Friday, April 24, 2009

The Times and American Jewry

On the first day of Pesach, the New York Times published three articles about Jews, not counting Michael Kimmelman’s long piece on Poland searching “its own soul and its anti-Semitism.” Peter Applebome wrote about the burning of chametz in Monsey, by and large keeping under wraps his disdain for religious Jews. There was an article about major companies adapting their appliances to make life easier for the Orthodox on Shabbos, with potential halachic issues omitted from the story. A long article served as a paean for kosher for Passover dog food and what was stupidly and offensively described as a seder for dogs, accompanied by a photo of a canine with a yarmulke on its head.

There is a growing tendency in what still passes as journalism to focus on the bizarre, for contemporary reportage to borrow heavily from the approach of the old National Enquirer. The Forward featured an article on a seder for sexual bondage perverts – the greater perversion was the debasement of journalism – and perhaps worse of all, this newspaper several weeks ago had an article on a website for Orthodox Jewish adultery, with the sick claims of the site’s promoter reported as the whole truth.

In the days before Pesach, the Times carried two long articles on the Blessing for the Sun, the once in twenty-eight years ceremony that caused much excitement among the Orthodox, a long and empathetic Op-Ed piece by Nathan Englander, a noted novelist, on the Haggadah, Alex Wichtel’s approving article on the dairy seder of Nicholas Lemann and Judith Shulevitz and several Holocaust-related stories.

For all of the deserved criticism that comes its way, the Times is a serious newspaper that recognizes that what it publishes serves at least as footnotes to history and sociology. The newspaper has an enormous amount of ground to cover including religious and ethnic life. It’s my impression that far more attention is given to Jews than to other groups, with the exception of gays, although there are far fewer American Jews than there are, for example, Catholics or Hispanics. I may be wrong about this, yet the question merits study in journalism schools.

Why all of the Jewish coverage? Can it be that despite our relatively small and continuously shrinking numbers, we continue to constitute a large share of the newspaper’s readership and consequently the Times is making both an editorial and business decision to report developments that are of interest to those who buy the newspaper? Or is it that editors and reporters, themselves disproportionately Jewish, are likely to favor stories that have a distinct Jewish angle? The nature of Jewish life, notably our abundance of organizations and activities and the collateral desire of persons associated with them to get publicity may result in a heightened media focus, including at the Times, on Jewish stories.

There is, of course, the possibility that my impression is errant, that the attention I believe the Times gives to Jews is no more than a reflection of my intense interest in Jewish affairs, so that I pay close attention to Jewish stories and conclude that these stories get inordinate space.

If I have to come up with an explanation it is that journalism has changed, that increasingly it is personal in nature, with some reporters and certainly columnists having much leeway in what they file. At the Times, the Op-Ed pages used to be the special sanctuary of columnists, with the rest of the paper devoted to hard news. Nowadays, columnists are scattered throughout the newspaper, especially in the sections that cover American or local life. Many years ago and for a long time, just about every Jewish story reported in the Times was channeled through Irving (Pat) Spiegel, which itself is an interesting story. No longer as personal journalism has expanded and with it the prospect for Jewish coverage.

Several weeks ago, I ruefully remarked that we do not need either the Times’ caresses via schmaltzy human interest stories about American Jews or the nasty bite of its Middle East coverage. Unfortunately, many Jews regard the space we get in the Times as a plus, as a demonstration of our importance and a form of flattery. Our enemies also regard this as a sign of our importance. Journalism is two-edged and the hand that feeds us is also the hand that bites. Without meaning to do so, the Times promotes the harmful notion that Jews are powerful. If we are the Chosen People, let us be chosen in more exalted ways.

Whatever we think of the newspaper’s attention, what the Times publishes matters and this entails the responsibility to be careful. Just about every book about American Jewry is apt to contain citations from the newspaper. Erroneous or prejudicial statements have a long afterlife. As I have noted, the newspaper is a sourcebook for history and sociology. When it publishes something that is erroneous or thoughtfully challenged, it needs to provide a correction, especially as the Internet expands, else the original wrong is apt to be multiplied over the years.

As I have learned, the Times has a sense of responsibility when it comes to correcting errors. More than a year ago, in its Sunday City Section, there was a story about Borough Park that put the number of Orthodox Jews at 300,000, an astounding figure since the population of the entire neighborhood is barely above 100,000. I pointed out the mistake; at first, the newspaper defended its estimate, relying on evidence that made little sense. After I persisted, there was a tiny correction buried somewhere in the same section.

