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Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz: How Should We Educate About Social Justice?

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we sit down with Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz – Shalom Hartman Institute Fellow, SAR Associate Principal, and Princeton PhD – to think about ways in which social justice can be incorporated into Orthodox education systems.

History has seen many hierarchical class systems that benefit some to the detriment of others. The Jewish people have not often been the beneficiaries, yet we enjoy much economic and social success in much of the world today. Dr. Press Schwartz thinks that while this success is in part due to our own willpower, certain fluke historical factors have played in our favor, giving us a leg up. She believes that the Torah is compatible with a social view that involves recognizing social privileges and attempting to mitigate them.

  • What is privilege?
  • How privileged have the Jewish people been throughout history?
  • What, if anything, should be done when privileges are identified?
  • What does the Torah have to say about this?

Tune in to hear Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz share her views on the Torah, the Jewish people, privilege, and broader social justice.

References:
Dr. Press Schwartz article “Privilege, Perspective, and Modern Orthodox Youth” – https://18forty.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/privilege-perspective-press-schwartz.pdf
Dr. Press Schwartz and David Bashevkin Twitter Exchange – https://twitter.com/DBashIdeas/status/1283400224191504389
Yuval Levin election day NYT op ed – https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/03/opinion/2020-election.html
A Time to Build by Yuval Levin
The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

David Bashevkin:

Hello and welcome to the 18Forty podcast, where each month we explore a different topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring social justice. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy ideas that animate our religious and Jewish lives, so be sure to check out 18Forty.org. That’s 1-8 F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you could find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

I was raised in a home where we were not allowed to use certain words. Now, I’m not bragging like the mildly racist bit by Chris Rock. Chris Rock’s not a racist, but the bit has been appropriated by racists with that famous Office clip where somebody’s bragging, “I’ve never been to jail.” And you’re just like, “Okay. You can’t brag about that.” I’m not bragging about the fact. I certainly didn’t grow up in a home where we used, God forbid, any sort of racial expletives. Zero, zero, zero. But my mother didn’t even let us use the word “goy” to describe non-Jews. And I think that there was this deep abiding sense in our home about not making people who were non-Jewish feeling so, so distant and other, like they’re these inanimate objects that we don’t have to have any sense of responsibility towards. And I saw in these very subtle ways in my home, mostly from my mother, about that deep sense of responsibility to give and to care for in ways that can’t even be taught.

I remember in our home on Sundays, particularly, I grew up in the Five Towns. It’s a very well-to-do, dare I say wealthy community, and on Sundays, you always have people knocking on your doors asking for money. And my mother wouldn’t always give them money, but she absolutely would always, always offer them a drink, to come inside. There was a sense of humanity with the way that she dealt with others. And to those of us, my siblings, who grew up in that home, I think we’ve all imbibed that and that’s become a way that we look at the world. Now, none of me or my siblings are big activists with social justice, but I think all of us in different ways have that empathy that we saw from my own mother, the way she spoke about people who were different than us, who were differently religious than us, who were different in our domination, who were different in their economic status. My mother always spoke to them and approached them in a way that was deeply human and empathetic and sensitive and finding a place to help.

I’ve always thought that that’s really the best way to cultivate that sense of breadth as a human being. But I got into an argument, and it is with, partially, our interview today with Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz, which is, what is the right way to resolve the systemic injustices that exist? Assuming that you did the work and realize that some of them do continue to exist. And she’s been ringing the bell about people not resting, like myself, I am guilty of this, resting on their sense of empathy or sensitivity and appealing to larger institutional solutions, larger educational solutions, that allow people to get more involved. And we had a fairly spirited debate that centered around, well, is that the right approach? Is there these large institutional approaches, or is it really, each person in their own home developing a decent, healthy, happy culture, an empathetic culture inside of their own home? Which I’ll be totally frank with, I absolutely side with. And we had an important conversation about, so if that’s not the answer, what are the larger answers, and what can we actually do about it?

The second part of the conversation, which I actually didn’t know that we were going to get into, but I found to be absolutely fascinating, and I identify with it the most, which is, she grew up in an old school yeshiva family. Her mother, Mrs. Press, I believe teaches, I’m going to get this wrong, in Prospect Park, I believe, which is a very prestigious institution, an all-girls high school. She also went to BJJ, which is like the Harvard University of seminaries, which we talk about both. And she was raised with a certain ethic that her siblings still have. And she went a little bit in a different way, and she has a Princeton PhD, one of the finest institutions, and now teaches at a premiere Modern Orthodox institution, SAR. And we start to talk about who has it right? Which one works? How should we be raising our children? And we talk about this because what’s the right approach to developing that wider sense of responsibility and empathy in our kids? And I thought her response was so honest, so real, and so powerful that I’m so excited to share both of these major issues in that larger topic of social justice with you today. So without further ado, my conversation with Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz.

Welcome all to the 18Forty Podcast. It is my absolute pleasure to welcome, dare I say, a friend, Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz, who’s a fellow at the Kogod – I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly – Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She spent more than 15 years in the field of Jewish secondary and post-secondary education. Rivka currently serves as the associate principal of general studies at SAR High School in the Bronx. She earned a PhD in the history of science from Princeton University – that’s serious – writing her dissertation about the cultural history of the Manhattan Project. She lectures throughout the Orthodox community. You could find her on social media, and we’ll link to all of her profiles there, all of her amazing work there.

Rivka, it is such an absolute pleasure and joy to be speaking with you tonight.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

David, I’m really delighted to be here with you.

David Bashevkin:

So I wanted to start, I don’t do this with all of my guests. I feel like for you and for the subject we’re talking about, we’re exploring a subject that has a lot to unpack, namely, we’re talking about the Jewish community and social action. But unpacking that has to do with our relationship with non-Jews in general, our relationship with race, our responsibility to those who look and are in different economic situations than us. And to really understand a lot of this, I feel like it’s necessary, particularly with you, to unpack the community that you grew up in and the community that you are a part of now, educationally and where you teach. So Rivka, where did you grow up? Describe a little bit about the home and the educational institutions that got you to the point that you are at now.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

If any of my students or my former students is listening to this, they’re laughing at me right now, because I can’t go more than about 20 minutes into a class without explaining all this to my students.

David Bashevkin:

Well I’m laughing too, because we’ve spoken before. But I do think it’s such an important part of your story, particularly with this issue. Correct?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Right. So let’s situate me a little bit. I grew up, I would say, on the open-minded end of the Yeshivish world. My parents both had grown up in the unlabeled Orthodox world of the mid 20th century, I don’t think they thought of themselves as centrist Orthodox or Modern Orthodox or Yesh – They weren’t – They were just – But they migrated into the Yeshivish world, and I was raised, again, I would say on the open-minded end of the Yeshivish world. Certainly, my parents’ home was an open intellectual home. My mother is Mrs. Zlata Press, the principal at Prospect Park Bnos Leah. That was the school I went to. So for those of you who are really specific in your institutional situating, you know where that puts me. I went to Haredi women’s seminaries, two of them, first for a year in Israel, and then for a second year of seminary in Cleveland.

David Bashevkin:

Well, indulge me, I can’t believe you glossed over that. Which seminary did you go to in Israel? It’s not a seminary, you went to the seminary, capital T.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

I spent a year in BJJ, learning with Rebbetzin Bruria Hutner David.

David Bashevkin:

For those, just for our listeners who don’t know, BJJ, dare I say, is like the Harvard of seminaries. It’s the equivalent of Brisk, it’s very prestigious to get into it. It’s a big deal. I am probably their number one male fan in the United States of America. I’ve sent Rebbetzin David, who was Rav Hutner, the great Rosh Yeshiva’s, daughter, I have sent her letters. Never got a response. So if you could help with that, that’s what this is really all about, me getting a response.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

I’ll hook you up. I’ll take care of you. And then I actually spent a second year in seminary in Cleveland in a school that had much less of a reputation, but was led by a woman who was another towering figure in the world of Haredi women’s Torah education, and that was Yavne Seminary under the guidance of Rebbetzin Chaya Ausband, who just passed away earlier this year. So that was my education in that world. But when I was in Cleveland, I started in secular college, which was not exactly a typical path. Most girls from my high school class went to either Touro College or Brooklyn College living at home. So being away from home and going to a secular college was not exactly the standard thing. And the kind of education I got as an undergraduate opened my mind to certain kinds of questions, to certain issues, that I wanted to explore. It also set me up to go to graduate school in the history of science, which is not what I started off college planning to do. And by the time I was done with –

David Bashevkin:

What did you start off planning to do? Tell me it was OT.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

No. Right. No, that was a plan B. No, I was planning to be a physicist, actually. I wanted to go and do, to study physics, and then I discovered that the only problem with that plan was that I hated doing physics. Other than that it was a great plan.

