Barukh Dayan Emet–Harold Diftler

We learned of the passing this last weekend of a dear friend, Dr. Harold Diftler. Harold and his wife Joyce were among the first people to welcome us to Knoxville.
Harold was one of the most prominent dentists in the region and there are many accolades from his professional colleagues. But nothing tells the story of Dr. Diftler better than the simple fact that he turned no one away over his entire career, and never complained when his patients could not the afford the care.
 
Harold was a veteran of the U.S. Navy. As a member of the Knoxville Track Club he ran marathons all over the USA. His collections of antique clocks and watches are renowned. He was able to converse about many subjects because he so valued education that he never stopped taking courses–in recent years University courses in history, film, political science, anthropology and music.
 
Harold is pictured above from our Passover Seder in 2015. May his memory always be counted as a blessing. May his memory be entwined with ours so that he lives on forever through us.
 
Blessed is the True Judge.
 
 

Life Since WUJS

Received word from some of my old friends from the program I attended in 1973 in Arad, Israel that we are going to attempt a class reunion. They asked for an update on what we’ve done since graduating. This will likely be repetitive for many of my friends and family, but here goes…

The reason I enrolled in WUJS was that I had been accepted to Graduate School in History at Tel Aviv University, but at that point knew only the Hebrew that was taught in two semesters at my undergrad institution, the University of Wisconsin (Madison). It was a terrific way to build my Hebrew and also participate in a program designed to introduce college graduates to the entire country. Almost a half century later I still treasure the memories of our visits from Rosh HaNikra in the far north to Beersheva and the agricultural settlements south of Arad.

The indelible memory of that year was seared in place by a major conflict known to most people as the Yom Kippur War which effectively ended WUJS instruction for me. Despite offers of repatriation from the US embassy, along with many others in WUJS, I signed up to do what I could. It wasn’t much–one of my memories from that experience was a kibbutznik too old to bear arms who would lean over and tell me in the dining hall, “You eat more than you’re worth.” And friends, I was skinny in those days!

When the war ended, some students remained at WUJS, but it was time for me to begin my studies at Tel Aviv U. My favorite class was elementary Latin (“You mean you want to study ancient history, but you have no Latin?!”). We were the first class at Tel Aviv U. which enjoyed learning Latin via a textbook written in Hebrew. Before that, students had to use a teaching book written in English. Lucky me! But really, it was a huge boost in my Hebrew comprehension.

At the end of that school year, I accepted an offer from the U of California (Berkeley) and began studying for an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies in the Fall of 1974. I completed that degree in December, 1976 and received “permission to proceed” to the Ph.D. But first, I felt that I still needed more coursework, and there was nothing left to take, so I applied to and was accepted as graduate fellow at Hebrew University of Jerusalem beginning in the Fall of 1977.

That academic year, Anwar Sadat stunned the world by coming to Jerusalem. I sometimes quip that my two years in Israel were, “War and Peace.”

I took as many course as I could at Hebrew U, and then it was time to return to the States. But my graduate advisor at Berkeley told me that given that only 4 PhDs in History at UCB had managed to find positions, I ought to consider other alternatives. So I applied to the Rabbinical program at HUC – Cincinnati. Oddly enough, they advised me to join the History PhD program there because I would receive a much better fellowship that way. And so I went from Jerusalem to Cincinnati. The most important scholar there for my interests was Samuel Sandmel. When I got to Cincinnati, I was his only student. During the semester he informed me that he had accepted a position at the U of Chicago and asked me to consider joining him. But the chancellor pulled me aside and cautioned me that Sandmel might not be alive much longer, so I declined his offer and indeed he passed away in February having made the move to Chicago just a month before.

Without Sandmel, staying in Cincinnati didn’t seem worthwhile although I did very much enjoy my studies in Talmud with Ben Zion Wacholder. Life intervened and I received word that my mother was in dire straits and needed my help. So I returned to Berkeley, made arrangements to settle my life down a bit, and then went to New York City to see how I might help my mother. She had had a severe episode of her long standing bipolar disorder and as a result lost her job. She was in danger of running out of money for the rent. My father, her husband, had abandoned us years before–ironically perhaps to move to Israel. I was an only child to her (my sister was born to a different mother) so it was me or no one. I packed her up and took her to California.

Continuing with the PhD program was now out of the question. I took a job as the Assistant Director of the Berkeley Hillel Foundation which involved leading religious services, teaching Hebrew courses and running the rather extensive Hebrew language program of the Lehrhaus Judaica which was co-housed in the Hillel building, and being responsible for the financial part of the foundation. To do that effectively I enrolled in Accounting classes at a local community college.

This was supposed to be a stop-gap until I got my mother settled, but we all know how that goes. I enjoyed my job, I enjoyed having the stability of a real income. In 1979 I purchased my first house in Oakland with the help of the Lehrhaus director. A couple of years later I met the woman who would become my wife of now 36 years.

We sold that first house to buy a house in Berkeley (this time together with our Hillel office manager who went on to be the leader of the Unitarian Universalists west of the Mississippi). And 1985 saw the birth of our first child, Shoshana. In 1987 the University of Michigan offered Terri a tenured position in their Psychology Department, and as much as I loved our lives in the fabled San Francisco Bay Area, we both agreed that moving to Ann Arbor was the sensible thing to do. So in 1988, Terri’s mom came out and helped Terri, Shoshana and our pet rabbits move to Michigan. I came a couple of months later with our dog. And a couple of months after that I moved Momma to Michigan.

