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Monday, June 25, 2007

WalMart Woes

I've always found that it isn't very hard to find people willing to express anti-WalMart sentiment these days. I've heard complaints about their hiring practices, complaints about their putting Mom-and-Pop stores out of business, complaints about how unpleasant the chaotic store organization methods make it to shop there. This time, the NY Times relates a different set of complaints, from residents of the Ultra-Orthodox enclave of Monsey, against the plans to open a new location:
When residents talk about traffic, they are fearful for the safety of families walking to synagogue on Saturdays. When they fret about merchandise, they wonder if frowned-upon items like bikinis and lingerie will be on display for everyone to see. And when they imagine the outsiders who would shop at the store, they worry that their presence could transform the town’s pious, sheltered atmosphere.

“The reason a lot of us came to live in Monsey is because we wanted to raise our families in a safe place, away from the influences of the outside world,” said Yossi Weinberger, 30, a father of four who works at a local travel agency. “I’m not sure it will be easy to do it if we have such a gigantic piece of the outside world move to our town.”
It seems that WalMart is doing everything they can to appease the community:
Elsewhere, Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, has often acquiesced to public pressure and made adjustments. It has hired local architects to meld stores into particular landscapes, painting a store in desert sandstone in Arizona and building an outlet in Long Beach, Calif., with an Art Deco look. In Middlefield, Ohio, home to one of the nation’s largest Amish communities, Wal-Mart placed hitching posts for horse-drawn buggies in a store’s parking lot and stocked shelves with barley soup and non-electric refrigerators.

Here, Wal-Mart has already agreed to conceal magazine covers that may be deemed offensive, such as the ones picturing celebrities in provocative outfits, “something that’s new for us,” Mr. Serghini said.
But I have to wonder whether this opposition really makes sense. I understand that the members of this community chose to live here because they can live a more insular existence, but they do live in America. The march or consumerism has been going on and on, everywhere you look. And as hard fought as it has been in certain locales, it shows no indication of slowing down. It certainly can be sad to see so-called Big Box stores taking over and putting smaller stores out of business (to wit: Seen a small, owner-operated bookstore lately? If so, take a picture - it's one of an endangered species). That said, there are certainly pros that come with the cons of these large chain stores, such as longer hours, broader product range and far more liberal return policies. In addition, regarding the arguments that a WalMart will somehow expose members of this community to a facet of life they are trying to avoid, I find that hard to fathom. The store is taking over an abandoned lot, and people - as always - have a choice as to whether they will patronize WalMart or not. It certainly doesn't seem to be an issue for the hundreds of Chasidim one can see in the Monticello WalMart on a given summer night.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I've Been Tagged - "You Rule"

Krum tagged me with this meme in response to a ridiculous series of ads put out by Virgin Cellular. Basically, the Virgin ad campaign attempts to pitch their cellular service to various New York neighborhoods by pointing out what makes said neighborhoods "rule" - except that the ads seem to try a bit too hard to be irreverent and ironic, and some residents of the neighborhoods in question don't seem quite as amused as Virgin hoped they'd be. Details are here at Krum's, and Jameel, SW and Ezzie already put out their entries, and there are also some here in the comments to DB's post. So here's mine, and before you jump all over me, as Krum pointed out, it's "intentionally obnoxious".
Cedarhurst, you rule! You're not Lawrence - and you don't want to be (Okay, at least some of you don't want to be). So maybe your SUVs are a little smaller, your lawns a bit rattier and your street names less, well...waspy sounding. And maybe your shuls' womens sections aren't well appointed enough - requiring congregants to mill about in front. And so what if you don't have your very own private Country Club? Because you, Cedarhurst, are open to all - whether you’re a shopper desiring a 200-dollar tankini for your two-year-olds to be seen in among the Atlantic Beach Beach Club set, or just a hungry soul hoping for a few insults with your bagels, lox and shmear. Your ritzier neighbor to the southeast may be fairer, but does not put a candle to your will-power, O skinny-latte-sipping, Hewly-tasting, yoga pants under skirts, power walking with your bugaboos down Central Avenue to the gym...so you can power walk some more. And how else can you be upwardly mobile without a mobile phone plan with no annual contracts?
Feel free to leave your own attempts with neighborhoods you know well, here in comments or on your own blogs.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Jewish Week Does It Again - AGAIN

