Thursday, February 19, 2009

Madoff in Perspective

The Madoff scandal, still in its infancy, will live in infamy. We will be reminded of his record-busting wrongdoing until the end of our days and the story will remain alive in generations not yet born. There is still much to learn and new information will come out, although I expect that unanswered questions will remain, that there will be competing versions about key details and competing theories. What is already certain is that Rabbis and other sermonizers have been given a plentitude of material. Alas, there are the sermons that have been given, the too frequent theme being that this is a Jewish scandal and disgrace.

An example is the “Letter to Madoff” posted on Newsweek’s website by Rabbi Marc Gellman who although “not comfortable with the fact that so many of the articles about you specifically identify your prominent place in the Jewish community,” laments that while Madoff “did not cause the anti-Semitic insults about Jews and money,” he “caused them to be revived” and “not since Julius Rosenberg spied for the Soviet Union has one person so damaged the image and the self-respect of American Jews.”

Self-respect is subjective and if some want to go on a guilt trip, that’s their problem. As for image, I lived through the Rosenberg story and despite many Jews publicly condemning the death sentence and more than a few claiming that the couple was railroaded, their trial and execution coincided with the great blossoming of America’s fascination with things Jewish and widespread admiration of Jews.

There are always undercurrents of anti-Semitism. What Madoff did is inconsequential in this regard. In fact, as can be ascertained by checking Gallup Poll surveys for the period, anti-Semitism in the U.S. surged in the 1930s and early 1940s as Jews were being persecuted and murdered by Nazi Germany.

It is remarkable how with the predictable assistance of the New York Times, along with too many other media transmitters of the disease and our home-grown self-sermonizers, we embrace the perverse notion of guilt by association. Madoff is Jewish, his crime was monumental but he did not do what he did because he was Jewish and we are not responsible for what he did. The theme of responsibility was trumpeted a couple weeks ago in this newspaper by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman in a column that successfully aspired to the apex of foolishness. Called “We Are One and the Madoff Problem,” we are told that “like it or not…Madoff is One with us. His filthy patch stains our quilt.” Therefore, “it is vital that the organized Jewish world respond to Madoff with a formal separation” by declaring that “Madoff’s heinous crimes are so anathema to our value system.”

I had thought that heinous crimes refer to Auschwitz or perhaps 9/11 or lynchings and not to financial wrongdoing, no matter how monumental. Hammerman’s Madoff-induced parochialism intrigues me. Compare his “We Are One” Madoff mantra to what he wrote after the Mumbai massacres which, incidentally, he did not label as “heinous.”

“Now the world is ready to listen to us – but they can only listen to us if we take our eyes off our navels and engage them, recognizing that their suffering is as great as ours.” As I wrote previously, “I can only hope that his sermons are more sensible.” According to Hammerman, when Jews are murdered clearly because they are Jewish, we are to be universalists. When a Jew commits a crime, we are to be parochial, sharing responsibility for the wrongdoing.

Michael Steinhardt, ever clear-thinking, got it right at a symposium on Madoff, saying that while the criminal was Jewish, this was not a Jewish crime. This isn’t altered by any dollar figure attached to the wrongdoing, nor by the number of Jewish charities and individuals that were defrauded. Without making light of the losses sustained by nonprofits or private investors, it remains that what charities and individuals have lost on Wall Street and other investments in the unfolding of the depression that is now gripping the U.S. and most of the world dwarfs by perhaps as much as a hundredfold Madoff’s fraudulent scheme.

The trumpeting of the theme of Jewish guilt, even when accompanied by disclaimers of such guilt, provides hate points for anti-Semites. This old and dangerous social disease is nourished by those who in the name of some ersatz moral principle assert that we Jews bear responsibility for the sins of others. As has been noted without much avail, the notion that we are all guilty inadvertently translates into the unacceptable position that those who committed the crimes may not be more guilty than the rest of us.

There is the collateral social disease of Jewish self-hate that crops up when Jews behave in ways that are inappropriate or wrongful. What we do not like is labeled as a “Jewish” attribute and this, too, provides material for those who are hateful towards Jews. Clearly, Madoff’s crimes must not be dismissed as inconsequential or of little concern, yet we must not apologize for them. Mea culpas feed the notion that we Jews share the guilt of wrongdoers.

