How U.S. is destroying itself
I have long railed against American values being hijacked by gay marriage and abortion. Even I, however, did not foresee that contraception would join to create a trifecta of social sexual issues that utterly dominate this country’s values discourse. How long are we going to do this?
Let me tell me you just how destructive this is. While we obsess over gay marriage, heterosexual marriage has gone off a cliff. A front-page New York Times article just reported that half of all births in the United States to mothers under 30 years of age are outside of marriage. The divorce rate among baby boomers has surged over the past two decades by more than 50 percent. In 2010, a third of adults ages 46 through 64 were divorced, separated or never married compared to just 13 percent in 1970.
Shhh. Do not breathe a word of this, please, or we may be forced to drop a fun holiday from our calendar just as quick as you can say M’gillat Esther. This whole Purim thing revolves around a woman. Seriously. There is no Hasmonean strongman here; no great prophet getting coded messages in his sleep; no kolel fortysomething keeping the world safe by studying a blat g’mara. Just a woman who risked her life to save the lives of her people.
Kudos for a West Point nod
By the middle of March, I hope to make a final decision as to whether to run for Congress in New Jersey’s Ninth District. If I do, and if I secure the Republican nomination (there are two other declared candidates for the GOP’s imprimatur), I will be squaring off against either Rep. Steve Rothman or Rep. Bill Pascrell. Democratic incumbents both, the two men have been squeezed into the same district and are competing against each other for their party’s nomination.
Rothman and I have fought some tough, public battles against one another, primarily over the presence of the Libyan embassy, which is my immediate next-door neighbor in Englewood. I also have been critical of his strong support for President Barack Obama on Israel, even when those positions, in my strong opinion, put unfair and unjust pressure on Israel.
Let’s stop making excuses for rabbis who abuse children
When we hear such comments as “Mussolini made the trains run on time,” or that some disgraced philanthropist should be remembered for the good he did before he got caught doing bad, does anyone today see these as valid excuses for bad behavior?
Should we shut our eyes and be comforted that the end, if it does not justify the means, at least excuses them? As long as a greater good was served, the evils that came before are rendered inconsequential?
Of course not. So why in some circles, all too often Orthodox ones, do we allow excuses to be made for serial do-badders? Why do we make excuses, for example, for certain teachers who are physically or mentally abusive to their students? “He may be guilty at times of what I would consider ‘tough love,’” the argument would go. He may be “going overboard” at times, but “he cares deeply about the students and wants to keep them on the straight path.” These are actual words from an actual defense. Why is it acceptable to us as an excuse when it comes to our children and their Torah education?
When I was a child in yeshivah on the Lower East Side, we had rabbis who hit us. Second grade was known for the yardstick knuckle smack-down, and parents rarely if ever complained when their children came home with bruises on their hands. For me, it was not until fifth grade when our rabbi, known for smacking his students, whacked me so hard that someone in my family took notice.
My mother probably thought the rabbi was doing her a favor, and so never said a word. My father no longer lived with us, but he probably would have agreed with his ex-wife on this one. My uncle — at the time, a charming-looking Burt Reynolds type, with a thick mustache, chest hairs coming out of his 1970s collared shirt, mirrored aviators (you get the picture) — walked into class one day and called the rabbi outside for a moment.
To this day, I do not know what they discussed, but I do know the rabbi never came near me again and my uncle never had to see him again, either.
I recall meeting an old friend a few years back, who gleefully recalled that day for me, as if that day offered a glimmer of hope for my friends who did not have someone who cared enough to know it was wrong. I did not become a great Judaic scholar, and I have made mistakes, but I grew up, went on to college, have a good career, and a wonderful family. My children are moral, respectful, and courteous young people and committed Jews.
If we are to follow the logic of the excuse-makers, however, perhaps had I been hit more, I might have been the next gadol hador (greatest Judaic scholar/leader in one’s lifetime). We will never know.
While I was in high school, my classmates — boys in grades older and younger alike — all knew of a certain school official who selectively chose wrestling partners from among the student body to engage in matches that, to some, appeared more intimate than sports-like. Whether it is because I was taller and bigger, or just not his type, I spent more time in his office, but never in his clutches. Yet, I knew people close to me who were targets; I knew people who were chosen more often than others; I also knew that “everyone” at school knew it, too.
He was close to board members, close to parents, and seemingly a good fundraiser. Many years after I graduated, this person finally moved for a short run to another boys’ school, then went into the institutional world. The cover-up went on because he was seemingly good for Jewish education and he made men out of boys. Most parents either were too scared to rock the boat, or thought the reports were more hype than real.
When I read an article in a school newspaper last week, written by a victim of this man who attended the school seven years earlier than I had, I realized that the behavior had gone on far longer than I had known, and much longer than it ever should have been allowed. I wondered, too, whether our silence back then made us — made me — in some way complicit. By assuming that “everyone” knew and that there was nothing for us to say or do, were we unwitting enablers?
