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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Out-Of-Control Alcohol

Mayer Fertig writes a great editorial on a very timely topic (posted in full, because evidently the Jewish Star has not yet moved far enough into the 21st Century to link individual articles):
Baruch Hashem, it’s Purim again.

Is there a happier day on the calendar of yomim tovim than Purim? Even with all the hurrying around to deliver mishloach manot and the rush to get to the seudah on time, is there any day when it’s easier to be cheerful and in a good mood?
And that’s without alcohol.
People who carefully observe the mitzvah of imbibing what David Letterman likes to call “adult beverages” tend to be even happier, of course. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But the key words are “adult beverages.”
On a Shabbat afternoon about two months ago a boy got so drunk at a bar mitzvah in this area that Hatzalah was called and he was taken to the hospital.
Some time thereafter a family member of the bar mitzvah was overheard discussing the fountains of flavored vodkas that had been available at the simcha. Available to everyone, apparently, including the underage guests.
Rabbi Elozer Kanner, one of the coordinators of Hatzalah, wouldn’t discuss the specifics of that case due to the strict confidentiality rules which Hatzalah observes. However, he was unmistakably clear about the threat to young people he believes is posed by unfettered access to alcohol even — especially — on Purim.
“I’m afraid that young adults and their parents are not aware that getting drunk is a life threatening event,” he said. “When a person is drunk often they cannot protect ... their airway and can die. And do die.” He continued, “There is a line, and it’s a very narrow line, between drinking a little bit, lightening up a little bit — ad d’lo yodah — and it’s very nice but when you step over the line ...”
He pointed out that there is a mitzvah to drink at the seuda, not all day. That there’s a difference between drinking wine and hard liquor. And that a young adult drinking moderately under the supervision of his parents is in a different, safer situation than one left to his own devices, literally spending the day of Purim getting drunk.
“Hatzalah treats people who are drunk as safek pikuach nefesh,” said Rabbi Kanner. “It’s like giving a child a loaded gun or like giving a car to a child who doesn’t know to drive. Alcohol can be a destructive weapon. And people die because of it.
And go to jail because of it, we would add. What difference is there between parents aiding and abetting teens in getting drunk at a party or doing the same on Purim?
Rabbi Yaakov Bender, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, sent us a copy of a letter he recently mailed to the parent body, seventh grade and up. “There is no drinking in our yeshiva and we do not serve alcohol,” he wrote. “Parents are expected to cooperate — allowing your son or any bochur to drink is illegal and you are liable if anything chas v’shalom happens to anyone you allow to drink.”
To David Mandel, the CEO of Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, two other key words are “assuming responsibility.” “The story is that the story shouldn’t be decreased drinking on Purim,” but all year-round, he said.
It’s been suggested that there be alcohol-free simchas — weddings, bar mitzvahs and shalom zachors; that we have alcohol-free kiddushim. It may not always be practical to accomplish that at every simcha, at every venue.
“But what is practical is for baalei simcha to assume a supervisory role,” Mandel said. “Especially for underage children participating, so that not only are alcoholic beverages not served to them by the bartender, in plain sight, but that alcoholic beverages also are not available to them in a side room or in some other fashion.”
“Ad d’lo yodah” refers to not knowing the difference between Mordechai and Haman — but never to not knowing the difference between our child, or someone else’s child in our care, enjoying Purim in a safe and responsible way or putting their own or someone else’s life in danger.
No one could have intended for Simchat Purim to mean taking on that sort of risk.
A freilechen, and safe, Purim.
This is something that has always distressed me greatly. Last year, I had the Purim Seudah together with friends. Their teenaged son joined us towards the end, having spent the day with classmates, collecting money for their Yeshiva as is the custom on Purim. He spent much of his time at the meal in the bathroom, violently ill from his very evident overindulgence in alcohol. The parents were mortified that their son had obviously drank to such a degree, but didn't seem particularly shocked (it is possible they were shocked, I can't read their minds, but they didn't say anything to indicate that they were as incredulous as I was). The boy was sixteen. Why is this considered normal, or appropriate? Who in the world provided the alcohol to these children - and they most certainly are children, legally, mentally and emotionally. How many Bar Mitzvahs have I attended where the Bar Mitzvah and his friends have easy access to the copious alcohol that is served? Far too many. How many boys need to take the trip to the emergency room in an ambulance before people wake up?

I do give credit to Rabbi Yaakov Bender, of Yeshiva Darchei Torah who spelled out very clearly and in no uncertain terms that for parents allow their son or other minors to drink is illegal, and that those who do allow minors access to alcohol are completely liable for any outcome. That's a very important stance for a Yeshiva to take, and I can only hope that the parent body of that Yeshiva pays attention. I also hope that other Yeshivas have taken or will take a similar stance, and that this terrible problem which seems to receive nothing more than a wink and a nudge by many local parents is eradicated.

These are our children, people. They shouldn't be treated as expendable. And make no mistake, allowing them unfettered access to alcohol - especially in an unsupervised manner as occurs on Purim and at many Bar Mitzvahs - is treating them as expendable.

Follow-Up On Teens Running Wild

SephardiLady talks about the appalling teen behavior I brought up here. She feels that the problem stems from a lack of involved parenting. I'm not sure that anyone can disagree that a lack of parental supervision and involvement can have very serious consequences. In her words:
And lastly, I have never heard of sending away high schoolers on vacation sans parents. My parents never allowed me to attend a function without first speaking to the supervising parents directly. Let's just say that I was never invited to any inappropriate parties because my parents where known to be a constant presence. Are we known to be a presence in our children's lives or do we feel the need to be "cool parents?" The fact that there are masses of children on winter break without parents present is just downright shocking. It is entitlement gone wild; pure lunacy.
I do think there's a lot to be said for the "cool parent" mentality. But I think there are also parents who are trying very hard to strike the balance I spoke about in my earlier post. They are afraid of alienating their kids by being too restrictive, so they allow their children more latitude than they might be fully comfortable with. Unfortunately, if they are sending their young teens off to a Florida hotel room by themselves with no supervision whatsoever, they aren't doing their children any favors. I feel the balance has to be struck without compromising on our children's safety and security.

Jewboy seems to feel the same way when he asks: Where Are the Parents?

Harry Maryles thinks it's all a symptom of Modern Orthodoxy. I completely agree that the vast majority of kids traipsing around Florida for winter break trend toward a MO upbringing. The concept of parents sending their children off in their early teenage years to various hotels populated solely by other teens who can choose to spend their week any way they wish is simply unheard of among my children's more Yeshivish school friends. That said, uninvolved parents can exist on any observance level, and across all spectrums. No segment of our community is exempt from the risk of losing control of their children's behavior.

Orthomom Lawsuit Update

Looks like Mayer Fertig of the Jewish Star scooped me on this story:
An attorney who specializes in fighting — and usually winning — blogger privacy cases has agreed to defend the local blogger known as Orthomom, who is fighting an attempt by District 15 Trustee Pamela Greenbaum to unmask her.
Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with the Washington, DC-based group Public Citizen, and his colleagues, have represented several dozen anonymous defendants in cases involving blogs, websites and other online activities. None have ever been identified by a court order.
Greenbaum recently sued Google for Orthomom’s identity as part of a broader plan to sue over comments made by readers of the blog. The comments criticized Greenbaum for championing of the cause of public school parents in the Lawrence school district.
The next hearing in the case is set for April 5 in State Supreme Court in Manhattan.
Levy said he’d file a brief that makes the case to protect Orthomom’s anonymity. “You want Google to not give up these names too readily but you can’t expect them to litigate the cases,” he said. Blogs are a free service provided by Google.
“We don’t propose a standard where the anonymous parties always win,” Levy said. “But it’s up to judges to protect bloggers who are not doing anything wrong, and to see to it that those abusing anonymity are brought to justice.”
A certain amount of collegiality is generally expected between attorneys but, “I can’t say I’m getting any cooperation from opposing council” in this case, Levy said, referring to Greenbaum’s attorney, Adam Feder of North Woodmere. “It’s sad to say,” he continued.
A call to Feder’s Brooklyn office for comment was not returned.
Feel free to discuss.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Great Post

There's a great post over at the Community Alliance Blog that is highly critical of both Pamela Greenbaum and her lawyer, Adam Feder, while still noting that they disagree with the comments calling Greenbaum a bigot:
Whether or not the words written on Orthomom's blog -- either by Orthomom or one of the many (mostly Orthodox) anonymous posters -- are libelous in nature, even a first year law student knows that derogatory and possibly erroneous statements aimed at a public official are not actionable without a showing of "actual malice." [We suppose that the School Board Trustee's attorney was absent from class the day New York Times vs. Sullivan was discussed!]

