Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Our Baaleboss

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


Referring to the month of Elul, the Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chaim 581) in his introduction to the halachos of this month uses a reference to the mitzvah of milah, “Umol Hashem Elokecha es levovcha v’es levav zarecha - Hashem will remove the blockages and obstructions surrounding our hearts, allowing the mutual love, Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li, to flow unimpeded.

This chodesh Elul, the words of that posuk are more than just a call to teshuvah. The fact that the posuk chose the word “Umol,” which hints to the mitzvah of milah, as an example for the process of coming closer to Hashem, has an added connotation this year.

At a bris, a newborn infant, still a baby but with the potential of a great life ahead of him, is welcomed into Am Yisroel.

During the moments before the cries fill the air, everyone gathered welcomes Eliyohu Hanovi to the room and recognizes the significance of what is about to take place. “Umol.” A layer of skin is removed from the baby, representing subservience to Hashem and the removal of barriers between man and G-d; the mechitzah hamavdeles bein Yisroel l’Avihem shebashomayim is gone.

We stand now during this season of “Umol,” challenged to protect this mitzvah and publicly proclaim that we will not permit anyone to teach us how an age-old practice that represents the covenant between Hashem and His people should be performed. We have no need for any suggestions about how to improve the process.

Brisos have been performed for thousands of years, just as they were performed by Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov and transmitted to us by Moshe Rabbeinu.

Brisos have taken place not only in shuls and catering halls, but also on hills, in valleys and in caves, in bunkers and in cellars, always as prescribed.

Standing at a bris, someone remarked to the Brisker Rov that he had a hard time witnessing a bris milah being performed, because he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. The Rov admonished him, saying, “This is not blood. This is dam bris.

When you observe the performance of a bris milah, the Brisker Rov was saying, you are viewing the act of a mitzvah. You are viewing the krisus bris between our people and Hashem. You are watching one of the most hallowed acts in a Jew’s life. You are not just seeing blood. You should be rejoicing, not complaining.

Those who mock us and vilify us speak of the ugliness of blood. We see the beauty and glory in dam bris. We see the blood and remember the posuk which we then proudly proclaim for all to hear: “Va’eevor olayich va’ereich misboseses bedomoyich, va’omar loch bedomayich chayi, va’omar loch bedomayich chayi.” Hashem tells us that this blood is the blood of life. It sustains life and, through it, we shall live.

When the New York City Department of Health cites cases of metzitzah b’peh leading to infants contracting the herpes virus, we are confident enough to know that there has to be a mistake. In previous editions of this newspaper, we investigated the two cases they point to and proved that despite the department’s best efforts to intimidate the parents in order to advance their agenda, these parents did not capitulate. It is obvious to any objective observer that no relationship between bris milah and herpes exists in those cases. We are currently investigating another two similar cases in which authorities intimidated parents in order to manufacture evidence to further their anti-milah jihad.

The natural reaction to the city’s ongoing milah crusade is to shrug our shoulders and say, “Shalom yihiyeh li. It is not my problem. I am neither a mohel, nor an askan. I’m just a regular guy. Why should I get involved?”

As believing Jews, we have to realize that this is personal. There is an ongoing crusade against metzitzah by city officials, and it is you, and your beliefs, and your practices, and your Yiddishkeit, that are being targeted.

The groundwork is being laid. Subliminal allegations that we are negligent, unsanitary and uncaring of our children are presented to foment the notion that religious people are not only backward, but also evil, and they must be monitored and controlled by government. Sometimes, it is incumbent upon us to clearly articulate what we stand for and what we are all about. We cannot, and should not, always attempt to be diplomatic and all things to all people. There are times when, for the greater purpose of advancing our agenda, people feel they must compromise, play political word games, and massage an issue until it goes away.

At other times, even those who are more diplomatically inclined admit that a debate is a contest for one specific agenda against another. When our group is fighting for the truth, for our deeply felt beliefs, and for continuing what we have been doing for thousands of years against a group that seeks to obfuscate and concentrate on demagoguery, it is not a time for silence or compromise. The other side should be forced to confront the scientific facts and stop their subliminal campaign against our time-honored practices.  People who are strong in their beliefs have no problem forcing debates on issues.

The battle is uneven, because we are not all united in our purpose, while those who fight us, are. We cannot get together on the things we believe in, because dozens of tangential issues divide us. Our enemies don’t let such considerations get in their way, and although there is much that divides them, they don’t let that get in the way of their mission of battling religion and Torah.

The current war against bris milah is being waged under different guises and in various accents, in several countries on various continents. With all the differences, one thing remains constant. They despise us, our religion, our customs and our success. They resent our ability to rebuild and revitalize ourselves a few decades after the Holocaust, when all had thought that the religious Jew would never resurrect himself and they were done with us and what we represent.

Far more harmful than just talking nasty, they have made people in our camp into unwitting accomplices. As the posuk describes Amaleik at the end of this week’s parsha and their ability to prey on the vulnerable, our present enemies prey on the insecure, those who aren’t sure of themselves, and they get these Jews to act in ways they think will earn them the respect of those who are obsessed with destroying them.

The urge to be respected drives some to act in ways antithetical to their own cause. They don’t recognize that by responding to the critics and offering up compromises, they validate those who are engaging in a campaign of step-by-step destruction of what they hold dear. They permit our antagonists to advance their agenda. Moreover, they do not become any more loved in the process.

The ability of politicians to use Madison Avenue techniques to convince the masses of what is good and proper is evident in the way that what was previously universally considered deviant human behavior, has become not only accepted, but a matter of pride, over a short period.

It happened as the moral people slept and thought they had won victories, but, essentially, as they were apathetically ceding territory, the other side was advancing their agenda. They began with small incremental changes and, through them, changed the conversation and the way their actions are perceived in the world. It began with a drive for plain old human rights, with everyone being entitled to live their life as they please. They only said they were seeking to be left alone to live in peace. Once they accomplished that, they sought some basic human rights, and when that was achieved, they moved to the next step. They thus continued to take those baby steps. Today, they call their way of life marriage and publicly flaunt their activities and are accepted in the highest positions and welcomed everywhere.

