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Thursday, February 26, 2009

On the Crisis of Jewish Education in America



On the Crisis of Jewish Education in America


As I was walking up the street with Reb Shmiel Kalbasavuah this morning, I met Rebbetizin Golda Neigelvasser walking her five triplets to the school bus. I immediately noticed that she was, once again, very pregnant, Surprised, I asked her, “Nu, you are having another, KeNaina Harrah? How come you didn’t come before the block association for approval?”

“Rabbi,” she replied, “there is no such committee!”

“Of course there is!” I responded. “My bashert, Feigeh Breineh always insists on meeting with the association every time I ask to have Tashmish HaMitah. And they always seem to reject my request!”

Mamesh, to be perfectly honest, I should have seen this coming. I recall that in the days before my Chassanah, all the meidelach who were friends with my Bashert made her a bachelorette party. Frayndee have her a set of kosher lingerie. Channileh gave her a crotchless Shabbos robe. Rivky gave her a vibrating Sefer Tehillim. But my mother-in-law gave her a jockstrap.

That should have been my warning.

I share this story because we live in an environment of confusion around the entire notion of kinderlach. The Toirah commands us: “VaShinantem LiVanecha VaDibartah Bum,” – “you shall teach your children the words of Toirah, and speak of them.” So, I ask you: where in the Toirah does it discuss yeshiva tuition? Where does it discuss yeshiva dinners and fundraising breakfasts, application fees and other costs? Rabboisai, if Klal Yisroel, standing on Har Sinai, understood the price of “VeShinantem LiVanecha”, would they have ever said “Na’aseh V’Nishmah”? Or would they have said “Thanks, Reboinoisheloilum, but I’ll take bacon, Saturday morning cartoons, and public school. Why don’t you instead offer the Toirah to the Palestinians? Just tell them it belongs to us – then they’d be happy to take it off your hands.”

Something akin to this shailah was first alluded to by Rabbi Akiva, in a Braisah brought down in Gemarrah Pesachim. According to the Braisah, Rabbi Akiva was once cleaning his house for Pesach when his Talmidim showed up at his door. As they walked in, they were immediately alarmed to see Rabbi Akiva, the Gadol of his generation, the man who organized the Shishah Sidrei Mishah and who invented bubble gum, on his hands and knees cleaning the chometz that had fallen between his washing machine and dryer. Shocked, one of his Talmidim asked, “Rebbe, why are you on the floor? Why can’t your cleaning woman prepare for Pesach, so you can spend your time teaching us your pearls of wisdom?”

From his position on the floor Rabbi Akiva looked up and responded: “Schmuck, I pay yeshiva tuition for my children. Do you think I can afford a cleaning woman? I can barely afford paper towels!”

So, as identified as early as the time of the Mishnah, there are definite costs associated with maintaining a Jewish lifestyle and tradition. It was for this reason that Rabbi Akiva had only five Talmidim: Rabbi Meir, Reb Nosson, Reb Yehudah Bar Ilai, Reb Yoisie Ben Chalafta, and Rabbi Shimoin Bar Yoichai. All of the other potential students went to the free Roman School, which had an excellent secular education, free gym, and all the Mishkav Zachor you could ever want.

As we look at our communities today, and specifically the Golus in America, we are confronted by a similar set of challenges that are fundamentally impacting the health of our communities. It has long been said that yeshiva tuition is the most effective source of birth control in the Yiddesheh community. It is also well known that the cost of a traditional Jewish education has been rising at four times the rate of GDP. (Actually, that’s healthcare in America, you Mechutziff, but it certainly sounds impressive.) But in particular, in our current era of economic upheaval, Jewish families are being pushed to the brink. Some are talking about establishing Jewish Charter Schools. Some are aspiring to set up afterschool Jewish studies programs to supplement a public school alternative. Many are even considering accepting Christ, sending their children to Catholic School, and being mezaneh with a hot red headed shiksa mom who has more children than a fertile Belzer Chassid in Bnei Brak.

Many of my Talmidim have privately asked me how they should address this challenge. Before suggesting a solution, it is important that we examine the causes of this phenomenon. As I lay out an intellectual, logical and rational analysis, you Minuval, please try not to hurt yourself.

