Friday, June 24, 2016

Why Do They Leave?

Image from the Forward for illustrative purposes only
One of the subjects that I have discussed a lot here is the phenomenon of leaving Orthodoxy (...commonly referred to as going OTD - off the Derech. Although I don't really like the term - OTD will be used in this post for simplicity's sake). What has not been discussed as much is the wide variety of issues that drive those people away… and the widely divergent reasons that drive people from one segment versus another.

Nisma Research has released a summary of the results of a study that reveals interesting facts about why and how Orthodox Jews leave. And the reasons do vary. A good review of those results is available in the Forward.

What was somewhat surprising to me is just how many Jews leave Orthodox observance and belief while remaining a part of their community. Fully one third of them do.

I have always known that there are people like this. They keep up appearances in order to remain accepted by their community thereby enabling themselves and their families to continue the lifestyle they are used to. In many cases they have established roots which would make it impossibly hard to break away from that and start life over again in a world to which they have never belonged. breaking away from the community can also easily lead to divorce if a spouse is not on the same OTD page. So they ‘fake it’ by keeping up appearances at least on the outside.

The problem with this lifestyle is that you are living a lie, which is difficult to do if you have any self esteem. This is why 2 thirds of that community drop out not only of observance but from their community. Difficult as that may be.

Another fascinating factor is that the largest portion of them – 19% do it based on finding contradictions to what they have been taught… or the lack of proof thereof. Another 31 % say they do it for other intellectual reasons (eg. unanswered questions, reliance on rational thought, or general doubts). 

That means that half of all respondents to that survey did not do so for emotional reasons. Which is one of the claims of those that deal with young people that go OTD. Most - they say - do it for emotional reasons.

What I didn’t see in the summary is whether more Modern Orthodox (MO) go OTD than Charedim. And if  MO does have a bigger percentage (as many people assume), by how much.

The reasons MO go OTD are different than the reasons Charedim go OTD. My guess is that a person’s environment as he grows up plays a significant role in this. Those families that are what I call MO Lite, surely have a greater number of OTD. If one comes from a home where the M is more important than the O, it should not be a surprise that so many MO youth go OTD.

Charedi OTDs are at the other end of the spectrum. Their religious education is so narrow and their secular education so limited, that the slightest exposure to the outside world can easily create doubts about what they were taught as immutable fact.

It is also  interesting to note that when a Charedi drops out, the fall is much greater than when a MO drops out. From the Forward
Mark Trencher, the director of Nishma Research, noted that there was an inverse relationship between level of observance while still a part of Orthodox Judaism and level of observance after leaving.
“It seems that those who started out most stringently to the right — Chasidic Jews, Yidishists — after leaving the community, they retained less of their beliefs and practices than other groups,” he said. 
One can speculate about the reasons for this. MO is generally much more accepting of those who leave than Charedim are. (Although I believe that is changing for Charedim.) 

The lifestyle of a Modern Orthodox Jew is not all that dissimilar from that of his non observant neighbor. Except for Shabbos and Kashrus, their lifestyles are more or less the same – both participating in the general culture. Both more or less look and dress the same. So when a child goes OTD, his lifestyle may not change all that much. Even as it causes tremendous internal pain for a religious parent to see a child go OTD - it is nonetheless easier to accept someone whose changes are not so apparent. At least externally. There is far less communal embarrassment when the community just doesn't know what is going on with your child. Acceptance gives a child a more positive feeling and that can mean retaining at least some of their observant behavior.

Charedim on the other hand have in the past reacted badly to a child that goes OTD. In some cases parents have refused to have anything to do with them. That closes doors and pushes them away even further. When a lifestyle rejects the general culture - then dropping observance means dropping everything. Which quickly become apparent to the rest of the community. And that makes it extremely embarrassing for the parents.

As I said this is changing.  Charedi experts in the field say  that while it is important to express disapproval of going OTD, it is equally important to give their children unequivocal love and personal acceptance. But even so, the greater embarrassment and thus disappointment of a Charedi parent surely pushes a child further away from observance.

All of this begs the question: How do we deal with this? And what do we do to reverse this trend? 

There are organizations that help people.  One of which, Project Makom. They  actually try to convince Charedi dropouts that there are other ways to be observant besides the Charedi way. Obviously Project Makom by definition does work for MO.

But the larger question is How do we prevent it? This is where our community focus should be. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Learning From the Pogrow Scandal

Shayna Goldberg
Shayna Goldberg is a very wise and accomplished young woman. She is a Yoetzet Halacha and the Mashgicha Ruchanit at Bnot Chul, a Bet Midrash for women in Israel.  Shayna has written a powerful op-ed in the Times of Israel that should be read by everyone. It addresses the recent revelation of yet another sexual predator in the Orthodox world, Meir Pogrow (who I discussed a few days ago). He demonstrated what the Gemarah (Shabbos 88b) tells us. That Torah can be the ‘Sam HaMoves’ – deadly poison in the hands of those that misuse it!  