The Madoff story has a long way to go. Rabbis have sermons to give and we cannot expect them to look a gift horse in the mouth when so juicy a subject comes their way. We should expect them, as well as our columnists and editorial writers, to be restrained in their indulging in guilt by association, as well in their indulging in Jewish self-hate.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Economic Realities and Our Schools

A Five Towns parent of three young children, two already in day school, told me recently that a group of parents who are stretched out by ever-increasing tuition are thinking of enrolling their kids in public school and they would then attend an after-school program at a local synagogue for a far more intensive Judaic program than what is customarily provided in Talmud Torahs or supplementary schools. This isn’t the first such stirring in that community and like its predecessor of a couple years ago, it is likely to be doomed by ideological and other considerations. Still, this is one more sign of growing discontent in the day school world arising from rising tuition and financial realities in many religious homes.

A more remarkable indication is the February 4 meeting at an Englewood public school under the auspices of the local Board of Education. Nearly five-hundred parents showed up on a cold wintry night for a preliminary consideration of a “Hebrew dual language immersion program” in the local public schools. This obscure phrasing translates into the question of whether and how the school district can provide for the educational needs of the religious community.

An estimated two-thirds of the attendees were Modern Orthodox and they were there for a discussion of the admittedly remote possibility that their children would become public schoolers and still get a meaningful Jewish education. The message is that something potentially significant is developing in day school education. With the unwelcome but powerful stimulus of the severe economic downturn – even if we must avoid calling it a depression, that is what it is - we should expect transformative developments affecting non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox day school families.

Even without the bad economic news which for day schools means an increase in scholarship applications as parents lose their jobs and a decrease in fundraising income because contributors have suffered large investment losses, there were reasons for concern. I am conducting my third survey of day school enrollment, following up on the research I did in the 1998-99 and 2003-04 school years. This entails, among much else, contacting the schools included in the previous survey. There are always schools that close, invariably small institutions and not those with nearly 250 students. Yet, a Miami Solomon Schechter school with more than 200 students in 2003, from nursery through grade 8, now operates only as a preschool. The director tells me that most of the children were transferred to public school.

Doubtlessly, the decline in Judaic commitment that is afflicting Conservative Jewry was an important factor in what transpired at this school. Surely, tuition was also a consideration, as it now is in a growing number of schools. Day school parents are consumers and price is a factor in determining whether to go ahead. For fervently Orthodox families there is a religious obligation to provide a Torah education. For others, day school is not optional, yet it may not be regarded as mandatory if the product is priced out of the reach of prospective parents.

In Modern Orthodox schools in particular, tuition has been going up at a steady clip, far more than at other Orthodox and most non-Orthodox institutions. The tuition burden is a compelling factor in the aliyah decision of some families. Obviously, for most Modern Orthodox families aliyah is not an option because of financial and other considerations. Unless MO schools more carefully control costs and rid themselves of the notion that tuition must rise $500 or $1,000 and more each year, there will be more parents seeking an exit from day school, perhaps along the lines of what is being explored by Englewood and Five Town parents. If the severe economic crisis is long-lived, the prospect is that some families will crack and withdraw their children from Jewish schools.

Charedi or fervently Orthodox schools invariably live with tight financial shoes, even in the best of times. These institutions are, in the main, relatively generous in providing scholarship assistance to needy families and their tuition base is weak. The sharp economic downturn is making matters a good deal worse. A large girls school in Brooklyn is months behind in payroll and is planning to reduce its faculty by forty. A yeshiva tells me that it is five months behind and another that it is seven months behind and so it goes, without a silver lining to be seen.

The financial crisis is providing additional impetus for the still tiny and evolving world of charter schools that somehow incorporate into their academic program certain Jewish elements such as Hebrew in the curriculum. Mayor Bloomberg’s startling announcement that four Catholic schools in the Brooklyn Diocese that are scheduled to close may become charter schools is certain to whet the appetite of Jewish charter school aficionados. I remain doubtful that this avenue will become a significant factor in what may conveniently be called “Jewish” education.

Whether through charters or transfers from day school to public school, what is already evident in the day school world and what lies ahead because of the expanding financial carnage is that there will be a greater burden on public school budgets. In Englewood, the annual expenditure per public school student is nearly $18,000 and the figure isn’t much lower in other localities in the New York metropolitan area where two-thirds of all day school enrollment is located.

It would be far more efficacious from a financial standpoint if the public sector would foot the bill for the academic curriculum in religious schools. Thanks in large measure to the widespread American Jewish hostility to meaningful religious education and the corollary idol worship of total separation of church and state, this won’t happen. The paradox is that paranoia about church-state will most certainly result in public school districts being saddled with additional expenditures because of the establishment of additional charter schools and/or the transfer of religious school students to public schools.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Denial and Disaster

The United States and much of the rest of the world are in a depression, a word that apparently must be avoided, perhaps in the hope that if we do not say it the bad news will go away.

