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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Help Wanted

Thursday night's forecast calls for hours of rain. The usual low-tech method we use to keep our Sukkah dry (a tarp thrown over the schach) is really not great when there's anything more than a drizzle coming down, as the water pools and the tarp sags. So my question is, does anyone have any brilliant ideas for keeping a sukkah dry that can be done in a couple of hours tomorrow with readily available building supplies by some not-quite-so-handy people? Please leave any suggestions in comments. If I use your suggestion (and it works), I'll be your BFF.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The "Can't We All Just Get Along" Post

You know, I am sick and tired of the rancor that has been ratcheted up between members of the District 15 community - on both sides. First and foremost, let me save my most withering criticism for those members of our "community" (sadly, a loose term these days) who have taken the situation as an opportunity of sorts to spew the most vile sorts of hatred. It's hard to believe that people really feel that ANY situation warrants allowing a forum for the worst kind of hate-filled diatribes. Imagine a site where people decry the fact that a community has been overrun by residents of a certain race, and bemoan the fact that this group of residents opens their own types of stores, or speak their own language among themselves, or lower property values. Sounds like that site would be a pretty icky place to visit. no? Not exactly the most tolerant, liberal-minded forum. Not quite espousing the values we like to think America stands for, right? Yet somehow, that sense of propriety toward our neighbor no matter how different from ourselves, has been thrown to the wayside when the discussion turns to Orthodox Jews. Do you expect me to believe that comments like this are simply an offshoot of the local school district drama and that otherwise everyone would have no problem at all with Orthodox Jews? Here's a small taste, and I think we can see that these ranting have nothing to do with our district's woes and everything to do with hate:
Well, I have found that people started fleeing this community like a sinking ship as soon as the (...hmmmmm how do I say this while being politically correct...) Staunchly Religious people began moving in (yea, that works). It's going to be like Crown Heights, the only people that will stay are the people that cant afford to leave and then the rest of the country can begin to hate you here also..
And more:
Regardless, the public school population certainly is decreasing because nobody wants to live next to the Orthodox. You seem to have 2 versions of a population, the people who have a great deal of money and have no problem showing it and the people who have their children wear the same clothes day after day after day regardless of the stains…ewwww. You people mass produce faster than rabbits, no wonder you have more children in the school district, non-orthodox average 2.7 children while the Orthodox population is 6.72.
Yet more:
Let me know which districts have the least "cut in" by the private school community so I can move out of this neighborhood, but not before I make sure that I sell it to a nice Palestinian family.
Sweet. The bottom line is that we should not allow ourselves to become tolerant of this type of expression. The First Amendment may allow it, but it certainly shouldn't stop us from stepping back and assessing our comments as to whether they are doing anything to help this conflict. Appealing to hate and bigotry has been tried, presumably as a last resort, by supporters of the "public school candidates" in the last election. It backfired in a big way. The majority of district residents made it clear that they don't want to see the hate card played. Playing up people's hatred or mistrust for another demographic group is simply not the way to achieve any sort of peace in this community. And I don't think anyone can argue that a detente is desperately needed. So to the community at large (on any and every side of the divide): you know who you are. Watch your mouths and your keyboards. You will get us nowhere with your hatred and your rude and bigoted rantings.

To that end, I call out to my fellow private school parents as well. Yes, the Pre-K ruling was a disappointment. Yes, we can still hold out hope for it's reversal. But that shouldn't stop us from feeling invested in the success of our district's public school students. We need to encourage the board - that we helped democratically elect - to find solutions to the district's poor performance, not just constantly use the selfsame poor performance as simply an election season talking point. Let's impress upon our partners in the school district that we are expressing unhappiness with district children's unhealthy scores not as a means to cut funding, but because we want to see them improve. You want free building usage? Have you seen the tracks and the fields at the public schools lately? Maybe if we insist that the board ensures they are in top-notch shape, as opposed to the shape they are currently in, then there will not be as much resistance on the part of public school parents to the peaceful and equitable sharing of facilities.

I think we can all agree that the pre-K busing fiasco was nothing but detrimental to our community as a whole. What may have been proposed with the best of intentions on the part of the board - throwing the private school community a bone so that they could feel more invested in the district's successes and thus more inclined to vote in more generous budget increases to benefit the public school system in the future - instead drove the wedge even deeper. The anger of the public school community against the board for daring to provide the already-resented private school community with a perk, was topped only by the resentment against the public school community for what was seen by most as a retaliatory appeal against the private school community in order to deprive them of a busing service that no one had raised any concerns about in the past.

But seriously, people. Let's pull ourselves together. It's outta control and no one's benefiting from the endless back-and-forth bickering. Certainly not our kids, who seem to be losing services in one retaliatory strike after another. If we don't do it for propriety's sake, at least we can do it for the sake of the innocent precious children we all brought into this world.