Shayna describes her memories of him while she was a student at Michlala 18 years ago. Pogrow was a charismatic and powerful presence there. The revelation about his predatory ways and warning to the public to avoid any contact with him was certainly first and foremost. That has been done. But Shayna warns us what about teachers like this whose methods are the antithesis of what we should expect from a good teacher. Which can be devastating even to students that are not sexually abused.

The title of her essay is Another Scandal: Let's Not Miss the Point This Time Around. Here is a key excerpt from her essay: 
I want to talk about teachers who use fear and guilt frequently and indiscriminately in order to motivate and inspire.  Teachers who deliberately try to alienate their students from everything they come from--their parents, families, homes, previous schools, communities, shuls, and even shul rabbis. Teachers who break students down so that they can recreate them in their own images.  Teachers who cultivate groupies and are dependent on their students for self-esteem.  Teachers who lack real relationships with their own peers because they are "so devoted" to their talmidim and talmidot.  Teachers who teach students not to trust themselves, not to rely on their instincts, and not to listen to their inner voices.
Shayna comes to warn us about teachers like this. But there’s more to be learned.

Shira Wiesenberg
Shira (Greenland) Wiesenberg is another woman that studied in Michlala at the time Pogrow was there.  She too is a very wise and accomplished young woman. She was in fact featured in a 2013 Jewish Week story (36 under 36) that touted her accomplishments in special education.

The following - sent to me by my son in law (her brother) is her reaction to this story. Which includes a  message to those in positions of influence over others.I think she hits the nail on the head. Her words follow intact in their entirety.

We do ourselves a disservice thinking of these people as depraved, sick individuals who are driven by sexual pathology. The problem doesn't start with sexual deviance. It starts with an over-inflated ego. A super-hero complex. A lack of humility. A belief that you're going to "save" people. That you're impervious to mistakes and, thus, do not need to take the same precautions as others or respect generally advised boundaries or agency policies. 

Thus, there is a lesson here for all of us. Every educator. Every coach. Every therapist. Every NCSY advisor who seeks to make a difference in people's lives. Because it is not black and white. There is no 10-foot fence separating those of us who are healthy from those of us who aren't. I believe anyone who has ever felt what it means to care about a teen, anyone who's ever been really invested, anyone who has experienced the seeming urgency, passion, and intensity of what the drama-filled teen years are all about - all of us - have crossed lines at some point. Perhaps we have resorted to some type of manipulation, intimidation or fear-tactic, believing that the ends justify the means as, after all, we're engaged in holy work. Had our moments of poor judgement and just hoped we wouldn't get called out on them. Or felt - at some point, with some kid, in some situation - an unhealthy kind of bond that blurred the lines ever so slightly. 

Those are the moments we all need to be trained to recognize. To wait for. To look for. And to know what to do with. To have mentors in place with whom we can openly discuss the issues, the dynamics, and even the feelings. To know that it's almost an inevitable pitfall of what is, indeed, avodas hakodesh. To be trained to work on ourselves - on our desire to be liked (perhaps even to be idolized), to be a fixer or a hero, our inclinations toward competitiveness and the need to "win" - to learn how easy it is to get caught up in a moment, and to understand what chazal teach that sexual urges are not in the realm of the depraved but are very, very powerful forces to which we are all susceptible. To work, and work, and work, and work on our humility. 

Yes, the principals, rabbis, and community leaders have to take heed and more quickly and effectively identify pathology. But there really are lessons here for the rest of us too. 

May we learn them well.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Of Torah Dedications, School Budgets, and Tuitions

Converted fire truck often seen at Torah dedications in Chicago
Having served on the boards of several schools here in Chicago, I have come to realize how difficult it is for them to meet their budgets. There is no shortage of fundraisers on their part and yet many of them fall short at the end of the year. In their desire to meet their budget, the schools I worked for, set their tuition to reflect ‘cost per child’ - plus. The 'plus' in order to offset scholarship assistance that they offered.

I worked on a scholarship committee for many years at one of those schools. The one thing I got from those years repeatedly was that most parents struggle mightily to meet their financial obligations to the school. Even though the schools desperately need the money and often fall short, the burden on the parents is oppressive. People with decent – even upper middle class incomes (6 figures in some cases) are often given financial assistance simply because the tuition is high even for them if they have four or more children. Which is very typical. Except for the very wealthy, most parents struggle to meet their obligations even if they are on a partial scholarship.

This is not the first time I’ve discussed this issue and it probably won’t be the last. But last Sunday I attended what seems to be becoming a very common affair: a Hachnassas Sefer Torah (Torah dedication ceremony). And it got me thinking about this subject.

There have been a variety of suggestions about how to help solve the 'tuition crisis'. I have had my own ideas about it. But a thought occurred to me last Sunday as I watched yet another parade of well wishers marching along the parade route accompanying the new SeferTorah  (Torah scroll) as it was being transported.

It was only about 2 weeks ago that I attended another one of those. And I just heard about yet another one that will take place next week. These events seem to be multiplying exponentially. I have to wonder if the money currently being spent on this project is not ‘overkill’.

