Friday, June 03, 2011

The Brave New World

This isn’t the best of times for teachers. Budgetary shortfalls in states and localities have put teachers on the defensive regarding pensions and benefits, with a dose of meanness being added to the unhappy brew by right wing lawmakers and critics who apparently believe that teachers should be available for target practice. For sure, teachers unions have abused the public trust by seeking pension arrangements that cannot be justified or sustained, along with work rules and much else that have sent the cost of public education skyrocketing.

It is fair to ask whether society is receiving fair value for the tons of money being spent on basic education. Corrective measures are the order of the day. Pensions will be cut, at least for new hires, and there will be givebacks. Class size will be increased and extra-curricular activities and educational enhancements will be scaled back. Nearly every nook and cranny of public education will be examined to locate savings, the primary exceptions being the army of experts, too many bedecked with pseudo-credentials, who although they aren’t in schools or classrooms endlessly tell those who are what is deficient in their performance. This army will grow in cost and size because, after all, how can savings be achieved without the help of more and more well-paid experts.

We will also get more urgent advocacy of the use of technology in basic education, the aim being to improve students’ attentiveness and performance and also to save money. These are admirable goals. Of note, calls for heightened reliance on educational technology in the classroom have been around for at least two decades, yet when we compare how computers, the Internet, etc. have transformed offices, businesses, communications and information-gathering and much else, schools and classrooms appear to be a societal backwater. Why, despite what technology offers, do schools operate much the same as they operated before there was a Silicon Valley?

This is a fair question. What isn’t fair are some of the explanations, including the charge that in order to protect jobs, teacher unions resist change or that since teachers were mainly trained the old way, they aren’t comfortable with the new technology. Teachers are no more technologically challenged than workers in other fields where technological change is everywhere evident.

Schooling is an intensive human experience, encompassing numerous student and teacher interactions and countless interactions among students. A large part, but far from all, of this experience is formal education in a pristine sense, meaning the acquisition of skills and knowledge that will allow students to grow intellectually and have productive lives. In this process, technology is certainly helpful and can for certain students or certain subjects transcend in efficacy what can be achieved by teachers in front of a classroom of children.

But even in the conveying of knowledge, we ought to pause and recognize that what dedicated and effective teachers accomplish – and there are plenty of such teachers – transcends what technology can achieve. Good teaching aims to get students to think, not merely to accumulate information. Good teaching raises questions and inspires students to seek greater heights. This is one reason why many of us fondly remember decades later the blessings that came our way in the form of an excellent teacher.

There are avenues of intellectual stimulation for children of school age outside of the conventional school classrooms. One example is when a child reads not only what is assigned but also out of curiosity or pleasure and becomes addicted to reading. Another is when a student’s imagination impels him or her to think and inquire beyond what is taught in the assigned text. In these experiences – and there are others – technology can advance what would otherwise be beyond a student’s reach. The role of technology in formal and informal education needs to be expanded, but not to the detriment of the vital classroom experience and certainly not to the point of teacher-less classrooms as some are advocating and as are being introduced in Florida and elsewhere.

We need to be mindful that schools and teachers have crucial auxiliary responsibilities that have expanded over the years as a result of profound societal changes, including in family life, the frightening increase among the young of severe social pathologies and greater public concern for the well-being of children. Teachers in classrooms do more than teach. Without the title or even recognition of the role, they are also social workers. They need to be alert to telltale signs of problems at home, for instance whether a student is being neglected or abused. They need to be alert to physical and emotional issues. Schools today are links to health and mental health providers. I doubt that any of us has met a computer or device that can perform these roles.

In ordinary situations and without these additional social welfare burdens that society has placed on them, schools and teachers are vital in the development of children who are being molded, at least hopefully, to act respectfully, to show deference to properly expressed authority and to learn how to get along with other children. Here, too, technology is certain to fall short.

