Thursday, August 21, 2014

David Gordon, a Hero Who Suffered

David Menachem Gordon, OBM
It appears that it has been confirmed to Rabbi Eliyahu Fink by reliable sources that, sadly, David did indeed commit suicide. That makes his eulogy and that of Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman's very appropriate and I retract my original post. But I do not retract the fact that he should be remembered as much for his heroism as he was for how he suffered.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Orthodoxy's Growth

The Havdalah Ceremony at an NCSY Winter Conclave
There has been much made about the Pew statistic which states that even though the only segment of Jewry in America that is growing is Orthodox Jewry, their retention rate is not that great… and their outreach programs are not that successful in light of the far greater number of Orthodox Jews that are no longer observant.

I’ve discussed this issue before. But in light of an article by Jerome A. Chanes in e-Jewish Philanthropy  a rebuttal and clarification is in order. From the article: 
(The)Orthodox reaction (of triumphalism) is a tad puzzling, especially in light of the “retention” numbers: how many people have chosen to remain Orthodox – and how many have not?
 On retention rates for the Orthodox, there’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that among those who were raised as Orthodox, only 48 percent are currently Orthodox; the rest are now affiliated with less traditional movements. (The retention numbers for the Conservative are bleaker: only 36 percent of those who were raised Conservative are currently Conservative.) 
The good news: among Orthodox Jews under 30, the retention rate is 83 percent. Noteworthy is that Orthodox retention rates are vastly lower among older people who were brought up Orthodox than they are among younger people. A mere 22 percent of Jews 65 and older who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox, while 57 percent of people aged 30-49 who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox – and the percentage rises as the group gets younger. 
 This phenomenon of more younger people retaining observance is easily explained by the author: 
It may be almost clichéd to point this out, but attending day schools through the high school years largely works. Furthermore, we ought not to discount the “gap-year” phenomenon. Unknown 50 years ago and rare 40 years ago, the post-high-school gap year, often spent in a yeshiva in Israel, has become standard for Orthodox youth. The gap year in Israel is a powerful factor cementing adherence of youth to some flavor of Modern, Centrist, or even sectarian (yeshivish) Orthodoxy. 
Day school education is the key to Jewish survival in our day. There is no better proof to that then to see what is happening to other denominations that have not educated their children that way. And as I said yesterday, the ‘gap year’ in Israel does generate ‘growth’ in ones Yiddshkeit which of course means that a lifelong commitment to observance has a solid foundation.  Which is rarely abandoned.

Unfortunately there is a serious and growing OTD phenomenon, where young Jews from religious families abandon observance of Halacha…and in some cases - core Jewish beliefs. But in my view that does not come anywhere near the numbers cited by the Pew report of Orthodox dropouts. Let us examine this.

The abandonment of Orthodoxy seems to be greater in older demorgraphics. The older one is the more likely he will abandon observance. Mr. Chanes does not explain this statistic. But I think the explanation  is obvious. The further back in American Jewish history one goes, the less Jewish education there was. That combined with the melting pot spirit of the times which had a strong assimilationist pull. Becuase of this, many Jews abandoned Orthodoxy in favor of an American lifestyle free of the hindrances of religious observance.

It is also a fact that many immigrant parents found it hard not to work on Shabbos fearing the loss of employment. Working on Shabbos was a standard operating procedure for many if not most jobs all the way into the 50s. So no matter how much a parent wanted their children to be religious, those children saw hypocrisy in the fact that they were expected to be Shomer Shabbos while their fathers worked on Shabbos. That - plus the desire to be ‘American’ in every sense of the word led many a Jew from an ‘Orthodox’ family to run away as fast and as far as they could from their Jewish identities and any level of observance.

It would not surprise me that in the Pew statistic is based on defining Orthdoxy by Shul membership. It was certainly the case that many early immigrants who worked on Shabbos belong toOrthodox Shuls. This was in fact the case in my father’s Shul in Toledo. The president of the Shul used to drive many of  its members to Shul every Shabbos. There were 3 Orthodox Shuls in Toledo back then. And only 3 observant families in the entire city.

If Toledo Jews would have been asked by Pew if they belong to an Orthodox Shul they would have responded in the affirmative. That may very well have been how Pew defined Orthodox Jewry.I can also attest to the fact that not a single one of their children were observant back then - all of them attending public schools. On the other hand it’s possible that some of their grandchildren are. That is where Kiruv comes in. Kiruv (outreach to non observant Jews) has indeed been very successful. As Mr Chanes points out:  
There are data that suggest that a substantial percentage of the Orthodox community – as much as 25 percent, according to some estimates – are “baalei t’shuvah,” so-called “returnees to observance” from other movements. 
And yet earlier in the essay he mentions that 80 to 90 percent of the participants in Kiruv Programs do not ‘stay the course’.  The implication is that with such low percentages of success, how can Kiruv movements claim success?!  I think that misses the point of Kiruv. Certainly these organizations would like to see better percentages. 100% would of course be ideal. But realisticly that will not happen.

Becoming a Baal Teshuva means a major upheaval in one’s life. It requires a commitment to things they may not even know about when they decide to observe Halacha. It means giving up a lifestyle of complete freedom and replacing it with restrictions and rituals in service to God. It often means disapproval by parents and peers. It means not being able to eat at your parents unkosher home anymore. That is an almost impossible task to ask of anyone, no matter how sincere they may be about Judaism.

And yet 25% of Orthodox Jewry has done exactly that. We can never hope to convince all those who participate in organizations like NCSY to make these kinds ofradical changes. But even if the perecentages are low, the numbers are great.  Tens of thousands (if not more) of young Jews from secularor irreligious homes have become observant via Kiruv over the last few decades. While Mr. Chanes is correct that the majority of Orthodox Jewry’s growth is internal, I think he does a disservice to Kiruv organizations like NCSY and Chabad to imply their success rate is dismal.

This is not to say that we should be triumphalist. We shouldn’t be. The sad fact is that we Orthodox are still a minority of  all Jews - less than 10%. Sadly, assimilation is so great that being Jewish is irrelevant to many of them. This is something that needs serious thought and action. Solutions about how to stop the hemorrhaging need to found and implemented. Other denominations are scratching their collective heads about this and are coming up short.