David Bashevkin:

Okay. And then at some point, so that, your experience at Princeton, getting a PhD in the cultural history of the Manhattan Project and your dissertation there, then you migrated over to the Modern Orthodox community where you began to teach and where you find yourself now.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Well, the funny thing is that at first I didn’t see myself migrating. I just, based on my graduate study and the kind of issues and questions that were being raised, I started to ask questions about gender and authority and power, which come up a lot in the history of science, but you can , doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the analogies and how they migrate over into the Orthodox world, into the frum world. And once you start asking too many of those questions or thinking too many of those things, the Yeshivish world stops being a place where it’s easy to find your intellectual home. It was some years after that before I identified as Modern Orthodox, then I didn’t quite know exactly where I landed. But that had a lot to do with my finding the school called SAR and starting to work there and realizing that there was a way of thinking about and engaging with the world, which captured more of the ways that I was thinking about and the questions that I was asking. And here we are.

David Bashevkin:

So you’ve written some really poignant critiques, both of the Modern Orthodox community and American Judaism at large, and many of your critiques have to do with the role of privilege and the sense of entitlement that you have seen as a Modern Orthodox educator. You had an article in the Orthodox Forum called Privilege, Perspective, and Modern Orthodox Youth. I want to get back to that. I want to start with something that you wrote in an article called On Citizenship and Soda Cans, where you said as follows: “We tend to approach American politics less as ponderers of intersecting identities and more as people standing before a soda machine, inserting our quarters and waiting for the cans to drop. Our relationship to our American Democratic republic has become largely transactional. What are we giving in tax dollars in support of candidates and what are we getting back?” I want to talk about this analogy, that there’s this image that American Jews are entitled to a certain life, we pay our taxes, we do the work, we get a professional life, we put in our coins, and we get our soda can of the Five Towns, Bergenfield, New Rochelle, Scarsdale, whatever that… And it’s a delicious soda. What is wrong with what we are doing now? What should we, should we be putting something else in the machine? Is there another analogy at how we should be looking at our educational institutions?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

So that was really meant not as a broad commentary on the lives that we’re living and all their material circumstances, but on a more focused critique on how we engage as American citizens. Somewhere, there may be large communities of Modern Orthodox Jews who, before they go to the polls, are saying to themselves, “What is the best way to shape this American society, and how can I cast my vote in a way that makes that happen to support human flourishing?” If you know large communities of these Orthodox Jews, I would appreciate your pointing me to them so I could meet them, because that’s not so much of the political discourse that I encounter or hear about. I hear much more political discourse, which is, “What are our needs as a community or as people, and which candidates, or which parties, which camps will best secure for us what we need?” Which is a pretty different conversation. Now, I will say that, I’ve been saying this for a while, and one response that I’ve heard often and I will, omer davar b’shem amro, and quote Professor Michael Avi Helfand, who said this to me a couple of times, is, first of all, why should Jews be any different than anybody else? Everyone in American advocates for their interests. Why do Jews have to be more noble and high-minded than any other group in America?

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. If I could jump in, that was kind of my question. We’re talking about social action and connecting to the larger community and larger community needs, but I think a little bit of how economics works and the analogy that Smith writes when he articulates how capitalism should be working, Adam Smith, and says, “What’s good for the community is for the baker, is for every individual person going into the marketplace, to have self- interest.” And in a Democratic marketplace, if everyone is self-interested and transactional, ultimately, what will be produced, certainly in an economic marketplace, will be that greater good. So why shouldn’t our community be self-interested?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Well I’ll say first of all that I would disagree with the premise that if everybody acts in their own self-interest, advocating for themselves, we will ultimately get – That’s also the premise of Federalist Number 10, right? The 10th one of the Federalist Papers. How are you going to deal with the problems of faction in American life? You’re going to have so many competing factions, they’ll all balance out and get someplace good. That assumes that everybody comes to the table equally, has the same power, has the same ability to negotiate for what they want, and somehow things get hashed out at the Democratic table. But that’s not actually how things work in our society. Some groups have much more power. Some groups have much more ability to impose their will on others. Some groups seem to get the short end of the stick historically again and again and again. And so it’s not quite everybody coming to the table with their own needs, hashing it out, everybody getting something and giving something and figuring out how to live together. Absent some stepping back and saying, “How do we secure the greatest good?,” you can go on for quite some time saying, “I’ll keep as much as I can for myself and do as much as I can for myself, and everyone else, the devil take hindmost.” So I’m not convinced that all of us negotiating together gets to the greatest good, given that we all don’t come to the table as equals.

The question as to why should the Jews be any different than anybody else, which I think is a fair and valid critique, well, first of all, I think we as a society would be a lot better off if a lot more people were thinking as citizens and thinking about this question of, “How do I think we best secure human flourishing and what do we need to do to make that happen?” I think that American society right now is doing precious little of that, and it’s gotten us to the wonderful state that we’re in. And it happens to be that the community that I’m in and talking to is the Modern Orthodox community, so I’ll start there by pushing for more of an ethos of citizenship there. I think we need it more broadly, but that’s where I’ll start.

But the second thing is, and this, I’m going to quote somebody named Reverend Russell Moore. Russell Moore is a Southern Baptist minister. He’s the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. So he’s really up there with the Southern Baptists. And his politics are extremely conservative, but he has also chastised evangelical Christians for the ways in which they, too, have allowed themselves to enter into certain kinds of transactional politics, accepting certain things from politicians because we’re going to get certain outcomes that we want from them, and therefore we’re willing to give up on our moral standards or expectations in order to get those outcomes that we want. And he basically says, aside from anything else that may be wrong with it, your kids are watching you, and your kids are saying to you, “Okay, so you’re a liar, right? You don’t believe the things you say. You told us how important morality is or character is or everything else, and then at the end of the day, you’re willing to trade it away, you’re willing to trade away your birth rite for a pot of red lentils.” We have a birth rite, right? It just came up in the Parsha. Hashem says about Avraham, where does Hashem say, “I know about – ” I’m sorry to talk Torah here, you didn’t bring me here to talk Torah.

David Bashevkin:

No. I enjoy your Torah.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

I apologize for the false pretenses. You brought me here to hock politics, and the nerve of her, she’s bringing up Torah. Hashem says, “What do I know about Avraham? I know that he’s going to command his children, bayso acharov, v’shamru derech hashem la’asos tzedaka umishpat.” We’re supposed to care about justice and righteousness and fairness, however exactly it translates, tzedaka, whether it’s charity, or whether it’s righteous, or whether it’s in the world. That’s what Hashem says about Avraham is characteristic of Avraham, and that’s what Hashem knows about Avraham. And if we read those pesukim and then go out into the world and say, “Actually, we don’t really care, not about tzedaka, and not about mishpat. You’re going to have to pardon me because the only thing I care about is my marginal income tax rate.” So I think some of our kids – I’m not pretending that this is all of our kids, I know very well it’s not – but the kids who have these questions are the kids who gravitate towards me, are like, “I don’t understand. Do we mean any of it? Was any of this real?”

David Bashevkin:

So let me ask you about the kids, because I think that’s a really great point. And we had it out, and I really almost want to focus on this, because it was a really enlightening back and forth. Somebody had posted online about the difficulties in the Orthodox community, about expanding the horizon of the Orthodox community to care more, be more empathetic, be much more than empathetic, but to really be active in what I would call “tikkun olam,” in helping other people, disenfranchised population, minority populations, the way we talk about and relate to minority populations. How do we expand our horizons? And I pushed back, and I still feel this way, full disclosure. I was raised in a home, we were not allowed to use the word “goy,” even to describe non-Jews. It was seen as derogatory. We certainly, any sort of racial slurs or discriminatory words, the Yiddish words, any of them, we didn’t say any of them. And it was really, really just unspoken.