Unfortunately, the bad news is all around us in the vast and increasing number of layoffs, the decline in consumer spending, the near collapse of the auto industry and the near insolvency of major banks. We are not in a Great Depression of the magnitude that devastated the U.S. economy and society and other economies and societies eighty years ago and the likelihood is that early and massive governmental intervention here and abroad will result in a recovery within the next two or three years.

Yet the bad news now dominates and it transcends by a great margin what is ordinarily referred to as a recession or economic downturn. The unwillingness to use the big D does not and will not change this reality. As in other situations, denial can be functional and even beneficial, provided that it does not induce self-deception or the purposeful avoidance of reality. Right now, there are signs of highly risky self-denial.

For all of the pain it brings, a depression does not mean that an economy collapses or comes close to a stop. Tens of millions of workers continue to have jobs, people shop, there is money for trips, optional spending and even luxuries - and there are some folks who manage to make a lot of money when the going is bad.

In the darkest days of the Great Depression in the 1930s, there were speakeasies where money flowed easily along with the liquor and there were pleasure cruises. Fans went to the ballpark and there was a great boom in movie theaters. All of this while many were unemployed and many suffered.

Charities are inevitable victims when the economy nosedives. People give less, mainly because they have less to give but also because they are fearful about what lies ahead. There is also a tendency to regard self-indulgence, including gratuitous spending on pleasures, as a priority over concern for others.

Jewish charities have already been affected by the severe downturn, far more than they have been hurt by the Madoff scandal. Some good may come out of the financial woes faced by our organizations if the loss of income is translated into the loss of some of the thousands of organizations that occupy our communal landscape.

Far more worrisome is the certain impact on yeshivas and day schools. The greatest damage will occur at non-Orthodox day schools and perhaps also Orthodox schools that serve a modern clientele because a combination of high tuition and lost income and savings will result in the withdrawal of students who will transfer to public school. For haredi or fervently Orthodox families, a yeshiva education is mandatory, irrespective of the financial situation, though there are families that have opted for home schooling because of financial constraints.

When the Great Depression hit, the adverse impact on the fledgling day school movement was severe. There were schools that closed. This added to the already powerful trend away from religious commitment in many American Jewish homes during the interwar period. It is too early to assess the damage that may result from the current crisis. The indications are not good.

I am conducting another census of day schools in the United States, five years after the previous survey. Yeshivas and day schools are reporting that contributions are down and scholarship applications are up and there are those that expect enrollment to decline in September when the next school year begins.

Of note is the recent report by the Los Angeles Board of Jewish Education that more than 200 students have left local day schools because of financial considerations. As expected, the lion's share of the losses was in non-Orthodox schools. We should not be happy that these students are overwhelmingly now in public school.

The news out of Florida is also not good. Furthermore, the ill economic winds do not stop at some imaginary or real border separating Orthodox life from the rest of American Jewry. There are Orthodox day schools that are on the ropes. As I write, the leading kiruv or outreach day school in the country is saddled by massive debt and its future is threatened. The two leading immigrant schools are in deep financial trouble.

It will not avail to do nothing, to believe that salvation will somehow come irrespective of what we do. Our religious obligation is to have emunah and, at the same time, to be realistic, which means not to stick our heads in the ground and ignore that which is already before us. The economic fundamentals are miserable, they are likely to get worse and improvement isn't around the corner. If yeshivas and day schools are struggling now, it is not hard to imagine what lies ahead.

Presently, there is far more denial than there is action to deal with the deleterious consequences of the crisis. As expected, people on the firing line - whether faculty and staff whose paychecks are late in coming, parents worried about meeting tuition obligations, or lay officers responsible for a school's budget. At the communal level, there is inaction, even quiet, and if this isn't a form of denial, I will accept suggestions for an alternative term.

So far as I can tell, our community organizations and leaders have been silent. Where are our rabbis? Where are our yeshiva deans? Have there been any meetings aimed at dealing with the expanding crisis? I am not aware of any. We need to bestir ourselves and this includes the philanthropic sector, if there are philanthropists left after the financial carnage.

One place to start is to recognize priorities. Over the years, I have argued with scant success that we have created an expensive and bloated enterprise I refer to as "Jewish Education, Inc.," a collection of activities that purport to assist our schools even as they manage to neglect the truth that education occurs in schools and classrooms and not in self-serving grantsmanship that enriches consultants, evaluators and pseudo-experts.

Jewish Education, Inc. encompasses expensive training programs, expensive trips, expensive conferences and conventions and much else that is at once sterile and falsely promoted as essential for the educational wellbeing of our schools.

