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.