Monday, October 20, 2014

Clarifying My Views

Picture of me taken at the Kotel a few years ago
First let me say that Barry Freundel is a bad man. I could not agree more with those people who criticized my post yesterday on the subject. They were right. I was wrong. Now that I have seen just ‘who and what’ he is, he deserves spending some time in jail if he is convicted. And he probably will be.

To put it the way a woman who goes by the name ‘kweansmom’ did it in a comment yesterday: 
(Rabbi Barry Freundel) allegedly committed his crime during an especially emotionally vulnerable time for his victims and abused his position of trust as a clergyman. This is very different from a storeowner who places a camera in his dressing room. These circumstances should absolutely be taken into consideration by the court. 
I completely agree with her.

What makes his sin even worse and a greater Chilul HaShem than it might otherwise be is that he was such a respected Orthodox figure in the modern world. He commanded the respect of not only his coreligionists, but of the wider public. He besmirched the very Hashkafos that both he and I stand for. When a prominent Centrist figure like Barry Freundel  behaves as he did, it makes my version of Yiddishkeit look bad. I cannot find it in my heart to have compassion for people in positions of power who do things like that.

But all this is not the purpose of this post. I just wanted to be clear about my utter contempt for this man.

The purpose of this post is something that saddens me. Which is the complete misunderstanding of my attitude towards Charedim. Even by some of those that have similar Hashkafos. Which was made known to me by the following comment from kweansmom: 
I was really hoping you wouldn't (again) try to sweep the wrondoings of a beloved Modern Orthodox rabbi under the rug and call for second chances that you would never afford to an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi in a scandal. Sadly, I am disappointed. 
This statement is not true. I did not  try to sweep the wrongdoings of a beloved Modern Orthodox rabbi under the rug. But obviously kweansmom thinks it is true. As do some in the Charedi world that think I am overly generous to MO rabbinic miscreants while bashing Charedi rabbinic miscreants. So let me try once again to explain my views; explain why I wrote the original post; and try to examine why so many people think I am so biased.

First let me state unequivocally that I am not anti Charedi at all. I completely reject the accusation by anyone that I am. Those Charedim that understand what I do here (and there are many) already know that. I respect Charedi Hashkafos in the sense of Elu V’Elu. I only wish Charedim would do the same for my views (But again – that is off topic).

I have often said that there is little difference in lifestyle or values between moderate Charedim (which comprise the majority of all Charedim) and Centrists (RWMO) like myself. The Hashkafic differences are real. But they do not impact the relationship we have with each other nor should they. Which is why I believe that mainstream Orthodoxy of the future will be (and to some extent already is) a homogeneous entity comprised of these 2 groups - with moderate Charedim in the majority.

I have also expressed many times my admiration for the truly great Charedi Gedolim. The list is long but includes such luminaries as R’ Yaakov Kaminetsky (a particular hero of mine), R’ Moshe Feinstein, R’ Aharon Kotler, R’ Yitzchak Hutner, R’Avrohom Pam… and a many others. In light these two specific points I am always surprised when I get accused of having an anti Charedi pro MO bias. Especially when it comes from my own Hashkafic peers.

Perhaps it is because so many of my posts deal with Charedi wrongdoing. But that’s because that is what is out there in the public square. Much of what this blog is about is my reaction to stories reported in the media about Jews and Jewish subjects. Furthermore I have only been critical when there was a massive Chilul HaShem involved.
That I have suggested that some of that wrongdoing might have been generated by Charedi Hashkafos taken to an extreme is not the same thing as bashing the Hashkafa itself. That I have been critical of one or more aspects of that Hashkafa which I believe might result in something harmful to the fabric of Judaism (e.g. the Israeli Charedi policy of no secular studies in their high schools) is not a criticism of the Hashkafa. It is a criticism of what I believe is an extreme position taken by Israeli Charedim on the subject of studying Limudei Chol. Charedi Hashkafos are not inherently opposed to Limudei Chol.  

I will admit that I have used some… let us say colorful language in expressing these views in the past. Like using the phrase ‘head in the sand’ with respect to their insular approach to the outside world. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used that phrase as it can easily be taken as pejorative. But it was not intended as such. It is just the way I write – which is done to get people’s attention. I will try and do better in this regard in the future.

Finally I want to specifically address the issue of seeming to be kinder and gentler to MO wrongdoers than I am to Charedi wrongdoers. This was suggested in the above comment made by ‘kweansmom’ as well as others in private e-mails.

I do not believe that I am kinder to MO wrongdoers. I respond to the acts - not Hashkafos. There are differences between crimes. There is a difference between spying on women in a shower unbeknownst to them - and rape, sexual abuse, or sexual molestation. You cannot compare voyeurism to forcing a teenage girl to have sex with you and claiming it is therapy. Or taking advantage of seminary girls that have a crush on you, end up offering you sexual favors, and you taking them up on it. There is a difference between sodomizing young boys as a ‘Frum psychologist’ and watching one get undressed from afar. There is a difference between a rabbinic Kiruv leader fondling his young charges and watching them get undressed through a peephole.