The New York health authorities shake our hands and slap our backs as they assure us that they’re only concerned with one aspect of bris milah and the rest is fine. But they seek to portray that one aspect of the ritual as an act that is life threatening. They bullwhip people into admitting that certain health situations affecting infants which were totally unrelated to bris milah were caused by bris milah. They have no real evidence tying bris milah to the spread of disease, but that doesn’t stop them. They employ terror tactics and turn to false science, fake reports and age-old demagoguery to implant their notions in the public consciousness.

Once they have finished educating the masses about the danger of metzitzah, they will move to their next step. Before you know it, the same arguments that are being used against bris milah in Europe will be utilized right here, in New York, home of millions of Jews.

We have to realize that the sinah for our people and our customs is as old as the bris itself. The double standard by which we are judged is as old as our people  are.

A mainstream Danish newspaper just recently published the following description of the bris ceremony: “Around the baby stand ten black-clad men, a must in every Jewish circumcision. As usual in Judaism, women aren’t allowed to be present. An untrained rabbi mutilates the baby, who cries and bleeds profusely as the men pray.”

This is what is published in a modern western country. We are not surprised when we read of Saudi clerics perpetrating myths of Jews drinking the blood of gentile children in their neighborhoods, as we reported in this paper last week, but who would imagine that in our enlightened day, Jews would be portrayed in this fashion in the European media?

The same advanced groups who refer to themselves as progressive, and who through convoluted reasoning sanction the murder of infants, are the ones who are suddenly concerned that a ritual which has been around for four thousand years hurts infants.

The same country which made a mockery of human feeling, emotion, pain and life now smugly lectures us on how to treat our children. Six hundred doctors in that accursed country signed the document that vilifies circumcision. Have the heirs of Dr. Mengele no shame?

Then there are rabbis who travel there and offer compromises, such as stating that mohalim who practice bris milah as prescribed by G-d to our forefather Avrohom take lessons from those very doctors. Have they, too, lost their shame? Don’t they realize that these people are motivated by an inbred hatred of the Jewish people and not by love of children or fidelity to the Hippocratic Oath?

In this country, in the bastion of liberalism, we have been documenting how the experts of the Department of Health are engaging in a stealth campaign to entrap parents and threaten them into admitting that their children were harmed by bris milah. Through the use of faux science and debauchery, they are determined to portray us as uncaring about human life. They set up straw men and offer compromises, which, if submitted to, will only serve to advance their agenda and cement the narrative that Jews and their practices must be monitored by the state, because Jews are baby killers and are more concerned about some ancient ritual than about life. Have they no shame?

We are the people who brought civility to this world. We were the first to ban infanticide. We don’t need to be lectured or take lessons from baby killers just because they have medical school degrees.

Our Torah is a Toras Chaim, a book of life. Our G-d is merciful. Our religion celebrates life. We have managed to survive all the attempts to destroy us. We have outlived them all and we will triumph over these do-gooders and their enablers as well.

We need to remind ourselves of the age-old truth, which stretches all the way back to the time our people gathered around a mountain and became one.

They, the elected officials who are constantly looking over their shoulders, counting campaign funds and poll results while flashing their insincere smiles, are nothing. They are here today and gone tomorrow. Their highbrow moral talk is undermined by their own immoral behavior, again and again. We have nothing to fear.

One is reminded of a story about Rav Yosef Yitzchok, the rebbe who led the Chabad chassidus during the darkest years of Russian oppression, keeping the fires going with literal mesirus nefesh, risking imprisonment and torture each and every day.

A high-ranking Communist official, frustrated with the rebbe’s stubborn refusal to cease and desist from spreading the word of the Living G-d, once pulled out a pistol and pointed it at the rebbe.

The rebbe remained unbent. In the immortal words of the Jew in golus, he said to the official, “What you hold in your hand doesn’t scare us. It can only frighten someone who has but one world and many gods. We Jews have two worlds but only One G-d.”

The gun was returned to its holster.

Perhaps the most effective shtadlan the people in tiny Eretz Yisroel had was Zev Wolfson, whose backroom deals and alliances with American politicians resulted in steady and very necessary help for Israel. On several occasions, he singlehandedly saved the government from financial and military collapse.

Mr. Wolfson was defined by a previous shtadlan many years back as “Es Ha’Elokim ani yorei.” He feared no man and he was beholden to no one but Hashem. When he felt it was the only way to accomplish his goal on behalf of the Jewish people, he dropped diplomacy and bonhomie and exchanged them for effectiveness and focus.

Astute politicians understood that it would be smartest to work with Zev, even though he didn’t do the sweet-talking thing. He cared deeply, he worked for his Creator, and he engendered respect as a result. It would do us well to learn this lesson.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer was a storied askan, who gave his life for the advancement of the Jewish people through statesmanship, oratory, political skill and stamina. Rav Aharon Kotler fueled him, as he did Mr. Wolfson, with clarity of purpose, yiras Shomayim, and a willingness to swallow humiliation and rejection in the process of fighting for His glory.

More often than not, Rabbi Sherer succeeded in his missions. His inspiration was an immigrant whose own speech was so rapid that the words seemed to trip over each other and who had no concept of the inner workings of Congress. Rav Aharon knew only that we must fight to assure the right of Yidden to live in accordance with the Shulchan Aruch. Torah is primary and everything else is secondary. There is no compromise when it comes to Torah.

Rav Aharon fought to establish the primacy of Torah here and in Eretz Yisroel. The tremendous rejuvenation that took place since the era of the German attempt to destroy us is testament to the vision and determination of Rav Aharon and people like him.

The Kashau Rov, Rav Refoel Bloom, purchased an old campus in suburban Westchester from New York City at a sharply reduced price, intending to transplant his kehillah there. Due to a misunderstanding between the city and Kashau, at some point after the sale, the city stopped paying to heat the building. The pipes froze and burst, causing much damage and great monetary loss. Kashau was unable to come up with the money for the repairs and additional expenses, and was unable to pay the mortgage in a timely fashion and was placed in default.

Subsequently, during the months following the sale, the value of real estate in Westchester skyrocketed. The city sought to reclaim the parcel and resell it at a much higher price.

The Kashau chassidim appealed to Rabbi Moshe Sherer to intervene on their behalf and forestall the sale of the property. Rabbi Sherer explained to the city authorities handling the matter that the chassidim had not realized that they were responsible to heat the building as soon as the sale had gone through. They had assumed that the city would maintain the property until they moved in.