Writing a new Sefer Torah is not cheap. It costs between 40 to 50 thousand dollars. There was a time when it was relatively rare to find someone commissioning a new Sefer Torah. Most Shuls used old ones that often fell into disrepair and constantly need to be fixed. That generated a call to get those that could afford it to commission a Sofer (scribe) to write a new one. A cause well worth pursuing. It should also be mentioned that writing a Sefer Torah is Mitzvah number 613 according to the count of the Sefer HaChinuch. This is nothing to sneeze at.

But how many Sifrei Torah do we  still need anymore? The dedication coming up which I alluded to is for a Shul that already had at least 2 written for it. One as recently as about 3 or 4 years ago – to a huge celebration at a banquet. And that is in addition to older ones that are all in fine condition. 

Now when we are talking multimillion dollar budgets, 50 thousand dollars may not sound like much. It will not solve the tuition crisis. But it is not peanuts either. Schools that get donations of that size are very grateful. Very! Imagine if the family that commissioned that Sefer Torah would have instead donated that money to one of Chicago’s schools.

Please do not misunderstand. I have nothing against those who wish to spend their money in any way they choose. I am a big fan of that. And I certainly have no objection when they are doing it for Mitzvah purposes. But once you are in the category of Mitzvos, would it not be wiser to put that money where it will be most useful? Does a Shul really need 3 newly written Sifrei Torah more than a school needs to pay its bills? Especially when low Torah teachers salaries are part of that equation?

I think that this practice should be re-evaluated by rabbinic leaders of all stripes to see if we – as a community – can divert that some of that money where it will be used more productively. I realize that by discouraging this practice – it will not necessarily mean that those funds will be diverted to schools. But it would be nice if the next rabbi that is approached about writing a new Sefer Torah tried. Because Jewish education is where it is needed the most.

While we’re on the subject, I have been troubled a bit by the fact that when schools raise funds, it is never (to the best of my knowledge) given to parents as a means to reduce their tuition responsibilities. I understand their perspective quite well and do not question their motives. There is never enough to cover budgets. And even if there was, it is fairly common knowledge that Torah teachers do not get paid enough for their dedication and hard work. So any surplus funds they might get (not that there ever are any) can justifiably be earmarked for bonuses – or at least be put towards next year’s budget.

But then that always leaves tuition paying parents out in the cold. The tuition bills remain oppressive. Wouldn’t it be nice to set up a fund that would go directly to parents in order to alleviate their burden somewhat? I would love to see that. Perhaps the next innovative fundraising program a Jewish community develops can be earmarked for just that. That would be something I think everyone would support.

Just some of my thoughts.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Chasidic Commitment to Better Education

Assemblyman Dov Hikind attending the event (VIN)
There was a story in VIN yesterday about something called ‘Yeshiva Education Expo’. It was an exposition featuring students displaying and discussing the secular studies they are being taught at their respective Chasidic schools. It is accompanied by a video (available for viewing below) wherein Chasidic boys had displays about the subjects they were taught and spoke about them. One of the presentations that stood out was given by a 12 year old boy: 
12 year old Yitzchok Drew, an eighth grader at Yeshiva Beth Hillel Krasna,  was excited to share his three dimensional project which involved painted rivers, streams and mountains, fluffy white cotton ball clouds, a Lego fisherman and a model of a water tower. 
“It is a simple but interesting cycle,” said Drew, who gave a detailed description of how the heat of the sun causes oceans to emit vapors which condense into clouds. Electrical currents produced in the clouds cause thunder, lightning and the rain which ultimately fills the water sources that supply our home faucets. 
I was very happy to see this. If only this was the standard for all Chasidic Yeshivos. But clearly it is not. To the best of my knowledge the largest group of Chasidim, Satmar, has no program of any sort that is even close to being comparable to this.

How do I know Satmar was not part of this exposition? I don’t. But they were not mentioned in the story along with the other Chasidic Yeshivos that were participants. Most telling for me, however, is the fact that these young Chasidim spoke English like Americans. (...well at least like New Yorkers from Brooklyn. But that’s close enough.) They did not have the European sounding accents that characterize the way Satmar Chasdim speak English - even if they are born here. 

The language of Statmar is Yiddish. That is virtually the only language Satmar children hear spoken in the home as they grow up. They eventually learn English as a second language – same as immigrants do. And when they speak it sounds that way. Those that don’t have such accents work hard at getting rid of them. Most do not.

I suppose this fair was held to demonstrate that Chasidic schools do offer secular subjects and that the children are interested in them. And the parents are pleased with that. All well and good. I never doubted that such schools exist. Assuming that their education will continue along these lines in high school, these children are being given the basic tools they will need to succeed in advanced studies - if they so choose - which will give them decent careers and enable them to better support their families when they get married.

These schools are not the ones I am concerned about, though. I am concerned with those like Satmar. Which is largest segment of Chasidim, They do not offer anything like this to their children. And they fight any attempts to bring this kind of curriculum into their schools.

