Wednesday, October 27, 2010


by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

In the Across the Fruited Plain section of this week’s paper, there is a small news item about the closing of a shul in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Congregation Ahavas Achim had been struggling with waning membership and mounting deficits. It finally made the decision to shut its doors.

As one whose father hails from that section of the country, I found the closing of this shul very newsworthy. But you don’t have to come from Massachusetts to recognize the historical significance of the story.

With the closing of this shul, a slice of shining history will slip away, soon to be forgotten. That is regrettable, because this shul, founded 120 years ago by Litvishe Yidden from Europe, recalls the great mesirus nefesh for Shabbos that a handful of Jews demonstrated, despite the terrible price that they were forced to pay. That ought not be forgotten.

The Jews who arrived in New Bedford left behind their families, friends and everything they knew. Like so many others, they came to these shores in search of a new life. We don’t know much about these particular individuals, but we know the general outlines of their story.

Fine, ehrliche Yidden were starving in the old country. They could not afford to feed and clothe themselves and their families. Survival had become impossible. They finally threw their fate to the winds blowing from the new world on the other side of the Atlantic and sailed for the goldeneh medinah.

Many of those gutteh Yidden sought to remain loyal to their heritage, but more often than not, they were overwhelmed by the challenges; surviving in the new country while maintaining their fidelity to Torah, appeared impossible.

These Jews of Lita who were brought up on a diet of Torah came here and found no chinuch structure for their children. They couldn’t find jobs that didn’t require working on Shabbos. Given what was then an institutionalized six-day workweek, Jews who failed to show up for work on Saturday were back on the streets looking for employment on Monday.

The Jews were strangers adrift in a lonely world of doom and gloom where their most cherished values evoked universal scorn. Lacking a support system and the mental stamina and spiritual fire to navigate the obstacles, they faltered. They made the tragic calculation that temporary chillul Shabbos would enable them to earn a livelihood and ensure a secure future for their children. They thought they could then regain their former standing as observant Jews and rear their children in the same tradition.

When people allow themselves to compromise on their ideals, the end is never good. It is not for us to judge them, for we have no way of knowing whether we would have withstood their tests. In hindsight, it is very easy for us to imagine ourselves being staunch and heroic in the face of their challenges. It is so easy to say that had we been alive at that period of time, we definitely would have been among the minority who remained loyal to halacha.

Looking back at the trials to which so many succumbed, we can’t help but note the tragic fallout of their choices. The vast majority of their children and grandchildren abandoned the Torah way of life. In contrast, those few who persevered and were loyal to their mesorah and shemiras Shabbos merited to produce beautiful Jewish generations. But back then, in the very midst of the cauldron, when hunger and homelessness were real dangers, very few were capable of looking at the future and imagining a healthy and vibrant community they could draw strength from.

Every generation has its nisyonos. Today, we, too, are tested each day with new temptations that our parents and grandparents never dreamed of. Our senses are assaulted daily and we are expected to withstand those attacks. Despite the differences in our nisyonos, one thing is the same: The intensity of the nisyonos makes us feel as if we are being asked to put our lives and fortunes on the line in order to pass the tests.

When Chazal teach that our forefather Avrohom Avinu was tested through ten nisyonos, it doesn’t mean that he didn’t face additional daily nisyonos. It means that Hashem tested him in ways that he doesn’t test other people. Besides for the regular daily battles we all must face quietly, Avrohom faced ten cardinal tests which determined whether he was worthy to speak with Hashem and be the progenitor of Am Yisroel.

The Lithuanian immigrants, who settled in New Bedford and established their shul there, were some of the rare few who were able to withstand the trials of the times. They took on all types of menial jobs and did their best to raise their children to follow the proper path. Some of the people who valiantly maintained that shul, are third- and fourth-generation members of the synagogue. They are the grandchildren of the heroes who withstood their nisyonos. However, the membership continued to dwindle and now the shul can no longer sustain itself. There simply aren’t enough people who are interested in what is soon to become a cultural artifact - an Orthodox shul in New Bedford dating back to before the turn of the 20th century.

