Federated Blindness

So the Jewish Federations of North America, the massive collected financial might of America’s leading Jewish donors, has left Jerusalem. Their General Assembly only meets in Jerusalem once every five years, so this was a major event. And what have we learned? Primarily, that the system has failed. As Michael Freund, the director of Shavei Israel, wrote: “this GA was reminiscent of the ill-fated RMS Titanic as it steamed straight for an iceberg in the northern Atlantic ocean in April 1912, oblivious to the impending doom.”

Rabbi Yisroel Mayer Kagan, zt”l, of Radin in Poland, is most often called by the name of his work, Chofetz Chaim, on the evil of gossip. Accompanying his tremendous knowledge of Torah, this leader of his generation was known for his profound insight. And with his keen vision, Rabbi Kagan condemned the idea of federated giving. He compared it to the advent of electric lighting in his city, when everyone stopped lighting candles (and backup generators weren’t yet available). As long as there were candles burning, even if one candle went out there was other light. But when the electricity went out, the entire city was plunged into darkness. Similarly, he said, if individuals make decisions, then the most needy charities will somehow get the support that they need. But if everything is handed to the Federations, he explained, then institutions will collapse and individuals will go hungry if the custodians of the coffers do not respond to those appeals.

There is one thing that he didn’t mention: the assumption that the curators would be good at what they do. He didn’t imagine a world in which federations had executives who sat in large executive offices and enjoyed all-expenses-paid executive trips to Israel, at which to demonstrate their collective executive incompetence. In actuality, the leadership of the Federations make the architects of the ObamaCare website look positively brilliant. At the GA, they pushed the wrong issues in the wrong place, and completely ignored the most important and pressing communal priorities on both sides of the Atlantic.

As everyone knows, the most important issue in Israel today is the “peace process,” and the fact that it’s leading nowhere towards peace simply makes discussion more urgent. But it was entirely absent from the GA agenda; JFNA president Jerry Silverman told reporters that since everyone agrees on a two-state solution, it wasn’t worth discussing. J.J. Goldberg dismantled this argument in The Forward:

In fact, this is one of the most fraught and divisive issues on the agenda of organized American Jewry. Beyond substantive questions like settlements and Jerusalem, Diaspora Jewish federations are constantly forced to reexamine the limits of permissible debate within their own walls. The debate over debate is bitter, nationwide and relentless. Jerusalem might have been just the place to discuss it, with the federation movement’s top leadership present and Israel’s leading diplomatic and military minds available.

But it was left out. The closest the assembly came to the topic was a series of how-to sessions on best techniques for defending Israel’s image.

And the most important issue in America? If you haven’t been sleeping for the past two months, you’ve probably heard of the Pew Report, and its devastating analysis of the future of non-Torah-observant Jewry — those best represented by the JFNA. And here I’ll quote Michael Freund again:

If the Jewish federations were serious about confronting this crisis, they should have taken the extraordinary step of reformatting the GA’s schedule in order to focus on the existential emergency at hand.

Instead, in an act of pathetic hubris, they had the gall to add a single session on Monday, with the self-aggrandizing title, “Responding to Pew: How Federations are Successfully Engaging the Next Generation.”

“Successfully”? Who are they kidding? Back in 1990, after the National Jewish Population Survey revealed an intermarriage rate of 52% (which was subsequently the subject of much debate), the Jewish world was stirred into action, vowing to do whatever was necessary to stem the tide of assimilation.

Here we are, more than two decades – and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on bolstering Jewish identity – later, and for all intents and purposes the situation has only worsened as growing numbers of Jews turn their backs on their heritage.

So if the Federations couldn’t be bothered with such trivial issues, to what did they devote their time?

In the NY Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt contrasts the GA last week with a previous event. 10 years ago, he writes, they “showed their solidarity with the Jewish state by marching through the streets of Jerusalem.” This year they marched to the Western Wall, “to emphasize North American Jewish support for religious freedom, most notably the right of women to pray with the same privileges as men at the Kotel.”

Ignore for the moment that, as Ronit Peskin of Women For the Wall put it in her speech to the GA, “the vast majority of regular female Wall-goers… feel their rights are not being fought for, but trampled upon” by the activities of the misnamed Women of the Wall. The larger point is that the battle at the Wall is merely a symbolic issue in the JFNA’s pursuit of a larger goal: to import Reform and Conservative Judaism into Israel, and to replace standards of Jewish identity used for millennia with the whims of the Reform movement. As the Union for Reform Judaism President Rick Jacobs said, “we see an opportunity to change the state of Israel… Simply having a place to pray at the Wall is not enough.” And the Reform movement drove the agenda: as J.J. Goldberg commented, the “most heated” sessions at the GA were “one on Orthodox rabbinic control of marriage in Israel, the other on women’s prayer at the Western Wall.”

