Friday, October 2, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Conclusion of Shul 3 - Beth Tfiloh

To the question I posed at the end of the last post, I have no answer at all except to say that, in my mind at least, I was and remain precisely the sort of person, the sort of human being, the sort of Jew, which places like Beth Tfiloh and Krieger Schechter should have prized. There was at least a time when I was smart and generous and truly coveted nothing more than the respect of my elders. I have always been better read and informed than just about any peer of mine, and even in my ugliest periods, I always valued Jewish tradition to the point that my life would be unthinkable without it. In any of hundreds of ways, my presence would have been of enormous use to them. If any one of the thousands of people I encountered in those years had found a way to accommodate me, the investment would have paid off in ways they and I could never fathom.

But it did not and will never happen, because in a manner that was sealed long before I ever knew of it, the only use a person like me ever had to this community is to demonstrate its severe limitations. I am the cautionary tale, the kid who flew too close to the sun, who had every gift and flushed it down the toilet. My presence in this community, the very act of knowing me and my story, is like a balance sheet that shows every limitation of a community so fat on self-congratulation that it can barely admit that it has limitations. My existence shows that this community is built on lies, lies more serious than any I ever yet told.

To walk around Beth Tfiloh, to walk around Pikesville, to walk directly to Pikesville's south, is to walk around the recent history of this country. I do not have statistics to back up what will no doubt seem like inflammatory assertions, but I hope that one day these statistics, wherever they lay, will be common knowledge to Jews who care about the ethics of what Jews do.

I don't know how to frame my part in all this except to say that places like Beth Tfiloh and Chizuk Amuno failed me for the precise reason that kids like me were clearly of no use to build the lumbering edifices they wanted. Their Makhers (movers and shakers) wanted a Las Vegas style Judaism with huge congregations, so they set about creating educational programs designed not to get students to think critically, but to become contributing members to Jewish congregations. They barely cared about the humanities, and as for the arts, forget it. All that mattered was hard achievement and being a Jew - math, science, and religion. Everything else was a joke. There was lots of bullshit proclamations about Jewish values - and I'm here to tell you that not a single kid believed a single word of what they preached. Nevertheless, we just might have believed it if we saw that the adults practiced what they preached, decency might not have seemed like so much bullshit to us. If you show children by example that all that matters is achievement and not the bonds of family and friends and values, you shouldn't be surprised when your children leave you to achieve bigger things. Meanwhile, a kid like me who was born with three right sides of the brain but no left brain was screwed from the beginning. And now, I'm one of the only kids I know who remained in Baltimore.

I trust that the idea that the notion that Schechter and Beth Tfiloh didn't care about values would come as an overwhelming shock to some. But if you want evidence, just look around you. These schools, and no doubt many goyisher Baltimore schools so much like them, set about creating citizens of Baltimore that can fit the upstanding model of someone who gives back and perpetuates itself. But because they never aimed higher than self-perpetuation, they wrecked Baltimore's future. Baltimore is now a gutted-out city, and most of these schools' recent graduates have long since moved to Washington, New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other metropoles where their chances for prosperity are much better than they ever could be in Baltimore. Meanwhile, kids like me, who never got what we needed, are virtually the only young religious but non-Orthodox Jews still here - yet Pikesville continues its delicate dance upon the volcano, and pretends as though the easy money will continue forever.

Beth Tfiloh was built to be the exact center of Baltimore Judaism - physically, emotionally, ideologically, financially... Rabbi Wohlberg preached fire and brimstone, but was always careful to never take a stand too far to any side, and never stood on any principle that might be considered controversial to the mainstream of Baltimore Jews. To be a Jewish leader is to continually invite criticism and censure on yourself, but for nearly forty years, he has played the most delicate of dances. Dr Kaplan took every conceivable stand and alientated everyone in his path, but his conflicts created a dynamic, always shifting local religion. Rabbi Wohlberg took no stand. Kaplan, for all his difficulty, was difficult because he valued principle above all. But Wohlberg did not value principle as much as he did money or his ego, indeed, he probably sees all three concepts as one and the same. Consequently, the Jewish community of Baltimore may be living on borrowed time. In a hundred years, will it be anything more than a once again persecuted community of ultra-orthodox Jews?

To walk around Beth Tfiloh is to see the wonders of money. Beth Tfiloh, like Pikesville only moreso, is a place built on consensus, backroom deals, and lots and lots of money. Nearly every room in Beth Tfiloh has the name of a donor emblazoned upon it, every wall of the main building has a plaque commemorating dozens of donors. It is a monument to the wonders of modern fundraising and how a few smart hustlers can build an enormous organization as a kind of confidence game: put a charismatic leader at the center, an infallibly competent administrator to run the show, and suck up to every Jew in Baltimore who ever grew fat on easy money, and you can create the center of your community too. The doctors and scientists who did something valuable for society all went to Chizuk Amuno, but the leeches who profited from Baltimore's impoverishment all went to Beth Tfiloh. To look at a roster of their membership list is akin to looking at half the Sunpaper's roster of real estate developers who have developed Baltimore into its current mess.

I'm not so stupid as to name names or talk about the deals. They are deals that to at least a small extent, I profit from. I'm an "idiot son" who risks biting the hand that feeds me by saying even this much. I will not name names or say what the deals were, though you can read about so many of them in the Baltimore Sun. I should also add that, to my knowledge, no laws have ever been broken by any of these people. I'm sure they sleep soundly in their beds secure in the knowledge that they are law abiding citizens, and I'm sure many of them think that their vulture capitalism does a world of good for society. But like so much of finance in America, it is a scandal that what is legal is legal. Future generations will look back on us in shame.

