Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Technical Question

I happened to have a copy of the Rav Soloveitchik Yom Kippur machzor, which alluded to the story (from Rabbi Rakefet's book) about the Rav and his father at sunset on Yom Kippur. Reading the story made me wonder: how in the world did they have time for a break between Minchah and Neilah? If the sun had already begun sinking below the trees turning the sky all kinds of nice colors, wasn't it time for them to start davening already.
We always rush right from minchah onto Neilah. Did they daven differently? Did they fast later than everyone else where they lived? What gives?
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The Kiruv Compromise

On the short drive from the men's mikveh to my home on Erev Yom Kippur, I happened to flip on the radio and heard a pre-Yom Kippur discussion between Rav Benny Lau, Rav of the Katamon neighborhood in Yerushalayim and of the Ramban Synagogue in Katamon and an Israeli author named Yochi Brandres (pictured), a well-known media personality and lecturer in Tanach, Jewish and Hebrew literature. (You can listen to the program online in Hebrew here.)
In the course of telling a story about getting along with your neighbors (about 24 minutes into the program), Rav Lau told about how each year, on Kol Nidrei night at the conclusion of the services, they have a program called חשבון נפש ישראלי - "Taking Stock of the Israeli Soul", which brings hundreds of people from the neighborhood for a talk about spirituality, introspection, and self-evaluation, both personally, but also communally and nationally. He told how he happily invited Professor Yaron Ezrachi, a resident in the neighborhood, to speak from the Bimah in his shul. Brandres literally could not contain herself, and toldthe following story. Hearing about the program, trying to catch Rav Lau when she heard about Ezrachi's appearance in the shul on Yom Kippur said to him, "But you'd never invite a woman to speak. You cannot be that open." To this Rav Lau responded, "Would you like to speak this year?" She would. So, on the eve of Kol Nidrei this year, Brandres spoke from the amud of the Ramban shul.
Listening to her, you could hear a sense of excitement and appreciation. She said, "Rav Lau, you know that I've given many different talks in many different shuls; but never in front of an Orthodox shul. I speak every week, and even on the evening of Yom Kippur; but it's always a more liberal synagogue; Conservative, reform, secular; but this is the first time that I will speak before male and female attendees on the evening of Yom Kippur, and I'm looking forward to a very powerful and inspiring experience, in the merit of your openness."
I must admit that I was rather taken aback by Rav Lau's openness. On the one hand, I understand precisely where he's coming from: without welcoming secular people into our communities, without giving them a forum to express themselves and listening to them like we want them to listen to us, there can never be unity in Israel. So I appreciate his program.
But then there's another side. I wonder - and I really don't know the answer to this question - if Rav Lau had his druthers, in his heart of hearts, would he really want to invite a woman or a secular professor to speak from the bimah of the shul on Kol Nidrei night? What I'm really asking is, is Rav Lau in some way watering down his own religious standards for the sake of unity? The answer to seems to clearly be "yes." Unity requires compromise. I have no doubt that Rav Lau adheres to the constraints of halachah. I get a sense listening to the program that the lecture took place at the conclusion of tefillah, and that there's no specific injunction in the Shulchan Aruch against a woman or secular Jew delivering a lecture in a shul on any night, much less Kol Nidrei. But in the words of a colleague, "pas nisht." Is that really necessary? Is it in the spirit of Kol Nidrei?
Rav Lau would undoubtedly say "yes." On the night that we're supposed to stand as a unified nation before God asking for forgiveness; on the night that we giv
e ourselves "permission" to "pray for the transgressors" (which we do at the very beginning of Kol Nidrei), what better night could there be to invite an entire community together to speak about Teshuvah?
I have a different question: Does it work? Is Rav Lau by compromising, bringing Jews closer to classical Judaism, or in some twisted way, somehow pushing them farther away?

Rena has been reading a book called "Mekimi" in Hebrew written by a Ba'alat Teshuva who came from a secular background and eventually found her way back to traditional Jewish life. She didn't just become a Baalat Teshuvah. She went all the way to Breslov. She describes the holiness, simplicity and draw of the Breslov way of life. It seems that while some might find the complexities of a religious life that tries to find compromises to welcome outsiders (a la Rav Lau and his Kol Nidrei speakers' series) appealing, others - maybe even more - are turned away by those very compromises. In their search for spirituality, they're not looking for women speaking to a mixed audience in an Orthodox shul on Kol Nidrei night. They're in fact looking for just the opposite: a community with limits, clear lines, and defined terms. And those people would probably find Yochi Brandres' speech in Rav Lau's shul a reason to turn away from Orthodoxy, and not towards it.
Maybe we need both: the complexity and compromise of Rav Lau, and the simplicity and clear lines of Breslov.
After all, different strokes for different folks.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Gazalnu - Vidyuy Validation for Yom Kippur

Consider the following question:
We send our youngest son to an afternoon playgroup once a week. The woman running the playgroup charges for her services on a days per week basis; if your child attends three days a week, you pay so much a month. Ours attends once a week, so we pay one-third (approximately) of that amount. She does not take into account off-days; they're built into the price. We knew this going in and did not object.
Until now. Rena pointed out to me last night that it happens to be that this year, the one day we send Petachya to group - Sunday afternoon - happens to be the one day of the week that there's quite a large number of off-days. During the first two months of gan, a full half of the days are off. The way she has organized the pay structure, we're basically paying full price for half the days.
On one hand, that's the way she sets up the schedule - a fact that we knew in advance. It's our bad luck that it just happens to fall out this way and we only send our child one day a week; if we sent him full-time, paying for every other Sunday wouldn't be such a big deal. But when you're only paying for Sundays, paying twice as much for half the does seems excessive.
I mention this issue because your position on whether we should pay or not will quite likely depend on your perspective. If you're me - and I am - it seems unfair to expect me to pay so much just because "that's the system." On the other hand, I'm sure the gan leader reading this wouldn't agree. In issues of money, perspective plays a primary role. Which brings us to viduy.

