Monthly Archives: November 2017

Acheinu Initiative by PHS Now Rivals Footsteps in Outreach to Ex-Haredim

After more than a decade of Footsteps being the only official organization tasked with assisting ex-Haredim, a new initiative by Prospect Heights Shul (PHS) now offers disaffected Haredim an alternative. The program, announced on Facebook on November 16 without fanfare, offers financial and social assistance to folks who seek to leave their Haredi communities but do not necessarily wish to secularize. It is spearheaded by PHS’ innovative Rabbi, R. Ysoscher Katz, who is himself ex-Haredi.

Footsteps nominally supports those who seek to transition from Haredi Judaism to other forms of Judaism –even ones as close to home as PHS’ Open Orthodoxy— according to its official mission statement posted on its website and in fealty to its founding vision:

Footsteps is the only organization in North America that assists people who wish to leave the ultra-Orthodox community. Based in New York, Footsteps provides a range of services, including social and emotional support, educational and career guidance, workshops and social activities, and access to resources.

In practice, however, Haredim who seek its help and advice on how to modernize but remain observant (e.g. help in obtaining a GED) are given short shrift. Moreover, the Footsteps community has unwittingly matured into a milieu that is hostile to Orthodoxy and to organized religion in general. The organization encourages a freewheeling and religiously unfettered ethos by offering its members “a supportive, and flourishing community to turn to as they work to define their own identities, build new connections, and lead productive lives on their own terms”. The Footsteps community palpably shuns adherence to theological tenets, observance of religious practices, and steady membership in synagogues –however “liberal” they may be. This libertine communal vibe in Footsteps is, no doubt, responsible for the bad rap the organization has acquired in Haredi circles of trying to actively proselytize and derail observant Jews from the Orthodox path, an allegation that is not borne out in fact.

R. Ysoscher Katz, Pastor at Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Nevertheless, as Haredi departees mature, they sometimes become disillusioned with the Footsteps culture. Some find its rigid structure and prim adherence to liberal dogma stifling. Others crave more spirituality and a continuation of the comforting and reassuring traditions. Still other Haredi departees consider themselves “stuck” in the community, and Footsteps’ ability or willingness to help them is limited inasmuch as they have no plans or even consideration of ever “leaving” their communities, even though they are deeply dissatisfied.

It is precisely this latter group of people that R. Katz seeks to help. In line with his own journey, one that took him from a Borough Park Yeshivish-Hasidic upbringing to the forefront of the Open Orthodox movement, he has advocated a similar path for other disaffected Haredim for some years now. In 2013 R. Katz started a project by the name of FrumAndUnstuck.com in which he urged Haredim who felt beleaguered by Haredi rigidity to consider more moderate moves to render themselves “unstuck” without feeling compelled to completely abandon their Orthodox traditions.

FrumandUnstuck.com former website, now defunct.

The project was prompted, says Katz, by an incident in which a  friend’s sister’s husband one day abruptly informed his wife that he was leaving her and his hasidic community “because he was no longer frum”. To his astonishment, his wife rejected that. She offered to modernize somewhat to accommodate his evolution, but rejected divorce as an option. “Let’s figure it together”, she said, “either I live with you more modernly, or perhaps you can even be frei altogether, but let’s stay together”. R. Katz then realized that complete secularization is not the optimal course for some disaffected Haredim who are determined to broaden their vistas. The quest for them is not assimilation into the liberal mainstream society but the creation of a richer and more permissive Orthodox environment.

Indeed, couples leaving their Haredi lifestyle together is now quite commonplace, whereas in the infancy of the OTD movement it was axiomatic that anyone deciding to leave the Haredi community would have to leave their marriage too. In one case, where a yeshiva expelled the children of a woman whose wig was too risque, the couple became so indignant that it decided to send their kids to public school, pull out of the community, and drop yiddishkeit altogether. In other cases couples are now seen openly flouting certain communal norms in full support of each other, resisting pressure by parents and family to separate from the nonconforming or wayward spouse.

Katz’s Frum-and-Unstuck consultancy was jointly run by himself and R. Levi Brackman on a volunteer basis. But when the duo sought the financial help of the UJA Jewish Federation of New York, they ran into a bureaucratic wall of red tape and failed to secure funding. In late 2015, with R. katz’s plate full in the form his rabbinate at PHS and his lectures at Hovevei Torah, the website announced that it was no longer accepting new applicants for help, and it soon shut down.

