Tempest in a Teapot
Eytan Kobre asserts, in his most recent contribution, that the secular Jewish media turns free-market economics into sinister “pressure” when the word “charedi” can be placed before it. And, of course, he is right. Whether it’s separate swimming or cellphones without Internet, “serving the customer” becomes “bowing to pressure” when the customer is a Charedi Jew whose preferences stem from his or her religious beliefs. Yes, the normal and appropriate is turned by the media into something bizarre or sinister when the observant are involved — but it would be a mistake to believe that this only applies to the world of business.
The same is true, for example, in the world of Jewish philanthropy. To wit, Largest Outreach Effort for Alums Of Birthright Raises Concerns, appearing in The Forward. Were the effort in question not “characterized as Orthodox,” it would not raise any concerns at all — in fact, anyone raising “concerns” would be criticized for questioning the right of Jewish philanthropists to make their own choices and investment decisions.
Birthright Israel, as we all know, was co-founded by Michael Steinhardt. Three years ago, Birthright Israel NEXT was created to do “the critical job of follow up.” And Steinhardt — no Orthodox Jew himself — specified through a “restricted gift” that his funding for Birthright Israel NEXT should go in large part to an organization called the Jewish Enrichment Center.
A classic case of a donor stating how his donation should be spent, which is non-controversial, right? Wrong! The Jewish Enrichment Center has been labeled an Orthodox outreach organization, and that makes Steinhardt’s gift very controversial indeed.
Can you imagine? They’re spending his money to offer “inspirational and Torah-learning classes” rather than “secular Jewish cultural events like concerts and parties.” Never mind that Jewish education has a 3000-year success record of strengthening “personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people” — why, the very things that Birthright is supposed to do — while concerts and parties have absolutely no demonstrable record of success in those areas. We’re not talking about logic here, we’re talking about spending money the way The Forward thinks Steinhardt ought to spend it.
The JEC is also criticized by some, like the former director of the New York University Hillel, and Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, for not being pluralistic. “Pluralism”, as we all know, is an absolutist position masquerading as tolerant and inclusive. “Pluralism” is the belief that there is no right and wrong when it comes to Judaism, only a multitude of “roll your own” possibilities — otherwise known as the Reform position. So when Eric Yoffie says a group isn’t “pluralistic,” what he means is that the organization doesn’t adopt the Reform view of Jewish authenticity.
Yoffie asserts that the JEC is being dishonest. “When some people say, let’s do away with labels, that’s simply another way of saying, I want to promote my type of Judaism without talking about it, without being honest and upfront about it,” he argues. He’s almost right. What they are really saying is, we want to teach Judaism and Jewish tradition without the listener being encumbered by artificial distinctions, much less the preconceived notions that others pushed upon you for years about how the Orthodox hate you or believe you not to be Jews — myths belied by the very existence of organizations like the JEC. The Reform movement, of course, has taken the lead in promoting those myths for generations. So who, indeed, is being dishonest?