Friday, August 02, 2013

An Important Essay Addressing The Core Woes Plaguing The Global Jewish Community!

 by Aharon Hersh Fried, PhD - Klal Perspectives Summer Edition

Where Should We Begin?

A GROUP OF SCIENTISTS IN KENYA, seeking to protect a collection of valuable acacia trees from the harmful grazing of elephants, giraffes and other large mammals, erected a fence around them. Unexpectedly, a number of these “protected” trees declined.

A closer examination of the trees and the animal life they supported revealed that these trees provided shelter and food (in the form of nectars) to three species of ants, while the insects protected the tree against pests, like stem-boring beetles. The scientists found that when elephants, giraffes and other large mammals could no longer graze on the acacias, the trees produced less of the nectar needed to support an aggressively defensive species of ants that was fighting off the beetles. As this ant colony size decreased, and a new and less protective ant species became dominant over the others, the acacias became vulnerable to scale insects and wood-boring beetles.

Overall, the researchers found that the death rate of the fenced-in trees was double that of unfenced ones, and they grew 65 percent more slowly.[1] Thus, because the intricate interrelationships of the ecological environment had not been adequately taken into account, the scientists’ “protective” measure served instead to bring about substantial harm.

 Fundamentals of Leadership

This incident illustrates the complexity and responsibility in decision making that accompanies and defines leadership.

 Attempting to solve a “problem at hand” cannot be undertaken without first understanding its ecology, i.e. in what environment it resides, what fosters it and what limits it, and what unintended consequences may result from proposed solutions. Perhaps most clearly, this incident underscores the importance of having real information about the “facts on the ground.” It is simply irresponsible to base important decisions on hunches and hypotheses, regardless of how logical and convincing they may seem.

If we were to succeed at organizing our communities into a Kehilla structure that would adhere to the advice and rulings of a central committee akin to the Va’ad Arba Aratzos, it would behoove the members of that Va’ad to have an informed framework for problem solving and decision making – one with a strong foundation of fact-finding and research.

To ensure that the takonos of such a Va’ad be considered a בנין זקנים, the Va’ad would need to appreciate that any change (read takono) introduced into a community will affect more than its immediately apparent goal, with repercussions to consider. Decision makers will need to acknowledge and understand the complex interconnectedness and interdependence of the many individuals and institutions in each community.[2] Thus, individuals belong to families, which they affect and that affect them. Families and institutions (such as schools, shuls, and many more), exist in neighborhoods and communities which they affect and that affect them. Neighborhoods and communities and are located in towns and in cities – each with their own unique culture and social and economic realities – which affect them, and which are also affected by them. And everyone affects and is affected by the larger culture of the country in which they live.

Consequently, a Va’ad would need to appreciate that the same problems presenting in different communities may require very different solutions. Factors to be considered include not only each community’s nuanced colorations of minhag, belief and practice (Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Yeshivish, Chassidic, Modern Orthodox, and more), but also the characteristics and influences of the general non-Jewish population within which the Jewish community is embedded. As the Steipler Gaon advised someone asking about curriculum in an American Yeshiva, “Go ask people who are involved in elementary education. But remember that not all that is good for Bnei Brak is good for Cleveland.” And, of course, the Va’ad will need to identify those principles that are so fundamental and universal that they apply to all alike – at least conceptually, if not always in implementation.

As a “fly on the wall” at the Va’ad’s deliberations, one might witness the frustrations they would confront in trying to address the needs of the klal clearly and objectively. Individuals and delegations from each segment and constituency of American Orthodoxy would advocate what they believe to be everyone’s most pressing problems. The Va’ad would need to distinguish between communal and individual problems, set priorities, and identify the issues, decisions and governance that should be addressed locally and which policies should be addressed with a national perspective. And they would need to acquire an understanding both of the factors that contribute to a community’s problems, as well as those that give them strength and protection.

If it is to be responsible and effective, all of the Va’ad’s functions would require proper research. Otherwise, it is likely to do nothing more than function reactively to impulse diagnosis and the crisis-de-jour. If created today, the Va’ad’s greatest frustration would likely be the dearth of available information necessary for such communal decision making.

