A School Protects Its Children

The first impulse of most institutions when confronted by an accusation of child abuse by one of its staff is to squelch it. High-profile examples include the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, the widespread abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and the accusation that administrators of Yeshiva University High School in New York City covered up abuse for decades.

In the Pittsburgh Jewish community, there have been four cases in the last six years involving suspected child molestation. But according to Det. Bryan Sellers of the city’s Bureau of Police Sex Assault Team, he was not able to make a case against the suspected pedophiles because the institutions involved declined to cooperate with police.

That changed when Yeshiva Boys School of Pittsburgh chose not to be the fifth such institution. As a result, when Rabbi Nisson Friedman, 26, a since-dismissed teacher, was suspected of sexually assaulting at least three boys while employed by the school, Yeshiva’s response was “exemplary,” according to Sellers.

As reported this week by The Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh, an affiliated publication of the Baltimore Jewish Times, the first thing Yeshiva did was get Friedman — who is well-connected in the local Jewish community and is the son of an influential Minnesota-based rabbi — out of the school and call the police. No circling the wagons, no stonewalling and no apparent hesitancy. “They have been accommodating law enforcement, and they have been providing spots at the school to conduct interviews [relative to the case],” Sellers said.

When the school first heard about the suspected abuse, it also informed school families. Last month, it held a meeting to update the school community on the investigation. The school also called Deborah Fox, the founder of Magen Yeladim, a national organization that works to prevent child abuse through education. She recommended that school leadership call Child Protective Services and advised the school to get an attorney.

Fox was impressed by what she saw. She called Yeshiva “exemplary and a model for how a school should handle a very dramatic situation.” Part of the reason the school responded as it did was because administrators undergo annual training in their legal responsibilities.

“It is unfortunately sad, but it is what it is, and we have to protect our children,” said Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, principal of Yeshiva Boys School. “The safety of our children is paramount.”

That’s the simple truth. Another truth that institutions and communities, including right here in Baltimore, must recognize is that this is, unfortunately, a problem that isn’t going to go away. So when it does happen, knowing how to respond will greatly contribute to the safety of our children.

The Mideast Can’t Live ‘With Either One’

In his month in office, President Donald Trump has challenged several longstanding American policies, only to back off later. The result has been to leave unclear exactly what American policy is toward China, Russia or NATO, among other things.

Last week, at his news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the president seemed to back away from America’s longstanding commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “So, I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump said. “I can live with either one.”

As anyone who has followed the Arab-Israeli conflict in recent decades knows, the two-state solution became official U.S. policy under President George W. Bush, and it has been the basis for peace negotiations since the Oslo Accords in President Bill Clinton’s time. Israel was born as a result of the United Nations’ two-state plan in 1947 partitioning what was then known as the British Mandate of Palestine. And while the other side didn’t accept the compromise then, it is generally considered the best way today to reach a solution that will allow two nations to live side by side in one land.

Jewish organizations from AIPAC to the American Jewish Committee endorse the two-state solution. And it has been the stated objective of virtually every international body or government that has joined in discussion of the issue. So, if the United States’ position on the issue has changed — thereby inevitably redirecting the focus of Middle East regional and international discussion of the issue — that is very significant. The problem is that what Trump said and what his White House thinks may not be the same thing. Trump’s seeming acceptance of a one-state option was followed a day later by his U.N. ambassador, Nikki Hayley, restating U.S. support of a two-state solution, although acknowledging that the administration was “thinking out of the box as well.”

Fresh ideas are always welcome, especially now when many of the old approaches seem to have run their course. Indeed, there are a number of plans circulating that would build trust among the parties, that would synchronize steps to an agreement and that would focus on borders and security first and only tackle the “narrative issues” of national identity when the two sides are ready. But all these ideas are premised on there being an Israel and a Palestine at the end of the process.

So what is U.S. policy now toward Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking? Does anyone in the administration even know? A vacuum in American policy is not good for the region. Remember the Obama administration’s fitful and cautious involvement in Syria? That lack of clear policy was almost universally regarded as weakness. How much more confusion will be sown by an incoherent non-policy seemingly launched with the speed and forethought of a tweet?

