Wednesday, July 29, 2009

When rabbis become criminals

Every day it seems we hear of prominent rabbis and others in our community arrested for serious crimes - tax fraud, money laundering, drug trafficking and so on. It happens so often that we've become inured to the massive Hillul Hashem involved. Even so, last week's news was over the top. Solomon "Shtick Dreck" Dwek, a bigwig in the Syrian community, was caught in an alleged 50 million dollar bad check scheme, and was "flipped" by the FBI to become a cooperating witness. Posing as a criminal with tainted money to be laundered, he exposed massive criminality reaching to the top of our communal structure, up to and including trafficking in human organs. The timing of the story - two days before Shabbat Hazon, is excruciatingly apropos. I don't want to repeat what was already said ad nauseam on other blogs, and I hope that what I say here actually adds something.

We've been told to look into ourselves, that all of us have failings that have to be corrected. True enough. But what transpired last week is not a simple matter of individuals giving in to their yetzer hara, which we all do on occasion. For one thing, these were not mere individuals. They are among the most highly placed in the community; one of them was the Chief Rabbi of the Syrian community in Brooklyn. Nor can such conduct be excused because the money went to communal institutions. Institutions that can only exist on criminal money do not deserve to exist. And why was the fabulously wealthy Syrian community most deeply involved - do they have to turn to crime to support their mosdot? Nor was this a spur-of-the-moment surrender to a yetzer hara, like eating a candy bar that didn't have a proper hekhsher, something these rabbis would not have dreamed of doing. We're talking about a massive criminal enterprise, worthy of the Mafia, that has apparently been going on for years. Anybody can go to Atlantic City on occasion and shoot craps, but a professional dice player, i.e. someone who makes a living playing dice (mesahek b'kubiya) is disqualified from testifying in a Jewish court (pasul l'edut). We've been told to go to minyan more often. That completely misses the point of the haftara we read. God does not want our minyanim. He has no use for our ritual observance when we pervert justice and make cheating and stealing a way of life. How in blazes have we sunk so low? Look into ourselves, sure, but it has nothing to do with going to minyan. We have to look into our dealings with others, and with the government. If we are employees, do we chat on the phone on company time? If we are employers, are we late with our workers' wages (hint, hint, yeshiva administrators)? If we are tenants, are we late with the rent? If we are landlords, do we skimp on essential services? Complying with the law is the bare minimum here; we are expected to go lifnim meshurat ha-din. If our buildings are not warm enough in winter for our grandmothers, then they aren't warm enough for anybody else's. Do we give up our seats on the train for older people, of any race, color or creed, even when we're tired? Ever notice how trains and buses in New York have signs saying "Won't you please give this seat to the elderly and disabled?," while those evil Zionist Egged buses in Israel, where women are beaten for refusing to move to the back of the bus, post the pasuk "Mipne seiva takum?" And I'm using the first person plural because I'm guilty too. Are our yeshivot teaching our children in no uncertain terms that it is absolutely assur to cheat and steal from anybody, Jew or Gentile, or from the government? Do we tolerate rabbis who tell us that it's okay to defraud the government as long as you're clever enough not to get caught? Guess what - the goyim aren't as stupid as you think they are. Not American goyim. And certainly not American goyim (and Jews, who are thoroughly disgusted with what they see "religious" Jews doing) who work for the FBI and the IRS. You confirm all the tired old stereotypes about the greedy money-grubbing Jews. Mr. Dwek is not the only "shtick dreck" in this whole sorry mess.

In the absence of prophecy, God communicates to us through Torah and nature. He hasn't had much success with Torah, and it looks like he might be trying nature instead. God sometimes "gives mussar" in the form of unusual natural phenomena, e.g. the plague of hail in Egypt and rain out of season in Israel (see the haftara for Korah). We in New York have been experiencing unheard-of weather these last few days. The sun shines brightly, and in a matter of minutes a dark cloud appears and lets loose with a heavy downpour - with the sun still shining! I don't mean sunshowers - light rain from a cumulus cloud in the midst of bright sunshine. Those are common, and running through them is among the simple pleasures that make summer my favorite time of year. What we've been having are torrentrial downpours, complete with lightning that nearly killed a man a stone's throw from where I live in Brooklyn, all while the sun is shining! This might be normal in Florida, but it's unheard-of in Brooklyn. Is there a message here? The world exists, in some unprovable and metaphysical sense, so that God's people can observe His Torah. When supposed "men of religion" make a mockery of Torah on a grand scale, the world loses its reason for being, and God returns it to tohu va-vohu, primeval chaos and confusion.

