Can the Reform Movement Stanch the Bleeding?

At the United Reform Jewry’s recent biennial gathering in San Diego, the mood was gloomy. “Reform Judaism tries for a ‘reboot’ in face of daunting challenges,” read the Jewish Telegraph Agency report. “Reform Movement, Seeking to Stem Decline, Eyes Religious Pluralism in Israel,” proclaimed the Forward headline.

Only the even more astonishing hemorrhaging of the Conservative Movement has obscured the decline of Reform movement. Until recently, Jews asked about their religious affiliation tended to use “Reform” as a synonym for “minimal.” So the numbers of Reform Jews appeared to be holding steady or even growing. No more. In the recent Pew study, the fastest growing segment of American Jewry consisted of those responding “None” when asked their religious identity.

The median age of Reform members is 54 years old, and only 17% of members say that they attend religious services even once a month. President of UJR, Rich Jacobs, lamented at the bicentennial that 80% of the movement’s youth are gone by the time they graduate high school. Even at the Reform convention, the area of the hall marked for those in their 20s and 30s was, according to the Forward, notably compact. Those who did attend were primarily … Read More >>

Why the Radical Politics of WoW’s Leaders Matter

Is it merely a coincidence that so many of Women of the Wall’s leaders have numerous close associations with radical, anti-Israel groups? Or could it be that WoW is a useful vehicle for advancing an anti-Israel narrative that leaves Israel increasingly isolated internationally? Is concealing that agenda the reason why WoW tried to suppress the story of its leaders’ ties to fringe anti-Israel NGOs?

In early November, journalist Rachel Avraham posted a story at Jerusalem Online, the English-language website of Channel Two News, detailing the connections between WoW, vice-chairwoman, Batya Kallus and chairwoman Anat Hoffman and various anti-Israel groups.

As program director for the Moriah Fund, Kallus helps facilitate funding for such groups as Adallah, Ir Amin, Yesh Din, and Mossawa. Adallah rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and has been active in promoting Israel Apartheid Week on North American campuses and in the dissemination of the Goldstone Report accusing Israel of war crimes in Operation Cast Lead. The Goldstone Report cited “evidence” provided by Adallah 38 times.

Yesh Din categorizes Israel as an apartheid state and supported Turkey’s position after the Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israel naval commandos attempting to interdict the Gaza Flotilla … Read More >>

In re Limmud: A Rejoinder to Rabbi Cardozo

Torah Judaism has always been defined by belief in binding halacha, based upon the Torah given to Moshe Rabbeinu at Sinai and the rabbinical exegesis contained in the Talmud. While there are endless disputes as to the precise contours of the halacha, about its obligatory nature and the sources for its determination there are none.

The halacha is the framework within which each Jew creates his or her individual relationship to G-d. Every Jew has a unique mission in the world and an aspect of G-d that only he — by virtue of his unique combination of strengthens and challenges, singular familial and historical situation — can reveal. But again, it is G-d’s commands that create the framework for the fulfillment of that mission.

G-d’s existence is, in philosophical terms, necessary; ours is contingent and depends on our attachment to Him.

BETWEEN TORAH JUDAISM AND THE VARIOUS HETERODOX MOVEMENTS of Jews there is no theological common ground or meeting point. There is no continuum from lesser to greater Jewish practice, for at the theological level the chasm is unbridgeable and absolute.

Both in our eyes and those of our enemies Judaism was always defined by the Law we received … Read More >>

Naomi Ragen Drops Plagiarism Appeal, Claims Victory

Sarah Shapiro’s plagiarism suit against Naomi Ragen reached its denouement in the Israeli Supreme Court last week when Ms. Ragen withdrew her appeal of the judgment entered by the Jerusalem District Court in Shapiro’s favor. Withdrawal of the appeal left intact the District Court’s injunction barring Ragen from reprinting her novel Sotah in any language without removing material appropriated from Shapiro’s memoir Growing with My Children.

In return, Shapiro agreed to donate 97,000 shekels – her portion of the damages award against Ragen, after payment of attorney’s fees – to two charity organizations,Yad Eliezer and Yad Sarah.

As is her wont, Ragen claimed vindication by the three-judge panel, despite the fact that she remained without the 233,000 shekels awarded by the District Court to Shapiro and her attorneys, and is still subject to an injunction against reprinting Sotah. If that constitutes victory in Ragen’s view, one wonders what would be defeat.

In any event, Ms. Ragen will be back in court soon defending against another plagiarism action, this one brought by Mrs. Sudy Rosengarten. Rosengarten claims that Ragen interpolated her short story “A Match Made in Heaven” (which was published in the anthology Our Lives I edited by Shapiro) … Read More >>

The Lessons of Outremont

I hope every Mishpacha reader read and absorbed last week’s cover story about the public relations efforts of chassidic residents of Montreal’s Outremont district, which had implications for Torah Jews far from Montreal.