We can understand Pamela Greenbaum's frustration with the majority of the Lawrence School Board-- a majority that has the best interests of private school parents at heart, not public school students, or the community at large, for that matter -- and certainly Ms. Greenbaum has every right to be upset (we think "horrified" is too strong a word) when members of the Orthodox community, who rarely see beyond their own, parochial self-interests, call her a bigot and an anti-semite (statements of opinion, not fact), but clearly, there is no cause for bringing a defamation suit here, and surely, no action at law -- at least not one that could conceivably pass muster.

Pamela Greenbaum, as a staunch supporter of public education (though, in our opinion, a less than stellar representative of the cause) -- even in the face of apparent tyranny at the hands of the private school majority -- deserves praise for standing up for the public school children of Lawrence. They deserve better than what both the School Board and the voters are giving them.

To go on record saying that public funds should not be used for private schools -- a position with which we at The Community Alliance blog wholeheartedly agree -- doesn't make Ms. Greenbaum either a bigot or an anti-semite, protests by some of the more closed-minded in the Orthodox community notwithstanding.

That said, on the issue of Ms. Greenbaum's defamation suit -- designed to have a chilling effect upon free speech and public comment -- the Trustee is way off base.

Her lawsuit is nothing short of frivilous (something her attorney knew or should have known), and warrants not only outright dismissal by the trial court, but moreover, the imposition of monetary sanctions against both Greenbaum and her attorney.

Public debate and the fostering of open communications -- particularly in the forum of public education -- is not only useful, but absolutely necessary. Though unfortunate that some would stoop to name-calling and ad hominem attacks, those in the public's line of fire (as is Trustee Greenbaum), must learn to either take the heat or stay out of the kitchen.
Which goes to show you that one does not have to agree with every stated position to be a proponent of the speaker's right to state that same position. Being of the same mind on every issue is not a requirement to be a proponent of free speech and of the right given to us by the First Amendment to practice that freedom. Having (and respecting) differing opinions is what makes this country the great place it is.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Winter Break Worries

It doesn't seem that long ago that my high school friends were breaking free of parental supervision to spend winter break camped out in various hotels and motels down in Miami Beach. I was never allowed by my (from my vantage point as a teenager) overprotective parents to go alone, yet I managed once or twice to get down there with a friend's parents. I remember the scene well, and it wasn't pretty. Smoking and drinking (and worse) were pretty much the main activity, and parental supervision was basically nil.

This week's NYJW features a piece written by two mothers of teens who found themselves in front-row seats, observing the Yeshiva winter break scene in Miami Beach. From their take, it looks like things haven't changed all that much:
We flew down with our teenage daughters who attend co-ed camps, watch TV and movies, and seem connected to their iPods. We were looking forward to an innocent week of fun in the sun. But what we witnessed was anything but innocent. During several late-night walks we saw hundreds of Jewish teenagers in groups large and small roaming Collins Avenue, the boardwalk and several hotels, drinking and smoking, completely entranced with the goal of getting “high” and intoxicated beyond belief.

The girls, aged 15-18, were so scantily clad that bathing suits would have covered up more. Nothing they possessed was left for the imagination. Thin figured or full, they wore outfits that seemed to say, “I’m here! Come and get me!” The boys dressed in jeans, T-shirts or shorts may have looked fine, but they huddled in groups, beer cans in hand and cigarettes and matches at the ready.

The interaction between the girls and boys was grotesque. Hands and mouths were everywhere. Nothing was private, no body part untouchable. A small boy of 15, walking around in a daze searching for his older sister, was easily deterred from his mission by a “friend” who smacked him on the back and said, “Come on, let’s go find us some chicks!” He followed.

The angelic-looking girl with the long blond hair in a red hoodie was heard pleading with the boys she was with, “Come on, give me the weed, get me some weed … it’s my birthday!”
I'm not sure exactly when I reached the point in my life that a description like this would cause me to shudder as it did when I read it this weekend - I know it would not have given me pause when I myself was a teenager. Did my perspective change when I gave birth to my first child and became a parent, directly responsible for the safety and well-being of another human being? Did it happen when my eldest went off to school for the first time, and I entrusted his care to that of another ostensibly responsible party? Did it happen when my kids started sleepaway camp, and I had to grapple with the uncertainty of not seeing them, not knowing their daily activities, for weeks on end? Likely it was gradual, the transition from someone who sees these teenage hijinks as a perfectly acceptable rite of passage to someone who sees them for what they are - dangerous behavior that should never be allowed to go on unsupervised. Yet they do.

Hey, I'm all for giving kids a little freedom - God knows that they need some, considering the constraints of attending 6 days a week of Yeshiva. But never without proper supervision, never without proper attendance to their safety. Is it easy to strike the right balance? Of course not. But getting it wrong can have dire circumstances. Too much freedom, and they end up on the streets without breaking any rules at all. Too many rules, they end up on the street simply to break them.

I'm just so scared, as my kids enter their teenage years, that I won't strike the right balance. Isn't everyone?

Principal Uses Students' Bad Behavior as Opportunity to Teach

From ABC News:
VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia (AP) -- A Catholic school principal has organized sensitivity training for students who shouted "We love Jesus" during a basketball game against a school with Jewish students.

The word "Jew" also was painted on a gym wall behind the seats of Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School students attending the Feb. 2 game at Norfolk Academy, said Dennis W. Price, principal of the Virginia Beach school.

Price who also watched the game, said the rivals exchanged chants, "Then, at some point, our students were chanting, 'We love Jesus."'

"It was obviously in reference to the Jewish population of Norfolk Academy; that's the only way you can take that," he added.

Price said he sent a letter of apology to Norfolk. Dennis G. Manning, the academy's headmaster, declined to comment.

Several Sullivan students met with Norfolk Academy's cultural diversity club Thursday as part of a series of events aimed at promoting tolerance, Price said.

He has arranged for the Virginia Conference for Community and Justice and the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater to work with students.

A message left for the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater was not immediately returned Saturday.

Price also has consulted the Anti-Defamation League, a national group that fights anti-Semitism.

"It is important that we work harder at having students leaving here who are tolerant and understand how serious these kinds of things are," said Price, who said diversity training will be incorporated permanently at Sullivan.
In my opinion, Mr. Price seems to have handled this situation in an admirable manner. He has made no excuses for the bad behavior of his charges. Instead, he has frankly criticized their actions, and immediately used this episode as a learning experience to teach his students the proper way to behave - even swiftly incorporating sensitivity training as a permanent part of the curriculum at his school. This is a great example of how to behave in the face of a display of insensitivity, and should be an example to all educators as to how to nip inappropriate behavior in the bud.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Court Documents from Today's Court Appearance: Greenbaum vs. Google

Here is a link to the stipulation agreed to in today's court proceeding in Pamela Greenbaum vs. Google, Inc. (Page 1, Page 2).
In short, Greenbaum's lawyer and the lawyer for Google agreed to hold off on any discovery until April 5th to give me a chance to present my case. Until that time, Google will not produce any documents it may have that pertain to my identity or that of my commenters.

The Nassau Herald on the Orthomom Lawsuit

Here are a few choice tidbits from the Nassau Herald's article on the subject:
Hofstra University Law Professor Eric M. Freedman said Greenbaum's action of seeking Orthomom's identify has little to no chance of moving forward since derogatory language against a public official like a school board member is protected under the first amendment. Professor Freedman, an expert on the First Amendment and other civil liberty issues, said in order to seek the identity to pursue a lawsuit there needs to be a chance that the grievance would be successful which is not the case in Greenbaum's action.
"If the courts are behaving appropriately this filing will go absolutely nowhere," said Professor Freedman. "If she knew who Orthomom was and sued her directly it would be thrown out."
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Professor Freedman.

And look which other of our fine board members is as staunch a proponent of free speech and our First Amendment rights as Greenbaum is:
"I think she's absolutely justified," Stanley Kopilow, Greenbaum's fellow school board member, said of her suit.
But school board President Asher Mansdorf is decidedly not on board with the legal action:
Lawrence school board President Dr. Asher Mansdorf said that since 2001, when he began serving as a trustee, he has often been deeply offended by comments made about him and has even been the target of death threats, but, he added, bringing a lawsuit is not the answer to the problem.
Mansdorf criticized Greenbaum's action against Google. He also slammed recent suits brought against the Lawrence school district, including one attempting to remove three Orthodox members from the board and another trying to block a referendum that, if approved, would have provided busing to pre-kindergarten students in private schools and permitted community groups the free use of school buildings after hours. Mansdorf said the court actions were "designed to intimidate."
He also expressed his concern that the impact could dampen open dialogue. "Does Pam not think that a lawsuit will have a chilling effect on free speech?" Mansdorf asked.
Of course it will. Chilling free speech is the very evident goal here.

The 5TJT on the Orthomom Lawsuit

Story here.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Jewish Star on the Orthomom Lawsuit

The Jewish Star has published a story on the lawsuit. Here's most of it:
A Lawrence school board trustee is suing the widely read Five Towns blogger known as "Orthomom,"claiming that she was defamed by online comments that referred to her as a "bigot" and an "anti-Semite."

