Thursday, December 31, 2009

Against the Wall

Civil society is founded on respect for the law and customs, including laws and even customs that many may not like. When laws and customs are in conflict, there are valid reasons to challenge one or the other and, at times, both. When they are in harmony, they possess greater legitimacy and there is consequently a greater obligation to accord them respect. When either has been challenged in court and the judicial outcome supports the status quo, there is a yet greater obligation to accept, not necessarily attitudinally but surely in practice, that which society, legislators and judges have agreed to.

These understandings should serve as a frame of reference when we consider the efforts of a small group of women to challenge rules and regulations that do not permit them to conduct an alternative service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. That should be the end of the story, except that it never is in Jewish life. We are afflicted by a heightened instinct to challenge religious norms. Of course, all religions are prone to schisms. In ours, there is the tendency to go far down the road of religious deviance.

I have no doubt that the Women of the Wall, the fringe group whose aim is to change the rules governing services at the Kotel, are sincere as is Nofrat Frenkel, the young medical student recently arrested when she attempted to conduct an unauthorized service. This sincerity is embedded in egotism, in the attitude that what I/we want trumps long-standing religious practices, the sensibilities of others notwithstanding. If these women would be in a Christian, Islamic or Buddhist setting, the powerful likelihood is that they would adhere to restrictions in dress, prayer or other behavior. They would be compliant. Judaism, however, does not enjoy an equal right to respect.

For all of Ms. Frenkel’s wrongful behavior, it was foolish and wrong to arrest her, foolish because she was thereby elevated to undeserved sainthood or some equivalent status and, more importantly, wrongful because it is preferable, perhaps obligatory, in these situations to deter persons from what they are attempting to do without bringing to bear the gratuitous weight of criminal charges.

The Kotel is a place for tefila, not heroics. Admittedly, too many men, specifically including the Orthodox, are unmindful of this setting and obligation, thereby violating the sanctity of the place. The schmoozers, schnorrers and protestors all act contrary to the sense of kedusha, the sanctity that the Kotel mandates. Two wrongs, as we are often reminded, do not make a right.

As expected, Ms. Frenkel is now widely admired as a hero, including by this newspaper, which isn’t surprising when we reflect on how our media cover religious matters. But even a biased outlook should have room for objectivity, should be able to reflect on the totality of circumstances when considering whether this woman’s actions were justified.

It should matter that, in the words of the New York Times headline on the story, Ms. Frenkel challenged “traditions at the heart of Judaism.” Should it not matter that the challenged arrangement is incorporated into Israeli law through legislation enacted by the Knesset? Should it not matter that Israel’s Supreme Court, notorious or famous depending on one’s outlook for upsetting the religious applecart, has rejected a challenge to the ban on the service that Ms. Frenkel sought to conduct?

These should be powerful considerations for those who believe that, in Winston Churchill’s great formulation, democracy is the worst form of government except for all of the others. If none of this counts, what about Israeli public opinion? I have some involvement in surveys of how Israeli Jews look at religious issues and though to my knowledge there are no statistics on the Kotel issue, based on other data I would hazard a guess that overwhelmingly Israelis would endorse the current arrangements at the Kotel.

Another factor that merits consideration is the unwelcome impact of any alternative service on the tefila of the many women who come to the Kotel to pray in a traditional manner.

It is also noteworthy that despite abundant publicity and other support, little headway has been made by those who seek to challenge and change Orthodox liturgical practices, whether here or in Israel. This specifically includes among the Modern Orthodox, a subgroup that clearly is not insensitive to questions about the place of women in religious Jewish life. There is little interest in alternative services that purport to elevate the role of women. Even as the role of women has evolved in much of Orthodox life, it remains that within synagogues and in liturgical and ritual matters there is a powerful reluctance to yield to fads or ideological preferences that are antithetical to our heritage.

I know that there are persons who will read this as apologetics for antiquated rules that are contrary to contemporary standards. I wonder whether it is all that difficult to understand that what has been labeled for far too long as out of touch or fundamentalist has proven to be essential to our survival as a people. For nearly two-thousand years we yearned in our prayers and in our hearts to return to Jerusalem so that we could pray there and serve G-D. We did not pray or yearn to behave in a destructive fashion or to change the way prayer has been conducted.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Lords Have Ruled

We Jews worldwide are in number considerably fewer than half the margin of error in the Chinese census or, for that matter, India’s census. Yet, we are at the center of attention, a condition that should not be welcomed, and we have always been awash in questions of status. This is true of good times and bad times. When the going is good, there are those who seek to identify with us, while when there is persecution, there are those who flee Jewish identity. Either circumstance begets “Who Is a Jew?” issues. Because persecution invariably results in losses that generally are not reversible, the more enduring questions arise out of Jewish success.

From the time of Joshua and for many generations, there were converts whose embrace of Judaism was questionable. Later on, there were similar issues regarding Cutheans that remained up in the air into the Talmudic period. During the reigns of Kings David and Solomon, there were a great number of converts by religious courts of dubious authority. Their status, as the Talmud indicates and Maimonides set down in his Code, was to wait and to see how their attachment to Judaism developed over the years. After the reversal of fortune in the Purim narrative, we read that many embraced Judaism.

The lessons to be learned from this substantial experience are that questions of Jewish identity are familiar territory, so that issues that arise in the contemporary period are not unique, and, furthermore, that the unfolding of history will resolve status questions that are now contentious. This is true of the mountain of issues arising from the high degree of social mobility and the companion notions of tolerance and personal choice that have resulted in the extraordinarily high incidence of intermarriage, as well as other behaviors that inexorably result in questions of status.

For the moment, which may be an extended period, and with the exception of Israel – but not entirely even there – world Jewry has accepted a sociological rather than an halachic definition of Jewish identity. We include in our statistics a great many who do not meet the traditional criteria and do not include those whose halachic status is certainly Jewish yet who say that they no longer identify as Jewish. There are many persons around the world who according to halacha are Jewish but who do not know that they are Jewish because their parents or grandparents abandoned their faith.

As in the past, the passage of time will resolve matters that now seem blurred or are in dispute, I believe overwhelmingly in the direction of Jewish loss. However, conversions that do not conform to halachic standards will be more vexatious because in these situations there is often a strong desire to identify as Jewish. The point is made in the current issue of Mishpacha, the weekly that perhaps is the best English-language Jewish magazine anywhere. In an interview with Rabbi Hershel Schachter, the distinguished Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, we read: “Occasionally we have had talmidim (students) who subsequently discover that their mother had a Reform conversion or had no conversion at all. So then I get involved in gerus (conversion). All the rebbes over the years had situations where a boy was going for smichah (ordination) and then discovered that he wasn’t Jewish… We frequently have similar situations, which forced me to become involved in conversions.”

This brings me to the ruling a few days ago by Great Britain’s Supreme Court in the case involving the refusal of JFS, formerly the Jewish Free School, a highly regarded Modern Orthodox secondary school, to admit a 13-year old applicant whose mother was converted by what we would refer to as Conservative religious authority. By a split vote, the Lords and one Lady, ruled that this violated the country’s anti-discrimination law.

Each of the judges wrote an opinion and reading this substantial legal output is a remarkable experience because the jurists, especially those in the majority, were sensitive to the situation of the school and the standards of Orthodox Jewry, with its requirement of matrilineal descent or conversion by an Orthodox court. They recognized that the school did not intend to be discriminatory, but held that motivation was not a determining factor under the statute and that although religious schools could under English law refuse to admit applicants who were not of the their religious faith, the distinction between different modes of conversion amounts to an ethnic and not religious criterion and therefore is barred by law.

For all of the expressions of empathy, such as Parliament can change the law but we cannot, it’s difficult to grasp why JFS’s policy is labeled as ethnic and not religious. The ruling has upset much of English Jewry and not only the Orthodox. JFS has altered its admissions criteria to cover specific religious behaviors. It’s difficult to assess what further impact the ruling may have.

In view of changing social realities and attitudes in the U.S., Jewish day schools cannot avoid identity or status issues. A surprisingly large number of non-Orthodox schools admit children who are not Jewish by any definition, while there are Orthodox schools that admit applicants whose mothers were not born Jewish and were not converted by the Orthodox. This is the reality acknowledged by Rabbi Schachter and it is the approach in Chabad schools that have an outreach orientation. A generation ago, leading Orthodox Rabbinic leaders allowed such admissions under special circumstances, as when the aim was to make a school viable or to avoid conflict. Of course, such admissions could not be permitted to affect the character of the school or have a negative impact on other students. The thrust of this policy was to be faithful to the halachic system, even as individual circumstances may result in particular leniencies. In these situations, as with J.F.S. and other status issues, we need to be mindful that history will provide the answers.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Congratulations American Jewry

It would take a miracle for yeshivas and day schools to fare well in the current economic environment and although it is now Chanukah which is the festival of miracles, we know that we cannot and must not rely on miracles. There is unhappy news in this vital sector of Jewish life, with the prospect of further unwelcome developments in the form of declining enrollment and school closings.

Actually, enrollment is up by about 2% this year, all of it attributable to high fertility among the fervently Orthodox who comprise about 60% of all enrollment. Elsewhere in the day school world, there is decline.

As one example of many, there is the story of Rambam, a Modern Orthodox school that opened in Atlanta in September 2008. A year later it closed, in large measure because of financial difficulties. Of the thirty-seven students enrolled in June, twelve are now in public school. In Los Angeles, a local Jewish newspaper reported recently that at one public high school there are forty boys who wear yarmulkas. Solomon Schechter schools (Conservative) that lost a large share of their enrollment between 1998 and 2008 have lost another 6% this year. There are, sadly, too many other similar developments, of course with the notable exception of yeshiva-world and chassidic schools.

