Tuesday, June 28, 2016

An Avoidable Tragedy

Esti Weinstein (Times of Israel)
I’m the last one to tell anyone how they should live. Especially the Chasidim of Ger (pronounced Gur in some circles).  This Chasidic group has been around a long time and they have lived very successful lives. They are one of the largest Chasidic groups in the world. And their Rebbes are known as world calls Talmidei Chachamim.  One of them was the 19th century genius, Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter. His Sefer (book)  of Chidushim (commentary) on the Gemarah called the Sefas Emes is studied widely in Yeshivos all over the world.

I know some Ger Chasidim. They are truly fine people. One Gerer Chasid I know is a role model of Chesed. He lives his life for other people – Jews of all stripes. He views all Jews with equal favor. Never criticizes anyone. Always willing to lend a helping hand to whoever needs one.

So it is difficult for me to criticize them. I really have no standing to do so. And yet I can’t help but note some of the negative fallout of their philosophy as was reported in a recent story in the Times ofIsrael.

This was not my first encounter with the negative side of Ger. First there was their protection of serial sex abuser Avreimal Mondrowitz who is Gerer Chasid.  And then there was the book, Hush by Judy Brown who was raised in Ger. Although that book does not identify the Chasidus she wrote about, it is likely that what she described was based on her own experiences growing up in Ger. Ms. Brown has left Ger Chasidus and now lives a Modern Orthodox lifestyle. To say that subject of sex was taboo in that world would be an understatement.

It is so taboo - and the lives of Ger children so sheltered - that young people seem to have no clue about how babies are made. They are explained the details in very sterile fashion after they get engaged just before marriage. One can imagine the surprise on the faces of these young people when they find out that what they have heretofore thought of as taboo is now being advocated as part of  marriage. The very method of procreation.

Although they may never say it overtly, they paint sex as a necessary evil that - but for procreation – they would never indulge in. As such they tell their Chasidim to minimize any pleasure they might have in the act. And to minimize the occasion of sex between a husband and wife limiting it to twice a month. This is what Esti Weinstein reports. And it is what she said pushed her to go OTD (there’s that word again).

This is not to say that Ger Chasidus pushes people to go OTD. Their large and exponentially growing numbers give lie to that. But at the same time, it is easy to see why someone would go OTD living under such constraints. From the Times of Israel:
Her marriage, she explained, was deeply influenced by the “Takanot” — a set of strict guidelines that define how Gur married couples should conduct themselves, from the mundane to the intimate.
Before their marriage… (h)er prospective groom raised the subject of the Takanot and his expectation that she abide by the rules…
Once, when she asked her husband to make love to her more than the twice a month permitted in the Takanot, he left their home to call a counselor for advice and only came back two hours later.
“He paused for a moment in the entrance to the living room, didn’t even look at me, and threw into the space of the room the sentence that would hound me for many years afterwards and until today: ‘The rabbi said one shouldn’t add days except what the rebbe [head of the sect] from Gur defined, which is twice a month, and we already did this twice this month!
Therefore, the rabbi said, this month we should not do it again, and added and instructed, that if you accept my pronouncement, that is great! And if not — that I should sleep in the living room, and if that also doesn’t help and you continue to insist, then the rabbi ruled that I should sleep in the [synagogue]! Good night!’
“He finished like a father instructing his children to go straight to bed because it is late. He went to the bedroom and immediately fell asleep, and I spent the night in tears and wailing terribly.”
OK. I have no clue how Ger reconciles this with a husband’s obligation to satisfy his wife whenever she chooses (during those times of the month where intimate relations are permitted.) But leaving that out of the picture, how in heaven’s name do you live like this? Obviously most Gerer Chasidim do. But my questions stands. And it is no surprise to me that someone would go OTD because of it.

