Friday, January 30, 2009

Kosher Food Questions

For all of its importance in our religious life, fundamentally kosher food is a product and like all products it is subject to the vicissitudes of markets and the vagaries of human behavior. Kosher food is a business and there is money to be made, often more money to be made than on similar products that are not designated as kosher. This means, in turn, that there is a temptation to take advantage and, in extreme situations, to label as kosher that which is not.

We have come a long way in this country in kosher supervision, in large measure thanks to the Orthodox Union which certifies thousands of items and sets a high standard for probity. There are those who question or do not accept certain O.U. criteria for kashruth certification, claiming that there is too great a reliance on halachic leniencies. No matter, for that’s for individuals to decide; what counts is the long record of integrity.

As kosher food is a business, so is supervision and certification. There is competition in the field, mainly from agencies and individuals that have created a dizzying array of certification symbols. Overall, we can be confident of reliability and this isn’t much undermined by the occasional scandal that gives Orthodox Jews in particular something to talk about.

Given the use of standard ingredients in most products, certification is in large measure a routine process. It is also a changing process because food production constantly undergoes change. One major development is globalization, the astonishing decline of local manufacturing as companies seek places where their products can be produced at a significantly lower cost. Two of the Rabbis murdered in Mumbai were there to inspect and certify as kosher food produced in India.

Kosher food production has expanded in India, but nothing compared to what has happened in China. A recent New Yorker article by Patricia Marx (“Kosher Takeout,” January 5) informs us that at least 1,500 Chinese factories have kosher certificates and that “there are more than fifty mashgichim (kosher inspectors) in the country, seven from the O.U.” China “is now the fastest-growing exporter of kosher goods on earth.” Flippant in tone, the article focuses on two mashgichim who live in Israel, Rabbi Mordechai Grunberg who works for the Orthodox Union and Rabbi David Moskowitz who has his own certification agency, Shatz Kosher Services, which is now involved in “more than one-hundred factories in China and a few in Vietnam.”

In short, for kosher consumers, Chinese production is now significant. This raises questions about supervision. According to Marx, typically Rabbis Grunberg and Moskowitz spend two to three weeks each month in China, with a good deal of their time devoted to getting to the places they supervise, an important factor that inevitably affects how much time is devoted to the supervision itself. As a rule, each factory is visited four times a year, with the initial visit taking up to four hours, while the “follow-up walk-through can be accomplished in an hour.” A good part of that hour is devoted to what Marx refers to as “the schmooze,” small talk and much chuckling “about what, I don’t think anyone present has a clue.”

I trust that the mashgichim are competent, that they know what to look for and what to ask as they make their pre-scheduled visits. I am not fully confident about the quality of the inspections. Four short visits a year are nothing to write home about and this concern isn’t allayed by Rabbi Moskowitz’s assertion, “It’s more what they don’t show you than what they do… You break [the] pattern” by asking to see something that they are not ready for.

The Chinese certainly aren’t less prone to human failings in commercial transactions than other humans. From recent news regarding tainted milk, lead in toys and other business shenanigans, it may be that because this vast country is in an early stage of rapid and undersupervised economic development, there is more to worry about the reliability of Chinese products than about goods coming from elsewhere. The China story is typical of societies in transformation. I doubt that kosher food production induces in Chinese businessmen a higher degree of restraint against wrongdoing.

When I spoke to an Orthodox Union official about this concern, he assured me that “90% of the products are innocuous,” a statistic that did not reduce my concern. In kosher food, it’s always a small proportion of the ingredients that require a higher degree of inspection. Shatz certifies frozen fish filet for Sam’s Club and the O.U. certifies “Wow, a snack food comprising wasabi–and–soy-roasted green peas, rice, peanuts and beans.” Are quickie visits sufficient to establish the kashruth of these products?

Although I admire the Orthodox Union’s accomplishments, uncomfortable questions need to be asked about China. Globalization is a dynamic force and the prospect is for greater reliance in kosher food production on plants in distant countries where supervision and certification are often provided by itinerant mashgichim.