Everyone’s Talmud

Until modern times, the Talmud was a major Jewish preoccupation. This sprawling compendium of the law, lore and commentary of successive generations of early rabbinic scholars provided Jews with a human map for following the law of the Hebrew Bible and the six books of the Mishna.

The fact is that not many Jews — then and now — immersed themselves in deep Talmud study, which requires knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic, an understanding of the Talmudic system of logic and an adeptness for reading a work devoid of punctuation. But the Talmud held the key to Jewish knowledge and living, which made the unlearned beholden to the learned.

With the spread of printing and the steady move toward egalitarianism, the opportunity for deep Jewish study and knowledge grew. With the internet, it seems that the Talmud — the product of an oral tradition that operated by association rather than linear arrangement — seems to have found its ideal medium.

That’s why the announcement that the website Sefaria has published the acclaimed Steinsaltz translation of the Talmud in English online, where it can be read for free and repurposed for users’ needs free of copyright concerns, is so exciting. Twenty-two tractates went live last week. The rest of the English edition of the Talmud, which is as yet unfinished, will be published online as it is completed. Sefaria will also publish a Hebrew translation this year.

The translation’s publication was made possible by a multimillion-dollar deal with the Steinsaltz edition’s publishers, Milta and Koren Publishers Jerusalem, and financed by the William Davidson Foundation, a family charity. The Davidson Foundation deserves honors for making the Talmud’s accessibility almost limitless. In making this knowledge available to anyone with a computer or mobile device, the potential for more Jews (and interested non-Jews) to reach a deeper, richer relationship with their heritage is breathtaking.

We said “potential,” because that is precisely what this opportunity presents. Traditionally, the Talmud isn’t studied in a vacuum.

Students work in pairs — chavruta — to unpack the texts. They attend shiurim (lectures), where the mysteries of the text are analyzed and explained. Indeed, the Talmud itself calls on everyone to provide for himself and herself a teacher.

How will the online Talmud affect these dynamics? In the most traditional settings, very little if at all. Students and scholars at yeshivas and batei midrash (study halls) will continue to study the Talmud as they have for generations. But for the vast majority of Jews who have little or no experience with the Talmud, accessing the knowledge in the text will take work and will not be as simple as checking a Twitter feed. We hope new groups, independent ones and others sponsored by congregations and other conveners, will emerge to take advantage of this technological innovation and use it to elevate our Jewish lives.

Cracks in the Wall

Will we or won’t we get a wall?

As a candidate, President Donald Trump repeatedly promised to build a “big, beautiful wall” on the border with Mexico and pledged that it would be paid for by Mexico. As the commander-in-chief, he has repeated that promise — even if he has waffled a bit on exactly how the cost of the wall will be financed. But although he has Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, GOP legislators are not falling fully in line behind Trump’s vision.

Last week, CNN reported on a “wall of resistance” from the GOP. The price tag of a wall across the southern U.S. border, estimated from $12 billion to $15 billion, is apparently giving Republicans sticker shock. Many members of the party’s caucus in the Senate told the network that they would not support the wall unless the cost was offset by spending cuts elsewhere. “If you’re going to spend that kind of money, you’re going to have to show me where you’re going to get that money,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Others were skeptical of whether the country would get its $12 billion-plus value for its investment in the wall. “I don’t think we’re just going to be able to solve border security with a physical barrier because people can come under, around it and through it,” said Sen. John Cornyn of the border state of Texas. Yet others, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, another border state, noted that the expense of a wall would only be part of any comprehensive security effort, since “if you only build a wall, only a ‘wall,’ without using technology, individuals, drones, observations, etc., you’re not going to secure the border.”

Still others don’t believe that Mexico will or should pay for the wall. “I don’t count on Mexico to pay for our national security,” said Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma. “It’s the responsibility of every nation to take care of their own security.”

Fiscally conservative members of the GOP are properly raising real-world concerns about the projected cost of building a border wall. Together with the Democratic minority, which has voiced strong opposition to the proposed wall, the Trump administration faces a steep climb to get congressional approval for the plan. And that’s how it should be. The system of checks and balances built into our democratic government prevent any one branch from improperly exerting its power and ruling by fiat. Some degree of consensus needs to be reached.

Which is to say that if and when we do get a wall, we anticipate that it will have been properly studied, weighed and financed, instead of being simply willed into existence by a president committed to deliver on his campaign promises.