So even though the attrition rate is so very worrisome, we  can take comfort in the fact that in spite of that and in spite of the OTD phenomenon in our own circles,  we are experiencing unprecedented growth both internally and through Kiruv. 

My hat is off to those like NCSY, Chabad, and the many other fine Kiruv organizations who are out in the trenches. Because of all these factors, I believe that Orthodox Jewry will continue to increase their percentages and eventually become the majority. This is not triumphalist. It is just the way I see things unfolding going forward.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What Will the Future of Judaism Look Like?

I’ve discussed this topic many times. But last night it came through to me again as I heard a grandmother urge her grandchildren to seek a university education. 

What makes this particular event so unique is that this grandmother is someone that I would call a Centrist or a Right Wing Modern Orthodox Jew (RWMO) – as is her husband.  But her grandchildren are very Charedi.

As I have explained many times, Centrists are Jews are defined by their meticulous observance of Halacha, their belief in the supreme value of Torah study to which they dedicate much of their time… as well as supporting the elite scholars among us that do it full time. But they also place a high value on worldly knowledge as well as providing for their families.

There was a time when RWMOs sent their children to Centrist type day schools.  Although many still do, there are just as many that send their children to Charedi day schools. They have moved rightward having been influenced in their own MO schools by Mechanchim  that came from Charedi backgrounds.

And once they attended a Yeshiva or seminary in Israel… its all but over for many of them. Many of these Yeshivos and seminaries recruit students in Modern Orthodox schools hiding the fact that they are anti MO. They see themselves as ‘Kiruv’ type schools. What I mean by Kiruv in this instance is changing the Hashkafos of their students from those leaned in their homes to a Charedi Hashkafa. They call it growing.

I of course have no problem with growing, if it means becoming more serious about observance of Halacha and putting greater value on Torah study. But that is not all they do. They also very subtly (or even subliminally)  denigrate Modern Orthodoxy without making any distinctions between the left, right, or center of that Hashkafa. They just see all of MO as light on observance. And they denigrate many of its values learned in the home. They replace it with Charedi concepts of Daas Torah and spell out who they believe is qualified to express it – to the exclusion of all others.

When these young people come back from their ‘gap year’ (so named because it is the gap between high school and college) many of them have changed course and now seek the values that have been instilled in them in their Israeli ‘Kiruv’ schools. In other words - they become Charedi.

After they get married their own children will of course never have the chance to learn about a Centrist Hashkafa. Other than to have it denigrated when it is brought up  by their Mechanchim in the Charedi schools they attend. If you mention a university education to any of them, in many cases it will elicit derisive laughter.

But even without the ‘gap year’ in Israel, the very thing that is the hallmark of a RWMO Hashkafa – meticulous Mitzvah observance and the high value placed on Torah study- may in fact lead them to send their children to a Charedi day school.  These parents are afraid of the secular influences brought into Centrist schools.  They fear that being exposed to it will increase the chances of being enticed to go OTD.

The typical explanation I hear form RWMO’s who have university educations themselves about why they send their children to a Charedi school is: ‘Better to make my kids more frum than less frum.’ ‘I can always make them less Frum.’ ‘It’s much harder to make them more Frum.’

What happens instead is that their children are now influenced by the Charedi environment. They then continue to ‘grow’ in their Yiddishkeit and often end up spending years in a Kollel with lots of mouths to feed and little money with which to do it. And no real preparation for the workplace.

While it is true that in many cases a way is found for them to earn a decent living despite their disadvantaged secular education, it is certainly not assured. And many of them suffer because of it – even to the point of family dysfunction and OTD children.

This is not what Centrist grandparents envisioned for their grandchildren. What they envisioned was a lifestyle that is not driven by a Charedi driven agenda. But by a lifestyle similar to their own where their grandchildren would have options consistent with what they had.

The tragedy here is that this is not the way it was just a few decades ago. When I was in high school, most of the students - even in Charedi Yeshivos - got university.  After high school we attended the Yeshiva in the daytime and university at night. We all got degrees. And many of us used them to get advanced degrees or to go on to professionals schools in order to better our lives and those of our families financially. We  got married. We had families. We worked. We and were Koveih Itim (set aside regular times for Torah study). And we sent our children to good day schools. 

In Yeshivos like Torah VoDaath, Chaim Berlin, and Ner Israel, the vast majority of students did this. It was expected. It was normal. The Roshei Yeshiva encouraged it back then. Torah VoDaath Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Avrohom Pam had a degree in math. Chaim Berlin Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Hutner used to meet with the students in his Yeshiva to make sure they were taking the right courses for their own particular situations. Ner Israel was known to have the best arrangement with universities in Baltimore so as to maximize their Torah study without sacrificing their university studies. And it need not be said that YU and HTC were very pro secular studies, having a college right on their premises.

Today, that is all gone. In my view the move to the right was a natural outgrowth of the strong Charedi influences even in Centrist schools and spending the ‘gap year’ in Israel. Not to mention the success of community Kollels that brought with them their Charedi Hashkafos. These Kollels specialize in in-reach. This means they reach out to the already religious. While I believe they have done much to straighten observance and increase Torah study – which is something I enthusiastically support - they have added pressure to move to the right by teaching these values either via lectures or by example. Community Kollel Avreichim tend to be very popular – even charismatic. Many Jews (even from MO backgrounds) want to emulate them. 

This is not to say that I am giving up on Centrist Orthodoxy. Far from it. I believe in it strongly. I believe we Centrists still have a chance to influence the future of Orthodoxy. As I have said many times, there is a new world being created that will be comprised of moderate Charedim who have already learned there is value in university education as it pertains to Parnassa (making a living). They will be the majority. Touro College which caters to moderate Charedim has expanded greatly since its founding.

