Friday, March 28, 2008

Another School is Closing

Another Solomon Schechter school is closing, this time a small day school in Suffolk County that has valiantly struggled to survive. It has now yielded to enrollment and financial realities. I helped the school several years ago and am saddened by the decision to close its doors when the school year ends. Good people are offering assistance to students who transfer to the Nassau County Solomon Schechter, a much larger school. Likely, most of the students will not be in a Jewish day school in September and some of them will be lost to Judaism as a consequence.

Apparently, all that is left in day school education for all of Suffolk is a small Chabad school, which is astonishing given the number of Jews living in the county. What does this tell us about Jewish life, the Conservative movement and the day school world?

I believe that at least another six of the remaining Solomon Schechters in the U.S. are on the endangered list and that more than a few of the schools that appear to be secure have lost a significant number of students. There is a declining number of Conservative parents willing to select a Jewish day school for their children, in part because of high tuition but at least as importantly because of a decline in Judaic commitment. We are witness to the steady deterioration of the movement and notably to the meltdown of its crucial traditional wing.

It’s anyone’s guess how Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, fits into this development since he has scarcely been heard from, except for his early and successful effort to secure approval of Gay clergy, which, in turn, has resulted in the acceptance of other practices previously rejected by the Conservatives. For all of his talent and commitment, Dr. Eisen has demonstrated so far no apparent concern about the plight of Conservative day schools. This is a mistake.

He has his hands full at the Seminary and that is why from the Conservative perspective, it would have been preferable to separate the movement’s leadership position from JTS’s leadership. It is a no-brainer that the arrangement the Conservatives have followed basically since the movement’s birth is no longer functional. This is one area, however, where tradition is maintained, albeit a foolish tradition.

In a half-year, I expect to conduct another census of day schools, five years after the previous research. There will be an overall increase in enrollment, thanks overwhelmingly to high fertility in the chassidic and yeshiva-world sectors of Orthodoxy. What the data will show regarding other segments of the day school world is likely to be another story. My expectation is that Modern and Centrist Orthodox schools may not show much of an increase, if only because of the accelerated pace of aliyah, with young families leaving to Israel in record numbers, some to escape high and ever-increasing tuition charges.

Orthodox-sponsored schools that have an outreach function and serve marginally observant and/or immigrant families are obviously in poor shape. It is certain that their enrolment which showed a significant decline between 1998 and 2003 will show a further decline in next year’s census. The commitment and enthusiasm that generated Orthodox involvement in these schools – never at the level that was needed – have faded. Sadly, these crucial institutions are limping along and fewer parents are selecting them for their children.

For nearly twenty years, there has been mounting and incontrovertible evidence that more than any other Judaic activity day school education makes a major difference in determining Judaic outcomes. The data notwithstanding, our community remains cool to day schools and little has been done, except in a small number of middle size localities, to encourage additional families to choose these schools for their children. Those who have neglected day schools are increasingly championing charter schools, a dubious ”Jewish” educational mode. Charters inherently are extremely limited instrumentalities for promoting Jewish continuity. I fear that their major impact will be to draw additional students away from day schools, the result being that more Jewish schools will be added to the endangered list.

Further darkening the day school picture is the benign neglect of too many Orthodox leaders, including yeshiva deans, toward basic Jewish education. There is much talk about the tuition crisis and its consequences, but there is no connecting of the dots, no effort to remedy a problem that worsens each year. Much the same is true about the approach to outreach schools. It is as if talk is an acceptable surrogate for action. What salutary developments occur result from the generosity of individual philanthropists, some of whom are not Orthodox.

For more years than I can recall, I have pleaded for yeshiva deans and Torah leaders to proclaim that it is a religious obligation to support basic Torah education (K-12), something that they are willing to do for Israeli schools but not in the territory that is their core responsibility.

In the New York and New Jersey area where more than two-thirds of day schoolers live, there is no longer a viable remedy for the tuition crisis. The numbers are too daunting. It is still possible to strengthen schools that serve marginally observant families, but there is no effort on the horizon to do so. This is telling.