As I prepared this column, I checked the Times website and happily the correction is front and center in the article as now posted. Congratulations to the newspaper that we love to read and that we love to hate.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Fifty Years and What Do You Get?

My first article advocating government aid to parochial schools was published in 1959 in the Orthodox Tribune, the newsletter of Agudath Israel. Fifty years is a long time to be on the same firing line, especially since my side has come up nearly empty. I am not a glutton for punishment, yet I continue to believe that public funding for the secular curriculum at religious day schools is permissible under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and perhaps required under the Equal Protection Clause.

Although from the perspective of two generations there is little for me to cheer, the story was different in the early years. There were legislative and legal victories in the 1960s, notably the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act which explicitly included nonpublic school students, including those in parochial schools, in grant programs and the Supreme Court decision upholding this legislation. In the early 1970s, New York’s Textbook Law which encompassed religious school students was also upheld by the Supreme Court.

The feeling at the time was that more good news lay ahead. In 1968, as founder and president of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs or COLPA, a small Orthodox group comprised mainly of young lawyers, I organized a conference on “Government Aid to Parochial Schools – How Far?” The “How Far?” testifies to our expectations. They turned out to be unfulfilled. Our initial achievements, enduring as they have been, have had no more than meager second acts.

Why? It was not because of liberal opposition. Our victories in the 1960s and 1970s occurred when both houses of Congress were firmly liberal and the Supreme Court was known as the Warren Court. Perhaps we had bad karma or poor strategy or perhaps the opposition was better organized and/or too strong. A contributing factor was our lack of focus, the curious circumstance that among those who constituted the core constituency for government aid, that issue was relegated to a backseat as other, more ideological, issues came to the fore. Since the early 1990s, the greatest emphasis of pro-religion groups has been by far on the place of religion in the public square – school prayer is an example – and not on whether in a neutral way public funds can go toward state-mandated academic programs in schools sponsored by religious groups.

If we look at the religion-oriented litigation docket of the past two decades, it is evident that it is more urgent for those who advocate for religion to focus on religious expression and activity in public institutions than to advocate government aid. The most significant federal education legislation since the 1960s, the “No Child Left Behind Act,” left behind just about all nonpublic school students. This was the signature education legislation of President George W. Bush, a strong believer in religion in the public square and faith-based programs.

Several days ago, I participated by telephone in a conference in Boston aimed at challenging the Blaine Amendment, the notoriously anti-Catholic provision in about three-fourths of the state constitutions that goes beyond the First Amendment limitations. A proper regard for tolerance and values shared overwhelmingly by Americans mandates opposition to a provision rooted in nineteenth century bigotry. This circumstance notwithstanding, it is certain that organized American Jewry fiercely supports Blaine.

Judicial invalidation of Blaine, itself not an easy task, would secure no funding for parochial schools, especially because state policymakers do not want the additional burden of funding nonpublic schools. What is needed is a more creative approach that targets Blaine and concurrently argues for public funding for the academic curriculum offered at religious schools.

Here, briefly, is the argument that should be made: Each state has a mandatory education law requiring children to attend school up to a designated age. Each state has in its constitution or laws a commitment to provide basic education to all children of school age. Each state requires that certain curriculum standards be met by all schools, public and nonpublic. Finally, each state permits these obligations to be performed by nonpublic schools, including religious schools, that are under state supervision.

In the aggregate, these conditions amount to nonpublic schools serving as instrumentalities for the fulfillment of each state’s obligations. Through their academic programs, they are doing what each state has committed itself to do. Under the Equal Protection Clause, this should result in the states being obligated and certainly permitted to fund the academic curriculum that public schools are required to offer. It is universally accepted that in social service and health activities that are governmental responsibilities, religious agencies and institutions perform vital public functions and are eligible for funding on a par with public institutions, irrespective of their religious nature. Schools should be treated no differently.

Given the intellectual rigor mortis that characterizes mainstream American Jewish attitudes on church-state issues, our community is certain to do battle against any change in current policy. We have convinced ourselves that great evil will result from the expenditure of public funds to ensure that parochial school children are properly educated, this despite abundant evidence from quite a few democratic countries that do provide such aid that the world does not come to an end when public funding is available in a neutral fashion.

In a sense, we are a paranoid community, placing full faith in our dark fantasies and nightmares about the role of religion. We also walk, with the exception of the Orthodox, in lockstep to this false orthodoxy. Not a contrary word is heard from even a single Federation, nor from the Conservative movement that is enduring a slow death, in some measure because of the constant weakening of its Solomon Schechter schools that cannot receive public funding.