In many of the communities where people read the Yated, there is not enough room in the local shuls for all those who wish to attend. The schools are bursting and the community continues to grow. We overlook the New Bedfords of the world. We forget about the millions of neshamos lost to the spiritual trials and temptations of the past century. We forget that the American map was once dotted with thousands of small towns with kehillos, rabbonim, kosher butchers and a religious infrastructure.

Those kehillos are all gone now and there is barely anyone who even remembers that they ever existed. The few towns like New Bedford which boasted religious populations and managed to persevere are dying out. Most lost their children to the melting pot, with the minority moving on to Boston or another city blessed with day schools and a frum base.

But let’s turn the spotlight for a moment on ourselves. How would you say we are faring with today’s nisyonos? Let’s take one example. In bygone years, Jews were compelled by Jewish employers to work in factories on Shabbos. Those Jewish employers forced fellow Jews to go off the derech. Today, we have an unprecedented situation that bears certain parallels to that tragic era.

Today, we have frum children who are out of school, rejected for arbitrary reasons. Parents making a genuine sacrifice to enroll their children have the door slammed in their faces. These rejected children often have literally nowhere to turn.

In certain cases, there is a troubling similarity between those who slam the school doors shut in front of tearful parents and those factory owners who, on Monday morning, slammed the door shut on those workers who didn’t come in on Shabbos. By rejecting these children, it is possible that they are pushing the children away from the community that should be embracing them.

The Lomza mashgiach offers a fascinating insight into the nisayon of the Akeidah. Hakadosh Boruch Hu told Avrohom Avinu to bring Yitzchok to a non-descript out-of-the-way mountain. What compounded the nisayon for Avrohom, the mashgiach pointed out, was that his sacrifice was to take place far from civilization. Nobody would witness what he had done.

If the Akeidah would have been held in a public square or stadium where everyone could watch, and if it would have been covered live by the media and posted on You Tube, the nisayon would never have propelled him to the level of greatness he attained. He reached sublime heights precisely because he carried out his act of devotion utterly alone, far from human view.

We witness people who appear to be acting selflessly in Hashem’s name, while they are actually seeking to add glory and fame to their own names as well. That is not the test of greatness. The true test of greatness and fidelity to Hashem’s word is how a person conducts himself when no one is watching. Will he do the mitzvah with the same fervor as if there is a camera nearby to capture his dedication?

It is not those who seek out the attention or the ones who hold press conferences to announce their meritorious deeds who are the true heroes of the Jewish people. Rather, it is those who shun publicity and who labor without the benefits of spotlights who are the most deserving of our esteem.

The people who thrive on attention are not motivated by idealism or benefitting the people they claim to be fighting for. The true leaders of Am Yisroel don’t assume leadership positions because they are adept at manipulating the press. They pay no attention to the ever-changing trends and idols of society.

Individuals such as Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l, whose yahrtzeit was this past Sunday, and yblc Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman toiled in virtual anonymity for decades before they became household names. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and his son-in-law, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, learned day and night without a break before they became recognized as giants of the day. Rav Ovadiah Yosef suffered years of deprivation as he amassed his computer-like knowledge of Torah.

Cavorting with politicians and hobnobbing with big names can bring flashing fame, but often, to find those with real power and effectiveness, you have to search the walk-ups of non-descript buildings.

True heroes carry the nobility of spirit that defines certain people at the core. The Litvishe Jews who built the New Bedford shul at the turn of the past century are such people who sacrificed to keep their sacred traditions intact.

Many of the nisyonos that we face in our daily lives challenge us in a different way - in the way we treat our fellow Jews. Do we look down at other people or do we put ourselves in their shoes and respond compassionately? People who have power over others should consider how truly great individuals would respond to the nisyonos that they are facing. To carry forth our example, what would Rav Shteinman say if he were running a school and a person with a slightly different background would apply for admittance?

The answer to that question is not a mystery. Several menahalim actually posed just this question to him several years ago during one of his visits to America. He responded that had Avrohom Avinu come to register in their schools, he would not have been accepted. Despite the promise he radiated, they would have rejected him based on his father’s ineligibility to be a parent in their school.