I feel like this has become a bit of a refrain, but the Jewish Week has another awful attempt at journalism in this week's issue. One would think that with them coming as late as they do to the Lawrence Jew vs. Jew saga, they would have ample time to actually get the story right. Alas, one would be wrong in thinking that. Their take on the story is so totally one-sided, poorly sourced and reported, and just plain wrong, that the mind boggles how this piece can actually be considered an example of reporting. Let's fisk:
The Lawrence school district in the Five Towns has become an increasingly favorable place for Orthodox families to raise children: private school students, including those who attend the yeshivas where the majority of Lawrence families send their children, have long been the beneficiaries of public services like transportation and special education above and beyond what New York State mandates.
Um, yes. The district has become an increasingly favorable place for Orthodox families to raise children - but not because my children are "the beneficiaries of public services like transportation and special education above and beyond what New York State mandates". The reasons are more along the lines of affordable homes (as compared to homes in NYC), great Kosher shopping, and numerous shuls and Yeshivas. But I can pretty much guarantee you that no Orthodox homebuyer chooses Lawrence for the busing. I will also add that perhaps the district offers special education and transportation at levels above the state mandate, but this district also provides far above the state mandate for every public school child. And we're talking FAR above the state mandate. So there's nothing unusual about those few services entitled to private school children being provided in a somewhat equitable fashion.
But the thriving Orthodox population in this Long Island enclave is also the catalyst of a major, growing rift in the community, pitting Orthodox yeshiva families who want to make use of public services against liberal Jews and non-Jewish families whose children attend public schools they fear lack the necessary money and care to ensure their survival.
They may fear they "lack the necessary money and care to ensure their survival", but the article fails to point out that the per/student spending in this district remains among the highest in the state. Hard to make the case that the public schools are being bled dry - with the Orthodox as the "catalyst" for the rift, no less.
Tensions have intensified over the last few weeks after a school board election in May landed five Orthodox trustees on the board of seven total members, increasing the majority the Orthodox had previously enjoyed and alarming community members who fear for the future of the public school system.
Really. Tensions have intensified in recent weeks? I don't know about that. As a matter of fact, most people I have spoken with - on either side of the divide - would like to put this sorry episode behind the community and move on. I certainly do not sense intensified tensions over that which was palpable in the period leading up to the elections.
“It’s been extremely divisive having a school board whose primary interests are their children in private schools,” said Penny Schuster, the parent of an eighth-grader at Lawrence Middle School and former president of the Parent Teacher Association there. She added that public school families are fleeing the district, which she anticipates having trouble retaining qualified teachers. “Their interests are not our interests, and that’s a very grave concern.”
It shouldn't need to be said that Ms. Schuster's (mis)characterization of the board's "primary interests" are her own opinion, and far from a statement of fact. In addition, I'll believe that teachers are "fleeing" the district when I see it. As of right now, the teachers in this district still enjoy among the highest salaries in Nassau County.
Nahum Marcus, one of the newly elected Orthodox board members who will start serving July 1, disagreed.

“The bottom line is the district is there to serve all children,” he said. “There has to be an excellent public school system, the best we can offer those children. ... At the same time the district has the responsibility to serve children who go to private school.”
How any thinking, fair person can disagree with Marcus's statement above that all district children should be served equitably is beyond my comprehension. Yet apparently some do.
Schuster, who is Jewish, countered Marcus’ assessment. “I absolutely think [the board’s] primary interest is not the public school district. It’s not their charge.”
Again, solely Ms. Schuster's opinion.
In the last several years, the demographics in District 15 — which includes the towns of Atlantic Beach, Cedarhurst, Inwood, Lawrence and Woodmere — have tipped, with the number of private school students outnumbering those in public schools; thus a board composed of mainly private school parents is not an anomaly here. There are currently around 3,900 private school students in the district, mainly attending yeshivas, and 3,400 public school students, according to the Lawrence School District Transportation Department, which monitors how many students it transports.