Pamela Greenbaum said she hopes to force Google, which hosts the Orthomom blog, to release information that would enable her to identify the blogger and bring legal action directly against her.

The lawsuit was filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan on Feb. 13.
In a sworn statement, Greenbaum said, "Orthomom and her readers in the comments section have posted false, slanderous and defamatory statements about me ... for my positions advocating against the use of public school district funds for private school interests."

Under oath, Greenbaum claimed that Orthomom made the comments in a posting on Jan. 11 concerning an article in The Jewish Star. In the article, Greenbaum was quoted as saying she would object if public-school teachers were involved in a proposed after-school program for private-school students.

Orthomom responded, "Wow. Way to make it clear that you have no interest in helping the private school community inanyfashion." The response did not include the words "bigot" or "anti-Semite." An anonymous commenter posted the statement "Pam Greenbaum is a bigot and really should not be on the board," and a second agreed.

Via e-mail, Orthomom said she believes that Greenbaum's filings contained falsehoods. "There's not a word in there that I wrote," she said. "Not only is she incorrect, but she attributed to me completely fabricated statements out of whole cloth."

"A quick perusal of my postings will assure that the comments in question were made not in my name," she said, "but in the name of an unknown anonymous commenter."

In fact, an examination by The Jewish Star of all 150 Comments filed that day turned up just two instances of the term "anti-Semite." In both the word was misspelled, rendered as "semetic." Neither was aimed at Greenbaum, but seemed to refer instead to the private-school parents on the board. For example: "We would rather the state step in than have to put up with the closeminded anti semetic jews who run this district, I am ashamed to be a jew as well."

The heart of the matter, according to Jonathan Ezor, director of the Institute for
Business, Law and Technology at the Touro Law Center and an assistant professor there, is that "Unless Google and/or Orthomom actually wrote the allegedly defamatory things in question, federal law immunizes them from lawsuit. That has been repeatedly challenged, and the law remains current."

When contacted by phone, Greenbaum refused to comment. A call to her attorney, Adam Feder of North Woodmere, who filed the suit, was not returned.

"I also want to stress that Pamela Greenbaum is not the victim here," Orthomom said via e-mail. "I am the victim of a frivolous motion filed in an attempt to quash free speech while wasting the court's time and money."

Paul Alan Levy is an attorney with the group Public Citizen, which successfully represented a blogger in Rockland County who was sued after he publicized alleged misdeeds of a well-known rabbinical figure. In that case, the rabbi who brought the suit "was slapped with a twenty thousand dollar attorney fee," said Levy, under New York State's 'Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation' statute, known as SLAPP.

"If I were Pamela Greenbaum I would worry about getting hit with a SLAPP motion," he said, "because it's hard to see the basis for this action. If this were an attempt to silence an active voice leading up to a school board election, then Pamela Greenbaum ought to think about whether it's worth the risk."

There is also the question of whether calling public official names meets the legal definition of defamation. "A third party calling someone bigoted on my site in response to a public policy policy comment hardly crosses the line of defamation," Orthomom said.

School board President Asher Mansdorf said he was "astonished" to learn about the lawsuit. "Following the very personal death threat issued against me and my family, I requested that as a security measure, photo ID be required to enter Lawrence school board meetings. Pamela's knee-jerk reaction was to state that the effect of this on the public would be 'chilling.' Does Pam not think that a lawsuit will have a chilling effect on free speech?" Mansdorf recalled, "She often advised that I develop a 'thick skin' and ignore the comments. I suppose it is easier to give advice than to listen to one's own."

"As a board member for many years, and one who has faced a tremendous amount of criticism, the idea of attempting to shut down a public blog and attack what I consider the first amendment is beyond belief," said Trustee David Sussman. "Clearly, when you go into the public arena, a lot is said about you, both good and bad. If you can't take that, then you have no place in the public arena."

Orthomom's true identity is a closely guarded secret believed to be known by only a handful of people. For interested parties, including some dedicated readers, it is the subject of parlor game-like speculation. Is Greenbaum's lawsuit to unmask her likely to succeed? No, according to Ezor. "Anonymous identities are generally protected by the First Amendment," he said. "Unless there is some legal claim against Orthomom, there wouldn't be justification for a court to order Google to release her identity."

..."In short," said Public Citizen's Levy, "there's really nothing to this case."
I especially like the part where we hear from School Board President Asher Mansdorf about Pamela Greenbaum's touching concern over the possibility of "chilling free speech". I can tell how broken up she gets over the prospect.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Rabbi Yona Metzger Says No to Fur

I posted on my reservations about wearing fur a while back, and now the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel has issued a ruling on the matter:
Jews must not wear fur skinned from live animals, Israel's chief rabbi said in a religious ruling on Tuesday.

'All Jews are obliged to prevent the horrible phenomenon of cruelty to animals and be a 'light onto nations' by refusing to use products that originate from acts which cause such suffering,' Rabbi Yona Metzger said.

Animal rights campaigners in Israel and abroad say that animals are skinned alive at fur farms in China.

Metzger issued the edict in response to an appeal by an Israeli legislator who looked into the reports of animal cruelty in China at the request of a constituent.

The ruling stopped short of banning the use of fur from animals skinned after they were slaughtered.

Mati Korinio of Israel's Nature and Parks Authority, which oversees fur imports, said much of the fur sold in the Jewish state did not originate in China.
The fact that this ruling only covers fur from animals skinned alive, and that most fur in Israel is not imported from China, where this practice is most prevalent, makes it seem as if the ruling doesn't have much in the way of teeth. The fur industry is known for its cruelty in the methods used to trap the animals they use for fur - even if they stop short of skinning them alive. An imperfect ruling, yes. But it's certainly a start.


Monday, February 19, 2007

Women At the Front of The Bus - With Cans of Mace?

Gil has a great post up about the battle in Israel over women sitting at the back of the bus. It's so good I'm reposting the whole thing:
Most readers have probably heard about the woman in Jerusalem who was beaten because she refused to move to the back of the bus (link). In short, there is a growing trend of buses with separate seating, where men sit in the front and women in the back. While I do not believe that this is required by Jewish law, others can disagree and there is certainly room for local custom in this regard. As a woman I know tells me, some women prefer not to sit next to men so this practice suits them well. And it makes sense that women should be in the back of the bus rather than the front, so that men can't stare at them. In my experience, the back of the bus is also the most comfortable and the least crowded.

The problem with the arrangement in Israel is simply that the community there is incapable of controlling its hooligans. This should come as no surprise and has been a growing problem for decades. How widespread is this problem? I don't know. But as long as it exists, women have to be wary. Women and men can be and have been beaten for not being "frum" enough in certain situations.

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt (of Cross Currents) wrote an Op-Ed for JTA in defense of this separate seating, claiming that this seating arrangement empowers women (link). I often sympathize with the plight of apologists (a term that I do not use in a derogatory fashion), who sometimes find themselves defending practices that they find offensive in the name of the greater communal good. Regarding this case, I almost sympathized with Schmidt. But when she claimed that this practice empowers women, she lost me.

Separate seating does not empower women. It doesn't have to weaken them either, if the community is sufficiently responsible. Israeli society is definitely not sufficiently responsible, including (or especially) the Charedi community. I don't claim that women are routinely beaten or humiliated on buses, but anyone who has been in Israel for more than 25 seconds recognizes that politeness... I can't continue this sentence because it is too painful. But you know what I mean.

Separate seating does not empower women. A can of mace and a scream of "Rape! Call the police!" empowers women, and that is what I would recommend for any woman riding the buses in Jerusalem who is not willing to change her seat on demand.
Well done, Gil.

I tend to agree. I am perfectly comfortable with - even supportive of - women and men in certain communities choosing to sit separately as a matter of comfort. But when actual violence is threatened and - in some cases actually carried out - to achieve that end, I become a lot less interested in championing that cause.


Anti-Semitic Sugar Packets

This is interesting:
The Simon Wiesenthal Center has asked Croatia to stop the distribution of sugar packets featuring Hitler’s image.

The Center has called on Croatian authorities to put an end to the production and distribution of sugar packets with Hitler’s image and printed anti-Semitic jokes.

The Center has issued a statement signed by its director Ephraim Zuroff, expressing its “disgust at the fact such a product could have been made at this day and age, in a country where the Holocaust was for the most part perpetrated by the local Nazi collaborators.”

Žarko Puhovski of the Croatian Helsinki Committee told B92 the most worrying aspect of the scandal was a lack of reaction in the Croatian society.
Apparently, these sugar packets have been on tables at cafes for months, and there was no public outcry at all. Glad I don't live in Croatia.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

5TJT Lawsuit Article

Larry Gordon has a great article in this week's 5 Towns Jewish Times on the lawsuit that names yours truly. He points out some of the hypocrisy inherent in Greenbaum's attempt here to quell free speech, especially when her past positions on the subject of freedom of expression are considered. Check it out.