Doubtlessly, China’s growing role in the relatively small world of kosher food and the infinitely larger global economy arises from cost considerations. Like other goods, kosher food is produced in China because even with shipping costs, it is cheaper to do business there than elsewhere. This raises the collateral question of whether in any way these savings are passed on to kosher consumers. To put the question differently, why is kosher food significantly more expensive than comparable food that is not labeled as kosher? Certification is a small expense. There is enormous financial pressure in many Orthodox homes. The severe economic downturn adds to this pressure. This downturn is accompanied by accelerating deflation in the price of commodities. Little or none of this is being passed on to kosher consumers. Why?

Friday, January 09, 2009

Advocating for Day Schools

It was pleasing to learn weeks ago of the Federation program to provide one-million dollars in scholarship assistance to at least two-hundred day school enrollees. This is another indication of an improved Federation attitude toward the institutions that are the most vital instrumentalities for Jewish identity and commitment and also the victims of philanthropic neglect. This improved approach was evident in June when Beth Jacob-Beth Miriam, a Bronx day school, closed after two-thirds of a century and there was the need to place several dozen remaining students. Most were taken in by the Stein Yeshiva in Yonkers and a handful by SAR in Riverdale, which waived tuition. Barbara Libman, Beth Jacob’s principal, contacted me regarding the transportation costs. I turned to Federation, which agreed to cover this significant expense.

It is good that day school advocacy has reaped benefits, yet a lot more advocacy is needed. When I criticized Orthodox leaders for not pressing Federation, as they naively relied on “quiet diplomacy” which ultimately proved fruitless, the now administrative head of a major Orthodox organization wrote that I was “despicable.” Put otherwise, my work on behalf of day schools has often been a lonely crusade.

One explanation is that starting in the 1980’s, there was a transformation in Orthodox life as increasingly the wrongful notion that support of yeshiva and day school education is essentially a parental and not a communal obligation came to be accepted. This mindset is antithetical to the teachings and practice that prevailed for 2000 years in our religious life. Even as tuition rose each year and Orthodox family size increased dramatically, so that more and more parents struggled to meet tuition payments, in nearly all of our schools parents were made to carry an ever-increasing share of the budgetary burden. There was no one else to turn to other than the parents.

There were, of course, exceptions, they being the small number of institutions where lay people fulfilled their responsibility and raised the necessary funds from communal sources and schools that educated immigrant and outreach populations from whom it would be impossible to collect more than a pittance in tuition. Overall, basic Torah education was shortchanged. Ultimately and inevitably, immigrant and outreach schools also became victims of communal neglect, as is evident in recent developments in this day school sector.

Over the years, my plea that rabbinical leaders who are the leaders of the day school world proclaim publicly the communal obligation to sustain our religious schools fell on deaf ears. I was told that such statements have little impact, which may be true yet do not get the Rabbis off the hook. More fundamentally, the attitude was that it is right for parents to shoulder the cost of their children’s education because it is they who are being provided the service. This argument is buttressed by the reality that there are parents who can pay full tuition but who don’t and the collateral argument that there are scholarship families that manage to come up with significant money for trips to Israel and elsewhere, for their children to study in Israel, for fancy simchas, etc.

This is a difficult line of reasoning to refute, even as I am certain that a far larger number of parents pay their fair share, although making ends meet is for them a daily ordeal. There is a callousness among too many in the day school field toward needy families.

Rabbinical leaders have now issued a public statement – I am told as a result of my advocacy – calling on parents to fulfill their obligation to provide a Torah education for their children and then calling on the community to support yeshivas and day schools. Obviously, the severe economic downturn has added to the financial difficulties facing our schools, many of which could scarcely get by when the economy was booming.

The downturn is one reason why the Rabbinical plea will not bear quick fruit. More fundamentally, it will take an extended and intensive effort to counteract and reverse the wrongful attitude that has now become embedded, to teach the religious rank and file and especially persons of means that our schools must be at the top of the charity list.