Fact: There are genuine costs associated with a private school. In America, due to separation of church and state, at least outside of the south, there are no federal funds diverted to support Jewish private schools. This is not in itself a bad thing. But the burden of Jewish education rests solely on the Jewish communities themselves. Meanwhile, the Goyim, and their allies the Reform, take all our money and spend it on traifus in the public schools, teaching materials on evolution Chass V’Sholom, and condoms, which they hand out to first graders.

Fact: It is quite natural that there is a spectrum of economic distribution across the many families sending their children to yeshiva. Some can afford to pay full tuition. Others are supplement by scholarships and other funds. Access to traditional Jewish education is viewed, at least in the Orthodox world of today, as a basic need, somewhat on par with koisher, mikvah, and Metzitzah BiPeh on your birthday.

Fact: The Jewish community in general, and the Orthodox community in particular, has been spending money like a bunch of drunken sailors on shore leave. There is no cause that they will not support: Museums, community organizations in America, community organizations in Israel, groups that fight Antisemitism, groups that support Antisemitism, foundations, hospitals, Israeli settlements, political action committees, film festivals, synagogues and synagogue expansions, publications, and myriads of charities, including the schnorrers who come to my door every Sunday. By the way – and this is true – I have given my Bashert, Faigeh Breinah, full permission to flash her… umm…double daled tzitz at any schnorrer who comes to our door if that will help discourage him. And if it encourages him, she is allowed to be mezaneh with him in lieu of writing a check. (Think of this as a contribution “’in kind”.)

Fact: Traditional Jewish residential neighborhoods tend to have higher costs of living, due to higher real estate values and basic laws of supply and demand. The costs are also influenced by a sociological phenomenon that is an inherent Jewish trait, which is that Yidden MUST do construction and MUST send their kids to sleep-away-camps and MUST drive large cars and MUST have a silver Atarah on their Taleysim and MUST have the biggest Lulav in the shul, etc. (Well, I sort of always have the beggest Lulav in my Kehillah, if you know what I mean.) It is this fundamental materialism that drove Yishayahu HaNavi to quote the Reboinoisheloilum as saying, “Loi Soiseephu Havee Minchas Shav Ketoiress Toiyayvah Hee Lee…Limdu Haytayv Dirshu Mishpat Ashru Chamoitz Shiftu Yassoim Reevu Almanah.” "Do not bring your worthless offerings any more, Incense is an abomination to Me...Learn to do good; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (Yishayahu 1:13, 17).

So, fundamentally, Jewish communities have been living beyond their means, dissipating community funds, and placing an undue burden on families: the source of our next generation. Too often, the decision makers on such policies are either the very well-off, who do not feel everyday economic pressures, and my heilikah Rabbinic colleagues, who are frequently too far removed from the economic burdens of the laity. In fact, the only time some of our Rabbis ever feel the pressures of the laity is when their underage targets reject their sexual advances (see Toirah Temimah, Hilchois Kolko).

As a result, the Jewish communities in America, AS COMMUNITIES, have viewed their relative wealth as a bottomless pit. And they have been flattered to be viewed by others, including our brethren in Eretz Yisroel, as sources of funding and “sugar daddies” for every cause, large or small. They have been blinded by their relative affluence, and have believed themselves immune to the need to make difficult decisions rooted in a fundamental truth: Every dollar that is spent outside of the community is a dollar taken away from the community. Every tzedakah outside of the school system and the community, righteous or ridiculous, comes at the expense of the Jewish Child in America.

So what is to do? There is a famous maiseh shehoya about Reb Yisroel Salanter. He was once travelling in the villages surrounding Kovno, peddling dry goods door-to-door, as well as selling shares in a non-existent company. It was Friday, and as he saw the sun setting, he realized that he would not make it home in time for Shabbos, so he rented a room at a local inn.

That evening, after davening Mairiv, Reb Yisroel asked the front desk to send two prostitutes up to his room. They quickly settled into their Oineg Shabbos activity, with one woman focusing on the raisha and the other focusing on the sayfa. As Reb Yisroel was about to complete his Makkah BaPatish, the women suddenly stopped. “Rabbi,” the leader said, “we need to charge you twenty percent extra for your Makkah BaPatish, the economy being what it is today.”

Reb Yisroel thought for a moment, and then responded. “Meidelach, you can leave now. I am not happy about it, but I will exercise my self-service option and take the discount.”