Glimmers of recognition are starting to appear. Haredi yeshivot have made a virtue of neglecting secular studies, to the point where young haredi men (men more than women, who are expected to support their husbands in learning) cannot get jobs because they lack basic communication and computational skills. And when people cannot get honest jobs they sometimes turn to crime. That is nothing new. Hazal told us long ago that a man who does not teach his son a useful occupation teaches him to steal. The question is will the community wake up in time, and will they be able and willing to correct the problem once they do? I am not optimistic.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Guest Editorial from National Council of Young Israel

Young Israel (and the Zionist Organization of America) were conspicuously absent from President Obama's photo-op with "Jewish leaders" to promote the repartition of Jerusalem. May we merit more leaders with the courage of the leadership of Young Israel, more Prime Ministers with the pluck of Menachem Begin and more Rashei Yeshiva with the guts of Zvi Yehuda Kook.

We would like to share with you a piece by Ambassador (ret.) Yehuda Avner, who served under five Prime Ministers. He writes in his forthcoming book (summer 2010), The Prime Ministers – An Intimate Portrait of Leaders of Israel: -- As we approach Tisha B'Av, let us remember Menachem Begin's courage
"At the very end of [Prime Minister Begin's] successful Camp David talks with Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat in 1978, literally minutes before the signing ceremony, the American president had approached [Begin] with "Just one final formal item." Sadat, said the president, was asking that Begin put his signature to a simple letter committing him to place Jerusalem on the negotiating table of the final peace accord.
"I refused to accept the letter, let alone sign it," rumbled Begin. "'If I forgot thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning,' said [Begin] to the president of the United States of America, 'and may my tongue cleave to my mouth.'"
"Admonishment of the British foreign secretary, [Lord Carrington], telling him in almost so many words to mind his own business, and… saying [Carrington] should open his Bible 'and read the First Book of Kings, chapter two, verse eleven, where you will find that King David moved his capital from Hebron, where he had reigned for seven years, to Jerusalem where he ruled for another thirty-three years, and this at a time [3,000 years ago] when the civilized world had never heard of London.'”
"[Addressing US Jewish leaders]: 'Jerusalem is an epic. It is the wellspring of a civilization. Without Jerusalem's civilization the spiritual history of the world would be stagnant. To us Jerusalem is family. Has anyone ever heard of a daughter or a son of a Saladin ever fasting each year in memory of ancient Jerusalem's anguish? Not a one! Has anybody ever heard of a son of a Crusader who breaks a glass at his wedding ceremony in memory of ancient Jerusalem's torment? Not a one! How could you have heard, when throughout its three thousand year-long history Jerusalem has been capital to no one but to the Jews. So it was. So it is. And so it shall ever be.'"
Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Simple Rules for Happiness

I found this on the bulletin board of a Roman Catholic Church that I passed on a run:

Click on the picture for a high-resolution version that will make the bulletin board legible.

חכמה בגויים - תאמין

There is wisdom among the nations - though I suspect this bit of wisdom was gleaned from our sources.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Stonewall means fight!

For New Yorkers and most Americans of a certain age who aren't living in a cave, the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village represents the struggle of gay Americans for basic human rights other Americans have long taken for granted. It all began 40 years ago in June. Gay Americans, even in a sophisticated and cosmopolitan place like New York City, lived closeted lives of constant fear. They got together in gay bars that were connected with organized crime and were constantly raided by police, who would rough up and arrest patrons. The Stonewall was one such bar, and was routinely raided one evening in late June 1969, only this time it would not be routine. The patrons decided they had had enough. They resisted, sparking three nights of confrontations between young gay men and the police. I'm deliberately not calling them riots, because they were very mild compared to the racial rioting that was tearing American cities apart in the late '60s. One thing led to another, and here we are today.