Outremont’s chassidic residents – a full quarter of the neighborhood – discovered that their neighbors, particularly a local city councilor, were not all enthusiastic about their presence. The traditional response would have been to do nothing, other than mutter about the anti-Semities and pray that matters did not degenerate further.

Nor would such a response have been entirely unjustified. Xenophobia has long been a prominent characteristic of Quebec’s francophone population, and it would be hard to think of a group more likely to arouse suspicions of outsiders faster than strangely garbed, generally non-French-speaking, chassidim.

Blaming the anti-Semitics also benefits one’s psychic health. For one thing, it means that one never has to examine one’s own actions to determine whether they could have in anyway contributed to the animosity displayed. And second, it means that one need not worry about doing anything to change the situation, which is just part of the natural order of things.

Outremont’s chassidim, however, rejected the quietist approach. Aided by an unlikely … Read More >>

A False Choice

A few months ago, Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark, one of the most veteran and respected educators in North America (as well as someone from whom I have gained much), published a Guestlines piece in Mishpacha Magazine entitled “Unconditional Love Has Its Limits,” which predictably generated a good deal of buzz. I return to that piece now in light of a pamphlet on the subject of parenting disenchanted teenagers by Rabbi Uri Zohar, Israel’s most famous ba’al teshuva and a highly respected talmid chacham.

Rabbi Aisenstark’s goal in writing seems to have been to empower parents to actually parent – to offer guidance and set limits – in an era in which many are so terrified of losing their children that they make that result more likely by giving in to every demand and succumbing to every pouty look.

The Mishpacha cover highlighting Rabbi Aisenstark’s piece read: “Do We Love Our Children More than We Hashem?” That eye-catching blurb was presumably based on the well-known story – cited by Rabbi Aisenstark — of the father of Rabbis Shimon, Mordechai, and Moshe Schwab, who banged his hand down at the Seder table at mention of the Evil Son and proclaimed, “I love … Read More >>

An Apology and a Rebuttal to MK Rabbi Dov Lipman

I erred. Big time.

Two years ago, the confrontation between parents and students in the national religious Orot girls school in Ramat Beit Shemesh and a small subgroup of the “Yerushalmi” community living nearby received saturation coverage in the Israeli media. Grabbing the most attention was a wrenching 13-minute video shown by Channel 2 anchor Yair Lapid, which focused on the trauma suffered by a young student in the school, as a result of being spit and screamed at by those protesting the school.

The confrontation at Orot brought Rabbi Dov Lipman, a relatively recent American immigrant, to public attention for the first time, and helped launch Yair Lapid’s political career. Lapid announced his entry into politics shortly after the video aired. Though Lapid referred to those menacing the girls as “chareidi extremists,” he intoned ominously at the end of his introduction, “Is this what we can expect in the rest of the country?”

As if to bring the point home, the video concluded with an interview with a self-diagnosed “healthy man” (who by his appearance and dress appeared not to be from the “Yerushalmi” community, but a relatively recent ba’al teshuva), who was asked what would be the … Read More >>

Outmaneuvered by Two Young Women

For well over a decade, I ran a media relations office in Jerusalem on behalf of Agudath Israel of America. I used to think I did a pretty good job. Not any more.

For the past six weeks, I’ve been watching from the sidelines as Ronit Peskin and Leah Aharoni have run a multipronged response to the well-oiled publicity machine that is Women of the Wall. Despite spotting WoW a 24-year head start, they have managed in that brief period to completely reset the terms of the public debate. And they have done so while raising families and running their own businesses, and without taking a penny in salaries.

A successful campaign to change public opinion today is not a matter of writing op-eds at a stately pace or putting together a documentary of traditional women speaking about what the Kosel means to them — all of which I once did. It is more like a rapid-play chess game. There is no respite. One has to keep changing tactics in response to shifts on the chessboard. An understanding of modern media and the ability it provides to reach large numbers of people quickly is absolutely essential.

Responses must be …

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

A member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America once remarked to me that things would be going splendidly in our world were it not for our propensity to continually shoot ourselves in the foot. What took place at the Kosel on Rosh Chodesh Sivan provides a textbook example.

The enduring image of the Rosh Chodesh davening should have been of thousands upon thousands of religious girls and women davening and reciting Tehillim with intensity, their voices never rising above a whisper. Nowhere in today’s world is such purity to be found as in a gathering of Jewish daughters praying or reciting Tehillim. Even before I reached the Kosel, the sight of so many Bais Yaakov girls brought tears to my eyes.

The images broadcast worldwide should have been of the tiny Women of the Wall (WoW) group totally engulfed in the much, much larger group of religious women praying at the Kosel — numerically batul beshishim.