Reciting viduy each year returns us to the familiar. Ashamnu - we are guilty; bagadnu- we have rebelled, etc. There's a certain comfort in the familiarity of the viduy. We recite the same mantra each year, offering our sorrow and remorse for yet another year of sinfulness. In following the laundry list of viduy that our sages laid out for us, we take a certain solace. Even though we say the words, we didn't really do everything on the list. Sure, we spoke lashon hara. That one applies to everyone. But some of them we say even though we don't really think that we did the deed during the past year. While the rabbis left many of them vague and unspecific enough to include many common behaviors (kizavnu - "we have rebelled". Can anyone claim "not" to have rebelled against God during the past year in some way?), one particular sin seems misplaced on our individual lists: gazalnu: we have stolen. In the year of Madoff and tax evasion and financial scandal, most of come away feeling that at least that's one sin we're not guilty of. I've done a lot of things during the past year; but at least I'm not a thief.
But if that's true, why do I keep saying gazalnu - "we have stolen"? Sure, it's in the text. But when I say it, do I think it's true or not? Unless you really have stolen, which truth be told, most of us have not, we don't really think it's true. We're not thieves, or at least we don't think we are. But if not, then why do we say it? Or better yet, why did the rabbis include it in such a universal prayer?
Truthfully, we might not be as innocent as we think. My line of thinking begins with a Mishnah in Baba Metzia. The second chapter of Baba Metzia deals primarily with the return and care of lost objects: what must I return, what can I keep, how long must I watch it, etc? How do I know that I'm returning the item to its rightful owner? The Mishnah (7) explains:
אמר את האבדה ולא אמר סימניה לא יתן לו והרמאי אף על פי שאמר סימניה לא יתן לו שנאמר (דברים כ"ב) עד דרוש אחיך אותו עד שתדרוש את אחיך אם רמאי הוא אם אינו רמאי
If the [claimer] mentioned the item but did not offer identifying characteristics, he may not give it to him. And the liar - even if he gives identifying characteristics, he should not give him the item, for it is written, "Until your brother seeks him out", [meaning that you should not return the item] until you investigate whether the [claimer] is or liar, or whether he is not a liar.
In order to return lost property, it's not enough to simply announce the item and return it to the claimer with the right information. I also have to look into his background: is he honest? Would he lie to claim an item that does not belong to him? Is he the kind of person who would dishonestly take free money? It seems like an awfully difficult task for a person simply trying to return a cell phone. But the gemara makes the task even more difficult. The gemara notes:
תנו רבנן: בראשונה כל מי שאבדה לו אבידה - היה נותן סימנין ונוטלה. משרבו הרמאין, התקינו שיהו אומרים לו: צא והבא עדים דלאו רמאי את, וטול.
The Rabbis taught: Originally, anyone who lost an item, would just offer the identifying marks and take it. When the liars multiplied, they instituted that they would say to him: go bring witnesses that you are not a liar, and take your item.
Apparently, claiming lost items was simply too easy for many people to pass up. Someone would announce that he had found a cellphone, and I guess it was easy enough for someone else to guess its identifying remarks that false claims for lost property became a common problem. So the rabbis, with this new institution, force us to assume that everyone is a thief and a liar. "You want your phone back? Sure. Just go get me witnesses that you're honest and upstanding and I'll be happy to give it to you." The Tur, in rather stark language, sharpens the Gemara's point by adding the following sentence (See Tur Choshen Mishpat 267) "Nowadays, we are all assumed to be liars."
Reading through these halachot bothered me greatly. It's one thing to ask people to identify their lost cellphone. But it's entirely another to assume that every person is inherently dishonest until he proves otherwise. But there it is, in black and white, codified into Jewish law. We're all assumed to be liars and thieves, ready to steal and cheat at a moment's notice, unless we have witnesses who can vouch for our character. How troubling.
I shared my feelings with a friend of mine, who suggested that it really boils down to a question of perspective. Most of us wouldn't walk into a friend's house and steal his television. (Who knows - maybe mine is better than yours anyway.) That's black and white. But claiming lost property wasn't black and white. It didn't require outright theft, but just a little dishonesty. It's easy to see someone thing to himself, the owner probably gave up on it, so why shouldn't I get it instead of someone else? What about our gray areas - and there are a lot of gray areas.
Were those hours billable hours, or were they just shmoozing hours? Is shmoozing an assumed part of office work, or is it just wasting company time? After that meeting do I go back to the office to finish the day, or just go home, because by the time I get back to the office, I'll never get anything done anyway? These simple questions come up daily in office and work life, and they rarely have good, clear answers. Often the answer depends on your perspective. And our perspective is never objective. It is our nature to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.
Ask yourself this question then: What does it mean about us if, when asked about a monetary case (and we were an objective third party) we would give one answer; but if we were asking the question about our own finances, we would give a very different answer? What does that make us? Liars? Thieves? Maybe not that harsh - but at least somewhat dishonest, if not disingenuous.
Which is certainly enough to justify our viduy on Yom Kippur.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Leaning Far, Far Right...Off the Deep End

