Ultra-Orthodox Ministers Are Some of Israel’s Best

September 3, 2015 at 12:54 pm

That’s not my headline, it belongs to Ha’aretz. Yes, really!

Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy is a member of the hard left — his most recent book is entitled The Punishment of Gaza. But in this article, he not only praises Ministers Aryeh Deri and Yaakov Litzman for their opposition to special interests and service to the poor, but takes aim at the stereotypical view of Charedi ministers (and Charedim generally) “in the eyes of the secular majority.” Most of the article is behind a paywall, but here are some of the most relevant parts:

The two get very little credit from the secular community. Everything they do, even if it’s positive and courageous, immediately triggers a suspicious or hostile response. At best, they’re ignored; they’re rarely applauded.

Compliments for a minister called Yankel [Litzman] or one whose middle name is Makhlouf [Dery]? Never. Their way of life and black clothing prevent secular people from appreciating what they do, even when they deserve it…

Dery? Surely he acted as he did for roguish, self-serving reasons, as usual. After all, he was and always will be a criminal, and besides, he’s of Middle Eastern origin and ultra-Orthodox to boot…

Litzman isn’t one of us. He’s ultra-Orthodox, a Haredi, and Haredim only know how to suck the government dry, not serve in the army. Parasites. There are no other Haredim.

Ha’aretz is better known for op-eds and editorials about the Charedi community of a decidedly different slant, ones that reinforce the stereotypes Levy decries — e.g. blaming the entire Orthodox community for the actions of a psychotic murderer or the suicide of a troubled ex-Chasid. Just recently, an article (by an Orthodox woman, no less, one who went through shidduchim and now helps to make them) criticized shallow men who are overly focused on externals — in the Shidduch world. In an article for the secular community, the average Ha’aretz reader, bombarded by Madison Avenue imagery. I kid you not.

Against that backdrop, the fact that Ha’aretz takes an occasional op-ed from our own Rabbi Shafran is startling enough. Levy is a long-time Ha’aretz columnist and a member of the editorial board; his criticism of secular attitudes towards Charedim breaks ground in suspending some of those stereotypes, and deserves earnest appreciation.

There is a comment to the article from Avshalom Beni, a secular lecturer at an Institute for Animal-Assisted Intervention at Hebrew University. He writes about students in a Charedi program who demonstrate “a profound sensitivity to animal welfare and are proving themselves to be capable and dedicated counselors and advisers.” He concludes:

Ancient Stereotypes die slowly, but once again I join the growing number of secular Jews who are inspired by the will and desire of a growing number of Haredim who are trying to reach out to Israeli society. Thanks to pioneering programs like this one, new inroads are being made towards mutual cooperation and appreciation.

Those familiar with organizations like Hatzalah, Zaka and Yad Sarah, to cite but three of countless examples, know that these are not really new inroads. Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum once wrote, “the charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare, and human kindness [of the chareidim] may be unparalleled among the communities of this country.” It is merely that these efforts receive scant coverage.

Acknowledgment of the stereotypes is an excellent step towards reducing them. With the Pew Report showing that the Charedi community is likely to take a much more prominent role in Jewish communal affairs, both in Israel and the United States, it is important that the stereotypes be replaced by honest understanding, and Levy (and Beni) and Ha’aretz are to be commended for their significant positive contribution.

Different Problems Require Different Solutions

August 31, 2015 at 2:23 pm

Upwards of a decade ago, a mother called me and asked what I might advise concerning her son, who was at risk of going “Off the Derech.” There were two problems. First of all, I never experienced the challenges of a frum teenager, and at that time had not yet been the parent of one. And second, my Kiruv work has always surrounded giving people a taste of Torah, a bit of inspiration. But even Kiruv must involve not merely teaching, but showing people a Torah life — developing an emotional attachment to Torah rather than simply whetting the intellect. I suspected even then that someone who grew up in a frum environment wasn’t going to be drawn back by intellectual discussions. I knew that I wasn’t the right person to advise her.