Unfortunately Esti’s story doesn’t end there. I have mentioned this before and it is rather well known. Leaving the sheltered community where one was raised (going OTD) is a lonely road. When one is so sheltered from the outside world, one does not know what to expect. And the world is not a welcoming place to people that are so out of the mainstream culture. At the same time those that leave are often shunned by their former community. And even their own family. Including their children. (Ask Shulem Deen.) This can easily and understandably result in depression. Which is a common precursor to suicide. Here is what happened to Esti Weinstein: 
(She) was found dead in her car on Sunday after apparently taking her own life days earlier, had written a short autobiography describing the rigors of living within the Gur Hasidic sect and the pain she felt when her daughters cut ties with her over her choice to give up religion… 
Weinstein reportedly ended the book (a short autobiography she wrote shortly before her death) by writing of her life divided between being the independent woman she chose to be by leaving the sect, and “my life of motherhood, the painful, that is smashed to pieces, sick and wounded. 
In the car with her body police discovered a short note. “In this city I gave birth to my daughters, in this city I die because of my daughters,”  
This is truly gut-wrenching. I’m not saying that Ger or any subset of Orthodox Jewry should change who they are. But I do think that at the very least it would be wise for them not to Shun those that have gone OTD. And to examine why they do. And to see what they can change in order to prevent that. Because leaving things as they are can very well be a prescription for tragedy.

Wouldn’t it be a lot wiser for community and family to openly love them and even welcome them into their lives? This does not mean they need to approve of their newly chosen lifestyles. That would counter their fundamental beliefs. But love does not mean approval. If the community Esti left would have warmly welcomed her instead of shunning her, and allowed her children to have a relationship with her, they would still have a mother.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Honoring Commitments

Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Av Beis Din of the RCA

I have bent over backwards supporting the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. I am a firm believer that the Jewish nation’s very essence can only be determined by how closely it follows a Book that gave us our identity as a people – the Torah. As such only those individuals that have expertise in that book, should be the ones making decisions about how a Jewish State should conduct itself.

Of course since there are many different streams of Judaism – even within Orthodoxy - it is difficult to say which stream should have the authority to decide which conduct most closely follows that Book. In a democracy all should be given equal authority. But Judaism is not a democracy. And although Israel is a democracy, it is also a Jewish State.

As an Orthodox Jew, I of course favor Orthodoxy. I strongly believe that it should be Orthodox rabbis that determine what the legitimate parameters of a Jewish state should be. The question remains - which group within Orthodoxy should be given that mandate? Charedim? Modern Orthodox? Religious Zionists? For me the authority should be given to those rabbis that understand and are sympathetic to all Orthodox segments. (This does not mean we can't respect heterodox rabbis. But it does mean we can't give them any authority. How to accomplish one without the other is beyond the scope of this post.)

In theory the rabbinate is supposed to be as rule as leniently as possible so that all segments can participate. This is in fact how they have always operated. Those who wish to be more stringent in their observance may in fact do so by turning to their own Poskim. Which is what they do. In this way the Jewish State encompasses the broadest base possible and still remain Halachic. Which for me is what makes Israel Jewish by definition.

While it’s true that the state was founded by non religious Jews, they were  wise to consider an Orthodox rabbinate to be the arbiter of what is and isn’t Jewish. And it is a tribute to their heirs that they have perpetuated the system that way. While it is true that many secular Israeli Jews observe Halacha in the breach - they understand what they are breaching.

But something has changed about the rabbinate in recent years. Most notably in the area of conversions to Judaism. Religious Zionist rabbis - In an attempt to convert masses of mostly Russian immigrants that were technically not Jewish nor observant - used leniencies that involved conversions without the requiring full observance of Halacha. This method is rejected by most Poskim. The Charedi rabbinate struck back and prevailed upon the Chief Rabbinate to invalidate all those conversions.