What is it about the “Torah world” that makes allowances for such abuse — sexual, mental or physical? The behavior all too often is not just tolerated, it is protected and, in some cases, defended under the guise of the greater good that is being served.
When fundraising or a school’s reputation are involved, Jewish values and moral decency (they should be synonymous terms) are tossed aside. In some cases, the momentum for cover-up is so strong and the support base for the abuser is so vast, no one wants to be seen as the challenger. All too often, the community as a whole seems far better at attacking the accuser than uncovering the truth about the accused.
I recently heard a wonderful Shabbat sermon given by a well-regarded rabbi who spoke sternly against the inhumane treatment of women in Beit Shemesh and Meah She’arim at the hands of charedi extremists. Yet, one week later, this same rabbi defended a colleague despite evidence that the man may have psychologically abused some students. Instead of condeming the abuse, the rabbi chose to fall back on “the greater good” defense — “he cares deeply about the students and wants to keep them on the straight path.” Some might see this as cronyism, convenience, or simple hypocrisy. It happens all too often, however.
There are signs that this trend is changing, albeit small signs. When a religious school, run by some very prestigious orthodox rabbinical figures in New Jersey, suspected that a teacher may have been inappropriate with some students, officials immediately contacted the police. A second school, Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, also notified police as soon as it received similar information about the same teacher, who had been on its staff for a brief while.
The accused in this case was a woman, not a man and not a rabbi. I doubt that either school would have responded any differently had the accused been a rabbi, although I do have doubts about how other schools would react. In this instance — and surely because of the integrity of the leaders of these two chools — the right steps were taken and the welfare of children was placed above all else.
We — especially we who are Orthodox — need to ask ourselves why this is the exception, rather than the rule.
Let me state this clearly. Despite some news reports, I am not a candidate for Congress in New Jersey’s Ninth Congreessional District. I am considering becoming a candidate, however, and I so informed the Bergen County Republican Organization (BCPO). People considering becoming candidated had until Jan. 31 to inform the BCPO of their interest; otherwise, they could not be considered for the party’s nomination (although they could run in a primary).
A ‘new year’s’ filled with relevance
My column this week is adapted from an earlier version. Sometimes, what you have already written about a subject or issue is worth repeating rather than rewriting.
This Wednesday, Feb. 8, is Tu Bi-Sh’vat, aka the New Year for Trees, Judaism’s millennia-old “Earth Day.” Less than a week later comes Feb. 14, aka Valentine’s Day; Saint Valentine’s Day, to be precise.
It is a safe — and sad — bet that more Jews will celebrate the former than the latter. As one person pointedly explained to me, Valentine’s Day “is an American holiday that celebrates love.” The inference, of course, is that Judaism has no such glorious day on its calendar.
Mistrust of evangelicals is the issue
By right, I ought to thank Rabbi Immanuel Schochet for banning my book “Kosher Jesus,” because doing so further propelled it up the international bestseller lists, even in pre-publication. Bizarrely calling his own views “authoritative,” Schochet declared my book to be heresy, banned anyone from reading it, banned me from speaking about it, banned others from inviting me to speak about it, and refused to offer a single reason or explanation as to why.
This dictatorial edict follows a growing wave of religious fanaticism hitting the world Jewish community all at once with right-wing reactionaries seeking to impose a primitive dogmatism on those who believe Judaism can be Orthodox yet informed, Torah-based yet educated, true to halachic sources yet fearless in the marketplace of ideas. The Jewish community is not Iran and its rabbis are not the Revolutionary Guard. Let the ayatollahs burn books and condemn authors. Jews are the people of the book, not the people who ban books. We have all too much experience with the medieval practice of outlawing books. Schochet’s attack deserves to be pasted on a wall of Meah Shearim, not sent by mail, as it was, to Chabad emissaries around the world.
A Consistent Jewish vote for 60 years
In 1948, two social scientists published the first scholarly study of religious group voting patterns in the United States. According to the authors, Catholics, Jews, and Baptists identified as Democrats by margins of two to one or better. Five denominations that we would classify as mainline Protestants were Republican by equally lopsided ratios. Although the authors did not report on black Protestants, most of whom were still forbidden to vote by Jim Crow laws, data collected at the time showed African-Americans evenly split in loyalty between the two parties.
Sixty years later, the exit polls from 2008 show that almost nothing is the same. Baptists have swung across the spectrum; they and their fellow Evangelical Protestants now constitute the single most pro-Republican religious bloc. Catholics and African-Americans have traded places, the former now divided almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, and the latter overwhelmingly favoring Democratic candidates. Once the core of the Republican vote, the shrinking body of mainline Protestants increasingly sits out elections or, while still identifying as Republican, tends to favor Democrats by small margins.