But that new world will also have Centrists whose lifestyles will be virtually identical albeit with different Hashkafos. These two groups will quite nicely on a social level. My hope is that the unsustainable nature of the Torah only influences will cause it to reconsider their past mostly positive attitudes about a university education. And instead of encouraging every one of their students into an indefinite stay in a Kollel, they will encourage the majority of them to seek a better life through a better education. So that even if they all spend some time in Kollel, it will be with a Parnassa in their pockets. If things go as I suggest they will, the future of observant Judaism will then no longer be Charedi or RWMO… but a melding the two Hashkafos into a new and stronger Judaism.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The New Guardians of the Gate

Charedim protesting the arrest and imprisonment of one of their own (Forward)
I don’t get it. I mean really... I just don’t get it. The minute there is even the slightest attempt to offer the Charedi world in Israel some salvation from the dire poverty many of them go through by virtue of their lifestyles of eschewing secular education in favor of full time  Torah study, there is hell to pay from the ‘guardians of the gate’. No I don’t mean Nerturei Karta, whose name translated means the same. I mean the other guardians.  More about that later.

I can only assume that a group calling itself the ‘Committee to Save the Torah World’ fall into the category of zealots. They are hard-line Charedim – followers of Rav Shmuel Auerbach that believe themselves to be the saviors of Judaism. They  have the same zeal for their issues that Neturei Karta has for theirs.

Not that zeal properly used doesn’t have its place. As the Torah tells us, Pinchas acted with zeal in killing a prince of Israel who committed an indecent and immoral act in public with a Midianite princess. So valid was his zeal that God rewarded him with eternal life for his act. Pinchas took the initiative and did not wait for Moshe to act. From this we learn the principle of ‘B’Makom Chilul HaShem, Ein Cholkin Kavod L’Rav’ – when there is a Chilul HaShem, we do not give honor to a Rav.

But misplaced zeal is often a Chilul HaShem in and of itself. That is the only appellation I can think of to describe what happened in Israel in reaction to two issues affecting the Charedi world.

The first one involves renewed resistance to the draft laws. (So much for all the accolades about the Mesiras Nefesh of the IDF and the sense of unity we just experienced.) The Jerusalem Post reports that the arrest of a Charedi student for refusing to register with the IDF resulted in protests in several locations, including Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Bet Shemesh, and Kiryat Sefer. 

The protests were not peaceful.  They were violent.  This student had been arrested and imprisoned before for the same reason. Which resulted in similar protests at the time. He was released after serving 20 days and later asked again to show up and register for a future draft. He resisted again. And he was arrested again. Hence these violent protests.

How violent? I was told by a young American Charedi that a Charedi relative of his in Israel who is a follower of Rav Auerbach actually tried to drop a rock from a balcony onto a police officer who was scuffling with a Charedi protester at an earlier (pre Gaza war) protest!

Although Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman is also opposed to the draft laws, he wisely mandated that when Charedim are called to register, they should do so. Rav Chaim Kanievsky backed him up, calling him the Gadol HaDor. he forbade students from following  Rav Auerbach considering it an affront to the Gadol HaDor and a Chilul HaShem. And yet the consensus among students seem to be swaying in favor of Rav Auerbach. I have to agree with R' Kanievsky. To those who feel obligated to follow R' Auerbach - I would apply the dictum of ‘B’Makom Chilul HaShem, Ein Cholkin Kavod L’Rav’

How can it be that a path of violent resistance is chosen over the path of peace? Is this how God’s chosen people are supposed to act? Especially when there is a peaceful alternative sanctioned someone who is considered by many to be the Gadol HaDor? This makes no sense to me.

The other major issue affecting Charedim is even more perplexing that the draft issue.I can understand resistance to a draft. Even though I believe that even peaceful resistance is misplaced, it is a natural reaction to forced changes in a system they believe to be the essence of Judaism. Changes that many feel are not necessary claiming with some justification that the army does not need or even want Charedim. They believe (erroneously in my view) that this is a ploy by the government to destroy the Torah world.

But when it comes to offering an educational option to the Charedi world, the strong opposition is mind boggling. Not one Charedi is being forced to attend such a school. It is there as an option for those who seek an education that will enable them to support their families.

Hochmei Lev, a new Yeshiva high school opened up in Jerusalem last year. It offers secular studies as part of its curriculum. It is headed by R. Bezalel Cohen – a product of the Charedi Yeshiva system. It was founded by Charedim - for Charedim.

Hochmei Lev is similar to Ma’arava and a few other Charedi Yeshiva  high schools that offer a secular curriculum in addition to the regular Torah study curriculum. This is the first one established in Jerusalem.  Other than offering a secular curriculum everything else about it is strictly Charedi.  The municipality had provided them a group of trailers located in the Charedi neighborhood of Ramot Aleph, a mostly Charedi neighborhood. They were about to begin their second year. You can guess what happened next.  From Ha’aretz: 
The combination of religious and general subjects in a yeshiva for boys goes against the official Haredi stance, and this was enough to ignite an all-out war against the yeshiva, which previously operated in an area far away. 
…opponents have been considering publishing a letter against him in the name of Lithuanian Haredi leader Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman – a move that could spell a mortal blow for his institution, and perhaps also spark a crisis in Barkat’s coalition. So far, Cohen’s opponents have published an article against him in the Haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman, a special pamphlet attacking him personally, put up posters against him, and mounted other efforts to prevent his children from being accepted into yeshivas. 
The letter from the rabbis of Ramot, disseminated in the neighborhood two weeks ago, said the municipality intends to give buildings to Hochmei Lev, “an institution whose leaders publicly defy the great sages, who scorn our heritage and, we were aghast to hear, also work in cooperation with and with funding from Reform organizations.” 
Ever the politician afraid of losing power, Mayor Barkat has given in and asked for the keys to those trailer buildings. Of course he promised the school that he would find them another location. And we know just how much a promise from a politician is worth (although he did make an attempt).

Why protest a school that is only an option and not a government requirement? No one is being forced to go. Is it so terrible for the Charedi world if some of its young men choose to be trained for the workplace? 

I know that changes the tradition of no secular studies. But why is that holy to them? These traditions are not Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai - handed by God directly to Moshe. They were put into place in a different time under different circumstances. When conditions change and an existential threat to the Jewish people arises we are not only permitted to make changes we are required to do so. Isn't an unsustainable lifestyle a Hora;s Shah - an existential threat?

Speaking of guardians, an earlier guardian of great stature, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld (The Guardian of Jerusalem) knew that way back in pre-sate Palestine. He actually requested help from a distinguished and lettered educator who was observant to set up schools that offered secular studies curriculum in Jerusalem. 