One can debate the merit of the Charedi intrusion into a rabbinate. They prevailed upon the rabbinate to standardize all conversions. I happen to support that decision since it standardizes a process that was not long ago terribly abused. It is a decision that the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) has accepted as well. And that means the Israeli rabbinate accepts all RCA conversions. The problem of so may unconverted Israeli immigrants still remains. But that does not detract from my support of standardizing a process that needed it badly.

There was however a report this morning that was quite disturbing. From VIN
New York Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that the Petah Tikva rabbinate’s rejection of one of his conversions involving an American woman who moved to Israel was, in his view, cruel.
“I’ve been serving as a modern Orthodox Rabbi and this woman happens to be a very observant woman and there is no question she is as Jewish as I am or as my colleagues here who helped me convert her.”
The couple went to register for marriage in the Petah Tikva rabbinate but the woman was referred to the Petah Tikva rabbinical court to confirm that her conversion was recognized.
The rabbinical court sent a request for clarification to the chief rabbinate’s department for matrimony and conversions, but in an unusual step also asked the head of Israel’s conversion authority Rabbi Rafi Peretz for his opinion.
The chief rabbinate’s office said Lookstein’s conversions were indeed acceptable, but Peretz said he had not come across converts through Lookstein and therefore said the rabbinical court should not recognize the conversion of the woman in question, which is what was ultimately decided…
In one similar incident last year reported by the Post, a conversion that was certified by a rabbinical court presided over by the head of the Beth Din of America, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, was rejected by the chief rabbinate’s department for matrimony and conversions. 
It is one thing to standardize conversions. But when a court gets so arrogant that it refuses to honor a conversion by the Av Beis Din of the RCA, a body that they whose conversions they have claimed to accept, there is something terribly wrong. Which in my view casts a pall on the entire Israeli rabbinate.  If they are going to make arbitrary decisions like these, they should be disbanded and replaced with a rabbinate that honors its commitments.

HT/Jerry Gottheil

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Changing Course in Dealing with Sex Abuse

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow
Something remarkable happened at the recent Torah U’Mesorah convention.

I have always had tremendous respect for my 12th grade Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, who now heads the Agudah Moetzes. I have never doubted Rabbi Perlow’s concern for every Jew – including those that have been victims of sex abuse.  Those that have accused him of not caring – have never met him. And they have drawn unfair conclusions about his motives and those of his colleagues. Which are completely false. While I have disagreed with some of their decisions in the past, I have never questioned their intent.

What Rabbi Perlow said at the recent convention is a sea change in how the Charedi world dealt with sex abuse in the past. From the Yated, here is part of it:
Torah Umesorah is preparing to train hundreds of principals, rabbeim and mechanchos across the country. This training will provide them with tools not only to prevent instances of child abuse and molestation from occurring within their schools, but also to recognize symptoms among students indicating that they may have been molested outside the school setting. (Statistics show that perpetrators are rarely strangers; generally, they are people the child knows and trusts.) The training program is slated to begin this fall.
In addition, a training program for thousands of summer-camp counselors is now being rolled out… The counselor training program, endorsed also by Dr. David Pelcowitz and Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, will make summer camp the special, cherished experience that it should be. As Rabbi Perlow stated at the convention, “We must ensure that predators are not able to disturb our children; we have no sympathy for the perpetrators.”
These and other initiatives will generate increased awareness of the problem and greater sensitivity to warning symptoms, and will likely result in more people contacting trusted community organizations that specialize in addressing child abuse and molestation. “We are deeply sympathetic to the victims,” Rabbi Perlow said at the convention. Gedolei Yisroel are making this issue the highest priority…
The days of looking away, pretending that these problems don’t exist, or pushing them to the side, are behind us; we have to take a strong, positive stance to protect and empower our children.”
To assist victims of abuse and molestation, a group of concerned donors established a fund to subsidize trauma therapy. The fund, named ASAP, is currently assisting 250 victims, with new applications arriving daily.
With one out of every five children in our community likely to be victimized, this serious threat to our families has the potential to destroy generations. More initiatives are on the way, as the Torah community unites to combat this intolerable situation.
I am very happy to see this. I believe that this new attitude and the programs generated by it will make a difference.

