Watch What You CountYonoson Rosenblum
Miracles cannot be mass-produced
Wednesday, July 04, 2018
egan McArdle begins a recent column in the Washington Post with a horrifying story of an 81-year-old man in Oregon denied admission to a VA (Veteran's Affairs) hospital. He was turned away not because he did not need medical attention or because there were no beds, but because he was too sick. VA hospitals are evaluated by their patient outcomes, and hospital administrators did not want a really sick man messing up their statistics.
Think that's a rare situation? It's not. In the 1990s, Pennsylvania and New York began publishing mortality rates on coronary bypass surgery for each doctor and hospital. The idea was a good one: to help patients evaluate which hospital and surgeon were likeliest to produce favorable outcomes. But what actually happened is that surgeons began doing more operations on the healthiest patients and turning away the sickest.
The metrics chosen for evaluation had a slew of unintended consequences, all of them bad. Economic historian Jerry Muller collects many such examples in his new book, The Tyranny of Metrics.
McArdle derives three rules from the above examples:
1) What you measure is what you get, not necessarily what you want.
2) All metrics will be gamed, and the games always have costs.
3) The less you deal with standardized objects — the proverbial widgets — and the more you deal with human beings, the less useful productivity metrics are.
McARDLE'S OBSERVATIONS APPLY to a multitude of situations and fields. It strikes me that one such field is kiruv work. Funders of various kiruv programs and organizations rightly want to assure themselves that their generosity is making an impact. To that end, they seek to develop various metrics that will allow them to compare programs and evaluate effectiveness. All well and good. To note that metrics can distort the process they seek to measure is not to invalidate their use.
Still, it is well to be aware of the potential pitfalls in developing the metrics and being open to frequently reexamining the metrics employed.
Take rule one: What you measure is what you get. Whatever metric leads to greater funding dollars is the one that the kiruv professionals will focus on — willingly or unwillingly. At the beginning of the mass aliyah from the Former Soviet Union, there was a lot of money available to reach out to these new olim. Attendance at events was often the measure of success. It turned out, however, that it was remarkably easy to attract elderly Russian-speakers to Chanukah parties with offers of free sufganiyot. Sadly, however, eating sufganiyot proved a poor predictor of interest in learning more about Judaism.
It is always easier to count heads than discern what is in the heart — the latter is not easily quantified. Quantitative measures generally favor the charismatic personality who can attract large numbers over the less flamboyant mekarev who develops deeper relationships over time. But as Rav Moshe Shapira used to say, "Large and numerous are not Jewish measures. Purity is a Jewish measure." From the latter one can achieve the former, but not vice versa.
Even where a metric seems to measure quality — e.g., partial or whole Shabbos observance — it may prove a poor indicator of future ability to successfully integrate into a religious community, marry, and raise frum children.
Most metrics to measure the mekarev's success — and determine funders' satisfaction — tend to emphasize quick results. That can force mekaravim to focus on bringing in new faces and can lead to shortchanging those who have already been "scored." That can leave last year's success stories feeling abandoned and sometimes resentful, as if they were only important to the mekarev as "numbers" for the year-end donor's report.
Moreover, short-term metrics ensure that there will never be money for those who do the more subtle, but less measurable, work of guiding new baalei teshuvah as they begin their lives as observant Jews and grow into new roles for which they have no parental models.
Every baal teshuvah — or so it seems to me — is something of a miracle, at least if they are normal. And miracles cannot be mass-produced nor can they be subjected to predetermined timetables.
Tragedy Is the Best Teacher
If I had to pick someone to accompany me on a drive to a distant simchah, Rabbi Daniel Yaakov Travis would be at the top of my list. (I've had the pleasure twice recently.) He is a repository of fascinating stories. Those about his relationship with 14 prominent talmidei chachamim are now compiled in Encounters with Greatness by Rabbi Nachman Seltzer.
Rabbi Travis, it would seem, is a lightning rod for disasters. His wife's father passed away in Brazil three days before their chasunah. On the advice of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, he had to somehow keep her from calling home and learning of her father's petirah for the entire seven days of sheva berachos. On their honeymoon trip to Brazil, he was nearly strangled to death by two thugs, when he went to immerse in the ocean early one morning.
The first Succos of his married life, non-religious neighbors destroyed the Travis succah just before the chag. And shortly after the birth of his first child, he was struck by a teenager speeding to pass a bus outside of his yeshivah and thrown ten feet in the air before landing smack on his head.
Most of the tzaros Rabbi Travis, the rosh kollel of Kollel Toras Chaim in Jerusalem, describes are only hinted to for reasons of privacy, and not all those described were life-threatening: For instance, the time a cab driver newly arrived in America and non-conversant in either English or how to use a GPS, took Rabbi Travis on a many-hour tour of Brooklyn, as the hour for a scheduled shiur drew nigh. After finally being deposited on a curb, the cabdriver drove away with Rabbi Travis's tefillin in the trunk, and as he set his remaining bags down to try to reorient himself, the bags were snatched from the curb.
And yet Rabbi Travis proves both melumad b'nissim in surviving his various brushes with tragedy, and in demonstrating kol d'avid Rachmana l'tava avid — how the black moments have been the source of his greatest growth and success. It was, for instance, while writing his first book (of 28 to date), Mizmor L'Soda, on the mitzvah of thanksgiving — to celebrate his deliverance from death or permanent brain injury — that he formed many of the close relationships around which Encounters with Greatness is organized.
I was predisposed to enjoy Encounters with Greatness, as many of the central figures are ones to whom I'm indebted. I learned in the kollel of Rav Tzvi Kushelevsky for almost a decade. Rabbi Travis was my younger brother's chavrusa at Rav Tzvi's when he was struck by a car, and credits the bombe kasha they came up with just a few days earlier on Shavuos night with helping him deal with the pain before losing consciousness. I have been a neighbor of Rav Moshe Meiselman for over 30 years, and spent a year in the apartment adjacent to Rav Asher Arielli's, witnessing firsthand the same self-effacing humility still evident today when he is gives the largest blatt shiur in the world.
But the value of Rabbi Travis's personal "megillah" goes far beyond entertaining stories. One of the challenges of chinuch today is how few young men develop close relationships with older, wiser, and revered rabbinical figures. Rabbi Travis's accounts of the multiple relationships he has sought out and developed provide a powerful reminder of how much such relationships can add to our avodas Hashem and why it is well worth employing Rabbi Travis's "trademark stubbornness" to achieve them.
Finally, Rabbi Travis shows us what it means to really "hear" — just as Yisro alone "heard" of the Plagues and Kri'as Yam Suf and joined the Jewish People. He did not just ask questions, he listened to the eitzos he received, and made every effort to put their teachings into effect in his own life. When he did not understand, he went back again and again until he did. His example in this regard is the greatest value of Encounters with Greatness.