The director of a cheder in Beit Shemesh approached Rav Shteinman several years ago with a dilemma. A current parent in the cheder remarried and wanted to enroll the children of his new wife in the school. The school rejected the new applicants because the hanhallah feared that they didn’t completely meet the mosad’s criteria. When the father refused to back down, Rav Shteinman was approached by the school’s director for guidance in dealing with this stubborn individual who refused to accept the school’s decision.

Rav Shteinman was incredulous. He responded that it is gaavah to insist that you are better than the other person. To reject a child from a cheder for specious reasons is not a sign of greatness, but a sign of gaavah. Those were the words of Rav Shteinman.

What a powerful message and what an important lesson.

But how is a principal to deal with a parent who applies to his school, when he knows that other parents will mock him if he accepts a child that others have rejected? It is his personal nisayon. No one is watching. There are no klieg lights trained on him. It is not an easy decision. He has to be able to demonstrate his love for a random Jewish child. He has to rise above petty concerns and face down the baalei gaavah who say they speak in the name of purity. He has to consider in his soul what would be best for the child and the other children of the school.

When faced with such a nisayon, it is incumbent to turn to someone of the caliber of Rav Shteinman, if necessary, and pose the question to him.

Today, at this late date in the school season, there are still children who have no school to attend. Through no fault of their own, they languish at home. The school they attended last year closed, or the child’s family moved from another city, or other extenuating circumstances marked them as “rejects.”

As we sit in our offices, at our shtenders and in our homes, we should consider how our decisions will hold up to scrutiny in hindsight. How will we be judged when our actions - or our lack of action - become public knowledge? Not everything we do is momentous, but all of our actions are eternal and have ramifications.

With mitzvos and maasim tovim we create good malachim - not only angels in Heaven, malachim mamash, but also malachim who walk among us, precious Jewish children and worthy adults.

Avrohom Avinu showed the way and made it easier for us to withstand our nisyonos. May we all merit to make the right choices and withstand our momentous, and daily, tests.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Achdus Lessons

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This paper’s staunch support of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin has engendered some misunderstanding. In contrast to popular belief, we took up his cause and are waging a campaign to have his wrongful conviction overturned not because of a personal friendship or because we knew him prior to the day his company became front-page news in newspapers across the country. We rallied behind him because we became convinced of the justice of his cause. We saw an honest and generous person being hounded and demonized by forces apparently bent on destroying him. We saw the public being fed a web of lies about the meatpacking plant he helped manage. We witnessed a propaganda campaign gaining enormous traction in the media.

An altruistic, deeply spiritual man was being sold to the public as a greedy millionaire who made his fortune taking advantage of the underclass. That was a breathtaking distortion of reality. The travesty cried out and we could not sit by quietly as this fine man was dragged through the mud and eventually railroaded by the justice system.

Prior to last week, I had met Sholom Mordechai just once. Last Thursday, I visited him in Otisville, meeting him for a second time. I had met him the first time under such drastically different circumstances - in his home, surrounded by a loving family.

He was then awaiting trial, but had bitachon that he would be cleared of all charges since he knew he was innocent. Little did he imagine that the next time we would meet, he would be sitting in jail with a 27-year sentence hanging over him.

During the first visit, it was not possible to discern, either from his surroundings or from his demeanor, that he was the wealthiest person in town. His house was a large but simple pre-fab, at the end of a long unpaved road, surrounded by cornfields. There was no evidence of the turmoil into which his life had been plunged.

From the way he comported himself, he could have been just another of the many fine people who had moved to Postville to be employed as shochtim and bodkim at Agriprocessors. The people in shul treated him with quiet respect. When he was out of earshot, they spoke to me about some of his extraordinary deeds and his unheralded acts of charity and kindness. They told me of the high esteem in which he was held by the town’s residents, Jew and gentile alike.

