Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Centrists, Charedim, and Open Orthodoxy

Rabbi Jonathan Muskat (Facebook)
Brilliant piece of writing in the Times of Israel by Rabbi Jonathan Muskat. It reflects my views completely. Only he said it much better than I ever could have. It follows:

Last week I authored a blog post where I suggested parameters for preventing a schism within Orthodoxy in general, and between the Modern Orthodox and Open Orthodox communities in particular. I received much feedback from this post, and one central question that intrigued me was why I, and for that matter other modern orthodox Rabbis, feel compelled to call out practices we disagree with on the left (for example, partnership minyanim) and not on the right (such as the erasure of women from publications).  I can’t speak for other modern orthodox Rabbis, but I can share with you my perspective on this matter.

I believe that both the Charedi and open orthodox leadership, like the modern orthodox leadership, are sincerely motivated to engage Jews to connect with God in a meaningful way.  Nonetheless, as I noted last week, there are circumstances that I believe compel me as an Orthodox Rabbi to speak out. Despite my greatest wishes for unity, there are issues that put the integrity of Orthodoxy at stake and it is insufficient to remain silent or even “agree to disagree.”  The question is, of course, what are those issues? When must we draw a line in the sand and say, “this is not Orthodox Judaism?”

Regarding my relationship with the Charedi community, much of the Torah that the Charedi world produces has nothing to do with controversial hashkafic issues and I want to benefit from their Torah.  The Charedi or more insular world is hundreds of years old, if not more, from Ashkenazi Jews in the Middle Ages to the Eastern European communities, and there is a tremendous amount that we can learn from them.   Even in areas where I disagree with them, I am often able to understand the sources they rely upon for their approach.  

I recall reading an article by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein where he pointed out that whereas he supported the Hesder Yeshiva movement, nevertheless, the “non-Hesder/Torah-only” movement is backed by Torah leaders, also has a religious tradition, and is also legitimate.  He wrote that “hesder is at least as legitimate a path as any other.  It is to my mind, a good deal more; but surely not less.”  His disagreement with other Torah leaders about the Hesder Yeshiva movement essentially became a classic debate similar to the debates between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel.  On this issue and others, I have no problem expressing to my community where my approach differs from the Charedi approach, while recognizing that they have Gedolim who support their positions as well.

That being said, I do not identify with many hashkafic positions held widely within the Charedi community.  In addition to their reluctance to send their boys in Israel to serve in the Israeli defense forces, I disagree with their approach regarding the Kollel movement as well as their lack of higher Jewish education in the area of Torah She’ba’al Peh for women, just to name a few issues.

What do I do about all this?  For the most part, as a Rabbi in the modern orthodox community, I address issues facing my community and not issues facing the Charedi community.  Just as I would not want the Charedi community to impose their view on my community, I allow them to deal with their issues to the extent that those issues generally only affect their community.  However, I will speak out if I feel that their position may impact the modern orthodox community.  And of course, I espouse the modern orthodox approach in my shul, from advocating for high level of Torah She’ba’al Peh study for women, to celebrating Israeli soldiers in our community, to clearly stating, when necessary, that I believe in the “learner-earner” model for the vast majority of our community.

Recently, a new issue has emerged where the Charedi and modern orthodox communities diverge.  That is, the elimination of pictures of women from Charedi publications, some of which are purchased by modern orthodox Jews.  In the past, I have expressed my opposition to this practice.  This practice does not reflect our Jewish value of modesty, and I have noted that in modern orthodox publications and websites (like the OU and RCA), pictures of women are featured.  Rav Hershel Schachter himself called this practice silly. However, the publications that have removed women’s pictures are Charedi publications run by Charedi leadership.  The fact that many modern orthodox Jews purchase those publications perhaps suggests that our community should respond by producing our own quality weekly Torah publications where pictures of women are featured, as they always have been.

Regarding the open orthodox movement today, the issues at hand are often of a different nature.  By definition, some are schismatic issues that are more challenging to simply “agree to disagree.”  The last Mishnah in the first chapter of Yevamot describes two schismatic issues: different standards of permitted food and different standards of whom one may marry.  If I can’t eat at your home or I can’t marry your child, then that is considered schismatic according to the Mishna, for obvious reasons. Additionally, more recently, another schismatic issue came up – can I daven in your shul?  Once Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Soloveitchik forbade orthodox Jews from praying in a non-mechitza minyan, that effectively severed the orthodox community from the conservative community.  A central component of a religious community is communal prayer and if I can’t pray in your synagogue then I cannot be part of your community.

