Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Response to Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein

"We, as a community, are losing talented teachers. Some never go into education. Others burn out quickly, feeling unappreciated. Our schools are forced to hire teachers with no training or experience, just to have a warm body in the room. We are losing talent to business, law, occupational therapy and high-tech."

These are the words of Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein, published recently on the Cross-Currents website. In a cogent and heartfelt essay, she prescribes nine ways to enhance our yeshiva education system by improving the lot of teachers.

Much as I agree with the merit of Dr. Klein's points, I'm afraid they don't stand a chance. The underpayment and under-appreciation of teachers cannot be assessed in a vacuum. Its root causes are deep and dogmatic. Consequently, unless those causes are nullified, or at the very least, mitigated, the result will be the same: teachers will continue to be underpaid (though not necessarily under-appreciated).

Modern American Chareidi society creates several conditions which, combined, result in the problems Dr. Klein addresses. (Understand clearly that I am not judging the wisdom of the Chareidi model; Gedolim whose ankles I do not reach have endorsed it. I am merely stating what is factual.)

Modern American Chareidi Society presumes that in a perfect world all men should be learning Torah full time. This is not what happens, of course; eventually most men do go out to work. However, the very premise that all men should be learning Torah full-time leads to a yeshiva system that significantly limits the secular education those men will later need to earn top-paying employment positions. This limitation starts with the undermining of secular studies at the elementary and middle school level, continues with a paucity of secular studies at the high school level, and ends with the absence of secular studies at the college level. There are certainly exceptions of varying degrees to this generalization, but as a generalization it is accurate.

Next, the average American Chareidi, who does go to work, will nevertheless delay entry into the working world for several years, which will be spent in kollel. When he does enter the workforce, he does so with a family already in need of significant support, but with job prospects that, on average, are not commensurate with the income he requires to address that need.

Meanwhile, his wife will have been working from Day One of the marriage. She will have got a better secular education and may very well have gone to college. Nonetheless, her secular education is not generally on par with that of the top tier of American earners, and she, as a rule, will not enter the "professions" or climb any corporate ladder. She will train for and take a job that allows her the flexibility to simultaneously raise a family—which she will be expected to do. She is both breadwinner and homemaker.

This couple will go on to have, on average, seven to eight children, all of whom, in addition to food, clothing, and shelter, will require a private school education. They will then educate those children along the same lines that they were educated: "Torah only" for the boys; dual roles for the girls.

Expenses for these families exceed—and often far exceed—their income. In the good old days (the 1980s and 1990s) grandparents and parents stepped in to fill the budgetary holes. Today, those grandparents are dead, the parents are now the grandparents (with upwards of forty grandchildren), the largesse is less large. For many, the family money is gone, having already been spent.

Stepping into this picture is a discussion about tuition. Many financial frustrations are unfairly taken out on the yeshivos under the banner of "the tuition crisis." But the fact is that tuition is the only big line item on a family budget that is subject to negotiation. Don't pay your mortgage, ultimately (and, yes, I know that can be a long time), you will lose your house. Don't pay your utility bills and your heat, water, phone, etc. will be turned off. But tuition—that's a little flexible. You can ask for a break, you can delay payments, you won't necessarily see your children thrown out of yeshiva over a bounced check (although those grounds, too, appear to be shifting somewhat).

The yeshivos are under enormous pressure. They must educate children in both limudei Kodesh and limudei chol (however sparingly), over the course of a ten-hour day, and do so on a budget funded by tuition payments that their parents cannot afford and often resent paying. There's only so far that the fiscal math can bend.

So teachers get underpaid.

When teachers get underpaid, only the most dedicated want to become teachers. When fewer people want to become teachers, those who do so are deemed less capable. Alongside the attitude Dr. Klein cites—"Those who can't do, teach"—is Dennis Prager's comment that anything associated with children is considered childish. This, he claims, is why Western culture has devalued the status of Motherhood. This is less true in the frum community, but not so foreign to us either. When was the last time you saw a chosson's seventh-grade rebbe be his Mesader Kiddushin? The rosh yeshiva is always asked—even if the talmid's relationship with his rosh yeshiva is tenuous, and even if his seventh-grade rebbe was the one to really ignite his passion for learning.

Was the seventh-grade rebbe even invited to the chasunah? Few yeshiva bochurim dream of being a seventh-grade rebbe.

