Powered by WebAds

Sunday, December 31, 2006


I am in the throes of a miserable cold and I know just who I got it from. I showed up for a meeting Thursday and the woman I was meeting with stuck out her hand for a hearty handshake. Though I do try my best to avoid shaking hands in the winter months to avoid picking up bugs, once she made the gesture, I had to go through with the handshake. Of course I realized too late that she was a veritable font of illness-spreading germs, as she spent the rest of the meeting sniffling and hacking away with the most awful-sounding chest cough. Great. Every time she talked in my direction I cringed and tried not to inhale. I even surreptitiously rubbed some of the hand sanitizer that I carry in my bag all over my hands during the meeting, hoping it would catch any little creepy crawlies I might have picked up before they got me good.

I guess I wasn't lucky enough to avoid them, though. By Friday night I felt a tickle in the back of my throat, and by Shabbos I was a mess. I hope to be in better shape by the time I get back to the office on Tuesday, as I'd rather not pass on the joy of a miserable head cold to my coworkers, even if it the same consideration wasn't shown to me by my coworkers.

Interestingly, the Ny Times ran a piece last week on just this phenomenon of showing up to work sick:
Ailing employees are dragging themselves to work in increasing numbers, according to several studies. So widespread is the phenomenon that experts have invented a name, calling it presenteeism, the opposite of absenteeism.
The article notes that many workers show up sick because the companies that they work for provide inadequate sick leave. Unfortunately, instead of increasing employee productivity, these inadequate sick leave policies probably reduce productivity when employees who come to work sick spread their germs at the water cooler, copier and at every doorknob, causing their coworkers to fall ill. In many cases, the cause for employees showing up to work sick isn't a matter of lacking sick days, but an employee who needs to be in for an important meeting or to work on a project.

Either way, I am clearly a victim of the practice dubbed presenteeism. And I'm not a happy camper.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

OrthoKid #2 on Saddam's Hanging

OrthoDad: Kids, did you know that they hanged Saddam Hussein? He was a big Rasha.
OrthoKid #2: Really? I didn't know that.
OrthoDad: Well, he killed many many people.
OrthoKid #2: I knew that.
OrthoDad: So what do you mean when you said you didn't know he was Rasha?
OrthoKid #2: I didn't know he was from Russia, I thought he was from Iraq.

Local Rav Speaks on GG Affair

A certain neighborhood Rav spoke this morning on the Gourmet Glatt affair. One comment he made that gave me pause was that it's a "kitrig" (a prosecutor) on the community that so many people were questioning their Rabbis. And he went on to give a source of that (mis)information to be the fact that there were so many comments on blogs criticizing the Vaad, and saying all sorts of terrible things about their Rabbanim. This misconception is something I have actually tried to correct here numerous times before, and I will take this opportunity to do so again. The vast, vast majority of commenters here were completely supportive of the Vaad. As a matter of fact, the anti-Vaad commenters all came from a small handful of IP addresses, leading me to believe that most comments were from a very select group. In contrast, just about every person I have encountered (save two), both in real life and in the blogworld, has expressed to me support and trust in the Vaad's actions.

So it's a bit sad to me that this Rav is willing to be Choshed his entire community based on some anonymous comments on my blog he obviously read himself or was told about. Especially after his community has shown him and the other members of the Vaad such unwavering support in the face of this very difficult situation. As a matter of fact, somewhat contradictorily, he did note that the way it all worked out was a Kiddush Hashem, probably referring to the fact that the main reason it all worked had much to do with the community overwhelmingly following the directives of their Rabbanim by not shopping in GG. Unfortunately, he focused far more on the few anonymous complainers than he did on the overwhelming supportive actions of the community as a whole. I am disappointed with the Rav's choice not to take this opportunity to positively reinforce his congregation by praising their show of support. Any expert will tell you that people respond far better to positive reinforcement than negative. I wish that our Rabbinic leadership would internalize this point.

I see this fixation on negative reinforcement in Orthodoxy in the way my daughter's school emphasizes Tzniut, I see it in the way my son's Yeshiva exhorts he and his peers to shun television and internet. I see it in the way my children's administrators threaten punishment for bad behavior instead of implementing a better system of positive reinforcement and reward in advance of the bad behavior surfacing. And I am well aware that this type of Mussar is an important tool for a Rav to use with his followers. But in this instance, when there is so much positive behavior that the Rav can praise in his congregants, one has to wonder why he seized the opportunity to criticize - particularly in a case such as this, when the bad behavior wasn't even there, but made of just so much smoke and mirrors.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Working Together

This is a story that makes me proud:
Upon entering the Number Six School cafeteria on any Monday afternoon at 3:30 or so, after dismissal, you're likely to find fourth-grader Mike Cornejo listening intently to Eytan Austein, a yeshiva student taking time out of his busy day to tutor Cornejo in a variety of subjects.

Even though he is doing homework right after school, Mike enjoys this time of the day, and Eytan, a junior at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach-Davis Renov Stahler High School for Boys (HALB-DRS), finds it rewarding to help someone younger who attends school in the same neighborhood.

The boys' weekly sessions, along with numerous other tutoring lessons taking place at the Woodmere elementary school, have brought public-school and yeshiva students closer together in a climate of cooperation. This environment contrasts deeply with the overall climate in District 15, which is one of divisiveness, riven by an ongoing feud between public and private school parents and anger over failed budgets and contentious school board elections. Uniting the students in this unique tutoring program was the vision of two principals who saw a way to help heal a fractured community.

In late 2005, Number Six School Principal Angelo Siconolfi proposed the idea of Hebrew Academy students walking the short distance to the elementary school in their neighborhood to tutor the youngsters as part of an after-school program, which also involves the nearby Number Five School in Cedarhurst. HALB-DRS Principal Harvey Feldman embraced the concept and made the mentoring program work logistically, fitting it into the high school students' rigorous academic schedule, which, between religious and secular studies, has no free periods.
The partnership between the schools blossomed in 2006, as the mentoring program saw an increase in the number of high school volunteers from 21 to more than 30. Feldman and Siconolfi hope the bridge they have built to bring together public-school and yeshiva students will pave the way for future collaboration between the schools, which, over time, they believe, will create a better understanding among both students and adults of their respective communities. The project could go a long way toward helping ease tensions in District 15, which have reached the boiling point in recent years in the wake of four straight defeats of the Lawrence Public Schools budget and the community¹s election of a school board with an Orthodox majority in May, which upset many public school parents.
According to Feldman and Siconolfi, the mentoring program proves that the public and private school communities can co-exist in harmony ‹ which is why the Nassau Herald has named the two principals People of the Year for 2006.

"The relationship between the kids and the high school kids is just amazing," said Siconolfi of the bond that has been forged. "I wish the entire community could see how well these schools work together."

This story belies the claim, oft-repeated here in comments, that the Orthodox members of this community couldn't care less about the success of public school children, and that we are "only out for ourselves". I wish all of the students involved in the program much success and mutual enrichment from this endeavor.

May this community learn from these kids how to work together towards a common goal of helping all district children.

More on GG Buyer

The 5TJT has some background on the new buyer of Gourmet glatt:
After protracted and intermittent negotiations, the Gourmet Glatt Food Emporium was sold on Tuesday to a small group headed by Henry (Yechezkel Shraga) Kauftheil of Brooklyn. The sale will clear the way for the return of kashrus certification of the store by the Vaad HaKashrus of the Five Towns. The total sale price is purported to be between seven and eight million dollars—a complete buyout of the business from its former owners, the Bolender family.