As has been widely reported, the Conservative movement is in crisis, as many synagogues have closed or merged and membership is down. The Schechter situation reflects this reality. Both the Forward and this newspaper featured last week long front-page stories on efforts to strengthen the movement, the primary focus being on United Synagogue, which is the Conservative’s congregational body. The Forward article made no mention of the Schechters, while the sole reference in this newspaper was essentially a comment by a top Conservative rabbi downplaying the importance of these schools to the future of the movement. A front-page photo of Conservative leaders that accompanied the story included the head of the Cantors Assembly but no one from the Schechter Association. Unless Conservatives start singing a different tune, their woes will escalate.

Another Conservative angle points to the predicament facing day schools. Once upon a time, key Conservative leaders, mainly at Jewish Theological Seminary, strongly supported government aid to the academic or secular program of schools under religious sponsorship. No more. With the exception of the Orthodox, nearly all of American Jewry marches in lockstep in opposition to government aid, believing with full paranoid faith that any assistance would surely result in terrible evils, this despite tons of evidence to the contrary from democracies across the globe. Fanatics are never bothered by facts.

It is astonishing that we who are divided on just about every issue, including Israel, are of one voice on this issue. There is no debate or discussion, no leader saying that we should at least think about government aid, no editorial in the Anglo-Jewish press calling for reconsideration, no agenda item at the annual General Assembly. The most die-hard ideologues are more open-minded than we are.

Congratulations American Jewry on the immensely successful effort to undermine meaningful Jewish education and to undermine Jewish continuity. Even the Orthodox should not be proud, as their major organizations utilize public relations and marketing as a surrogate for advocacy.

As noted, the situation is certain to get worse. New York which has 135,000 dayschoolers recently enacted a new payroll tax to help fund the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. No employers are exempt, including nonpublic schools. The law provides, however, that public school districts will be reimbursed. This strikes me as constitutionally questionable on several grounds and I believe that there should be litigation. As yet, there is no interest in pursuing the matter. This tax will cost yeshivas and day schools as much as $2 million a year.

Many of our schools were on shaky financial ground when the economy was doing well. The downturn has hit hard. My rough estimate is that more than half of the 800 U.S. day schools are in trouble. They rely almost exclusively on tuition and contributions and both have been impacted. More parents are saying that they cannot pay what the school is asking and contributions are down dramatically, at some schools nearly to the vanishing point.

Yeshiva and day school financial realities are translated into additional hardship in thousands of homes as faculty and staff, nearly all of whom are greatly underpaid and many of whom are traditionally paid late, must struggle to make ends meet when their meager paychecks do not arrive. Our community is standing idly by as people who have devoted themselves to religious education are suffering.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg who has played a noble role in advocating for day schools has circulated an eloquent article calling on our community to provide greater support. His plea is earnest and yet the prospect that it will generate even modest results is remote. What is needed is a return to the militant advocacy that he demonstrated decades ago, as well as a willingness of our community to abandon the false god that preaches against government aid.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Rabbi Jacob Joseph School

Please consider making a contribution to the four schools under the umbrella of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. These schools are the Jewish Foundation School, a 400-student kiruv school on Staten Island under the leadership of Rabbi Richard Ehrlich; Yeshiva Merkaz HaTorah, which consists of a boys school under the leadership of Rabbi Mayer Friedman and a girls school led by Mrs. Esther Akerman; and a high school and beis medrash in Edison, NJ led by Rabbi Yaakov Busel and Rabbi Yosef Eichenstein.

This is a truly unique arrangement, in which RJJ strives to fulfill a key principle of Torah education - chanoch l'naar al pi darcho, teach each child in the ways that best meet his needs.

Many families whose children are attending our schools are receiving significantly reduced tuitions. At the same time, we are experiencing a huge downturn in contributions, more than 50 percent since April of this year.

This is my 37th year as RJJ's president and support of RJJ is below what it has been throughout this entire period. Please consider helping.

Donations can be be made electronically via Paypal, to or mailed to Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, 3495 Richmond Road, Staten Island, NY 10306.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Bad Idea

It matters not whether she is from J Street or from Avenue J, the appointment of Hannah Rosenthal as the State Department’s “Special Envoy” on anti-Semitism is a bad idea. For all of the hi-falutin title – as in special envoy for the Middle East or Afghanistan – the position is no more than an envoyship to Foggy Bottom, to a vast bureaucracy that is adept at positions that although bereft of substance give the trappings of importance.

The office now occupied by Ms. Rosenthal was created five years ago by congressional legislation, one more act by a legislative body that mistakes pandering for high public service. It is small wonder that Congress is held in low public esteem. Precisely because anti-Semitism is dangerous, the last thing that is needed to combat this terrible social disease is vacuous rhetoric and meaningless acts that suggest that the problem is being dealt with.

Ms. Rosenthal isn’t the first occupant of this position. Her predecessor was Gregg Rickman who according to an editorial in this newspaper “laid a good foundation as the first anti-Semitism envoy.” He is doubtlessly a good person with proper commitment, yet it is a good deal more than a stretch to suggest that he accomplished anything. How many readers of this newspaper ever heard of him? For sure he was busy writing memos, reading what others sent to him, attending meetings and finding things to fill the time. It’s a good bet that Ms. Rosenthal will be similarly occupied, although given her greater experience in Jewish affairs, the likelihood is that much of her time will be occupied with conferences and a multitude of communal events.

The principles that guide this nation are alone justification for our government challenging anti-Semitism, as well as racism and bigotry against any ethnic or nationality group. Anti-Semitism especially needs to be spotlighted because history, distant and recent, amply documents the toll exacted through the tolerance of the hatred of Jews. We Jews have a right to be parochial, to pressure Washington to confront and condemn anti-Semitism. We are not guests in this country. Even if we were, that would not negate our right to advocate what we think is best for our people.

The problem is that bureaucracy may be the antithesis to combating anti-Semitism, a severe social disease that has, I believe, no ready cure as long as our people remain distinct and relatively successful. Since Ms. Rosenthal’s job is in the State Department, is it too much to hope that her office will be the one that was occupied during the Holocaust by Breckenridge Long, the high official whose anti-Semitism impelled him to thwart efforts to rescue refugees? She will have an abundance of perverse riches to examine since the hatred of Jews is alive and spreading in too many places.

I am certain that home-bred or U.S.-based anti-Semitism isn’t part of her mandate, which is a shame because that is the variety that our government can and should effectively deal with. There are neo-Nazis and an assortment of far rightwing haters who have conspiracy theories about Jews and they need to be confronted. There is evidence of anti-Semitism at the FBI and other intelligence agencies and this will surely be off-limits, as is the place where Ms. Rosenthal now works, although there too there lingers the legacy of too many officials, including the great George C. Marshall, who exhibited animosity toward Jews.

This leaves the wide wide world where there is anti-Semitism aplenty and there will be much for Ms. Rosenthal to read and write about and preciously little else for her to do. Even on the information side there will be little for her to add to the ground already covered by the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee.

We know that Western Europe has had repeated outbreaks of anti-Jewish actions and rhetoric. We also know that in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism remains a serious problem despite the paucity of Jews. Are we to expect that Ms. Rosenthal will have an impact on how our government addresses an issue that quite frankly is low on the totem pole of current U.S. diplomatic concerns?

Throughout Europe, as well as elsewhere, there are diplomatic niceties and national interests that dictate what issues any American administration may choose to address. There are always bigger fish in the diplomatic pond to contend with and although we may wish that it were otherwise, it is a rare day when any president or administration will make much of an issue over anti-Semitism. As just one of many examples, this is evident in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Saudi Arabian law and practices are enveloped in the hatred of Jews. Has any president or secretary of state underscored this issue in discussions with this or that King Saud or King Faud?

Even in regard to Iran, it is hard to see how anti-Semitism fits into the equation. If the U.S. at long last takes concrete action to punish or limit Iran, it will not be because that country has engaged in anti-Semitism but because Washington believes that it is in America’s interest to take such action. What role is Ms. Rosenthal to play regarding Iran or in U.S. relations with Venezuela whose leader Chavez has been bitten by the anti-Semitism bug?

This outlook is admittedly pessimistic. It arises not from an absence of concern about anti-Semitism as from an absence of confidence that conventional diplomacy is an antidote to the disease. It is necessary for the President and Secretary of State to speak out occasionally. I feel that the State Department office will have the unintended effect of locating the issue in the middle labyrinth of a vast bureaucracy. That is what happened under President Bush. I believe that the Obama administration will be no different.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Where Have You Gone Arnold J. Toynbee?

History isn’t kind to historians. Most are forgotten and those who aren’t usually turn up as footnotes in dissertations or in books that are destined for a similar fate. A few have lasting relevance, mainly because later historians challenge their interpretations of the past. This should not be surprising. There is constant disagreement about recent events, about what happened not long ago. Why should there be agreement or clarity about events long past?

What we call history is to one extent or another subjective, as it is affected by ideology and other commitments, prevailing cultural norms and, of course, by limited knowledge. It has been noted that history is largely written by the winners. While pursuing my doctorate a half century ago, I taught social studies for two years at the newly-established high school of Yeshiva Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch in Washington Heights, an experience that yielded a great and lasting blessing. While teaching the American Revolution, students were given the assignment of ascertaining how British historians looked at the same events, the obvious point being to show how perspective powerfully affects what is written.

Few famous historians have been treated more unkindly than Arnold J. Toynbee. With his twelve-volume “Study of History,” he was both idol and icon, perched right at the top of the historians’ hit parade. The set could be had for a pittance through membership in the Book of the Month Club, which for decades served as a cultural must in a great number of middle class homes. We Jews took the bait in droves. In the recesses of our homes and in library stacks, Toynbee remains with his cock-a-mamie names of civilizations and nations never heard of before or since. As for Jews, Toynbee had a bad case of upper class British anti-Semitism and identified us as “a fossil of the Syriac civilization.” Nowadays, it is Toynbee who is a fossil.