Time to Recognize the Reality of Relations with Israel

Shmuel Bar, a former Israeli intelligence officer and founder of a company that sifts social media messages for terrorist threats, was recently disinvited from speaking on a panel at a London think tank. He was told that since a Saudi official would be attending the session, the Israeli couldn’t be seen in attendance with him. As related last week in Bloomberg Businessweek, “Bar told the organizers that he and the Saudi gentleman had, in fact, been planning to have lunch together at a Moroccan restaurant nearby before walking over to the event together.”

Such is the reality for Israelis who do business with Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which pay lip service to the Arab boycott of Israel. Business relationships and security cooperation are growing among these countries — all of which share concerns about Iran, the Islamic State and other destabilizing forces in the region.

According to most reports, it is the lack of a solution to the Palestinian issue that keeps Muslim countries from acknowledging the growing interactions with the Jewish state. But something will have to give sooner or later, with or without an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Indeed, according to Businessweek: “The volume and range of Israeli activity in at least six Gulf countries is getting hard to hide. One Israeli entrepreneur set up companies in Europe and the U.S. that installed more than $6 billion in security infrastructure for the United Arab Emirates, using Israeli engineers.”

What is amazing is the alternate reality in which these relationships exist. Thus, in documenting the Businessweek story, for example, reporters received an email statement from a source in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, “denying any trade links between Israel and Saudi Arabia.” The statement then went on to add that only countries with a “friendly” trade agreement could do business with the kingdom — implying that since Israel does not have a friendly relationship with the kingdom, any such cooperation would be impossible. Given the overwhelming evidence of multiple economic and political interactions, who do these guys think they are fooling?

One way of looking at the current state of affairs is to marvel at just how ingrained Israeli companies and technologies are in their layered dealings in the wider Middle East — this in spite of a boycott stretching back decades. But before anyone pats themselves on the back, it is important to recognize that the fact that Arab states are continuing the charade of the boycott means that there is a way to go to bring relationships in the region into some semblance of normalcy. It is time to get that done. It is way beyond time for Israel’s neighbors to call a spade a spade, stop the hateful rhetoric of seeking to delegitimize Israel, and use the reality of increased commerce, cooperation and areas of mutual interest to bury the hatchet.

Consider Gorsuch on His Merits

The Senate’s advice and consent on a proposed Supreme Court nominee is a fundamental constitutional exercise that is important, consequential and reflective of the checks and balances built into our system of government. Consideration of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch should begin with that in mind.

Gorsuch 49, is a U.S. Court of Appeals judge in Denver with a conservative track record. If confirmed, he will fill the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, and in more than just his physical presence. In fact, an academic study of President Donald Trump’s list of possible court nominees put Gorsuch second for his “Scalia-ness.”

Gorsuch was in the majority of the 2013 appellate decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which expanded the right of corporations to be treated like people in allowing them to reject on religious grounds the government mandate to provide contraceptives under company health plans. The ruling was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2009, Gorsuch argued against a majority decision that ruled a county’s Ten Commandments display was unconstitutional. He has never written an opinion on abortion, but he has come out against euthanasia and assisted suicide, which some think may parallel his views on Roe v. Wade. In a 2005 essay, he criticized liberals for turning to the courts rather than the political process to further their agenda — omitting that conservatives do the same.

Whatever one may think of his record — and the Jewish community, it should be noted, is split on its embrace of the judge — Gorsuch deserves a fair hearing in the Senate. Some Democrats have argued that Gorsuch should receive the same treatment as Judge Merrick Garland, who was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama last March. Senate Republicans denied Garland even a hearing in hopes that the election of a Republican president would kill the nomination.

With Trump’s election, the Republicans’ wish came to pass. But Gorsuch shouldn’t be Garland-ed. The stubborn refusal of the Senate’s Republican majority to give consideration to a highly respected and well-qualified candidate like Garland was wrong and shouldn’t be used as a reason by Democrats to interfere with consideration of another respected and highly qualified candidate. If anyone needs to be reminded: Two wrongs don’t make a right.