The march of technology is, of course, inevitable and it brings meaningful benefits. But it is also a dialectical development, as when jobs are lost or family life disrupted. Perhaps there can be no gain without pain or, as some have put it, you cannot make an omelet without cracking eggs. The brave new world that is technology contributes to the spread of the social disease called alienation and also anomie – and that’s just the first letter in the alphabet. I do not argue against technology. Technological advance does not result in a dystopia, nor is the end result a utopia. What I worry about is not the impact on teachers, although that is a consideration because they deserve respect and not the abuse that they receive from some quarters. My concern is for the children who need teachers, who need someone to talk to and someone to guide them.

Monday, May 09, 2011

When Good People Do Mediocre Things

In early 1973, Philip M. Klutznick, described in Encyclopedia Judaica as “one of the foremost figures in postwar American Jewish life,” came to New York’s City Hall to invite Mayor John V. Lindsay to participate in the forthcoming celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of Israel. As I was to be at the meeting and the Mayor was a bit delayed, Mr. Klutznick and I waited in an anteroom and talked about the state of American Jewry. Our assessment was that the situation wasn’t good, that our community was bereft of vision and ideas and mired in an ever-expanding bureaucratic network of organizations. He said that he was setting up a Washington-based think tank that hopefully would shake things up, a project that did come to fruition, produced some interesting papers and then disappeared from the scene. What was arid then in our communal life has become much worse.

We are in the grip of the great American Jewish mediocracy. It hovers over our community, providing rewards to bureaucracy, gratuitous activities and tired ideas. This is, in a way, surprising because American Jewry does not lack for brainpower or skillful persons who also are dedicated. We have loads of successful entrepreneurs and professionals who in business or professional life have demonstrated their creativity and who are in one fashion or another strongly concerned about Jewish wellbeing. These are people who take risks, who do more than clone what others have done. We have writers and academics who traffic in the world of ideas. We have persons who have made their mark in public service and others who have made notable contributions in the arts and other cultural fields. Why are we wallowing in mediocrity in our communal life?

To add to the puzzlement, our organizations are led by lay people and professionals who in the aggregate are intelligent and certainly sincere. Yet, while their lives are entwined in Jewish communal service, they leave few if any fingerprints that are worth retaining.

Israel may provide a partial explanation for this sterility. Although Israel obviously commands much of our attention and resources, communal and also for many individuals, what is wanted or needed of us is not our ideas or opinions – and we certainly do not make policy – but our financial support, visits and advocacy. We are, whatever our titles and whatever our feelings of self-importance, no more than foot-soldiers on Israel’s behalf and so shall we remain. It has been said - and this is to the point – that the establishment of Israel was the death of Zionism.

Israel alone cannot account for our lamentable mediocrity. Much of what we do as a community and as Jews concerns what happens on these shores, in places where we can affect what happens in Jewish life. We have far more organizations than any other ethnic or religious group and it seems at times that we have more organizations than all other groups combined. We have a huge philanthropic network encompassing Federations and an expanding number of private philanthropies. There are books galore about Jewish life, Jewish newspapers and other publications, chairs in Jewish study, Jewish museums, research projects and an endless array of conferences and conventions that is the sound of music for the lodging, airplane and catering industries. Again, why the mediocrity in our organizational and institutional life?

Admittedly, our formidable communal infrastructure and our being all over the place evoke admiration in many quarters, as we are looked at as charitable, intelligent, hardworking and determined to advocate for what we believe in. Among some who believe that we control the world, our organizational life is looked at as a sinister Jewish conspiracy. Of course, there is a measure of efficacy to our over-organization and the multitude of activities because they provide, to an extent, countless connecting points for Jewish identity and commitment among persons who are not involved through synagogues or other traditional activity.

The problem is that our great mass of organizations and activities leaves us muscle-bound. We are trapped inside of what we have concocted and this is sad because it is sad to see thousands of devoted and talented people, lay and professional, devote their talents to a mind-boggling schedule of meetings and conferences and then at the end of the day achieve little that is worth achieving. It is sad that these activities are accepted as surrogates for meaningful communal work. It is sad to see the huge Federation network that survives largely because of inertial forces being unable to adjust to new realities. It is sadder yet to see the newer foundation world playing copycat, going the way of other Jewish communal flesh as it invests in too much meaningless research, commissions papers that are dead on arrival, hires experts whose expertise is largely self-promotion. This is a world that inadvertently is making a contribution to the new Jewish mediocracy.

