Sunday, 21 August 2016

What is the post-high school year in Israel for, for girls?

In response to this Facebook post by Sarah Bronson, decrying that girls in sems are directed to fundraise for a charity that helps funds weddings. 

Sarah's complaint was that by encouraging the girls to fundraise dafka for a charity which funds weddings, organizations like the OU and Yeshiva University are subtly pushing the message that what matters for girls is marriage. 

It's a good point. Of course it could have come about in an innocent way (maybe the wife of a high OU exec runs the charity, for example?). My issue goes a bit further - not they are fundraising for this charity while the boys fundraise for another, but why are they fundraising and the boys are not?

When I was in sem (midreshet lindembaum), I once went with a friend for a Shabbat meal at the home of some relative of hers. This relative asked us a lot about what chessed programs we were involved in that year, & then expressed his disappointment that lindenbaum neglects to train girls in doing chessed enough. I no longer remember his exact words, but he was very clear that the priority for girls is to do chessed. The priority fir boys is to learn. 

We were all rather offended. Of course chessed is a priority, but it should be a priority for both sexes. And this year was our year to immerse ourselves in Torah learning before we become swept away with the myriad distractions and responsibilities of life. Why should we be spending it scrubbing floors or caring for children - or fundraising for anything? 

Boys in yeshivah programs are expected to focus on learning. The emphasis is on making the most of this one, two, or however many years in the cocoon of yeshivah to absorb as much Torah as you can before moving on. No one seems to worry that boys might, as a result, choose not to marry. Or that they might never do chessed. So why are girls given the message that they have dedicate learning time to choir competitions and fundraising and chessed projects, rather than to actually learning Torah?

(NB. Look, I'm not saying chessed isn't important. It is. But how do you weight your message in what for girls is almost always the one year of high-intensity torah learning? Do we want to give them message that Torah learning is what they are here for and what they should concentrate on, or that Torah learning is just one of the many things they could be involved in during their gap year before college?)

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Book Review: Echoes Of Eden

Echoes Of Eden: Devarim: Echoes Of Sinai is the final installment in Rabbi Ari Kahn's Echoes of Eden parsha series. (You'll never guess what it's about!)

The truth is that my writing a review of Rabbi Kahn's book is like Trump writing a review of Lincoln. He most emphatically does not need my endorsement. However, I realise that not everyone has heard of Rabbi Ari Kahn, and so they might not know how much they will gain from reading his books. AND also I'm incredibly honoured to have been asked, so I'm writing this anyway.

The short review: Echoes of Eden is a series of nuanced English-language (and French too) books that convey deep and complex insights into the Parsha in a way which is accessible, and yet challenging, to everyone. You can't be too inexperienced or too learned to gain from them.

The long review: My biggest issue with English language books on Torah is that they usually simplify or in some way flatten out complex topics. In my opinion, you can't really learn English Torah books; you can only read them. There's a multi-faceted aspect to Torah which seems to slip through the cracks between the languages. But now there are five nuanced, deep English language books on Torah: Rabbi Kahn's 'Echoes Of Eden' set.

If you're just wondering why you should shell out for more parsha books, let me skip the biography and tell you why: Because you're worth it. They are a level above regular Parsha books. Rabbi Kahn brings together a range of cultural references (look for the essays titled after great rock songs) and across the board Torah opinions, drawing on teachings from chassidish and litvish traditions. He's remarkable in the breadth of Torah that he'll combine: the modern, the classic, and the forgotten Torah giants all together.

If you are an English-only learner with a weak background of Torah learning, you can read these books and understand the point of the parsha. More than that: Rabbi Kahn shares a methodology of how to learn Torah, which will help you get a bit further along understanding the next week's parsha too, before you even look at his next essay.

On the other hand, if you've got a strong Torah background and usually learn the original Hebrew texts, I promise you, you will still learn from these books. You'll delve into the extra Hebrew sources that Rabbi Kahn has appended in the footnotes throughout the book. Many of them will be new to you. (Another plus: no having to flip to the back of the book to look for the source of an idea, and then having to go look it up. Call me lazy, but I really appreciate being able to learn the original Torah source for a concept cited in the text without having to get up and find the relevant book. Especially when it isn't on my bookshelves.) You'll enjoy discovering aspects of Torah that you never noticed before, no matter how many times you learned it. And it's uncanny the way he does that. Everything that he writes is obvious, once you've read it.

If I have one criticism of the books, it's that there are more jokes in his spoken shiurim than in his written works. Which just means that you'll have to buy the books, AND find out when he's next speaking in your area.

If you're a long-time Rabbi Kahn fan, you won't need me to tell you to buy his books and to learn them. All I can tell you is that yes, they are just as good as all rest of the Torah he's taught you so far. And if you're new to Rabbi Kahn's teaching, all I can say is enjoy. And you can buy the book here

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Why do people stand by?

Why do people stand by?

I don't know.

This morning I read yet another article about yet another abuse case that was just uncovered at a Jewish school. This time it was six teachers at a cheder (boys' school) who are accused of having rather horrifically abused boys aged 3-10 years old over the course of 11 years, with incidents including beating the boys, sexually abusing them, and other even-more-nasty-than-usual abuses.

It's not the first time, and I doubt it's the last time. This time it sounds particularly cruel and particularly horrific, maybe because the victims this time are so young, maybe because the abuse itself is so superlatively sadistic, so it might bring more of a reaction. But it seems like every month at least a new case comes to light of sexual or physical (or both) abuse carried out by rabbis or teachers in the Orthodox world against students in primary school, high school, yeshiva or sem.

