Tuesday, May 24, 2016

How Many More Are There Like Him?

Accused Mashgiach arriving in a Jerusalem court (Arutz Sheva)
This is one subject I hate writing about. That’s because the subject matter is so disgusting. Not that I haven’t dealt with it. I have. Many times. But sexual abuse is something that is just plain difficult to discuss… for a variety of reasons. Which of course begs the rhetorical question, if it is so difficult to discuss it, what it must be like to experience it?

That’s why I have discussed it in the past. My goal on this issue was (and still is) to exhort the Orthodox rabbinic leadership to do better. Victims of abuse (or survivors as they prefer to be called) have lives that have been changed forever. They will always be haunted by those memories. Even in cases where they have overcome them and lead relatively normal lives. But as has been demonstrated many times - getting over it is not always the result. I don’t know what the percentages are but there are a great number of survivors that do not get over it. They will often reject the Judaism they were raised with as a bunch of lies because of what they have experienced.

What’s worse many of them fall into a state of depression – unable to function or cope with the real world. They will often drop out of school and ‘self medicate’ with alcohol and/or illicit drugs to try and drown out the pain.  Attempts at suicide is unfortunately all too common among survivors and in some tragic cases, they succeed!

The way Orthodox rabbinic leaders in the past have dealt with these issues was clearly misguided - usually based on the presumption that an accused sex abuser is the victim of a false charge. Especially if they are prominent people that would never be suspected of abuse.  

Adding to the belief that accusations by survivors were false was the fact that many of them stopped being observant precisely because of it. They were thus seen in a negative light and their stories seen as unreliable. Rabbis then saw someone that went OTD accusing an innocent ‘local hero’ of an unspeakable crime. They were highly skeptical of the accusation and often treated survivors like pariahs.

In some cases where rabbinic leaders believed  a survivor - they merely chased the abuser  ‘out of town’  – without warning other communities about him.

That has changed somewhat. There is still a lot of work to do. But as one prominent Charedi Rav told me a few months ago in response to my praise of his (and a group of fellow Charedi rabbis) heroic call to report sex abuse directly to the police, ‘We were living in the dark ages’. I only wish all Charedi Rabbis would be on board with this view. Unfortunately this is not yet the case.

I bring this subject up  again now because of yet another respected Charedi Rav, Naftali Maklev, who was exposed as a sex abuser. From Arutz Sheva:
Jerusalem prosecutors filed an indictment against a rabbi who served as a mashgiach at a yeshiva in the city, for a series of rapes carried against a number of female relatives over the course of several years. 
Jerusalem prosecutors filed an indictment against a rabbi who served as a mashgiach at a yeshiva in the city, for a series of rapes carried against a number of female relatives over the course of several years.
He had attempted to justify his actions by perversely claiming they were not only permitted under Jewish law, but mandated. In some cases he even went as far as to claim his acts of abuse served to "purify" his victims spiritually and atone for sins their souls committed in "past lives", or to cure them of physical ailments.
In one particularly extreme incident relayed in the indictment, the accused secretly recorded leading haredi Rabbi Chaim Kaniyevsky issuing a halakhic ruling on a totally unrelated subject, then played it back to the accused and claimed the rabbi was in fact endorsing the abuser's actions, in order to persuade her against speaking out.
This is just the latest in a series of reports over the last few years about sex abuse in Orthodox community. I believe the problem is a lot worse than we realize. If I had to guess I would say that as a percentage of the whole - the incidence of abuse in the Orthodox world is probably about the same as it is in the non Orthodox world. There are a lot of sick people out there with sexual perversions. And they find ways to act upon. And do so in secret for many years until they get caught - as was the case here. 

Being a Mashgiach at a Yeshiva is not just a job in Chinuch. It is a highly respected position in a Yeshiva second only to being Rosh HaYeshiva. In some cases a Mashgiach is more respected that the Rosh HaYeshiva is. Rav Matisyahu Salomon, the Mashgiach of Lakewood is a case in point.

The Yeshiva this rapist was involved with was founded and endorsed by a who’s who of Charedi rabbinic leaders. None of them suspected him of this kind of behavior. I am certain they believed him to be a Tahor V’Kadosh - a true role model for students. Someone students could go to for advice in life – as is often the case  with a Yeshiva Mashgiach. But they know th truth now, since he admitted it in a Beis Din.

In this case the Yeshiva did the right thing. They reported the abuse to the police who arrested him.

Despite all the improvements in how abuse is now handled, we still need to do better. Who knows how many more ‘rabbinic role models’ like this are around, influencing young minds while satisfying themselves at the expense of others when no one is looking. And doing so for years! 

I am not calling for a witch hunt. That would be just as wrong as ignoring the problem. But there has to be a way to better vet our Mechanchim to see if they are fit to be around our children. Perhaps its time to implement a psychological test administered by experts on sex abuse for every Mechanech applying for a job - to see whether he has aberrant sexual desires and whether he might act on them. This may seem harsh or overkill. But better overkill than allow for the possibility of ruining so many lives.

Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman has the right idea which he expressed on his website The Short Vort . My thoughts echo his. If only every rabbinic leader in Orthodoxy had his attitude.

Monday, May 23, 2016

It’s Going to be President Donald J. Trump

Well, it seems to have happened a lot faster than I predicted. The tide seems to have turned in favor of Donald Trump.

I therefore stand by my prediction that he will be elected the next President of the United States, despite the fact that he may very well be the least qualified person in history to have ever run for that post.

Not only is he an ill mannered boor that has embarrassed this nation by his mere presence in the Republican primary, he is an individual with absolutely no core values. At least none that are evident. His views on core issues have radically changed from what they once were. I believe that is because of the constituency to which he desires to appeal. On the issue of abortion he was pro-choice not that long ago. Now he is pro life. On gun control he was against assault weapons. Now he is in favor of them.

