May 25, 2007

(Reb Yudel)

Look Back in Wonder

A View of Earth from Saturn: Courtesy of NASA, a spacecraft snaps a picture of Saturn with Earth way in the distance behind:

This beautiful image of Saturn and its rings looks more like an artist’s creation than a real image, but in fact, the image is a composite (layered image) made from 165 images taken by the wide-angle camera on the Cassini spacecraft over nearly three hours on September 15, 2006. Scientists created the color in the image by digitally compositing ultraviolet, infrared, and clear-filter images and then adjusting the final image to resemble natural color. (A clear filter is one that allows in all the wavelengths of light the sensor is capable of detecting.) The bottom image is a closeup view of the upper left quadrant of the rings, through which Earth is visible in the far, far distance.

May 21, 2007

(Reb Yudel)

Why is this matza less logical than all other matzas?

Craft Magazine presents: Spock Matza:

May 17, 2007

(Reb Yudel)

I probably should have blogged this in January

With various Orthodox blogs trying to draw grand conclusions from the near-collapse of my kid's school, it's worth turning back to the root of the problem: a misguided and myopic board.

In that light, it's worth rereading something dug up back in January, when the disaster that was the Schechter merger hit the Jewish Week.

From the PEJE web site:

When Dorothy Bowser and Mary Sanders heard Larry Levine discuss executive coaching at last October's PEJE Leadership Assembly, they were instantly struck by how easy it was to relate to the PEJE coach. "He seemed so grounded and made us instantly comfortable," says Bowser, the head of Solomon Schechter High School in New York. Bowser and Sanders, the board chair, began their work with Levine after Schechter was awarded a PEJE School Improvement Journey Grant. But just how would coaching help them work on the areas of improvement that their ISM assessment had identified?

While the ISM assessment had revealed that the school's instructional markers were good, it pointed to weaknesses with the board. Some of these were already clear to the school. "It's easy to develop a glib response to things given the day-to-day realities of running a school," says Bowser.

Bowser credits Larry Levine's highly collaborative style--which includes monthly meetings and nearly daily contact by email or phone--with helping them develop a fresh perspective. "Larry asks you to really think about what you're saying, but he's also incredibly affirmative," says Bowser. Together, the team learned that the school needed to retool its administrative structure. More crucially, it needed to refocus its board on fundraising, and to stress the importance of recruitment for the entire school.

As for Levine, who has nearly 25 years of experience with executive coaching, he says that the most effective change comes when his one-on-one work is linked to a larger program of organizational change. "My expertise is really in the process by which meaningful change can happen," he says. "My coaching isn't just about giving good advice or ideas, but working with the school as a partner to create the relationships and tools for change."

May 10, 2007

(Reb Yudel)

Bush's Army to Congress: We're in Charge

Some people think that if everyone would just shut up, everything would be fine. You might think that four years and 3,000 dead Americans after "Mission Accomplished," the Republicans who have been running the Army would know better.

And you would be wrong:

Pentagon restricting testimony in Congress - The Boston Globe

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has placed unprecedented restrictions on who can testify before Congress, reserving the right to bar lower-ranking officers, enlisted soldiers, and career bureaucrats from appearing before oversight committees or having their remarks transcribed, according to Defense Department documents.

Robert L. Wilkie , a former Bush administration national security official who left the White House to become assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs last year, has outlined a half-dozen guidelines that prohibit most officers below the rank of colonel from appearing in hearings, restricting testimony to high-ranking officers and civilians appointed by President Bush.

The guidelines, described in an April 19 memo to the staff director of the House Armed Services Committee, adds that all field-level officers and enlisted personnel must be "deemed appropriate" by the Department of Defense before they can participate in personal briefings for members of Congress or their staffs; in addition, according to the memo, the proceedings must not be recorded.

Wilkie's memo also stipulated that any officers who are allowed to testify must be accompanied by an official from the administration, such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his top-level aides.

Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress see the move as a blatant attempt to bog down investigations of the war. But veterans of the legislative process -- who say they have never heard of such guidelines before -- maintain that the Pentagon has no authority to set such ground rules.

The guidelines would not affect congressional subpoenas, which can compel anyone to appear before lawmakers. As a result, several lawmakers have pledged privately to use that power if the Pentagon's guidelines stymie their efforts to get information from specific sectors of the military.

May 9, 2007

(Reb Yudel)

Do "Conservative Judaism" and "Solomon Schechter" mean anything? The big test (an open letter)

Is affiliating with the Conservative movement an asset or a liability for a liberal Jewish institution?

For those who answer that it is an asset -- who think that it matters to have "Conservative Judaism" rather than just non-Orthodox Judaism -- now is the chance to put your money where your heart is.

Our Schechter Regional High School in Teaneck is about to close, unless it can raise an emergency infusion of money. This comes after the failure/merger of Manhattan's New York Schechter High School. And it comes at a time when non-Schechter, community liberal Jewish high schools are thriving in places including Boston, Atlanta, and, yes, Manhattan's west side.

Identifying with a denomination certainly doesn't help with potential donors who identify as Reform Jews. Are there Conservative Jews who can step up to the plate? I don't mean Conservative Jews in our congregation, or in our community. For whatever reason, the board of our Schechter launched no fundraising drives, so our community hasn't been approached. We, the parents, have been asked to raise half a million dollars by September, and I, and the other parents, know that is possible.

But right now, the school needs more than just what should have been standard operating procedure, that is, community support for a school that serves our community. It needs support from people who really don't care about the Jews of Bergen County -- but do care about Conservative Judaism and the Conservative brand name.

If Schechter fails here, after failing in Manhattan, then the Conservative movement and the Schechter system will be seen as a hollow shell. Liberal Jews interested in providing a non-Orthodox Jewish high school education will know better than to go with the Conservative movement -- because when the going gets tough, the Conservative movement isn't there. Not in terms of guidance (movement professionals were on the board of the New York school, and failed to intervene to right the ship until almost too late) and not in terms of funds.

Is there anyone who will pay half a million dollars to keep the Schechter name on the school and the burning bush logo burning?

I say half a million dollars because, frankly, it's not enough for the school to reach the fundraising targets needed to make this coming year's budget. The school needs to start off with a bang -- to provide the excellent, phenomenal education and exciting experience that the school provided until this year, when the merged school opened in September to chaos.... and enrollment for this coming year plummeted. The school needs to open not with a good enough experience, so that we parents who have made the commitment aren't let down, but with a great experience -- great enough that the 9th graders who attend Teaneck High and SSDS-UE and Heschel and Ramaz and Frisch start clamoring to transfer in.

That's not going to happen on a business-as-usual budget. Last year the school tried to execute a merger with a business-as-usual budget, and the result, sadly through predictably, fell short of the standards of excellence Schechter Regional had previously reached.

But a major gift, coming to launch the school with a bang, from someone outside our community will provide a strong inspiration -- for parents who are questioning whether to return their kids to the school, and to donors who are wondering whether the necessary millions will make a difference in the long term.

In other words, the school needs a kick-off donation. And at stake is not the school, but really, the viability of the Conservative brand.

So that's my question: Do you know someone who can make a six-figure pledge for the cause of Conservative Jewish education, who is not in our Bergen County community? Someone in San Francisco or Cleveland or Atlanta? Someone who nobody in their right mind would approach for a donation for our local school? Because we need to find one or two or three people like that, who can be approached, right mind or not, to make the commitment.

I really believe that some white knight, brought in on behalf of the Movement from elsewhere, can at this point make all the difference between a renewed school relaunched with proper community support... and a school whose death rattles are at best prolonged another year or two because our support as a community is coming too late in the game.