People close to him knew him as a baal bitachon, a person suffused with yiras Shomayim and emunah. His custom of arising early in the morning to learn and say Tehillim was adopted many years back. He always understood that the wealth he possessed was not meant for him to enjoy, but rather to help people in need and to support worthy institutions. His home was not just a home. It was a virtual communal center, open at all times of the day and night to people who needed a warm meal, a comfortable bed, a shoulder to cry on, and financial aid.

Most of all, Sholom Mordechai had a sense of happiness and calm about him. When I met him last week, I was happy to see the same warm smile and the same quiet acceptance that mark those who place their faith in Hashem. To see him imprisoned in surroundings that so assault the senses was deeply painful.

I was struck by his ability to maintain his equilibrium despite his environment, and his deep concerns about his family and his legal case. Perhaps the most amazing thing about all this is that he is outwardly just a regular guy like you and me. Thrust into an awful situation, however, his response has been anything but ordinary. His quiet strength and heroism are humbling. Instead of blaming people and becoming embittered by his plight, he has remained a fountain of hope, optimism and trust in Hashem.

As we visited, I thought to myself how, most times, people’s strengths so often lie dormant and untested. When the chips were down, Sholom Mordechai reached into his deepest spiritual reserves to remain strong and undaunted. He is able to retain his humanity and the sense of dignity and self-respect that distinguish the free, despite his harrowing surroundings.

The way he has handled himself should inspire all of us with the realization that we, too, possess the raw power of emunah and the potential for greatness. We should never have to be tested by calamity in order to bring these kochos to the surface and to prove that we can meet crises without crumbling.

It is thanks to his love of all people and attempts, when he was free, to foster and ensure achdus in his corner of the world, that Klal Yisroel has rallied to his side with an unprecedented outpouring of tefillos and support which sustain him.

Achdus is the glue that holds Am Yisroel together with a supernatural power. With achdus, we can overcome terrible adversity and the unrelenting hardships of golus.

Much of the world was focused last week on the rescue of the trapped Chilean miners. Many people derived lessons for life from their determination to survive their ordeal.

For 69 days, 33 men sat entombed in a dark underground cave, half a mile below civilization. They banded together and were on the brink of death when a drill bit from up above poked into their tiny shelter. They sent up a note that they were alive, and the nation of Chile, and the world, rejoiced. Food was sent down to the miners, and a couple of months later, they were pulled, alive and well, to safety.

What enabled these people to come out alive? By their own testimony, it was their shared plight and concern for one another. Before they were found to be alive in a tiny corner unaffected by the mine’s collapse, they survived by sharing a small amount of food that some of the men had left over in their lunch pails. Had each person reacted by caring solely for himself, no one would have made it. Had they not embraced one another, they would have all succumbed. Instead, they sat in that hot, damp, dark tomb, supporting and caring for one another.

In order to survive in our own cave, known as Earth, we must also learn how to care for one another and not be self-absorbed and self-centered. If we focus only on ourselves and are callous and inconsiderate of others, we will never excel and the society we create will be one we do not want to live in.

That is the message of the Tea Party revolution which is sweeping this country. People had become apathetic about the direction the country is taking. They permitted their leaders to act in ways which harmed the very populace they were elected to represent. Instead of recognizing their obligation to their constituents, they viewed themselves as being on a higher plane than the common man. Upon assuming positions of power, they lost touch with reality. They viewed themselves as being above reproach and promoted their own interests, oblivious and indifferent to the needs of others.

The failure of entrenched politicians was due not only to their trail of broken promises, but to the fact that they ignored the feelings and opinions of the people they were representing. They got away with this outrageous neglect of their mission because the masses weren’t united.

People who were being crushed by the declining economy, who had lost their jobs, whose incomes had dropped, and whose taxes had risen all believed that they had no options. Those who feared what would happen to their health care assumed that they had their backs against the wall and were out of options, as did people who had become ensnared in the growing government bureaucracy.

It was only after people began speaking to each other and realizing that they were not alone in their distress over the direction the country was taking that the incumbent Democrat reign began to weaken. Slowly, multitudes of people joined hands in the awareness that they were not isolated voices of dissent, and a movement began gathering speed and momentum.