Jay-Z and the Jews

From NYMag:
Does the Z in Jay-Z stand for Zionist? The private suite in Jigga’s 40/40 Club will house a UJA Federation happy hour this Thursday, during which New York Jews can learn about upcoming missions to Israel. Jay’s been known to name-check the chosen people in song—“Flow tight like I was born Jewish,” he once rhymed—but what’s Hova’s connection with the Holy Land? “Jim Buslik, who is involved with the UJA, is our landlord, and Jay-Z has great respect for him and his causes,” says a club spokeswoman. The match has been helpful in UJA’s recruiting. “A lot of our members are Jay-Z fans,” says event chair Maggie Gallant, “though there’s no special connection between Jay and Israel per se.” Gallant explains the party plan: "There’s a personal stereo in the suite, so we can make our own playlist. We’ll start out kind of mellow, but we’ll definitely be playing a lot of Jay-Z and Beyoncé!” The 40/40 spokeswoman says Jay reciprocates the props: “We always have and always will support the causes of the UJA.”

Pamela Greenbaum's Complaint: In Her Own Words

The following (bolded and italicized) is taken from Pamela Greenbaum's own affidavit as presented to the court in her motion to retrieve information Google might have as to my identity. My comments and rebuttals are interspersed:
1. I am a resident of the State of New York, County of Nassau, and reside at [address redacted], Woodmere, New York 11598. I bring this petition for pre-lawsuit discovery so that I may identify that author of an anonymous weblog ("blog") and anonymous commenters who have used this blog to defame me by calling me a "BIGOT", implying that I am an "ANTI-SEMITE", and spreading lies about my character and actions.
And the misrepresentations begin.
3. I have no other means by which to identify the people who are responsible for the assault on my character that has been an ongoing feature of the website blog in question, known as "ORTHOMOM". Accordingly, I request that the Court Order the Respondents to disclose the information set forth in my attorney's affirmation, annexed hereto, so that the appropriate lawsuit can be filed against the responsible parties. In addition, a Court Order preserving the information is necessary because the blog is a voluntary endeavor that may be discontinued and deleted at any time by the anonymous "ORTHOMOM". I understand that this relief is authorized by the New York State Civil Practice Law and Rules, Sec. 3102.
Right, The blog comments could be deleted at any time. Just as they would have been had you e-mailed me, asking me to do so, Ms. Greenbaum. Unfortunately, now they will have to sit up there, due to this action. Too bad.
6. In commenting on local issues, "ORTHOMOM" and her readers in the comments have posted false, slanderous and defamatory statements anout me alleging among other things, that I am a "BIGOT" and an "ANTI-SEMITE" for my positions advocating against the use of public school district funds for private school interests and other outside interests beyond what is allowed by law. The most recent of these postings was written by "ORTHOMOM" and posted on January 11, 2007; the commenters' posts are undated (EXHIBIT "A").
Wow. ""ORTHOMOM" and her readers"? That is a blatant, flat-out lie. "ORTHOMOM" has never made any of the statements that have been attributed to her above regarding Ms. Greenbaum. Never said she was bigoted. Never said she was an anti-semite. NEVER.
7. In the January 11, 2007 article "ORTHOMOM" takes issue with my reservations about the legality of using school district funds and teachers to provide free extracurricular classes for private school students. "ORTHOMOM" wrote that my concern revealed an anti-semitic agenda, given that over fifty percent of the district's students attend private school, and the vast majority of those attend Yeshivas.
Really. Well. Let's look at Ms. Greenbaum's words as they were quoted in the post of mine that Ms. Greenbaum referenced, regarding private school students participation in public-school funded extracurricular activities:
Does Greenbaum, who has criticized numerous proposals by Mansdorf in the past, like the idea? “Why not?” she asked. ”They could do it now,” so long as public school teachers are not being paid public funds to teach non-public school students.
Did Greenbaum address in any fashion the legality of the issue raised in this particular quote, as she claims she did when she recounts this exchange in her complaint? Nope. She flatly rejects the notion of paying teachers for private school student extracurricular activities out of hand, with no explanations or discussions of legality. Another blatant misrepresentation by Greenbaum.

Yet another good one is in how she characterizes my response. She says I "wrote that [her] concern revealed an anti-Semitic agenda, given that over fifty percent of the district's students attend private school, and the vast majority of those attend Yeshivas." Hmm. Would all of you like to see the actual comment that I made? Here goes:
Um...what? Unless I'm mistaken, there is no law against district private school students being taught on public school property by public school teachers. The reason such an arrangement generally does not occur is a matter of the choice private school parents make to send their children elsewhere to be educated. In this case, we are discussing the prospect of private school students receiving extracurricular education from public school teachers on public school property. There is no connection whatsoever to the religious education these students may receive in another venue during the school day. I just don't see how Greenbaum can object on principle to the concept of district children being taught by district teachers on district property. Anyone remember Super Sunday, the (now-defunct) program where district teachers were paid to provide extracurricular activities to private school students on public school property? That was legal. And if she's discussing her personal preference as opposed to some legal issue with Dr. Mansdorf's suggestion, then...wow. Way to make it clear that you have no interest in helping the private school community in any fashion.
Anyone see anything there that shows that ""ORTHOMOM" wrote that [Greenbaum's] concern revealed an anti-semitic agenda", as Greenbaum states in a sworn affidavit?? I never mention the phrase "anti-semitic" (or bigot, for that matter) in reference to Ms. Greenbaum. There is also nothing here that shows I even mentioned a word about which percentage of the district's students attend private vs. public school, as Ms. Greenbaum states as fact that I "wrote"? I think Ms. Greenbaum is writing in a bit too much between the lines here - and making up full sentences out of whole cloth, and putting these completely invented writings of mine into a sworn affidavit. This actually is far worse than a simple misrepresentation. It's a flat out lie. Again.

In addition, this is about my stating my opinion on a public official's policies and actions. If said public official cannot see that this of all things should be well within my First Amendment rights, well, that it truly scary.
8. At some point after the January 11. 2007 article was posted, an anonymous commenter wrote that I am "BIGOT" because my position on the use of public funds runs contrary to the interests of local Yeshivas. Other commenters repeated and discussed this bigot label.
Greenbaum is really digging her own grave with this one. If she is asserting that her public policy led the anonymous commenters in question to call her a "bigot", then this is truly a case for the garbage bin. This is so clearly about Greenbaum's stated views on a public matter, and the commenter's opinion in response to those views clearly fall under free speech protected by the First Amendment.
9. I was horrified to discover that my legitimate concerns about the use of public funds were the springboard for a widespread discussion about me being a "BIGOT". I was even more horrified when I discovered the blog reported over 300,000 visitors!
Right. That's why you never contacted me privately to ask me to remove the offending comments. You were so horrified that you went to court, ensuring that the comments would not be able to be deleted so as not to destroy evidence. You also ensured, by placing this story in the NY Daily News, that far more people would read the comments which so horrified you.
10. The article and the comments remain on the internet for all to see up to the present time.
Again, had you contacted me, I might have taken them down. Now I am in a situation where if I do so, I can be accused of destroying evidence. At this point, it's far safer for me to leave the comments in place.
11. I believe I have a valid claim against the anonymous writers who are responsible for spreading these unfair lies but without the requested information there is no way for me to find out who is responsible and to bring a lawsuit. Accordingly, I request the Court's assistance in directing the Respondents to produce information containing the identities of those responsible.
Now here's the crux of the matter. The bottom line is that an anonymous commenter calling someone a "bigot' in an an anonymous forum is simply not defamatory (or, as a matter of fact, in any forum, as Krum points out here). The statement is clearly one of opinion, not fact, and it is further tempered by the fact that an anonymous commenter is not considered a credible source by the vast majority of readers. In addition, the bar is even higher to prove a statement as defamatory when one takes into account that Ms. Greenbaum is a public official, as the commenter would have had to show malice - which is legally defined as "falsity or reckless disregard of the truth". I would hardly think that within the context of the comment I quoted from Ms. Greenbaum in the January 11, 2007 post, that type of malice could be proven by any stretch of imagination or legal posturing.

Then there's the really sticky point that Ms. Greenbaum is looking to have Google provide her with my identity, but based only on my commenter's statements and nothing that I myself said at all. (Of course, Ms. Greenbaum is trying to make the case that the offensive comments were made in my name, but I think we all have sufficient proof at this point that her claim as to that is completely fabricated). Knowing that, Ms. Greenbaum's case weakens further still, as Section 230 of Title 47 of the United States Code (47 USC § 230) makes it quite clear that blog hosts are protected from liability against claims arising from comments left by a third party on any site they might host. Quite the slam dunk.