Some of the divergent issues between the modern and open orthodox communities today relate to standards of freeing agunot, standards of conversion, and partnership minyanim.  Each of these issues alone has the potential to be schismatic. If our divergent practices mean that a modern orthodox Jew cannot marry an open orthodox convert or an agunah freed according to open orthodox practice, or if he cannot pray in an open orthodox minyan, a schism will likely occur.

Other issues that divide the modern orthodox and open orthodox communities may be less certain to lead to schism.  Both the modern orthodox and open orthodox communities are struggling with issues that relate to LGBTQ Jews in our communities, and time will tell how each community responds to this very theologically-challenging issue.  Any response that essentially states that a prohibition of “arayot,” a sin whose punishment is “karet” mentioned in the Torah, no longer applies, may further alienate the two communities.  Were our two communities to differ in our interpretation or reinterpretation of such a strong Torah verse, I do fear that the gap between us would grow significantly.

Additionally, aside from the particular issues upon which we disagree, I think that there is a foundational methodological difference in the way that the open orthodox and modern orthodox communities approach innovation.  That is, our deference to the opinions of the prominent Torah scholars of our generation on issues of major import.

In the modern orthodox world, Poskim who are well-versed and are clearly recognized Torah leaders of our community in all areas of halacha, not just the “hot button topics,” are the ones who collectively provide guidance on both new and challenging issues.   It doesn’t mean that they are experts in medicine or politics or psychology or that they have powers of prophecy, but it means that in significant areas that affect the future of our community, we look to them for guidance.  And after they have adequately reviewed the critical facts in each case, often with the guidance of experts, such as doctors, politicians, or psychologists, as the case may be, we trust them to determine what the practice of our community should be.  Sometimes, they will tell us that we are in a position to make these determinations for ourselves. In fact, often community Rabbis are told that they know the issues involved and are best suited to decide for themselves and their communities. However, our deference to our Gedolim means that we consult with the acknowledged Poskim for critical contemporary issues.  Sometimes they will say “yes,” sometimes they will say “no,” and sometimes they will say, “you decide.”

I don’t think that this approach is shared by the open orthodox community.  Within the open orthodox community, it is my understanding that Rabbis feel more empowered to innovate even when there is no prominent Torah scholar described in the previous paragraph who supports a new practice. In fact, I believe that many of the differences between our two communities regarding the “hot button issues” of our day reflect this different methodological approach; where open orthodox leaders are more eager to respond to challenges with innovation, modern orthodox leaders will not accept a new practice without the approval of our greatest halachic decisors.

To be fair, within the modern orthodox community, the deferential approach I described is often met with resistance.  Indeed, I believe that many in the modern orthodox community have difficulty with this approach, as they believe that some decisions by the modern orthodox Poskim seem arbitrary and illogical.  

I think the reason for this is twofold.  First, maybe the modern orthodox Rabbinic leadership needs to spend more time addressing challenging issues and clarifying why they opt to innovate in some circumstances and not others.  This problem can be fixed with better communication and more access to the modern orthodox Rabbinic leadership.  The second problem is harder to solve.  That is, we live in a world today that has far less respect for institutions and experts than we did years ago.  

Contemporary culture tells us that we know better, and this philosophy has unfortunately crept into our Jewish communities.  As such, if a religious expert has weighed many different considerations in arriving at a conclusion to a “hot-button” issue, especially if that conclusion is  counter-cultural, some in our community would argue that even though they may not have the same halachic knowledge as the religious expert, they understand the issue and are in a position to offer a different ruling.  This presents a challenge for modern orthodox Rabbinic leadership, as deference to authority and respect for expertise is foundational to our practice.

In sum, though there is a divide between the modern and Charedi communities with respect to certain issues, those issues tend to be less foundational to our practice of halachic Judaism and less necessarily schismatic.  Still, we in the modern orthodox world should clearly advocate our position, especially when it affects our community, such as the issue of eliminating women’s pictures in publications or service in the Israeli army.

When it comes to the possibility of schism between the modern and open orthodox communities, I am more concerned.  With regard to the open orthodox community, some of our disagreements are on issues that by definition may be schismatic.  Issues that affect Jewish status and differences in communal prayer are two prime examples.  Additionally, our different approaches to innovation and leadership may, in the long run, simply push our communities farther apart.  I worry that in time, as each side becomes less comfortable with the other’s religious worldview, less interaction between the two communities will ultimately cause a schism that wholly separates the two.  It is my hope that we do retain the goal of living amongst each other and avoiding schism whenever possible.  Our community is stronger when we are unified, and I still do believe that there is much that currently unites us.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Not Your Father's Lakewood

BMG Founder, R' Aharon Kotler
The following letter by Yosef Shidler, appeared in Greater Lakewood, a publication geared for the Charedi world in Lakewood, New Jersey. As most Orhtodox Jews know, Lakewood is the home of BMG, the flagship institution of the Charedi world in America. The letter speaks for itself. If it is anywhere near an accurate description of what goes on in this town, it is a devastating indictment of how this community has evolved. Without any further comment, I present it in full.