I don't want to sound like I'm letting the perpetrators off. I'm not. But let me say here - my imagination can stretch to imagine that there are people in this world who are cruel. Who get a thrill from exercising their power over someone who is helpless. Who have an uncontrollable sexual desire that they fail to rein in, even when they know they will be caught. People who may have been abused themselves, who may have suffered from a neglected or abusive childhood which has made them into abusive and cruel individuals. It doesn't make it Ok. It doesn't give them a blank slate to inflict abuse and suffering onto another adult or child. But I can imagine that those people exist.

Here's what I can't imagine: Loving, caring parents who send their child in to school day after day to be beaten, sexually abused, hit, verbally abused, or all of the above. Parents who tell their children off for drawing pictures of rabbis with big naked penises and never wonder why they are drawing such pictures. Parents who tell the teacher to 'Never, ever, ever again touch my son!', but don't really care if he'll ever touch another woman's son.

Here's what defies my imagination: A principal who denies that any abuse has ever occurred in his school. A principal who never questions the existence of a lounge with beds in. A principal who for 11 years (or more, or fewer) chooses not to investigate the rumours he hears or complaints that reach him about abusive teachers in his school.

Here's what I can never ever forgive: A teacher who hears the screams and sees the crying children and hears whispers of abuse in the corners of playgrounds for 11 years, 11 freaking pain-filled torturous cruel years, and turns a blind eye. A teacher who hears another teacher screaming in the next door classroom and never talks to the boys about what is going on. A teacher who sees the same 7-year-old standing outside the classroom door again and again with a tear streaked face, and never questions that he deserves it, because he is just a trouble maker and bad kid.

The six defendants in this case have made a claim which is very familiar to me:

"The six defendants denied the offenses attributed to them, with each providing explanations and interpretations of the incidents, claiming they did not intend to harm the minors. Some admitted to some of the less serious incidents, while presenting them as mere jokes. "

Do you know why it's so familiar? I've heard it all before. Heard all the excuses, all the explanations and interpretations and dan-lkaf-zechut-isms before. Because one of our children went to a school where one of the teachers was accused of hitting the boys.

Note: I say accused because it has not been proven. I have not seen it and my son has not seen it. But other boys have and have told their parents. Other parents have seen the bruises and other boys have seen the blows and heard the screams, and some of them told me. So take my information with a pinch of salt - it's not first hand. You can deny it if you want.

Do you know how many boys have been taken out of that class because the teacher hit?

One. Our son.

Here's what I have heard from other parents and the principal himself:
* The boys need to toughen up. This is Israel, they can't be so sensitive
* Stop being so American. In Israel the teachers shout a bit and the boys get scared and then they say that they've been hit, but they weren't.
* You asked leading questions and got the answers you wanted
* How can you be sure?
* The teacher apologised to the child and did teshuva.
* This is his parnassah, you have to be very careful
* The teacher only gently touched the boy's cheek, the boy just imagined that he was hit
* The teacher never meant it, it was just a joke
* If it was my son, I would take him out, but I can't be sure that those other boys are telling the truth
* He's not hitting as much as he used to
* He's just a stricter teacher
* Oh, it's only hitting? I was worried you meant the other kind of abuse.
* But no school is going to be any better, this is how it is in Israel
* Every chareidi school is the same. You can't change the system, but things are improving

As far as I know, what we experienced was definitely, thankfully, only a shadow of the cruelty and abuse that has been reported in the new Belzer case, but the excuses are the same. Like Obama and Syria, people will redraw and redraw again their red line so as to avoid having to take uncomfortable action. It was clear that some of the people I spoke to felt that if it was sexual abuse, they would have done something, but not for only physical abuse. Well, it's only hitting, after all. Or that if it was their own son, they would have done something. Or if the teacher hadn't apologised. Where do you draw your red line?

Someone told me that years ago, before I made aliyah, there was an abusive ganenet in one of the biggest ganim in the area. Very abusive. Everyone knew about her behaviour towards the children who were helpless in her care.

Do you know how many parents moved their children, their helpless toddlers, out of that gan? Do you know how many parents complained to the misrad hachinuch about that teacher?


Red lines can move.

The abusers in this awful, developing Belzer case deserve to be vilified. They deserve to walk a walk of shame every day of their lives. They deserve more punishment than we can possibly give them, because if he who saves one person's life saves a world, and if he who kills one person destroys a world, then he who destroys one person but leaves him alive to destroy others has destroyed a self-repeating number of universes.

But this is my real point. What about us?

We blithely ripple off these lovely phrases that we learn in school about 'kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh' - every Jew is interconnected one with the other. We talk about our close-knit communities, how much we help each other, how advanced is Judaism's ethical code.

We become so good at being dan l'kaf zechut (judging people favourably) that we take it to extremes.

We become so scared of speaking lashon hara that we won't dare to tell someone not to send to this school because one or more teachers there hit, push, slap, or sexually abuse the children - because that would be lashon hara.

Abuse doesn't happen in a vacuum. The number of times that children are abused and no one knows about it until they grow up and bring a court case is miniscule. Most children try to tell someone - their parent, another teacher, an adult friend, another child - but no one listens.

No one listens.

People tell the child that they were mistaken, that they misunderstood, that this is a holy and good man (or woman), that they must have deserved it, that it didn't actually happen or isn't as bad as they think. Or they just never actually do anything about it.

I know so many people who have never forgiven Europe as a whole for standing by and allowing Jews to be slaughtered without ever raising their voices in protest. And yet how many of those people will stand by as children are quietly slaughtered but left alive, by people who do not carry guns or bombs or fierce dogs?

Do you know what happens if you tell people a list of three things to remember? They'll forget one of them.
הגיד לך האדם מה טוב ומה ה' דורש ממך כי אם לעשות משפט ואהבת חסד והצנע לכת עם ה''. 
Man, you've been told what is good and what G-d wants from you. Just do justice, love kindness, and walk modestly with G-d

Which one do you think we forgot?

Next time, listen.