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.