Thursday, January 24, 2008

Judaism's Nefarious Slide to the Right


This is a beautiful article about how the slide to the right happens, and how traditions, which have survived for hundreds of years, can be destroyed by those who think their parents’ traditions aren’t harsh enough.

I was thinking about the whole issue of Jews who worry about what other Jews will think if they, for example, go into a McDonald’s to use the facilities or order a Coke at the baseball game. It used to be that one worried that other Jews would, upon seeing another Jew leave the McDonalds or stand in line at a concessions stand, say “Wow! The food is kosher there! Let’s go eat there too!!” But this is not the case any more. Now, a Jew is worried about going into the McDonalds or standing in a concession line because other Jews will say, “Hey, look over there! I see another Jew. He is obviously not Kosher enough to be friends with any longer!”

The whole social environment of religious Jews has moved from trying to protect one another from non-Kosher situations to attacking one another for not being Jewish enough.

This “one-upsmanship” is leading to dangerous territory—like young religious men being attacked by mobs of other religious men for not being Jewish enough, or young women and mothers being attacked for “leading men to sin” by doing such vulgar things as sitting in the same bus or walking down the street and saying “hello” or showing a tuft of hair.

No one seems to remember our sages warning: “He he adds to Torah subtracts!”

Sadly, entire traditions are being subtracted in the name of “I’m more Holy than you are” Judaism.


The Seattle Kollel-Case Study in Unintended Consequences
By David J. Balint

Kollels have sprouted across the Jewish world, including North America. Often they are sponsored by a particular Yeshiva. Sometimes a local Orthodox community establishes a kollel hoping to promote outreach and to supplement income of rabbis needed to teach in the local day schools not in need of full time rabbinic teachers. This is the case in Seattle. More rarely, such as in Cleveland, the local community actually recruits highly qualified Zionistic young rabbis to revitalize and strengthen modern Orthodox, centrist institutions. The following represents a synopsis of the issues facing the Seattle Orthodox community since it invited a kollel into its midst in 1991.

The Seattle Kollel has become an important organization within the fabric of the Seattle Jewish community. It has achieved remarkable success. It has done this despite organizational neglect on the part of the community as a whole which has deprived the Kollel staff of needed guidance in recent years. The consequence has been that there have been some unfortunate and unnecessary negative effects of the Kollel.

It is clear that, through the efforts of the Kollel rabbis and volunteers, some people have been brought into more serious observance of halakhic Judaism. However, although there is tremendous diversity within Orthodoxy, this diversity is not represented within the Kollel faculty. Members of the Kollel come from a variety of yeshivot but none of these yeshivot can be characterized as modern or centrist Orthodox. In addition, some of the Kollel faculty members have no advanced secular education. It seems that those who have attended college or university did so before beginning their study of Judaism. This background suggests that we can expect the Kollel faculty to unanimously present a model of Orthodoxy that is not consistent with the modern or centrist model of our synagogues and established schools.

This has had a powerful impact on our community. Some of the families and individuals who support the Kollel have received the bulk of their Jewish education either directly through the Kollel faculty or through programs endorsed by the Kollel. These supporters mean well. They came to the Kollel desiring to learn more about Torah Judaism and willing to make a commitment to serious observance. However, rather than receiving instruction in a model of Orthodoxy that reflects the diversity of views and includes the views that have traditionally formed the norm in our community, these eager students have been exposed to a limited and rather specific perspective on Orthodox Judaism. This perspective tends to the exclusionary, meaning that they believe and teach that their way of observance is the only way. It looks for authority not within the local rabbinate but rather to haredi authorities outside Seattle who are not themselves familiar with Seattle.

We should not have been surprised that the promotion of this perspective undermined support for our existing institutions and respect for the Rabbis of our synagogues. From the perspective on Orthodoxy to which these new families have been exposed, modern or centrist Orthodoxy represents a compromise. To the extent that our institutions and rabbinic leaders identify with modern or centrist Orthodoxy, they too are viewed as having compromised their commitment to halakha.

A comment is warranted about personalities. Most of the rabbis who have staffed the Kollel have pleasant personalities, are friendly, inviting and sincere. However, social skills should not be confused with outlook. These individuals do not for the most part acknowledge the legitimacy of the modern or centrist Orthodox perspective. This means that essentially their worldview differs from that represented by our pre-existing community institutions.

