Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Modern Day Eichah

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Sometimes all you can do is ask, “Eichah? How could it happen?” Sometimes there are no answers and there is nothing to say. Sometimes the news is so sad that we are left speechless upon hearing the goings-on. Sometimes things take place in this world which defy reaction. “Vayidom Aharon.” When Aharon Hakohein’s two sons were taken on the day of the chanukas haMishkan, the posuk relates that Aharon accepted their fate with dignified silence.

You can’t go anywhere in the Jewish world without seeing people shrugging their shoulders and shaking their heads as they speak in hushed tones about the tragedy which affected our brothers in Brooklyn and New Jersey last week.

People attempt - in vain - to make sense of the tragedy and wonder how it could happen. Can a son of a dynasty sink so far that he entraps the most respected members of his community in an ugly scheme just to shave years off his own jail sentence? How can it be that the middah of tzedakah that a community is renowned for is turned upon them, tripping up their leaders in such a vulgar fashion?

What words of comfort can be offered to the grieving families of all involved? Our hearts and prayers go out to them as we pray that their loved ones are proven innocent without much more senseless embarrassment.

In the merit of all that they have done for the community, we pray that those who have been shamed and enveloped in tears be restored to their proper positions as paragons of virtue and sincerity when they are absolved of the accusations against them.

Once again, the asher korchah power of our ancient foe Amaleik has reared his ugly head and cast a pall of disgrace upon Torah. In recent weeks, he has had several victories as he has successfully portrayed the Torah community as an uncaring, anti-social, riotous, violent, unlawful group. We stand pained and humiliated as the world media tars us week after week with articles and photos maligning us and turning even our people against us.

The novi Yirmiyahu, in a harbinger of events to be recycled through the murky sewer of golus, said it all: “All your enemies have opened their mouths wide against you; they hissed and gnashed their teeth [and] said, ‘We have engulfed [her]! Indeed, this is the day we longed for; we have found it; we have seen it!’” (Eichah 2:16).

Their mouths have been opened wide against us and now, instead of religious Jews being perceived as a group which dedicates itself to studying and following the word of G-d and living responsible, selfless and moral lives, we are viewed as just the opposite.

Amaleik has utilized the media to paint a derisive picture of us, using the regrettable actions of a minority to taint the silent majority of law-abiding fine people. Hopefully, with his latest gambit he has overreached.

We have to go back many years to find a story which equals this one in its level of betrayal and humiliation, as we pray that it is the fanciful imagination of over-eager prosecutors entrapping gentle and kind people in a bid to prove an international conspiracy which defies belief. The age-old canard of Jews being money laundering loan sharks who rip off pounds of flesh from their gentile neighbors has once again been resuscitated and we bury our faces in shame. Any defense we can offer is thrown back in our faces by the awful stories propagated as fact.

It stretches the imagination to believe that an 87-year-old icon was running an international money laundering scheme. If it wasn’t so sad, it would be comical. Yet people believe it. Our community possesses so many good and selfless people, outstanding rabbis, fastidious lawyers and exacting accountants, yet we are portrayed as shylocks. There is no place to hide from the shame and embarrassment.

Everyone among us is left bewildered as to how something like this can happen in today’s enlightened world and what lessons there are for us in what has transpired.

The dust has not yet settled and the facts are not really known. Let us not fall into the trap of sensationalism and gossip. Let not a communal tragedy become a pretext for further defilement. Let us use our time to study Shulchan Aruch and sifrei halacha so that we can be better and more complete frum Yidden.

It is important to keep in mind that the first reports from the battlefield are almost always false. The circumstances are not known, the facts are skewed, and the story is told in a way that produces the most sensational headlines. Until the truth emerges, we are inundated with innumerable bogus versions of what “really” happened, but many of these assumptions may turn out to be incorrect. Let us not fall prey to the temptation to exaggerate and embellish the most lurid and shocking aspects of anything under discussion or investigation. Let us employ the necessary self-control, realizing the fruitless nature of endless and often erroneous analysis. Let us pray that the scandal is not as deep as the over-eager media purports it to be.

We need to channel our feelings at this time into something positive. As we reflect and engage in a period of introspection, we need to rise above the failures and work to achieve a more perfect state of affairs. When events such as these take place, we struggle, on a personal and communal level, to place it in the appropriate context. It is true that we don’t know why these events occur. But, as always, in the aftermath of such happenings, we must utilize such a tragic occurrence as an opportunity to take spiritual stock of where we are and how we can better ourselves in our eternal quest to be doveik baHashem.

In the future, if we are approached with a request that seems incongruous, or suspicious, we must probe for an explanation. There is no shame in asking questions repeatedly until we feel safe and secure that what we are doing is proper and just. We have to take the way we conduct our Yiddishkeit in golus seriously and be sure we are acting properly. As observant Jews, we must ensure that we don’t act erratically and foolishly and that we never fall into complacency or smugness.

Part of the curse of golus is that we have no novi who can interpret for us the actions of Hashem, who can help us correct our ways and explain to us the reasons behind disturbing events. Thus, we are left in the dark, broken and despondent. Ein lonu novi, v’ein lonu chozeh, v’ein lonu shiur rak haTorah hazos.

We must be thankful that we live in an enlightened democratic country that accepts us and lets us live, worship and work in peace. Jews are not only tolerated, but are treated well and supported in this country. Jews have risen to the highest levels of power in this land, and that is not in jeopardy. We may be in for hard times, but let’s keep it all in perspective and remember that it is up to us and our maasim tovim to determine the outcome of this trying historic period.