Of course I was hoping for a job teaching Hebrew, but Hillel was staffed up and my mere M.A. wasn’t good enough for the U, so I was unemployed for awhile. I had learned a considerable amount about both accounting and database management, and a friend mailed me–quite out of the blue–a T-Shirt emblazoned with the word “Oracle.” One day, I felt a tap on my shoulder as I was picking Sho up from day care, and the father of one of the other kids asked me, “Do you know anything about Oracle?” I replied that “Yes, I had successfully deployed an Oracle database at my former employer in California.” He hired me on the spot to do a training session for his group at the University’s IT department because they had just paid $600k to license Oracle, but no one knew how to use it. After the session, he hired me as an external consultant to help them design databases, and after three years of that they decided it would be cheaper just to give me a job. That’s how I became an employee of the U of Michigan in 1992. In 1995 Ephraim joined our family, and shortly thereafter the College of Engineering hired me away from the IT department. I rose through those ranks and eventually was leading three departments within the College.

I decided to retire from the University when I turned 58 because I was qualified for benefits, they were running an early retirement program, my investments had done well, and really, I didn’t need the headaches any longer. I accepted a voluntary position as the first Executive Director (unpaid) of the County’s NAMI program.

2011 was a momentous year for our family. Ephraim had decided to make aliyah and complete his education in Israel. My mother sadly left us that year. And Terri received an offer to become the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the U of Tennessee, Knoxville. After a visit to check it out, we decided to take the offer. We sold our Ann Arbor house at which point Ephraim changed his mind and decided he would stay in Ann Arbor, but we held to our plan and we went to Knoxville while he remained in Ann Arbor.

A few months after our arrival, the Religious Studies Department was notified that faculty members they had hired to teach Hebrew had elected not to come and the director of Judaic Studies and the Head of the Religious Studies department asked me if would teach Biblical Hebrew for the year. And after that first year, they have hired me ever since, seven years now.

Of course they really wanted me to have a PhD, so I was approached by someone who offered to be my mentor for completing that project. She averred that given all my prior course work, it would probably only take me a year to start writing my dissertation. But the Grad School had other ideas about whether they were going to accept decades-old courses. I stuck with it and earned my PhD in History in December 2019.

Our daughter Shoshana now lives in Albuquerque, NM with her husband Karl and our two grandchildren, Clara and Alexander. My son Ephraim joined us in Knoxville after completing his BA at U of Michigan. He’s now in the later stages of a PhD in social geography and spatial statistics, and he is engaged to a woman who is also working on a PhD in the biological sciences.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Added 4/13/20:

My father was a child of the beginning of the Soviet Union, his father was a highly educated Orthodox Jew (musmah Kishinev). My grandfather came to the States first and established a business selling second hand steel in Cleveland, OH. Then he was busted for selling stolen property and after spending everything to avoid jail moved to Detroit. Meanwhile, my great-grandfather, my grandmother’s father, found the cash to ship my Bubby and her three surviving children (three others seem to have died of Tay-Sachs) to Detroit. It’s not entirely clear that my grandfather, the Grand Rabbi, was all that happy to see them.
 
My mother of blessed memory was born in Brooklyn. Her mother had five children of whom my mother was the youngest. She passed when my mother was 14 and my maternal grandfather (who was a Sanitation Dept employee) fostered her out to people who were cousins of ours. Through Facebook I have been able to make contact with that branch of the family and they are all wonderful folks. In those days there was no healthcare and no real pension for city employees, so when my grandfather couldn’t work owing to a savaged back, he eked out a living as fortune teller setting up on the street. He passed the year before I was born. My middle name, Francis is for my mother’s next-in-line sister Frances  who was electrocuted in shock therapy at a Brooklyn hospital, also the year before I was born. I know, many of you don’t want to hear details like this, but if you want to be honest about life, these are the kinds of things that happen.
 
After my pretty typically Orthodox bar-mitzvah, I didn’t want to have anything to do with Judaism. Like Perry, I was impressed with the events of the 6-Day-War. My father decided to make Aliyah–I think as a way of getting away from us as we were not invited to accompany him–and that was the last I saw of him until I got to WUJS (he was in Tel Aviv). In 1971  I had a serious health emergency and my life was literally saved by the invention of colon fiberscope. I was only the 3rd person to undergo that procedure. The doctors found the polyps that were the cause of my issue and extracted them. I’m telling you this because when I woke up the town (Madison, WI) hazzan was waiting by my bedside. A doctor had asked him to come because he recognized that I was reciting the Sh’ma in my delirium.
 
After my recovery, I started hanging out at Hillel and discovered that the rabbi there was both brilliant and not crazy. It was the first time I think I realized that one could be intelligent and religious at the same time. We became lifetime friends–just spoke with him last week–and I’ve been part of Conservative Judaism ever since. It was at this Hillel that I met the “shaliah” who recommended that I go to WUJS. Not to say that “I got religion”–I was agnostic before, during, and after all this. But I found great comfort in being part of a community, and I discovered that I love ritual even if I don’t think it’s going to save any possible soul I might have.