So here we go again.

It’s another year and another story about Lakewood, New Jersey, also occurring right around the Nine Days, a period when we mourn the loss of our Batei Mikdash, one of which was destroyed because of the sin of sinas chinam – baseless hatred, or thinking that you are better than everyone else.  As we reflect upon the lessons of the Nine Days and try to improve our ways, it is also appropriate to consider our responsibilities as the chosen people to be a light unto the nations in this world.

Clearly in the past few weeks the Jewish community has done exactly that.  Dozens of people dropped everything to aid in the search for Rabbi Reuven Bauman when he went missing in Norfolk, Virginia.  $2 million dollars was raised to pay the only medicine that could save the life of a small child. Hundreds of people who turned out to mourn a young boy who died in a tragic water park accident.  All of these events are proof positive that we are united in so many ways, with so much good in our community and so many chesed organizations stepping up to help others in need. On the surface it looks like we are doing everything right and that we have done what we needed to bring Moshiach.  

But he’s still not here.  And from where I sit, we still have a long way to go.  

Lakewood itself has so much that is right about it.  A 2014 New York Times article discussed the unprecedented giving that goes on on a daily basis and the number of educational institutions here is staggering.  And yet, there are things going on in this town that nobody wants to talk about and that in some instances seem to be deliberately done behind the scenes.

Let’s step back for a moment in time and consider Rav Aaron Kotler zt’l and how Lakewood came to be. Rav Aaron had a dream of building a small yeshiva for the top bochurim, that maybe one day might draw 100 students.  He built Beis Medrash Govoha to bring his vision to life, choosing the small resort town of Lakewood, New Jersey. He imagined that bochurim and avreichim would come and learn in Lakewood and when they left the yeshiva’s hallowed halls, they would move elsewhere, leaving Lakewood as a haven for top-tier learners.

Little did Rav Aaron realize that his yeshiva would be so successful that it would undermine what he had set about to do.  Rav Aaron was succeeded by his son Rav Shneur zt’l, with his grandsons Rav Malkiel and Rabbi Aaron Kotler currently at the helm of BMG.  As time went by, a shift in our culture meant that suddenly any “quality” boy would, of course, be learning full time, a major change from the days when only the best of the best stayed on in yeshiva.  And a construction boom created a stock of reasonably priced housing all over Lakewood, with a solid infrastructure built to provide for the needs of the many families who flocked to the town in search of a Torah community with modern conveniences.   Hoping to head those problems off at the pass, the Lakewood Vaad was created to ensure that BMG remained the focal point of the town and that its residents fit the yeshiva’s cookie cutter mold.

Baruch Hashem, Lakewood is home today to dozens of wonderful yeshivos, but when it comes to getting our little ones into school, things can be exceptionally difficult, especially for those who don’t fit into the BMG box.  Me? My family and I moved here from Crown Heights where housing was unaffordable. We soon found ourselves very much at home in Lakewood and while we were warned that getting your kids into school was “not easy but not impossible,” we weren’t really worried about running into an serious roadblocks.  .

If you know me, you already know about the letter I wrote last year on Tisha B’Av when I still didn’t have a single school willing to accept my daughter.  And you probably know how after that letter, she was welcomed into a wonderful school called Ateres Tziporah, which was saved from last minute financial problems by the generosity of Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz.  What you don’t know is what an amazing year my daughter had in Ateres Tziporah, a school that helps every girl maximize her potential, makes each one feel special and has strong programs in both limudei kodesh and secular studies.  It is an institution that educates the next generation of wives and mothers to have bright futures – one that equips them for the important roles that they will play both inside and outside of the house, should they choose to do so, instead of assuming that they aren’t capable of anything more than just sitting home and raising the kiddies.

And last weekend, the other shoe dropped. Unbelievably and without any warning at all, Ateres Tziporah was closed, supposedly because of financial issues.  It took a while to dig down deep enough to find out what had really happened and the truth was almost too crazy to believe. The school’s downfall had been orchestrated by those who were tasked with making sure that Lakewood remained aligned with Rav Aaron’s vision, which didn’t include a place like Ateres Tziporah which warmly welcomed every girl who wanted to learn.  I guess in their minds, it made sense. If there are no schools for the kids of non-BMG-type families, then they will have to pick up and move elsewhere, leaving Lakewood pristine and pure. For students of history, that concept is eerily disturbing, but let’s not go there.  

