26 March, 2015

After the Royal Commission - Stepping Back from the Precipice

The Jewish community is reeling after the recent case study as part of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. From the perspective of an ‘insider’ who personally knows almost all of the people involved, it’s especially painful. I am related to victims, to people accused of abuse, and to people in senior positions in the community. That’s the way things work in close-knit communities: there are many overlapping and complex inter-relationships, and the way such a community is portrayed to the outside world is often a grossly simplistic narrative that conveniently ignores the many sub-plots that lurk below the surface.

Many people in our community knew of cases of child abuse (both domestic and sexual), knew of attitudes and cultures of the time, and knew of the governance failures. Having all this on display for the world to see was like ripping a bandaid from a festering wound, in super-slow motion. The suffering of some victims who bravely chose to tell their stories in public was heart-rending, and brought home fully the impact of these crimes on the lives of victims. Those who thought we could “handle these things internally” were proved very wrong. The actions of those who sought to protect the memory and honour of the late Rabbi Groner OBM led to the very opposite. And the perception by some of leadership as a life-long privileged appointment from on-high was shattered forever.

As the public hearing continued, emotions started to simmer throughout the community, and found an unfortunate public outlet through social media. The vitriol and hate speech directed at ‘insiders’ was quite shocking, often coming from people whose only knowledge of the Chabad community was what they had read in the paper or in social media. The eagerness of people to make judgments and to treat the Royal Commission as ‘Chabad on trial’ was deeply disturbing to insiders. Many insiders also made their feelings clear. They lashed out both at the incomplete narrative about their community, at their own leaders, who failed to protect children and whose inaction culminated in public disgrace, and at Rabbis who disgraced far more than just their peers.

What was meant to be an exploration meant to make our institutions safer for children lit flame wars across the internet, and seething anger in search of a target. Victims had complained of intimidation, bullying, public persecution and slander, and yet these same instruments were being directed at an entire community now accused of protecting paedophiles. The regular inflammatory headlines only helped fan the flames.

And now we sit in the aftermath. Several leaders have fallen on their swords and no doubt more will come, and others are hardly lining up to take their places. After all, who would want to be a leader in the current toxic environment? Emotions are still running high, and pronouncements are coming from all parts of the community. The efforts of Yeshivah to implement best practice in child protection, articulated so passionately by Principal Rabbi Smukler, almost fell on deaf ears.

Over the summer I visited several Chabad communities in North America. In discussions with community leaders and advocates, I learnt that in those communities, there remains even today reluctance by some Rabbis to report paedophiles who are known to be currently offending. I found this quite astounding! In the face of leaders not prepared to do what is right, advocates have established a vigilante-style web site that ‘outs’ known paedophiles. In Melbourne over the last few years, schools and youth groups have taken on the challenge of child protection, and have embarked on extensive staff training, exemplified by the JCCV Child Protection Training programs. Insiders consider it nigh impossible that a current offender would be protected. Friends in the US kept asking me: “What on earth is going on in Melbourne? Is it as bad as people make out?”

The answer is not a simple one; it’s dangerous to compare degrees of ‘bad’. We have had our failings, in terms of the way abuse claims were handled, and in terms of the governance now that continues to retain the closed structures of the past. We might look at other Jewish communities and think that “it’s not as bad here”, but that is no excuse not to address our own deficiencies. We can also say that we’ve only heard part of the story even here in Melbourne. A lot of publicity has surrounded abuse cases in the Yeshivah community, but it would be naive to suggest that similar has not happened in other schools and shuls around Melbourne. In time, those too will be exposed, although perhaps not with the same degree of sensationalism.

When ‘insiders’ vent and criticize, it does not imply G-d forbid that they give a higher priority to the reputation of an organisation than the protection of children. This should have – could have – been a bloodless revolution. But egos and culture got in the way, and now we must all bear the cost of the ‘collateral damage’.

How can we move forward from this? How can we defuse the tension that now grips our community? After we all take a deep breath, here are a few salient points to note:

  • Our children are no safer now than they were a month ago. The efforts to improve child protection policies are well established in our institutions, and everyone is jumping on board. This is a huge win and should be celebrated. The governance and leadership issues identified by the Royal Commission will take many months or even years to fully address.
  • The Royal Commission is not a trial. The ‘rules of evidence’ do not apply, and it is not about finding individuals guilty or not-guilty. Testimony given under oath includes opinions, inferences, and biases. I trust that our Commissioners will see through the fog and make meaningful findings, and we should sit back and let them do that. This process is about exploring a topic, and making broad recommendations for improvements. It is about the big picture.
  • The black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us narratives floating around the place are simplistic and should be avoided. They don’t reflect the complexities of communities, and they are often only part of the full story. We have a nasty habit of celebrating the individual, but blaming the collective. But things are rarely that simple. There are many shades of grey, and tarring a collective with the same brush only divides us, when in fact as Jews we have far more in common than what differentiates us.