Elon, Lanner, Meisels, Weberman, and Mondrowitz, (among far too many others) are all guilty of direct and unwanted sexual contact of varying degrees which ruined the lives of their victims. To my knowledge Freundel has not been charged with anything like that. At least not yet. If on the other hand he is also guilty of that too, then he is just as condemn-able as those other rabbis.

Those differences are why my post was initially more sympathetic to Freundel than I have been to the other above-mentioned rabbis. However, as I have already said, I have since come to realize that my sympathy was misplaced.  But to say that I would never go as easy on a Charedi rabbi as I did on an MO rabbi is absolutely not true. 

Had Mondrowitz for example only been accused of spying on young children while they were in a state of undress, I would have had the same sympathy for him that I did for Freundel.  I would have said he is sick and needs therapy. But Mondrowitz turned out to be a monster of major proportions that deserved a much harsher fate than he has living freely in Israel. Something along the lines of Mida K’neged Mida…. Or at least as long a prison term as Weberman got if not longer.

Freundel cannot be compared to Mondrowitz or to any of the others. So I while I apologize for my compassionate treatment of Freundel knowing what I know… my misplaced compassion was coming from those differences.  Not from any special treatment toward Modern Orthodox rabbis.

But as I also said, even that compassion was misplaced. What Freundel did was a complete abuse of power. He has caused psychological damage to his victims. He harmed the reputation of his Shul. He has very likely discouraged Mikvah usage causing some women to fear ‘being watched’ by their rabbi. He embarrassed Modern Orthodoxy. And he has caused a huge Chilul HaShem.  

I hope that makes my position abundantly clear.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Another Bright Light Dims

Rabbi Barry Freundel
It seems to never end. Once again we have a case where a respected rabbi has been arrested and charged with a sex crime. This time it’s voyeurism. What a sight it must have been to see a prominent rabbi being led out of his house by the police. A rabbi whose synagogue members include such high profile public servants as former Senator Joseph Lieberman and current Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew.

As is always the case Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel should be considered innocent until proven guilty. I truly hope he is innocent and his reputation is restored to its pristine pre arrest level.  On the other hand I highly doubt that a highly respected rabbi like Rabbi Freundel would have been arrested and charged if the suspicions of guilt were not well founded. I hope I am wrong.

Barry Freundel was one of the bright lights of Modern Orthodoxy. He is the Rav of Kesher Israel Congregation. Among other accomplishments - he is also an adjunct professor at both Georgetown Law School and the University of Maryland; and an ethics adviser for the NIH.

His Hashkafos closely match those of my own. As recently as a couple of months ago he published an essay in Mosaic Magazine that clearly spelled out his strong opposition to Open Orthodoxy… a position with which I agree.

What exactly is he accused of? From the Forward
A police report, obtained by local D.C. news channel Fox 5, alleges that Freundel was seen installing a camera hidden in a clock radio above a shower at the mikvah. Freundel allegedly told the person who caught him that he was fixing the shower ventilation. The TV station reported that he would be held overnight. 
So here we have yet again another Chilul Hashem. How is it possible that so many of our finest seem to be overcome by their own Taavos – sexual impulses? What makes a man of such stature risk his reputation and the welfare of his family and do such things?!

He violated the privacy of the very people he serves. Here was the reaction of one of the female members of his Shul that uses the Mikvah: 
The allegations left one woman who had used the mikvah in shock. “I feel incredibly uncomfortable and my privacy violated,” said the woman, who asked not to be named to protect her privacy. “It’s just really sad that such a beautiful thing is now kind of tainted and turned into something that’s quite ugly.” 
I cannot imagine the feelings of embarrassment of a woman who now knows that she was being watched in secret taking a shower  (for who knows how long) by her rabbi. And who knows how many other women he watched?!

Rabbi Freundel’s behavior bespeaks a Jekyll and Hyde personality. There is the public persona of a man with high morals and integrity - a spiritual leader that holds many respected positions in both the Jewish and the secular worlds… and the secret voyeuristic persona that seems to have no ethics or morals at all.

Does that make Barry Freundel a bad man? Does it mean that his ethical and moral persona was just an act? I don’t think so. I believe that he has a mental disorder that until now has gone undetected. A disorder that he most likely battled with.  And lost. Acting on it the way he did makes him a terribly flawed person. But not necessarily an evil one. I’m sure he intended to hurt no one. He rationalized. He probably thought he would never get caught and no one – including his victims – would ever be the wiser.

We all have sexual desires and fantasies. Sometimes they are illicit. But most of us control ourselves and do not act upon them when they are illicit. Barry Freundel acted upon them. That’s the difference. That is what makes him in need of therapy… but perhaps compassion too.

He is of course not the only prominent rabbi or religious Jewish personality that has fallen (if the charges prove to be true).  Nor are Modern Orthodox Jews of which he is a prominent one - the only ones guilty of sex crimes. This is a problem that crosses all Hashkafic lines. No one segment is immune to it. We know about these cases all too well.

