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Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Exchange, Part 2

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
(It’s long... but it’s worth it. Rabbi Pruzansky is my new hero.  - HM )

 I received a response from my interlocutor, and reprint it fully with some minor editing. To make it easy on the reader, I have interspersed my comments within his response. As he asked not to be anonymous, I include his final salutation. May there be shalom al Yisrael!       - RSP
 E – I hope all is well with you and yours.   May you see Yiddishe nachas from all of them.
Thank you for your response. I did not write this letter to you b’mikreh. To the contrary, I heard about your speech and was shocked. No question that we have very bad PR, and I’m also not claiming that our community is perfect – and thus I can be דן לכף זכות — but there are aspects of your response that are so misleading and false and based more in prejudice than in fact or understanding that I felt a need to respond.
The attached document responds in depth to your points. Don’t be offended but we have to know how to respond to an אפקורוס כגון מאן אמר רי כגון הני דאמר מאי אהנו לן רבנן לדידהו קרו לדידהו תנו אל אביי האי מגלה פנים בתורה נמי הוא שכתוב אם לא בריתי יומם ולילה חוקות שמים וארץ לא שמתי
SP-    I don’t assume that every Haredi is a “rabbanan” in the language of the Gemara. Most are not. I don’t know why you would assume that. And I thinks the problem here transcends PR.
E – Anyone who has had any actual human contact with Hareidim is generally struck by the extent of giving, rather than taking, that characterizes the community. The Har Nof directory has 36 pages of phone numbers and names of gemachs and community services! That’s not to mention, Hatzala, Zaka, Yad Sara, Zichron Menachem, Yad Eliezer among an endless list of large and effective tzedaka organizations that serve the entire Jewish community, frum and chiloni. The endless time and money and energy spent in the world of kiruv rechokim to  bring unaffiliated Jews back to Avinu Sh’b’Shamayim, whether on college campuses, via outreach kollels or baal teshuva seminaries and yeshivas also largely traced to people who until they were in their mid-20s, sat and ingested Torah values and learning in yeshivas and seminaries. Then they spent the rest of their life living it through tzedaka v’chesed rather than chasing money for themselves. The idea that the Haredi world rests on taking rather than giving simply has no correspondence with reality and you should be ashamed of yourself for suggesting otherwise.
SP - The Haredi community has a plethora of chesed organizations. That is very true and speaks to their essential good hearts. But it is often true that the chesed organizations take the place of actual work because they typically lack a secular education that would enable them to join the work force in normative way, especially in Israel. E.g., I often have people come to my door from Israel – heads of “new” chesed organizations – who are simply collecting money for five families, ten families, twenty families, and of course including their own. The chesed is not without its financial benefit. Let us not ignore that.
     Here in America, people do chesed as well and volunteer for organizations. The local Teaneck volunteer ambulance corps is just that – volunteer. We support many of the organizations you mentioned, but you are ignoring the real story. Most chesed organizations provide services – primary or supplemental – and jobs for the organizers. These are jobs also – but jobs that take money out of the economy cannot substitute for jobs that grow the economy. You do not grow an economy with a plethora of chesed organizations. You just re-distribute income from those who work for it to those who don’t. Much more important are organizations that foster employment. Give a man a fish and you’ve given him a meal; teach a man to fish and you’ve given him a livelihood.
    And most of these organizations exist in some form in the non-Haredi communities as well, but they are not as prevalent simply because they usually deal with hardship cases – the sudden poor caused by illness, death, loss of employment or some other tragedy, not the willful poor. When people choose to be poor they encounter a different dynamic entirely. And kiruv is not limited to Haredim, obviously. The fact that there are 36 pages of gemachs in the Har Nof directory is a sign of kindness, but might it not also be a sign of dysfunction? The lack of otherwise gainful employment? And you would certainly be shocked to hear of the abundant charity organizations run by non-Jews in America. The Haredi – even Jewish – instinct for chesed is admirable, but it is not exclusive to them, and certainly should not substitute for gainful employment.
   Note, also, that the “giving” is exclusively on your terms, and not what the rest of the society needs or is asking for.
E – Nearly all my male Hareidi friends and relatives work and pay over 60% in taxes – meanwhile the Government cut our kids’ school budgets by 50%. My son currently gets no milk in the morning because the budget was cut.  Somebody is stealing my tax money, and it’s not the Haredim.
SP – But those are your friends! And you do come from a different background. The rate of adult-male employment in the Haredi world is one of the lowest – I think it is the lowest – in the industrial world. A recent statistic in the Haredi press “boasted” of a 54% adult male employment rate – but that is extraordinarily low. In the rest of the world, the rate in industrialized countries is around 70%. That means that 46% of adult males are being subsidized by someone else.
   Now, who gets what from the government is always a political question. For decades, the Haredi parties chaired the Knesset Finance Committee and used that position to funnel money to their communal needs at the expense of other communities. The election results turned them out of power, and with it, loss of those sinecures. It is a lamentable aspect of Israeli politics that too many people take care only of their own constituents, but, I guess, that is true of politics everywhere, even here in the US. There is nothing moral about it; it is politics. When the Haredim next join the coalition, it will be back to business as usual. BUT: were the school budgets cut because schools refused to comply with the core curriculum? Because there is an expectation of national service that is not being met? Because of bias? The kibbutzim used to have patrons that took care of them in the Knesset, as did the haredim. They also fluctuated based on electoral outcomes. That’s life. Your tax money is not being stolen – it is just being redirected for other national uses.
    Do you feel you are not getting your fair share of return on your tax dollar? If so, welcome to my world! In Teaneck, the Orthodox community pays more than 60% of the property taxes, and our return in services is less than 20% (mainly because we don’t use the public school system). And, double whammy: New Jersey has the lowest ratio in the nation – 50th out of 50 states – in the return to the state of federal spending based on federal taxes paid, about 60 cents on the dollar. These complaints are universal, not limited to you.