Are today’s Charedi zealots smarter than R’ Sonnenfeld? Isn’t it a Chilul HaShem to see was and act accordingly in the face of what is - the current existential threat?  Shouldn’t we look toward the future and change things in order to prevent the collapse of the Charedi system? In my view it is.  

The Role of Rabbis in Confronting Abuse in the Orthodox Community

Guest Post by Rabbi Yosef Blau

Rabbi Yosef Blau
One of the strongest advocates for victims of sex abuse is  Rabbi Yosef Blau, Mashgiach Ruchani of Yeshivas Rabbenu Yitzchok  Elchanan (YU). I received the following a submission of a short post generated by the scandal in the seminaries owned and operated by sex abuser Elimelech Meisels. I am honored to do so. It follows:

Sexual abuse is criminal behavior and the police should be contacted. This does not imply that there is no role for the rabbinate and the community leaders in confronting abuse. In many cases the victims are unwilling to cooperate with the police often because of community pressures. Even when they do there is a need to remove an accused offender from a position where he is a potential danger before the slow process of a police investigation and prosecution is completed.

The recent case of the head of a seminary in Israel accused of sexual misconduct with students is an example of the need for rabbinic action. While according to Israeli law the behavior is illegal it is unlikely that American students, who have returned home and know little Hebrew, will go to the Israeli police. Only pressure from an external דין בית will cause the offender to resign his position.

Since he created the school and chose its staff a thorough investigation of the circumstances is necessary to determine if others were negligent and guilty of enabling the abuse or covering it up. This would require speaking first to all the students who were abused or witnessed any questionable behavior and to ascertain if they informed anyone on staff of their concerns.

After such an ordeal the community has to provide support for the victims. The impact of discovering that the primary religious personality of a critical year of Torah learning was an abuser often has a devastating effect on the students who attended the seminary. Rabbis should meet with any students who want to discuss their experiences.

Unfortunately the world of Israeli seminaries has no process for oversight. There is no supervising body. A change of ownership, while necessary, clearly is inadequate to ensure that the seminary is safe and that there has been a re-evaluation of the education and atmosphere created by head, who was revealed to be an abuser of his students.

There is an appropriate concern for the economic welfare of the administrators and staff of the institutions involved. However the victims deserve to be the primary concern followed by the other students who attended or who have registered for the coming year. Any attempt to pressure parents by refusing to return deposits is a manifestation of wrong priorities.

The lack of any apology to students affected, coupled by attempts to use religious arguments to prevent them from coming forward, is a telling indictment of those connected to the seminaries. The way that the present crisis is handled is the clearest indication of the amount of progress or lack of such in the response of the Orthodox rabbinate and major institutions to abuse within the community.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry

UNHRC war crimes panel head William Schabas - Not a good Schabas
War crimes are a serious business. Governments that commit them ought to be held responsible. The Allied forces did a good job doing that after the Holocaust, where Nazi Officials were tried for crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials. Many leaders of the 3rd Reich were found guilty of genocide against the Jewish people and were hanged..  That event in 1945-46 was clearly an exercise in justice.

Fast Forward to today. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has created a panel to investigate whether there were any war crimes committed by Israel during its recent war with Hamas in Gaza. To compare in any way what the Nuremberg trials were about in 1945 with what is going on today, is a blasphemy. It is an insult to any version of ethics and morality that anyone can imagine.

During the course of the war, Israel was singled out for criticism by Navi Pillay, a U.N. human rights official. She accused Israel of deliberately defying international law and should be held accountable for possible war crimes.

From the Forward
Israel has attacked homes, schools, hospitals, Gaza’s only power plant and U.N. premises in apparent violation of the Geneva Conventions, said Pillay, a former U.N. war crimes judge. 
And then in an obvious pretense to seem even handed she said the following: 
Hamas militants in Gaza have violated international humanitarian law by firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel.
Is there any doubt that this panel is anti-Israel from the get-go? The people on this must be some of the most ethically challenged individuals in the history of the UN. But the real culprit William Schabas, who by comparison makes Richard Goldstone look like a saint. Goldstone’s panel concluded that Israel deliberately targeted the citizens of Gaza in the 2009 war. A conclusion Goldstone himself retracted in 2011 (…no doubt to the chagrin of Schabas who suggested he be put on the short list of Nobel Peace Prize nominees when the Goldstone report was first issued). 

I’m sure the UN purposely chose Jews like Goldstone and Schabas as a cynical ploy to show that this is not about Antisemitism.  

But the fact that they are Jewish does not make them any more evenhanded about the State of Israel than the members of Neturei Karta who carry Palestinian flags as they attend anti Israel rallies with Muslim extremists and their sympathizers who join them in calling for the dismantling of the State of Israel.

How in heaven’s name can someone who has said that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and former president Shimon Peres should be indicted before the International Criminal Court be considered even handed – and chosen to investigate whether war crimes were committed?

Even after he was appointed to head that committee, a video published by UN Watch revealed him saying the following to mocking laughter by other members of the committee: 
"Honestly, if I had to think of a person who is considered the greatest threat to the survival of Israel, I would probably choose to Netanyahu," 
I  agree with Israel's Permanent Representative to the UN, Ron Proser, who said the following:
"Forming an investigatory committee headed by Schabas is like inviting ISIS to organize religious tolerance week at the UN..."
(I’m sure their final report will include Israel’s disproportionate response to Hamas rockets. After all - not enough Jews were killed.)

Is there any sane individual that would say that a committee composed of these individuals has any credibility at all? That the UNHRC can set this up and call it even-handed with a straight face is proof positive that they are heavily biased against the Jewish State. Espicially since UNHRC has never called for similar inquiries into some of the most evil despotic genocidal regimes that are all members in good standing of the UN.

And yet - except for those of us who have examined the facts about this commission as I just outlined - there is going to be a lot of credibility given by people who are mostly uninformed about this. The high minded name of being a committee that is supposed to be concerned about human rights will no doubt convince many people that read their report or hear about its Israeli bashing conclusions  from the media -  and think it was a fair and thorough investigation… and  end up believing it.

I don’t know what to do about that. Other than to keep underscoring just how biased this panel is in the public square every chance we get. My hope is that the United States will join Israel in delegitimizing this panel and reject any of its biased conclusions - just as it did with the Goldstone report. Wouldn’t  it be nice if – for a change - the media cared more about ethical journalism than it cared about its revenue  stream and completely ignored this UN panel or any of its conclusions?