Additionally, Rabbi Sherer found someone to bring the mortgage payments up to date, providing the city would stop its proceedings against the Kashau kehillah and permit them to maintain ownership of the property.

The Kashau Rov went to the home of a local askan to discuss the offer and to seek his intervention with the mayor. The askan told the rov that he thought he could convince the mayor that the inexperienced chassidim had been in over their heads and should be given another opportunity, but he told the rov that he needed something in return.

At the time, chassidim were protesting policies of the liberal mayor. The askan advised the rov to instruct his chassidim to refrain from demonstrating against the mayor while he was appealing for his goodwill.

The Kashau Rov looked at the askan and said, “Ehr iz nisht mein baalebos uhn ehr kehn mir gurnisht tohn (He doesn’t own me and he can’t do anything to me. No deal.).”

The rov proclaimed that he had only one “Baaleboss,” and although he risked losing his property, the money he had spent years raising, and his dreams for his kehillah, he was not about to capitulate to anyone.

The mayor showed no mercy and the city continued moving to have Kashau evicted from the property. The matter went to court, where it appeared almost certain that the city would win. However, in an unanticipated decision, the judge ruled that since the Kashau chassidim had already moved in, it would be too costly, time-consuming and inconvenient to evict them, and thus the land had little value in a sale.

The Kashauer Rov’s “Baalebos” took care of him.

A few years ago, when New York City began its campaign against metzitzah, the authorities claimed that they were only focused on one specific mohel, against whom, they claimed, they had proof that he was spreading the herpes virus. They said that they weren’t seeking to interfere with bris milah. Rather, they only wanted to stop that specific mohel.

The Kashau Rov’s grandson became involved. He met with a top advisor to the mayor, and after exchanging pleasantries, the mayoral assistant said to him, “Are you prepared to negotiate?” He responded, “Yes, I am.” A broad smile broke out across the lips of the bureaucrat. The Rov continued, saying, “Yes, I am prepared to negotiate your unconditional surrender!”

He knew who the real Baaleboss is.

During the period when the Communists sought to control Jewish ritual and life, the Chofetz Chaim remarked that it was wrong to allow the Communists to assume they held that power. When a talmid pointed out that they were physically capable of forcing Yidden to capitulate, the Chofetz Chaim replied, “Mir hubben gedarft gein mit bezzems (We should have gone with brooms to fight them). Az der Ribono Shel Olam vil, shist ah bezzem (If Hashem wills it, a broom can also shoot bullets).”

The Gemorah in Maseches Brachos (20a) relates a conversation that took place between Rav Poppa and Abaye. Rav Poppa asked why it is that previous generations merited having miracles preformed for them and his didn’t. He proved that the reason could not be that the previous generation was more proficient in Torah study. Abaye responded that the previous generations were moser nefesh for kiddush Hashem and that is why they were deserving of the miracles that were performed for them.

A study of the generations prior to ours would indicate a readiness to be moser nefesh for kiddush Hashem. They realized what was primary and what was temporal, and when the times demanded it, they were moser nefesh. In our day as well, there are mesirus nefesh Yidden. Perhaps we should learn from their example.

We live in difficult times, with the specter of a nuclear war upon us. The economy is in recession and many people, yeshivos and organizations are desperately in need of financial assistance. Our mesirus nefesh for mitzvos can make the difference in sparing us from war and ruin.

This week’s parsha instructs us to remember what Amaleik did to us when we left Mitzrayim, The posuk (25:17-18) states, “Asher korcha baderech,” which Rashi explains to mean that all the nations of the world were frightened to attack us, but Amaleik showed the way for them, cooling the fears of the others.

Vayezaneiv becho, the Amaleikim grabbed hold of you, “kol hanechesholim acharecha,” those Jews whose sins weakened them, “v’ato oyeif veyogei’a,” and you became tired and weakened, beaten down by Amaleik, “velo yorei Elokim,” because Amaleik didn’t fear Hashem.

The Baal Haturim (ibid.) offers a fascinating gematria. He writes that the numerical value of the words “vayezaneiv becho” is equal to the numerical value of “zeh milah.” Amaleik mocked milah.

A klipah, or remnant, of Amaleik is alive in every generation, and it seeks to target the weak from among us; and cause us to become demoralized, apathetic and ready to capitulate to those who don’t fear Hashem. The heirs of Amaleik battle us in every way they know how, militarily and through demagoguery, including through mocking the mitzvah of bris milah.

Zachor. We must remember their objective. We must remember how they operate and not capitulate to them and those who follow their example.

There is a well-known shittah in halacha that dictates that, in the event of a bris on Rosh Hashanah, the baal tokeia should be the one to perform the metzitzah, so that the blood of the bris milah should be on his lips as he blows the shofar, creating an extra source of zechus for the tzibbur.

May our battles and campaigns for kevod Shomayim mingle with our tefillos at this time of year, so that we will be remembered for a healthy, good and peaceful new year by the Zocher Habris.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

­Heroes of Summer

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

We have all heard of Oorah and are most familiar with its jingles and mascot. We see their ads, but we have to admit that we really aren’t all that familiar with what they do.

For the past couple of years, Oorah has asked me to spend a Shabbos in The Zone, their summer camp for kids. To tell you the truth, it didn’t really interest me. What am I going to do in a camp overrun with public school kids? Besides, they probably have Fiveishes posted at every corner and their jingles are likely playing everywhere. What type of Shabbos could it be?

Shabbos Nachamu I went to see for myself what goes on in that camp. And, once again, I drank the Kool-Aid. What a nechomah it was.

As Kabbolas Shabbos began, the energetic head counselor announced that those present were about to experience the best Kabbolas Shabbos in their lives. For most of the hundreds present, it wasn’t a hard bar to conquer. For the overwhelming majority of the campers, if they wouldn’t be in that camp, they would not be experiencing Shabbos.