The disgusting things he has said about opposing candidates – which are generally off limits in any kind of dignified run for any office, let alone the Presidency is an almost every day affair. His recent mention of Bill Clinton’s reputation for sexual escapades (some of which include accusations of rape) is his most recent attack on his likely opponent in November. Trump’s own inglorious past on this issue does not stop him from talking about Hillary’s husband.

The media has been extremely hard on him. Their portrayal of his candidacy would have made any other candidate disappear a long time ago. The media never misses a beat in finding fault with something he said, whether it is about foreign or domestic policy or about his penchant for hurling insults at reporters that have said something about him he didn’t like. For late night comedians he is a dream come true, providing an endless treasure trove of material with which to ridicule him. But instead of laughing him out of contention, his appeal  keeps growing.

He has absolutely no experience in governing. Knows little about foreign affairs or domestic policy. His negatives are through the roof! Most voters in this country just don’t like him – even as they don’t much like his opponent either.

I have only scratched the surface of how disgusting this guy has been. In short, there  seems to be little redeeming value in this guy. He has zero going for him, in my view. And yet, I predict he will win the election. Why? Because as Trump has himself has said, it doesn’t matter what he says or does. No matter how outrageous. . He could shoot someone in the middle of Times Square. It doesn’t matter. Sane people in the Republican party have voted for him. And sane people in the general election will vote for him.

If you are a Democrat, you might be tempted to say that GOP voters are a bunch greedy rich people that could not care less about anyone beneath their station - or just plain old  country bumpkins who do not understand who or what they are voting for. But that is a misreading of what’s really going on in my view. There are plenty of smart people that are supporting him. I have spoken to some of them. It actually shocks me to hear them talk about how they are going to vote for Trump… knowing all of the above. Which they discount by saying he is better than the alternative.

There are those still arguing that in the general election people will never vote for such an unpredictable unqualified megalomaniac… that most people in this country understand that a man like Trump would be an unmitigated disaster. That his nomination came about in a Republican party of full of fools but who will be a minority of the electorate in November. They quote polls showing Clinton over Trouncing Trump. Well, guess what happened? The two are in a virtual dead heat now. One poll actually puts Trump ahead of Clinton!

Not to mention the fact that a sizable percentage of Sanders supporters (I believe I saw a 17% figure)  that have said they will vote for Trump if Sanders is not the nominee. And he won’t be.

Why is this happening? In my view people are simply fed up with anyone connected to the status quo in government. They would vote for a frog if that was the only candidate running against an establishment candidate like Clinton.

They simply want an outsider and apparently don’t seem to care all that much who that is. Both Trump and Sanders fit that bill. If you are a Sanders supporter and can’t have him, then by default, Trump is that man. They see all the negative stuff about him as irrelevant.  They probably think that once in office he will do the right thing and all that as he gets down to business. And where he is weak in knowledge – he will get the best people in those areas to inform him. And maybe along the way, make some good decisions.

Well, we better hope that is the case. Donald Trump will win the election. I have little doubt about that now. It won’t matter what he will say in the campaign. It won’t matter how stupid or ridiculous he sounds. It won’t matter that Mrs. Clinton will show him up. And it won’t matter how much the media beats him up. It will not matter a whit.

This is not my wish. Just the truth as I see it.

That said, I have not given up on this country. We will persevere and grow – even with a President Trump. The country is much stronger than the Presidency. So for those for you thinking of moving to Canada after the election, maybe hold off a bit and see what happens. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Challenge of Integrating Orthodoxy

Invitation to BMG retreat featuring the OU's R' Steven Weil  as a keynote speaker 
One of the most significant events that happened to Chicago in my lifetime is the advent of the Chicago Community Kollel - a BMG (Lakewood Yeshiva) enterprise. This Kollel has changed the shape of Chicago. I cannot overemphasize their impact. The amount of Torah study they have generated among Baalei Batim (lay religious Jews) since their founding in the 80s is of exponential magnitude.

I can say without fear of contradiction that this Kollel under the very able guidance of the two Roshei Kollel, Rabbi Dovid Zucker, and Rabbi Moshe Francis that the Chicago Jewish community has been transformed. The Avreichim they choose are each leaders in their own right. Many of those who have made Chicago their home have become formidable presences. I have therefore enthusiastically supported – and continue to support the Kollel, both morally and materially to the best of my ability. 

(One can only guess the heavenly reward that will accrue to Rabbi Morris Esformes who brought this Kollel into Chicago and paid all the Kollel salaries out of his pocket for its first year. He did so despite communal opposition – including that of Telshe.  He shepherded it through all that - and got a few other Orthodox Chicago philanthropists to go along. Morrie (as those of us who know him - call him) has a share in every word of Torah studied by those of us who are doing so now because of the Kollel’s influence.)

But all this Torah study comes at a price. Chicago has moved significantly to the right. While this is true about the entire Orthodox world - Chicago is unique in this respect.

Chicago was always a Mizrachi town. There was practically no Agudah presence here when the Kollel was established. Most of Chicago’s religious population were Religious Zionists. When in the 60s, Rav Ahron Soloveichik became Rosh HaYeshiva of HTC (Skokie) - he was made the titular head of Mizrachi. He sat at the ‘Mizrach Vant’ (the ‘Eastern wall’ in front of the Shul) at the main Mizrachi Shul.

Today, Mizachi is hardly a noticeable presence – compared to Agudah. Agudah now reigns supreme, right along with the Hashkafos it brings to the table. They have the most beautiful Orthodox Shul in greater Chicago. Mizrachi has no independent shul in Chicago proper at all.