Another point that Ms. Greenbaum and/or her supporters may not have considered is the risk of their getting hit right back. Recently, a group of anonymous bloggers in a similar case (aside from a difference that in this particular case, I am not even the party who made the allegedly defamatory statements, which makes my case even stronger), filed a SLAPP motion against the party who was looking to unmask them, and the plaintiff was found liable for the anonymous bloggers' full legal fees. The lawyer in that case noted:
"The right to criticize anonymously on the Internet is a fundamental free speech right and an important tool for whistleblowers and consumers who speak out about the misconduct or corruption of big companies or public figures," said Paul Alan Levy, the Public Citizen attorney who filed the motion. "Those who want to intimidate their critics with the threat of identification, but who have no real basis for suing, should learn from this case that they cannot file suit and then expect to withdraw if the critics are ready to fight back. Companies and powerful individuals who try this trick should be prepared for the financial consequences."
Another funny little tidbit is in the part of the motion written by Greenbaum's attorney:
12. This application also seeks a Temporary Restraining Order to prevent the Respondent from disposing of, altering, and/or modifying, records regarding the blog and commenters so that the evidence is properly preserved.
followed immediately by:
13. This matter is brought on by Order to Show Cause since time is of the essence. Every day that the defamatory material remains on the internet for all to see, Petitioner is harmed and continues to be harmed..
Um, Mr. Adam B. Feder, Esq.? Perhaps you should make up your mind. Do you want me to keep the darn comments up so badly you are trying to slap a retraining order on me - or do you want the "defamatory material" down as fast as possible because "time is of the essence".

Now that I have taken this case apart, and putting all of the legalities aside, I have a more pressing issue with this development. When I first received notice of this motion, I thought Ms. Greenbaum was simply displaying some awfully bad judgment or had received some pretty bad advice in actually taking this litigious approach over such a mild example of offensive commenting. After all, she is a public figure, and a defense I would expect to see from the vast majority of public figures in the face of such a mild insult from an anonymous commenter is either ignoring the comment, or making a statement that explains the offending comment to be erroneous or misguided. I mean, an elected official's constituents are entitled to express their opinions as to the way they feel said elected official does her job. But then I saw Ms. Greenbaum's actual filed statement. And I realized how much worse this actually is that it first seemed on its face.

How in the world does an elected official who expects to command the respect of her constituents put these falsehoods and blatant fabrications in a legal document, where disproving them in a court of law will be about as easy as it was here in this post? Is this the type of school board member we expect to present as a representative and role model to our students? Someone who would not hesitate to perpetuate falsehoods in a legal setting?

Quite shocking, actually.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Orthomom Lawsuit Blog Roundup

A quick roundup of those who have posted on the subject of the lawsuit:

Krum as a Bagel
Just Passing Through
At The Back Of the Hill
Rabbi Without A Cause
Charlie Hall

I will add that all of the posts I referenced above have come out in support of me - or rather, in support of all of our right to freedom of expression.

UPDATE: StillWonderin' weighs in
UPDATE: MoChassid's take.
UPDATE: Jewish Blogmeister shows support.
UPDATE: YMedad is in.
UPDATE: More bloggers show support: A Barbaric Yawp, Shimon, Suburban Kvetch, Meryl Yourish, Israel Matzav

Did I miss anyone? let me know.
UPDATE: Ben at Room Eight, Soccer Dad
UPDATE: Jack, Cosmic X, Married in Brooklyn
UPDATE: I'm Haaretz, Solomonia

Friday, February 16, 2007

Orthomom Gets Sued

I received the following by e-mail, I do not see it online, nor does it come up on any internet searches. However, I assume it actually appeared in the newspaper in question. Here goes:

A LAWRENCE school board member fed up with anonymous kvetching about her on a blog is going to court to stop it from calling her a bigot and an anti-Semite.

Pamela Greenbaum, who serves on the Nassau town's board of education, filed papers against Google over nasty comments posted about her on the Orthomom blog.

In the papers filed Tuesday in Manhattan Supreme Court, Greenbaum said she was "horrified" to discover that she had been labeled a bigot on the Google-owned blog after voting against using public funds for what she called "private school interests."

"I was even more horrified when I discovered the blog reported over 300,000 visitors," Greenbaum said in court papers.

Greenbaum alleges that Orthomom - which focuses on issues of interest to Long Island's Orthodox Jewish communities - slandered her by calling her ugly and an anti-Semite.

Greenbaum, who is Jewish but not Orthodox, seeks to unmask the blogger known only as Orthomom.

"Every day that the defamatory material remains on the Internet for all to see, I continue to be harmed as more such material is posted,"she said in court papers.

A few points:

Pamela Greenbaum is simply not telling the truth here. I never said any such thing about her. She says that I "slandered her by calling her a bigot and an anti-semite". Lie. She might be referring to something that a commenter on my site said. She should say so.

Pamela Greenbaum also says she that she "continue[s] to be harmed" "every day that the defamatory material remains on the internet for all to see". Hm. if that were really true, do you think that perhaps Mrs. Greenbaum would have contacted me to ask me to remove the comments that bothered her so much? I have been asked in the past to remove comments and I have always done so when warranted. I have no idea which the comments in question are - my blog has gotten many thousands of comments on this matter, and Pamela Greenbaum hasn't ever contacted me. Which, of course, leads me to believe this is more about "unmasking" me than about her hurt feelings. I mean, come on. Does anyone on her legal advisory board even follow the relevant law to this frivolous lawsuit?

Well, I will say this: Good luck. I have it on expert legal opinion that this case is a joke.

Update: Steven I. Weiss and Ezzie weigh in.

Update: Krum links with a great post that points out that aside from the fact that the statements were made by commenters and not by me, calling someone "bigoted" is not, by legal definition, defamatory.

Update: DovBear's show of support.

Update: Chaim is on my side.

Update: JPT comes out hibernation to weigh in.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Final Exam Fuss

This seems to be a local story that is getting some attention:
Scores of state and city legislators are demanding that the City University of New York change its final exam schedule, which, for the first time in recent history, coincides with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

"CUNY continues to pride itself on cultural sensitivity," Assemblyman Dov Hikind wrote in a recent letter to CUNY's chancellor, Matthew Goldstein. "How is that possible when a holiday with the same religious status as Rosh Hashana is dismissed as insignificant, and thousands of students and faculty will be adversely affected?"

More than 50 state legislators and 14 members of the City Council signed the February 5 letter. Mr. Hikind, a Democrat of Brooklyn, told The New York Sun that he intends bring up the issue with Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Spitzer if the exam schedule is not changed.

In a letter to Mr. Hikind, the chancellor wrote that while he has no plans to alter the academic calendar, "the colleges have been reminded of the obligation to provide an accommodation to faculty and students who must be absent on days of religious observance." State law requires such accommodations.

Not every professor is equally sensitive to students' religious obligations, and students shouldn't be forced to rely on the goodwill of instructors, the assemblyman said.
I agree that CUNY should have been more careful when they originally approved the calendar, and should certainly make every effort going forward to vet the calendar with proper attention to religious holidays. However, the push to have CUNY change the schedule at this date date seems excessive. I myself had a similar situation while in graduate school when midterms were scheduled over Pesach, and I took an uneventful make-up exam a few days later. Was it ideal? No. But the situation was what it was. As, in my opinion, is this one.

Agree? Disagree?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Tuition Crisis Suggestion

Dag links this great letter from this week's Jewish Press, which is in response to a previous letter regarding the Yeshiva tuition crisis. An excerpt:
I read the responses to the young lady who went through such a terrible time in high school. My heart goes out to her because the damage is irreparable. The problem of tuition is not a new one. I am in my 50’s and we went through similar trials with tuition. The only difference is that at that time, the principals did not humiliate the children – it was our parents who took a strong beating.

My mother was a survivor of the Holocaust and her children’s chinuch meant everything to her, so she came up with a plan that was acceptable to the school and also to her children.

Every summer, as soon as we were old enough to be junior counselors, we would work for free to help give something back to the school that gave so much to us. During the year, we would also volunteer for anything that needed to be done for our school. One of the things that stands out in my mind was being there to pack up countless books when our school moved and helped resettle in a new building.

It was so cold outside and our fingers were frozen, but our hearts were warm knowing that we were doing something so special. I feel that this was a strong lesson for us in hakaras ha’tov, and I know that the school really appreciated everything our family did. We were often singled out for chesed awards from the principal.

