Monday, June 15, 2009

Yisgadal V’yiskadash

Several weeks ago Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University cynically remarked that the future of American Judaism is in the hands of the hareidi and modern orthodox communities. I commented then that it was questionable whether modern orthodoxy would be around. As a matter of fact I don’t see a rosy picture for them, because in my humble estimation they will fragment into three groups: Their right wing will eventually merge with the hareidi community, their left wing will move in to the liberal community and their leftovers (“shirayim”) will be a small impotent, marginalized curiosity. Having said that, I do want to reference a worthy op-ed piece by Nahum Sarna which appeared in the Forward June 5, 2009.

In his essay, Sarna points to five reasons why the orthodox community ought not feel all that smug and secure as the emerging leadership of the American Jewish community. Briefly, he suggests that the orthodox are having a difficult time keeping their numbers; there is a severe leadership crisis; a significant brain drain to Israel; a deeply divided community and significant issues such as modernity and lastly it is facing a severe financial crisis with the threat of the collapse of many of their day schools.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations sensitive to the financial crisis plaguing their school system set about addressing this last concern. The manner and lack of creativity by which they are dealing with the issue leads me to believe that they are in much more of a serious problem than I ever imagined. Sarna assumed that they were experiencing a brain drain since many of their youngest and brightest were relocating to Israel. This can be substantiated by the way they are dealing with the current day school crisis.

Rabbi Saul Zucker, director of day school services for the OU laid out what was referred to as a “revolutionary package of cost saving measures” to a group of Los Angeles Jewish educators. Based upon his plan he was presenting a new model of Jewish education that would save 50% of the tuition bringing the cost down to only $6500.00 annually. Admittedly, I have not been privy to the details of his “revolutionary plan” but regardless, I am skeptical of its potent value based upon the little I have read. His plan is based upon six points:

Establishing a health plan nationwide and administered by the OU. One of the problems with day school teachers is that most of them are part time. This has been so designed so as to avoid providing them with health care benefits. Health care costs aren’t what are driving the costs of tuition because healthcare is virtually non existent in yeshivas and day schools. His next point is very Obamaesque. The reduction of energy costs by conversion to alternative power sources. This too is a pittance. In fact, based upon usages of schools the savings would probably be negligible. His third prong in his six point plan is setting up a kehilla fund in order to broaden their fundraising capabilities. What Zucker doesn’t get is that most people are tapped out. In case he hasn’t heard the unemployment rate in the USA is fast approaching 9.5%. Those who have managed to hang onto their jobs are dealing with loss of benefits and some have even experienced reduction in pay. Those who have retained their wealth are conserving their assets and maintaining significant reserves in case the recession proves to be deeper than what is conventionally thought. The vacuum created by the major loss of major gifts won’t be made up by fund raisers – it won’t even come close! His next point is to make use of professional grant consultants. Bad idea, because they won’t raise all that much more money than they have already realized through other efforts at lobbying at the state level. They will however spend a lot of money in hiring these grant writers and consultants. His fifth idea, using the Web browser to gain corporate sponsors is a non starter. Corporations aren’t giving as they were in the past due to the recession and more important, they are skittish because they don’t yet know what the new healthcare options will be and how it will impact on them; or how the new tax structure including the tax exempt status of charitable donations will adversely affect their bottom line. Clearly, Zucker is not dealing with reality!

But Zucker’s last idea was the best. Holding Bingo fundraisers! That will surely be the saving grace of the day school movement that is getting ready to implode as a result of a profound financial meltdown that we are all facing. Sarna was right when he listed a brain drain as one of the problems facing the Orthodox movement today. He was actually referring to senior yeshiva students who were opting to live in Israel rather than stay in the states. But in actuality, unless they begin thinking out of the box and shatter their parochial paradigms their future isn’t any rosier than the liberal movements for whom they are planning on chanting the yisgadal viskadash.