Why has this happened? In my view the Kollel had a major part in that. Many formerly Mizrachi type people were drawn into the Kollel and started accepting their Hashkafos. So that a mixed seating affair for example that used to be the standard in Chicago started disappearing.

Now it’s true that the move to the right might have taken place anyway. But there is not a doubt in my mind that the Kollel’s massive and well deserved popularity accelerated it. Additionally Mizrachi’s popularity was reduced because of its own success. Many strong Religious Zionist Chicagoans made Alyiah – the ultimate goal of Mizrachi in the diaspora.  So it’s biggest supporters are now gone.

Even though I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Kollel and have tremendous gratitude for what Rabbis Zucker and Francis have done to transform the city, I am not l pleased with the ‘collateral damage’. It is no secret that I lament the fact that many of the Kollel’s stringencies have taken root among the Orthodox populace here. I am a bit dismayed that people that were once dyed in the wool Religious Zionists are now die-heard Agudah supporters.

Do not misunderstand. I am not opposed to Agudah. I support their presence here. I am just disappointed that it has come at the expense of a Modern Orthodoxy that once flourished.

The Kollel’s presence and popularity has made their Avreichim sought after Mechanchim in all Orthodox schools.  And the lack of Modern Orthodox Mechanchim made them all the more attractive. So that HTC’s Mechanchim are almost all Charedi. Even the coed Ida Crown Jewish Academy has Mechnchim that were at one time associated with the Kollel.

That has caused a generation of young people to be raised with the Charedi Hashkafos. Hashkafos that sometimes included disparagement of Modern Orthodoxy and its institutions. I don’t know if it is intentional or not. But that there is a negative a view now of places like Yeshiva University and Mizrachi among the right  cannot be denied. That means that Modern Orthodox speakers tend to be ignored and avoided by most of Chicago’s large young Charedi community. 40 years ago the reverse may have been true. An Agudah type speaker would have been ignored and avoided..

The question is, how do we change the new paradigm?  How do we get back to a world where the permissible remains a part of the culture instead of rejecting it in favor of more stringenicies?

The time is ripe to act. And there are several ways to do that. One of Chicago’s newer Kollelim is the YU Kolllel Torah MiTzion. They are beginning to make an impact here. But they have a very high hill to climb. Rosh Kollel, Rabbi Reuven Brand is rising to the challenge and has become a force to be reckoned with. He has begun to make a dent in the negative attitudes about Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism that have evolved over the last 40 years. He has been speaking to small Charedi groups and changing a few hearts and minds – as these Charedim have come to realize that Modern Orthodoxy is not the work of the Devil after all.

I am told that formerly skeptical people have fallen in love with Rabbi Brand. They now realize that having a different Hashkafa is not a prescription for lesser observance. They have come to realize that past Gedolim actually respected – even venerated - some of the heroes of Religious Zionism – that have been vilified by the right. How many of them must have been shocked to learn for example that Religious Zionist hero, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook was the Mesader Kiddushin (officiating rabbi) at the marriage of Rav Elyashiv, the late Charedi Gadol HaDor?

Charedim in Chicago are giving YU another look because of this young Rosh Kollel – his Avrecihim. Which leads me to challenge the Kollel to do what their parent institution is doing.

BMG is hosting a retreat where the keynote speaker will be the OU’s executive director, Rabbi Steven Weil. The OU is a Centrist type organization. I challenge the Chicago Community Kollel to feature Rabbi Reuven Brand as a keynote speaker at one of their own events. I’m 100% convinced that YU’s Kollel would reciprocate. If we are ever going to have Achdus and acceptance of one another - inviting Rabbi Brand to speak at a Kollel event would be an excellent way to start.

I would be remiss if I did not mention a similar effort taking place in New York. Tikvah is an organization  that exposes Charedi Yeshiva men to the world of modernity – at least as it pertains to the world of politics. One can read about it at Cross Currents.

These are the kind of things that are necessary to change the paradigm. At least here in America. Israel is a whole other ball of wax and beyond the scope of this post.  But if the Charedi world in America can see that they agree with us on many more issues than they disagree with us, then there is hope.  What about the obvious differences? Acudus is not about agreement. It is about respect.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Being Blind to Corruption Does Not Equal Compassion

It is a pretty unflattering picture. There is no other way to read an article in the Forward about the city of Kiryas Joel. And protestations from the Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel, only seem to make matters worse.

The fact is that a city like Kiryas Joel is a wonderful place in which to live if you are a Chasid and adhere to their rules. No less a critic of such places than Shulem Deen has said as much. Shulem, one might remember, was a member of a similar city (New Square) whose restrictions and rules were virtually identical to those of Kiryas Joel.

Kiryas Joel is a city where everyone is family. I doubt that are more than a handful of residents there that would not give you the shirt off their backs to help a fellow Jew of any stripe – even if they are completely irreligious.

The joy they feel in being Jewish – more specifically Satmar Chasidim is palpable. The poverty is great. And yet this may be one of the happiest towns in America. There is little if any crime. People can leave their doors open and not worry about being robbed. They love their Rebbe, who is their spiritual and even material guide. They rely on his wisdom in all matters. 

This relieves them of responsibility in making important decisions in life. The Rebbe knows what’s best. They are content with a life filled with Chasidus. They willingly live in virtual isolation from the rest of the world – believing its influences to be evil. Instead they enjoy doing what they do - oblivious to what goes on outside of their world, and not caring a whit about it.