It upsets me when I hear people trying to do that called Mosrim (informers against the Jewish people). It concerns me when Chasidic rebbes get upset that government authorities will no longer be turning a blind eye to their avoidance of teaching required subjects. It upsets me that these leaders refuse to give their Chasidim the tools to pursue an education that will enable them to get better jobs and support their families. It concerns me that they look at government subsidies to make up for that lack.

Now if I’m wrong, and Satmar (and like minded Chasidim like those of New Square) are actually going to be teaching their boys along the lines of the students at this fair, I will be exceedingly happy to stand corrected. But I am not holding my breath.

Which means that in lieu of changing their educational infrastructure - Satmar will continue to grow their populace at an exponential rate; take increasing sums of welfare payments. All while living their lives in isolation from the rest of the world. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead they took a cue from this fair and changed direction?

Monday, June 20, 2016

The War Between the Jews

Rabbi Shlomo Amar speaking at egalitarian section of the Kotel (TOI)
I am an Orthodox Jew. Orthodoxy by definition rejects the legitimacy of heterodox movements. That should be clear for a variety of reasons. Some of which are the following.

The Reform Movement has rejected Halacha and in its early days opposed any observance of it. Today, most of Reform leadership, realizing that the end game to such an approach would mean extinction now encourages voluntary observance of Halacha so as to retain a distinct identity. But at the same time it has diluted the population of Jews in its midst by abandoning how Halacha defines who is and isn’t a Jew.

The Conservative Movement although identifying itself as Halachic (even having a Halacha committee) has nonetheless long ago abandoned any attempt at making its members observant. There are even some prominent Conservative rabbis that have advocated dropping the Halachic label from its movement. Their legitimization of the bible critics’ conclusion that the Torah was indeed man-made (albeit divinely inspired) and written by different people in different eras is completely unacceptable to Orthodoxy.

All of which brings me to the war in Israel. Not between Arabs and Jews. But between Orthodox Jews and the above mentioned heterodox movements. Rabbinic leaders across the board of Orthodoxy have been clear about how Orthodoxy should deal with them. 

Even though there are some minor differences between Charedi leaders and Rav Soloveitchik, all agreed that in matters of religion, we may not engage with them at all. There is nothing that has changed since these Halachic decisions were made. If anything things have gotten even worse. Many Reform Jews may not even be Jews. And there are less observant Conservative Jews now than ever before.

Heterodox leaders are fighting mightily to get a foothold in Israel. They want to gain there what they have lost here. Secular Jews in Israel are for the most part, neither Reform or Conservative. Even those that are anti religious aren’t (and most aren’t). They are secular.  

Heterodoxy’s diminishing numbers if the US is a result of living in a general a culture devoid of Judaism in any meaningful sense. Israel, on the other hand has many Jewish components to it that are a part of every Jew living there. The language of the bible, Hebrew, is their everyday language. Even secular schools in Israel teach Tanach (the Hebrew bible). Most Jews in Israel are at least somewhat traditional – participating in things like Passover Seders and fasting on Yom Kippur.

This is ripe territory for Heterodox movements. These are exactly the kind of Jews they want to embrace… and upon which they want to rebuild their movement. They believe that given the chance they can make the vast majority of Jews in Israel either Reform of Conservative Jews – since their lifestyles already fit quite nicely into their mold.

They have a point. Which is why the Orthodox establishment consider their activities in Israel so dangerous. And why there is a war in Israel and not in the US.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has taken a somewhat different view of this and wonders why we are fighting them so hard. He has said that we should see these movements as partners in Kiruv! That even though Reform Movement was once very anti Halahca, it is now very much pro Halahca in at least a voluntary sense. We should instead therefore be working with them as partners in Kiruv - and not against them.

I could not disagree with him more. We cannot be partners with movements whose theologies are anathema to us.

That said, how we go about that is key. The one thing we should not be doing is what Jerusalem’s Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar recently did. He commandeered the area at the Kotel that has been reserved for future egalitarian prayer. He put up a Mechitza and held  an Orthodox prayer service. Which of course outraged Conservative and Reform leaders.

Rabbi Amar can be opposed to reserving a place at the Kotel for these movements. But doing things out of spite will only make them more determined and will probably drive many secular Israelis into their corner. Which is exactly what they want. Let us not forget that designating this space at the Kotel for egalitarian purposes was tacitly agreed upon by the Charedi poltical parties. It was a peaceful compromise - a solution worth implementing no matter how distasteful it may have been to Orthodox sensibilities. I don’t see this ending well.

Even though I disagreed with Rabbi Riskin about considering Reform and Conservative Jews our partners, he is not entirely wrong about going to war with them. The opposition should be ideological. And at the same time we ought to pursue good relations with them. It is only debating theology with them that is problematic. Being on good terms has its advantages for Orthodoxy. Because in point of fact many Conservative rabbis – and I believe Reform rabbis as well - consider it a success when one of their members becomes Orthodox. They do in fact think of themselves being in Kiruv.