In a wide-ranging phone interview with the Five Towns Jewish Times on Tuesday morning, Mr. Kauftheil emphasized that his objective is to get past the bad feelings that have plagued much of the Five Towns community due to the dispute between the Vaad and Gourmet Glatt, and to restore Gourmet Glatt to its position as a leading kosher supermarket. He added, "Our goal is to make Gourmet Glatt a showcase kosher supermarket unlike any other." The Kauftheil group, which owns the kosher.com name, has big plans for the store and the web address, which they believe will ultimately serve kosher consumers around the world.

Mr. Kauftheil says that his interest in purchasing Gourmet Glatt began long before there was even a hint of a kashrus crisis in Cedarhurst. He had been hoping to purchase the makings of a world-class kosher food emporium and had seen the Gourmet Glatt facility as possibly providing such an opportunity. The dispute with the Vaad has both complicated and sped up the purchase process. Mr. Kauftheil is hopeful that all details of the sale can be finalized shortly and that the Vaad HaKashrus of the Five Towns can resume its kashrus supervision of the store within the next few days.
As I noted below, I have been informed that Gourmet Glatt is back under the hashgacha of the Vaad. I have been informed that the Vaad will be reinstating the Hashagacha as of January 8 January 2. I wish the new owners the best of luck.

GG Back Under Vaad Hasgacha - UPDATED

I have been informed (via email) that as of today, Gourmet Glatt is back under the Hashgacha of the Five Towns Vaad. I checked with the store management, and they confirmed that the Vaad hashgacha will be in effect as of january 8th January 2nd. Please check with your own Rav for confirmation.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Chassidic Cop

This guy gets sworn in:
What a mensch!

Joel Witriol, the city's first Hasidic police officer, was sworn in yesterday along with 1,358 other cadets at the Police Academy graduation at Madison Square Garden.

"It was an incredible life experience," Witriol said of becoming a cop. "I am looking forward to serving the community and the city."

He is only the third Hasidic police officer in the nation.

Witriol, 25, of Williamsburg, will be allowed to keep his peyes - the long side locks worn by Hasidic men - looped up over his ears.

He's been granted exemptions from police hairstyle rules so he won't have to break his religious vows. He also will be allowed off on the Sabbath and Jewish holy days.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

SD15 Updates

A few updates on School District 15:

1.CNN reported on the conflict over the weekend (link to video here). I think the piece is relatively balanced, aside from a few comments here or there, such as this one, heard in the video's voice-over:
Now, some parents are concerned that the Orthodox majority will use its power to divert public money to private schools, and even close some schools.
I'm quite sure that parents are concerned about both of those possibilities. I am equally sure that the first fear is an unfounded one, as diverting money directly to private schools is quite illegal. Do private school parents want to receive equal funding when it comes to those services allowed by law, such as transportation, textbooks and special education? Absolutely. But that's a far cry from any expectation of diverting funds directly to schools. And as far as closing schools? That isn't as shocking as the reporter makes it sound. If the public school population keeps dwindling at the rate it has been, there will be fewer buildings needed. It's quite simple. Nothing unfair, nefarious or conniving in that.

Another quote that made me roll my eyes, from Professor William Helmreich of the Queens College Center for Jewish Studies (their education expert of choice, I guess):
What would happen, for example, if in Dearborn, Michigan, the Muslim community decided to run people for the school board, put people on the school board, and said, that, uh, we only want half day of school on Friday? It's our religious requirement?
Huh??? That is relevant to the Lawrence school board conflict how?? Has anyone said anything of the sort here? This conflict has nothing to do with changing school policy to make a majority who do attend the public schools more comfortable (though that is perfectly in order, hence Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana being vacation days), and everything to do with procuring equitable services for taxpaying citizens who don't attend the public schools - to the fullest extent allowed by the law. Not to mention the fact that Professor Helmreich shows a woeful ignorance of the Islamic religion, as Muslims would not want a half day off on Friday, they would want a full day off, as Friday is their holy day. Maybe the good professor is mixing up Islam with Orthodox Judaism - he does seem a bit confused.

A great quote from school board member Pam Greenbaum:
This has nothing to do with religion, though. It has to do with money. And once you realize that, and you take the religion out of it...
Exactly right. This has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with money. A majority of district taxpayers would like to receive services to the fullest extent they are allowed. They want to receive equitable funding for textbooks, busing, and Special Education. And that has nothing to do with their religion or observance levels, and everything to do with their being equal, taxpaying citizens.

And regarding equitable services, that brings me to the second development:

2. The rumor mill has been buzzing with talk of a postponement of the referendum I mentioned here, and The Jewish Star confirms it in tomorrow's edition:
Lawrence School Board President Asher Mansdorf has postponed the upcoming votes on pre-k busing and free use of school facilities for residents of District 15.
A source close to the discussions said the vote would be rescheduled, perhaps for sometime in March, in order to give voters an opportunity to weigh in on two other matters at the same time. A technology upgrade is to be proposed, and paid for with more than half a million dollars remaining from a state grant obtained by Senator Dean Skelos. The rest of that grant was used as an emergency expenditure in order to fix the ceiling of the High School auditorium, which was coming down, and to
schedule repair of a school building elevator which has been in disrepair for a number of years.
The decision came days after a petition asking the state education commissioner to step in and delay the vote was signed by approximately 250 voters and filed with the New York State Dept. of Education. Board member Pamela Greenbaum, who voted against the referendum when it was introduced several week ago, voted against postponing it, as well. It was a matter of conscience, she suggested. "You have to wonder what people's motives are," she said, suggesting the vote was postponed on account of the petition. Not true, said Mansdorf, who said the events were unconnected.
The petition to delay the vote apparently was rooted in opposition to the proposals presented in the referendum - pre-K busing for private school students and free facility usage for all district youth groups and associations. Mansdorf weighs in on the proposals:
The bottom line on cost, Mansdorf said, is "I have a population out there that's spending 40 or 50 million dollars a year in taxes and what do they get for it? Transportation, special ed, and books. And I have another population that spending 40 or 50 million dollars a year in taxes and what do they get for it? Transportation, and special ed, and books, and teachers, and schools and school lunches and everything else."
Sounds fair. If public school students are getting free pre-K busing (which they are), then so should private school students. That's what fair and equitable treatment is all about.

Mansdorf also makes a few points, plugging the accomplishments of the new board:
"As a result of the fact that we demanded change, truancy is way down in the high school - down in the area of 50-percent," Mansdorf said. "As a result of the fact that we demanded change, discipline has been reintroduced to the middle school. As a result of the fact that we demanded change, the principals are reporting to us on a regular basis. The high school auditorium ceiling was fixed a year ahead of schedule
because we didn't do it by committee. I told one person - get it done - and it got done."
Warming to his theme, Mansdorf continued, "We raised money from the county of Nassau to fix sidewalks at the Number Six School by hounding our county legislator. And it got done. We used Excel [grant] money to schedule repair of an elevator that's been in disrepair for years. And the only reason we have that Excel money is because one person kept calling our state senator begging for money to be used in our district.
Not a committee. One person. I've brought into the district somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5 million in legislative grants since I was elected five years ago."
"I challenge anyone: come walk through the buildings with me. It's an embarrassment what previous public school boards did not do to those buildings pre-contingency. The only reason we are where we are now is those boards did not do their job."
If this board is really getting the results that Mansdorf is outlining, I applaud them. It is clear that the previous boards, who did not have the present Orthodox majority that has Lawrence public school parents running so scared, did not do as much for the children as I would have hoped. The continued low test scores are but one sign of that, Dr. Mansdorf's examples some others.