The Jerusalem Post recently featured this article about Shmuel Sackett and Moshe Zalman Feiglin, the founders of far-Right Likud faction Manhigut Yehudit, and their ideas for rescuing Gilad Shalit and moving Israel forward. How would Feiglin deal with the Schalit crisis?
Feiglin said he would immediately execute half of the prisoners named in Hamas's negotiation list and execute another one each day Schalit was not released.
"We have atomic bombs, and we cannot rescue a soldier 10 kilometers away?" asked Feiglin. "We take a list of what they want and simply kill half of them, and every day he is not released, we kill another one. If they kill him, then you attack, and you make sure there is not one Hamas leader who stays alive."
I really have no idea what the reaction was from the crowd of twenty-five who gathered in Katamon. But I can tell you my reaction to Feiglin's ideas: Please. Be. Quiet.
Let me list the reasons:

1. Practical: Hamas has already demonstrated that it's perfectly willing to sacrifice its own citizens, including women and children, to further the cause of Palestinian suffering. Shooting mortars from a school yard is a perfectly valid form of resistance, especially if the Hamas Freedom Fighters manage to elicit a response from the IDF that hurts, or preferably kills innocent people, preferably children. This, of course generates international outrage from media outlets like the BBC, leading to damning reports from Human Rights Watch, culminating in critical reports from the United Nations Human Rights Commission. It's a simple calculation of cost, which Hamas leadership has determined to be worth the expense. A few lives for international pressure on Israel? Sure, just add them to the martyrs list.
Imagine then the glee in Hamas headquarters under the Gaza Central Hospital when they learn that Israel has decided to execute prisoners under Israeli confinement as per Prime Minister Feiglin's plan. How long will the line be around the block for reporter from CNN, NBC, Newsweek, the Oregon Duck, and every other media representative to interview the condemned, their families, their mourning sisters? How well Feiglin's plan go over in the international media? Who cares? Actually, we do. Israel depends on not only U.S. economic and political support, but a huge chunk of Israel's economy depends on international trade. How long would it take for protests to form at the headquarters of Google, Microsoft, Intel, and the hundreds of other major corporations that do business in Israel? How soon would it be before they decided that, you know what, it's just not worth losing billions of dollars both in Europe and the Arab world to stay in Israel? How would PM Feiglin find jobs for the thousands of unemployed Israelis then?

2. Legal: Collective punishment is against international law. Israel struggles mightily with the use of even home demolitions as a means of deterring suicide bombings (which it has done effectively). The notion of punishing Palestinians - even terrorists (and not all detainees have been involved in violent crimes) - is a terrible violation of international law that Israel subscribes to.

3. Ethical: Is it really moral to kill thousands of captives to try and free one Jewish soldier? Sure, it's moral in an attack attempting to free Schalit to kill those who attempt to prevent his release. But that's not what Feiglin means. He means walking into a jail cell and shooting a detainee in cold blood - not for what he's done, but in the hope that his meaningless death will compel a vile and cruel terrorist in Gaza to release a Jewish soldier. Sorry, Mr. Feiglin, but that's not my idea of ethical.
One of the most difficult aspects of the challenge of fighting Hamas in Gaza is the fact that we're playing by different sets of rules. We have morals and ethics, and they don't. Yet, I (and most Israelis) don't consider our ethics a weakness. Rather, it's our greatest strength. And sinking to the depths of Hamas wouldn't strengthen our position either with Hamas or the rest of the world.

If you had the impression that Moshe Feiglin represents the views of Anglo Olim living here in Israel, I'd like to offer another point of view. I consider myself right of center, and believe in the eternal right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.
But I won't become a murderer and terrorist to make that happen.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Ha'azinu - The Frightening Future

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ha'azinu - The Frightening Future
Reading Moshe's final message in Ha'azinu, I am struck by it's power, but also its negativity. Moshe doesn't seem to give the Jewish people much hope of avoiding sin and calamity. In our study of Ha'azinu, we discuss some of the challenges the parshah presents as well as the Teshuvah messages inherent in the parshah.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Happy New Year?

Back during my time in Yeshiva, I heard that the wife of a friend of mine had given birth to a child. As a recently married young man in kollel (read here: no money), the finances of parenthood occupied my mind. After wishing him Mazel Tov I asked him, "I heard that having kids is really expensive. Is it that bad?"
"Actually," he told me, "that's not true. The kid is free. It's the accessories that are expensive."

Apparently, we're not happy. The reason that we're not happy is because we have children. At least that what the science tells us. Maureen Dowd writes,
One area of extreme distraction is kids. “Across the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children,” said Betsey Stevenson, an assistant professor at Wharton who co-wrote a paper called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.” “It’s true whether you’re wealthy or poor, if you have kids late or kids early. Yet I know very few people who would tell me they wish they hadn’t had kids or who would tell me they feel their kids were the destroyer of their happiness.”
Even Newsweek is in on the secret: kids are a drag. They require work, energy and effort, and can really dampen our fun quotient. We're just not happy. Our children are making us miserable. And in a way, I can see it. Who really likes dragging around every Sunday from birthday party to birthday party? Who truly enjoys the "bliss" of arguing with a child about a piece of candy, or a movie, or a bedtime? Who needs the hassle and the stress of raising children?
From Judaism's point of view, these surveys don't mean much. Sorry, but having children is a mitzvah - a commandment. God demands that we procreate - that we deal with the runny noses, tuition expenses and all the hassles that children bring. It's the very first commandment in the Torah, so the commandment to have children must be a fundamental, integral element to Jewish life.
Indeed it is. While God certainly wants us to be happy, it's not the "happiness" of American sensitivities. Rather, it's a happiness rooted in something far more important and meaningful.
If life is all about experiencing the greatest pleasure, the highest amount of leisure and the most fun, then having kids might not be the way to go. But is that really the definition of happiness? While buying a new car might make me feel good, does it really make me "happy"? Isn't happiness something deeper than the model and year of the car that I drive, and my financial security and well-being? How can you ask a parent compare her "happiness" level with a non-parent? Doesn't that happiness really depend on what you expected out of life.
Even more significant, though, is the root of a person's "happiness". Does your happiness come from giving or from taking? Are you happier when you enjoy a pleasurable experience, or when you give that pleasure to someone else? Answering that question will determine how you'll feel about the trials and travails of child-rearing.
This might be why at Rosh Hashanah we don't wish each other a "Happy New Year". It's not about being happy, although God certainly wants me to find joy in my life. Rather, at the Jewish new year we wish each other a shanah tovah u'metukah, a "good and sweet year".
It might not always be fun to change diapers, discipline teenagers or set limits. But, if we raise our children with the understanding that parenting allows us to share with God in the ultimate form of creation, it certainly is sweet.
Shanah Tovah, U'metukah!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Yet Another Reason to Live In Israel

