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Best of Times, Worst of Times

As the Torah teaches, poverty will never be eradicated, nor will our obligation to assist those in need.
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Each day in a typical New York City hospital there are more questionable practices inimical to the health of patients than occur in a span far greater than a year in the practice of milah. The Board of Health should devote its resources and utilize its authority to improve hospital practices and to confront far more successfully than it has so far the multitude of serious health issues facing many New Yorkers. I am certain the policy it has adopted with the active approval of the Bloomberg administration arises far more from antipathy toward metzitzah b’peh than from the desire to protect anyone’s health.

Even more egregious, though far less publicized, is the action taken by the New York City Commission for Human Rights against chassidic shopkeepers in Williamsburg who have posted signs announcing that scantily dressed women are not welcome in their stores. Dress codes are, of course, subjective. This fact should give leeway to those who are willing to forgo business and profit in order to abide by the precepts of their religion.

In the contemporary period, when modesty is not only forsaken but mocked, it is evident that chassidim and others who go against the grain will be regarded as fair game by those who profess to be liberal and concerned about human rights but whose liberalism and concern for human rights ends when persons whom they regard with distaste would be the beneficiary of human rights. I am appalled by this action and by the apparent complicity of the Bloomberg administration in targeting the chassidic community.

To my knowledge, those who have charged Williamsburg chassidim with discrimination have not challenged black-tie events that exclude persons who do not meet the required dress standard. I am also certain that Mayor Bloomberg has been involved in activities that exclude persons with more clothing on than what was being worn by those who were not permitted to enter the handful of Williamsburg shops. It is, in this case, the faux proponents of civil rights who are guilty of discrimination. The chassidic storekeepers are the victims.

Another illustration, this one far more widespread and publicized, is the apparently inexorable movement to promote gay marriage. I acknowledge that apart from the question of marriage, a strong case can be made for promoting gay rights. What is indicative about the powerful trend in the country is that what most religious Jews stand for is contrary to what is happening in states and communities across the nation. This battle has essentially been lost in most states with a significant religious Jewish population.

* * * * *

Interestingly, although the gay rights issue seemingly suggests heightened public interest in protecting the rights of those who might be subject to discrimination, there is presently negligible interest in protecting the rights of Orthodox Jews, whether in the workplace or in other situations. For many years now there has been no advocacy to speak of on behalf of the rights of observant Jews. Because we do not advocate, no one else cares. Workplace discrimination against Sabbath observers is common at a time when government and the media focus carefully on the victims of discrimination.

The effort begun more than a half-century ago to permit governmental funding of the academic program of religious schools is nearly as dead as the dodo. Here, too, there is little advocacy, although from time to time our major organizations issue press releases or suggest in other ways that progress is being made, when in fact we have lost this battle. There are yeshivas that manage to benefit from government funding, yet this does not alter the reality that the majority of our most vital institutions must go it alone, relying overwhelmingly on tuition income. As a consequence, the tuition crisis grows each year and, as a further consequence, the number of children raised in Orthodox homes who attend public school grows with it.

The sorry state of day schools with an outreach mission is a further reason for concern. I will soon conduct another census of yeshivas and day schools – a project I undertake every five years – and the data will certainly show that enrollment in outreach schools or those that serve immigrant populations has declined sharply.

About the Author: Dr. Marvin Schick is president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. He has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years.


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