Wednesday, March 17, 2010


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

All too often, we forget we are in golus. Despite some bumps in the road, we have it so good here that one day, historians will look back at this era as The Golden Age of American Jewry. We stride down the streets, confident of our rights. We spend so much money on houses, you would think we plan on being here forever. We run for - and hold - public office in unprecedented numbers.

We are very rarely reminded that we are far removed from our own plantation. Our present day comfort obscures the fact that since the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed thousands of years ago, we are basically a nomadic people. We are refugees wandering from country to country, and continent to continent, until the great shofar is blown to announce that it is time to go home. But aside from a few times a year, we don’t give much thought to that reality.

The Holocaust is but a distant memory for the bulk of the Jewish people. Our children, for the most part, have no clue that it even happened. In the major urban areas where many of us reside, we never get to experience overt anti-Semitism. The periods of history during which Jews were expelled from their homes and hunted down by fanatical mobs are so far in the past, most find it hard to believe such days ever existed. Stories of Jews being rounded up and sent to jail or concentration camps, or murdered outright, seem like fanciful tales out of the pages of Zaydie’s Mayselach.

On the Yom Tov of Pesach, we celebrate Yetzias Mitzrayim. At the Seder, we eat matzoh, the bread of redemption, along with maror and charoses, which remind us of the pain the Jews suffered in slavery. For without the reminders of bondage, one cannot fully celebrate freedom. Thus we begin the recitation of the Haggadah with genus, recalling the humble beginnings of our nationhood and tracing its trajectory through Mitzrayim towards Matan Torah and shevach.

Today, it would seem that we require golus reminders in order for us to appreciate what it is we need to yearn for. We have been following the saga of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, a wonderful Jew singled out for selective and overzealous prosecution. This would never have taken place had he been living in a major urban area where concerned parties would have been able to shine a spotlight on the corrupt forces that targeted him for destruction.

In the small towns of Iowa and South Dakota, where Jewish stereotypes linger, canards about Jews were better able to gain traction, leading to the incarceration of a good, law-abiding person, who was “doing G-’s work in Postville, Iowa,” as his non-Jewish lawyer describes him.

Which leads us to an even starker golus reminder: the latest international frenzy over an Israeli announcement about construction in an Israeli neighborhood. The office of Eli Yishai had the sheer chutzpah to announce that a construction project in one of Yerushalayim’s newer neighborhoods had passed through its many bureaucratic hurdles and was slated to be built in three years. That announcement triggered a major flap.

The problem? The neighborhood is not recognized by the world as belonging to Israel. Though it is a part of the country since the 1967 war and is within the municipal boundaries of Yerushalayim, Ramat Shlomo, which is inhabited by 40,000 people, is considered by America and the world to be in East Jerusalem, and, as such, is as much Palestinian as Israeli.

No doubt when the media refers to “disputed East Jerusalem,” you think they are talking about the Old City. You never imagined that they mean Ramot and so many other neighborhoods you thought everyone knows are, and always will be, Yerushalayim.

Well, you are wrong. The world doesn’t even recognize any part of Yerushalayim as being Jewish and Israeli. That is why almost every country that has relations with Israel refuses to move its embassy to the Jewish nation’s capital city.

Following Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s apology for the timing of the announcement during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit, and Biden’s acceptance of the apology, President Barack Obama decided to orchestrate an international incident and ordered his administration to begin slamming Israel.

Obama seems to be making good on what he told a Jewish group in an off the record conversation in the White House in July of last year. At that time he said that he believed that America had to push for an end to all settlements, in the West Bank and Yerushalayim, if for no other reason than to create “space” between America and Israel in order “to change the way the Arabs see us.”

First it was Biden who, while still in Israel, expressed some grievance with the announcement.

This is the same man who said in his previous incarnation as US Senator, “Why is it that the one ally we have in that part of the world, we feel we have the right to publicly chastise them? We would not do that with any other friend... As much as the Middle East is always on our minds, the best thing we can do is keep it off the US and world press.”

This “emboldens those in the Middle East and around the world who still harbor as their sacred goal the elimination of Israel,” Biden said at the time. “It is not for you to tell them, nor for me, what is in their best interests. We should give them the right to determine what chances they will take.”

But Biden is not his own man anymore and he now takes orders from the Obama. Obviously, Obama wasn’t happy with the way Biden reacted to the move, so he sat down with Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton, who relayed Obama’s anger to Netanyahu in unusually tough, blunt language.

