Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Why Is A Jewish Music Blogger Writing About Tranquility Bay?

Recently, there has been a lot of coverage of the story of Isaac Hersh, a 16-year-old from an Orthodox Brooklyn family who was trapped at a Jamaican “reform school,” Tranquility Bay, since June 2007. He has since been rescued, but the issue of custody has yet to be settled.

On March 25th, the NY Daily News published “Jewish family sues Jamaican reform school for troubled teens,” a story about a lawsuit filed on Isaac’s behalf to get him out of Tranquility Bay.

On March 26th, the NY Jewish Week published an article on the story, “Custody Case Over Son of Hatzolah Executive,” that contained additional information.

Both of these articles were extremely troubling to read. It seemed obvious that something was very wrong here, that Isaac didn’t belong at Tranquility Bay, and that he needed immediate help.

On March 28th, Isaac was liberated and the NY Jewish Week published “Breaking: Brooklyn Teen Released from Jamaica,” an article about his rescue. It’s an amazing story of how some dedicated people achieved Isaac’s release.

On March 29th, the NY Daily News followed up with “I was beaten & bound in boot camp, claims Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox teen,” which gave more details about Isaac’s experience while in confinement.

On March 30th, Tzvi Gluck, one of the people involved in rescuing Isaac, appeared on Zev Brenner's radio show. You can hear the entire show here.

On April 4th, The Jewish Star published a front page article, “Questions Abound After Tranquility Bay Rescue,” that is a must-read.

On April 7th, the YU Commentator published “Tragedy Then Triumph,” an editorial about the case that included additional reporting by the writer.

My beat is music, not community scandal, but this is an important story and some of the issues raised are connected to concepts we’ve addressed in relation to recent bans, in particular the concept of the infallibility of Da’as Torah, even when Torah leaders have been mislead.

Also, some J-music bloggers have posted on this topic and in light of this I think it’s important to address this issue. In particular, I believe that one blogger’s posts have been very irresponsible, and that the attitude of fairness he claims to be presenting is in fact anything but fair. At best its na├»ve and at worst malicious, but in either case it’s simply wrong. I’ll post links to his posts on the topic a little further on.

I’m not going to summarize the story. Just read the links above for the details. Suffice it to say that it is clear that Isaac should never have been sent to Tranquility Bay. The notion that any parent could send their child there is horrifying. Even more so, when the family is frum, since there are no accommodations for Kosher or Shabbos observance at TB.

These kinds of schools are physically and emotionally abusive. A few years ago, I had occasion to read through a hard copy of the school rules and regulations for the Academy at Ivy Ridge, another WWASP (World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools) school.

Just one example to illustrate…

According to the rulebook, students had to ask permission to pass gas. If a student passed gas without permission, he was disciplined severely. If a student did ask permission, he was escorted to a side area and his gas passing was monitored. If he then didn’t pass gas, he was disciplined severely. It gives you an idea of the type of dehumanizing atmosphere at these places.

I’m not going to focus much on the abuse that occurs at these places, except to point out that the information is clearly available online. Even a few minutes of Googling will provide enough information to scare any reasonable parent away from the Tranquility Bay program, which is apparently the worst of all of these programs. Since it’s outside the US, it operates with even fewer restrictions than the US-based schools.

I would like to focus on what has happened since this story became public and various blogs picked up the story. I’ve been watching with a sense of unease as some people have felt compelled to defend the indefensible here by leaving insidious comments. (One blogger indicates that the same IP address attempted to post talking points under four or five different names.) I am also disturbed by the reception that some, including the aforementioned Jewish music blogger, have given these posts.

First, about the comments. These comments take one or more of the forms listed below.

1) These commentors suggest that people shouldn’t assume the obvious conclusions are correct because “Da’as Torah,” in this case Rav Aharon Schechter, signed off on Isaac being sent to Tranquility Bay. They argue that no one is qualified to question Rav Schechter’s judgement.

In my opinion, this suggestion is pernicious. Dr. Pelcovitz has confirmed that Isaac was abused at Tranquility Bay. So, whether Rav Schecter was misled by Isaac’s father, or whether he was aware of the issues in advance, it’s clear that he exercised poor judgment here. Especially when he refused to reverse himself after he was contacted by a number of gedolim including Rav David Feinstein and Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky who felt that this was a case of pikuach nefesh, and made him aware of the abusive situation at TB. One does not ignore abuse because a rav, no matter how well-respected, is willing to allow it to continue.

If anything, when taken with Rav Schechter’s recent participation in a number of recent unfair bans including the Lipa ban and the wig store ban, this story clearly demonstrates that Rav Shechter has been more than willing to participate in and even initiate unfair and anti-halachik behavior.

The notion of rabbinic infallibility implied by these commentors has strong negative ramifications for our community and ensures the perpetuation of avlos.

2) These commentors cast aspersions on the foster family in Houston where Isaac has been living and write that Isaac was out of control, and that they couldn’t deal with him anymore, etc.

