Friday, May 21, 2010

About Yeshiva University

While working on my doctoral dissertation a tad shy of fifty years ago, I taught political science at Yeshiva University for a year and a half, shifting then to Hunter College. Charles Liebman and I shared an office, but as we were young and low on the academic totem pole, the space was small and cramped – I believe other faculty used the room – and we met infrequently.

Over the years, I haven’t been much at Yeshiva, not for any ideological or similar reasons but for the more prosaic circumstance that Washington Heights is a distance away from Borough Park and since I do not drive, the trip is time-consuming and time is always a scarce commodity, as my plate is constantly full. Rabbi Norman Lamm, whom I admire, asked me to speak several years ago to a senior kollel group and that was an enjoyable experience. Before Pesach, there was a tribute to Rabbi Lamm, with Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, as the principal speaker. After the event, Richard Joel, Y.U.’s president, invited me to visit and that resulted in a delightful afternoon several weeks ago.

Yeshiva University in 2010 is a lot like Yeshiva University of 1960 and also a lot different. It still represents a synthesis between Orthodox Judaism and the secular world, which is inevitably a challenge, and the main campus still seems a bit out of place amidst a vibrant Hispanic community. There are differences, starting with the diminution but not entire eradication of the paternalism that long characterized the relationship between administration and faculty, a relationship that arose less out of an intent to take advantage of the faculty as out of the dialectical nature of the institution being a heimische place. The school would take care of its own. In return, its own would be quiescent.

When in the 1970s many in the faculty came to believe that this was a bad deal and sought to organize a union, Yeshiva resisted and that ultimately resulted in one of the most atrocious decisions in all of Supreme Court jurisprudence, when in 1980 and by a 5-4 vote, the Justices ruled that university faculty are managerial employees and therefore excluded from coverage under the National Labor Relations Act.

Rabbi Lamm became president in the 1970s, succeeding Dr. Samuel Belkin who during his long tenure had expanded Yeshiva into a full-fledged university with a medical school, law school, graduate schools and programs and much else, accumulating along the way a mountain of debt. Y.U. came within a hairbreadth of declaring bankruptcy, saved by the creative actions of Rabbi Lamm and key supporters. However, scars remained, as the fear that another bankruptcy was always nearby begot a spirit of parsimony.

Yet, during Rabbi Lamm’s long and distinguished service there were improvements in the lot of the faculty and the main campus expanded somewhat and was made considerably more attractive. His great achievement, which remains underappreciated, is that he directed the remarkable transformation of Yeshiva from a center of Orthodoxy distinguished by the intellectual grandeur of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and other European born and educated Torah scholars to an equally elevated institution whose religious faculty are, in the main, Yeshiva-educated. The level of religious study is perhaps higher than ever and the Seminary remains the essence – the heart and soul and much more – of the institution. It is thrilling to be in the new Beth Medrash or study hall, a beautiful place constantly occupied by young scholars.

Universities are characterized by intellectual ferment, as well as more petty rivalries, and this can generate all kinds of conflict, whether ideological or personal. Yeshiva is no exception. Given that it is Jewish and Orthodox to boot, as well as located in New York, it isn’t entirely surprising that it lives a fishbowl existence, so that minor incidents are treated as major happenings.

Rabbi Lamm had wanted to step down as president for some time. The search for a successor turned out to be difficult because there were quite a few hats to wear. Several years ago and seemingly out of frustration, Yeshiva settled on Richard Joel who had been a top administrator at Y.U.’s Cardoza Law School and was doing a strong job as the national director of Hillel. He has more than justified the faith in him. He is a modest and friendly man, yet a person who knows his authority and responsibilities. Under his leadership, the main campus has grown and become even more attractive, extending the achievements of Rabbi Lamm. One senses an enormous amount of vitality.

A characteristic of contemporary higher education, notably in urban areas, is for universities (like medical centers) to sprinkle campuses and programs across the geographic landscape. Yeshiva has maintained its model, with the main campus being the primary beneficiary of additional attention, financial resources and programming. Of course, key units such as Stern College, are elsewhere and they, too, have been upgraded.