To say I am disappointed is an understatement. But I am also saddened for him and for his family. In one brief and tragic moment, his reputation came tumbling down and is now ruined. His family must be suffering untold emotional pain and embarrassment. I wish this could have all been handled without the publicity. But it is now out in the open for all of us to see, and be embarrassed by. But we cannot afford to ignore it. There are lessons to be learned. As Jonathan Sarna was quoted saying: 
“One can only hope that the lesson from this will be that Orthodox rabbinical institutions should do more to deal with rabbis who have these demons before these demons get them in trouble…”
What we can do to prevent anything like this in the future is beyond me. I have no answers.  I don’t know who does. But that does not free me or anyone else from seeking them.

My heart goes out to his family for what they must now be going through. If these accusations prove to be true, it is my sincere hope that Rabbi Freundel gets the therapy he needs and once again has his reputation restored.  I don’t think he will ever get his job back. He was suspended without pay by the Shul’s board of directors. Rightly so, in my view.

But all is not lost. With therapy and Teshuva -which should include a public as well as private apology to all his victims, the Shul, and all of the Jewish people  - he can still contribute To Klal Yisroel in a major way. A fine mind like his is a terrible thing to waste.

This post was written last Wednesday, just prior to the 3 day Yom Tov and auto-posted today. At the time not much was known (at least by me) beyond what I wrote in the post. Obviously from the many comments - the wrong doing goes far beyond what was known at the time I wrote this.

I have also reconsidered my thoughts about him even without the additional information. Fine mind or not - I agree with those who say that he should never be given a position of public trust again. He deserves no mercy from me or anyone else. I also think he should get some serious jail time. But I would not deny him therapy.

My feelings of compassion for his family remain in place.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah

My visit to the holy land is coming to a close. In three days I will be boarding a plane back to Chicago (at about 1:00 AM local time on Sunday (Motzoi Shabbos). Not looking forward to that for many reasons. Not the least of which is that I hate flying.

Yom Tov in Isrsael has thus far been all I expected it be and more. The weather has been great. It's truly a pleasure spending time with your children and grandchildren in a warm climate for Sukkos.

This will be my last post until Sunday. Until then I want to once again wish everyone a Chag Sameach.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Giving Pledge and the Tuition Crisis

Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz pledges a million dollars to Mir Avreichim (Matzav)
There are a lot of billionaires in the world. Some of them are Jewish. And it seems that Orthodox Jewry may have a few of those billionaires counted among them too.

I consider myself fortunate to know some very wealthy Orthodox Jews. I don’t really know if they are billionaires. But considering the amount of money they each give to various Jewish causes – in the many millions annually, it would not surprise me if they were. I am happy for them and am pleased that that they are able to enjoy their wealth and at the same time use that wealth for good. 

One particular very wealthy friend of mine told me many years ago that he gives approximately half of his income away every year to Orthodox Jewish institutions – mostly religious day schools, high schools, and Yeshivos.

This was all brought to mind yesterday when Orthodox Jewish philanthropist Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz pledged what amounts to half of next month’s income to the Avreichim of Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem. It will be in the form of matching their monthly stipend – doubling their income for the Hebrew month of Cheshvan. After making this pledge  - he added: 
“An avreich gives tzedakah at the expense of bread and milk, and his child’s shoes. If I make a million dollars in two weeks, how can I observe something like this and sit by quietly?” 
What a truly generous man Mr. Rechnitz is. This is not the first time he has been generous with his money. Nor is his alma mater, Yeshivas Mir,  the only place he has been generous to.

Another thought that came to mind is what Bill and Melinda Gates are doing along with their ‘partner in crime’ Warren Buffet. They have created a very special club for billionaires. Joining that club requires only one thing: A pledge to give away half of their fortune to the charity of their choice. They call it ‘The Giving Pledge’.  Among billionaires who joined are some very prominent political, business, media, and entertainment people whose names most people will surely recognize. Names like Michael Bloomberg, George Lucas, and Ted Turner.  As of 2010, over forty billionaire have signed up pledging to give away half of their fortune.

Now we Orthodox Jews do not have such a club. At least not that I am aware of. But it would not surprise me if many of the multi millionaires that I know already do that anyway. Which is of course to their credit. But this got me to thinking about the tuition crisis again. There is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind that most Orthodox religious schools struggle to meet their budgets. Many do not and run deficits every year. And in all cases that I am aware of it is the parents that are asked to shoulder the lion’s share of that burden. 

Most parents in ‘the sytem’ are not millionaires. Even some of the more affluent among them making well into six figure incomes can often not pay full tuition. They too receive tuition assistance in the form of partial scholarships. Especially when they have a large family that very often consists of 5 or more children. In such cases the actual tuition fee can run into six figures itself in some of the pricier schools. And most people make less than six figure incomes.