Hours after Mrs. Clinton’s 45-minute phone call, the US joined with Russia, the EU and the UN to issue a further condemnation. The Israeli ambassador to Washington was called in for a tongue-lashing. The State Department spokesman, who last week apologized for insulting Muammar Gadhafi, told a press conference that Clinton called Netanyahu "to make clear the United States considered the announcement a deeply negative signal about Israel's approach to the bilateral relationship and counter to the spirit of the vice president's trip. This action had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process and in America's interests."

And so it went. Last fall, at Obama’s behest, Netanyahu announced a ten-month moratorium on construction on the West Bank. Yerushalayim was not included in the deal which Hillary Clinton praised back then as "unprecedented." The idea was to entice the Palestinians to join talks with Israel. Of course that never happened. But now Israel is being castigated for merely announcing that building will take place in three years in an area of their capital in which they have been building since 1993, and in which 40,000 people reside.

But to America, this is the reason there is no peace in the Mideast: Ramot is a settlement, and Yerushalayim is disputed territory.

And now, once again, the administration says, "We think the burden is on the Israelis to do something that could restore confidence in the process and to restore confidence in the relationship with the United States." Give up more land, make more concessions. Since Israel vacated, Gaza has been as peaceful a utopia as everyone predicted it would be.

Obama, reeling from the near failure of his signature domestic political agenda and scorned around the world, has found a new ally to pick a fight with. He seems to be reverting to the positions he took at the outset of his presidency when he toured the world, apologizing for America’s missteps and reaching out to Muslims. His outreach to Iran has brought the world closer to Armageddon, yet you don’t hear the kind of public criticism such moves should warrant. Israel and the Jews are the whipping boys once again.

We can’t help but wonder why. Why is it that no matter what we do, the nations of the world despise us? Why is it that despite all that Israel has done to demonstrate its interest in living peacefully with its neighbors, it is never enough, and the world persists in blaming the tiny country for being the aggressor?

These logic-defying circumstances are meant to remind us that we are golus. If we want to merit redemption, we have to want it, we have to pray for it, and we have to earn sources of merit. The Yomim Tovim remind us of our destiny to once again be oleh regel and to become spiritually elevated by absorbing the kedushah of Yerushalayim and the Bais Hamikdosh. The world’s determination to keep us from those sacred places should goad us to work ever harder to maintain the drive and longing to bring the redemption closer.

For the Jewish people throughout the ages, every chapter of our history since the churban has reinforced the teaching of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai that “halacha hi beyoduah she’Eisav sonei leYaakov." It is a built-in principle of natural law that Eisav hates Yaakov and will forever. The only way to suppress that hatred and to keep Eisav from destroying us is by strengthening our connection to Torah and mitzvos.

We can truly advance by studying and observing Torah, by enabling others to study and observe Torah, and by intensifying our fidelity to its commandments. If we keep all of the Torah, the Torah will keep all of us. If we protect G-d’s word, G-d will protect us. He will strengthen us and guard us from our enemies.

Throughout the ages, whenever we slackened off in our observance of Torah and mitzvos, the wrath of this or that nation was unleashed against us. Our own actions precipitate so much of the crises and troubles besieging us. Our conduct and our level of yiras Shomayim and bitachon affect what presidents and prime ministers do.

As we sit at the Seder and celebrate our deliverance from Mitzrayim, we will recount the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim and enumerate all that Hakadosh Boruch Hu did for us. Let us pray that each and every one of us is zocheh to do so in freedom.

Let us pray that this year, on Zeman Cheiruseinu, all Jews will truly be free.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I Drank the Kool-Aid