And I, for me, felt like I grew up in a home that that was a way in which we approached the world, and it trickled down very much to me. And this person was writing, and what you responded is, “That is not enough.” I’m going to quote your words, and they were directed at me. You wrote as follows: “DBashIdeas,” referring by my Twitter moniker, “my brother,” which is very kind of you to say, “this is why teaching our kids to be nice and empathetic and engage with Black Americans openly, friendly, and respectfully, while good, is just not enough, why there must be structural systems changed if we are to get anywhere near justice in this country, because there is no conceivable set of circumstances on God’s green earth that one of our kids would be processed through the system to end up in a position to be sentenced to juvenile detention for not doing work in Zoom school. Seriously, you must read the underlying article.” Which, you’ll forgive me, we’re not going to do right now, read that article, though I sure we’ll link to it. But what you’re basically saying is, it’s not enough to just be nice. It’s not enough to just grow up in a home where you don’t use racial slurs or you don’t… So my question to you is, what is enough? What do you want to see?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

That’s a loaded question on two levels. On one level, it’s like –

David Bashevkin:

I only ask loaded questions. That’s all I do.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

On one level, it’s what do I want to see and what am I willing to say to the whole world that I want to see? So that’s one kind of question. But the other kind of question is, what’s the maximalist demand, and what’s the next step I’d like to see us get to?

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. And let me throw in another wrench, because you’re absolutely right. This whole topic is so loaded, because one of the things we need to extract in this topic, and maybe you could weave this in, is that by definition, there is an element insularity that I think, at least, that the Orthodox community needs. Meaning, we go to our own schools, our own schools because of whatever factors are predominant, they’re exclusively Jewish, predominantly white, and that’s going to breed a certain otherness to people who look differently than us. So short of sending our kids to public school, what could our Orthodox institutions realistically do? How should we be talking about non-Jews differently, about our responsibility to minorities differently? What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? Just to reload the gun there on the import of the question.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

So in terms of what do I want to see, I’m going to go back to what I want to see and connect that to what do we need to be doing, which I’d rather frame it that way than as what are we doing wrong, but what do we need to be doing. So what I was saying to you in that Twitter thread, and what I strongly think is not just true, but born out by all of the historical evidence, is there are all kinds of systems set up in this country. Let’s talk specifically about Black Americans, because as disadvantaged as other groups of Americans might be, Black Americans were always particularly the target. There were legal systems, economic systems, political systems set up to disadvantage Black Americans. That’s just truth. You can’t tell me it’s not true. There are political scientists who actually say that the United States doesn’t get to call itself the world’s oldest democracy, or whatever we want to call ourselves, because they say the United States only became a democracy in 1965 when the Voting Rights Act guaranteed to all Black Americans the right to vote.

And if you think of us as only being a democracy since 1965, then we’re a young, new, kind of shaky democracy. So you understand why things don’t go perfectly. And we get very offended at that. What do you mean 1965? We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. Yeah, dude who wrote that owned human beings as property. So the people who are the descendants of the human beings he owned as property might have a different point of view on what that statement means than we do, even though ironically, of course, our great grandparents were both in [inaudible] when that was written. But we have a deep sense of ownership over Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration, even though my great grandparents were in [inaudible], but people whose ancestors were here who were owned by Thomas Jefferson, when they say that was all a lie, we say, “How dare you say that?,” right? “I know how to read the Declaration from my great grandparents in [inaudible].”

Anyway, so all those systems existed, and then the question becomes, “Are the systems totally gone? Is everything now absolutely, totally fair and equal? Have all of the disparities that those systems created been erased or been equalized?” And I would say to ask that question is to answer it, right? If you even ask that question, you have to say, “Of course it’s not true that those systems have been completely eradicated. Of course it’s not true that the playing field has completely and entirely been made equal so that Black Americans and White Americans – ” If you’re listening to this and you think, “Okay, that’s some crazy liberal hogwash nonsense that she’s spouting. There’s no possible way that this is true.” I am happy to cite chapter and verse, however many books you want to read about housing segregation, that’s how many books about housing segregation I can give you to read, and schools, and econom – whatever you want to read about.

David Bashevkin:

Well, one of the things that I found most enlightening, and we’ll come back to this, is – because I do want to finish on how what you are saying should trickle down into our education, into our parenting, into our community – but one of the notions that you corrected me on is, a lot of people in the Jewish community, myself included, are like, “Well, we also were persecuted. We also had, we had the Holocaust. We know Holocaust stories, they’re our grandparents, they’re our ancestors. So why, when we look at other minority communities, can’t you get it together? We did it. We’re great. You don’t see us complaining and kvetching and having all this time.” So it minimizes, in the eyes of many, because of our own struggle, the struggles of minority communities and our ability to empathize with them, because we went through something so horrific and were able to rebuild in America. And you did correct me on that and said that that analogy is false, which is very much in line with what you just said.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

It’s only funny because I taught this to my 12th graders in class today. We had this conversation today. I said to them, “How many of you have heard, in the Orthodox community, somebody say exactly that line? “We did it. We pulled ourselves together. We made ourselves wealthy. Why are they sitting around complaining?” So here’s the thing. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was an immigrant to the United States. He came from Poland sometime in the 1930s, which it turns out was an excellent time for a Jew to get out of Poland. He comes to the United States. He ends up drafted into the US Army and World War II because they needed every man they could get. I’m not even sure he was a citizen at that point. They couldn’t have cared less. It must have been so bizarre. He was a frum man serving as a GI in the American Army in World War II sent overseas. Great. World War II is over, he comes back, there’s a law that Congress passed called the GI Bill. The GI Bill gave benefits to people who had served in the American army in World War II. The GI Bill was written in certain specific, technically legal ways to ensure that black GIs couldn’t get its benefits and White GIs could. My grandfather, for all that he faced antisemitism in the Army, for all there was still antisemitism in American life, when it came down to that white GIs could get the benefits in the GI Bill and black GIs couldn’t, my grandfather was white enough. And that’s why I don’t want to get into this fight if white Jews are white or not white. They’re white enough, right? My grandfather was white enough to get the GI Bill, even if there was also antisemitism.

And in this whole conversation, I think we need to be able to walk and chew gum in a few different ways. One way we need to be able to walk and chew gum is to say, “Yes, antisemitism, and yes, discrimination against Jews, and also that anti black racism is the most pervasive kind of organizing force of disadvantaging in American life.” I’m not talking about the Holocaust here, I’m talking about in the United States. Obviously, the Holocaust was the Holocaust. I’m not talking about that. But I’m talking about in the United States, the antisemitism that Jews faced in the United States was real, and existed, and it still is real, and it still exists, and anti black racism in the United States is just a whole other order of structural disadvantage. So that’s the first way we need to be able to walk and chew gum.

Another way we need to be able to walk and chew gum is to say, “My grandfather worked really hard. He came with nothing. He was an immigrant. He built, he created, he made.” It doesn’t take any of that away from him to say that he got the benefits of the GI Bill and a black GI didn’t. It doesn’t mean he didn’t work hard, it doesn’t mean he didn’t do for himself. It doesn’t mean, oh, he just got it handed to him on a silver platter. Of course he didn’t. But he had something that enabled him, enabled his work to bear fruit in a way that somebody else didn’t. And if I don’t know that history, I say, “I don’t understand. My grandfather did it. Why didn’t their grandfather do it?” And if I know that history, I say, “Oh, my grandfather worked really hard, but something enabled his hard work to pay off. And somebody else’s grandfather worked equally hard, and somebody said, ‘We can’t really give you access to the benefits of the GI Bill because you’re black.’”

David Bashevkin:

So let’s shift back to what you were in the middle of talking about, and that is, what should an Orthodox Jew be doing differently today? What should our schools be doing differently? What should our homes, the way we educate our children? What do you suggest? Meaning, my grandfather also served in Caserta, Italy. He was in the information center and he came back. I’m sure he benefited from the GI and he had a thriving business. And here I am, I was born in Lawrence, New York and I was raised. I sometimes wonder. I read the history. I know the history. I’ve read very moving articles. What should I be doing differently? Is the critique that we’re not marching arm in arm often enough? And that’s a real critique. I’ll be honest, in planning this, I had a hard time finding Orthodox Jews who are on the front lines of social movements. I did, meaning, I’m not saying they’re not out there, but they’re not easy. The first name that ever comes to mind is always Heschel. And I’m just like, “Okay. Who’s the next one? Who do we have in the Orthodox community who’s done that?” So what, today, should we be doing differently? And maybe the answer is just asking these questions, but is it more than that?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Yeah. So that’s the part of the question I don’t have a great answer to, and the reason, I’ll try to give a little bit of an answer to, but it’s not going to be a great answer. And the reason is because of what you said earlier. For very important reasons, we live in our enclosed communities. For very important reasons, we send our kids to our own schools, which separate our kids off from the rest of broader society. For very important reasons, because we don’t drive on Shabbos, we all live close to each other, and then when we move in and drive up the real estate prices, nobody else wants to live near us. And then we mostly all end up living in overwhelmingly Orthodox communities, even if just a few blocks away on either side of us, there are communities of color and we have exactly zero interaction with them. And I don’t want to give any of that up. Again, walk and chew gum. Think two things at once. This is not about, so we should pull all of our kids out, “So you’re saying we should pull all of our kids out of yeshiva and put them in public school?” No I’m not. There are really important reasons why our educational system exists, and there are really important values and knowledge and skills that it transmits that I don’t want to give up.