E – How about what Haredi education produces relative to morality? In our schools there is virtually no drugs, sex or violence. There is not a yeshiva in the world that has metal detectors to check its students – how does that compare to the secular system of education?
SP – None of our schools have metal detectors either. And the yeshiva system even here still produces a decent product. The dropout rate in all religious communities is roughly the same. But – what is their educational product? Does the haredi system produce a student who can function in civil society?
      I find it fascinating that your straw man is always the “secular” system or world, as if there exists only this dichotomy: Haredi v. secular. But that is not true. There is an entire world of religious Jews who are neither Haredi nor secular (not that the Haredi world is completely monolithic). You certainly know it from your background, but you know it from Israel as well – the Hardalim, the Dati-Leumi, etc. – people whose lives fully implement the Torah system in the real world, not just theorize about it in the Bet Midrash. I have always assumed that one of the great fears of the Haredi establishment about military service was not the exposure to secular culture but the exposure to Torah Jews who know how to learn Torah, perform mitzvot, fight in G-d’s wars, build a country, get an education, etc. – i.e., a balanced life. That life undercuts the Haredi argument that mandates segregation as the only means to the preservation of Torah.
  E – From high school on, the men’s educational process is focused on Torah. Isn’t it amazing that people without college are nonetheless able to start and operate successful businesses of all kinds, from crafts (plumbing, electrical, contracting) to retails to finance to real estate to start-ups. All without having studied Shakespeare or art history – without knowing how many wives King Henry 8th divorced or beheaded – and without having had to subject themselves to the looseness, depravity and coarseness of midos one finds with such ease on a college campus. But the Israeli Government feels it knows better and wants to impose its standards on our time-tested curriculum. Not a culture war? Really?
I am an investment banker and have raised over 50 million dollars for Israeli companies supporting hundreds of secular families. Nearly all the owners of those businesses are secular — They love me and I love them ( I don’t hide my peyot) certainly not in Teaneck. My Partners supports hundreds if not thousands of Israelis in construction, law, accounting, security, insurance, architecture and engineering, to name a few, via his real estate business. I have another close friend who moved his family here to open a baal teshuva yeshiva that is one of the largest employers in its neighborhood. We all pay taxes here. All of my friends and peers are busy with tzedaka projects – many if not most not content just to give money, but insistent upon giving time and effort and talent as well. All this in addition to commitment to regular Torah learning. Is that really a hateful existence?
SP- Here is the crux of the issue. You are not typical, obviously. They are many Haredi businessmen, many successful Haredi businessmen. But you know they are not typical of Haredi society, unless you are asserting that what is perceived as the endemic poverty in the Haredi world is a “secular” myth . I also don’t care how many wives Henry VIII (or for that matter, the VII) had – but I do care that in today’s world, children learn English, math, science, writing skills, even Jewish history and Jewish philosophy. An eighth grade knowledge of those subjects is as embarrassing as an eighth grade Torah education (or, as it might be, a fourth grade education).
   It is interesting that Haredim in America have never embraced the value system of Haredim in Israel, at least not until recently. Some went to college, some didn’t (there are even online colleges today for which you almost never need to leave home) – but all knew they would have to support families someday, and not through starting chesed organizations. An educational system that produces bnai Torah, good citizens (I’ll add – Ahavat Yisrael of all types, Ahavat Eretz Yisrael, and a willingness to fight for it as Haredim did in 1948) who can support themselves and help others would be embraced by all, even the secular. No one intends to produce violent, depraved, backwards, drug-addled, parasitic, drunken miscreants. Not all secular schools produce the latter, like not all haredi schools produce the former. That’s reality.
E – How about the families that you so revile where the husband is learning in Kollel? Let’s check a few facts here. The government used to help with $200 a month; Lapid and Bennet cut it to almost nothing!  The average hareidi family has about 8 children. We pay 18% vat tax on all we consume. Do you really think these families live on Government handouts? In these families the wives are all working (did you assume they were home redesigning their kitchens, eating bon-bons, shopping at our equivalent of the Short Hills mall or Nordstroms and filing their nails?). Do you have a similar problem when one of your secular friends has a wife who works and the husband stays home? I never heard anyone ever complain about that concept. So why is it that a family that is willing to forego all the pleasures of the olam ha-gashmi to pursue a self-sacrificing spiritually oriented existence voluntarily, supported in dignity by a working wife who believes in the primacy of Torah study be so reviled by you?
SP – I don’t revile anyone! Chas Veshalom! I love all Jews. But I still fail to see why the government – someone else’s tax dollars – is obligated to support someone in kollel. Find a Zevulun, a private benefactor. Similarly, I fail to see why the government – someone else’s tax dollars – would be obligated to support a talented artist, poet or basketball player. Is it the same? Of course not, based on my value system. But the Tel Avivian who has not yet been attracted to Torah has a different value system. Don’t tell me – tell him why he has to pay for yours.
    Better question: how many extra hours should my children in Israel work every week in order to support those who wish to learn full-time? And what if they would rather use those extra hours to learn Torah themselves? Why is that option foreclosed?
    I also have no secular friends, not that I’m proud of that! Then again, I don’t get out much. But I do think it is troubling if a wife works to support her husband and the family. Ultimately, as we know from our world, it causes real shalom bayit issues. But I don’t judge. If it works for them, it’s fine with me. In fact, the only cases I know of secular families in which the wife works and the husband doesn’t (the Mr. Mom dynamic) is where the husband has temporarily lost his job or is incapable of working. But if a Haredi family chooses that – tavo aleihem bracha – but just don’t expect the rest of society to subsidize it.