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Who in our world hasn’t heard of Oorah? Who isn’t in on the search for Fiveish? The most loveable, charming and memorable campaigns for any Jewish organization are no doubt those produced by and for Oorah. But who are the people behind Oorah? Do you ever wonder?
A few weeks ago, I met with some people at Oorah’s headquarters in Lakewood, NJ. Like many of you, I had viewed the organization as a goofy bunch of people with a catchy radio jingle and great advertising. I knew that they were into kiruv and had a camp or two, but I didn’t really know why they needed so much money and what they did with it. Intrigued, I took advantage of an opportunity to discover the answers firsthand.
What I found there was not only awe-inspiring, but an unexpected and wonderful life-lesson.
Oorah’s public image couldn’t be farther from the truth. A successful educational and outreach group, the only area in which this organization is lacking, ironically, is public relations. They spend considerable amounts on marketing strategies but forget to include an important piece of the picture: who are the individuals behind this unusual organization? What are they doing when they aren’t playing Fiveish?
The same genius Oorah activists have for marketing, they have for kiruv work, but they are too normal and self-conscious to hype up their own personal image. You run into this noble quality in some dedicated people who throw their time and energy into helping others. They are altruistic and bashful about their accomplishments and feel uncomfortable talking about themselves. But usually there’s a downside to their modesty: when they have to reach out for financial support from the community to be able to maintain their activities, they are surprised and disheartened that the money isn’t forthcoming.
It’s not hard to understand. With the economy in shambles, it is much tougher to raise money for charities. People aren’t earning enough income to sustain their lifestyles, pay steep yeshiva tuitions, while also being constantly solicited for extra donations to keep the mosdos viable.
For a long time, as the Jewish community expanded and yeshivos and days schools proliferated, the going was good. Some schools didn’t have to engage in real fundraising. To keep themselves going, all these schools did was squeeze the parents a little more and they were able to make a go of it. There was no need to maintain a healthy relationship with the broader community and to develop lasting friendships and a sustainable donor base.
We are feeling the painful fallout from that system now. It is only those who were enterprising enough to develop a wide circle of friends and supporters who are able to sustain the current downturn without turning to loans and other desperate moves in order to remain viable.
It is by building relationships and aiming to achieve something with our lives that we can go on to do great things.
In our fast-paced world, people are too pressured to notice anything but the exceptional. To win recognition, one must stand out, produce something unique and memorable. Yet we tend to copy what the other guy has done, instead of being original. We try to copy someone else’s campaign and then wonder why it worked for them and not for us.
In order to succeed in a crowded marketplace of ideas and causes, we have to be more proactive, creative and intelligent in selling ourselves and our product.
There are so many organizations out there competing for the same charity dollar that in order to have a chance of getting those funds, we have to be able to communicate to potential donors what it is about our organization that sets it apart and makes it worthy of support.
In an economy such as ours, you have to be prepared to spend money to promote yourself, or you will get lost in the shuffle.
This is what Oorah has done. It has made a career out of marketing its vision and its success has a lot to teach other mosdos. They’ve done it partly by building a solid base of support which can sustain them in good times and bad. They have considerable name recognition in the Jewish community.
We owe it to them and to ourselves to understand what it is that they really do and how they are unique.
Founded by a simple tzaddik, Rav Chaim Mintz, mashgiach of the Yeshiva of Staten Island, Oorah takes a cradle-to-the-grave approach to kiruv. The Mintzes don’t just introduce a Jew to Torah and leave them there to fend for themselves. They, and the organization they established, remain connected with them and their family, for the rest their lives, providing regular support to those who become frum. In essence, Oorah becomes their extended family.
They do this with a network of over 1,300 volunteers who are actively involved with over 2,000 families, impacting between 8,000 and 10,000 Jews on an annual basis.
They pay tuition for children at 100 different day schools and yeshivos. In fact, they spend over $130,000 a month so that Jewish children can receive the education they deserve.