Unfortunately there are only 2 chances of that happening: 1) slim and 2) none.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Life Lessons and Overview

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Weekly Torah portion - Ekev

How Israel was apportioned to the 12 tribes
1.    Reward for Listening -Moshe Rabbeinu tells us that if we listen to Hashem's laws He will bless us and make us numerous.  He will bless our produce and flocks.  We will be blessed above the other nations and all sickness will be taken away from us.  He warns us not to show pity to our enemies, and not to worship their gods.  This is a Mokesh - trap for you. 

What exactly is the trap here?  Avodah Zarah is one of the most serious sins in the Torah.  The Ohr HaChaim explains that the word "trap" actually modifies the previous point of showing mercy.  Showing the enemy mercy will end up in our showing cruelty to ourselves.  This is an important lesson especially in contemporary times.  

2.    Bitachon - Moshe further instructs us not to be fearful on account of the numbers of the nations.  Hashem will uproot these nations little by little.  We should not be desirous of their gold and silver statues.  We may not bring abominations in our homes, it is Chairem - forbidden.

The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 429) explains that the verse telling us not to bring abominations into our home also includes mixing ill-gotten financial gain with moneys that Hashem allowed us to earn.  Ultimately, the ill-gotten gain will taint everything and cause all one's possessions to become tainted - Chairem.

3.    Everything Comes From Hashem and Bentsching - Moshe tells the Bnie Yisroel that all the Mitzvos that Hashem commands you, you must guard.  Hashem sent trials to test us.  But He gave us manna and our clothing was not tattered.  He is bringing us to a good land with wheat barley grapes, figs, pomegranates, oil from olives and honey of dates.  When we eat and are satisfied we must bless Hashem.

The Kli Yakar points out that the word you in the verse "that I command you" is singular, yet the word "you shall guard" is conjugated in the plural.  He explains that this shows how the actions of a mere individual can effect the entire world.  One person can and often does matter.  He or she can make matters as if an entire group of people  was involved.  

4.    Warning Against Avodah Zarah - Hashem's warns us against Avodah Zarah. He says that you will be destroyed just like the nations that Hashem is destroying now before you.

The Seforno points out that this is to demonstrate to us that adopting Avodah Zarah will lead to our loss of both worlds - this world and the world to come.  We see from this Seforno that had only one warning have been issued, we would have rationalized things away.  The nature of man is that he needs to be reminded both of the short term and long term affects.  One is not sufficient.

5.    Warning Against Being Self- Righteous - Moshe tells us that we are entering the land with great cities and towers up to the sky.  He adjures us not to think that it was because of our virtue that Hashem brought us to the land, rather their wickedness.  He reminds us of what we did when we received the luchos and the sin of the golden Aigel.  Moshe reminds us that Hashem wished to destroy us for this and that Moshe begged Hashem not to do so.

In this section Moshe Rabbeinu describes "towers up to the sky."  The Gemorah in Chullin (90b) derives from this description that hyperbole is a proper rhetorical device that does not constitute lying.  It can evoke stronger feelings than a mere description in order to make a point.  We see from Moshe Rabbeinu's use of this rhetorical device that great effort must be placed in our spoken and written words in order to inspire others toward more passionate feelings about important issues we are discussing.

6.    The Second Set of Dibros - Moshe explains how he had fashioned an ark and had placed the second set of luchos there.  He tells us of our travels and how Aharon had passed away.  The tribe of Levi carried the Aron Hashem.  Hashem then said to get moving to take over the land.

In the second set of Luchos we find the command to place them in an Aron (ark) of wood - something that we do not find in regard to the first set of Luchos.  The Chezkuni explains that this was in order that they not be easily within Moshe Rabbeinu's reach to destroy again.  We see from this Chezkuni an extraordinary insight.  Everyone, even a Moshe Rabbeinu, could benefit from protective steps designed to ensure deliberation and careful consideration and to discourage spontaneous decisions.

7.    Following Hashem's Ways - Moshe explains that Hashem only wants of us to 1] fear Hashem 2] Walk in all His ways 3] Love Him 4] Serve Him with heart and soul 5] Observe His Mitzvos.  Moshe tells us to safeguard everything so that we will be able to remain in the land.

In walking in all His ways, the word "all" seems to beg attention.  The Ohr HaChaim explains based upon the Midrash in Vayikra that the Torah is giving a means for even those who are very distant from Hashehm to come back.  "If you have amassed an entire slew of Aveiros, you can make up for it by amassing an entire slew of Mitzvos."  Thus the word "all" is addressing sinners who have sinned in many ways.  We see here that the Torah shows concern for all of Hashem's children - not just for the very best or even those in the middle.

8.    Eretz Yisroel Demanding but Beneficial - Moshe Rabbeinu explains that Mitzrayim was easier to plant and irrigate.  Eretz Yisroel is a land of mountains and valleys dependent upon rain.  Hashem is always scrutinizing the land from th beginning of the year until the end.

The Torah describes Eretz Yisroel positively as a land of mountains and valleys.  How is this a positive description?  The Sifri explains that the fruits of mountains have different beneficial tastes than the beneficial tastes of fruits from valleys.  Food scientists today speak of the firmer tannins in mountain fruits and the natural acidity of valley fruits brought about by the greater and constant humidity of valleys.  Rashi points out that even Ramses, the best venue in Mitzrayim, would not yield fruits like the valleys and mountains of Eretz Yisroel.  

9.    The Yoke of the Mitzvos - Moshe tells us that if we carefully listen to the Mitzvos and serve Him with all our heart and soul, Hashem will grant the early and later rains in their time.  We will have great harvests.  If we worship other gods the land will not give crops.  We must place these words on our hearts.  If we do this, we and our children will endure in the land.

Rashi asks why the Torah repeats the words "and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul" here after having written so in the Krias Shma already.  He answers that the former was an admonition for individuals while here it is for the public.  This is strange because the public is made up of individuals.  How can a tzibbur have intentions?  We see from here that people act differently when they are in a group than when they are alone.  There is a mob mentality that can take over.  It is one, however, that we can also control.  It can be controlled if we are aware of it.  By the same token, we can act nobly and morally when in a group, but if we are alone, we may act differently.  This Rashi teaches us that we must act nobly always.