We have grown too comfortable in this golus. We are too complacent about all that goes on around us and we believe that this country is our natural home and that we belong here. We have forgotten that we are in exile from our land and are foreigners in a strange country. Instead of viewing ourselves as refugees pining for our return to the homeland we have been evicted from, we parade about as lords of the castle.

Not that long ago, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt”l would tell people to be careful to observe the admonition of the Magein Avrohom not to wear a tallis on top of their clothing as they walk the streets on Shabbos. Instead, we parade down the streets as if they were the streets of Yerushalayim. We arouse the anger of our neighbors by attempting to treat them as the interlopers, when it is we who are the ones who don’t really belong here.

We forget that one hundred years ago, we were treated as pariahs in most of the countries in which we lived. We were taxed into poverty, forced to live only in certain areas, and banned from many professions. Jewish children were regularly snatched from their families and placed in the Czar’s army for periods of up to 25 years. To be a Jew meant a life of poverty; deprivation and indignation.

Thankfully, that has all changed, primarily due to the way this malchus shel chesed has reached out and accepted us as equal citizens. We have grown lax in our personal conduct and perhaps taken advantage of the kindness of our host country.

Regardless of the presumed innocence of the revered people whom it seems were set up to appear as members of some phantom international conspiracy, the very fact that such an incident can transpire and cause so many people so much anguish and bewilderment should be a wake-up call to us. As obvious as it may seem that respected people were set up for downfall by a desperate, selfish, crooked person, the fact that such a colossal chillul Hashem could transpire has to have lessons for us.

Since the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh, 1940 years ago this week, the vestige of holiness resides in our yeshivos, botei medrash and botei knesses under the leadership of rabbonim, roshei yeshivos and morei derech. We must constantly be on guard as the power of Amaleik and the ugly forces of golus seek to erode the respect of our hallowed institutions and people. His mission is to cynically tarnish the way we view Torah, gedolei Torah and bnei Torah. We must always be alert to those attempts and not permit anything or anyone to diminish our devotion to Torah, halacha and the success of yeshivos.

We have to realize that every yeshiva, shul, and chesed organization is now suspect and must be doubly sure not to tolerate even the semblance of indiscretion. As painful as it is for us to admit, religious Jews are now viewed with great suspicion and we must all conduct ourselves in a manner in which, if exposed, will only earn praise and not condemnation.

We have to seek to cause the spotlight to return its focus on the many acts of kindness and charity performed in the religious community, which dedicates itself to fidelity to religious and civil law and conducts itself as true patriots of a welcoming country.

Whether in the realm of speech, actions or financial integrity, we have to look at the larger picture when we act. We have to ensure that all our actions are designed to find favor in the eyes of G-d and our fellow man and are in consonance with halacha and the law.

The Rambam writes in Hilchos Teshuvah (7:5) that all the neviim commanded Klal Yisroel to do teshuvah. He adds that “Yisroel will only be redeemed through doing teshuvah. And the Torah has already promised that in the end of days, Yisroel will do teshuvah and will be immediately redeemed.”

Let’s try to cheer the sad, restore hope to those who have lost theirs, rejuvenate those who have become bitter and depressed, and train ourselves to be better rachmanim, bayshonim and gomlei chassodim.

The first solution to any dilemma is to recognize the problem. If we examine Jewish history in exile, we find that after an uncomfortable period following immigration into yet a new country, Hashem causes the Jews to find favor in the eyes of the host nation. We become successful financially and accrue much power. Torah grows and flourishes and we believe we have found the Promised Land. And then, the cycle turns on us and anti-Semitism strengthens. The tide of the country begins turning against us. People who had forgotten that they were in exile and ceased to desperately await the arrival of Moshiach and the reconstruction of the Bais Hamikdosh are given awful reminders and are awakened from their obsequiousness.

The self-assurance is punctured. The serene, amiable tranquility is shown to be a facade. Jews who had faded away begin returning to their heritage and those who have remained loyal to the religion of their fathers are coaxed to be cognizant of the fact that the only dependable ally they possess is the G-d of their forbears.

Eichah. And so it has come to pass in our day. Yoshvah badad. Only if we take heed of the messages being sent to us and recognize that we are in golus can we begin to do all we can to cause the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu speedily in our day. It is only then that the power of Amaleik will be vanquished and we will finally be able to dwell comfortably in our own land. It is only then that we will have all our questions answered and all the pain assuaged.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Real Ahavas Yisroel

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

My column last week about the Yerushalmi demonstrations elicited varied responses. It was painful to realize how many people think so little of our chareidi brethren that they believe whatever they read which denigrates religious people. It is painful to be attacked for writing a sensible article laying out the facts and defending people for trying to exercise commonly held freedoms of expression and assembly.

The entire Israeli media was engaged in a conspiracy once again to paint the religious community as a bunch of backward infidels who are an embarrassment to their religion. It is no wonder that the anti-religious groups readily gobble it up, but it hurt to note that their reports were oft-repeated by religious people and believed by almost everyone.

Since that article was published, another spate of demonstrations broke out over the arrest of a loving Yerushalmi mother for allegedly starving her child. Without any examination or proof, the health system, police and media diagnosed her as being mentally ill and suffering from an ailment which forced her to starve her sick child. In the fifth month of pregnancy, she was dragged away, chained hand and foot, sent to the jail in Ramle, which is reserved for the most dangerous of criminals. She was held under inhumane conditions, sleeping on a concrete bed in a cell she shared with an Arab woman accused of murder.