So what am I saying to do practically? Well, one thing, there are different levels of things we can do. One thing we can do is at least to know where we are, what the circumstances are in which we live, and what the circumstances are in which other people live. And that means not saying the, “I don’t know. My grandfather pulled himself up by his bootstraps. So why can’t they?” It means recognizing that my grandfather and their grandfather were not living in the same sets of circumstances, nor were my father and their father, and probably not me and them today either. And having some understanding that, again, there’s tons of stuff that’s out there and tons of stuff that’s written and being written all the time. And it’s not hard to get access to, and I don’t mean, I just want to say, by the way, I want to be very clear. If you’ve dipped a toe into the literature, what you’ve come across is the book White Fragility, and everybody’s telling you to read White, it’s a best seller, New York Times best seller list.

I don’t want you to read White Fragility. I don’t even necessarily want you to read How to Be Anti-Racist. I don’t want you to read books about how white people should think about race or racism. I want you to read about Black American history. I think the more that we learn about the Black American experience, my experience has been teaching that to kids and adults is that they’re horrified by it. They’re like, “This can’t be real.” I’m telling you, today, in my class today, I was showing students photographs of lynchings. Because lynchings, it turns out, were mass spectacles with spectators, and they sold postcards as souvenirs, which sounds so sick and so crazy you can’t believe that was true. But it was true. I was showing my students a picture of a lynching in Florida in the 1930s with young girls right near the hanging corpse of a dead Black man, young white girls there to watch what was going on. And once you know some of that history, then the way you think about and engage is going, I think has to be a little different. So that’s a first step.

Then there might be bigger steps. There might be bigger steps to say, “Are we working to maintain systems or structures that advantage us or disadvantage other people? And is there some kind of obligation to stop doing that?” But, if somebody says, “I hear the history, and I don’t agree with you, actually. Basically you sound like you’re coming from a pretty politically liberal place, you think the government should work to do A, B, C, I don’t think this is about government. I think this is about individual initiative, I think it’s about community organizations, I think it’s about churches and shuls, I think it’s about whatever. So I’m not going to push for more government action in this way or that way or different laws. I’m going to try to create a partnership with a local organization, a local church, a local school to offer afterschool tutoring. Mah tov umanaim, go for it. I don’t think there’s only one answer here, and I don’t think you have to share my politics to care about these issues. I know people who care deeply about these issues who don’t share my politics at all. But I think we have to face honestly – And it’s not, I don’t think most of the times that we’re lying to ourselves about this, I think we just don’t have any idea. We just don’t have a clue.

David Bashevkin:

So I’m curious, in your home, with your children, there are two questions that I have. How do you educate your children about the difference between Jews and non-Jews? How do you talk about that, and what language do you use? And in your home, with your children, how do you educate them about their responsibility to the broader world? Again, I’m sure your children, and you may not want to talk about this at all, are somewhat bookish. That’s my guess. And I’m sure that they’re able to devour much of the reading list that you give them, and I have no doubt that you have syllabi that you give a child at each birthday.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

And homework. I give them tests. I make them write essays. You have no idea what it’s like being a kid in my house.

David Bashevkin:

But to me, those are the two founding questions over here, meaning we do have this notion, and it’s hard to square, about Jews being special, Jews being unique, Jews being different. And that very often translates to a sense of, let’s preserve what we have, whether that’s our spiritual legacy, and I think in 2020, that’s come to mean a lot more of our economic legacy, of what we’ve created. And my question is, what language do you use that your children will think about what it means to be a Jew verse being a non-Jew any differently than the products of the schools that you grew up in, the more Yeshivish places? And maybe they were great. What’s the language we should be using to explain these differences?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

That’s actually an interesting question, because you spent some time talking about Rebbetzin David and BJJ. A really strong component of that education was an emphasis on the difference and the distinction between Jews and non-Jews, and I have no doubt that were Rebbetzin David ever to listen to this podcast, which is totally David’s secret dream, that Rebbetzin David –

David Bashevkin:

Rebbetzin David, if you are listening right now, A, I am so smitten, and please, just… I sent a self-addressed envelope. You could write something very short. But please, please, I’d love to hear from you. But continue. I’m sorry.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

So I think that Rebbetzin David would be very disappointed in this world view, to –

David Bashevkin:

In your world view?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Yeah. To grossly oversimplify, the world view of domem, tzomeach, chai, medaber, yisrael, and that a Jew is as different from another human being as an animal is from a plant or a plant is from a rock, that sort of hierarchy of all things on earth, which I was taught in school, as opposed to, all human beings are created b’tzelem Elokim, we happen to have the Torah and non-Jews don’t. Those are two very different ways to think about Jews and non-Jews. I remember very clearly once in seminary a teacher saying to us about someone saying they had a non-Jewish friend, “How could you have a non-Jewish friend? Your souls are so fundamentally different. What does it mean to have a non-Jewish friend? How could a non-Jew be your friend?” Okay, that’s obviously not the world I’m living in, that’s not the reality I’m living in. I have non-Jewish friends.

David Bashevkin:

Was that, and pardon me if you’d rather prefer not to answer. Was that the world that you were raised in as a child? Because your mother is also quite a seasoned educator. Did she have a different approach, or you would put her in the Rebbetzin David category?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

No, my parents were not… My parents in practice were mostly living in the frum world, but my father worked in a major New York City hospital. My father had non-Jewish close colleagues and even friends. That was not what I heard in my parents’ home. Again, as I said, my parents were on the open-minded end of the Yeshivish world. I think my father probably subscribed more to the view of Jews and non-Jews are people created in God’s image, except that Jews have the Torah. But it certainly was in the education that I got, that intent, that ontological difference between a Jew and a non-Jew, right? That the act of conversion, of giyur, is like a miracle, the miraculous transformation of a non-Jewish soul into a Jewish soul, which is… Because that’s as miraculous as turning a rock into a plant. So I think part of the answer is, I’m not giving my kids specific messages about the distinction, how do I describe the distinction between Jews and non-Jews in a way that some of my teachers would think is a problem. Obviously, I’m deeply committed to a Torah life, but there are people that I am close to, learn from, talk to who are not Jewish. And my kids see and understand that that’s the way I think about the world.

There’s also a reality, which is that we’re here in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, which is a small frum community embedded in a much larger, non-Jewish community, and a majority minority community. And so my kids, unlike probably most Orthodox, most Modern Orthodox kids in the United States today, but like other kids growing up in Washington Heights, have had the experience of growing up in a community in which they’re the minority and in a community of color, which I think is probably, shapes their experiences somewhat differently. In terms of some of the other things, in terms of the activism and the, oh, I don’t even know if I should say this on a podcast, but I went to a whole bunch of racial justice marches this summer, and a whole bunch of my kids came with me to a whole bunch of racial justice marches this summer.

David Bashevkin:

I feel like you would have the most clever signs. That’s my guess.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Oh, my daughter has one sign, had I know that we were going to be talking about this, I would have found it so I could show you. My daughters made a sign, one of my daughters painted a picture of a black man’s fist fist bumping the arm of somebody wearing tefillin, a man wearing tefillin and a black man fist bumping. And she carried that with her to a couple of protests, and everybody wanted to take pictures of my thoroughly adorable daughter carrying that sign. And my kids have come politic canvassing with me, knocking on doors, ringing door bells to…

David Bashevkin:

Wow. So that’s fairly engaged. So let me ask you about the world of SAR, which is a flagship Modern Orthodox institution. A lot of Orthodox schools have something called chesed hours, which is, they’re required, they have a requirement to, I don’t know, commit X amount of hours per year to give back and do chessed. Does SAR have a program like that?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

We don’t have chessed hours. We do have a chessed program, which we take the kids on chessed trips and on chessed activities. We don’t require they sign off on doing hours outside of school, probably because of our own experiences in high school where not everybody was rigorously honest about how those hours played. And we didn’t want to –

David Bashevkin:

I am one of those people who was not rigorously honest. I helped, my friend, who lives two blocks away, I helped his mother put away her sukkah, and I just marked down like 35 hours for it. So sorry if any of my high school educators are listening to this now. But is that the solution? Meaning, to you, do you look at that as the solution, or, at least it’s something I’ve wondered, does it contribute to the problem? As us, as the saviors, as othering these other people, that we go, especially the trips. We’ll go, we’ll fly into Puerto Rico in a disaster area.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

So where, you’re stuck in between two places, because you want them to have these educational experiences where they cultivate this empathy for the broader world, and then sometimes, when you go on these glamorous trips and you fly down and you bring and you get swag and sweatshirts and you’re, I don’t know, Habitat for Humanity or whatever it is, it can almost be counterproductive, because you can look at anybody who’s not coming from your upbringing as nebuch. It’s like… They’re sad. So –

Rivka Press Schwartz:

And write a college essay about it.