Looking at the upcoming sports schedule, I just realized that while the residents of the United States will be forced to miss most of Sunday's NFL action due to Rosh Hashanah, I theoretically won't. Since Yom Tov ends here at about 7:00pm, that's plenty of time to watch the full lineup of NFL games with the Sunday NFL Ticket package available over the Internet. Despite the fact that I'm not a subscriber to the NFL package (if you're interested in sponsoring one for me, feel free to contact me directly), and won't be watching any of the games, the important point here is that I "could" theoretically watch the game live.
Then again, astute observers might point out that next week, on Erev Yom Kippur, football fans in the United States will be able to watch Sunday games, while I'll be in the middle of Kol Nidrei. Then again, is it appropriate to watch football on erev Yom Kippur? (Who am I kidding? Are the Redskins playing?)
On that note, I would like to wish you a Shanah Tovah - a year of peace, prosperity and well-being for ourselves, our families, the Jewish people, the State of Israel - and a year where our biggest worry is whether we can watch a football game after Yom Tov.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Audio Shiur: Akeidat Yitchak - Doing Teshuvah as Parents for Rosh Hashanah

Audio Shiur:
Akeidat Yitzchak - Doing Teshuvah as Parents
Using this article about parenting as a springboard for our shiur, we study the story of Akeidat Yitzchak. This powerful tale, which we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, evokes strong emotions, both for the questions that it forces us to confront, and the ethical challenges it presents. But when we look at the story carefully, with a focus on the language that the Torah employs, we find some powerful lessons for parents to consider.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sam Antar and an Ancient Spanking: Lessons in Parenting

My father (ob"m) passed away over twenty-five years ago, when I was nine. I remember many things about him: his seriousness; his devotion to Torah study; his honest and integrity. He was the kind of father that you feared. At least I did - but you wanted to please him and fulfill his expectations. Worst, of course, was to upset him. There was nothing worse for my mother to say than, "Wait until your father gets home." No mom, let's not wait. Punish me now!
It was a long time ago, and I'm sure he spanked me more than once. But he didn't do it often, and I really only remember one spanking well: the time I stole a candy from the grocery store.
My mom was obviously distracted doing something silly like "paying", and the candy was right there, at my eye level, ripe for the taking. (Giant Foods should take some of the blame.) I slipped the bag of candy into my pocket and after arriving home, quickly moved the contraband into a great spot: my underwear drawer. (Note to would-be thieves: Don't put stolen goods in your underwear drawer if you don't put away your own laundry. Not too smart.) In any case, when my mother found the candy (worth all of $.25) she said those dreaded words, and that was it. I knew I was dead, and I was right. It was the spanking of the century, at least for me, because to this day I still remember it. But it wasn't just the physical pain; he was truly, truly upset. I had done something so totally against his set of values and principles, and that just came out.
And I never once had the desire to steal anything ever again.
I thought of my father and that potch after speaking to Sam Antar, the convicted felon I've written about recently. In my follow-up email to him, I told him that I wanted to ask Sam a couple of questions, so later that morning we spoke. (Sam apparently doesn't sleep much, as it was in the middle of the night in New York.)
I wanted to know two things:
1. Didn't he ever feel internally that stealing was wrong? Didn't some internal moral compass ever go off pointing out the fact that stealing is wrong?
2. What about his parents? Did they know what he was doing? Why didn't they stop him from committing such terrible crimes?
Sam said that while he knew what he was doing was "wrong", it really didn't bother him that much - or at least not enough to change and stop. He only changed when he got caught (and abandoned by his uncle), and decided to save himself and testify for the government. But what about his parents? Did they know what he was doing? Why didn't they stop him?
His parents knew - at least in the beginning. And they didn't stop him at that point, after which it was too late.
He explained to me that in the culture in which he grew up, many people took stealing small amounts for granted. It's the way to conduct business. Everyone cheats by skimming taxes from the government. That's what they did in Sam's uncle's store, and no one thought anything of it. But morally (and parentally), it's difficult to distinguish between "small" theft and large theft; between improperly filling out a tax form and falsifying an income statement to increase stock value. Stealing is stealing, and if it's OK to steal a little, then why not steal a lot?
The answer, of course, is that it's not OK to steal, even a little. Sam actually referenced a Midrash about the generation of the flood. The Midrash teaches us that the people used to steal "less than the value of a perutah" - less than the smallest amount for which a person could be held legally responsible. Petty theft was common, even accepted. The Midrash obviously teaches us that accepting and allowing small corruption clearly leads to more sophisticated and serious corruption down the road.
This got me thinking about the crisis of ethics that has recently plagued the Jewish world; the Orthodox perp walks, and the stigmas and stereotyping that affects us all.
I got to New York City for yeshiva in 1991 - before the big clean up of the city by Rudy Giuliani. They stopped the big crime - the murders (lowering the murder rate from about 2200 a year to about 500 yearly) by going first after smaller criminals, the squeegie men and turnstile jumpers. Calling their method of crime prevention the "broken window" theory, they realized that stopping petty criminals prevents them from growing into bigger criminals later on, and creates an environment where people want clean neighborhoods, and don't tolerate graffiti, crime or broken windows.
Perhaps we in the Jewish community need a "broken windows" theory of our own. We need to stop turning the other cheek when someone brags about cheating on his insurance claim. We need to declare loudly and with pride that our community will neither tolerate nor venerate people who don't pay their taxes. We need to stop the "small crime" from being an accepted part of ethnic community life.
And as parents, we need to ensure that our children get the message as well. I'm not advocating spanking - although a well-placed spank (used almost never) can certainly convey a powerful message. But do we communicate to our kids the critical importance of honesty and ethical behavior? Do we share with them the difficult choices that we make, when we do the right thing? Do we demonstrate just how important the values of honesty in business and ethical living are to each of us?
That's our job as parent; teaching our children how to make the right choices, from the beginning, at each and every stage of life.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Canaries in the Coal Mine: The First Victims of the Building Freeze