But even the counselors, yeshiva bochurim who volunteer their bein hazemanim to make a difference in the lives of Jewish children, and guests at the camp were in for an experience like no other. It was breathtaking to watch how those very same public school kids, who were new to Shabbos and to davening and so much else, were mekabeil Shabbos that night. Slowly, but surely, the bais medrash came to life. We watched children trying mightily to daven. Their fingers, which would otherwise be typing into Facebook or flipping channels on a TV remote, pointed to the letters in their siddurim, as they tried valiantly to sing the praises of Hashem and His Shabbos.

During Lecho Dodi, everyone was on their feet, overcome with joy, singing together the tunes of simcha and deveikus, and then breaking out in dance around the bais medrash. Campers, counselors, rabbonim and guests joined hands in happiness. Those who wonder what Oorah does should have been in that room and felt the energy and the kedushah. They would have experienced the best Kabbolas Shabbos in their life.

It was amazing to be there and speak to the campers. They shared their stories, relating how far they have come and how far they have to go. The kid from PS 41 was as sweet as can be. You look at his Yiddishe ponim and your heart breaks knowing where he came from and where he is headed unless the yeshivaleit of Oorah are able to convince his parents to send him to a yeshiva.

You ask a kid what he likes best about camp and he says, “Shabbat. I never knew what it was. It’s awesome.”

It breaks your heart, but it also gladdens it, for there is a fighting chance to save these kids thanks to the dedicated staff and their hatzolah work.

You meet a boy who came to camp four years ago as a public school kid and today looks like any other ben Torah, and he tells you with the broadest smile you’ve ever seen that he is in the rosh yeshiva’s shiur. Oorah’s staff convinced his parents to send him to yeshiva and paid the tuition, as they helped him rise to the challenge, providing all types of chizuk along the way.

One of the rabbeim in the camp was searching high and low for his ArtScroll Brachos Gemoros, to no avail. He needed them for his advanced class. Hours later, he found them. Three boys who had gone to the Siyum Hashas decided to begin studying Talmud. But they can’t read Hebrew, so they took the Gemoros and hid in a room where they wouldn’t be disturbed, and they clawed their way through the first page of the masechta.

Is that not a nechomah to a nation badly in need of one?

This rebbi then said that there had been an internal debate regarding whether they should take the campers to the Siyum Hashas. What would they do there? They wouldn’t understand the speeches. They wouldn’t be able to sit still. What would they gain from being there?

“I was against them going,” he said. “I was wrong. I was very wrong. When I saw those kids working so hard to learn a blatt Gemorah, all because they were at the Siyum, I was overcome. Oh, how wrong I was.”

The kids in camp are real, and as they are introduced to Yiddishkeit, it becomes so real to them that their emunah peshutah leaves an observer awestruck.

A young camper was spotted in shul in the middle of a nice sunny day. The staff member who found him asked him why he was there, rather than outside, with everyone else. The camper told him that his whole life he dreamed of riding a horse, but he was never able to. When he came to the camp, he was so excited to see twelve horses and to hear that he would get to ride a horse and have his dream fulfilled. He was about to get his chance in a few minutes, along with the rest of his bunk, but along with his excitement about saddling up on the back of a horse, he was scared and afraid. He had just started learning Alef-Bais in camp, so he thought that it might help if he went to the shul and read to G-d the few letters that he knew. That would make G-d happy and he wouldn’t fall off his horse.

These are the type of Jewish kids being rescued from a life of spiritual oblivion.

The camp began this year on a Friday. One of the campers, who had just gone through the first Shabbos experience of his life, thought when Sunday came along that what he saw the day before was the way that religious Jews conduct themselves all seven days of the week, with no melochah, no swimming, no driving, and with a lengthy davening. How was he to know any different?

There was another boy who wondered after davening Friday night why the shofar wasn’t blown.

Boys like these are introduced to the beauty of the Torah way of life and they like what they see.

A boy in the camp posed a shailah, asking if it is permissible to make Kiddush on soda. He explained that his parents are not religious and that he didn’t think he could start keeping Shabbos just yet. But he wanted to keep something. Camp lit a spark inside of him and he wanted to keep it flickering. He wants to make Kiddush at home every Shabbos, but there’s no grape juice in his house, so he wants to know if he can make Kiddush on soda and thus recall what Shabbos was like in camp. He wants to have some kedushah in his life.

A real boy, a real question, a real Yid, who will one day learn Torah and be shomer Shabbos thanks to Oorah and the yeshiva bochurim and kollel yungeleit who gave up their summer to show him and others what Shabbos is.

I was soaking it all in and was amazed by the hundreds of boys who were being exposed to Yiddishkeit and given a fighting chance to grow up frum. I reflected on the zechus of the people of Oorah and those who support them in what they do.

As if reading my mind, the brilliant lawyer, Ron Coleman, who was there too, approached me and opened my eyes.

“You look inspired,” he said.

“How can I not be?” I responded.

“You’re missing the best part,” he said. “You are probably thinking about the campers and so impressed by the change that can come over them. But there’s an equally large story here that you are probably missing. It gets much less recognition. Look at the accomplishments of the counselors, basically regular yeshiva bochurim from regular yeshivos.”

He’s right. Typical yeshiva bochurim, who spend the entire year learning, gave away their summer break to volunteer in The Zone. Only two people out of the 200 who work there – not including maintenance staff - were paid for their work. But you couldn’t tell. They were so motivated and so focused on what they were doing, it was awe-inspiring. There was such pride in what they were doing, and joy and simcha were everywhere. They were engaged in a historic mission and they felt it.

They were the embodiment of the posuk which states, “Veheishiv leiv avos al bonim, veleiv bonim al avosom,” and they felt it.

I saw how our own yeshiva bochurim are tofeiach al menas lehatfiach. They were so saturated with chiyus at the end of the zeman as to be able to give it over to others who don’t have the opportunities they do. The success of the young people who spent their summer learning and teaching in shuls, camps and programs is testimony to the job our yeshivos and schools are doing. It gives everyone hope for a better tomorrow. It shows that our youth have the desire to grow, flourish, accomplish and make a difference.

