The Purim Menorah

by Yaakov Menken on February 27, 2015 at 12:24 pm

Here we are, at the Shabbos preceding Purim, and what are we going to read about? Lighting the Menorah! Of course, the Torah reading concerns the lighting of the original Menorah by Aharon and his descendants in the Tabernacle and Temple, but it’s still somewhat disconcerting when Torah thoughts about “lighting the Menorah” are published at Purim — except that turning things upside down is in the spirit of Purim, after all.

Achashveirosh-HighPriest-Megilas-LesterChanukah and Purim are the two Rabbinic holidays on the Jewish calendar. What they share in common is that the rabbis perceived, in both of them, an existential threat to the Jewish people. The Greeks prohibited Torah study, circumcision, Sabbath rest and other Jewish observances, while Haman simply plotted to kill us all.

Both of them, however, began in the same place: with a repudiation of the Jewish G-d.

Megillas Esther does not begin with Haman’s elevation as chief advisor to the king, but with the huge feast made by King Achashverosh for all his subjects. Why did the king make this feast? Because, by his (mis-)calculation, seventy years had elapsed, and the Jewish exile had not ended.

He and his advisers knew the Jewish prophets had predicted exile. But they also knew that the prophets had said that this exile would last only seventy years, after which time the Jews would be permitted to return to their land. His feast was a celebration of the “fact” that the Jewish prophets had been proven wrong. This is why he dressed himself in the raiment of the High Priest, and used vessels from the Holy Temple to serve his guests. Only once it was clear to him that the G-d of the Jews had (ch”v) abandoned them, could he contemplate their annihilation.

The Greeks were the same, but they just approach the “Jewish problem” from the other side — divorce the Jews from their G-d, they said, and there will be no more Jews.

Both the Greeks and the Persians were right: the survival of the Jewish nation depends upon our attachment to G-d, both physically and spiritually. During the period leading up to Chanukah, faithful Jews were able to overcome all obstacles and reestablish the Torah’s preeminence over the Jewish nation. On Purim, the Jews rededicated themselves to G-d and Torah, and G-d saved them from danger. In both cases — whether the danger facing us is physical or spiritual — rededicating ourselves to G-d and Torah is what will guide us through.

Fruitful Conversations about Fruitful Continuity

by Yaakov Menken on February 23, 2015 at 12:39 pm

by Rabbi Pesach Lerner & Rabbi Yaakov Menken

In a recent editorial in The Forward (“Be Fruitful and Multiply — Please?”, Dec. 12), Jane Eisner sets aside the Pew Report’s alarming statistics regarding non-Orthodox intermarriage and assimilation to focus upon fertility, which she terms “an even more fraught issue.” Yet it is unclear why she believes the decline in childbearing to be the dominant cause of the diminution of the non-Orthodox community, nor why begging women to have more children will contribute significantly to a reversal.

[This response was initially accepted for publication in The Forward itself, but subsequently they decided not to print it. We believe this an unfortunate decision both for The Forward and its readership.]

Eisner correctly states that non-Orthodox fertility hovers around 1.7 children per family, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. But Zero Population Growth will not preserve a Jewish community whose children are deserting it. The Pew Survey reports that fifty percent of married Reform Jewish adults have a non-Jewish spouse, and children of intermarriage are much less likely to be raised as Jews. Even beyond that, one-third of young Jewish adults raised as Reform Jews now classify themselves outside Jewish denominations. So in reality, Reform families must produce over four children on average (the Pew Survey’s assessment of Orthodox fertility) to simply maintain the Reform population, unless declining affiliation is addressed as well.

This is not to say that Ms. Eisner is wrong to take a hard look at the non-Orthodox decline. It is that she has deliberately ignored its primary factor, and overlooked the positive example set by another Jewish community in precisely that area.

The Orthodox always had a high fertility rate – but until shortly after World War II, Orthodox children often found their way into Conservative and Reform congregations. Today the overwhelming majority of young adults raised Orthodox retain their Orthodox affiliation and, of course, marry other Orthodox Jews.

Given Eisner’s deep concern about the decimation of the non-Orthodox community, it is noteworthy that we have seen scant (if any) examination in The Forward of what Orthodox families began to do differently. If The Forward wishes to make a positive contribution to the non-Orthodox future, it might begin by regarding the Orthodox less as a curious afterthought or a forbidding “other,” and more as brethren with a shared interest in Jewish continuity – and with much acquired wisdom to share.