There have been many suggestions about how to solve this crisis. Some of them practical, some of them not. Some implemented in some schools. Some not. Some involve cost cutting. Others involve novel ways to raise money. But as of now, none of these solutions even if they are all implemented in every school will solve this crisis. 

The biggest ‘budget buster’ is of course the salaries of the teachers and administration. And that is as it should be. Gone are the days (for most schools) of starvation wages for Rebbeim and Moros, who had to seek second jobs just to make ends meet. They are now paid a relatively decent wage, although certainly not what a good teacher should make. 

In my view good teachers are still underpaid and deserve a lot more for all their hard work and dedication. So we have this conundrum of wanting teachers to get paid what they deserve; pushing parents (as the beneficiaries of their  schools via the education of their children) to the max; and still falling way short of meeting a budget where teacher are still not paid what they deserve. 

I think everyone knows where I am going with this by now. What about a billionaires club for Orthodox Jewish billionaires. Or even a multi-millionaires. club  But instead of pledging half of their considerable fortunes to the charity of their choice, pledge it to the Yeshivas, high schools, or day schools of their choice in the cities where they live. 

If that were done, I think it would go a long way to solving the tuition crisis. This does not mean that parents shouldn’t pay what they can afford. Of course they should. But it might lighten their load just a bit and it would certainly ease the pressure they constantly feel. 

I happen to believe (and I have no real way of knowing this… it’s just a hunch) that the money is there. If all of Orthodox Jewish billionaires and multi millionaires were to pledge half of their fortunes to the schools in their own cities - I think it might just solve the problem. And I do not think it would hurt their lifestyles - which they have rightfully earned and are certainly entitled to enjoy.

What about the other worthy institutions? I’m sure that there might even be some only left over in the other half of their fortunes for that too. Or in lieu of that - perhaps 10% of that pledge can be designated to those other worthy causes.

So to all you fabulously wealthy Orthodox Jews out there…  how about it, guys? You game? You willing to ‘take the pledge’?

Of course I could be way off base on all of this. It might already be happening in a practical sense. I don't know. Its just a thought. But if I'm right. it's a darn good one.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Tikun Olam of High Caliber

Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg and some of his Kids Kicking Cancer students
There are some Orthodox Jews that balk at the term Tikun Olam. As if to say that this concept is not a Torah concept. They will point derisively to other Jewish denominations that use that term as the near total definition what Judaism truly is. But Tikun Olam is in fact a very Jewish concept. And it is not nor should it be the sole province of non Orthodox denominations. It belongs to all of us. And there is one man who has taken up the call in ways that should humble most of us. His name is Elimelech Goldberg.

What an inspiring individual this man is! There are very few Jews like him in any denomination or Hashkafa. Rabbi Goldberg has by sheer determination to serve his fellow man in distress created one gigantic Kiddush HeShem. A Kiddush HaShem of the type few people can lay claim to.

With all of the sordid stories about religious Jews in the media who have done wrong and made one Chilul HaShem after another – giving observant Judiasm a bad name, it is so refreshing to see a story like this. I believe Rabbi Goldberg is Charedi. Which gives lie to the canard that Charedim are only interested  in building up their own world. 

I first saw his name mentioned in a brief post on Cross Currents. Curious about why this man warranted such effusive praise from Rabbi Adlerstein, I did some quick research and now I completely understand.

Rabbi Goldberg was the Rav of the Young Israel of Southfield, Michigan. His 2 year old daughter died of a type of cancer of the blood called Leukemia. I can certainly relate to that as my young grandson Reuven died of cancer too.  The pain of losing a child can bring down the best of us. But in some cases it does the opposite. It emboldens people to turn that negative energy into something positive. This is what Rabbi Goldstein did in spades.

Elimelech Goldstein is not only a Rabbi. He is an expert in the martial arts holding a black belt in Choi Kwang Do. And he used that talent to create something  huge. Working at Camp Simcha a religiously based camp for children with cancer he managed to help a 5 year old patients suffering from treatments ease his pain via techniques used in the martial arts. That incident inspired Rabbi Goldstein to bring this success story to other children suffering from cancer. He calls his program Kids Kicking Cancer. From the Forward:
“We use martial arts as a platform for meditation,” Goldberg explained, “and to allow children to gain these tools so that much of the fear, the anger and trauma that accompanies pain is tolerable.”
The breathing exercises, specifically, are to teach the kids to hold on to happy memories and let go of negative feelings, nine-year-old Haley Wallace, a member of Kids Kick Cancer, explained in CNN’s video documentary. “When the children demonstrate that they can bring in the light and let out the darkness through a series of breathing exercises, it changes people,” Goldberg said.
Rabbi Goldberg has thus far brought his program to New York, Los Angeles and Florida and internationally to Italy, Israel and Canada - and helped more than 5000 kids.

