Monday, February 28, 2011

The Megillah: The New Online Jewish Student Newspaper

Dear All,

Hello. My name is Olivia Friedman and I am writing to inform you about an exciting new project entitled "The Megillah." "The Megillah" is an online collaboration and initiative to showcase student Jewish journalism sponsored by OU Alumni. While many of you write for your own student newspapers, we thought it was imperative to bring together Jewish voices, thoughts, beliefs, viewpoints and journalism in one online forum.

If you are currently enrolled in a college, graduate school, law school, medical school or any other university, you are considered a student and are eligible to write.

We are currently looking for writers to submit articles in the following categories:

-News and Features
-Modox Love (a riff on The New York Times' "Modern Love" section, which will cover Jewish love specifically - how you met your husband, broken engagements and broken hearts, your love for your newborn, relationships with parents etc)
-On My Campus (your perspective, coverage and/or response to events taking place on your campus specifically- they can have a Jewish theme, like your response to Brandeis' Israel Apartheid Week, or a more broad theme)
-Politics & Israel
-Religion & Spirituality
-Arts & Culture

We are also looking for people who write/draw comic strips (preferably Jewish-themed), are graphic designers and have other talents.

This is strictly a student newspaper and as such you will not be compensated/ paid for your submissions. However, as they will be published online, your name will be Google-searchable and you will be able to link to your articles as clips for any future journalistic endeavors.

Please submit articles yourselves and forward this email on to other interested parties.

The deadline for submissions is: March 17, 2011.

To learn more about The Megillah, please check out our Facebook page and Like it:!/pages/The-Megillah/185864291451765 - please see the Frequently Asked Questions in the sidebar.

If you have more questions, please email me at TheMegillah

Thank you,
Olivia Friedman

EZ Reads 2/28/11

  • Via Daas Torah, a very interesting inside look at London's Charedi community by The Telegraph. I haven't finished it yet, but it's quite fair through where I got up to and very intriguing.
  • Doctors in the UK are now being instructed to tell mothers-to-be that it would be safer to abort than attempt to have a baby. (The Telegraph)
  • MintLife has a really interesting piece that breaks down credit card numbers - they're not random at all, it turns out. Plus a trick to know if a card is fake.
  • Brilliant: Government spending didn't create jobs in the end at all, but now cutting that spending will somehow cost jobs?(WSJ)
    In 2009 the Obama Administration said $814 billion in stimulus spending would create three million new jobs and keep unemployment below 8%. Instead, two years later the economy has two million fewer jobs, and the unemployment rate is still 9%. GDP growth fell $400 billion short of where the White House economists promised it would be. Employment by the end of 2010 was predicted to be 137.6 million as a result of the stimulus, but instead it was 130.2 million—a 7.4 million jobs overestimate.
  •  My mom sent this great video a while back: How teaching math sparks kids' creative thinking. (WSJ)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Barbershops, Nursing Homes, & Parenting

I was at the barbershop today, waiting to get a haircut, when one of the men getting a haircut was having an interesting conversation with another man waiting to get his. The man on the chair asked a simple question: Why is it that a couple of generations ago, as parents would get older, they would move in with their children; but now, it is far more likely that as someone gets older their children will move them to a nursing home?

He answered that he had heard from someone an astute observation: It used to be that one parent would work, while the other would stay home to raise the children. As time has passed, however, both parents often work, and the children are often brought to a babysitter or daycare center to be watched during the day. When these kids grow up, while in the past they would do as their parents did, which is take care of their family themselves, they instead do as they were brought up: They outsource the care-taking to somebody else. The obvious lesson is that when it comes to parenting, keep in mind that however you treat your children is likely how they will end up treating you.

Audio of Hespedim for R' Nachum Zev Dessler zt"l

Thanks to SB and EK for the links, and to EK for the pictures from the shloshim.

The hespedim from the levaya of Rabbi N.W. Dessler in Cleveland are available to listen to online (high quality) at ZionTrain; or you can download or listen to any individual hesped from all of the various levayas (Cleveland, Newark airport, and in Eretz Yisroel) from LocalJewishNews.
R' Matisyahu Solomon, shlita at Shloshim for R' N.W. Dessler zt"l

R' Nosson Tzvi Baron shlita at Shloshim for R' N.W. Dessler zt"l

R' Eliyahu Brodny shlita at Shloshim for R' N.W. Dessler zt"l

A Sense of Community, Perhaps

Recently, we have noticed an interesting phenomenon when talking to some of our friends who are single. It is not necessarily "new", but it has raised some questions and ideas that are worthy of more discussion.

One of Serach's best friends has been planning a move to the New York area, and was discussing various options with us. Her most important desired quality wherever she goes is that there be an "established community" - she does not want to be part of a "singles scene", though having some singles around is nice, but prefers to be around an actual community. She wants to be around families, she wants there to be shiurim and the like available to attend and be a part of, and she wants there to be a sense of stability among the people there.

Meanwhile, a really good friend of mine who is single recently finished his schooling, and decided that rather than move back to the tri-state area, he was going to move back to his hometown and work there (and only three and a half days a week to allow for travel among other things). He is living at home for now, and calculated that even if he moved out and got his own place, his cost-of-living savings would be enough for him to afford to fly into New York every weekend if he so desired, and still come out ahead. As he put it, "Why should I move to New York? So I can live near [Shul X] and be one of hundreds of singles there in the same stupid meat market and kill myself to work and sit in annoying traffic or on dirty subways and have no money left? I'm much happier this way, thanks."

More recently, another friend interviewed for a position in Cleveland. She, too, is single, and asked if there was anyone "young and single" there. I replied "Young, yes; single, some". After spending a weekend in the area, she's apparently considering it strongly enough that another friend tonight was asking me what I thought about her moving there as well. Interestingly, we had just spent the weekend at the Lander Alumni Shabbaton with a lot of friends, and there's a decent possibility that some of our closest friends will be moving to Cleveland soon - on top of the ones that are already there.

I replied to the friend tonight that Cleveland is a great place to live. That said, you don't go there as a Single to be a part of a Singles community, but you go there to be a part of the community. For a single concerned about dating, there is almost certainly a large negative impact which is obvious that comes from moving away from the central hub of New York dating; there's possibly a small positive impact that comes from exposure to new people, to people with different mindsets and approaches to dating and life in general, and just the way those people may be able to help you with dating when they can. Certainly overall from a strictly getting dates perspective, though, moving away from the tri-state area would seem to be a net negative for most people.

But thinking about these various friends and how they would be impacted on a personal level by living away from the tri-state area, I couldn't help but wonder if it still would make sense for them, even as it pertains to dating. There's something - a lot, really - to be said for being happier and feeling more accomplished, and it seems obvious that those traits would positively impact a person as they date. Particularly for those who maybe feel a bit lost in the sea of singles in the New York area, living elsewhere and saving up some money and moving up in life a bit can help someone stand out a bit more both in the world of shidduchim and more importantly, on dates themselves. Rather than being viewed and viewing themselves in the lens of just another guy or girl being stacked against the dozens of people around them, they are able to think of themselves differently, which in turn lets their dates see them differently.

Every time I start to think about this, I can't help but think of my good friend and how he would be viewed versus how he is viewed. If he were here, he'd be just another Jewish guy who does pretty well and you may remember meeting him once. But where he is, he's not just another guy - he's a guy who "everyone knows" is hilarious, who "everyone knows" is tight with his family and great with kids, who "everyone knows" is really personable and on top of all that, "everyone knows" he's also successful and putting away for the future and has a real leg up on life. And "everyone knows" this because everyone knows him. He's a part of the community, just like everyone else.