True they prefer that their influence be towards becoming an active part of their own movement. But I am convinced that many of them are happy when one of their people becomes Orthodox rather than abandoning Judaism altogether. In that sense, Rabbi Riskin is right. And what Rabbi Amar did was – if not wrong then at least counterproductive.

Our ultimate goal should be to convince our brethren of the value and importance of observance. And we don’t do that by alienating those that see that as a positive end themselves (if not the best end). At the end of the day, common sense should prevail. Not zealotry for your cause. Because you can sure win a lot more flies with honey that you can with vinegar.

For more on this issue see Rabbi Yehuda Leonard Oppenheimer's take on his blog, Libi BaMizrach.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Outing a Charismatic Sexual Predator

Meir Pogrow
I am not inclined to dwell on stories of sexual abuse. Not because I don’t think they are serious issues. Of course I do. They are perhaps among the most serious issues affecting the Orthodox world. Sex abuse is as much a part of Orthodoxy as it is in the rest of the world. Experts in the field generally testify to that effect.

The argument against such thinking has always been that a Torah based life will preclude such behavior… that our sense of ethics and morality will hold sway over us. While that may generally be true, we are not the only ones that have a moral code or lead lives based on biblical values.

The reason the statistics are likely be the same is because being a sexual predator has nothing to do with the moral code of the community from which a predator comes. I believe it is a form narcissism  and psychopathy in which to satisfy his abnormal sexual urges.*

Sexual predators are manipulative calculated and cunning.* Someone that might otherwise be an exemplary individual – even a pillar of the community – will act when no one is looking.  They develop patterns of behavior that seek out victims to satisfy those urges and find ways to keep their victims quiet. Thus they can be walking around in a community for years, getting tons of respect and accolades galore while they secretly satisfy their abnormal sexual urges in private. Until they are caught.

I don’t dwell on these cases for several reasons. One is that unfortunately there are so many predators out there that my blog would be doing nothing else. So, as important as these issues are, I allow others to deal with it – which they do in a far more effective way than I ever could. I also feel very strongly that there are a variety of issues  - some of them existential - that are important to discuss. I try and touch all of them as I encounter them.

Even though I don’t dwell on issues of sex abuse, I do occasionally deal with it as the situation warrants. Especially when prominent widely integrated Orhtodox Rabbis and educators are involved.  Such was the case when I discussed convicted rapist, Nechemya Weberman who had wide and deep integration into the world of Satmar. Or like Elimelech Meisels who preyed on women in his seminaries which were geared to young women of the Yeshiva world.

Unfortunately we now have another individual like that. He is highly integrated into the world of Orthodoxy . His name is Meir Pogrow. If you google him you see almost entirely his accomplishments and contributions to the Torah world.

He is quite brilliant. Perhaps even a genius. His website boasts over 2000 Shiurim (lectures) on a variety of Torah subjects. He developed a program called Master Torah wherein he claims to enable people to understand Torah at much deeper levels than is commonly learned. He has several prestigious Semichot (rabbinic ordinations) including one from  the Chief Rabbinate. He has even received a document qualifying him as a Dayan (Judge) in a Beis Din (religious court). He has taught at places like Aish Hatorah. He was a Rosh Kollel. And he now lives in Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel.

One can see from this that he is not only brilliant, but pretty mainstream. Which makes him extremely dangerous.

What is unique about this particular predator is that a ruling was issued by a Charedi Beis Din warning people to stay away from this fellow. It seems that he was supplied women for abuse by a female associate so that he could sexually abuse them in hotel rooms.  

A letter was issued signed by rabbis that are highly respected in the Charedi world. And they almost never sign anything publicly! They additionally published a letter in both Hebrew and English warning the public about him and said the accusations are so severe that modesty prevents them for discussing them publicly.

I don’t think there has yet been a predator that was so widely respected and as brilliant  as Pogrow that has committed sexual crimes as heinous as this letter indicated. I don’t think there has ever been a letter to this effect by about someone like this by Charedi rabbis.

In addition to warning as many people as possible about this guy, (which is one reason I am discussing it here) it is important to note that knowing Torah is no guarantee that it will not be misused. Nor does it prevent a predator from committing these crimes. In fact being brilliant and knowledgeable in Torah is actually a weapon in the hands of someone like Pogrow. A weapon he has used effectively on his victims. He is not the first one to do that. And unfortunately he will likely not be the last. Sexual aberrations combined with obsessive compulsive disorder will not go away just because we will it.

It behooves all of us in the Orthodox world to be vigilant. We can no longer assume that prominent Orthodox figures that have great Torah resumes could never be guilty sex crimes.

My sincere hope is that other religious bodies like the Agudah will take note of what happened here and allow credible accusations of abuse be reported directly to the police. Let them sort it out. Let the experts deal with it. Because even in the rare circumstance that an accused abuser is innocent (which could ruin his reputation) the greater danger is that there will be more victims if the accusations are true. If there was ever an adage that was true, it is the following. Justice delayed is  justice denied!