In reality, of course, adequate and objective information, and the actual research to support communal decisions, are necessary to any form of communal leadership. The astounding paucity of communal data and information may be the very reason that the creation of a Va’ad, or any form of a global infrastructure for American Orthodoxy, seems simply unimaginable and not even worthy of investment or exploration. In fact, it may also be the cause of the currently diminished role and respect for any form of communal leadership and infrastructure. If American Orthodoxy has aspirations of tackling its challenges in a responsible manner and in constructing an infrastructure deserving of respect and deference, the community must first establish and sustain a strong multidisciplinary data-gathering task force that will produce the information and data necessary to proper decision-making.

The Product of Research

Some may be wondering whether such research is really necessary. Can’t anybody with half a brain simply look around our communities and see what causes what, and what needs to be fixed? In fact, of course, this view – widespread and self-evident as it may seem – is fundamentally erroneous.

For years, our community’s approach to identifying and addressing problems has followed a recognizable and predictable pattern. A good, well-intentioned person or group notices a problem in their community. Studying the problem within the confines of their communities, and based on their personal experiences, they reach a conclusion about the culprit or cause of the problem. The purported cause will then be publicized and decried, sometimes accompanied by a call for an all-out effort to eliminate the alleged cause and thereby eradicate the problem. Everyone then gets busy eradicating the purported cause, but not attending to the problem itself. Unfortunately, this approach has rarely worked.

An example of this approach has been the community’s approach to “children at risk.” Depending on what is in vogue, and on the background and interests of those decrying the problem, this phenomenon has been blamed on any one of a series of causes, including kriah (Hebrew reading) problems, poor teaching of Gemoro, a curriculum which is impossible for some children to keep up with, poor self-esteem, broken homes, Jewish schools rejecting children, faulty parenting, incompetent rabbeyim or teachers, and communities being insufficiently accepting of children who “march to the beat of a different drummer.” Additional culprits have been the lack of discipline in homes and schools, physical or sexual abuse of children, schools failing to teach enough hashkafa, parents and teachers unwilling or unable to answer children’s questions about Jewish belief and practice, the media, and of course, the Internet.

At different times, each of the above has been cited as the major cause of the problem, supported by allegedly authoritative “statistics,” which themselves are most often incomplete or totally fictitious, and almost always unaccompanied by a citation or any reference to their source.[3] In response to each alleged cause being promoted, those who are the alleged perpetrators of the cause, as well as those who should have prevented the cause, immediately point to examples of children at risk who were not impacted by the purported cause as well as children who had been subject to the purported cause but were “unaffected.”[4] After an initial ballyhoo with much finger pointing, the various claims and counterclaims usually cancel each other out and the alleged cause fades from the radar screen. The challenge of “children at risk” thus remains and may actually be growing. But as a communal agenda, the concern has receded in favor of other “problems of the hour,” without ever having been properly or thoroughly addressed.

Aside from the flawed methodology of assigning a causative role to any single factor, the identification of a single primary cause harmfully deflects responsibility from all the other possible contributing causes. For example, if the established premise is that the sexual abuse of children and the Internet create all the children at risk, scant attention will be paid to kriah problems, to our failure to answer children’s questions, to physical and mental abuse in dysfunctional homes and schools or to any of the other important issues mentioned above. The “causes” of children at risk, of course, may very well be, “all of the above,” albeit at different times for different children. The truth is that all these factors need to be addressed.

Key Dimensions of the Research Process

Absent proper research, the community is unable to construct a methodically sound and consistent approach to addressing any of its challenges. In order to demonstrate the value, and in fact the necessity, of quality research in addressing community challenges, I offer here an in-depth, research-based analysis of the “children at risk” phenomenon. This discussion is intended to serve as an example of how a given challenge can be explored in a manner that leads to meaningful opportunities for legitimate solutions. I trust the reader will find this a valuable exercise.

Step I - Ascertaining the “What” of our problems

A prerequisite to addressing problems is identifying their nature and prevalence. Are they rampant or localized? For example, unsubstantiated numbers abound regarding the number of children who are either “off the derech,” or who are only “walking the walk, and talking the talk.” Articles decry the massive numbers of teens keeping a “half-Shabbos,” i.e. texting on Shabbos. But how real are these numbers? Even if a small survey has actually been conducted in some circumscribed community, are the numbers produced true for all communities? Some argue that details do not matter because “even one is too much!” Certainly every Jew is precious, but the first step in remedying a problem is identifying its scope, delineating its parameters, and, by so doing, possibly finding clues that highlight its causes.