The idea of filling the area directly in front of the Kosel and almost the entire KoselPlazawith frum women and girls completely flummoxed WoW. When they first got wind of the large numbers of women who would be at the Kosel, they … Read More >>

When Sincerity Is Not Enough

Two weeks ago, we read in Parshas Shemini how on the day of the dedication of the Mishkan, Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon Hakohein, brought a “strange fire in front of Hashem” and were consumed by a “fire that went forth from before Hashem.” Targum Onkelos translates a “strange fire” as one “not commanded by Hashem.”

Later this summer, we will read of Korach and his followers. Korach made a specifically democratic argument against the “appropriation” of any special role in the Divine service by either Moshe Rabbeinu or his brother, Aharon Hakohein: “For the entire assembly – all of them – are holy. . . “

Nor can there be any question of the sincerity of the followers of Korach. Moshe warned them that only one of those who brought the incense offering would survive, and yet 250 showed up the next morning and placed the incense on their censors. Their evident sincerity did not avail them, and each one perished in the same fashion as Nadav and Avihu.

From these two famous episodes, we learn three things. First, when it comes to Divine service, modern categories, like “rights of religious expression” and “equality,” are misplaced. Hashem … Read More >>

Can We Do Anything to Lessen the Hatred?

Already five years ago, a prominent American rosh yeshiva told me that we might be approaching the end of a miraculous period in which the secular Israeli government became the prime supporter of Torah learning on a scale unprecedented in Jewish history. If the new coalition guidelines are implemented, that moment has arrived.

The incoming government coalition results from a concatenation of long-range political trends and a series of inexplicable blunders by veteran politicians. First, we’ll consider the long-range trends. From 1977 until 2005, the Israeli public was divided primarily over the “peace process,” a trend that became even more pronounced after the signing of the Oslo Accords. Each side was willing to offer the chareidi parties whatever was required to join their coalition to prevail on the issue of paramount importance to them.

Since the failure of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, Israelis have soured on the possibility of peace and concluded that further territorial withdrawals will only result in the creation of another launching pad for rocket and terrorist attacks. That consensus closed the great fissure in Israeli politics. With issues of war and peace dormant, the possibility of new coalitions around other issues arose. Chareidi parties no longer hold the balance of power on the issue of paramount importance to most voters. Indeed for much of the non-chareidi public, the chareidim themselves are the most important issue.

Still, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was eager to retain the traditional alliance between Likud and the chareidi parties, in forming his new government. One does not sever old and reliable allies when the political roadmap ahead is filled with potholes. Unfortunately, the math did not work out. For one thing, Netanyahu made two bad decisions: He did not time new elections to coincide with the height of his popularity, and he decided to merge Likud and Yisrael Beitanu, whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, immediately found himself under criminal indictment. As a result, Netanyahu ended up with ten less mandates than anticipated.

Second, Shas leader Rabbi Aryeh Deri feared having Bayit Yehudi headed by Naftali Bennett in the coalition, where it would threaten Shas’s control of the state religious establishment. Netanyahu had his own reasons for not wanting Bennett in the cabinet. The result was to drive Bennett’s settler party into the arms of the yuppies of Yesh Atid party, whose leader Yair Lapid has been a persistent critic of the settlement enterprise.

That unlikely pairing could unravel rapidly if President Obama pressures Israel for concessions to the Palestinians in return for American action on Iran. But it held rock firm throughout the drawn out coalition negotiations. The issue upon which Lapid and Bennett found common ground was “equality of service” – shorthand for greater chareidi participation in the IDF or national service. Interestingly, in an interview with Mishpacha during the campaign, Bennett did not once mention “equality of service.” He presented himself as someone who would provide Netanyahu’s “backbone” against negotiations leading to a Palestinian terror state.

Continue reading → Can We Do Anything to Lessen the Hatred?

Principle or Pragmatism?

I was on Israel English-language TV last week debating the army draft issue with Yochanan Plessner, the head of the government committee established to make recommendations on the issue in the last Knesset. The moderator began by asking me: “More and more Israelis are asking themselves whether it’s fair that young men like Yochanan Plessner [who served in an elite combat division] should go off at the age of eighteen, risk their lives, endure great hardship, in order to defend us – all of us – while at the same time eighteen year old yeshiva students are exempted from that burden. Rabbi Rosenblum, is that fair?”

I have heard chareidi debaters counter this argument: Well, is it fair that we have to do all the Torah learning for the country?

It’s safe to say that argument has never convinced a single non-chareidi. Not just because of the emotional response – How many yeshiva bochurim are killed in the tents of Torah? – but because it misses a fundamental distinction: Yeshiva bochurim are doing what they most want to do. IDF recruits are acting under legal compulsion

The argument of “equality of burdens,” in short, cannot be easily dismissed, on … Read More >>

One Appointment Worse than the Next

Barry Rubin of the Gloria Center, one of the Middle East’s shrewdest analysts, was in an unkind mood last week, as he himself admitted. The common element joining President Obama’s three appointments last week – Senator John Kerry for Secretary of State, Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, and John Brennan as Director of the CIA – is, in Rubin’s view, that “they are all stupid people” of the worst sort – “stupid, arrogant people, with terrible ideas.”