If I have any consolation, it is the sure knowledge that I won’t be at this for another fifty years.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Reflections on Rabbi Elya Svei, Ztl

Although he was gravely ill for years and could no longer fulfill his leadership responsibilities, Rabbi Elya Svei continued to influence many of us who are involved in Torah education, whether as principals or teachers or lay leaders. For nearly a generation, he was without question the key figure in the spread of Torah chinuch in the United States, giving without personal regard of his endless commitment and remarkable insight into religious education at all levels. His passing last week leaves us with the feeling of loss and leaderlessness, of a void that makes the task of building and sustaining Torah even more difficult.

For all of his understanding of day school education in an environment that was far removed from the pre-Holocaust yeshiva world of Eastern Europe, in a curious way it was as if Rav Elya was of the generation of the transcendent Roshei Yeshiva who were educated in Slabodka, Mir and other outstanding Torah institutions. In this respect, he provided a contrast with his peers in the United States, the yeshiva deans who emerged as Torah leaders about a generation ago.

He came here with his parents and brothers as a young boy, studying briefly in elementary school at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School and then, for high school, at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. His advanced yeshiva education was both in Israel and at Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood where he emerged as an outstanding student of the great Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Aharon Kotler. In these years, he followed the extraordinary path of his beloved teacher, combining intensive Torah study with activism on behalf of the religious Jewish community, here and in Israel. I remember his vital role in the 1950s in the American Peylim, the effective advocacy group that did much to promote and protect religious life in Israel in the years after the establishment of the State.

This developmental period served as an apprenticeship as he worked under the tutelage of Torah leaders, earning their confidence and respect as they entrusted him with expanding responsibilities. It is a major deficit of the yeshiva world of today that the crucial process of shimush or apprenticeship has been neglected, a deficit that I fear will escalate in its untoward consequences in the coming years.

For all of his obedience to Torah leaders, Rav Elya had a strong independent streak, a quality that was evident in his establishment nearly fifty years ago of the major advanced yeshiva in Philadelphia where he was soon joined by Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky. He eschewed the perhaps easier path of serving as a Rosh Yeshiva at the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn, then headed by Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz, his father-in-law. In Philadelphia, Rav Elya educated and influenced thousands of students, a great number of whom have had fruitful roles in our religious life.

With the passing of the Torah giants of the previous generation, Rav Elya was thrust into leadership, not as a result of any election or selection but simply through the recognition that he was, in effect, designated by his predecessors. This role was especially acknowledged by Israeli Torah leaders. In one of my few involvements with Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv regarding an American religious issue, I was told that this preeminent Torah leader was interested in hearing the views of Rabbi Svei and no one else.

Although his influence extended across our religious life, Rav Elya’s impact was most strongly felt in the educational sphere where he worked without personal regard and often in a state of exhaustion, assisting yeshivas and day schools throughout North America. He had remarkable awareness and insight into the dynamics of day school education. For all of his Herculean and singular efforts, he was intensely modest, not once speaking of his own role.

Over the years, the circle that relied on his guidance grew, as was often apparent at weddings and dinners where there was constantly a line of educators and lay leaders seeking his counsel. For all of the public persona that emerged, he was a quiet and thoughtful man and I confess that, at times, I hoped that he would abjure public speaking altogether. He was a terrific listener, drawing out the salient points from those who sought his advice. He treated those who came to him with respect and he regarded each situation and institution as unique. There was no formulaic response to the questions that came to him. He was, at once, wise and fair. When years ago, the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School took the extraordinary step of ensuring the survival of the Jewish Foundation School of Staten Island, Rav Elya’s guidance was critical as we traversed difficult issues.

A man of total integrity, I doubt that he ever felt fully comfortable in the organizational world, even in situations where he was vested with authority. Organizations require a degree of loyalty that can compromise one’s commitment to integrity. He struggled with this dualism for years and the struggle constituted a painful chapter that cannot readily be discussed, at least not yet. When he decided to leave organizational life, many in his circle followed his example, not because he instructed them to do so but because they believed that it was the right thing to do.

In his deeply moving hesped or eulogy more than twenty-five years ago for Rabbi Shneuer Kotler in Lakewood, Rav Elya cried out, “You can now go to your father and say, ‘I have fulfilled your mission, I have fulfilled your mission.’” So, too, Rav Elya can now go to the great Rosh Yeshiva and say, “I have fulfilled your mission, I have fulfilled your mission.”