Passover 2020

As most of us will doing this year, Terri and I will be celebrating a limited Seder. There may only be four (or two) of us, but we hope that many of our friends will be joining us via this marvelous technology (Zoom).

Please note that there have been security concerns with Zoom. We are using the zoom server provided by the University of Tennessee; we can therefore say we are safe at our end of things. This cannot guarantee that your own computers are completely safe from hackers.

If you would like to follow along with us, you can find this year’s version of my Haggadah here:

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/3rt0g8tay87r9kq/AACgIyAbQJUp5TpyuxYgCvXja?dl=0

In addition to the Haggadah, there is a short document which explains the people mentioned in memoriam on page 2 of the Haggadah.

If you would like a printed copy of this Haggadah, you’ll need either a laser printer or an inkjet printer, preferably one that can print “duplex” (both sides of the page). You will also need either the full Adobe PDF program, or a good clone of it. In the print menu, use the setting for “booklet.” If you don’t have that setting, your printer might not be able to handle this job. But ideally, that’s all you’ll have to do. Printing duplex, you only need 10 sheets of paper which will then become the 40 pages of the booklet.

If you would like to join us for Passover, here is the Zoom information you will need. If you have access to via the Internet:

https://tennessee.zoom.us/j/760146144

If you live in an area with no Internet, or poor Internet, you might be able to dial-in with your phone. These are the numbers for that, but be aware that your phone company might charge you for this connection:

Telephone:
Dial:
+1 312 626 6799 (US Toll)
+1 646 876 9923 (US Toll)
+1 253 215 8782 (US Toll)
+1 301 715 8592 (US Toll)
+1 346 248 7799 (US Toll)
+1 669 900 6833 (US Toll)
Meeting ID: 760 146 144

The link should become active about 6:45pm both evenings and we are planning to begin at 7pm.

Have a Happy and Kosher Passover!

Jack and Terri

We have a problem, Houston!

Hi Everyone.

First of all, thanks to those of you who are following my blog, and especially us aging folks who have fond memories of JHS 44, the Bronx–as far as I know this is still the only place on the Internet to talk about that!

You may have noticed a drop-off in my posts. It’s not for want of writing more–but I’ve been a bit flummoxed by the new Gutenberg Editor that WordPress introduced. I understand the basics (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this!) but as many of you know, I use several foreign language typefaces in my posts and so far I have not been able to get the new editor to display those characters properly. Apparently I have to learn some more about the new editor before I can resume regular posts.

Anyway, I’ll do my best to soldier on, and we’ll see what the future brings!

— Jack Love

Well, It’s That Time – Social Security

Next month my Social Security payments begin. I chose to start them because I have reached what the Social Security Administration calls “full retirement age.” This is not the same for everyone. Until a few years ago it was 65, for people in my bracket it is 66, and Congress has increased the age even further for younger people today.

No matter what one’s “full retirement age” is, we can start Social Security at 62. This is absolutely necessary because there are so many people with jobs that involve physical activity they can no longer perform, people who have lost their jobs and left the job market (these are not included among “unemployed” in case you’re wondering), and always a special concern to me, people with mental disabilities. Whatever the reason, Social Security can begin at 62. The issue is that benefits are reduced for each year one takes them prior to “full retirement age” so benefits at 62 can be much lower than a person anticipates. By pushing the full retirement age higher, Congress also punished people who need it earlier.

The SSA is also willing to reward people who delay accepting benefits past the full retirement age. The increase is currently in the range of 6% to 8% per year. If you have most of your money in interest bearing savings accounts or bonds, that looks like a great rate–substantially higher than what you can earn in such investments. A national investment newsletter recently published an article lauding the strategy of waiting as long as you can.

But the advice strikes me as incorrect. The SSA is not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They have actuarial tables and they know when we will no longer be needing Social Security, at least in aggregate. In other words, whenever we die, we stop receiving Social Security. Forever.

What that means as far as I can figure out is that the rate increase of even 8% is phony. Because while it is true you will start off with that increase, you will also lose all the money you would have received while waiting. A strategy of investing the Social Security you are receiving might not reap 8% over those years, but you (and your heirs) will not lose whatever that amounts to at your passing–and that strikes me as a much better deal.

If my math is correct, I suggest that people should not wait beyond their full retirement age. Start collecting it then. If you don’t need it, invest it. Or give it to charity. But betting against actuarial tables is, in my opinion, a sucker bet.

Nina’s Life

Nina de Amor arrived in our home in a rather haphazard fashion. The story begins with the end of another. Our family dog Caleb passed away rather unexpectedly in the Summer of 2003. Both of our kids were away from home at the time. I sat down at the dinner table and couldn’t help but notice that Terri was unusually quiet throughout. As we picked up the dishes, she said to me, “I think the dog is dead.” I raised my eyebrows at this and replied, “You think?” “Doesn’t a Ph.D. biology allow a little more certainty in a matter such as this?!” She said, “OK, the dog is dead.” I should mention that Caleb had epilepsy and Terri had already literally raised him from the dead about a half dozen times, so his passing at the age of 7 may have been unexpected at that moment, but not surprising nevertheless. But that left us with the decision of how to replace him, because we knew that our then 12 year old son would insist on having a dog.