I am also reminded of an obscure machloikess between Reb Chaim Berlin and Reb Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor about a very similar dilemma to our own. In 1894 there was a shortage of funds in Byelorussia to support yeshiva education, and the regional Bais Din was convened. Reb Chaim, citing the lack of funds, suggested that all the yeshivas close down, and that the sizable Jewish community band together to overthrow the bourgeoisie, and, in his words, “purge our people’s commitment to the opiate of the masses once and for all.” Reb Yitzchak Elchanan, on the other hand, advocated the raising of additional funds for the community by selling advertising space on the noses of all the Jews of Byelorussia. In the end, Reb Yitzchak won out, and the region was able to keep all its yeshivas open. The community also made quite a hefty profit.

If we consider these two positions for our current dilemma, I personally favor Reb Chaim’s approach. However, we learn out from both Reb Yisroel Salanter and Reb Yitzchak Elchanan the most basic rules of finance: There are only two ways to address a budgetary challenge: By raising funding (revenues) or decreasing spending (costs). Or by doing both. There are no other alternatives or magic solutions.

Consequently, I believe that we must address our crisis as communities, and make difficult decisions together. Communities must build for their futures by investing for their futures. And there is no greater investment than education. Every other expense in America and elsewhere should be made a subordinate priority. And let me be perfectly clear: I am not speaking exclusively about Orthodox education. I am speaking of universally accessible, heavily subsidized, Jewish education available to all streams of Judaism for whoever wants it – Orthodox, Conservative, and, Rachmana Letzlan, Reform. Think of it as my “No Talmid left Behind” proposal.

I am also not speaking about afternoon programs, but community days schools that provide both secular and Jewish studies. We have the economic means to create this opportunity. But it will require the greatest degree of personal and community discipline because it requires us to decide what we WILL spend our money on AND what we WILL NOT spend our money on.

Rabboisai, tuition should never be a reason not to send a child for a good Jewish education. It should also never be a reason for couples not to have additional children. And, most importantly, it should never be reason for me not to get some hot adult action from my Bashert, Feigeh Breinah. Chass Ve’Chalilah my request for Tashmish HaMitah should ever be dismissed because of community concerns, and I have to go up to my bedroom alone to exercise my self-service option.

Ah Gutten Shabbos You Minuval.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Parshas Mishpatim



Parshas Mishpatim

This week's Parsha, Parshas Mishpatim, is my favorite Parsha in Kol HaToirah Kooloh. It has everything: Laws, holidays, oxen, Moishe teaching Toirah, big feasts of Israelite elders, slaves with earrings, and men seducing hot Israelite virgins. And all of this culminates with the famous commitment of Klal Yisroel, "Kol Asher Dibber Hashem NaAseh VeNishmah" – "Whatever the Lord spoke we will do and we will listen." Mamesh, with this kind of excitement, who needs YouTube or the Superbowl?

Of course, the Parsha is quite detailed and features many, many shailahs asked by Chazzal after drinking double espressos at Starbucks while waiting for their wives to come back from their weekly visits to the sheitelmacher.

One key question focuses on the collection of laws in the Parsha. In a Gemarrah in Brachois, Rav Huna asks: Why are all of the laws in this Parsha delivered in a seemingly random order? Laws about slaves lead to oxen, followed by ethical rulings (i.e. the treatment of widows) and religious injunctions (warnings sprinkled throughout against the worshipping of other deities). What's Pshat?

In answer, Rav Chisda cites a Medrish that suggests that the jumbled order of the Mitzvois is related to the rambling discussions between Moishe Rabbeinu and Hakkadoshboruchhu as they... err... were enjoying some exotic bsomim they bought from a Bedouin in Sinai. Notes the Medrish, the whole time they were writing down the laws they were giggling non-stop and snacking on six boxes of Entenmann’s doughnuts while listening to Led Zeppelin in the background.

However, Rabbi Chananya holds farkhert. Chass V’Sholom Moishe Rabbeinu and the Reboinoisheloilum were using illegal substances! Rather, he brings down a Braisah that suggests that the Shechinah suffers from ADHD. As proof, the Braisah notes the fact that the Jews, Hakkadoshboruchhu’s "Chosen People", have been cast across the world for 2,000 years and, despite Divine promises, have never been able to settle down in one place for very long. Shoyn.