I will update these stories as more details come in.

Breaking News: Gourmet Glatt Sale

Major scoop from tomorrow's Jewish Star, which seems to be making itself the go-to place for all the local Jewish news:

Gourmet Glatt Being Sold

By Mayer Fertig

The white knight lives in Borough Park. He is an investor named Chezky Kaufthiel, leading a group that is now in the process of becoming the new owners of Gourmet Glatt. The Bolender family has sold its entire interest in the store, which their parents founded.

The sale is expected to herald the return to Gourmet Glatt of many, many customers who have stayed away since late October, heeding the directive of their rabbonim. The boycott followed the removal of the hashgacha of the Vaad Hakashrus of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway.

Rabbi Simcha Lefkowitz of Congregation Anshei Chesed in Hewlett, and a member of the Vaad Hakashrus of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, confirmed that, "the Vaad is returning it's hashgacha, and everyone should be free to shop there, in all the departments, including meat."

Rabbi Yosef Eisen, the rabbinic administrator of the Vaad,said, " Mr. Kaufthiel and his group have an interest in concluding this deal ASAP. All parties have been working closely together. We're walking toward the chupah right now. The conclusion is, b'ezras Hashem, going to take place in the not so distant future.

Through his attorney, Paul Sod of Lawrence, Kaufthiel confirmed he is the buyer and said, "We are interested in bringing Gourmet Glatt to a point where it is the premier supermarket in relation to quality, service, value and kashrus." Other members of the group were not identified. Paul Sod, and his counterpart, Alexander Novack, representing the Bolenders in the sale, said they did not know who else is part of the group. They called Kaufthiel "a facilitator" who's "been in the lead in the efforts to resolve this unfortunate mess, but it's not clear what role he'll play" ultimately.

Novack said, "all the sellers are very happy with this resolution of what has been a very difficult couple of months and hope for the continued success of Gourmet Glatt."

... Virtually every Orthodox rabbi in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway is a member of the Vaad, which is led by Rabbi Eisen. Together, they made an emergency decision to remove the hashgacha from Gourmet Glatt in late October after Rabbi Yehudah Kravitz was retained to provide a second hechsher. At that time the Vaad had recently advised Mark Bolender and his siblings to sell the business prior to the permanent removal of the hashgacha in four months time. This followed an incident where several brands of kosher Cornish hens were mislabeled and a long string of other run-ins between Mark Bolender and the Vaad.

Rabbi Kravitz declined to comment when he was contacted on Tuesday.

Two members of the Bolender family, Chaim and Andrea, will remain at Gourmet Glatt to help with the transition, and possibly longer. They will be salaried employees of the new owners. Mark Bolender's relationship with the store will end with the sale.

... "The community will hopefully find this to be a very positive outcome to a very difficult experience," said Rabbi Kenneth Hain of Lawrence's Cong. Beth Shalom. "Due to some hard work and responsible efforts by all parties I expect that this will result in not only a quality establishment under the highest of kashruth standards, but also in competition that will be of benefit to kosher consumers."

One of the attorneys, Alexander Novack, said the deal was structured with care taken to be sure it would easily lead to a resumption of supervision by the Vaad Hakashrus. "A number of rabbonim who have made themselves available on Sunday nights, and holidays," he said, "have been very accommodating." He singled out for credit Rabbi Eisen, whom he said had made himself available for consultation on a number of recent Sundays.
If you would like to read the rest of the story, the newspaper should be on the streets by tomorrow afternoon.

"Jewish In a Winter Wonderland"

When I saw the title of this NY Times story, "Jewish In a Winter Wonderland", I thought it was going to be about how it feels to be bombarded with Christmas programming and decorations everywhere you go this time of year. I went to work on Thursday, and the theme of the day was all Christmas, all the time. The christmas trees and twinkling lights in the lobby of my office building, the store windows as I walk through the city streets, the soundtrack playing "Silver Bells" as I ordered my coffee from Starbucks. I know all about being Jewish In a Christmas Wonderland, I thought, as I saw the article's headline.

Apparently though, the woman who wrote this article had a different solution than mine (keep your head down, try to ignore hearing "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" for the 34,765th time, change the channel when "Arthur's Christmas Special" comes on Channel 13). She seemed to have decided "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em", and soon enough her house was in full Christmas regalia:
But despite our differences, we both love our little winter wonderland. Some nights, I put on our Starbucks Christmas CD, light a fire, turn on the tree and play with the different settings, put liquid smoke in the train’s smokestack and turn on the choo-choo sound effects and then I sit back and enjoy my first Christmas, in all its kitschy splendor. I feel a little guilty when I look at our lone menorah on the mantel (the only evidence of my faith other than my guilt), but I ask you: how can this much pleasure be wrong?

Before you answer that in a snappy letter to the editor, fellow Jews (including you, Dad), let me just say that I’m pretty sure that if we’re fortunate enough to have children, we will raise them with the same arbitrary rules we were raised with, trying our best to sell that old chestnut (roasting on an open fire) that “eight nights is better than one,” and putting this tradition behind us until the kids go off to college, if not forever.

On the other hand, maybe it’s nice to teach children that holidays can be done à la carte. Every religion, every culture has so many beautiful rituals and traditions to choose from. Maybe celebrating is a step toward tolerating. I can hardly wait for Hanukkwanzaa.
Yeah. Like I said. The article didn't turn out quite like I had hoped it would.

Monday, December 25, 2006

"No Converts Allowed"

There's an interesting side conversation going on in this comment section over at Shmarya's. Something was brought up that I had somehow never known: that the Syrian Jewish community has taken upon themselves a ban on marrying or including Gerim (converts) in their community. I found a detailed explanation for the ban here, which seems to have originated in 1927 as a means of preventing intermarriage, and has been periodically renewed ever since. From Wikipedia:
In the early twentieth century the Syrian Jewish communities of New York and Buenos Aires adopted rulings designed to discourage intermarriage. The communities would not carry out conversions to Judaism; they would not recognise the conversions of other communities or admit converts to join Syrian synagogues; marriages between Syrian Jews and converts would not be recognised, and the children of such marriages would not be allowed to join the Syrian community.

Hacham Uzziel, then Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, was asked to rule on the validity of this ban. He acknowledged the right of the community to refuse to carry out conversions and to regard conversions performed with a view to marriage as invalid. At the same time he cautioned that persons converted out of genuine conviction and recognised by established rabbinic authorities should not be regarded as non-Jews.

