Expatriate Owl

A politically-incorrect perspective that does not necessarily tow the party line, on various matters including but not limited to taxation, academia, government and religion.

Friday, August 28, 2009


Been traveling, been in court, been busy.

Teddy Kennedy: Even during my liberal past, I never really, really got all excited about Ted Kennedy. I have long believed that he, and the others of his clan, were and are people of privilege who have tended to abuse their privileges. Having said this, and without in any way denying his big time major league character flaws, there are things that must be said in Edward Moore Kennedy's favor.

Specifically, even though he was the son of a virulent anti-semite, Ted Kennedy exhibited kindness and compassion towards Jews (and, for that matter, Israel) during his lifetime. He did use his privilege to save the life of at least one person, a refusnik from the former Soviet Union, who today is a productive and contributing American. And Ted Kennedy was pro-Israel because he understood Arab terrorism (having lost a brother to the bullet of an Arab terrorist).

For this, I am grateful to Ted Kennedy, and hope that these matters are taken into account by the One who ultimately judges him.

Again, this is my personal viewpoint. I do not and cannot in any way purport to speak for the late Mary Jo Kopechne or her family.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Yahrzeit Boards

With few exceptions, every synagogue has one or more memorial plaque boards, (or "Yahrzeit Board," to use the Yiddish terminology) where the names of the departed are engrossed. They come in diverse styles, but typically, one donor underwrites the big board, which is then filled in with individual bronze plaques bearing the name and date of death of the deceased. Usually (but not always), there are light bulbs which are illuminated on the anniversary of the death, and also on holidays such as Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. In America, this information is typically in both English and Hebrew.

They are usually purchased by a family member, anyone with the funds and inclination can provide a plaque; in my own congregation, a few of us chipped in for a plaque for an upstanding community member who had suffered severe business reversals resulting in the loss of his home, and whose widow, we knew, could not afford the memorial recognition befitting her husband.

Even the reprobates among us are given the due respect of a memorial plaque, not so much to honor them as to signify the sanctity of life. I'm sure that the commissioning of the infamous gangster and snitch Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel 's memorial plaque for the Bialystoker Synagogue's yahrzeit board did not diminish in the least the posthumous punishment no doubt now being inflicted upon Bugsy, which he so rightfully deserves.

A synagogue's yahrzeit board often gives great insight into the character of the congregation. Which is why I often go out of my way to read each and every name on the board when I am in a synagogue that is not my own.

Today, for example, my wife and I were guests at a wedding held at a synagogue. So as not to go bonkers from the din of the dancing and music, I got up and walked around, and when I entered the main sanctuary, I read all of the names on the several yahrzeit boards there. This particular congregation has amongst its membership a large number of people who survived the Holocaust of Nazi Germany (and now, children and grandchildren thereof), and indeed, their founding rabbi himself was a survivor. This is reflected in the memorial plaques. For one thing, there is a whole wall in memory of the Holocaust, not unique but neither is it particularly common. And some of the individual bronze plaques on the yahrzeit board are for Holocaust victims. There is more than one plaque with multiple names, memorializing a family that was killed by the Nazis. One plaque, in fact, has four or five names and, in Hebrew, states that the date of their death and place of burial are unknown, and therefore, Yom Kippur, the holiest date of the year, will be celebrated as their yahrzeit day (my wife's grandfather did similar with his parents, whom he was unable to convince to leave what is now Moldova, and who disappeared during the war).

But the congregation also has a number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and this is also reflected on the yahrzeit board. In such regard, I saw a familiar name amongst the brass plaques. I saw a plaque with the name "Eugene Marshalik," who, you will recall, was a New York City Auxiliary Police Officer (and immigrant from the former Soviet Union) who died in the line of duty on 14 March 2007. And so, the demographic shift from Holocaust survivors to immigrants from the former Soviet Union is apparent on the synagogue's yahrzeit board.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bad Deal for the Yeshiva

As mentioned in several prior postings, the Agudath Israel of America has allowed itself to become entangled in fiascos that deviate from, and are, in many respects, contrary to its noble mission to facilitate and bolster the quality of life for religious Jewish observance and education in America. The new Executive Vice President, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, apparently has been tasked to redirect the organization. Some of the toochases he will need to kick belong to some very prominent rabbis.