E – With large families the Hareidim are massive spenders on consumption and investment in Israel.  Ask Osem or Pampers or Simalec. Or anyone in the world of real estate and contruction. As consumers we give back a multiple of what we “take”.
SP – I’m not sure your statistics are accurate. But this is: EVERYBODY pays VAT, everybody pays taxes, and everyone consumes. They just make different consumption choices. And I must be missing something: if Haredim are such massive spenders on consumption, real estate, etc., why is a cut in school milk money so devastating? Ha’ikar chaser min hasefer – something essential is missing from your argument.
E – All this is without any reference to the spiritual value of what we contribute to our society – which as a rabbi and learner I hope you might at least modestly appreciate……אפקורוס כגון מאן אמר רי כגון הני דאמר מאי אהנו לן רבנן לדידהו קרו לדידהו תנו אל אביי האי מגלה פנים בתורה נמי הוא שכתוב אם לא בריתי יומם ולילה חוקות שמים וארץ לא שמתי
As far as the Rambam, please see the attached. There are almost 30 poskim listed who disagree with the Rambam, including the Mechaber in three places.  In addition, we can probably agree that the Brisker Ruv’s son, R’ Moshe’s son and R’ Aharon’s grandson know a thing or two about the Rambam  – yet they attended.
Like you, I grew up with Zionism uber alas. But we did not hate the Haredim . I told a friend of Bennett’s ( to paraphrase Golda Meir) that I can forgive him for stealing our money, starving the avreichim, and supporting legislation to jail our kids … but I can’t forgive him for causing me to hate him and causing you to hate me.
SP – I appreciate everyone’s Talmud Torah. I just don’t genuflect before the altar of those who insist that Haredi Talmud Torah is superior, nor to those who think their Ahavat Yisrael is superior. Every person – groups – has strengths and weaknesses.
    One of the bigger mistakes of the Haredi world is projecting the sense that their Judaism is more authentic than everyone else’s and therefore deserves the support of others. It is not. The Haredi world has strengths and weaknesses like any other group. Indeed, there are many things that the Haredi world can teach other Torah Jews and many things that the Haredi world needs to learn from other Torah Jews. But the Haredi world is trying to recreate something that never existed, and thus has run into problems.
     And – whatever you, I or others might say – the Rambam is still the Rambam. People do disagree with the Rambam, but they haven’t refuted his basic idea, which has turned out to be spot on:Kava me’or hadat. People have lost respect for the Torah lifestyle because of the Haredi estrangement from general society, not grown in respect. And, obviously, there are many Rabbanim who have an interest in keeping the status quo, or fear a public dissent from it.
    But, there was a time when Haredim understood this as well. In last Friday’s Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Stewart Weiss, whose son Ari hy”d fell in battle while protecting Jewish life, including this observation from post-1948:      “Indeed, no less a figure than the late Grand Rebbe of Gur – a Chassidic leader far ahead of his time – appealed to the yeshiva world to break down the wall of separation and allow yeshiva students to do their fair share in “giving back” to the nation. If they did not, he warned presciently, they would eventually provoke major animosity and resentment from the general public, resulting in a terrible Chillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name. Tragically, the Rebbe’s plea was rejected, the number of yeshiva exemptions grew exponentially, and the problem was left to simmer and boil. Now, the polarization and hatred it has created has divided our nation and been laid bare for all to see.
   I tell you that it is critical not to hate. I don’t hate Haredim at all, although I do feel sorry for many who – as they have told me – feel trapped. And you should not hate anyone, r”l, especially Naphtali Bennett. I have met him several times, he even has some good Teaneck roots. He is a wonderful person, very dedicated to Klal Yisrael. He really believes he is helping Haredim (I think he is right) – not just with the army but with entering the work force. He knows – you know – the present economics are unsustainable. The people who were paying for it no longer want to pay for it, secular and religious. And you know as well that permanent exemptions from army service or employment are also not sustainable. That is the society in which you live. Do not forget that all this came about because the High Court ruled that the current system was inequitable and therefore unlawful. Even the present Shaked Bill which Haredim so revile might not pass muster! But the status quo could not go on much longer, as the Gerrer Rebbe anticipated.
E – In the world of Israeli kiruv (just like the global phenomenon) there’s an amazing reality: virtually all who become frum — and there are well over 100k — become chareidim (of one form or another). They all grew up interacting with the datei Leumi, yet when push comes to shove, that’s not the lifestyle and community they choose. How odd for such a highly educated and unbiased (other than the extreme anti-Haredi bias they are raised with) to choose such a different way of life (one that will surely bring them no prestige or power or connections). How strange that they choose to join what you view as a cult of takers and uncaring, non-contributing families and individuals. Somehow the appeal of authentic and committed Torah and Yiddishkeit weighs more than the alternative.
The official prayer for the army? We love the soldiers and pray for them every day. In times of stress and war our shuls are full of people davening and saying Tehillim and personal prayers. We also cry when they fall, and Hatzola and unfortunately Zaka are there to pick them up! We don’t need the nusach of the chief Rabbi; we have Chazal אחינו כל בית ישראל……
With love,
Ephraim
SP- I think you are right about the kiruv statistics (not in our part of the world, of course). That is because the cloistered life poses fewer challenges, and I can see why a baal teshuva would want to sever any connection with his prior life even if not all do. But the balanced life appeals to others – not violations of halacha, r’l, but just a comfort level interacting with the rest of society.
   Your last paragraph is the most troubling, because in your entire response, you neglected to address one key point: the rejection of army service. That is bad enough – haacheichem tavou lamilchama v’atem teshvu po? – but the reluctance to say the accepted tefila for Tzahal wins no friends in the dati-leumi community. Must you be different just to be different? Are you still fighting Herzl? Is tefila really a substitute for actual participation in national defense or national service?
  If so, perhaps then you can relate to this analogy: the dati leumi community (we’ll try to get the seculars involved as well) will offer heartfelt tefilot in our own way and of our own composition for the material success of the Haredim. You just won’t get any money from the government and the society you so disdain. That would be too practical.
With blessings for continued success, your friend who loves, values and respects you,
 Steven Pruzansky