UPDATE: A commenter pointed out a inflammatory comment I had missed, as apparently made by a private school community member. In the interest of balance, I am noting that the comment, which is indeed hateful, shows us that there have been inappropriate comments emanating from both sides of the divide (which I did note in my original post as well).

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Jewish Genetics

I found this very interesting:
Thirty-five years after genetic screening was first used to identify babies at risk of being born with debilitating diseases, a new study of a potentially serious but treatable illness among Ashkenazi Jews questions whether such testing has gone too far.

One-quarter of fetuses found to have Gaucher disease were aborted over an eight-year period, even though half of all children with the metabolic disorder will never experience any symptoms, such as pain, organ enlargement and anemia. The rest can lead normal lives with treatment.

Importantly, the researchers found that among couples who met with a Gaucher expert and learned that the disease was treatable, only 8% chose to terminate their pregnancies. All of the couples who didn't have those meetings opted for abortion.

The disparity underscores what some experts say is a flaw in genetic testing: It provides a bounty of knowledge that is not necessarily accompanied by wisdom.

The study, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., tracked nearly 29,000 Israelis who opted to be screened for mutations in their DNA that could lead to Gaucher disease in their children if they inherit faulty genes from both parents.

Similar screening tests are offered to other specific ethnic groups predisposed to disorders, such as albinism and congenital deafness.

Dr. William R. Wilcox, who treats Gaucher patients at the Medical Genetics Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and was not involved in the study, said that given the ambiguity inherent in some genetic tests, they should not be given for diseases that are imminently treatable.

"Personally, that horrifies me," he said. "Why is it there? Because we can do it. But just because we can doesn't mean we should."
This really is, as the article calls it, a conundrum. On the one hand, it seems to be a no-brainer that if genetic testing can prepare parents for the possibility of raising an ill child, they should go through with the testing so as to make the most informed decisions about treatment. It seems especially apparent for catastrophic diseases such as Tay-Sachs. But for diseases that are relatively mild, I understand the concern that putting the information into the hands of these parents might cause these parents to make bad choices. But I don't really see stopping the testing of fetuses for diseases such as Gaucher's - out of fear that the expectant parents will abort - to be any sort of solution.

Prenatal diagnostic tests like ultrasound and Nuchal Transluscency can detect a host of problems with a fetus, some of which might incline the expectant parents to abort - yet no one is suggesting that these parents forego these important tests and let nature take its course, simply because of the fear that a treatable child might be aborted. Abortion is perfectly legal in this country, and as long as it is, people will be terminating perfectly healthy pregnancies for reasons such as poor timing and the fetus's gender - and certainly over manageable issues such as blindness or a mild limb deformity. However sad that may be, that's their choice as afforded to them by living in this country. The decision to abort a fetus over the findings of genetic testing is a choice as well - whether the disease is as mild as Gaucher's can be, or much more severe. In addition, the discussion here about Gaucher's also doesn't really address the very real possibility that Gaucher's can present as the most serious form that causes fatality at a young age.

So should genetic testing facilities consider finding a way to better counsel parents who find out they are carrying an affected fetus? Yes. Should they fully address with these parents the possibility of having a child who has the mildest manifestation of the diseases and thus could live a perfectly normal life? Of course. But I do still think that is preferable to not testing for the disease as all.

Of course the halachic aspect of this question is a whole different discussion - the severity of an illness is certainly a factor, and restrictions on abortion are far stronger than they are in a legal discussion, though there are cases where it is halachically permissible. That said, this discussion is obviously not about those couples who are making these decision from a halachic perspective - where they should proceed under the guidance of a trusted Rav. It's about the inclusion of Gaucher's and other potentially mild diseases in the so-called "Jewish Cocktail" of genetic tests that are recommended for prospective parents who are Jews of Ashkenazi descent.

I recognize that some might feel that testing for mild diseases has us skating on the thin ice of eugenics, but I simply don't think it crosses that line. This isn't about testing for things like seasonal allergies or a lack of athleticism or even a preferred gender in a quest to produce a superbaby. It's about testing for diseases that are potentially fatal, and allowing parents to make informed decisions about their child's future care - whether their decisions are good ones or not. Their will always be people who make poor choices in life. That doesn't, in my opinion, justify taking away a test that can do a lot of good - to simply protect people from themselves.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ritual Wrangling

I don't really understand this:
Members of the North Shore Synagogue in Syosset made their annual trek to the waters of Cold Spring Harbor Friday afternoon to observe Tashlich, a religious ceremony observed during Rosh Hashanah that includes the symbolic casting away of sins.

But this year, the 15-minute prayer service -- which often involves throwing pieces of bread into the water for a more concrete expression of one's desire to be free of sins -- ended with Suffolk police ticketing several of the congregants' cars for illegal parking.

"We're here every year," said Beth Bucheister, who's been with the temple for 10 years. "I don't know why they had to give us a hard time this year. We felt discriminated against."

Suffolk police said members of the Cold Spring Harbor Fire Department told the congregants to move their parked vehicles because they were across from a fire truck street exit.

