Friday, November 20, 2009

Thou Shalt Organize

I have never been to the General Assembly, not to the organization of about one-hundred and fifty nation-states that is a key component of the United Nations, and not to the General Assembly that is the itinerant annual mega-conference for about one-hundred and fifty Jewish Federations. For a time in the 1960s, I was indirectly involved in the first of these GAs when I served on a voluntary basis as the representative of the American Civil Liberties Union which had non-governmental status at the UN in connection with efforts to promote the genocide and other human rights treaties.

Our GA is sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America which is the new name for what had been called United Jewish Communities, which in turn was the replacement name for the Council of Jewish Federations. As I wrote when UJC came into usage, religious Jews have the custom of changing the name of a gravely ill person in the hope that this will stave off the Angel of Death and what the Federations were doing seemed to be a similar exercise. Alas, our communal patient has continued to deteriorate and it is doubtful that meaningful benefits will result from the latest name change, except perhaps for the sign-makers.

What may make a difference is the arrival of Jerry Silverman as chief executive. He is talented and creative and did wonders at the Foundation for Jewish Camping as he convinced major donors that camping is a high philanthropic priority, this for an activity that with a straight face defines as “non-profit” camps that may charge $8,000 or more per child for the summer.

Irrespective of Mr. Silverman’s impact, a key question is whether we need an umbrella agency for the Federation network. A more basic question is whether we need the Federation system as it has developed over the past century. Of course, the most fundamental question of all is whether we need all of our organizations. We have, by far, far many more organizations than any American ethnic group, including those that are far larger than we are. If we cannot figure out how to commit organicide, can we at least figure out how to stop constantly adding to the number? Excluding schools, shuls and actual services, the aggregate cost of our organizational infrastructure is beyond enormous.

The short answer to these questions is that we need our organizations. They are our comforters, our security blankets. It is as if we have an Eleventh Commandment – and for some secular Jews it may be the First – declaring, “Thou Shalt Organize.” This is a fundamental tenet of our civil religion and, as a matter of faith, it is not to be questioned. In the 1950s, we commissioned Robert McIver, the eminent sociologist, to examine our communal life and in his report, now long forgotten, he said that we had too many organizations and recommended consolidation. Nowadays, even as our organizational ranks have swelled, we question no longer. We are true believers.

If there is any functionality to our fetish with organizations it is that the arrangement provides numerous connecting points to Jewish life, including Israel, for a great number of Jews who otherwise might be distant from our community. This is not an unimportant consideration, yet it can only carry us so far. One cost of the arrangement is that it elevates service to the organization as a form of voluntarism over service to individuals and the community.

There is much evidence that younger Jews, by which I mean persons below the age of forty, pay little attention to the organizations that have served as magnets for their grandparents and parents. The Federation concept is in its second century and it is not necessary to catalogue the communal, societal, technological, behavioral and attitudinal changes that have made for most of us, excluding the Orthodox, the world of our fathers not the world that we are part of.

If the Jewish Federations of North America is here to stay, the challenge facing Jerry Silverman is to bring about significant changes so that its General Assembly is not merely, in the trite formulation employed last week by Gary Rosenblatt, considered by many as “the premier Jewish communal event on the calendar” and “a kind of parliament of the organized Jewish community.” Attendance at the GA is primarily the outcome of the attendees overwhelmingly being on the communal dole.

To go forward, it is necessary to return to the past. At the recent GA, day school education was, at most, a secondary topic of concern. Forty years ago, as Gary Rosenblatt noted, Yitz Greenberg led a demonstration at the plenary session demanding greater funding for day school education. Day school education may no longer be controversial but that is because in the mindset of Jewish Federations of North America, it is too inconsequential an activity to merit controversy.

All told, our organizational life is saddled with too much complacency, too much of a willingness to reward the company men and women who toe the line, dutifully attending this or that meaningless event without daring to explore new territory or new ideas. That is why for more the relatively small number of American Jews who make a meaningful difference in Jewish life, our General Assembly is not a significant event on the communal calendar. For them, our General Assembly merits no more than scant attention. This attitude resembles in a way the attitude that many American Jews have about the other General Assembly that is located adjacent to the East River in Manhattan.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Throwing Stones at Goldstone

Richard Goldstone and his already infamous report eat at our kishkes. We call him names, presumably all fitting, and give his document no quarter. We believe that the report proves that Israel was right not to cooperate with the biased investigation that he led and Israel and Jews everywhere are right to denounce the biased document that has been issued.

This does not end the matter. Goldstone remains active, although apparently clueless as to why we are so agitated, and he is eager to respond to criticism and determined to see that the severe charges against Israel continue to be in the public eye. In this he is abetted and comforted by the Arab states and the nations across the globe that have made Israel-bashing an element of their foreign policy. Israel advocates mistakenly believe that condemning the report will make it go away.