Issac was staying with Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe’s family. Rabbi Wolbe is the executive director of the Torah Outreach Resource Center of Houston. Rabbi Wolbe, a grandson of the famous Rav Wolbe ZT”L, is one of the people who flew to Jamaica to rescue Isaac. The Jewish Star talked to him. Here’s what they wrote:
Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe, the rosh kollel and executive director of the Houston Kollel was an informal foster father to Isaac, whom he said calls him daddy. “I know the kid living in my house. He’s been hanging around my house since he’s 11,” he said. “I know him through and through. He’s not a drug abuser. He’s not a mechalel Shabbos. I’m not saying that he’s a tzaddik, but he’s a normal, good, healthy boy.”

He emphasized that when Isaac had to move out, it was due to personal matters pertaining to his family at that time, and not because of any behavioral lack on Isaac’s part.
That disproves that assertion. In point of fact, Dr. Pelcovitz is convinced that Isaac should be in Houston rather then with his parents.

3) Similarly, these commentors say that Isaac was a behavior problem “everywhere” including in the school in Houston.

Zev Elef writes in the YU Commentator editorial linked above:
Isaac attended Robert M. Beren Academy, an Orthodox day school affiliated with Yeshiva University. Although nobody contended that Isaac did not struggle academically in Houston, contrary to his father's allegations, all agreed that his behavior was stellar at Beren Academy.

"Isaac was a fine and upstanding citizen of the school community," wrote Head of School Rabbi Ari Sigel in a letter. "He was warm and friendly to everyone he encountered and we did not, at any time, have discipline issues with him."
4) Some have left comments suggesting that Isaac was suicidal.

I do not believe this. But, the notion that this is a good defense of the decision to send him to TB is bizarre. The idea that it is appropriate to send a suicidal person into an emotionally and physically abusive confinement is simply incredible. If anything, it makes the decision to send him even less understandable, if such were possible.

5) Comments have also been left asserting that Isaac has various dangerous personality and character flaws and/or was on drugs.

Frankly, given the clear falsehood of the other assertions made by these same posters, it is very unlikely these assertions are true. Rabbi Wolbe disputes them as well. However, even if they were true, there are people willing to care for Isaac, and there are much better options here in the US, so this doesn’t justify sending Isaac to TB either.

You can see some of these types of comments at the Vos Iz Neias blog here and at the following posts and related comment threads at Jewish Blogmeister which I find to be especially disturbing.

In this post, “The Daily News: Telling Lies About Isaac Hersh,” JB writes:
Regarding the latest news story you may have read, I'll publish another possible side to this horrible story:
He then posts an email, ostensibly written by a friend of his, that makes nasty assertions about Isaac’s character as well as the following bizarre assertion.
“Explain why none of the other siblings were not abused...abusive parents abuse all of their kids.”
The assertion that abuse is an all or nothing proposition is false. Full stop. Putting this notion out there as valid can only serve to harm victims of abuse and/or aid abusers.

In this post, “Isaac Hersh Saga Continues...Updates...,” he wrote:
In my humble opinion the truth has yet to present itself and I think the media has been to some degree one sided in smearing the name of the Hersh's (which of course they feel is quite deserving). I'm only presenting the side that's not getting much of a voice as they should have a right to be heard.
Thus far, one side has been willing to go on the record and back up their assertions with evidence. The other has resorted to innuendo, mostly anonymously. Not very compelling. The Hersh family has a right to present their side, but they need to do it openly. JB is allowing himself to be used here. He should know better. Besides, even if the Hersh surrogates allegations are correct (which I obviously don't believe to be the case) there are clearly more appropriate ways to deal with them.

Finally, in this post, “The Awareness Center and Isaac Hersh,” he passes on negative information about the people behind the Awareness Center. The reality is that this is mostly irrelevant. The Awareness Center has not played a significant role in this case, although they have reported on it. There are serious problems with the Awareness Center and the credibility of the woman behind it. I do not support either. However, the fact that the Awareness Center has decided to post about this case is simply not relevant to the legitimacy of the criticisms that others (including Rav Dovid Feinstein and Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky) have about the way Isaac has been treated.

There’s a natural tendency towards being “dan lekaf zechus” and avoiding Lashon Hara which, although a laudable goal, has the effect of ensuring that most people won't look into this to see what the facts are. Especially when bloggers allow people to take advantage of their blogs to misinform the public.

I think it’s important to address this issue publicly, because it’s important to make sure that it is impossible for this to ever happen again. Also, since some less reputable bloggers have written about the case, it's being presented as “da’as torah” vs. sleazy bloggers. There’s a natural reaction among some in the community to reject anything “reported” by the UOJ or Failed Messiah blogs, so having other blogs address the issue with less vitriol could have a positive effect. There is benefit to the community seeing that its not only the scandal blogs that are following the story.

Also, it’s important to make sure that a resolution is reached that is in Isaac’s best interests. I believe that this is more likely to happen if the people involved, including Rav Aharon Schechter, as well as the judge in the upcoming custody hearing for Isaac, know that the public is paying attention.

At this point, one thing is clear. Since there are people willing to take Isaac in, people who want him and are willing to take responsibility for him, placing Isaac with them is the most appropriate way to resolve this.