A leading Rabbi summed it up very well: “One of the factors that contributed to this culture has been the tendency to obfuscate the issue of child sexual abuse by diverting attention to matters that are in fact unrelated to the core issue”. It’s not about making broad generalisations about Chabad, Orthodoxy, or Jews. It’s not about some of the other bitter conflicts raging within our community. It’s about uniting to protect our greatest asset – our children.

This article was first published in the 27 Feb 2015 edition of the Melbourne Jewish Report and the Sydney Jewish Report.

01 February, 2015

Hird's lawyers going on "well-earned" family holiday

James Hird's senior legal advisors - lawyer Steven Amendola and barrister Peter Hanks QC - today announced they would be taking extended leave from legal practice to enjoy a family holiday. "Through this whole legal battle, and with all the work we've been doing, Peter and I and our families have become very close", said Amendola. They have hired the 54m luxury yacht Maridome equipped with ten crew including a Michelin star chef and will be travelling for three months around South American and the Carribean.

When asked to comment, Hanks said "I'm exhausted. We've been putting in 120 hour weeks through the case, the injunctions, the appeal, and the second appeal, and we're really run up our ... umm ... stress levels. We just figure it's a well-earned holiday".

Hird, who is paid one million dollars per year as coach of Essendon Football Club, has been relentless in pursuing his case to have the ASADA tribunal ruled illegal. But after having his second appeal firmly rejected last week, this could be the end of this long and troubled journey.

Reading from a prepared statement outside his newly purchased Brighton home, Amendola concluded. "We'd like to thank James for his persistence. As a player, he was resolute and would never back down under any circumstances. He has shown this same tough fight in the court room. We could never have gone this far without him".

Sources close to the families understand they will be making a short stopover in Boston to visit with New England Patriots staff, who are currently in the market for legal representation after a series of scandals.

Superbowl XLIX preview

The first big question about this year's Superbowl - "why isn't it called Superbowl IL?" - is easy to answer. As should be obvious, the subtractive principle for Roman numbers has these restrictions: You can only subtract a power of ten, and only from the next two higher "digits".

The second big question - who will win - is a little harder to answer.

You might call this the battle of the established dynasty versus the next dynasty. Under head coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots have enjoyed sustained success. It's the classic case of the champion team always beating the team of champions. Belichick's coaching and systems are just that good that they are robust to most any setback. Lose a top player to injury? No problem - just slot someone else into the system. Sure, he has pushed boundaries, but he ought to go down as the best NFL coach of all time.

The Seahawks, under experienced and innovative College coach Pete Carroll, are the emerging dynasty. They have put together all the pieces, and added to that enjoy the best home ground advantage of any NFL team. They have shown the character to overcome form lapses, whether during the season or during a single game, and find ways to win. They are also peaking at the right time. Those are the ingredients of playoff success.

If you do the classic 'match up', the teams look very even. The Patriots have patched up weaknesses in their running game with Blount, and in the secondary with Revis, and look as well-rounded a team as ever. The Seahawks also have it all, with their ferocious tackling, oversized corners, and a balanced offence that can get you any number of ways.

Last year the Seahawks overwhelmed the Broncos from the very first play, and never looked back. This year won't be the same walk in the park. The Patriots are experienced, mature, calm, and know how to come from behind. They've done it several times this season, and they are the highest-scoring second-half team in the NFL this year. They will not panic being two or three scores down. This game will be won in the second half.

The game of American football is quite simple: it starts in the trenches (the offensive and defensive lines) and works outwards from there. You can remove one dimension of your opponent's offence, but if they are good enough, they will find other ways. On the other hand, if your defensive line can get through and create pressure, everything else collapses: the quarterback is hurried and can make mistakes, routes don't have time to develop, and turnovers happen. The Patriots offensive line has always given Brady just that little bit of extra time, and that makes all the difference. Their most dangerous player is Edelman - he lurks underneath and is the 'go to' guy when nothing else is around. Even if you take out the deep routes, they will pick you apart with the running game and short passing. What I wrote back in 2008 is still just as true, there is one way to beat them: pressure Brady.