Pikesville never worked less than hard for its money, but this community, like so many other white communities, didn't work hard enough to justify its remuneration. We grew rich at the expense of the working class, both black and white - and yes, there are even some Jews among that working class. Jews have contributed far too much to society worldwide for me to entertain the idea that I'm propagating Jewish stereotypes by saying all this. Would that the rest of the world paid as much attention to finance as we do - yes there are a disproportionate amount of Jews in finance, but wouldn't it then be the fault of other ethnic groups for not valuing security and practicality as much as we do?

Nevertheless, to walk around Pikesville is to see that easy money on display. None of the recent American Jewish stereotypes have more than a hint of truth to them - and if anything, such stereotypes are less true today than they've been since the mid-20th century thanks to assimilation on the one hand and the resurgence of ultra-orthodoxy on the other. But so many of those stereotypes hold absolutely true in Pikesville that it's as though we're asking for anti-semites to have proof of their allegations. Pikesville is a zoo of McMansion, Mercedes, and Malachite. Thankfully, the younger generation of women are largely at work. But so many of their mothers are bejeweled and 'fake'n bake' ladies of a certain age with manicured nails and the tackiest possible designer clothes who walk the luxury stores of Baltimore like lions stalking gazelles. They are an embarrassment to the Jewish community who advertise that we have nothing better to do with our families' wealth than to spend it on useless crap. Many of them sit on charity committees, to which they contribute just enough money to be hailed for their generosity and not a penny more, the change they claim to want to see is never effected, because praise for charity is more important than solving the problem which more money could endow.

Cross Northern Parkway from the greater Pikesville area to Pimlico and Lower Park Heights and you immediately enter the opposite world. Sixty years ago, Lower Park Heights was the Jewish lower-middle-class area. The neighborhood, like so many Jewish neighborhoods, was a testament to hard working people whom life never gave their proper due, but pushed onward with values of thrift, responsibility, family, community, and investment in the future. It is now a third-world slum, and has been so for as long as I've been alive. So many Jews worked so hard to get their children into the upper-middle-class, and once they succeeded, those children became rich by abetting in the grand conspiracy to shut the door so nobody after them could make it to a similar position. Poor people are zoned out of their communities, and the very presence of the poor in rich commercial areas is policed out of existence. Relatively wealthy people like me and whomever is reading this can walk around our areas of Baltimore with security that we will not be molested. Meanwhile, the murder and education rates in poor areas would not be out of place in a metropolis 800 years ago. Search for the owners who propagate many of Baltimore's ritziest gated communities and commercial developments, the lawyers who find the justifications to keep them that way, the middlemen who orchestrate the deals, and you'll find that many of them - hardly all but far too many - live in the 21208-09-10-117 zipcodes. Like an African banana republic, money is exchanged by a small community of rich people around Baltimore and never makes its way down to the people whose suffering can be alleviated by just a sliver of it.

But the lie that lets this happen is the ruse of liberalism that surrounds this. Marxists and socialists usually call this process 'neoliberalism.' I'm no Marxist, no socialist, or even a progressive, I am a liberal who idolizes all the liberals which most Jews still claim they idolize: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy - meanwhile doing their part dismantle everything they stood for. I don't want to destroy capitalism, I want to save it. I do not subscribe to the idea of neoliberalism or Late Capitalism, and find those views a bit scary, but to belong to Beth Tfiloh is to be an eyewitness to the best possible evidence for their views. I have a front-row seat to how the kosher sausage is made, and there are moments when I wonder if these trendy neo-Marxists who bite the hand that feeds them have a better point that I ever give them credit for. What they neglect to realize is that places like Pikesville are not capitalist in the slightest, the process that makes Pikesville is Marxian socialism for the rich, in which the rich gradually overthrow the poor's ability to make any money at all, and endanger all the prosperity which 20th century American capitalism made possible.

It is this ruse that allows a place like Beth Tfiloh, a place like Pikesville, to claim itself as standing for the best American values, meanwhile doing their part to dismantle the values they claim to cherish: claiming to value the developments in America of sixty years ago, while practicing the values of a hundred-twenty years ago; a ruse that allows us all to sit through sermons where a Rabbi bloviates week after week about politics in a manner that continually skirts the line between taking a moral stand and illegal clergical pronouncements, and gets away with it because he's a business player just like anyone else in the community; a ruse that lets the Rabbi and his congregants stand for values of a more decent American past, meanwhile being the generation who turned those values to rubble; a ruse that lets them pretend that the reason their pews are emptied of the next generation is that kids like us failed them. Meanwhile, there are so many examples of how they failed the next generation.

 Children who grow up surrounded by dishonesty can't help but parrot what they learn. Just as the inner Baltimore has to take some responsibility for yielding to temptations that circumstances conspired to make more tempting, so do we on the wealthier side of that divide. Within my community of origin is a deep-seated lie that venerates a certain kind of achievement that has nothing to do with moral character. Indeed, many of the worst bullies at both Krieger Schechter and Beth Tfiloh schools were the golden children of the schools that got Straight A's and eventually went to Ivy League Schools. These schools and synagogues can claim to speak for Jewish concepts like Derekh Eretz and Menschlekhkeit and Mishpat and Tzedakah and Khesed and Rakhamim, but what substantiates their claims? Is it the businessmen that don't pay their workers a living wage? Is it the idle Ladies who Lunch that spend their money on empty luxury? Is it the straight A students who bully other kids unmercifully? Is it the real estate developers whose dealings perpetuate and worsen the black ghettoes of Baltimore? Is it the doctors and scientists of Baltimore who valued achievement more than community and allowed their promising children move away to chase achievement at the expense of family and community cohesion without a word of protest? Is it the Rabbis who built massive edifices not to comfort the afflicted but as monuments to their egos? Or is it the hundreds of shady backroom deals that allows for all this politicking to be legal, and for its practitioners to operate under a ruse of ethics?

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