Ironically, while Ateres Tziporah was supposedly closed for lack of funding, those who were running the school turned down donations that would have covered the shortfalls, with previous funding commitments deliberately sabotaged. What terrible sin was it that Ateres Tziporah had committed to find itself in the crosshairs of the Vaad?  You better sit down for this one. It had made the apparently fatal error of welcoming every girl who wanted to learn and grow and succeed, and worse yet, it had done so without forcing parents to grovel or to hand over $40k checks as “admission gifts.”

The funny thing is that while BMG’s original class of talmidim may have included elite learners, they didn’t all come from BMG-type families.  Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was considered to be one of Rav Aaron’s top students and yet his ability to learn like no one else wouldn’t have been enough to get him into some of the schools we have in Lakewood today.  It takes yichus. It takes money. It takes big checks and lots of them. How have we gotten to the point where the Torah, G-d’s gift to all of the Jewish nations, is considered to be something that is only for our society’s chosen ones?  

The fact is that whether the Vaad likes it or not, Lakewood is changing, the sea of black and white dotted is with color.  Is this a community that only welcomes one type of Jew and tells the rest to find somewhere else to live? I know what you’re thinking – that doesn’t really happen. But I can tell you it does. Because I received a phone call last year from a member of the Vaad telling me in no uncertain terms to “go back to Crown Heights,” a pretty misplaced comment considering that I am from Denver, my wife is from Florida and my family has been proud U.S. citizens for the past 100 years so we are the furthest thing in the world from Brooklynites.  Are the powers that be in Lakewood actually taking their cues from the people of Sodom who prided themselves on denying outsiders entrance? As Americans, do we not have the right to live freely anywhere on the soil of this great country?  

And yet, five weeks before the start of the new school year, 170 girls suddenly have no place to go in September.  Their parents will be forced to beg and pull any string they can so that their daughter can be squeezed into an already too full classroom.  Ateres Tziporah’s parent body is angry and rightfully so – it’s not just that they have to find another placement for their girls. It is because their daughters were in a school that loved them, nurtured them and helped them grow in their yiddishkeit and outsiders decided that that approach to chinuch simply wasn’t the way things go in this town.  Parents are frustrated, angry and literally at wits end because of the powers that be who are denying them the opportunity to educate their girls as they see fit. And its not just Ateres Tziporah – other schools that have suffered a similar fate, with a local girls’ high school with 60 students also being shuttered by the same forces.

Let me reiterate again that I am in no way looking to detract from Rav Aaron’s kavod. He was one of the luminaries of the Torah world and his method of chinuch yielded wonderful results.  Coming from Lubavitch I can tell you that the Lubavitcher Rebbe had a different approach – he believed in welcoming every person, treating everyone with respect and making sure that unity was priority number one.   But the Lakewood Rav Aaron envisioned is not the Lakewood that exists today and life in contemporary Lakewood is not what it was in 1950 or even in 1980 or 2010. Even one of Rav Aaron’s own grandchildren was heard to say that if he were alive today, “he would move Lakewood out of Lakewood.”

At issue here is not just a single school but an entire way of life.  Sure we have conveniences galore but is it possible that our community is breeding a divisive mentality, one that allows us to forget just how powerful we can be what we all stand united?  In any other community, a yeshiva being forced to close down would result in a huge outcry and campaigns to save the school that would likely be picked up by Jewish communities all across the United States.  But in Lakewood, Ateres Tziporah was closed down and not a single community leader has uttered even one word about the situation. 

Does their silence imply that they stand with the Vaad? That a school that welcomes every girl who wants to learn has no place in Lakewood Ir Hakodesh?  I’m sorry to say that we are living in a sick world, where we can find ourselves in the midst of the Nine Days and there are rabbis and community leaders who seem to have no problem seeing kids out of school, stuffed like human sardines into an overcrowded school and torn away from their friends.  

When my daughter was about to enter Ateres Tziporah last year, I was called to a meeting in the school where I was asked to sign a paper from the Lakewood Vaad committing to keeping quiet and not speaking out on any issue.  The implication was clear – if I didn’t sign the paper my daughter would not be going to school. Is that the kind of town we live in? Where people are bullied into silence? It was clear at that moment that I was definitely not welcome here, a message that seemed to come straight from the town’s leadership.

I find myself asking the question.  Is there not one voice of leadership who will step up and say what we can do to rebuild Ateres Tziporah?  