As synopsized in the posting of 15 July 2009, Agudath Israel had, over the years, fallen into the denial trap with respect to various types of abuses within the religious Jewish community. Prior to the modern information technologies, a newspaper editor really could control the flow of information (and, for that matter, a leader such as a rabbi wielded even greater control over information before newspapers became the norm in the community). Accordingly, it was in many respects appropriate policy to restrain word of an occasional from going out to "the street" while the rabbis and community leaders worked to help the victim.

Add to this the fact that the religious community prided itself that certain behaviors contrary to the Torah were in fact rare within the community. Under such circumstances, it was more convenient to deny that the misbehaviors occurred than to confront the misbehaviors and the misbehavers. In fact, it was -- and still is -- a community taboo to even mention such misbehaviors by name.

And so, the Agudath Israel now finds itself ensnared in its past policies of denying that certain occurrences within the insular religious community occurred.

Addressing the problems of sexual abuses by the clergy, New York State Assemblywoman Margaret Markey introduced Assembly Bill 2596, the Child Victims Act, which would extend the statute of limitations to bring civil suit against, inter alia, educational institutions, for sexual abuse of children.

The Markey Bill presented a double whammy for Agudath Israel. For one thing, it brought home the uncomfortable fact that sexual abuse of children by clergy in the religious schools is not the exclusive province of the Catholic Church. Of more practical concern, however, was the fear that some financially strapped yeshivas might now be subject to existence-ending litigation on account of past wrongs by long departed employees. And so, the Agudath Israel issued a policy statement against the Markey Bill. [Given the oft-expressed attitude that sexual abuse by the clergy is a Catholic problem and we, the Rabbis, are not as depraved as some of the Catholic clergy, it is more than a little bit ironic that Agudath Israel is now working with the Catholic Church in opposing the Markey Bill.].

In short, the combination of s-e-x-u-a-l i-m-p-r-o-p-r-i-e-t-y and m-o-n-e-y have tripped up the Agudath Israel.

With its opposition of the Markey Bill, the AI has now postured itself as a champion of financial stability for yeshivas and other religious Jewish institutions. Which is why AI and Rabbi Zwiebel have just been thrown a real screwball pitch.

The recent mass arrests in Newark, which ensnared several rabbis, are more than just an embarrassment to the Agudath Israel (and indeed, this Jew is quite disgusted and embarrassed by them). The Newark arrests all resulted from the various songs sung by one Solomon Dwek, the Rabbi's son who, being under investigation for some significant bank fraud, chose to deliver up some more fish to the FBI in order to posture himself for some merciful treatment. Solomon Drek is, quite appropriately, scorned and reviled in the Jewish community for squealing on his fellow Jews (and, I suspect, will find few if any admirers among the gentiles).

But Dwek's problems, which started from his construction business being whipsawed in a bad econonomy, have also landed him in Bankruptcy Court. And now, the Trustee of Dwek's bankruptcy estate is now suing Dwek's father's yeshiva, the Deal Yeshiva, claiming that about $13 million of Dwek's ill-gotten gains traversed through the Deal Yeshiva's bank accounts. The Yeshiva is reportedly behind in the payment of salaries to its rank-and-file employees.

Now, if Agudath Israel of America is so staunch an advocate of financial security for yeshivas, how is it going to handle this one? What say you, Rabbi Zwiebel?

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

Publisher's Pitfalls, Part 2

As alluded to in the 26 July 2009 posting, my personal access to the publication Yated Ne'eman is not firsthand, and, because the publication does not have a website as such, there is almost always a time delay between the time the paper hits the streets and the time I get to read it. I now have the 31 July 2009 edition physically in my hand.

The aforementioned 26 July posting speculated as to how Yated Ne'eman would handle the story of the big bust in New Jersey, which stung certain rabbis, and expressed a confidence that Yated would handle the story quite well in light of the various attending issues, probable repercussions, and operative dynamics.

How did Yated Ne'eman handle the story in the 31 July edition? With pieces that essentially said that not enough information is known, and therefore, we should not jump to conclusions. This might seem, at first blush, to be a cop-out, but one of the articles details some recent events, including but not limited to President Barack Hussein Obama's recent loose cannon uninformed comments regarding a certain arrest in Massachusetts, events where people jumped to conclusions without having sufficient information.

All in all, I would say that my confidence in Yated Ne'eman's handling of the Big Newark Bust story was not misplaced.