In a piece published on Torah Musings, Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman, professor of Tanakh at Bar-Ilan University, addresses the topic of young people leaving religion. He reviews a book describing the reduced attachment to religion of “millenials,” today’s young adults, and Rabbi Berman infers that “the struggles in our communities are part of a larger trend challenging traditional religious life in western culture” and are “not because of bad parents, or bad schools.”

Rabbi Berman is both a good friend from years past and a respected thinker, and his article is an excellent starting point for discussing this topic. Perhaps, too, there are differences between charedim and Modern Orthodox at play here. But I believe that by focusing upon intriguing similarities, he missed crucial differences between other communities and our own. Those differences show that both families and schools are making a very positive difference in our community — and also that there is more that both could be doing.

The most critical and revealing difference is that we are not facing similar losses. I say this from a Charedi perspective — I have heard from campus Kiruv professionals that there is a very high attrition rate for Orthodox students at four-year secular colleges, perhaps higher than 25%. I don’t know if this is correct, or what the numbers might be for the larger Modern Orthodox community, but contrary to what a Washington Post writer claims to have heard at a Tikvah seminar, the number of Charedim leaving a Torah lifestyle is nowhere near that high. Even the Pew Survey’s figure — that 17 percent of young adults raised Orthodox no longer are — seems outlandishly high where the Charedi community is concerned.

We may be so (justifiably) concerned about each individual who goes “OTD” that we imagine the numbers to be larger than they are. A recent article in Time magazine compared dating problems for women among the college-educated, the Mormons, and the “Yeshivish” charedim. What all three share in common is an oversupply of women. Women are now more likely to seek a college education than are men, apparently by a margin of 4:3. The Mormon Church is affected by the national drop-off in religious enthusiasm, which disproportionately affects men, to the point that one survey estimated there are now 60 Mormon women for every 40 men.

According to demographers, however, the cause of the Yeshivish “Shidduch crisis” is a combination of a rapidly growing population and boys marrying girls a few years their junior. There are reported to be 112 19-year-olds per 100 22-year-olds in our community — and since 22 and 19 seem to be the preferred ages to “enter the market” for boys and girls respectively, this creates a problem.

Why is this relevant? Because it is apparently true in our community, as outside it, that men are more likely to leave religion. According to Footsteps, an organization catering to Charedim (primarily Chasidim) turning secular, only one-third of their clients are women; by their accounting it seems men are twice as likely to leave. This being the case, I previously thought — and believe I wrote — that this, plus anecdotal evidence that women are marginally more likely to become Baalos Teshuvah, could be a factor in the “Shidduch crisis.” Yet there is no parallel issue among Chasidim, simply because they tend to marry people their own age — the fact that more boys than girls leave seems to have no demographic impact. And no one quoted by the author believed that the greater numbers of boys going OTD was a significant factor in the Yeshivish community either.

The second difference, which begins to explain our greater retention rate, is in the area of education. In this country, the two largest groups offering parochial schooling are the Catholic Church and Orthodox Jews; previous history suggests that the reason why we are now retaining such a high percentage of young adults is because our schools are by and large doing their job. The Mormons deliberately do not provide parochial alternatives “where there are adequate public schools available,” and the Southern Baptist Convention seems to provide far fewer parochial schools for their sixteen million SBC members than there are chadorim and day schools. The exposure to foreign ideas and lifestyles to which Rabbi Berman points comes at a later age for our children, and after a much more solid grounding in religious thought.

And finally, there is a significant difference in philosophy. Christianity is about faith, it is something they agree (and state proudly) cannot be proven. Judaism is, on the other hand, about things we know — beginning with the testimony of our collective ancestors. Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l told a chabura of Yeshiva students that each person should have five proofs why he knows that H’ created the world, and five proofs that H’ gave Moshe the Torah. He didn’t talk about belief, but about proof.