Perhaps there's something to be said for community; perhaps it's not so crazy for singles to move away from the hubbubs of single-dom and into established communities (whether in New York or outside of it, though I believe it is easier to integrate away from large groups of singles). As another friend said recently, the "shidduch crisis" can affect you regardless. Perhaps having singles who are happy and fulfilled is the best solution of all - after all, even if it's no better than now, at least you're happier and more fulfilled in life.


Friday, February 25, 2011

Honesty and The Jewish Community I: Honest Ben

Grandma & Grandpa's matzeivos (headstones)
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, just like my father before me. His father was born in Lacrosse, Wisconsin before moving to Marietta, Ohio, if I'm remembering the family history right.

In the 1920s, my grandfather decided to pursue a legal career, and attended Harvard Law School, where he received his law degree - at around the time when Harvard was trying to limit Jewish enrollment.

In the 1960s, my father attended Western Reserve University in Cleveland (which later merged and became Case Western University), where he majored in finance, and became a CFA.

It is fair to say that despite stellar educations and brilliant minds, neither my grandfather nor my father (to date) were particularly successful. My grandfather, who passed away when I was 6 years old, had a reputation for utter honesty and being too forgiving - working with many minority clients and not taking much pay. He earned himself the nickname "Honest Ben", and his gravestone reads "Holeich tamim u'foel tzedek, v'dover emes bilvavo" ([One who] goes straight and works righteously, and speaks truth in his heart). A few years ago, I had a conversation with my father where I asked him why he never seemed to get over that hump, and he told me it was because he simply couldn't do things that way. When I asked what he meant, he explained that in his line of work, there are lots of (financial/insurance) products to sell, but he would always recommend to people that they only get what was best for their situations - and that unfortunately, those were the ones which did not give him a particularly large commission if at all. He noted that some people recommend other products, which are good products, but also earn nice commissions for the brokers. While he seemed to feel that what others did was not unethical (since arguments could be made for those products over the others), he felt that it was more proper to recommend what he thought was absolutely best for the person regardless of commission.

Growing up, I was always good at math - 2nd in the state of Ohio in junior high, an advanced track for math from 8th grade until finishing calculus in 10th, and an easy 800 on the Math portion of the SATs. My calculus teacher, a young college student at UW-Milwaukee with a baseball scholarship offer from UCLA, yet a lover of all things math, recommended I pursue an actuarial career. When I called and asked my father what he thought, he said not to do it - that it's the most boring job in the world, and that I was far too social to do that without going crazy. I said, "But Dad, you sell insurance out of our basement," to which he replied, "...and I'm telling you, it's the most boring job in the world." After spending a couple of years studying abroad in Israel, I got to college, and originally contemplated a double major in economics and political science to be followed by law school - but due to the limitations at my smaller religious college, determined that majoring in Accounting was a much better decision for me. It would give me the strongest base to understanding how any business needs to function, and there's an innate logic and honesty to numbers in accounting, as opposed to (say) finance, which is often more about projections than data. Or, perhaps better put: The numbers don't - can't - lie.

(to be continued)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Quote of the Day

Those who think it is permissible to tell white lies soon grow color-blind.  ~ Austin O'Malley

Setting Bad Precedents

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. - Oath of the President of the United States
Most of us learned in elementary school that there are three branches of government in the United States: The Congress makes the laws; the President and the Executive Branch enforces those laws; and the Judiciary, led by the Supreme Court, determines if those laws are Constitutional. Within reason, each branch is supposed to respect the ideals of one another, as there are gray areas all over and there are often disagreements, depending on one's point of view. For example, members of Congress are not supposed to put forth bills without demonstrating their need and why they fall under the Constitutional rights of Congress to enact a law about, a point which the new Republican majority has tried to impress; and the Courts will often try to retain portions of a law even if other portions are found to be unconstitutional out of respect for the Congress.

Yesterday, the Obama administration made a very interesting and unprecedented decision: It decided that it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed into law by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress in 1996, from constitutional challenges in the Courts. [Note: I don't believe the subject matter is particularly important for the legal discussion, on which (hat tip: Nephtuli) there are two very interesting posts with many interesting comments on Volokh Conspiracy (a top legal blog).] One of the most interesting parts of the administration's decision is that while they will not defend the law, they will however still enforce the law. This seems to be quite a split - some have argued that this makes sense, from the standpoint of the Executive Branch is required to enforce the laws of this country, and therefore even if they don't like a law, they can't simply not enforce it. Others have argued the reverse: The Executive Branch should be required to defend the law so long as it is on the books, but can choose to selectively enforce or not enforce a law as it sees fit. Still others have argued that they must do neither, that to enforce or defend but not the other is an inherent contradiction.

But Orin Kerr's piece points out the stickiest issue here: By the Executive Branch choosing to not defend a law passed by Congress, it essentially becomes an Executive power grab:
If Congress passes legislation on a largely party-line vote, the losing side just has to fashion some constitutional theories for why the legislation is unconstitutional and then wait for its side to win the Presidency. As soon as its side wins the Presidency, activists on its side can file constitutional challenges based on the theories; the Executive branch can adopt the theories and conclude that, based on the theories, the legislation is unconstitutional; and then the challenges to the legislation will go undefended. Winning the Presidency will come with a great deal of power to decide what legislation to defend, increasing Executive branch power at the expense of Congress’s power. Again, it will be a power grab disguised as academic constitutional interpretation.
The simplest example is perhaps coming up rather soon. If a Republican wins the Presidency in 2012, is there any doubt that they would exercise this new technique to not defend the health care bill should it come to the Supreme Court? The Department of Justice has a longstanding practice of defending all federal laws which are challenged in court, regardless of the President's views on the subject. To stop appears to be a horrible precedent to set, allowing the President in his capacity as Chief Executive to unilaterally determine which laws it will or will not defend (or enforce, though again that does not seem to be at issue here).

As an aside, Kerr makes an interesting analogy to President Bush's administration's defense of approaches that were certainly against the mainstream interpretation of law; however, at least those cases were regarding the powers of the Executive Branch and how far reaching those powers were (such as could they wiretap without a warrant people who had been in contact with foreign terrorists), and it is reasonable to allow the Executive Branch to attempt to determine the limits of its own powers. Here, President Obama's administration is applying its opinion to laws passed by the Congress and signed into law by President Clinton - without waiting for the Courts to decide the Constitutionality of the law, but making their own judgment and acting accordingly. This is essentially spitting in the face of Congress and precedent, that laws remain as such until such time that the Congress repeals or amends the law or the Courts determine it to be unconstitutional.

This is also not the first time President Obama has seemed to overstep his boundaries a bit. In last year's State of the Union address, he openly criticized a decision by the Supreme Court, prompting a reaction from Justice Alito and a bit of a negative backlash from all over, as no President had ever done such a thing before. For a President to almost interfere with another branch like that was shockingly bad precedent; yesterday's decision likely is as well. It appears that President Obama's administration is either unaware of the precedents it may be setting; uncaring due to the policies it feels are worth promoting despite the costs; or specifically creating such precedents to redesign the way the United States government functions and to transfer greater powers to the Executive Branch. None of those choices are particularly comforting, and we can only hope that the precedent is stopped and reversed as time passes.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Investigative Jewish Journalism?

(Hat tip: Da'as Torah blog)

Upon first seeing the title and subtitle of this Jewish Week article, the thought that sprung to my head was "Wow - investigating Ohel. That's some serious journalism." To take on Ohel, which is the darling of Jewish organizations and which accomplishes an incredible amount, particularly with its social services, takes some serious guts and, one would think, a serious story.

But then I read the story. Suffice it to say, it was heavy on innuendo and implications, but light on substance. After detailing a single instance in which questionable (but not entirely unreasonable) decisions were made regarding the status of a child who was perhaps (and then confirmed to be) being abused through proper protocol, it sums up the story by noting "that he was not removed from the home or put into foster care by ACS."