10.    Promise of Victory - Moshe tells us that if we keep all this and cleave to Him, Hashem will drive out the nations, we will have broad borders,  and no man will stand up to us.  Hashem will put the fear of us on the entire area as He has promised.

The victory is contingent on the words "Ul'davka Bo" and to cleave to Him.  How is it truly possible to fulfill this Mitzvah of Dveikus?  The Ramban explains that it means developing ourselves to be worthy of cleaving to Hashem.  This includes constantly being aware of Him and having our thoughts pertaining to Hashem and Torah values.

Sponsored l’Ilui Nishmas the author’s mother Sara Bas HaRav Eliyahu, Yartzeit 22 Av
There are ten Parshios in this Sidrah. 

Parsha sheet written  l'ilui nishmos the three murdered Yeshiva students: Gilad Michael ben Ophir, Yaacov Naftali ben Avraham, and Eyal ben Uriel, HY"D.

To subscribe send an email with the word "subscribe" and your zipcode in the subject line to  

To Download as a PDF Document CLICK HERE 

-----------------content sponsored by the author-----------------

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Seminaries in Israel - Let the Buyer Beware

Rabbi Meir Kahane, Dean of Chedvas Beis Yaakov (Frum Follies)
What a mess. The Meisels /seminary scandal continues. Accusations of impropriety are flying back and forth between partisan advocates of one Beis Din and another. And somewhere in between all of these these accusation the truth gets lost. 

Just to review and bring this matter up to date, Elimelech Meisels who owned 4 seminaries in Israel was found by a respected Beis Din in Chicago (CBD) to have sexually abused or molested some of his students. This was determined after an exhaustive 3 month investigation of the facts that included physical evidence, interviews with victims, and with Meisels himself. The CBD issued a letter to potential parents made available to the public that these seminaries were not considered safe and that parents should not send their daughters to them.

At that point they referred the matter to a respected Israeli Beis Din (IBD) since these seminaries are located in Israel. R’ Aharon  Feldman, Rosh HaYeshiva of Ner Israel and member of the Agudah Moetzes was asked by the CBD to forward the matter to the IBD -which he did. 

After a brief examination of the facts, The IBD removed Meisels from the premises of those 4 seminaries and told him to sell them. After he agreed, they immediately put out a statement saying that not only were those schools safe, but they were fine institutions. And that other schools were forbidden by Halacha accept any student that was previously enrolled in any of those 4 seminaries.

The CBD stood by its view that the seminaries were not safe and that parents should not send their daughters there. Furthermore parents that had sent in the rather hefty deposits were entitled to get their money back. The seminaries refused. And with the support of the CBD, the matter was taken to court in a class action lawsuit by some of those parents.

After hearing about how quickly and unequivocally the IBD affirmed the safety and high value of those schools, R’ Aharon Feldman  was appalled and wrote a letter to the IBD in protest. The substance of that letter can be summed up in one phrase that he used:   
The Chilul Hashem r.l. is spreading; people have lost their emunas chachomim; I just heard of two girls who went off the derech because of this affair. 
The issue was that there were teachers in the school who were informed about Miesels activities and looked the other way. They remain in those schools.

Based on the IBD Psak and the rave review of these institutions, Rabbi Meir Kahane, the Menahel (Dean) of one of those 4 seminaries (Chedvas Beis Yaakov) sent out a letter touting that praise- declaring that Meisels was gone, their school is now safe, and open for business as usual.

For their part the CBD stood by its original statement that those schools are not yet safe and that the parents who made deposits had every right to get their money back. And to do so via the American court system if necessary. 

This is where things stand now. I don’t know if the following comment is true. But as the e-mail sent to me by Yerchmiel Lopin (who excerpted it from his blog) said, it has a ring of truth to it. I agree. If so seminaries in Israel present a far greater danger to our daughters than one would ever suspect. And yet most parents now send their daughters there with little more information about them than their reputations. 

In the interest of the safety of our daughters, I am publishing it here. I make no claim about its authenticity. It is up to the individual to decide for themselves whether or not to factor in a letter that has not necessarily been authenticated. It follows: 
I am a therapist, frum, no not just frum but FFB. I am American born and bred, practicing in Israel. I am not a newcomer comer to Yeshivos and Seminaries, like I have said I grew up in the mainstream frum American world (rare among therapists, and even more rare among mechanchim in Israel. But I write this as a regular yid, who happens to have inside exposure to the mess. 
I pride myself in having gone to Yeshivos and my family in every direction too. There may some due criticism for all mosdos, and lots for specific ones, but by and large they do devoted and hard work for our children, as was done for us 
Firstly, let us acknowledge this; the vast majority of people working in chinuch are devoted and honest people, who are moser nefesh for a praiseworthy goal. Those who don’t live up to this standard, who are not honest and fair and even worse abusive are the exception. Thank you to all the special true mechanchincm. 
Now, yes with heartbreak, we must admit not all, and yes it is becoming more and more common, are people we should trust our children, teens or adults too. 
As a therapist, I often deal with such cases, of neglect and outright abuse of all types. Whether the issue stems from parents, friends, strangers or the teachers themselves, too often mechanchim and even rabbonim are implicit. It is simply rare to find people who will stand up for the truth, who are not afraid of it. Who will get up and put down their foot to protect and prevent abuse.
At the end of the day, adults are responsible for themselves, people need to fight for their rights, fairly and honestly. Parents are responsible for their children, and as such all I can say, is that it is FRIGHTNING how foolish and willfully blinded people can be when making decisions on where and why it is safe to go places.
(It causes great harm when so many innocent are accused, often by rumors or clearly non-reliable people and their lives ruined without fair and honest investigation. Please, lets be wary of unconfirmed rumors, and be very careful who we really can trust to say one was guilty. Ironically the guilty usually get away and the innocently framed get nailed and shattered. 
For many of us in the field this specific expose came as no surprise, nor is it the first time such ‘problems’ were discovered in seminaries. The writing has been on the wall for years! People in the know make no secret of the questionable situations which come up constantly for young impressionable girls away from home.
The options include but are not limited to; hashkafic crumkeit (the majority of seminaries proudly entertain all types of ‘Jewish thought’ -little do parents knew what their child will be exposed to), sexual education -undesired, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, manipulating for egotistic reasons, peer abuse, dangers of all sorts from within and without seminaries, and more.
Every year a number of girls learn the hard way. Not a small number, I myself have a connection with a few dozen a year! And I obviously do not come across all. (I am not only referring to abuse, but also other situations, such as girls getting a lot deeper than they planned or their parents can imagine with other people, etc..).
This is but one of this therapist’s comments. There other comments made by him that were far more condemning. They can be seen in the comments section of Yerachmiel’s blog.

