will before they have breathed their last wonder whether it was all worthwhile, whether they could have done more with their resources and talent than accumulate titles.

While they are alive and still kicking they obviously cherish the transient glitter. With the tens of millions of dollars of Evangelical funding at his disposal each year – he apparently has broad discretion – Rabbi Eckstein purchased a major role in JAFI, to the consternation of some Israelis and also American Jewish leaders who worry about tainting the yichus of the Jewish Agency through association with the Evangelicals. They also claim not to like the notion of Jewish Agency seats being open for sale. In fact, Rabbi Eckstein is a bona fide Jew and the path that he has taken has been well trodden by wealthy Jews who have purchased indulgences in the Jewish Agency or elsewhere in Jewish life.

I doubt that the arrangement will open the door for the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells to sit amongst the Jewish elite. It is interesting that in marriage and other loci of Jewish sanctity there is no comparable concern about keeping non-Jews out. To the contrary, in this post-intermarriage phase of American Jewish development there is overwhelming sentiment for putting out a welcome mat to non-Jews, including at Reform synagogues where according to Jonathan Sarna about one-quarter of those who come to the services are not Jewish by any standard. Why are organizations different?

It’s also appropriate to ask whether the overheated reaction to Rabbi Eckstein arises from his association with Evangelicals, they being Christians who, as we well know, are extreme in their social and political conservatism. Suppose he was involved with Christians at the other end of the social/political spectrum, with Episcopalians (or Anglicans) or the World Council of Churches, groups that have well-advertised their hostility toward the Jewish State. Suppose that miraculously they repented their wrongful ways and accepted biblical teachings about Israel being the homeland of Jews, would we still be so critical of Rabbi Eckstein?

There is a necessary question about what Evangelicals hope to achieve via their large investment in Israel and Jewish life elsewhere. A collateral question is Rabbi Eckstein’s motivation. At the least, his path is singular and strange. For years, the Rabbi Eckstein gravy train assisted Jewish activities in the Former Soviet Union. I remember meeting him in Kiev where I learned of the support that he was providing to Jewish orphanages and other projects in Ukraine. He struck me as sincere, yet he apparently craves attention and is inordinately devoted to self-promotion and this is troublesome. So far as I know, he has not spelled out how he fits into the Evangelical scheme of things.

He should because there are suspicions – they may be unfair – that the Evangelical investment of political and financial capital is driven by conversion goals and other theological calculations that Jews cannot be comfortable with. About two years ago, the Jewish Observer, the English-language monthly published in New York by Agudath Israel, had a lengthy investigative article raising serious concerns about Rabbi Eckstein and his organization. The magazine published his response, but it wasn’t convincing and unsettling questions remain.

There are other question marks. It may be that his commitment of $15 million a year to the Jewish Agency, with the attendant condition that he be given a visible and important role, is his way of burnishing his reputation.

Because the Jewish Agency is engaged in some sensitive matters, Rabbi Eckstein’s yen for publicity may turn out to be an embarrassment or worse. What the organization does should not be fodder for his public relations. Just recently, the Jewish Agency arranged for forty Iranian Jews to come to Israel in an operation that I believe was clandestine and had the cooperation of key Iranian officials. This is part of an on-going program that previously resulted in good outcomes. Unfortunately, with the wrongful acquiescence of Jewish Agency officials, there was Rabbi Eckstein’s announcement that his organization was providing a $10,000 gift to each of the forty new arrivals. A major figure in world Jewry tells me that the fanfare endangers the continuation of this vital project.

Unless Rabbi Eckstein learns to control his appetite for publicity and the Jewish Agency restrains its going gaga over the contribution that he has provided, there is a strong prospect that his involvement in the Jewish Agency will backfire.