All of this being the case, I will both agree and disagree with Rabbi Berman concerning parents and schools. I agree with him that we don’t have a problem of bad parents or bad schools. But I do feel there is more that we could be doing, and would offer two of my own suggestions, one for parents and community that concurs with two of his, the other an addition for the schools:

1. Keep the Door Open — A student at Stern College, herself a Ba’alas Teshuvah, made the following insightful comment in an online forum:

I have never seen a memoir or heard of a case of someone going OTD from the Charedi world that didn’t involve some familial or personal abnormality, including being raised by grandparents because parents were unfit, having a parent die young, having parents who were BTs and therefore less family support, mental illness, etc. If the families were secular these would be seen as things that could make life difficult, but since they’re not, frumkeit is presented as the “causative” difficulty.

When challenged about other cases, she clarified that she meant the ones who had written or thought about writing memoirs, not those who simply “fall off” from observance. But one can say more generally that the great majority of those who leave the Torah community — including those who grew up in warm, loving, completely “normal” families, and had excellent relationships with their schools and teachers — do so primarily for emotional rather than intellectual reasons. It no longer makes sense (if it ever did) to cut off contact with errant family members in order to both reprimand them for bad decisions and deter further losses. On the contrary, maintaining an emotional bond is the best way to bring someone back.

The very title of Shulem Deen’s memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return,” is indicative. He is not stating a rule that when one leaves, one never returns. On the contrary, he writes that not everyone who goes, returns — correctly implying that many of them do. Many consider Teshuvah after leaving our community for a time, and return is most likely to happen when our community keeps the door open and the lights on. Those “exploring” outside the realm of observance should feel confident that they will be respected for rejoining us, rather than mocked for their departure, whenever they reappear in our shuls and communities.

2. Teach Emunah and Face Questions — The Internet is a problem because it can easily be a vehicle for the Yetzer HaRa. It should not, however, be an intellectual obstacle. Certainly we should not have a situation where a formerly Chassidic man claims that the sight of dinosaur bones started his outward journey. Even if we agree that this is ultimately an excuse rather than a real issue, why should he even be able to say such a thing?

Rabbi Berman writes that we must “legitimate the expression of doubt.” But “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” — knowing that our youth will face intellectual challenges and questions, we should be teaching the answers. The Haggadah gives the same posuk from the Chumash (verse from the Torah) to the child who does not know how to ask, as to the rasha. In other words, don’t wait for problems, teach the child the answers before he even knows how to ask hard questions. This is especially true in those communities and schools where children routinely go on to four-year secular colleges, but today almost everyone can expect exposure to foreign ideas and influences.

Parents and schools need to be part of addressing today’s challenges, rather than hiding from them. A local parent told me of a recent summer camp interaction between girls from Baltimore and New York. The New York girls were amazed to learn that in Baltimore schools they have open conversations about fundamentals of Emunah. As it turns out, an educator at the school attended by one of the New York girls is himself a well-known lecturer about these topics. But he can’t teach about them in his own school, because the parents won’t stand for it.

Similarly, the Rosh Yeshiva of a high school (outside New York) nixed a talk about Torah and science because it might “raise more questions than it answers.” Rav Wolbe zt”l said the opposite: “In a world where ‘הַשָּׁמַיִם מְסַפְּרִים כְּבוֹד-אֵ-ל; וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדָיו מַגִּיד הָרָקִיעַ’ (‘The heavens declare the honor of Hashem, and the sky tells the works of His Hands,’ Teh. 19:1), it is impossible that we will not find proofs of Emunah.” Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a similarly said it is a davar pashut that we don’t need to be concerned that honest talk about Emunah will be harmful to those who started without questions — it will only benefit. [For more on this, see “Where is the Passion?” by Rabbi Dovid Sapirman, Dialogue, Fall 5775/2014.]

Besides the importance of good parenting generally — and I would recommend again Rabbi Gordimer’s article on parenting — I would add one point about Shabbos guests, especially if they are not observant: they offer a good opportunity to discuss Emunah in front of your children without lecturing them about it.

Our community is by and large doing an excellent job, as the Pew Report shows. While others may be floundering for solutions to problems of diminishing affiliation, we are growing both in numbers and commitment. Yet there is always more that we could be doing, and it is in that spirit that I have offered these suggestions. May every child appreciate the tremendous gift that is his or her Jewish heritage.