The ban is popularly known within the Syrian community as the "edict" or "proclamation" (in Hebrew, takkanah). Every twenty years or so, the edict is reaffirmed by all leaders and rabbis of the community, often with extra clauses.
So I called a Syrian friend of mine a few hours ago to ask her for more details. She had some, telling me that the ban is taken very seriously, that there are signs up in every shul proclaiming the ban to be in effect, and that Gerim are not allowed to be part of their minyanim or to get aliyot. She also gave me a little speech about how the Syrian community has, through this ban, kept intermarriage rates low, and that that end justifies the means of keeping the ban intact. Indeed, the source I found here says something similar:
Thirdly, the community, at the time of the original ban, had an intermarriage rate of less than 1%. As they say, the proof is in the pudding. Because of this ban, while the intermarriage rate in the general Jewish Community is over 50% (may Hashem save and forgive us), the intermarriage rate in the Syrian Jewish Community is under 3% (yes three per cent).
I question these statistics, however. I highly doubt that a Jewish community that follows similar observance levels to that of the Syrian community has intermarriage rates that are "over 50%". I would venture to guess that among Modern Orthodox communities, the intermarriage rate is far closer to the rate quoted for the Syrian community, 3%. If that's so, I do have to question whether the means of completely excluding any Ger Tzedek (righteous convert) from their community justifies the ends of an intermarriage rate that might well be no lower than the average in other Orthodox communities (This source claims the intermarriage rate among all Orthodox Jews is around 3% - the same rate that the Syrian community boasts).

I don't deny that in today's day and age, many converts to Judaism likely do so more for reasons of love or marriage than because they feel a genuine calling to Judaism. And that's something that Halacha frowns upon. That said, there are many converts that have not made the decision for ulterior motives, such as converts that were converted to Judaism at a young age, or converts that truly felt drawn to the religion. I personally know many more than a handful of truly righteous Gerim who are so sincere that they make me ashamed of my comparatively rote commitment to Judaism. It seems a damn shame that they are not to be so much as counted in a minyan by members of the Syriam community.

It's hard to ignore that the Torah commands us to "love the Ger", and harder to still to accept that a community will completely exclude any Ger at all, even the most righteous and sincere, from any and every aspect of their communal life.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Read This

This has been linked by half the J-Blogosphere, but it's important enough to keep linking. Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz posts a column on sexual abuse of children. It's a must-read.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

War On Christmas - Take III

It's time for another installment of The War On Christmas, but (thank God), this time the grinch isn't a Jewish one:
Less than a week ago, a 20-foot evergreen Christmas tree in the local village park was alive with festive, flickering lights. And in recognition of the sizable Jewish population here celebrating Hanukkah, a nine-foot-tall menorah stood next to it. The display, an annual holiday tradition, was so bright it could be seen from blocks away.

But Henry Ritell, 79, the owner of a local chemicals marketing firm, said he now considered the Christmas tree a cultural symbol, associated more with the spirit of materialism than religion.

Earlier this year, Mr. Ritell, who is Roman Catholic, approached the Briarcliff board of trustees and offered to donate a two-foot-high Nativity scene — Holy Family, the wise men and shepherds — to the park.

So began the saga of the vanishing Briarcliff holiday display.

But rather than accept his offer, the village trustees turned away Mr. Ritell and his crèche, saying they did not want any religious symbols in Briarcliff Manor Law Park. The trustees reasoned that unlike the Nativity scene, the tree and the menorah were commercial symbols, not religious ones. That incensed Mr. Ritell, who filed a lawsuit against the village, contending that the menorah is as symbolic of the “indestructibility of Jewish people and their faith” as a Nativity scene is symbolic of the indestructibility of Catholic Christians.
Now, I'm not sure about this one. I definitely would not want to see a Nativity scene going up in every holiday display across America. But it's nice to see this guy recognize that a Menorah is actually very much a religious symbol as opposed to a secular or commercial one, as claimed here by the trustees (and this Chabad Rabbi).

Gourmet Glatt Update

Some have wondered why I have not opined on the Gourmet Glatt letter that has been circulating for the last few weeks. I answered in the comment section of MoChassid's post on the topic, but I'll reiterate my thoughts here:

I find the letter to be meaningless. The fact that it purports to be an "open letter to the Vaad Harabanim of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway" by "concerned citizens of our community" every one of whom choose to remain nameless, gives the letter very dubious credibility. The reader has no way of knowing if the letter was a joint effort by hundreds of writers or one lone writer. No way of knowing if the letter is authored by impartial concerned citizens or someone with - and let me put it this way - a horse in this race. The fact that the letter was sent around by the Gourmet Glatt's ownership to all members on their "loyal customer club" doesn't help its authenticity. Without any further information, the letter has no more credibility on the topic than...well, than so many hundreds of anonymous comments left on a blog post - or the anonymous blogger's very post itself.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Piling On

I hate to do this again.

Really I do.

The last thing I felt like doing today was go after the Agudah, yet again. But their spokesman Avi Shafran leaves me no choice. Hot on the tail of his disgraceful silence on an urgent and extremely relevant issue that is of utmost importance to (presumedly) every parent in his constituency, he chooses to comment on a topic that, in my opinion, is arguably a good bit less pressing than the topic of child molesters being given safe harbor in our children's schools. See for yourself:

A recent addition to the sometimes bizarre Jewish blogosphere is pilagesh.blogspot.com, which is devoted to legitimizing and advocating halachically sanctioned concubines, known as a pilagesh, who satisfies an observant man’s sexual needs when his wife is not available.

...Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, suggests a better use for the blogger’s time.

“He should call Agudah’s volunteer services department and we’ll help him get a life,” said the rabbi. While conceding that the practice is not a sin, Rabbi Shafran said “many things are permitted but not engaged in. This is not anything that is normative in the Jewish world. The definition of a marriage is between a man and one wife, like the first man and his wife.” He was referring to Adam and Eve.

So Rabbi Shafran felt the need to comment on whether the use of a pilegesh is a sin. He chose to opine on whether the action is "normative" or not. His choice to offer up his take on an issue that is so completely off the radar of just about everyone in his community is plain shocking in the wake of the sickening crimes alleged to have been perpetuated against our children by those in a position of trust.

So as you might see, Rabbi Shafran left me no choice.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Chanuka Consumer Alert!

Please be advised that the ready-to-light gelled olive oil candles pictured here are a fire hazard. The plastic cup can catch fire and liquefy. Please do not attempt to use this product, and please notify anyone else who may have purchased it. I personally have been using this product, which were being sold to benefit my daughter's school.

More here.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Please Read and Forward!

Please read this extremely moving post by MoChassid, and forward it to anyone who might be able to help.

"Schmatte Week Vs. Rosh Hashanah"

Check this out:
Schmatte Week Vs. Rosh Hashanah
Will New York, unlike Paris, respect a Jewish holy day?
Why is that week different from all others? Members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America recently received a memo discussing options for rescheduling next fall’s Fashion Week, which coincides with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Designers currently slated to show on the holy day, September 13, include Calvin Klein (Jew!), Zac Posen (Jew!), and Vera Wang (married to a Jew!). The memo presents three alternatives: no change, moving it forward two days, or delaying it until October. It seems likely, insiders say, that the CFDA’s going to go with option two and bump up Fashion Week to September 5 through 12, ending before sunset. “It’s a courtesy to the industry, which has a large number of Jewish people involved, not to present shows on the holiest days of the calendar, as the French did last season, showing over Yom Kippur,” says Suzy Menkes (Jew!), fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune. The CFDA is planning to review all responses to the memo before making any definite changes. CFDA president (and Jew!) Diane Von Furstenberg “doesn’t have strong feelings either way and wants the decision to be a collective agreement between designers.”
It's nice to see that it's easier to be a Jew in the "Schmatte business" in New York than it is in Paris - though I imagine it's easier to be any kind of Jew in New York than in Paris.