It is amazing what one man can do if the will is there. How widely is he considered a hero? Well as Rabbi Adlerstein notes:
In a large mosque in Detroit hangs a plaque honoring Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg. 
That an Orthodox Rabbi is honored by religious Musilms in Detroit speaks volumes.  But the Kiddush Hashem does not end in a mosque. Rabbi Goldberg is up for the ‘Hero of the Year’ award given by CNN. He is already in their top 10 category. I urge everyone to vote for him at their website as I just did. If he wins - Kids Kicking Cancer will be awarded a  $125,000 prize. If you want to get an inkling of what this man does, watch the video below:

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Is Divorce the Only Option?

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf and his wife Rabbi Batya Steinlauf (Times of Israel)
There has been a lot written about a letter made public by Conservative Rabbi Gil Steinlauf. Most of it has been very supportive of his decision to divorce his wife of 20 years.

In a heartbreaking letter, Rabbi Steinlauf describes his life-long struggles over his sexuality. At the same time he tells us of his beautiful marriage to Batya, a loving and supportive wife - and of the upheaval this decision will have on their lives and those of their three children.

Columnist Jeffery Goldberg, who is a member of Rabbi Steinlauf’s synagogue, wrote a poignant article about his decision which in part said the following: 
There is sadness here, of course, because Gil and Batya have had, in many ways, a good, even model, marriage (their three children are testament to this), but there is also relief, and anxiety, and most of all a leap into the unknown. I am posting his letter in full below (with his permission) because it is beautiful and thoughtful and heartbreaking and deeply religious… (Rabbi Steinlauf’s letter can be read there is full.) 
I too have a sadness here. Why after a 20 year model marriage could he not keep his family intact? Why the need to divorce? He clearly loves his wife and children. And they love him. His wife, Batya was supportive and understood his struggles. Why leave now? What is gained? 

Personal freedom?! What does that even mean in this context? Freedom from the responsibilities of marriage? …a marriage that he was faithful to for 20 years? Is his personal freedom worth the price of destroying their marriage? ...and the price of the difficult road his children will now have to travel without him there as he was before?

Rabbi Avi Shafran expresses his views rather succinctly in a Forward article  - and I pretty much agree with him: 
I cannot judge him; I cannot presume to appreciate another human being’s challenge (and have failed enough, if different ones, of my own). But pain, in the end, is part of life, and each of us is challenged by any of a variety of temptations to pursue paths we know, or are taught by the Torah, we shouldn’t follow… 
The Orthodox world still hews to that foundational concept, given voice in our ancestors’ declaration at Sinai “We will do and we will hear” (Na’aseh V’Nishmah) — which the Talmud understands as accepting the Torah’s laws even in the absence of our own understanding or our abilities to personally relate to them. 
Just to be clear (and as many people who read this blog with any frequency already know) I do not believe in condemning same sex attractions. The Torah does not condemn them either. It is only acting upon them in specific ways in which the Torah condemns them. Furthermore - what people do in the privacy of their own homes is for God to judge, not for me to speculate about.

Nor do I believe that changing one’s sexual orientation is in any way a practical solution – if it is even possible. Which I tend to doubt (except in cases where people aren’t sure about their sexual identity or are bi-sexual). I do not expect Rabbi Steinlauf to change. And I applaud him for his honesty and integrity in coming out as gay. As he correctly points out - the Talmud in Yuma 72a states: 
 “Rabbah said, any scholar whose inside does not match his outside (Tocho K’Baro) is no scholar. Abaye, and some say Ravah bar Ulah, said [one whose inside does not match his outside] is called an abomination.” 
No one should have to live a lie. Least of all someone who is looked at as a role model by his congregation and honored for his integrity and leadership.  But integrity on this issue does not require him to get divorced.

That said I would never recommend that a gay man marry a woman in denial of his sexuality or even worse – hiding that fact from her prior to marriage. I would strongly recommend against it and even condemn it. There are however some rare exceptions where it can and does work. Rabbi Steinlauf is one such exception. But he is not the only one.

A few years ago when discussing this subject here in another context, an Orthodox gay man commented about his own experience. He too was married with children. He described the relationship with his wife in superlative terms. She too knew of his sexual orientation and gave him unconditional love and support. And like Rabbi Steinlauf he too described the struggles he had to live with every day of his life. He even consulted with his rabbi how to deal with his struggles while staying married to his wife.  But unlike Rabbi Steinlauf, he did not get divorced. Because to him the relationship he had with his wife, whom he loved dearly was too valuable to give up.

At the end of the day, no two situations are alike. I therefore admit that I have no right to judge Rabbi Steinlauf’s decision. I do not wear his shoes. But at the same time, I can’t help but believe that a marriage like his is worth saving. Is it not possible to ‘come out of the closet’ and at the same time stay married?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Do You Know Where Your Children Are?

I really generally like to keep things light on Erev Yom Tov.  But I just received the following  note from Rabbi Yakov Horowitz: 
Could you please post this with a note asking parents to speak to their kids about child safety before/over Yom Tov? It is SUCH a dangerous time for kids to be abused. 
In light of the urgency of this matter, I am making an exception and am pleased to oblige. His words (cross posted form his website) follow.

