What I learnt from a speech in Lakewood NJ

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 2/6/16

On Monday, January 25, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, one of the big philanthropists in the Jewish world, stood before the top rabbis in Lakewood, New Jersey at a fundraising dinner for the largest yeshiva in America, and delivered a speech that shook the ultra-Orthodox community to its core.

In a passionate and thoughtful way, he railed against the elitism in the community that, in his words, “bordered on bloodshed” toward its youth: Young children have been left without elementary schools to attend, more than five weeks into the term. Parents have gone begging, crying to administrators and donors to get their kids into any school so as to avoid facing the shame of being excluded. Yet the schools are caving to the pressure of certain parents who urge them not to accept the children of certain members of the community, lest it lower the quality of education for their own children.

Rechnitz condemned the Lakewood community, stating: “No other out-of-town community would ever allow a child to be left without a school. In Los Angeles, if a child wouldn’t have a school the first day, the whole community would be all over it. The same thing would happen in Baltimore, Chicago and Toronto or anywhere else.”

As his speech goes on, Rechnitz moves from the theme of schools to the paralyzing nature of judgment within the community. Here, Rechnitz accused the ultra-Orthodox in Lakewood of twisting religiosity and the minutia of religious practice into an idol, forgetting that there is value in every single Jew.

I find it hard to concentrate on any online video that is over 4 minutes (the destruction of my attention span – and that of my young adult peers – is particularly worrying), but I was so riveted by Rechnitz’s speech that I sat through all 52 minutes of it.

As someone who works in and around the field of philanthropy, I have never seen such truth being told to such power. In popular thought, it is those with the money who are the powerful, and the grantees who must follow their lead. Yet, in American ultra-Orthodox communities, while the donor is honored, it is the rabbinical authorities that are the centers of power. Yet here was a donor respectfully challenging a dais full of the leaders of the most prominent ultra-Orthodox community in America about the detriment they have caused to their community.

Watching the speech again, I am still stunned.

In Jewish and Israeli newspapers, mega-philanthropists are often accused of twisting Jewish communal discourse to their political world view; whether it’s the right pointing to George Soros or the left pointing to Sheldon Adelson. Rechnitz’s speech shows the best of what a committed, dedicated and brave philanthropist can do when motivated. Indeed, he did not just moan, but committed another $1.5 million to building inclusive schools.

Rachnitz’s speech sent shockwaves through the ultra-Orthodox community in Lakewood, but that did not deter him. He sent a letter apologizing for the harsh nature of his speech, yet emphasizing the theme of elitism, saying that those who hold themselves and their children above others and push communal institutions to exclude those who they perceive as less “frum” (religious) are destroying a beautiful community.

The passion, commitment and urgency of Rechnitz’s intervention are something that the rest of the Jewish community would do well to remember, and emulate, as we look at the crisis of the affordability of Jewish day schools.

As Jewish Americans continue to struggle with the issues surrounding philanthropists’ role within our structures, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz stands as an example of Jewish giving at its best.

 

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