I thought of him while reading a smug New York Times article on “The Invention of the Jewish People,” a book by Shlomo Sand who teaches at Tel Aviv University. Whatever his other credentials, Sand is an exhibitionist, another academic who knows that the best way to attract attention in a very crowded field is to offer a sensationalist tale. According to the Times article, his contribution to the genre “is to undercut the Jews’ claim to the land of Israel by demonstrating that they do not constitute ‘a people,’ with a shared racial or biological past.” Why do we Jews produce an excess of self-haters and other misfits masquerading as scholars? We even have Holocaust deniers. Is it the result of our being stiff-necked or could it be that we are no different than other people, but for understandable reasons we are more aware of the misfits in our ranks?

The Times’ article, written by Patricia Cohen, opens with the declaration “that some popular beliefs about Jewish history simply don’t hold up: there was no sudden expulsion of all Jews from Jerusalem in A.D. 70” and “modern Jews owe their ancestry as much to converts from the first millennium and early Middle Ages as to the Jews of antiquity.”

There is some validity and some nonsense in this passage, but none of this makes us an invention. It is certain that many Jews remained in Jerusalem and in other parts of what was then the land of Israel and also that many were killed or forced to leave. It is certain that conversion and intermarriage were key elements in the story of the Jews, as far back as the era of Kings David and Solomon through the Talmudic period. It also could be said that, in a sense, all nations and people are inventions, none more than we Americans. No people descend fully developed onto a parcel of this earth like manna from heaven.

While Sand posits that we aren’t who we say we are, there are writers galore who have claimed that other people are who we say we are, meaning that they are Jews even if they are not identified as such. There is much literature about the Khazars and other Asiatics. We obviously know about the Ethiopian story. Hillel Halkin has discovered a sect in India which he identifies as having Jewish roots. Around the globe and especially in Europe and North America there are millions who came from good Jewish stock and who are not identified as Jews. If DNA testing were mandatory, our demographers would have a field day.

The notion of “invention” flies in the face of significant contrary evidence. Not long ago, there was a flurry of articles regarding DNA tests showing the genealogical continuity of our Kohanic or priestly subgroup, this despite all of our marrying out over many centuries and other people marrying in. It is clear that from the early years of Christianity until the present, the outflow from Jewish life was far greater than the influx through conversion. Historical circumstances, including the persecution of Jews and Rabbinic stringencies, have served as formidable barriers against conversion into Judaism. Cohen’s reference to conversion into the early Middle Ages is wildly inaccurate.

The upshot is that if we are an invention, we are one heck of an enduring invention, a people whose character has been essentially maintained over an enormous span of time, perhaps significantly longer than any other nation or people, this despite the lack of a homeland and dispersal, horrific persecution, acculturation into other societies and massive Judaic abandonment.

The invention in Shlomo’s Sands’ book is his book, not the Jewish people. He now has his yearned for moment of attention. Soon enough, he will be forgotten and his work will not even enjoy the dubious fate of Arnold J. Toynbee whose voluminous writings are orphaned works that are bereft of attention.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thou Shalt Organize

I have never been to the General Assembly, not to the organization of about one-hundred and fifty nation-states that is a key component of the United Nations, and not to the General Assembly that is the itinerant annual mega-conference for about one-hundred and fifty Jewish Federations. For a time in the 1960s, I was indirectly involved in the first of these GAs when I served on a voluntary basis as the representative of the American Civil Liberties Union which had non-governmental status at the UN in connection with efforts to promote the genocide and other human rights treaties.

Our GA is sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America which is the new name for what had been called United Jewish Communities, which in turn was the replacement name for the Council of Jewish Federations. As I wrote when UJC came into usage, religious Jews have the custom of changing the name of a gravely ill person in the hope that this will stave off the Angel of Death and what the Federations were doing seemed to be a similar exercise. Alas, our communal patient has continued to deteriorate and it is doubtful that meaningful benefits will result from the latest name change, except perhaps for the sign-makers.

What may make a difference is the arrival of Jerry Silverman as chief executive. He is talented and creative and did wonders at the Foundation for Jewish Camping as he convinced major donors that camping is a high philanthropic priority, this for an activity that with a straight face defines as “non-profit” camps that may charge $8,000 or more per child for the summer.

Irrespective of Mr. Silverman’s impact, a key question is whether we need an umbrella agency for the Federation network. A more basic question is whether we need the Federation system as it has developed over the past century. Of course, the most fundamental question of all is whether we need all of our organizations. We have, by far, far many more organizations than any American ethnic group, including those that are far larger than we are. If we cannot figure out how to commit organicide, can we at least figure out how to stop constantly adding to the number? Excluding schools, shuls and actual services, the aggregate cost of our organizational infrastructure is beyond enormous.

The short answer to these questions is that we need our organizations. They are our comforters, our security blankets. It is as if we have an Eleventh Commandment – and for some secular Jews it may be the First – declaring, “Thou Shalt Organize.” This is a fundamental tenet of our civil religion and, as a matter of faith, it is not to be questioned. In the 1950s, we commissioned Robert McIver, the eminent sociologist, to examine our communal life and in his report, now long forgotten, he said that we had too many organizations and recommended consolidation. Nowadays, even as our organizational ranks have swelled, we question no longer. We are true believers.

If there is any functionality to our fetish with organizations it is that the arrangement provides numerous connecting points to Jewish life, including Israel, for a great number of Jews who otherwise might be distant from our community. This is not an unimportant consideration, yet it can only carry us so far. One cost of the arrangement is that it elevates service to the organization as a form of voluntarism over service to individuals and the community.

There is much evidence that younger Jews, by which I mean persons below the age of forty, pay little attention to the organizations that have served as magnets for their grandparents and parents. The Federation concept is in its second century and it is not necessary to catalogue the communal, societal, technological, behavioral and attitudinal changes that have made for most of us, excluding the Orthodox, the world of our fathers not the world that we are part of.

If the Jewish Federations of North America is here to stay, the challenge facing Jerry Silverman is to bring about significant changes so that its General Assembly is not merely, in the trite formulation employed last week by Gary Rosenblatt, considered by many as “the premier Jewish communal event on the calendar” and “a kind of parliament of the organized Jewish community.” Attendance at the GA is primarily the outcome of the attendees overwhelmingly being on the communal dole.

To go forward, it is necessary to return to the past. At the recent GA, day school education was, at most, a secondary topic of concern. Forty years ago, as Gary Rosenblatt noted, Yitz Greenberg led a demonstration at the plenary session demanding greater funding for day school education. Day school education may no longer be controversial but that is because in the mindset of Jewish Federations of North America, it is too inconsequential an activity to merit controversy.

All told, our organizational life is saddled with too much complacency, too much of a willingness to reward the company men and women who toe the line, dutifully attending this or that meaningless event without daring to explore new territory or new ideas. That is why for more the relatively small number of American Jews who make a meaningful difference in Jewish life, our General Assembly is not a significant event on the communal calendar. For them, our General Assembly merits no more than scant attention. This attitude resembles in a way the attitude that many American Jews have about the other General Assembly that is located adjacent to the East River in Manhattan.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Throwing Stones at Goldstone

Richard Goldstone and his already infamous report eat at our kishkes. We call him names, presumably all fitting, and give his document no quarter. We believe that the report proves that Israel was right not to cooperate with the biased investigation that he led and Israel and Jews everywhere are right to denounce the biased document that has been issued.

This does not end the matter. Goldstone remains active, although apparently clueless as to why we are so agitated, and he is eager to respond to criticism and determined to see that the severe charges against Israel continue to be in the public eye. In this he is abetted and comforted by the Arab states and the nations across the globe that have made Israel-bashing an element of their foreign policy. Israel advocates mistakenly believe that condemning the report will make it go away.

We scored a victory, albeit of the famous variety, in getting the House of Representatives to declare in a solemn resolution that the report is “irredeemably biased and unworthy of further consideration or legitimacy.” The text includes thirty-two “whereas” clauses, not one of which expresses sorrow over civilian deaths, an omission that may be justified on grounds of pertinence but surely not on public relations grounds. Interestingly, thirty-six members of the House – they aren’t the thirty-six righteous – voted against and about five dozen more did not vote.

Whatever the vote or the text, Goldstone isn’t going away and he isn’t cowed. No sooner was the ink dry on the resolution than he fired off a letter correcting “factual errors.” Throwing stones at Goldstone may make us feel better by showing once more that we care intensely about Israel. It will not change any reality.

Historians will consider whether it was wise or right for Israel to go into Gaza and whether the apparent severity of the campaign was justified by the results. What is past is beyond change, as is the question of whether Israel should have cooperated or interacted with the Goldstone commission. What remains in the public arena is the issue of Israeli and Jewish response to the report. Treating it like the plague will not accomplish very much.

A response is in order and there is plenty to challenge. Moshe Halbertal, the noted Israeli philosopher who teaches at Hebrew University and from time to time at major U.S. universities, has a terrific piece in the current The New Republic in which he effectively cuts the feet out from under many of the report’s sharpest findings against Israel, showing how they are at once prejudiced and foolish in their glaring failure to consider the combat situations under which Israel operated. Halbertal concludes, “The Goldstone Report as a whole is a terrible document. It is biased and unfair. It offers no help in sorting out the real issues.”

Yet, in the final paragraph Halbertal writes, “It is important that Israel respond to the U.N. report by clarifying the principles that it operated upon in Gaza, thus exposing the limits and the prejudices of the report. A mere denunciation of the report will not suffice. Israel must establish an independent investigation into the concrete allegations that the report makes.”

This isn’t the path likely to be taken by Prime Minister Netenyahu and his government or by ardent Israel advocates on these shores and elsewhere in the Diaspora. It is comforting to condemn Goldstone, the U.N. and other Israel critics and we who care deeply about Israel regard it as a sign of weakness to offer detailed rebuttals.