As with generalizations generally, there are exceptions, sparks of creativity that yield meaningful benefits. The best I know of is Birthright Israel which has the novel feature of departing from the norm, as the American Jewish leaders whose brainchild it was induced the Israeli government to go along. Birthright was essentially crafted by Michael Steinhardt, for whom iconoclasm is a religion, and Charles Bronfman. Of note, about the time that Birthright came into being, Messrs. Steinhardt and Bronfman spoke out separately in criticism of the stultifying consequences of our huge bureaucracy.

The lesson may be that the best bet for change away from the iron law of mediocracy that holds us in its grip is for the super-rich who have strong credentials of commitment to organized Jewish life to speak out against our slavish adherence to organizational and institutional arrangements that result in good people doing mediocre things.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Jewish Week Should Apologize

United States Supreme Court Justices and newspaper editors share the challenge of selecting which matters will receive attention. The same is true of other fields of human activity. Each term, the Supreme Court receives as many as five-thousand certiorari petitions or requests that it review the decisions of lower courts, with review nowadays being granted in fewer than one-hundred cases. How do the Justices decide what to decide? Each day, there are far more stories than can make it into a newspaper. How do editors decide what to publish?

Fifty years ago, when the Supreme Court received three-thousand certiorari petitions in a term, Joseph Tanenhaus, my beloved teacher, friend and dissertation supervisor, and I developed what we referred to as the cue theory, arguing and statistically demonstrating that the Justices use cues, such as a dissenting opinion in the court below or conflict among lower courts, to select which appeals it will hear. This research remains the principal study of this aspect of Supreme Court activity.

What about journalists? Nearly everything depends on the nature of the publication, its audience and mission, as well as what editors prefer. A daily newspaper serving a major metropolitan area is certain to have different coverage than a weekly and a newspaper with an ethnic orientation obviously will provide distinctive coverage. In each setting, choices must be made and doubtlessly there are cues governing these choices because editors are bombarded by those who seek to see their stories in print. Which cues determine Jewish Week coverage?

There are a number of cues, but none more powerful and likely to result in publication than “Orthodox abuse” or, better yet, “Orthodox sexual abuse.” A content analysis of what has appeared in this newspaper over the years will bear this out. This preference was on display in a poorly written article on Ohel Children’s Home that occupied nearly two full pages and apparently took weeks and significant resources to prepare. The article, which Ohel strongly challenges, primarily covers whether this highly-regarded agency complied with New York’s reporting requirements in a case involving a mentally ill mother who may have abused her son.

Ohel requires no defense from me. Nor am I in any way involved in its vital activity. The agency deals daily with heartbreaking situations, often when the facts are not fully known. It has to make judgment calls, at times guessing about the best course to take. It fulfills its responsibilities with humanity and dignity, struggling to do what is right. Its staff is professional, caring and often courageous. Any of us who have responsibilities in social services or education know how these responsibilities are enmeshed in uncertainties and options that have drawbacks.

A primary, if not the primary, source for the attack-Ohel story is Asher Lipner, a psychologist who once worked at Ohel and left, shall we say, under unfriendly circumstances and remains angry and determined to retaliate. In a McCarthyistic twist, the article refers to other unnamed sources who cannot be identified because of the prospect of retaliation. That is nonsense. As for Lipner, it is remarkable that his unhappy relationship with Ohel did not make it into the article or, a week later, into the follow-up defense of the article. Why?

Last June, the Jewish Week published an opinion column,“Jewish Community Still Behind on Confronting Abuse,” under Lipner’s byline. The Orthodox were the target, not the other 90% of American Jews. Lipner wrote, “Our community still shamefully lags behind even the Catholic Church in addressing our catastrophe, due to the unwillingness of our leaders to apologize and to reach out effectively to survivors of abuse. We are regularly bombarded in the media with rabbinic sex scandals, convictions of Orthodox child predators and law suits against yeshivas harboring molesters.”