I can’t speak for all the parents whose daughters will most likely eventually be going to a seminary in Israel. But If I were in their shoes, I would be thinking long and hard about whether I should send them to a seminary at all. The current almost universal practice among Orthodox parents with daughter is to send them to Israel for a year or two so that they can ‘grow’ in their Judaism.  That may be a noble goal for a daughter. But not at the risk of being abused in any way… and so far away from home. That is too big a price to pay.

Not to mention the actual price of doing. Tuitions have gotten to be exorbitant! You could make a small wedding for your daughter with what it costs to send her to Israel for a year. Multiply that by all of your daughters – each of which will end up doing the same thing. I think there are better ways to spend your money… and better  ways for your daughters to grow… right in your own backyard and under the continued guidance of their parents.

One more tangentially related thing. Even though I respect him greatly, I posted a comment on Rabbi Eidensohn’s blog in protest to the way he characterized the CBD. He turned that comment into a post in which he refuted my suspicion that he was biased against the CBD because of his close friendship to a member of the IBD. His response was that I was blinded by my respect for the CBD. I have a two word response: Goose / Gander.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams and Depression

Robin Williams accepting the Oscar for his role in Good Will Hunting
I was a fan. But then again, is there anyone in the world that was not? Robin Williams was the real deal. He was not only one of the funniest people alive, from all reports, he was also a Mentch. This was in fact what fellow comedian Steve Martin said about him in reaction to the news of his death at age 63. And it was true. The reports I have heard about him since his death testify to that. He was open and honest about his problems. He had great humility and was very generous with his time for all.

There was rarely a time when I saw him on TV that he didn’t make me belly laugh. He was truly a comic genius whose mind was so quick that he could find humor in just about anything and quickly react with humor in ways that few others could.

The Talmudic sage Rava used to open his lectures with some humor. In this way he got the attention of his students who were then more inclined to learn from him. Chazal tell us that people who make us laugh and thereby cheer us up - get an automatic portion in Olam Haba. I don’t think this is limited to Jews. Chazal also tell us that non Jews can earn their way into the world to come. Perhaps Robin Williams qualified.

It was common knowledge that Robin Williams had a drug and alcohol addiction problem.  For this he had to go to rehab several times in his life. The question arises, why would such a successful man who by all accounts was one of the most thoughtful and ethical people in show business stoop to taking drugs? Does this not show a lapse in his judgment or character? Why does a man like this choose to get high on drugs?

I don’t really know the answer. I’m sure that there are people who do know the answer including the mental health professionals that treated him inside of rehab and out. But I’m going to take a stab at why I think he may have taken these drugs – based on what has been revealed about his mental state prior to his suicide.

I do not believe that Robin Williams abused drugs as some sort of recreational activity. I believe he was probably self medicating. Apparently Robin Williams was one of the many Americans who suffer from a mental disorder known as clinical depression.  Actually I think calling it a mental disorder is a misnomer. In the vast majority of cases, clinical depressions is really a physical disorder.

As a student of psychology back in the late sixties (…my undergraduate degree from Roosevelt University is in psychology) I was taught that all disorders of this nature could be treated with psychotherapy. Abnormal behavior had some underlying psychological cause that existed in the unconscious mind. Once the patient discovered and understood it the abnormal behavior would end.

But as I later discovered, this is usually not the case with clinical depression. That is rarely caused by external factors. In the vast majority of cases, clinical depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. When this is the case, there is no amount of psychotherapy that will help. The only thing that will is the right medication. Without out it, life can be so unbearable that suicide looks like a better alternative than living.

I’m not sure I can accurately describe what it’s like for a clinically depressed personality. But I will give it a try. Clinical depression knows no socio-economic, ethnic, or religious backgrounds. It is usually an inherited trait. The symptoms include constant states of anxiety, frequent panic attacks, loss of appetite, (or in some cases an increased appetite), inability to sleep at night, and disinterest in work or any part of your daily routine. Depressed people cannot function well in their jobs and even if they somehow do force themselves to go to work, will just go through the motions.

Depressed personalities find it excruciatingly painful to go through the day doing even menial tasks that most people do by rote. Nothing interests them. Emotions are shut down. They don’t feel the natural love they might otherwise feel for a loved one (spouse, children, parents, etc). You basically feel numb. And very quickly after just a few days of this kind of living you begin to feel  hopeless about your situation. Day after day of waking up in a panic and living in a constant state of anxiety feeling no other emotions will take its toll very quickly. And thoughts of suicide become a very attractive out. Ending one’s life ends the pain.

This was apparently what Robin Williams suffered throughout much of his life. Many depressed personalities hide it from their friends. They seem quite normal to them. But it is an act. The depression is there and constant, only to be let out when no one is around (except for the one or two people you may have confided in). Talking about it doesn’t help. Only the right medication will. Unlike other physical disorders many of which have medication that specifically treats the disease, depression has many anti depressants all of which work for some people and not for others. Sometimes a combination of drugs needs to be taken.

This has to be done under the supervision of an psychiatrist, who is an MD - licensed to prescribe medication. Until that ‘magic bullet’ is found, a depressed personality will remain so… adding to the feelings of hopelessness as each day passes. But when it is found, it works. The brain chemistry returns to normal and you are no longer clinically depressed.  

It should be noted that when the right medication is found, it usually needs to be taken permanently. Many patients who start feeling better after a while, get off the drug and the depression inexplicably and without warning returns at some point. And then getting back on the drug or drug combination will no longer be effective. That can really be devastating to the renewed depressed personality. That person will have to start all over trying to find a new drug or combination of drugs that will work.