Over 500 Jewish children and teenagers attend Oorah’s highly subsidized overnight kiruv camps, BoyZone, Boys TeenZone, GirlZone, Girls TeenZone, and Discover-U.
The camp staff members are bnei Torah of the highest caliber who dedicate their bein hasedorim and bein hazemanim to bring kids closer to Hashem. I was told that as you enter the boys’ camp, you feel as if you’ve entered one of the largest botei medrash in the mountains, with 200 yeshiva bochurim and yungeleit - from leading yeshivos – serving on staff.
The camps are entry points into a Jewish child’s life. Each child is set up with a yeshiva bochur or Bais Yaakov girl as a big brother or big sister to learn with at least once a week. These children continue receiving guidance not just in camp but throughout the year. The Torah Mates learning program was established to bring regular learning over the phone to these children and teenagers, as well as to adults. Over 1,400 adults currently participate.
There are also regular BoyZone and GirlZone trips and Shabbatons throughout the year to keep in touch with the kids and make sure they are progressing.
I am sure that many of you reading this article didn’t know about what I have shared. You probably also didn’t know that at a recent “Shabbat with Oorah” family Shabbaton, over 600 people attended and enjoyed the blessings of a Shabbos together with Oorah volunteers.
Did you know that Oorah hosts Avos Ubonim programs in multiple locations, providing the avos to learn with both avos and bonim?
I could go on and tell you about how many baalei teshuva were at their Purim seudah and how many mishloach manos they sent out, how many sets of arbah minim, how many Sukkos they put up, how many kids they took on chol hamoeid trips, how many shiduchim they redt, and all kinds of other tidbits of information, but I don't want to bore you. Besides, I am not their spokesman.
The Bnei Torah who head their divisions, staff their headquarters and volunteer by the hundreds, are a talented and dedicated group. They demonstrate a business acumen they could have used to enrich themselves. Together with the devoted hard-working Lakewood women who are the force behind Oorah, they are using their talents to enrich the community and Klal Yisroel.
The last time I was in Eretz Yisroel, I bumped into Rabbi Mintz. He told me that he was in Yerushalayim to check up on Oorah’s post-yeshiva program which helps Oorah-sponsored students through their yeshiva years as they learn in Israel. I had no clue that Rabbi Mintz maintains a satellite Oorah office in Israel with a full-time staff and volunteers who arrange trips and Shabbatons, and offer their talmidim regular home-away-from-home counseling and guidance. That is the degree to which Oorah views its responsibility to bnei ub’nos Yisroel.
Rabbi Mintz is so nonchalant about what he does, so humble and self effacing, that he was almost embarrassed to tell me what he was doing there.
This dichotomy, whereby Oorah is so well-known for its advertising, yet less known for its world-changing and global kiruv efforts, is striking.
We should recognize how unique, in our age of hype and self-promotion, is the kind of avodas hakdoesh performed under the radar that defines this organization. Hiding under our noses in plain sight is a remarkable organization that is bringing thousands of men, women and children tachas kanfei haShechinah.
We should commend Oorah for establishing an organization of this magnitude which sustains itself by maintaining a high level of professionalism and fundraising, permitting it to exist on small donations through grassroots efforts.
As the marketing arm of Oorah heats up in anticipation of its annual Chinese auction, we will be seeing more of the ubiquitous and lovable Fiveish and his antics. We should encourage other organizations to think out of the box, to come up with methods to sustain themselves and enable them to provide much needed services to the community.
True, we are strained and overtaxed. Tzorchei amchah merubim. There are so many good causes, so many needy people, and so many yeshivos and schools desperate for funds. Perhaps Oorah can open a new division and share some of its secrets. In the meantime, let’s pay homage to these unsung askonim camouflaged from view by their creation of Fiveish. Far from the spotlight, these dedicated people are bringing neshamos closer to the Ribono Shel Olam every day.
As we prepare for the Yom Tov of Pesach and search through all of our belongings and possessions to find what has accumulated there without our knowledge over the year, perhaps we should also look through Klal Yisroel and see what is “hiding.” Just as stores regularly take inventory, we should review what is going on in Jewish life, no less than what is transpiring in our personal lives. We should examine what is good and what isn’t; what needs repair and what needs to be junked.
You never know. So often we find hype with little substance behind it and sometimes, if we dig deep enough, we can find that elusive diamond in the rough that, like Oorah, is waiting to be mined, polished and appreciated.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Pragmatism and Expediency