Each of these statements was not true. They were written with a reckless disregard for the truth and they were published with a reckless disregard for the truth. The comparison with the situation in the Catholic Church is false and repugnant. We are not regularly bombarded in the media by stories of rabbinic sexual scandals, nor by the convictions of Orthodox child predators. The reference to lawsuits against yeshivas is another distortion.

Sexual abuse is a horrific sin and equally great is the sin of those who know of the abuse and remain silent. My questioning of the severe distortions by Lipner and this newspaper must not be distorted into a defense of those who engage in abuse.

The Ohel coverage needs to be seen in the context of the endless attacks on the Orthodox that is a hallmark of the Jewish Week. This isn’t just my opinion or perception. It is the view of a great number of Orthodox, mainly those who are modern in their orientation, who are perturbed by what they regard as an anti-Orthodox animus. In a March 2, 2011 post on his blog, Gary Rosenblatt wrote, “We have no animus” toward Ohel “or any other Jewish organization.” I am sure that he is convinced of this. I and other Orthodox are convinced otherwise.

About the time that the Ohel story was published, Jonathan Mark, an associate editor of the Jewish Week, posted a blog on this newspaper’s site sharply critical of the Reform movement. This evoked what I believe is an unprecedented response by Gary Rosenblatt who apologized for what Mark had written and removed the offending post from the newspaper’s site.

Gary wrote, “We do not allow the denigration of any religion or any Jewish religious streams.” Yet, the Jewish Week published Lipner’s offensive and false claims and has constantly published material hostile to the Orthodox. The Ohel article includes these words: “In the ultra-Orthodox community, most people do not report for fear of being an ‘informer,’ because rabbis have instructed them not to.” It’s time to stop the offensive against the Orthodox. The Jewish Week should apologize to Ohel.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Let Them Work

When extreme polar positions are placed at opposite ends of a continuum, the distance between them is 180°, the maximum. If the line is reconfigured and made into a circle, the gap is eliminated entirely as the two extremes abut, the lesson being that no matter how far apart they may seem to be, extremists of all stripes have much in common.

A case in point is the perennial Israeli issue of charedim or the fervently Orthodox in the workforce. At one extreme, there are the ultra-secularists with their anti-religious baggage. At the other end, are the religious extremists who pounce on any in the Orthodox camp who advocate greater charedi participation in the job market. As Shahar Ilan demonstrated the other day in Ha’aretz, the anti-religious extremists fabricate statistics showing that overwhelmingly charedim do not work. Ilan’s pseudo-statistic is 70 percent. Other writers who are not as biased, come up with a statistic of about 50 percent, which is also off the mark.

The truth is that a great number of charedi wage earners do not earn anything close to what is needed to sustain their families, largely because of family size and the high cost of religious living and also because many hold low paying positions, such as teaching in religious schools. As is true of lower socio-economic groups nearly everywhere, there is significant involvement of charedim in the underground economy, meaning that their work and income are essentially unreported, and although this circumstance should not merit a certificate of good behavior, it remains that work is work. The higher classes have their own lucrative tax games, so that only those who are without sin should cast any stone.

Another factor in the charedi work profile is discrimination against them by employers, a situation that rarely gets attention. The subject was addressed forcibly by Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, as he launched a campaign to encourage the hiring of the fervently Orthodox. Peres noted, “People believe that the religious don’t want to work. That’s nonsense. There are thousands of charedim who want to make a living – men, too. This is a stigma that divides the people.” He continued, “The belief that there are two nations – one that works and one that’s lazy – is false.”

According to Chaim Guggenheim, head of a manpower organization, “There are tens of thousands of charedim looking for work.” Many face job discrimination, as according to one report, “92% of companies [in Israel] still don’t employ charedim.” A survey conducted by Ono Academic College found “that employers preferred to hire disabled persons as opposed to charedim.”

In 1965, I was instrumental in forming the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, a group comprised mainly of young Orthodox lawyers, becoming its first president. We quickly came to focus on discrimination against religious persons, particularly in the workplace. During one of my trips to Israel in the early 1970s, I approached Joseph Burg, the longtime leader of Mizrachi, the Religious Zionist party, and suggested that Israel follow America’s lead and enact legislation protecting Sabbath observers. By Israeli law, Sabbath is a day of rest and businesses are required to close, yet even in the early 1970s an expanding number of employers were able to secure exemptions on the ground that necessity mandated Sabbath work. Burg demurred, arguing that protection of religious Jews would be tantamount to accepting that other Jews could work on Shabbos and Mizrachi could not go along with that. The upshot is that job discrimination against religious Jews abounds in Israel.