Common sense tells us that the first victims of any change in economic policy are the people living on the fringes - most often the poor. When health care expenses rise in the U.S., the poor are the first to drop coverage, resulting in less primary care, disease prevention, and ultimately, visits to the emergency room. For most government policy, the poor are our canaries in the coal mine.
Most people think of the current building freeze in Judea and Samaria as a foreign-policy issue. Or a military issue. But in the real world, it's very much an economic issue, especially for the people who live in Judea and Samaria not due to ideology, but finances. I'm talking of course, about members of the Haredi community.
Beitar Illit and Kiryat Sefer (also known as Modiin Illit), two cities on the "wrong" side of the Green Line, represent two of the largest Haredi communities in Israel. (Full disclosure: my brother lives in Kiryat Sefer and my cousin in Beitar Illit.) Haredim are not known for their devotion to the notion of "Greater Israel." They didn't settle these areas to articulate a political vision. They built them to alleviate crushing financial pressure. Haredim prefer to live in closed communities, where they can create a lifestyle that adheres to their exacting religious standards. Jerusalem and B'nei Brak long ago reached capacity, raising real estate prices drastically. Hareidim also generally spend long years studying Torah, with little or no real job training, and even when they enter the work force, subsist on minimal salaries and large government support. Combine high real estate with low income and the impossibility of the situation becomes clear. Building cities beyond the Green Line offered a truly viable solution. The Haredim could build their own, insular communities, and they would do so in places where land was cheap, plentiful, and distinct from existing metropolitan areas.
And build they did.
Established less than 15 years ago, Kiryat Sefer boasts a population of 38,000 (at least). Children under the age of nine represent a full 50 percent of its population. That's a huge number which indicates incredible growth, stunning birthrates - all statistics consonant with Hareidi lifestyles. Put simply, these cities have very large, very young families who clearly grew up elsewhere are moved there to live. Obviously, these communities continue to grow at the same rapid clip. Their children marry early and begin having children, and they need a place to live.
Until this year, these new Hareidi cities presented the obvious solution to the community's demographic needs. They'd simply build a road on the next hill and build cookie-cutter apartment buildings which would quickly fill with new young families. When that fills up, you can start all over again. But with the total settlement freeze at least in practice, there are no new apartment buildings rising over Kiryat Sefer. Young coup
les can't find places to live. And we're starting to see the Hareidi community begin to react.

A couple of days ago, the Jerusalem Post featured this article about the lack of building in Beitar Illit. I was actually just there last Thursday. When you drive into the city, you immediately notice large swaths of empty land within the limits of the city, not at the edge of town. But they can't build there either.
Beitar Illit's mayor told the Post,
"Young couples are forced to live in converted storage rooms and underground parking lots. We have to do something about it."
And it looks like they have.
This week's issue of B'sheva (a free weekly paper published by Arutz Sheva, the same people who run the website) featured a small article about the "First Haredi Settlement" that they've called "Givat Sefer", right next to Kiryat Sefer. You can actually see Kiryat Sefer in the background. The new settlement - OK, right now it's a tool shed (but don't they all start that way), was established by an organization called Chalamish (in Hebrew the abbreviation חלמי"ש stands for חרדים למען מתיישבים יהודה ושומרון - Hareidim on behalf of the settlers of Yehudah and Shomron) One of the kollel fellows told a reporter that,
אנחנו רוצים להראות לעולם כולו את העוול שנעשה לנו. הציבור החרדי נמצא במצוקה אדירה של דיור, ונציגיו לא עושים כלום בכדי להקל עליו. אנחנו כאן בכדי להישאר, ונבנה כאן את כל המבנים הדרושים לנו
We want to show the entire world the calamity that has been done to use. The Hareidi community finds itself with a tremendous housing shortage, and its representatives aren't doing anything to lighten the load upon us. We are here to stay, and we'll build all the buildings that we need.
That sounds more like something you'd here from a "right-wing" settler than from a Hareidi group. But the Hareidim are different than your normal poverty-stricken run-of-the-mill coal-mine canary. They vote. And they're organized. They have tremendous political power to swing not only elections, but the entire government. And while the political leaders seem happy right now to remain in the Netanyahu government, if the housing crisis reaches a boiling point, they'll have less patience and more power than the Religious Zionist movement ever dreamed of having.
While we might not see eye-to-eye ideologically with Hareidim on issues regarding the Land of Israel, in the end, they may very well prove a stronger ally for building the Land of Israel than anyone ever imagined.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Stopping Crime Before it Starts: My Conversation with a Convicted Felon