The training train should have been put into mothballs in the best of times because it constitutes the purposeful diversion of scarce funds away from schools and into the hands of entrepreneurs. We obviously are not in the best of times and we are coming dangerously close to a tragic situation as more and more yeshivas and day schools cannot meet payroll. There is no excuse for indulgence in educational frills and this includes not only training but also a host of activities involving trips and consultants.

Torah Umesorah must be awake to the crisis that already is inside school doors. It would be a wonderful demonstration of Torah priorities if its annual convention were suspended for a year. If this year is not possible because commitments have been made, then next year. More than the savings would be the message that for our schools it is not business as usual; that when the Jewish future of Jewish children is at risk because there are schools that may close, holding conventions is not a mitzvah. I know this would be a difficult decision since many believe a convention is an essential educational activity.

Our main challenge is what individual schools may do. This isn't easy because nearly all are chronically underfunded and a great proportion of their budget goes for payroll. There isn't much to cut. Still, professional and lay leaders at each school must carefully consider cost-saving steps. Here are a handful of suggestions.

Merger - This is the least likely approach to be taken since the strong impulse is for each school to make Shabbos for itself. It matters not at all that this isn't cost effective from a communal perspective and often does not make sense from the perspective of schools that face a daily struggle to survive. There is one statistic that should be compelling: Forty percent of all yeshivas and day schools enroll fewer than one hundred students, with many having fewer than fifty.

This is to be expected in small communities where the total number of students is modest and there is an obligation to provide for the chinuch needs of families that span the religious spectrum. Thus, there are small Beth Jacob high schools sprinkled across the country. The New York metropolitan area is a different story. Yet, there is an abundance of small institutions, each engaged in fundraising. Is this necessary, especially during a period of severe economic deterioration?

Cooperative Activities - If merger is out, perhaps greater cooperation among schools within the same community may be possible, the aim being to reduce costs. Small schools, in particular, could share one executive director or fundraiser. Other possibilities are the sharing of faculty and the use of educational technology to link classrooms. In fact, I am currently working on a new initiative aimed at achieving inter-day school cooperation.

Annual Dinner - Experience shows that for many schools the annual dinner is vital for fundraising. Nonetheless, cost-cutting measures are possible, ranging from less lavish invitations to a less lavish meal, as well as restraint in the gifts presented to the honorees and a severe reduction in the customary journal which is bloated with quickly forgotten love notes to the honorees and others, with most copies thrown away before the food is fully digested and nearly all of the remainder being discarded with the Pesach cleaning.

Trips - Student trips have become ingrained in the school year, with parents picking up the ever-increasing cost, though at times schools foot part of the bill. Excluding the well-deserved eighth grade excursion to Washington and perhaps one or two other outings, trips cannot be justified at a time of fiscal hardship. Schools can save money and so can parents who can barely make ends meet.

Conventions and Conferences - I am back to Jewish Education, Inc., now from the perspective of individual schools. Whatever the justification in upbeat times for educators going to Israel at school expense to meet people they often meet on these shores, there is no excuse for this extravagance now. I know I will be pilloried for suggesting that lay leaders put their foot down and tell school principals that conventions are out this year and next and that this includes Torah Umesorah's. It is not, in my view, halachically permissible to spend school money on such activities when faculty and staff are not being paid in a timely manner.

PTA - Parent associations can be useful adjuncts in the operation of a school by funding school-based activities that are not provided for in the budget. At times, however, the PTA attitude is "this is our money, not the school's." PTA leaders should consider how they can directly assist school officials who are responsible for paying faculty and other obligations.

Attitude - This list obviously does not include all that may be done to help our schools weather the darkening storm. At the end of the day, fundraising and tuition shortfalls will leave a painful budgetary gap. What is essential is the recognition that there is a crisis, that this is not a time for business as usual. Nor is it the time for denial of reality or its corollary in our religious life that faith is essential and that with faith alone Torah institutions will get by. Faculty cannot pay their bills with scrip called faith, nor are suppliers any more eager to accept this form of payment.