The other extreme has been amply and unhappily on display in the disgraceful reaction to Rabbi Chaim Amsellem’s suggestion that more charedim join the workforce rather than remain full-time in yeshiva. Amsellem had been a Shas Party member of the Knesset.

Shas overwhelmingly is oriented toward traditional but not fervently religious persons of Sephardic heritage, yet Amsellem was quickly drummed out of the party, an offensive and foolish act. It may be that Shas’s political leader, Eli Yishai, Israel’s Interior Minister, is afflicted by an advanced case of messianism, a condition arising perhaps out of his belief that his name compels such behavior.

Amsellem’s sin – if he did sin – is his speaking out, meaning that what he said made sense but he should have kept his opinion to himself and not give voice to a view held by many charedim. Apart from my lifelong notion that, consistent with religious obligations and discipline, it is appropriate for religious Jews to have opinions and express them because a mind is a terrible thing to waste, Orthodox laypeople and lower rabbinic figures spoke out on public matters in pre-Holocaust Europe at the major conferences of Agudath Israel. There were lively debates and disagreement on vital issues, including of a religious nature, in which lay leaders participated. In the recent period, the attitude that one’s opinions must be put into cold storage has unfortunately taken hold.

The effort to delegitimize Amsellem sends the message to young charedi men eager to enter the workforce that doing so would diminish them as religious Jews. Torah study is our highest pursuit. Working for a livelihood is also a noble pursuit.

Predictably, the Amsellem matter serves as a feeding opportunity for those in an attack mode against charedim. They have embraced Amsellem as one of their own, although assuredly he is not. The Times featured the story, indulging in numbers games, including the claim that more than 50 percent of charedi women do not work. Indeed, a great number are hard at work at home caring for a household of children. Whatever the failings of Rabbi Amsellem’s new bedfellows, his message is on target. More charedim are needed in the workforce and more charedim want to work. When Shas attacks those who advocate greater charedi involvement in Israel’s economy, it is joining forces with those who promote discrimination against charedim. Extremists are, after all, birds of a feather that flock together.

Monday, January 10, 2011

RJJ Newsletter - January 2011

Schools are for children and about children. Without children, there is no school. There are, to employ a term much in favor these days, other vital stakeholders, including faculty and staff, parents, and depending on the situation or nature of the school, government officials, community leaders and contributors. It remains that unless students come, the best faculty in the world, a first-rate facility and all of the funds needed to provide a great education are for naught. We must never forget this.

When students come, they come in all sizes, meaning not only physical sizes. They come with diverse intellectual capabilities and diverse interests and they come from diverse home backgrounds and with diverse emotional needs. Except in a limited sense in some families, there is no societal setting quite like the typical classroom.

The great challenge facing educators is how to mold the inevitable and often far-reaching diversities into a classroom that works. The challenge is how to bring into being the experience that is called education that will allow children to acquire knowledge and skills, including social skills, and to learn and accept the obligation referred to as discipline, the goal being that they will be successful in adulthood and contribute to society. In Jewish day schools, there is the added challenge of inculcating in students in the practices and values of our religion, as well as the knowledge and skills that are essential in Torah education.

No school is perfect. Some obviously are better than others, at times much better. At the end of the day, there is always a measure of failure in the educational process. There are students who do not succeed academically. There are students who do not live up to behavioral standards. There are students who fall away religiously. There are students who do not possess the requisite emotional health or strength to cope well enough in school. Inevitably, therefore, as in all human experiences, there is the falling short of achieving aspirations and goals. Life is not all victories. There is always some disappointment, with the glory of the human species particularly manifested in the determination to go on despite defeat or disappointment.

