Category Archives: Orthodox-Bashing

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Letter in the New York Times

Re “Everybody Into the Pool” (editorial, June 1):

Far from being “unmoored” from the Constitution, offering sex-segregated hours at public swimming pools that service traditional communities is well within the bounds of both the First Amendment and the “considerations of public policy” exemption provided for in New York City law.

Orthodox Jews, moreover, are not the only New Yorkers who hew to a different view of modesty than the contemporary one. Traditional Muslims, many Christians and women of no particular ethnicity or faith have similar convictions. Rescinding the special sex-segregated hours would be the equivalent of a sign saying “No people with traditional values allowed.”

The classical concept of modesty that is embraced by many citizens may have its roots in religious systems. But reasonable accommodation of the needs of such New Yorkers is not an endorsement of any religion. It is simply a laudable recognition of the multicultural nature of our city.

Concern for the needs of others unlike ourselves is another religion-based but universal ideal. It is one that your editorial board might consider embracing more consistently.

(Rabbi) AVI SHAFRAN

Director of Public Affairs

Agudath Israel of America

New York

No, Rabbi Yoffie, That’s Not What I Wrote

I have apparently upset Reform rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the former president of his movement.  In Haaretz (http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.720279), he takes me to task for claiming, in an earlier op-ed in that paper, that Orthodox rabbis speak on behalf of American Jewry.

That’s not, however, what I wrote. As you can read at http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.718990 , I simply asserted that Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the current head of the Reform movement, had overreached by claiming that he represents all American Jews.  In his own piece, in fact, Rabbi Yoffie does the same thing.

Some excerpts from his essay:

“[I]n a monumental act of self-delusion, Rabbi Avi Shafran asserts… that Reform rabbis… cannot claim to speak for American Jewry on such matters. But they can… The reason for this is that 90% of American Jewry is non-Orthodox…”

 “The overwhelming majority of American Jews… are horrified by the failure of the Jewish state to grant basic religious rights to all of Israel’s Jews.”

“To be sure, the 10% of the community that identifies as Orthodox is entitled to its views. But while Rabbi Shafran refers to this group as ‘sizable,’ it is not sizable at all.”

“Rabbi Shafran points out that the average number of children for middle-aged Orthodox Jews is 4.1, more than twice the number for other American Jews. But with an Orthodox birthrate that is so high, why are Orthodox numbers so modest? One reason is that a significant number of Orthodox Jews stop practicing Judaism… the percentage of yeshiva-educated children from classically observant homes who abandon their tradition could be as high as 33%.”

“My own guess is that the glum assumptions that demographers are making about intermarriage are mostly wrong, just as they are wrong about the ability of the Orthodox to keep all of their children within the fold…  And by the way, as sociologist Steven Cohen has pointed out, the membership of Reform congregations grew by more than 20% between 1990 and 2013.”

That’s a rich field to mine.  Let’s do some digging.

If the 90% of American Jews “identifying as non-Orthodox” – most of whom do not identify as Reform either – are “horrified” by Israel’s single Jewish standard for issues of personal status (or her “failure to grant basic religious rights to all its Jews,” in Yoffie-speak), then they are an astoundingly silent majority.

Not surprising, since there are almost as many American Jews who profess no religious affiliation at all as there are who say they are Reform.  Most of the former are uninterested in internal Israeli issues.  And many, if not most, of the latter may have no real connection to any Reform institution but simply use the word to describe their Jewish non-observance.  And they, too, have no particular concern about Israel’s religious standards.

No, the only ones “horrified” are Reform leaders and those among their congregants whom they have convinced to follow their lead. Those are the people Rabbis Jacobs and Yoffie can claim to represent.

As to the American Orthodox community, it is not only sizable – it’s about a third of the 35% of the American Jewish segment claiming to be Reform – but, more important, it’s growing, and at a robust rate.  “Every year, the Orthodox population has been adding 5,000 Jews,” says sociologist Steven Cohen. “The non-Orthodox population has been losing 10,000 Jews.”