Kosher Phone Lawsuit

This is an interesting little story:
In 2005, a group of rabbis formed a council to find a way Hasidic Jews could use cell phones without getting exposed to soul-corrupting text messages and spam. They enlisted the help of Sprint Nextel in developing something called a Kosher Phone: a so-called "plain vanilla" voice phone that would preclude the very possibility of going online, and the attendant temptations. Of course, it didn't work.

One would think this could be easily accomplished by using older-model phones, but one would, apparently, be wrong. After a year of negotiations and $150,000 spent, Sprint acquiesced and issued a limited batch of phones with text-messaging functions blocked and SIM cards taken out. Then, horror: "Some users reported instances in which devices had the ability to send and receive text messages." The lawsuit charges that Sprint, somewhat understandably nervous about the commercial prospects of this retarded (in the very literal sense) technology, went behind the rabbis' back and switched the texting functions back on.
So the whole much-publicized and highly-touted "Kosher phone" hack didn't actually work, apparently. I guess trusting Sprint to keep the phones "kosher" just didn't produce results.

This story may seem absurdly overprotective to some readers - why are text messages considered "un-kosher", and how far with some people go to keep out seemingly harmless outside influences? But I am not so quick to judge. This inability to protect oneself or much more commonly, one's children, from the dangers of the internet is something I hear a lot these days. People install the latest in filters, firewalls, and parental controls on their computers, for example, and yet their children manage to find a way to get around them (not necessarily to anything inappropriate - but even if they find a way onto a sports site that hasn't been approved, the filtering software has failed). The few actual horror stories I've heard about kids stumbling onto truly inappropriate online content (and I'm not talking about ESPN) have forced me to completely prohibit internet access to my kids except under very infrequent, closely supervised sessions. Some may find that overly protective. I do not. So the grounds for this lawsuit, the claim that the Sprint company did not adequately protect their consumers from the dangers of text messaging capability as outlined in their contract, is a quibble I can understand even if it is not a standard I myself require.

Just another example of how hard it must be to deal with the encroaching modernity of today for those who are determined, at any cost, to keep as far behind the dangerous effects of the onward march of technology.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Shabbat Pedestrian Safety

Via YeshivaWorld, this article about changes being made to traffic lights in Australia to accommodate Sabbath observers:
AUSTRALIA'S first kosher pedestrian crossings will feature hi-tech detection sensors, allowing Orthodox Jews to cross busy Sydney streets safely during the Sabbath.

Waverley and Woollahra councils are expected to install the devices at two intersections in Old South Head Rd at a cost of $19,800, after the Roads and Traffic Authority rejected a plan to re-program traffic lights.

The RTA has offered to pay one-third of the total cost, however, with the two councils sharing the rest.

Pressing a button on the Sabbath - the period of rest between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday - is considered a breach of religious law by Orthodox Jews.

This has created safety fears as members of eastern Sydney's large Orthodox community dodge traffic on the way to and from local synagogues.
There are actually a few local intersections where the lights only change if a pedestrian presses a button. Usually, when I see people crossing at those intersections on Shabbos, when they can't press the buttons, it looks like a mad dash to the other side between passing cars. Which can be pretty scary when the pedestrians are a bunch of not-quite-teenaged kids, or a mother with a stroller and/or numerous small children on feet.

The article points out that in many high-traffic locations, creating automatic timed intervals for the traffic light to change from red to green would cause untenable traffic delays, counting that out as a solution. The solution outlined in the article above seems to be a reasonable if expensive one (I'm sure the question will also come up whether stepping into the field of a motion-sensor is halachically permissible on Shabbos - I've heard varied opinions on the subject).A solution that I have seen in other communities - a crossing guard at peak pedestrian hours (as shuls let out, perhaps), is probably quite financially prohibitive as well. However, as the community grows, and Saturday foot traffic at these types of intersections gets heavier, the potential risk to these pedestrians' safety becomes greater and greater.

Anyone know of any other solutions that have been utilized in other communities to deal with this potential safety risk?


The NY Times has another story about a Chabad Rabbi having his request rejected to display a Menorah alongside a Christmas tree in a public space. In this case, the group who denied his request didn't remove the trees in this story (like they did here). However, the denial of the Rabbi's request seems to have summoned up an outpouring of communal support for the Rabbi from some unexpected places:
Many residents of Fort Collins, the home of Colorado State University, were angered by the city’s decision and have responded with a campaign of support for the city’s Jewish residents, who number only a few thousand in a total population of about 137,000. In a show of solidarity, some non-Jewish residents and a growing list of businesses are displaying menorahs in their windows.

“I think the City Council is trying to cover themselves legally, but they’re shortsighted about the long-term implications of how this impacts groups,” said Jill Kuhn, a psychologist here who is not Jewish. “We’re going to put a menorah in our window, and we’re going to light it. We hope other people do that too.”

This year, as it did last year, CooperSmith’s Pub and Brewing, which sits on Old Town Square, has allowed the rabbi to move the menorah to its grounds, where it will remain for the duration of Hanukkah.

“We’re not in agreement with the City Council’s decisions,” said Ted Devitt, managing partner of CooperSmith’s. “It’s not what we thought the community stands for.”
It's nice to see that we can find the spirit of tolerance and togetherness somewhere these days.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Spiraling Out Of Control?

I received e-mails regarding this awful story earlier in the week, and saw it posted on a few blogs as well, and every time I read an account of the events that transpired, I feel like vomiting. The story goes like this, from Haaretz (via Shmarya):
Miriam Shear says she was traveling to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City early on November 24 when a group of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) men attacked her for refusing to move to the back of the Egged No. 2 bus. She is now in touch with several legal advocacy and women's organizations, and at the same time, waiting for the police to apprehend her attackers.

In her first interview since the incident, Shear says that on the bus three weeks ago, she was slapped, kicked, punched and pushed by a group of men who demanded that she sit in the back of the bus with the other women. The bus driver, in response to a media inquiry, denied that violence was used against her, but Shear's account has been substantiated by an unrelated eyewitness on the bus who confirmed that she sustained an unprovoked "severe beating.
More details of this woman's brutal treatment are in the article. I simply cannot believe that something like this could happen, with witnesses looking on and doing nothing. According to witness accounts, Charedi women sitting in the back of the bus (they knew their place, at least!) found fit to criticize the victim for her actions. Is this going to the harbinger of a complete societal breakdown in the Charedi community, as some said the 1964 Kitty Genovese story was indicative of in society at large (Genovese was famously stabbed to death on a city street over thirty minutes. Numerous witnesses were said to have heard her screams, but no one attempted to help her or even call the authorities)? The fact that this common thuggery and violence is considered an appropriate response to deal with a woman who apparently "doesn't know her place", and that numerous people seemed to have looked the other way or declined to inform the authorities in the face of this appaling behavior seems a dreaded throwback to another era or religion.

