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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Israelis Paying For My Child’s Education Will Get Us Nowhere

First Published in Haaretz 2/19/14

Last week, Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett made an announcement that foreshadows a fundamental change in the way Israel works with her Diaspora. Israel, Bennett said, is embarking on a project that would commit the state to spending $1.4 billion over five years to deepen the Jewish identity of Jews living the Diaspora, and strengthen Israeli-Diaspora relations.

This announcement marked a sea-change moment. To understand why, one must first understand how the Israeli-Diaspora funding relationship has always worked.

Ashkenazi Jews living in Eastern Europe in the 19th century received stipends from their communities to help them survive. When Jews began moving to Israel in the First Aliyah, which began in 1882, some of them continued getting support from those who remained abroad. This set up a system whereby Jews situated outside of the Land of Israel paid for Jewish activities within the Land of Israel.

Israel was built from the sweat of the pioneers, funded by the riches of global Jewry. Figures such as Sir Moses Montefiore, Lord Jacob Rothschild and Nathan Straus funded the cities that became part of modern-day Israel.

This paradigm continued throughout the history of the State of Israel, and was not without its critics. In his book, “With Friends Like You” (1992, Free Press), Matti Golan describes what Israeli Jews really thought of their cousins in America. He says the Israelis saw the donations as immoral: Jews abroad paying cash while Israelis paid in blood.

There were also political and religious differences between Israeli and American Jews, as chronicled by Yossi Beilin in “The Death of the American Uncle”(1999, Yedioth Ahronot and Chemed Books), where he writes of his fear that the traditional model of rich American Jews supporting Israel is doomed to break down unless something radically changes.

The State of Israel has always encouraged Jewish immigration and has helped facilitate it through the Jewish Agency, yet it was not until the year 1999, when Taglit-Birthright Israel was founded (inspired by Beilin’s sentiments in the aforementioned book), that the Israeli government became a major sponsor of creating Jewish experiences for Diaspora Jews. The Government of Israel funding a program that did not directly serve its citizens marked the beginning of a reversing flow of cash: from the Diaspora funding Israel, to Israel funding the Diaspora.

Birthright’s funding model is tripartite, consisting of donations from Jewish philanthropists, the Government of Israel, and Jewish organizations and communities. Supporters of Birthright (and I am one) can point to the documented economic benefits that these tours have brought Israel: $825 million dollars in the past 13 years. Yet there is a conversation to be had about Israeli public money going to programs that Israelis cannot participate in (except for the soldiers who join the tours.) This conversation becomes imperative in light of Bennett’s announcement.

The Israeli government, says Bennett, wants to commit 1 billion shekels each year on programming for Jews outside of Israel for the purpose of deepening their Jewish identity. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermanagrees that the Israeli government should work to curb the “demographic catastrophe” facing Jewish Americans today, and says that only through a combined Israeli-Diaspora effort to improve Jewish education “can we ensure our endurance as a people.” Thus, he said he is going to act to ensure the government approves the allocation of $365 million for Jewish education outside Israel.

The program Bennett speaks of, dubbed the Government of Israel and World Jewry Joint Initiative, seeks to create programs in seven areas of Jewish life of which aliyah is only one. It’s unclear whether Bennett and Lieberman’s plans are linked, but their intentions are the same: using Israeli taxpayers’ money to curb assimilation abroad.

Should this project go ahead, the government of Israel would become one of the largest institutional sponsors of Jewish life in the Diaspora.

This is an awful idea.

Let’s put aside for a moment the complex questions raised by the fact that that the Israeli government would take hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the purses of Israeli citizens in order to pump it into the purses of Jews in other counties, despite the economic hardship being experienced right now by Israel’s middle and lower classes. The Israeli government is uniquely bad at posing honest questions about Jewish identity. It is simply incapable of funding inclusive, open and critical discussions on this topic. Why? It’s a political entity! Its programs would have clear agendas dictated by the party line of the day.

I cannot imagine a state-funded program having an honest discussion about how settlements affect the Israeli-Diaspora relationship. I struggle to understand how publically funded programming could enable critical discourse on cultural Judaism, when the Rabbinate in Israel is still dictating – through narrow criteria – who is and is not a Jew.

For Bennett, this initiative seems to be an attempt by to replicate the“Jewish Identity Administration” that he created domestically, in which the Religious Affairs Ministry would try to instill Jewish values in the public at large. It was a poor idea at home and an even worse one abroad.

It is wonderful to see the highest levels of the Israeli government working on Israel’s relationship with her Diaspora. But, seriously, subsidizing Jewish life abroad is simply not a solution.

We need to pay to make our communities sustainable

Haaretz 9/12/13

For the past ten years, Jewish communities the world over have been providing committees, events and avenues of involvement for me. Reading the communal and demographic tealeaves it was clear that a huge drop off point was during and after university for this generation of Jews.

