Friday, March 12, 2010

Should We Ignore Bad News?

If I am able to conduct another day school census in the 2013-2014 school year, the research will show that enrollment in U.S. schools has grown by more than 20,000 since the previous census five years earlier. This would mean at least 250,000 students in full-time Jewish schools, surely an impressive number.

When the statistics are broken down according to day school category, a different picture will emerge. Nearly all of the growth – and perhaps all of it – will come from the yeshiva world and chassidic sectors which continue to experience high fertility, a reality that affects not at all what is produced by the pseudo-scientific demographers who continue to report that the Orthodox are no more than ten percent of all American Jews. In all other day school sectors, the story is either stagnant enrollment or, more likely, decline.

A person greatly committed to the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter schools circulated an email several months ago urging recipients to focus on good news. That’s a useful idea, provided that the other news isn’t treated as if it doesn’t exist, particularly when the other news is, unfortunately, the more important story. The Solomon Schechter’s are hemorrhaging students and losing some schools along the way and the process is ongoing.

A case in point is the Solomon Schechter of Nassau County. I visited the school twice years ago and was impressed by the commitment of its leaders, professional and lay. Unfortunately, enrollment has declined steadily, both because of the tuition crisis and the woes affecting Conservatism. There has been talk of closing the high school. In a recent report, school leaders describe a strategy for keeping it open that includes diminishing the Judaic component and raising tuition. The approach won’t work.

Other Schechters are in trouble, some facing what appear to be insurmountable problems. I write this in sadness and without the slightest sense of satisfaction. The movement’s leaders seem committed to the strange notion that Conservatism will be saved by conserving less of its Judaic content. The apparent notion is that since watering down has worked for the Reform, let’s try it. In an article in the terrific first issue of the Jewish Review of Books that has just been published, Dr. Lance J. Sussman, Senior Rabbi of Reform Congregation Kehilath Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, writes that “The Reform movement has probably contracted by a full third in the last ten years!”

There is a better model to emulate. If Conservatives want to salvage their Solomon Schechters, they need to strengthen their Judaics and find ways of reducing tuition. They should advocate for government support of the secular or academic program of day schools under religious sponsorship, as key figures in the movement did in the 1950s through much of the 1970s. In a characteristically insightful but uncharacteristically angry piece in the latest Commentary, Jack Wertheimer who remains a significant presence at the Jewish Theological Seminary writes about “The High Cost of Jewish Living” and makes a pitch for government aid. The article’s subtitle speaks of “the perverse refusal of the American Jewish community to look after its own.” As an illustration of this perversity he quotes an official of the National Council of Jewish Women opposing government aid who said, “We can’t put a chink in the wall [of separation] just because it will help Jewish children.”

There are Jewish leaders who seem to believe that contemporary Jewish life is a spiritual suicide pact.

It isn’t only the Conservative and other non-Orthodox schools that are suffering declines. A number of Modern Orthodox institutions have lost students. As the notion that public schools or charter schools or some other arrangement is an acceptable Jewish alternative becomes more acceptable, it is certain that there will be additional defections from day school education. The Modern Orthodox have high tuition to blame for their losses. That’s not true of Chabad schools or those that serve an immigrant or outreach population. Their growing difficulties stem from an inability to attract sufficient financial support.

The Chabad school in affluent Port Washington which is right next to Great Neck came close to shutting down in mid-school year as its ambitious program did not receive sufficient support. Shalom Torah Centers in New Jersey, perhaps the outstanding kiruv or outreach day school in the country, has just filed for bankruptcy, as a group of devoted lay people with much other crucial communal responsibilities struggle to keep it open. While some of its problems are unique, in general it shares the fate of the cluster of immigrant and outreach schools that have lost much of their enrollment and much of their support.

Even in the fervently Orthodox sectors, payrolls are further behind than they have been at any time in at least a generation. Jack Wertheimer notes that there are “insular” Orthodox schools that charge only a few thousand dollars per year. Actually, the number of such schools is quite large and, as impossible as it may seem, there are more than a few Orthodox schools that receive on an average significantly below several thousand dollars a year in tuition payments per student.