I recently ran by the Stonewall Inn. For me it represents a piece of my city's history and a piece of Americana. You don't have to be gay to appreciate the universal struggle for human rights. It resonates with me as an American and more so as a Jew because of our history of being denied the most basic human rights in unhappy lands of persecution. When one man's rights are taken away, all men are diminished. I'm not talking about changing the definition of marriage now - though who would have dreamed 40 years ago that we as a country would be debating that today? I'm talking about the right to live anywhere one can afford, to hold a job whose duties one can perform, to be served in a place of public accommodation, and the like. I'm talking about the right not to have to live a lie - whether that means going to the company picnic with a kippa on one's head or with one's gay partner (or both - click here!). Above all, I am talking about the right to walk the streets in safety, without fear of being set upon and beaten because some thugs perceive you, rightly or wrongly, as gay, black, Jewish or whatever. Both gays and Orthodox Jews suffered from a stereotype as sissies (or, to quote R. Meir Kahane hy"d, patsies) who can be physically attacked and beaten with impunity. Many of my friends were beaten on the street growing up identifiably Jewish in the '60s, though praise God that changed in the aftermath of the Six Day War. And it did not change because of the goodness of thugs' hearts. It changed because the Israeli army and air force showed the world another image of the Jew, that of a strong Jew able and willing to stand up for himself. And that is what Stonewall did for gays. One Matthew Shepard is one too many. And the solution for gays is the same as it was for us Jews - an ability and willingness to teach hoodlums a lesson with Jewish or gay fists.

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Friday, July 03, 2009

When in the course of Jewish events. . . .

When in the Course of Jewish events it becomes necessary for one group of Jews to dissolve the Torah bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the Jews of earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of us Torah-observant Jews; and such is now the necessity which constrains us to alter our former Systems of Government. The history of the present haredi establishment is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over us Jews. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid Torah world.

They have sought to annul our rights as Western men and women and citizens of democratic countries to read and study what we wish, and to enjoy music and the creative arts, rights inestimable to us and formidable to tyrants only, by banning books and concerts and harassing authors, artists and performers.

They have usurped our parental authority with respect to children in yeshivot by punishing them for dress, conduct and association, including with the opposite sex, off school premises and outside school hours. Our sons, and especially daughters, live in unremitting fear of being followed around and reported on by yeshiva spies.

They have created and nurtured a culture of parasitism, encouraging able-bodied young men to sit in yeshiva indefinitely and live off the labor of others, including elderly parents and in-laws, and forcing on such young men the shame and indignity of accepting assistance that Western enlightened governments provide for those unable to provide for themselves. They have denigrated and devalued secular studies that might give young men the means to earn a livelihood and provide for their families in manly fashion. They have told our daughters in front of their classmates that they are second rate because we, their fathers, work and provide for our families. They have discouraged in their yeshivot all forms of physical exercise that might endow our young men with manly health and vigor, opting instead for sedentary living, unhealthful diet and the resulting chronic weakness and sickness. They have forbidden our young men to fulfill their duty to defend our country against the merciless Arab savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. In sum, they have endeavored to turn the order of nature upside down, extolling the weak, effeminate and parasitical over the strong, upright and manly. To us, Purim comes but once a year.

They have systematically deprived our young of any opportunity to meet in a wholesome environment, resulting in an unprecedented shiddukh crisis.

They have allowed teachers and administrators in their yeshivot to abuse our children sexually in the most heinous and abominable fashion, discouraging victims from reporting these crimes to the lawful constituted authorities and allowing the criminals to continue in employment.

They have led the charge to deprive gay citizens of their basic human rights, rights denied us Jews in the stinkholes of Eastern Europe where they remain culturally rooted. They have embarrassed us all with their gratuitous hatred and bigotry.

They have subordinated the kashrut certification process to their insatiable lust for money and power, having ordered shopkeepers to remove from their shelves products certified by none other than R. Moshe Soloveichik. The Soloveichik name speaks for itself, but those who ordered the removal, causing grievous personal anguish and financial loss to innocent shopkeepers struggling to make a living, wanted their cronies cut in on the action. They have also withheld certification from establishments whose food is kosher, in order to enforce an ambience that meets with their approval but that would make it impossible for such establishments to operate profitably. These and other sordid episodes have fed the public's cynicism with regard to kosher supervision.

They have allowed women seeking gittin to be held up for ransom and blackmail by their husbands, and have accorded those husbands all the honors and privileges due members in good standing of our communities, despite seruvim issued against them by recognized batei din.