I should mention that aside from this craziness, I love living in Lakewood and we have been so happy here that my parents have moved to town as well.  Should I just move to a place that has true Torah values and respects the potential in each child instead of throwing them under the bus? I have no intention of going back to Brooklyn, as that lovely rabbi from the Vaad suggested, and if I can’t find a suitable school for my daughter in Lakewood because of the elitist mentality that seems to be everywhere, then I will just have to drive farther to find a place that understands what the Torah is all about and what achdus really means.  It is laughable that Lakewood prides itself on being an Ir HaTorah because there is literally nothing Torahdik about leaving 170 girls out in the cold.  

Having been raised on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I know that each of us is here to bring light into places of darkness and right now, Lakewood is sadly, very, very dark.  It is unfathomable that so many precious neshamas have been cast aside like last night’s garbage and left to flounder on their own and that an institution that teaches Torah could be closed so that the Vaad could turn back the hands of time and pretend that it is 1950 all over again.  The leadership of Lakewood needs to open their eyes and see what our town really looks like. The people of Lakewood need to stand up and call out those who closed down a school that was home to 170 girls. We are a people who stop everything the minute there is a tragedy to help someone else – how can we just stand in silence when our daughters are denied their chance to be taught the beauty of Torah and the love of yiddishkeit?

Let me end with a story told by Rabbi Yechiel Spero that was recently printed by Artscroll that took place right here in Lakewood in BMG.  The entire yeshiva was downtrodden after Rav Aaron’s passing, wondering what would become of the yeshiva. The mashgiach, Rav Nosson Wacthfogel, stood up and relayed a dream that had been shared with him by a great Torah scholar.

In the dream Moshiach was sleeping on a couch. The Chasom Soffer approached Moshiach and tried to wake him up with no success. Then Rav Aaron walked into the room and attempted the rouse Moshaich, again with no success.  Finally a young American boy in a baseball cap walked into the room and tapped Moshiach on the shoulder, waking him up.

Addressing the room, Rav Nosson explained that Moshiach didn’t come in the generation of the Chasam Sofer or Rav Aaron Kotler.  He told the talmidim “he is coming here, for you guys, right now and he is coming for the American kid in the baseball cap.”

Let that lesson sink in.  Those kids in the baseball caps? They have value. They are important. They were created in G-d’s image.  And the mashgiach of BMG made it abundantly clear to the yeshiva’s talmidim that even those who don’t dress in black and white also have have the ability to bring Moshiach – we just have to empower them.

Are we ready to accept them? Open our arms to embrace them? Create Torah institutions for them?
Or is Moshiach going to continue slumbering because even after all these years, we still haven’t learned what ahavas chinam and achdus are all about?

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Bais Yaakov Graduate to Head America’s NSA Cybersecurity Directorate

Anne Neuberger, head of NSA Cybersecurity Directorate (Jewish Press)
Some good news for a change. Congratulations to Anne Neuberger. From the Jewish Press:

A Sabbath-observant graduate of the Bais Yaakov school system has just become one of the highest-ranking women in the U.S. Department of Defense.

Anne Neuberger has just been appointed to head the new Cybersecurity Directorate being created at the U.S. National Security Agency, it was announced Tuesday. Neuberger helped establish the U.S. Cyber Command, having been with the NSA for nearly a decade.

The Cybersecurity Directorate is described on the NSA website as “a major organization that unifies NSA’s foreign intelligence and cyber defense missions and is charged with preventing and eradicating threats to National Security Systems and the Defense Industrial Base.”

Neuberger, the website says, reports “directly to General [Paul M.] Nakasone” — a four-star general who commands the U.S. Cyber Command, the National Security Agency and is the chief of the Central Security Service. Her previous positions were described as “NSA’s first Chief Risk Officer, Deputy Director of Operations, and Lead of NSA’s Russia Small Group.“

She is currently the Senior Adviser to the Director of the NSA.

Neuberger has led the NSA’s Election Security effort and served as Deputy Director of NSA’s Operations Directorate, leading NSA’s foreign intelligence and cybersecurity operations.

In addition to her other positions, Neuberger previously served as the Director of NSA’s Commercial Solutions Center, responsible for NSA’s partnerships with the private sector, as the Navy’s Deputy Chief Management Officer and as a White House Fellow, working for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Prior to joining government service, Neuberger was Senior Vice President of Operations at American Stock Transfer & Trust Company (AST), where she directed operations, including dividend distributions and complex M&A processing for approximately 2,000 publicly traded companies.

Academically, she earned an MBA, Beta Gamma Sigma, and a Masters of International Affairs from Columbia University, and also graduated from Touro College, summa cum laude.