The Seattle Kollel was founded in 1991. When it was proposed resistance arose. Aware of what frequently occurred in other communities where kollels functioned, the fear was that the Kollel would become an independent source of halakhic authority, and would not support the existing educational and other community institutions. The propounders solemnly promised that the kollel would be a true community kollel. It would accomplish this by various means. There would be a governing board from a broad spectrum of the Orthodox community. They promised never to establish or support any organization that would compete with the existing community structure. The rabbis to be hired would be from diverse backgrounds. It was specifically promised that rabbis retained for the Kollel would send their children to the existing Orthodox schools, the Seattle Hebrew Academy (SHA) and the Northwest Yeshiva High School (NYHS). It was on the basis of their word that potential opposition dissipated.

To summarize, the Kollel was proposed as an institution that would supplement, not supplant, the existing community organizations.

After the first few years most of initial members of the Kollel moved on. Beginning in 1995 and continuing through 1996 a number of community meetings were convened by the Kollel lay leadership to discuss the future of the organization. Fierce opposition had arisen because nearly every one of the foundational promises had been violated and misled donors were threatening to withdraw support. During these meetings the Kollel leadership made a number of representations regarding the mission of the Kollel and its relationship to our community’s other organizations. The impetus for these meetings was concerns expressed at that time that the Kollel rabbis that had been retained were not centrist and this might result in community dissension. Kollel participants in those meetings included some of the same people involved in the Kollel today. These promises were memorialized in a letter to the entire orthodox community in August 1995. This letter was accompanied by a new draft mission statement. This new draft assigned to the Kollel a dual mission: (1) to serve individuals in the community and (2) to serve Jewish institutions and schools. The mission statement continues with a list of four specific objectives that the Kollel would pursue in working with other community organizations. Perhaps the most important statement was in the cover letter that accompanied these minutes. The letter explained that the purpose of the dialogue in which the Kollel was then engaged was to determine “how the Kollel can become a point of convergence for the community schools and synagogues.”

The promise was made that the Kollel faculty will be sensitive and accepting of community philosophy and standards. This was perhaps the single issue most discussed at community meetings during the reorganization process. The Kollel distributed minutes from a meeting held on August 20, 1995. Various measures were discussed that might assure that the Kollel’s direction and perspective would remain consistent with the community’s “centrist philosophy”. This discussion ended with an assurance that the Kollel “was in favor of an eclectic Kollel which would hire rabbis with a variety of backgrounds and from different yeshivot.” This promise was initially implemented--and there were some staff changes--but has since been abandoned.

To summarize: During its reorganization the Kollel leadership re-committed to work in partnership with and to support our existing institutions. It would promote a “centrist philosophy” consistent with our community’s standards. This would include the selection of staff rabbis who derived from a variety of backgrounds and not only haredi yeshivot. It would maintain open and ongoing communications with the leadership of our synagogues and schools. The Kollel would put in place an effective and responsible system of lay governance. Based on these representations, the Kollel secured the support of the community and its leadership.

The community’s first serious taste of the kind of religious dissension we had hoped to avoid was via a haredi rabbi who was hired to lead the Seattle Hebrew Academy in the late 1990s. He was originally hired as a teacher in the SHA. When the headmaster position opened, a group of his supporters, whom he had carefully cultivated, promoted him to the head position. He immediately began a campaign to move SHA away from its centrist Orthodox roots. Long-standing teachers who did not share his perspective were systematically harassed and demeaned. Some were eliminated and replaced by faculty members whose views were more consistent with the new headmaster’s. The Kollel rabbis were silent during these moves and many of their acolytes supported the haredi takeover.

Another impact of haredi takeover emerged when a group of Sephardic parents and community leaders tried to encourage the headmaster to allow SHA’s tradition of support of Sephardic ritual and culture to continue. These parents and leaders did not feel that they were heard. The result was the formation of a new school, the Rambam School and the loss of many students, mostly Sephardic.

The most disastrous outcome of the takeover efforts and the lack of governance that accompanied them was that many of SHA’s most committed families and supporters were alienated and withdrew their children and funds from the school. These families and supporters watched with dismay as he attempted to purge the faculty of moderate teachers and replace them with his own loyalists and he attempted to conform the curriculum to his fundamentalist view of Orthodox Judaism. For example, he tried to forbid the mention of dinosaurs, evolution or any other content that he felt contradicted his interpretation of Genesis.

Eventually, as more and more parents and financial supporters became aware of the nature of these takeover efforts they abandoned or threatened to abandon the school. Thankfully he was fired in the midst of the 1998-1999 school year and his board of directors was forced to resign after a community vote of no confidence.