The Seahawks offence can be quite unstoppable. Lynch is truly a raging beast - his ability to grind out yards after initial contact is outstanding. He is probably their most important offensive player. Wilson is immensely talented but still young - the key for him is knowing when to take an option and run, and to stay calm throughout. Crazy comebacks like their win over the Packers in the Championship game are like lightning. On the defence, there is lots of talk about Sherman, but Cam Chancellor is the key.

You might have guessed by now that I'll be rooting for a Seahawks repeat. Frankly, I've had enough of the Patriots and want to see some other teams rise up and compete.

This year, we will see a lot of hard hitting, a lot of tackle breaking, more than average number of turnovers, and less than average deep passing plays.

Prediction: Seahawks 31, Patriots 27.

25 January, 2015

Favourite Single Malt Whiskies

Have been thinking about whisky a bit lately, and it makes sense to put a list of my favourites on this blog. There are actually several lists, because a whisky collection isn't just about the collector, it's about the guests they share it with. This page is a work in progress, and will be updated regularly.

Personal Favourites
  • Caol Ila 12: favourite hands down. This whisky has changed the views of many people who say "I don't like smoky". It's remarkably smooth and gentle, but with enough of a smoky finish to make it interesting. Also check out Caol Ila 1993 Distiller's Edition, which is a bit harder to find, but it this and a lot more.
  • Glenlivet Master Distiller's Edition: I discovered this in duty free a couple of years ago, and thought it was worth a try. It completely blew me away. There's no age on it, but the smoothness on the tongue was such a surprise. It has a touch of sweetness as well, and a lovely finish. I consider "regular" Glenlivet 12 to be the best value single malt in the world, and some of the variations are quite excellent, including Glenlivet 15 French Oak Finish
  • Laphroaig PX Cask: Laphroaig is known as one of the peatiest single malts, and some of the variations can be quite harsh. I stay away from the regular 10 year old, and prefer the Quarter Cask, which at 48% packs a punch, but is much smoother for the higher alcohol content. I still remember the cask strength Laphroaig that I enjoyed in Warsaw in 1999, but unfortunately have not been able to find it again since then. Anyway, the PX Cask is triple matured, and finished in sherry casks, so it has an amazing blend of powerful smokiness and soft, sweetness.
  • Lagavulin 16: This packs a powerful smoky punch, but relatively smooth and with a good, strong finish.
  • Macallan Whisky Maker's Edition: Have only ever seen it in duty free. Macallan have stopped putting ages on any of their whiskies, but frankly, the number on the front is only for the most vain of whisky drinkers (as noted in Ethics of the Fathers 4:27). This one is one of the smoother and more flavoursome premium Macallans that won't cost the earth.
  • Ardbeg Corryvreckan: Smoky, to be sure, but very smooth, and a finish that just keeps coming at you.

Must Haves
These are the essentials for any good whisky collection.

Special Mentions
  • Amrut: You thought only the Scots knew how to make good whisky? Wrong. This is from India, and it's quite amazing.

Is this stuff kosher? That is a complex question; as usual, there are diverse opinions even from some of the leading kashrut authorities in the world. Here are a few you might want to consider: OU, LBD, cRc, and a summary of opinions.

22 January, 2015

Patriots had cheerleader push-up bras overinflated

The NFL has found that 11 of the New England Patriots' 12 cheerleaders had their push-up bras inflated significantly above the NFL's requirements, league sources involved and familiar with the investigation of Sunday's AFC Championship Game told ESPN.

The investigation found the bras were inflated to a DD cup, well above the standard C or D cup required by NFL regulations during the Pats' 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, according to sources. "We are not commenting at this time," said Greg Aiello, the NFL's senior vice president of cheerleader dress standards.

The NFL has a detailed protocol when it comes to cheerleaders. League sources have confirmed that the cheerleaders and their uniforms were properly inspected and approved by referee Walt Anderson 2 hours before kickoff, as per NFL rules. Anderson reportedly left the inspection with a large smile on his face, fully satisfied with breast inflation levels. ESPN Sports Radio 810 in Kansas City reported that the cheerleaders' bras were tested at the half after some especially strenuous dance moves, but surprisingly none required any reinflation. They were tested again after the game.

Troy Vincent, the league's senior executive vice president of football operations, told The Associated Press late Tuesday in response to this report that the "investigation is currently underway, and we're still awaiting findings." He told "Pro Football Talk with Mike Florio on NBC Sports Radio" earlier Tuesday that the NFL expected to wrap up its investigation in "two or three days".