From there, the story goes on to discuss completely unrelated issues, including
the handling of sex abuse that, while technically legal, many advocates and observers believe has put the community’s children at serious risk: treating known sexual abusers who have not been reported to law enforcement and whose proclivities are protected from being made public by confidentiality laws, should they drop out of treatment.
Essentially, Ohel is being criticized for being "technically" legal, but a later paragraph explains why they don't do more:
In 2009, The Jewish Week reported on the case of Stefan Colmer, who had been “sent” by rabbis to treatment at Ohel after he was discovered to have been sexually abusing boys in his Brooklyn neighborhood. Because neither the victims nor anyone else with knowledge of the situation reported Colmer to law enforcement at that time, his treatment at Ohel was not court mandated and thus considered voluntary. Further, because of confidentiality rules, the therapist treating Colmer was prohibited by law from notifying anyone in the community about the danger he posed to children unless Colmer signed a release or disclosed to the therapist that he was currently abusing or had serious thoughts of abusing a specific child (such information allows for the breach of confidentiality rules).
Throughout the piece, the writer seems to fault Ohel for not handling this issue differently, but based on the other information included in the story it seems clear that Ohel is bound by confidentiality laws to act exactly as they do. The closest reasonable critique is that Ohel should be guiding referring Rabbis to report people to authorities and not send them to Ohel, but there seems to be no data to suggest whether or not Ohel has done exactly that nor how many of these cases come from self-reporting individuals. Nor does it explain how ideally Ohel should handle such a patient, particularly considering the specific confidentiality laws that apply to such cases.

The story then segues back to the original example, even realizing itself that the two are not related, noting "None of this, of course, directly applies to the case of the mother, who did not come into treatment as a known molester..." The article then cites the Brooklyn DA's office which says simply that if they had a reason to investigate a failure to report they would, before discussing the Brooklyn DA's relationship with Ohel which includes a hotline for reporting abuse directly to law enforcement.

Finally, the article concludes with an odd paragraph which says "Regardless of the law, the fact that Ohel did not report the case of the mother comes as little surprise to some" followed by a statement from YU's Rabbi Yosef Blau which calls Ohel
"...the problem, in a nutshell. They [have shown that they are] not able to deal with the situation that they are legally required and morally required [to deal with]. [...] Solutions [to the current problem] would involve changing [Ohel’s] leadership. [And] you will know there’s change when they start reporting.”
There seems to be little evidence, at least in this article, to back up the statement that Ohel is not able to deal with the situation properly, nor does it make clear how changing the leadership will effect that change. One friend remarked upon reading that he wonders if this is merely the first shot across the bow in a series of articles about Ohel; I replied that perhaps that is the case, and this was written in the hope that others will come forward with more information. These seem like plausible, if not particularly comforting, explanations for the piece.

Ultimately, though, for a respected Jewish weekly to attack a well-regarded organization on such paltry evidence comes off as horribly weak, sensationalist journalism. There are almost no facts in the entire story, and most of the facts that do exist are spun to present Ohel negatively, despite them acting exactly as they seem to be mandated to in all but one questionable and unclear case. This is extremely disappointing and unfairly besmirches Ohel's reputation, and if there should be more evidence then it is only appropriate that it have been included here.

Via Josh Lintz, ShulLists a great site which condenses the posts from many of the various tri-state area shul listings (TeaneckShuls, FiveTownShuls, KGHShuls, etc.) and puts them all in one, organized place. This is really useful for people who know what they're looking for and is a lot easier to skim through, and can be sorted by area as well as type. All in all, very nice and very useful.

From their About Us page:
Shullists was created in 2011 with the aim of providing a consolidated and simplified inbox of shul and community message boards in order to facilitate the wider spread of information in the Jewish community. Some of our services include:
-Numerous flexible search capabilities
-Posts can be consolidated by subject matter across multiple geographic locations
-Live Twitter feed with hash tags to follow sources of interest in real time.
-A facebook profile you can choose to "friend"
-Privacy settings that prevent personal data from being scraped by web marketers or search engines
We have attempted to maximize ease of use for the benefit of our users. If you have any suggestions on how to improve our services, we would love to hear from you. If you have a bulletin board you would like us to add to this service, we would also be interested to hear about it. Please feel free to contact us.
The Shullists Administrators

Public Unions vs. Taxpayers

There are great pieces all around by George Will (WaPo), James Taranto (WSJ), and Jonah Goldberg (LA Times), but to take a simpleton's stab at the issue:

Government unions, of which over 36% of government employees are a part, and which were actually illegal until JFK allowed them by executive order in 1962, should not be allowed to exist. Perhaps the simplest reason is because there is no reason for them to exist; are we that concerned about government taking advantage of its own workers, of placing them in harm's way or giving them unfair working conditions? Quite simply, no.

But the more important and clear reason today is that such unions exist almost completely to protect its own at the expense of government... and therefore, taxpayers. Government workers have a vested interest in increasing the size of government - whether it makes sense or not for the people whom they serve - to protect their own jobs and benefits. Government exists to serve the people, and allowing the existence of a group whose primary motivation is to serve itself over the people they are meant to serve is tantamount to organized suicide.

The best analogy is to imagine running a business, and knowing that you must retain a specific staff member to handle your HR - and you are not in a position to hire anybody else, only this specific individual. However, you are not allowed to dictate terms; rather, this staff member will dictate to you what the terms of her hire will be. In fact, despite your being completely open with this staff member that you cannot afford to meet her demands, she is demanding compensation completely out of line with the industry standard, and has rallied friends of hers from related departments to tell you to meet her demands. You've countered with a proposal that is extremely generous, backed clearly by the shareholders of the company, and yet all you hear are more cries that what you're offering is a slap in the face to this HR staffer, despite her having been grossly overcompensated for decades. On top of that, a board vote would overrule her demands, but a few board members left to avoid allowing a quorum to have a vote on the matter.

The obvious question is not merely how to solve the riddle; instead, it is the following: Who in their right mind believes such a company can successfully function; and, once you've determined the answer to that, then why the heck are we running our governments this way?

EZ Reads 2/23/11

Some cool enjoyable stories for today: (Sorry but I can't remember all the hat tips...)
  • A great piece on Waiting for Next Year (my favorite Cleveland sports blog) on how to teach his son that Life Isn't Fair. I've got(ten) some great lessons myself... v'hamaven yavin.
  • Mind vs. Machine. Really cool bit by a writer who took part in the annual Humans vs. Computers challenge, where computers and humans do their best to convince judges which of them is really human in 5-minute IM conversations. (The Atlantic)
  • A Domino's delivery person saved an 82-year old woman's life after the woman didn't call in her daily order. (Deadspin)
  • Really slick video from the NBA from the dunk contest, in super slow motion with some nice music. (Deadspin)
  • Are you smarter than an 8th grader... from 1895? I'm not. (Freakonomics)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Quote of the Day

Made my day:
I can tell you're not from New York. ~ said to me after a brief meeting.
(I replied with a Thank You, of course.)

Related: SD's top ten ways to spot a tourist, which are mostly the classics, but a couple really good new ones.

Agenda Driven Data

About a year and a half ago, I was interviewed by a large Jewish organization regarding the Jewish Economics Survey I was conducting (and am looking to release a second version of shortly). Very quickly, the interview headed downward: The interviewer's questions were extremely leading, and he was clearly looking for me to answer in specific ways, primarily along the lines of "if someone would pump money into this, we'd be able to solve this problem" - or in other words, exactly the opposite of what I actually felt. When I would start to answer "well, not really...", I'd quickly get cut off and another question would be asked in its place. Unsurprisingly, the footage which included me was cut just before the video was aired at a large event the organization ran a few weeks later, which apparently championed the need for people to donate more money to help solve the Jewish world's economic problems.