Is that the way a civilized country treats anyone? A separate article in this week’s paper highlights the inconsistencies with the case and presents the other side of the story as documented by people in Yerushalayim who, for quite some time, have been involved with the medical issues facing this family. There are witnesses who can testify that the child lay in the hospital for months with a standing order not to feed him anything other than what he received from his feeding tubes. It was only after the mother was dragged off that they began force-feeding the child in a bid for him to gain weight.

Of all the people, the mayor of Yerushalayim, elected because the religious community could not organize around a candidate, found the perfect way to respond to the riots. He called off all garbage collection and municipal services to the areas which the shababnikim damaged. So, not only do the parents suffer by having such children, not only does the community suffer by having fires burning under their noses, but the benevolent mayor decrees that there will be no more garbage pickup. Thankfully, his tactic was overturned by the courts.

Mayor Nir Barkat also targeted Americans as scapegoats, blaming them for the violence, with no evidence. Of course, the people inclined to mock yeshivos and yeshiva bochurim cheered him on, without bothering to ascertain how many bochurim, if any, were involved in anti-social behavior they could not have learned at home or school.

Typical of the reaction to all this was an article posted by Rabbi Asher Lopatin on a secular Jewish media site, as well as a religious one. The Chicago rabbi, who stood with those who castigated the Rubashkins and their Agriprocessors Corporation which supplied much of the United States with affordable kosher meat, is now advising the members of Yerushalayim’s yishuv on how to handle their affairs.

Back then, he said that “there seems to be a pattern of Jews, and especially Orthodox Jews, not knowing how to relate to gentiles. We have a history of really trying to survive as Jews and having to protect ourselves constantly, but now we are in a different reality. If you want to stay in the Brooklyn ghetto, maybe that’s okay. But if you want to go out into the rest of world and get involved in real business, you can’t just have the same paradigm we had in Europe or the Middle East.”

When he stood beside liberal union groups seeking to unionize a Chicago hotel owned by religious people, he said, “I remember the ads defending Agriprocessors - talking about how it’s this modern, clean factory. People were just deluding themselves. That’s the impression I have here, as well.”

Anyone who visited Agri had to be impressed by the high level of cleanliness evidenced in the USDA inspected plant. That was never in doubt. Yet this rabbi was able say anything with impunity, for he was talking about a plant owned and operated by old-style religious Jews. Who would go after him for playing up the centuries-old canard that religious Jews are dirty and slimy? He can freely posture for the media and the liberals who write him up in glowing terms.

Though he is Orthodox, he does seem to have an agenda against the black-hatted Jews. It is to be expected that the secular media would play him up. What hurts even more is when the Orthodox media quotes him and publishes his missives, such as his recent one against Yerushalmi Yidden.

He writes, “Rather than rioting against what seems to be saving of a child’s life - piku’ach nefesh - didn’t you question for a moment what is going on? What are the names of chareidi organizations that protect children - and spouses - from abuse? The chareidi community in America has such organizations which serve the entire Jewish community - have you set up yours? I haven’t seen them involved or consulted. No, instead of blaming Hadassah hospital, the doctors and the media of a conspiracy, maybe you should begin a process of coming clean and accepting that domestic abuse occurs in all types of communities - from the most religious to the most secular, Jewish and non-Jewish. And that sometimes the police and the authorities have to be brought in to protect children and spouses. That would be the appropriate response, one that would be a kiddush Hashem, which would win the respect of Jews and non-Jews for Torah and for Judaism.”

Rabbi Lopatin continues:
“My brothers and sisters in the chareidi community: G-d’s name is not sanctified by you showing how much political muscle you have to close parking lots, to maintain the ‘status quo,’ or to show that you can do whatever you like to your kids without the authorities intervening: that’s not the way to sanctify G-d’s name, or even your name. The way to kiddush Hashem is for all of us to place G-d and G-d’s kindness above our own agendas, and to show that we are willing to sacrifice even your own serenity on Shabbat, our own control over our families, in order to protect the weak and make G-d’s name something beautiful and desirable, not something which people cannot run away from fast enough.”

Without bothering to find out what the facts are, much as was the case in his campaign against Rubashkin, Lopatin bought the media story, lock stock and barrel. And why not? After all, it is those same backward, insular people who have no concept of law, order and hygiene.

He didn’t speak to anyone who was at the so-called riot, because if he had, he would have found out that thousands of religious Jews congregating to protest the treatment of one of their own does not constitute a riot. He didn’t speak to any spokesmen for the Toldos Aharon chassidim. Had he, he would have heard their categorical denouncement of any violence. He would have found out that the protests were peaceful. He would have discovered that troublemakers, known as shababnikim, were responsible for the burning of trash bins and creating other mayhem after the masses of protesters had gone home.

Shame on him and shame on those like him who accept as fact whatever they read in condemnation of religious Jews, and anyone else for that matter. Shame on him and those like him who post such drivel and contribute to the increasing hatred of religious people and our causes. Shame on people who seek to divide the Jewish people, rather than bring us together. Shame on people who are ready to denigrate and dispense self-righteous advice to Jews who hew to an ancient and hallowed way of life.

Walk down Rechov Meah Shearim and observe the Reb Arelach, as the Toldos Aharon chasidim are affectionately referred to, as they go about their daily lives. They are the most unpretentious and humble of people. All they ask for is to be left alone so they can serve Hashem. They don’t seek material pleasure and always seem to be so happy. Their children are picturesque epitomes of simple beauty and chein. They obey all laws and exhibit no anti-social behavior. To accuse them of being rioting baby killers is nothing short of a modern-day blood libel and lynching.