Sources earlier this season told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter that the Colts had concerns about overinflated cheerleader bras after their regular-season game against the visiting Patriots on Nov. 16. One source described the league as "disappointed ... angry ... distraught" after spending considerable time on the findings earlier Tuesday.

Brady told WEEI radio in November 2011 that he prefers overinflated cheerleaders. "When Gronk scores ... we all go over and hug the cheerleaders. I love that", Brady said then of tight end Rob Gronkowski, "but I feel bad for our girls, who are already the victims of sexual exploitation and gender stereotyping".

This is a strange story that keeps getting stranger, a scandal that creates only more questions as it grows. Let's start with this: How the heck didn't the refs notice? Two or three refs handle the cheerleaders on each play. Wouldn't their exaggerated breast size seem obvious? It was obvious enough someone from the Colts realized it when he was pushed so far out of bounds on the Patriot's side he stumbled forward into the cheerleaders. It's why Indy complained. How does a player notice and grow troubled by it but not a team full of refs?

The bigger question is this: Why the heck would the Patriots even bother? They have thrashed the Colts in their last three meetings, and rushed the ball with ease, grounding out 657 yards and 13 touchdowns in those games. Everyone knows the Patriots cheerleaders are far from the hottest in the NFL, let alone amongst the cold-weather teams. Why resort to this tactic when it's simply not needed?

There will be much more written about this before the matter is put to rest. Explanations perhaps, a full report on the investigation, hopefully lots of openness. Roger Goodell can't afford to look like a stooge for Patriots team owner Robert Kraft. This is a big deal now, a big deal that is overshadowing everything. On a scale of 1-10, this Patriots scandal is a 34DD.

30 November, 2014

Of Dead Cricketers and Dead Shul-goers

The national outpouring of grief following the tragic death of cricketer Phil Hughes after being struck by a cricket ball on the field has been quite overwhelming. Every day there have been several pages in the daily newspapers as cricketers around the country and the world deal with the tragedy. A huge campaign of people putting their cricket bats out as a public expression of grief - it was even featured on the Google search page, and has spread as a viral social media campaign dubbed #putOutYourBats.

We left a cricket bat outside our house, and noticed several others on the way to shul. In shul, it was the topic of discussion (far more important than the state election), and a friend mentioned that his young son would be wearing a black arm-band when he played junior cricket today (Sunday).

He posed a very good question: why didn't the global Jewish community unite in public expressions of grief following the brutal attack against shul-goers in Har Nof? Why didn't we all tweet and instagram #putOutYourTalit to remember those innocents who were murdered while praying in talit and tefillin?

He's absolutely right. Our grief response is more often than not to condemn the world media response to a terrorist attack. That is anger, and a very natural response. And even those responses lead to vigorous internal debate on the peace process and what Israel should or should not do. But we can do better. We can use social media to bring the Jewish world together in positive and very visible expressions of our feelings. Where was the campaign to encourage people to attend morning prayers in shul? Or to say an extra chapter of tehillim?

We have little control over the actions of governments, terrorists, and global media organisations. We do have control over how we respond. Channelling our responses to positive things is a far more productive and fulfilling thing to do.

03 November, 2014

#breakingItTogether (satire)

After the failure of the global Shabbat Project to usher in the Messiah, organizers have had an urgent rethink of their strategy, and released their startling new initiative.

Tradition tells us that if all Jews keep just one Shabbat, then the Messiah would come. This was in fact the secret agenda of the Shabbat Project organizers, even though they are not affiliated with Chabad. South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein admitted in a candid interview that despite his Litvish affiliation, he too believes in the coming of the Messiah, and pines daily for his arrival, as expressed in much of the prayer liturgy. "When I conceived the original Shabbat Project in 2013, it was just about uniting our community, but after its success, I figured if we went global it could just be the trigger to bring the coming of the Messiah", he said.

While the global campaign was wildly successful, with over 340 cities around the world participating, it became clear late in the piece that a group of saboteurs had emerged. "It seems our message of unity cut both ways", continued Rabbi Goldstein, "and there was a secret collaboration of Bundists, Progressive Jews, and neo-Orthodox feminists who were irked that men were not invited to the challah bakes". These diverse groups suspected there was hidden agenda to the Shabbat Project, and united against it, deciding they would all switch off the lights in their homes at exactly midnight on Friday night, thus thwarting the Messiah plan.