The RAMBAM asks an altogether different, and more disturbing, question. Noting the similarities between the laws in Parshas Mishpatim and many of the social and economic laws in ancient Near Eastern legal codes such as The Code of Hammurabi, the RAMBAM asks, "If these sets of laws are so similar, how can we believe that the Toirah is Divine and was in fact given to Klal Yisroel on Har Sinai?"

Commenting on this question, the Ibn Ezra suggests that, quote, "The RAMBAM is a total mechutziff, and if he were here today, I would Hakheh his Shinuv!" The Ibn Ezra goes on to protest that "Of course the Toirah is Divine. Look, the Goyim certainly copied these laws from us, just like the Muslims copied our prohibition on eating pork and the Pope copied our Yarmulkas. So what if Hammurabi lived 500 years before Moishe Rabbeinu? He undoubtedly used an ancient time machine to travel to the future and plagiarize the Toirah!" As proof he cites a Possuk from Sefer Dianetics, Parshas L. Ron Hubbard.

However, the RAMBAN suggests that the laws in Mishpatim were actually later added to the Toirah by "R", also referred to by scholars as the Biblical "Redactor", as he edited the final version of Shmois while in exile in Babylon. The RAMBAN also suggests that the entire story of the Bnei Yisroel crossing the Yam Suf was actually a source text that originally came from "S", also known in Biblical Criticism circles as "Surfer Dude", who is believed to have lived in Eastern Hawaii around 1700 BCE.

The MAHARAL disagrees, insisting that these laws were indeed written down by Moishe on Har Sinai. However, he holds that Moishe was acting at the suggestion of the Reboinoisheloilum who told him, "They are an Am Kshey Oiref. Please make up some laws that will keep them out of trouble." But because of tight deadlines, Moishe did not have time to write new laws, and instead copied these laws off the Internet as "filler".

Finally, the Vilna Goyn denies that there is any linkage whatsoever between Parshas Mishpatim and the Code of Hammurabi and other ancient Near Eastern legal codes. As an example, he points to the "seeming" similarities between the following:

-- The Toirah: "If men are fighting and one hurts a pregnant woman so that her fetus comes out, yet no harm follows, he shall be punished according to the will of the husband, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay a life for a life…"(Shmois, Perek Chuff Aleph, Possuk Chuff Baiz-Chuff Gimmel)

-- An ancient Near Eastern legal code: "If… strikes the daughter of a man and causes her to lose her fetus, he shall weigh and deliver thirty shekels of silver. If she dies, that man shall be killed" (Laws of Lipit Ishtar, ca 1930 BCE)

Says the Gruh, "Hey, these are common scenarios that any society would contemplate. I already accidentally caused the spontaneous abortion of three fetuses this morning alone!"

Perhaps the most fundamental question that we can ask about Parshas Mishpatim is how we should relate to these laws in our day. After all, so many of the Toirah’s rules reflect a different era, with different material concerns, social pressures and sensibilities. Do you and I have an ox? (To be honest, my Bashert, Feigeh Breinah, has on more than one occasion told me that I am "hung like a buffalo". Kenaiyna Harrah.) Do we have slaves, Jewish or otherwise? As best verbalized by the Pri Megadim, "Parshas Mishpatim tells us that we should not charge interest and that we should worry about the widow and the orphan, and twice states that we should not abuse the stranger that is in our land because 'we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt.' The next thing you expect the Aimishteh to do is insist we pay retail! Has He gone mad?"

The Tzitz Eliezer answers this question by suggesting that Moishe actually proposed these laws during an election year, but never had any intention of enforcing them. However, they were ultimately left in the Toirah as part of a budgetary compromise package with the Speaker and the Majority Leader of the Anshe Knessess HaGedoilah. And therefore we just have to live with them.

However, the Schvantz Mordechai suggests that these laws were put into place in order to address the disturbing shidduch crisis. If Klal Yisroel were to accept the presence of strangers in the land, the poor, etc., then there would be many more men available to marry Klal Yisroel’s growing number of educated, frum, unmarried women who are over-the-hill at the age of twenty-two.

I am reminded of a famous Moshal. There was once a king who lived on a very small plot of land. When his son grew old enough, he arranged a marriage with the zaftig princess of a neighboring kingdom because her father owned "great tracts of land." But when his son refused to marry the girl next door, he disowned him, and adopted a local pauper, who was delighted to marry the princess and be in line to inherit a great kingdom. When asked how he could disregard his own genetic offspring, he answered, "I make the rules here. If my son doesn’t like it, he should start his own damn kingdom!"