The added complication was that Terri’s allergies were getting worse, and she was specifically allergic to the dog-dander of fluffy dogs and dogs and oily coats of dogs like Labrador Retrievers–a breed she was quite fond of. Since I worked in IT, my immediate course was to Google it. What came up was a “dog calculator.” In this scheme, you enter the three most important things to you about the dog you want to acquire, and the computer will tell you your optimal breeds. I placed “hypo-allergenic” at the top of our list, and the computer spat out three breeds: Wheatland Terrier, Poodle, and at the very top of the list, Spanish Water Dog. I had never heard of the Spanish Water Dog, but if you’re reading this you’ve probably heard of the Portuguese Water Dog because that was breed adopted by the Obamas after they moved into the White House. As I later learned, the Portuguese Water Dog was bred for size from the SWD. The SWD is likely the originator of this line because its 35 lb to 45 lb range seems to be consistent with the origin of the dog species. The SWD was not recognized by the American Kennel Club, but was sanctioned by several other international dog clubs. Obviously Spain, but also in England and Scandinavia. Terri and I aren’t “dog snobs” or in need of purebred pets, but in this case it was important because we were seeking a dog that met the hypo-allergenic criteria, and that is a characteristic of breed.

Acting on these suggestions I started my search for places where we might be able to find either a Wheatland Terrier or a Poodle, but came up empty-handed. Dog breeders explained to me that the summer was not a time when dogs generally produced puppies, and perhaps I would have better luck in the Fall. Striking out on these breeds, I scanned for Spanish Water Dogs. There weren’t many breeders, but there were a few in Ontario not far from where we lived in Michigan so I called them first–no luck. Same story as with the others. I was about to give up when I noticed a Web site for the “Spanish Water Dog Association of America.” That turned out to be a bit of hoax–it was really the Web site of a family that had gotten into the business, but I was happy to give it a try. Sure enough, they had a brand new litter which the proprietor explained had come about “accidentally”–a second breeding in the same season. And he noted that because the puppies were unanticipated, they were also unreserved, so we could have the pick of the litter.

We gave him a deposit and awaited Ephy’s return from summer camp, just a couple of days away. As it happened, Ephy was pretty discombobulated as he emerged from the camp bus–the trip took hours longer than it was supposed to. As soon as we picked him up we said, don’t get settled, we’re on our way to Tennessee to pick up a puppy. He was not a happy camper (so to speak) as we drove ten hours to Knoxville, at several points accusing us of having murdered his dog. But somehow we got there in one piece. And that’s how I landed in Knoxville for the first time in my life! Little did we know what the future had in store.

Nina’s birth location was a country home in the Tri-Cities area of East Tennessee, about a 90 minute drive from Knoxville. We arose early and drove that last 90 minutes. When we got to Nina’s home, before we reached the door, it opened and a man dressed in sort of Amish-like clothing emerged with a musket or some sort of old rifle cradled in his arm. We then noticed a woman dressed in this fashion. And we thought to ourselves, whoa, what have we gotten into!

 

Nina’s godmother

As it turned out, they were both quite modern people of our own period–but that day they were participating in a historical recreation of the early 1800s, hence the garb, musket, etc. When they saw us they waved us over and after that it was all dogs and puppies.

They did a demonstration of their adult dogs’ diving ability in their pond, and it was indeed amazing. They threw objects that sank to the bottom of the pond (which was quite deep) and dogs emerged with them every time. One of the traits of the Spanish Water Dog is that the fur in their paws fills in densely and allows them to use their paws as flippers to drag themselves deep under water. At the time a Spanish Water Dog held some sort of Guinness type record for deepest dive by a dog. For all I know that record still stands.

Every breeder we spoke to was concerned to let us know that these dogs are work dogs and as such are happiest when they have things to do. They don’t necessarily make good pets if one’s idea of a pet is an animal that lies around the house most of the day. The breeder was relieved to hear that we lived in the country on 11 acres and that Terri was experienced with farms and farm animals. So we passed that test. After giving us some paperwork assuring us of the pedigree, we plopped our eight-week old brownish red puppy into the back seat with Ephy and we began the 11 hour drive back to Ann Arbor.

Nina was everything the Spanish Water Dog sites claimed. She learned with amazing quickness and had a broad skill set. She was a fierce guard dog and protected her family with passion. Throw a stick and Nina would beat any other dog to it. When we added a poodle to the family (Nina was then about 8 years old), Nina made sure the poodle knew who was boss, and then showed her ropes of coping with the LoveLees.

Spanish Water Dogs live an average of 11 or 12 years, but Nina showed no signs of slowing down until she hit 14. She went partially and then almost completely deaf which meant she could no longer hear knocks at the door–and she was visibly disturbed at having people show up without her personal scrutiny. We tried to move her downstairs so she wouldn’t need to navigate the staircase, but she had nothing of that. On her last day with us, she still dutifully climbed the stairs to her bedroom. And that last day she lay down and could move no more. Our wonderful vet helped her out of this world without further pain and I don’t think I will ever stop missing her.

Sho and Clara Say Goodbye To Nina

Getting from the Upper East Side (Manhattan) to Riverdale (The Bronx)

I wrote this some time ago, but forgot to post it. I’ll be heading back there tomorrow, so this timely once again!

