Monday, May 05, 2008

RJJ Newsletter - May 2008

In the 1970’s, the distinguished Harvard social scientist, James Q. Wilson and others, advanced a theory about urban decay and crime prevention that is referred to as “Broken Windows,” the idea being that the neglect of minor signs of decay in a neighborhood – such things as broken windows – will result in more serious decline, the likely consequence being the moving away of more stable families and increased criminal activity. At a practical level, their argument was that to fight or reduce crime, it is necessary to confront the small problems, the seemingly minor urban pathologies.

This theory has been widely discussed and examined and along with other theoretical developments and policy changes, it resulted in major modifications in the way police resources are deployed and, it is said, in the reduction of crime in nearly all of urban America, although doubtlessly there have been other contributory factors.

While the application of “Broken Windows” to police work was a novelty, the underlying concept is familiar, it being that neglect breeds additional neglect and, most likely, more serious neglect. In our religious teachings we have the thought, aveira gorreres aveira, that the toleration of sin results in further transgression. When small problems or wrongs are ignored, they serve as building blocks for greater wrongs and ultimately there is a culture of tolerance of wrongdoing, so that we scarcely see that which is wrong. This is what is meant by the term avar v’shana, that the repetition and familiarity of wrongdoing leads to the attitude that what is wrong is acceptable, if not also appropriate.

It isn’t practical or even necessary to expect perfection in human affairs. People aren’t perfect, as we acknowledge in our prayers during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. We are limited in our capabilities and understanding and so enveloped in self-interest to sufficiently appreciate at times what is happening in the world in which we live. We are also limited in the resources that are needed to bring about improvement, even when we recognize that improvement is needed. We may not have the physical or emotional strength to bring about change or we may not have the time to do things that we know need to be done. Inevitably, we settle at times for less than the best, whether in personal matters or in all kinds of associations.

There is, however, a critical difference between recognizing that we fall short and the attitude that falling short is acceptable.

Whatever limitations we bring to our primary responsibilities, they are inescapably present in our communal activity, particularly in those activities that are voluntary. The attitude is that we can be remiss in that which is voluntary because, after all, we are not being paid.

This is wrong, if only because it results in the tolerance of neglect. Sadly, in too much of our communal life the attitude is don’t do today what can be put off until tomorrow and, worse yet, don’t do it at all because who cares. There is a culture of neglect that is harmful and has bad consequences and this is especially evident in our schools where what is at stake is the education of children, their development as Jews and into healthy adulthood. When the needs of a student are neglected, that is a situation of broken windows. When contributions are not properly acknowledged, that is also a broken window. Another is when there is inadequate maintenance. In my experience, on the administrative side of yeshivas and day schools, there are too many broken windows.

I have been told over the years that I am too harsh, too determined to impose my intensive standard on others. Perhaps, although I wonder why a more lax standard is more appropriate than one that insists on addressing problems and issues in a timely fashion.

What is at stake is more than minor and certainly not abstract. Elsewhere in this Newsletter I point to some notable achievements at our schools. Over a great number of years I have argued in different settings that yeshivas and day schools in the aggregate do a terrific job when we consider the pressures they face, financial shortfalls, the stringencies of a dual curriculum and the need to serve multiple constituencies. I often marvel over the dedication and achievements of the faculty, people who invariably are low paid. But what our schools accomplish is undermined, at least at the level of perception, when the first things that people see are the broken windows and the warts and flaws.

We must inculcate in our schools the attitude that neglect is wrong, even though perfection cannot be achieved. That is the standard that we actually use in our religious life. We do not say that we can transgress today and will be observant tomorrow. We know that aveira gorreres aveira.