The scars of this episode still have not yet fully healed. Many of the most ardent supporters of the attempted haredi coup are some of the same people involved in the current efforts to create non-centrist schools and are key supporters of the Kollel, including its ‘president.’

Ideologues simply have no internal brakes on their desires to transform their communities into images of themselves. After all, in the words of the Blues Brothers, they are ‘on a mission from God.’

The community did not sufficiently learn the lesson of the dangers of religious dissension because we neglected to pay attention to the governance and staffing of the Kollel which was growing in strength and in numbers of rabbinic staff. Despite the original promise of community oversight, reaffirmed after community ‘dialogue’ in August 1995, the Seattle Kollel quickly drew away from a board of directors’ management style. In reality it is governed by the Rosh Kollel, along with a very few insiders and some of the other Kollel rabbis themselves. In other words, the Kollel is being run by its employees with only a very few lay people.

There have been no community meetings to elect or select a board of directors since the reorganization meetings in mid 1995. There have been no recent board meetings. There are no minutes of meetings showing discussions and decisions of vital issues of programming or staffing.

The result of this failure to learn from past experience began to emerge with the initiative to establish a single-gender woman’s high school. This initiative resulted in the opening of Sharei Bina in the fall of 2006. This initiative was engineered by the Kollel leadership and the creation of the school was made possible through the efforts of these same individuals. Four students were enrolled only one of whom was of high school age.

Why was there objection to the Kollel’s involvement in the establishment of Sharei Bina? There are two related issues. First, the process by which this program was established was inappropriate as discussed below. Second, this new school competed for limited resources and a small pool of students with our established high school--NYHS. The Northwest Yeshiva High School has been successful in graduating students highly proficient in religious subjects and secular, college prep courses. In encouraging and creating this new school the Kollel leadership pursued a path that it felt best served its ideological preferences. But no consideration was given to the potentially negative impact on the Orthodox community in its entirety. The deep involvement of the Kollel is in flagrant disregard of the promises made to the community in 1991 and again in 1995.

The organizers of Sharei Bina indicated to the community that they had a pledge through Torah Umesorah of $60,000 per year for three years as seed money to start the new school. The Rosh Kollel arranged for this seed money. The Rosh Kollel also acknowledged that he had worked for at least two years on forming this new high school prior to its commencement in August 2006.

The process by which this school was initiated is disturbing. This program impacts our entire community. Yet, the Orthodox lay community and its rabbinic leadership were excluded from the decision making process. In working to establish a new single-gender high school for girls, there was no consultation with the three community congregational Rabbis. Furthermore, questions and concerns raised by the general Orthodox community have been ignored or dismissed.

A local Jewish foundation, the Samis Foundation, offered to hire a professional organization to do a needs/feasibility study for this new school at a cost of approximately $15,000. This study would determine the costs of creating and sustaining a new program and assessing the likely enrollment in such a program. Samis offered to pay 1/3rd as did the NYHS. The organizers of the girls’ school refused. This showed that the organizers really didn’t care for a real study of needs or of the financial impact of their project on the community. They went full steam ahead regardless.

Separate facilities for boys and girls is mostly a false issue. ‘Separate gender’ is a code word for a whole host of curriculum changes which are antithetical to serious secular learning and college preparation, that are restrictive of girls Jewish education, and that are ambivalent toward the State of Israel. In the beginning these trends will not be easily apparent but one need only look around the country to verify that this is generally true. The Sharei Bina failed after one year. None of the four girls then attended the NYHS.

The second new school to open in our community in the fall of 2006 was the Torah Day School of Seattle (TDS). Again, the Kollel leadership was deeply involved in the formation of this new school. TDS directly competes with SHA for students and community funds. The Kollel leadership gave its support to this project without consent of the community’s rabbis. As in the situation for the Sharei Bina, there was neither a formal needs assessment nor any effort to evaluate its potential impact on the existing educational institutions. How many students are there at TDS that would not have been sent to the SHA or the Chabad school? A small handful.

During its formation, one of TDS’s principal spokespersons and one of its founding board members was the president of the Kollel. While serving as Kollel president he has helped to organize both new schools and was actively fund raising for them. His efforts included approaches to Torah Umesorah for funding. The Rosh Kollel’s rabbinic father, not a resident of Seattle, acted as an advisor to the formation of TDS.