What is also frightening is the possible impact of the severe economic downturn on those schools that are hanging in there by not much more than a thread. They live a penurious existence in the best of times. How will they survive? A similar question arises regarding more than a few non-Orthodox day schools. The reality is that, in the main, their parents are less committed to full-time Jewish education. Will the economy erode the willingness of some parents to commit their resources to expensive day school education?

Friday, March 21, 2008

More Jewish Numbers

It is a good bet that there won’t be a 2010 National Jewish Population Survey along the lines of the previous decennial NJPS studies that generated much attention and argument. It is as good a bet that our fixation with numbers games will not abate anytime soon. Demography is now in the Jewish blood. What did NJPS in is its extraordinary high cost and methodological impediments that have sharply reduced the appetite for another big-time project. In place of NJPS, we will get surrogate demography, attempts to cobble together bits and pieces of research and data from a number of sources to produce what will be identified as a reliable picture of American Jewish life. Along with the numbers, we will get more controversy.

We now have an additional and significant contribution to the quantitative study of American Jewry, this from outside of the flock, as it comes from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the sponsor of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. I believe that this is the most extensive and ambitious privately funded study of religion in America. More than 35,000 participants were interviewed by phone, including a cohort that was reached by cell phone. A first report on religious affiliation was released several weeks ago; there will be two additional reports in the coming months, one dealing with religious practices and beliefs and the other with social and political views.

I am curious to know how much Pew has spent on the project, whether it was above or below the high cost for the obviously much narrower scope of NJPS 2000-01, an undertaking that broke the budget and serves as an enduring case study of the ineptitude of the American Jewish bureaucracy. Whatever the cost, hooray for Pew. Inevitably and appropriately, there will be critics and there are methodological issues that merit examination.

We are told in an appendix to the Pew report that “statistical results” were “weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies.” This is always a curious matter because the implication is that statistics are being manipulated to conform with what researchers believe to be the truth before they undertake the research. Another question mark is the employment of random digital dialing to reach participants. The reported response rate was 24%, a statistic that Pew claims is adequate. I wonder about this and also wonder whether, in fact, the response rate was lower.

Yet, what emerges is of enormous value, particularly because the central thesis is that religious affiliation in the U.S. is “very diversified” and “extremely fluid,” with persons switching their affiliation at an unprecedented rate, moving from one religious group to another or abandoning affiliation altogether. In a word, religious identity is going the way of social class, geographic location, employment and other social indicators where there is a great deal of movement.

The pattern discerned by Pew confirms the point that I have made repeatedly over the past twenty years that American Jewish affiliation is increasingly a membership arrangement, with people free to join or leave. This has been true for white ethnic groups for a very long while and it is increasingly true of religious groups.

By relying on self-reporting by respondents of their religious identity rather than on more complex and difficult to pin down aspects of religiosity, Pew avoided the pitfalls that have plagued American Jewish demography, such issues as intermarriage, non-Jews living in Jewish households and whether or how to count persons born Jewish who say they are no longer Jewish or have no affiliation. Our research has resulted in serial arguments about core Jews and semantics. Pew adheres to a simplified sociological approach. A Catholic is someone who says he/she is Catholic and a Jew is someone who says he/she is Jewish.

One problem with Pew’s Jewish statistics is that there were only 682 self-reporting Jews in the survey, which is about 15% of the number who were interviewed in the last NJPS. Accordingly, the margin of error is quite high. Still, Pew’s estimate of 3.8 million Jewish adults (age 18+) is close to the NJPS figure of 4.1 million. It is possible that in the intervening six or seven years there has been a further decline in the number of adult Jews resulting from 1) the aging of our population, 2) low fertility and 3) the ongoing disaffiliation from Judaism.

According to Pew, 10% of Jewish adults are Orthodox, a statistic that is somewhat higher than what emerges from other studies. In view of exceedingly high Orthodox fertility, it is likely that if all age groups are calculated, Orthodoxy now constitutes in excess of 12% of all American Jews.