PHS is a 40-minute walk from New Williamsburg

Now, with R. Katz’s firm enshrinement at PHS and with the board’s full blessing and commitment, the just-launched Acheinu (“our brother”) project seeks to achieve a mission substantially similar to Frum-and-Unstuck –but with greater resources to bring to bear and a congregational framework in which ex-Haredim could assimilate. The Prospect Heights Shul is conveniently located within walking distance of “New Williamsburg” (south of Williamsburg proper, technically Clinton Hill or Bed-Stuy), so that its intrepid Millennials could reach it by foot to attend services there on shabbos and yomtov, in compliance with halokho that prohibits vehicular travel on such days. The shul is also not too far from Borough Park, another Brooklyn bastion of Hasidim, from which it may draw adherents –Haredim who are fascinated by the shul’s unique culture or are making a deliberate effort to explore alternatives to Haredism but are as yet non committal. Alternatively, a “hospitality committee” now attends to the shabbos room and board needs of prospects. This averts the need for long walks to services and it also helps with the communal bonding.

Open Orthodoxy’s allure to disaffected Haredim is both theological and social. It is the only branch within Orthodoxy that tolerates –and in some respects even encourages– the posing of critical questions on topics long considered outside the pale of acceptable debate: Biblical revelation, literalism v. figuratism in biblical narratives, and whether “belief” necessitates a rejection of scientifically proven facts.

Writes R. Katz in 2015 in a review to the book Beeinei Elohim Veadam:

I believe that this is the approach we need to adopt. We should reexamine philosophical terms, not quibble with established halakhic norms. We need to debate what heresy is, not whether it is allowed.

A promising direction is to revisit the philosophical meaning of “belief,” and examine to what degree religious belief can be understood as being a-factual; a faith-proclamation, not a factual postulate. Defining belief as a-factual would allow a person of faith to “believe” religiously in the historicity of the biblical narratives and at that same time entertain the postulates of Bible critics…

For observant Judaism to survive biblical criticism’s heavy artillery it will have to further articulate the meaning of its faith claims. This will allow it to remain faithful to its traditions while maintaining a mature dialogue with contemporary modes of thought.

In other words, one can remain completely observant of halokho and believe religiously but not factually in the biblical narrative, asserts Katz. It is a difficult and dubious distinction, one that was made also, more or less, by the Conservative movement in the early twentieth century and by R. Kaplan’ Jewish Renewal. Both those movements ultimately rejected the immutability of halokho. Nevertheless, for Haredim who feel that their skepticism on Orthodox dogma cannot be aired within their communities for fear of being labeled heretics and being ostracized, Open Orthodoxy provides a “safe space” wherein they are at home with respect to custom –inasmuch as it conforms fully to halokho– but are simultaneously free to voice skepticism and deviant thoughts.

Open Orthodoxy holds the promise of satisfying Haredim in the social realm as well. It is by far the most gender-egalitarian among all Orthodox streams: it was the first to ordain a female Rabbi “maharat”, albeit with circumscribed ministerial duties, in 2009. And on sexual orientation issues it is the most tolerant: it regularly collaborates with Eshel, an organization that supports LGBT Orthodox individuals, to host shabbaton dinners and the like. Accordingly, Hasidim who have deviant sexual predilections but are otherwise satisfied with their religion, find the movement attractive and attend PHS events in considerable numbers.

Perhaps most importantly, R. Katz’s par excellence credentials as a scholar of Judaic literature is a rarified trait outside of Haredi Jewry. Few Jewish adherents of more modern denominations have the drive, sense of duty, and sense of satisfaction that accompanies the dogged pursuit of the study of Talmud and Shulhon Orukh. Hasidim can instantly relate to Katz’s vast scholarship and to his homey Hasidic-bred mannerisms.

 

Israeli Bes Din issues Restraining Order to Yeger: Do Not Assume NYC Council Seat!

A Jerusalemite Besdin founded by R. Borukh Yithok the Levite Levin has issued a “restraining order and summons to litigation” to Kalman Yeger, NYC’s council district 44 councilmember-elect, in response to a petition by one Yoel Yitzhok Weiss. The summons was issued on behalf of the “aggregate of voters from the neighborhood of Borough Park in Brooklyn, New York, who have voted for NYC’s councilman-ship candidacy of Yonah Hikind”.