One may therefore conclude that an article like the one in the Forward (and many others like it) is there for only one purpose: to smear Charedi Jewry, with lies, exaggerations, and innuendos. Thus causing an upheaval in their lvies

However, as much as I believe that the Chasidim of Kiryas Joel are happy and wish to be left alone, I also believe that an article like this one exposes deep underlying problems that need to be corrected. Problems that include questionable practices with respect to government financial assistance programs; ignoring New York State requirements for secular education in their schools; and the ‘in house’ way in which they handle sex abuse… which seems to favor the accused over the victim.

The first two of the above are related. When you do not give your children the tools to make a decent living, they have no choice but to rely on government assistance when they become adults and have large families. They therefore are told to use all means necessary to maximize that assistance. Sometime that entails nibbling at the edges of legality; sometimes crossing that line; and occasionally severely crossing it.

Nonetheless Rabbi Teitelbaum has condemned the scrutiny taking place right now. He (and perhaps the whole community there) feels that they are under siege. Here is how he put it: 
“Until now there were also strict laws, but because we live in a kingdom of benevolence [a reference to government authorities] to put it bluntly they simply turned a blind eye to what’s going on by the Jewish children,”
“They didn’t want to look, the benevolent kingdom. Now, too, they’d continue doing that, the government would have continued, they’re happy not to look and not to know. But these worthless people are stirring up in various ways and are demanding in court, forcing the government that they should take a stance.” 
“Due to our many sins, it’s very painful to talk about it, there stood up several worthless people from our own who have studied in Hasidic yeshivas, and sadly they arrived I don’t want to say where. They decided to wage war against the whole ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of New York,”
They went and snitched to the governments of New York City and New York State with complaints that the students of the yeshivas, of all yeshivas (elementary and middle school) are not learning enough general studies as required by law.”
It’s interesting that Rabbi Teitelbaum considers turning a blind eye to their world an indicator of being a benevolent kingdom (Malchus Shel Chesed). But what a terrible way to see government laxity on issues of legality that were created for the benefit of all citizens – including those that live in Kiryas Joel. This is not what I think of when I say the US is a Medina Shel Chesed. The government turning a blind eye to breaking the law is instead a government shirking its duty. I would in fact characterize the enforcing these educational requirements themselves as an act of Chesed. As I would making sure that all financial assistance complies with the law.

The Rebbe labels those deemed responsible for this government crackdown snitchers (Mosrim). I would call them heroes. They are the ones who lived in these kinds of  communities and know quite well what their citizens are being deprived of. And they say that there are many in that community that secretly agree with them – but stay quiet fearing the consequences of dissent.

That the vast majority of these citizens are actually happy and agree with Rabbi Teitelbaum is based on their misconceptions of the outside world. Misconceptions based on half truths and an isolationist Hashkafa based on those misconceptions. So of course they feel under siege.

The ‘snitchers’  - says the Rebbe - have decided to wage war on the entire Ultra Orthodox Jewish community of New York. I believe that is a ridiculous charge.  There is absolutely no war against ultra Orthodox communities that comply with the law. It is only against communities that don’t.

If Rabbi Teitelbaum would ever read these words (which he probably never will)  he would say that I too am waging war against them. But that doesn’t matter to me since I know that I am not.

That said, most of the Chasdim in Kiryas Joel would probably agree with the Rebbe. They would say that I am a nobody compared to him and have no right to contradict the words of this holy man. He knows what’s best for his own community. Not some Modern Orthodox Jew that has no clue about what’s going on there. I fully agree that Rabbi Teitelbaum is a huge Talmud Chacham. I am indeed an ignoramus compared to him. But that doesn’t mean he is always right.

I don’t know where this will all end. The government may back down or find some sort of loophole that will allow Kiryas Joel to continue with business as usual. But that will be sad for the Chasidim of Kiryas Joel. They cannot keep producing people that are unable to support their large families and expect the government to fill the gap. At some point as their numbers increase exponentially the government will just say no. What will they do then? 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Conversations

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Modernization of Chabad

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe as a young man
One of my pet peeves is how the right wing uses the word ‘modern’ when applied to religious Jews. What they mean by that is ‘less observant’. Which is a completely erroneous understanding of what ‘modern’ means to Modern Orthodoxy. Obviously. For a Modern Orthodox Jew, being modern means engaging with modernity and benefiting from it – without sacrificing Halacha at all. It most certainly does not mean less observant. And yet that is still how it is used in more right wing circles: To be modern is to be less Halachic.

It is true that many Modern Orthodox Jews do sacrifice Halacha in favor of modernity. I have called these people MO-Lite. But less observance is not the defining characteristic of Modern Orthodox Jewry any more than it is of Charedi Jewry because of the laxity in Halacha by Charedi-lite Jews.

But this definition of modern seems to stick among right wing Jews. If you are modern – you are just not as Frum.

I bring this up in light of an article by Shalom Kesselman to which I was directed. Therein, Shalom describes a problem taking place among younger Lubavitchers: 
It is a fact that Chabad is becoming increasingly modern. I’m not suggesting that the movement or the ideology is becoming modern; rather that vast numbers of our young are settling for a “lighter” version of what it means to be Lubavitch.
While there have always been such people in Lubavitch and in every other Frum sect, we are now seeing more than ever before unprecedented numbers of youngsters embracing this modern Chabad lifestyle. 
If by lighter they mean less observant, then this is truly a problem for them. I don’t know how accurate his observations are. But if the comments following this article are any indication, this is more than a personal anecdotal observation. The reasons he proposes for this phenomenon are intriguing. 

One of those reasons is the easy access to the internet. This has made their lives less insular. One might argue that Lubavitch if anything is the antithesis of insular. That is true. No one is out in the world more than Lubavitch – engaging with Jews that in many cases are far removed from their Judaism.  