Unfortunately, there is little to contradict Rubin’s harsh judgment. Each holds views that make it impossible for them to understand Middle East reality, much less do anything about it. Hagel, for instance, is a “realist,” which is a doctrine having nothing to do with reality. Among the central planks of realist doctrine is that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is at the center of all the Middle East’s problems, and that the United States’ interests are significantly damaged by the lack of resolution of that conflict.

Speaking at “J Street’s” first annual conference in 2009, Hagel said, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central, not peripheral, to U.S. vital security interests in combating terrorism, preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, stability in the Middle East and … Read More >>

Gaza As Metaphor

It is too early to assess the outcome of the just ended Operation Pillar of Defense. For one thing, we do not know whether the ceasefire will hold or for how long. Nor do we know what commitments were made by the Americans to Israel in return for not embarking on a full-scale ground operation. Nor do we know what undertakings, if any, were made by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government to interdict the smuggling of additional Fajr-5 missiles and weaponry into the Gaza Strip.

But it is not too early to assess the strategic consequences of Israel’s 2005 evacuation from Gaza. The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens wrote a powerful mea culpa last week for his earlier support, for then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal plan.

Though the arguments for withdrawal raised by Stephens and others at the time were not self-evidently wrong, there is little gainsaying Stephens’ current assessment. “Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect.”

At the time of the withdrawal, Prime Minister Sharon insisted that if rocket fire continued from … Read More >>

The Foreign Policy Debate Ahead

Foreign policy has long been considered the one area in which President Obama has a decisive edge over challenger Mitt Romney in the eyes of most voters. Or at least that was the case until Sept. 11 2012, when mobs overran the U.S. embassy in Cairo and Al Qaeda terrorists killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, together with three other State department personnel.

Voters do not normally pay a great deal of attention to foreign affairs, at least in the absence of obvious disaster or war, and that has served to protect President Obama’s foreign policy from closer voter scrutiny. While the United States’ determination and ability to secure its vital interests and guard the stability of the international order have declined on his watch, these are matters far from the purview of most voters. As long as the President removed American troops from Iraq – no matter what the cost in terms of expanding Iranian influence in the country – and is well along in the process of doing so in Afghanistan, voters were sure to give him the nod over Governor Romney when it comes to guiding America’s foreign affairs over the next four years.

September 11 2012 changed all that, and the events of that day and the administration’s response to them will likely dominate discussion of foreign policy until November 6. From the point of view of a candidate locked in a very close contest, it is understandable why Romney would punch away at Obama’s greatest foreign policy vulnerability: By putting the President on the defensive, Romney can negate Obama’s perceived foreign policy advantage. But in truth, the events of September 11 are just a subset of more general policy failures that Romney will have to address if he is elected.

Let us first understand why September 11 constitutes a virtual refutation of the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s foreign policy – its outreach to the Moslem world. Obama entered office with a near mystical belief in his powers of persuasion and the force of his charisma. That confidence was most on display with respect to the Muslim world. Both as a candidate and after his election, Obama touted his formative years spent in Muslim Indonesia and his knowledge of Koran.

His much publicized 2009 Cairo speech was the high point of his outreach to the Muslim world. There he proclaimed, without a scintilla of evidence, the identity of Islamic and American values: “[Islam and America] share common principles – principles of justice and progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings.” He used that same speech to apologize for a litany of American wrongs to the Muslim world, including having acted “contrary to our ideals” in the interrogation of Muslim prisoners. And he implied that anti-Muslim prejudice, Islamophobia, lies behind criticism of Islamic intolerance, anti-Semitism, and misogyny: “We cannot disguise hostility to any religion behind the pretense of liberalism.”

Yet for all the apologies and bowing to Arab potentates, the United States is no more popular in the Middle East than under President George W. Bush. According to the Pew Center, America’s unfavorability ratings in the both Egypt and Jordan are higher than they were four years ago. The day after the Cairo embassy was overrun by mobs so were a number of other U.S. embassies around the Middle East.

Obama’s failure to boost America’s popularity – a highly overrated quality at any rate — highlights one of the central follies of the Obama administration’s reading of the Muslim world – the assumption that anti-Americanism is primarily a result of American actions rather than growing out of indigenous forces within Islam and the deep sense of failure that pervades Arab and Muslim societies when they compare themselves to the West.

There is much evidence that Obama actually believes the bromides he offered in Cairo about the identity of Islam and democracy. He consistently portrays radical Islam, with its expansionist theology, as a fringe phenomenon in the Islamic world, and the problem of radical Islam as primarily one of a few terrorists groups. As Middle East analyst Barry Rubin puts it, the Obama administration is focused on law enforcement actions against Al Qaeda, while Islamists take over entire countries.