Neuberger has lectured on cybersecurity, risk, surveillance/civil liberties and national security as a guest lecturer at Harvard University, Stanford University and Columbia University.

The new NSA cybersecurity chief told The Wall Street Journal in an interview that her unit “will more actively use signals intelligence gleaned from expanded operations against adversaries.”

Anne (Chani) Neuberger was raised in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn and attended Bais Yaakov of Boro Park. She lives in Baltimore.

As she takes up her new position, Neuberger is about to become one of the highest-ranking women in the department since 1980.

Trivia fact: Neuberger’s parents, Rivki and Mendel Yitzhak (George), were on the Air France flight that was hijacked to Entebbe in 1976. Despite their American citizenship, they were kept with the Israeli hostages because of her father’s kipa. They were rescued by the IDF and brought to Israel.


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

A Tribute to my Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik

Rabbi Gil Student tweeted about this this morning. I never saw it until today - even though it was produced in 2011 in honor of the anniversary of his 10th Yahrzeit. It is just short or 14 minutes long; very inspiring; and worth every second of it.

 

Friday, July 27, 2018

European Antisemitism Today

Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence
If the President ever leaves office for any reason during his first term he will be replaced by a man whose credentials with respect to the Jewish people are impeccable. Not to mention the fact that his own religious values are very similar to ours. 

I cannot think of too many others like Vice President Mike pence - who can see these things as clearly he does - and is willing to speak out about them regardless of where the chips may fall. I could not agree with him more. From the World Jewish Daily:


Vice President Mike Pence condemned antisemitic violence in Europe, saying it "must end."
Speaking at a State Department conference on religious freedom, Pence said, "The world has watched in horror as these attacks on Jewish people have taken place."

"In France and Germany, things have gotten so bad that Jewish religious leaders have warned their followers not to wear kippahs in public for fear that they could be violently attacked, and in too many cases, that’s exactly what’s happened,” he added.

Drawing a comparison with the Holocaust, Pence stated, "It is remarkable to think that within the very lifetimes of some French Jews — the same French Jews that were forced by the Nazis to wear identifiable Jewish clothing — some of those same people are now being warned by their democratic leaders not to wear identifiable Jewish clothing."

"These acts of violence and hatred and anti-Semitism must end," he asserted.


Monday, June 25, 2018

Unconditional Love

Mendy Klein (Jewish Link)

What a beautiful and most inspiring story by Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman:

I never met or even ever saw in my life, Mr. Mendy Klein.

He was known far and wide as a true baal chessed, a philanthropist of extraordinary proportions, a later in life self-made multi-millionaire and a total and complete mensch.
He was scheduled to be one of the honorees at the Agudah dinner a few weeks ago.
That was the dinner I went hatless.

I would have loved to have met Mendy Klein, and I would have definitely taken my hat off for him.

As one of his closest boyhood friends related to me, “Mendy was not a regular black-hat wearer.”

As the dinner was coming closer, I kept thinking about Mendy more and more.
The reason I kept thinking about this man I had never met, was the simple fact that anyone to whom I mentioned that I would be attending the dinner, would undoubtedly say something to the effect, “Oh, you’ll be at the dinner; too bad Mendy won’t be there. We lost a great one when we lost Mendy.”

Or another person said to me, “I was his best friend when he drove a taxi in New York back in the 70s for 22 hours a day. You know he never slept more than two hours a night! It’s too bad you never met him.”

I kept hearing more and more about this man who I had not only never met, I had never heard of before the dinner, and somehow, everyone I met leading up to the dinner was only interested in talking about Mendy.

I was driven to find out more about this uncommon philanthropist of monumental proportions, who was able simultaneously to maintain a straightforward and approachable manner about himself.
I called friends of his and found out as much as I could about this giant of Chessed.

I decided to piece together my own vision of this legendary figure who I regretted never meeting.
Everything I relate was heard from friends of Mendy; some of them going back to the 1970s.

Any inaccuracies which may appear are due to my deficiencies and should be understood as my best effort to understand and appreciate a great man who I was never privileged to know.

He was the children of Holocaust survivors who settled after the war in Williamsburg.
His parents were members of the fledgling small Satmar Chassidic community.

His father, a man who had survived the horrors of the camps and had high expectations for Mendy, nevertheless realized his son possessed unusual and unique qualities.

His father would eventually inform  Mendy, as Zvi Gluck, (who worked with Mendy very closely) mentioned in one of his eulogies, “My son, G-d blessed you with a brain and cursed you with a mouth, so you won’t be able to keep a job down.”