_______________

As many of my friends know, I am an aficionado of public transportation. Especially rail, but really any sort of mass transit system. During my recent visit to New York City, with one of the better mass transit systems available in the U.S., we needed to get from the upper East Side (say, Madison Ave and about 80th St.) to a residence in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.

All sorts of consternation broke out in my family. Riverdale, they made sure I understood, was some sort of island, an oasis where public transit was impossible to navigate. I asked where the nearest subway station would be–after all, I have walked the Bronx from river to river, how far could it be? No, impossible they said. What about buses? Too much trouble, they don’t exist, heaven only knows.

I have to admit, with all this sturm und drang, my thoughts did turn to simply calling a cab or even Uber. But I finally succumbed to the suggestion that we make the journey via the Metro North system. This is did have the advantage of being a commuter railroad I had never traveled and much of the journey would be above ground near enough to the Harlem River to enjoy a spectacular view all the way to Spuyten Duyvil. So don’t get me wrong, I was pretty happy with this solution.

To get to Metro North we wound up taking the subway to Grand Central. My eyebrows did get a bit of a rise when I saw the fare on Metro North. The distance we were traversing was nothing unusual for mass transit–it would have been a single fare on the subway. But even with a senior rate, we were charged about 3x what the subway costs. And of course, since we had to pay the subway fare anyway, the whole Metro North fare was on top of that. No, it wasn’t an economic hardship for us, especially since it was just the one trip. But I feel for the many who have to pay that fare each way for a work week. I suppose there are probably bulk and discount programs. Anyway, all things considered it was a fun for me and not horrible for Terri. A member of the family picked us up at the Spuyten Duyvil stop for another mile or two journey to our destination.

But all this made me curious. Just how difficult is it really to get somewhere via regular NYC mass transit? For years people told me that it was impossible to get to or from any of the NYC airports and I figured out that that was BS–it’s perfectly easy to do as long as you aren’t burned by multiple suitcases, and can be accomplished with a single fare.

In my years as a foot messenger (the name is a bit strange since we always traveled by subway or bus unless the distance was very short) it was a matter of deep pride to be one who could figure out the most efficient route for delivering a package. These days, services like Google have taken a lot of the skill out of this process. I know I should have taken the two minutes it would have taken to figure out how to do the trip via regular transit. But I didn’t want conflict, and making my ever-suffering spouse ride along on my adventure didn’t seem the right way to go. So I followed the family orders. But there is that nagging sense–what else could I have done?

Back home in Tennessee I decided to look at the mass transit options. So here’s what else we could have done. The place we were eating lunch was exactly one block from a regular city bus stop where two different Bronx bound buses stop. We could have boarded either the BxM1 or the BxM2. Either bus would have taken us to a stop exactly 1 block from my family’s home. Google estimates the total time for the trip at 1 hour, including the walks to the bus and from the bus to the house. Each of the buses runs approximately every 15 minutes on Sundays, so our wait would have been no more than that. Obviously, NYC traffic is always an issue, but as I said, this was a Sunday, so not so bad. One fare, one hour. And life goes on…

Michigan Follies Part 1: The Great E-Mail Fiasco

I’ve been waiting to tell a few of my U-Mich stories for quite a while now. The reason for the wait is that there are still a few folks around who I love who might not want these things brought to attention. And for that reason, I won’t be naming any names–either of the guilty or the innocent. Even if I knew who that was, and often I don’t! There are no secrets here, by the way, the entire matter was the subject of lawsuits and was eventually reported in the press. I’m not mentioning anyone because I’d just rather not remind them of some unpleasant times.

This story rises to some importance because of all the publicity around Hillary Clinton’s email problems. I write at least in part to demonstrate how silly a lot of this drama is.

First on a lighter note: e-mail or email? The answer is, depends when. I titled this blog entry with E-Mail because that was the “correct” spelling when this story unfolded. Over time, people got tired of putting in a hyphen, so now the “correct” spelling is email. Use whatever you like best! I certainly will.

E-mail was just getting off the ground as a major communications medium when I started my career at the U of Michigan. At that time, the servers were large and enormously expensive computers that were usually called “main frames”, words which eventually became hyphenated and then crushed to “mainframe.” I teach language, so these things are sometimes important to me.

Michigan was at the forefront of encouraging electronic communication and the IT (Information Technology) department was instrumental in convincing the university administration that resources should be committed to ensuring that all faculty and staff had access to such systems. The main e-mail server was a machine purchased from IBM at a cost in excess of $1 million.

Just before I arrived, the Amdahl Corporation donated a second mainframe computer to the university.

Now, one of the ways that this initiative for greater electronic communication could be fostered was to keep the institutional costs low, and one way to do that was to rebill services to corporations or the government whenever possible. If a faculty member was funding their research via government grants, it was completely legitimate for the university to rebill the costs of their time use of the computer to the government.

A problem was quickly identified. Since the Amdahl computer was donated, there was no cost that could be rebilled to anyone. A person I was later to call both my boss and my friend came up with a legal and legitimate solution. Anyone who had a grant was given an account on the IBM e-mail server whereas those who had no external funding were given accounts on the Amdahl (free) server. In this way, the university could recover costs that could eventually be used to purchase the next computer needed to run these systems.