I invite Lopatin and the rabbi who wrote in The Jerusalem Post to join me for a visit to Meah Shearim. Let’s go visit the stores and places of business of the Reb Aralach – yes they do work – and see how they conduct themselves. Let’s visit their homes and see how they live. Let’s follow them to the Beis Medrash and observe them davening and learning. We’ll go to the rebbe and you can ask him all your questions. We’ll visit Ben Zion Oiring and watch a one-man chesed operation in action. We’ll talk to Uri Zohar and hear what he has to say. We will pay a visit to Rav Dovid Soloveitchik and you can ask him why he publicly referred to the sorry story as a blood libel. We can just stand at Kikar Shabbos and watch how these loving lovely people go about their daily affairs. If, G-d forbid there should be a need for another hafganah we can attend and watch how Yerushalmi yidden peacefully express their pain and how they are treated by the police. And we can stay till the bitter end and watch how the rif-raf comes and destroys the place. And then we can review together what we have seen and determine whether a re-evaluation is in order.

As we enter the month of Av, it would behoove us to seek to bring Jews together and create a kiddush Hashem wherever and whenever possible. Though the response to my column last week on the Shabbos demonstrations hasn’t been what we expected, neither has the outpouring of support we have been receiving for our campaigns on behalf of two chassidishe Yidden, Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin of Postville, Iowa, and Ben Tzion Oiring of Yerushalayim ihr hakodesh. Good Jews were touched when reading about their financial situations and wrote out checks for people they don’t know. That is real ahavas Yisroel of the type that is mekareiv the geulah. Ahavas Yisroel doesn’t mean writing articles in the Jewish Journal, Jerusalem Post, or on various websites and blogs slamming frum yidden. Ahavas Yisroel means to give a Torah Jew the benefit of the doubt and to examine the story before rushing to judgment and engaging in the castigation of good people who are under attack.

May we merit welcoming Eliyahu Hanovi in enough time to declare Tisha B’Av a Yom Tov.

The Tuition Conundrum

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Yeshivos are in crisis. With the economy in decline, parents are strapped, barely making ends meet, and steadily falling behind in their tuition payments. With donations and financial support drying up, today’s yeshivos, many of which have been struggling for years, are in a worse financial bind than ever.

Torah chinuch is the very lifeblood of the Jewish people. To continue flourishing in this country, we must find a way to maintain our yeshivos. Far from existing in a vacuum, these challenges are tied to the broader picture of where this country is heading under the present administration.

End Of A Golden Era?

Could it be that we are seeing the end of the golden era for Jews in America? It’s been a very comfortable golus in the country by and large, and many of us have become complacent. We’ve taken many things for granted. We assumed that the U.S. government would always support Israel and that it would always protect its citizens’ best interests. We began to take for granted that we would always be afforded the maximum opportunity to become, through hard work and siyata dishmaya, an American success story.

Today, as the economy of this blessed country teeters, the present administration appears determined to overhaul the dynamics that have enabled the country to prosper for so many years.

The new policies do not auger well for the nation or its citizens. Many of our businesses and incomes depend on a healthy competitive private sector. If the administration presses ahead with its agenda of imposing heavy new taxes, not only will it set back the economy’s revival, but more of our incomes will be siphoned off to finance an ever-expanding government.

As incomes shrink, we’ll find it increasingly difficult to maintain our present lifestyle and standard of living, even things which we consider imperative to our lives. For the Torah community, that includes the support of yeshivos.

Some have estimated that a family living in the New York area requires a minimum income of $250,000 just to break even, and that is no exaggeration. What are people to do? It is not uncommon for people to have tuition bills in the $40-60,000 range. What percentage of our community earns $250,000? How can people be expected to come up with that kind of money without going into serious debt?

An Irreplaceable Partnership

In better times, our elementary schools relied heavily on their parent bodies for financing. Fundraising efforts, from dinners to teas and Chinese Auctions, primarily targeted the parent body. Most schools didn’t invest time and effort in cultivating friends outside the yeshiva for larger donations, unless there was a building campaign underway. With parents capable of covering the lion’s share of yeshiva budgets, there was little outreach to the broader Jewish community.

Unfortunately, schools began taking parents for granted and became less responsive to their needs. Because of the overflow of students, administrations did not feel the need to accommodate parents, to work with them as a team, or to include them in important educational decisions. At times an adversarial relationship developed. People who expressed dissatisfaction with any aspect of their child’s education were advised to go elsewhere.

As long as times were good and the money was flowing, the system worked more or less effectively in yeshivos and day schools on the east coast. Today, the status quo has changed. With parents falling behind in tuition, and income from dinners and Chinese Auctions drying up, yeshivos are operating at huge deficits. Both sides are paying the price for years of mistrust.

Parents are critical of schools that they perceive to be operating like mini-fiefdoms and dictatorships, with no regard for the wishes and needs of the parent body. They feel no obligation to schools that are run in this manner. They have no compunctions about shirking responsibility when it comes to supporting this kind of school.

When the tuition bill arrives, it is brushed aside, or else parents seek to bargain down the price because they don’t view the school as their representative in educating their child. The schools, desperate for funds, are not interested in negotiation. They squeeze the parents for additional money, even threatening to send home their children unless full payment is received. This policy has further alienated and embittered many parents.

The constant drip-drip of oft-repeated lashon horah and tales of machlokes involving some schools have had a deep impact, leading to an overall erosion of trust in these schools and tainting the reputation of their leaders.