Its misreading of the Arab and Muslim world led the administration to take a far too sanguine view of Arab Spring and to take too little account of the dangers of posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, at the expense of true liberals, in countries under transition. Obama placed Muslim Brotherhood representatives in the front row of his Cairo speech. And the administration provided Egypt’s new Muslim-Brotherhood-led government with $1.3 billion of emergency aid, with no strings attached. Yet President Mohamed Morsi did nothing to prevent the Cairo embassy from being overrun by rioters. Nor, it seems, did it ever occur to the President or Secretary of State to demand that he do so. Even President Obama had to admit afterwards that Egypt is no longer “exactly an ally.”

The slightest dip into Muslim Brotherhood theology – the group also spawned Al Qaeda and Hamas – and its rampant anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism would have warned the administration that this would be the case. At root, the Obama administration’s inability to understand the limits on Muslim Brotherhood moderation derives from the refusal of liberals to take religious seriously. But religious principles cannot be abrogated overnight. As the leading living Muslim Brotherhood theorist Khariat el-Shafar puts it, “No one can come say, ‘Let’s change the overall mission’ [i.e., the Islamization of all aspects of society]. . . . No one can say, ‘Forget obedience, discipline and structure.'”

The murder of the Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens by Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists put to rest one of the central boasts of the President Obama’s campaign – i.e., that the killing of Osama bin Laden marked the end of Al Qaeda – and turned it into at best a symbolic victory. Protestors in Cairo and at other embassies in the Arab world chanting, “Obama, Obama, we love Osama,” brought the point home.

And the assassination called into question the administration’s Libyan policy, by highlighting the degree to which the Western-supported overthrow of Gaddafi created a vacuum in Libya into which jihadi terrorists have poured.

IN RESPONSE TO THE EVENTS of September 11, top administration officials – Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Presidential Press Secretary Jay Carney, and the President himself quickly settled on a narrative: the trigger for Cairo riots (and those that followed the next day in Yemen and elsewhere), as well as the events leading to Ambassador Stevens murder was a trailer for an insulting film about Islam apparently produced in America. That narrative, the falsity of which should have been quickly realized by every sentient being, was the outgrowth of both politics and ideology.

Continue reading → The Foreign Policy Debate Ahead

The Best Case for Obama

Three weeks ago, I wrote about the natural human tendency to avoid exposure to ideas or facts that will challenge one’s own world view. Not every refusal to expose oneself to threatening ideas signifies intellectual cowardice or sloth. In the case of kefirah, it is even required. But most disconcerting evidence does not fall into that category, and intellectual honesty requires that we test our ideas in the marketplace of ideas.

In that spirit, when I heard that my friend Dr. David Luchins, chairman the of the political science department at Touro College and a former senior advisor to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, would be debating Marc Zell, the head of Republicans in Israel, on the upcoming presidential election, I decided to attend. Dr. Luchins is very smart and highly original. I figured if anyone could persuade me to be more enthusiastic about the prospect of President Obama being re-elected, it would be Dr. Luchins.

It is far from clear to me that Dr. Luchins himself intends to vote for Barack Obama. He began by saying that he never votes for an incumbent president, because second-term presidents have so much more freedom to stick it to Israel. … Read More >>

Israel and Jewish Identity

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky once said at convention of Agudath Israel that but for the birth of the state of Israel most non-religious Jews would have fallen into such despair after the Holocaust that their connection with the Jewish people would have been severed forever. My own life and that of many of those closest to me attests to the truth of Reb Yaakov’s statement. Yet I wonder if many of those fortunate enough to have been born into observant homes understand how central Israel has been to the ba’al teshuva movement or why.

One of those who did fully understand this point was Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the seminal figure in the modern ba’al teshuva movement. One of his important insights was that a crucial first step in kiruv for many young non-religious Jews is to get them thinking about themselves Jewishly – i.e., as members of the Jewish people – and to make that identity primary. If their idealism can be channeled into “fighting for the Jewish people,” they will likely come to ask themselves other questions.

One of the first questions he often asked the newcomers whom Rabbi Meir Schuster managed to drag from the Kotel into Aish … Read More >>

The Meaning of the Wisconsin Recall Election

The most surprising aspect of the current presidential race – to me at least — is not that Mitt Romney appears to be clawing his way into contention, after an extremely divisive Republican season, but rather that he is not yet far ahead.

President Obama’s two most important legislative “triumphs” – Obamacare and the $800 million stimulus bill – are both unpopular with a large majority of the electorate. Despite promises of the salutary effect of the stimulus, unemployment has remained over 8% for almost the entirety of the Obama presidency. The President has not offered one single proposal aimed at cutting long-term fiscal debt, besides tax increases. Recovery from the recession has been so sluggish as to be unnoticed by most Americans, and things could get significantly worse in the coming months if the eurozone implodes. The only sector producing significant new jobs is the brown energy sector towards which the Obama administration has always cast a jaundiced eye.

