In his Sept. 27 Jewish Press front-page essay, Dr. Marvin Schick (“Best of Times, Worst of Times”) decried an apparent lack of leadership in our community, in particular the ability of our community to advocate on matters related to gay marriage and tuition.
While it is true that today’s activists cannot match the talent and results of the late Rabbi Moshe Sherer and there is no living posek in America today who can match the near-universal respect commanded by Rav Moshe Feinstein, my generation should not be dismissed as a silent one fighting for lost causes.
When it comes to private school tuition, the constitution limits the government’s ability to assist our yeshivot; any attempt to expand funding beyond current proposals such as tax breaks and mandated services reimbursements would likely be defeated in court.
A more detailed list of proposals was outlined by New York State OU Political Affairs Director Jeff Leb in a March 22 Jewish Press op-ed titled “The Most Important Jewish-School Funding You’ve Never Heard Of.” Until these proposals are implemented, we should recognize that the solution for tuition affordability lies primarily within our community, not with the government.
On certain public policy issues, Orthodox opinion stands in sharp contrast to the views of most American Jews. If gains in same-sex marriage and transgender legislation cannot be reversed, how do we interact with a public whose views increasingly contradict ours? Is it still possible to work with public officials who are openly gay if we agree on other policy subjects?
Instead of attacking practitioners of other lifestyles, our time would be better spent defending our right to practice shechitah, brit milah and religious accommodation in the workplace.
Now let’s turn to the askanim who, in Dr. Schick’s words, “act as if candidates for major office are our best friends.” With the growth of the Orthodox community in New York, any candidate seeking to win citywide elected office has a frum staffer by his or her side.
Assuming your goal is to advocate for the community through the political process, there are two ways to do this as an individual. If you are independently wealthy, you open up your wallet and donate. If you’re an idealistic recent graduate with an interest in advocacy, how do you get a candidate’s ear? By putting in your time, at very little pay, setting up meetings for the candidate with rabbis and lay leaders, collecting signatures, and educating the candidate about topics that matter to the community.
At age 18, Manny Behar was a freshman at Yeshiva University with an eye toward politics. His first campaign was Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s failed 1972 presidential bid. Jackson symbolized the ideological center of his party, situated between racist southerner George Wallace and liberal George McGovern.
Although Rabbi Behar’s first race was a loss, he subsequently worked for City Comptroller Liz Holtzman, Queens Borough President Claire Schulman, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and State Assemblyman Rory Lancman. As executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, Behar advocated fiercely for the community.
In partnership with elected officials, Behar tackled companies adhering to the Arab boycott of Israel, assisted shuls and yeshivas with zoning permits, provided job and housing assistance to Soviet Jewish immigrants and much more. He never rose to the national stature of an Abe Foxman or a Malcolm Hoenlein, but I would like to think he is making a difference on the local level. Having grown up in Queens and attended shul with him, I consider Manny Behar my political mentor.
Considering the preponderance of chassidic rebbes who, in Dr. Schick’s words, “scarcely have a following,” anyone can wear a bekishe and shtreimel, pronounce takanos nobody will observe and claim yichus. True chassidic leadership rests on having a real following, connecting with the larger Jewish world, and leaving an impact on the growing body of halachic and cultural thought.
To be a gadol one’s last name doesn’t have to be Feinstein, Kamenetsky, Kotler or Soloveitchik. The younger generations of rabbis in those illustrious families certainly qualify for gadlus because they were raised in households with a deep appreciation for Torah, but I would like to believe that, im yirtzeh Hashem, my children will have the same opportunities for religious leadership as members of these families.