This letter is not so much for this young woman, who already went through so much, but it is my hope that the schools will work out something like this for people in similar situations and allow our children to preserve their dignity.
This letter presents a suggestion that my husband and I have actually discussed many times. I have long thought that the idea of some sort of community service system for those receiving tuition aid to be a very good one. The system could have a list of rotating jobs that need to be filled, with a certain amount of required hours for each family on scholarship to fill. The jobs could be varied, and might include such positions as:
  • helping on the lunch line
  • being on the school's substitute teacher list
  • helping out in the nurses office
  • doing data entry
  • tutoring struggling children or helping them with homework
  • assisting with dismissal and bus duty
  • working in the school library
  • assisting with filing
  • making fundraising phone calls
  • assisting with mass mailings
  • assisting teachers in the classroom
  • supervising recess
The list of positions that can be filled by this roving group of volunteers is likely quite long - and the Yeshivas in question would likely be thrilled to have the extra pairs of hands. There are jobs there that would work only for parents who are available for some of the daytime hours, but many, such as filing, helping with mailings, homework help, and tutoring, could also be managed by a parent who works full-time. In addition, there are many parents who are paying full tuition that already give so much in the way of volunteerism to their children's schools that in my opinion, this would not be demeaning for the parents who would be doing it to fulfill their tuition obligation.

There is no reason that being unable to fulfill the full obligation of tuition should absolve parents from giving back to their children's schools. In addition, this might give parents who are on tuition break the feeling that they are shouldering their part of their tuition responsibility, even when they may face tough financial times.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Ideas?

OM Gets Shoveler's Shoulder

Residents of my area were the lucky recipients today of three or so solid inches of falling ice. Aside from the unpleasantness of spending 10 minutes in driving ice pellets and sub-zero wind chills de-icing my car, the roads were a mess. My anti-lock brakes kicked in at almost every time I brought the car to a stop, and whenever I got out of my car for more than a few minutes I had to repeat the de-icing procedure. Also? The boots that came with a tag attached that read WATERPROOF? Yeah, right. Or at least I don't think the manufacturer meant the being-submerged-in-a-six-inch-deep-puddle-of-slush type of waterproof.

And take my advice - if and when some guy knocks at your door offering to shovel for a fee? In a storm like today's, when the ground just looks like it's blanketed in white fluffy snow - but is, in actuality, covered in a crunchy shell of compacted frozen snow over a hard layer of ice (that may seem to be redundant, but trust me, today I discovered that there is a real difference between the consistencies of those two forms of frozen water)? Take those guys offering to shovel up on their offer. No amount of money is too much for shoveling a mess like today's out of the way. And to be frank, shoveling is simply the wrong term for what was actually the act of hacking up 3-inch-thick ice and then scraping it out of the way. Let's just say that I was shocked to find that the term "shoveler's shoulder" got zero google hits.

Not all I'd hoped the season's first significant snowfall would be.

Five Towns News Controversy

The NYJW covers a recent controversy in the Five Towns of whether a newspaper can target Orthodox Jews as readers:
Now, another part of the community has fallen to the Orthodox — the local Jewish weekly newspaper, the Jewish Star.

When it was first started about five years ago, the Jewish Star served the entire Jewish community, but recently began providing news exclusively for “the Orthodox communities of the south shore,” as it says on its cover. The sudden change late last year prompted charges that it is being divisive.

“The overarching principle of public policy decisions should be klal yisrael [one people],” said Rabbi Sholom Stern, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El, a Conservative congregation in Cedarhurst. “When you don’t begin with that premise, the one who withdraws is waiting for self-destruction and eventually will end up with nothing. That is the tragedy of all this. It’s lamentable.”
Such a decision, Rabbi Stern said, causes isolation, which is “not good when we have such a small Jewish community to start with. … An isolationist policy will result in more division and that results in self-destruction.”

But Mayer Fertig, the paper’s publisher and editor-in-chief, said the paper’ s change in coverage was done for “economic reasons” only. “We don’t think we are being divisive,” he said. “We are reflecting a division that is already occurring” in the community.

“The Orthodox are now the majority [in areas of the Five Towns],” Fertig added. “We are not limiting our reading. We are making it appeal to the largest segment of the community, which is Orthodox. We are not looking to disenfranchise anybody or hurt anybody’s business. The paper was not as appealing when it was broadly appealing and we have caught up to the market. Circulation has certainly increased” since the change.

...The paper’s owner, Clifford Richner, said he decided to change the paper’s focus in response to “input I received from those who are the core of our readers — and it’s not the Reform or Conservative Jews but Orthodox families. They want a newspaper in their home that deals with Jewish life from an Orthodox perspective.”

He pointed out that his family has owned another area weekly, the Nassau Herald, since 1964 and that it provides coverage “across the religious spectrum.”

The paper just won the first place prize in education coverage from Suburban Newspapers of America, Richner noted. “I have never felt there was a market for a paper geared for any particular group other than the Orthodox, who have their own institutions and schools,” he said. “If a person is a Reform or Conservative Jew here, chances are his children are attending public schools. If you are Orthodox, your kids are going to yeshiva and we need to cover it.”
My opinion? This is a bit amusing. No one takes issue with the fact that Hamodia or the Jewish Press are clearly marketed to Orthodox Jews, nor is there any suggestion that the paper is unfair to the non-Orthodox, so why the uproar? Because the paper used to be non-denominational, and now it's Orthodox? So what? Clearly, the publisher made a financial decision that a paper that was floundering under its former status might benefit from a a revamp. This would be like complaining when the owner of Toddy's, the famed Five Towns bagel store, decided to go Shomer Shabbat because he felt the store couldn't survive without the patronage of the community's changing demographic. Were there people annoyed at the fact that they could no longer get a bagel and lox on a Saturday morning? Probably. Enough of them to keep the store in business with their Saturday patronage? Obviously not. Were the non-Shomer Shabbat customers' rights violated in some way? I think we can all agree that they were not. So the question remains, why would the Jewish Week find this in any way newsworthy? To my eyes, this article does nothing but give the Star some free publicity, while proving itself to be just another in a long line of articles that document, ad nauseum, the history of a neighborhood's demographic change.

The answer might lie in this e-mail, widely sent out to local residents and elected officials by a community member last week:
Religious and Secular Sanity to Restore Essential Civility
Just a few hours ago, I had a most distasteful terse conversation with publisher Clifford Richner, one of the heirs of a distinguished family whose legacy of public service to the whole of our diverse community seems to be receding.
This controversy centers on the operations of The Jewish Star, a local sectarian offshoot in the Herald constellation, self-promoting itself on the masthead Serving the Orthodox communities of the South Shore.
Increasingly, and vehemently, people who become aware of such intentionally-inflicted wounds on Jewish unity, distance themselves in embarrassment, while feeling ashamed that such a "business model" is pursued for profit!
Other vital concerns revolving on the long-running saga of the Vaad of the 5T & Rockaway, and the perennial issues surrounding the public Lawrence School District are treated innocuously (the former), or intentionally focusing on the negative (the latter), stressing perceived neglect of maintenance, overlooking comprehensive coverage of the considerable, sustaining, widely-distributed to the general press,
news of our students'achievements: on the field, in the laboratory, in the classrooms!
Such non-reportage has become scandalous, for it being both obvious and insulting to our sophisticated population. But it was during our heated exchange that the newspaper executive blurted that it was while at a sit-down with Orthodox rabbis, several years ago, that a commercial commitment was forged for precisely the weekly that The Jewish Star has become --- explicitly receiving rabbinic assurances that no stories from Conservative sources shall appear within its pages.
Shaken, as I immediately became, I was further issued a fatwa that my name shall not again appear in any Richner publication --- instantly reminding myself of the discredited censorious Soviet system when one could become a non-person overnight --- warning me of legal action, were I to assert my First Amendment right of speech to encourage mass-rejection of his weeklies.
Already, one local rabbi who receives bulk shipment of The Jewish Star for his congregation will now cease and desist distributing the paper, after he became aware of corporate policy and the hurt that is being perpetrated to the collective Jewish heart and soul. Imagine!
Physically-imposing, this scion has been transformed and revealed to be nothing no more than a corner bully, possessed of similar intellectual acuity. (The New York Civil Liberties Union might want to hear the case.) This latest assault to our communal equilibrium is symptomatic of a series of misfortunes that have been visited on our fabled Five Towns. I beseech our Orthodox rabbis who participated in drafting the unholy agreement with the Richners to rethink their misguided initiative, repudiate it, and actively seek to bring all Jews together! Mea culpas are necessary and have been forthcoming recently, off the public stage: cornering me before a recent funeral, a prominent and most-respected spiritual leader, admitted, for example, that signing the Vaad letter was "stupid," and wishes the Talit-ban that holds stifling sway in some quarters be brought to account.
We have many miles to traverse to make our corner of the world a more welcoming, attractive, tolerant, open-hearted place to live. As in the unfortunate rabbinic call to avoid shopping at Gourmet Glatt, let there spiritual leadership to lift the miasma that engulfs us, joining together to demand fair treatment in reporting all the news from all of us. We, People of the Book, deserve no less!
Sincerely, and with fraternal affection,
Prof. Asher J. Matathias
Just to take issue with some of the points Mr. Matathias makes in his letter:

Increasingly, and vehemently, people who become aware of such intentionally-inflicted wounds on Jewish unity, distance themselves in embarrassment, while feeling ashamed that such a "business model" is pursued for profit!
Um, Mr. Matathias, should a newspaper that is run as a family business follow a business model of not operating for profit?

joining together to demand fair treatment in reporting all the news from all of us
Last I checked, Mr. Matathias, I didn't see the right to equal coverage in a local newspaper mentioned in the constitution or any of its amendments. Should we expect Catholics to demand equal coverage in the Jewish Star next? Perhaps Muslims should get a fair shake?