They have endeavored, through violence and threats of violence, to reduce our women to slaves and chattel, as they are reduced in benighted Muslim lands but as we, citizens of enlightened Western societies, deem insufferable. Self-appointed "tznius police" set fire to clothing stores whose wares do not meet with their approval. They throw bleach at and otherwise physically attack women walking on public thoroughfares when their dress is not up to the goons' standards. They force women to sit in the back of public buses; those who dare refuse are beaten up and publicly humiliated. Shopkeepers are told to maintain separate hours for male and female patrons, and told that they might end up dead if they don't comply. They have defaced pictures of a female candidate for Prime Minister on lawfully placed campaign posters. These criminals and hoodlums cynically manipulate a corrupt political system to ensure that they are not called to account for their crimes.

They, a bunch of unelected petty tyrants, have sponsored an atmosphere of disrespect and comtempt for duly elected and lawfully constituted secular authorities. By their silence, and sometimes worse, they have made it permissible and even praiseworthy to lie, cheat and steal from the government, as long as they are not caught. They relate to our enlightened governments as if they were the Tsarist tyrants who singled us out for persecution. But they are not bashful about accepting aid from those same governments so they can maintain their parasitic lifestyle.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Jewish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their gedolim to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement in democratic societies. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, to be stood with when they are right and vigorously opposed when they are wrong .

We, therefore, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of our Torah communities, solemnly publish and declare, That these communities are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent agents, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to Agudat Yisrael and its Moatzot Gedolei Torah, in the United States, Israel and throughout the world, and that all religious connection between our communities and said Moatzot and their ideological confreres, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent agents, they have full Power to choose their own authority figures, establish schools for the training of our young as committed Jews and proud citizens of free societies and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent agents may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Fire them all

You're the president of a company. You have an important project that could be life or death for the company. You assign it to a team that had been reasonably successful before. They promptly fall apart in petty squabbling and the project does not get done, costing the company millions of dollars. What would you do? I'm not an MBA, but I suppose a smart executive would fire the whole bunch. I don't want to hear their excuses, who started what, who did what to whom. You're a drag on the company. Out - all of you!

That is the situation we New Yorkers face with our State Senate. A couple of ethically challenged Senators switched parties, causing a deadlock over control. For several weeks the Senators have been acting like a bunch of kindergarten kids arguing over their toys. They have not had a proper legislative session, despite the best efforts of our inept governor. For weeks urgent public business has not been attended to. Among other items, mayoral control of New York City's public schools expired because it had not been renewed by the deadline, June 30. Whatever one thinks of mayoral control, administrators, teachers, parents and students have a right to know who is running the joint. The mayor is doing his best to reconstitute the system as it was before mayoral control, but the new Board of Education does not know for how long they will be in charge, or indeed what the limits of their power are right now. That is no way to run a railroad. The Markey bill, needed to protect yeshiva and other private-school students from sexual predators on staff, was passed by the Assembly and remains in limbo until our Senators start acting like adults. There is no end in sight. New York is the laughingstock of the nation. The terms of the Senators expire next year, as does that of the governor. I say we get rid of the whole Senate. We have long had too high a tolerance for crookedness in Albany, but we did expect the Legislature to hold sessions and get the job done. Now the Senators are simply not doing the job we elected them - and are still paying them - to do. So let's start grooming credible candidates - honest and upright men for a change - in each district to run against the current senators in the primaries and general election. And let the next legislature amend the state constitution to allow us to recall politicians who don't know the meaning of honesty, integrity and work ethic.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

My Birthday

June 30 was my 57th birthday and humanity got a present. As I do on most birthdays, I ran down to the New York Blood Center in Brooklyn and donated a pint of blood. Blood is always needed in this city, and in summer it is in particularly short supply. As medical technology advances more is needed. Despite the efforts of medical scientists, no substitute for blood exists. If the right type is not available, surgery might have to be cancelled or, God forbid, patients might die. I will never know who benefited from my pint of blood, and they (today's technology allows blood to be fractionated into several components and given to several different people) will never know me. That is exactly how I want it, and the Rambam considers that the highest level of tzedaka.
The whole process takes about an hour of your time. Your blood pressure and hemoglobin will be tested to make sure you are able to spare the blood - and possibly to alert you to health problems. The discomfort is no greater than a pinprick; it should be the worst discomfort you ever feel. I donate several times a year, usually at Yeshivah of Flatbush. Blood drives are held all over town; if your workplace does not sponsor one it can arrange a drive by contacting the Blood Center (affiliated with the American Red Cross). It is a practical way to thank God for your robust good health.
Lo ta'amod al dam rei'ekha.

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