David Bashevkin:

Exactly. And it’ll be the topic of your college essay to get into your Ivy League school. So how would you advise our institutions to craft better experiences while still maintaining the insularity that they need, but allowing the universe of Modern Orthodox Jews specifically to expand?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

So I think those two, I just think we have to be honest about the way those two things pull against each other. The more you’re committed to insularity as a value, and there is genuine value to that, the harder it’s going to be to do this. And I want to name that so that we don’t pretend we can square the circle and somehow make it all work. If you’re the parent of a child and you don’t want your child exposed to Orthodox Jews two cliques less observant than you are, nevermind exposed to the full breadth of – So I don’t want to pretend that I’m going to come up with some solution to make this work for everybody. Having said that, if you are open to having your kids or your school or your shul community encounter the broader America, then I think you’re absolutely right. I think doing it through this, we will be the white savior showing up to help poor people of color reinforces some of the problematic dynamics rather than challenging them. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in having our kids do chessed. Our kids don’t even know that there are New Yorkers who don’t have enough food to eat. It’s actually a good reality check for our kids to learn that there are New Yorkers who don’t have enough food to eat.

But then that can’t, it can’t be the end there, that our kids think, “Oh, we have, so we give.” So it’s structuring programs that are about mutual or two-way or shared or exchange rather than, “I am the benefactor and you are the recipient of my largesse.” That’s really important. It is not easy to do. First of all, a lot of these commun – they don’t necessarily want a bunch of white Jewish do gooders parachuting in to bring – Do we really want meaningful exchange with them, or do we want to use them to broaden our kids’ minds? Which are we –

David Bashevkin:

Some school is listening to this right now like, “That’s what we need. Parachutes on our next chessed mission. Actual parachutes.” But continue, I’m sorry.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

They saw what that’s going to look like in the recruiting video.

David Bashevkin:

Exactly.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

I’m actually working on a program like this now in SAR. I teach a class in SAR about citizenship, and we are working towards trying to figure out how to do something like this, that would be building some kind of connection with the broader community in the Bronx where SAR is located, although obviously the Bronx and Riverdale, so those have different, they elicit different kinds of images in your head. But to try to do something like that, to try to think about what it would look like to build some kind of ongoing connection between communities in a way that we are just building knowledge about other people with whom we share a city and a country, and understanding, and not towards a specific chessed end, or I’m not actually sure towards what end, but just towards the end of building citizenship.

And I was, I’ll tell you that I was inspired by this by a thinker named Yuval Levin whose book, A Time to Build, I just read.` And he’s a conservative thinker who says that what’s going wrong in American life right now is a failure of institutions at all levels, and we need to rebuild institutions, and it’s not going to be rebuilt by the federal government from the top down, and let’s all fight now some more, because we haven’t fought enough about this presidential election. Let’s keep fighting about it. He says it’s going to be rebuilt from the ground up in the local communities. And then just after I read his book, he actually had an op ed in the New York Times on election day. And his op ed in the New York Times election day said, “One of these two guys is going to win, and it’s still not going to fix what’s broken in the country, and let’s think about fixing our country.” And that’s citizenship orientation, I want to say. So there’s something about it, I think, that whatever your politics, again –

David Bashevkin:

This is a conservative author that you’re quoting now.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Yes. And you can see why. Because he’s not looking for governmental solutions. He’s looking for building within the community at the smallest local level kind of solutions, and rebuilding institutional frameworks that have been frayed. And again, I highly recommend that book, and if you don’t want to read the whole book, you can go find his November 3rd op ed in the New York Times. But there’s also a way in which we as an Orthodox community, and here’s a place where we have strength to bring to this, right? I’ve been talking about ways, we’ve been talking about ways in which, as an Orthodox community, we’re sealed off, we’re turned inward, right? So it’s all bad. It’s not all bad. Aside from, I don’t know, like rachmanim, bayshanim, and gomlei chassadim, so our mission statement as the Jewish people, that we are merciful, we are bashful, we’re ashamed, whatever that means, and we are doers of love and kindness. So being merciful and doers of love and kindness could motivate us.

But aside from that, we are enormously the beneficiaries of strong institutions. We have amazing institutions in our lives. Our schools, our shuls, our gemachs, our bikur cholims, I could go on all week. We have incredible institutions in our lives that support us and hold us up and take care of us. And if we look at other communities, many American communities, with much more frayed social ties and institutional ties, we could be like, “Oh, I see where, actually, what I have is something that not all communities have. The capacities that we have help us. Part of what helps us succeed the way we do is that we have this whole institutional infrastructure behind us,” and actually working to start to, in whatever small, tiny, local way, to try to knit that back together in the fabric of American life is very meaningful. But I want to say, first of all, I don’t know how to do this. I’m about to start trying to do this, and somebody reached out to me from a Yeshiva high school in another state. It sounds like he wants to try to do it, too. And who knows? We’re going to go be knitters. We’re going to try to knit community.

And I have no idea if this will work or not. I just feel like at a certain point, you have to say, “Here’s a tiny little patch of earth that I stand on, and I have to try to do something here.” And come back to me in three years, I’ll tell you if it works. But I want to say, again, you can’t do that without somehow putting your kids and school community into extended meaningful contact with people of different backgrounds from a different world, and I totally get why some schools and some subsectors of the Orthodox community wouldn’t want to do that, and I respect that. I am not arguing that trying to form close relationships between Jewish teenagers and non-Jewish teenagers is what everybody should be doing. Someone’s going to say to me that’s exactly what I think we shouldn’t be doing. And I want to say, “Fine. So you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to do it.” Your kids should still understand why, “My grandfather came here with nothing as an immigrant, pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and accumulated wealth. Why can’t they?,” why that’s a problematic thing to say, and why that’s an ahistorical thing to say, even if you don’t want to work with me on the knitting project.

David Bashevkin:

So I want to return back, and maybe you’ve answered this already, but it’s still a nagging feeling that I have, and maybe you know this most as an educator at SAR. Maybe I’m curious to hear what your detractors say. You say we have to be capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. And my question is, in the modern world in 2020, in our ability to raise sustained, committed Jews for the long term, are we in fact capable of walking and chewing gum? Is it maybe possible that the tides, the deck is stacked against us in such a way that we just need to put all of our effort in preserving that sense of pride and commitment and observance that Jews have? Meaning, there’s a part of me that says, this is all wonderful and I wish we had the excess time, capital resources to focus on this. But we have precious little in our community. So can we afford to even focus on this?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

So that is a great question. And the first few times I tried to bring up something like this knitting project, people said to me, “We can only do so much. We only have so much time with our kids. Why would I want to devote that time to trying to build community or connection with communities out there?” There’s a philosophical way that I could answer this, and I think one of the best people to explicate this in general, he’s one of the best people to explain Modern Orthodoxy both to Modern Orthodox Jews and to the world, was the tragically recently lost Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who spoke about what it means for Orthodox Jews to be some kind of light unto the nations, what that actually can mean and look like. So I could talk about that in that philosophical way if I wanted to, but I actually don’t want to. I’m not Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. I’m not a philosopher. I’m a high school teacher. I’m down here in the trenches in my little patch of dirt.

And here’s what I want to tell you that I see from my little patch of dirt. That would be totally fine if we were raising kids to stay inside our community, to be inside our community, forever after inside our community, and then it’s grand. But here’s what we sometimes do. We don’t talk to our kids about these things. We don’t engage with them around these things. We raise them in our perfectly lovely community of schools and shuls and summer camps and everything else. They don’t even know what exists out there beyond them, let alone questions the structures that gave to them. And then we send them off to secular college and they get smacked in the face by a 30-pound wet cod, and I don’t know why I just said that.