The Senate must consider Gorsuch on his merits and should take the time it needs to explore his record and judicial philosophy. Should he be confirmed — by a 60-vote supermajority would be best — Gorsuch will return the conservative-liberal balance of the Supreme Court to what it was before Scalia’s death last year — the result we will almost certainly see from anyone on Trump’s current list of nominees.

The Senate’s charge to advise and consent is a serious undertaking that deserves serious action by those charged with the constitutional responsibility to get it done. It shouldn’t again fall prey to petty political gamesmanship.

Punishing Muslims for Being Muslim

Most of the organized Jewish community, along with most civil libertarians, shuddered as the new administration issued an executive order effectively targeting Muslims who want to immigrate to the United States.

The order suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days for review. It permanently bans immigration of Syrian refugees. It calls for a blanket 30-day ban on visas to people from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. And it prioritizes claims of religious persecution that essentially favor Christians who seek refuge in the United States from majority-Muslim countries.

This slash-and-burn approach to an otherwise manageable security situation — on full view last weekend, when even legal permanent residents attempting to enter the United States were sent back to their points of origin — support the conclusion that the White House, despite repeated assertions to the contrary, wants to punish Muslims for being Muslim.

Our community takes pride that the United States is a land of immigrants. Most of us are children or grandchildren of immigrants, as is the president himself. So we cringe when blanket immigration restrictions are imposed in a wholesale manner and especially when the effect of the restrictions is to consign a religious group to unjust treatment. As explained by the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, the umbrella agency for Jewish community relations councils, “These pronouncements not only severely restrict immigration, they instill fear among existing immigrant populations that they are not welcome and may be at risk.”

The Interfaith Alliance and American Jewish Committee joined many other Jewish organizations in criticizing the ban — calling it “deeply un-American” and an effort to improperly target Muslims fleeing violence and oppression. The outlier was the Zionist Organization of America, which commended the president for “understanding and acting on the need to keep all of us safe from radical Islamist terrorism.”

The immigration ban, coupled with another order to start building a multibillion-dollar wall on the Mexican border has, in one week, sent a disconcerting international message of American intolerance and isolation. And similar concerns have developed on the domestic side, with the administration signaling its intent to deny federal funds to so-called “sanctuary cities” that do not cooperate with federal immigration officials. In other words, the White House will make local governments pay for the feds’ inability to overhaul broken U.S. immigration policy. That shifting of responsibility makes no sense. And for that reason, we agree with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who said last week, “The only real solution to reform our immigration system is to pass comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for the 11 million” undocumented immigrants already in this country.

We encourage an approach that shows concern, compassion and understanding toward immigrants and those seeking refuge from persecution and that furthers the image of the United States as the indispensable nation, rather than the new global bully.

Rabbi for Rent

Rabbi Yona Metzger, the man who was the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel from 2003 to 2013, is going to jail. Although he pleaded guilty to charges of fraud, breach of trust and tax offenses — which earned him a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence and a fine of $1.3 million — he was actually charged with far more serious moral, ethical and financial crimes, which he was alleged to have carried out while exercising the extraordinary power of the rabbinate over the religious bureaucracy of the State of Israel.

Among other things, Metzger is alleged to have stolen a portion of a donation to an organization that provides food to poor children, pocketing about one quarter of the 105,000 shekel gift. In another “deal,” Metzger and another rabbi allegedly received $380,000 to convert the children of a Russian businessman who had made aliyah. Metzger is said to have pocketed $180,000 of that sum. And he is also alleged separately to have received $500,000 in bribes disguised as gifts in 10 cash payments.

Metzger has been under a cloud of suspicion for corruption since 2005. And while justice will now be served in some fashion, Metzger’s case is another disturbing example of the corruption that seems to permeate Israeli politics.

We expect more from our rabbis and certainly expect more from the chief rabbi, a position that intimately entwines the religious and political realms. So it is disturbing to learn that Metzger was acting like an oily ward boss, allegedly skimming 30 to 40 percent of donations to charitable organizations in exchange for his support of those groups. He reportedly even sent his driver out to pick up the bribes.

As a politician, Metzger is the highest Israeli official convicted of corruption since former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went to prison a year ago to serve a 19-month sentence for bribery. And his conviction comes at a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is juggling several scandals of his own, including a much publicized police investigation.