Earlier this week, I posted a piece about Sam Antar and the importance of apologies. I posted the article at 9:35am Israel time. At 9:40am, Sam sent me an email in which he wrote the following (by the way, he gave me permission to share his correspondence):
My point is that many people are victimized by criminals when they accept their apologies at face value. Too often apologies are never followed by redemptive behavior. That is why I am very skeptical about apologies when I discuss the issue in public. I don’t want people to be victimized by phony apologies and I want them to exercise caution against empty gestures of redemption. Hashem cannot be fooled, but people are often fooled and victimized by criminals taking advantage of their desirable trait of forgiveness.
Most interesting is his signature (which he also uses on his blog):
With great respect,
Sam E. Antar (convicted felon)
I don't know about you, but most of us try to run away from our past; we hide our indiscretions and try and present a front to the world of, if not perfection, normalcy. Sam, on the other hand, seems to have decided to define himself by his crime. At least for now - and for the past fifteen years - he has defined himself as a "convicted felon". I've been thinking about Sam quite a bit since that morning, and especially the notion of apologies, redemption and forgiveness.
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin Chapter 2) lists several types of people who the rabbis prohibited from serving as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. The list includes people who loan on interest, professional gamblers of various types as well as thieves. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 25b) wonders about the rehabilitation of a professional gambler. When does the gambler become sufficiently rehabilitated to allow him to testify? The Gemara answers:
ואימתי חזרתן? משישברו את פיספסיהן ויחזרו בהן חזרה גמורה דאפילו בחנם לא עבדי
And when are they rehabilitated? When they destroy their cards and repent so completely, that they don't even play for free.
Rehabilitation is possible. But it's not enough to just say, "I'm sorry." The gambler must take specific, concrete action to demonstrate his own rehabilitation.
Reading Sam's website and listening to him talk made me think of that passage. How many of us would have the courage to sign our emails, "Reuven Spolter, former embezzler", or "Reuven Spolter, unconvicted tax fraud"? Or, being more honest, "Reuven Spolter, yeller at children when I'm upset"? When does Sam - or any of us for that matter - cease from being a "convicted sinner"? When do we get to erase our past and move on?
One could argue that he will always be a convicted felon. It's part of his past. He did the crime, and even though he did the time, you can't erase facts. You have to live with your past. But the very idea of Teshuvah seems to contradict this idea. If I repent wholeheartedly, my Teshuvah has the power to turn back the clock and somehow undo that which I've done, to revise my history and no only erase my sins, but actually elevate them.
אמר ריש לקיש: גדולה תשובה, שזדונות נעשות לו כשגגות, שנאמר +הושע יד+ שובה ישראל עד ה' אלהיך כי כשלת בעונך. הא עון מזיד הוא, וקא קרי ליה מכשול. איני? והאמר ריש לקיש: גדולה תשובה שזדונות נעשות לו כזכיות, שנאמר +יחזקאל לג+ ובשוב רשע מרשעתו ועשה משפט וצדקה עליהם (חיה) +מסורת הש"ס: [הוא]+ יחיה! - לא קשיא; כאן - מאהבה, כאן - מיראה.
Said Reish Lakish: So great is Teshuvah that [after repentance] intentional sins are transformed for him into unintentional sins, as it is written (Hoshea 14) "Return O' Israel to Hashem your God, for you have stumbled in your sinfulness." We see that a 'sin' is [the term used to connote a sin committed with] intention, and yet the verse calls it a 'stumble'. But did not Reish Lakish [also] say: So great is Teshuvah, that his intentional sins are considered merits, as it is written (Yechezkel 33), "And when the wicked returns from his evil and performs justice and charity upon them he shall live"? This is not a question. This [second statement] refers to Teshuvah from love, and this [first statement] refers to Teshuvah out of fear.
This represents one of miraculous aspects of the gift of Teshuvah that God grants us. Repentance has the incredible power not only to erase but to transform the sins we committed into merits for us. When a person uses his sins to make the world a better place, although he is a "convicted felon," in a very real sense he is not. He's no longer that person, but a different, better person.
Sam needs to continue to call himself a "convicted felon". Maybe that's how he presents himself to give himself credibility when talking about criminal behavior. But I think that it's more than that. Maybe for Sam Antar, the title of "convicted felon" isn't so much a badge a shame anymore, but a description that continues to spur him to teach about and combat white-collar crime. It's a way of saying, "Look what I was, and now what I've used my sins to become."
In anyone's book, that's what Teshuvah is really all about.

In our short email exchange, I told Sam that I wanted to ask him a few questions. He soon called me and we had a fascinating discussion. To be continued...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Audio Shiur: Parshat Netzavim - Is Teshuvah Really that Easy?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Netzavim - Is Teshuvah Really that Easy?
Moshe seems to imply that making the right choices is easy as pie. But experience tells us that it's not so simple - far from it. Using the power of the Midrash, we discuss challenges in life, a convicted felon, and the how these bring us closer to Teshuvah.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The White Flag Investigation: Another Hamas Victory