But, out on the other Coast in Los Angeles, there was an actual guilty plea by the Spinka Rebbe in another tax evasion and money laundering scandal. The "other side of the story" is no longer missing to any significant extent. What is Yated Ne'eman's take on that one?

I haven't yet read the 7 August edition of Yated Ne'eman, but they now have their work cut out for them on this matter. And, given Yated's coverage of the Newark case, there is every reason to expect Yated to pull a passing grade on this latest development in the Spinka case.

One thing that works in Yated's favor is that Rabbi Weisz, the Spinka Rebbe, has already made public acknowledgment that he has erred, and seems to be accepting responsibility for his wrongdoing. In addition to making the story easier to report, this also makes it easier for the Judge to accord the Rebbe a modicum of mercy in the sentence, which is to be imposed this coming November.

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Sunday, August 02, 2009

Will the Agudath Israel go Cyber?

The previous posting included the comment:

"(E) Personal sentiment: It would not surprise me in the least if, within the next few months or years, the Agudath Israel of America erects a website. I leave it to those in the pari-mutuel profession to assign particular odds to particular time frames."

Some further discussion of this and related matters occurred during Shabbat, so I will now expand upon it. I also have gotten hold of a generally-addressed missive dated 11 June 2009 from Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the Executive VP of Agudath Israel, regarding the its Jewish Observer magazine. The letter includes the following passage:

" [G]iven the harsh economic realities of our times, and the proliferation in recent years of a number of other worthy publications that cater to the Torah community, we believe the time has arrived to do some fresh thinking about The Jewish Observer -- its format, its content, its role in serving the community today."

The letter goes on to say that publication will be suspended for a few months while the Jewish Observer gets reinvented, and beseeching the loyal readership's patience and understanding.

Fair enough!

If you have spent Shabbat in Bnei Brak in Israel, you will know that among the first matters to be attended to after Havdalah is the announcements, over the loudspeakers, of the names of those who passed away during Shabbat (statistically speaking, at least one can be expected on any given Shabbat). Such a method of communication suffices quite well for Bnei Brak, and might conceivably suffice for neighborhoods such as Borough Park or Crown Heights. Agudath Israel's symposium last Tuesday drew from a wider area than the individual neighborhood in which it was held. In other words, the bullhorn announcement method that works so well in Bnei Brak would not have sufficed to get the word out in time. And, I am informed, the Agudath Israel did use e-mail to publicize its symposium, and did make sure that certain websites got word of it as well.

Historically, the rabbis have always received technological innovations with great suspicion. This is not to say that the rabbis did not understand the technical aspects of the innovations, nor that the rabbis didn't use the innovations. But the rabbis, quite appropriately, have always been concerned about the effects of the technological innovations upon society in general, and the Jewish community in particular. The printing press, for example, caused much consternation among the rabbis when it first came out, but the rabbis eventually embraced it, but not without placing caveats and restrictions upon its use. To this day, books written on religious subjects often have one or more rabbi's imprimatur letter in the prefatory material.

Reading between the lines in Rabbi Zwiebel's letter, the Jewish Observer is now suffering from competition from the Internet. AI and its affiliate rabbis have pronounced many restrictions upon the use of the Internet, and indeed, have branded it as evil. And now, having made such pronouncements, they will have to find a way to use the Internet's positive attributes while avoiding its negative attributes to whatever extent is possible.

Also, there are some conflicts within the AI itself. Specifically, there are conflicts of style and philosophy between the Chassidic and the other religiously observant. And while the factions usually tend to manage their differences quite well, there had been a certain degree of pandering to the Chassidic faction by the others over the years.

And now, AI is a troubled organization that needs redirection to its core values and purposes. On account of the misbehaviors of some individuals from amongst its constituent groups, AI has, in many respects, morphed from an organization advocating statutes and administrative rules which are friendly to the observance of Jewish rituals and the safety and well-being of religious Jews, to an organization that scrambles to cover up the indiscretions of its wayward brats, and/or implore the prosecutors and judiciary for leniency towards the same. Zwiebel understands that the organization he leads has been distracted, and must refocus on its core values.

My rhetorical question: If the Agudath Israel of America can hastily convene a seminar on a few days notice, why does it need a few months to think about what it is going to do with its Jewish Observer publication? Fundraising may well be part of it, but I strongly suspect that it may have more to do with convincing the anti-Internet factions of the need to redirect the organization's public affairs agenda, including, perhaps, the necessity for an Agudath Israel website.

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