Perhaps this statement portrays the complexities of the relationship between a Holocaust survivor who had certain expectations of his American born son and his son’s yearning for individuality.
Mendy went to cheder and grew up like many young children of immigrant parents.

On the one hand, Mendy had a desire to become his own person; on the other side, his father was resolute that Mendy follows in the ways of his chassidishe family.

And as many young people have done and continue to do, Mendy struggled during his adolescence over his true identity.

At 16, he made a decision.

He informed his father that he was leaving Williamsburg and the insular protective eye of the community.

As he packed his things and was preparing for his departure, his father walked over to him.
He hugged Mendy with all his love and then stepped back, opened his wallet, and removed an item never before seen in the Klein home — a $100 bill.

This was 1967; to give you an idea of how much money that was for a Holocaust survivor who was struggling to makes ends meet: $100 in 1967 equals $749.31 in 2018!
One can imagine the look of amazement on Mendy’s face as his father removed the $100 bill from his wallet.

His father looked at his son and said the words that would echo in Mendy’s mind for the rest of his life.

“Mendy, I always kept a hundred dollars in my wallet for unexpected emergencies. Your leaving the house certainly qualifies as one. Please take this hundred dollars and remember, no matter what you do or where you are, how you dress or how you act, I want you to know that I love you unconditionally and my door is always open to you. 

You will always have a bed here to sleep in and a hot meal to eat. Take this money and keep it with you so if and when the time comes and you want to come back, you will be able to. And never worry, I promise you, the door will always be open to you, whether you are Mendy or Marvin, whether you have peyos or blue jeans, my door will always be open for you.”

Mendy’s father had never attended parenting classes.

He had never read a book on modern child-psychology.

He had never heard of Dr. Spock, only of Dr. Mengele Yimach Shemo.

Mendy’s father was a graduate of the school of Ahavas Yisrael that met in Auschwitz, and after completing years of instruction there, he knew that unconditional love of his son was a necessity of life.

He pressed the $100 bill into his son’s hand, kissed him on the cheek and silently said a kapitel Tehillim.

The next four years were years of spiritual searching for Mendy.

Mendy investigated different lifestyles, but, somehow he kept coming across the unused $100 from his father.

After four years of searching, he reclaimed his heritage with all of his vigor and with complete passion.

He became a mighty lion as he set for himself the goal to accomplish his life’s mission: to become a person who would make a difference in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of lives.

He never returned to a full Chassidic lifestyle; but, he did return to a total and sincere commitment to Yiddishkeit, to Chessed and especially to Tzedakah.

Mendy Klein eventually became a businessman, yet his real passion was being a pillar of Tzedakah and Chesed of global impact.

Countless people, especially young people who are struggling with those issues others preferred to sweep under the rug, owe their physical and spiritual survival to his compassion and generosity.

Over Pesach, a friend of his asked him, “Mendy, If you had to name the one thing that made you who you are today, what would that be?”

Mendy thought about the question.

He pondered his not-perfectly-behaved-student- childhood.

He even recalled some uncertain and tense times with his father, who initially had different aspirations for Mendy.

And then, without hesitating, Mendy pulled out the worn and tattered 50-year-old $100 bill.

“It was this bill and the knowledge that my father’s door was always open. That is what made me who I am today.

My father and I may not have seen eye to eye on every issue as I grew up; however, there was one thing I knew for sure. I knew that his love for me was unconditional.

I knew with certainty, even as we sometimes engaged in passionate debates over lifestyles, one thing remained clear in my heart, my father’s love for me was unconditional. That is what made me who I am today.”

Mendy Klein passed away on the third of May of this year.

He never made it to the Agudah dinner, and he left behind masses of grieving people who many never realized how he was their secret benefactor.

I thought of Mendy Klein one more time recently.

It was at the conclusion of the wedding of my son Aryeh to his Kallah Tova Akerman.

At the end of the festivities, my son Shaya asked me if I had any cash to pay for the babysitters which were hired to watch my grandchildren so that Shaya and his wife Yitti could enjoy the Chasunah without constantly worrying about the whereabouts of their children.

I opened my wallet, and I had $100 left which was the exact amount Shaya needed.
As I handed him the money I thought of Mendy Klein and the $100 he received from his father.

This was not the same $100 from 1967.

It was also not a $100 given to allow Shaya to come home; he was not leaving home.

Nevertheless, I thought of Mendy Klein and his father for as Hashem would plan things, after all of the expenses which were paid that night, this was precisely the last $100 I had in my wallet.

Mendy Klein’s father’s gift of $100 symbolized his unconditional love for his child; no matter whatever different outlooks they may have possessed.

That same feeling came over me as a parent as I handed Shaya the $100.