But that misses the point Shalom is making. While it is true that their outreach work makes them familiar with the outside world - those that are not doing outreach live in an environment that is pretty insular. In fact they hardly interact with other Orthodox Jews. Even Charedi ones. Their entire social circle is Chabad. Especially among the young. (Yes there are exceptions. There are always exceptions.) With the internet so easily at hand they come to know a world that their parents (those not in outreach) never knew when they were growing up. A world that asks uncomfortable questions… and sometimes provides answers that are not compatible with Judaism, let alone Chabad.

Another problem is that their Rebbe centered lives were somewhat shattered when the Rebbe died. When a movement’s entire focus is on one individual and that individual is gone, that can easily cause a crisis of faith. Their response to it, however, is the rather well known. Instead of questioning their faith, they went the opposite way. At one level or anther they believed that their Rebbe would be resurrected as Moshiach… or at least that it was a distinct possibility. That is in part because the Rebbe himself kept talking about Moshiach’s imminent arrival just before he died.

When the Rebbe died, it generated a division among Lubavitchers. There were those who openly proclaimed the Rebbe to be Moshaich even while he was still alive - and awaited his 2nd coming after his death. And there were those who believed the Meshichists were damaging to their cause and have been fighting them ever since. 

Although the more public nature of that ‘war’ has subsided, it still exists. The Chabad Meshichists still believe he’s coming. And the Chabad anti-Meshichists think they ought to keep their opinions to themselves – as they are harming the Chabad ‘brand’ with such talk. Ultimately hurting the  mission of outreach given to them by the Rebbe himself. 

While both sides believe that it is at least possible that the Rebbe will ‘arise and lead them out of this bitter Galus’, the Chabad anti Meshichists do not dwell on this and see harm being done by those that do. This is still a fierce battle  among the 2 factions, although they have managed to be doing it quietly these days. The fallout is twofold. A vacuum was created by the Rebbe’s death… and the state of ‘war’ among Luubavitch leaders was extremely ‘off-putting’ to young people.

It is now almost an entire generation since the Rebbe died. The imminent arrival of Moshiach predicted by the Rebbe over 20 years ago has not happened. He has not been resurrected.

Finally, there is their over-aggrandizement of their outreach people – called Shiluchim. If you are not a Shaliach in Lubavitch, you are apparently looked down upon. Shalom says they are often considered 2nd class citizens and even ‘losers’! The fact is that there are a lot more Lubavitchers that are not in outreach than those that are.  When the majority of young people are considered 2nd class citizens, it should not surprise anyone that it makes you a bit jaded about your movement.

Shalom adds that Chabad’s approach to educating their young has not changed - remaining the same as it was 40 years ago. It thus fails to recognize the new challenges that young people face.

My criticism of Chabad’s Meshichism remains. It has not changed. The fact that I have not been talking about it for a while is because I saw that  doing more harm than good. There is no overt talk among Lubavicthers here in Chicago about the Rebbe being Moshiach. I spend a great deal of time in the mainstream Chabad Shul here and I would detect it if there was.

But the issue has not gone away. And it appears to have had a negative effect on Chabad’s young. Now it is true there are other things that can be blamed for the ‘modernization’ of Chabad – as noted. But those things are problematic for all Orthodox Jews. If Chabad wants to change the tide, I think they have to re-think their approach to the Meshichists. 

Which in my view should include reassessing their over-emphasis on the Rebbe.  Yes, he was a great man and great leader with few peers. But he’s gone now. His soul is in the Olam Ha’Emes along with the souls of other great Jewish leaders that have passed away. Chabad needs flesh and blood leaders to guide them. Not images from the past.

I am told by many Chabad members that the ‘anti Meshichists’ are in the vast majority of Lubavitch. If that is the case - they need to clean house and eradicate this phenomenon from their midst. It is not enough for them to ‘look the other way’while Meshichists hold sway in their very headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. 

That policy seems to have now shown to be counterproductive to their future… and for Klal Yisroel. I cannot overemphasize the value of their outreach programs. It is massive compared to any other Orthodox outreach programs out there. If there was ever a time where outreach was vital to the Jewish people – that time is now.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Centrism – Where Do We Go from Here?


RIETS Beis HaMedrash - Yeshiva University's Hashkafa must be strengthened
There is not a doubt in my mind that Modern Orthodoxy is under siege. Not a physical siege or even an intentional psychological one. But a siege nonetheless. It has been ongoing now for some time and happening right under our noses over the past few decades. We are losing the ‘war’. Right wing ideas and customs are taking hold in our world.

If Centrism is to lay claim to the term Modern Orthodox, we have to examine what has happened to us and why. And where do we go from here? How should we define ourselves as a distinct and legitimate form of Orthodoxy? It is not for nothing that many on the left see us as Charedi light. That’s because we have adopted many of their customs and Chumros. I know many Centrist Jews that wear black hats for example. It is now almost impossible to discern whether an individual is a Centrist or a Moderate Charedi. This has both good and bad implications. Let me explain.

In the positive sense, there is nothing wrong and everything right with taking Halacha seriously. In the past there was a lot of license in Modern Orthodox circles to look the other way as Halacha was skirted or even violated. The classic example of this was the idea of a Young Israel synagogue hosting an event where there was mixed dancing between the sexes. There are clear violations of Halacha when a man and woman that are not married to each other – or even if they are married but where the wife is a state of Nidah - dance with each other. Physical contact of any kind is not permitted. Certainly not in the context of a dance. But back in the day - this was largely ignored. 

I will go a step further and say that there was a time where many Modern Orthodox women that were Shomer Shabbos and Kashrus but did not observe Taharas HaMishpacha (use a Mikva). Which means that both they and their husbands  were in serious violation of Halacha. I personally know quite a few people like that. (Most eventually did come to observe these laws but it is clear that at one time they did not. In many cases it was because of pure ignorance of Halacha.)  Today, virtually all MO women from right to left do.

