Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It’s Not Their Fault

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Mainstream news outlets have seriously cut down their coverage of news stories. As society dumbs down and spends more time feeding its internet addiction, the news switches to be more entertaining than enlightening, more style than content, and more pop than intelligence. People following current events often find themselves amazed at what passes for news today. The goal in news-reporting was once to inform and enlighten. No more. Today, it’s all about entertainment. Reflecting trends in society, style tends to trump content; trendiness and superficiality have replaced serious values.

Last week, all the news outlets could talk and write about was a flight attendant who snapped while on the job, and, following a tirade against a passenger, slid down the emergency chute and ran home. He rode home to become the biggest hero in America. He had the guts to walk off his job because he had enough and wouldn’t take it anymore.

It is beyond my ability to comprehend what is heroic about a person, whose job definition is helping people as they sit on an airplane, going crazy because a passenger didn’t follow his orders to detail. It is not always easy to reason with people in stressful situations, but an argument with a person who sought to remove a carry-on bag from the upper bin before the plane came to a complete stop doesn’t seem to be the type of act that should cause a service veteran to lose it. A person who was paid to service flying patrons threw away all modicum of decency and became portrayed as the hero of every working person in America.

We notice more and more that people don’t have patience for each other. More often, we note that people who are paid to be waiters, shop clerks, nurses or other types of aides seem to resent when people actually expect to be treated with professional decency.

What has transpired to the national psyche that gives people the idea that they can treat others as they will, ignoring their feelings and rights? You pay hundreds of dollars to fly from here to there, a few more to take along a suitcase, some more to quench your thirst while on the plane, and a few more for some other convenience, and then the people who work for the airline feel empowered to boss you around as if the flying tube were their own private fiefdom. When you resist, they lose it, go crazy, and become American heroes.

Can it be that people have taken the concept of a classless society where all are treated equal overboard? Are we now at the point where people consider it beneath their dignity to assist others with their luggage, meals, or whatever it is they are employed to do?

To be sure, there are legions of fine people who perform their tasks admirably, and thanks to them, businesses hum, orders are processed, planes take off, hospitals treat patients, and government gets you your driver’s license.

Has the culture of refinement become a culture of rudeness? Has rudeness replaced intelligence as a mark of greatness?

A troubling new work ethic appears to have gained traction among those who have been raised to feel a sense of entitlement to the American dream. They seemed to have forgotten that success is a result of hard work, ambition and common decency. Those who rely strictly on their sense of entitlement will fail to move ahead until they realize the need to treat other people with the consideration they seek for themselves.

These people are doomed to failure. Their arrogance and laziness will only get them so far. They can only humiliate and denigrate others only so many times before people get fed up with them. Instead of blaming themselves for their failures, they blame everyone else. They blame the people they are paid to work with. They blame the people they have insulted and treated rudely. They blame everyone but themselves. And the cycle of failure continues.

Blaming others for one’s failures and substandard behavior may appear to work in the short term. But over time, it contributes to a cycle of failure that boomerangs. Everyone loses.

This brings me to the next topic. Religious Jews are up in arms over happenings in the news on two successive Shabbosos. The first week it was a marriage that ticked them off, the second it was a Supreme Court appointment. No, it’s not the same as the flight attendant who lost it, but the two issues are related. All three stories came about as a result of people not accepting blame for their own failings.

How, people wondered, could Elana Kagan, President Obama’s Jewish appointee to the Supreme Court, agree to be sworn in on Shabbos? They don’t realize that, sadly, Kagan is so far removed from Shabbos that it plays no role whatsoever in her day-to-day life. It is like any other day. To her, the swearing-in ceremony represents a glorious milestone in her life and an historic event in the life of American Jews.

We neglect to recognize that we have abandoned her and millions like her. We haven’t reached out to her and so many other unaffiliated Jews. We haven’t brought them closer to Torah and Yiddishkeit. We haven’t made a serious attempt to show her and Jews of her background what they would miss out in not getting a Jewish education. We let her and those like her slip through the net and into the American melting pot.

Religious Jews are appalled that a nice Jewish boy would marry a Methodist, on Shabbos no less, dressed in a yarmulke and a tallis, under a chupah, and sign a kesubah to boot. “How can he?” they ask. “How can he trample on Shabbos and on halacha like that? A yarmulka, a chupah, a kesubah, a rabbi… on Shabbos?! Sacrilege! Shame!”

And it’s all true.

But whose fault is it? His or ours? Why is it the boy’s fault? Does he know better? Was he brought up any different? As far as he is concerned, he is a proud Jew. He proudly showed how far Jews have advanced in this country. He married the only daughter of a former president and the current secretary of state, and he did so with Jewish pride. He didn’t bury or hide his religion; it was out there for all to see.

This young man is a tinok shenishbah. It is not his fault. It is ours. Our community has failed this boy and his family. His grandparents were, in all probability, people who sacrificed for Torah, for Shabbos, and for fidelity to halacha. We could have perpetuated that golden chain. But we have failed his future - the beautiful Yiddishe kinderlach he could have fathered and brought up in the path of his forbears.