The news media has recently reported into allegations against the IDF of shootings of civilians carrying white flags. The army allegedly shot people waving white flags to identify themselves as civilians. The Jerusalem Post reported that,
HRW concluded that "eyewitness accounts, tank tracks, an ammunition box and bullet casings found at the scene, and an examination of the grandmother by forensic experts indicate that an Israeli soldier fired upon identifiable and unarmed women and children."
Let's assume (for the moment) that the entire report is true and that IDF soldiers did fire on a group of civilians waving white flags, just another example of Palestinians suffering for the sin of living in an active and violent war zone. The question remains: Who is to blame? Whose fault is it really?
An even better (and related) question is: What does a white flag mean in Gaza? What would you have done if you were one of those soldiers? This story only carries moral weight if a white flag carries significance. But sadly, in Gaza, white flags could very well mean absolutely nothing.
Hamas' willingness to enmesh itself within the civilian population of Gaza has already been well documented. Hamas terrorists have operated in homes, schools and hospitals, giving absolutely no consideration to the safety and well-being of the civilians living in the area. Hamas has repeatedly used ambulances and other supposedly "neutral" vehicles to transport arms, bombs and terrorists. Firing rockets and mortars from backyards and school playgrounds is a favorite Hamas tactic, generating a response, and if all goes "well", causes civilian injury and death that's picked up and condemned by the international press.
Given this total disregard for it's own people, how can an Israeli soldier possibly know whether the civilian waving the white flag does in fact represent no real threat, or if that person - man, woman or child - is waving the flag in the hope of luring an unsuspecting soldier just close enough to shoot, blow up or capture?
The shooting of anyone represents a tragedy, much less someone carrying a white flag. But if IDF soldiers shot civilians waving white flags, the blame falls squarely on the Hamas tactics that made every civilian a potential threat.
In fact, this very investigation represents a victory for Hamas. They care less that three Palestinian children were killed than the fact that Human Rights Watch issued a critical report on Israel. To them, that's a sacrifice they're willing to make.
But I'm not. I'd rather our soldiers - our sons, brothers and fathers - remain careful and cautious, and not jeopardize their own lives. If Hamas wants to play with the lives of its own civilians, that's a tragedy. But Israel cannot allow their hideous tactics to force us to take the same risks with our children as well.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Teshuvah and Remorse

Remember the Crazy Eddie's chain of electronic stores from the mid-1980's? They had ads featuring a guy screaming - literally screaming about how crazy Eddie was for selling all kinds of stuff at such low prices. Well, it turns out that Crazy Eddie's was a hotbed of white-collar crime, from simple tax skimming all the way to securities fraud. I listen to an NPR podcast called "Planet Money", and a while ago they featured a story about Eddie's nephew, Sam Antar, who worked behind the scenes at the company, got himself arrested, turned state's witness, and got off with a slap on the wrist. It's a fascinating story, and a worthwhile read.
But what truly caught my attention came at the end of the interview. The reporter asked Sam, "Are you sorry? Do you feel bad for what you've done?" He said basically the same thing that appears on his blog:

Do I have any Guilt and Remorse?

Did he ever have remorse? "Never ... We simply did not care about any one of our victims. We simply committed crime because we could. During the conduct of my crimes I never lost one nights sleep or spent one moment caring about the harm I was inflicting on others.

Apologies are irrelevant. They don’t change anything. It does not undo any crimes. Does an apology really erase the effects of past criminal behavior? As a person who used words to deceive and lie to others in the commission of my crimes I say you must judge people by their actions and not by their kind words. Too often we are moved by well meaning but empty words.

As a criminal I used well sounding words too exploit you in an effort to commit my crimes. I knew as good human beings you would feel compassion for me. However, the white collar criminal uses your humanity such as compassion as a weakness to be exploited. For example if I apologize for my actions, how do you really know if I am contrite or if anyone else who apologizes is really contrite? Therefore, judge people more by the actions they take after a mistake or error rather than their well sounding apologies.

Indeed, why does it matter to us if a person apologizes? What difference does it make what a person says? Shouldn't we care more about his actions than whatever he says?
And yet, Judaism teaches us that saying "I'm sorry" forms a critical component of the Teshuvah process. We must confess our sins to God, and express our remorse, shame and commitment to never repeat that behavior. Equally significantly, when addressing sins which we perpetrated on our fellow man Rambam (Laws of Teshuvah 2:9) writes,
But sins between man and his fellow man, such as one who injures his friend, or curses his friend or stole from him or any similar act - he is not forgiven, ever, until he gives his friend that which he is obligated and appeases him. Even though he returned the money that he owed him, he must appease him and ask him for forgiveness."
Clearly, apologies are important. It does matter whether a person asks for forgiveness. But what about Sam Antar's point, that words mean nothing, and actions speak much louder than words? How can you ever know whether an apology carries any deeper meaning than mere words?
In a way, you cannot know.
Certainly, God expects us to apologize sincerely. He wants us to truly feel remorse and regret, and humbly ask for forgiveness. And He knows whether we mean it or not. On Yom Kippur we specifically confess for the sin of וידוי פה - "confession of the mouth" and not of the heart. Despite the possibility that our apology was only lip service, God accepted it anyway. But even if the apology comes not from a deep feeling of shame, but more from a fear of punishment, retribution, or even a desire for public rehabilitation, apologies still have value. When asking for forgiveness, a person needs to lower himself in the eyes of his neighbor, in essence subjugating himself and begging for absolution. That act of submission in and of itself is humbling.
We should apologize with sincerity. That's really the idea of an apology. But even if we don't really mean it, it's still "Hard to say "I'm Sorry'". (With apologies to Chicago). And that struggle is part of Teshuvah as well.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Audio Shiur: Parshat Ki Tavo - The Power of Fear

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Tavo: The Power of Fear
Looking towards the High Holidays with a sense of anticipation, it's clear that the dominant emotion of the Yamim Noraim - the "Days of Awe" - is fear. By examining a section of Parshat Ki Tavo about the blessings and curses on Har Gerizim and Har Eival, we discuss this phenomenon, how it relates to our own psyches, and how we raise our children.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Competition in Education Part 3: The Ethiopians in Petach Tikveh