Improvement in our day in these areas has led in part to a phenomenon which I call social centrism rather than philosophical or Hashkafic Centrism. Which means that moderate Charedim and Centrists each have our own Hashkafos, but lead our daily lives in almost indistinguishable ways.

But there is a bad side to this in the sense that many modern Orthodox customs have have practically disappeared. To take one example - Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet laments the loss of mixed seating at weddings and banquets. It is no longer fashionable to sit together with your wife and other couples at a wedding or banquet. One should hear or read a transcript of his Shiur on this. It is eye opening. While there are some weddings that are still mixed, the tide is turning away from that as many Centrist Jews want to accommodate invited Charedi Rabbonim and friends and  that prefer to sit only with members of the same sex.  And it is also sometimes the case that children of MO parents that have spent a year in Israel come back with Charedi ideas – having attended a Yeshiva that caters to MO but is as Charedi as they come – indoctrinating their students that way. (Some call this phenomenon ‘flipping out’.)

Which brings me to PORAT. Again. As listed by an anonymous attendee of their inaugural meeting - (identifying only as ‘Comentator’), here are the buzzwords that he heard there: 
the qualities of the Orthodoxy being sought included: “Inclusion .. tolerance .. compassion...love…community…open tent… open discussion.. unifying force…grassroots voices…listening community …Orthodox…spiritual…non-judgmental…civil discourse...independent…self-confident”. 
There is little if anything among these words that I would not support and endorse. However, it matters how we define some of the more controversial words or terms among them. Like open tent. 

Contrary to what some have been saying about Centrism we are not rejectionists. Orthodox Judaism of any stripe, whether modern or Charedi should be open to all Jews, regardless of their level of religiosity or beliefs. One can and should accept every Jew at face value. What one may not do is accept some of their mistaken ideas about Jewish theology. Nor should one place any legitimacy on violations of Halacha that they may not observe. 

We should not be judgmental. Nor hit them over the head with rebuke each time we see a violation. We should welcome all Jews under the tent of Orthodoxy with open arms. But if they ask, we need to be honest with them about whether what they are doing is Halachicly correct or not. Our approach should be through mentchlichkeit and to influence them mostly by example. But accept them into the community we must. They are Jews like anyone else. We are brothers and sisters. The Torah requires us to love our fellow Jew. And it mandates responsibility for one another.

Is PORAT the answer to these problems?  For me the answer is clearly, no! First because of
PORAT’s interpretation of those buzzwords. They take the idea of ‘open tent’ to mean accepting not only the individuals themselves but their theological ideas as well. Ideas that are Apikursus bordering on Kefira. That is where I part company with them. This (among other things) crosses hard lines set by the spiritual mentor of Modern Orthodoxy, Rav Soloveitchik.

So what is the answer? Should we start a parallel organization that has its own ideas about how to define those words that would fit with our Centrist worldview? I am disinclined to believe that this will help. Sad as it may be, I don’t see grass roots type organizations accomplishing anything against the tide of right wing influences.

The only real way to return to our own identity as Centrist Modern Orthodox Jews is to each individually lead our lives that way. And to make sure that our schools reflect those views. We should encourage more Centrist young people to seriously consider a career in Chinuch. We need to develop more leadership along the lines of Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Lichtenstein. And we need to strengthen existing Centrist institutions like Yeshiva University

This approach may be ‘spitting in the  wind’ since the Charedi world is growing at exponential rates - as is their influence (compared to the Modern Orhtodox world). Add to this the fact that Chinuch is a natural field for Charedi young people to pursue, and it seems like an almost hopeless endeavor. But if we are to return to – or retain any of our Centrist values, in my view this is about the best thing we can hope for.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Launch of PORAT

Guest Contribution by Commentator*

PORAT panelist, Blu Greenberg, co-founder and 1st President of JOFA
The following report was written by a prominent educator who attended the launch of a new organization called PORAT. 

PORAT describes themselves as Modern Orthodox. In my view however the only part of that description that may fit is the first word. I completely reject PORAT as having anything to do with Orthodoxy since they invite dialogue about whether God actually authored the Torah as per the bible critics. In my view there is nothing Orthodox about that.  Other issues that are in the forefront of this organization are also problematic for me and most other mainstream Orthodox institutions… even Modern Orthodox ones like the OU and the RCA and YU.

So why bother with this report? Because PORAT along with it’s ‘parent’ ideology of Open Orthodoxy is trying to lay claim to the very term Modern Orthodox and has many prominent left wing modern Orthodox leaders endorsing it. Furthermore - rabbis ordained by institutions with this philosophy (e.g. YCT and Yeshivat Maharat) are increasingly taking pulpits in Orthodox synagogues all over the country. 

This makes it a serious challenge to how Modern Orthodoxy will be defined in the future. A challenge that cannot be ignored. It must in my view be addressed by mainstream Modern Orthodoxy. With that in mind, I present the following essay by ‘Commentator’ in its entirety. (I may have more to say about this later.)

Whether you are in sympathy with the aims and ideals of the movement or not, the launch of PORAT (“People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah”) is a significant event. 

An estimated 600 people turned out on Sunday evening for the launch of this organization which “aims to put the ‘Modern’ back into “Modern Orthodoxy”.  Chairing the event was Steven Bayme; an opening, short video of greetings from Rabbi Riskin of Efrat was screened; and the closing (rousing!) address was given by Rabbi Avi Weiss.  The bulk of the evening were four panel speakers:  the new senior rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun, Chaim Steinmetz; Blu Greenberg; Rabbi Benny Lau, from Jerusalem; and Anne Baldack Pava, a lay leader who has been prominent in national Federation leadership.  Victoria Lindenbaum Feder opened the proceedings and greeted the participants.