Instead, we stay locked in our comfortable neighborhoods and ignore the masses of Jews assimilating into oblivion right next door. We give lip service to the idea of reaching out to wayward Jews and educating them about their glorious heritage. And then, when they marry out of the faith, we blame them. When a proud Jew wears a yarmulka and a tallis and tramples on the holy Shabbos and everything else dear to us to marries out of the faith, we wonder how it could be. We write columns condemning him. We sermonize in synagogues across the country bemoaning the action of the tinok shenishbah bein ho’amim. But we fail to point the finger at the guilty party. We fail to accept the blame for the 70% of Jewish kids who don’t marry Jews.

Of course it is not realistic to expect us to be able to reach each and every Jewish kid and teach him what it means to be a Jew. It may not be feasible for us to sign up every child in a Jewish school. But do we care that we are losing the majority of Jews in this country to assimilation? Do we try to reach them? Do we throw them a lifeline?

In a related matter, we are flippant about not accepting children into our schools. And no, we are not talking about non-religious children. We are referring to children in our own communities who, for whatever reason, are left out in the cold as their parents try to grapple with the reality of their children being school-less. We have parents who actually impose their will and desires on school administrations regarding the type of students who should be accepted in their school.

Our grandparents and forebears would be mortified to witness child after child being rejected from frum schools, left with little to no options. And while it may make some people feel uncomfortable, it is time to stop making believe that this problem doesn’t exist. It is real and it is tragic. It is a phenomenon that has resulted in children leaving the derech haTorah, searching for satisfaction and recognition elsewhere. We send children and their parents flying, because they don’t fit the mold and we don’t care.

Last week, we commemorated the yahrtzeit of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. In 1944, he founded Torah Umesorah to create a sea-change in the attitude of American Jewry to Torah education. Prior to Rav Shraga Feivel, immigrant Jews believed that in order to succeed in this country and to be perceived as loyal Americans, it was incumbent upon them to send their children to public school.

Torah Umesorah successfully challenged that paradigm and introduced the concept of widespread Jewish education through the medium of the Hebrew day school. Over the course of twenty years of incredible hard work and mesirus nefesh, Dr. Joseph Kamenetzky and his staff managed to convince all towns home to more than 10,000 Jews to open a day school and to provide meaningful full-time Jewish and secular education to generations of children.
Today, some 65 years later, Torah Umesorah proudly lists approximately 700 such schools educating in excess of 200,000 children across North America in what ranks as an all-time historic achievement in the hatzolah of an entire country. Prior to Rav Shraga Feivel’s innovation, Jewish children became semi-Jews, and then non-Jews, as they progressed through the educational system.

If you examine those numbers, you will see something very frightening. The vast majority of those children are in frum schools in the New York area and in cities with large religious populations. Very few of those schools and very few of those children are of the type that Rav Shraga Feivel had in mind when he founded his beloved organization. Yes, there are many, and the work of Torah Umesorah is to be commended, but we are so far from the realization of Rav Shraga Feivel’s dream. The percentage of Jewish children enrolled in religious schools in this country is in the single digits. Millions of Jewish children are being lost every year, because we have abandoned the dream of enrolling them in yeshiva day schools.

Additionally, anecdotal evidence shows that as a result of the economic downturn, day school parents are unable to make their tuition payments and are removing their children from day schools and placing them in public schools. Can anything be sadder? Schools founded with immense mesirus nefesh are emptying out and their students are being lost to the Jewish people.

Does it make sense for us to sit back and revel in how far we have come since the days of Rav Shraga Feivel?

For many of us reading this column, yeshiva education is a given. The chareidi school system in our circles is vibrant and flourishing. The substantial number of Hebrew day schools across the country reinforces the misguided notion that we are impacting Jews everywhere and that we have done all we can in the field of Jewish education and outreach.

Yet, there is so much more that can be accomplished if we were to dedicate ourselves towards that goal. How sad to contemplate the outcome years from now if we fail to meet this challenge today. How tragic it will be to witness the massive numbers of Jewish children lost to their people, because our generation was not concerned enough about the spiritual genocide unfolding beyond our communities.

In Eretz Yisroel, Lev L’Achim and Shuvu, among others, have successfully recruited tens of thousands of secular children to religious schools. In this country we are all familiar with groups such as Oorah, which reach out to assimilated Jews and seek to bring them and their children tachas kanfei haShechinah. There are people such as Rabbi Nate Segal, Torah Umesorah’s Community Development Director, who is always on the prowl for a new town in which to open a shul, a kollel, and eventually a school, but we don’t support him nearly enough. Rabbi Zev Dunner, Project Seed’s director, is working painstakingly to open a religious school in Florida for the children of yordim who are currently in public school. Yet, Rabbi Dunner is forced to grovel for the few dollars he needs to make the school a reality.

Returning to the jarring scenario of a young man attired in tallis and yarmulka marrying a Methodist girl in a ceremony under a chupah on Shabbos, let us hear the message a bit differently. The Jewish chosson was telling us that had we reached him, we could have returned him to his heritage. Had he been signed up to study in a Hebrew day school, Marc Mezvinsky would have later stood under the chupah with a daughter of his own people. He might have grown up to be an observant Jew bringing nachas to his family and to Am Yisroel.

As the school year gets underway, let us stop shifting the blame for the Kagans and Mezvinskys of this world. We cannot all change the world, but we can try to understand why people do the things they do and try to show that at least some people care. You can show that at least one person wants to make a difference. If enough of us show that we care, instead of shifting blame, we can make a difference. We can then commit more generations to Torah and be machzir atarah leyoshnah.


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