Friday, October 30, 2009

The Panderers Breakfast

Back in the 1980s, there was Michael Milken’s Predators Ball, an event that came to symbolize junk bond excess. Mr. Milken was then and later a man of significant charitable deeds who stepped over boundaries and was treated harshly as a consequence.

The sights are lower in Borough Park where I live and yet, here too, there is excess, including the pandering to public officials who, in fact, do little that is good for the neighborhood and, at least occasionally, cause some harm. It is now election time and that means having the Panderers Breakfast sponsored by the local Jewish Community Council.

There are good people involved in the council’s work and I am certain that many who were at the breakfast deserve praise. The list of notables was headed by Mayor Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani, both shown in newspaper photos wearing full-size yarmulkes, with the current incumbent at City Hall looking more uncomfortable than his predecessor. I am not sure whether it was the skull cap or the man sitting next to him.

There was ample reason for the Mayor to be ill at ease. He has an admirable record in dealing with racial and ethnic relations, something that certainly cannot be said about Mr. Giuliani. A person who played a key role at the event told me the next day that in his speech, the man who is expected to run for governor next year came close to entering what for him is the familiar territory of racism. Is it too much to ask or hope that Mr. Giuliani take his trash talk elsewhere? By using an Orthodox Jewish forum to deliver his toxic message, he is associating the Orthodox with racism and once more befouling racial and ethnic relations.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler was at the breakfast because astounding as it may seem, Manhattan’s ultra-liberal West Side is linked in one congressional district with Borough Park. This is another Albany map-making atrocity. I would protest more strongly were it not for a New York Times editorial the other day that pointed to even more grotesque districts.

Mr. Nadler’s election is assured and he wasn’t there as a candidate. He was one of the honorees, for distinguished public service or some other cliché-ridden pseudo-tribute. The services he has provided to Borough Park are, at most, trivial and a mystery. He certainly was not recognized for his position on gay marriage or social issues generally. I fault not Mr. Nadler for taking positions he sincerely believes in. The hypocrisy is in the council honoring a man whose views on important public issues are entirely antithetical to what the council espouses. What was on display was extreme sycophancy.

Although there is little evidence to support the notion, it could be that the congressman was being honored for his assistance in securing federal grants. If that is the case, it is he who was pandering and, to boot, being two-faced.

I recently discussed the debate regarding faith-based initiatives, the question being whether religious groups can seek only their own when filling top positions at programs that receive governmental support. As a practical matter, it is not possible to deny funding to such groups without causing severe harm to programs and activities that are crucial to many millions of needy Americans. As an example, should Catholic social service agencies be barred from selecting only Catholics to run their programs, the harm to society would be enormous. Unfortunately, many in the Jewish community see it otherwise, another illustration of hypocrisy as Federations are selective and yet exempt from the scrutiny of our purists.

In this debate, Jerrold Nadler is an extremist. Earlier this month he was one of only five congressmen who sent a tough letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking “that positive steps be taken to ensure that all programs receiving federal dollars are barred from discriminating with these funds,” with discrimination meaning that they cannot prefer their own in hiring. Otherwise, they asserted, religious liberty and civil rights will be endangered.

The folks at the Borough Park Council are certainly unaware of this letter, not that it would make a difference because there is a tendency among the Orthodox to pander to public officials. Smart as he is, Mr. Nadler understands that the letter he signed and other positions he takes are meant for one crowd and not for his putative constituents in Borough Park. In short, there is a nifty pas de deux of pandering and hypocrisy.

What is most at work on the Orthodox side goes beyond the ordinary pandering that is a familiar aspect of political life. The Orthodox who gravitate toward political involvement relish in being in what they regard as exalted company, meaning office holders and seekers, irrespective of the views of those whose company they seek. There is in this a groupie mentality, a form of behavior that is below conventional pandering. The reward is emotional, which helps to explain why it scarcely matters what the politicians stand for.

This would not matter much if what government does did not matter. Governmental actions are important. Over the extended period since the Holocaust, politicians have known how to play the Orthodox, at least those who are identified as fervent. All that is needed are visits to their Rebbis and Rabbis, the yarmulke on the head, meaningless talk and then it isn’t relevant whether those who are paying tribute are being harmed by the positions being taken by the venerated public officials.