And the most obvious indicator of any group’s future growth lies in the size of its youth population.  Roughly a quarter of Orthodox Jewish adults (24%) are between the ages of 18 and 29, compared with 17% of Reform Jews and 13% of Conservative Jews.  More significant still, no less than 27% of all American Jews under 18 live in Orthodox households.

If Rabbi Yoffie wishes to judge Orthodox numbers as “modest,” he can certainly do so, but they seem poised to become considerably less so.

Yes, there have been Jews who have left Orthodoxy (though, according to Pew, the percentage of them have joined Reform is zero).  But the percentage Rabbi Yoffie cites largely reflects a population of older Jews who, in most cases, may have once had an affiliation with an Orthodox shul but were never truly Orthodox (that is to say, halacha-observant) in the first place.  Orthodoxy’s current retention rate at present, by contrast, is formidable – and Orthodoxy has attracted many Jews from non-Orthodox, including Reform, backgrounds.

As to Reform, a full 28% of those raised in the movement, says Pew, “have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely.”

How, then, in light of all the above, to explain Steven Cohen’s finding that Reform congregational membership has grown in recent decades?  That’s not a hard question to answer.  The congregational membership growth reflects the influx of non-Jewish spouses of Jewish members, and spouses who have undergone Reform conversions (which are not halachically valid).  Professor Cohen reports that the intermarriage rate among married Reform-raised Jews during 2000-13 stands at 80%.

Which brings us back to the original issue that compelled me to expose the falsehood of Rabbi Jacobs’ claim that he speaks for American Jewry (a claim adopted by Rabbi Yoffie as well): opposition to Israel’s longstanding commitment to traditional Jewish standards.

The thought of importing the standards of a movement that has proven disastrous to Jewish observance and continuity in the United States to the Jewish State is what should horrify any Jew concerned with the Jewish future.  The “multi-winged” model of American Jewry is an abject failure.  What is succeeding in Jewish America is what lies in the past of every Jew: the Jewish religious tradition that inspired the uncompromising dedication of the ancestors of us all. That is not “triumphalism.”  It is the very real triumph of our mutual religious heritage.

Projecting the Jewish future was never my goal. I cited the facts I did, and cite the ones above, only to show that Orthodoxy in America is formidable and growing.  And it is.  Rabbis Jacobs and Yoffie are entirely welcome to speak for their constituents, Jewish and otherwise.  What they have no right to do, however, is deem themselves the representatives of “American Jewry,” or to try to leverage that fiction to pressure Israel.  That was that I contended in my article, and it is unarguable.

Blame Terrorism, Not Songs

Some politicians and pundits – including several writers in Haaretz – seem misguidedly intent on extending blame for Jewish terrorism across Orthodoxy, even to the charedi community and its Torah educational system. And several have pointed to a song played at Jewish weddings as Exhibit A.

I recently shared some thoughts on the matter with the readers of Haaretz. The piece is here and here.

 

Two-Way Traffic on the Haredi Highway

Have you ever wondered why, in light of the slew of “I survived Orthodoxy but saw the secular light!” essays and books, there no counter-flood of similar writing by some of the many who came from other Jewish places to Orthodoxy?

Why are there are no vivid descriptions of what impelled some Orthodox Jew toward traditional Jewish observance?  Why no accounts of the emptiness of secular lives they experienced, or the inadequacy they perceived in less observant ones?

Are there no tales to tell of parents who deprived their children of even a rudimentary Jewish education?  Who responded negatively to their progeny’s explorations of their Jewish roots?  Or who lived lives that contradicted what they preached to their young?

My thoughts on the matter can be read here.

Faigy Mayer, o”h

The loss of Faigy Mayer, oleha hashalom, a precious soul, is a stab to the heart of every caring Jew.  Faigy will be on the minds of many of us this Tisha B’Av as a personal calamity to add to the national ones commemorated on the Jewish day of mourning.

By her own account, Faigy faced deep internal adversity from her early youth, and a letter she left, read carefully, only corroborates the clouded lens through which she viewed her environment.  To blame her death, as some seem anxious to do, on the community into which she was born and that sought to nurture her is as repugnant as would be blaming the community she subsequently joined.