Helping Your Brother

August 28, 2015 at 12:16 pm

In this week’s reading, the Torah commands us to help each other, and to avoid pain even to animals: “You shall not see the donkey of your brother or his ox falling on the path, yet lift your eyes from them; you shall surely right it with him.” [22: 4] It’s not just a Mitzvah to help; the Torah prohibits us from not helping.

Like everything else in life, however, we must balance this Commandment with other considerations. For example, if a person is leading his donkey along a path through a cemetery, and the observer is a Kohein, who is prohibited from entering a cemetery — the Kohein may not enter. In that case, he must hold himself back from helping.

But the Talmud [Bava Metzia 32a] gives us another example which is perhaps more surprising. If the owner abandons the animal and goes and sits down under a tree, and says “go do your Mitzvah” — then you have no obligation. The verse says you have to “right it with him,” not that you have to do his work for him.

What about the animal? In this situation, shouldn’t we help the poor creature? It’s obviously not the animal’s fault that its owner is heartless and wants to take advantage of another’s kindness.

The Torah understands well the law of unintended consequences. It’s not true that “good guys finish last.” On the contrary, it’s only our choice to do the right thing that enables us to feel true satisfaction for a “job well done.” Clearly, the person who abandons his own animal and tells someone else to “go do a Mitzvah” has not learned this. He thinks that other people exist to do his bidding; he is finding ways to take advantage of their kindness and their desire to do G-d’s will.

In this case, enabling the other person to take advantage would be detrimental — not so much to the person who helps and does the work, but to the person who is learning to exploit the generosity of others. Making sure that this person does not learn to take advantage of others is so important that it overwhelms the obligation to help the animal. Helping another person to be productive is much better than simply giving him a handout, even of “free labor.”

The story is told of someone entering the subway, who was approached by a man he understood to be a beggar. He gave the man a quarter and rushed to meet his train — but the other man ran to catch up with him, and give him one of the pencils he was selling. “Oh, I’m sorry,” said the hurried traveler, “I didn’t realize you were a merchant.”

Months later, the man selling pencils saw the same traveler, and brought him into his store. He told him to take anything he wants, because the whole store existed thanks to him. “You were the first person to make me think of myself as a merchant!”

People think about the immediate situation — like the poor donkey struggling to get up — and not about the future consequences. Sometimes what is best for a person isn’t what will help him right now, but what will lead to a better future. And that is where we should “lend a hand.”

The Non-Jewish AIPAC

August 23, 2015 at 8:44 am

With special permission from Ami Magazine, I am posting this earlier than expected in response to many requests. Thank you for your interest, and thank you to the editors of Ami Magazine, Rabbi & Mrs. Yitzchok and Rechy Frankfurter, pdf-icon for permission to post.

Please see also the “Q&A with Rav Scheinberg,” or view the full-color PDF (of both story and interview) at right.

The Non-Jewish AIPAC
A Philo-Semitic Christian organization helps ensure the safety of Jews and the People of Israel

This past Wednesday, August 12, the members of Congregation Rodfei Sholom, an Orthodox congregation of 300 families in San Antonio, Textas, woke up to a disturbing surprise. Anti-Semitic and racist graffiti and vandalism defaced cars and buildings surrounding the shul.

“This is not the San Antonio community,” averred Rav Aryeh Scheinberg, who has served the congregation for forty-five years. “The religious community, the civic community, the law enforcement community have all been terrific.”

Yet Rav Scheinberg reserved special praise for the response of one particular close friend and supporter: Pastor John Hagee, founder and senior pastor of the nearby Cornerstone Church. As soon as Pastor Hagee learned what had happened, he dropped his busy schedule, and he and his wife came to join Rav Scheinberg for two hours at the shul.

The investigation is ongoing; officers believe it unlikely that any organized hate group was involved. Nonetheless, Pastor Hagee was happy to send a message: “If a line has to be drawn, draw it around Christians and Jews. We are united.”