Apart from the strategy not working, including among a good number of younger Jews who have already distanced themselves from Israel, the problem is that almost certainly Israel has been investigating certain of the report’s specific allegations and it did not need any prompting to do so. This is what democracies do (or should do) after hostilities, if only because it is necessary to learn from mistakes and also to determine whether there were violations of the code of military practice. War inevitably brings a multitude of horrors, including those arising from faulty intelligence, faulty armaments, friendly fire, confusion during battle, psychological breakdowns and much else. Post-conflict investigation is routine and this has been true of Israel’s wars; doubtlessly, Gaza is no exception.

For all of its bizarreness and failure to consider context, the report’s major recommendation amounts to the request that the countries or entities that are the target of accusations undertake independent investigations. There is understandably a strong temptation to defy this recommendation on the ground that to investigate now would give legitimacy to Goldstone and his colleagues. This is wrong. Halbertal writes, “It was a mistake on Israel’s part not to participate in the inquiry,” and while he adds that “After reading the report, I am more sympathetic to Israel’s reluctance,” it is clear that he believes participation would have been the better course. It would be a mistake for Israel not to launch an independent investigation.

True, an investigation probably will result in some nasty revelations regarding, I believe, limited wrongful behavior. The greater likelihood by far will be a better understanding of the conditions under which Israel’s military operated as Hamas obliterated the distinction between soldiers and civilians, constantly using the latter as human shields for its terrorist activities. There are no guarantees and there is an element of risk. Yet, this is a risk that needs to be taken.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Right About Birthright

Birthright Israel was born a decade ago as an act of near desperation. Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman recognized that the bad statistics and news about American Jewish identity and commitment were real and that all the expensive press agentry and programming of our establishment would bring scant improvement. They grasped at the straw of a free brief trip to Israel not because they thought that it would be a miracle worker but because they believed that it had the prospect to do some good and there was no equally good idea on the horizon. They found partners in the Israel government and the Jewish Agency which feared that Judaic abandonment by American Jews would be severely detrimental to the Jewish State.

When asked at the time by the American Jewish Congress to assess Birthright’s prospects, I wrote an article for its monthly magazine suggesting that if the initiative was not oversold, it likely would bring about meaningful benefits.

Ten years later, it is clear that Birthright was a good idea whose time had come. It is, in the term used by the people at Brandeis who have just issued a major report, not a “panacea.” The crisis of identity among American young Jews remains real and in many respects the situation is worse than it was in 1999. Our losses continue and ultimately this will be recognized, yet it is also the case that Birthright has in a meaningful way connected many young Jews with vital elements of their heritage.

The Birthright research was conducted at Brandeis’ Cohen Center which has emerged as the premier institute for the study of American Jewish demography. In earlier studies, Cohen had given Birthright high marks and this was challenged on several grounds, mainly whether the experience was translated into meaningful attitudinal and behavioral change. The new report is exquisite as it seeks to steer readers through technical exercises. This is a painstaking and honest effort to study a complex subject and the authors of the report carefully detail the limitations of the research conducted so far on Birthright.

The report was discussed at length last week in Gary Rosenblatt’s excellent article and there is no need to retrace the story, except to take mild issue with the heading, “Birthright Study Offers Mixed Bag of Results.” The findings are, in the aggregate, positive.

Not that they cannot be questioned. For all of the care taken by Len Saxe and his brilliant team to get it right, Jewish demography remains imprecise, witness the constant and substantial disagreements over how many American Jews there are, as well as what they believe and how they behave. Witness, as well, the sharp debate over intermarriage. If I can borrow from Roger Maris breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, perhaps an asterisk should be appended to our quantitative studies declaring that this is what we come up with the methodology that has been employed.

Our population studies rely on what is referred to as weighting, meaning that the responses given by participants in the research are not treated equally, with some being given more weight and some less. This process inevitably relies heavily on what the researchers already believe to be the case, so that to an extent what the new research finds is the confirmation of assumptions that are being made, as well as previous research.

What has received the greatest attention, including the Wall Street Journal which messed up regarding the Orthodox, is the statistic that Birthrighters are significantly more likely to marry Jews than young adults of similar background in the control group who applied for the trip but were not selected. This finding is tentative because the early Birthright cohorts were more Jewishly involved than the more recent groups and also because relatively few in the control group have married. More will be learned about marital choice and other behaviors down the road as the plan is to continue to track the earlier groups and to engage in additional research on the later cohorts.

Although the intermarriage finding is presented as a positive, as it should be, curiously, in other research the Brandeis folks are suggesting that marrying out does not result in a reduced commitment to Israel, nor is it a Jewish demographic time bomb.

Whatever the impact of Birthright on intermarriage, intermarriage is having, perhaps inevitably, a large impact on Birthright. As has been reported, the program is now making a deliberate effort to attract the offspring of intermarried parents. Beyond this, except for the Orthodox, American Jewry has been enormously affected by assimilatory forces, the decisive trend being away from religious involvement toward secular activities and attitudes. Birthright is not exempt. There are indications that unlike the early years, the ten-day program is veering away from activities that focus significantly on religious dimensions toward those that are more secular and that as a consequence of this change, a number of trip providers are being pushed out. The point was made to me during the summer while I was in Israel by the head of an organization that for more than two decades has done effective outreach.

The Brandeis report acknowledges that “future analyses of subsequent cohorts, which were larger and had a higher proportion of applicants with intermarried parents, will allow for a more robust analysis of this phenomenon.” The authors suggest, however, that because recent cohorts “included larger proportions of less engaged participants than those examined in the present study, it is possible that future research will show an even larger impact.” This may turn out to be wishful thinking.

Much will depend on the effectiveness of follow-up programming for Birthright participants, a subject not covered in the report. For now, there is much to celebrate in Birthright’s achievements.

Monday, November 02, 2009

RJJ Newsletter - November 2009

In the recent period, I raised funds for two causes, apart from my RJJ fundraising. The results are telling. In the first situation, I played a key role assisting the family of a chassidic rabbi who died suddenly in his forties, leaving a wife and ten children, the youngest just months old. I placed an ad in the Jewish Press and the readers were asked to send contributions to my home. The second effort was on behalf of Beth Jacob of Borough Park, a school with more than 2,000 girls that was far behind in payroll. I wrote an article for Hamodia, a newspaper that is widely read in much of the Orthodox community, and, here too, asked that contributions be sent to my home.

The first campaign brought in a torrent of donations, at least ten-thousand dollars a week for many weeks, until I left for Israel in mid-July. The Beth Jacob effort brought in less than a trickle, this for a huge school that has achieved so much and is caring about students from poor homes or with special needs. The message was clear: In tzeddakah allocations, by a huge margin chesed has priority over chinuch. That which tugs at our heartstrings merits support. That which does not is not deserving of assistance.

In an important way, this is understandable. In much of what we do we are guided by our emotions and that which packs an emotional punch has a far greater capacity to loosen the purse-strings than that which does not. We are, in this respect, quite a bit like the secular Jews whose charity is devoted primarily to Federation causes. We used to criticize Federations for neglecting Torah education. Perhaps we should look in the mirror.

I make no apology for helping the chassidic family in need. However, I feel somewhat uncomfortable about this effort in view of the meager response to the Beth Jacob appeal. More than a half-century ago, I heard directly from the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood that in allocating tzeddakah, two-thirds of what is given should go towards the support of chinuch because Torah education is both essential to our survival as a people and the foundation for the chesed that we do. Years later, I listened to the tape of a shiur given by Rav Soloveitchik in which he said much the same thing and the lesson was also taught to me by my beloved Rav, Rabbi Yisroel Perkowski.

In the post-Holocaust years when we were led by outstanding people of great scholarship and great personal qualities, invariably that is the message that was given as they worked to create a vibrant Torah community on these shores. They certainly cared about Jews in need and yet we did not receive from them a stream of letters beseeching our support for chesed causes. Their fundraising almost exclusively centered around support for yeshivas and Beth Jacobs, whether here or in Israel.

In the article on the Borough Park Beth Jacob, I quoted from a letter written by the Chazon Ish in 1947, a period of great deprivation in what was still Palestine. He pleaded for support for the Beth Jacob school, writing that because all species were created in both male and female form, Torah education could not exist unless it, too, encompassed both genders.

There is a neglected chesed dimension when we neglect our schools in allocating tzeddakah. At a typical yeshiva or Beth Jacob, probably about eighty percent of the budget goes toward payroll. The teachers in our schools are nearly all underpaid, at times severely, and many of them are not paid on time. These are people with family responsibilities. When we do not assist schools that are struggling to meet their obligations, one unhappy by-product is the harm caused to families and staff who cannot meet their own obligations.

Even in the best of times, our chinuch institutions face an uphill financial road. As the economy nosedived during the past year, inevitably these institutions bore an inordinate part of the burden as contributions declined severely and as more parents said that they needed financial assistance. The bad news is everywhere, with schools that have been chronically late in payroll becoming later still. A number of day schools are reporting that children have been transferred to public school because they are tuition-free.

The outlook for the rest of the still young school year is not promising. At RJJ, there has been a stunning decline in contributions since April, with the drop amounting to about fifty percent in the crucial period from early September through the Yomim Tovim.

There is no quick fix, not for us or other schools. What is needed is a change in attitude that results in greater communal and individual support of Torah education. As experience amply teaches, attitudinal change is never a quick or easy process. The effort to bring about change is largely the responsibility of Roshei Yeshiva and other religious leaders. Without their advocacy and effort, there is no prospect for improvement. For too long they have inadvertently encouraged the notion that chesed trumps chinuch in tzeddakah, as is evident from the fundraising they do on behalf of chesed causes. They do not see fundraising for basic Torah education as part of their core responsibilities, except, of course, for the yeshivas in which they are directly involved. In this key respect, they depart from the lesson taught by the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood. More unfortunately, over the years they have given credence to the view that the funding of our schools is primarily a parental and not a communal responsibility.