Agenda driven data is one of the hardest obstacles to overcome - whether in the Orthodox world or the world as a whole. For all the obfuscation regarding the Iraq War, the most legitimate potential criticism is not whether the Bush administration had the data to justify invasion, but whether the gathering and weighing of that data was agenda driven in such a way that they were more prone to give it credence than they otherwise would or should have been. More recently, it was impressive to see three liberal publications discuss how liberal or other agenda driven bias is causing major issues in extremely important scientific fields by placing ideology over science.

In The New York Times about two weeks ago, an article about social psychologists' bias tells an eye-opening story:
[Dr. Jonathan Haidt] polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.
Prior to that, The Atlantic noted that the structure of academia caused research to emphasize the sensational over fact, stating in Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science that
To get funding and tenured positions, and often merely to stay afloat, researchers have to get their work published in well-regarded journals, where rejection rates can climb above 90 percent. Not surprisingly, the studies that tend to make the grade are those with eye-catching findings. [...] Imagine, though, that five different research teams test an interesting theory that’s making the rounds, and four of the groups correctly prove the idea false, while the one less cautious group incorrectly “proves” it true through some combination of error, fluke, and clever selection of data. Guess whose findings your doctor ends up reading about in the journal, and you end up hearing about on the evening news?
And The New Yorker had a fascinating piece entitled The decline effect and the scientific method about the same time discussing how studies which were (and are) used to explain and create numerous theories and ideas are increasingly difficult to replicate, from the effectiveness of anti-depressants to memory to numerous other fields, causing huge questions to be raised about the efficacy and accuracy not only of the studies but of all that has been based on the findings of them. No matter the study, the more it is replicated, the less true it seems to be.

If we as a Jewish community wish to begin fixing our problems, examples such as these show we can't use agenda driven studies to come to conclusions. If we do, ultimately we'll rush in one direction that looks good, only to find over and over that it's just not working the way it's supposed to - and then it will be too late. When the JES began two years ago, the primary purpose was to put together a simple guide for young singles and couples to help them when they began living independently or started their marriage. As the data came in, however, its findings taught so much about what problems existed and how people viewed those problems and the community's economics as a whole - and pointed to, but didn't prove, what might be able to help.

It is high time we put in the effort to collect and truly understand as much data as possible about the Jewish community and its various underlying problems and their causes - and its strengths and what allows those to thrive. Perhaps (!) a data-driven approach will allow us to ultimately help the Jewish community, rather than simply push off what seems to be an increasingly close, inevitable collapse of the structure currently in place.

EZ Reads 2/22/11: Could You Survive on $1,000?

This challenge (by a charity site) is really something: PlaySpent. What would you do if all you had was $1,000? Try the challenge. Sadly, the various difficulties that arise are all too familiar and true: From bank fees to insurance to any wrench thrown in your plans and its spillover effect on everything else. It's scary to think about, and it's scarier to realize that there's really no good answer. But it ultimately helps you prepare for the future by understanding what you need to focus on now.

Some other worthwhile links to start your day with...
  • The community-wide hesped for R' N.W. Dessler in Cleveland will take place Thursday evening at 7:45pm at the Yavne campus on Green Road. Audio of all the hespedim from his levaya and burial are available online here; numerous articles which are all worth reading if only for the various stories from his life which are so telling have been compiled by the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland on their website here.
  • Via JonB, the effectiveness of GroupOn. I'd say it's about what I'd have expected, which is to say pretty good for most and not so much for a significant group of others. 
  • R' Natan Slifkin with an obviously ironic post, discussing WikiLeaks' contrast to many even democratic people and the Rambam's views that there are subjects which are not meant for the general public. One close relative said exactly that to me upon hearing another relative give a Science & Torah shiur during the Shabbos of my aufruf, noting that "everything he said is true, but it doesn't mean it should be said [because they can't understand it]."
  • On the Main Line with an interesting historical view on the line about how the Jewish people were healthy until Rabbis became doctors.
  • Elder of Ziyon shows just how crazy this world is, with people honestly believing - at least according to their tweets - that Israeli F-16s are dropping bombs on Libyans, or that Israel trained African Jews to shoot people. Nice.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rewarding Honesty

For us, this is about balancing the budget. We've got a $3.6 billion budget deficit. We are broke. Just like nearly every other state across the country, we're broke. It's about time somebody stood up and told the truth.” - Governor Scott Walker (Wisconsin)
In case you haven't been following the news, Wisconsin is the first of many states facing a major battle with unions of government workers over budgetary concern, including Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. Commentary has a solid piece criticizing The New York Times' coverage, particularly as it compares to their coverage of Tea Party demonstrations the past year or so, but it is important to note a different quality lacking in almost every bit of coverage that seems to be out there about these demonstrations.

First, a few points about unions, and in particular, government unions. As noted yesterday, even FDR was against the idea of collective bargaining with if not actual government unions. By definition, working for government means you are supposed to be working on behalf of the people whom you representing, not against them. This virtue extends to every government employee, and is not limited to the directly elected representatives; if anything, one could argue that non-elected employees have an even greater responsibility in this regard. One of the most troubling aspects of the Wisconsin debate is not the legitimate protests by union members and those who oppose them, but the actual fleeing by every Democrat in the State Legislature from the State of Wisconsin to stop there from being a vote, as they would lose the vote. (The state requires 20 members present to vote, and Republicans have 19 seats to the Democrats' 14.)

Aside from being completely unethical and an assault on democracy and on the voters of Wisconsin, it is worth noting that these lawmakers, like the unions protesting, are paid members of society who are being paid salaries from the people's taxes to not work. The union members have doctors handing out doctors' notes attesting to their being sick, allowing them to falsely call in sick for the day. These doctors have justified this practice by calling the predicament alternatively "stressful" on the members or that "sick and tired" of Gov. Walker is as good as being physically ill. These doctors seem to have faded a bit as media and blog coverage questioned whether this could cost someone their license and the Univ. of Wisconsin Medical School began investigating.

Beyond that, however, is the content being shared with the people. It took a deep search to find a mainstream article that even mentioned the issues that are being protested with any level of explanation or context - and even then, it was very short and non-detailed. The two primary issues at stake are what percentage of government workers' pay should be contributed toward pensions and health insurance. Currently, for every dollar being chipped in by a government worker, the taxpayers chip in another $53+. Imagine if your company ponied up that amount: You'd be living it up. Governor Walker has proposed raising the percentage of pay being chipped in from about 1-2% to 5.8%, much more similar to what people do in private companies. In addition, he wants to raise the percentage of premiums being kicked in toward health insurance policies from 6% to 12.6%, which is still just half as compared to people in most private companies. (Most private companies have employees kick in anywhere from 20-50% of their premiums.) It is for these reasons that the Wisconsin voters elected Gov. Walker to do exactly as he's doing, and why he has major support within Wisconsin.

Yet we're not hearing these details, and nobody is putting them into context: We hear soundbites as always, detailing on the one side how the governor is trying to "destroy" the middle class or unions, versus a weak defense on the other of using this tactic to help trim deficit shortfalls. There have been statements about Wisconsin having a "below average" unemployment rate or how its budget shortfall "is not as bad" as other places, implying that perhaps they don't need to address this in quite this way at this time. But this is shortsighted and harmful. Governor Christie (a Democrat) in New Jersey put this best recently, as told over in a great piece entitled Where the Leaders Are:
He introduced pension and benefit reforms on a Tuesday in September, and that Friday he went to the state firefighters convention in Wildwood. It was 2 p.m., and "I think you know what they had for lunch." As Mr. Chrisie recounted it: "You can imagine how that was received by 7,500 firefighters. As I walked into the room and was introduced. I was booed lustily. I made my way up to the stage, they booed some more. . . . So I said, 'Come on, you can do better than that,' and they did!"