Friday, October 23, 2009

There are 230,000 children in day schools and yeshivas in the U.S., from four-year olds through the twelfth grade. The figure would be higher by at least 20,000 if younger children and post-high school students enrolled in these institutions were included. The operating budgets for these schools probably exceed two-billion dollars annually, with capital expenditures amounting to tens of millions of dollars more. Objective research conducted over the past twenty years shows conclusively that by a wide margin, day school education as an independent factor or variable contributes more to Jewish commitment and continuity into adulthood than any other communal activity.

I recently completed a third census of U.S. day schools. Like its 1998-99 and 2003-04 predecessors, this research was sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation whose philanthropy in North America has resulted in significant benefits to the day school world. The research reports grade by grade enrollment, as well as other vital information, for the more than 800 U.S. day schools and it adds to our understanding of contemporary Jewish life. It is doubtlessly my subjective engagement in this painstaking project that triggers my failure to understand how not even a tiny mention of the census has made it into this newspaper. Once more I am bothered and bewildered by what passes for American Jewish journalism. I am left with the task of reporting on my own report.

Over the past decade, enrollment has grown by nearly 25%, an astonishing growth rate. Most, but not all, of the increase is attributable to high Orthodox fertility, primarily in the yeshiva-world and chassidic sectors which constitute more than 55% of all enrollment. Since 1998, yeshiva-world enrollment has risen by 34%, so that there are now 64,000 students in these schools, while chassidic enrollment in the same period has gone up by 56% to a total of 61,000 students. In another ten years, the prospect is for chassidic enrollment of 100,000 or higher.

All told, five of every six dayschoolers are in Orthodox schools, a distribution that has increased gradually over the years. This trend is certain to continue because of fertility and also because of financial considerations, including the severe downturn from which the country has not yet recovered and the growing sense of marginally-involved parents that day school education is too costly. Already we are seeing parents opting out of day school.

Modern Orthodox schools continue to grow and now have 30,000 students, an increase of 10% in the decade, which is impressive in view of the meaningful number of young modern Orthodox families that in recent years have made aliyah. However, centrist Orthodox schools have lost students, in large measure I believe because of the contraction of Orthodox life in a number of communities away from New York.

An unsettling detail emerging from the census is the pronounced decline of immigrant and other schools with an outreach orientation. Some of this has to do with immigration patterns; yet another factor is the declining commitment to these schools in the Orthodox community. This development is offset to an extent by the rapid expansion of the Chabad school network, with 73 schools in the latest census, up from 44 ten years ago. Nearly all of the newer schools have an outreach mission and while many are small, even tiny, there is now within Chabad a strong determination to focus on day schools, a commitment that was absent until near the end of the Rebbe’s life.

Due to the strong showing of Community or trans-denominational schools, there has been a 2,000-student increase in non-Orthodox school enrollment since 1998. The Reform movement no longer focuses much on day schools, while the Solomon Schechter or Conservative schools mirror increasingly the infirm condition of this movement. These schools have lost one-fourth of their enrollment in the past decade and the bad news keeps on coming.

Forty percent of day schools enroll fewer than one-hundred students. Many of these institutions constantly struggle to get by, both financially and educationally. Several small schools that operated last year have closed since June and there are others that are on what can be fairly called the endangered list. Here, too, the state of the economy inevitably has an impact.

While there are day schools in forty states and the District of Columbia, New York and New Jersey are dominant, with 70% of all enrollment or more than 160,000 students. One astonishing statistic is provided by Lakewood, NJ, which has experienced a tripling in enrollment in ten years, from about 5,000 students to 15,000. Younger yeshiva-world families are opting to remain in Lakewood because of the religious ambiance and also the far lower cost of housing.

The New York-New Jersey day school story is a blessing that comes with a cost. Before the economic crisis hit, many schools in this area were behind in meeting their payroll and their situation has worsened over the past year, in some schools precariously. In August, Beth Jacob of Boro Park, a school with more than 2,000 girls, announced that it was deeply in debt and might not be able to open. It did open but there have been many layoffs and the debt remains. The sharp enrollment increases in chassidic and yeshiva-world schools will be translated into greater financial pressure. There is no communal planning, including among the Orthodox, to deal with what is already on the horizon.

Another cost is, as noted, the shrinkage of Orthodox life in many places away from New York. One interesting census statistic shows that outside of these two states, the 70,000 day school students are nearly equally divided between Orthodox and non-Orthodox schools, with the latter having 47% of the total.