Overall, schools do a good job, often despite there being without sufficient resources. This is clearly true of yeshivas and day schools, most of which live on a shoestring or less. The lion’s share of the credit for what is achieved in schools goes to educators, so many of whom reach out to students or do far more than is required of them in order to become more effective classroom teachers and in order to achieve better student performance. I am in awe of the dedication of the women and men who teach at yeshivas and day schools and who despite incredibly low salaries, benefits that are nearly nonexistent and paychecks that are often late, come to school determined to do all that they can to teach well and to motivate their students.
There is much research on education, such things as how much teachers are paid, the degrees they have, the time they spend in classrooms, the number of years they stay in the profession, etc. Here is a research project that deserves to be undertaken, especially with respect to religious schools: How much out-of-classroom and out-of-school time do teachers devote to preparation, reviewing and grading paperwork and doing other things that enhance their classroom performance.

There are teachers who do not belong in the classroom, some because they never should have become teachers and some because they have lost their effectiveness. Over-whelmingly, teachers do a good job and deserve our gratitude. They do not deserve the kind of criticism that is heard far too often.

Teachers have nachas when their students do well and this feeling of nachas can be maintained over the years, so that there are teachers who feel wonderful when they see how those whom they taught years earlier have matured and developed. Teachers also have nachas when their students are happy, when a smile comes across their face. I read the following the other day by a Puerto Rican writer: “The happiness of children is my reason to smile.” That’s how teachers feel.

There are children who do not smile, children who are always unhappy or seem to be unhappy. There are children who do not succeed, academically or socially, and there are children who succeed academically or socially who have behavioral difficulties. There are students who do well in secular subjects but not in Judaic subjects or the other way around and there are children who do not abide by religious standards.

This is because in the territory or process that we call education children come in different emotional and intellectual sizes. That is how it is in many families and in all schools. Parents may want to have only angels and a few do. Most are confronted by a range of complexities and try to impart caring and love, as they hope and pray that all will turn out well. Schools do not have the same obligation as parents to accept all children, yet, they have an obligation to accept and to teach children who may be difficult. One size does not fit all in life and one size does not fit all in education.

The hardest part of my work for RJJ concerns the admission and retention of students. There are, of course, constant financial pressure, difficult decisions to be made and the hard work that is fundraising. Personnel matters can be painful, especially when they involve persons I am close to. Yet, none of these difficult responsibilities causes the anguish that arises when the status of a child is at stake. It is never easy to figure out what is the right course and it is always wrenching when the decision is not to admit a student or not to allow him or her to remain.

What I believe is that to the greatest extent possible, the scales must be tipped in favor of children. A child is precious and also an unknown, in a sense he or she is a work in progress. Poor behavior or poor performance may be transient. We all know children who at a young age were poor students or misbehaved who turned out magnificently in adulthood.

For all of the goodness that is evident in classrooms, there is too much of an attitude in yeshivas and day schools that smacks of “if in doubt, throw it out.” A child is not a food product whose kashruth is uncertain. Why, then, is there too much of a culture of rejection in many of our schools?

The answer is that the prevailing attitude, with some exceptions, is that it is not only appropriate but also necessary to reject students who are difficult. We have come to believe that that is the right thing to do. In short, children are treated too often as akin to a food product.

I have written about this subject often during the thirty-eight years that I have been RJJ’s president and, I believe, prior to this responsibility, as well. I believe that what too many people of good intentions are doing is sinful. We look at the products of our schools and we proclaim how wonderfully they have turned out. The students we have rejected are not on our radar screen. We do not know how they turned out and it seems that we scarcely care. Too many have turned away from Judaism.

I know that there are children who should be expelled or not admitted and that, at times, such decisions work out beneficially for the children and their families. These situations are the exception. Doubt about a child’s behavior or suspicions that he or she will cause trouble are not sufficient to justify expulsion. What is needed to justify expulsion is behavior that is clearly wrongful and that is harmful to the school or other students.

Even then, as I have advocated over the years, the decision must not be made by one person. Local rabbis or respected lay people should be included in the process. I have cited in the past the view of the Chazon Ish, the transcendent Torah leader of the last century, that expulsion and admission decisions fall into the category of life decisions and that therefore a Beth Din is required. It is astounding that in the Torah world the guidance of the Chazon Ish is not followed.