There is a look on the faces of the campers there that tells you that they’re getting it too. These kids exchange conventional summertime fun for a great time coupled with a spiritual component. With determination, focus and stamina, and ever-present smiles on their faces, they forge ahead. The month or two that they spend at The Zone will enrich their lives in ways they never fathomed. The people at Oorah realize that, and they know what they’re undertaking. It’s not just two months, but a commitment to helping these youngsters change their lives. It will mean paying their yeshiva tuition should they succeed in convincing them to go to yeshiva. It means Shabbos invitations, providing matzos and dalet minim, and staying in touch every week. Undaunted, the good folks at Oorah say, “Bring it on.” And by the way, though I didn’t get to visit it, eight miles from the camp for boys, Oorah runs a similar camp for girls with 300 staff members and 600 campers over both trips.

The Jewish heart, which was overwhelmed with anguish during The Three Weeks and then burst into joy with the consoling words of nechomah, is now confronted with the tremor of Elul.

The quiet summer period leads straight into the most serious, spiritual time of year, when we prepare to usher in the season of awe.

Maybe our experiences and encounters when we’re out of our usual dalet amos are meant to give us inspiration and food for thought in our own Elul preparations.

The more we travel, the more we are exposed to Yiddishe neshamos who are not as fortunate as we are. Some trips involve scenic mountains or pristine lakes, but some bein hazemanim trips feature beautiful scenery of a different sort.

Perhaps the summer weeks are a perfect hakdomah, as I learned at Oorah’s camp.

The weeks of bein hazemanim are a fitting preparation for the din of Elul, for these selfless Yidden show us just how much we have to be proud of and how many zechuyos we have. Seeing the pride and passion that the teenagers who go out on Seed programs possess is, by extension, a limud zechus on their parents, yeshivos and schools. This summer, Project Seed was in 130 locations, staffed by 60 couples, 400 bochurim, and, in separate locations, 160 girls.

There are also rabbeim who, rather than enjoy their much anticipated break through totally disconnecting from their talmidim, chose to spend that time with the same boys they teach all year. This is indicative of the richness and vibrancy of the relationship between one who teaches Torah and his talmidim. We’re talking of people like Rav Akiva Grosnas of Mesivta Beis Shraga, who took a group of his talmidim to his native South Africa to be mechazeik the community there during the summer weeks. We’re talking about people like Rav Meir Krawiec of the Yeshiva of South Fallsburg, who established a network of several summer programs, where maggidei shiur travel all across North America along with their beloved talmidim to keep on learning.

These people and their programs reveal the beauty of our olam hayeshivos.

Some speak with longing about the dacha of the pre-war yeshiva world and the glory of the bein hazemanim when roshei yeshiva, rabbonim and yeshivos from disparate areas of Lithuania and Poland united in resort areas in a mass of ris’cha de’oraisah. Yet, today’s world, where bochurim willingly leave behind comforts and conveniences to share their learning with others, gives us reason to hold our heads high.

And it may help us understand how this period is a hakdomah to Chodesh Elul.

The Chofetz Chaim was once approached by two bochurim who wanted to join his yeshiva in Radin. There was no space for them in the yeshiva, so they had to be turned away. But the Chofetz Chaim, being the Chofetz Chaim, felt bad for them and engaged them in conversation to pacify them, so that they wouldn’t leave with negative feelings. Upon asking them about their families and backgrounds, he learned that they were descendants of the Kedushas Levi, Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev.

The Chofetz Chaim called over his son-in-law, who ran his yeshiva, and asked him to find room for the two boys. He explained that Chodesh Tishrei was soon approaching and he wanted the zechus of davening with these two einiklach of sangerion shel Yisroel, the great advocate of all Jews, on the yemei hadin.

As we enter Chodesh Elul, we have the zechus of having these dedicated young men and women - the young people who went out on Seed, the ones who traveled around the country learning Torah with other Jews, the ones who traveled to foreign countries doing the same thing, the counselors at Oorah and Camp Simcha and so many other places - and others like them, among us. 

Throughout Elul, we recite the words of Dovid Hamelech proclaiming our faith that we have nothing to fear - “lo ira.” We have faith because even as we walk in the valley of death, Hashem is with us. We march into Elul with the memory of the many tens of thousands of people around the world who participated in the various Siyumei Hashas that took place everywhere, proclaiming their dedication to learning Torah and respecting those who do. And even as we walk in the shadow of the darkness of golus, we gain security and faith from observing the young people among us who have brought us much pride and accrued so many zechuyos over the past few weeks.

Those who spent their time off re-bonding with their families have nothing to be ashamed of either. The family is the foundation of Jewish life, and for us to remain strong, we need healthy family relationships. The legions of boys and girls who eschew the many prevalent enticements and return to the bais medrash and classroom rejuvenated provide comfort as we worry about our future. They keep alive the chain and the promise of “netzach Yisroel lo yishakeir.”

Let them know we are proud of them and support them.

Ah gutten chodesh.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Changing the World, One Jew at a Time: Mr. Zev Wolfson z"l

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

He was larger than life. He literally changed the world. His heart was larger than his personae. His name became intrinsically linked with his thematic mission in life.

His name was Zev Wolfson.

Mr. Wolfson was not a person who let opportunity pass him by. He was not one to watch history slowly fade in front of him. He seized opportunities. He created innovations. And he altered history with his vision, encouragement and support.

If there was a financial father and relentless initiator and advocate of the global teshuvah movement, it was Zev Wolfson.

He arrived in this country after the Holocaust as a poor orphan, but the blessings of Hashem reached the hand that would use those blessings properly. It was with great siyata diShmaya that the blessings of Hakadosh Boruch Hu translated soon into great financial success. He was not only blessed with the proper vision of whom to invest with financially. He had a vision of whom to invest with spiritually as well.

Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l was greatly mekarev him and it was Rav Aharon who helped Zev forge a global vision for Yidden the world over. Rav Aharon and Zev famously had an extremely close relationship.

His influence transcended the sphere of local institutions and his influence rose above the sphere of local politicians. He became known nationally as a supporter of those who would help ensure the safety, well-being and stability of Jewish communities around the world.

Besides befriending entrenched, strong, effective political leaders, Zev created relationships with young budding politicians, whom he supported as he watched them become rising stars. Remarkably, he was able to convince the nation’s leaders and these future leaders to allocate foreign aid to assist and abet institutions which would help needy Jewish youth across the world.

He knew that there was no better way to help those in need than by giving them a proper Torah education, whether it was through Chinuch Atzmai-Rav Aharon Kotler’s project to educate tens of thousands of Israeli children and rescue them from spiritual oblivion, or the thousands of boys and girls educated through the Otzar HaTorah school system in France.