He crumpled up his prepared remarks and threw them on the floor. He told them, "Here's the deal: I understand you're angry, and I understand you're frustrated, and I understand you feel deceived and betrayed." And, he said, they were right: "For 20 years, governors have come into this room and lied to you, promised you benefits that they had no way of paying for, making promises they knew they couldn't keep, and just hoping that they wouldn't be the man or women left holding the bag. I understand why you feel angry and betrayed and deceived by those people. Here's what I don't understand. Why are you booing the first guy who came in here and told you the truth?"

He told them there was no political advantage in being truthful: "The way we used to think about politics and, unfortunately, the way I fear they're thinking about politics still in Washington" involves "the old playbook [which] says, "lie, deceive, obfuscate and make it to the next election." He'd seen a study that said New Jersey's pensions may go bankrupt by 2020. A friend told him not to worry, he won't be governor then. "That's the way politics has been practiced in our country for too long. . . . "
It is time for this to change, and it would help us all if the media were to finally begin reporting responsibly: Explaining the issues and their impact, not just on the next media cycle and the upcoming election, but on the financial futures of this country and the states which are a part of it. Reward those who make decisions made to last the next 50 years and not the next 6 months, not those with the more outrageous soundbite. The best aspect of the various campaigns by Governors such as Walker, Christie, Kasich (Ohio), and Daniels (Indiana) is that they're completely open and honest about what the issues are and what needs to get done - and yet that's not what people get to read or watch on the news. It's time media began to reward honesty.

EZ Reads 2/21/11

Happy Presidents' Day!
  • RafiG discusses R' Ginzberg's piece in the 5TJT on blog commenters and in particular on anonymity. I've long felt that while there's a purpose and reason in rare cases for someone to be anonymous, we'd all be better off if people decloaked and stood behind their statements. Anonymous commenting allows people to say things that not only would they not be comfortable saying under their name, but things they simply shouldn't be saying.
  • Via Neil Harris, this Aish video is quite good. I like the subtitle: The only failure is not trying.
  • Batya talks about the NCSY Ben Zakkai Dinner, where Serach's aunt and uncle David & Vivian Luchins were honored along with old family friends Zeev and Rivka Leff.
  • 10 good tips for Microsoft Word (Gizmodo). I'll admit to only knowing 3-4 of these beforehand.
  • How to complain to get what you want (Lifehacker). I've always found that coming in prepared is the key; when you have all the data and just coolly explain what the issue is, you'll usually get a positive response, though usually you'll have to ask for a supervisor. Note that the first person is almost always there to take your info and try to convince you you're wrong, and has no clue or ability to help, so just ask for their supervisor calmly and explain the issue to them.
  • Here's links to starting your own society, with the basics of everything. Pretty cool. It's intended for third world countries to assist them in developing rapidly.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

EZ Reads 2/20/11

  • A cool rent-splitting calculator for all those who split uneven apartments.
  • This was a really scary clip to watch; a reporter almost seems to have a stroke on air. Turns out it was actually a bad migraine.
  • Where have all the good men gone? I don't find this to be the case in this sense in the Orthodox world, really, but there's a very similar type - those who seemingly have no real plans for the future.
  • Quote of the weekend, received by a single guy who is saving up money for marriage, from a relative living an Israeli kollel lifestyle: 
    I don't see why you're saving while you're single; I think it shows a lack of bitachon.
    (Worth noting: His rabbeim didn't quite seem to agree with that sentiment.)

FDR on Government Unions

President Frank Delano Roosevelt, writing to Luther C. Steward, President of the National Federation of Federal Employees, of August 16, 1937: (Hat tip: Jake Novak)
All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters.
Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Taxing Healthcare?

In the small business section of the Wall Street Journal online today, there's an intriguing piece which discusses one option to fixing health care: Taxing it.
In one finding, more than half, or 55%, of the bloggers think that the Affordable Health Care Act should be repealed, according to the study. But, says Tim Kane, an economist at Kauffman, the health-care debate is more complicated than just a yes-or-no question.
“The secondary concern is keeping or repealing health care,” Mr. Kane says. “The first concern is fixing the tax code.”
Despite their split feelings on the health-care act, the survey shows that almost all the respondents – some 71% - agreed that the solution to America’s health-care crisis is to tax health benefits as income.
I think I'm about to surprise a lot of people, but here goes: This is actually reasonably smart in a number of ways. Firstly, it would allow potential employees to weigh offers for jobs better, because they automatically would want to know the monetary value of the health care insurance they would be receiving, now that it's taxable. Second, it would increase competitiveness on the open market: The lower a company can bring the costs down to, the less an individual would owe in taxes. Third, it's a lot more similar to a consumption tax, and may make it easier for people to transition over to such a tax in the future: Pay a tax based on the value of what you receive. Fourth, it shifts taxes more evenly to those who receive more for their work: Lower-skilled workers who don't receive health benefits are paying zero, while those who receive huge benefits chip in a piece to government. Fifth, it eliminates tax loopholes such as people simply ponying up for a larger plan and reducing their take-home pay and therefore their taxes, which also causes an overspending on medical care.

Of course, this only works if this is in conjunction with a lowering of tax rates as a whole, and that it would never go back (which is incredibly unlikely). As the article notes, there would now be a much larger tax base to tax from: Average health plans for individuals were about $4,000/year and $12,000 a year for families, and estimated tax gain could be about $250,000,000,000 (always looks better written out). To steal from Jonathan Gruber of MIT, who wrote a piece recently in The New York Times on this subject, and from former President George W. Bush, the best solution that could work alongside this may be a large flat tax credit - something which also would increase choice, particularly to lower-wage workers, and avoids the major bureaucratic costs that come from a government-run option (let alone the costs in freedom, choice, and the insane tax overrun needed to fund it). Give individuals a $5,000 tax credit and families a $12,500 credit: Individuals and families would now have the option to decide where to spend their money, and know that whatever they spend on medical, that amount will be credited against their taxes up to the credit amount. They also will have the flexibility to choose who they want their insurance from and what coverage they'd like, being able to weigh whatever options their workplace offers against taking that money in income and spending it on another plan which suits them better.

Of course, if such an exchange can't be agreed upon, there's always the ideas from Scott Adams (of Dilbert) on How to Tax the Rich. Funny, but also really interesting.

EZ Reads 2/18/11

Today's links are mostly fun as opposed to serious, so have a good time and a great Shabbos!
  • R' Gil caps the symposium he's held on his blog about the ethics of brain death and organ donation with Part X and gives a closing statement. Excerpt:
    This symposium was not a dialogue. Such a conversation is extremely desirable. Until that happens, the warnings offered by many participants to proceed with respect and caution are worth heeding. ... Until we are able to listen to each other, we will never be able to talk. We did not solve this dilemma here but we can at least leave knowing where the problem lies.
  • R' Moshe Grylak in Mishpacha (hat tip: Chana):
    We met in a certain shul. And this is what he reported: “What can I tell you? I’m a kollel man, I learn well; I even enjoy my learning, and I stick to a regular schedule. But I’ll be honest with you — I don’t believe in G‑d. Everything I do is just a sham.”
  • Chana writes a difficult piece on Why We Cut.
  • Via Diana, there are some nice pictures as highlights Cleveland's Friendship Circle which held a dinner for 120+ people for the volunteer-based organization, which works with children with special needs.
  • Via Ariella, Divrei Chaim rants about ads promoting luxurious trips... to kevarim.
  • Really cool: Wires transform objects from inanimate to hilarious pieces of art.
  • Doghouse (cartoon) explains how to explain things to teens these days.
  • Why patience matters when selling something online (Lifehacker).
  • And finally, xkcd does it again in Let Go (wish I could do what he does in the scroll over text):