I have challenged this attitude for more than two decades, not because I believe that parents can shirk their obligation to pay a fair amount, but because I know that the
economics of Orthodox life result in a large number of families that do not have the means to pay full tuition and, often, anything close to full tuition. There are, admittedly, tuition cheats who know how to play the system. There are far more families that act fairly.

The Rabbinical Board of Torah Umesorah recently issued a strong statement calling for support of yeshivas and Beth Jacobs. This is a welcome development, yet it is only a beginning and, at that, no more than a modest beginning. There needs to be intensive follow-up with additional statements and with Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbis using public forums to convey the message that there is an obligation to provide support for the Torah institutions in the communities where we live.

This is a formidable task and, admittedly, even the most forceful advocacy may not alter wrongful attitudes that are embedded in the mindset of too many Orthodox Jews who for understandable, but not acceptable, reasons have welcomed the news that they need not support basic Torah education.

A collateral need is the downsizing of what I have referred to as Jewish Education, Inc., the large number of projects that devour significant philanthropic funding to yeshivas and day schools while managing to avoid the reality that Torah education occurs in schools and classrooms and not in offices or projects or trips to Israel to “train” principals and teachers, nor in any of the many activities that result in our relatively well-fed educational entrepreneurs being even better fed.

This is another point that I have underscored for years, alas with little success. Jewish Education, Inc. is flourishing in our organizational life. Even as it flourishes, our schools are more behind in payroll. The still worse news is that there are schools that no longer exist, witness what is happening in kiruv and immigrant schools where enrollment now is about half of what it was not long ago.

The news in the yeshiva and day school world since September has been frightening and there is more bad news on the horizon. An item in this Newsletter describes another such development. There is certain to be lots of pain in the coming period. We cannot do much about the overall economy which affects the situation of many schools and many parents. What we can do, at long last, is to prepare the groundwork for a better day when the economy does improve. If our leaders understand that leadership of the religious Jewish community entails the responsibility to constantly work for Torah chinuch at all levels, there is the prospect that some of us will get the message.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Panderers Breakfast

Back in the 1980s, there was Michael Milken’s Predators Ball, an event that came to symbolize junk bond excess. Mr. Milken was then and later a man of significant charitable deeds who stepped over boundaries and was treated harshly as a consequence.

The sights are lower in Borough Park where I live and yet, here too, there is excess, including the pandering to public officials who, in fact, do little that is good for the neighborhood and, at least occasionally, cause some harm. It is now election time and that means having the Panderers Breakfast sponsored by the local Jewish Community Council.

There are good people involved in the council’s work and I am certain that many who were at the breakfast deserve praise. The list of notables was headed by Mayor Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani, both shown in newspaper photos wearing full-size yarmulkes, with the current incumbent at City Hall looking more uncomfortable than his predecessor. I am not sure whether it was the skull cap or the man sitting next to him.

There was ample reason for the Mayor to be ill at ease. He has an admirable record in dealing with racial and ethnic relations, something that certainly cannot be said about Mr. Giuliani. A person who played a key role at the event told me the next day that in his speech, the man who is expected to run for governor next year came close to entering what for him is the familiar territory of racism. Is it too much to ask or hope that Mr. Giuliani take his trash talk elsewhere? By using an Orthodox Jewish forum to deliver his toxic message, he is associating the Orthodox with racism and once more befouling racial and ethnic relations.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler was at the breakfast because astounding as it may seem, Manhattan’s ultra-liberal West Side is linked in one congressional district with Borough Park. This is another Albany map-making atrocity. I would protest more strongly were it not for a New York Times editorial the other day that pointed to even more grotesque districts.

Mr. Nadler’s election is assured and he wasn’t there as a candidate. He was one of the honorees, for distinguished public service or some other cliché-ridden pseudo-tribute. The services he has provided to Borough Park are, at most, trivial and a mystery. He certainly was not recognized for his position on gay marriage or social issues generally. I fault not Mr. Nadler for taking positions he sincerely believes in. The hypocrisy is in the council honoring a man whose views on important public issues are entirely antithetical to what the council espouses. What was on display was extreme sycophancy.

Although there is little evidence to support the notion, it could be that the congressman was being honored for his assistance in securing federal grants. If that is the case, it is he who was pandering and, to boot, being two-faced.

I recently discussed the debate regarding faith-based initiatives, the question being whether religious groups can seek only their own when filling top positions at programs that receive governmental support. As a practical matter, it is not possible to deny funding to such groups without causing severe harm to programs and activities that are crucial to many millions of needy Americans. As an example, should Catholic social service agencies be barred from selecting only Catholics to run their programs, the harm to society would be enormous. Unfortunately, many in the Jewish community see it otherwise, another illustration of hypocrisy as Federations are selective and yet exempt from the scrutiny of our purists.

In this debate, Jerrold Nadler is an extremist. Earlier this month he was one of only five congressmen who sent a tough letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking “that positive steps be taken to ensure that all programs receiving federal dollars are barred from discriminating with these funds,” with discrimination meaning that they cannot prefer their own in hiring. Otherwise, they asserted, religious liberty and civil rights will be endangered.

The folks at the Borough Park Council are certainly unaware of this letter, not that it would make a difference because there is a tendency among the Orthodox to pander to public officials. Smart as he is, Mr. Nadler understands that the letter he signed and other positions he takes are meant for one crowd and not for his putative constituents in Borough Park. In short, there is a nifty pas de deux of pandering and hypocrisy.

What is most at work on the Orthodox side goes beyond the ordinary pandering that is a familiar aspect of political life. The Orthodox who gravitate toward political involvement relish in being in what they regard as exalted company, meaning office holders and seekers, irrespective of the views of those whose company they seek. There is in this a groupie mentality, a form of behavior that is below conventional pandering. The reward is emotional, which helps to explain why it scarcely matters what the politicians stand for.

This would not matter much if what government does did not matter. Governmental actions are important. Over the extended period since the Holocaust, politicians have known how to play the Orthodox, at least those who are identified as fervent. All that is needed are visits to their Rebbis and Rabbis, the yarmulke on the head, meaningless talk and then it isn’t relevant whether those who are paying tribute are being harmed by the positions being taken by the venerated public officials.

Friday, October 23, 2009

There are 230,000 children in day schools and yeshivas in the U.S., from four-year olds through the twelfth grade. The figure would be higher by at least 20,000 if younger children and post-high school students enrolled in these institutions were included. The operating budgets for these schools probably exceed two-billion dollars annually, with capital expenditures amounting to tens of millions of dollars more. Objective research conducted over the past twenty years shows conclusively that by a wide margin, day school education as an independent factor or variable contributes more to Jewish commitment and continuity into adulthood than any other communal activity.

I recently completed a third census of U.S. day schools. Like its 1998-99 and 2003-04 predecessors, this research was sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation whose philanthropy in North America has resulted in significant benefits to the day school world. The research reports grade by grade enrollment, as well as other vital information, for the more than 800 U.S. day schools and it adds to our understanding of contemporary Jewish life. It is doubtlessly my subjective engagement in this painstaking project that triggers my failure to understand how not even a tiny mention of the census has made it into this newspaper. Once more I am bothered and bewildered by what passes for American Jewish journalism. I am left with the task of reporting on my own report.

Over the past decade, enrollment has grown by nearly 25%, an astonishing growth rate. Most, but not all, of the increase is attributable to high Orthodox fertility, primarily in the yeshiva-world and chassidic sectors which constitute more than 55% of all enrollment. Since 1998, yeshiva-world enrollment has risen by 34%, so that there are now 64,000 students in these schools, while chassidic enrollment in the same period has gone up by 56% to a total of 61,000 students. In another ten years, the prospect is for chassidic enrollment of 100,000 or higher.

All told, five of every six dayschoolers are in Orthodox schools, a distribution that has increased gradually over the years. This trend is certain to continue because of fertility and also because of financial considerations, including the severe downturn from which the country has not yet recovered and the growing sense of marginally-involved parents that day school education is too costly. Already we are seeing parents opting out of day school.

Modern Orthodox schools continue to grow and now have 30,000 students, an increase of 10% in the decade, which is impressive in view of the meaningful number of young modern Orthodox families that in recent years have made aliyah. However, centrist Orthodox schools have lost students, in large measure I believe because of the contraction of Orthodox life in a number of communities away from New York.

An unsettling detail emerging from the census is the pronounced decline of immigrant and other schools with an outreach orientation. Some of this has to do with immigration patterns; yet another factor is the declining commitment to these schools in the Orthodox community. This development is offset to an extent by the rapid expansion of the Chabad school network, with 73 schools in the latest census, up from 44 ten years ago. Nearly all of the newer schools have an outreach mission and while many are small, even tiny, there is now within Chabad a strong determination to focus on day schools, a commitment that was absent until near the end of the Rebbe’s life.

Due to the strong showing of Community or trans-denominational schools, there has been a 2,000-student increase in non-Orthodox school enrollment since 1998. The Reform movement no longer focuses much on day schools, while the Solomon Schechter or Conservative schools mirror increasingly the infirm condition of this movement. These schools have lost one-fourth of their enrollment in the past decade and the bad news keeps on coming.

Forty percent of day schools enroll fewer than one-hundred students. Many of these institutions constantly struggle to get by, both financially and educationally. Several small schools that operated last year have closed since June and there are others that are on what can be fairly called the endangered list. Here, too, the state of the economy inevitably has an impact.