This past summer, Eisner listed a series of stereotypes about Orthodox Jews, specifically Haredim: “We say that Haredim are misogynist, perhaps homophobic, possibly corrupt, [and] unduly swayed by their rabbis.” But negative caricatures should not influence how The Forward reports upon something as beneficial as Jewish fertility. A 2012 Forward editorial entitled “The Undeserving Poor?” questioned financial assistance of the impoverished who have children – not regarding those who choose to become single mothers and live on welfare, but hard-working Hasidic families staggering under the expense of feeding large broods and providing them with full-day Jewish schooling.

The non-Orthodox community has fought against any form of relief from the expense of private education. For the Forward to then malign Jewish families weathering financial double jeopardy adds insult to injury. Instead of censuring the fecundity of Hasidic parents, The Forward might note that increased aid for parochial education would have greatest impact upon non-Orthodox families, those which regard Jewish schooling as optional and for whom cost is therefore a significant factor.

Nor is The Forward’s negativity limited to substantive topics. A frequent contributor recently claimed that her Satmar mother was so focused upon picayune details that what “clinched” the marriage between her daughter and another Satmar woman’s son was that both women wore the same hair coverings. Shortly thereafter, the same writer conceded that the style in question is common to all Satmar women – rendering her portrayal of her mother at best a work of therapeutic but prejudicial fiction.

The Forward frequently publishes similar articles by non-Orthodox adults raised in Orthodox families, but rarely do we hear from the much larger number of adults who have moved in the opposite direction. Pew Research projects that over 110,000 Orthodox adults did not grow up Orthodox, and by most estimates, women constitute the majority of that figure. How does that reflect upon Eisner’s perception of Haredim as misogynist? Why would college-educated high achievers (of either gender) become blind adherents of corrupt homophobes?

Perhaps it is time for understanding to replace mockery. Would it not better serve The Forward’s readers if, among a plethora of recent articles about Sheitels, one came from a woman who wears one?

Though perhaps she would prefer to write about something more consequential than Sheitels. If current trends continue, the 110,000 adults who adopted Orthodoxy will have more Jewish grandchildren than the collective membership of today’s Reform or Conservative movements. But to learn how Orthodoxy’s rejuvenation might be relevant to the non-Orthodox world, one must acquire a more honest awareness of Orthodox beliefs and practices, especially in the area of raising our next generation.

Today’s Orthodox Jews know that to inspire children to stay Jewish, Torah must encompass our lives. It must be not merely part of our days, but our roadmap for life.

And so that is what we teach them. In shul they pray next to their parents as well as retirees, and see that we all study the same Torah, the Torah that has guided Jewish lives throughout our history.

Of course, we send them to Jewish schools. A “dual” curriculum is demanding educationally and financially, but Jewish education through High School is the best method of retaining Jewish commitment into adulthood. It is well worth the sacrifice.

When it comes time for young men and women to seek a marriage partner, they invite parental involvement – because they are seeking not merely to fall in love, but to find someone with whom to build a family and future upon a vibrant past. Each couple starts the process over again, thus preserving the Jewish people.

Is there a way to capture some of that inspiration and commitment, without being Orthodox? One thing is certain: searching for the answers is a far more productive approach than belittling Orthodox successes – and begging for children.

Rabbi Dovid Winiarz zt”l

by Yaakov Menken on January 23, 2015 at 11:32 am

Rav Dovid Winiarz zt"l

Rav Dovid Winiarz zt”l

At the beginning of this week’s reading, Pharoah flatly rejects the idea that all the Jews should be allowed to leave Egypt to worship G-d. He was willing to consider allowing a subset to leave for a time, but not the entire nation. Yet that is precisely what Moshe demanded, and at the end, of course, that is what happened. Moshe was unwilling to leave anyone behind.

This week, the world of Kiruv, Jewish outreach, lost a true hero. On the way to the conference of the Association for Jewish Outreach Professionals, the car in which Rav Dovid Winiarz zt”l was travelling slid on a patch of black ice, and he died in the accident.

Reb Dovid was a person who believed in the ideal of leaving no one behind, and who lived for that ideal.