The close relationships he cultivated with the most powerful people in the American government were never used for personal gain. He utilized those relationships strictly for the furtherance of Torah. Politicians, who exist in a world of each man for himself, were astounded at his selflessness and dedication to principle. That is why when Zev Wolfson asked them to use their political influence to spread Torah behind the Iron Curtain or for the establishment and maintenance of yeshivos in the United States, Canada, Israel, France and South America, they responded.

When it came to the security of the State of Israel and its inhabitants, he sought out and cultivated famous and unknown congressman and senators, whose names meant nothing to most of us, but whose votes could tip the crucial scales of justice and support in favor of our people. Whether it was a senator from Hawaii or a congressman from Kansas, Zev Wolfson knew how to reach them and enlist them in his mission.

He was a one-man lobby group and a very effective one at that.

He selflessly used his largesse to support mekomos haTorah in an unprecedented fashion. He cared about every Jew, no matter how far they had strayed from Yiddishkeit, and spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting organizations and individuals who sought to return his fellow Jews to their heritage.

Mr. Wolfson did not want personal recognition. In fact, he refused it. He had a terrible distaste for recognition and honor. He seemed to have no ulterior motives.

He not only gave of his own, he motivated others as well. He involved people who would have otherwise never become involved. While doing so, he made sure that the people he was involving understood and appreciated the importance of the projects that they were supporting. He was creative in his prodding. He would ask others to match whatever an institution raised for a particular project, and he would then match with his own money what they had matched.

He was relentless in his mission and undying in his vision.

Because the vision of his rebbi, Rav Aharon, was with him.

And because he really cared.

He cared about golus haShechinah.

He cared about a kid in public school in Nassau County and in St. Louis and in Minneapolis.

Simply put, he cared.

He wanted the boy in St. Paul to say Shema Yisroel daily. He wanted the girl at Brandeis University to learn Chumash. He wanted the Ph.D. student to start appreciating Gemara. And he wanted the yungerman in Yerushalayim to have the knowledge and tools to impart Hashem’s Torah and love to anyone he met. He wanted the message of Torah to be shared with every Jew. And he put his money where his mind was.

No amount of embarrassment could deter him, because when it came to fulfilling his mission, he had no ego.

Mr. Wolfson was unbelievably low key. It is related that someone once spotted him sitting in the coach section of a plane on a flight to Eretz Yisroel. The fellow said, “Mr. Wolfson, what are you doing in coach?”

He responded, “What’s wrong? Is there a cheaper section further back?”

Although at one point in his life he had owned an airline, he was serious in his response.

He was never written up in any papers and his name didn’t appear on any lists. Very few even knew that he supported dozens of kollelim here and in Eretz Yisroel. He made sure of that. Despite his global generosity, his name appears on only one bais medrash, that of the Chevron Yeshiva in Givat Mordechai. If it is anywhere else, few know about it. That’s the way he wanted it.

He was one of the greatest supporters of Torah that history has known.

Although he encountered turbulence in his personal life, and although he was in constant need of medical attention, he was relentless. He lived with pain and did not care. He was afflicted with diabetes, but that did not stop him. He would check insulin levels during meetings with powerful senators and congressional leaders, and he was not embarrassed. He had more important matters to worry about. And he would not take no for an answer.

Through Torah Umesorah, he supported the establishment of kollelim across the country. He believed in training yungeleit and equipping them with the tools they would need to have the greatest impact in communities across the globe. He was the impetus behind the placing of bnei Torah in rabbinic positions all around the country, in cities and towns whose populations would have otherwise been lost to assimilation. And he bolstered those communities by funding day schools, kollelim, and more and more Torah programming.

It made no difference if it was a big city or a small town. Zev Wolfson stamped his imprint on the Torah of that community.

An example of the people he promoted to do more than they ever thought imaginable was his involvement with Rav Yitzchok Dovid Grossman of Migdal Emek. When Rav Grossman first approached Mr. Wolfson for support, Migdal Ohr was bursting at the seams with more than 300 children in the school. Rav Grossman needed a new building and came looking for help in purchasing a new structure to house his institution. Mr. Wolfson urged him to do more than just that. He helped him grow his mosad into the famed Migdal Ohr institutions, which serve thousands of students and have created a revolution of Torah in Northern Israel.

Mr. Wolfson was never intimidated. All he cared about was increasing Jewish education. He used the talents Hashem gave him to change the world. He paved the way. He clawed and fought. He never took no for an answer, though at times he backed down to save his fight for a different day. Failure was not in his lexicon, and it was not something he feared. Most of us don’t think enough of ourselves and our abilities. We don’t have the proper bitachon to put forth the maximum hishtadlus possible. Zev Wolfson proved that if you have enough faith, Hashem gives you the ability to do more.

He epitomized the directive of “Lo soguru mipnei ish - Do not fear anyone but Hashem.”

He did not fear the forces of dissuasion who laughed at a vision for thriving Torah communities in the remotest stretches of this land. He did not fear the forces of antagonism or anti-Semitism that threatened to put up barriers to block his work. He did not fear the naysayers who said that what he was trying to accomplish was impossible and could never happen. He dreamed on and lived to see many of his dreams realized.

He was very involved in educating Sephardic children and established and supported entire school systems for them. When Aryeh Deri was the all-powerful Minister of the Interior of the State of Israel, an American man he did not know, forced his way into his office. There was a tense discussion. When he left Deri asked around among the government’s leaders to find out who that man was. They told him, that the man was Mr. Zev Wolfson, who had singlehandedly done more for the State than any other private individual.

They went on to establish a very close friendship, with Wolfson becoming a major supporter of the Shas education system and many other related projects.

He always reminded Deri, “Don’t look back at what you have done and be content, always look ahead to the future and look to do more.”

He helped create scores of day schools and high schools in this country to educate Jews who would otherwise be lost. Some twenty years ago, he sensed that there was an opportunity to do more. He saw that yungeleit who had previously been hesitant to move to out-of-town communities were prepared to venture forth. He saw a chance to create kollelim, shuls and outreach centers in communities across America where there were none. He saw a chance for Klal Yisroel to reach out to Jews in every corner of this land, forsaking no one.