How hard this is to accomplish is a lesson I learn each year as I seek support for the four schools for which I have responsibility as president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. The arrangement is unique because under one institutional roof there are an advanced talmudic yeshiva and a coeducational day school, as well as separate schools for boys and girls, all fulfilling my view that one pattern of day school education is not sufficient for children from diverse backgrounds and attitudes.

Each year at Chanukah, I append a note to this column asking for support. The response invariably has been tepid. This year I did a little better, as there have been seven contributions, for which I am grateful. I can only imagine the difficulty facing other day schools whose presidents do not have the contacts and resources available to me.

I am in my thirty-sixth year as president of RJJ, a voluntary responsibility that is apart from other communal work in the day school field and elsewhere. This responsibility arose shortly after publication of my book on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, “Learned Hand’s Court,” which was well received. At that point in my life, I decided to devote myself primarily to religious Jewish education, fulfilling the last request made of me shortly before he died by Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the transcendent Torah leader in the entire experience of American Jewry.

There are persons who are close to me who have criticized my walking away from a career teaching constitutional law. I do not look back in sorrow, although there are times when advocacy for day schools is a lonely experience.

Monday, January 05, 2009

RJJ Newsletter - January 2009

More than thirty years ago, not long after I became RJJ’s president, I was told of an alumnus living in Greenwich, Connecticut who had struck it rich. It took some time to reach him by phone. He grew up in Borough Park and remembered Schick’s Bakery. When I told him that we needed alumni support and asked for a contribution, he laughed and said something like this: “I was going to Etz Chaim in Borough Park. My mother heard that RJJ was the “in” Yeshiva, as the best kids were going there, and so she transferred me. The first day, my rebbi smacked me. When I came home and told my mother about this, she hit me, saying that the rebbi had to be right. The pattern continued for the rest of the week. I told my mother that if she insisted on my going to RJJ, I would run away. She took me out and put me in public school. Some alumnus!” I responded, “For the privilege of one week in RJJ, what are you willing to contribute?” He laughed and promised a modest contribution, which he sent. That was our last contact.

The story came to mind while reading a New Yorker review essay on “overparenting,” a term referring to the excessive involvement of parents in the lives – and especially the education – of their children. Nowadays, if a teacher hits a student, there will be hell to pay and that’s a good thing. What isn’t necessarily good is the protectiveness of too many parents, their knowing too much about what is going on in their children’s lives, even as in certain and, at times, critical ways there is a lot that they do not know and should not know, including what is going on in their children’s minds and in their emotional lives.

Overparenting takes various forms, apart from the stereotypical mama’s boy or Jewish mothers’ syndrome where maternal love can smother a child’s healthy development into adulthood and the requisite independence that this entails. Putting aside bizarre or over-the-top illustrations of overparenting, as an example the New Yorker tells of parents of college students who buy another home so that they can be close to their offspring, what makes overparenting fascinating are the expectations that infuse the parent-child dynamic. Parents are now routinely expected to help with homework and this obligation frequently turns into parents doing the homework, writing assignments not excluded. Teachers say that when they assign a writing exercise to be done at home, what they are likely to get back is something written by the parents.

Another aspect of overparenting is the notion that school-age children must be provided with a range of extra-curricular activities, both to fill up their day and to enrich them. There is the tendency to know or want to know how the child is spending his or her day and to be able to control how the time is being spent. Of course, as many parents have learned, when the high school years hit – and even earlier – it is a difficult and perhaps hopeless task to keep tabs on one’s children.

A confluence of social changes has contributed to the spread of overparenting. These include technological developments that have profoundly affected social behavior, such things as the nearly universal availability and use of cell phones and the spreading use of text messaging. This creates at least the possibility of constant communication between parent and child. We are at once better connected and yet, as social scientists have pointed out, less connected than in previous generations. We have the enhancement of direct contact via voice and text and a diminution of emotional contact.

The critical social element in overparenting is the norm that this is the right way to act, that parents must be there for their kids and must even sacrifice so that their children are not deprived or do not feel deprived by the failure of parents to be either soccer moms or little league fathers or homework helpers. There is, accordingly, the keeping up with the Joneses factor.

