Friday, December 26, 2008

They’re At It Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ehud Olmert and Rod Blagojevich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 12, 2008

Ultra Wrong, Ultra Offensive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Kiddush Hashem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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