Yesterday evening after dark, a pre-bar-mitzvah-age boy came to our front door collecting for a school-based charity drive. No reflector. No adult accompanying him. He does not live on my block and subsequently no one – including his parents – really knew exactly where he was or whose door he was knocking on. And I stopped counting after ten such children came knocking on our door since Rosh Hashana.


L’ma’an Hashem; haven’t we learned anything from all the tragedies and ruined lives of kids who have been abused? At least in previous years, many or most of us thought our community was somehow immune from problems of this nature. What is the excuse now?

My dear friends, this lack of supervision is simply unconscionable knowing what we now know about the scope and magnitude of child abuse nowadays.

In fact, over the years, we have noticed a significant spike in abuse-related calls to Project YES around the joyous Pesach and Succos Yomim Tovim.
Those of us who work in the arena of child safety attribute the greater number of abuse cases during
these times of year to:

1) The less structured environment at home, in Shul and at play.

2) The fact that children are exposed to a far greater number of pre-teens, teenagers and adults during Yom Tov than they are during the average school week.

We are all busy before Yom Tov, but we at Project YES strongly encourage you to speak to your children about child safety before Succos, and give them a refresher talk if you already have.

We plead with you to take this matter seriously and do everything in your power to keep your kids safe.

There are two steps you ought to take in order to accomplish this:

1) Have safety talks with your children – using effective, research-based techniques that will educate and empower your children without frightening them.

2) See to it that they are properly supervised over Yom Tov.
There are four basic messages that children need to internalize in order for any abuse prevention program to be truly effective:

1. Your body belongs to you
2. No one has the right to make you feel uncomfortable
3. No secrets from parents
4. Good touching/bad touching

Please educate yourself before speaking to your children so that your discussions generate light and not heat. Additionally, it is important for you to know – and to share with your children – that although “stranger danger” is a genuine concern, the vast majority of molesters are family members or people well-known to the children.

As Tenafly Police Chief Michael Bruno brilliantly said during a magnificenttalk he gave on child safety, “We need to train our children to consider the “it” (the inappropriate action being done to them) not the “whom” (regardless of the relationship or stature of the individual who is doing it).

There are free resources available in the Karasick Child Safety Initiative section of our website, and we encourage (read: plead with) you to take advantage of them, including a comprehensive list of Links to Safety Resources for Parents and our three free Child Safety videos; #1 , #2 , #3.

Thanks for reading these lines, and kindly take a minute to forward this to others – for the only way our children and grandchildren will be safe, is when each and every one of us is well educated about child safety.

Best wishes for a Chag Samayach and much Nachas from your family.

Yakov Horowitz

Sukkos in Israel

BaSukkos Teishvu Shivas Yomim - You should dwell in a Sukkah  seven days. This Pasuk inVayikra (23:42) sums up what we are about to do for the next seven days. I’m glad that I’m here in Israel to do it. The weather here is warm and beautiful. It will be a pleasure sitting in the Sukkah with my son and his family.

I’m told that the weather back home in Chicago is not quite so nice. In fact it’s pretty cold. Shivering in cold weather while eating makes the Sukkah experience a bit less enjoyable.  Which is why I prefer being in Israel this time of year.

But there is one minor drawback that always frustrates me. It’s observing Yom Tov Sheni (a second day of Yom Tov) while the natives aren’t. Many Chutzniks (as we foreigners in Israel are sometimes called)  do not utilize the Kula of ‘When in Rome - do as the Romans do’. And we thus suffer the indignities of looking like idiots by observing what to natives is a non existent day of Yom Tov. It is an absurdity of great proportion for me to see the most Charedi  looking of Jews driving down the street on Yom Tov Sheni as I walk to Shul - Daled Minm (Lulav and Esrog) in hand for Shachris.

Now it’s true that there are Poskim that say that when someone is in Israel even as a visitor, one need need not observe a second day. I believe that Chabad has that custom. But it is not my family’s custom.  I feel obligated to honor my family custom of observing Yom Tov Sheni as a tourist in Israel.

Be that as it may, the beauty of spending one of the Shalosh Regalim in the land of Israel, well over shadows any drawback. So I am looking forward to this evening with great anticipation when we will symbolically welcome the first Ushpizin (guest) – our patriarch Abraham.

Chag Sameach

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Waning Clout? Waning Rabbinic Influence? I Don’t Think So

Observant Jew and former US Senator Joe Lieberman. Is our influence waning?
Frequent contributor to Cross Currents, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer has written a thought provoking article there that challenges the notion that Orthodox Jewry is on the ascendancy in terms of its influence on American policy.