As the Jewish world celebrated the global success of the project in terms of people reached and increased engagement with Jewishness, the South African organising committee were secretly brooding. "Missed it by that much!" said Get Smart fan and Chairman Clive Blechman.

But after further research revealed that Messiah would come either if all Jews kept the Shabbat, or if all Jews did not keep it, the committee had a brainwave for a follow-up campaign to encourage Jews all around the world to not keep the Shabbat on the weekend of 17/18 April 2015. "We figure the week after Pesach, people are feeling pretty washed up, and it's long enough after Yom Kippur and before the next one that they won't feel too guilty about participating", said incoming event Chair Monique van Buren.

Rabbis around the world have acknowledged that it's far easier to encourage people to break the Shabbat than to keep it. Van Buren continued: "Our 'Community Disengagement Committee' is already talking to the developers of the ShabbosApp - if we can get everyone using that, they will all be mechallel Shabbos!". Also trending on Twitter is #breakingItTogether, with people fantasizing about the one thing they will do to break Shabbat, with the two most popular suggestions being watching live sporting events, and using perforated toilet paper. Rabbi Goldstein was very pleased at the initiative, saying "I don't know why the Chabadniks didn't think of this years ago" with a grin.

In related news, Mordechai Ben David and Shwekey are collaborating on a cover version of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classic "You say Shabbat / I say Shabbos / let's call the whole thing off!"

01 June, 2014

Maleficent, Mirror Mirror, and Moral Relativism

There I was, happily going about my day - on my way from work, driving the kids somewhere, or sitting down to read the weekend paper - and there she was. It's as if Disney has taken up a full frontal assault on my senses, bombarding me with Angelina Jolie wherever I go. The billboards, promotional pieces, and media profiles are everywhere I look. That freaky headpiece and the huge black wings are being embossed in my brain by sheer overconsumption. No, it's not some dark conspiracy, it's just the huge marketing campaign for the latest Disney blockbuster movie Maleficent (on the other hand, maybe it is some dark conspiracy).

But something about this movie struck an odd chord with me. A cursory look at the plot for this movie reveals that it's just a retelling of the classic fairytale Sleeping Beauty: beautiful young princess put to sleep by a curse from a bad fairy and awoken by handsome prince. But this movie has a twist: the star is not the beautiful princess, or even the handsome prince who rescues her, rather the vindictive fairy.

"What's really going on here?" I asked my teen and tween daughters, who sit squarely in the target demographic for movies like this. "Stop carrying on about it Dad", they said, "they are just telling the story from a different perspective". Indeed, after you run out of sequels and prequels, the next way to keep squeezing life out of a movie franchise is to do a 'perspective shift'.

But what bothered me here was the cultural implications of these 'shifts' on such classic tales of good and evil.

Another example is the movie Mirror Mirror (2012), which is a remake of the classic fairytale Snow White, but this time starring the evil queen/stepmother, played by Julia Roberts. Maleficent takes this shift a step further.

The pattern "good against bad and eventually good wins" is common in movies and TV series. But after people began to tire of the same old story line, writers responded by blurring the boundaries and exploring the complexity of the characters. They might make it a little harder to work out who is good and who is bad, or have lead characters who are deeply flawed (such as in some of my favourites like House, Dexter, and The Shield). Some of them are likeable, and some we love to hate. In all cases, the intent is that we empathise with the baddie as well.

In Mirror Mirror, we know that the queen is bad - always was, always will be. In Maleficent, we are taken on a journey into the life of the lead character to understand why she turned into a bad fairy. And inevitably, it likely wasn't her fault. Rather she was the product of some terrible experiences as a young fairy that "radicalised" her and caused to her shift to the dark side.

Pop culture is a product of the sentiments of society at the time. Back when these fairy tales and similar stories were composed, society had a clear idea of what is good and what is bad, and a strong desire to see good triumph. More recently, in the gangster movie genre, we still retained the boundaries between good and bad, but liked the escapism of wanting bad to win, or at least give good a run for their money.

But nowadays, there is no more good and bad. In moral relativism doublespeak, war is peace, freedom is slavery, good is bad, and bad is good. We can't tell the difference between good and bad any more because there is no such thing as bad. Instead of trying to eradicate or fight bad, we are asked to understand it and its 'root causes' and show empathy. People aren't intrinsically bad at all; rather they are forced into bad behaviour by external events beyond their control. The Twinkie defence has been broadened into a global excuse for bad.

Movies like Maleficent are just a "Mirror Mirror" of our own attitudes.