This is the model used in medicine. Before medical researchers can speak of the etiology of an illness, they perform an epidemiological study. Identifying the exact populations or locations in which an illness occurs frequently provides clues about what may be contributing to the cause of that illness.[5]

Step II – Identifying Contributing Causes

It is important to avoid thinking in terms of “what causes the illness,” but rather in terms of “what contributes to the cause of the illness.” The distinction is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, years of experience have taught researchers that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain definitive causes, especially in the social sciences. Thus, most assertions of “cause and effect” are based on observations of the confluence of two events. For example, one may point out that “most boys who are off the derech have been beaten by punitive parents.” In actuality, finding that two factors tend to occur together merely indicates that they are co-related. It says little or nothing about cause and effect. After all, has it been established which is the cause and which is the effect?

For example, the finding that a very high percentage of juvenile delinquents have been beaten by their fathers does not necessarily mean that “children who are beaten become juvenile delinquents.” It is equally plausible that “children with difficult natures and anti-social personalities tend to bring out the worst in their parents and, as a result, get beaten.” It may also be true that the two factors – fathers beating children and children becoming Juvenile Delinquents – are not at all causally linked, but are rather both a result of a third factor, such as poverty. Perhaps fathers failing to make a living are tense, on edge, and angry, and thus prone to beating their children. And it may also be true that children raised in poverty, pining for luxuries enjoyed by others and seeing no obvious way to achieve success themselves, are more prone to delinquency to earn a quick buck. Thus, the presence of two factors, abusive fathers and juvenile delinquents, are not necessarily cause and effect. The basic rule in research is “correlation is not causation.”

Another, and perhaps even more pertinent, reason for shying away from the term “cause” is that research in the social sciences and in education has revealed that a single factor is rarely the cause of any problem. To quote one prominent researcher in the area of juvenile delinquency (Jessor 1993)[6], “Research has shown us that no single variable (such as self-esteem), no single setting (such as the inner city), no single explanatory concept (e.g. genetics, personality, environment), can handle the data. Instead, we have a web-of-causation, i.e. many factors that directly or indirectly have an impact on a person’s development.”

Not only do most problems have multiple causes, but almost every “cause” that puts an individual at risk for developing a specific problem may be offset by some other factor that tends to protect from and to prevent the development of that same problem. For example, a boy growing up in a strife-filled home, who is rejected by his school due to persistent failing, may nevertheless grow up healthy if there is a family member, an older friend, a religious leader, or simply an interested adult who takes him under his wing, inviting him to his home where he may experience some normalcy. Perhaps this caring adult will teach the child a skill or a trade that helps him feel successful in some way. Research must thus look not only at what causes “at risk” behavior, but also at what prevents such behavior from developing despite the presence of risk factors.

In light of the above, instead of seeking and speaking of a problem’s causes and culprits, it is more productive to speak of “risk factors” and “protective factors.” Factors that put a person at risk of developing a given problem should be identified, as should factors that protect against the debilitating effects of the risk factors.

It must also be understood that explanatory domains for behavior are bidirectional and reciprocal, i.e., they affect each other and are reactive to each other. For example, a child who is doing poorly in school may, as a result, also receive negative messages at home, and thus perform even more poorly in school. The entire “web of causation” must be studied – both how events and factors directly and indirectly affect children, and how children are affected by them, both positively and negatively.

Perhaps this concept can be clarified with an example from research on the problem of juvenile delinquency. The table below is taken from Jessor’s paper on the study of juvenile delinquency, cited above.

The table presents the various levels and domains of causation for juvenile delinquency. It is organized into three levels, as follows:

The various risk and protective factors that may contribute, positively or negatively, to the development of risk behavior amongst adolescents [top row of the chart]. This includes factors in various life domains, including: biological predispositions, a child’s actual social environment, the child’s perceived environment, the child’s personality and his actual current repertoire of behaviors. Each of these domains contains some factors which may increase the probability of a child’s engaging in risky behavior (i.e. risk factors), and also some factors that may decrease the probability of a child’s engaging in risky behavior (i.e. protective factors).

The various risky behaviors in which adolescents engage (e.g. truancy, drug use, drunk driving, etc.).

The outcomes of risky behaviors (e.g. poor health, school failure, compromised job prospects, low self-esteem, poverty).

Note that in the first row there are bi-directional, horizontal arrows pointing from one domain to another. The message is that factors in one domain may influence factors in another, and also be influenced by them. For example, a child with a difficult temperament will tend to see life more negatively and will also react to negative events in his social life.