Pastor Hagee was not alone in his concern for Rav Scheinberg and his congregation. Gary Bauer, a Southern Baptist, Domestic Policy Advisor to Ronald Reagan and a past Presidential candidate, shaken, called Rav Scheinberg. Author and Pastor Victor Styrsky sent a text message, reluctant to call and disturb the Rabbi during that busy time.

What do Pastor Hagee, Gary Bauer and Pastor Styrsky share in common, besides their evangelical Christian faith? They are key officers of an organization founded by Pastor Hagee over ten years ago: Christians United for Israel.

Q&A with Rav Aryeh Scheinberg

August 23, 2015 at 8:41 am

With special permission from Ami Magazine, I am posting this earlier than expected in response to many requests, along with the cover story.

How long have you known Pastor Hagee?

We have a 34-year relationship, a 34-year friendship.

That is when he decided to run a Night to Honor Israel. Did you know him before then?

We had only met once prior, at a community event. We began to share time together when the Night to Honor Israel was emerging in response to criticism of Israel. He wanted to promote the wonderful favor that Israel did for the free world in bombing the Osirak nuclear reactor. And we began to speak with each other on an ongoing basis.

Did you have conversations about his idea before suggesting to the Federation that they should talk with him?

Yes, I had heard him out myself. My feeling was not based on discussion with others or extensive research, just the feeling that you get about a person when you meet them.

In the first years, until people learned to trust him and believe that he had no proselytizing agenda, and that he was what he said he would be, I had to represent him to different communities, to different Jewish leaders. I gave them my personal testimony, if you will, of his sincerity, the authenticity of his support for Yidden and desire to help Eretz Yisroel.

After a while, he became a known commodity. People in the national Jewish leadership came to recognize his idealism and altruism. So my role became less intense, less constant in the need to represent him to others.

I still say I’m a gatekeeper and advisor, because there are people always trying to reach him. He has to know who he needs to see. He relies on my advice and the advice of some others.

It’s an unlikely alliance.

The whole movement is “unlikely,” but it’s happening. It’s happening and it is something which has to be Yad HaShem. MeAyin Yavo Ezri. CUFI is a growing force for political advocacy at a time when we have no friends in the world outside North America.

Non-frum Jews need them in another way, also: their belief in Scripture. They say, “Eretz Yisroel belongs to you because the Torah says so.” We don’t have to believe their Bible, but they believe ours. We should hope that non-frum Jews will think about what he’s saying.

He’s a person, obviously, of power. He has strong, passionate beliefs. And he’s a visionary. He’s not politically correct. He acts based on what he thinks G-d wants, which is consistent in most areas of political and social life with what an Orthodox Jew should want.

What about the obvious religious chasm?

We’re both aware of that; obviously we all think of our own Acharis haYamim. But when we open the Wall Street Journal and look at the political scene, we don’t think about the end of days, but what is going to happen today or tomorrow. We have so many issues that we need to be active about now.

Why should we talk about the end of days when we have such concern about next week, or next month? When we have such concern about Iran and the well-being of the United States, are we growing stronger or weaker – there are just so many issues of the survival and security of the present that eschatological discussions are a luxury.

But “sof kol sof” doesn’t he believe you need to accept their religious founder to go to Heaven?

He has already worked that out, and gone on record saying that that’s not the case, that Torah-True Jews will have a “special grace.” Bottom line, he does not believe that our salvation depends upon a change of faith.

How do you view his personal interactions with the Jewish community?

I’ve seen him in very sensitive, tender moments. I’ve seen him with genuine tears at Yad VaShem. I’ve seen him being courteous to an elderly person who came to him when thousands were waiting.

I’ve seen his sensitivity to my needs, to Orthodox needs. Whenever there is any event, he’s concerned about Kashrus. Wherever I go with him, or any even where there are going to be Jews, there’s going to be a Kosher meal. Even for Jews that haven’t seen a Kosher meal in a long time.

He visited Jonathan Pollard in jail when few paid attention to his case. He sat in jail with Pollard for three or four hours. I viewed him as a visionary doing epic things, changing the feelings of Christians for Jews. And then I saw the lengths to which he was prepared to go to encourage and diminish the pain of a single Yid.