I just feel that recent events have indicated that things are getting out of control in some pockets of the Charedi world. (And though I am well aware that it is not the case in the vast majority of Charedi communities - I still feel that someone with the Charedi Levush simply does not have the luxury of behaving badly when they are so readily identifiable as a member of such an ostensibly God-fearing community). I can understand that they must feel helpless in the face of the encroaching modernity that is a fact of life in 2006. I struggle with it myself, on an entirely different level, when I drove into Manhattan via the Midtown Tunnel with my son last week and he was treated to a completely inappropriate show of flesh from one huge, five-story billboard after another of half-dressed (and in one case, completely undressed - I kid you not) women. But did I get out of the car and throw eggs or paint at the billboard? Did anyone else who might have been offended by the billboards? Of course not. Would I be perfectly justified in calling or writing the companies whose ads are on the billboards, appealing to their decency and modesty (as unlikely it is that such a tactic would be successful), or perhaps organizing a boycott of those companies? Sure.

Well, members of the Charedi world have the same choice of behaving appropriately or inappropriately in the face of what they find offensive. A boycott of El Al in hopes that they will stop flying on Shabbat? Great. Totally appropriate. A peaceful march to protest the Gay Pride parade? Sure. A violent demonstration where fires are set and people are stoned? Decidedly inappropriate. Throwing bleach at women whose clothing is deemed immodest? Inappropriate.

In this case, there were many options available to this group of men if they were so offended by the prospect of sharing the front of the bus with women. (And please be assured, I am not at all convinced that a man who is sitting minding his own business, with a nose in a sefer, should be in any way bothered by a woman minding her own business, sitting in another row). They could have chartered their own bus line, petitioned for this line to be granted "Mehadrin" status (which it did not have). They could also have attempted to speak with this woman in a reasonable manner instead of resorting to spit and violence.

I don't think that any reasonable person, Charedi or not, could possibly feel that this story is an example of the proper way for members of any community to prevent the encroaching of modernity on their lives. As always, I hope to hear this incident roundly denounced from those aforementioned reasonable people in the coming days.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

War On Christmas (Redux)?

Okay. So, this is a bit annoying:
Olympic figure skater Sasha Cohen was “stunned” to learn that a U.S. high school choir had been ordered to stop singing Christmas carols at a holiday show because she is half-Jewish, her mother said Thursday.

A city official accompanied by a police officer caused a stir by silencing the carols Tuesday night as Cohen signed autographs after a performance in Riverside, California.
Cohen was evidently not in the least bit bothered by the singing, but the choir was nevertheless asked to stop singing or fear that it was going to offend the person who spent the morning doing this:
Cohen’s mother said the 2006 Olympic silver medalist and U.S. National Champion had taken part in Christmas tree lighting ceremonies at New York’s Rockefeller Center and in California.
To be honest, I don't particularly need to hear nonstop Christmas songs when I walk into every store this time of year (except, thankfully, for the local Kosher supermarkets and Judaica stores). I am also quite loath to come out on Bill O'Reilly's side of the "War On Christmas" debate (or of anything, for that matter). That said, isn't the level of political correctness getting a bit out of hand here? If police asked the choir to stop singing a Jewish song (not so farfetched, by the way) because there was a Christian skater in the house who might possibly be offended by hearing a Jewish song, I'm quite sure that this story would be the favored rant of the J-Blog community for days.

People need to chill.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Finally: Agudah Comments on the Potentially Dangerous People Who May Lurk in Our Children's Yeshivas

Just a quick point:

I am so darn sick and tired of the comments and e-mails telling me, in response to this post, that the Agudah has no responsibility whatsoever to issue any sort of comment on the topic of sexual abusers being employed by the very schools the organization claims to represent. Which part exactly do you people take issue with?

Perhaps you feel that the Agudah representatives are making it clear that they do not want to take responsibility for who comes in contact with our children when they are at school. That the Agudah evidently feels it is a decision best left to the administrations of individual schools, and not within the purview of the organization. That this is simply not a topic that they feel they are in a position to address. That they are entitled to maintain silence on a topic they feel is out of their control. Right. Unless, of course, the detrimental people who might possibly come into contact with our precious young children are the absolute worst of the worst, the most base of all people, the disgusting and intolerable spawn of the most perniciously evil people known to mankind. That's right. The children of (cue scary music)...bloggers. A snippet of Gil's report from Thursday night at the Agudah Convention (emphasis mine):
R. Matisyahu Salomon had a generally positive message about strengthening ourselves and our respect for Gedolim, rather than knocking down those who disrespect them. He specifically said that we do not have a ta'anah (complaint) against those who ask questions with derekh eretz (respect). However, he did have a few lines that were somewhat startling. He referred to (disrespectful) blogging as a disease that is contagious and he said that the children of such people are a danger in our schools.
Yeah. the children of bloggers are a danger in our schools. But something as innocuous as a child molester - that is simply not a subject the Agudah will deign to comment on.

Makes sense.

Menorahs as a Secular Symbol???

I'm sure most of you have already seen this, the latest installment in the saga of the dreaded War On Christmas: 2006.

A recap: A Seattle Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky, made a request from Seattle airport officials to place a large Menorah alongside the Christmas trees that are traditionally displayed throughout the airport. According to airport officials, he threatened to sue if the Menorah display was not included. Airport officials, after a hasty meeting, concluded that the safest course of action (to avoid either being dragged into court or being forced to include the symbols from every other religion on the book in the airport holiday display) was to remove the christmas trees altogether. Which they did. To massive public outcry, shrieking and wailing about the War On Christmas, and much public finger-pointing and blame leveled at the aforementioned Chabad rabbi for his role in the tree removal. The Rabbi, claiming to be "appalled" at the airport's decision to remove the trees, explained his position as simply wanting to add a menorah to enhance the display. His words:
Everyone should have their spirit of the holiday. For many people the trees are the spirit of the holidays, and adding a menorah adds light to the season
It's very nice that Rabbi Bogomilsky wanted to have a Jewish symbol alongside the christmas tree display. I understand where he's coming from. However, his suit to get it there relies on a 1989 Supreme Court decision ruling that Menorahs, along with christmas trees, are essentially secular, not religious, symbols, and are allowed to be displayed publicly if they are not part of a larger religious display. His lawyer out-and-out claims that the menorah is a secular symbol.

Is he kidding? An Orthodox Rabbi expects us to buy into the suggestion that a Menorah is a completely secular symbol along the lines of a christmas tree? What, exactly, is this Rabbi Bogomilsky going to be lighting next week with a Bracha, if not a Menorah - or perhaps, the question should be, what is he smoking when he claims it isn't religious? If the Menorah isn't the most identifiable religious symbol of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, then what is it?

Now, I have the utmost respect for the work that Chabad does in some of the most far-flung communities in the world. In many locales as well as university campuses, Chabad is Judaism. And that role is commendable. Chabad's outreach is usually so successful because of their emissaries nonjudgmental attitude toward those less observant than them. I have friends who credit Chabad with keeping then affiliated with Judaism because their local Chabad Rabbi was inclusive, yet didn't try to force-feed them Judaism. A great example was always the no-strings-attached famous Chabad Purim parties given all over the world. People could just show up and get trashed in the name of a Jewish holiday. What's not to like? Or the fact that I had acquaintances in college that were convinced by the local Chabad Rabbi of the importance of lighting Shabbos candles on Friday night - before they went out clubbing. Hey - I'm sure it's a lot easier for a religious skeptic - or airport officials, for that matter - to swallow lighting a menorah if it's become simply a secular or cultural symbol of Chanukah, and not a religious one. And I do believe that there is great value to drawing people in to Judaism by starting out with a milder level of demands on their religious observance.