One way of looking at the changes that have taken place is the role change from parents once being regarded as of a different generation with different values and interests to their becoming big brothers and big sisters. Where previously there was a generation gap and, at least in immigrant families there was also a language gap and often an educational gap, parents and children are now often in the same societal milieu.

One attitude that has gone by the wayside as the generation gap has narrowed is that whereas previously parents regarded teachers as authority figures who always or nearly always deserve respect, they now regard faculty as not on a higher plane but as individuals who can be routinely challenged. Whereas teachers were always right in the eyes of parents, nowadays when their own children are involved it is often the teacher who must prove that she or he is right. This is, of course, related to the overall societal change in how people are respected.

Admittedly, the excesses of overparenting are not universal, as they are linked intimately to the emergence of a middle class mindset. Socio-economic factors, as we know, impel people towards particular behavior and attitudes. For obvious reasons, poor families and even those that are lower middle class are less prone to overparenting than those higher up on the socio-economic scale.

In the elements that define “middle class,” the social factors are more compelling than those that are economic, which is to say that even families removed considerably from affluence cannot readily avoid a middle class lifestyle including the tendency toward overparenting. Families that attitudinally are in the middle class are apt to act as middle class, even though they are without the financial credentials that define middle class. Since American Jewry is in the aggregate clearly middle-classified, likely there is a greater incidence of overparenting among Jews than among Americans generally. This is especially manifested in the educational arena, if only because of the high value Jews place on formal education.

This brings me to the quite small world of yeshivas and day schools. I cannot say that overparenting is more pronounced in these schools than elsewhere in Jewish life. It may, in fact, be that there is less overparenting in our religious schools, if only because the chassidic and yeshiva-world sectors that constitute more than half of all American Jewish day school enrollment do not encourage and often do not allow parents to play the role in the education of their children that is par for the course in more modern Jewish schools. Fathers are expected to learn with their sons and mothers with their daughters, as well as to help out with homework. Direct involvement in what happens at school is not part of this expectation.

Yet, when it occurs the consequences of overparenting are probably greater in yeshivas and day schools. Our elementary schools and high schools are in the main small institutions. About forty-percent enroll one-hundred or fewer students. Furthermore, nearly all of our schools get by on thin administrative staffs, so that there is an absence of buffers that create what may be referred to as a bureaucratic wall separating principals and school administrators from the parent body. When parents have a problem, they go directly to the top, meaning the principal, and they may also go directly to the teacher. I know of teachers who are called by parents asking about a test or a report card grade or an assignment or some social issue that may arise in the classroom. I doubt that public school parents feel that they have the liberty or the right to pick up the phone and call their children’s teachers at home. Of course, the not inconsequential circumstance that public schools do not charge tuition and our schools charge tuition contributes to the notion that parents have the right to speak their piece whenever they want to.

Proper parenting is good and this entails a measure of emotional and other engagement in the lives of children. If the choice is between little or no involvement and excessive involvement, the latter may be preferable because it serves as a demonstration to children that their parents care, but excessive involvement exacts a cost. Parents do have a right to know, apart from report cards, how their sons and daughters are doing at school and teachers and school officials should pay heed when parents raise an issue, particularly when it deals with a home situation or another critical factor that may affect school performance.

Restraint is especially needed in yeshivas and day schools because of the lack of administrative buffers that I referred to and also because the dual curriculum in these schools creates the potential for a larger basket of issues that might arise in the education of children. There are students who do well in Judaics but not in academic subjects or the other way around and this may result in parents trying to pressure the school to adjust its educational program to meet the specific needs of a child. I am at times astounded to hear of parents who go to the school, meet with the principal and insist that the curriculum be altered because it is not tailor made to meet the needs of their children.

There are boundaries or limits and while they cannot be easily defined because each situation and each child is unique, common sense may serve as a useful guide. As in all relationship, those who are involved must know when to pull back. In an era when overparenting is the norm, parents must know when not to overparent. They must know that they are responsible for a single child while the school is responsible for a great number of children and a teacher for perhaps two dozen or more. Parents must come to understand, as is also true in all healthy relationships, that there are minor missteps that do not deserve any reaction, that at times it is best to be quiet.