*Updated on the advice of a seasoned family systems therapist to reflect a more accurate view about the source and manner of Pogrow's behavior.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Is the President Pro Israel?

Susan Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Anyone that still believes that the President or his National Security Advisor, Dr. Susan Rice are anything but pro Israel, is surely blinded by irrational hatred.

One does not have to agree with the President and his staff all the time. I certainly don't. I have in fact disagreed with him sharply on more than one occasion.

Like his over-focusing on Israeli settlements as the root of all evil! They are not. Although I too am opposed to settlement activity, the source of the problem lies elsewhere as has been discussed here many times. It is therefore distressing to hear the settlements blamed for almost every problem that arises in the Middle East.

Even more distressing, however, is the deal the President made with Iran with respect to their nuclear program.

That deal lifted crippling sanctions and released tons of money to them. Which they could (and probably will if they haven't already) funnel to terrorists dedicated to Israel's destruction. Which is one of Iran's goals too. All of which Iran gave up nothing for - except to delay their nuclear program for 10 years. And that - if we can even trust them.

Truly not happy about either of those issues. But there is not a doubt in my mind that the President's intentions with respect to Israel and the Jewish people are what he believes to be in Israel's best interests. And in many cases his decisions actually were.

The following is a speech delivered just before Shavuos by Susan Rice to the American Jewish Committee (AJC) wherein she describes some of the President's achievements in this regard. While it is true that the speech was obviously written knowing who her audience would be, I don't think there is a word in it that isn't true. The video is just short of a half hour long. It is well worth watching - and hearing what she has to say.

HT: Gerald Katzman

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Will Satmar Win the Battle but Lose the War?

How will these young Chasidim support their families?
One of the issues dearest to my heart, is the issue of educating our people. Both in Limudei Kodesh (religious studies) and Limudei Chol (secular studies). By our people I mean all of the Jewish people. 

In the realm of the former, there is a serious void among secular Jews. Far too many of us have no clue - or precious little knowledge about - what Judaism actually is or demands of us. 

On the other hand, there are many Jews in Orthodoxy about which the same thing can be said about the latter. Educating those among us in America that are un – or undereducated in Limudei Chol is what I want to focus on. Which for the most part are insular communities like Satmar.

I’ve discussed this more than a few times. They do not have much of a secular education in elementary school (if any) and zero in high school. Proudly so. They spend their entire day in Limudei Kodesh.

I cannot protest enough against a Chasidus that refuses to give its male children the tools necessary to make a decent living in the 21st century .  Add to that being as insular as possible and taking pride in the inability to speak English well. They see the English language as being to assimilationist!

The result - as has been documented in statistical studies - is a community that is composed almost entirely of very large families that live in poverty. Although most of these Chasidim seem to lead happy lives, it is surely not because of their poverty. No one can be happy living that way, no matter what face they show in public. There may be an inner joy in their Chasidic way of life. But it comes at a price. One that must cause a lot of anxiety about how they will pay their next bill. Living in that kind of anxiety is not joyful.

There have been attempts by organizations like YAFFED (which shares my concerns) to force the issue. They have contacted government agencies tasked with insuring that educational standards demanded of private schools are observed. That has brought some reaction by the government to examine the situation – and remedy it. The State legislature is trying to pass a law that will force compliance to these standards.

I have supported these efforts. I cannot stand idly by and watch good people being virtually forced to live in poverty by way of a Hashkafa that all but ignores Limudei Chol. I am not alone. There are stories of Chasdim that secretly want to see Limudei Chol in their schools - but are too afraid to say anything about it publicly. It took an expatriate Chasid, Naftuli Moster, founder and CEO of YAFFED to try and move things along in that direction. Having lived among them - he knows what many Chasdim in these enclaves really think.

Those who say he is a Moser (informant against the Jewish people) out to get revenge on his old community are in my view seriously mistaken. There are a lot better ways to get revenge on your former compatriots than trying to better their lives by forcing them to get educated. Nevertheless, The Satmar Rebbe, R’ Aharon Teitelbaum is extremely upset by this turn of events. Here is a recent comment he made on this issue: 
 “Until now there were also strict laws, but because we live in a kingdom of benevolence, to put it bluntly they simply turned a blind eye to what’s going on by the Jewish children,” 
I don’t know how benevolent it is to turn a blind eye a community - ignoring a program designed to better its citizens’ lives.

There are actually some activists in this community that have publicly admitted that the problem is real. But that it should be handled internally. Normally I would agree with that. The problem is that the Hashkafa of Satmar is opposed to changing anything. They want their Chasidim to remain insular, to speak English poorly, and to be generally  ignorant of Limudei Chol. There will therefore be no change without outside pressure. The Chasidic leaders of these groups will push back with all their might.

Which brings me to an interesting op-ed in the Forward on this subject by Rabbis Yitzchok Adlerstein and Michael J. Broyde. They responded to the question of why organizations like the OU and even the Jewish Federation have not come out in support of the aforementioned bill in the New York State Assembly that would put teeth into regulations requiring certain subjects be taught in private schools.  