The greatest controversy so far regarding the Pew data concerns the finding that 15% of those now self-identifying as Jewish are converts. This is an astonishingly high figure as it is more than unlikely that 600,000 adults who report themselves as Jewish are converts and the statistic is far above what NJPS and others have reported. A possible explanation is that Pew’s approach to conversion differs from that employed by NJPS and Jewish demographers. Whereas we regard conversion as occurring after some religious process and ritual, Pew’s reliance on self-reporting probably means that any person not born Jewish – let’s say someone in a Jewish household who now identifies as Jewish – is counted as such, irrespective of whether there was a formal religious procedure.

Pew points to a continuing process of Jewish population attrition, an assessment that will be challenged by the increasingly dominant group of demographers who claim population gains because of intermarriage and even other developments away from traditional Judaism. According to Pew, 51% of American Jews are 50 or older. The implications of this need not be spelled out. Also, 72% of Jewish adults say that there are no children under the age of 18 living at home.

The handwriting is on the wall.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

RJJ Newsletter - March 2008

There have been about two-hundred of these newsletters in the thirty-five years that
I have been president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. I believe that this is the first that includes material published elsewhere, an editorial written by Rabbi Moshe Grylak, the editor of Mishpacha which is an excellent weekly magazine published in Israel in Hebrew and English language editions. Its readership is primarily in the yeshiva world. Mishpacha has given us permission to circulate what Rabbi Grylak wrote.

The editorial isn’t his first excursion into the difficult journalistic territory of describing painful developments in our community and even sharply criticizing certain yeshiva-world practices, as well as the leadership of this vital segment of Orthodoxy. There have been pieces challenging attitudes and practices that have come to be accepted, although they deviate significantly from the way our community was led in previous periods. Rabbi Grylak has asked sharp questions about the extraordinary situation in Beitar and Kiryat Sefer, large and expanding fervently Orthodox towns in Israel where Orthodox Jews who are thought to have deviated even minimally from certain mores have been harshly treated and forced out or excluded. This is a disgraceful development.

For all of the departure from the norm of Orthodox journalism that invariably dictates avoidance of criticism of the yeshiva world, Rabbi Grylak’s writings, as well as other material of a similar nature that has been published in Mishpacha, have been respectful and judicious.

This writing mirrors much of what I have written and said for more years than I can recount, my feeling that, as I put it in a speech twenty years ago at the Torah Umesorah dinner when I was the guest of honor, through our exclusionary attitudes, decisions and other actions, the yeshiva world has become engaged in “Richuk Kerovim,” the alienation of those who are close. As our community has grown stronger and more self-confident and has numerous impressive achievements to point to, we have embraced ever-more restrictive approaches that were not part of our mindset a generation ago when we were far weaker but were led by Torah giants of transcendent stature.

There is now a culture of exclusion and prohibition in the yeshiva world, a dynamic that feeds on itself and therefore accelerates. In recent days, there was the extraordinary ban on a concert scheduled in a Madison Square Garden auditorium. The prohibition has been effective and the concert has been cancelled. Painful scars remain. If the event was deemed inappropriate in any way, a prohibition was in order, although its sponsorship by a respected Israeli charity and it already being scheduled and planned at great cost should have been factors that were taken into account. What is striking about this episode and even frightening is the violence of the language utilized in the ban, the impression being that in addition to prohibiting that which may have been inappropriate, the intent was to destroy.

The language utilized in this issur or prohibition that was signed by many prominent yeshiva deans and rabbis ought to be contrasted with the prohibition declared a half century go by eleven great Torah leaders, the foremost being Rav Aharon Kotler, ztl, against participation in the Synagogue Council and other rabbinical and congregational bodies together with Reform and Conservative clergy. This was probably the seminal event in the contemporary development of American Orthodoxy. For all of the enormous significance of that prohibition, the statement announcing it does not come close in vehemence to the language employed in the prohibition of a minor event and a particular singer who apart from being a truly religious Jew has done much chesed through his personal visits to critically ill children in our community.

Our leadership needs to reflect on this episode and also what it means to lead. They should pay attention to a recent article by Jonathan Rosenblum, also in Mishpacha. Its title was “Bans are not Chinuch,” a title that tells it all and echoes an article that I wrote several years ago called, “Lead Us by Teaching, Not by Prohibitions.” I have often underscored that in the more than twenty years of his leadership of the Torah community in this country, the Great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood rarely issued or joined in prohibitions, the Synagogue Council issue being the great exception. Rosenblum quotes Rav Yitzchak Hutner, ztl, the eminent Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin, as saying, “One does not educate with issurim.”

