Federated Blindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet they slander our democracy?!

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

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

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

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

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

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19 Responses

  1. lacosta says:

    while we as an O community — hareidi,MO,DL, whatever— don’t like decisions other groups make , especially as regards to the use of THEIR money , donated by THEIR donors , belonging to THEIR branches of judaism— the fact remains that regardless of how foolishly other people decide to use THEIR money , it remains just that —THEIR money!

    the federations , like the Medina, have been lambasted as long as they exist in certain religious quarters; those institutions therefore remain entities of Others, not our own… that we get any benefit at all from institutions/entities that we theologically castigate and remain uninvolved with– in lev, meod, and nefesh — should remain surprising that they dont despise us more….

  2. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Rabbi Yaakov Menken: As everyone knows, the most important issue in Israel today is the “peace process,” and the fact that it’s leading nowhere towards peace simply makes discussion more urgent. But it was entirely absent from the GA agenda

    Ori: As it should have been. We diaspora Jews don’t fight in the wars, die in the terrorist attacks, or pay the taxes. The opinions of the federal are simply irrelevant.

  3. Raymond says:

    I worked for many years at our local Jewish Federation. I better not say in which city that was. In any case, they were secular, Left-wing Jews who were extremely hostile to the Orthodox Jewish world. I have since then referred to that entity as the anti-Jewish Federation.

  4. cvmay says:

    There are Federations in many cities that give close to 25%-30% of monies raised to the Torah Academy/Hillel Academy of their cities, monies earmarked for tuition assistance.

  5. Reb Yid says:

    There is a reason why Federations were created–in the late 19th and early 20th century, everyone tried making Shabbat for themselves, and the result was chaos.

    Each organization tried raising money entirely by itself, and competed against all other organizations.

    In the larger American scene, of course, there have always been those who have hated Federations. Our nation fought a Civil War over this issue.

    But the truth is, both the Jewish world and America need some form of Federation, however much it continues to evolve over time, to provide certain safety net functions, especially to those who are the most vulnerable.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    The government can tax people to support activities they personally oppose, but a federation can’t. Anyone who objects to a federation’s orientation can freely give through other channels.

    Difficulties arise when institutions that seriously object to a federation’s orientation feel they can’t do without contributions through the federation. This is a really awkward situation, but common. Collectively, Orthodox leadership needs to think up new ways around the problem that can work in different size communities.

  7. Benshaul says:

    a few points.
    while its easy to lambast the federations’, it is worth noting that many of them give significant money to Orthodox institutions, and it is mostly money raised from non-orthodox donors. While the point of the Chofetz Chaim is well taken, at the same time -there is a new “federation” that was created for the kollelim in Eretz Yisroel, so there is a nuance to the objection. As to the lack of “democracy” in the Federation world – I don’t mean to be a cynic -but really!!! You mean to tell me that our mosdos ARE run democratically, and there is no undue influence from major donors or certain parties. (I know you were only quoting…)While many of your objections are correct, i think we need to be a bit circumspect -if for no other reason then the hakaras hatov due to them -in the instances and the cities where they are helping on some level.

  8. Nachum says:

    lacosta: Many donors to the Federations are Orthodox. I wonder if they are disproportionately represented- I wouldn’t be surprised if they were, or even the majority of donors.

    You do know that David Landau *is* Charedi, right? 🙂

  9. Bracha says:

    While I appreciate the author’s perspective on other issues, I am having difficulty understanding Rabbi Menken’s purpose in writing this article. He writes, “At the GA, they pushed the wrong issues in the wrong place, and completely ignored the most important and pressing communal priorities on both sides of the Atlantic.” However, it becomes clear as the article continues that the author was not actually at the GA and is basing his statements off of various articles he read that discussed aspects of the conference.

