Tuesday, July 14, 2009

RJJ Newsletter - July 2009

In recent weeks I have spent much time raising money for the family of a chassidic rabbi who died suddenly, leaving a wife and ten children, the youngest five months. The man died in his forties, after publishing a significant work of Torah scholarship. His family was bereft of means of support and there certainly were ample reasons to assist his wife and children. Yet, this effort is a departure from the pattern of communal activity that I have long adhered to and I am somewhat uncomfortable as a consequence.

We rightfully regard the mitzvah of tzedakah as the obligation to help the poor and needy. More than a half century ago, the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood told me that in the contemporary period the primary tzedakah obligation is to assist Torah education and that two-thirds of a religious Jew’s charity should be so allocated. I heard something similar years later in a tape recording of a drasha given by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as well as from my beloved rabbi, Rav Yisroel Perkowski of blessed memory. Although I have been immersed in klal activity for what soon will be six decades, relatively little of my time has been devoted to chesed activities, not even to the remarkable chesed project established a decade ago in memory of my mother.

When we give tzedakah, there is never a need to apologize and this encompasses whether the beneficiary is a chesed cause or a yeshiva. Each of us has much leeway in determining how to allocate our tzedakah dollars. In the aggregate, however, there is much to regret in the failure to adequately support yeshivas and day schools. With few exceptions, they struggle to get by even in good times and their road has become much more difficult because of the current economic downturn. In the competition to raise funds – and there is competition since most people have a sense of how much of their income will go to tzedakah – Torah institutions are at a disadvantage as the tendency is to fund causes that purport to help the needy or in some other way accomplish what is generally regarded as chesed.

It is easy to understand why chesed has priority over chinuch. There is a powerful emotional pull in efforts to assist those who are sick or elderly or in some other fashion in need of support. Jews are a charitable people, at least by comparison with others, and although it is evident that nowadays most of us do not adequately give tzedakah, a point made by Rav Moshe Feinstein, it is also evident that as compared with other people we are generous.

There is little in Torah education to match the emotional pull of chesed, not even the appeal or obligation to assist schools that perform a vital kiruv function and certainly not

the typical yeshiva or day school that provides for children from Orthodox homes. The argument that these institutions ensure that the heritage we have received will be imparted to new generations carries little weight. To the contrary, most of our schools are messy arrangements, with warts nearly everywhere and much to complain about. Educating a child is not an experience akin to giving money to poor persons.

Added to the deficit or difficulty confronting our schools as they compete for tzedakah funds is the reality that Torah education is a crowded field, with countless institutions asking for our support. It’s hard to satisfy more than a handful of schools and more than a handful lose out in the competition. There is also the reality that because tuition has risen enormously for most families, many current parents and also former parents feel that they have contributed sufficiently toward the education of their children and have little or no obligation to contribute toward the education of anyone else’s children. As I have written for a generation, Torah education is now widely regarded as a consumer product and, as such, it is for the consumers or the parents to pay for the service.

The dereliction of Roshei Yeshiva and other Torah leaders does not help matters. Whether they recognize it or not, the message they are sending is that there is a lesser obligation to support yeshivas, unless the institution is their own or one that they are close to. They endorse chesed activities routinely and seemingly without hesitation, yet they are parsimonious in their advocacy of support for yeshivas and day schools.

Whatever the explanation or justification for the priority being given to chesed activities, the necessary question is how are we different from the Federation world that we have sharply criticized? We have claimed that for all of their good intentions, Federations and secular Jews indulge in cardiac Judaism by supporting those causes that pack an emotional punch. Are we Orthodox also cardiac Jews?

There are clear differences between us and Federations, beginning with our heavy reliance on volunteerism which characterizes our chesed activities in contrast to Federations where there is an excess of bureaucracy, so that a small proportion of charitable dollars go directly to helping persons in need. Federations everywhere rely in their chesed activities on governmental funding, which isn’t true for most of Orthodox-sponsored chesed projects.

This acknowledged, it’s also clear that there are zones of Orthodox-based activity that resemble the Federation style. We do have organizations and projects that have significant bureaucratic infrastructures and rely on expensive marketing and promotion. There is, regretfully, a trend in this direction, as is evident from the barrage of ads in our newspapers and the glossy posters and promotional material plastered everywhere in our neighborhoods.

What is especially lamentable is the growing use of mumbo jumbo and farfetched claims in glitzy fundraising, such messages as that for the paltry sum of $180 this or that real or imagined holy man will pray for the contributor or that miracles will occur or that whatever the donor beseeches is likely to come to pass. Increasingly, there is fundraising that exists in a world of fantasy, a world in which someone who for whatever reasons may want a blessing is impelled to contribute not because of the cause but because allegedly the blessing will come to pass.

We also have the greater reliance on digitalized pictures of Torah leaders putting money in pushkas provided by this or that Vaad or praying for us at the cemetery or directly entreating our support. It’s hard to know how much of this is bogus, meaning whether the Torah leader has authorized use of his name or whether the photograph is a distortion. We are asked to rely on faith and good intentions and that should not be sufficient in view of how much is being raised. In some communities, when a collector comes from Israel hoping to raise funds for a child’s wedding, it’s necessary for him to secure a letter attesting to the legitimacy of his claim and authorizing him to collect. When millions of dollars are at stake, apparently no validation is required.