This sad state of affairs has all but obscured some very fundamental truths. To begin with, the job of teaching children Torah ideally rests with parents. The job of chinuch is one of a Jewish parent’s most sacred responsibilities. Schools are at best shluchim—honorable agents whose duty is to fulfill parental obligations.

In essence, parents and mechanchim are intended to be partners in raising healthy, intelligent children who will develop into responsible, caring, observant Torah Jews.

Before any of the problems confronting our schools can be tackled, a sense of partnership must be returned to the education system, whereby each side exercises their obligation to the other, with the student’s welfare always the foremost consideration.

If we don’t arrive at a solution to the pressing problems facing us, they are bound to worsen. Rabbeim and Moros won’t be paid, and no one in their right mind will go into chinuch. Yeshivos will crumble under mounting piles of debt.

No Magic Answers

Several years ago I had the occasion to speak to Binyomin Netanyahu. I asked him what he viewed as the solution to the Arab-Israeli problem and how he proposed to bring an end to the decades-long state of war between Israel and its enemies.

His response had a great deal of truth to it—and is indeed applicable to many of life’s dilemmas. He answered that not every problem has a solution. He didn’t have any magic answers to the Middle East conundrum; he said that sometimes you have to wait years for things to realign themselves in a way that would enable a viable solution to take place.

Granted there are no pat, immediate solutions to many of the problems we face in our community. But perhaps it is time that we at least begin to call the problems by their actual names. For too long we have been getting away with avoiding the real issues. We have avoided saying the truth because we couldn’t bear the thought of slaying anyone’s sacred cows. We have all played along for fear of rocking the boat and being ostracized.

When a society can’t honestly face its problems and manages to keep the status quo by scaring its members into submission, it is a sure sign that moral rot has set in. Unless stopped, the decay will eventually undermine the society’s very foundations.

We must ensure that such a fate doesn’t befall our community. We posses the collective intelligence and ability to honestly analyze where we are going wrong, and to figure out how to rectify and remedy our ills. We know that self-delusion and skewed thinking are the tools of the weak.

Support Vouchers!

On a practical and political level, there is much we can do. People in our communities should be conditioned to vote only for political candidates who promise to work for the legalization of vouchers which can be used towards paying yeshiva tuition. When will we ever learn that voting Democrat is against our best interests? When will people realize that if they vote for the tax-and-spend party, that choice will backfire in their faces? It will end up draining their own pockets of money intended for their family’s upkeep, and for the education of their children.

People have to be educated not to fall for the lies politicians tell during the election season. Papers such as ours should publish report cards on incumbents, based on how they voted on issues directly affecting our way of life. People who promise one thing and deliver another should be voted out of office, in favor of principled supporters of private education, tax breaks, and a decent moral climate.

A summit should be convened of the best frum minds in the country to analyze where we are and where we are headed and to try to come up with rational, reliable solutions to the vexing problem facing us.

To raise esteem for our institutions, a massive public relations campaign should be undertaken to explain the basis of the schools and the reasons they ought to command our respect. Recalling the heroic work Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz began when he campaigned to convince people of the need of Hebrew Day Schools in the 1940s, a similar battle cry is needed today. People have to be reminded of the obviously vital role Torah schools serve in guaranteeing the Jewish future.

Executive Directors should cultivate support for their schools among the broader Jewish community, much as was done in the early nascent days of the Day School movement.

If we truly appreciated the priceless value of Torah education, our schools wouldn’t be in a financial hole today. Shalom Torah centers wouldn’t be gasping for breath. Shuvu wouldn’t be on the verge of closing down six schools engaged in educating the next generation of Israeli youth.

The confused value system that relegates our children’s chinuch to a low rung on our order of priorities must be changed. Instead of being treated as an unwelcome burden or an afterthought, the support of our children’s yeshivos, and of yeshivos educating other Jewish children, must be our supreme concern.

Torah is the Jewish people’s oxygen. Chinuch is our very essence. Let us stretch our material and spiritual resources to the utmost and if possible, make the necessary sacrifices. For the sake of our beloved children, let us rally our forces for change before it is too late.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

“Shabbos, Shabbos"

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Before there were religious newspapers, the Jewish media world was owned by the maskilim. It took some time before religious Jewry realized the awesome power these papers wielded over the Jewish masses, in particular, the youth. They hastened the alienation from Torah and the embrace of non-Jewish culture that was rampant at the time. It was to stem that awful tide and to fight the wholesale distortion of truth that gedolim established newspapers and fought to obtain subscribers and financing.

To those who are skeptical of the manipulative power of the press 100 years ago, a close look at the skewed reporting that prevails in our own day regarding recent events in Yerushalayim provides a cogent reality check. In many ways we are still fighting the same battle.

Thanks to the power of persistent “drip-drip” journalism, the common perception of Chareidi Jews as a mass of vulgar rabble-rousers has taken deep root.

Demonizing the Chilul Shabbos Protesters

Let’s take a look at the demonstrations going on against the increased chillul Shabbos in Yerushalayim. Based on media reports, many of you are probably under the impression that mobs of fanatically religious Jews converged near City Hall to burn garbage pails and stone policemen. You’ve either read this fallacious reporting yourself in the media, or got it second or third hand from others who did.

This is not to deny or condone the actions of a handful of miscreants who carried out these reprehensible actions. But the fact is, they are lone exceptions, certainly not the rule. Their actions are being exploited by irresponsible editors who seek to tar the entire Chareidi community with one brush.

Students of history can cite dozens of hafganos which were called to stop autopsies, disturbing of ancient cemeteries, chillul Shabbos, giyus banos, yaldei teheran and the like. They can show you pictures of police beating religious Jews; of police shooting water cannons at women. They can give you the facts about the times choshuveh people such as Rav Yisroel Grossman were locked up in jail for participating in protests.