Yet despite all this, President Obama retains a narrow lead in most polls, including in the crucial battleground states.

Yuval Levin in the Weekly Standard last month offered an insightful explanation of why “I’m not Obama” has not yet … Read More >>

The Failure of Chareidi Advocacy

Given the irrational nature of much of the hatred directed at the chareidi community, it would be tempting to say that we bear no part of the responsibility for the state of frayed relations with the rest of Israeli society. Everyone will grant that public relations acumen is not the chareidi community’s most outstanding quality, but we prefer to believe that it would make no difference if we were better at presenting ourselves to the broader society.

While it is certainly true that the animus is far deeper than a public relations failure, and would not be cured by the best public relations apparatus in the world, anymore than would Israel’s low international image, it is too easy to say that we, as a community, could do nothing to improve the current situation.

Of the many public relations failures of the community none looms larger than the widespread perception that chareidim are indifferent to the fate of their fellow Jews and feel no connection to them. That is precisely how most secular Israelis view the refusal of chareidi community to consider any form of military or national service for yeshiva bochurim.

The dominant perception of the chareidi community is not only wrong, but demonstrably so. And we should be much more active in demonstrating that fact. Chareidim founded many of Israel’s largest volunteer organizations, which serve the entire population: Yad Sarah, the country’s biggest volunteer organization; Ezer M’Tzion, which maintains, inter alia, the largest Jewish blood registry in the world; Ezra L’Marpeh, a world class medical referral service, directed by Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer; Zaka; Chesed v’Zimra, founded by the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, shlita, which brings a little bit of music and joy to those confined to mental instititutions; and a host of organizations serving childhood cancer patients and their families.

As the late Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum once wrote, “the charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare, and human kindness [of the chareidim] may be unparalleled among the communities of this country.” He was not just referring to intra-communal chesed. Orbaum’ paean was triggered by a group of yeshiva students who hurried to donate blood when they learned of his need and a chareidi health fund clerk who rushed vials of Orbaum’s blood after hours to a downtown laboratory to expedite the receipt of vital test results.

Continue reading → The Failure of Chareidi Advocacy

Advice for the Plesner Committee: Minimize Confrontation

I do not offer the following thoughts to the members of the Plesner Committee in order to convince them of the wisdom of the current draft deferment for full-time yeshiva students. Life is short, and I do not fancy the role of Sisyphus. Rather my intention is to give the committee members some insight into the thinking and attitudes of the chareidi community.

One reads frequently today of the need to more fully integrate chareidim into Israeli society. Here it is important to clarify what is meant by “integration,” for the model of integration chosen will have a large impact on the reaction of the chareidi community.

Full integration is impossible. Chareidim cannot fully integrate into Israeli life without ceasing to be chareidim. The optimal model, rather, is something close to historian Jacob Katz’s description of Jewish society within the larger Christian society in Europe prior to emancipation. Jews had extensive contact with the surrounding Christian society, particularly in the economic sphere. But, at the same time, they looked almost exclusively towards the internal Jewish society for their sense of affirmation and values.

Now, the analogy is by no means perfect. Chareidi Jews view themselves as bound to non-chareidi Jews by a shared national mission in a way that Jews in Europe did not feel bound to their gentile neighbors. In the short term, however, chareidim feel that their greatest contribution to the welfare of their fellow Jews is to retain their distinctiveness and keep the flame of Torah burning as brightly as possible.

The greatest chareidi fear of the IDF is that it will used as a melting pot for the fashioning of a uniform Israeli national culture. They have no wish for their sons to be socialized to the majority Israeli culture, which strikes them as antithetical to fundamental Torah values in many ways.

Chareidi fears on this score are by no means irrational. Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion often described the IDF’s role in forging a national culture as no less important than its role in national defense. When chareidim look at the national religious community, which has long placed a very high value on military service, they see a cautionary tale. They note that on almost every axis of social identification the majority of the national religious community feels far closer to secular Israelis than they do their fellow observant Jews.

And in many ways, they are far closer culturally to the secular community. The dilemmas of the characters on Srugim are viewed by secular Israelis as, at worse, eccentric, whereas they would be viewed by most chareidim, if they had televisions, as wholly alien.

Recent events have exacerbated chareidi fears of the IDF as an instrument of socialization. The uproar over the request of a handful of national religious soldiers to absent themselves from a women’s singing performance was widely perceived as an attempt to force national religious recruits to conform to majority cultural norms. The officers training candidates did not demand that the IDF only provide entertainment in accord with their religious norms, but rather that the IDF accommodate their beliefs, in a context with no conceivable implications for national defense.