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Past and the Present

Rabbi Berel Wein
Another Winner from Rabbi Berel Wein:

I received a great deal of comment about my last week’s article on the mental and social regression of a large section if Israeli society. Most of the comments were neither complimentary nor critical but were rather requests for more specifics about the need for change in the mindset of much of Orthodox Jewry here in Israel and in the Diaspora as well.

Still under the influence of Purim and therefore perhaps a little too foolhardy, I will attempt to explain my position more specifically in this article. I think that we can all agree that the two main events in the Jewish world of the past century were the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. These two cataclysmic events changed the present Jewish society radically if not even permanently. Yet much of Orthodoxy inexplicably ignores these two events as though they never happened.

They occupy no space or time in many Orthodox schools and days of commemoration of these events are absent on school calendars. Instead there is a mindset that hunkers back to an idyllic Eastern European world of fantasy that is portrayed falsely in fictional stories, hagiographic biographies and omissions of uncomfortable facts and doctored photographs – to a world that never was

An entire talented and vital society is doomed to live in the imagined past and disregard present realities. And if the view of the present is unfortunately shaped by historical and social disconnect and denial then certainly the longer and equally vitally important view of the future will be distorted and skewed. Sooner or later, reality must sink in and when it does the pain, anger and frustration over past distortions and failures will become very difficult to bear.

The great struggle of most of Orthodoxy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries against Zionism influenced all Orthodox thought and behavior. As late as 1937, with German Jewry already prostrate before Hitler's madness and Germany already threatening Poland, the mainstream Orthodox rabbinate in Poland publicly objected to the formation of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel on the grounds that the heads of that state would undoubtedly be secular if not even anti-religious.

They were correct in that assessment but, since the Holocaust was then an unimaginable event in their worldview, they continued in their opposition to Jews leaving Poland to settle either in the United States or in Israel. Because of this past mindset, the Holocaust is more unsettling – theologically, at least – to Orthodoxy, then perhaps to any other group in the Jewish world.

Much of Orthodoxy chooses to ignore the issue or to contrive very lame excuses and causes for this catastrophe. In my opinion, there is no human answer to the event itself but the event cannot be ignored. One of the consequences of confronting it is naturally an admission that great and holy men can be wrong in their assessment of current events and future occurrences. Much of Orthodoxy is so hagiographic about its present and past leaders that it cannot bring itself to admit that. As such, the past cannot truly help to assess the present. A false past is almost as dangerous as having no past at all.

Dealing with the State of Israel is an even more vexing issue for much of Orthodoxy. The creation of the Jewish state, mainly by secular and nonobservant Jews, and by political and military means was not part of the traditional Jewish view of how the Land of Israel would again fall under Jewish rule.

Since it occurred in the “wrong” way and was being led by the “wrong” people it again shook the mindset of much of Orthodoxy. One of the great and holy leaders of Orthodox society in Israel stated in 1950 that the state could not last more than fifteen years. Well, it is obvious that in that assessment he was mistaken. But again it is too painful to admit that he was mistaken and therefore the whole attitude of much of the Orthodox world is one of denial of the present fact that the state exists, prospers and is the largest supporter of Torah and Jewish traditional religious lifestyle in the world.