I can offer my own personal testimony as well. Many years ago, I lived in the Ezras Torah section of Yerushalayim, where it was alleged at the time that the parents of today’s Shabbos rock-throwers would gather to stone policemen and cars traveling on K’vish Ramot. What actually happened was that some weeks, a few people would walk in from Meah Shearim to scream “Shabbos!” alongside the recently opened highway. Other weeks, no one showed up.

From my porch, I had a bird’s eye view of the action—or more often, the lack of it. I never saw anyone do anything other than holler “Shabbos.” A single police car was stationed there to maintain order lest the multitudes arrive. Yet, every Motzoei Shabbos after Havdalah, turning on the radio to catch the headlines, I would hear how once again, the chareidim converged at K’vish Ramot, throwing stones and assaulting police!

This was a blatant, deliberately fabricated urban legend. Not surprisingly, the masses in Israel bought it. Religious people became synonymous with crazed fundamentalists who embraced terror tactics on what was supposed to be a holy day of rest.

Police Brutality Has A Long History

Back then, the battle over Shabbos already had a sordid, decades-old history, with pious Jews being beaten and persecuted for their efforts to preserve kedushas Shabbos in Yerushalayim, Bnei Brak and many other cities in Eretz Yisroel.

I vividly remember passing by hafganos during the time I learned in Yerushalayim, witnessing the police brutally charging after people as they fled for their lives. Those hapless souls who were caught were mercilessly beaten.

There were times when police barged into botei medrash and grabbed hold of anyone not fast enough to escape. The police beat those poor souls to a pulp, then arrested them for assaulting police. Far from being isolated incidents of police brutality, these outrages were common occurrences. Anyone who has ever witnessed a hafgana demonstration can attest to that.

Just two weeks ago, the ugly pattern repeated itself. Following a Shabbos protest, police charged into the dormitory of Yeshiva Kol Torah in Bayit Vegan. They dragged sleeping boys out of bed and identified them as rock throwers who had participated in an unruly demonstration hours earlier. It was only after the Roshei yeshiva vouched for the integrity and innocence of the boys that they were released from jail. Police captains later apologized to the Roshei Yeshiva and promised to take disciplinary action against the patrolmen who invaded the dormitory.

In another incident, an American boy who happened to be in the area of a recent demonstration at Kikar Shabbos was arrested and locked up in the Migrash Harussim jail. Police accused him of throwing stones at them. After being held in jail without bail for two weeks, witnesses who had been walking with him came forth and testified that he neither threw stones nor engaged in any anti-social behavior.

Charges were reduced to illegal assembly, impeding the flow of traffic and other less serious charges. The youth was freed from jail but banished for Yerushalayim for two months until his upcoming trial.

How can one understand the flood of false arrests and the habitual police brutality in a democratic state where citizens supposedly enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of assembly? How can the government get away with tactics associated with tyrannical dictatorships or totalitarian states?

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

First of all, it might come as a surprise to many that in Israel, unlike America, it is illegal for more than three people to congregate without permission. Thus, every protester is regarded as a lawbreaker. Additionally, unlike in America, one is not assumed innocent until proven guilty. There it is just the opposite; you are guilty until proven innocent and treated that way. Religious people are automatically singled out for special treatment.

What generally happens is that ehrliche people who are bothered by some injustice or new breach in the holiness of the city gather to protest. The police arrive and begin taunting and baiting them. Other police then arrive in riot gear and on horseback and charge into the crowd, seeking maximum damage and injury. When the people fight back, they are arrested and thrown in jail. Innocent bystanders, often times Americans, who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are rounded up and jailed as well.

After the crowd disperses and everyone goes home, miscreants seize the opportunity to “throw the last punch.” They set fire to garbage pails which they roll into the street to create maximum mayhem.

Jews Brutalizing Jews

Anyone who has witnessed a hafgana and the police reaction is traumatized by the sight of Jews brutalizing fellow Jews. And this in the Jewish state, in the twenty-first century! How frightful that this has been going on ever since the founding of the State of Israel. The peaceful Shabbos atmosphere that reigns over religious neighborhoods on Shabbos came at a high price. It was achieved only after years of struggle and countless demonstrations similar to those taking place now.

Yet, the news trickles down to us the way the secular media presents it, so when we think of hafganos, we conjure up images of wild lunatics burning garbage pails, of stones flying, and of crime-fighting heroes being spat upon. We don’t think of ehrliche people crying out for Shabbos. We don’t feel the pain of Shabbos being trampled upon by cheap politicians. We don’t feel the pain of dignified Jews with long beards being stomped on by horses. We don’t feel the pain of Jews in the Holy Land protesting the desecration of the most basic tenets of the Torah, which grants the people of Israel the right to their land.

We don’t realize how far we have sunk as a people that the sight of Jews beating other Jews has become the norm. We forget the cruel irony that most of the grandparents of those baton-wielding policemen wore beards and payos themselves. Just one generation later, their children are being used by a corrupt government to stamp out the kedushas Shabbos that the grandparents would have sacrificed their lives to protect!

We let the secular media skew our perception of the facts. We permit then to demonize kind, law-abiding, peaceful, charitable people as a pack of Neanderthal wild men. In an outrageous reversal, pious people who are exquisitely careful in how they treat others, are painted as wild-eyed, ruthless lowlifes.