Some notes:

 The fact that the event took place in the newly-renovated/reconstructed sanctuary of Kehilath Jeshurun – the home of the Lookstein dynasty, until now identified with Y U ‘Centrism’ - and prominently featured its new rabbi, must be taken as a huge statement.   Does the shul officially now identify with ‘Open Orthodoxy’?

Unfortunately, overall, for this attendee, the evening was a disappointment.  Steve Bayme asked good questions.  The panelists generally ignored them, and in response to the first question (“What is most important and valuable quality of M O?  Is there something you would change?”), all the panelists seemed to read pre-prepared speeches on their definitions of M O, all of which overran their time allocation, all of which sounded like sermons, and none of which said anything that 99% of the audience didn’t know already.  The rest of the panel part of the program was broadly similar; there were series of somewhat platitudinal monologues, and no actual interaction or dialogue between the panelists.

The audience was predominantly middle-aged, and looked like a very – well, sensible – crowd!  There was also a heavy sprinkling of younger people in their 20’s.

The buzz-words which repeated as the qualities of the Orthodoxy being sought included: “Inclusion .. tolerance .. compassion...love…community…open tent… open discussion.. unifying force…grassroots voices…listening community …Orthodox…spiritual…non-judgmental…civil discourse...independent…self-confident”.

The single issue which seemed to most exercise the panel, and the audience, was “inclusivity”, especially as applied to the LBGTQ community (collectively and individually).  The panelists (and, judging from the applause, the audience) all agreed without hesitation about ‘acceptance’ of individuals.  Without being specific, Rabbi Steinmetz and Blu Greenberg seemed to hint at long-term willingness to consider a broader accommodation.

However, it was left to Rabbi Avi Weiss to close the evening with the most impassioned, and inspirational address.  He spoke of the different groups ‘knocking at the door’ of the Orthodox Jewish community (‘Kol dodi dofek” – an allusion that would not have gone unnoticed by many) – including “Women, Orthodox seeking a mesorah [to which they can relate], converts, the mentally and physically challenged, LGBT community, seekers of discussion about faith…  But the knocks go unheeded and the doors stay firmly closed”.

The message of the whole event was unclear.  Avi Weiss declared that PORAT was to be a lay-led, grassroots movement, vaguely hinting that it was to complement YCT and Yeshivat Maharat.  But he said this right at the end of the evening.  No indications of lay leadership were seen or heard. 

What was going to happen next?  “Next week (!) we will be putting up a sign-up opportunity on our website where you can declare support for PORAT… we’ll look for 10,000 signatures.  And in 
September we’ll have another meeting “ (indicated it would be outside New York). 

Well, all of that adds up to a lot less than a revolution, or, indeed, a movement.  Will PORAT start shuls?  Day Schools?  Is it going to start blogs, Twitter, Facebook, to reach thousands?  Meetings, panels and lectures are the communications of yesteryear, not of today.  I feel nothing negative towards the organizers or participants of the event, or the movement.  But it was disappointing.

*For personal and professional reasons, ‘Commentator’ prefers to stay anonymous.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Bringing Kiryas Joel into the 21st Century

R' Aaron Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel (NY Post)
I don’t know the details. But here is how Josh Nathan-Kazis describes it in a Forward article
The bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffe in early May, is one of two proposals currently moving through the New York State Legislature that seek to give teeth to existing legislation that already requires nonpublic schools to teach subjects similar to those taught in public schools… 
The bill would require nonpublic schools to submit reports to the state to prove that they provide instruction that is “substantially equivalent” to what is given in public schools, and would give the State Education Department the power to investigate and punish schools that don’t meet equivalency standards.
On the surface, I strongly support this legislation. Because I assume it is limited to exactly what this description says it is: to provide teeth to an existing law requiring core secular subjects to be taught in non public schools on par with what is taught in public schools. 

In fact most non Chasidic Orthodox schools in America – whether Modern Orthodox or Charedi already comply with this law. Some better than others, but all comply to at least minimum levels to satisfy the New York State requirement. But  the Chasidic schools of  Satmar and similar Chasidic type schools  - with little exception do not teach any secular subjects at all. (There are some non Chasidic schools that have been going in that direction too but at the moment they are still in the minority.)

The idea that there is a Hashkafa that devalues secular studies to the point of completely rejecting them as any part of their educational curriculum is something that has disturbed me to no end. (In Israel this is the norm for virtually all Charedi schools - Chasidic or not. But that is beyond the scope of this post.) There is no excuse for allowing your children to grow up ignorant of the world at large and how to function in it. 

They will counter that they do just fine with the education they get and are able to support their large families without any such education. Adding that whatever sacrifice they make in promoting their insular lifestyles is well worth the trade-off that would better their lives if they were to engage with it. Not educating them in secular knowledge contributes to that end. Besides, they will say that the time ‘wasted’ on secular studies is far better used in studying Torah and related subjects full time.

Even if I were to grant them their right to educate their children as they see fit, there is the little matter of breaking the law. And the fact that the Chasidim of Satmar are being shortchanged while indoctrinated to believe that they are not. And that because of this lack of education they are made to rely on government welfare programs. Not to mention the fact that the financial pressure placed upon them by trying to support their large families on meager incomes - has caused some of the less scrupulous among them to devise schemes to defraud the government.

Until now the law requiring educational equivalency has been observed mostly in the breach – with impunity from  state government officials. So Satmar and like-minded Chasidim have lived in virtual ignorance of how to live in the real world and make a decent living  – many of whom are oblivious to this very fact. While there are some very successful Satmar businessmen - some of whom are multi millionaires – this is obviously the exception. The vast majority live below the poverty line.