David Bashevkin:

I love that imagery, a 30-pound wet cod. I’m going to be repeating that constantly in the next, might even title the podcast “The 30-Pound Wet Cod”.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

It is the 30-pound wet cod, because we sometimes forget, our Centrist Orthodox and our Modern Orthodox kids, plenty of them are going off to secular university. Yes, some of them are just going to stay at the Hillel JLC Chabad, and hang out with other frum Jews, and talk to other frum Jews, and do their pre-med, pre-finance, pre-law major, and then move to Lawrence, and it’s all going to be great. But some of them are going to take a humanities class at some point and start thinking about things, and that’s when we get the, “Why didn’t you tell me?,” or, “Everything you ever told me was a lie,” or, “My whole community is a bunch of – ” And I want to be very clear here. I know there are lots of different issues. Somebody who spends their time dealing with a different set of kids with a different set of issues sees a different set of problems. But those kids come back to talk to me. And they say to me, “Why didn’t we ever think about, and why didn’t we ever face, and why didn’t we ever confront, and why didn’t we ever talk about?” And one of the things I say to those kids when they come back and talk to me is, “You’re right.” But even five years later or seven years later, we talk about it so differently than we did five years or seven years ago, because there’s so much increased knowledge, awareness, growth.

When I say to you all these books, it’s not like I’m trying – There’s two reasons why I brought all these books. One is because I’m learning this stuff all the time also. I didn’t know all this 10 years ago. I know more now than I did 10 years ago, and I probably knew more 10 years ago than I did before that. I didn’t grow up with any deep awareness of how race played out in American life. I was a kid who grew up in New York City in the 1980s, when we were terrified of street crime, and when my formative racial experience was the Crown Heights riots. It was black Americans rioting and killing a Chassidishe young man on the streets of Crown Heights. It took a long time for me to think about how you could think about that as being the atrocity that it was, and still walk and chew gum, and have a framing to think about the history of the black experience in America, which doesn’t make that atrocity any less atrocious. It doesn’t excuse, I’m not talking about excusing or explaining. I’m just saying that there’s a history of black American life, and my first-hand experience with that atrocity didn’t teach me about the history of black American life. So that’s one reason why I talk about these books, is because I’m still reading them and learning. And my kids make fun of me. A new box comes from Amazon, it’s more books about race in America.

But the other reason I’m saying it is because people sometimes dismiss these things because it’s uncomfortable to hear, and it’s like, “Oh, you made it up and it’s all liberal fairy tales about structural racism. There’s no such thing as structural racism in America.” Have you ever read a book about housing discrimination? There’s lots of them. Maybe read one, and then we could talk about it, instead of just dismissing it out of hand. But sorry. That wasn’t…

David Bashevkin:

There is a third reason, and that is to absolutely intellectually intimidate me, and it is working, my friend.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Oh, totally had no interest in doing that, and I actually want to go back to your excellent question about why we should do this at all, because we need to strengthen our kids and their observance and their commitment, and I said the 30-pound wet cod. I think this is true about a lot of issues. I think this is true about a lot of issues. You could hope and pray that your kids will never think about the gender dynamics in Orthodox Judaism, and let’s not talk about them, and la, la, la, la, I can’t hear you, I have a banana in my ear. And you could hope and pray that your kids never come back to these questions about LGBTQ Orthodox Jews, and la, la. And that might work. It might work, if no one they know comes out, and if you keep them in the bubble forevermore. But if you’re sending them off to a secular college, I do not understand the thought process that says, “We can’t invest in talking through these issues with our kids when they’re in high school, but then we’re going to drop them, plop, into a secular college where they’re going to encounter all of these issues and questions, and are just going to feel like, either we have no answers to them, or we weren’t telling them the truth, or whatever else it is.”

And so I feel like in that sense, the community in which I grew up was totally internally consistent, right? They wanted us to stay in that world separate from the non-Jewish world. They prepared us to stay in that world separate from the non-Jewish world. They never talked about any of these challenging questions because they didn’t think they were challenging questions. And that was all fine. That makes sense to me. It doesn’t make sense to me when Modern Orthodox Jews play that same game and then send their kids off to secular college. I don’t get that.

David Bashevkin:

It’s so interesting. And do you think, you look at, I’m sure you have siblings, as I do, who are not a part of the Modern Orthodox community, who maybe identify more with the Yeshiva community or Haredi community, however you want to call it. Do you ever find yourself looking at the way that they raise their children with a sense of, I don’t know what the right word is. Envy, longing, appreciation, for the world that they’re able to raise their kids in? Were their kids, again, I notice my nieces and nephews, I don’t know that they’re coming home with these issues. They certainly have no plans to go to secular college. They do skirt through a lot of these heavy issues that are weighing in the American sphere. So have you not unintentionally made a very strong argument for the Yeshiva social system? What do your siblings think when you say this? This is exactly why we chose the path that we did.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

David Bashevkin was not going to rest until he got me to cut open a vein on this podcast, and he has gotten to it. So I will now cut open a vein and tell you a couple of things. And I actually get to go back to some Torah, okay? It’s so funny, because the things I learned growing up in the Yeshivish world, it’s a totally different way of encountering Torah than the Modern Orthodox world does. And there’s sometimes midrashim that I quote that I learned growing up, and everyone’s like, “What are you talking about? We never heard those.” Okay. So here’s a medrish. And since I can’t even keep myself straight, right, because I moved into the Modern Orthodox world. So when I’m in the Modern Orthodox world, I speak in Modern Orthodox Hebrew. But the pesukim I know from might be Yeshivish and the Modern Orthodox, and I’m gonna get all confused, so I’m going to go back.

David Bashevkin:

As long as you translate, you can pronounce any way that you like.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

I’m going to back to Yeshivish now because I’m just going to call him Yisro, and you’re all going to stay with me here, right? Yitro, Jethro, Moshe’ father-in-law. Great. So there’s a midrash that says – oh no, there, I did it again. There’s a medrish, right? There’s a midrash, whatever, however we’re pronouncing it, that says, so Moshe doesn’t give his oldest son a bris. It’s a very weird thing. Doesn’t give his oldest son a bris. And they’re traveling back to Egypt and the angel shows up, right, and swallows – a bizarre episode in chumash – swallows –

David Bashevkin:

One of the strangest stories, and it’s actually in the chumash.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Yeah. And then he just keeps on going. You’re like, “What the heck just happened here?” And he swallows Moshe up halfway. And Moshe’ wife Tzipporah takes a sharp stone and gives her son a bris milah, and then Moshe gets spit back out. Great. And now, let’s just keep going back to the narrative, right? So what the heck happened there that Moshe didn’t give his oldest son a bris?

So there’s a medrish that says that Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, who had been this priest to whatever midyanite deities, an idol worshiper, and found his way to belief, says to Moshe, “I want you to raise my oldest grandson the same way. Let him go through the path and the wandering and then come on his own to the truth, because that’s so much more powerful, because you came there on your own.”

And the lesson of the angel swallowing Moshe up is, that can happen if it happens for you, but you can’t intentionally create it. You can’t raise your child to be an idol worshiper.

David Bashevkin:

To wander.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Or to wander. You can’t raise your child to wander in the hopes that they’re going to end up someplace.

David Bashevkin:

Fingers crossed. Exactly.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

I feel like for me personally, what I got out of growing up in the Yeshivish world, or again, the open-minded end of the Yeshivish world, my parents’ home, I don’t think it is exactly that, but certainly being educated by really hardcore Haredi rebbetzins was so powerful and so compelling. And then the arc of that, from that into academic graduate school and into the way I think about the world now, gave me so much that I have wanted that for my kids. My kids all started out certainly in the Yeshivish elementary schools, and then different ones of them went different places for high school. And what I found is you can’t recreate the wandering, it doesn’t work, because I was growing up in the home I was growing up in, and they’re growing up in the home they’re growing up in. And so the wandering doesn’t play out the same.