He used social media as his vehicle of choice, even adopting the moniker “the Facebuker Rebbe” for his activities. And like any Rebbe, he was there for any Jew with words of advice and inspiration.

He epitomized what outreach is really all about: Ahavas Chinam, love for every person regardless of circumstances. Helping a Jewish person discover the majesty of our Jewish heritage isn’t about saving souls; it’s another aspect of the concern for others we are supposed to demonstrate in all circumstances. Dovid was concerned for others, in every way.

You saw it in the way he did business. He was an agent for Fidelity Payment Services, a popular provider of merchant transaction processing. You saw exactly the same caring person helping his clients as you did in his outreach. The CEO of Fidelity, Benyamin Weiser, mentioned to me that R’ Dovid had a uniquely soft approach in both sales and service, which he attributed to his outreach work, but I feel was simply the essence of who Dovid Winiarz was.

Someone wrote on Facebook that he wanted to hear from R’ Dovid’s close friends about doing something in his memory. I sent that person a note, telling him that he’s going to receive a lot of messages (as I’m sure he did) because everyone felt he was R’ Dovid’s close friend. His enthusiasm was infectious, he was always trying to get more people involved in spreading Judaism, and simply helping others in whatever situation. In just days, hundreds of people have joined the tribute page set up on Facebook in his memory, with countless stories of what he personally did to help so many. One person commented that everyone knew R’ Dovid was a Tzaddik, a truly righteous person. What was hidden about his holiness is that no one knew the superhuman amount that he did for so many people.

As I wrote earlier this week, if we are to learn from R’ Dovid, it would have to be first and foremost his attribute of Ahavas Chinam, free and boundless love for others, that we emulate. Spreading knowledge of our great legacy should be merely one facet of that desire to help.

Rav Dovid Winiarz is survived by his wife and ten children; a fund has been established to help the family.

Do the Right Thing

by Yaakov Menken on January 2, 2015 at 12:09 pm

bless-childrenYaakov blesses all of his sons before he dies. But before this, Yosef takes his sons Ephraim and Menashe to see their grandfather, who gives them a special blessing — first and foremost, by elevating them to have the same status as his own children. Throughout the rest of the Torah, the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe are similar to any of the others. In the desert, the new nation of Israel traveled with the descendants of Levi in the center, with the Mishkan (Tabernacle), while three tribes camped in each of the four directions around them. The tribes of Menashe and Benyamin joined under the flag of Ephraim, to the West. In the Land of Israel, each was allocated a separate region of the country.

This is not all, however. Yaakov gives Ephraim and Menashe a unique distinction — that throughout Jewish history, fathers in the Nation of Israel will bless their sons by saying, “G-d should place you like Ephraim and Menashe.” Our Sages established that parents should bless their daughters to be like the four original mothers of Israel: Sarah, Rivkah (Rebecca), Rachel and Leah. But instead of blessing boys to be like our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, instead the paradigms are Ephraim and Menashe.

Even more so, Yaakov excludes any future sons of Yosef from his blessing. On the contrary, he says they will be absorbed into the tribes of their older brothers. Why — what makes Ephraim and Menashe so unique?

Rabbi Shmuel Hominer zt”l explains that unlike the children of Yosef’s brothers, Ephraim and Menashe grew up in Egypt, surrounded by idolatry and impurity. Instead of living in the Land of Israel, with their grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins all dedicated to continuing in the way of their forefather Avraham, the honored guests in their home were government officials, Pharoah’s magicians, those given prestige by the surrounding society.

When Yaakov came down to Egypt, he discovered that Ephraim and Menashe had not been drawn away from the path of their forefathers. They were not influenced by the idolatrous society around them. On the contrary, he recognized that they had clearly learned from their father, Yosef HaTzaddik, the righteous Joseph, to follow the path of Torah.

It is obvious that for them to have achieved this level was not accomplished easily. Their life was no bed of roses. There were many very serious tests of their commitment along the way, and they could certainly have turned out very differently. Nonetheless, they clung to what they learned from their father, and not all those around them.

This is why Yaakov singled out Ephraim and Menashe — so that all of us should similarly be blessed to follow a different path, no matter what society says. What society believes is worthwhile or honorable, and what the Torah says, can be two profoundly different things. And each of us must seek, and be blessed, to follow the Jewish path in all our ways.