Whenever we go to Eretz Yisroel together we stop at the Wall and pray for each other’s well-being, as well as Eretz Yisroel and Klal Yisroel.

Why did he come to Rodfei Shalom after the vandalism?

There was no agenda, he didn’t know the media would be here. He came to ask what he can do, and how they can help – to be mechazek by standing with us. He conveyed the feeling that we are family. He supported our building campaign in 2007, and even told me that we didn’t need to recognize it – though we did, putting his name on the board room, where we meet. But he responded Wednesday as if it were his own church that had been attacked.

It’s clear that he cares about the entire Jewish community, but has a special relationship with you.

He has often said publicly that I’m the closest of all his friends among the clergy, Christian and otherwise. We’ll talk about things of a personal nature that may not be a topic of conversation with others. If there’s an issue that is vexing or troubling to him, he will call and ask for my prayers.

Ours is a mutual relationship. It just happened. It developed on a basis of mutual trust, respect and love.

A Footnote on the Matisyahu Debacle

August 21, 2015 at 6:33 pm

MatisyahuWe all know what happened. Matisyahu was invited to the Rototom Sunsplash Reggae Festival. BDS Valencia pulled out the stops to ban the Jew. Rototom demanded that Matisyahu pass an ideological litmus test and endorse yet another Palestinian state. He refused. They banned him.

At that point, everyone realized BDS had played its hand — it was about Jews, not “Palestinian rights” or any such nonsense. It was anti-Semitic hatred in new clothing. The Spanish government and leading journals condemned the Rototom organizers, not just Jewish groups in America. And Rototom backed down, putting Matisyahu back on the schedule for Saturday night.

Here’s the thing. Matisyahu cut his beard in late 2011 and dropped his yarmulke not long after. “No more Hasidic Reggae superstar,” he told fans on Twitter. And everyone has known this — for more than three years.

Yet much of the coverage of this issue didn’t feature Matisyahu images like the left half of the enclosed photo… rather, they showed the dated Matisyahu on the right. First they come for the Jews, and first they come for the visible ones. And everyone still knows Matisyahu as a very visible Jew.

If you don’t identify as a Jew, Matisyahu, they’ll remind you. It may seem sad, it may seem unfair, but it’s how it works. HKB”H told us so. There are many, many more Mitzvos to do, and being the only well-known Chassidic reggae artist had its benefits. So… it’s not too late to try the Torah path once again.

Division, not Discord

August 14, 2015 at 4:09 pm

ceremonial-647061_1280In this week’s reading, the verse says “Lo Sisgodedu” — “do not cut yourselves,” which was a mourning practice of idolators. But the Medrash tells us that the words give us another messages as well: “do not divide, do not split up.”

Someone once asked Rabbi Yisrael M. Kagan zt”l, the Chofetz Chaim, why the observant Jewish world was so divided. Why are there Chassidim and non-Chassidim, and even among Chassidim there are all different types. Some focus more on study, some more on prayer; some are mostly silent while others sing and dance. And that was in Poland in the early 20th century, when most Jews were at most marginally aware of the diversity of Sephardic and Yemenite Jewry. What would the world be missing, he asked, if there was simply one group of Jews, all praying the same way and following the same customs?

The Chofetz Chaim responded that before asking him this question, the questioner ought to go to the Czar of Russia with a similar one: why are there so many different types of soldiers? In their day they had infantry, cavalry and artillery — today that would just be the Army. Could we rationally question why there are different units, whether the world would lack anything if there was only one type of soldier? In order to win in battle, the military needs a variety of techniques, strategies, and strengths.

So too, says Rabbi Kagan, in our ongoing battle against the Evil Inclination. We are all in the same battle, trying to perfect ourselves and make better choices. As someone explained more recently, without the modern Yeshivos of Lithuanian Jewry, Torah learning would not be so strong, and without the impact of the Chassidic movement, Judaism would not be so strong. When we learn and benefit from each others’ strengths, we are united in serving our Father in Heaven.