It wasn’t confusing for me when I was growing up. I knew exactly… And so what I wanted for my kids, I think probably really at some level, probably what every parent wants for their kids, is that your kids go through the same journey that you do and come to the same place and the same ways, thinking the same things are meaningful. And you can’t recreate the wandering. And that’s been a process and a learning and an exploration that’s still underway. My two kids who are still in elementary school are still in Yeshivish elementary schools, and then she goes to Beis Yaakov Elementary School, and then she paints the black guy fist bumping the guy in tefillin and brings it to a racial justice march. And it’s more confusing for her than it was for me. And I absolutely sometimes look at, not just my siblings and their kids, but in general, the conviction and the clarity and the certainty of the Yeshivish world. And I have to say, whenever I reencounter it, I find it beautiful and moving. I tweeted about this last year. Rebbetzin David gives a shiur to her alumnae once a year when she’s in America, and you can only go if you went to BJJ. So David, unfortunately, is not invited. We were going to get him –

David Bashevkin:

I’ve tried. I’ve tried putting on a shaitel and sneaking in there.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

And a pleated skirt and snuck him in there, but it didn’t work for him. And I go this shiur and I listen to Rebbetzin David talk, and she always talks about the same thing every year. She talks about the separation between Jews and non-Jews, and the essentialness of maintaining that separation. That’s the message that we need to hear. And I wrote last year that I thought it was so funny, because most of the women in that room have so little encounter with and engagement with the secular world. And I felt, I’m the one she’s talking to, I who am deeply involved in the world of secular thought, and I’m really thinking about, what does it mean to live that as a frum Jew. And when she says, “No, no. That all has to been subordinated and secondary,” she means to be talking to me, not to the other however many hundred women in the room who, in fact, are not encountering these things. And I’m thinking that, although I’m obviously, as one of my students once said to me, I’m not picking up what she’s putting down. So that is true. But I do feel like she’s putting it down because she wants me to pick it up.

So all of that is to say that I love and respect that world. And whenever anyone says anything to me about their rebel – that’s so silly. I’m not rebelling against my upbringing. I’m not rebelling against the world in which I was raised. I think there’s a great deal of beauty there. There are aspects of it that I wish my children had more of. There’s one thing in particular that I feel like, that in my own complicated relationship with the thing I couldn’t give my kids, and if you want more of a vein opening, I’ll tell you what that is in a minute. And certainly, however much I want my kids to have more of it, kal v’chomer my students, my students are much farther away from that world. My kids are much closer and have much more exposure connection. I certainly would want my students to have more of that, of that certainty, of that conviction, of that absoluteness, that if push comes to shove, what’s going to win out is my commitment to Torah and mitzvah. It’s not my commitment to the broader, secular Western world. My relationship with my siblings and their kids is very close. They think I’m the kooky aunt, but they might have thought I was the kooky aunt anyway. They certainly think I’m the kooky aunt when we start talking about politics or the Orthodox community.

David Bashevkin:

No, but that was exactly my closing question, and maybe if I could indulge you before we really wrap up, that final is, on this issue, what is something that you wish from the Yeshiva world you saw more in the Modern Orthodox world? And what is something in the Modern Orthodox world you wish you saw more when you were growing up in the Yeshiva world?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

So I have to say that I don’t think there’s anything on this particular issue. Well, I’ll qualify that statement. I don’t think there’s anything from the Yeshiva world that I wish I saw more of in the Modern Orthodox world in terms of how to engage the broader world. The Yeshiva world is not engaging the broader world in any way that I think needs to be, I don’t – What I do see is an enormous outpouring, an enormous commitment to chessed within the Jewish world, which the Yeshivish world is outstanding in, and the Chassidish world is outstanding in. And I think that if we took some of that broader sense of rachmanim, bayshanim, and gomlei chasadim, and applied it to the world more broadly, that would be a great thing. But I cannot say that in that world I saw, again, non-Jews were spoken about as essentially not to be trusted. The assumption was they would all stab you in the back sooner or later. I don’t mean that metaphorically, I mean actually literally. And also that their souls were just different kinds of souls. And there’s not much about that.

David Bashevkin:

But ending on that positive note, what you saw, you do see a great deal of, even if it’s directed inwardly, that deep sense of connection, commitment in the Yeshiva world, in the Chassidish world to take care of their own. So –

Rivka Press Schwartz:

It’s not just their own. I want to be clear. It’s not just their own. It is born of a deeply religious sense of the connection of all of Klal Yisrael to one another. And so I’ll end with a story if you want to end, or we could keep going all night. A student of mine a number of years ago had a serious medical issue, and he had a serious medical issue while his parents were overseas dealing with an even more serious issue. And so he was in the hospital in New York City. His parents were not in the country. And so what happened? The community did what the community always does, right? This is the thing in the world that we are best at. He had relatives, he had grandparents or whatever, with him, but the entire community mobilizes to support this kid who’s in the hospital. And he had been a student of mine. It was the summer. So I went to visit him in the hospital, and I called him. I was in Brooklyn, of course, in [inaudible] ir hakodesh. And I called him before I came back to Manhattan to the hospital, “Is there anything I could bring you?” “No, no, no. Don’t bring me any food.” “You sure? You sure? Is there anything I could bring you.” “Don’t bring me any food.”

I walk into his hospital room. He’s wearing, we need a better term for it, because it’s a tank style undershirt that I refuse to call a wife beater because that’s a terrible term. He’s wearing a tank style undershirt. He has a gold necklace around his neck, okay? This is the young man we’re talking about, sitting on his bed, playing video games. And he shows me that in his hospital room he has a refrigerator stocked top to bottom, side to side, stuffed with food from the women of the Satmar bikur cholim. He doesn’t have room in his refrigerator for any more food. I shouldn’t bring him anything else. They don’t know who he is from a hole in the wall. He doesn’t look like their teenagers look. But he’s a frum kid, and he has a Jewish last name, and he’s in the hospital, and he needs something, and these women who do not know him from anybody are going to take care of him because Jews look out for other Jews.

So it’s not just they take care of their own. It’s much deeper and much more fundamental than that.

David Bashevkin:

And when you hear that story, what’s happening in the heart of Rivka? Are you saying, “Mi k’amcha yisrael, who is like our people that we take care of?,” or is there still a part of you tugging and saying, “But we only do it for Jews. I wish we did that also for non-Jews?”

Rivka Press Schwartz:

No. No tugs. Mi k’amcha yisrael, and we’re amazing. But, but when I hear somebody who is the beneficiary of that community, right, say about somebody else, “Why don’t they,” I say, “You know why they don’t they? They don’t have anybody who they don’t know who’s filling a refrigerator of food for them and giving them an interest-free loan.” And let’s recognize the ways in which we’re being supported by systems and structures that other people aren’t, instead of saying, “Why didn’t they do what I did?” Let’s recognize that I didn’t do it on my own. And then on top of that, on top of the systems and structures within the Jewish community that support me and what I have access to, what I can get, what somebody will help me with, on top of that, I also have the fact that in the American framework of things, in the American racial structure, my grandfather got off the boat, and somebody stamped a stamp on his head and said, “Here we hand out prizes if we call you white, and we give you booby prizes if we call you black. I know you don’t know that. You only speak Yiddish. You have no idea what I’m talking about. But I’m just telling you those are the rules. And now, I stamp white on your forehead.” And my grandfather said, “Okay, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but okay,” and went about his life.

And that doesn’t take away, not from mi k’amcha yisrael, and it doesn’t take away from my grandfather’s hard work, because I’m working hard here, I’m walking and chewing gum. But it means I don’t look at somebody else and say, “Why didn’t you do that? You must be lazy or you must be… I don’t know, whatever else you must be.” And I might say, “What are the ways in which I can, as a member of a broader society that I feel some kind of responsibility for the bettering of and promoting the flourishing of all of the human beings in,” and, man, that is a complicated sentence, “but because I feel some responsibility for that broader society, I actually want to think about what I can do to make this possible for more people.” And if you’re a liberal, it might mean legislation and government programs. And if you’re a conservative, it might be building community, capacity, and organizations or institutions from the ground up. So it doesn’t require a particular political orientation to take this seriously as an issue and to think about how we might address it.