If the answer is yes -- if you know someone who might be approached -- please let me know. (If you want to personally help the school, let me know also).

Thank you for your attention,

Larry Yudelson

(Reb Yudel)

Forward: Parents in N.J. Rally To Save Schechter School

The Forward reports from Teaneck:

In an 11th-hour decision following an emotional plea from parents and students, the board of the New York City area’s only Conservative Jewish high school voted to keep the financially strapped institution’s doors open for the near future.

A Monday evening board meeting to decide the fate of the Metropolitan Schechter High School in Teaneck, N.J., which has been saddled with ongoing operating losses reaching into the millions, ended with a unanimous vote allowing the school to remain intact if it can meet a key enrollment benchmark by the end of this week and reach a significant fundraising goal by the fall. The board credited its decision not to close the school to the impassioned appeals of a lineup of devoted — and sometimes teary eyed — parents and students who showed up at the Teaneck Jewish Center to plead with the school’s trustees to save Metro Schechter from collapse.

While the school will remain open — for now, at least — the extent of the financial crunch felt by Metro Schechter opens a window, some critics say, onto the weakened state of Conservative Judaism.

And then there's this:
Some parents expressed outrage that the board kept them in the dark about the dire nature of the school’s financial situation until the past several weeks. Larry Yudelson, the father of both a senior and a sophomore at Metro Schechter, said in a phone interview that had parents known the depth of the crisis, many would have contributed funds a long time ago. “Eighteen months ago they could have easily mobilized resources,” he said, adding “it was a very paternalistic board. They were taking care of us.”

What didn't get quoted was my clear indictment of the two representatives of the Conservative movement -- one the chief operating officer of JTS, the other the head of the education department of the United Synagogue -- who sat on the board of the New York Schechter, enabled the board to undertake a doomed-to-fail merger (the inevitability of failure was obvious to anyone who understood mergers and the cultures of the schools involved) and then decided to quietly close the school's doors at the end of the school year, leaving everyone hanging in suspense.

That the school was saved is due to the brave board member who broke with fiduciary duty, and let the rumor spread that the board was going to quietly, without consulting with the community, the parents, the federation or the synagogues -- close down the school. I can forgive the board members who were more generous than they were thoughtful in running the school; I can't forgive the board members who were at the table not because of their checkbooks, but because of their supposed knowledge of the Jewish educational world.

May 4, 2007

(Reb Yudel)

Comment posted to Cross Currents

One of the problems with the haredi Cross Currents blog is their comments section is heavily redacted. Presumably they're calling up the gedolim to ascertain whether the comment is kosher.

Anyway, Steve Brizel has an attack on David Ellenson's attack on the Orthodox in the Forward this week. Interesting because of the sources it cites (which I have not yet reviewed), Brizel's thesis basically amounts to "since the 19th century Reform were assholes to the Orthodox, the Orthodox can be assholes to Reform today." Interesting, and would explain Brizel's similar tit-for-tat pro-Palestinian politics -- except of coure, he has no such politics, because tit-for-tat can only justify his group acting like an asshole, not anyone else acting that way toward him or his.

My comment was not on the specific historical citations, or the general principle, but on a throwaway line that argued

"no proof was ever found that either Goldstein or Amir ever acted in accordance with the approval of any rabbinical authority."
To which I have lodged a reply, to be published pending the judgment of the gedolim (updated: the comment has been approved):
Carefully parsed, to obscure the fact that Amir acted in accordance with the Rambam, as explained in the presence of the chief halachic authority of the OU and RCA. Amir may not have asked a shaila, but tell me, Steve, when you follow the psak of RHS, do you ask a shaila each time? Your point of partisan scholarship is important, and I look forward to following the links -- but your comments betray that you are not immune from your own historical bias.
Just to be clear about my bias: I covered the conference at which the psak was given by Rabbi Abraham Hecht, and, despite the spin and denials of his followers over the year, I stand by my reporting.