Let me emphasize again that this is both legal and legitimate. No one questioned or got into trouble for this stage of development. But things began to go awry.

As anyone who has worked with soft money knows, grants come and grants go. In order to keep the system honest, periodic audits were necessary so that people who were on the IBM (and thus billed for costs) were moved to the Amdahl (if they lost their funding) or vice versa. That simply didn’t happen. The result was that after a few years there were people who were on the IBM who should have been billed but weren’t (because they no longer had grants) and people on the Amdahl server who were being billed because they had received grants. Note that in the latter case, the government was being billed for services the university was not paying for. And that is the heart of an administrative nightmare.

The government does not take kindly to being billed for services not rendered. My friend, the architect of this scheme, understood the problem and began notifying first his immediate superiors and then higher level university administrators of his concerns. You might think that the university would thank him and work towards fixing the problem, but you would dead wrong.

Shortly after he hired me, he visited my office to tell me that he had been fired. You might wonder what they could have fired him for. Believe it or not, they alleged that they were firing him for creating the very system that they were defending. If there was a problem, they said, it was his fault. And he responded the only way left to him on the advice of his attorneys–he filed what is called a “whistle blower’s” claim on the university. Initially the Federal government hadn’t wanted to do anything about it. It sounded to them like a difficult case to prove. But once the suit was filed, they joined it. Eventually the university agreed to pay over a million dollars back to the federal government, and my former boss received a large settlement. Large, but certainly not enough to replace the career that was now wrecked. And for what? Trying to do the right thing.

And what of the 10 administrators who knew of the warnings that had been provided over a year’s time? Those who ignored those warnings and told people to shut up? The warnings were provided in memoranda on paper, and the most senior administrator involved told the others to destroy the memoranda so that the government could not get them via the legal discovery process. Nine out of ten of the administrators did just that. Fortunately for my friend, one did not and so the government got the evidence. None of these administrators were punished. They all kept their jobs and life went on as if defrauding the government is all in a days work. Only the whistle blower paid the price for honesty.

The university got into all this trouble because of an underlying fact of technology. There are legitimate reasons for people (and institutions) to try to control their communications by keeping those communications in segregated systems. Now that there are a lot of free email systems out there, lots of people have multiple accounts and will use one or another email address to manage such issues. And it is simply inevitable that people will forget that they are one system and start a conversation on that system instead of switching to the “right” system. We now fully understand how difficult it is to “stay straight.”

So am I excusing Hillary’s behavior in the great email brou-ha-ha? No. She did the wrong thing. But we need to keep a sense of proportion about it. Did she recognize her error and apologize for it? Yes. Did her error result in any damage to the security infrastructure of the U.S.? As far as anyone can determine, no. And other than the investigative costs (which probably were substantial), her mistake was not costly. If you want to focus on the investigative costs, I suppose it might be reasonable to expect her campaign or private foundation to reimburse the government. But do keep in mind that much of that cost was driven by opposition party politicking. It would not be fair, I think, to hold her responsible for the portion of the investigation that was politically motivated. And figuring stuff like that out is about as hard as figuring out how to bill for email servers when one is purchased and the other is free.

On the “Open Hillel” Movement

A two-year old initiative called “Open Hillel” is once again in the news. For those of you who aren’t particularly interested in Jewish politics, much less the emotional stirrings of Jewish students on college campuses, this probably feels like “much ado about not much.” But it is important to me, and I hope you’ll indulge me for a bit.

When I arrived as a young college student at the University of Wisconsin in 1969, the campus was in almost constant tumult with events related to the Vietnam War. Madison (Wisconsin), UC-Berkeley and the U of Michigan (all campuses where I had or would have strong connections) were among the most active, but the uproar was everywhere. There were even students shot and killed–which left an enduring legacy in the form of the Crosby, Stills and Nash song “Four Dead in Ohio.”

berkeleyHillel

Berkeley’s Hillel House as it looks today.

At Berkeley, Jewish students opposed to the war formed a collective they named “The Elders of Zion” and published a campus newspaper called “The Jewish Radical.” The newspaper and the group received support and a home in the local Hillel Foundation. At Wisconsin, Jewish students created an ambulance brigade to provide first aid to demonstrators (or anyone else) who was injured in the demonstrations. That operation, likewise, was housed in the local Hillel Foundation.

Lest you think this was all the exaggerated antics of over-enthusiastic youth, let me provide a very personal anecdote. In the late Fall semester of my second year at Wisconsin, I left a mid-term exam in Geology, got on my bicycle and started pedaling towards my next class. When I turned the corner of State and University Avenues, an unmarked police car pulled up beside me. I glanced at it just long enough to see someone pointing a grenade launcher at me. The grenade hit me in the leg and detonated a tear gas canister. I skidded to the side of the street enveloped by the gas. Suddenly a middle-aged, matronly woman bolted out of the closest building (Chadbourne Hall). She grabbed me under my arms and hauled me into the building where someone else dumped a bucket of water over me.

First aid was important in those days. And no, I had no idea what was going on (it turned out that a band of demonstrators had passed that spot a few minutes before I turned the corner), and I had absolutely nothing to do with whatever the officers were reacting to. Not that I was innocent of participation—I did attend demonstrations. Just not that day.

madison_hillel

Neither this lovely facade nor the photo of Berkeley’s Hillel resemble the buildings of my era. As nice a statement as these facades may make, no one should be surprised that it took major fundraising to transform the old edifices.