So again, let’s ignore that Israelis, in Rosenblatt’s words, “view the issue [of women praying at the Wall] as marginal at best. Social critics [in Israel] are more concerned with the economic gap between rich and poor, the religious-secular divide and equality for women in a variety of areas beyond religion.” The real question is: is this really the right time to try to “Reform” Israel, the one country in the world where the number of Jews is actually climbing?

Nor should we forget that the so-called “secular” Israeli is, on average, more connected to Jewish life and Jewish ritual than the average Reform or Conservative-affiliated Jew in the United States. Tel Aviv has 500 Orthodox synagogues, and a single Reform Temple. Even “secular” Tel Aviv has no interest in Reform.

David Landau, the former editor of HaAretz who wrote a 358-page anti-chareidi diatribe, “Piety and Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism,” could certainly not be called an ally of the ultra-Orthodox. But in a blistering editorial entitled “American Jewish leaders only care about themselves,” he nearly sounds (for the first few paragraphs, at least) as if he’s changed course:

Well, another round of U.S. Jewish leaders libeling Israel and bad-mouthing its democracy has wound down in Jerusalem with the end of the GA, the annual General Assembly of American Jewish federations. Now the leaders go back home and spread the word among their flocks: Israel is a backward and benighted country, captive in the hegemonic hands of the ultra-Orthodox, centuries behind American Jewry in its enlightenment and in its emancipation from dark Middle Ages fanaticism…

The ultimate chutzpah of these people is that, while here, they “warned” Knesset Members of the damage, to Israel and to Judaism, that the Orthodox hegemony in Israel was doing. It is a fair bet that every one of those MKs was elected by more people than any one of the U.S. Jewish leaders. The MKs’ involvement in the wheeling and dealing of party politics and in daily Knesset give-and-take is the very essence of democracy in a sovereign state. The leaders, on the other hand, hail from Jewish organizations or federations famously lacking – indeed rejecting – any genuine grass-roots representation, and run by shadowy, dictatorial power-play.

Yet they slander our democracy?!

In all honesty, the only thing that the Federations could have done for the State of Israel, better than silence, is to have told J-Street to stop representing the PLO as a Jewish cause. But in confronting the Pew Report, there is much that could be done. First and foremost, they could pump money into serious Jewish education. The suggestion that universal free Jewish preschools could make a dent in the assimilation rate is patently ridiculous, but the JFNA actually proposed this seriously. Even the Schechter schools don’t go beyond the eighth grade, and sorely need to. As Evelyn Gordon explains in Commentary Magazine, most Jews today “rarely encounter Judaism at a level more intellectually challenging than a kindergarten class. And as long as that’s true, Judaism will never be able to compete with the secular world for their attention.”

The Pew survey also reported that the Torah world is exploding in size — and in good part due to the commitment to serious Jewish education. The Forward, always expert at spinning the facts, reports that “ultra-Orthodox schools are inexpensive,” because “Hasidic families pay between $200 and $400 per month year-round,” while by contrast, “Catholic elementary schools in Brooklyn cost $3,500 for the school year.” Notice that if you multiply $400 by 12, the cost of Hasidic schooling is nearly $5,000 per year, much higher than the figure for Catholic schools. And, of course, if you multiply that by ten kids, that means nearly $50,000 per year in tuition costs alone. So it’s interesting what the Forward calls “inexpensive.”

Neither does this only affect Orthodox families. As the Forward also mentions, the tuition at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan is $34,000.

What have the Federations done to assist with this impossible financial burden placed upon those families they truly are building the Jewish future? Why, they’ve done everything possible to stand in the way of vouchers, funding for mandated secular subjects, and anything else that might make it easier. For every program they do to help Jewish education (and let’s be fair, there are several) one has to look at the impact of their negative campaigning against government support for parochial education. Whatever the benefit, it is certain that it is a pittance in comparison to what the Federations could be doing.

All in all, it is as if Israel breathed a collective sigh of relief to see them go home. But will they improve things in the US, now that they’re back?

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