Her psychological challenges were not the result of her leaving her home and community, but arguably a cause of it.

The only takeaway from this horrible loss is the need to de-stigmatize mental illness – in all communities – and to realize the tragedies that, if left untreated, it can bring about.

Bias Ne’eman

 

By now, with a couple of decades of monitoring media on behalf of Agudath Israel behind me, I really shouldn’t be surprised by examples of journalistic bias.  But there are times when I can still be impressed.

As I was by a recent news item from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the service used by Jewish media across the country and around the world.  Its opening paragraphs read as follows:

This is how you launch a Hasidic shtetl in 21st-century America.

Step 1. Find a place within reasonable distance of Brooklyn where the land is cheap and underdeveloped.

Step 2. Buy as much property as you can in your target area – if possible, without tipping off locals that you plan to turn it into a Hasidic enclave.

Ensuing “steps,” according to the article, include building “densely clustered homes” and a religious “infrastructure.”  And, finally: “Market to the Hasidic community and turn on the lights.”

The writer was referring to a Jewish developer’s purchase of land and construction of homes in the Sullivan County town of Bloomingburg.  The article goes on to itemize some of the purchases – a “house with blue shutters,” a “hardware store,” a “pizza shop,” apartments “originally built as a senior housing development,” as examples of real estate purchases – and notes that “meanwhile, in Brooklyn… Yiddish-language newspapers began to run advertisements touting” the new development.

The piece goes on to describe some local residents’ dismay at the notion of an influx of chassidic Jews; as well as accusations, lawsuits and counter-lawsuits.

There is a legitimate story here, and there are two sides to it.  People who have lived for years in a rural, bucolic setting are understandably concerned about possible changes to their neighborhood. Then again, neighborhoods change (as we “wandering Jews” have all too often experienced).  And upstate New York is a prime area for both business and residential development – which will yield the region economic benefits.

The JTA piece gives prominent voice to local residents who feel they had been “hoodwinked” by the Jewish developer, and seems to endorse that assertion (see “Step 2” above).  I have no idea whether the developer acted ethically.  The article, however, ignores his denial of any wrongdoing.

And is marketing a development to a particular community somehow offensive?  Would it be if the community at issue were blacks or Asians or Swedes?

What’s more, as if to ensure that readers not dare to think of harboring any good will toward the chassidim seeking a better life upstate, the writer takes pains to note the “cautionary tale” of the Ramapo school board in Rockland County, which “had been taken over by a Hasidic majority that was stripping local public school budgets and selling off public school buildings to yeshivas at cut-rate prices.”

The implication, of course, that the Ramapo school board cynically plundered public schools is the gnarled (and somewhat anti-Semitism-tinged) narrative of some local residents.

The truth of the matter is rather less exciting:  The state funding formula, and laws mandating the provision of textbooks, school transportation and special education services to all school children, simply left insufficient funds to maintain some extracurricular programming and teachers in the district’s public schools.  As to “selling off public school buildings to yeshivas at cut-rate prices,” one (non-chareidi) real estate appraiser pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge involving the sale of a public school.

Were the JTA offering an opinion piece, its snark and disregard of objectivity would be, although distasteful, acceptable.  Op-eds, after all, are expected to be partisan.  But the piece is a news item.  And Journalism 101 requires fairness and the presentation of both sides of an issue.

JTA is generally a responsible news organization and the writer of the Bloomsburg piece is someone I think highly of; I don’t believe he was motivated by conscious ill will. But, as a non-chareidi Jew, he may share some of the subliminal negative feelings all too many harbor toward those they regard as backward or extreme in their mode of living.

When I contacted him to express my chagrin at his piece, he responded that he simply described things as he saw them.  Asked about his article’s cynical tone and lack of objectivity, he declined to defend it, writing only that “I know I’m right.”

Such things confirm my conviction that general Jewish media – and non-Jewish media – would be best served were their reporters on things Jewish to bear surnames like Johnson or O’Brian.  Distance is what best serves objectivity.

