Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Can They Change?

Once again, I find myself taking issue with Frieda Vizel. Raised in the traditions of Satmar, Mrs. Vizel has since left their confines but remains a strong supporter of her former community. In a recent article in Tablet she defended her old community against charges that they are the poorest segment of American society and argued that they are not on a trajectory of increased poverty. She cited several factors that mitigate against that. Concluding that the lack of a secular studies program for boys is not the tragedy that some people paint it as. 

I took issue with her then. And I take issue with her again now. In a new Tablet article she conceded that her old community could use an ‘upgrade’ in the way it prepares its young for the future. But she adds that trying to force them into it is counterproductive. People that suffer from a ‘persecution complex’ (her words)  will push back mightily when they feel they are being forced into something.

She argues that left alone there will eventually be a gradual grass roots effort to change the old ‘no secular studies’ paradigm into one that offers it at least as an option. Change can and does take place she says - at a grass roots level in that community. She cites a couple of examples of it. The most significant of which is Dor Yeshorim.

Dor Yeshorim is an organization that tests people to see if they are carriers of genetic disorders. It was founded by a  Rabbi Josef Ekstein, Chasdic Rabbi who had lost four children to Tay-Sachs.

Tay-Sachs is a devastating child disorder aftecting mostly Jews of Ashkenazic descent. It results in the destruction of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Which is followed by seizures, hearing loss,  the inability to move and eventually death in early childhood.

Tay-Sachs can only come about genetically. Both parents must carry the gene. If they do there is a 1 in 4 chance that their child will get the disease. Dor Yeshorim tests young people to see if they are carriers. They record the data and assign a number to each individual taking the test. When a couple is ready to get married they submit their assigned number to  Dor Yeshorim to see if they are both carriers. If they are, they are told. If only one is a carrier they are not told whether one of them is a carrier. They are just given the green light to marry thus preventing the possibility of a child getting the disease.

There is some controversy about their decision to not reveal the results to those taking the test. They explain that they don’t want to stigmatize a carrier. Even though they are otherwise perfectly healthy and can marry anyone they choose - without the slightest fear of transmitting the disease to a child if they marry a non carrier... they believe knowing you are a carrier might be devastating anyway. Why, they argue, tell them? All they need to know is whether they can or cannot get married to the partner of their choice - when the time comes. If they cannot then they will automatically know that they and  are carriers but they will avoid having a Tay-Sachs baby with this knowledge. 

I have always argued that people have a right to know.  Let them get educated about it and then decide how to handle the information. But I get why they have that fear. In a world that cares what kind of tablecloth your parents cover the Shabbos table with – certainly the knowledge that they carry a potentially deadly gene that can be passed on to a child will be a matter of great concern, and unnecessary worry. But I digress.

Mrs. Vizel’s point was that a community that is so resistant to outside influences, can accept that change at a grass roots level as they eventually they see a clear benefit to it. A religious world view that saw genetic testing as a form of family planning; and that had an attitude of ‘If God wants me to have a Tay-Sachs baby, I’ll have a Tay-Sachs baby has given way to common sense. Genetic testing is now widely accepted. 

She adds that this attitude change did not take place overnight. Nor was testing forced upon them. Had it been forced it may never have taken off. But without external pressure it did take off gradually at a grass roots level.  Her conclusion is that if left alone then just like change came about with genetic testing so too will her old community eventually see the wisdom of having a secular studies curriculum. 

This is where I part company with her. Tay-Sachs testing can happen at a grass roots level. All you need is a testing facility. A determined individual provided it. People can then decide whether to take the test. It’s a one time thing. Creating and implementing  secular studies program is a horse of an entirely different color. You can’s just decide on a curriculum for your child that doesn’t exist.

There is no direct tragedy that will generate a new school. No one individual will be able to set up a school that his religious leaders oppose on principle. A school is not a clinic. A secular curriculum is more than a one time shot. It’s an ongoing enterprise that in high school involves daily courses in secular subjects for 4 years. Add to that the argument Mrs. Vizel made about business and career options being a successful resource for them without the benefit if a secular education... and it makes creating a school with a secular curriculum highly unlikely. Even at a grassroots level.

I don’t like forcing people to do something - even if I think it’s good for them.  But it isn’t only about them. It is about us. Continued ignorance guarantees continued - and even increased reliance on government financial aid as their population continues to grow. Which even under the best of conditions lends itself to fraud, whether intentional or not. And with Mrs. Vizel’s acknowledgement that many people in her old community under report their income it can easily become intentional. That is a crime; violates Dina D’Machusa, and clearly translates to a Chilul HaShem which affects all of us.

I see no other way to get it done other than the enforcement existing laws. Which in my view is a better alternative than letting things slide.They will be far better off - without suffering any negative consequences to their religious lives. And so too will the rest of us. That they will resist it with all their might does not free us from trying to effect positive change.