Category Archives: Orthodox-Bashing

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Open Season on the Orthodox

The description of the scene fairly leapt off the page: Shabbos at the Kosel, people davening, a paraplegic in a motorized wheelchair, a group of Orthodox Jews approaching…

“…like a big-league pitcher [one religious Jew] cocked his arm and flung the rock at the man in the wheelchair. The rock hit him in the middle of his forehead, his neck reeled back and blood oozed down this face… Then the adorable little children, who only seconds ago were throwing candy [at a bar-mitzvah boy] turned into savages and started picking up rocks and hurling them at the man. Two of them grabbed the brightly colored prayer shawl from around the man’s neck and cracked it like a whip in his face.

“Some Americans tried to intervene but were themselves stoned. Nearby guards stood by, apparently assuming that the man was getting just punishment for his crime: using electricity on the Sabbath.”

That report appeared in the November 15, 1994 issue of the Arizona State University daily paper, The State Press; it had been recommended for publication by the chairman of the university’s journalism department and the director of the school’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. It was, after all, compellingly written and important.

Only one problem: what it described never happened.

Eventually (although after being read by thousands), the report was retracted, when a law student dared to demand corroborating facts and none were found. Pressed for the truth, the aspiring 24-year-old senior journalism major who had penned the piece admitted that the entire account, from start to finish, had been the product of nothing but her own fertile imagination.

It was a particularly gross, but far from singular, example of journalistic malpractice in the realm of reportage about Orthodox Jews. In Moment Magazine’s February, 2000 cover story, which carried the title of this column, I detailed a number of more subtle, but perhaps even more disturbing for the fact, journalistic “liberties” taken by media when “reporting” on the Orthodox community. And in the years since, countless others have come down the pike.

Only last week, a video by an Israeli broadcaster, Reshet TV, depicted reporter Guy Hochman walking around Bnei Brak holding an Israeli flag. The video showed two chareidi motorcyclists grabbing the flag and breaking it.

Another news organization, however, Kol Hazman, reported that the video had been orchestrated by Mr. Hochman himself. And an eyewitness recounted that, before the depicted incident, the reporter had walked “for four hours on the streets of Bnei Brak without being attacked.”

Then a man claiming to be one of the motorcyclists claimed he had been asked to break the flag as part of a “satirical skit,” and just wanted to be of assistance to the reporter.

At first, Reshet TV denied that the video had been manipulated. Several days later, however, the respected Israeli business newspaper The Marker reported that, apparently, it had been, and that the broadcaster had dismissed both Hochman and his editor.

Are there chareidim who act indecorously? Of course there are. But what does it say that media seek out misbehavior, and even, when they can’t find any, fabricate it?

Depressing, no? But we must remain hopeful that, even after so many years of anti-chareidi animus, haters might one day come to their senses.

Just before Pesach, a CNN program depicted Israeli chareidim as a threat to the country, as potentially doing to Israel what the mullahs did to Iran. I wrote an article for a secular Jewish publication pointing out the ridiculousness of that contention.

Most of the responses I received were positive. In the opposite category, though, was one from someone I’ll call E. S. (he signed his full name), a self-described Conservative-turned-Reform Jew. He called chareidim “an abominable blight upon world Jewry and an absolute curse within Israel,” and wants “the entire detestable bunch” to be driven out of Israel “with bayonets and bullets.”

There was more, too, but I’ll spare you. The degree and illogic of the loathing, though, seemed familiar; I remembered something, and decided to write him back.

After politely responding to various accusations he made, I wrote: “I’m heartened, though, by my knowledge that no less a luminary than Rabbi Akiva once remarked that, back when he was an ignoramus, he would have viciously bitten any Torah scholar he came across ‘like a wild donkey’.”

“So I retain hope,” I concluded, “that one day you, too, may have your mud-covered glasses wiped clean.”

His, and others’.

© 2017 Hamodia

Black Hats Don’t Always Mean Bad Guys

In an enlightening example of how the rush to publish “juicy” stories without doing the requisite research can lead media to propagate falsehoods, a New Jersey radio station, NJ 1015, broke a story recently that was, well, itself broke – bereft, that is, of fact.

The news station, the flagship broadcasting arm of the Townsquare New Jersey News Network, apparently taking its “information” from a blog, described what one of its personalities, Jeff Deminski, called a “truly disgusting situation,” one that, he asserted, “most will be afraid to talk about because they want to be politically correct” – i.e. uncritical of Orthodox Jews.

Lakewood, New Jersey, as is well known, is home to a large and growing Orthodox population.  A large mall is being considered by the local township’s planning board.  Some Orthodox residents are in favor of the project, others opposed (so much for the image of a solid Orthodox bloc).

The blog and the radio station asserted that 1,200 Orthodox Jews had signed a petition opposing the mall, on the grounds, among other things, that it might include stores owned “by goyim.”

Another commentator on the station, Sergio Bichao, quoted the petition further as fretting that “the presence and influence of non-Jews,” should the mall be built, “is terrifying.”  Mr. Bichao took the opportunity to reprise other alleged local Orthodox nefariousness, like the community’s utilization of the school board to spend “tens of millions of public dollars on tuition and transportation for students to attend out-of-district special-education and religious schools,” to the detriment of “black and Latino” public school students; and accusations against “Lakewood developers and religious leaders of promoting ‘blockbusting,’ the practice of scaring off homeowners with the specter of an invading ethnic minority — in this case, Orthodox Jews — in the hopes of driving down real estate prices in order to spur a buyer’s market.”

Never mind that the law requires school districts to provide special education in appropriate settings to all its school children (even Orthodox Jewish ones), and that insufficient funding is available to the Lakewood district to maintain its current educational needs; or that the actions of one of two individuals acting on their own who aggressively offered to buy Lakewood-area homes were attributed to the entire Orthodox community – or that their methods were widely condemned by other Orthodox residents and leaders.

All that matters is that the bad guys be the ones with the black hats.

But what also matters, or should, is truth.  It turns out that the blog had it wrong (and has since removed the post and issued a correction).

The “petition” that contained the offensive language was an open letter created by one misguided fellow. The actual petition that had garnered 1,200 signatures consisted of two lines of text, reading, in a medley of Hebrew and English: “We are requesting from Cedarbridge Corporation [the developer promoting the mall project] to withdraw from their involvement in making a shopping center in our town.”

The signatories to that petition have reasons to oppose the mall project.  Aside from traffic issues and such, there is the fact that among the values held dear by the Orthodox community is a rejection of materialism – the sort of excess on which shopping malls are arguably predicated.

Smaller commercial projects, aimed at providing material necessities rather than enticing people to buy stuff they don’t really need abound in the community.  And their proprietors include both Jews and non-Jews.

What’s more, the sort of businesses that inhabit malls nationwide include some, owned by Jews or by non-Jews, whose advertising and storefront displays are far from consonant with the Orthodox stress on modesty.

But whatever side of the “mall in Lakewood” issue anyone may be on, there is – or should be – only one side worthy of backing on the issue of news organizations’ responsibility to do due research on stories they provide the public – particularly when an inaccurate story is likely to engender animus toward an identifiable racial, ethnic or religious group.

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.