Religious Apologists

The problem is compounded when religious people who ought to know better get swept up in the propaganda. People who have never witnessed a protest over the desecration of Shabbos allow themselves to be manipulated by media hype. They encourage other frum Jews to write letters to the secular media decrying the objectionable behavior of their fellow chareidim. They rush to express sympathy for secular Israelis who are lobbying for a new parking lot—right opposite the walls of Yerushalayim.

Rabbis who ought to know better feed the media one-liners against the violent extremists, as if they constitute a sizeable camp. They issue sharp indictments which reinforce the stereotype of Orthodox Jews as an archaic, intolerant bunch of people.

Should Jews be engaging in violence? Of course not. Do we believe that burning garbage pails is the way to return Jews to their heritage? Of course not. But think of the media coverage splashed over these few incidents compared with the manner in which public protests in, let’s say, Iran, are treated by the world press.

How many articles have you read condemning freedom-lovers for beating Tehran police? How many newspapers have featured pictures of Iranians setting fire to trash in their coverage of the election protests? Not one.

Why is it that burning garbage pails in Iran are ignored and those in Yerushalayim are blown up and highlighted? Is it because only the former captures world sympathy? Is it because the media seeks to glorify the Iranian protesters while reserving its disgust for Jews who want only to protect what is sacred to them?

Most disturbing, why is it that the religious media falls into the trap of accepting wholesale misrepresentation of the truth?

Are there better ways to fight the battle for kedushas Shabbos? Most certainly. There is no excuse for violence and vandalism. But let’s consider the protests themselves, that are cleverly manipulated by authorities into turning violent. With politicians, the courts and public opinion all stacked against the religious community, what choice do those who anguish over chilul Shabbos have?

In fact, it is only thanks to the ranks of idealistic protesters, who knowingly risked life and limb, that forced autopsies in Israel were halted, that giyus banos was dropped, and that there is no Shabbos traffic on Kikar Shabbos.

Throw Lifelines, Not Stones

It is indeed tragic that so many of our brethren remain ignorant about Shabbos observance. Due to the present global financial crunch, organizations in Israel that have succeeded in returning so many thousands to the religion of their forefathers are forced to cut back on their activities. It costs money to run effective kiruv organizations and the latter are millions of dollars in debt.

Without good people digging into their pockets to help fight the battle bedarchei noam, the soldiers of Lev L’Achim, Shuvu, Chinuch Atzmai and all the rest can’t accomplish as much as they have in the past. They need our financial assistance in order to educate more Jews and to turn the tide of public opinion in favor of appreciating and safeguarding kedushas Shabbos.

Let us all resolve to increase the honor of Shabbos in our personal lives and support those who open a window for their fellow Jews to the beauty and richness of Shabbos. Let us support those organizations that have demonstrated the ability to reach out to Jews from all walks of life who have been robbed of their birthright. Let us display more Ahavas Yisroel. Let us cast lifelines, not stones.

And let’s not jump to conclusions about our heartbroken brothers who cry out, “Shabbos, Shabbos!” They are not only following the dictates of their conscience with their protests; they are also doing our job—yours and mine.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

For the Love of Money

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Every year, as the months of Tammuz and Av approach, we are reminded of how far we are from where we need to be. Thanks to the material comforts we enjoy, we grow comfortable in the exile, and lose the sense Jews once had of being painfully distant from our real home and our leaders of yore.

Sixty years after we, as a people, were almost exterminated, we have staged a miraculous comeback. Despite whatever hardships we are experiencing due to global financial and political turmoil, we enjoy unprecedented wealth, comfort and political influence.

Yet we have short memories. We forget the terrible poverty and hardships Jews suffered for centuries in “the old country” and romanticize about the alter heim as if it were the Promised Land.

I was recently reading an interview with Reb Yankel Finkelstein in a new book entitled “Shimchah Lo Shachachnu,” which recounts the experiences of bnei yeshiva before and during World War II.

Reb Yankel Finkelstein discusses the poverty that was rampant in the pre-war shtetel. He speaks of how he went barefoot and hungry, and how many young people left the fold because they couldn’t cope with a life of such impoverishment. He reminisces about the time a dignitary arrived in town from Warsaw and held a melava malka for ten local askanim. Reb Yankel was a youngster at the time and was sent to purchase a can of sardines for the feast. The can was opened and each guest was given one sardine to eat. One sardine! He savored the treat so much, the memory of its succulence remained vivid even decades later.

We are blessed with so much that we can’t fathom that people lived under such conditions not so very long ago. As difficult as our situation may be, we aren’t facing starvation. We aren’t forced to make do with one sardine as a delicacy, or to quiet an empty, churning stomach with crusts of bread. We take everything for granted and don’t seem to really appreciate our blessings.

This is not to minimize the financial difficulties afflicting many people today due to the economic downturn. Some people don’t have money for the basics. Tuition goes unpaid and many parents can no longer afford to send their children to camp. It cost so much to maintain the American lifestyle. Without significant income, many people are strapped and don’t know where to turn.

Our brothers in Eretz Yisroel are suffering as well. Although families there always lived on lower economic levels, with large families crowded into small, two-bedroom apartments, people were content with what they had. The mothers and girls had one Shabbos dress apiece and the fathers and boys possessed one Shabbos suit, yet they didn’t feel deprived. Now, with the economy in free-fall and government safety-nets pulled, things have worsened for thousands of our brothers in Eretz Yisroel. Their grinding poverty recalls Reb Yankel Finkelstein’s generation, when people went to bed hungry.