Efforts were made by the Seattle Hebrew Academy to placate those threatening to establish a new day school. It became apparent during intensive mediation that no amount of accommodations would satisfy the demands of the mostly Kollel families. The ultimate demands would have destroyed the inclusive nature of the SHA. The SHA and the NYHS strive to provide a quality Jewish and secular education for every Jewish child based on halakhic standards. These community schools are confident that their programs orient and prepare their students for life as Torah-true Jews and educated members of society. The demands made by the Kollel families were exclusionary to such a degree that significant numbers of families would have felt unwelcome.

The Kollel’s faculty and followers abandoned the SHA. Their children form the core and the majority of the Seattle Torah Day School student population. The Kollel rabbis all elected to send their children to the new school. The message this sends loud and clear to the community is that the Seattle Hebrew Academy is not sufficiently observant.

It is acknowledged that there is no formal relationship between TDS and the Kollel. However, the three key members of the Kollel’s leadership are either founders or involved in the new school. Kollel faculty has enrolled their children in TDS en-masse.

The Kollel has played another more subtle role in the establishment of TDS. It is noted above that many of the Kollel’s students have little formal Torah education beyond the instruction they have received from Kollel faculty. In choosing a school for their children, these Kollel students must rely on the guidance and instruction received from the Kollel faculty and by the example of their teachers. It can be expected that many families that have received their education through the Kollel will follow the example of Kollel faculty and enroll their children in TDS. This has in fact occurred.

TDS’s primary constituency is the Kollel staff and their students. In its inaugural year, TDS had an enrollment of 52 students in preschool through grade 5. Of the 27 students enrolled in grades 1-5, at least 17, or 2/3rds of the students, are children of Kollel rabbis or their students.

Some possible rationales for creating new schools have been advanced. The main rationalization has been that every community has various constituencies. If in our community these various groups cannot join together in a single school, why not encourage the establishment of separate programs? Won’t this allow each group to achieve its individual educational goals without the compromises in a single school serving a wider spectrum of perspectives?

First, this consideration does not lend legitimacy to the actions of the Kollel leadership. The Kollel was established and then reorganized with the commitment that it would work with and support the existing schools. This commitment should have precluded the Kollel’s involvement in the formation or support of these programs.

Second, the Kollel’s program has directly contributed to creating an environment in which various constituencies cannot coexist. Rather than demonstrating ongoing support for our schools and their centrist modern Orthodox perspective, the Kollel promotes and to great extent has introduced to our community an alternative perspective that is inconsistent with centrist, modern Orthodoxy. The Kollel faculty removed their children en-masse from SHA. No Kollel rabbi has ever enrolled a child in NYHS. Would we expect any current Kollel rabbi to consider enrolling his child in a modern, centrist Orthodox high school (even one that is single-gender)?

The creation of new schools further promotes the process of bifurcation in the community. Each school must promote itself. Each may have its own constituency but there will always be an overlap between these constituencies. The schools compete for students in the overlap. Each school must differentiate itself from its competitors. This process exacerbates differences. One common school brings us together and encourages us to respect and work with one another. These new schools place focus on our differences, push us further apart, and promote “Balkanization”. (see the recruiting note below)

Third, even if in the best of all worlds our children would better be served by competing schools, we must acknowledge the constraints of reality. The more schools we create in our community, the further we stretch our resources. As we stretch these resources, we lower the standard of services in all of our schools. The best case is that we create waste through duplication of facilities and services and we lower the quality of education received by our children. The worst case is that our schools become financially unstable.

We can already see that our resources are being redistributed. Those families and individuals whose names appear on published lists of supporters and organizers of the new schools are generally not donors to Northwest Yeshiva High School. To a large extent, the Kollel rabbis and those brought into observance by the commendable efforts of the Kollel have disappeared or failed to appear on the donor rolls of the NYHS. [Comparable information for the SHA has not been provided but one can expect that there is little overlap between those contributing to the Kollel and those contributing to SHA—at least for those new to Seattle or those new to observant Judaism]. Rather than our entire community contributing to the support of a few excellent schools, we are dividing resources among a growing number of more specialized schools.

A recruiting note: There are some who have asked why not just let the haredim establish their own schools as they have now done? Why, it is asked, not just let them have their own schools for their own kids? The question is naïve. Both schools have tried and are trying to recruit beyond their own Kollel families. The recruiting is inherently divisive. What can (and do) they say? They must distinguish their programs, staff and educational approach from those of the SHA and NYHS. Can they say they have a nicer facility, a better science program, a more complete English or math program, a broader range of extra-curricular activities or electives? Can they tout a more highly esteemed college preparatory program? Can they match the fact that the NYHS has been rated by the University of Washington as the best (or second best) high school in the State of Washington for the last several years in a row? Can they say their Jewish learning is better? Clearly not. Despite dressing up their language in public and in print, it all comes down to one factor: the representation that the new schools are more “religiously correct”. This can be stated in the positive—we are more traditional. Or this can be stated in the negative—the SHA and NYHS are religiously flawed. However stated, the message is the same and the result is to import into our community different, separate divisions of observant Jews.