We scored a victory, albeit of the famous variety, in getting the House of Representatives to declare in a solemn resolution that the report is “irredeemably biased and unworthy of further consideration or legitimacy.” The text includes thirty-two “whereas” clauses, not one of which expresses sorrow over civilian deaths, an omission that may be justified on grounds of pertinence but surely not on public relations grounds. Interestingly, thirty-six members of the House – they aren’t the thirty-six righteous – voted against and about five dozen more did not vote.

Whatever the vote or the text, Goldstone isn’t going away and he isn’t cowed. No sooner was the ink dry on the resolution than he fired off a letter correcting “factual errors.” Throwing stones at Goldstone may make us feel better by showing once more that we care intensely about Israel. It will not change any reality.

Historians will consider whether it was wise or right for Israel to go into Gaza and whether the apparent severity of the campaign was justified by the results. What is past is beyond change, as is the question of whether Israel should have cooperated or interacted with the Goldstone commission. What remains in the public arena is the issue of Israeli and Jewish response to the report. Treating it like the plague will not accomplish very much.

A response is in order and there is plenty to challenge. Moshe Halbertal, the noted Israeli philosopher who teaches at Hebrew University and from time to time at major U.S. universities, has a terrific piece in the current The New Republic in which he effectively cuts the feet out from under many of the report’s sharpest findings against Israel, showing how they are at once prejudiced and foolish in their glaring failure to consider the combat situations under which Israel operated. Halbertal concludes, “The Goldstone Report as a whole is a terrible document. It is biased and unfair. It offers no help in sorting out the real issues.”

Yet, in the final paragraph Halbertal writes, “It is important that Israel respond to the U.N. report by clarifying the principles that it operated upon in Gaza, thus exposing the limits and the prejudices of the report. A mere denunciation of the report will not suffice. Israel must establish an independent investigation into the concrete allegations that the report makes.”

This isn’t the path likely to be taken by Prime Minister Netenyahu and his government or by ardent Israel advocates on these shores and elsewhere in the Diaspora. It is comforting to condemn Goldstone, the U.N. and other Israel critics and we who care deeply about Israel regard it as a sign of weakness to offer detailed rebuttals.

Apart from the strategy not working, including among a good number of younger Jews who have already distanced themselves from Israel, the problem is that almost certainly Israel has been investigating certain of the report’s specific allegations and it did not need any prompting to do so. This is what democracies do (or should do) after hostilities, if only because it is necessary to learn from mistakes and also to determine whether there were violations of the code of military practice. War inevitably brings a multitude of horrors, including those arising from faulty intelligence, faulty armaments, friendly fire, confusion during battle, psychological breakdowns and much else. Post-conflict investigation is routine and this has been true of Israel’s wars; doubtlessly, Gaza is no exception.

For all of its bizarreness and failure to consider context, the report’s major recommendation amounts to the request that the countries or entities that are the target of accusations undertake independent investigations. There is understandably a strong temptation to defy this recommendation on the ground that to investigate now would give legitimacy to Goldstone and his colleagues. This is wrong. Halbertal writes, “It was a mistake on Israel’s part not to participate in the inquiry,” and while he adds that “After reading the report, I am more sympathetic to Israel’s reluctance,” it is clear that he believes participation would have been the better course. It would be a mistake for Israel not to launch an independent investigation.

True, an investigation probably will result in some nasty revelations regarding, I believe, limited wrongful behavior. The greater likelihood by far will be a better understanding of the conditions under which Israel’s military operated as Hamas obliterated the distinction between soldiers and civilians, constantly using the latter as human shields for its terrorist activities. There are no guarantees and there is an element of risk. Yet, this is a risk that needs to be taken.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Right About Birthright

Birthright Israel was born a decade ago as an act of near desperation. Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman recognized that the bad statistics and news about American Jewish identity and commitment were real and that all the expensive press agentry and programming of our establishment would bring scant improvement. They grasped at the straw of a free brief trip to Israel not because they thought that it would be a miracle worker but because they believed that it had the prospect to do some good and there was no equally good idea on the horizon. They found partners in the Israel government and the Jewish Agency which feared that Judaic abandonment by American Jews would be severely detrimental to the Jewish State.

When asked at the time by the American Jewish Congress to assess Birthright’s prospects, I wrote an article for its monthly magazine suggesting that if the initiative was not oversold, it likely would bring about meaningful benefits.

Ten years later, it is clear that Birthright was a good idea whose time had come. It is, in the term used by the people at Brandeis who have just issued a major report, not a “panacea.” The crisis of identity among American young Jews remains real and in many respects the situation is worse than it was in 1999. Our losses continue and ultimately this will be recognized, yet it is also the case that Birthright has in a meaningful way connected many young Jews with vital elements of their heritage.