Sometimes, I know as a parent, I have made mistakes.

There are times I am sure I said the wrong thing at the wrong time to my children.

I would not be surprised, after hearing about Mendy Klein, that he too experienced tense moments between his father and himself.

Yet, just as the $100 given by Mendy’s father over 50 years ago, represented his unconditional love for his son. So too, I felt that as I was giving my son my last $100, it also was a sign that whatever may come between us, I love him and all my children unconditionally.

I may not always say the right thing or make the right choices for them.
Yet, just as Mendy’s father knew he loved his son unconditionally, I know I love my children unconditionally as well.

The lesson of Mendy Klein’s father was not lost on me as I too hoped my children realize how my love for them is unconditional and everlasting.

I never met you Mendy Klein; yet, I thank you.

I have no specific reason to thank you for your Tzedakah as I don’t believe I was ever the beneficiary of your largesse.

I thank you for your lesson; for reminding me how important it is that no matter what differences may occur between child and father, the knowledge that there is unconditional and unbreakable love between them must always be conveyed and stressed.

May Mendy Klein’s Chessed and Tzedakah be his ultimate legacy.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Statement by Orthodox Organizations about Extremist Attacks

One of the many Orthodox organizations that have condemned extremist violence
American Orthodox Jewish organizations have stepped forward to condemn the recent attacks perpetrated by Israeli religious extremists towards the IDF and Israeli police. The leadership of the Orthodox Union, Rabbinical Council of America and National Council of Young Israel have issued official statements at the behest of David Nyer, Orthodox activist. Over the last few months, there has been an increase in violent attacks against religious IDF soldiers and Israeli police.

Moishe Bane, president of the Orthodox Union, warns that “violence by one Jew against another, whether physical or otherwise, is an assault on the Torah values that have been passed down through our mesorah (tradition), from generation to generation. Any such attack by Jews against soldiers of the IDF, to whom every Jew owes immeasurable respect and gratitude, is an attack against each and every member of the Jewish community, and provokes shame and regret in us all.”


Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, states further, “These attacks against both Israeli soldiers and police are violations of Jewish law and show a gross lack of appreciation and respect for those who defend all the citizens of the State of Israel. These attacks further divide and alienate segments of the Jewish community from each other and from Torah.”


Just this past week, a religious IDF soldier and his family were pelted with stones in the Mea She’arim neighborhood and had to be extricated by the police. Farley Weiss, President of the National Council of Young Israel, strongly believes this ought to be “the responsibility of the community itself to protect soldiers instead of needing the police to intervene.” Dozens of bystanders have been reportedly observing while these acts of violent extremism are committed. Jewish leaders in the United States urge witnesses to safely take an active role in protecting those who protect the country of Israel, stressing the Torah obligation and moral imperative.


There have been instances where both soldiers and police have been injured by extremists. In January, an IDF soldier was taken to the hospital as a result of being struck by stones when driving through Ramat Beit Shemesh. Haredi extremists have a history of attacking IDF soldiers who enter their neighborhoods, claiming that the soldiers’ presence is an affront to their belief that religious men should not serve in the army. Another such incident was reported in February when an Orthodox soldier was attacked when praying in a synagogue in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood of Jerusalem. Mr. Weiss asserts that, “those who commit acts of violence against the IDF or police must be prosecuted to the fullest extent afforded by the law.”  


The Orthodox Jewish leadership in Israel has been largely quiet on this issue. Mr. Weiss appeals, “to all Jewish Rabbinical and communal leaders in Israel to join us in condemning these reprehensible actions and we must do all in our power to prevent these attacks.”


Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the Agudath Israel of America, was approached by Nyer and asked for a response to the situation. AIA serves as an umbrella organization for Charedi Orthodox Jewry in America. Rabbi Shafran declared unequivocally that, “such unwarranted violence and abuse against any fellow Jew is beyond outrageous.  Assault of Jewish brethren, especially those who have dedicated themselves to the protection of Klal Yisrael in Eretz Yisroel such as IDF soldiers and Israeli police, is indefensible, ugly and wrong.”


Nyer asked for Shafran’s position on the role of eyewitnesses observing extremist violence. Rabbi Shafran stressed that he is not a posek but that it “would seem that, if it could be done safely, bystanders would have a chiyuv (obligation) to intervene and protect anyone placed in harm’s way.” When questioned what he believes the appropriate response to these perpetrators should be, Shafran concurred that, “these individuals who assault the IDF or police must be prosecuted to the fullest extent afforded by the law.”


This initiative was spearheaded by David Nyer, LCSW, an Orthodox activist. He can be reached via email at djn415@aol.com for any questions or comments.