The petitioners claim that there existed against their candidate “misleading campaigns in the form of slanderous lies and the proclamation of ill-repute [against Yoni Hikind] throughout the period of the elections” –an allusion to a slew of offenses that Yoni was accused of by his detractors: that he profanes the sabbath in public (as evidenced by his Facebook activity log and by an allegation of his watching TV in a hotel bar on shabbos), that he is living in sin by still being a bachelor, and that he is for the Markey Bill in the State legislature that would extend the statute of limitations for those being accused of sexual molestation.

The November 12, 2017, restraining order importunes Yeger to “not accept election results, and not be appointed to the municipal role until litigation at the besdin [occurs]”.

The Israeli besdin’s order has no teeth, both because it is out of the jurisdiction of Yeger in New York, U.S.A. and because religious courts everywhere do not have legal sanction. From a halakhic perspective the ability of a besdin to issue a restraining order is dubious; there is little precedence in halokho for such type of pre-judicial relief measure. Moreover, it is highly impractical and unreasonable for Yeger to be compelled to travel to another country to litigate a dispute; instead he is halakhically entitled to choose a local besdin or any other three-person panel of his choice.

Yeger is slated to assume the office to which he was elected on November 7th 2017, in January 2018 –more than three months from now. Should he choose to comply with the restraining order and the dispute is not resolved promptly, the procedure is for the councilship seat to remain vacant until someone is elected through a “special election” (one that occurs outside the regular election cycle).

It is unclear what Yoni Hikind’s supporters seek to achieve by this petition, given that New York City law does not allow for a non-elected official to take a council seat, notwithstanding the petitioners’ claim of Yeger’s achieving his win through slander.

Yeger Trounces Hikind in NYC District 44 Elections

As predicted by pundits in the course of an unusually acrimonious political contest over New York City’s district 44, Kalman Yeger emerged victorious in the Nov 7, 2017 city elections. He is taking over the council seat of David Greenfield who had announced his decision not to run for reelection in July 2017.

Kalman Yeger, Winner of NYC Council District 44 seat.

Yeger had received the nomination of the city’s Democratic Party without having to compete against any other candidates in a primary. This was accomplished by his protege and ex-employer, David Greenfield, through the late timing of Greenfield’s announcement not to seek reelection –after the July 14 deadline for filing with the city as a partisan candidate. According to NYC law, party committees then get to decide who should be on their party’s ballot. Greenfield, through his influence on the “committee on vacancies” had persuaded party bosses to nominate Yeger.

In a municipal political machine awash in backroom deals, Greenfield’s devious tactic, meant to circumvent the normal primary procedure, would normally not have attracted much attention. Given Greenfield’s longtime feud with Assemblyman Dov Hikind, however, the latter was incensed by Greenfield’s act, and encouraged his a proxy of his own –no other than his son Yoni Hikind– to run against Greenfield in the general election by appearing on the ballot as the nominee of the ad-hoc Our Neighborhood party.

NYC 44th Council District

The city district in question, number 44, comprises the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bensonhurst, Borough Park, and Midwood. The district’s population as of the 2010 census was 164,000 –predominantly Orthodox Jewish. Although a sizable portion of the Jewish population in these neighborhoods is Hasidic, and the Hasidic sector is growing faster than the Lithuanian one, it is as of yet unprecedented for any Hasidic person to serve as an elected lawmaker in either City Hall or Albany. All of Yeger, Greenfield, and both Hikinds are either Lithuanian or conduct themselves accordingly, e.g. they do not grow peios.

Greenfield was first elected councilman in 2010. He assumed a seat previously occupied by Noach Dear (1992-2001) and Simcha Felder (2002-2010), both moderately Orthodox Lithuanian politicians. Greenfield’s decision not to run for reelection is most likely prompted by the temptation of money at the expense of fame: he was offered the position of CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty (known as the Met Council), an office that commands a $500,000+ salary per year instead of the “meager” $148,500 per year awarded to city councilmembers. With his ability to still be somewhat influential in politics through his now-elected protege, Kalman Yeger, he gets the best of both worlds by resigning from politics. Greenfield is considered grandfathered in and exempt from the city’s two-term limit enacted in 2010.

Yoni Hikind

Greenfield had first dabbled in politics as an aide to Dov Hikind. It isn’t clear what exactly had triggered the fallout between them, but by the time Greenfield sought the 44th district councilship, Hikind was already vehemently opposed to him. Jealousy may have been a factor, as the young Greenfield did not pay sufficient deference to his elder and former boss, and ran for an office that was at least as important as that of assemblyman. (Hikind’s 48th assembly district represents a population of 129,000 and commands a salary of a mere $78,000 compared to Greenfield’s 44th district council that represents 164,000 people and pays double that amount).