Thursday, February 17, 2011

EZ Reads 2/17/11

There was just about nothing that looked very interesting today until an hour ago or so, and now there's a whole bunch; gotta love the blogosphere. Here's some good stuff:
  • My favorite blog Lifehacker posted a while ago How to Hack Your Brain. As one commenter put it, "Your personality and identity ARE significantly more malleable than you realize." Some of the tips are quite good and have worked for myself or others I know.
  • They also are asking people What Made You Laugh Today - apparently, it's useful psychologically to pause during your day (great or horrible) and think about what made you laugh recently. Interesting. 
  • As someone who had a similar note left on our car recently, after someone smashed our bumper and drove away, I know what this is like. Sick.
  • Chana is happy that Mishpacha has a very good piece on self-injury, an excerpt of which is available online.
  • What the Jeff Koons lawsuit (which had no merit) teaches us about the chilling effect of copyright law - and lawsuits. (Freakonomics)
  • Really? Holy dove drives yeshiva wild:
    Several weeks ago, during a Torah lesson in the Jerusalem yeshiva, a white dove entered the house of study, sat on the window sill and flew out at the end of the lesson.
    The following days, the bird would arrive at the yeshiva and stand in the corner for the entire lesson – prompting the excited yeshiva students to view it as a sign from God.
    They created a "studying circle" around the bird and began reading Talmud verses and begging forgiveness from the soul which they believed "wandered" into the dove.

Endangered Jobs & Needing Innovation

There is a very interesting (if obvious) editorial in today's Wall Street Journal by Andy Kessler, discussing whether people's jobs are "endangered species". In essence, Kessler is discussing how technology in particular is completely revamping the job market, making many jobs completely unnecessary while reducing the need for others. For instance, if you were a librarian or a stock trader ten years ago, there's far less of a need for your services anymore. Online trading and Google have eliminated the need and reduced the cost of performing those services. This change in the economics of our time matches up very well with the economics of the Jewish community.

Some of the best aspects of this overall economic change is that it forces innovation, competition, and ultimately, better prices and services. If one company cuts its costs, then it can keep the profits and that's it, or more likely, take those profits and expand the business, or reduce prices and pick up more business, the larger profits of which can then be kept or used to expand the business, or reduce prices and pick up more business... and so on. Even for those who have lost their jobs, while in the short-term this is very difficult (trust me), ultimately it allows them to be as innovative as possible, and seek out a way to shift into the new economy in an advantageous way. Scott Adams (yes, of Dilbert) had a great piece a few months back that noted The Perfect Stimulus is Bad Management: it pushes people to be innovative and creative, determine how best or better an industry or business can run, and pushes them as well to go do it.

At the same time, technology can't replace certain things (at least not yet). About a week ago, I was in a bank and thought that the bank manager's pitch to a customer was really interesting. She openly acknowledged that she couldn't beat another (online) bank's savings rate, a rate a full 1% higher than what they were offering - and yet still almost kept the customer from moving their money out. She shifted the banking industry into a customer service provider: "Would you be able to walk into the other bank and easily talk to a personal banker or manager, have someone to discuss your options with, etc.?" Banks traditionally are about helping people manage their money in the most efficient, money-making way possible; and yet now, this bank was offering customer service as a pitch over making money. But even then, it is about money to an extent: If someone has trouble with their bank and needs help, the instant access to a banker could easily make up for the 1% interest on a savings account - if it has $5,000 in it, that's $50 a year. There are certainly many people who would rather spend 15-30 minutes in a bank than 2 or more hours on a phone in exchange for $50 a year.

Sadly, while almost all businesses and most individuals embrace technology and its ability to cut down on costs, government is usually lagging well behind. Whenever it is suggested that a government move toward a more efficient system, there is an outcry of the number of government (or union, depending on the case) jobs which will be lost: Ignoring that essentially the argument is to continue forcing the people to subsidize unnecessary jobs and place everyone at a disadvantage. One of the best things President Obama has done is push for efficient use of technology, particularly in the medical fields, which have the thorniest privacy issues; hopefully this same push will be carried over to other areas as well. As Kessler notes as he breaks down the types of workers into types, "DMV employees and so many other government workers move information from one side of a counter to another without adding any value. Such sloppers are easy to purge with clever code." But by definition, government workers have no incentive to be efficient or to add economic value; merely to service what needs to get serviced while making sure to retain their own jobs and the jobs of their friends. There is almost no sense of "this is wasteful and must be eliminated" among government employees: It would not serve in their best interests to do so.

This theme translates over well to the Jewish community. While some places are working to cut costs, others work to increase revenues - stabilizing and protecting the jobs that exist within them. In the end, though, this can come back to hurt the community, through higher prices and less innovation: Tuition hikes; charities where large chunks of the money fund operations instead of the charity; etc. In addition, the formerly standard professions of Orthodox Jews, thanks to their perceived stability and reasonably good pay - doctors, lawyers, and accountants - are all being impacted negatively as technology and regulations make their jobs less needed or less well paid. We have far too many accounting and lawyer friends who are looking for jobs (or better jobs), and future doctors are already finding out that it's going to be far more difficult to pay off their loans. All of these factors point to a Jewish community which must start being innovative within itself (and fast), before the fallout severely impacts the infrastructure of the community. It's bad enough that living as an Orthodox Jew until now was so expensive and difficult for large portions of the community; but as things continue, unless we find a way to bring the costs of Orthodoxy way, way down we are going to find that Orthodox Jewry is no longer the middle-upper class life we like to believe it is (and hasn't been for a long time), but significantly down near the bottom after all is said and done.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Orthodox Jewish Education

In the recent post on Hemorrhaging Orthodoxy on this site, and in the various posts others have written on other sites, one constant theme is that Orthodoxy has at least fared better than its Reform and Conservative counterparts, with an attrition rate of about 17% - far smaller than the others. Much of the credit for this is given to schools, and that the existence and attendance of Jewish schools makes students more likely to identify themselves as Jewish.

While this knowledge is helpful in terms of knowing that having Jewish day schools helps create and maintain a strong Jewish identity, what does it teach us about the quality of education? If a very large percentage of Orthodox Jewish children attend Jewish day schools, yet the attrition rate is 17%, what does that say about the quality of the schooling as it relates to the ideals we are trying to give over to them? What exactly is the goal of Jewish education, anyway?

Yair Daar at Adventures in Chinuch recently discussed this subject as part of a greater post wondering how his relatively new, small blog was one of the few that exist whatsoever on the subject of Orthodox Jewish education. He noted that as much interest as there seems to be in lowering tuition, there's almost no discussion whatsoever about the goals of the education teachers are supposed to be imparting:
My assumption (I would love to find out that I am wrong) is that most of our community members barely give thought the different goals that can be established by our schools. Now, such ignorance of school practices may seem well-rationalized; most people cannot claim to be experts or near-experts in educational practice. Therefore, the claim can be made that the layperson has no business discussing and influencing matters related to education. Fund-raising, sure. Budget, sure. Special events, mishloach manos, sure and sure. But not education.

The truth however, is the opposite. Parents and community leaders should be included in the discussion as to what the schools' goals should be. What do we want our kids knowing when graduate? What skills should they have? What lessons should they have learned? What direction are they being pointed in. These questions are all answerable by a seriously-thinking person. Educational methods, maybe not so much. But definitely the goals.
 Please read his whole post, it's extremely eye-opening.