Speaking about the Jerusalem Attack

by Yaakov Menken on November 19, 2014 at 8:43 am

WMAR TV in Baltimore came to the Tfillah (prayer) at the Shomrei Emunah Synagogue. I think they asked me to speak on camera because I have a daughter in Jerusalem now.

An American Hero Named Elimelech

by Yaakov Menken on November 7, 2014 at 3:39 pm

kids-kicking-cancerHave you ever heard of Elimelech Goldberg? Don’t worry, I hadn’t either. [Dr. Elimelech Goldstein, the volunteer medical director of Hatzalah of Baltimore, is a friend and former roommate, but that’s another story entirely.] But if you’re familiar with the Orthodox community, you’ve surely heard of the Chai Lifeline organization, and their incredible Camp Simcha for children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

Rabbi Goldberg was, for many years, the director of that camp; his first daughter, Sarah, passed away at age 2 after fighting leukemia, so he had a powerful bond with children fighting illness. And he is also a black belt in a style of martial arts… one that you’ve probably never heard of either. But that’s relevant, so bear with me please.

A South Korean man named Kwang Jo Choi was a leading instructor in Tae Kwon Do, which is probably more familiar (and if not, it’s the South Korean version of Karate). He moved to North America in order to find orthopedists to help with injuries suffered as a result, which, he learned, were caused by the way he was performing martial arts. So he created a new style, called Choi Kwang Do, which incorporated techniques which he had learned from his rehabilitation exercises — including breathing and stretching exercises which help a person to combat pain.

So Rabbi Goldberg, at Camp Simcha, found himself teaching a 5-year-old boy breathing exercises during chemotherapy. And it worked. Mental and breathing exercises helped the boy ignore the pain of treatment.

So, in 1999, Rabbi Goldberg founded an organization called Kids Kicking Cancer. As described by CNN, “The program provides free martial arts classes focused on breathing techniques and meditation for children battling serious illnesses.”

CNN? Well yes, you’ve heard of CNN. And for the past seven years, the CNN network has identified and nominated ten people as “CNN Heroes: everyday people changing the world.” This year, Rabbi Goldberg is one of the nominees, giving us the opportunity to highlight the outstanding way in which he is changing the world for the better.

I hope you will join me, as I vote for Rabbi Goldberg to be the CNN Hero this year. You can vote once per day, with each of your email addresses and with Facebook, through Nov. 15. Both because of his outstanding work and the way it will help his organization (and by extension, Chai Lifeline and Camp Simcha), he deserves our support!

The Big Bang Contradicts Physics, not Religion

by Yaakov Menken on October 29, 2014 at 7:13 pm

Pope Francis is in the news today, for having “sided with science” and against creationists — by endorsing the Big Bang Theory. According to these articles, his statement was “revolutionary” and “embraces modern science.”

As far as saying that the universe is billions of years old, or that creatures evolved, this could be true — though even there, he said that it could not have happened without Divine Intervention. When it comes to the Big Bang, however, these articles neatly turn the truth on its head.

Put simply, the Big Bang Theory violates the known laws of physics. This “Big Bang,” a point of energy that formed the universe — from where did it come? How was it formed? How did this energy and matter form, to then explode outwards? There are various conjectures and speculations to explain what might have happened, but what we know about astrophysics and thermodynamics doesn’t involve nothingness exploding into energy and matter.

In fact, the term “Big Bang” was placed upon the theory by a prominent astronomer who, like most of his colleagues, believed in a “steady state” universe with no known beginning. The majority belief in steady state persisted until detection of the cosmic microwave background radiation, a remnant of the Big Bang, proved in 1964 that the universe was expanding from a beginning point.

If anything, Pope Francis merely recognized that physicists have come to agree with the Biblical account. The Big Bang theory was proposed by Monseigneur Georges LeMaitre, a Catholic priest, and in 1951 Pope Pius XII declared it entirely consistent with Catholic belief.

But in actuality, the theory doesn’t belong to Monseigneur LeMaitre, either. The Ramba”n [Nachmanides] on Genesis 1:1 states that the universe began as a single point of pure energy, having the power to form all matter. If one reads it without knowing it’s the Ramba”n, it sounds like a clear lay description of the Big Bang.