At Madison the rabbi of the Hillel allowed the facility to be used for the makeshift first-aid center. At Berkeley, the rabbi supported the student efforts to create a journal for vigorous debate of the issues of the day—particularly the issues that stirred the minds of young, Jewish students. And similar activities were supported throughout the country wherever there were enough Jewish students who desired to use the Hillel Foundation as a home base for their discussions and activities.

A decade or so after the Vietnam War had ended, Berkeley’s students were involved in another cause. Refugees were arriving from Central America. Many campus religious organizations offered these refugees a place to stay and eat. No one at these churches was particularly concerned about the legal status of these obviously beleaguered people. Berkeley’s Hillel Foundation was not directly involved in most of this activity, but there were occasions when there was overflow (too many guests) or a church needed its full facility for an event–and on such occasions the Jewish students would take the refugees over to Hillel for that time.

This was the Hillel of my college and early professional years. Sensitive to the issues that motivated Jewish college students and willing to take small risks (there were never any serious consequences to any of these activities) to assure those students that compassion is an important component of the Jewish faith.

Today, these sorts of things seem to be a thing of the past. Hillel Foundations avoid even the slightest controversies like the plague. Hillel directors shun any sort of activities that cannot be directly connected to matters of interest to Judaism, and even in that smaller arena, the official Hillels are places where any sort of criticism of Israel cannot be countenanced.

What happened? As an historian I like to say, “Whenever anyone says it’s not about the money, it’s always about the money.”

The Hillel Foundations have an interesting history. They were not created by a religious community but rather a fraternal organization called B’nai B’rith (the Jewish version of organizations like the Shriners and Masons). B’nai B’rith was also the home of an international youth association and most-famously the Anti-Defamation League. B’nai B’rith’s status as a fraternal rather than religious organization allowed their affiliated agencies to be non-denominational: all Jewish students should feel equally at home no matter whether their background was Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, or for that matter secular. In order to foster the widest degree of participation, most Hillels tried to serve kosher food and adhere to standards of Sabbath observance that would satisfy all but the most Orthodox of students. Essentially it was a matter of serving the students who would come.

The central office for the Hillel Foundations didn’t have much time to deal with local issues and most local directors (some but not all of whom were rabbis) were given wide discretion. Most of the Foundations were given funds to cover the directors’ salaries and a bit for programming, and needed to raise the rest locally. Oddly enough, this arrangement gave the local foundations a bit of cover which freed them from too much concern about petty local politicking in much the same way that Roman Catholic congregations are sometimes shielded from local politics by the central control of the Vatican.

All this came to a rapid demise in the late ‘80s. Fraternal organizations in general, and B’nai B’rith more than most, saw huge declines in membership and fundraising. Those Hillel Foundations which had received significant funding from the national office were told to make friends locally. That meant dealing with the sources of local Jewish communal funding which generally go by names such as the “Jewish Community Federation of…” Eventually, the situation deteriorated to the point that B’nai B’rith and the Hillel Foundations found it necessary to separate into completely independent organizations. Today, B’nai B’rith has nothing to do with the hundreds of campus Jewish organizations it founded.

One of the casualties of this process was intellectual freedom within the Hillel populations. That may seem like an extreme statement, but bear with me and I think you will understand that it is no exaggeration.

Jewish Federations are not democracies. They were designed to raise the maximum amount of money possible, and to do that they learned to cater to the biggest donors. In most communities those donors are rich, politically conservative, and often vigorously pro-Israel. Of greater importance, they often feel strongly that they do not want their contributions funding any activity that might be perceived as “bad for Israel.” And as the Israeli government has become increasingly conservative in recent years, American Jewish federations have moved along that path as well.

To illustrate how this can affect the academic environment, consider the case of Daniel Boyarin. Boyarin is among the most important scholars of early Jewish religion and history. He holds the Taubman Chair of Talmudic Culture within the Near East Studies department at UC Berkeley. His scholarship is unquestionably of the highest caliber, and he has important things to say about the history and evolution of Judaism in its critical and formative period. Despite his stature in scholarship, he is persona non grata in most Hillel Foundations and Jewish communal institutions such as adult educational forums sponsored by those communal institutions. Why? Boyarin has been an outspoken personality on the progressive or if you will left-wing side of Israeli/Zionist politics, and that irks many of the big donors.

In response to these donors, Hillel has posted guidelines which at first glance might seem innocuous, but contain clauses that can be used to exclude scholars such as Boyarin as well as prominent rabbis and other Jews who are unwilling to commit to what ultimately comes to a matter of restraining free and unfettered speech. The guidelines can be found here:

 http://www.hillel.org/jewish/hillel-israel/hillel-israel-guidelines

Without turning this into a lengthy study of these “guidelines” let me say that I think most would agree that the single most difficult part of these guidelines is the bullet point which excludes anyone who supports: “… boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”

berkeley_demontration

This is more like the scenes that I recall…

Personally, after careful consideration, I cannot support what has become known as the “BDS” approach. But I find it completely unacceptable that Jewish students should be prevented from learning why other Jews believe this is the correct approach.