While there are day schools in forty states and the District of Columbia, New York and New Jersey are dominant, with 70% of all enrollment or more than 160,000 students. One astonishing statistic is provided by Lakewood, NJ, which has experienced a tripling in enrollment in ten years, from about 5,000 students to 15,000. Younger yeshiva-world families are opting to remain in Lakewood because of the religious ambiance and also the far lower cost of housing.

The New York-New Jersey day school story is a blessing that comes with a cost. Before the economic crisis hit, many schools in this area were behind in meeting their payroll and their situation has worsened over the past year, in some schools precariously. In August, Beth Jacob of Boro Park, a school with more than 2,000 girls, announced that it was deeply in debt and might not be able to open. It did open but there have been many layoffs and the debt remains. The sharp enrollment increases in chassidic and yeshiva-world schools will be translated into greater financial pressure. There is no communal planning, including among the Orthodox, to deal with what is already on the horizon.

Another cost is, as noted, the shrinkage of Orthodox life in many places away from New York. One interesting census statistic shows that outside of these two states, the 70,000 day school students are nearly equally divided between Orthodox and non-Orthodox schools, with the latter having 47% of the total.

What is certain is that the next five years will be a crucial period in day school education. Hopefully there will be a follow-up census.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Being Noble About Nobel

While the Nobel Prize to Barack Obama was off the charts as a surprise and probably not a favor to the President, the reaction of our ever-agitated right wing was perfectly predictable. From the moment that he took office he has been mocked and demonized by the far right, led by Rupert Murdoch’s troupe of Foxtrotters and the irrepressible Rush Limbaugh who demonstrates the truth that there are vulgarities that are far worse than four letter words.

Politics is not a gentlemanly activity and all presidents, from George Washington on, have suffered scurrilous attacks. As a rule, there is a first-year honeymoon until the rats come out of their holes. Not for Mr. Obama who has been viciously targeted by the far right from before day one. I do not mean criticism by conservatives, whether of domestic or foreign policies. That’s fair, even necessary, in democracies. The anti-Obama rhetoric includes more than a touch of racism, combined with ample servings of hate, rage and distortion. This is dangerous stuff.

It is disheartening that many Orthodox Jews have joined the right-wing chorus, how many cannot utter the President’s name without virtually spitting out the words. Too many have joined the hate brigade, going beyond the social and ideological commitments that may be rooted in their religious beliefs. There is unbridled contempt for a man who in his brief tenure has advocated moderation on issue after issue.

Judaism is not about politics, not about Democratic or Republican or any party, nor about being conservative or liberal. On some public issues conservatism may seem more faithful to our teachings, while on other issues liberalism may seem more faithful. Strong adherence to ideology is adherence to a false god that enslaves the intellect and emotions. Those of us who embrace the right wing seem to neglect the horrific experience of European Jewry just two generations ago. For that matter, they are oblivious to the agenda of right wing groups in America that includes anti-Semitism as a centerpiece.

We Jews have much to worry and be nervous about, past and present. Severe persecution has mutated us into a people who can see the worst in nearly all that is on the political horizon and it has infused us with a touch of paranoia. This is understandable and, for now, it is also inevitable. Just the same, we need to retain the capacity to be fair and, hopefully, clear-minded.

Our greatest worry these days is about Iran and there are plenty of reasons for Jews to be hyper-anxious. This is no license for unfairness. No one could ever doubt the commitment of George W. Bush to Israel. It remains, however, that in the course of his eight years, the Iranian threat to Israel grew enormously, without any effective countervailing policies. Mr. Bush did not authorize U.S. military action against Iran and he forbade Israel from taking any action. He was unable to mobilize other countries to punish Iran.

This record should be contrasted with Mr. Obama’s brief tenure. There are good reasons to believe that as happened in Lebanon, the new president had an enormous salutary impact on the Iranian election which was stolen by Ahmadinejad. There is a new determination among the major powers to enforce sanctions against Iran. Iranian authorities have yielded to pressure to allow inspection of its nuclear development program and although it remains to be seen how reliable this is, surely the move represents progress. In short, Iran is more isolated than it was a year ago and the key figure in all of this is Barack Obama. Yet, there is much Jewish talk critical of his handling of Iran.

There are grounds to challenge the President’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, notably his apparently abandoned attitude toward what he and his administration wrongly refer to as settlements. In his desire- it is understandable but I think naïve and doomed to failure- to send a new message to the Muslim world, he has sent the collateral message that Israeli interests can be ignored. In all politics, perception is a major part of the equation.

In recent weeks, there has been a change in attitude and course. A key Jewish leader who was close to the Bush White House tells me that he is greatly pleased by the messages now being sent by Washington. It is obvious that American officials, doubtlessly acting with the full approval of the President, have taken critical steps to scuttle the notorious Goldstone Report. This may be short-lived in view of Islamic pressure, yet the administration’s intent is clear.

To speculate a bit, a beneficial by-product of the Nobel award to Mr. Obama is the possibility that Richard Goldstone was one of the runner-ups. Unfortunately, there is next year and this may afford another opportunity.

In the months and years ahead, the American-Israeli relationship will be frequently tested, at times severely, repeating the pattern for every U.S. administration since the establishment of the Jewish state, with the possible exception of the first, Harry Truman’s. There will be times when we will have good reason not to be happy. We must always remember, as I have tried to underscore over the years, that the president of this country inevitably sees things through a frame of reference that varies to one extent or another from how Israelis and most American Jews look at the same issues. He is the president of the United States, not the prime minister of Israel.

I hope that it is not too much to hope that when we express disagreement with American policy, we can do so without embracing the nastiness and worse of the hate-mongers.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Our Problem With Faith

There is a lively and important conversation, inadequately reported by the general media and scarcely by our newspapers, about faith-based initiatives, the programs sponsored by religious groups to meet crucial social needs that rely to one extent or another on public funding. There is an abundance of terrific material on the subject, thanks to the Brookings Institution and especially the Pew Charitable Trusts. Pew has emerged as the outstanding place for scholarship on religion in the U.S.

The good news is that there is a near consensus that faith-based activities contribute enormously to the public good, need and deserve public funding and the governmental investment yields significant benefits. The bad news is that on the one issue that remains divisive, much of the American Jewish establishment comes out once more as hostile to religion.

During the presidential campaign and even before, Barack Obama strongly endorsed public support of faith-based initiatives. As president, he has followed up on this advocacy with decisive steps. His style, in this matter and elsewhere, departs emphatically from the in-your-face approach to ideology of his predecessor. For sincere reasons and also to give comfort to Evangelicals and others in his core constituency, President Bush constantly underscored his administration’s commitment to religion in the public square. This satisfied the emotional/ideological needs of supporters and also engendered fervid opposition, not all of it from the usual suspects in the anti- religion claque.

For all of the heat generated, faith-based initiatives were about where they were before Mr. Bush arrived at the White House. Prior administrations, notably Bill Clinton’s, were receptive to funding religious groups that provide what can be fairly called public services. Unless we are prepared to sanction the neglect of millions of Americans in need who rely on faith-based initiatives, it is not possible and certainly not wise to bar federal funds to these groups.

In the 2008 campaign, Mr. Obama addressed, as well, the more vexatious issue of hiring, saying that “religious organizations that receive federal dollars cannot discriminate with respect to hiring for government-funded social service programs.” The language was unfortunate and not only because it over-simplified a complex issue. “Discrimination” is not a neutral term; it carries much historical and civil rights baggage and conveys the notion that what is being done is wrong and harmful. The Brookings report notes that “those who favor policies that would allow religious providers to prefer job applicants within their denomination or tradition speak of ‘permitting religious employers to take religion into account.’”

In office, President Obama appears to be waffling on hiring, doubtlessly because the issue is two-sided. This doesn’t sit well with fifty-one organizations, eleven of them Jewish, and they have sent an urgent letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to withdraw the Bush administration ruling that faith-based initiatives receiving federal funds are exempt from civil rights laws and have a free exercise right to show preference in hiring, a claim that is far-fetched from a constitutional standpoint.

The letter, joined in by the ADL which is extremist on the issue, the AJCommittee and Reform and Conservative groups, is silent about the immense public good achieved through the funding of faith-based initiatives. Once more on a key public issue, the AJCongress has taken a moderate position and in a separate letter to Mr. Holder it suggests, albeit obliquely, that some preference in hiring should be permitted.

The constitutional and civil rights purists in our midst are comfortable with a double-standard, at once opposing preference in hiring by agencies using public funds to provide secular social services while they conveniently turn a blind eye to the reality that the entire Federation network, including hundreds of agencies, could not function without public funding and yet they practice pervasive preference in hiring. Of the more than one-hundred Federations, is there one with a non-Jewish top executive? Is this coincidental?

Our defenders of a faithless faith are also hypocritical. Total separation of church and state is their religion and mantra, as, for example, when they do zealous and even paranoid battle against governmental funding to secular programs in parochial schools. Mum is the word on the more direct support to religion provided through tax exemption to religious institutions and tax deductions for contributions to houses of worship. What promotes religion more, government paying the salary of a science teacher in a parochial school or government encouraging contributions to Reform and Conservative congregations?

The Obama administration will, I believe, eschew an extreme position on hiring. Likely, it will permit faith-based initiatives slack in filling top positions and perhaps also program officers, as long as there isn’t a blanket refusal to hire outside the group. Of course, grant recipients will not be allowed to proselytize. There will be borderline situations, as there are in all of life’s activities and certainly in governmental programs. To play around a bit with Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous statement, the life of the law is experience, not rigid ideological formulas.

None of this is likely to change our already prolonged war against faith. We are extremists and while this plays well with much of our rank and file who have elided religion from their lives, there is the frightening issue of how our fanatic opposition to religion in the public square will play out down the road on the larger canvas of American life.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

All Is Well In Our Home

All is well in our home, in our community. Isn't it? A new school year is about to open and enrollment will grow by about 5,000 students over last year. There are a third more students in yeshiva-world schools than there were a decade ago, while in chassidic schools the increase during this period is an astounding sixty percent.

