Thursday, April 11, 2013

Derogatory Speech from NCSY Outreach Head

poster by Alison Rowan of
     On April 10, 2013, Failed Messiah reported that public high school kiruv/outreach head Rabbi Avrohom Walkin of NCSY (The National Council of Synagogue Youth) referred to the Harlem Shake as "retarded."
     Perhaps Rabbi Walkin, an educator and kiruv [outreach] professional, doesn't realize that whole campaigns have been waged against the use of the word "retarded." Perhaps he doesn't realize that it is an offensive and derogatory term. Perhaps someone should send him a copy of Alison Rowan's poster and maybe a dictionary for other words that he might accidentally use without thinking of how they'll be received.
     Now, to be fair, people slip up now and then. People may, at times, forget to think before speaking. NCSY's website even makes provisions for such lapses in judgement: 
While it is reasonable to accept that minor incidents will occur from time to time when well-intentioned NCSY professionals, volunteers, or NCSYers, do or say the wrong thing, a prompt apology followed by a promise to be more careful in the future is usually sufficient to satisfy all involved. In general, the corrections needed to rectify such mistakes are of the scale equivalent to those of other normal and healthy relationships. When simple apologies are insufficient, other forms of recourse are available. These include contacting the Regional Director in whose Region the particular situation occurred, contacting a member of the NCSY International Office, and/or reporting a concern to the NCSY Ombudsman Telephone Hotline at 212-613-8361. In these instances, none of the above-mentioned reporting normally constitutes impermissible lashon hara [derogatory speech about another person] or any violation of any other Jewish laws pertaining to proper speech.1
     As a public figure looking to reach young non-orthodox Jews who are often pretty liberal and idealistic (and aware of how offensive a term the word "retarded" can be,) Walkin needs to be hyper aware of the language he is using. His own organization, the OU (Orthodox Union,) is affiliated with Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities. I can only imagine how many people, just within his own organization, may have been offended by this gross lack of judgement.  Of course, that doesn't take into account how the very people who he's trying to reach might feel or react to this.
     Deceptive outreach practices aside, I really do hope that Rabbi Avrohom Walkin will follow his own organization's set standards on how to handle those making derogatory comments. I am sure he has heard the story of how difficult it is to pick up the wind-scattered feathers from a feather bed, and I'm sure he understands how one's words can cause harm when just tossed about without thinking. This would be a good time for him to try to gather those feathers for the longer they are in the wind, the more harm they'll do.

1. NCSY Conduct, Policy, and Behavioral Standards Manual. NCSY.


  1. This has nothing to do with kiruv. Please don't weaken your argument or your blog with stuff like this.

  2. I disagree with you, Katia. This man is in charge of NCSY kiruv - his potential victims and the community as a whole have the right to know about his disparaging opinions before placing trust in him. Rebecca, thank you for your continued advocacy and journalistic integrity.

  3. Do you think this is an isolated incident with just one kiruv recruiter? Do you think his behavior is a reflection of the kiruv world at large? Is there a tendency for kiruv people to present one face to outside world and another to kids who are already under their spell?

  4. Katia, thank you for your input. I have to admit, I was initially hesitant to put up this post because I didn't want people to think that I was giving in to some desire to pick on this guy for what I hope was only a slip of the tongue. So I gave myself about a day before I started writing about it. The reason I went with it was because kiruv/outreach starts out with this rosy glow of goodness and warmth. There are too many people who believe in the absolute perfection of their rabbis, especially when they start getting turned on to orthodoxy. I remember sitting in on a lecture given by a very religious rabbi from an ultra-orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem, and he said something very nasty about Reform Jews. It didn't hit me at the time that this comment really wasn't acceptable because I was so enamored with this rabbi that I just overlooked it. But maybe the problem is that when we are being taken in by something, we tend to overlook the negative. We forget that even a little slip in speech may be nothing--or it may be indicative of something greater. When we're behind closed doors, and I'm reminded of Mitt Romney's disparaging comments about the 47% of Americans, and we often let our real selves show more than we do in public. I'd like to think that Walkin's comment was just an unfortunate gaffe. But it does call into question what other things he might be saying.

    1. I agree completely and we had similar experiences. That's why I want your pieces to be as strong as possible. I'M WITH YOU.

    2. Thank you! That's really awesome.

  5. Thank you, Hayley. And thank you, Bella.
    I think I may have addressed some of your questions in my previous comment, but I do think that there is a general lack of sensitivity towards "others." While the orthodox community does take care of those with learning and developmental disabilities, and while there are many wonderful charitable organizations, I have found that there is a lot of negativity towards those who are not in the community, towards those who are not frum (not-orthodox,) and towards those who are not Jewish. Some of it is overt, but a lot of it is very covert.
    The orthodox community often talks about curbing the problem of lashon hara (gossip, pointless speech, speech that could be hurtful) but then, when a leader speaks in a hurtful way--even if accidental--I think it is imperative for that leader to address the issue.


Your respectful comments are welcome.