Matters only grew worse, when the chief rabbi of the Israel Air Force resigned over what he described as the IAF’s failure to adhere to various commitments he had made to chareidi recruits in its highly successful Shachar program. Those accommodations go to the heart of the IDF’s ability to voluntarily attract married chareidi men in their 20s.

THE IDF WOULD BE FAR WISER to focus its efforts at chareidi recruitment initially on the older age cohort of married men over the age of 22. By 24 or so, there is already a high degree of self-selection between those who see their future in full-time learning and those who want to enter the workforce. And chareidi concerns about socialization to the majority norms decline with age and marriage.

Continue reading → Advice for the Plesner Committee: Minimize Confrontation

The Blame Game

Presidents generally receive more credit than they deserve when the economy is doing well, and more blame than they deserve when it is floundering. There does not exist a simple box of tools that guarantee economic growth, and many of the short-range tools that do exist come with some pretty hefty negative consequences down the line.

But President Obama has taken this insight to a new level. In his telling, ever since he single-handedly saved the United States from a second Great Depression, he has had no responsibility for anything else that has taken place. The responsibility for anemic growth and high unemployment, which increasingly looks like chronic unemployment, belongs to his predecessor George W. Bush, and more recently, the Japanese tsunami, automation – i.e., modernization, the meltdown of the eurozone, and the obstructionism of the Republican-controlled House that has failed to vote in favor of presidential nostrums that Republicans view as inimical to future economic growth.

One can only sympathize with the President’s plight: Voters say that the economy is the most important issue for them, and the economy is in dread. To the extent that Obama is viewed as “owning” the economy, his re-election is doomed. Fall guys must be found.

Unfortunately for the President, each of his excuses is readily refuted, and in easily digested sound bites. Which is not to say that the Romney campaign has yet effectively done so.

First key point: Obama entered into office with the largest congressional majorities at the disposal of any president in decades. Though Republicans control the House today, and may reclaim the Senate in the coming election, Obama had free rein to do whatever he wanted with respect to the economy in his first two years in office. Instead he devoted himself to a total government overhaul of the health care sector of the economy and speeded the United States towards a fiscal crisis. He is in no position today to complain of Republicans preventing him from taking necessary measures, when he could have enacted any such measures for two years.

Second key point: The attribution of the state of the economy today to factors outside the President’s control will not bear scrutiny. As Bret Stephens pointed out in the Wall Street Journal last week, the economy hummed during the last years of the Clinton administration, despite international financial crises every bit as disruptive as the current travails of the eurozone or the Japanese tsunami. In 1997, the Asian “tigers” imploded, causing a Wall Street panic that saw shares drop 7.2% in a single day. Yet the economy grew 4.5% that year and the next, and 4.9% in 1999. Unemployment was at 4.2%, and the government ran a budgetary surplus.

Third key point: Democrats bear more of the responsibility for the financial meltdown of 2008. This last one is perhaps the most important because public opinion polls continue to show that voters place more of the blame for the current economic doldrums on former president George W. Bush than on President Obama. As long as that is the case, Romney’s attacks on Obama’s economic record are somewhat blunted, and the President can continue to try to find enough payoffs for different special interest groups to cobble together an electoral majority.

Here the “killer app” has been supplied by an unlikely source, New York Times business reporter Gretchen Morgenson and financial analyst Joshua Rosner, authors of Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon.

Continue reading → The Blame Game

On Writing Gadol Biographies

More than twenty years ago, I wrote an op-ed entitled, “Are Gadol Biographies Good for Us?” Little did I dream at the time that I would soon be asked to write the first of many biographies of major Jewish leaders. From that experience, I learned to be careful with my words lest they come back to haunt me.

At least one person benefits greatly from the writing of a “gadol biography” – the author himself. The best such biographies require a total immersion in the subject’s life, until one is constantly asking oneself: How would he have approached this subject? Why did he make that choice? Living with a great person for years can only uplift a person, though, as with everything in life, no degree of inspiration lasts unless translated into concrete actions.

At their best, biographies of gadolim should provide the reader with the experience of living in the presence of the subject. I have witnessed how a maggid shiur with sterling middos can, over a period of years, transform every single person in a shiur. And the same thing should be true of a “gadol biography.”

At the same time, specific biographies will have a different impact on particular readers, depending on the nature and interests of the reader. Someone who aspires to be an askan (community activist) will get much more out of the biography of Rabbi Moshe Sherer than one who does not. Someone who knows Michtav M’Eliyahu will gain more from a biography of Rabbi Dessler than those not familiar with his works. Rabbi Noach Orlowek does a great deal of counseling, and tells me that he returns to Reb Yaakov for its reminder that gadlus and normalcy can go together whenever he needs cheering up.