The Birthright research was conducted at Brandeis’ Cohen Center which has emerged as the premier institute for the study of American Jewish demography. In earlier studies, Cohen had given Birthright high marks and this was challenged on several grounds, mainly whether the experience was translated into meaningful attitudinal and behavioral change. The new report is exquisite as it seeks to steer readers through technical exercises. This is a painstaking and honest effort to study a complex subject and the authors of the report carefully detail the limitations of the research conducted so far on Birthright.

The report was discussed at length last week in Gary Rosenblatt’s excellent article and there is no need to retrace the story, except to take mild issue with the heading, “Birthright Study Offers Mixed Bag of Results.” The findings are, in the aggregate, positive.

Not that they cannot be questioned. For all of the care taken by Len Saxe and his brilliant team to get it right, Jewish demography remains imprecise, witness the constant and substantial disagreements over how many American Jews there are, as well as what they believe and how they behave. Witness, as well, the sharp debate over intermarriage. If I can borrow from Roger Maris breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, perhaps an asterisk should be appended to our quantitative studies declaring that this is what we come up with the methodology that has been employed.

Our population studies rely on what is referred to as weighting, meaning that the responses given by participants in the research are not treated equally, with some being given more weight and some less. This process inevitably relies heavily on what the researchers already believe to be the case, so that to an extent what the new research finds is the confirmation of assumptions that are being made, as well as previous research.

What has received the greatest attention, including the Wall Street Journal which messed up regarding the Orthodox, is the statistic that Birthrighters are significantly more likely to marry Jews than young adults of similar background in the control group who applied for the trip but were not selected. This finding is tentative because the early Birthright cohorts were more Jewishly involved than the more recent groups and also because relatively few in the control group have married. More will be learned about marital choice and other behaviors down the road as the plan is to continue to track the earlier groups and to engage in additional research on the later cohorts.

Although the intermarriage finding is presented as a positive, as it should be, curiously, in other research the Brandeis folks are suggesting that marrying out does not result in a reduced commitment to Israel, nor is it a Jewish demographic time bomb.

Whatever the impact of Birthright on intermarriage, intermarriage is having, perhaps inevitably, a large impact on Birthright. As has been reported, the program is now making a deliberate effort to attract the offspring of intermarried parents. Beyond this, except for the Orthodox, American Jewry has been enormously affected by assimilatory forces, the decisive trend being away from religious involvement toward secular activities and attitudes. Birthright is not exempt. There are indications that unlike the early years, the ten-day program is veering away from activities that focus significantly on religious dimensions toward those that are more secular and that as a consequence of this change, a number of trip providers are being pushed out. The point was made to me during the summer while I was in Israel by the head of an organization that for more than two decades has done effective outreach.

The Brandeis report acknowledges that “future analyses of subsequent cohorts, which were larger and had a higher proportion of applicants with intermarried parents, will allow for a more robust analysis of this phenomenon.” The authors suggest, however, that because recent cohorts “included larger proportions of less engaged participants than those examined in the present study, it is possible that future research will show an even larger impact.” This may turn out to be wishful thinking.

Much will depend on the effectiveness of follow-up programming for Birthright participants, a subject not covered in the report. For now, there is much to celebrate in Birthright’s achievements.

Monday, November 02, 2009

RJJ Newsletter - November 2009

In the recent period, I raised funds for two causes, apart from my RJJ fundraising. The results are telling. In the first situation, I played a key role assisting the family of a chassidic rabbi who died suddenly in his forties, leaving a wife and ten children, the youngest just months old. I placed an ad in the Jewish Press and the readers were asked to send contributions to my home. The second effort was on behalf of Beth Jacob of Borough Park, a school with more than 2,000 girls that was far behind in payroll. I wrote an article for Hamodia, a newspaper that is widely read in much of the Orthodox community, and, here too, asked that contributions be sent to my home.

The first campaign brought in a torrent of donations, at least ten-thousand dollars a week for many weeks, until I left for Israel in mid-July. The Beth Jacob effort brought in less than a trickle, this for a huge school that has achieved so much and is caring about students from poor homes or with special needs. The message was clear: In tzeddakah allocations, by a huge margin chesed has priority over chinuch. That which tugs at our heartstrings merits support. That which does not is not deserving of assistance.

In an important way, this is understandable. In much of what we do we are guided by our emotions and that which packs an emotional punch has a far greater capacity to loosen the purse-strings than that which does not. We are, in this respect, quite a bit like the secular Jews whose charity is devoted primarily to Federation causes. We used to criticize Federations for neglecting Torah education. Perhaps we should look in the mirror.