But is all this watering down of Orthodoxy a good thing? The fact that an Orthodox Rabbi is willing to stand before a Seattle court and argue that a utensil that I consider an eminently religious one is actually completely secular - does that make for a proud day in our religion's history? Is it outweighed by the debatable benefit of having a 6-foot high menorah displayed next to a Christmas tree display?

No, I don't think it is.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Agudah Leader on Kolko Arrest

Steven I. Weiss e-mails Rabbi Avi Shafran of the Agudath Israel, asking for a statement on the Kolko arrest. Rabbi Shafran responds:
Why would we have comment about the arrest of an individual? Because he was an employee, more than 30 years ago, of one of the camps we run (that have had thousands of employees over the years)? I don’t think that requires comment on our part.
We are not even a party anymore to any lawsuit filed against the accused, as I understand it. The suit of the accuser who included Camp Agudah in his action (John Doe #1) has been dismissed (without prejudice, I believe, so it can still be refiled, but hasn’t been).
????? Is Rabbi Shafran kidding with this response that somehow this issue bears no relevance to his organization?

First of all, he answers his question of "Why would we have comment about the arrest of an individual" in a very specific manner when he says "Because he was an employee, more than 30 years ago, of one of the camps we run". Um, yes.

But in addition, the fact that suddenly an Agudah spokesman is trying to distance the organization from an occurrence in the Charedi world that they would rather ignore is just laughable. When, in regards to ANY other issue facing the Charedi world, did the Agudah EVER distance themselves? They don't run blogs, yet they were concerned enough about their detrimental effect on the Charedi community to denounce them as having "declared war on Torah authority"? I see their point. I mean, what's the future of a few thousand kids left in the position to be molested when there's the undermining of Torah authority to focus on?

Or, remember this? When they decided that they would make the decision for all of the Charedi yeshivas across Brooklyn that they could not travel to Albany in support of a rally in support of a tax credit that would have helped those yeshivas most? So in that case, the activities and goings-on of a yeshiva like...say...Torah Temima would have been within the Agudah's purview - but now that the Yeshiva has been accused of harboring and covering up the existence of a molester for thirty years, the Agudah suddenly takes no responsibility whatsoever for what takes place there??

The Agudah was in a position, since this unfortunate saga of perversion and subsequent cover-ups broke, to denounce, even in a non-specific manner, such abuse in their community, and speak out to their constituents about how to prevent any such behavior in the future. Instead, they dropped the ball. Again and again. They ignored the issue at the recent Agudah convention, instead wasting their breath on a few blogs with a debatable reach. And Rabbi Shafran skirts the issue here in a unbelievably compassionless and tone-deaf disavowal of any responsibility.

I heard much cluck-clucking over the media coverage of Kolko's arrest over this past weekend. Most of the cluckers were angry at the way this has been covered up and (to borrow a particularly Agudah-ish phrase) "swept under the carpet" by higher-ups in both the Yeshiva in question as well as others in the community who had heard and ignored complaints of abuse. Others were more upset about the Chillul Hashem aspect of the Kolko arrest being plastered across the pages of every local paper and every 11 o'clock news broadcast - but even they agree that the decades of cover-up are to blame for that. Someone needs to respond to allegations aired here as to whether Torah Umesorah (who shares many board members with the Agudah), and the Agudah themselves knew about the allegations for years, and yet decided to not act - on advice of their lawyers. Rabbi Shafran's statement is decidedly inadequate.

I'm waiting to see the Agudah step up to the plate on an issue that is affecting members of their community in a real way. I fear that I will be waiting quite a long time.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

No Compassion

The Jewish Press publishes a response to last week's powerful letter (which I posted on here). All I can say is, what a disappointment. I thought the fact that they published a letter that actually summons up some compassion for those Orthodox men who have homosexual urges showed that they understand what a sad situation many of these men face. However, it is clear from this week's response that this is not the case. The writer of the column shows that she lacks some basic sympathy for her fellow man who might be in a predicament that she will never face. A particularly obnoxious excerpt, in reference to the very real problem raised by the original letter-writer of marrying of "rehabilitated" gay men to unknowing women who then suffer the consequences:
“It is the inherent desire of every woman to be desired by her husband.” With all due respect to your concern, this is like saying that every woman who has a baby automatically turns into a loving and caring mother. Certainly, most women need to be loved and desired (and appreciated) by their men. Yet, (as some of the letters to this column have attested), there are women whose love and respect for their man is powerful enough to keep their relationship intact, thriving and satisfying – regardless of the struggles of their SSA-suffering husbands. Naturally, the strength of the foundation of such a relationship is dependent on mutual openness and honesty at the outset.
"Mutual openness and honesty". Right. I'm quite sure that all men who are "rehabilitated" from having any homosexual urges, or who fight these urges, are fully up-front with their prospective spouses. In an era where the shidduch world has reached such an unfortunate nadir that stories are common of families hiding from prospective machutonim whether the husband ever wore a blue shirt or the wife ever wore short sleeves, just try to convince me that a prospective groom's sexual attraction to other men is ever mentioned. Not. Gonna. Happen.

As Dag, who first directed our attention to this exchange, said in regard to the response: "The Jewish Press answer to the Homosexuality question is as bad as the question was good".

Newsday on SD15 Conflict

Newsday puts up an article on the School District 15 death threats of quite some time ago. Certainly not the most timely of news, but a very reasonable article on the matter:
Teach the children well? Not this
The crowd went wild as the Lawrence Golden Tornadoes football team scored one of the biggest upsets in the 15-year history of the Long Island Championships nine days ago.

The team, in its ninth straight win this season, came out of nowhere on the last Sunday in November to become the best on Long Island.

And that's exactly where the district, and the community of Lawrence, want to be.

For some, the team's achievement balanced out some of the bad - no, make that shocking - news that roiled the community for most of the same month.

On Nov. 8, school board president Asher Mansdorf and three board members received death threats, according to Nassau County police. The message was clear: Close another public school in the district and you will die.


This is the kind of venom spewed by dunderheads during the long, bitter fight over school integration.

In Lawrence, tensions have been brewing for years. But religion, rather than race, has become the community's central and divisive theme.

District 15 now has more children attending private religious schools than public ones.

Those whose children go private want Lawrence's public schools to accept the new reality, and shrink accordingly.

Those whose children go public want to protect what they have, fearing that any movement to shrink is, in reality, a movement to abolish public schools.

That's the shorthand version of the dynamic between the Orthodox Jewish community and just about everybody else in Lawrence.

But now the ongoing tension has devolved into death threats. That's a low.

The threats were timely, since the district closed one of its elementary schools and the board - now with an Orthodox majority - recently directed superintendent John Fitzsimons to report on the possibility of closing another.

A letter went to Mansdorf's home and business, threatening him, his children and grandchildren. I could not reach Mansdorf yesterday, but he has told local newspapers that police asked him not to talk about the incident.

Police are investigating the incident as a misdemeanor case of aggravated harassment, officials said yesterday. They've sent evidence to the lab to find fingerprints or other potential clues.

"It's troubling," said school superintendent Fitzsimons, "but it's not the focus of what is going on here."