David Bashevkin:

Rivka, what an absolute pleasure speaking with you tonight. I always end my interviews with a little bit of whimsy, so if you’ll indulge me, I’m always curious, A, you’ve mentioned a bunch, I always look for more book recommendations. If there was a book that you were to recommend, again, knowing the audience that we’re trying to reach, so something that doesn’t require an advanced degree in urban or political policy, but a digestible book that you think could expand the horizons of the contemporary Orthodox community, what book would you start with?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

I’m going to recommend the book The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, which was published pretty recently, maybe 2017. It is, he’s not an academic. He works in a policy place, a policy shop, he’s not an academic. It’s really pretty readable. And it’s about housing segregation in America. And I think when we realize that the way our neighborhoods and our communities look is not just because black people chose to live here and white people chose to live there, but because actual government policy segregated our neighborhoods, then we start to realize that maybe this wasn’t just about making people sit at the back of the bus. And then we stopped making people sit, Rosa Parks, then we stopped making people sit at the back of the bus and it’s all fixed, right? Isn’t it? But that there are in fact ongoing and pervasive problems, the impact of which is still being felt today. It’s not exactly a beach read. I’m sorry. But you didn’t pick a topic that lends –

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, this topic is not really a beach topic. You already have a PhD, as we mentioned, that you did on the Manhattan Project. If somebody were to give you a great deal of money and allow you to take a sabbatical to write a book, what do you think the subject of that book would be?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

I actually have books that I want to write, so if somebody has a great deal of money and wants to give me a sabbatical, here’s the book that I want to write that I might actually write something about, and here’s the PhD that I would do if I was doing another one now. The book that I would want to write would actually be a book about race for the Orthodox community, because I think that as soon as we start hearing these terms bandied about, “structural racism” or I don’t even with that. And certainly, you go, “White privilege? What do you mean privilege? My grandfather’s a Holo – ” Not my grandfather, but my grandfather the Holocaust survivor. And –

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. Our brains shut off right away.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Our brains shut right off. I don’t want to hear anything that you have to say. And I think somebody who said, “Let me walk you through it. Let me explain to you what people mean. Let me explain to you why this actually is an issue, and let’s see if we can let you still hold on to your grandfather while we – ” I’ve been talking about grandfathers a lot. I have nothing against grandmothers either, I just want to be clear. “still hold on to your grandfather while you understand some difficult truths about American history.”

David Bashevkin:

This just struck me now, and you’re probably going to not even continue the question and hang up on me. Has anybody ever said that you may be the absolute mirror image, the liberal female version of Ben Shapiro? I think only you could actually pull that off. It’s okay if you want to hang up on me. You can let that comment go without a comment.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Yeah. I’m actually going to tell you a funny story. Before I answer the second part of your question, which is about the second PhD I would write, I’m going to tell you a funny story. So I have siblings in the Haredi world, right? So no internet, limited access to media, censoring what their kids watch, read, listen to, right? That’s the world their kids live in. So my sister calls me up one day. Her son is in a Yeshivish Yeshiva, and all of his friends are recommending that he listen to something. And she’s calling me, the big worldly media expert, to vet, is it okay for her son to listen to, I should pasken if it’s okay for her son to listen to. What does her son want to listen to? All his friends in Yeshiva are listening to the Ben Shapiro podcast. And she wants to know if it’s okay for her son to listen to Ben Shapiro. So I said to my sister, “The kinds of concerns that you have, that you’re worried about, the Ben Shapiro podcast will be find.” I said, “I have other issues with Ben Shapiro, but that’s not the things you’re worried about.”

David Bashevkin:

So it’s not your hechsher, that’ll be the second headline after the 30-pound cod, will be Rivka Press Schwartz endorses the Ben Shapiro podcast. But you were saying, you want to write a book on our relationship with race. If you were to go back and a do a PhD, what would the subject be?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Here is something else that, here’s another vein, something else that’s really hard and painful that as a community, I don’t even think we’ve let our, we don’t even know about, let alone not let ourselves think about. And that is, there is a history of building Yeshiva day schools in America that is about our commitment to Torah and our commitment to values and our commitment to passing it on. There is also a history of private schools in America, including private religious schools, as a way for people to get out of integrating public schools. That was another form of white flight, that as public schools started to integrate in the ’60s and ’70s, parents pulled their kids out of – You know how people say, “Oh, in the ’50s and ’60s, it was acceptable for Jewish kids to go to public school, and now, everyone goes to Yeshiva?” And people say that as because they’re so much more committed and learned. And that’s a piece of the story, but it’s also a piece of the story that once public schools started to be forced to be integrated, that there were places where parents, Jewish parents, said, “I don’t want my kid to go to public school that’s going to forcibly be integrated.” And now, all of a sudden, a Yeshiva day school looks like a more appealing option.

There is a doctoral dissertation that was written about the schools in Los Angeles actually tracing the connections between the integration of Los Angeles unified school district and the establishment of Jewish day schools in LA. That’s a very close to home kind of question, because there are, again, there was absolutely Yeshiva day schools that predate this. And this is not the only reason the Yeshiva day schools were founded. And walk and chew gum. But there is an explosion in the establishment of day schools on a timeline that tracks with this, and trying to get a handle of what’s the relationship between race, racial integration, and the expansion of the Yeshiva day school movement, that is tough and painful and hard to think about, but if I had another PhD to write, that would be it.

David Bashevkin:

The good news is both topics sound fascinating. The bad news is neither of those topics are going to make you a great deal of friends, which is okay. But they do sound absolutely fascinating.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

I just need one benefactor who wants to put me on sabbatical for a couple years.

David Bashevkin:

Only one. You will need a benefactor for both of those. So my final question is, I’m always curious about people’s schedules, what time do you usually go to sleep and what time do you usually wake up in the morning?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Well, funny you should ask, because for those people who are listening to this podcast, we are now at 10:16 at night. And probably a great deal of what I’ve said on this podcast is attributable to the fact that I am rarely up at 10:16 at night, and therefore I’m certainly not my most coherent self.

I wake up 4:00, 4:30 in the morning every morning.

David Bashevkin:

Nuh-uh.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Yeah-huh. I don’t set an alarm, that’s when I wake up. I wake up before 4:30 on Shabbas morning also.

David Bashevkin:

What do you do at 4:30 in the morning?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

I read, I do school work, I write. For crying out loud, I tweet. Do you ever look at the time stamps on my tweets? They all come out early.

David Bashevkin:

So I miss them.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

They all come out early in the morning. That’s when I get most of my work done. I don’t really work at night, because if you wake up at 4:00 in the morning, you’re not really staying up terribly late. So 10:17 is not a time that I actually frequently see in my life unless I’m doing important things like this.

I think that’s probably a very middle-aged person thing to do, to be waking up at 4:00 in the morning. But there you have it. It’s official. I’m a middle-aged person.

David Bashevkin:

And when do you go to sleep usually?

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Before 10 if I can manage it, 9:30. If my children were around, they’d be laughing at me, they’d be like, “Yeah right, 9:30. 9.”

David Bashevkin:

That’s aspirational. That’s aspirational. Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz, thank you so much for joining me today. It has been an absolute privilege and pleasure to speak with you today.

Rivka Press Schwartz:

Thank you so much, David, it’s really been a lot of fun.

David Bashevkin:

In case you missed it in the actual podcast, and if you fast forward that, then you for sure fast forwarded this, but I found that reading of the medrish that she says to be so, so powerful, that essentially there’s a story in the Torah where Moshe, Moshe Rabbeinu, the receiver of the Torah, does not circumcise his own children. And they get into some danger and his wife ultimately goes ahead and circumcises them for him. And the question is, what is going on in this story? And I never knew this, that the way the midrash reads this story is really about how you should raise your kids, where Moshe and his father-in-law, basically, they didn’t grow up going to Yeshiva and to Modern Orthodox institutions or Ortho – they didn’t grow up with any of that. Yisro grew up an idolater and Moshe grew up in the House of Pharaoh in Egypt. And they were both thinking that maybe it’s best that we allow our children to go on this journey as well, and to find their own before we foist it upon them. As opposed to what ultimately happens is that it doesn’t work that way. You can’t orchestrate. You can’t be the architect of your child’s journey. And that’s not always how it happens. And just because you went on a certain journey, doesn’t mean that’s the appropriate way to set up the educational systems for our children.

And I think a lot of people are struggling with those two sides of the pole. They had a certain educational institutional life that they grew up in, and they’re wondering, “What’s the right architecture? What’s the right structure for the world and community that I raise my kids in? Some of it worked for me. Some of it didn’t. And what’s the best starting point for my own kid? Should I let them wander, be a little bit more lenient and lax, and let them come to it on their own, or you got to push it down really, really hard and make sure that they go on this one particular path?” And I think people who were raised either in very strict, serious, focused households struggle with this. I think people who were raised in secular households, didn’t have a Jewish community, and now came to it later in life, a lot of people, like baalei teshuva, deal with this question all of the time. Should I allow my kids to wander and come to it on their own, or should it be very focused, the educational culture and life that I never had? And I think people who are coming from the other perspective are also asking this very same question, and I think focusing in this reading of the medrish, specifically in this larger conversation about how we relate and connect to those who are different than us and our responsibility to the larger world, is a fascinating lend, and I’m so thankful for her presenting that reading in our podcast.

So thank you so much for listening. It wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of shnorring, so if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and review. Tell your friends about it. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great topics we’ve covered in the past, be sure to check out 18Forty.org. That’s the number 1-8 followed by the word “forty,” F-O-R-T-Y.org. You’ll also find videos, articles, and recommended readings. Thank you so much for listening and stay curious, my friends.