The bottom line is that the premise here, that a for-profit newspaper should somehow have a responsibility to cover news that is of interest to every member of a community is just wrong. A newspaper, like any other business, has a right to make business decisions that keep it from going under. Are the residents of the community who feel themselves to be in the ignored minority unhappy with that? Perhaps. They can choose to read or not read the Jewish Star as they see fit. Or perhaps Mr, Matathias should start his own newspaper, under the business model of covering every story that might be of interest to every single member of a neighborhood. I wish him much luck with that business model.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Toaff Link

Krum has a great post up about the Ariel Toaff blood libel controversy. Check it out: Bloody Confusion.

How Not To Praise Your Kids

There's a fascinating article in NY Magazine about the supposed merits of constantly praising our children, and the premise is not what I expected. According to studies described in the article, lavishing praise on our children for their innate abilities and intelligence will not get them improved results. That's right. The parenting technique that just about every parent I know has internalized in the past few decades - that encouraging your child's self-esteem is the key to a well-adjusted, high-achieving child - has been turned on it's head.

Apparently, telling your child "you're so smart", and "you'll do great because you're good at it" is precisely what a parent should do to get their child to stop trying to succeed. The studies showed that children who were praised on their intelligence levels consistently did worse on subsequent tests, and that children who were praised on their effort consistently performed better on subsequent tests.

So it seems that though we've all been drilled that working on our kids' self-esteem is priority #1 in raising high achievers, the reality is simply...not quite so simple.
So in 2003 the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature. His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with flawed science. Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standards.
After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were “the biggest disappointment of my career.”
What does seem to work? According to the studies, very specific praise, or praise directed at the effort the child expended - as opposed to the child's abilities. But that might be easier said than done. The author of the article quotes his own (nonscientific) survey, which showed that nearly 100% of parent admit to praising their kids for their abilities. Time for parent retraining?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Do Women Choke Under Pressure?

Slate has a piece up on a theory as to why there are fewer women than men among the elite of corporate America. The theory the writer posits is that women are more prone than men to choke when under pressure. Read the piece.

My opinion? There is obviously no indication as to how much of the "evidence" cited is actually proof of any inherent weakness women exhibit when in competition. There is really no way to know whether women "choke" when competing because there is so much riding against them - as the article points out: "among the highest paid corporate executives, only 2.5 percent are women" - or whether women's poor representation in the upper echelons of corporate America is a actually a manifestation of that tendency to choke.

I think a study like this needs a truly level playing field to present real-life results. As a matter of fact, this point from the article, regarding experiments run on the subject, kind of makes exactly that case:
Competition—against anyone—improves men's performance.

Competition against women improves women's performance.

But in competition against men, women do no better than when they're working in isolation.
Thoughts? Theories? Ideas?

New Blog Launch

Steven I. Weiss has launched the newest member of his Canonist network of J-blogs, Jewess. The blog is led by senior writer Rebecca Honig Friedman, with a few contributing bloggers - one of whom is your truly. I will be covering the Mommy/family beat, and my first two posts are here and here. Check it out, and check back often.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Marriage Advice to Ignore

I often find myself having to rein in my cynicism when reading some of the tripe that's passed off as life advice in many of the publications out there - both Jewish and secular. Most of the "Top Twenty Tips For A Happy Marriage!" and "Ten Ways To Trick Your Husband Into Treating You Like A Queen!" -type lists are, in my humble opinion, often nothing but a waste of time. But this particular gem, from a bonus supplement to the Charedi publication Hamodia (Self-proclaimed as "The Newspaper of Torah Jewry"), was particularly special. From an article titled "Blueprint for a Happy Marriage":
If you find yourself irritable and jumpy when you are with your life partner, see if you can unwind before you are together. Try drinking something that soothes you or going for a brisk walk. These and other strategies might blow off the steam so that you don't take out your frustrations on your spouse.
Um...is Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss advocating the throwing back of a good stiff drink as a technique for calming down enough to treat your spouse properly? Why stop there? Hey, if you have a bad day - consider popping some valium on the train ride home so that you don't take your anger out on your wife. But seriously. There must be some other, more appropriate exercises to follow other than turning to the bottle that can help ease tension between married couples. Like, for example, marriage counseling? I would hardly think that introducing an addictive substance into a troubled marriage is the solution.

Another point Rabbi Weiss makes that I think can potentially be misunderstood:
You should defend and uphold your spouse proudly and staunchly. It is a heinous breach of the marriage contract to cause your spouse embarrassment in front of others. Another aspect of loyalty is not violating the privacy of your relationship. Don't share with your relatives or friends the private details of your marriage.
I understand the point the author is trying to make here, however, there is a lot of room for misinterpretation in a statement such as this one. Obviously truly intimate details should be discussed with great discretion, but a blanket statement does not qualify what should and should not be discussed. For example, an exhortation like this one might cause a young newly married woman to hold back from discussing such serious matters as verbal or physical abuse at the hands of her spouse, or prevent a young couple from asking for financial help during hard times, for fear of causing the providing spouse embarrassment. Or, for an example that is even more relevant to this discussion, it might prevent someone from asking whether it is normal for his/her spouse to need to take a few hits of vodka before initiating conversation. Which, in my opinion, it is not.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

District 15 'At-Risk' Programming: Dysfunction or Dissembling?

The Jewish Star has some very interesting reporting on SD 15 programs that may be going underutilized:
Homework centers for elementary school students and a weekend Regents academy were recently re-instituted in District 15, as part of ongoing efforts to improve student performance. Both programs are intended to shore up falling test scores in the district. But Lawrence school board members say they are frustrated by the failure of school officials to provide hard data on how many students are participating in those voluntary programs and what steps are being taken to improve attendance.
The program is open to students who are "at risk" academically, however, according to the article, there has been no effort made by the district to gauge the results of these programs - or even their attendance levels. The programs are also completely voluntary:
“We cannot force students to go,” [assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction Dr. Vicki] Karant said. “We cannot mandate that the families make their children go to these things. We can only offer them. It’s not like if you are ‘at risk’ you have to serve extra time after school. It’s not like that. We do heavy encouraging for students to partake in these programs. We are not allowed to force children into this program. We simply make it available for them.”
Some board members express that this approach may not be enough:
“What does that mean?,” [board member Michael] Hattan wondered. “Those students have been identified and we should find every way, shape and form to get them in. It’s not a question of them having choices. Those choices are reserved for students who are exceeding in their academic studies. Those who are not, we want to identify them and find ways to get them participating in programs that are going to improve their outcomes. We’ve been hearing about good starts to programs for years and we haven’t improved our outcomes.”

Sussman agreed that the administration doesn’t have the answers the school board is looking for. “We need to make sure that the ‘at risk’ children are given the help they need and the answer we want, rather than ‘they are being encouraged,’ is that they are attending en masse, and we haven’t gotten that response.”

“That is a major problem,” Hattan said. “The questions we want to ask as a board are ‘how many students attended, what process was used to reach out to the ‘at risk’ population and how did you measure its success?’ Of the, let’s say, 200 students failing English, what effort was made to get these students to participate in this program? Where is that attendance record? How many students showed up? And what was the result of this program?’”
These are all very good questions, and there don't seem to be any good answers to them. There are a few issues raised here.

First, is it standard practice to encourage, rather than require, at risk students to attend special courses that are designed to help them? What happens in other districts? Anyone have any information on that? Is it a legal issue?

Second, as a taxpaying resident of this district, I would have hoped to have seen some indication that programs financed using my tax dollars are being properly utilized. Instead, this report seems to indicate that not only are there no hard numbers regarding attendance levels for these programs, there is also no hard data regarding the program's success when it comes to the students that actually do attend. Does anyone else here find that to be a bit disheartening? Well, anyone besides Mayer Fertig, editor of the Jewish Star, who writes in an editorial:
The newest of first-year teachers knows how to take attendance. In some classrooms that responsibility is even handed off to a student monitor. So, how is that taking attendance seems to have become a stumbling block of sorts for District 15 officials responsible for improving the performance of ‘at-risk’ students?

It would seem to be an unlikely problem - apparently not knowing how many students were participating in an official school program. The exact number of students showing up to a school event in a school building would seem to be information which
would be prudent to collect for any number of reasons, including say, making sure all were accounted for following an evacuation for one reason or another.

However, when we began working on what seemed to be a straightforward story about a new student performance initiative being pondered by the school board, something else altogether began to emerge.