I am pessimistic that the forces within our community that impel the flow of harsh statements and prohibitions will be tempered any time soon or that the attitudes that foster exclusionary and too often cruel policies regarding yeshiva admission and retention will be altered. We are increasingly trapped in a culture of prohibition and exclusion and this means that we are increasingly at war against our own. Only when our Roshei Yeshiva who are our leaders and certainly merit our respect speak out against harsh policies and come to understand that refusing to sign prohibitory statements may be a greater manifestation of authority and leadership will the darkness be lifted.

It is not possible to know how many we are losing because of our harshness, how many we are losing because we are too ready to demonize and cast out. I continue to believe that the primary contributory factor to Rabbi Grylak’s “Chareidi Gehinnom” is the outside world, its strong seductive pull away from Torah values and practices and not what parents do or schools do or Torah leaders say or sanction. Parents, schools and Torah leaders are contributory factors when they fail to sufficiently appreciate that there are good children who cannot study for long hours or who are not ideal in their behavior, children who need to feel that they are loved and respected for who they are and who are not cast out, either literally or through painful words. Because this truth is not sufficiently appreciated, our words and actions contribute to a limited extent to the statistics of drop-out from Yiddishkeit.

Furthermore, prohibitions and the harshness of some of our pronouncements and actions make it more difficult for us to retain or reach out to our youth who are at risk. We could retain more at-risk children and reclaim some who have moved beyond being at risk if we would show more kindness, more patience.

The message conveyed by the Rav Shach incident that Rabbi Grylak recounts is that there is much wrong with our approach and attitudes. I am skeptical about certain of the details – the original source is a book – yet what is striking about this episode is Rav Shach’s anger at the Roshei Yeshiva who came to see him about expelling a student for a very serious violation of halacha. For the Gadol Hador to call these Roshei Yeshiva “murderers” is more than extraordinary. What is also remarkable is Rabbi Grylak’s writing about this in a publication that is embedded in the yeshiva world. We are, after all, taught from a young age to have enormous respect for Roshei Yeshiva and Torah leaders and not in any way to criticize them. Rabbi Grylak conveyed the story although he was cautioned not to “write about this issue.” His answer was, “I’m not writing it, I’m screaming it.”

This is probably the most troubling aspect of what is happening within our community. There is spreading discontent over the culture of issur. In all my years of klal activity I have never seen similar pain or heard such words of criticism as are now being expressed in yeshiva-world families among whom obedience has been the hallmark. I have heard nasty words about Torah leaders from outside of our four cubits and I have been the target of nastiness and hostility because of my advocacy of the primacy of the Torah world and its leaders. Never has there been such anguish and even discontent within our own ranks.

I cannot adequately express the pain that I feel now over this brief essay. This world has been my spiritual home and much more. It is what I have given much of my life to. I am crying inside as I write these lines. Something is terribly wrong. The culture of issur is wrong. The alienation of too many of our young is wrong.

The existence alone of what is referred as the Chareidi Gehinnom should give all of us pause.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Strange Bedfellows and Other Inconveniences

When the United States was far smaller in size and population, this was already a remarkably diverse country, as the great de Toqueville described in his epic work nearly nine score years ago. Geographic expansion and population growth fed largely by successive waves of immigration have resulted in the further diversification of our society, a process that continues and makes our relationships more complex and also more fascinating. Except for the relative few who live entirely insular lives, at school and at work and in a host of primary and secondary contacts we interact with persons who are different in ethnic identity, beliefs, political affiliation, etc., and this means that we are likely to develop ongoing relationships with some persons whom we prefer would not be in our lives.

In a word, associations breed strange bedfellows, whether in friendship and family patterns or political activity or elsewhere and this phenomenon expands as society becomes even more diversified. In a country whose population has raced past the 300 million mark, we who vote in presidential elections invariably select one of two candidates, each of whom is likely to have policy positions that we disagree with and each of whom has forged a broad coalition that includes groups and individuals that we do not care for. In politics, our enemy may be the friend of our friend.