It is again too painful to admit that our past mindset regarding the State of Israel is no longer relevant. As long as large sections of Orthodoxy continue to live in an imaginary past and denies the realities of the present, such issues as army or national service, core curriculums of essential general knowledge for all religious schools, entering the workforce and decreasing the debilitating poverty and dysfunction of so many families, will never be able to be addressed properly.

The solutions are difficult and they cannot be dictated or legislated no matter how popular such steps may appear to be. But the change of mindset to the present must certainly and eventually occur. The Jewish people have always been up to this task and I am confident that we will be able to do so now as well.

Monday, March 17, 2014

An Exchange

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
I do not always agree with Rabbi Steven Pruzansky. In fact some of the things he’s said I have strongly disagreed with.  As the rabbi of a Modern Orthodox Shul, he nevertheless tends to sound very Charedi on various issues. That tends to get him accolades from the right. And that makes what he says here much more meaningful. On this issue, he has got it exactly right. I publish his blog post here – in full. It is somewhat longer than my usual posts. But it is definitely worth reading. It follows. 

Earlier this week, I was contacted by an old friend who now lives in Israel, part of the Chareidi world. He sent me his thoughts, and I responded, and the exchange is reproduced below, with minor editing. I have deleted the friend’s name.   –RSP

6 Adar II 5774, March 8, 2014

Dear Steven,

Ahead of the mass gathering of Torah true Jewry scheduled to take place tomorrow in Manhattan, I’m reaching out to you, our brothers in America, to share with you the sad truth: here, in the State of Israel, 

Torah Jewry is subject to religious persecution.

To classify Torah students as “criminals,” subject to imprisonment, is only the latest and most absurd of anti-chareidi laws enacted recently by the government. In addition, they have  drastically cut education and welfare budgets, aiming to choke our yeshivos and schools, and even our individual religious freedoms, so prized by Americans and citizens of democracies worldwide.

Under the deceptive mantra of ‘sharing the burden’ the government is responsible for a wave of unprecedented incitement against chareidim, thereby splitting the nation. It is no secret that the objective of conscripting Torah scholars is a thinly disguised attempt at social engineering.

Is it conceivable that a Jewish government in Israel is trying to prevent its citizens from living Torah-true lives in the tradition that their ancestors for generations were moser nefesh for?

As you prepare to gather to offer heartfelt tefillos tomorrow, please remember that the train of persecution of lomdei Torah has already left the station and that there is no doubt that it is more difficult to stop a train that is already moving than to prevent it from leaving. But we must not despair and have to try to raise the alert, and to make all possible efforts to change things, before the train picks up speed. Because the route this train is heading towards leads directly to the abyss.

We know that the heart of Torah-true American Jewry beats together with its brethren in Eretz Yisrael, and senses that the danger to Torah observance in the Holy Land is a danger to the entire Jewish world. We believe that you recognize that learning and living Torah in Eretz Yisrael in holiness and purity is the basis for the existence of Torah true Yiddishkeit in Eretz Yisrael and in the Diaspora.

And therefore, grasp onto the craft of our fathers, and plead to Hashem that He protect and send salvation to all those who seek His yeshuos, so that shomrei Torah and lomdei Torah throughout will be able to continue to draw upon the eitz chaim, the tree of life, of the Torah world in Eretz Yisroel, that sustains us all.

Sincerely,
(Name deleted)
Your brother in Eretz Yisrael
———————————————————————————–

Dear ———:

It is great to hear from you and I hope you and the family are well, but I must part company with you on this issue, and I will not be participating in the rally today. In fact, I denounced it yesterday – even noted (based on a Midrash at the beginning of Vayikra) that there is such a concept of a “Talmid chacham she-ein bo da’at.”   Here is why:

Chareidim make a mistake in thinking that only the Lapid-led diehard seculars have a growing contempt for them. The dati-leumi community is also increasingly hostile, because they sense – to me, accurately – that the Chareidi community is causing hatred for Torah. It is impossible to explain to – take, for one example – my nephew, who learned in Hesder and completed his army service, why his Talmud Torah is somehow inferior to that of Chareidim. It is not. Perhaps his Talmud Torah is the same, but the Charedi world’s “Nosei b’ol im chaveiro” is completely absent. That deficiency in Ahavat Yisrael is glaring, noticed and the reason why the society at large no longer tolerates it.

It is unconscionable that there exists in the Chareidi world this idea that work and army service are beneath them, and that the rest of society which they hold in contempt must work and pay higher taxes in order to support them in order that they should sit and learn. I too would love to sit and learn, and have someone support me, but that is not the system that Hashem set up. Odd, indeed, that the Rambam’s clear statement (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10-11) is ignored, if it is even taught. But when he speaks of “kavah me’or hadat,” that is exactly what has happened, and solely because the Chareidi world has not fully embraced the Torah. 

That construct of the Chareidi world as practiced today is unprecedented in Jewish history.

The Chareidi lifestyle as currently constituted is unsustainable. Everyone knows it, even their gedolim know it – but many are afraid to speak the truth for fear of physical attacks or peer reproach. They are literally trapped in a different era, using the language of Czarist Russia, Antiochus and Purim to describe a government that is the biggest financial supporter of Torah in the world. That is not leadership. I fully endorse the notion of a Yissachar-Zevulun relationship for as long as the parties agree, but no Yissachar has the right to force someone else – the whole society? – to be a Zevulun. That is simply not part of the Torah system.