However, even if that issue would somehow be solved in the immediate future - something which seems extremely unlikely - what would be next for Orthodoxy? Certainly the current format (usually referred to as legacy schools) seems to be a massive economic house of cards in most places - tuition is usually referred to as astronomical, and is wiping out many families, while schools often have trouble making payments and keeping their staff fully paid. Other suggestions, while interesting, have their own problems: Charter schools, hailed by some as a great alternative, are found by others to be extremely lacking in the actual educational aspect. For example, Orthonomics linked to and discussed briefly a guest post on the Bergen County Yeshiva Tuition blog by the Department of Day School & Educational Services of the Orthodox Union on the possibility of Jewish charter schools in New Jersey, which is also worth a read, particularly if your state allows charter schools. But just a few weeks ago (via Freakonomics) Joanne Barkan, in a good piece in Dissent Magazine, wrote that Stanford University's study of charter schools found that 83% of them perform worse or no better than traditional public schools. On the flip side, an educator I know who is working with charter-like schools in Florida has found they are doing quite well - far better than other alternatives. As a community, we don't want to rush into yet another poor approach to education, both from an economic and an educational point of view.

We also need to be honest about what we're trying to accomplish with our schools. In a study performed by Yeshiva University's Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education recently (thanks SIL), there are a few interesting notes. One of the most interesting points to me is how much of an emphasis is made on instructing schools to use common sense, cost accounting, and utilizing their staff more fully so there isn't so much overlap and expensive specialization. One might think these are obvious, but apparently they either were not or the study felt it important to reiterate them regardless. But what is particularly interesting is its findings that a group of schools in three communities had a student:teacher ratio of 6.5:1, as opposed to 9:1 in an independent school. In a 260-student school, that would amount to 11 more teachers, the cost of which is obviously expensive. While not discussed in the summary, an oft-cited complaint about the cost of education are the additional schools or classes that seem to exist for the purpose of job creation. Without speculating as to whether that is the case or not, it certainly behooves us as a community to make sure that students are being given an optimal ratio that also doesn't blow costs out of proportion with what is necessary. The study cites one school which realized a $1 million savings potential by changing its ratio from 7.2:1 to 9:1.

On a related note, the other statistic in the study that was a bit shocking was that on average, 80% of a school's costs are personnel related (15% are purchased services, 5% are purchased goods). [Ezzie: I'm not sure where land and building costs fall in, or if they were excluded for some reason. If excluded, this makes a bit more sense.] The study does not break down which of those are teachers, and which are other administration members and/or other staff, only noting with a * that "The significant majority of personnel costs is for personnel related to educational services." What's particularly striking about this is if the majority of the costs are personnel related to education, then it comes down to one of two primary issues: If they are overstaffed, it explains why they are running at a deficit. If they are not overstaffed, then a model where the tuition of the students in a classroom can't cover a teacher's pay is obviously doomed to failure.

In Yair's post, he states regarding education itself, and I would expand it to the economic side of education as well, that
...the current climate is one ready for change. The forthcoming generation of Orthodox Jewish parents, in which I include myself, are in many ways different from our parents. We have experienced Torah-learning in quantity and quality that is unprecedented. We do not have the same concerns of Jewish identity in America that previous generations struggled with. Many of us understand how to balance serious Torah-learning with a "normal" lifestyle. If we don't demand that schools meet our criteria for a meaningful Jewish life, and if we allow inertia to be the deciding force in our children's education, we will have failed miserably.

EZ Reads 2/16/11

A surprising number of y'all actually seem to like these, which is a nice bonus. Thanks for reading!
  • A great, inspiring piece on RSA/Chofetz Chaim alumnus and Ottowa Rabbi Yehuda Simes, who was nearly killed in a car crash last year, in the Ottowa Citizen called Accident of Faith.
  • Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic properly enjoys Nir Rosen's forced resignation and loss of fellowship at NYU after tweeting gleefully about reporter Lara Logan's rape while covering the happenings in Egypt. Rosen was virulently anti-American and anti-Semitic, and Goldberg wonders why it took this long for NYU to cut ties.
  • An excerpt from this week's Mishpacha magazine, "Pressing Reset on the Recession":
    Since the current recession took hold in December 2007, the employment landscape has changed dramatically across much of America. According to a June 2010 Pew Research survey, roughly a third of adults in the labor force have been unemployed for a period of time during the recession. Furthermore, 55 percent of adults in the labor force who were surveyed reported that they had suffered financially during the recession, be it a spell of unemployment, a cut in pay, a reduction in hours, or an involuntary spell in a part-time job.

    “Young adults have taken the biggest losses on the job front,” the Pew staff concluded. “Middle-aged adults have gotten the worst of the downturn in house values, household finances, and retirement accounts. Men have lost many more jobs than women. And across most indicators, those with a high school diploma or less education have been hit harder than those with a college degree or more.”

    Among the frum community, these trends have spelled disaster for all too many families. The basics costs of running a Torah-observant home are challenging even for gainfully employed householders. Pay cuts or spells of unemployment can transform that challenge into an unattainable feat. Family after family has been crushed and demoralized by the ongoing recession, which the Pew team described as having presented the most “punishing combination of length, breadth, and depth” of the thirteen recessions experienced by America since the Great Depression of 1929. Despite talk of recovery, this recession stubbornly refuses to cede ground to optimism and rebounds.
    To subscribe to Mishpacha, click here.

Saving Young - Now, Even Harder

(Hat tip: Diana) There's a very interesting article on The Simple Dollar which discusses the differences in costs now versus the past, and why it's actually much more difficult for a young person or couple to "get ahead" now than it has been in the past. Adjusting for inflation, et al, people are taking home less pay, homes are more expensive, education is more expensive, and minimum requirements and essentials for getting and keeping a job have grown.

This led me to wonder if this was true as well of young couples in the Orthodox Jewish world: Do we face more "start-up" costs as compared to generations past? I wish I had information to back this up, but a quick guess would be that Jewish inflation has far outpaced actual inflation and wage growth. I also believe that societal standards in the Orthodox community, even the base standards, are substantially higher than in the past. Anyone have any actual data, input, or even guesses?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

EZ Reads 2/15/11

It's nice to actually be writing again; while I appreciate the off-blog commentary, please feel free to comment on the posts themselves so others can read your comments and opinions as well. Meanwhile, here's a few more good reads as I am almost done clearing out my Google Reader:
  • As many of you have likely heard, it appears another possible find has been made of Coca-Cola's famous recipe. What Gizmodo points out, however, is super interesting:
    Truth be told though, it's impossible to fully replicate Coke's recipe because there's one ingredient only Coca-Cola can get: fluid extract of coca (which is coca leaves stripped of cocaine). Only one factory can process those leaves and only Coca-Cola has a special deal with the DEA that allows them to use it. 
  • Here comes inflation! (Hattip: ShanaMaidel) 
  • Chai Lifeline is awesome, in case you weren't sure. 
  • I'd meant to include this in yesterday's post on Hemorrhaging Orthodoxy, but neglected to; Cross-Currents had a piece last month Orthodoxy Growing, Others Imploding which suggests that there is at least some positive hope for Orthodoxy - though Judaism as a whole is suffering. Today, Harry Maryles followed up on my post in a similar fashion to the Cross-Currents post in The Future of Denominational Judaism.

Against Ban Harassment & Threats

(This is being posted simultaneously on many Orthodox Jewish blogs)

A little over a month ago, a number of rabbis signed onto a ban that forbade advertising on or otherwise working with the website VosIzNeias. This ban singled out one website without addressing other websites or public forums like newspapers or magazines. The singling out of a solitary website raises many questions, particularly when newspapers in the same community regularly publish arguably libelous stories and online discussion forums for the community are essentially unbounded by civility. Additionally, VosIzNeias has publicly stated that it has already raised its standards and is willing to do even more with rabbinic guidance, provided the same guidelines are applied to its competitors.

Bans of this nature are generally brought into fruition by activists and this one is attributed to a specific activist who seems to have business and political interests in this ban. He ignored VosIzNeias’ request to meet with the rabbis in order to explore ways to satisfy their concerns. With this ban, the activist is threatening the commercial viability of the VosIzNeias business.