In New York and New Jersey alone, there are about 165,000 students in yeshivas and day schools. Torah has taken strong root in a land that once was known as the treife medinah, a land regarded as unsuitable for Torah living. We have reason to be proud.

But is all well in our home? The transformation in religious life that has occurred is directly attributable to our yeshivas, Beth Jacobs and other schools. There was a time when children from marginally observant homes were admitted to mainstream yeshivas. There are roshei yeshiva today who came from such homes. No longer. Our schools are far more exclusive and exclusionary - and this is true of yeshivas that have seats to fill.

A very small number of what may be called kiruv or outreach students somehow get admitted to mainstream yeshivas. By and large, however, our schools are homogenous institutions which fear that children from less religious homes will be a bad influence.

There was a time - and not long ago - when our community eagerly supported schools that served immigrant families and had an outreach orientation. As overall yeshiva and day school enrollment has gone up dramatically, the story is entirely different in kiruv and immigrant schools.

Over the past decade, their enrollment has declined by one-third and there is more bad news on the horizon. Machon, a Queens high school for girls from immigrant homes that has accomplished much, has just closed and a Brooklyn immigrant school for girls is eliminating its lower grades. Other schools in this crucial sector are barely hanging in there. Is all well in our home?

Mainstream yeshivas and day schools aren't exempt from the bad news. I cannot recall as difficult a period in the nearly sixty years that I have worked on behalf of Torah education.

With few exceptions, our schools always struggle to make ends meet. In the 1950s, yeshivas were chronically late in making payroll. There is the classic story of Rabbi Shurkin, a rosh yeshiva at Chaim Berlin and a man with a delightful sense of humor. One sweltering June day he came to yeshiva wearing a heavy winter coat. A student exclaimed, "Rebbi, why are you wearing a winter coat - it's June!" Rabbi Shurkin answered, "June? Yesterday I received my December paycheck."

As difficult as things were then, we did not hear of yeshiva closings because of money problems. When a school closed, invariably it was because of population shifts that resulted in too few religious families left in the neighborhood to provide sufficient enrollment. Not since the Great Depression have yeshivas closed down because they could not pay their faculty and staff.

Is all well in our homes? Inevitably, the cost of educating a child goes up. So does tuition. Each year parents are required to pay a larger share of the budget, as a typical school gets a declining share of its income from contributions. Obviously, parents must pay a fair share. The problem is that family size has grown significantly in our community, the upshot being that even parents who ordinarily earn what would be regarded as a good income constantly struggle to meet their obligations.

There are parents who want to do the right thing and pay their fair share, and yet who are under constant pressure from school officials to pay even more. The officials themselves are under great pressure to meet their institution's obligations.

Can we say that all is well in our homes?

The hardship faced by our schools is translated into hardship in countless religious homes. As the new school year opens, there are probably substantially more than one thousand teachers and staff members who have not been paid their full salaries for the school year that ended in June. These are people who are nearly all underpaid and nearly all desperately need the modest income they get from teaching in order to pay their own bills. There is suffering in their homes when they aren't paid.

The "all is well in my home" mindset is an offspring of the view that basic Torah education is a parental and not communal responsibility. This view departs radically and wrongfully from the understanding since the Talmudic period that basic Torah education is a communal responsibility.

Inadvertently or not, our leaders have sent a message that it is not necessary to give tzedakah to ordinary yeshivas and Beth Jacobs. I have challenged this attitude for more years than I can recount. Sadly, it has taken root because too many of us like to hear that it is not necessary to give.

Starting with the top, we need a reversal of attitudes. Our roshei yeshiva who merit the respect that they receive must once more take responsibility for the financial well being of our schools. They can do this by changing the message they have sent for far too long that basic Torah education is the financial responsibility of parents whose children receive a service.

This message departs egregiously from the lesson taught by the Great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, Rav Aharon Kotler, zt"l, who though exhausted by his other responsibilities worked without stop to support basic Torah education, here and in Israel.

Only when we recognize that all Torah education is a communal responsibility will we be able to say, "all is well in our home."

The Old School Year Hasn’t Ended

Within days, 230,000+ students will begin a new school year in Jewish schools across the country. The number will be more than 2% above last year’s figure, continuing a pattern of growth that has been uninterrupted for decades. This is good news, evidence that for all of our difficulties, meaningful religious Jewish education is firmly rooted on American soil.

There is other news and it is about the school year that presumably ended in June. It actually did, however there is considerable leftover business because many of our schools have unpaid obligations, primarily to teachers and staff who haven’t been paid in full for 2008-09. We are not talking about a handful; at the least, the number is in the high hundreds and perhaps several thousand, nearly all of whom are grossly underpaid and who themselves struggle to meet their financial obligations. The situation is likely to worsen during the new school year. For all of the robust enrollment numbers, I cannot remember a bleaker financial outlook for the institutions that more than other are crucial to the spiritual wellbeing of our community.

How bad the situation is was highlighted in mid-August by a message placed in Orthodox newspapers by Beth Jacob of Borough Park announcing that because it is deeply in debt and months behind in payroll, the school might not be able to open in September. With more than 2,000 girls, nursery through grade 8, Beth Jacob is the largest Jewish school in the U.S., outside of the chassidic sector. It is also a school enveloped in kindness toward children, many of whom come from poor homes. Beth Jacob accepts children from broken homes, children with emotional problems, children with learning difficulties and for these and other needs it provides a special measure of care.

I imagine that Beth Jacob will open, not because there will be a torrent of contributions but because the faculty and staff are its greatest contributors. They will see that the school goes on.

To one extent or another, the Beth Jacob story is echoed in dozens of schools, especially but not exclusively in the New York-New Jersey area which has nearly 165,000 students or more than 70% of all dayschoolers. There is a crisis at hand and while it is not evident if we look at enrollment data, it is evident when we look at what is occurring throughout the yeshiva and day school world. There isn’t sufficient support and the consequences are not only in payrolls that are late but also in the steep enrollment decline in immigrant and outreach schools.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Federations have contributed their share by neglect, sometimes benign, sometimes not benign. Given the huge number of schools and students in the New York Federation service area, its resources cannot provide much help, but that doesn’t get our Federation off the hook. Last year it played disgraceful games with a modest scholarship program. Beth Jacob was one of the victims.

In the larger arena of American Jewish philanthropy, there are some bright spots, but the foundations that care are too limited in number and there is a lamentable tendency to support activities that have little direct bearing on what occurs in the classrooms where education takes place. Matters were made worse during the summer with the suggestion by Mark Charendoff, head of the Jewish Funders Network, that its 800 members not provide support to religious institutions that are exempt from certain IRS filings. In a burst of self-righteous piety, Charendoff referred to this as a loophole. That is false. He is careful, of course, to examine the bona fides of the private foundations that are JFN’s constituency, a great number of them family arrangements. Doubtlessly, he checks whether each year they distribute a sufficient proportion of their assets, whether they are playing games when they assign outlays to programmatic activity rather than administrative costs, whether they are paying for family obligations such as tuition, etc.
I am certain that Charendoff insists that each foundation not look for or take advantage of loopholes.

Our vast establishment, including the AJCs, ADL, Federations, local Jewish councils and much else in our multi-billion dollar communal infrastructure, has played a critical role in the harm experienced by our schools through their near-paranoid notion that if government provides aid to the secular programs of day schools, all sorts of evil would occur, this despite mountains of evidence to the contrary in numerous democracies where such aid is provided and the roof hasn’t fallen in. Unfortunately, our Stepford Wives are not going to change.

The Orthodox have contributed their share, starting at the top, as for years yeshiva deans have sent a message that the funding of basic Torah education is a parental and not communal responsibility, thereby deviating from the Talmudic standard set 2,000 years ago. In contrast, chassidic rebbes and leaders make support for their schools their greatest priority.

There are Orthodox, as well as people who are not Orthodox, who support day school education. By and large, the rank and file does not. Increasingly, Orthodox Jews who are comfortable are enveloped in a hedonistic mentality.

Day school enrollment will grow by 50,000 or more over the next decade. Overwhelmingly, this growth will be in Orthodox schools and, overwhelmingly, it will be in the New York metropolitan area. Fifty-thousand more students translates into one-hundred new schools, each with five-hundred students. There is nothing on the horizon to indicate that the Orthodox community is thinking, much less planning, about how best to meet this need. What is on the horizon is the prospect of more day school stories like the story of the Beth Jacob of Borough Park.

RJJ Newsletter - September 2009

In accordance with the precept that a misdeed breeds additional misdeeds, what took place during the summer in what may be referred to as the Syrian affair was enveloped in misdeeds. Without excusing any person who is guilty of a crime – and money laundering is a crime and also unethical – the FBI, police, prosecutors and media committed a multitude of wrongs. There were the early morning raids and arrests by hundreds of armed agents, accompanied by a perverse public relations mentality aimed at presenting the alleged crimes as far worse than they actually were. The media dutifully, even eagerly, played their customary nasty role. There was the wrongful linking together of entirely separate criminal activities, the obvious aim being to distort the reality. The ploy worked. There was the glee evident in the secular Jewish media, including the newspaper where my column appears, over the opportunity to present the arrests as evidence of massive Orthodox wrongdoing, indeed massive charedi or fervently Orthodox wrongdoing. There was the issue of entrapment, a matter that I shall return to later in this Newsletter.

The arrest provided an opportunity that wasn’t going to be missed, even if this meant that the wrongdoing would beget additional wrongdoing.

Still, it appears that laws have been broken by religious Jews who to one extent or another apparently used instrumentalities of our religious life as accessories in their wrongful acts. This constitutes a chilul hashem and serves as yet another example that aveira gorreres aveira, a sin drags along with it another sin.