What is wrong with all Jews participating in national defense? Or, if for whatever reason Chareidim feel they cannot, what is wrong with even Chareidim doing national service – helping out in nursing homes, teaching Torah in deprived communities, even doing chesed work for a year or two? That is known as giving back to society. One can’t only take; one must give as well. Certainly, as Rav Dessler emphasized repeatedly, giving – not taking – is the essence of the righteous person. When I learned in Israel, I thought it quite natural to participate in the national defense. I didn’t necessarily enjoy – at the time – the loss of sleep because of overnight patrols, but I am happy I did it, and only benefited from it, even in terms of Talmud Torah. How can Zaka take time off from learning to pick up the pieces, r”l, after a terrorist attack? Why can’t the same people work to thwart the terrorist attack in the first place?

Indeed, the army doesn’t really need Chareidi service as much as the Chareidim – for halachic and moral reasons – need it for themselves. But army service is mainly a portal into the work force, and that is key. The rate of employment in the Israeli Chareidi community is simply too low. The work force participation rate of adult males in Bnei Brak, Betar Illit, Kiryat Sefer, etc., is scandalous. Perhaps that is the true “war on Torah,” because the impression given that one cannot be a Torah Jew and a Talmid Chacham – and work and support one’s family – is an outrageous canard. All the Tannaim and Amoraim worked for a living. The greatest of our people – Avraham, Moshe, Yehoshua, David, etc. – all went to war when necessary. The Torah exempts four classes of people from battle: the scholar is not one of the exemptions, for Jewish wars especially require the participation of Talmidei Chachamim.

I am inclined to agree with Rav Rakeffet of Yerushalayim: “someone who thinks that he will not be a Gaon if he serves for a short time in the military will not be a Gaon in any event.” But it is unconscionable to expect the rest of society to support a lifestyle that is alien to them, and frankly, alien to Torah. Why would a “secular” Jew be attracted to a “Torah” lifestyle that purports to demand estrangement from the general society, a cloistered abode, a rejection of general knowledge, an inability to function in the presence of women, a disdain for gainful employment and self-support, etc.? It doesn’t seem very attractive, except for one who wants to escape from the world.

I don’t believe that Chareidim should be imprisoned for refusal to serve, nor that it will ever happen.  But, I note half in jest, what if it did? One can learn Torah full-time anywhere, even in prison. In fact, prison is ideal. Rav Meir Kahane hy”d wrote a 500-page sefer while he was in prison.  Every Israeli prison has a fully-stocked Bet Midrash, there are regular minyanim, Magidei Shiurim come every day, the food is mehadrin, there are no women present, no distractions at all. There are regular furloughs for Yamim Tovim. The government can support them anywhere. It’s just a change in venue. I don’t underestimate the hardships of prison life, but the Israeli jail is not the Gulag to which Jews were sent for learning Torah.

That they don’t proudly embrace the consequences of defiance means there is another factor at work: as you write, there are people who perceive the actions of the government as “social engineering” designed to “prevent Chareidim from living Torah-true lives.” I don’t believe that, and the extent to which the Charedi world has alienated natural supporters and lovers of Torah should be worrisome to them. But anyone who does believe that should not insist that the government subsidize that lifestyle. I personally oppose incarceration or criminal penalties, but I also would grant no government benefits at all to people who refuse to perform any type of national service. The Chareidi educational system is also in disarray; I do not see why the government should support any school system that does not educate its students in a way that will enable them to function in society. Is that really a “Torah-true” life? I think not.

One last point, which goes to the heart of this: I have never heard of a Chareidi shul where the tefila for Tzahal is recited. Forget the tefila for the medina – but why wouldn’t they say the tefila for Tzahal? I have asked this question many times to Chareidi acquaintances, and mostly been met with stunned silence and occasionally with a muffled “the Rebbe…the Rosh Yeshiva… has never told us to say it.” It is simply inexplicable, a lack of derech eretz, hakarat hatov, and common sense.

What a Kiddush Hashem it would be if the Charedi leadership announced today that, it still rejects conscription, but henceforth it will daven for Tzahal every week! That would go a long way to easing tensions, perhaps not with Yair Lapid and his cohorts but with the Dati-Leumi Torah community that you are rapidly losing.

I love all Torah Jews and I hate all distortions of Torah. The Chareidi Torah world has so much to offer, and I refuse to accept this prevailing notion that they need to treated like handicapped children with special needs, that they are unable to live and interact with normal people. I reject that. I will treat them like precious Jews but like adults: those who are poreish min hatzibur should not be shocked or disheartened when the tzibur is in turn poreish from them.  The Chareidi world, on some level, perceives itself as a self-contained community that can insulate itself from the greater society which it holds (at least in some aspects, understandably) in contempt. But then don’t be surprised when that same society – which feels the contempt – then decides it no longer wishes to subsidize or indulge that community.

With friendship, all blessings and wishes for nachat v’chul tuv,

Steven Pruzansky
Your Brother in America

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

If I Were a Rich Man…

Philanthropist Mark Zuckerberg
I know it’s a fantasy. But the thought occurred to be that if Mark Zuckerberg would have directed his nearly 1 billion dollars in charitable contributions last year to Jewish education, what a difference that would make. It should be noted that he is at the top of the list in charitable contributions for 2013.