There is now in big-dollar chesed fundraising a big-time invitation to wrongdoing and it’s time for our community to wake up to this reality and not to be deceived into believing that the claim to help needy people is proof in itself that needy people are being helped. It’s time for Rabbis and Roshei Yeshivas to take protective steps. If they do not, before long we will be confronted by more serious wrongdoing.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Allen Schick Responds

In his usually discreet manner, Marvin Schick informed the world that I have attained the age of 75. This is the only accurate statement in his column. The truth is that he has surpassed me in all regards, beginning at birth when he appeared (according to family mythology) 15 minutes before me. Since then, he has excelled in truly important matters, serving Klal Yisroel selflessly. I have admired his accomplishments, and bemoan that mine fall far short. But I have never envied him--well, I did once, when he acquired an apartment in Jerusalem--inspiring me to do the same. While in Israel, Marvin maintains his usually demanding learning schedule via telephone to America. In fact, the phone company wanted to disconnect Marvin's Internet phone because he racked up 7000 minutes in one month, learning on a regular schedule.

When Marvin reached the age of 75 some days ago, I was about 8000 miles away. But my thoughts were entirely about him, wishing him many years serving the Jewish community and being the best twin anyone ever had.

Allen Schick

Friday, July 03, 2009

Allen is 75!

“Lighten up,” a friend said when asked for suggestions for this last column before the summer break. “You’re too serious. Show readers your playful side.” A good idea since the date on this issue of the newspaper is the seventy-fifth birthday of my twin brother’s twin. Allen entered this world on July 4th, the first of his many displays of one-upmanship. He has Independence Day all for himself.

Allen is celebrating the occasion in South Korea, advising the government not to spend more wons and chons than it takes in. I am in exotic Borough Park. The trip to Korea follows a stay in Israel that followed a trip to Russia and soon he will be again in Israel. He was also in Israel last month and then in Paris. He’s been nearly everywhere, including the Fiji Islands. Only once have we celebrated our birthdays on the same day, when he was in New Zealand on the other side of the International Dateline. At his and Miriam’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, guests were told that because of his travel, Allen has been home for no more than twenty-five years.

In Paris, Allen was feted and honored by OECD, the prestigious quasi-governmental economics organization of thirty democracies. In commemoration of his career, OECD has issued a large volume consisting of “extracts from publications written by Professor Allen Schick.” In the Foreword we read, “Over the years, Allen has made fundamental contributions to the art of public sector budgeting, and his work continues to be an inspiration for budgeting reform around the world.” Oh yeah, what about all those massive governmental budget deficits?

Allen was honored several years ago for lifetime achievements by a major association of American academics and scholars whose name I no longer remember.

I’ve never been honored for anything, not even at camp when each kid was at least once the Shabbos Daddy or camper of the day. I have suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” compensating as Hamlet did by taking “arms against a sea of trouble.”

This isn’t a lament by a rival sibling. I am destined to be second in a two-man race. There’s this photo of us when we were two or three frolicking in a park with our father who died suddenly not long after it was taken. One of us is cute, the other petulant. Need I tell you who was cute? At her ninetieth birthday, I asked our mother, “Which Jewish mother would call her son Marvin?” Her quick response was, “I could have called you Melvin.”

When necessary, meaning all of the time, we’re fiercely loyal to each other. There’s a line in our Rabbi Jacob Joseph School high school yearbook reporting that a student started up with one of the Schick twins and his funeral took place later that day. At Brooklyn College, while trying to register for a political science class, the professor pulled out a note from his doctor saying that it would be detrimental to his health to have both Schick boys.

Although we attended Brooklyn at night, coming from RJJ and also working quite a bit in our mother’s bakery, we were close to several outstanding professors. After graduation and semicha (ordination), Allen went to Yale, getting his doctorate in a class that may have been the most distinguished cohort in the annals of American political science. I did my graduate work at NYU, turning down Harvard because I was already immersed in communal activity which I did not want to give up.

Allen married Miriam while still in New Haven, four years before wonderful Malka and I did. While walking down the aisle, our mother who did not want to part with her precious child, intoned “Why can’t it be Marvin? Why can’t it be Marvin?”

Malka and I were married shortly after she graduated from Yeshiva Rabbi Sampson R. Hirsch High School in Washington Heights where I had taught for two years. By then, I had taught at Yeshiva University and had just switched to Hunter College. When she received her diploma from Rabbi Shimon Schwab, the eminent Rabbi of the German-Jewish community, he said that the other girls would get their bachelors degree in four years while she was getting her bachelor that evening.

Not long after we were married, Malka asked me to replace a light bulb. After completing this difficult task Malka walked by and the fixture came crashing down. Fortunately, she wasn’t hurt and, fortunately, she hasn’t asked me to do much since, not even to take out the garbage which in most Jewish homes is the major responsibility of Jewish men.

I am bereft of even minimal technical competence and most skills that are part and parcel of modern living. I do not drive, nor have I ever touched a computer, despite the accusation of my youngest that I once damaged hers by trying to turn it on. These columns and other writing are drafted and redrafted by pencil on yellow-lined paper. Allen, certainly only for one-upmanship purposes, drives and is computer literate and his resume is about a zillion pages long and truly impressive. My last resume was compiled a quarter of a century ago.

As I contemplate sharing this planet for three-quarters of a century minus fifteen minutes with my twin, I must be content with what Cervantes put into the mouth of Don Quixote, “Always go for the second prize, for it alone comes through merit.”

There is a powerful bond between us that spans physical distance, a bond that grows stronger each year as we share so much, including the notion that retirement is a dirty word.