What is certain is that the next five years will be a crucial period in day school education. Hopefully there will be a follow-up census.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Being Noble About Nobel

While the Nobel Prize to Barack Obama was off the charts as a surprise and probably not a favor to the President, the reaction of our ever-agitated right wing was perfectly predictable. From the moment that he took office he has been mocked and demonized by the far right, led by Rupert Murdoch’s troupe of Foxtrotters and the irrepressible Rush Limbaugh who demonstrates the truth that there are vulgarities that are far worse than four letter words.

Politics is not a gentlemanly activity and all presidents, from George Washington on, have suffered scurrilous attacks. As a rule, there is a first-year honeymoon until the rats come out of their holes. Not for Mr. Obama who has been viciously targeted by the far right from before day one. I do not mean criticism by conservatives, whether of domestic or foreign policies. That’s fair, even necessary, in democracies. The anti-Obama rhetoric includes more than a touch of racism, combined with ample servings of hate, rage and distortion. This is dangerous stuff.

It is disheartening that many Orthodox Jews have joined the right-wing chorus, how many cannot utter the President’s name without virtually spitting out the words. Too many have joined the hate brigade, going beyond the social and ideological commitments that may be rooted in their religious beliefs. There is unbridled contempt for a man who in his brief tenure has advocated moderation on issue after issue.

Judaism is not about politics, not about Democratic or Republican or any party, nor about being conservative or liberal. On some public issues conservatism may seem more faithful to our teachings, while on other issues liberalism may seem more faithful. Strong adherence to ideology is adherence to a false god that enslaves the intellect and emotions. Those of us who embrace the right wing seem to neglect the horrific experience of European Jewry just two generations ago. For that matter, they are oblivious to the agenda of right wing groups in America that includes anti-Semitism as a centerpiece.

We Jews have much to worry and be nervous about, past and present. Severe persecution has mutated us into a people who can see the worst in nearly all that is on the political horizon and it has infused us with a touch of paranoia. This is understandable and, for now, it is also inevitable. Just the same, we need to retain the capacity to be fair and, hopefully, clear-minded.

Our greatest worry these days is about Iran and there are plenty of reasons for Jews to be hyper-anxious. This is no license for unfairness. No one could ever doubt the commitment of George W. Bush to Israel. It remains, however, that in the course of his eight years, the Iranian threat to Israel grew enormously, without any effective countervailing policies. Mr. Bush did not authorize U.S. military action against Iran and he forbade Israel from taking any action. He was unable to mobilize other countries to punish Iran.

This record should be contrasted with Mr. Obama’s brief tenure. There are good reasons to believe that as happened in Lebanon, the new president had an enormous salutary impact on the Iranian election which was stolen by Ahmadinejad. There is a new determination among the major powers to enforce sanctions against Iran. Iranian authorities have yielded to pressure to allow inspection of its nuclear development program and although it remains to be seen how reliable this is, surely the move represents progress. In short, Iran is more isolated than it was a year ago and the key figure in all of this is Barack Obama. Yet, there is much Jewish talk critical of his handling of Iran.

There are grounds to challenge the President’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, notably his apparently abandoned attitude toward what he and his administration wrongly refer to as settlements. In his desire- it is understandable but I think naïve and doomed to failure- to send a new message to the Muslim world, he has sent the collateral message that Israeli interests can be ignored. In all politics, perception is a major part of the equation.

In recent weeks, there has been a change in attitude and course. A key Jewish leader who was close to the Bush White House tells me that he is greatly pleased by the messages now being sent by Washington. It is obvious that American officials, doubtlessly acting with the full approval of the President, have taken critical steps to scuttle the notorious Goldstone Report. This may be short-lived in view of Islamic pressure, yet the administration’s intent is clear.

To speculate a bit, a beneficial by-product of the Nobel award to Mr. Obama is the possibility that Richard Goldstone was one of the runner-ups. Unfortunately, there is next year and this may afford another opportunity.

In the months and years ahead, the American-Israeli relationship will be frequently tested, at times severely, repeating the pattern for every U.S. administration since the establishment of the Jewish state, with the possible exception of the first, Harry Truman’s. There will be times when we will have good reason not to be happy. We must always remember, as I have tried to underscore over the years, that the president of this country inevitably sees things through a frame of reference that varies to one extent or another from how Israelis and most American Jews look at the same issues. He is the president of the United States, not the prime minister of Israel.