There are certainly issues that are yet to be resolved. Like the idea of reporting abuse immediately to the police instead of going to rabbis first.  Rabbi Perlow touched on this subject. He clearly stated that if there is  Raglayim L’davar (legitimate suspicions of sex abuse) one should report it to the police. But he hedged on it indicating that it is rabbis that should be the ones to determine whether such evidence rises to the level of Reglayim L’Davar.

I still believe that going to rabbis first is at best an unnecessary step that will delay – if not deny justice to be served.  But at least rabbis will now be better trained to determine what is and isn’t legitimate suspicion – if I understand this program correctly.

I am nevertheless still strongly opposed to having rabbis vet suspicions since there will be an inherent if unintentional bias that might favor an accused abuser. Especially if he is otherwise a respected upstanding member of the community. Which is often the case.  They fear that an unjust accusation will ruin the man’s life as well as that of his family. But that fear is outweighed by the statistical rarity that a child would accuse someone of sexually abusing him that didn’t actually do so.

The police have no such bias and should be trusted to do their job. That an innocent person might be falsely accused and suffer is indeed unfair. But statistically we have no choice but to err on the side of our children who will suffer even more if a delay will enable an abuser to continue his abusive behavior on more victims.

Another issue is about whether to extend the statue of limitations on lawsuits filed by victims against their abusers and enablers that Rabbi Perlow alluded to. There too I disagree with him. A survivor has a right to justice and time should not be a factor.

But to castigate an opposing view that seeks to protect institutions from lawsuits flied after the original faculty and administration has left and the new people having had no clue about any abuse that ever took place there - is unfair. I understand Rabbi Perlow’s fear. He worries about the entire educational system collapsing by lawsuits filed decades after the abuse happened. That is a fair concern. Even if we don’t agree with him, to attribute nefarious motives is just plain wrong.

I don’t believe that removing the statute of limitation will destroy Jewish education. Because where it has been implemented (I believe in California) the system was not hurt. Precedent tells me that we have little to fear in that department. Justice will be better served if victims are not denied the ability to sue because of time restraints

So we have a serious difference of opinion. But in no way do I attribute nefarious motives to the members of the Agudah Moetzes.

Bottom line here is that this is a huge – if belated – step in the right direction. It follows a declaration made not long ago by a different group of respected Charedi Rabbis who came out with an independent public statement about the obligation to report sex abuse directly to the police. When I encountered one of the signatories and complimented him on his courage in doing so he said, ‘We were living the dark ages’.  I think Rabbi Perlow may have said the same thing in his own way. Paraphrasing him slightly, we have come a long way from the days of sweeping sex abuse under the rug. That’s quite a mea culpa if you think about it.

In the video below he is strongly critical of bloggers that have accused him and his colleagues of not caring sex abuse or about survivors  and attributing all kinds of nefarious motives to them.  He calls them the Letzonei HaDor – the scoffers of our generation. I don’t know about that.

But he is right about how these bloggers have been treating them. Even if their motivation is sincere and just, it was wrong to castigate so severely good people whose motivations have always been to do what they perceived to be in the best interests of Klal Yisroel. 

I am 100% convinced that the motivation of the Agudah Moetzes was always L’Shem Shamayim even as I sometimes strongly disagreed with them. And that their original approach to sex abuse was based on a view that did indeed belong in the dark ages. But I have never ridiculed them with extremely disparaging remarks. Those that do so are frankly quite disgusting in my eyes.  And I protest it.

At the same time I have to believe that they played  a positive role in bringing this issue to the attention of the Orthodox world and contributed to putting it in on the front burner. Had they not made such loud and constant noise about it, who knows where we would be.  For that we should thank them even while condemning - as I do - their way of doing it. 

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