    Imagine for a minute that a journalist for the Wall Street Journal or NYT wrote an op-ed piece about the Agudah Convention based on a few articles he read online about various parts of the program. You can imagine how things could be taken out of context and distorted. I am not sure how this is different. While the article is very critical about how the GA did not live up to its mission, nowhere does the writer actually explain what the GA or JFNA’s mission is (or the mission of Federations in general). Without such a context, the article seems to be nothing more than a straw man’s argument.

    I have both attended the GA in the past and have been involved with our local federation in various capacities and have some awareness of both the positive and negative aspects of the Federation system. I think that the beginning of the article essentially “throws out the baby with the bathwater”. Not only does the frum community in many cities directly benefit from the Federation, but there are also things we can learn from the Federation system that might actually improve some of the way we do things in our own communities. Actually, Moishe Bane’s article in this summer’s Klal Perspectives journal seemed to advocate for adopting some of the Federations’ methods of allocations. You can read it at http://klalperspectives.org/moishe-bane-2/.

    That’s all my thoughts for now…

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    R Menken again proves that the Federation world either is grossly ignorant or deliberately hostile to the growth of both the MO and Charedi worlds, and refuses to consider what could be done to attract increased participation by MO or Charedi participants. One thing is certain-using Federation dollars and personnel to act in an Ortho bashing way via public statements, news releases and sponsors of lectures at Federation sponsored venues can’t help the perspective of Federation in the one sector of American Jewry where “Jewish continuity” is more than just an advertising slogan.

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    One yearns for the day when a GA would feature as prominently as any of the would be “experts” on Jewish continuity, a simple discussion on the issue of the Jewish view of interpersonal responsibility, as reflected in Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim. Any community Kollel’s members who have ever delved into the depths of either of the first two perakim of Bava Metzia could easily discuss this topic with any interested person on such issues.

  12. Reb Yid says:

    To Steve Brizel:

    It would help if you got your facts right. Ronit Peskin, for one, was featured quite prominently at the GA:

    Imagine if Anat Hoffman was featured at an OU, YI, Bnei Akiva or Agudah conference. I won’t be holding my breath…

  13. Steve Brizel says:

    Reb Yid-I think it is great that Ronit Peskin spoke at the GA. OTOH, why would either the Ou, Yi, Bnei Akiva or Agudah allow a self hating Jew with a strong hostility to Halacha, which was explored in depth here, to address a Torah observant audience?

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    Nachum-David Landau comes from a Charedi family background. Yet, in a book he wrote about Charedim years ago, IIRC, he went out of the way to emphasize that he is not Charedi himself.

  15. Reb Yid says:

    Steve: The Federation world went on record as supporting the WoW by having a rally there headed by its CEO by the Kotel to that effect. Yet they still afford others who have opposing views, like Peskin, the platform to have their voices heard at their most prominent gathering–the GA.

    So the onus is on the Orthodox world to do the same, with the major exception being the Open Orthodox world which does this wonderfully. And the Jewish world benefits tremendously by it.

  16. Yaakov Menken says:

    Reb Yid, the difference is that the Federation is supposed to represent Jews of all perspectives, and for it to fail to invite the voice of WOW’s opposition, despite its far greater strength, would have made it no better than HaAretz is at unbiased reporting.

    Have you called upon the Reform movement to invite Peskin to speak at their Convention?

    The “Orthodox world” represents Judaism, and has preserved Jewish life specifically by not catering to every perspective a group of Jews proposes we follow.

  17. Reb Yid says:

    To Yaakov Menken:

    Check out the speakers at the upcoming URJ Biennial.

    They include, among others, Bibi Netanyahu, Donniel Hartman and Jonathan Sarna (in addition to numerous speakers who are not Jewish).

  18. Steve Brizel says:

    Reb Yid-Donniel Hartman’s writings are merely a repeat of of late father’s post denominalist writings and positions. If Professor Sarna’s speech is akin to the recently discussed article which was an inacuurate depiction of contemporary Orthodoxy, what you have presented is nothing more than politically correct red meat for the party faithfull.

  19. Reb Yid says:


    The point is that none of these speakers are Reform Jews–they do not identify with it.

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