I make no apology for helping the chassidic family in need. However, I feel somewhat uncomfortable about this effort in view of the meager response to the Beth Jacob appeal. More than a half-century ago, I heard directly from the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood that in allocating tzeddakah, two-thirds of what is given should go towards the support of chinuch because Torah education is both essential to our survival as a people and the foundation for the chesed that we do. Years later, I listened to the tape of a shiur given by Rav Soloveitchik in which he said much the same thing and the lesson was also taught to me by my beloved Rav, Rabbi Yisroel Perkowski.

In the post-Holocaust years when we were led by outstanding people of great scholarship and great personal qualities, invariably that is the message that was given as they worked to create a vibrant Torah community on these shores. They certainly cared about Jews in need and yet we did not receive from them a stream of letters beseeching our support for chesed causes. Their fundraising almost exclusively centered around support for yeshivas and Beth Jacobs, whether here or in Israel.

In the article on the Borough Park Beth Jacob, I quoted from a letter written by the Chazon Ish in 1947, a period of great deprivation in what was still Palestine. He pleaded for support for the Beth Jacob school, writing that because all species were created in both male and female form, Torah education could not exist unless it, too, encompassed both genders.

There is a neglected chesed dimension when we neglect our schools in allocating tzeddakah. At a typical yeshiva or Beth Jacob, probably about eighty percent of the budget goes toward payroll. The teachers in our schools are nearly all underpaid, at times severely, and many of them are not paid on time. These are people with family responsibilities. When we do not assist schools that are struggling to meet their obligations, one unhappy by-product is the harm caused to families and staff who cannot meet their own obligations.

Even in the best of times, our chinuch institutions face an uphill financial road. As the economy nosedived during the past year, inevitably these institutions bore an inordinate part of the burden as contributions declined severely and as more parents said that they needed financial assistance. The bad news is everywhere, with schools that have been chronically late in payroll becoming later still. A number of day schools are reporting that children have been transferred to public school because they are tuition-free.

The outlook for the rest of the still young school year is not promising. At RJJ, there has been a stunning decline in contributions since April, with the drop amounting to about fifty percent in the crucial period from early September through the Yomim Tovim.

There is no quick fix, not for us or other schools. What is needed is a change in attitude that results in greater communal and individual support of Torah education. As experience amply teaches, attitudinal change is never a quick or easy process. The effort to bring about change is largely the responsibility of Roshei Yeshiva and other religious leaders. Without their advocacy and effort, there is no prospect for improvement. For too long they have inadvertently encouraged the notion that chesed trumps chinuch in tzeddakah, as is evident from the fundraising they do on behalf of chesed causes. They do not see fundraising for basic Torah education as part of their core responsibilities, except, of course, for the yeshivas in which they are directly involved. In this key respect, they depart from the lesson taught by the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood. More unfortunately, over the years they have given credence to the view that the funding of our schools is primarily a parental and not a communal responsibility.

I have challenged this attitude for more than two decades, not because I believe that parents can shirk their obligation to pay a fair amount, but because I know that the
economics of Orthodox life result in a large number of families that do not have the means to pay full tuition and, often, anything close to full tuition. There are, admittedly, tuition cheats who know how to play the system. There are far more families that act fairly.

The Rabbinical Board of Torah Umesorah recently issued a strong statement calling for support of yeshivas and Beth Jacobs. This is a welcome development, yet it is only a beginning and, at that, no more than a modest beginning. There needs to be intensive follow-up with additional statements and with Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbis using public forums to convey the message that there is an obligation to provide support for the Torah institutions in the communities where we live.

This is a formidable task and, admittedly, even the most forceful advocacy may not alter wrongful attitudes that are embedded in the mindset of too many Orthodox Jews who for understandable, but not acceptable, reasons have welcomed the news that they need not support basic Torah education.

A collateral need is the downsizing of what I have referred to as Jewish Education, Inc., the large number of projects that devour significant philanthropic funding to yeshivas and day schools while managing to avoid the reality that Torah education occurs in schools and classrooms and not in offices or projects or trips to Israel to “train” principals and teachers, nor in any of the many activities that result in our relatively well-fed educational entrepreneurs being even better fed.

This is another point that I have underscored for years, alas with little success. Jewish Education, Inc. is flourishing in our organizational life. Even as it flourishes, our schools are more behind in payroll. The still worse news is that there are schools that no longer exist, witness what is happening in kiruv and immigrant schools where enrollment now is about half of what it was not long ago.

The news in the yeshiva and day school world since September has been frightening and there is more bad news on the horizon. An item in this Newsletter describes another such development. There is certain to be lots of pain in the coming period. We cannot do much about the overall economy which affects the situation of many schools and many parents. What we can do, at long last, is to prepare the groundwork for a better day when the economy does improve. If our leaders understand that leadership of the religious Jewish community entails the responsibility to constantly work for Torah chinuch at all levels, there is the prospect that some of us will get the message.