There are, inevitably, problem areas and question marks, some heightened by the severe economic downturn. I sense that there are initiatives on hold, while there have been cutbacks that hurt. Central High School for Girls continues to seem out of sync, the result of the unfortunate decision years ago to relocate from Manhattan to Queens where its status resembles that of an orphan.

Surprisingly in view of how Israel figures in the modern and centrist Orthodox mindset, Yeshiva’s presence in Israel is limited to essentially one small program. It’s a major challenge to develop a meaningful higher education niche in Israel and today’s financial realities make the prospect remote. Hopefully, the day will come when Richard Joel and his board will tackle that issue.

Right now, there is an abundance of strong programs and much to be proud of.

Monday, May 10, 2010

RJJ Newsletter - May 2010

Schools are small communities with, to borrow the term much in favor these days, lots of stakeholders. There are children and their parents, faculty and other staff, officers and directors, contributors and persons who live in the community that is being served. In public schools and more affluent nonpublic schools, the staff includes trained personnel who provide important non-educational services, such as guidance and counseling. In smaller and less affluent schools, a category that encompasses a large majority of yeshivas and day schools, these services are either not available or are provided on a part-time basis by an outside program that receives governmental funding.

There is heightened awareness in all educational settings of the obligation to deal with the special needs of children. The notion is that a school is not a sealed off facility into which the problems and pressures arising in the home or the street do not penetrate. Issues that arise elsewhere have a direct and critical bearing on whether children can be properly educated and prepared for future life.

For this reason, there are programs and professionals whose focus is on dealing with outside forces that in reality are powerful presences in the classroom. Some programs focus on early intervention, so that problems that are acknowledged may be addressed and therefore not blossom into more serious deficits or even pathologies. Other programs and professionals deal with behavioral or emotional issues that obviously can hamper educational progress.

It is evident that there now are far more children who are candidates for intervention and attention by school personnel. This may be the consequence of greater awareness of the obligation to address emotional and other needs and not of there being a significantly higher incidence of serious problems among school aged children. Likely, because of social change, there is now a higher proportion of children who require special attention. One contributory factor is the huge jump in the divorce rate. Popular media, with their powerful sexual messages and other unwelcome features, inevitably add to the toll.

Perhaps another factor contributing to the apparent growing incidence of serious emotional and behavioral problems among school children is the plethora of government-funded initiatives that have been established to deal with such situations. In an important sense, the availability of funding generates a search for children who are eligible to receive the services for which funding is being sought. Children are discovered to have deficiencies that no one previously was necessarily aware of, whether the deficiency is how they hold a pencil when they write or how they interact with other children or how they sit in the classroom, etc. These discoveries become the basis for funding requests. Forty years ago, I became aware of a Beth Jacob school that included in its application for funding the claim that a large number of its students engage in promiscuous behavior.

What is happening in certain schools echoes what is too familiar elsewhere in American life when the aim is to receive public funds, as groups make the claim that the constituencies they serve are beset with an avalanche of problems of the kind that make them eligible for public funding.

As noted, schools do face a daunting task in dealing with the emotional and behavioral problems that afflict many children. Exaggeration is not needed, yet the possibility of exaggeration should introduce a note of caution as certain claims are assessed.

There are additional reasons for caution. For all of the credentials of mental health professionals, as well as their dedication, the field that is their expertise is quite imprecise. I once asked Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztl, whether in a particular situation it was sufficient to rely on the assessment of a psychologist. He answered, of course in Yiddish, that it was not, adding as an explanation, “Because there is no boundary,” which I took to mean that the field is imprecise and not entirely reliable.

To put the issue in other terms: When a medical health situation is being evaluated, despite the availability of ever more sophisticated diagnostic tools, often there is no quick explanation for a condition or there is disagreement among those who examine the test results. We are familiar with the practice of asking for a second (at times third) opinion, as well as additional tests, before a determination is made about how to proceed. Why is it acceptable when mental health conditions are being evaluated to rely on the often quick assessment of a psychologist or social worker? Can they or we be certain about what transpires in that fragile and unseeable place called the psyche?