All of Dr. Klein's suggestions are good ones—and are usually implemented in what she calls "the generally better paying Modern Orthodox institutions." But there's a reason for this. The Modern Orthodox institutions have a parent body that does not follow the matrix outlined above. At the end of the day, apples-to-apples, they have more money.

But in the righter-wing yeshivos, her suggestions cannot readily be implemented because the funds simply aren't there. And as long as the yeshivos continue to promote and propagate the very conditions that lead, ultimately, to fewer funds, the results will be the same.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Bogus Bias

Secular society is becoming less and less tolerant of gender distinctions of any kind. So it is no wonder that Amanda Bennett, a columnist for the Washington Post, took offense that an Orthodox Jewish man refused to shake her hand at a business function. Rather than accepting this incident for what it wasa religious safeguardshe chose to frame it as gender bias.

In fact, she did see it as a religious choice but nonetheless viewed it as "toxic." Here's the quote: "Why are biased acts against womeneven religiously motivated onesconsidered so much less toxic than biased acts of any other kind?"

To be sure, Orthodox Jewish men aren't necessarily doing their part to smooth over the awkwardness of rebuffing a woman who puts out her hand for a polite handshake. While there are poskim who have ruled to accept a handshake from a woman, when offered, rather than embarrass her, there are perhaps a greater number of poskim who consider any physical male-female contact absolutely assur, some even mi'De'oraisa,

Nonetheless, headlines are rarely helpful.

When international flights are delayed by men who refuse to take their seats because they believe sitting next to a woman is Halachically problematic, it's hard to find sympathy. One must wonder (a) if these people spoke to legitimate poskim, being that this is a new problem that doesn't seem to have occurred in previous decades, and (b) why these issues were not worked out prior to walking onto the plane five minutes before takeoff.

So though I will admit that there is a measure of entitlement and irresponsibility behind the demands of these so-called "ultra-" Orthodox Jews, the reality remains that they are acting out of nothing more than religious principle. If a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Baha'i, citing religious principle, refused to take his seat on a flight, my guess is that most Jews would be more sympathetic. But when it comes to witnessing other Jews doing the same, their judgment is clouded by a differing view of Halachah. Rather than satisfy themselves with a simple rolling of the eyes, they cannot resist unleashing their vitriol on our offending brethren.

But even tolerance of the religious principles of others falls away when it butts up against sacrosanct gender issues. Ms Bennett wonders, "Would such blatant behavior be treated merely as a social choice, a courtesy issue or an awkward airline customer-service problem if the targets were anyone other than women?" What if someone refused to shake hands with blacks? she asks. Or Jews?

Here, she makes two errors. One, equating the separation of genders with the separation of races and religions. Two, that this separation is somehow equal to "targeting" women.

As to the first error, although society is quickly moving to dissolve any and all barriers between the sexes, this transformation is not, and may never be, complete. We still do have gender segregationbathrooms, changing rooms in department stores, even certain gyms and gym classes. Yet, we do not tolerate racially- or religiously-segregated bathrooms or gym classes. So the equation of race and religion to gender is inaccurate.

As for the second error, this is not about "targeting" women (I find that suggestion offensive). When it comes to maintaining space between the genders, women do it too. Many Orthodox women refuse to shake hands with men who offer them. When the female cashier at the kosher bakery puts my change on the counter rather than handing it to me directly is she "targeting" me? Am I supposed to feel shunned and inferior because she is avoiding incidental touch? No and no.

Liberals have trouble wrapping their heads around this. Gender separation of any kind is seen as patriarchal and offensive. Their orthodoxy revolves around the dictum that "separate but equal" is "inherently unequal." But that Supreme Court ruling discussed race, not gender, and was specific to "educational facilities." It says nothing about bathrooms and handshakes.

Though some may take gender segregation to an extreme that many do not condoneno one ought to condemn it either, certainly not for something that it isn't.

At the same time, while everyone is requiredand entitledto follow his or her own poseik when it comes to the sensitive and crucial topic of gender separation, the mitzvos of "Ve'ahavta lerei'acha kamocha" and Kiddush Hashem do not simply fall away. Being machmir means strictly adhering to the entire corpus of Halachah. Doing so may require advance planning and quick thinking on one's feet, but if that's what's required then we best get to it. Especially if there's a plane to catch.