In a democracy, politics tend to be nasty and this encourages the meanspirited exploitation by opponents of strange bedfellow vulnerabilities. There is, I believe, more political negativity nowadays, perhaps because Googling makes it easier to locate dirt, but also because politics have changed. For decades, the Democratic Party had a bad case of split personality and strange bedfellowness, as Southern Democrats – more than a few were racist - sitting in the same big tent with liberal Democrats, an arrangement that allowed the party to control Congress and do well in the Electoral College. It was accepted that liberal Democrats needed to do no more than reject the attitudes of the Southerners. They did not have to reject their votes.

How times have changed. Barack Obama is under attack because the vile Louis Farrakhan says nice things about him and urges his followers to vote for him. It isn’t sufficient for Obama to repudiate Farrakhan. He is being pressured to reject the support of Farrakhan’s followers. Is this reasonable or fair?

A clue to the answer may come from the American Jewish experience. We who ardently care for Israel have our own strange bedfellows in the Evangelical Christians whom we warmly embrace because of their support of the Jewish State, this despite thorny theological questions and, more immediately, an imposing list of Evangelical public policy positions that most American Jews strongly reject. We do not tell the Evangelicals to get lost, the upshot being that we have very strange bedfellows. There is admittedly a difference between Farrakhan’s hate-mongering and the ideology of Evangelicals.

Where there are relationships, there are accommodations that suggest cordiality between parties that left alone would have little to do with each other, at least not in a friendly way. Like all other democracies, the U.S. has close ties with countries that stray far from democratic principles. Israel feels compelled, rightly so, to distance itself from criticism of Turkey’s abysmal record toward Armenians.

We need to ease up, to understand that life brings complications and inconveniences that are unavoidable or have no easy exit. This doesn’t mean going soft on the likes of Farrakhan. It means that more slack needs to be given toward Blacks who believe that the Nation of Islam leader has accomplished some good for Blacks. It is wrong to hold Obama to the fire because he is Black.

He is also the target of an excess of negativity regarding his religious affiliation. The crossroads of religious identity and politics bear some resemblance to the strange bedfellow issue, yet there is a distinction. Some of the language conveyed in religious texts or by religious speakers is parochial and not for a universal audience. What is being conveyed are messages to adherents and not to outsiders. When the context is removed and the words are parsed, what often emerges are thoughts that are strange and, at times, unacceptable and even offensive because they run strongly counter to the sensibilities of the overall society and of persons who are not members of the religious group.

Candidates for high office who are strongly affiliated with a religion run the risk of being confronted by textual teachings and homiletics that many reject. Nearly a half century ago, Jack Kennedy traversed this territory with enormous skill. Mitt Romney wasn’t as fortunate, although for sure it was more than his Mormonism that sank his candidacy. Now Obama is accused of being a closet Muslim and challenged by those who have a problem with Islam.

When Joe Lieberman was Al Gore’s running mate eight years ago, he got something close to a free ride on his Judaism, with the focus being primarily and favorably on his Sabbath observance, shul attendance and other charming aspects of his life as an observant Jew. He did not have to justify texts or rabbinical sermons that persons who are not Jewish might have difficulty with.
When religious identity is a vital part of a candidate’s make-up, it is a subject that merits scrutiny. What isn’t right is for a candidate to be required to carry the burdens of his or her religion or to answer for someone else’s religious rhetoric. We need assurances that a candidate is fit for office, not that the religion is fit for office. It happens that our glorious Constitution does not allow a religion test, not to qualify anyone for office and not to disqualify anyone for office.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Teaching the Holocaust

It is already an old question whether the Holocaust is an appropriate subject for literature or any artistic expression, whether words or painting or music can convey an evil that was very real and yet transcended reality and even imagination. There is always the possibility that attempts to depict events that obliterated the boundaries of human understanding inevitably trivialize these events.

There has been trivia. There are also the words of Eli Wiesel, Primo Levi and other writers. For many religious Jews, lamentations composed by the Bobover Rebbe and Rav Shimon Schwab have been added to the Tisha b’Av recitations that describe the massacre of Jews from the destruction of the Temples through the Crusades. We are obligated to remember and this requires language and text.