Maybe it should be.

Anyone who sends missives, anonymous or otherwise, threatening adults, children and grandchildren is wrong. But this is about more than some dunderhead.

Lawrence is a fast-changing community in desperate need of common ground. But to get it, both sides will have to bend. And that does not seem to be happening.

As a result of the threats, a uniformed police officer is slated to be posted at school board meetings.

Is this, along with other protective measures, what the community really wants? Is it the only way to navigate the district's challenges?

"People of good will need to find some way to build bridges, but it seems not to be happening," Fitzsimons said. "What message are we sending our children?"
This article gets it exactly right. The fact that the private school community is quite correctly rallying around calls for fiscal responsibility in response to a quickly dwindling public school enrollment does not in any way justify the response of death threats. The fact that the public school community has the unfounded and quite paranoid fear that, as the article puts it, "any movement to shrink is, in reality, a movement to abolish public schools" is simply not grounds for the heights of discord and disharmony that this community has reached. And I expected to see loud and strident condemnations of the threats on the part of the public school community, or at least their leadership. That might have been wishful thinking.

And not only did we not hear any sort of concerted effort to condemn the threats, I particularly don't like the way district superintendent Dr. Fitzimons attempts to brush off/play down the horrifying nature of the threats by saying that "it's not the focus of what is going on here". Well, as the article states, "Maybe it should be".

Maybe it should be.

When we've reached the point of threats to a board members family, I think we can all agree that the rancor is way over the top.

Enough with the madness. Closing schools is not equal to killing family members - or threatening to do so. Where is the community leadership? Why are they not trying to ratchet down the fury? Hello? Anyone?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

"PS22 Chorus sings awesome Chanukah song with "L'il Eminem""

TTC points us to this rendition, by the Public School choir of PS22 in Staten Island, of "Esa Einai" - complete with a rapping finish by "Dritan, or our very own "L'il Eminem!":

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Tehillim Request and Open Cholim Thread

Recived by e-mail, a request for Tefillot and Tehillim for the Refuah of Chaya Sara Yutta bas Dina. In addition, please add the names of any other Cholim who mat be in need of Tefillot in the comment thread below.

Must Read

Dag points us to an unbelievable letter in this week's Jewish Press:
Dear Rachel,

As a man who has struggled with homosexuality and frumkeit for many years, I take exception to your consistent championing of change being possible and of asserting that there is no such thing as gay. I’d like to offer another perspective.

Let me start by saying that I believe fully in Torah M’Sinai and consider myself to be a fully committed Orthodox Jew whose tafkid in life is to do my best to keep ALL of the Taryag Mitzvot. I am fully versed in both Halachah and Hashkafah and have no issues whatsoever with the philosophical underpinnings of our belief system. I truly believe that every word of the Chamisha Chumshai Torah was given directly from Hashem to Moshe, and that along with those words, Moshe received Torah SheBa’aL Peh.

The prohibition of Mishkav Zachar comes from the same Hashem that told me to keep Shabbos, to keep Kosher and to fast on Yom Kippur, and I will do my best to keep this mitzvah as I try to do the others.

What I do not fathom is how the prohibition of a very specific behavior translates into Hashem not making people whose sexual orientation is homosexual.

From a hashkafik perspective: The mitzvot revolving around Arayot in the Torah address one thing and one thing only − behavior. There is no discussion of desire, of motivation, of what’s normal desire and deviant desire. Even if one translates ‘To’avah’ in the pasuk of Mishkav Zachar as ‘abomination’ – which is by no means a definitive definition based on Chazal − it still refers to the action, not the desire.

Your writers say that Hashem wouldn’t or couldn’t give an orientation to a person and then prohibit him from acting on it. They say that a person’s desire must be able to change if the Torah prohibits an action. In my opinion, this is putting a very Pollyannaish spin on the very nature of nisayon in Olam Ha’Zeh. The fact is that many times Hashem puts people in adverse circumstances that will not change.

I would argue that in those circumstances the definition of success with the nisayon is first accepting the circumstances and then living as rich a life as possible within those circumstances. Would you, for example, tell a person with medically incurable deafness not to accept that diagnosis? That Hashem would not do that to him because there are so many mitzvot, such as shofar, that involve hearing? That his focus in life should center on searching for a cure? Could you imagine a crueler and less productive way to deal with this most challenging nisayon?

My own struggle with homosexuality has come at enormous cost for me. I ruined a marriage and a successful career. Though I’ve been to the best “SSA therapists” (and thereby gained many positive things), one thing that did not change is my basic desire.

Some may say I didn’t try hard enough. Firstly, ‘Don’t Judge Your Friend Until You Stand In His Place.’ Furthermore, which believer in Torah M’Sinai would not want to ‘change’? Certainly one who lost as much as I did would have more than enough motivation.

But all the motivation in the world has not changed reality for me. When I think of the enormous pain men like me go through, I wish that the hope of change could be there. But I also know that at this point I’d rather face reality than embrace false hope.

And I think of the enormous pain of the women who marry these men. Even in cases where the men are up front with their wives – as I wasn’t, and where they control their behavior – as I didn’t, there is an inherent cruelty in a marriage that lacks the central glue of desire, as I learned first hand. A cruelty that NO woman should be exposed to, and a cruelty that no young woman – particularly a sheltered Bais Yaakov girl – can possibly understand until it is too late. There is no way before marriage that a frum woman can truly fathom what her husband’s lack of desire for her will be like. It is the inherent desire of EVERY woman to be desired by her husband, and I don’t think any Bas Yisrael should be exposed to the risk of encountering rejection.

Believe me I understand fully how much any frum man with homosexual desires wants the hope of a “normal frum life” with a wife and children. And I understand first hand the enormous pain of having to accept that sometimes Hashem says no. But I would rather live my life honest with myself and the situation Hashem placed me in than risk building another world of lies – and devastating another woman.

I don’t know if you will publish this – especially because I’ve essentially advocated a life of loneliness and celibacy for men with homosexual tendencies. At the same time I want to make it clear that I am not advocating an acceptance of a gay lifestyle on any level by the frum community, nor suggesting any “wiggle room” when it comes to a lav in the Torah.
I did not choose to be what I am…
I think this is by far the most eloquent take I've seen from someone with homosexual urges who is trying to live an Orthodox lifestyle. This should be required reading for every Morah D'Asra and religious leader, everywhere. It's very easy for people to write off urges they themselves have never felt as not coming from God due to their very nature of being forbidden, but that ignores the very reality that many people struggle with every single day. Adultery is forbidden as well, yet that doesn't stop our religious leaders from recognizing that some perfectly normal Orthodox men can have desires for women other than their spouses. If that type of urge didnt exist, I don't think these types of gatherings, calling for married women to stop wearing their clothing so form-fitting - would be called with such a sense of urgency.

Another poignant point that the letter-writer makes is that when these men are convinced that their urges are inconsequential and must be ignored at all costs, and urged to marry and create some semblance of a family life, this is a crime whose innocent victims are the women unknowingly rooked into marrying men who don't see them as fully desirable. It is truly depressing to contemplate that there are Orthodox men who view the potentially beautiful and eminently satisfying institution of marriage as just another part the dirty work required to take part in the Orthodox lifestyle, like many view fasting on Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av - unpleasant but necessary aspects of Judaism.

It's simply tragic.