What’s interesting about this is not they are opposed in principle to the idea that these communities should be teaching Limudei Chol. They argue that the constitutional merits of the case favor Satmar. The religious freedom guaranteed by the 1st Amendment overrides any regulations that the State wishes to impose.  This was demonstrated by a Supreme Court decision (Wisconsin v. Yoder) involving the Amish. The state of Wisconsin requires every student be educated until at least age 16. They were sued by the Amish who maintained that their religion prohibited educating their children beyond eighth grade. And they won! 
“No one is obligated to send their children to school — any school — if it violates their religious rights. They do not even have to home school them…” say Rabbis Adlerstein and Broyde. 
But here is what else they say: 
(T)he State can push back by connecting any financial assistance to the teaching of the New York curriculum. This would, of course, be completely constitutional — even as the State cannot force children into schools if they do not want to go, the State is under no obligation to pay for a yeshiva education… 
Satmar — an economically poor and secularly uneducated community — might choose to live without the state aid, rather than engage in the religious compromise needed to get funding. These Satmar children that we are all seeking to help will now not only have less education than before, but they will be hungry and cold as well, since state aid will be gone. 
I truly hope it does not come to that. I have no joy or interest in ‘starving’ Satmar submission. But that seems to be the likely scenario. The Satmar Rebbe will not give in. Satmar may win the battle. But will they lose the war? I don’t see Satmar Chasidim pulling their belts any tighter than they already are right now. How will this end? God only knows.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Radical Islam? Or Jihadists?

It isn’t just a name. While I agree with the President that using the term ‘Radical Islam’ is not a policy, it is more than just a debate about nomenclature. It is about recognizing the source of the terrorist problem.  That is where the President and the presumptive Democratic nominee for the Presidency are wrong.

They prefer the term Jihadists. And argue that a calling them Radical Islamists will not solve the problem. Futhermore they will say that using the word Islam in the context of terror is counter-productive. Because it paints the entire religion unfairly with a broad brush. 

That is simply a false deduction. I don’t think there is anyone that would say that all Muslims are terrorists or radicals. Not even Donald Trump. What we are saying is that the motivation is a religious one that is based on a radical interpretation of Islam. Which is believed by more than a few people and espoused by more than a few of their clerics. The idea of killing infidels is not something made up by the west and applied unfairly to Islam. It is in the Koran.

Whether killing infidels should be done in our day or only in the context of war (Jihad) is a matter of modern interpretation. But to say that what ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups believe and act upon is not Islam is simply a lie. Or at best a willful denial that it is a legitimate interpretation of the Koran (even though it is not the mainstream interpretation).

What is probably more accurate to say is that most of today’s Islamic theologians and clerics reject the theology of Radical Islam as a modus operandi in today’s world. That they prefer to live in peace with their non Islamic neighbors. But no honest Islamic theologian or cleric would deny that such interpretations exist. Or that it is believed by many of their coreligionists - albeit a minority.

I believe we have to know WHAT we are fighting more that to know WHO we are fighting. Because it is the motivation behind ISIS and their sympathizers. Some of whom - like Omar Mateen - have been inspired by ISIS rhetoric to go the extra mile and act upon it. 

We cannot rely on tactics alone. ISIS and other Radical Islamists are not  just a group of crazed individuals. They are devout Muslims fighting for their beliefs. Beliefs sourced in Islam. Unltil we recognize that we are fighting an ideology we will not get anywhere. Because for every terrorist we kill 10 more will rise in their place. And as was made painfully clear (once again) last Sunday night their ideology is spreading worldwide via the internet. 

Islamist radicals are winning over hearts and minds of disaffected young people by convincing them of the justice of their cause in contradistinction to the injustice of Western values. They are not sociopaths. They are ideologues - fanatic Muslims out to kill for the highest religious value – the will of God! At Whom they shout Allahu Akbar - God is great! - as they commit their horrific deeds.

That the President and Mrs. Clinton refuse to recognize this publicly is a disservice to America and compromises our security.

Calling them Jihadists implies that these people have no theological basis in Islam for what they do. It implies that they are just criminals with sociopathic tendencies. This is the furthest thing from the truth. The President has to know this. And so too should Mrs. Clinton. 

They will counter that we need to enlist American Muslims in our crusade against the terrorists. The vast majority of which are as outraged by terrorist acts carried out by Muslims as everyone else is. The President and Mrs. Clinton have constantly claimed  that by calling these terrorist Islamists they would be alienating and discouraging them from helping.

I agree that we need their help. But I don’t think patriotic Muslims who reject Radical Islamist ideology would have a problem identifying it as such. Most Muslims do in fact reject it  just like the President and Mrs. Clinton say they do. But admitting and saying publicly that some Muslims have a radical interpretation of their religion is no different than saying that some Jews have a radical interpretation of the Torah. As did Rabbi Meir Kahane who used verses from the Torah to justify his actions. Which his ideological heirs have taken to new extremes!