None of this is likely to change the status quo in Israel. But before the corruption concerns are dismissed as unimportant — and the argument is made that Israel has more consequential things to worry about — it might be useful to recall the events of 1977. That was when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin resigned from office after reports surfaced that he and his wife held a foreign bank account. While the foreign bank account was illegal at the time, no one challenged the fact that the money in that account was legitimately theirs.

If Israel and its leaders are truly to serve as a light unto the nations, they need to do so untainted by the glare of scandal and away from the disquieting image of politicians and moral leaders with their hands in the cookie jar.

Caught in the Middle

President Donald Trump appeared to be addressing his core supporters rather than the nation during his inaugural address last Friday. There was no outstretched hand to the other side, no inclusive reference to “my fellow Americans,” and no soaring rhetoric projecting the United States’ leadership role in the world.

What Trump delivered with a clenched fist was more akin to one of his campaign speeches: Telling it like he sees it. Us against them. Disrupt it or tear it down. America first. “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs,” he said. “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”

There is an eerie and ominous tone to the “total allegiance” declaration. Does it mean that regular allegiance is not loyal enough? And does shared allegiance to such things as family, community and religion make one suspect?

Maybe it’s the paternalism inherent in the Trump message that bothers us. While his promise that “we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American People,” may have resonated with his followers, nothing in his speech explained what he meant and how it would play out. Instead, we got the familiar and distorted message of “American carnage” and reference to efforts to address the needs of “a child … born in the urban sprawl of Detroit.” It felt like token empathy, and we don’t know what to make of it.

Just before Trump took his oath of office, a crowd of hammer- and crowbar-wielding anarchists broke storefronts and torched a limousine in an attempt to disrupt the inauguration. They were clearly no friends of the new president. But we can’t help but notice how their scorched-earth tactics were so consistent with Trump’s divisive identification of those in power as the real enemy.

The inauguration didn’t as much as blink during the disturbances, and the festivities and celebrations rolled on. But we wonder how the flesh-and-blood owners of the stores and limo felt to be labeled as abstract symbols of all that is wrong.

In a mind or movement without empathy, whether of the anarchist left or the heartless right, it is easy to strike out in hatred against abstract symbols. But for those of us stuck in the middle, it is confusing and frustrating to be targeted from both sides.

No Third-Rate Hack Job

It is tempting to dismiss allegations of Russian hacking during last fall’s presidential election as blame shifting by sore losers in the Democratic Party and/or the work of a socially-awkward teenage hacker working from his parent’s basement. Various figures on the right, including President Donald Trump himself, have intimated as much.

But faced with the seriousness of an apparent consensus on the part of our nation’s intelligence community that Russia unquestionably did something in an effort to affect our electoral process, now is not the time to be dismissive. As a practical matter, there is much we don’t know — and most Americans will never know what they don’t know about the alleged hacking. In such a situation, prudence demands that the allegations be investigated by those in a position to do so.

History supports such an approach.

On June 17, 1972, police arrested five men who broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee on the sixth floor of the Watergate Hotel in Washington. The next day, the White House denied any knowledge of the break-in. President Richard Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, dismissed the event as “a third-rate burglary.” And the whole affair was covered in the metro section of The Washington Post.

In today’s parlance, the Watergate events would be downplayed as a nonevent or dismissed as “fake news.” But we all know that Watergate was none of those things. And we learned about the seriousness of the Watergate episode from formal investigations, bi-partisan governmental hearings and full press coverage.

Such a bipartisan and open effort is exactly what the hacking story needs now. Regardless of the culprits, the hacking efforts perpetrated an unprecedented and dangerous infiltration of the American electoral system. That cannot go unexamined. Indeed, in order to preserve the integrity of our democratic machinery — and the public faith that keeps it operating — an across-the-board accounting must be made.

Until recently, Trump dismissed the U.S. intelligence community’s growing confidence that Russia carried out the hacking. And even when he changed his position, he sought to justify the ends, if not the means: “Hacking’s bad, and it shouldn’t be done,” he said. “But look at the things that were hacked, look at what was learned from that hacking.” We respectfully disagree.

According to the intelligence community’s declassified report released on Jan. 6, “Russia’s [hacking] goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.” That “end” is as unacceptable as the means.

Officials from both parties have called for hearings on the hacking activity. We urge Congress to begin them quickly.