Hundreds of students in the Lawrence Public School district are classified as ‘failing’ or within striking distance of failure. When a Regents prep course was given at Lawrence High School over several weekends, or when homework help is offered at the middle school or an elementary school, it would seem school officials are failing to track as basic a statistic as ‘how many children showed up?’

The explanation offered by officials is that students cannot be forced to attend remedial programs. That’s fine, although we would advocate creative thinking to legally work around that restriction. But, in any event, shouldn’t school officials at least take attendance?

The more disturbing possibility, however, would tend to supercede a failure to take attendance. That is the possibility that the district has the stats the school board members would like to see - but has decided, for whatever reason, to not share. That would be far more disturbing, of course.

For the sake of civil discussion, though, let’s assume for now that this matter represents a bureaucratic glitch, and let’s see it get fixed. Soon. Or, perhaps student monitors should be appointed. They’ll get it done.
To echo Mayer Fertig: Get it done.

Spitzer Proposes Aid to Yeshiva Parents

This week's Jewish Star has some interesting information regarding NY Governor Eliott Spitzer's 2007-2008 budget proposal:
Parents who send their children to yeshiva could save a few dollars on taxes, thanks to a short paragraph in Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s 2007-08 state budget proposal.

The proposal calls for a $1,000-per-child tax break for parents who send their children to private and parochial schools and whose yearly gross income is less than $116,000. Families whose gross income is between $116,000 and $125,000 still benefit. For every $1,000 above $116,000 in gross income, a family will simply save $100 less per child. For example, a family that sends three children to yeshiva and has a yearly gross income of $118,000 will be able to take a $2,400 deduction.

The deduction applies to parents of children in kindergarten through 12th grade. It is expected to cost the state about $25 million, the budget memorandum reported.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America supported Spitzer’s move. “That Jewish day schools are now getting a serious look from the governor can only be a good thing,” said Howard Beigelman, the UOJCA’s deputy director of public policy, in an e-mail. “Our community will benefit from Governor Spitzer’s attention to our children.”
This is very heartening, especially since in 2006, when asked about his position on tuition tax credits, then-Attorney General Spitzer seemed unsure about his position on them - he was against them before he was for them.

Well, it's a start.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

NYT on Sex Selection

The NYT reports on the technology - and ethics - of sex selection:
Regardless of the method, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposes sex selection except in people who carry a genetic disease that primarily affects one sex. But allowing sex selection just because the parents want it, with no medical reason, may support “sexist practices,” the college said in an opinion paper published this month in its journal, Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Some people say sex selection is ethical if parents already have one or more boys and now want a girl, or vice versa. In that case, it’s “family balancing,” not sex discrimination. The MicroSort study accepts only people who have genetic disorders or request family balancing (they are asked for birth records), and a company spokesman said that even if the technique was approved, it would not be used for first babies.

The obstetricians group doesn’t buy the family-balance argument, noting that some parents will say whatever they think the doctor wants to hear. The group also says that even if people are sincere about family balance, the very act of choosing a baby’s sex “may be interpreted as condoning sexist values.”
However, the article also includes the opinion of an expert who seems to express a more tolerant stance on the issue:
Dr. Jeffrey M. Steinberg, from Encino, Calif., who has three clinics that offer sex selection and plans to open a fourth, in Manhattan, said: “We prefer to do it for family balancing, but we’ve never turned away someone who came in and said, ‘I want my first to be a boy or a girl.’ If they all said a boy first, we’d probably shy away, but it’s 50-50.”

“Reproductive choice, as far as I’m concerned, is a very personal issue,” Dr. Steinberg said. “If it’s not going to hurt anyone, we go ahead and give them what they want.”
Previous posts on the subject: I, II, III, IV

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Billboard Doctored to Suit Satmar Sensitivities

From tomorrow's NYT:
THE first time, the boy ended up with a smear of black paint across his face. But after some digital alterations — adding curls on the sides of his face, shortening his haircut and buttoning his shirt higher at the collar — he was ready to try again.

The boy was not offended by these changes, because he is not real. Rather, he is an image on a Williamsburg billboard for Oorah, a children’s charity that wants to encourage donations of cars.

The group advertises in Williamsburg, leaders of the organization say, because the Hasidic Jews of the Satmar sect, many of whom live in the neighborhood, are generous donors. But the original billboard was defaced last spring, apparently because it offended the religious sensibilities of some of the Satmars. It stayed that way until the boy’s makeover was revealed on Jan. 3.

“They don’t want to see a clean-cut boy without the traditional peyos that their own children have,” Chana Nestlebaum, the group’s public relations director, said, referring to the young Satmars’ side curls. “It’s of importance that the children portrayed in their community look like their own.”

In something of a pre-emptive strike, spray-painted graffiti was incorporated into the new billboard, which stands over the corner of Lee Avenue and Keap Street. The message reads, “Zeit menadev aer car,” Yiddish for “Donate your car.”

“We thought that injecting humor might also defuse tension,” said Rabbi Eli Mintz, the director of Oorah, “and perhaps even work to our advantage as a marketing tool, and bring in more cars as a result.”

He may be right. The agency said that it had been getting been getting positive responses and that the billboard was being talked about in the streets and in the shuls.
Odd that this story would seem interesting enough to the NYT editorial board, though it's quite amusing, actually. Reminds me of those ads in the Charedi papers where what are clearly stock photos of boys or men get little yarmulkas quite obviously drawn in.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

NYT on North Riverdale

NYT on the demographic shift in the NYC neighborhood of North Riverdale:
On the east side of the street, North Riverdale seems as solidly Irish Catholic as it has for generations.

At Mary-Anne’s Irish Gift Shop, displays include Waterford crystal figurines, child-size kilts and journals embossed with Celtic knots. At the Riverdale Steak House next door, posters promote a live televised viewing of the Dublin-versus-Tyrone soccer match. Up the block, students trot through the corridors at St. Margaret of Cortona School, which still occupies part of a 1911 stone building and recalls a time when the area was simply known as St. Margaret Parish.

But on the other side of Riverdale Avenue, there are unmistakable signs of change. It is a story echoed often in the city: the quiet rustle in an entrenched neighborhood when a newer community arrives.

In North Riverdale, the turning point is often traced to the opening of a shiny, seven-story Orthodox Jewish academy called SAR High School in 2003. Since then, nearly every eating establishment at the Skyview shopping mall next to the school, including a delicatessen, a pizzeria and a sushi restaurant, has become strictly kosher. Last year, Noah’s Kosher Supermarket opened in a vacant corner of the mall, stocked with cheese from England and delicacies from Israel. In December, a kosher Dunkin’ Donuts arrived.

Rabbi Nachman Cohen of Young Israel Ohab Zedek, North Riverdale’s only Orthodox synagogue, said he had seen an upsurge in membership in the last 18 months, which he attributed to the influx of kosher restaurants.

“That’s a sign of vibrancy, when you see kosher establishments opening up,” Rabbi Cohen said. “It’s a major impetus.”

Although the rest of Riverdale has long had a sizable Orthodox population, the influx of Orthodox Jews in North Riverdale is new. In the eyes of some old-timers, the shift represents both the natural flux of a neighborhood and a stark change.

Mary-Anne Connaughton, the owner of the Irish gift store, has seen a growing number of Jewish customers eager to buy her Nicholas Mosse pottery from Kilkenny and wool sweaters from Donegal.

In 2003, Danny Kordova, who has owned the Skyview Delicatessen for 25 years, upgraded his restaurant to glatt kosher, the highest level of kosher stringency. The change required that he buy new dishes and more expensive meat, and pay for daily rabbinical supervision. But business has increased since he made the change, he said, with the deli both retaining its regulars and attracting new customers.

“You don’t have to be Jewish to eat a glatt kosher frankfurter,” Mr. Kordova said as he rang up a customer’s half-pound of smoked turkey.

In some quarters, however, the changes haven’t mattered as much. One such location is the Riverdale Greentree restaurant, where a row of gray-haired men were quietly drinking beer at the bar on a recent afternoon.

“There’s a new demographic, so to speak,” said Danny Green, a retired firefighter keeping an eye on a televised horse race at the bar. “The community wasn’t appraised of what was going on, but basically, it’s live and let live.”

As he was speaking, the high school was just letting out, and suddenly the street was filled with teenage boys wearing knitted yarmulkes atop their floppy hair.
Neighborhoods change. It's been happening since time immemorial (and the grumbling it can elicit from members of the demographic getting outnumbered has likely been going on since time immemorial as well). The demographics of a neighborhood can shift in what seems to be a very short time frame. We've seen it here in the Five Towns, where there has been a large influx of Orthodox residents, trending to a more right-wing bent. Many times, both here in the Five Towns and in North Riverdale, the borders of an existing Orthodox neighborhood naturally expand due to increased demand for real estate but a lack of supply. Sometimes a demographic seems to abandon a community almost en masse as they begin to feel outnumbered.

Any front-line reports from other neighborhoods that have seen a recent similar demographic shift?