People shared their concerns over rising taxes, a weakening economy, an ever-expanding big-brother government, and a president and party with an aggressive, leftist agenda.

It is only through open communication, a coming together of diverse groups, and selfless dedication to a cause and to each other that the country will succeed in reversing the current balance of power favoring the Democrats. When simple, ordinary folk organize around the cause of replacing politicians who promise one thing and do another, and when they finally demand an accounting from those who flout the public will, a changing of the guard will be ensured.

Let us also resolve to unify as we never have before, so that we can use the tools at our disposal to overturn the abuses of power that have harmed our community and individuals such as Sholom Mordechai. Let us resolve to follow the example of Avrohom Avinu and the avos in the parshiyos of Sefer Bereishis that we are currently studying. Let us genuinely adopt achdus as our defining trait, so that it may lead us from this dark cave of golus to the ultimate redemption, speedily and in our day.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This juxtaposition of this week’s Parshas Lech Lecha with last week’s Parshas Noach has a profound message for us. That lesson is underscored in the famous Rashi at the beginning of Parshas Noach that young children invariably quote from their parsha sheets at the Shabbos table. It’s a message we’ve heard innumerable times but for some reason, never truly absorb.

Rashi states that according to one opinion, had Noach lived in the generation of Avrohom, he wouldn’t have been regarded as anyone special.

Children read the Rashi off their sheets and continue their weekly devar Torah with the question: Why was Noach inferior to Avrohom? In what way did the two men differ so radically that the Torah has to hint that had Noach lived in Avrohom’s era, he would not have been considered a tzaddik at all?

The answer that is often given is that Avrohom reached out to the people and engaged in kiruv work. Avrohom cared about his neighbors. He davened for them and sought to bring them tachas kanfei haShechinah. Noach, by contrast, wasn’t able to be mekarev anyone.

When Hakadosh Boruch Hu told him about the impending Mabul, Noach’s reaction was acceptance of the decree. He didn’t defend the people or seek to have the decree annulled. Avrohom’s response to the news of destruction looming over Sedom was precisely the opposite. He davened to spare the wicked ones from annihilation.

Avrohom is credited with enlightening and educating an entire community, as indicated by the posuk which states, “Es hanefesh asher asu beChoron.” Noach’s sphere of influence was practically non-existent.

We listen to the vort once again as we wait for Mommy to bring out the soup, but it doesn’t register. We hear about the importance of kiruv but what impact does it have? It never seems to go beyond the nice little vertel. It never becomes real. We never take it to heart. By the time the main course arrives, we’ve forgotten about it.

Shouldn’t we pause to consider how we can apply the Torah’s message about the supreme value of reaching out to our fellow Jews in our own lives?

If Noach, whom the Torah describes as a tzaddik tomim, would have been totally insignificant in a future generation because he didn’t invest effort in drawing people closer to the Creator, how would the Torah describe us? Our generation may well be as immoral, corrupt and licentious as his. Yet, we live post Matan Torah, at a time when the people we are responsible for are not uncivilized pagans, but modern, intelligent, bnei Avrohom Yitzchok v’Yaakov, who, due to the upheavals of golus, have lost their connection to our glorious heritage.

We do our best to be tzaddikim. We work very hard at being temimim. We learn as much as we can, do as much chesed as is humanly possible, and constantly find worthy causes to donate to. But we are lacking in the way we treat people who look different than us. We look down upon them and don’t consider it our obligation to befriend them or get involved with them.

Let me share a story I read about Gustav, a student who became frum on a college campus. Gustav attended shiurim on his campus given by frum university alumni, baalei batim and rabbonim of the local community. As a result of the regular shiurim, Torah discussions and guidance, Gustav went on to embrace observant Yiddishkeit. He went to learn in yeshiva, giving back to Klal Yisroel far more than we ever gave him.

This is not a contemporary kiruv story. It happened in the 1930’s, in Germany. The campus kiruv organization was called the V.A.D. (Verein Judische Academiker), which was led by talmidim of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. The group operated in Berlin, Germany, and dedicated itself to teaching Torah to students whose neshomos cried out, “Anachnu rotzim lilmod Torah!”