IN ORDER FOR A BIOGRAPHY to have its intended impact, the subject must come through in all his multi-faceted individuality, not as if he is being crammed into some cardboard formula of a “gadol biography.” Providing that full portrait is easier said than done. Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, who was the dorm counselor at Torah Vodaas when Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky was Rosh Yeshiva, once told me that many of the incidents I described were accurate as far as they went. But had I known what Reb Yaakov said when the bochur in question left the room, it would have added yet another layer to Reb Yaakov’s pick’hus (sharp insight).

Biographers must avoid the trap of political correctness. If a certain gadol eschewed, for instance, “the Brisker derech” in learning, the biographer should not be afraid to say so, even if that is prevailing approach today. If a subject is worthy of a biography, his opinions are worthy of being quoted, even if they are not those held by other figures of comparable stature.

One of my favorite stories in the Reb Yaakov biography describes a case where Reb Yaakov and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein reacted in a diametrically opposite fashion to a particular incident. The same event is described in the biography of Reb Moshe to illustrate an aspect of his greatness. And it does. But the juxtaposition reveals that greatness takes many forms and gadolim are not interchangeable.

THE LESS THAT THE BIOGRAPHY reads as a predestined march m’chayil l’chayil (from strength to strength) – at six, he knew all Tanach; at ten, he completed Shas; at 14, he married the daughter of the richest Jew in the world — the more readers will identify with the subject. For that reason, I try not to focus on superhuman intellectual gifts or yichus (geneology), though both have their place in a full portrait. First, overemphasis on those gifts can cause readers to think that the lives portrayed are irrelevant to their own. Second, not all great leaders, even great Torah scholars, were preternaturally gifted.

Rabbi Yisroel Zev Gustman reacted sharply to being called an ilui (genius) because he thought it diminished his ameilus b’Torah (striving in Torah). For every Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky in Slabodka Yeshiva, there were other geniuses of whom we have never heard – sometimes because they died or were killed prematurely and sometimes because of the lack of other qualities no less important than innate intelligence.

Continue reading → On Writing Gadol Biographies

Sinai and Jewish Unity

Of all the many sterling qualities of the chareidi community in Israel, I suspect no one would list public relations acumen near the top. And of the many public relations failures of the community none looms larger than the widespread perception that chareidim are indifferent to the fate of their fellow Jews and feel no connection to them.

That perception is not only wrong, but demonstrably so. Chareidim founded most of Israel’s largest volunteer organizations: Yad Sarah, the country’s biggest volunteer organization; Ezer M’Tzion, which maintains, inter alia, the largest Jewish blood registry in the world; Ezra L’Marpeh, a world class medical referral service, directed by Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer; Zaka; Chesed v’Zimra, founded by the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, which brings a little bit of music and joy to those confined to mental instititutions; and a host of organizations serving childhood cancer patients and their families.

As the late Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum once wrote, “the charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare, and human kindness [of the chareidim] may be unparalleled among the communities of this country.” He was not just referring to intra-communal chesed. Orbaum’ paean was triggered by a group of yeshiva … Read More >>

Looking for Win-Win

Eight or nine years ago, I received a visit from a kollel student in his late ’20s. The young manyoung man in question had been one of the outstanding students in one of Israel’s most prestigious yeshivos. Yet by the time he came to visit me, he was angry, even bitter, about what he viewed as a lack of communal leadership over the increasingly untenable financial situation of many kollel students.

Two months ago, he came to visit me again. Gone was all the bitterness that had been so evident at our first meeting. “I could never in my wildest imagination have anticipated the changes that have taken place in recent years,” he told me. He is right. Despite the conservative nature of chareidi society – evolutionary, not revolutionary – change has been rapid.

The change has come about in two areas. The first is in the acquisition of training for entry into the job market. Today there are close to 3,000 chareidi young men and women in academic degree programs. Academic campuses in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak each offer courses under the auspicies of Israel’s leading universities to over one thousand students, and colleges have established programs for … Read More >>

A New Coalition for Israel: It’s Not Just About Us

Over fifty years ago, I was playing checkers with my father, a”h, on a Sunday morning. The next oldest brother in our family line-up, not yet five years old, sat on my father’s lap. Suddenly, he could not contain himself and shouted out, “Look, Daddy, look,” before proceeding to make a quintuple jump. I don’t recall ever playing checkers again.

I was put in mind of that quintuple jump last week, on Tuesday morning, when Israel awakened to learn that the elections in September voted on by the Knesset just the day before would not be taking place. Instead the largest peacetime coalition in Israel’s history had been assembled in the small hours of the morning. Kadima head Shaul Mofaz, the official leader of the opposition when we went to bed, had joined the governing coalition, brining his 29 Kadima MKs together with him. The day before Mofaz had been lambasting Netanyahu as a “liar” from the podium of the Knesset. Now he had accepted the position of Netanyahu’s deputy prime minister.

And most surprising, not one of the country’s political analysts – of which Israel has more per capita than any other country – had seen this coming. … Read More >>