As the writer William Saletan once wisely observed: “There’s a word for bias you can’t see: yours.”

© 2015 Hamodia

Ramapo School Board Bashing Spills Onto NYT Op-Ed Page

The latest in a long-running series of attacks on the largely Orthodox East Ramapo school board came in the form of an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times.

The opinion piece was written by New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch and David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a public school advocacy group.  And, like its predecessors, it presented a host of highly charged and equally highly misleading assertions.

The writers claim that the school board has “denied” public school children “their state constitutional right to a sound basic education”; that it “persistently failed to act in the best interests of its public school students”; and that it “slash[ed] resources in its public schools [while] vastly increas[ing] public spending on private schools.”

The first two claims are demonstrably false, and the third one is misleading to the point of slander.

The facts:

  • State funding to all New York school districts, including East Ramapo, is based on a statutory formula involving property values, income levels and public school student numbers.  Education funds are provided accordingly; wealthier districts, fairly, receive less government funding than poorer ones.
  • East Ramapo’s demographics – approximately 24,000 students in nonpublic schools, only about one-third that number in public schools – and relatively high property values, result in a skewed picture of the public school population’s wealth, resulting in state funding that treats East Ramapo as if it were one of the wealthiest school districts in the state, when it is in fact one of the poorest.
  • The school board is required by law to provide students in all the district’s schools, public and private alike, with textbooks and bus transportation; and to provide special education services to all schoolchildren in an educationally appropriate setting.

And providing those legally mandated services is precisely what the board has done, in accordance with its statutory obligations.

Unfortunately, after those expenditures were responsibly made, insufficient funds remained to maintain some extracurricular programming in public schools – thinks like music or sports teams.  Those are valuable activities, to be sure, but they are not part of students’ “constitutional right to a sound basic education.”  And with no money to continue the supplementary programming, the board had no fiscally responsible choice but to end them – until the state provides increased funding to the district.

As East Ramapo Superintendent Joel M. Klein (who is not an Orthodox Jew) noted, “You can blame it on Jews, you can blame it on yeshivas, but the flawed state aid formula and funding cutbacks are the real culprit.”

Thus, the school board’s following the law is what has earned it the opprobrium of Ms. Tisch, Mr. Sciarra and others. They seem unaware, or choose to ignore, the salient fact that all schoolchildren, even Orthodox ones in yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs, need and are legally entitled to textbooks and a way to get to school.

The insinuation that imagined sinister charedi villains (some do indeed wear black hats) on East Ramapo’s school board have systematically plundered the pot of local education funds to favor yeshivos over public schools is, bluntly put, an invention.  And a deeply irresponsible one, to boot, as it has fostered blatant resentment of Jews in the local community. There have been outright anti-Semitic comments made in public places, including school board meetings.  One parent suggested that “Well, we want to send the Jews back to Israel.”  Another compared the board to “the soldier who has committed war crimes who claims he was only following orders.”

Indeed, with increasing national attention being focused on the East Ramapo school district, local anti-Semitism is going viral and metastasizing into something far more dismaying, far more dangerous.

When a newspaper like The New York Times features an op-ed provocatively entitled “A School Board that Victimizes Kids,” the text of which surrounds a prominently displayed “kiddush levana osyos” pull-quote announcing “In a mostly Orthodox Jewish community, minority students suffer,” the harsh glare of incitement envelops us all.

It is refreshing to discover that not all East Ramapo’ans are being hoodwinked by the rabble-rousers. Consider the words of Brendel Charles, a black councilwoman for the town of Ramapo, who admitted to Tablet Magazine that, while “she originally believed the problem was that the ultra-Orthodox members of the board were making decisions without regard to others in the community,” she came to realize, after her husband joined the school board, “that… the school board members weren’t trying to hurt the public school kids,” but rather that “we don’t have the money” to provide the services needed.

Would that Ms. Tisch and Mr. Sciarra reach such enlightenment.

© 2015 Hamodia