I don’t know what Robin Williams’ experiences were along these lines. But obviously he was once again suffering from severe depression. And apparently he felt he would never be able to get out of it again. So for him, suicide was the only way out.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 16 million adults over the age of 18 in the US had at least one depressive episode in 2012. That is almost 7% of all American adults. It is one of the most common mental disorders in the country. 

Jews are not any more immune to depression than are non Jews. I personally know many Orthodox Jews who suffer from this terrible disorder. Not only do the individuals themselves suffer, but so do close members of the family living with them. Living with a depressed personality is not easy. More than one person I know got divorced because of it. In one case I know, there was a suicide. In other cases there were unsuccessful suicide attempts.

Even with as many people I know that suffer from clinical depression, I’m sure there are a great deal more that successfully hide it from me and everyone else. It is relatively common for depressed people to fake it... and appear to be just as normal as everyone else.

I think that the Robin Williams’ suicide ought to be a wake-up call for us. If you have any of the above symptoms for any length of time - get help. If you know someone who does, convince them to see a professional with the ability to prescribe anti depressants and who has a good track record. There is no more shame in this disorder than there is in any other physical disorder. Just because there are no physical symptoms does not make it any less of an illness than heart disease or cancer. While effective treatments are trickier, they do exist. 

And by all means avoid metal health practitioners that tell you that all you need is psychotherapy. In most cases that is a sure prescription for failure.  This is a disease that can be licked. But the first step must be taken be getting professional help. Because many of the people I know that suffered from clinical depression did find the right doctors who prescribed the right medication and now lead completely normal lives.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

An Israeli Touro?

Dr. Bernard Lander, OBM - Founder of Touro College
There is a new Charedi Yeshiva Gedola (post high school) opening up in Israel. It will most likely be modeled on Touro.  This Yeshiva ‘college’ will mesh nicely with places like Marava, which is a Charedi high school that includes a full secular studies program. The college will function much the same way Marava does. There will be a strong Limudei Kodesh program in the morning, not unlike any major Yeshiva. I assume that in the afternoon there will be a full curriculum offering of Limudei Chol (secular studies).

In the US, Charedi high schools that have secular studies programs are still pretty much the norm. Albeit decreasingly so.  It is a sad fact of reality that Limudei Chol is being vilified unlike any other time in history. By vilified, I do not mean that any Rabbinic figure openly disparages Limudie Chol.  But the fact that it has become so de-emphasized has been taken by Charedi students to mean that it is more or less worthless in the face of knowing one additional Rashba (the Hebrew acronym of commonly studied Rishon by the name of R' Shlomo Ben Aderes). The idea being that knowing an additional Rashba  has far more value than learning any Limudei Chol.

This is why a Yeshiva high school like  the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia (Lakewood’s high school more commonly known by its nickname – Philly) that once touted an exceptional secular studies program has reduced it to a bare bones minimum where – if I understand correctly - teachers are prohibited from assigning any homework. 

Nonetheless, secular studies programs still seem to be the norm in most Charedi high schools albeit at a reduced level.  A dual program of Limudie Kodesh and Limudei Chol at the college level has been frowned upon even in the US. No self respecting Charedi Yeshiva would have a college program on its premises. The one time anything like that was attempted (by R’ Yitzchok Hutner and Reb Shrag Feivel Medelowitz), it was nixed by Rav Ahron Kotler.

Touro has become a phenomenal success for Charedi students in the US. There –students from Yeshivos like Lakewood can – and do go to get an education that will enable them to get decent jobs in the professions or in business. It is my understanding that they are packed with Charedi students.

To the credit of American Charedi leaders, there has never been any real criticism of Touro. While many Charedi leaders still believe that the purest of Yeshivos are those that do not have secular studies at all, and promote those Yeshivos over places like Touro, they realize the benefits to their community of schools like Touro and quietly support it. I have never heard any direct criticism by the right of Touro.

But this is not so in Israel. You would think that attending a Touro type Yeshiva is the equivalent of subjecting yourself to Shmad… forced conversion to another religion. The opposition is vehement.

 Not that I am all that surprised.  Marava, was similarly opposed when it opened up. And they are just a high school. Now that a college is opening up along those lines, that the anger expressed by the Charedi leadership is palpable.  

On his blog, Marty Bluke report tells us that the opposition is fierce. That is what the Hebrew edition of the Yated Neeman reports. They are strongly protesting this institution - calling it Chutzpah in the extreme!  To dare to open a school like this up. They refer to it as an unprecedented evil whose purpose is to ensnare the pure and innocent Charedi students into an institution that is the equivalent of biblically forbidden material know as Shatnez. This is how they see a Yeshiva that combines Torah Study with Secular studies.

I can understand the Hashkafa that feels that secular studies should not enter the confines of a Yeshiva. As I do about their encouragement to attend a Yeshiva where only Torah is studied to the exclusion of all else.

But to treat a Yeshiva that does include a secular studies program as a Pariah that should be rejected from their midst, is beyond rational. Why can’t they be more accepting of a school that will in the end benefit their people by helping them become more self supporting? Is there no such thing as recognizing the value of something that is just a little different from your ideal? Why can American Charedi leadership tacitly (if not officially) approve of such situations while Charedi leadership decries and condemns it?

The answer I often hear from American defenders of the Israeli leadership is that what is good for Americans is not necessarily good for Israel. Two different systems with two different needs… and therefore two different educational paradigms. We dare not criticize Israeli Charedi leadership from our perspective here in America.

I do not accept that. As I have often responded to this approach: There is only one Torah for Klal Yisroel. There are not 2 Torahs, one for Israel and one for the US. What’s more, the fact is that Israeli Charedim need this kind of education more than Americans do. The lack of being properly prepared for the workplace is far more serious in Israel than it is in the US. If anyone needs a boost to help them better prepare for the workplace so they can better support their families, it is the Israeli Charedim. Their poverty far surpass American Charedi poverty.

Why is it so hard for the Charedi leadership to compromise? What are they so afraid of? No one wants to hurt them. Least of all a school that is designed by Charedim for Charedim. And why isn’t the American leadership afraid of the same thing? This deserves a serious answer. Condemnations like the one in the Yated are not a substitute for that.