If only because it is history, the Holocaust must be taught, especially to Jews, but not only to them. This, too, requires writings, as well as visual presentations, and there are questions and complications, including the strong temptation among Jews and persons who aren’t Jewish to invest that which was unique and beyond horrific with a universalistic message about tolerance. Tolerance is a necessary value and should be taught, but teaching the Holocaust is not about tolerance and to immerse the destruction of European Jewry in such a message is, I believe, an inadvertent form of Holocaust denial.

What to teach and show children and at what age are questions that have no easy answers. There is room for disagreement, as the discussion of this topic last week in this newspaper showed. Yad Vashem does not admit children younger than twelve and Jewish schools are careful about what younger children are exposed to. The New York Times (February 25) has now chipped in via a narcissistic column by Susan Dominus who attended a Conservative after-school program in Westchester. “It wasn’t unusual, at the time,” she writes, “for kids in Jewish day schools and after-school programs” to be “shown films of mass murder, piles of bodies in camps, so much graphic detail that our nascent faculties of analysis froze.”

I will not challenge what she describes as her age 11 experience. Her claim about what was shown in day schools and, for that matter, generally to young children, is false. They were not exposed to graphic details. What they may have seen in movies and on television is another matter.

Dominus describes without the slightest trace of sensibility the “trembling rage of my Hebrew school teacher when two fellow students giggled about some private girlish intrigue…as images from the camps flickered across the screen.” I guess that the nascent “faculties of analysis” did not freeze sufficiently to prevent childish giggling. The teacher, she tells us, “railed.” It matters not whether he/she was a survivor or had close relatives who were slaughtered. I wonder whether Dominus would be as unkind if the student giggling had occurred when she was at public school, perhaps during a history class. Would she be so unkind if the teacher became angry?

She next turns her attention to the “tiny subset” of Holocaust literature that she refers to as “Holocaust education trauma,” invoking as her experts Gary Shteyngart and Shalom Auslander, two talented writers with an overdeveloped yen for that which is vulgar. Both attended Jewish day school but are now far removed from our religious life, a circumstance that hardly deters them from writing about this life, often in a nasty fashion, a guarantor of fame and fortune in a world that rewards that which is debased. Apart from my reservations whether there is a serious issue of Holocaust education trauma, how a journalist can turn to Shteyngart and Auslander for guidance on the Holocaust is beyond my comprehension.

Shteyngart’s contribution is “a parody” that includes a section called “Holocaust For Kids” in which a fictional author advises, “Studies have shown that it’s never too early to frighten a child with images of skeletal remains and naked women being chased by dogs across the Polish snow.” Putting aside whether this could have happened at a Jewish school – is the reference to Schindler’s List? – parodying the actual murder of Jews is beyond obscenity. Would a journalist be permitted to cite as an authority on how to teach about slavery a parody of the actual lynching of a Black man? We Jews are fair game, often at the hands of other Jews who are morally depraved.

Auslander’s contribution to the debasement of Holocaust literature is called ”Holocaust Tips for Kids.” Dominus conveys his claim that “the first naked Jewish girl he ever saw, at age 11 while attending a yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y.” was “footage of a corpse tumbling off a pile of bulldozed bodies”. As with his other warped recollections converted into fiction, he is not a trustworthy writer of remembrances of things past.

Holocaust education poses challenges – what age, what material, what setting – and we should suspect the view that invoking the Holocaust can contribute meaningfully to Jewish identity and continuity. We have two generations of the American Jewish experience as powerful evidence that walking out of the door of Jewish life is not impeded by Holocaust memorials, movies, etc.

The Holocaust must be taught, if only because it happened. We Jews are obligated to go beyond teaching, for we must never forget, even though there are those who prefer that we do. Our memories and our words must be charged with emotion, with tears and anger, and we must never apologize for this even if a writer at the New York Times thinks it wrong.

Need it be added that for the Times there is the heightened obligation to be careful about what it publishes regarding the Holocaust? Many of us cannot forget what this newspaper that claims to publish all that is fit to print did not publish when Jews were being slaughtered by the thousands, day after day, year after year.