As many people know by now (ad nauseum) the Pew Report on Jewish demographics in America has suggested that all Jewish denominations are in population decline except for Orthodox Jewry. That, says Rabbi Gordimer, does not mean what people may think it means in terms of Orthodoxy’s influence. He in fact suggests that Orthodoxy’s influence may be waning as well, despite our growth. Which he says is important in matters affecting the Jewish people. Not the least of which is support for the State of Israel. Here is how he puts it and how he explains his position: 
Orthodoxy, despite its smashing success, is incrementally undermining its influence as well as its infrastructure. The latter, regrettably, is likely to profoundly stunt religious growth and prevent the flourishing and perhaps even the continuation of greatness in Torah and preeminent rabbinic leadership.
One of the keys to Jewish impact and influence in the United States has been the settlement of the bulk of American Jews in major cities, where municipal and resultant state governance is quite powerful and plays a significant role on local and national levels. When the largest Jewish population in America is represented by names like Schumer, Cuomo, Giuliani and Bloomberg, it means something massive. However, think of what would happen if the lion’s share of American Jewry would retreat to the woods or the country, living in rural or semi-rural clusters as the Amish communities do; such would mean the end of any meaningful Jewish presence on a public level, as well as the dramatic demise of influence on political discourse and other issues of great import. 
In other words, Rabbi Gordimer maintains that the strength in numbers that our growth should provide is undermined by our lack of geographical cohesiveness, thus weakening our political clout, by virtue of the fact the that our numbers will be less concentrated… and thereby less able to choose or influence our government representatives.

In a related matter, the proliferation of ‘break away’ Minyanim and Shteibels has resulted in a dilution of rabbinic authority that often came with a  larger Shul with an established Rav.

The same thing is also happening with Yeshivos. There has been a trend in the last decade or two for smaller Yeshivos to be created that siphon off students from the larger ones. While big Yeshiovs still exist and are successful (e.g. Lakewood, Ner Israel, and Yeshiva University) Some have suffered a decline in numbers that threaten their very existence (My Alma Mater Telshe in Cleveland comes to mind – although there are additional reasons there that have impacted their numbers negatively).

What has arisen are smaller Yeshivos (mostly in Lakewood and its environs) that cater to the most elite and have attracted the better Mechanchim. Quoting an article in the Yated by Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum: 
(Y)eshiva students often have no one whom they consider to be their rebbe. Being enrolled in three different yeshivos (and spending one’s most mature years of learning attending a chabura rather than a shiur with a rebbe) can leave a talmid disconnected, lacking a long-term relationship with any one rebbe. This disconnect, as part of the new yeshiva trend, can impact not only the rebbe-talmid relationship, but it can also prevent talmidim from thoroughly acquiring a mesorah in learning and the overall mesorah of a yeshiva.

I agree that the phenomenon of de-centralization is happening. But I do not agree that it is necessarily a bad thing. I attended 2 Yeshivos, Telshe and Skokie (HTC). But I only found my mentor in the last four years of my time there. But I considered it an advantage to experience 2 schools with different Hashkafos. It broadened my perspective on Judaism. Especially my experience in Skokie where my influences included Dr. Eliezer Berkovits whose Hashkafos varied widely from those of my Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichk, and where both R’ Ahron and Dr. Berkovits’s Hashkafos  varied widely from my Rebbeim in Telshe. I value all of my experiences. 

I do, however, see a problem with all the splintering off of Yeshivas in another sense. It has created unprecedented chase for elitism by parents that puts tremendous pressure on their sons, many of whom can’t handle it.

The Shul break-aways do not bother that much either. No one should feel obligated to attend a Shul because he needs a Posek or Rav. Many of us have Poskim outside of the Shul we attend.  I don’t see any dilution in rabbinic authority from the’ break always’ Shuls.

What about the dilution of our political clout? That too is an over-reaction. I don’t think our clout is all that diminished by our lesser concentrations of Orthodox Jews in a given location. Clout is not only about the number of voters in a given district. It is about financial influence (political contributions) too. 

It is also about influential voices in the media (e.g. Brett Stevens. Charles Krauthammer).  And when it comes to the State of Israel, our vote is hardly significant. Jews are less than 2% of the population. Orthodox Jews are less than 10% of that. Even with the high concentration of Orthodox Jews in New York, It is still only 10%  of the general population (if I recall correctly). It is the 90% of non Jews that have the clout… 90% of it.

The real clout for Israel comes from Evangelical Christians (among many other non Jews). They comprise over 50 million people. And they support Israel more than many Jews do. Even some Orthodox ones.

So even though I would not gloat about Orthodoxy’s growth, I don’t think what Rabbi Gordimer sees happening (which I believe he is correct about) is necessarily a bad thing. 