It may be odd to do so, but I feel compelled to note here that in the thirty-six years that I have been privileged to serve as RJJ’s president, there has been no opportunity to say no to money laundering or anything similar because no one has attempted to ask or suggest that we engage in such behavior.

Judaism is a religion of commandments, of mitzvos, a great many instructing, “Thou shalt not.” Observant Jews regard the negative commandments as part of the natural order of our religious life. We do not struggle against contrary forces to keep Shabbos. We regard Shabbos as a blessing. Even persons who are addicted to cigarettes do not wage a battle not to smoke. When Shabbos ends, quickly the cigarette is in the smoker’s mouth. Nor do we struggle to avoid eating food that isn’t kosher. Keeping kosher, like keeping Shabbos and many other mitzvos, is in our religious DNA and food that isn’t kosher is usually looked at as repulsive.

Jews who are not observant do not yield to an uncontrollable desire to work on Saturday or to eat what isn’t kosher. Their behavior is a consequence of how they were raised or the result of their own choices, as essentially they do not accept such commandments and not because they have been overcome by intense urges to violate them.

There are categories of mitzvos where the obligation to be observant is challenged by strong desires compelling people away from fulfilling their obligations as religious Jews. Near the end of Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah (The Laws of Forbidden Relations), Rambam writes, “There is no commandment in all of the Torah that is as difficult for the majority of the nation to separate from as sinful relations and forbidden sexual conduct.” He adds, “A man’s soul [emotions] yearns for theft and sinful relations and ardently covets them. There is no community in any period without people who engage in illicit sexual relations. Our Sages taught, The majority are engaged in theft, a minority in wrongful sexual conduct and everyone is guilty, at least indirectly, of speaking ill of others.”

Rambam then briefly describes steps to be taken to distance oneself from situations that may lead to improper sexual behavior. This is in accordance with the Torah’s commandment, Kedoshim Tihyu, that we are to be a sanctified people. As Rashi comments, we are to separate ourselves from wrongful sexual conduct and sin, for wherever there is a fence in sexual matters there in sanctity.

Our religious life is ingrained with the notion of fences or barriers regarding sexual behavior. Why aren’t we likewise commanded to establish barriers in our business dealings and in all monetary matters? There obviously are numerous religious laws regarding financial behavior and we are taught not to steal, cheat or engage in any of a number of financial improprieties. We are, of course, required to take precautions to shield against wrongdoing, such as recording certain transactions and documents that are attested to by witnesses. Yet, there are relatively few Rabbinic ordinances that proscribe commercial transactions altogether. If theft is more prevalent than sexual misdeeds, should not our religious life be likewise informed by barriers that are designed to prevent financial wrongdoing?

A possible answer is that special precautions are taken in sexual matters because they are more serious, both in the consequences of wrongdoing and in the punishments enumerated in the Torah. However, even if we grant the premise of greater severity, the concept of fences is instituted in other areas of halacha that are clearly less severe. As examples, there are Rabbinic decrees relating to Torah laws affecting agriculture, even though these religious requirements cannot be regarded as severe as sexual improprieties.

At the risk of being in error, my suggestion is that the halachic concept of fences is applicable only where it is practicable. When it is not practicable, the halachic process relies substantially on individual self-control. This means that we are to practice restraint and show judgment in determining how to act regarding financial matters. Put otherwise, fences and barriers proscribe otherwise permissible behavior in order to deter us from engaging in behavior that the Torah forbids. This process is not practical in monetary matters.

Economic activity is inherently interactive and it is fundamental in one form or another in all societies. Nearly all of us engage on a daily basis in what can be described as economic activity. People with jobs work for employers who pay them. All buying and selling involve two or more participants. Investments are made in business entities and with individuals. Loans are given or received from others. In each of these activities, there is a relationship and in each, as well, there are the seeds of conflict and the strong possibility of wrongdoing. We need only to be mindful of the huge volume of commercial litigation, as well as the far greater number of instances where conflict and even wrongdoing do not engender litigation.

Halacha acknowledges, I believe, that to erect fences in commercial activity would throw out the baby with the bath water, would result in greater harm than good by stifling economic activity and this would be to the detriment of many. Should employment opportunities be curtailed because either the worker or employer may take undue advantage or not act properly? Are goods and services not to be sold because there may be fraud in what is being exchanged? Or should the seller not sell because the buyer may not pay? Are investments to be shunned because of the prospect of deceit? Are loans not to be made because of the possibility of no repayment? The answer to each of these questions is no, meaning that in Torah law and, generally in society, the recognition of potential wrong cannot serve to abort activity that is necessary and beneficial to society. There are rules governing proper conduct in all financial matters. Their enforcement depends largely on self-control and self-policing and where this does not happen, there is conflict and processes for adjudicating disputes. There are few roadblocks at the outset.

The paradox is that the high incidence of wrongdoing in monetary matters serves as a barrier to instituting barriers. These matters are powerfully affected by self-interest. There are internalized forces that in purely emotional terms are less powerful than the urges and emotions impelling people toward wrongful sexual conduct. Yet, in other ways, monetary matters are more resistant to self-control. People who engage in sexual improprieties generally know that they are behaving wrongfully and, ordinarily, they do not justify their wrongdoing. They recognize that there are desires that they cannot overcome. Sexual wrongdoing is, accordingly, not rooted in the intellect. Financial improprieties, on the other hand, trigger processes of justification, of a person believing with full faith that what he is doing is proper, that he is getting no more than what is coming to him. Here are the words of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in Mesilas Yeshorim (The Path of the Just, chapter 11):

“We are witness that although most people are not overt thieves, that is they do not actually stretch out their hand and take another person’s money and possess it as their own, nonetheless, a majority engage in the scent of theft in their financial activity in that they teach themselves that it is permissible to enrich themselves through another person’s loss. They say, ‘To make profit is different.’”

He adds further on:

“This is the principle of the matter: As the lust for money is great, so are its pitfalls. For a man to be rightfully pure of them, great introspection and care are required. For many are meticulous in the ways of piety, yet when it comes to resisting the opportunity for ill-gotten gains, they are not capable of achieving perfection.”

That is why the Sages taught that most people are engaged in theft.

There are barriers, but while they may be regarded as sanctioned by Halacha they are not imposed on us as are the barriers in sexual matters. Rather, they are self-imposed through a person’s recognition that monetary matters can be an ethical minefield. They require self-control and where there is self-control they can serve as guards against improprieties. A close friend speaks of a smell test, of walking away from financial arrangements that may promise much but simply do not seem right. At times, what does not seem right is an incredibly high rate of return. In other situations the smell test serves as a barrier against becoming involved with people who have shown themselves not to be reliable or truthful. There are other situations where there is a red flag or a message that says “stay away.” When the red flag and the message are ignored, self-control has been abandoned and there is a heightened prospect of wrongdoing.

Because we are prone to ethical and judgment lapses, perhaps the primary barrier that a person should seek to erect is to avoid rationalizing that which is wrong. When we have to justify on legal, halachic or ethical grounds an economic or commercial activity, a prima facie case can be made for staying away. The more the intellect must be employed to justify that which is dubious, the better it is to stay away. This can be illustrated by a situation that is close to home. In the best of times, yeshivas struggle to meet their obligations, mainly to meet payroll for faculty and staff, nearly all whom are greatly underpaid. When an opportunity that promises financial relief but which does not look or smell right comes along, it may be easy to justify yielding to the arguments that the greater moral obligation is to pay people what is coming to them and to disregard the ethical or legal question marks. That is wrongful.

It may be suggested that the greater the need to rationalize wrongdoing, the more the intellect is employed toward achieving that end. Invariably, the sin is, therefore, also greater. As we have seen, when financial improprieties are embraced on the ground that a noble cause is being served, there is a good prospect that what is being justified is a Chilul Hashem.

I write this although I have empathy for those who seek to meet an institution’s obligation or to assist someone in desperate shape and who stumble in their judgment. There is much to condemn in the rush to condemn these people publicly. Although it is not in our religious canon, there is much to the notion that those who are without sin can cast the first stone. As Rabbi Luzzato has written, there are few who are without sin in monetary matters.

It is precisely this vulnerability of most of us to improprieties in monetary matters that should cause those who do the tempting to pause and consider whether they are without sin. As in sexual situations, so too in financial relations: Seduction is sinful, which is to say that entrapment is sinful. There is a remarkable passage in the Talmud (Berachos 32a) that touches on this point. Prior to the Jewish nation entering the land of Israel, the Torah mentions Di Zahav as one of their final stopping places. The Gemara asks:

“What is meant by and Di-zahav? In the academy of Rabbi Yannai, they said: Thus said Moses before the Holy One, Blessed is He, Master of the Universe, because of the silver and gold that You lavished upon Israel until they said, ‘Enough,’ that is what caused them to make the Golden Calf.”

And, “Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: ‘This is analogous to a person who had a son. He bathed him and anointed him with oil, amply fed him and supplied him with drink, and hung a purse full of money on his neck and sat him down at the entrance of a house of prostitutes. What should that son do that he not sin?’”

When G-D instructed the Jewish people upon leaving Egypt to take silver and gold with them, the stage was set for their creating the Golden Calf. Therefore, He was, in a metaphorical sense, an accomplice to their sin. Surely, in the scenario of entrapment that we have read about, the sin of government is great because beyond mere temptation, there was also active involvement in constructing details of the crimes that were to be committed.

The sin of those who tempt cannot get those who yield to temptation off the hook. We have free will. That is surely the lesson of the Golden Calf, for it was a transcendental sin for which our people were immediately and thereafter severely punished. Where there was just the possibility that our actions will constitute a Chilul Hashem, when we utilize our intellectual capacities to justify that which may well lead to wrongdoing, we are committing a grievous sin.