There are also bi-directional, vertical arrows pointing in both directions. These convey that life is dynamic, and that once a child has engaged in a particular behavior, such behavior is likely to affect other factors in the child’s life. For example, a child who completes his school-work and realizes some success will also be changing his perceived environment, and perhaps even his friends. By driving drunk, a child negatively affects his own self-image and his perceived chances in life. While this process is certainly complex, it is also encouraging since it provides many avenues for improving lives in our communities.

Step III – Planning and Attempting Solutions

The fruits of research not only illustrate the web of a problem’s causation, but also the web of factors that operate to protect against that same problem. Research not only points to multifaceted, comprehensive solutions, it highlights which dimensions of communal life warrant improvement and the likely results we can hope to see from possible changes. Research can also demonstrate how a few minor changes can have a large effect, even when the underlying problems cannot be solved.

Furthermore, even once solutions are being implemented, continued research makes it possible to measure progress realistically and it can alert to any need for fine-tuning or for large-scale changes.

The Scope of Necessary Research, and How to Proceed

The first dimension of a research plan for community analysis is to ascertain the breadth and depth of the community’s problems in the sphere of concern. Using chinuch as an example, below is a prototypical approach, equally applicable to other spheres:

Step I: List the various problem areas in chinuch, including those that result in problems, those that result from problems, and those that do both.

Applying this methodology to the painful area of “children at risk,” (as in “off the derech”), the first step – as in any research project – is to conduct a review of all relevant literature. What research has been conducted regarding juvenile delinquency in the general population, and what are their findings? Though “off the derech” is not necessarily the same as “juvenile delinquency,” and the Orthodox community is culturally distinct, there remain enough parallels to deem the study of existing research on juvenile delinquency a worthy starting point.

In the general literature, as in the Orthodox community, various causes and culprits have been identified, which can be divided as follows:

Problems residing in children (i.e. Learning Disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorder, emotional or personality disorders, the hubris of adolescence, and the like).

Problems residing in the schools: Poor teaching, curricula appropriate only for the elite (whether by dint of level of difficulty or content), elitism, rejection of children on academic, intellectual, religious, or social grounds (they are not from the “right” families).

Problems in the home: Strife, disorganization, poverty, lack of communication, abuse and/or neglect.

Problems in the community: Lack of communal organization, an exclusive social hierarchy, including in who is respected and honored, who is granted recognition and privilege and who gets shidduchim.

Problems in the larger culture: Its insidious intrusion and influence, the low and base moral and ethical level of popular entertainment, the dangers of social media and the Internet, the easy availability and access to smut. Some suggest that the influence of the scientific attitude and the general culture of rationalism and free-thinking negatively influence our children.

No doubt, each of these factors plays some role, whether contributing to a problem, being fed by and in turn worsening a problem or serving as risk factors (or to some children, even protective factors).

This comprehensive approach will not lead to solving, or even substantially affecting, all of these problems. And there is no guarantee that the research literature will be full of great insights and ideas ready to be implemented. Much can be learned, however, from reviewing the literature and seeing how the progressive accumulation of information about problems has informed solutions in many communities, and in many cases very effectively. We do not always have to start from scratch and “reinvent the wheel.”

Step II: Conduct actual research within the Orthodox community, with the initial goal of identifying and quantifying the extent of the problems –for example, what percentage of Orthodox children actually go “off the derech.”

One approach to such a study might be to randomly select twenty elementary schools that are representative and inclusive of some of American Orthodoxy’s key demographics (i.e., “in-town,” “out-of-town,” Chassidic, Yeshivish, Modern-Orthodox). The graduating (8th grade) class of the year 2000 would be reviewed, student by student, determining the current status of each student. At the simplest level, this review would provide an introductory estimate of the percentage of children who go off the derech. It would identify any significant differences between the varying categories of schools and communities. For purposes of comparison, it would also be important to record the percentage of children entering each school’s preschool that are from observant homes, and what percentage of an elementary school’s population continues to a Jewish high school.

The questions would then be further refined to gain further knowledge. School records would reveal how well each child was progressing, and whether anything stood out, such as struggling with kriah, or in other parts of the curriculum, or sudden changes in grades. Teacher’s comments could also provide insight into the emotional and behavioral state of each child, as well as their social situation.