When the worshippers failed to do that, firefighters called Suffolk police.

Fire officials declined to comment, but Deputy Insp. Thomas Brandon of the Second Precinct in Huntington, said six $25 tickets were issued.

"They make no-stopping, no-standing zones in front of firehouses so they can get their equipment out," he said.

Bucheister, who attended the prayer service with her niece and nephew, said she told fire officials that it was a short ceremony and they would move the cars soon.

But, Bucheister said, they told her she was in the way of their fire truck getting out in an emergency.

When she and the others returned, their cars were being ticketed by a police officer.

"It's a Jewish holiday. They should have, out of respect, not done that," said participant Eileen Rosen.
Um, huh? While I'm sure it was upsetting for those people who got ticketing while performing a religious ritual, why in the world should they have been afforded the right to park illegally (in an emergency vehicle no standing zone - and apparently in the throes of an actual emergency, no less)? Sometimes it's hard to find a spot near my shul - but I wouldn't dream of parking illegally and then using religious observance as an excuse to get out of a 25-dollar parking ticket - whether it's a Jewish holiday or not.

But hey, that's just me.

Boys' Club

Can someone try to help me sort this story out:
In a decision that somehow managed to bring together karaoke, laser tag, exotic dancers and rabbinical consultations, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday that a lower court had erred in saying the College of Staten Island could not deny official recognition to a Jewish fraternity simply because all of its members were male.

...Beyond its limited legal effects, the ruling painted a rather unlikely portrait of Jewish fraternity brothers on Staten Island who both build sukkahs and frequent pool halls in their spare time.

...The panel went so far, in fact, as to use Chi Iota’s rush week of February 2003 as evidence against it. The judges wrote that although the fraternity claimed to find benefits in being exclusive, several events during rush week actually required interaction with what the court called “nonmembers.” Those nonmembers, it said, had been encountered at outings to, among other places, a strip club, a karaoke bar and a laser tag establishment.
At first glance, I thought that the reasoning behind the fraternity's preference of an all-male membership was religious (ostensibly to prevent fraternization between the sexes) - but the fact that the fraternity holds events in strip clubs would seem to be at odds with that assumption. So it seems that the all-male status of the fraternity has nothing whatsoever to do with its religious status. Which would make the fact that the fraternity is a Jewish one not particularly relevant to the story. Anyone have another interpretation?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Pre-K Busing Restored (For Now)

Received via email:
Good news - The school board's attorneys petitioned the court and were granted a "stay" of the pre-k bussing decision today, so the District is now authorized to provide pre-k bussing to children in private school (probably until the District has an opportunity for a formal appeal).

Bussing will be provided (to all 4-year old children who were registered for pre-k bussing) beginning this Monday.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Pre-K Busing Suspended???

I received the following email suggesting that pre-K busing in SD15 for private school children has been suspended pending review by the government. The suspension appears to be in response to complaints arising from the voters' approval of a measure providing for busing for pre-K private school children this past spring. SD15 previously limited pre-K busing to public school children. Pre-K busing for public school children is not affected by the suspension:
It has come to my attention that our requests for the State Department of Education to review the Pre-K Busing issues in our district are being addressed. As of this evening, there will be NO Pre-K Busing for any school until further investigation by the State. I believe the timing of this is a bit unfortunate being the day before school starts, however, better late than never! Our voices are being heard!
More to come.UPDATED: And here is the scoop from the Jewish Star:
A day before school, Pre-K busing on hold
State education commish upholds appeal of referendum

By Mayer Fertig

Parents counting on Pre-K busing for their youngest school-age children in the Lawrence School District will have to scramble to make other arrangements.

The Jewish Star has confirmed that New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills has put the Pre-K busing plan on hold, upholding an appeal of the referendum which approved extending busing services to all Pre-K students in the district who met guidelines established by the board. In a decision which was signed on Friday, Aug. 31, 2007, but not made public until Tuesday, Sept. 4, at a reporter’s request, Mills ordered the district to “refrain from using district resources to transport
pre-K children.”

A spokesman for the education department, Jonathan Berman, said the commissioner would not answer questions or comment further since it is the policy of the education department “to let the commissioner’s ruling speak for itself.”

Calls to Superintendent John Fitzsimons were not returned before The Jewish Star’s publication deadline on Tuesday afternoon. Former District 15 board president Asher Mansdorf, who championed the across-the-board busing service to both public and private schools said, “I find it intriguing that the state board of education can give you a grant to pay for part of Pre-K busing for Universal Pre-K, implying that other public money would pay for the rest, and then turn around and say public money
can’t pay for pre-K busing?”

The commissioner’s ruling specifically said that current Pre-K busing services are not affected by his decision.

Mansdorf expressed confidence that the commissioner’s ruling would be reversed on appeal. Other comment was not available before deadline.

UPDATE II: Newsday on the matter, informing us that the board voted at last night's meeting to appeal the decision.