For those who have just have just arrived here from Mars, 29 year old Mark Zuckerberg is the founder of Facebook, perhaps the most popular medium for social interaction on the internet. He is today worth an estimated  28 billion dollars.

I suppose by Halachic standards, he should have given away almost 3 times as much as he did. Halacha tells us that one must give away 10% of one’s income.   But, a billion dollars is a hefty piece of change, and if he were to give it to one of my personal charities, I woudn’t quibble.

The chances of Mark giving any money to Jewish education are twofold: Slim and none. That’s not because Mark isn’t Jewish. He is. But because he is an atheist. (Not being Jewish does not prevent non Jews from donating to Jewish charities. There are some very generous non Jewish philanthropists that have given money to Jewish educational institutions. But somehow I don't think an atheist is interested in supporting educating Jews to believe in God.)

How sad it is that a man of Jewish heritage that is so wealthy with such an obviously good heart has little to no chance of funneling at least some of his contributions to Jewish education.

Maybe next year??? Nah… Not gonna happen. But I can dream… can’t I?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

And Then They Shot Him

A look at uncounted victims of the Holocaust by bullets by  Helen Maryles Shankman

The following appeared in the New Jersey Jewish Standard. Helen is my very talented niece.

“Eastern Europe’s Killing Fields,” ran the subhead at the bottom of the New York Times. Underneath it, the caption read, “Many of the Jews who died in the Holocaust were killed by executioners’ bullets, historians have learned.”

It was Tuesday morning, the day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It was also the second day back at school after the end of yeshiva break. Following a week of vacation where my children stayed up every night until the wee hours playing Minecraft and Assassins Creed, they were reluctantly rolling out of bed at daybreak and trudging out into record low temperatures, waiting at frozen street corners for their school buses.

After seeing everyone off, I spread the paper out on the dining room table and flipped to page A10. “Shedding Light on a Vast Toll of Jews Killed Away From Death Camps,” blared the headline. According to the Times article, the Holocaust generally is associated with concentration camps. Historians are now learning that a million and a half Jews were executed in forests and villages across Eastern Europe, in the Ukraine, in Belarus, and in parts of Russia.

For some unfathomable reason, the Times photo editor chose to illustrate the article with a picture of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate at Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

There’s a certain conversation you have when you tell people that your parents are Holocaust survivors. 

“Really?” they say respectfully. “What camp were they in?”

“They weren’t in a camp,” you explain. “They were hiding in the forests, running from place to place.”
This is followed by what my sister calls The Look. Then some kind of variation on this statement: “Oh, so they didn’t really suffer. They had it pretty good.”

That he “had it pretty good” would be news to my dad. Usually, his war stories end with the words, “And then they took him into the forest and shot him.”

Sometimes, the “him” in the story is his 15-year-old brother, Yehuda. When their bunker — a hole tunneled into the side of a hillock — was discovered by a passing hunter, my father, my grandfather, and another brother threw themselves into the latrine pit. Understanding that there was no room for him, Yehuda shoveled dirt over his father and brothers to hide them. Then he climbed out to face the SS.

Sometimes the “him” in the story is my great-uncle Aron. Aron had a gift. He built bunkers. And his bunkers weren’t just a hole in the floor, or a space hollowed out behind a false wall; Aron engineered bunkers that could hold 50 people. He secreted one under three feet of earth in a root cellar, so that suspicious soldiers armed with shovels couldn’t find it. Aron built bunkers with electricity stolen from Gestapo headquarters; Aron built a bunker with a real working toilet; Aron built a bunker with a shower he made from a car radiator.

Uncle Aron was hiding out in the Ukrainian forests when he was captured. The German soldiers barked, “Don’t move, or we’ll shoot!” Fearing that he might be tortured, that he might reveal the locations of the bunkers he’d constructed, Aron moved.

Sometimes, the “him” in the story is Aunt Devora, who lived in the city of Drohobych, just 11 miles away from my father’s hometown, Podbuzh. Dad remembers being sent to Drohobych one summer to stay with his aunt and her wealthy merchant husband. The family consensus was that my father was too thin. Aunt Devora was assigned the task of fattening him up.

“What happened to her, Dad?” I asked him, the first time I heard this story. “Where is she now?”

“What do you think?” he replied. “They took her into the forest and shot her.

“And her husband, and her children, too.” Before the war, there were around one hundred Szapiros living in the Galitzia/Drohobych area, Dad says, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Of this hundred, four survived.
The New York Times article cited Father Patrick Desbois, a French priest who became intrigued with the “Holocaust by bullets” after his grandfather was captured and held in Rava-Ruska, a camp for French prisoners of war in Ukraine. In the camp, his grandfather told him, life was hard. But, he hinted darkly, there were others for whom it was much worse. Though he refused to talk about it, eventually Father Desbois discovered that one of his grandfather’s jobs as a prisoner was filling in mass graves for Jews.

Father Desbois made it his life’s work to discover unmarked Jewish execution sites throughout Eastern Europe. Going from town to town in the Ukrainian countryside, he began by checking in with the local priest and telling him of his mission. Invariably, someone would come forward. Aged villagers who were children when the Jews of their town were killed and buried in a patch of wasteland behind the houses (or in a storage vault in the market square, or a nearby quarry, or a scarred clearing in the forest), yearned to unburden themselves of their memories, to confess to the priest what they had witnessed before their stories died with them.