We meet many people from these unfortunate families on this side of the ocean as they work their way through our neighborhoods, knocking on doors and asking for a handout. We view them as intruding shnorrers. Perhaps some of them fit that description, but if we were to stop and speak to these people before handing them a dollar, we would find many wonderful geshmake individuals who simply have no place to turn. By the time they have joined the circuit of door-to-door begging, they are way past their last dollar, heavily in debt. Unemployment is rampant—there are simply no jobs. As a desperate last resort, they take out another loan and buy a plane ticket to New York.

They come here and travel from shul to shul and house to house, some with sad eyes and some with hearts full of bitachon and simcha. They trudge about waiting to find good Jews who will have rachmanus on them and treat them like human beings, not unwanted outcasts.

We are jaded. There are so many of them, it seems, that we can’t possibly treat them all with kindness and patience. Do we ever stop to imagine ourselves in their place? Do we ever stop to contemplate the fact that if not for the hashgacha that caused us to be born and raised in this land of plenty, we might easily be them?

In essence, we are them! We are in a place we don’t belong, knocking ourselves out to feed our families and meet our obligations. Though we don’t feel it as much as they do, we are dependent upon the mercy of our Father to find favor in the eyes of people we meet and those with whom we do business. We are fortunate that He showers kindness upon us and gives us what we need—sometimes even more, to enable us to lend a helping hand to relatives, friends, neighbors and Yidden from around the world who need assistance.

In order for us to begin the march out of golus, we have to begin rectifying the way we view each other. It is not just the way we view people who come looking for a handout, but the way we treat the guy next door and the fellow we meet in the bais medrash. Until we treat other people the way we would like to be treated, we are doomed to remain in golus—far from our true home.

If, through our skewed way of dealing with fellow Jews, we rob others of their dignity, and mock those who do good and mean well, we will not merit the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh. As a splintered nation, with individuals and factions acting on their own and without having the greater good in mind, we delay the arrival of our final redemption. If we live life in attack mode, undermining true leadership and seeking to destroy those who are trying to make our world a better place, we are in effect consigning ourselves to continued golus.

Chazal remind us that hateful and spiteful behavior between Jews is the one force that holds back the geulah more than any other. In the days when Reb Yankel Finkelstein thought a sardine was a treat, Jews appreciated each other and didn’t seek to take advantage of one another. During the Holocaust period, when Jewish blood was made cheap, Jews knew to value one another. There were always internecine squabbles, but not to the degree that we experience today in our period of plenty.

Hakadosh Boruch Hu has blessed us with abundance. We have risen so miraculously from the ashes of the Holocaust that we don’t fathom the miraculous nature of our revival. Nor have we sustained that love and appreciation for a fellow Jews that survivors and victims felt.

The Talmud Yerushalmi teaches the following message about sinas chinom: (Yoma 1:1): “We find that the first Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because there were those who were ovdei avodah zarah, megalei arayos and shofchei domim. We know that the Jews during the period of the second Bais Hamikdosh studied Torah and observed the mitzvos, were punctilious in giving maaser, and had proper middos. Yet they loved their money and hated each other for no reason, and sinas chinom is as great a sin as the three cardinal aveiros.” The Bavli in Yoma (9a) contains a similar narrative.

The Vilna Gaon explains that the severity of sinas chinom stems from the fact that at the root of the hatred and jealousy lies lack of trust in Hashem.

Those who are jealous and those who resent other people’s success in essence deny that Hashem runs the world, and decides what each person should receive. People who are consumed with accumulating wealth attribute their gains to their own talents. They don’t believe that Hashem decrees how much people earn. Anyone who surpasses them in business, career, talent, status or popularity becomes the object of their jealousy, resentment and hatred. When they see the size of another person’s house, they are overcome with anger. When they see someone else make money, they hate them. “How dare they! Who do they think they are?!” Were they to believe that all a person has comes from Hashem, they wouldn’t be so filled with jealousy and hatred.

That is the explanation of the words of the Yerushalmi. The Jews of the generation of the bayis shaini loved their money and they therefore hated others with sinas chinom.

Since the Bais Hamkidosh has not been returned to us, it is an indication that we have still not overcome the sins of sinas chinom caused by jealousy. We are still consumed by these dark forces. We can’t stand to see other people succeed, and when they do, we endeavor to rip them down. We are constantly judging others negatively. We have our fingers on the trigger waiting to catch someone making a mistake so we can embarrass them and destroy them.

The Mishnah states that the epitome of strength is embodied by the person who controls his yeitzer. The truly rich person is he who is happy with his lot. The Maharal comments on this Mishnah that if one can defeat others, it is not necessarily because of his own personal strength; it may be because of his opponent’s weakness. However, if he triumphs over the evil inclination which seeks to entrap him, that is the true yardstick of strength. He is not strong because his opponent is weak; he is strong because he has beaten a strong opponent.

In the same vein, if one considers himself wealthy because of his holdings, then his wealth is determined by outside factors and is never secure. On the other hand, if a person is content with whatever Hashem assigns him, that kind of “merchandise” can never be diminished by outside circumstances, and is thus the only real, enduring wealth.

We all seek wealth, comfort and happiness. We long for an end to our suffering and pray for the golus to end. Those blessings are contingent on one thing; our determination to defeat the urge to believe in our own abilities and deny the Hand of Hashem.

Since sinas chinom ultimately flows from jealousy and jealousy is a product of egotism, we have to work on the antidote: strengthening our trust and belief in Hashem, as well as our love of our fellow Jews. We must work on treating everyone with the dignity, respect and compassion with which we ourselves want to be treated.

In that merit, may we all be zoche to celebrate Tisha B’Av as a Yom Tov in Yerushalayim Habenuyah this year.