The sooner our government recognizes this and changes course, the sooner we will end this scourge. How we go about that is beyond my pay grade. (Not that I’m paid anything.) I have no clue how to fight an ideology. But one thing seems certain. What we have been doing til now isn’t working. Killing Osama Bin Laden - as emotionally satisfying as that may have been - did nothing to make us safer from terrorism. Even though the President said in 2013 that terrorism is in retreat - does anyone seriously believe that we are safer today than we were when he took office? Maybe we should ask the survivors of Sunday night’s massacre what they think. Or those of San Bernadino a few moths ago.

We need to change course. And we should start by calling terrorists like those in ISIS what they are: Radical Islamists.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Warped Religious Values, Terror, and Prevention

Some of the 49 victims massacred by Omar Mateen
Birds of a feather. Even though they are of different religions, Yishai Shlissel and Omar Mateen have much in common. What’s that you say? One is a devout member of Orthodox Judaism and the other is a devout Muslim?  To say that a Frum Jew has anything in common with a Muslim terrorist that pledged allegiance to ISIS is at the very least disgusting if not outright antisemitism.

Well, I beg to differ. Both of these people were probably mentally unbalanced. But they were each no less devout in their belief that homosexuality is an abomination worthy of the death penalty. After all both Judaism and Islam treats homosexual sex as a capital offence. And it is their religious beliefs that seemed to be the motivating factors behind their murders. They both killed innocent people believing they were acting on behalf of God.  

One might be tempted to say, that Shlissel killed only one person (having stabbed 6) in a momentary act of insanity while Mateen killed 49 in a planned and deliberate attack. And that I should have a sense of proportion here. But I would disagree. It’s like the old joke about someone only being a little bit pregnant. Murder is murder. I see little difference between the two. It’s very possible that if Yishai had the means – he may have done at the Gay Pride parade last year what Omar did in Orlando Sunday morning.

This is what happens when you hate not only the sin, but the sinner. True, most rational people would not act on their feelings that way these two did. Unbalanced minds do unbalanced things. That does not however detract from their motivation. Both of which is a revulsion towards homosexuals that at least in the case in the case of Yishai Shlissel is sourced on a gross distortion of Halacha.

In both cases, they have achieved the opposite of their intent. Instead of evoking a sense of biblical (or Koran) justice they evoked a sense of sympathy for the gay community among all people of good will.

Including those of us in Orthodox Judaism. This is not to say that we have changed our beliefs, which are based on the Torah. What it says is that innocent people were murdered because belief systems can be distorted and lead to such actions. This is what motivates ISIS and other Islamic terrorists. And it is what motivated a revenge killing last year of an innocent Arab boy who was burned alive by yet another deranged Orthodox Jew. You cannot blame insanity alone. You must blame those among us that foment hatred and quote scripture to justify it. When they speak about homosexuality, they condemn the sin and the sinner and show revulsion towards both.

Those who take umbrage at my bringing up Shlissel on this day of terror instead of focusing on Islamic terrorism, should think about what I said and see if it doesn’t have merit.  Rabbinic figures that have harangued us to hate the sinner along with the sin need to learn from their mistakes and change course. They need to learn to treat gay people with the dignity all of mankind deserves – being created in the image of God. As I’ve often said (as recently as last Friday) judging people based on what you suspect they may do in their bedrooms is not our domain. I can’t speak for Muslims. But I think I can speak for Orthodox Jews.

I am going to change course here and ask, what can be done to prevent such things from happening again? How do we combat Islamist terror?  What can we do to prevent the next Jihadist from being inspired by the ISIS version of Muslim ideology?

I don’t know the answer to that. But it is instructive to see how the 2 presidential candidates responded. Trump expressed anger and indignity saying that he refuses to be politically correct. Clinton said all the politically correct things along the lines of ‘what happened in Orlando is not Islam.  

To me this signals that the Clinton administration will continue to pursue a policy of political correctness that in my view is proving to be harmful. It is this kind of thinking that for example causes the TSA to treat an elderly Jewish grandmother with the same kind of scrutiny that they would treat an individual Muslim from Syria.

That is a precious waste of human resources and time. It may not have prevented Mateen’s mass murdering people in Orlando. He was born in the United States. But it would surely help in preventing terror in the air.

Israel knows this. It is because of their far better security apparatus which includes a heavy dose of profiling that has prevented thus far Israel’s national airline, El Al, from ever being high-jacked. And if these Jihadists have one target they would love to take down more than any other - it would be El Al.

This is not to say that all Muslims are terrorists with an ISIS ideology. Far from it. I am convinced the vast majority of Muslims all over the world would never do anything like what happened in Orlando. They would and have condemned it in the strongest possible terms. But that does not mean that there aren’t significant numbers that use an ISIS version of Islam to commit these heinous acts.

As much as Trump’s anger and rhetoric is all bluster and hot air - It will surely give him a bump in the next poll (Although I don’t think it will last.) I wish that Clinton would have displayed a bit of that anger instead of the politically correct response she gave. Because that might have signaled a change in the way America will secure its people if and when she takes office. Which will hopefully be more along the lines Israel does it.