The focus on the ‘young professional’ has not been without its controversies. The communal pie is only so big and the amount of free or hugely discounted events for me created a tab for others to pay.

One of the side effects of this level of communal welfarism has been an expectation of services without fees. This is all well and good when one has no income, but it seems that many in my generation have not realized that someone needs to pick up the check.

Now, my wife and I are members of one of the new pop up prayer communities in New York. Prospect Heights Shul is a small, liberal, modern orthodox community with a couple of dozen members who pay membership. We rent whatever space we can in Brooklyn and have moved from a thrift shop to a Christian school classroom.

Starting off as a wondering minyan, the community has developed with new families coming in from the Upper West Side in search of more space and affordable homes. One of the factors holding back many young religious families was the lack of sense of a modern orthodox community in Park Slope. Having now created it our community is growing.

Though our communities’ story is similar to that of many other communities’ origin stories, we are a community made up of people who have, for many years, been coddled by a generous overarching Jewish community. Though we seem to have managed to grow in numbers, our membership is stuck.

Prospect Heights Shul is not unique within the prayer space, or any other Jewish communal space for that matter. From advocacy to welfare charities, everyone is struggling to get young Jews to start making the cash commitments needed to ensure sustainability. It is clear that the federated model is far less enchanting to this generation of Jews than for those of yesteryear. We are not looking for a Jewish tax, but equally we cannot be expecting Jewish handouts either.

While of course it is necessary to try and provide a Jewish experience to those who have no affiliations, we as a community need to jettison the concept of ‘free at the point of delivery’ for all those except the most needy. In order to create the next generation of givers, we need to institute, from the earliest age, a ‘give what you can’ model with a suggested donation.

If there is a subsidized fee, the actual fee should be displayed with a message of encouragement to those who can afford, to pay full price for their experience. Transparency about where the money goes will be essential as well. With payment comes accountability.

The extensive Jewish outreach that has occurred over the past ten years has been expansive and incredible. We have created a Jewish experience for every sort of Jew one would want to define themselves as such.  In order to achieve the sustainability of such a diverse and rich melding pot, we have to ask our users to pay and create that expectation from day one. We will all be better off as a result.

It’s time to make being Jewish affordable

Haaretz 8/27/13

The Religious Services Ministry has decided to raise the cost of all of its services for the first time since 2003. As of September, marriage, burial, kashrut and ritual immersion will become a lot more expensive.

At a time of belt tightening, price hikes across the board mean that many Israelis who were already not keen on the dominance of religious practice on their rites of passage will be even less pleased.

Meanwhile, as Jews throughout Israel suffer from these price hikes, we Jews in the United States continue facing our own financial problem: education.

In footnote four of his book “Halakhic Man,” Rav Soloveitchik z’l presents a two-page mini-essay on why being religious is hard. Spiritual greatness requires complexity and risks, he writes, not just a desire for solace and happiness. To students, this footnote holds a special meaning, for while the challenges the Rav was referring to were moral and intellectual, for students, they can also be financial.

The prohibitive cost of being religious is not a new concept. Lulavs, tefillin and kosher food are anything but cheap, but yet they are somewhat manageable. The amount of money one needs to allow their child a formal or informal religious education, on the other hand, is unsustainable.

Depending on the city one lives in, Jewish day school can cost between $15,000-$40,000 a year per child. A month at Jewish summer camp can be between $4,000-$6,000 dollars all said and done.

I never knew how blessed I was in the United Kingdom with state-funded faith schools. It was only when I moved to the United States that I learned to appreciate it. The financial commitment of Jewish education here is a crippling cost to both American families and the communities that endow the schools themselves.

The U.S. Jewish community may be the richest Diaspora in the history of the Jewish people, but the high cost of education has created generations of Jews with only a cursory knowledge of their traditions. Jewish education here concentrates on the Orthodox, while the rest of the community does what it can without the state support that so many other Jewish Diasporas rely upon for their educational survival.

Peter Beinart, most famous for his views on Israeli policies in the West Bank, finished his book “The Crisis of Zionism” with a plea for the U.S. Jewish community to reverse its support of school vouchers in order to fix the educational crisis it currently faces. Yet, while the other arguments in Beinart’s book have spawned debates, roundtables and community soul searching, debate on school vouchers has yet to take place.

With the United States’ absolute commitment to a separation between church and state, there are no easy solutions to this problem. Yet, whether it is a reversal of the U.S. Jewish community’s long-held public policy position of embracing school vouchers (seen as mainly a standpoint of the Republican party) or perhaps taking advantage of the growth of online courses, the community needs to stop talking and start acting.

There is literally no greater Jewish value than providing one’s children with a Jewish education, and so our community must stop turning a blind eye to its failure to create an affordable system – be it formal or informal.

As we start to take account of our actions in the countdown to Rosh Hashanah, we also must take into account those whom we are pricing out of our tradition.