I hope that it is not too much to hope that when we express disagreement with American policy, we can do so without embracing the nastiness and worse of the hate-mongers.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Our Problem With Faith

There is a lively and important conversation, inadequately reported by the general media and scarcely by our newspapers, about faith-based initiatives, the programs sponsored by religious groups to meet crucial social needs that rely to one extent or another on public funding. There is an abundance of terrific material on the subject, thanks to the Brookings Institution and especially the Pew Charitable Trusts. Pew has emerged as the outstanding place for scholarship on religion in the U.S.

The good news is that there is a near consensus that faith-based activities contribute enormously to the public good, need and deserve public funding and the governmental investment yields significant benefits. The bad news is that on the one issue that remains divisive, much of the American Jewish establishment comes out once more as hostile to religion.

During the presidential campaign and even before, Barack Obama strongly endorsed public support of faith-based initiatives. As president, he has followed up on this advocacy with decisive steps. His style, in this matter and elsewhere, departs emphatically from the in-your-face approach to ideology of his predecessor. For sincere reasons and also to give comfort to Evangelicals and others in his core constituency, President Bush constantly underscored his administration’s commitment to religion in the public square. This satisfied the emotional/ideological needs of supporters and also engendered fervid opposition, not all of it from the usual suspects in the anti- religion claque.

For all of the heat generated, faith-based initiatives were about where they were before Mr. Bush arrived at the White House. Prior administrations, notably Bill Clinton’s, were receptive to funding religious groups that provide what can be fairly called public services. Unless we are prepared to sanction the neglect of millions of Americans in need who rely on faith-based initiatives, it is not possible and certainly not wise to bar federal funds to these groups.

In the 2008 campaign, Mr. Obama addressed, as well, the more vexatious issue of hiring, saying that “religious organizations that receive federal dollars cannot discriminate with respect to hiring for government-funded social service programs.” The language was unfortunate and not only because it over-simplified a complex issue. “Discrimination” is not a neutral term; it carries much historical and civil rights baggage and conveys the notion that what is being done is wrong and harmful. The Brookings report notes that “those who favor policies that would allow religious providers to prefer job applicants within their denomination or tradition speak of ‘permitting religious employers to take religion into account.’”

In office, President Obama appears to be waffling on hiring, doubtlessly because the issue is two-sided. This doesn’t sit well with fifty-one organizations, eleven of them Jewish, and they have sent an urgent letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to withdraw the Bush administration ruling that faith-based initiatives receiving federal funds are exempt from civil rights laws and have a free exercise right to show preference in hiring, a claim that is far-fetched from a constitutional standpoint.

The letter, joined in by the ADL which is extremist on the issue, the AJCommittee and Reform and Conservative groups, is silent about the immense public good achieved through the funding of faith-based initiatives. Once more on a key public issue, the AJCongress has taken a moderate position and in a separate letter to Mr. Holder it suggests, albeit obliquely, that some preference in hiring should be permitted.

The constitutional and civil rights purists in our midst are comfortable with a double-standard, at once opposing preference in hiring by agencies using public funds to provide secular social services while they conveniently turn a blind eye to the reality that the entire Federation network, including hundreds of agencies, could not function without public funding and yet they practice pervasive preference in hiring. Of the more than one-hundred Federations, is there one with a non-Jewish top executive? Is this coincidental?

Our defenders of a faithless faith are also hypocritical. Total separation of church and state is their religion and mantra, as, for example, when they do zealous and even paranoid battle against governmental funding to secular programs in parochial schools. Mum is the word on the more direct support to religion provided through tax exemption to religious institutions and tax deductions for contributions to houses of worship. What promotes religion more, government paying the salary of a science teacher in a parochial school or government encouraging contributions to Reform and Conservative congregations?

The Obama administration will, I believe, eschew an extreme position on hiring. Likely, it will permit faith-based initiatives slack in filling top positions and perhaps also program officers, as long as there isn’t a blanket refusal to hire outside the group. Of course, grant recipients will not be allowed to proselytize. There will be borderline situations, as there are in all of life’s activities and certainly in governmental programs. To play around a bit with Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous statement, the life of the law is experience, not rigid ideological formulas.

None of this is likely to change our already prolonged war against faith. We are extremists and while this plays well with much of our rank and file who have elided religion from their lives, there is the frightening issue of how our fanatic opposition to religion in the public square will play out down the road on the larger canvas of American life.