Through the years the two politicians kept butting heads, e.g. the tiff over whether a particular incident in 2014 in which a constituent was hurt was a deliberate “knockout” or not.

Hence the strong opinions engendered within the Brooklyn Ortho

Yeger Campaigning at Bobov

dox Jewish community in the just-completed 2017 municipal election cycle. Both Yeger and Hikind had armies of young supporters, the former through his advocacy for the community over nearly a decade, and the latter through his social work (Yoni Hikind has been a practicing LMSW on behalf of “weak” yeshiva students in Midwood/Flatbush). Both had invested great effort and considerable sums in courting the dozens of shuls and Rabbis scattered through the district. Neither candidate had managed to secure a definitive endorsement from any major Rabbi, probably because Rabbis had little to gain from going out on a limb for either one since there would be little to gain in political favors over and above other Hasidic entities who will have supported a losing candidate: a city council member does not have sufficient power and his actions are too closely scrutinized by the public for him to be able to dish out the spoils of war to his warriors upon victory.

Dov Hikind’s 48th Assembly District

Nevertheless, while Satmar and others hemmed and hawed, Bobov bravely entered the ring. Bobov 45 had emphatically endorsed Hikind and Bobov 48 had sided with Yeger.

And yet, Hikind had little chance of winning. With the public opinion within the Jewish community seemingly at a toss up, the odds of winning were decidedly on Yeger’s side owing to his appearance on the ballot as the nominee of the Democratic party and the tendency of so many New Yorkers to vote Democratically straight down the ballot.

After the votes were tallied, Yeger won by a landslide of 69% of the vote to Hikind’s 29%. The only thing the Yoni’s supporters could brag of was that despite his uphill climb he managed to secure 5,000 votes.

Inadequate Secular Education in Haredi Schools is a Sword that Cuts Both Ways for Modern-Day Liberals

New York City Department of Education, under prodding from Yaffed, is facing a dilemma: enforce the state law requiring instruction at private schools to be “substantially equivalent” to that which is given in public schools, and thereby raise the ire of the politically powerful Hasidic constituency; or, alternatively, ignore the law, and Yaffed and its activist allies will continue to embarrass the DOE by harping about the city’s malfeasant neglect of its legal and moral duty to educate all its citizenry out of electoral considerations.

At Least that is the conventional wisdom as to the Sophie’s Choice that the city is facing.

But upon deeper probing it occurred to me that there was something deeply flawed in a law that seems to mandate that parochial schools provide an education to its parish members that conforms to mainstream standards. On the face of it such state coercion would seem to violate the religious freedom clause of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution which allows parishes to exercise any and all religious activity within its scope free from government interference. Such activity naturally includes education, whether in the form of Sunday school or an all-week day school.

Was the New York state law intended to force parochial elementary schools to comply with what was conceived by the educated liberal elite of the mid-nineteenth century to be an optimal curriculum –one that comprises “the twelve common school branches of arithmetic, reading, spelling, writing, the English language, geography, United States history, civics, hygiene, physical training, the history of New York state and science”?

It turns out that such an interpretation is highly dubious.

Background

Prior to the law’s enactment (starting in 1812), child education was private, spotty and costly. Those who could afford it hired (or pooled resources to hire) private tutors for their children to teach them the most rudimentary elements of the important subjects. There was no regular attendance of schools for a fixed number of hours per day and days per year, there were no fixed “grades” (children of different ages and abilities were bunched together on an as-available basis), and, most importantly, school attendance was a privilege of which both parents and children were keenly conscious. No one was forced to be at school; children attended because their parents –and in turn they themselves– were convinced that they would be happier, better, more prosperous citizens as a result of an education that tackled both general knowledge in civics and economic “occupational” skills.

The idea of “public” education was to shift the responsibility to educate the youth from the private sphere to the public one: Thenceforward the public would bear the financial burden of educating its citizenry (funded by higher taxation, of course), so that people who are otherwise too poor or improvident to invest in such a good cause as child education, would no longer have to forgo such an important service. The ROI, it was reasoned, was obvious: better educated children make for better educated adults who then make wiser personal and political decisions and are more productive in the economy.

There may have been some debate at the time as to the wisdom of making education a public service as opposed to the previous private and optional nature of it. Classical liberals and libertarians must have asserted that rich people should not be forced to pay for poor people’s education, and that leaving its administration in private hands made it more nimble and accountable. What was not controversial at the time was the curriculum: Conservative and liberal, religious and irreligious, rich and poor, native and immigrant –all agreed that the legally enumerated subjects of instruction were the best ones to be taught in all schools. Incidentally, there was also no debate at the time as to the method of instruction: what is now disparagingly called “teacher-centered” instruction was then normative and undisputed.