With much siyata diShmayah and thanks to him, Torah Umesorah and Rav Chaim Noson Segal, TU’s Director of Community Development, were able to create hundreds of kollelim, new yeshivos, new day schools, projects, programs and organizations across this country. That was because Mr. Wolfson never stopped pursuing his dream to enable every Jew anywhere to be exposed to the beauty of Judaism at every level.

When Rabbi Segal first met with Mr. Wolfson, he was active in five communities. Since the day Mr. Wolfson began actively supporting and encouraging Rabbi Segal and Torah Umesorah, the effort expanded to reach 180 towns and cities across the country. All because of the determination and drive of one man for Torah and Yiddishkeit.

The simple man who rode in coach, who immigrated from Lithuania as a poor orphan and never forgot where he came from, impacted cities such as Seattle, Washington, where he enabled a kollel to grow and expand so that it has become a major force, not only in the city itself, but in the entire northwest region of this country as well. In Houston, Texas, he enabled a revolution to take place. In Dallas, Texas, he supported a kollel and enabled it to establish satellite communities. In Portland, Oregon, he helped create a kollel, bring a new rov to town, and open a school. He helped the kollelim in Minneapolis, St. Louis, Phoenix and Pittsburgh. He supported dozens of projects and programs in the states of California, Florida and New Jersey and hundreds more all across the country.

These are but examples. The list goes on and on.

And in most cases, very few people were aware of his involvement. He didn’t do it for glory. He didn’t do it for fame. He did it because he thought it was the right thing to do. He did it because he cared about acheinu Bnei Yisroel. He did it for Hashem.

Rabbi Segal says that he knew Zev Wolfson for 45 years, and “his greatness was that he made everyone realize they had greater potential than they ever realized, and because of that, they had greater success than they ever believed they could have.”

His mission will live on in the wonderful acts of kindness in which his wife and children continue to be engaged. It lives on through the dedication of yungeleit across the country whom he motivated and whose salaries he paid. It lives on through the efforts of the people he motivated and inspired, and it lives on through the neshamos of countless Yidden across the world whom he brought tachas kanfei haShechinah.

May his efforts serve as an inspiration to us all to do more than we think we can to spread Torah and kedushah in this world.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

“Hadron Aloch Talmud Bavli”

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Last week, Jews the world over celebrated a massive accomplishment and their hearts swelled with pride. All too often, we take what we have for granted and don’t appreciate it. But not last week. The scene was played out in so many different venues in major capitals and small cities around the world. In each, the people who attended were singing the same songs, proclaiming in every way they know, that we are a people on the rise. The Torah defines us. It is eternal and vibrant, and to the extent that we acknowledge and internalize it, so are we.

All who attended the massive Siyum Hashas at MetLife Stadium, or any of the other smaller celebrations, wish to remain on the high. No one wants to let go of the heightened emotions and the injection of chiyus and energy that the celebrations brought about in all  sectors of the globe. Speaking in the distinctive languages of the Jewish people and in the various dialects of the Diaspora, the message of simchas haTorah was one. Whatever the accent, venue, or dress of the participants, the joyous chant of “mah ahavti Sorasecha” rose up to the heavens through the open air stadiums and caused the hearts of all present to beat faster.

Even those who could not attend were swept up in Klal Yisroel’s expression of ahavas haTorah, feeling an intense sense of pride in the accomplishment and a desire to add learning and self-improvement to every day. Everyone present dreamed about doing better and becoming better. Without a doubt, the attendees returned home better people and better Jews than they were when they sat in traffic on the way to the Siyum.

The Siyum was a celebration of rebirth, marking how far we have come as a people over the past few decades through fidelity to Torah.

The echo of the words “Hadron aloch Talmud Bavli” reverberate in the cosmos and in our collective and personal consciences, propelling us onward, driving us forward with the added thrust provided by the great simcha.

A nation in need of nechomah, just days after the anguish of Tisha B’Av when we mourned all that we lost, was provided a gift, a taste of eternal blessing, visualizing the oft-repeated statement of “ein lonu shiur rak haTorah hazos.” The Torah is the only remaining vestige of the glory that was.

As we were approaching Shabbos Nachamu, we were blessed with an awesome glimpse of the glory that will yet be, singing and dancing with ninety thousand Yiddishe bridder, shouting aloud “Amein yehei shemei rabbah” along with rivevos alfei Yisroel, all of whom cling tight to the “shiur,” the remainder, the holy Torah.

On the same day that Adolf Hitler stood in a stadium 76 years earlier bragging about ridding the world of Jews, a survivor of the awful Holocaust he unleashed stood in one of the world’s largest stadiums and proclaimed that the shir shel yom of that day described Hashem as a “Keil Nekamos.” Is there a better nekomah than to witness so many people coming together for Torah?

As everyone’s good friend, Reb Abish Brodt, sang the words “Chazu bonay chavivay,” with which we are all familiar, they seemed to have extra simcha when chanted in the company of 90,000 Jews who gathered - just as the words of the refrain proclaim - to be mishtakach mitzarah dilehoin and be oisek in the chedvah of Hakadosh Boruch Hu.

We were touched and inspired, sitting in that huge stadium, with the words of the Hadron, hascholah and drashos rebounding through the temple constructed to celebrate man’s physical impulses, which had been transformed for that evening into a giant mikdosh me’at.

When the Hadron was recited, the energy level in the stadium markedly increased.

What is so special about the words that are recited at the culmination of studying a masechta that people get such a charge from hearing them being recited?

Rav Tzvi Schvartz is the type of tzaddik who makes possible celebrations such as the one we experienced last week by spreading the light of Torah. He heads the Lev L’Achim branch in Rechovot and, with his white beard, bright eyes, broad smile, ready words of encouragement and active support, is a familiar sight in the streets of the Israeli city. I once walked with him down a main street in Rechovot, past falafel stores and shoemakers. Every couple of steps he took, another person ran over to him and kissed his hand. People greeted him with a nodded head and a reverent “Shalom, kevod harav.

While visiting the United States a few weeks ago, Rav Schvartz shared a memorable lesson that Rav Elazar Shach zt”l taught him during the period when many Russians immigrated to Israel. Thousands of them were brought to Ulpanim in Rechovot, where they were taught the new language and culture. Rav Schvartz was put in charge of running the classes on religion for the incoming Russian olim.