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Fresh from the experiences and lessons of Purim, we lain Parshas Ki Sisa, wherein we read of the tragic downfall of the Bnei Yisroel as they sinned with the Eigel. Moshe Rabbeinu went up to Har Sinai to receive the Torah, and when he failed to return at the expected time, the people began to worship a molten calf crafted from their wives’ jewelry.
These were the people of the Dor De’ah, the generation that stood at the foot of Har Sinai and declared, “Na’aseh venishmah.” How could they have relinquished their loyalty to Moshe for a little getchkeh?
Indeed, how was it possible for this noble people to fall so far, so fast? What caused them to be led so far astray? Had they decided to seek the authority of an exalted individual such as Aharon Hakohein after losing a leader of Moshe’s stature, we could understand. That they were willing to elevate an inanimate object to the lofty position of Hashem’s emissary is incomprehensible.
Rashi (32:1) explains that Moshe told the Jews in the desert that he would be back in forty days and they erred in their calculation. Rashi quotes the Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (89a) which explains that the Soton “confused the natural order,” creating a mirage of Moshe’s body being carried in heaven as if in a casket.
Can we really blame the Bnei Yisroel? How were they supposed to know that what their eyes were seeing wasn’t real?
Their mistake, it appears, was precisely the failure to question those images. They should have probed for the truth behind the mirage. They should have contemplated the possibility that their calculations were in error. Instead of quickly concluding that Moshe would never return, they should have trusted his promise and restrained the impulse to invent an immediate substitute. They should have recalculated their suppositions and fortified their belief in Moshe’s promised return. They failed because they submitted to the Soton. The urge to give an instantaneous response is one of the Soton’s tools.
Aharon sought to delay the Bnei Yisroel. He urged them to wait until the next day, promising that “We will celebrate before G-d tomorrow.” But by the next morning, they had degenerated to such a sorry state that they were engaged in idolatry and promiscuous conduct. Aharon’s plan went up in a cloud of smoke.
The slope from holiness to depravity is indeed so slippery that, in a few short hours, they slid from the apex of spiritual achievement to the lowest rung possible. Such is human frailty.
Moshe returned and called for those who were loyal to Hashem to come to his side. Only the tribe of Levi rallied to him. The shevet which dedicated itself to the study of Torah and was free from Egyptian enslavement was the only one that cast its lot with Moshe. The others were too far gone.
They left the fold because they were convinced that Moshe wouldn’t return. And when he did return, they failed to heed his call.
Life often throws challenges of this sort our way. Things appeal to our senses, tempting us against our better judgment. We find ourselves being seduced by outward appearances and scenes that the Soton paints for us. We disobey our teachings, traditions and common sense, because we are dazzled or enraptured by something that we can’t resist pursuing. We convince ourselves that there is nothing remiss with our behavior. We resort to all kinds of excuses and rationales to justify our actions.
Bnei Torah have to see through the Soton’s attempts to mislead and sow mayhem. We have to remain loyal to the cause and not be led astray by charming imposters and opportunists.
Charlatans blessed with amazing grace and charisma abound. No matter how many are fooled by their charm, we must remember that our eyes - and ears - can fool us. We must resist the deceptions of ego-driven people with self-serving agendas.
In each instance, it falls upon the bnei Levi to rally around the Moshe of the generation and attempt to minimize the casualties.
The Soton works in other ways as well. He portrays death and desolation, and plants seeds of despondency and despair among the Jewish people. Bnei Levi must not be deterred. We must remain steadfast in our devotion to Torah and its causes despite the apparent bleakness of the situation.
The meraglim also failed because they permitted their eyes to fool them. As a consequence of their refusal to accept the exhortations of Yehoshua and Kaleiv, they ended up revolting against Moshe, Aharon and G-d. They met the same fate as those who danced around the Eigel.
It is only when we rally around the Torah, and those in the generation who bear the mantle of Moshe Rabbeinu, that we have the power to save ourselves. We must maintain our bond with them, deepen our study of Torah and mussar, and ignore the blandishments that are utilized to derail us from the path of the righteous.
If we seek for ourselves the mantle of the bnei Levi and grasp onto the Torah, we are guaranteed assistance in keeping our vision pure and uncorrupted.
This lesson is also taught in Megillas Esther. Mordechai Hatzadik would not be led astray by forces of public opinion and ambitions of political power or expediency. He fought Haman with all the means available to him and refused to cower and submit to the minister’s ego-maniacal laws and decrees.
It was because of Mordechai’s single-minded devotion to halacha and his refusal to engage in any compromise with the forces of evil, says the Chofetz Chaim, that the Jews merited to be miraculously delivered. Mordechai wouldn’t let himself be deceived by images of what the times demanded. He refused to cede to those who called for a more pragmatic approach in dealing with the forces of evil and change.
He saw beneath the surface. He didn’t permit himself to become swept up by the tide. The Soton held no sway over him, for he saw and interpreted everything through the prism of the timeless truth of Torah. His perseverance and non-compliance are what saved the Jewish people from certain destruction and the hands of a tyrant and pliant common folk.
On Purim, as well as Chanukah, we recite Al Hanissim to thank Hashem for the miracles he performed during the days we commemorate. We offer thanks “for the miracles, salvations, wondrous strong deeds, victories, and wars - al hanissim, ve’al hapurkan, ve’al hagevuros, ve’al hateshuos, ve’al hamilchamos, she’asisah la’avoseinu bayomim haheim bazeman hazeh.
Why do we offer thanks for the battles which we were forced to fight? What is there about battle that we are so thankful for?
The Ponovezher Rov, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman zt”l (Megillas Esther Im Peirush Geonei Lita, Mosad Harav Kook, 2010), answers that when we say “al hamilchamos,” we are expressing appreciation for the ability to fight against wickedness and dishonesty. Though evil appears to be unbeatable and about to overwhelm us, we refuse to submit. We engage evil in battle and seek Divine assistance as we resist those who are corrupt and fight for the cause of virtuosity and Torah. We do not appease, we do not crumble, and we do not surrender.
Al hamilchamos. We thank Hashem for granting us the ability to fight and battle for the truth.
Much the same as we have had to engage in so many battles, may we merit, as well, to witness and experience the nissim, purkon, gevuros and teshuos, speedily and in our day.