We have now received reports of continued harassment by this activist, who is threatening to publicly denounce people, companies and charitable organizations who continue to cooperate with the website. He has also reportedly threatened to remove the kosher certification of companies that fail to adhere to the ban. However, on being contacted, the activist behind the ban denied all knowledge of this harassment and attributed it to someone acting without authorization. We are, therefore, making no formal accusation as to who is conducting this campaign of harassment.

To the best of our understanding, this activity is illegal. One individual told us he reported that harassment to the police.

Harassing good people with threats is illegal and inexcusable. We call on rabbis and people of good faith to denounce this behavior, and we encourage victims to respond to this activist as follows:

If he calls or e-mails you or your organization, thank him for bringing the ban to your attention and say that you will decide how to proceed after consulting with your rabbi or other advisor. And because of rumors that there is harassment involved in this matter, you regret having to tell him that if he contacts you or anyone else in your organization again, you will have to report him to the police.

We have a copy of an e-mail forwarded to us by people involved, which includes a pseudonym and phone number, and we have been told of intimidating phone calls. Note that at this time we are withholding this activist's identity. If he continues harassing people, we will have to be less discrete.


Ezzie Goldish of SerandEz and other bloggers

(please sign your own name and post this to your blog if you agree)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Hemorrhaging Orthodoxy

About a month ago, R' Gil at Hirhurim put up an interesting post entitled Orthodoxy in the Future, in which he concludes by asking:
Is Orthodoxy about to hemorrhage Jews?

After the session, I spoke with R. Steven Pruzansky and he thought I’m overly pessimistic. He remembers an Orthodoxy with a defection rate of 30%. Today, he estimates, it must be 15% or lower. While Orthodoxy will lose members, perhaps at a higher rate than in recent history, it will continue to grow at a quick pace and become a much larger proportion of the Jewish community.

What do the thoughtful commenters here think? Is Orthodoxy going to continue growing as a proportion of the community or begin shrinking?
The comments section there is rife with interesting discussion, including the recollection that in 1965, Orthodoxy was predicted to be on its way to death in the United States - only to end up far stronger as the decades passed. More recently, some may recall the signs that used to be posted all over predicting a huge wave of Orthodoxy as the higher birth rates and lower defection rates as compared to Reform and Conservative Judaism would allow Orthodoxy to become the strong wing in the Jewish community; yet at 5-6%, that seems to not quite be the case at this point.

I'm curious as to whether people think Orthodoxy will face a wave of attrition over the coming generation, and I wonder if technology - particularly social media - will add to that wave. Though more small scale, one feature I've noticed among people, particularly singles, is that if they are not very tied to the community in which they are living (and sometimes even if they are), they often drift away. This is not necessarily because they're no longer tied to a community with norms to which people can conform, but a bit more because of deindividuation, or "doing together what you would not do alone." People who might otherwise not cross certain lines are more likely to do so when they know others who cross those lines, and the advance of technologies such as social media make it much easier for people to see what others are doing and to slowly shift in those areas. (The Huffington Post has a piece that discusses young people and religion in a different vein -that technology makes the earth 'flatter', leading to less "brand loyalty"; hat tip XGH.)

I think that this could become especially prevalent as the Orthodox world struggles mightily with the economic structure it has created; teens and young adults who see their parents frustrated, if not distraught, over heavy tuition payments on top of high costs of living in Orthodox areas will be impacted the most. Some may be strengthened by the sacrifice, while others will wonder if it's worth it when other Orthodox (or "Orthodox") friends seem to be far less stressed by taking religion a bit lighter. Throw in an educational system in which teachers often are not fully prepared for students with access to questions and data with which they are unfamiliar, and are unprepared if not unqualified to discuss, and there's a recipe for serious disaster.

There certainly is another side of this: Orthodox Judaism's overall stability will be welcome in a constantly shifting world, and (to me, at least) its discussions have far more satisfying answers than can be found in most places. Some will be inspired by the sacrifices their families have made; communities are (finally) waking up to the economic realities and some are working to address those wisely; and there are numerous good, young (and old) teachers in the market who have 21st-century savvy, who are able to properly research and discuss difficult subjects with their students. Access to one another and each others' lives allows us to see everything, not merely the "fun", and to share inspiration, meaning, and encouragement far more easily than was ever possible in the past. Orthodoxy certainly is not without the ability to understand its positive alternatives, and do its best to make those into reality.

While it is impossible to know in what direction Orthodoxy is headed in the coming decades, it seems as if the transition will be incredibly fascinating to be a part of.

EZ Reads 2/14/11

There's a reason I'm mostly putting up links for now, and not yet writing; hopefully that will be able to be made more clear soon enough. Meanwhile, here are some interesting and enjoyable links for today - many of which are flying all over on Facebook, et al:
  • The NYTimes had a nice piece on the YU Seforim sale - the schedule of which is on Josh's Parshablog here.
  • The Wall Street Journal discusses the possibility of seeing a Walmart in New York City in the near future. The most fascinating part to me was the first line:
    Last year, New York City residents spent $196 million at Wal-Mart... That's a pretty remarkable sum, given that there isn't a single Wal-Mart in New York City.
    No kidding.
  • A video on what the OU does that I've been meaning to link to for a while. Well done.
  • Ariella of Kallah Magazine has an interesting piece on Examiner about how GroupOn's handling of the negative reaction to their Super Bowl (and other) ad(s) is both impressive and a good lesson for marriages.
  • RafiG with a clip about the first African-American in the Israeli Army. The history of how he ended up there is what I found most interesting. 
  • The HuffPo has a great breakdown on the potential NFL lockout and how that all came to be and how it works, and what options are available to each side. It's fascinating in terms of how one thinks about business, freedom, entertainment, and how those all intersect and interact with one another.
  • A hilarious Family Feud clip on "something that gets passed around."

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

EZ Reads 2/9/11

I'm in the process of writing a few posts (some in my head), but meanwhile, here are some good and/or important pieces out there:
  • R' Yanky Horowitz and R' Avraham Mifsud are giving a teleconference tomorrow evening at 9:30pm EST on Safe and Secure: Keeping Your Children Protected From Pedophiles. You can e-mail questions in advance by 6:00pm tomorrow as well. The information is on R' Horowitz's site, here.
  • Jameel tells us of an Israeli organization dedicated to helping Israel's homeless which is currently running fourth in the Dell Social Innovation competition ($50,000 award). They could use your vote to stay in the running (top ten move on, top one receives $1,000 automatically).
  • Irina has joined the Samaritans of NYC, which has a major event coming up. They are the city's only 24-hour suicide prevention hotline for 25+ years, and fielded 69,000+ calls last year.
  • R' Avi Shafran has an excellent piece on Cross-Currents about... well, Jews. Favorite quote:
    And the late Tony Judt’s: “I participate in no Jewish community life, nor do I practice Jewish rituals… I am not a ‘lapsed’ Jew, having never conformed to requirements in the first place. I don’t ‘love Israel’… But whenever anyone asks me whether or not I am Jewish, I unhesitatingly respond in the affirmative and would be ashamed to do otherwise.”

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

EZ Reads 2/8/11

Why you should be friends with a Cavs' fan:
5. Honest - Cleveland fans know the score. They realize the team is struggling, they don't deny the many mistakes made on the court, but they still fill the seats and flip on the TV. They can present an accurate picture of the situation because they pay attention. The only friend worth having is an honest friend who doesn't pretend or manipulate for their own gain. Cleveland fans have little to gain "standing by their man" except ridicule from the rest of the NBA fans, but the alternative isn't an option for a true fan.
Damn straight.

This piece on Freakonomics about political bias in certain fields is downright disturbing... and then there's the comments, which are worse.
Ruh-Roh. John Tierney in today’s Times:
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology … polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center [during the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology], starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.