The findings regarding the impact of school and community categories would be instructive to both parents and educators.[7] Without identifying the individual schools, we may be able to point to higher percentages of children at risk in one population than in another, or we might find the same, but with different profiles pointing to different risk factors in each population. We may find that children with learning problems were at greater risk, or we may not. We may discover what protective factors helped some children grow in a healthy manner, where others did not. Research may thereby instruct the community as to which dimensions of our schools require strengthening and which need to be modified, what programs need to be added, and which of our programs may be harmful and should be discontinued.

Research Programs in other Areas

Research of this type can be conducted in many areas, such as the problems of divorce and the increase in broken engagements. Many “causes” have been suggested for these problems: the lack of midos, immaturity, the lack of education and preparation for marriage, the Internet, the lack of parnassah (livelihood), and plain and simple lust. To pick one area of interest, many have suggested that at a fundamental level, an insufficient emphasis on midos is at fault, and that we have raised a generation of people who feel entitled to get their way – how they want it, and when they want it – and that they are not willing or ready to work on a relationship. Is this so? There is some very interesting research and some interesting research tools that have been developed for the study of values and the extent to which people hold them and guide their behavior by them. If we do find that our young people lack values or midos, it would then behoove us to ask what protective factors exist in the many marriages that do remain intact. Again, this would be a complex set of activities, but it would lead to possible fruitful knowledge and change.

A proper think tank, peopled by a multidisciplinary team of researchers as well as by businessmen, talmidei chachomim, and serious baalei batim, could, over time, with the guidance of professionals learn to ask the right research questions, formulate ways to answer them, and come up with practical advice and suggestions for change and improvement in our communities. This will provide a Va’ad of rabbinic leaders with the information that is so crucial for responsible decision making.

Aharon Hersh Fried, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Psychology and Education at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University and maintains a private practice in Psychology.


[1] Palmer, T.M. et al (2008). Breakdown of an Ant-Plant Mutualism Follows the Loss of Large Herbivores from an African Savanna. Science 11 January 2008

[2] The individuals (men, women, and children), family units (nuclear and extended), schools (elementary, high school, and beyond, girl’s schools, boy’s schools, schools for the learning disabled, for the severely disabled, for the handicapped, as well as for those of our young who are seen as dysfunctional, “off the derech”, or delinquent), shuls, batei dinim, kolelim, hospitals, batei avos, chesed organizations (bikur cholim, tomchei Shabbos, Kimche D’Pischa, Hachnasas Kallah), kiruv organizations, the wedding halls, fund raising institutions, parnassah generating institutions, and umbrella organizations serving as liaisons to government agencies and to the general population are all intertwined and interdependent, often with overlapping directorates, and at times with at least partially or temporarily competing agendas.

[3] There is a very telling video on YouTube of a “mover” in Eretz Yisroel trying to convince Reb Aharon Leib Steinman Shlita to place a ban on the modern Jewish singers and musicians. At one point he exclaims, “Most of those who leave the Torah way of life (Poshrim) leave as a result of their listening to these singers!” Reb Aryeh Leib asks him, “But I was told that the Poshrim are caused by the Internet?” at which point the “mover” backtracks and says, “Yes, but it’s via the Internet that they get the discs of these singers.”

[4] I well remember, when in the early days of the “children at risk” brouhaha; when the Jewish Observer published not one, but two special editions on the topic (November 1999 and March 2000), a mechanech, whom I highly respect, telling me that all the children at risk he has seen, even those who were unsuccessful in their learning, came from problematic families. It was not the Yeshivos who were at fault, and there was little or nothing they could do about it.

[5] To cite one example from medical research: In a paper published in 1989 [Olshan, Andrew F., Baird, Patricia A. Teschketa, Kay Paternal Occupational Exposures and the Risk of Down Syndromes, Am. J. Hum. Genet. 44:646-651, 1989) a study is described wherein 1,008 cases of live-born Down’s syndrome in British Columbia, Canada, were identified for the period 1952-73. An analysis of the occupations of the fathers of these children showed that they were likely to be working in occupations which exposed them to solvents. Thus the study of prevalence led to discovery of a probable cause.

[6] Jessor, Richard, Successful Adolescent Development Among Youth in High Risk Settings, American Psychologist , 117-126, February 1993

[7] This would of course be a somewhat weak study, being that much of the data would be retrospective in nature, i.e. looking back and gathering data from the past. Future studies could follow children prospectively from childhood to adulthood. Rich data and information has been gathered in this way in other communities. We need to begin somewhere.