Such is the nature of our special Bris with Hakkadoshboruchhu. Sure, some of these laws make no sense whatsoever, and you feel like a total schmuck doing them. But by subordinating your will to the Word of the Reboinoisheloilum, you demonstrate your faith and allegiance to Him. You demonstrate that His word is timeless, and rises above the day to day considerations of, so-called, modernische society. And you also give Him something to laugh about when He is off getting stoned with Moishe Rabbeinu.

Ah Gutten Shabbos You Minuval.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Parshas Bishalach



Parshas Bishalach

In this week's Parsha, Bishalach, the Bnei Yisrael pass unhindered through the Yam Suf, while the Mitzrim drown, those Vilda Chayas. Following this great miracle, Moishe Rabbeinu sings Az Yashir, the "Song of the Sea," surrounded by a chorus made up of Klal Yisroel, with musical accompaniment by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and with U2 serving as the opening act. It's gevaldik, man!

A Gemarrah in Chulin quotes Rish Lakish, who is troubed that Miriam Haneviya felt compelled to deliver her own song afterwards. What, Moishe Rabeinu's song wasn't good enough? Suddenly women need to have equal time with men and copy everything that we do, including singing praises to Hakkadoshboruchhu? I'm surprised that the Bnei Yisrael's sheep didn't feel left out and start singing a duet with the goats!

Asks Rish Lakish: What could Miriam have possibly been thinking?

According to the RIF, Miriam's motivation is purely philosophical: Miriam is fundamentally committed to the concept of equality between the sexes. He cites as proof a famous Medrish that notes that Miriam once burned her bra while preparing the Karban Pesach, the sacrificial Paschal lamb, and points out that Miriam used to always complain about getting paid 60% of what Aharaoin Hakoihain, the minuval, was earning.

According to the RAMBAN, Adarabbah! Miriam was not interested in gaining gender equality at all. Rather, she was...err...more than happy to spend ALL of her time with women, if you know what I mean. He cites a Medrish that says that Miriam took six years off from her prophecy career to participate full time in the LPGA tour, and is frequently referred to in the Zoihar as "Big Butch Haneviya." She is in fact credited by most of Chazal for keeping Mishkav Nekaiyvah off the "Abomination" list and on the "Mitzvas Asei She'Hazman Gramma" list.

However, the Sifsey Chachomim hold farkhert. They say that Miriam was solely focused on her singing career, and only performed after Moisheh Rabbeinu in order to attract interest in a three record deal. They cite an MTV "Behind the Music" Special that tells us that Miriam was always seen in a belly shirt, had a pierced navel, and was once engaged to Binyamin Affleck for six months. Tragically, the Special tells us, her life spiralled out of control after an embarrassing "wardrobe malfunction", and when the Toirah says that Miriam spent two weeks outside of the encampment of Klal Yisroel due to leprosy, she was actually in rehab at the Betty Ford clinic.

Whatever the reason, Miriam's actions have bequeathed us a legacy. This is where we see the roots of the Reform Movement, Lady Rabbis, and Yeshiva University. It is because of Miriam that women want to reveal an inch of their real hair in Brooklyn, have their own Minyan in New Jersey, dance with the Torah in Lincoln Square, read from the Torah in Long Island, and bond with their sisters through membership in the Orthodykes. All because of Miriam.

But that is not all. If Miriam would have stayed in the kitchen and had been watching the bread bake like she was supposed to instead of playing Chazzan, we wouldn't have to spend a week and a half in constipated agony because of eating nothing but Matzoh for eight days straight.

I would like to share a Maiseh Shehoyo: Last week I was at the Chassanah of the daughter of my insurance salesman. They had such wonderful schnapps that I got really shikkur. In the morning, I was so hungover, I did pisshin-zein in the bathtub, gargled with my Neigel Vassar and flossed with my Tzitzis (which is quite efficient, since you can clean between sixteen teeth at one time).

My Bashert, Feigel Breinah, could not join me at the Chassanah, since she said she needed to cook for Tisha Ba'Av. The next day she asked if I enjoyed myself, and I told her that other than being Mishtachaveh in the men's room for twenty minutes, I had a wonderful time. She wished me well as she went off to teach at the Bais Yankif, while I went back to bed to watch Oprah and order in a pizza.

Such an Aishess Chayill. You should only be so lucky.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.