I care about my fellow Jews of Satmar. So, again, I support Jaffe bill as it is described in the brief excerpt above. If however it would give license to the government to force teaching values that are anathema to Judaism I would be opposed on first amendment grounds. I doubt, however, that this is the case since virtually all the Orthodox Jewish day schools and high schools that teach secular subjects have never been required to teach those values.

The Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel, however,  insists that this will be the case. And he is complaining bitterly about the possible passage of this bill. From the Forward
Teitelbaum, the Satmar leader, put the threat posed by Jaffe’s bill in stark terms. He claimed that the bill would allow the government to determine every aspect of the curriculum at Hasidic schools. “The worldview taught in public school, it’s hard to even bring it to my mouth,” Teitelbaum said. 
I tend to doubt that. Interestingly other major Orthodox organizations like the OU and especially Agudah have remained silent about this bill, neither supporting nor opposing it. It makes me wonder if they privately feel that there is some justification to it, and yet will not officially support it for fear of alienating a constituency that sees Satmar as justified. Or are they simply afraid to get involved for fear of becoming government targets themselves? Perhaps they feel this issue is not worth spending any of their political capital on. Or maybe they simply haven’t had a chance to voice their opposition to the bill yet. I don’t know but I hope it’s the former.

Freedom of religion is paramount. But if  that right is not infringed upon (which I do not believe this bill does), I am in full support of it.  At the end of the day, if an educational curriculum is implemented similar to that of other Orthodox schools, it will be a win/win for everyone. But those benefiting the most from this bill will be the Chasidim themselves. They will be better able to support their families with it… relying less on government welfare programs. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Fraud? Sex Abuse? Or Neither?

Image from surveillance video (JTA)
I watched the video twice. It was quite disturbing to see a Chasidic looking guy kissing a young child several times while holding him on his lap with his legs moving about. The video in question was a surveillance video of the principal of a Satmar elementary school in Kiryas Joel. He was interacting with a child who apparently needed some disciplinary measures.

If I was a parent in this school, I would demand that this fellow be relieved of his position and never be allowed to be around children of any age again. And if that were not done, my children and I would be out of there faster than the speed of light. There is no way I would ever want a child of mine - or any child - to be subjected to that.

That said, I am not entirely convinced that what I witnessed was actual sexual abuse. That’s why I watched it twice. It may have been… or not. I have never been a part of a community that disciplines children that way. It is quite possible that this video could be interpreted as a Mechanech simply telling that child how much he is loved by the principal – as he loves all children. And that he kissed him just like a father would his own young child.

He held him on his lap so that he would be forced to pay attention to him. But he wanted to assure the child that he was not ostracized and indeed loved. Kissing him several times to make that point. There was no sound to that video so we cannot hear what that Mechnech is saying. This is what Satmar in essence implied by a public statement on the issue: 
“While this type of restraint may be unacceptable to some viewers, it in no way rises to the level of a criminal assault,”   
Perhaps this is the means by which this principal deals with misbehavior. A means acceptable to Kiryas Joel parents.

For me, that would be a stretch. I was appalled by what I saw. At the same time I did not see any fondling, inappropriate touching, or other activity that is definitive of sex abuse. Did that Mechanech somehow pleasure himself while this child was on his lap? It’s hard to tell. And since I am not part of that community, I cannot say whether this kind of activity is more or less the norm.

The only people that may have a clue are actual members of Kiryas Joel where this incident took place. How do they see it? Are they comfortable with what they saw? Or did they even see it?

If I was in law enforcement that is the first thing I would do. I would select a fairly large panel of Satmar Chasdim from Kiryas Joel – consisting mostly of parents - to view that video and see whether or not what they witnessed was OK with them. In particular I would watch study their reaction to the video as they were watching it.

I would of course also ask the child how he felt about it, but only under the guidance of mental health professionals trained to deal with child sex abuse cases. 

One thing is certain. We cannot allow this incident to go un-investigated – as Satmar would wish it to be. That is a ‘no go’ in my book. Because their bias in these matters are a matter of record. One need only look at how their sister neighborhood in Willamsburg dealt with convicted rapist Nechemya Webberman. He was sentenced at trial to 54 years in prison for the continued rape and sexual abuse over several years of a young teenage girl under his care. To this day, they proclaim his innocence.

Yesterday there was a raid by federal agents in Kiryas Joel. From the Times of Israel
It is not clear whether Thursday’s raids were related to the videos. In March, FBI agents raided schools in the village — as well as in nearby Rockland County — in connection with their use of the federal E-rate technology subsidy program. Also in March, a United Talmudical Academy facility in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn was raided, reportedly on suspicion of defrauding the federal school lunch program. 
Either way, this is a good thing they need to clean up their act in both educating their children and in how they handle sex abuse.

I’m sure that the Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel, R’Aharon Teitelbaum, is not pleased with this. I’m sure he considers those responsible for this raid to be a Mosrim – people that inform the authorities against a fellow Jew. Which is condemnable if it is done in an antisemitic locale where Jews would not be treated fairly.  But as far as I am concerned there is no Mesirah in a country like this where Jews are subject to the same justice system as everyone else.

So if this raid misuse of federal funds, if proven to be true, it will be a major Chiul Hashem. Blaming a whistleblower does not excuse the crime – if there actually was one.

If this is about investigating if there was sex abuse, then the ‘Moser’ is their own surveillance system. And for that, they have only themselves to blame. But for which I applaud. Thank God for that. Maybe this will be the beginning of the end to sweeping sex abuse under the rug.