What am I getting at with all this?

The Education Law was not meant to force a new educational standard upon hesitant or unwilling parents. Rather, it was intended to make available a valuable service to the public regardless of individuals’ ability to pay. The clause in the law that required substantially equivalent instruction at private schools was meant to protect the public against a rogue unscrupulous private-school operator who may have been tempted to shortchange its clients by not providing a rigorous education –not out of ideological opposition to what was then unanimously considered a proper education, but out of avarice, i.e. the temptation to cut corners and save money in the operation of a business. (Let’s keep in mind that in those days there were no clearly delineated terms of sales and contracts printed and signed by all parties prior to transactions; so an average consumer wasn’t made aware of the particulars of a private school’s curriculum before he agreed to fork over his hard-earned tuition money.) The law was meant to protect parents from private school operators, not children from a conspiracy between uncaring parents and greedy schools to deprive them of learning.

Modern Times

Well into the twentieth century America was still a melting pot and the proper curricula for school-aged children was accordingly uniformly devised and administered. Only with the 1960’s advent of ethnic pride, prompted by the civil rights movement, did things change. If African-Americans get to demand afrocentric subjects in schools that are predominantly African-American, and if Native-Americans get to gloat about their tribal idiosyncrasies, not to speak of the myriad other identity subculture groups that evolved over the subsequent decades, then why shan’t Hasidim teach its youth in accordance with its peculiar subculture predilections? And with private dollars no less! Hence the now-burgeoning Hasidic parochial school system in New York that encompasses tens of thousands of pupils.

Alas, NY State law was never updated to reflect such a seismic shift in culture and values –one from an axiomatic “one for all” approach towards education, to a brave new world in which “to each his own” reigns supreme.

Let us never forget that the Jewish parochial school system in New York, as elsewhere in the country, is not government-operated or funded. Yes, there are a handful of government programs that help alleviate some of the financial burden that Hasidic schools bear, but such programs does not remotely approach the expenditures at public expense made by public schools in the city (which were as high as approximately $17,000 per pupil annually in 2012). Moreover, most of those programs are federal and are more meant to alleviate poverty than to fund education, e.g. the school lunch program. So there are not, and neither ought there be, any curricular strings attached to such programs (if they are otherwise legitimate in the first place).

Many arguments could be made against the government’s plethora of micro-funds for the assortment of programs that it offers. But such programs apply equally to public schools as they do to parochial schools, and the arguments against the programs apply indiscriminately to both as well. Hasidic schools are not any more obligated to observe a mainstream curriculum because of the marginal funding they receive from such programs, than they would have been had they declined such funding.

I do concede that if, hypothetically, hasidic schools were to be run and financed as public schools, then surely the public should have a say as to how the schools should be run and what its curricula should be. Such oversight would have been natural and in the furtherance of the public’s interest in the core objective of the public school’s mission: raising well-adjusted, civic-minded, economically productive, citizens.

But for liberals, such a debate over what exactly personifies this ideal individual who is “well-adjusted, civic-minded, economically productive”, if you will, opens a can of worms. If you define such personal qualities too narrowly then there is no room for the aforementioned afrocentric class (why should we force non-African-Americans to take such a class? how does it benefit them?) But if you define it too broadly, then we can argue that everything done in Hasidic schools in modern times be brought under its aegis. After all, Hasidim are well-adjusted so long as they don’t venture too much out of their own community, they are civic-minded within their tribe, and they are no less productive than other city minorities who go through the city’s Lexus-model public education system. Why, then, should Hasidic schools not be taken over and funded by the public, as other ethnically-tailored schools are?

There is no good argument for government interference in the way Hasidim run their schools, neither legal nor moral, given that we live in an age wherein there is a consensus that people are entitled to live hyphenated non-assimilatory lives. Where do we draw the line? Why, exactly, should a Modern Orthodox day school be acceptable but a Hasidic one not? Is it that the latter doesn’t foster English as the normal language of communication? Would we then also be in favor of abolishing all federal and state expenditures to adapt public services and messages to Spanish-speaking residents? If you are really intent on dialing back the fragmentation of the American polity by identity politics, then there is a heck of a lot more work to do than pushing for mayor De Blasio to force Hasidim to teach Biology.