The enrollment of these schools will continue to grow because of high fertility and these schools will remain open because of the devotion and sacrifice of faculty and staff. Elsewhere in the day school world where tuition is far higher and the dedication is not as high, the losses will mount. It may be comforting to deny what is already a reality, but such comfort would be born out of self-delusion. The news is bad and it should be reported.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Writing About Orthodox Wrongdoing

With the completion of creation, the earth was sanctified and immediately it became the territory of what is called life, of temptations and forces that impel people to transgress, even to murder. This fall from grace was sudden and it was permanent. It may be, as some have suggested, that human imperfection is an element in the plan for creation, for we are thereby partners in the striving for sanctity and goodness.

Orthodox Jews are not immune from human imperfections. There is the hope, perhaps expectation, that as a consequence of their fidelity to the commandments, their incidence of wrongdoing will be reduced. In writing about the torrents of wrongs arising from sexual and monetary appetites, Maimonides does not qualify that he is writing about Jews who are not religious. Nachmanides goes further, identifying a personality type who though externally is entirely faithful to the mitzvos is yet repulsive in that he is living a lie because his behavior debases Torah values.

There are Orthodox Jews who do bad things. How should our media report their wrongdoing or, for that matter, wrongdoing by other Jews? Journalistic decisions are about substance, about what happened. They are also about space. Much that may merit attention is not reported because of a lack of space. What may ordinarily be referred to as run of the mill wrongdoings, whether illegalities or ethical lapses, generally do not make the cut, either because of space constraints or unawareness.

The “Talk Of The Town” section in this weeks’ New Yorker has a piece about a “crime wave” by a group of podiatrists, all but one of whom appears to be Jewish. The tale hasn’t made it into this newspaper and for good reason. There is no Jewish angle. The standard should not be different when the wrongdoer is Orthodox, yet somehow that detail often results in a different journalist rulebook, in a rush to print. What is the justification? – a question that is not intended to justify wrongdoing.

Googling and the quick availability of information can serve as an invitation to reporters to bundle stories about wrongdoing and that is what occurred last week in the lead article in this newspaper, “Orthodox Scandals Could Harm Power Base, Experts Warn.” I am tempted to write that if scandals are the price to pay to demolish the mythology about Orthodox power, we should perhaps root at least temporarily for more scandal, since wrongful perceptions about Orthodox power are at the root of much Orthodox wrongdoing. Too many buy into the notion that there are fixers who for the right price can get things done. This mentality is a catalyst for more scandal.

For all of the media concentration on their wrongdoing, the Orthodox represent a disproportionately low share of all Jewish wrongdoing as measured by prison population or indictments. If Bernard Madoff is transformed into an Orthodox Jew and his wrongdoings are ascribed to the Orthodox, as has happened in newspaper stories, the tally is different and it is distorted.

What clearly merits journalistic attention is when religious leaders or institutions are implicated in wrongdoing. This is a desecration of G-D’s name and is newsworthy. I wonder whether Orthodox insularity is a contributory factor when wrongdoing takes place, a question that was touched on last week by David Klinghoffer in an exquisite article in the Forward called “In Scandals, a Wake-Up Call for Orthodoxy.” Klinghoffer was unsparing, even harsh, in his criticism.

Not all religious and ethnic groups are insular or are closed off to a significant extent from the outside world. Those that are, including the fervently Orthodox, run the risk that their insularity may result in behavior that departs from the appropriate laws and rules of the larger society. Members of the group may believe that what is regarded as improper by outsiders is acceptable because the group is benefitting or, alternatively, they may come to believe that it is right to take advantage of government or outsiders. Another factor contributing to possible loose legal and moral behavior is the tendency toward informality and laxity in intra-group transactions.

Insularity may feed into distortions about political influence. Ambitious powerbrokers position themselves as fixers, as people with contacts on the inside who can get things done. Photo-ops and the appearance of meaningful access are utilized to help make their pitch. Through the bundling of political contributions they can, in fact, purchase marginal access which amounts to little real influence. Too few Orthodox understand that meaningful political influence is not about leaving fingerprints. It’s about how Wall Street firms, big banks, pharmaceutical companies and other major interest groups conduct their efforts to exert influence. Of course, Orthodox are not alone in misunderstanding political influence.