Along with the influx of Orthodox families come questions about the direction of this community that citizens say have led to ugly encounters between neighbors.

“It’s horrible walking the streets in this community,” said one observer, who asked not to be named, of the rivalry public and private school families face. The observer recounted chaotic school board meetings and children insulting each other after hearing slurs from their parents. “The tension can be cut with a knife.”
Uh, any evidence? Any specific allegations of such behavior? I will admit to having been present at board meetings when names were called - but I will tell you, they weren't from any of the Orthodox who were present. I will also say that I don't know where in the district the anonymous "observer" who spoke off the record lives precisely, but thank God I don't see walking the same streets as my non-Orthodox or non-Jewish neighbors as being in any way "horrible". I guess for some the prospect of coexistence and the compromises that come with it are "horrible". Sad situation for our Mr. Anonymous and his ilk.
Marcus, the new board member, agreed.

“What’s amazing to me is [it’s fine] when you talk to your neighbor, but when it comes to district issues, it’s like World War III has erupted.”
That I can agree with. I am careful to discuss everything and anything with my friends and neighbors who send their children to public school - but the situation with the school board. I'd like to keep our relationship friendly, and I have a feeling that broaching that topic remains a bad idea to that goal.
In the run-up to the recent elections, the conflict between the two sides played out in the local newspaper, when the group Advocates for the Lawrence Public Schools took out an ad in the local Nassau Herald asking, “Should the Lawrence Public School District Be Run By An Orthodox Majority?” The ad supported candidates Pamela Greenbaum, Maribel Cancelliere and Andrew Levey and opposed the ticket of David Sussman, Nahum Marcus and Solomon Blisko who ultimately won the election; Blisko and Marcus are Orthodox and send their children to yeshivas, while Sussman has children in public school.
Is the Jewish Week referring to the ads that every local political figure condemned as discriminatory and divisive? The ads that the newspaper who run them basically agreed were a mistake, and issued a long apology for running them? Perhaps that would have been somewhat relevant to the issue.
The same observer said that counter ads were placed in area Orthodox newspapers, and that even people who had made aliyah were enlisted to vote, calling into question whether the new board had indeed been elected by a transparent democratic process.
Yay, it's Mr. Anonymous Observer again. Did Mr. Anonymous Observer give the Jewish Week any examples of the "counter ads"? Anything that would indicate their obviously inflammatory nature? Did the Jewish Week make any attempt to back up the claim? Obviously not, because the ads didn't exist. Every ad that I saw for the candidates in question was clearly about the issues that affect this district's children. And is their any evidence that people who had made aliyah were enlisted to vote? I am aware that much was made over an ad that attempted to recruit voters who were living in Israel - but it clearly only mentioned students and other temporary visitors, who are certainly entitled to vote under election law. Nothing untransparent, shady, or thwarting of the democratic process about that.
Community members worry that the problems already plaguing the public schools are bound to increase with the new board. They mention out-of-date technology, classrooms with falling tiles and cuts to middle school lunch periods. A $92.6 million budget that passed easily in a community vote has also been widely criticized as too low, with a less than 1 percent increase that many felt should have been closer to 4 or 5 percent.
Again, it might be widely criticized among public school parents, but this budget still puts this district among the highest per/student spending in the state. Hard to make the case that the district public schools are being robbed.
One issue sparking particular ire is the $600,000 allotted for pre-kindergarten busing — being offered for the first time next year — which will largely serve yeshiva students. While critics on the side of the public schools feel the allocation is too low and doesn’t allow for supervision, board members feel the money will more than cover the expense.
Let's count the mistakes here. First this is hardly the first time pre-K busing is being offered in this district. Not only was it offered to all district children years ago before being cut in the face of the contingency budgets, it has been provided this year, by the district, to all pre-K public school students. So the only students who benefit from the referendum may well be private school students - but that is because they were, in a show of inequitable allotment of services, not provided with the pre-K busing that public school students were given.
John Fitzsimmons, superintendent of the Lawrence school district, reiterated that the school board’s primary responsibility is to the public school children, but said he could not yet predict whether the new board would indeed have those students foremost in mind when making decisions.