Eventually, Rav Schvartz decided that holding repeated classes for the masses was a waste of time. Instead, he utilized the funding provided to reach out and teach Torah to those who exhibited some interest in the first lectures. Due to the force of his personality and perseverance, he managed to touch the hearts and souls of many olim, returning them to the Torah and mitzvos from which the communists cut them off for seventy years. He was so successful that he had somewhat of a yeshiva and kollel going for the fresh baalei teshuvah who demonstrated promise and displayed interest in progressing in learning.

Rav Tzvi was brimming with joy and went to Bnei Brak to share his nachas with Rav Shach, the spiritual father of Lev L’Achim.

The Ponovezher rosh yeshiva wondered where Rav Tzvi had obtained the funding to maintain his makeshift yeshiva and kollel. He explained to Rav Shach that he received a generous stipend for the introduction to Judaism seminars, which everyone had to attend. The funding came from the Israeli government, which wanted to expose new immigrants to the culture and spirit of Judaism. He told Rav Shach that instead of forcing people who had no interest in the subject matter to attend the entire series of seminars, he chose those who expressed interest in the first two and concentrated on them. He permitted the others to opt out.

Instead of utilizing the entire budget for all the olim, and wasting time and money on them, Rav Tzvi explained, he focused on those who showed potential.

Rav Shach responded that what he was doing was improper.

“You are incorrect,” said the rosh yeshiva. “They come, these Yidden, from Russia and other places, and Israel is new to them. They listen to the lectures, but they are in a strange country and are worried about how they will adapt and what will be with their children. They are worried about finding housing and a job. They have many concerns. They aren’t really going to be concentrating on Yiddishkeit, something that they are quite unfamiliar with and is very low on their list of concerns.

“But,” the rosh yeshiva continued, “the years will pass, they will settle in, their children will be growing, and they will feel emptiness in their lives. They will be searching for meaning, for something to ground them. They will be seeking for inner happiness to fill a void in their lives, which they have finally noticed. But they won’t know where to look. They will have nothing to fall back on. There will be nothing faded in their memory bank to bring back to life.

“And at that time, they will start to remember what they were taught in the Ulpan seminars. When they start searching, they will have something to search for. Their memories of something Jewish will be brought to the fore and they will seek out Torah. But if you don’t go through the motions of teaching them the full series of lectures, they will have nowhere to go when that day comes. They will have nothing to fall back on and their lives will remain empty and devoid of Torah and Yiddishkeit.

“You have no right to do that to them,” Rav Shach concluded. “Every Yid deserves to have something to come back to.”

That is the reason for the burst of joy following the recital of the Hadron, which is not just a declaration that we have finished learning a masechta. It is a whole lot more. It is a proclamation of this message. We say, “Hadron aloch, we will return to you, and you will return to us. We will think about you and you will think about us. We will not forget you and you will not forget us.”

We will have what to fall back on. We will have the Torah. And we will remember where we came from and from where we derive our strength and purpose.

In this week’s haftorah, the novi Yeshayahu advises the nation to look back at the rock from which it has been cut. “Look back,” he says. “Habitu el tzur chutzavtem, ve’el makeves bor nukartem. Habitu el Avrohom avichem ve’el Sarah techolelchem” (Yeshayah 51:1).

Look back. You have what to look back to. You have a starting point, a foundation. There you will find what you need for life and for growth.

Reb Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin, in explaining the novi’s exhortation to “look” at Avrohom and Sorah, the parents who spawned us all, remarks that Avrohom and Sorah were the least likely candidates to be the progenitors of a people. They were old, without hope of bearing children.

And yet, at ninety years old, Sorah gave birth to a son, who gave birth to two sons, one of who gave birth to twelve shevatim. The rest is history.

Look, urges the novi. Don’t ever stop looking. When things seem impossible, when obstacles seem insurmountable and it’s hard for you to go on, remember where you came from. You hail from the childless couple who built a nation. You are part of a people with the spiritual resources to rise above every difficult nisayon, a nation with the strength to persevere and forge ahead despite all types of hardships.

That was what Rav Shach was telling Rav Schvartz. Every Jew hears the call of Yeshayahu at some time in their life. Every Jew feels a stirring for a return to the ways of the avos. Every Jew needs a place to look back to. Habitu, look back. But we need a place to return to.

We are overcome with joy at a Siyum, because we know that we have what to look back to, and we are so thankful. We proclaim that we will always have something and somewhere to come back to - the comforting, familiar embrace of the blatt Gemara.

The eternity of the Torah, our foundation and kiyum, was so eloquently underscored by the multitudes who recited the Hadron at MetLife, at the siyumim in Eretz Yisroel, and around the world. Each person proclaimed that he knows where to look. Habitu ure’u. They looked back to their roots and they are firmly grounded in the field of Torah. They know that Torah is what gives their lives meaning and relevance. Hadron aloch. Da’aton aloch. 

Saying “Hadron aloch and “Da’aton aloch,” they were declaring that although the world has changed immeasurably since Rav Meir Schapiro proposed the Daf Yomi program, we maintain the same commitment and dedication to the Torah, despite the best efforts of resha’im to destroy us and our connection to Shas.

Yeshayahu proclaims to those who “shimu eilay,” those who paid heed to him, “Habitu el Avrohom.” He tells them, “Ki nicham Hashem Tzion,” Hashem has comforted Tzion. “Sasson vesimcha yimotzei boh, todah vekol zimrah,” their previously desolate places will bloom and will be filled with joy and song.

During the first week of the Shiva Dinechemasah, the seven weeks of solace, a couple of days after we picked ourselves off of the ground, we sat in a $1.7 billon stadium and got a taste of that joy.

Though the genuine and complete joy will return only when the Bais Hamikdosh is rebuilt, we can achieve a measure of comfort by recognizing who we are and where we come from. We remember that anything is possible, and that as bleak and dark as things may appear, we are the children of Avrohom and Sorah and our very existence is proof that, at any time, the floodgates of mercy can open for us.

Hadron aloch. Da’aton aloch. Lo sisnishei minoch. We’re coming back, bigger and better than ever.