Boyarin’s academic methods and conclusions are not universally accepted in the community of Jewish scholars, but none would deny that his claims are credibly based on profound analyses of the sources available to us. To exclude a scholar such as Boyarin is to make a mockery of the idea of scholarship and to deprive Jewish students of one of the most creative minds available to them. But that is exactly what has happened in Hillel Foundations around the country. And this is directly a consequence of the conversion of institutions such as Hillel Foundations into creatures of the local Jewish communal organizations.

I have used Boyarin as one example of this issue, but he is hardly unique. As those of you who have read him might expect, Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most renowned public intellectuals would not pass muster under these guidelines. My dear friend Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, a tireless warrior for peace and the scion of one of the most prominent rabbinic families in the world would likewise be excluded from Jewish audiences if the national Hillel organization had its way.

What is lost in this haze of politics is that students suffer (and this is true whether we are speaking of Jewish students or any other such groups) when they are denied the ability to hear the wide range of opinions that is a significant feature of higher education. Imagine denying Arab students the right to hear an Arab scholar speak about the positive relations between Arabs and Jews in the Middle Ages because some sponsoring Arab communal organization is concerned about looking too pro-Jewish.

And so we come to the “Open Hillel” movement that seems to be gaining traction at many universities these days. As the term suggests, Jewish students on several campuses have declared an interest in hearing from all sides in the fractious environment of the Middle East. They are not willing to exclude voices such as Boyarin’s. And perhaps even more serious from the perspective of the organized Jewish community, they are willing to listen to speakers and organizations which represent pro-Palestinian and even anti-Zionist schools of thought.

There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that if I were a college student today, I would be part of the Open Hillel movement. I strongly suspect that if things were then, when I began my career with Hillel Foundation at Berkeley, as they are now that I would not have been considered an acceptable role model and probably would not have been hired.

The irony in that is that I am neither anti-Israel nor anti-Zionist. While I do have serious reservations about the policies of the current government of Israel, I continue to believe that Israel serves an important purpose in providing refuge for Jews who become the subject of persecution. In a world in which many countries provide special status to their ancestral peoples, I do not see any reason why Israel cannot do so for Jews. But because I am unwilling to declare loyalty for the Israeli policies which I happen to oppose, I would not be considered an appropriate hire for most Jewish communal organizations including most Hillel Foundations.

All of this would be the sad ruminations of an aging curmudgeon if it weren’t for one fact I mentioned above. I believe strongly that the policies I have mentioned here are damaging the ability of Jewish communal organizations to reach college-age Jews. We should all be celebrating the “Open Hillel” movement because it, far more than the regular Hillel Foundations, has a chance of reaching that critically important population sector and perhaps retaining some of these motivated, highly educated Jews for the future of the community.

Life in These States of UTK

Lots of construction going on. What’s missing is anything resembling decent signage or consideration for pedestrians–especially disabled folks. With my bum knee, I guess I now belong to that category. But this, I understand, is pretty normal around these parts. Come to think of it, it reminds me a lot of Tel Aviv. A few years ago we rented an apartment there and discovered that they were tearing up the sidewalks having made not the slightest provision for disabled folks.

Last Wednesday I needed to journey to the ends of the earth. Well, at least the campus. A class I was taking was scheduled for a room inside and at the far end of the football stadium. Normally to get to the stadium, I would walk down a long valley that leads directly from Cumberland Ave to the stadium. And that’s what I set out to do. But halfway there I discovered that that route was blocked by construction.

The only way out of the construction (other than turning around completely and returning the way I had come) was to enter a campus building. I was confident that the building would have an exit to an alternate path to the stadium and so I entered the building. A sign was posted which read “Exit on 3rd Floor.” I was on the first floor, so I looked for a staircase.

Just a few steps along a corridor I came to an Exit sign and a stairwell. I entered the stairwell and climbed a flight of stairs, which would put me at the 2nd rather than the 3rd floor. There was no flight up from there, just a door to what I thought would be the 2nd floor of the building. I went through the door, and this is what I saw:

UTK Construction02The door closed and locked behind me. I was on a grassy hill. Below me was a ledge, about four feet higher than the corridor running along side the building. Looking up the hill I could see a fence, about 5 feet tall. I walked up the hill and down the hill. The gates at the top were padlocked, the ledge at the bottom was continuous, there were no stairs or other means of getting off the hill.

For a New York minute I contemplated calling 911 to get me outtathere. I walked up the hill to the fence and thought about climbing over it. Nah. Then I went down the hill and contemplating jumping down four feet to the concrete path below. Nah.

Finally, the solution came to me. I went back down hill and sat my behind down on the ledge, draping my legs over. About two feet to drop, but by holding both arms on the ledge I could let myself down easy and only drop the last six inches or so. Success! (You may be wondering about all this fuss, but let me say that if you have a knee without cartilage you’ll know exactly what motivated all that care.)

Of course, this now put me exactly where I was before! I still had to enter the building and find a way out further up the hill. This time, however, I took the elevator to the third floor and found the public exit. That did indeed lead to the football stadium and to my class.

On the way back, I took a few photos of the area of my confinement. I think this is the best summation of the experience:

UTK Construction01Yes, that wheelchair entrance sign is indeed located behind the fence I would have needed to climb to exit that direction.