Note a common argument for both the TDS and the Sharei Bina schools. The proposition championed is that these schools just serve the needs of a growing community. However, the only ‘growing community’ being served is mostly the families of the Kollel rabbis themselves!

If one looks at the list of financial supporters of the two new schools, there is another striking fact. They are all (with rare exception) products of or heavily influenced by the Kollel since it has been here. Many of them are people who have come to observance through the efforts of the Kollel. While this is commendable, the Kollel rabbis have not seen fit to inculcate commitment and respect for the existing institutions, the SHA, the NYHS, the synagogues and other preexisting institutions.

The Kollel does not have a functioning board. There is no effective lay body in place to monitor its finances. Also, because of its lack of transparency, it is difficult to know the details of the Kollel’s funding in order to gauge its financial impact on the community. However, Federal tax returns reveal that the Kollel’s annual budget in just under $1M.

Since the TDS serves largely the Kollel families, as discussed above, the growing substantial need for community resources to support it should be considered another direct cost of the Kollel in Seattle.

There have been detailed suggestions made to the Rosh Kollel, the other Kollel rabbis and supporters for reform. All have been rebuffed and ignored.

In many ways our Seattle Jewish community has been truly wonderful. Until recently we could have taught the general Jewish world some important lessons. People from the Orthodox community have been active in the Jewish Federation and donors to it. Several of our members have remained active in wider Jewish concerns. We have generally been accepting (and certainly not judgmental) about those who are not as observant. Perhaps we benefit from the large Sephardic community here which has a long history of tolerance for its members who are not Shabbat observant or don’t keep strictly kosher.

It has historically been considered a strong plus that our two community schools, SHA and NYHS, have had as an important goal that they attempt to reach every Jewish child possible no matter what the religious level of their families (as long as halakhic standards of in-school behavior are understood). To hear the term ‘community school’ used as a derogatory label is a strong indicator of how we are beginning to be affected by those who do not share this vision. These two community schools have the confidence that Torah, properly taught, will embed itself into the minds and hearts of its students without the need to brainwash them and without the need to imbue them with fear of those Jews less observant and without the need to create fear of the non-Jewish world.

It is important for the community to be realistic about the sources of the recent and ever increasing divisions. It is to our credit that we are naïve and want to think only the best of people, especially if those people have pleasant personalities. Advantage should not be taken of our innocence. There is strength in knowledge because only with knowledge and open eyes can the proper decisions be made.

The Kollel is not the institution that its founders promoted to the community originally and then again in 1995. It does not promote diversity of perspectives in the Orthodox community. Certainly, it does not represent or support the modern or centrist Orthodox perspective. Its leadership is not representative of the Orthodox community. It does not operate under the governance of an active and effective board. Its mission is no longer to support or partner with existing schools and synagogues. Instead, it is a catalyst and proponent of new schools that compete with existing programs. These changes did not occur with the concurrence of the community that originally agreed to the formation of the Seattle Kollel. These changes were not proposed to the community; they were not the result of community discussion.

The Seattle Kollel has become embedded into the framework of the Jewish community in the Northwest. It can achieve more of its potential if it can be encouraged to return to its roots as a community Kollel governed by the community and responsive to it. It is not too late to achieve this goal and to avoid creating the Orthodox religious divisions and bitterness so apparent in much of the rest of the observant world. It all depends on the community shouldering its responsibility to help in the governance and guidance of the Kollel.

Postscript: A longer version of this summary labeled ‘Community Impact Statement/Kollel’ took over a year to research and write and is available upon request. The Seattle Kollel rabbis and key supporters were provided with drafts prior to publication and were earnestly requested to correct any errors.

(David Balint is a community activist and attorney in Seattle. He has served as president and on the boards of various Jewish institutions. He was on the founding board in 1974 of the Northwest Yeshiva High School and has been on its board since. He is working on two book projects, the philosophical questions raised in the book of Job and “Maimonidean Moments”,the wisdom of Rambam organized in accordance with the weekly perashiot.)

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