If a mindset takes hold in a school that there is a crisis and expenditures must be reviewed carefully, the prospect is that the school will come up with additional savings, whether in the use of e-mail instead of conventional mail or reduction of printing bills through use of the computer or energy savings and so on. If we avoid denial, we shall increase enormously the ability to get by in a responsible manner. If we are in denial, we are embracing a formula for disaster.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Holocaust Memory

Memory, as we should all know but may have forgotten, plays tricks. It is at once fickle and partisan. Whatever brain matter contributes to the remarkable phenomenon referred to as memory does not always perform well or deteriorates over time or is vulnerable to limitations that make our recollections incomplete or unreliable. Added to the physiological defects are distortions arising from a personal stake or circumstances, including emotions, that color what we claim to have witnessed or heard. Although people do fabricate, the main problem with memory is unreliability, not untruthfulness. Witnesses to the same event who swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth often disagree in the accounts they give. Psychological testing demonstrates how immediately after an occurrence there is considerable variance and distortion in what is reported. The point was brilliantly made in “Rashomon,” a 1950 masterpiece of the Japanese cinema.

When events occur in a setting of great physical or emotional stress, the likelihood is for diminished reliability when those who were under stress report what they believe happened. We should not expect persons who are being tortured or suffering a severe personal loss or are engaged in an angry argument to remember with precision all that transpired. Under such conditions, there is scant opportunity to commit the experience immediately to writing.

Awesome in scope and awesome in evil, the Holocaust raises difficult questions when survivors engage in autobiography. There is at once the obligation to bear witness and to remember and the obligation to be truthful. Is it possible to be faithful to each of these responsibilities? In the early years after the Holocaust, we were in the main Jews of silence and this was true, as well, of survivors. We were too close to the pain and the loss and also busy with other matters. We weren’t building Holocaust memorials and the Holocaust literature was sparse.

As time passed, we awoke to what had befallen our people and what followed this awakening is a continuing escalation in Holocaust books, movies, exhibits, memorials and much more, so that nearly two-thirds of a century after Auschwitz claimed its final victims and the ranks of survivors have greatly thinned, Holocaust memory and commemoration are more alive than ever before. If only because of the passage of so much time, this adds to the question of reliability.

This issue arose, in fact, with the publication of perhaps the greatest of all Holocaust remembrances, Eli Weisel’s “Night.” There is controversy over different editions and whether the book should be considered an eye-witness report or “an autobiographical novel” or some variation on this theme. The ground was covered several years ago in a notable New Republic essay by Ruth Franklin.

Eli Weisel knows that some of his stories did not happen, yet they remain truthful because they are surrogates for horrific events that did happen. This literary device is appropriate and probably inevitable because in Auschwitz all was night, all was pain and loss. There are antecedents in our liturgy for this approach to tragedy, as for example in the Lamentations read on Tisha b’Av. One of these is “Eleh Ezkerah,” which is also recited on Yom Kippur in a different version. It tells of the barbaric murder by the Romans of ten transcendent talmudic sages. The language is gripping as we read of their being cruelly killed one after another, something that could not have happened as they lived generations apart. The intent is to create a mood, to describe in language that we can understand tragic events that were beyond comprehension. So, too, the Holocaust.

This necessity to employ in Holocaust memoirs events that did not happen as surrogates for those that did does not justify total fabrications. For sure, there have been some. One example is Herman Rosenblat’s Buchenwald invention of the love story about a young girl, later his wife, who passed apples to him across the concentration camp’s fence. The tale has achieved much attention and the Oprah treatment, with a memoir slated to be published when it was revealed to be a fiction and Rosenblat owned up to the truth.

This was bad enough. As we know from our ethical teachings, a sin begets other sins and so worse than Rosenblat’s original sin are the cascades of anger directed at him. One writer in this newspaper said that Rosenblat is worse than a Holocaust denier. Other critics have not been much kinder. It does not require either the acceptance of falsehoods or a bleeding heart to plead for understanding. The man was in Buchenwald, he suffered and he is a survivor. I believe that Holocaust survivors who were in the death camps deserve some slack, not to fabricate but to be immune from piling on when they do.

Again, memory is fickle and plays games and there is a tendency toward embellishment and distortion, especially when what is being recollected attracts an audience. Rosenblat is an extreme example of a tendency inherent in human experiences. The more Holocaust survivors have an audience, the more likely it is that they will add to and change what they experienced and along the way some will come to believe that the stories they now tell in fact happened. I know well a man with the Auschwitz numbers engraved on his arm who over the years has substantially altered and embellished what he experienced in Hell.

The worst fallout from the Rosenblat affair is the license it gives to those who mock Holocaust remembrance. A sickening example is in The New Yorker (January 19), in the “Shouts & Murmurs” space that once was reserved for first-rate humorists and increasingly has been occupied by mediocrities. One of these is Ben Greenman, a sub-sophmoric writer who attempts to parody Rosenblat’s tale. There isn’t a funny line in the piece. It is, rather, an example of moral pornography. Where are the protests?