“It does create some potential challenges for the community,” said Fitzsimmons of the school board composition. “But the only time it becomes a problem is if the community begins to feel the interests of public school children aren’t being met. [Then] they’ll voice that concern.”
I disagree. The public school community did voice their concerns, in a divisive and ugly manner, with the prospect of an "Orthodox board" - and they did so well in advance of their fears being realized. That's the problem with unfounded fears. The hysteria they cause is often far worse that the actual subject of the fears themselves.
People on both sides of the debate agreed that it is particularly upsetting to see observant Jews fighting secular Jews.

“I respect everybody’s right to worship the way they want to, but that’s very different from ‘let’s now rule your school board,” said Schuster.
Um, what? I agree that it is sad to see neighbors fighting - whatever their observance levels, but my own observance levels have nothing to do with my interests in seeing this district run in a fiscally responsible manner, with equitable services distributed to all district children. It's depressing to see people resisting such fair treatment.
Marcus insists that is not his intention.

“God forbid, I would want to hurt the public school system,” he said. “We get along as neighbors, in the stores, in the streets. Why can’t we get along in the schools?”
Isn't it about time we got along? (With no help from the Jewish Week, of course).

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Jewish Week Does it Again

When I started reading this story in the Jewish Week, I thought it was a simple feel-good story about the beautiful new Mikvah built on Manhattan's Upper West Side neighborhood:
The reception area is clad in palm wood, with gold-leafed ceilings and mosaics in rose and gold hues based on those from ancient Israel. Preparation rooms feature Frette robes and a new kit with shampoo, soap and nail clipper for every visit. The women’s immersion pools are lined with glass tile and surrounded by white marble.

It’s all part of the trend to make new mikvehs a luxurious and sensual pleasure.

“Many women don’t come with a tradition of mikveh, so you need to do everything you can to make it appealing,” says Sharon Liberman Mintz, an Upper West Sider who has been involved with the new mikveh’s construction and design.

“Making it physically beautiful is the first step. When people come into a spa-like atmosphere, they feel relaxed. That’s the way it should be,” she said.
I agree completely. When a woman - especially a newly observant woman - takes the time out of her busy schedule to perform the Mitzvah of Taharat Hamishpacha, making it a pleasant experience should certainly be a priority.

I have had the dubious pleasure of, due to scheduling issues, having seen Mikvaot in cities all over the US. Let's just say that some are more, er...spalike than others. A local Mikvah here in the Five Towns has also gone through a recent renovation, and I can assert that the experience of visiting it has definitely become a more positive one. And I can't dispute that just like any other Mitzvah, beautiful accouterments make the Mitzvah more of a positive experience - which is always desirable.

All well and good.

But then the Jewish Week article takes a turn for the worse, becoming rife with unverifiaed anonymous allegations about the new Mikvah:
The new mikveh also has a new attendant, who replaces the storied Mrs. Lobel. Lobel, a tiny woman with a thick Hungarian accent, was the mikveh lady for decades at the old location. She lived above the mikveh and is regarded with affection by many of the women who used it.

The mikveh’s board forced her to retire in February, say some Upper West Siders, and gave her a severance package that she wasn’t happy with. Lobel, who reportedly moved in with one of her grown children in Brooklyn, could not be located for comment.

Sources critical of the change asked not to be named because of Gibber’s influence within the New York Orthodox community, as president of the nearby Manhattan Day School among other volunteer leadership roles.