We know Gustav Karl Friedrich Wolbe as Rav Shlomo Wolbe, whose light of Torah continues to radiate over Klal Yisroel through his seforim and talmidim. That is thanks to the talmidim of Avrohom Avinu who cared about Yiddishe neshomos and made an effort to reach him and others like him and bring them tachas kanfei haShechinah.

A story is told about three young residents of a virulently anti-religious Shomer Hatzair kibbutz who showed up at the kollel of the Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak. Upon entering, they said to the stunned yungeleit, “Anachnu rotzim lilmod Torah - We want to learn Torah.” The kollel fellows didn’t know how to respond. They consulted with the Chazon Ish, who instructed them to learn with the kibbutzniks. He explained that these young men were the children and grandchildren of the original olim to Eretz Yisroel who threw away their Yiddishkeit as their boats made their way across the Mediterranean.

The parents of those olim, said the Chazon Ish, had run to their shuls, grabbed the paroches, and cried bitter tears over their children who were becoming lost. Their tears may not have helped for those who intentionally abandoned Yiddishkeit, but they were stored in Shomayim and were being responded to as the olims’ children, who were tinokos shenishbu, sought out Torah. Thus, predicted the Chazon Ish, they will come back, and not only will they embrace a Torah life, but in the coming years so will many thousands more.

We see those prophetic words coming to life. We have a role to play in realizing the potential for greatness in the Jewish people, as far as many of our brethren have wandered. You’ll never know where there is a Shlomo in the guise of a Gustav if you don’t stretch out your hand to Gustav. There are Gustavs everywhere. When we come in contact with them, and when it is appropriate, we should try to interest them in the glory of their heritage so that they may one day enjoy the benefits of a Torah life.

We should not only concern ourselves with the Gustavs. There are many Shlomos as well who need us. There are so many people with whom we are in contact each day who could benefit from a little more love, some compassion, and the knowledge that someone cares about them. Frum people also need kiruv. Frum people can also be lonely and in need of a friend. Frum people can also use chizuk once in a while. They get down when things don’t go right with their parnossah or their children. They are overwhelmed as they cope with the myriad challenges of life. How can we think of ourselves as tzaddikim if we couldn’t care less whether the guy who sits next to us by davening was able to get his children into school? How can we consider ourselves temimim if we feign ignorance to the pain of our neighbors and colleagues?

A new day school opened this year in southern Florida for the children of irreligious Israeli yordim who would otherwise be in public school. A mother of one of the students washes the floors of the school to augment the $1,500 she is able to afford for tuition. This woman has no clear idea of what is motivating her to demonstrate this type of mesirus nefesh for her child to receive a Torah education. People who are distant from Yiddishkeit can still be so close to Hashem. All they need is for us to stretch out a friendly hand to them and they’ll do the rest themselves. It is folly for us to judge people based on their dress and outer appearances. Inside, heim rotzim lilmod Torah.

When Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin was on trial for his life in South Dakota, he went to the local mall to purchase something he needed. While there, he saw young Israelis at booths trying to convince shoppers to purchase their products. Instead of going home that weekend, he stayed in South Dakota with his family to spend the Shabbos with twelve Israelis. Did they become frum from that encounter? Who knows? But they surely absorbed the warmth of Shabbos in a way they never did previously. They acquired a new perspective on Yiddishkeit.

Many times we have passed by Israelis of that type without so much as giving them a second thought. We can’t all spend a Shabbos with them, but we can stretch out a hand of friendship and make them feel wanted. You never know where your initiative will lead.
The parshiyos of Sefer Bereishis are part of the eternal Torah so that we can learn the lessons they impart. The parshiyos are not simply collections of good stories. They are meant to portray how we are to lead our lives. Maybe not all of us are able to involve ourselves in kiruv activities. But we can all change our mindset to recognize that those who actively pursue kiruv are not people to be mocked, vilified or pitied for their naïveté.

Besides, life is about going as far as you can and doing as much you can; you never know how far you can go and how much you can accomplish until you try. You never know the difference you can make in a person’s life until you give it a shot.