On Google, I typed in the word “Drohobych” and clicked on “Images.”

Pictures popped up. Quaint onion-domed churches. Pretty nineteenth-century architecture. Wide city streets. Charming townhouses that could be in London, or Greenwich Village. Grand, ornate structures that clearly once were synagogues and have been re-purposed into something else.

I scrolled down. More pictures swam into view. German soldiers aiming their rifles at four men standing against a wall, their hands linked for courage. Nazi officers standing above a trench cut among the trees, a trench stacked high with bodies. In a clearing, a memorial shaped like a grave marker, commemorating the Jews of Drohobych, massacred and buried in the Bronica Forest. A wooded glade, featuring hillocks and dips covered in fallen leaves. Under these hillocks and dips in the forest, the caption clarifies, are unmarked mass graves.

My father’s stories came to life. I tried to imagine a 15-year-old boy named Yehuda standing among the trees with his hands up in the air. I tried to visualize my grandfather leading the remnant of his family through these woods in the dead of night, carving a hiding place into a mound of earth.

The true horror of this story is this: In 2014, an article about “Eastern Europe’s Killing Fields” is news because the scope of the killing still is unknown. The investigation continues, 69 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, because in hundreds of towns and villages where German soldiers rounded up the local Jewish population and shot them, there were no survivors.

The number we are all familiar with is six million.

In fact, we have no idea how many Jews were really murdered. And it’s likely we never will. 

Helen Maryles Shankman’s short fiction has appeared in many publications, including The Kenyon Review and JewishFiction.net. Her debut novel, The Color of Light, is available on Amazon.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Off to a Good Start

Mayor de Blasio being sworn into office by Former President Clinton
I’m not really a fan of his left wing politics. But newly installed mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio is on the right side of this issue. He too sees the New York Post’s coverage of the Stark murder as an outrage and has condemned it right along with the rest of the civilized world. He has rightly separated his murder from his questionable business practices.  Something the New York Post saw fit to exploit. His prayers are with the family as ours should all be. What follows is a JTA article about this.

 (JTA) — New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, said finding the killer of haredi Orthodox Brooklyn landlord Menachem Stark is a priority and condemned the New York Post’s coverage of the incident.

De Blasio, who has been roundly criticized for his silence in the case, ripped the newspaper for its coverage on the front page of its Jan. 4 edition that included a headline blaring “Who Didn’t Want Him Dead?” next to a photo of Stark, 39, sporting a large shtreimel and graying side curls.

“It was unfair. It was hurtful. And there is really no place for that kind of thing in New York City,” de Blasio told the WMCA’s Orthodox-interest “Community Matters” radio program. “I know a lot of people are outraged, and I share their outrage.”

The mayor, who was sworn in at the start of the year, vowed to find Stark’s killer or killers.
“It’s a tragedy what happened to Mr. Stark. And my heart goes out for the family and they are in my thoughts and prayers,” de Blasio said. “And I know that for many, many people in the Jewish community this has been a very painful moment and I want to say: First of all, we are going to get to the bottom of it. We will find who did this to him and who robbed children of a father and a wife of a husband.”

Meanwhile, police reportedly found a new clue in the case, with WABC-TV reporting over the weekend that a cellphone being used as a tracking device was found taped under Stark’s car. Police are trying to identify the phone’s owner.

Stark’s body was found Jan. 3 on suburban Long Island some 16 miles away from his office in the heavily Satmar section of Williamsburg, from where he was kidnapped the previous evening. He reportedly was suffocated before his body was placed in a dumpster outside a Great Neck gas station and burned, according to police.

Video footage taken from his office reportedly showed Stark being taken into a van after a struggle outside his office. The identity of his abductors is not known. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Has Justice been served?

Rabbi Mordechai Elon - Photo credit: Ha'aretz
From the Forward


Rabbi Mordechai “Motti” Elon, an Israeli Modern Orthodox leader, was sentenced to six months of community service for his conviction on two charges of sexually assaulting a minor.

Elon was sentenced Wednesday in Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court for incidents that took place in 2003 and 2005. The student had come to Elon, the former rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem, for advice.

He was also sentenced to 15 months probation and must pay nearly $3,000 in compensation to the victim.

“I welcome my sentencing of community service – I’ve been doing such work for 40 years, and will be happy to continue till I’m 120 years old,” Elon said following the sentence.

He added that the conviction is false. Accusations of sexual misconduct against Elon were first investigated by a Modern Orthodox forum, Takana, which deals with complaints of sexual harassment in the religious school system. The forum in 2006 ordered that Elon no longer have contact with students. Shortly after, Elon left his teaching positions and moved from Jerusalem to Migdal, a moshav in the North, citing health reasons.

The public investigation against Elon began in February 2010 after Takana went to police with the sexual harassment complaints, saying Elon had violated the restrictions on contact with students that had been imposed on him. Elon denied the charges and rejected a plea bargain under which he would have pleaded guilty but not served jail time.

Elon is the founder of the MiBereshit educational program, which is distributed throughout the world in Hebrew and English. He is the son of former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon and the brother of former Knesset member Benny Elon.