The old mikveh was “perfectly fine, not glamorous or glitzy. If the price of having a deluxe mikveh is treating people this way, that feels very disturbing,” said one woman. “We’re building castles but treating people as if they’re expendable.”

Another concern some have had is that the new mikveh attendant will be less tolerant than her predecessor was of unconventional uses, as when Conservative rabbinical students have immersed on the morning of their ordination, or when women who are unmarried but are sexually active have visited the mikveh.

There was also concern that non-Orthodox rabbis, who along with their Orthodox colleagues have long used the West Side mikveh for conversions, would now be barred.

That has not been the case, said Conservative rabbis who have used it since Lobel left.

Anonymous allegations that the former Mikvah lady is unhappy, without any interview of her to back up those allegations? Check. Anonymous suggestions that certain users will be barred from utilizing the Mikvah - while there is evidence presented in the article that no such banning has occurred? Check. Anonymous jibes at a community leader, with the reason stated for the anonymity because he has "influence"? Check.

Classic Jewish Week. Nothing like a few unverifiable, anonymous allegations to spice up what could have been a very positive story. Just the facts, guys. Please. Just try to stick to the verifiable facts.

Monday, June 04, 2007


An update on the family I posted about here, as received by e-mail:
1. The community has sent an overwhelming amount of clothing and linen. All needs in that area are covered. To quote Rebbetzin Ilanit reuven, " Mi k'amcha Yisrael, people have been bringing baskets of supplies like the bikkurim that were brought in the Beit Hamikdash!"
2. The JCC of the Rockaways announced that the Met Council on Jewish Poverty will be able to cover the replacement of all furniture lost in the fire through an emergency grant they have for such instances.
3. The family still needs funds to cover the expenses of the family while the father recovers from his burns and injuries. He is in sales and can only go back to work on a limited basis for the next couple of months. We are looking for another $25-$30,000 right now to tide them over until the father fully returns to work. Once we have collected what is needed, we will inform the public.
All I can say is Tizku L'Mitzvot! The response has been unbelievable and the family has been given much needed chizuk through this difficult ordeal.
Again checks can be sent to:
Bayswater Neighbors Fund (tax deductible 501c.3)
c/o Richard Altabe
637 Meehan Ave
Far Rockaway, NY 11691
Thanks again,
Richard Altabe

Please give as generously as you can.

Out of Control

It's finally happened. Orthomom has read something that left her speechless. Read and weep:

The city's youngest high-fliers are pampered campers whose parents are paying big bucks to jet them off in style to their summer vacations.

In some cases, parents are spending thousands to save kids a bus ride of less than an hour.

The charter company Revolution Air has assigned more than 20 private jets to fly children to summer camp at the end of June, at a cost of about $8,000 a flight.

To cater to their young clients, the company has developed a special menu, including peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, chicken fingers and ice-cream sundaes.

Property developer and mother of three Robin O'Hara is sending her 8-year-old, Danielle, on a 30-minute flight to Lake Bryn Mawr Camp in Honesdale, Pa.

"The bus takes 31/2 hours. It is crowded, and it's always a very dramatic scene," said O'Hara, of Great Neck, L.I.

"This year, she is not going with her [older] sisters, so we want to make it a special, unique experience for her.

"It's a trend. A lot of my friends do it," O'Hara said. "They play videos, they serve kids' food, sometimes, we'll have a manicurist on board."

'Nuff said.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

I Get Mail

Last year I posted about an ad I saw for the Shemirah Bedarchim Insurance Policy. This year the company seems to have switched over to a direct mailing campaign. From a letter received by mail:
Dear Traveler:
Imagine being able to purchase insurance that could actually preent accidents; saving you and your family from potential tragedy.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, over 40,000 people die in motor vehicle crashes every year. Many more suffer injuries and financial loss. Among those cold statistics are hundreds of people from our community - friends, neighbors, and relatives (r"l).