The is the third post in an ongoing series on the effects of competition on Jewish education. The other two articles are:
Part 1: The New Program for Hesder Yeshivot
Part 2: The Hesder Yeshiva Recruiting Mess

Every year as September 1st rolls around, the Israeli press searches for a story to highlight the beginning of the school year. This year they didn't need to look very hard. The story jumped into their laps. It had a bit of racism, politics, and even an anti-religious streak. In essence, it was a perfect story for today's modern media. And they ran with it.
Here's what happened. When Ethiopians make aliyah they undergo conversion - לחומרא - "as a stringency." They do this because of the great debate about their Jewish lineage and the impossibility of ascertaining their Jewishness with any degree of certainly. In the process of conversion, they must commit to following the strictures of the Torah and sending their children to an Orthodox school - which the vast majority of them do. Here's where things get dicy.
This year, a group of Ethiopians from Petach Tikvah wanted to send their children to three "private" schools in that city. The schools, while agreeing to accept some of the children, did not agree to accept them all, insisting that the children did not meet their educational and religious requirements.
The Israeli public went, in a word, nuts. No less than the Prime Minister of Israel called this an example of "racism" and a kind of "terrorism" (a little much if you ask me). This act, in their words, violated a sacred trust of the Israeli public to accept immigrants from anywhere and integrate them into mainstream society. Under the red-hot lights of media scrutiny, the government threatened to withhold funding and actually shut down the three schools if they continued to refuse to accept these students. They finally reached a "compromise" where the schools basically caved. I would have caved too if someone threatened to shut down my school.
But what really happened here? After all, these are Religious Zionist Schools that have in the past educated many Ethiopian students, and did accept a good number of them for this year. Why, all of the sudden, did they make a stink, and find themselves in an impossible media storm that they could not anticipate?
The problem, as it turns out, has less to do with Ethiopians than the larger educational system. And unless things change fundamentally, the story about these Ethiopian students is just a harbinger of things to come.
Contrary to popular perception (outside of Israel), not all schools in Israel are "public" schools. There are huge systems of "private" schools that receive government funding. These "private" schools get a whopping 75% of their budget from the public system. Why does the government allow separate school systems to exists that cost it so much money? It probably has something to do with money. Someone a while back came to the government, cash-strapped as it always is and said, "I want to open a school for gifted students. If you let me open my own school, it will only cost you 75% of what it would normally cost you per student. The rest will come from the parents' pockets." Seeing a way to save a boatload of money, the government signed on.
But now the monster that the Israeli Department of Education created has come back to bite the system. What has emerged is a system of "haves" and "have-nots", where the public system must compete with private schools for students. The private schools are, of course, far more selective, and by definition cater to students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. And the difference in price is small enough that if a parent can afford it, he or she will pay the tuition to send her child to the "private" school.
This has led to a two-tiered system of schooling, with ever-increasing pressure on the private schools to consistently differentiate themselves from the public schools, and on the public system to maintain a level of excellence after being drained of its best students.
I feel this strain quite personally, even in Yad Binyamin, even in my own children's elementary schools. We send our kids to Breuer - a בית ספר ממלכתי דתי תורני - "a "Public Religious Torani school." It's not a regular public school. It's not even a religious public school. It's a Torani school, with extra hours and emphasis on religious instruction. (A parent in America only dreams of having the government provide this type of education.) But here in Yad Binyamin, for some parents it's not good enough. A local yeshiva with roots in Gush Katif moved to Yad Binyamin after the disengagement, and has been growing slowly ever since, transforming itself into not just a yeshiva, but an entire school system. Torat Chayim now boasts the main yeshiva, a women's Midrashah, a girls' elementary school, a boys' elementary school, a film school, a school for "Jewish counseling" and also girls' and boys' high schools. At one point, the system was really for students learning in the yeshiva and their children. But no longer. Parents from the yishuv with no real connection to the yeshiva who are looking for "more" - a greater focus on Torah learning and values, more hours of Torah instruction - have begun sending their children to Torat Chayim, as is their right. But this has created a subtle sort of pressure on other parents who "should" be sending their children to the "better" school, and even more importantly, has begun to empty Breuer of the more advanced children and even more observant children who would have otherwise rounded out the school's population. This eventually may force parents looking for a more advanced Judaic curriculum, or just friends who are passionate about their Judaism, to remove their children from the public school, as the public option lacks a critical mass of students necessary for a positive group dynamic.
What's happening in Yad Binyamin has happened across Israel. Public schools - even religious ones (Mamadim Datiim) find themselves emptied of their best students, left to try and do their best without the strongest parts of the population, who would have been their advanced students, role models and greatest products.
At the same time, the private schools have begun to compete with one another to attract these very same students. In a city like Petach Tikveh with a very large religious population, the competition is fierce, and can often focus on which school is "frummest". So the schools impose restrictions, some sensible (like what type of internet service you have in your home) and some silly (rabbis must have beards) to one-up their competition.
Into this context entered the Ethiopian children.
The Ethiopians by and large do not excel academically; they lag behind in their Hebrew language ability, and many do not rigorously follow the strictures of the Torah. A large enough group in a single school will undoubtedly band together, creating a separate stream within the context of the school. So these three "private" schools, while they agreed to take a limited number of children, were not willing to take such a substantial number that it would alter the focus and nature of the school.
They were wrong, but were in the end simply reacting to market forces. After all, if they get a name as a magnet for Ethiopian children, then parents will stop sending their children to these elite private schools.
And in the world of competitive education in which we live, that's a fate that must be avoided at almost any cost. No matter which immigrant gets hurt.