The game plan for politicians dealing with the fervently Orthodox was set in the 1950s when office holders and seekers would pay pseudo-homage to Chassidic leaders in Williamsburg. After the photo-op, they acquiesced in the building of a highway right through the heart of the neighborhood. The lesson continues in Borough Park, now the largest Orthodox community, whose representative in Congress is Jerry Nadler, the ultra-liberal from Manhattan’s West Side. Put otherwise, is there a social or public issue on which Orthodox Jews have a distinctive position where public policy accords with that position? Yet, journalists constantly market the cliché about Orthodox political power.

The Orthodox may be forgiven for their naïveté about politics, but, of course, not for any wrongdoing. To them, appearances are crucial. What excuse is there for our media?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

RJJ Newsletter - March 2010

The first days of September are a pressure period for many yeshivas and day schools as parents who seek substantial tuition reductions usually wait until then to register their children. There are schools that complete the registration process for nearly all of their students before school ends in June. They are, as a rule, more affluent institutions, charging relatively high tuition and offering, at most, limited scholarship assistance. Other schools, like our three on Staten Island, charge relatively low tuition and registration is for many parents a bargaining process with school officials, with the latter usually yielding because, after all, the mission of the school is to provide a Torah education and that mission may be forfeited if the child is not admitted.

There is a tendency for local rabbis to intervene on behalf of parents seeking scholarship assistance. There is a corollary tendency for schools to heed the words of rabbinic leaders. They are rightfully respected and they may know much about a family’s situation, including finances, that is beyond the information available to the school. This past September, a Rabbi whom I respect, called to ask for my intervention on behalf of a number of parents whose children had not been registered, saying that these were hardship cases. As has happened previously, I yielded to his plea and instructed that the children be admitted, with little or no tuition being required, this despite the escalating financial difficulty our schools have in meeting their obligations.

During the recent winter break, one child who was on a full scholarship – meaning no tuition was being charged – vacationed in Aruba with his mother and perhaps other family members. This was called to my attention and I was shocked and still am by this situation. It is disgraceful and worse that a family would take such advantage. We told the family that we would have to have a minimum payment, else the student could not remain in the school. The payment has been made and the student is continuing in the school.

This episode has caused me much anguish, obviously because a child who did not make the decision to spend substantial funds on an expensive vacation was being severely punished. His Jewish future would have been compromised if he did not remain in a Jewish school. For all of my adult life and for nearly sixty years, I have worked and struggled to provide a Torah education to children, particularly those who are from marginally observant homes. I have often overruled school officials who have claimed that my leniency regarding tuition payments severely harms their institutions.

The Aruba incident was too egregious to ignore. What was involved is a form of theft and not merely in an abstract moral sense. Our schools are forced to stint on nearly everything. Faculty and staff bear the brunt of this, as they are severely underpaid and too often they are not paid in a timely way. When parents take extreme advantage, they are harming persons who have devoted their lives to Torah education, individuals who can scarcely get by even if they are paid on time. This is shameful and cannot be tolerated.

Over the years, when a student receiving substantial scholarship assistance has celebrated a fancy Bar or Bat Mitzvah or whose family has done something lavish, we have been told that the money came from another source, usually a grandparent. It escapes me how this is a justification for paying zero or little tuition.

What adds to our dismay in these situations is that there are too many parents who take similar or even greater advantage. What this amounts to is the reality that there is a sort of market place for the swapping of information regarding how best to cheat the school. Worse yet, what emerges is the existence of a culture of taking extreme advantage.

There are, it needs to be underscored, parents who are legitimate scholarship recipients. The severe economic downturn has taken a heavy toll in lost jobs. It is heartless to exhort parents who have lost their livelihood to pay significant tuition. It is part of the essence of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School and has been for one-hundred and ten years to be caring and to treat parents on scholarship assistance with the utmost dignity. This will remain our hallmark, even as we are determined to insist that parents who can pay a fair share do so.