Without a doubt, mental health personnel belong in schools and most schools need more of them than are presently available. As noted further on in this Newsletter, our Girls School has benefitted from the caring services provided by a social worker named Paul Parsowith. However, the reality that mental health professionals are critically needed in schools is not a license to accept uncritically their evaluations and suggested treatments, especially when more than a few are not fully qualified and when what is at stake is the question of whether a child can remain in a school.

As it is, there is too much of a tendency for yeshivas and day schools to expel or not readmit students who are perceived as difficult or having a problem. There is a growing tendency in yeshivas and day schools to get rid of such children, as if they are like some food whose kashrut is in doubt and the formula is “if in doubt, throw it out.” I have protested over many years this tendency and the wrongful policy of allowing principals to have the sole authority to decide whether to expel a student. This tendency is an halachic and moral sin.

I have also written about self-esteem and how this little phrase is in large measure the key to the development of children into healthy adulthood and fruitful lives. Inherently and probably inevitably, schools have the capacity to undermine a child’s self-esteem. This is because central to the education program are tests, grades, report cards, and whatever else has the capacity to transmit the message to a child that he or she is not good at this or that. I am not advocating the abandonment of these measures of a child’s academic performance, although they should be employed in caring ways that least undermine self-esteem.

My concern here is with the expanding reliance by school officials on social workers, psychologists and experts on this or that subject to locate deficiencies among the children in their care. I am especially skeptical when additional funding is predicated on the claim that there are more and more students who need help. If these experts are stakeholders in a school, they are no more than minority stakeholders. Children and their families have a far greater stake and that is something that all of us who have responsibility for schools should never forget.

How Are We Doing?

This question refers to our financial situation. The response requires a bit of context, meaning the financial condition of the day school world generally. This is, by all accounts, the most difficult year in at least two decades. Contributions are sharply down in the aftermath of the severe economic crisis.

That’s only part of the problem. The other part is the tuition crisis. A recent long-delayed visit to my primary doctor for a routine checkup turned into a less than routine discussion of the tuition crisis. He is a talented and caring man whose children attend a Modern Orthodox day school. His income is certainly above that of a typical Orthodox Jewish breadwinner, yet his tuition bill is extremely high and it rises each year. In our conversation he wondered whether he should explore religious educational options outside of the conventional day school framework, saying that he knows parents who have transferred their children out of day school because of the high tuition.

Simply put, there is a dual financial crisis in day school education. One involves parents; the other involves the school. They are closely linked because when high tuition induces parents, rightly or wrongly, to remove their children, school finances take an additional hit. After years of constant growth, in certain day school sectors enrollment has declined. Some schools have closed and others are on the ropes. As I did this past September, I expect to conduct another brief enrollment survey early in the next school year and the likelihood is that there will be a further decline in Modern Orthodox schools and certainly in non-Orthodox schools. As for the crucial outreach and immigrant schools, their enrollment has nosedived.

RJJ as a whole continues to experience a significant downturn in contributions, as many who were faithful contributors for years have cut back entirely or partly. Were it not for the extraordinary generosity of several key donors, our situation would be far worse. Each of our four schools bears the burden of fundraising. How are they doing?

The answer is mixed. The Edison Mesivta has had a good year, certainly in its educational program and because of strong dinner results and hard work, its finances are in reasonably good shape, although it faces four tough months until contributions come in again early in the next school year. The Jewish Foundation School has had to make an extra effort to get by. It has been able to do so, thanks in large measure to the extraordinary efforts of Rabbi Richard Ehrlich, its dean.

Our crisis points are the two RJJ/Merkaz schools. They are behind in payroll and this is terribly unfair to their faculty and staff. We are making an effort in the last part of the school year to improve the situation and for this we urgently need the participation and help of parents, alumni and the larger Staten Island community.