During the coming travel season, more people than ever will be traveling by car, plane and other means to fun-filled destinations across the globe. How can you possibly ensure the safety of your family?

The Shemirah Bidrachim (Traveler's Protection) Insurance Program

For just pennies a day, you will receive the ultimate protection from harm while driving, flying sailing, or even just walking. Ordinary insurance provides financial reimbursement in case of an accident, but Shemirah Bidrachim can prevent the accident from happening in the first place. Thousands of people have already done just that.

How does the Shemirah Bidrachim Insurance Program work?

Individuals who wish to have added protection from danger while traveling simply sign up for the insurance policy using the enclosed Activation Card. Close to two thousand children in our yeshiva will recite Tehillim (psalms) and additional special tefilos (prayers) of protection for you. The purity and innocence of their Yiddishe neshamos (Jewish souls) infuse their piercing tefilos with the power to protect.

This remarkable protection has been credited with directly saving Jewish lives. In fact, Shemirah Bidrachim was first offered in Israel over 15 years ago in response to the surging rate of auto fatalities.

Coverage is provided by the Ashdod Mercaz Chinuch Project with the support of leading Gedolei Yisroel, including:
  • Hagaon Harav Shmuel Halevi Wosner (SHLITA)
  • Hagaon Harav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (SHLITA)
  • Hagaon Harav Ovadya Yosef (SHLITA)
And it is now available to you with this special offer.

Special Summer Savings with Instant Activation

The summer travel season is just days away! Because of the urgency, I've arranged for your policy to be set up immediately. For just $30 (about 50 cents a day) you are covered 24 hours a day for the entire summer. Isn't your peace of mind worth that?

In exchange, your fee will be used to cover the costs of maintaining the Ashdod Mercaz Chinuch Project in Israel. Your policy will help provide a Jewish child with a license to succeed in life by getting the best possible Jewish education,

Please do this now: complete and mail back your Instant Activation Card (enclosed) or call 1-877-SHEMIRAH now. This immediately activates your policy. You'll then be fully covered. You will also receive by mail an official Certificate of Protection, signed and dated by the director of the yeshiva and the Chief Rabbi of Ashdod.

When you join our thousands of Shemirah Bidrachim members, you become a partner in the Torah and tefilos of our children. In that merit, may Hashem make you reach the destination you desire in peace and return you to your home in peace.
Sadly, I see nothing in the letter about a free month of National Geographic with subscription, or the throwing in of a limited time offer of the Shemirah Bidrachim commemorative coins for the first 100 to call the hotline.

Of course, this offer does have some of the other hallmarks of your standard direct mailing campaign - there's the disclaimer, in the expected fine print:
Policy Terms:
The Shemirah Bidrachim Insurance Policy will provide protection from harm to the policy holder when he/she is driving a vehicle, flying an airplane or traveling on foot. The policy holder should never be harmed by, nor harm, anybody. The protection is based on trust in the merit of tinokos shel beis raban, whose study and prayers keep the world in existence. Their learning and praying protect and save all the supporters of their holy Torah study. The insured will continue to fulfill the command v'nishmartem maod l'nafshoisechem by reciting tefilas haderech and observing safe and legal driving practices. In exchange for a contribution made to the Ashdod Mercaz Chinuch Project, the pupils will study and recite pirkei tehillim daily, and entreat G-d to protect and save the insured from any trouble and distress and lead him toward peace, emplace his footsteps toward peace, and have him reach his desired destination for life, gladness and peace, and send blessing and success in all his endeavors, wherever he may turn. This agreement is a mere spiritual agreement! It does not constitute any grounds for the Insured to claim money from Ashdod Mercaz Chinuch Project.
And don't forget about the money-back guarantee:
100% money-back guarantee
If, during the first month, you decide Shemirah Bidrachim is not what you want, just cancel. We'll refund 100% of your money, even if you've benefited from our policy.
One has to wonder what would have to happen, God forbid, to force someone to decide that the policy is "not what they want".