Monday, October 06, 2014

Keeping it Together

Paula Abdul with her fellow judges on American Idol
Who’d a thunk it. Rock and Roll singer/dancer and former American Idol judge, Paula Abdul is participating in The Shabbat Project. For those unfamiliar with it, The Shabbat Project is the brainchild of Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, Chief Rabbi of South Africa. Last year on Shabbos of October 12th, the entire Jewish population of South Africa was invited to keep Shabbos.  From VIN:

(The Shabbat Project) was a mass effort for the country’s Jews to embrace their heritage with a traditional Shabbos observance lasting from sundown on October 11th until nightfall on October 12th.
The project’s manifesto urged Jewish South Africans to remove themselves from the distractions and pressures of daily life and to keep one Shabbos according to the strictures set out in the Shulchan Aruch.
In preparation for the event, The Shabbos Project’s website offered numerous resources, including a Shabbos primer for those who are new to Shabbos observance and a Shabbos toolkit which included a Shabbos checklist, audio clips of prayers and zemiros, stories and divrei Torah.  The site also offered participants the opportunity to find a shiur, a coach and a Shabbos host.
Surpriningly (at least for me) the event was a smashing success. From VIN:
Approximately 90 percent of South Africa’s synagogues joined in The Shabbos Project…
“There were many participating shuls in Johannesburg and Capetown and even shuls that are full on Friday night were fuller than they normally are, looking more like they do on Yom Kippur than on any Friday night,”
While many of the weekend’s participants were not Orthodox, for 25 hours, they did their best to keep Shabbos according to halacha.
“Amazingly, the shul’s parking lots were empty and many kept a whole Shabbos for the first time...” “They kept asking us technical questions, like how to keep tea warm.  It was phenomenal and went way beyond our wildest expectations.”
Although I am surprised that so many people were willing to give up the technology they are so attached to - by keeping Shabbos, the truth is that I am not shocked by it. Shabbos has an appeal to the non religious. In fact it has an appeal even to the non Jewish. The by-product of keeping Shabbos is a tremendous attraction for people who value the concept of family. I can’t tell you the number of times I have described a typical Shabbos day to a non Jew who reacted with genuine envy.  Ironically it is the very strictures of Shabbos that on the surface would seem to be a turn off that facilitate it. Being unplugged and not being able to travel in any mode other than by foot, keeps people at home or nearby.

There is a religious requirement for a meal called the Sabbath Seudah. There ar 2 of those, One in the evening at the onset of Shabbos and one the next day at about lunch time.  (There is a dispute about whether there is a requreiment for a 3rd Shabbos meal – but that is beyond the scope of the post.)

Here is how it’s done in our house – which I’m sure is duplictaed (with some minor variations) in most observant homes. We prepare for Shabbos by cleaning up and getting dressed in our Shabbos clothing. (For men that usually means a suit and tie). Men go to Shul for a short evening service and return to house, where the Shabbos candles have already been lit just prior to sunset.

In most cases the table is set with table linens, our best china, flatware,  a wine goblet, and 2 Challahs.We make Kiddush (sanctifying the day) over wine, and then proceed to eat a multi course meal with our family. There is no ability to be distracted by the pull of modern technology or any of the social media. That facilitates family bonding time unlike any other scenario. Week after week.

There is no rush to get out and ‘go somewhere’. Everyone just enjoys each other’s company, the conversation,  and the festive meal itself. And that’s just the beginning. There is so much more to Shabbos, as most people that observe it already know. But that is not the point of this post.

I think it is the sense of family and Jewish heritage that made this project so popular. The success of the event in South Africa demonstrates (at least to me) that there is a hunger for knowledge about one’s Jewish heritage.  (Even and perhaps especially with secular Jews - at least in South Africa).

They must believe that heritage lies with the Jewish denomination most closely associated with observance, Orthodoxy.  90% participation by secular Jewry in a ‘Halachic Shabbos’ is illustrative of that fact. It was after all an Orthodox Rabbi who initiated the project and it seems that the vast majority of South African Jewry seemed to eagerly embrace it.

The project was so successful that it is being tried here and all over the world. The date is October 25th (beginning at sundown October 24th). This is quite an ambitious project. I’m not sure there will be 90% participation this time. But I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of this event and the power of Shabbos. I believe that this event will show more people than ever the beauty of Shabbos via their participation in it. The Shabbat Project has a website with some guidelines for anyone who wants to join.

I have to say that Rabbi Goldstein is an inspiring figure… a walking talking Kiddush HaShem. He exemplifies what being a Jewish leader is all about.  One may recall his name from his participation in the eulogies given for Nelson Mandela at his funeral. He was the first one to speak. And he did so very eloquently.

There are those who may be cynical about this project – even among the most religious. I suppose that keeping one Shabbos alone does not make one observant. It is relatively easy to try it out just to see what it’s like. Anyone can try something different once – knowing that they will go back to business as usual next week. Big deal if they keep one Shabbos.

I suppose that’s true up to a point. But even though I too am a cynic at heart, I can’t help the feeling that there will be some - perhaps even many Jews that will enjoy the experience so much that they will be inspired to investigate observant Judaism further. With the recent Pew study showing a massive rate of intermarriage rate  and a Jewish population in decline in every segment other than Orthodoxy, this can only be a plus. A big one.

The following video came as quite a surprise to me, too. Paula Abdul  - who is  not known for her commitment to Halacha to say the least - is going to participate in the Shabbos Project. In fact I only found out she was Jewish when I read about her recent journey to Israel. It appears that she too is exploring her roots. And you never know where that can lead. Both for her and for Klal Yisroel.

Hat tip: Jewish Press