Friday, May 27, 2016

Where is the Real Center?

Chabad Shluchim in front of 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn- 2012 (VIN)
I’m sorry they removed the post. Cross Currents had recently featured an article by Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer that was critical of Chabad in a highly respectful and constructive way. Apparently Chabad, or at least the Chabad Shaliach in California, Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie took umbrage at it. Rabbi Gordimer apologized, Rabbi Eleazrie accepted it gracefully - end of story. 

The problem is that there is no ‘story’. We now have no record of what Rabbi Gordimer said - and apologized for. Which is too bad. I read the article when it was originally published and if I recall correctly found it to be just as I said it was. Respectful and constructive.

The issue at hand is whether Chabad is the new ‘center’ (...or middle - as Rabbi Eliezrie puts it) of Judaism. As a card carrying Centrist, I would take issue with that. I am not a member of Chabad.  And I definitely do not believe that their Hashkafos are mainstream. At least not when it comes to their views of their Rebbe as Moshiach.  That issue is far from dead. This is one of those internal struggles mentioned by both Rabbi Eliezrie and Rabbi Gordimer. Rabbi Gordimer said in his letter of apology that we ought to let Chabad deal with their own internal issues and let us (outsiders) deal with our own internal issues. Which are in some cases considerable.

Normally I would agree with that. But when a a movement claiming to be the new center is still  ‘hung up’ about whether their long deceased Rebbe is Moshiach – it becomes a matter for all of us. It is a matter of whether a view that a man can be resurrected from the dead to become Moshiach is theologically acceptable. Whether such beliefs are acceptable is just as problematic as accepting the bible critic’s argument that events at Sinai were allegorical. Neither of these positions are internal. They both relate to the fundamental principles of our faith. 

Rabbi Eliezrie does not make any reference to  the ‘Moshichism’ issue – as though it doesn’t exist (other than to refer to it vaguely as an internal matter).  I don’t blame him for that. But sweeping it under the rug does not make the issue go away. It is a serious one that has yet to be resolved by Chabad. Ask anyone that has been to their headquarters at 770.

There are other issues that argue against a claim of  centrism. For example many of Chabad’s customs are their own and not practiced by other Orthodox Jews. And yet they promote them as though they were Mitzvos on par with keeping Shabbos or Kashrus. (Like teaching secular Jews that all women of any household and of any age - must light shabbos candles on Friday evening. A custom specific only to Chabad.)

This is not to impugn the good they do. Which is immense. I have pointed this out many times in the past. I in fact agree with Rabbi Gordimer who said: 
(I)t is clear as day that Chabad is a crucial ally – actually a foremost leader – in the battle to preserve tradition and keep Jews affiliated, without compromise, through genuine love and mesiras nefesh.  
There is no denying their massive accomplishment in these areas over the last 70 or so years. They are sincere in their outreach and uncompromising in their beliefs. As Rabbi Eliezrie says: 
By choosing Chabad the new generation is boarding a train headed towards observance instead of away. For some it may move at a slow pace, for others more rapid, but the direction is a new one for many Jews…
Every Jew is welcome, but the rules are not changing. As one prominent leader of a local Temple told me some years ago “You guys don’t move the goalposts.” They appreciate that Judaism is not imposed on them, but rather they are given the space to grow at their own pace in observance, slowly, Mitzvah by Mitzvah. 
I think it’s safe to say that they have virtually cornered the market in outreach. They are of course not the only ones doing it successfully. But they are by far the most successful at it - at least in terms of sheer numbers.  The rest of Orthodox Jewry would do well to study their successes and incorporate some of their methods. 

That said, I doubt that we can reproduce the “Shaliach’ system. I don’t think there are many people in outreach outside of Lubavitch that would be willing to live in a city where there are no other Orthodox Jews; no Jewish educational facilities for children; and no Jewish infrastructure. Chabad Shiluchim are about the only ones that do this. And they do so in huge numbers.

So at the end of the day, I agree with Rabbi Gordimer. We need Chabad. Nobody does what they do. Even as we have our issues with them, the good they do far outweighs the problems they have. And since the main problem of their messianic views are not promoted in their outreach work, I for one am willing to look the other way. For now.

But calling Chabad centrist is just plain wrong. Just because they have attracted a lot of unaffiliated Jews into their programs – filling a avoid left by failing heterodox movements - that does not make them centrist.

As an aside Open Orthodoxy (OO) is motivated in a similar vein. YCT Talmud Chair,  Rabbi Y’soscher Katz once indicted, that OO is all about reaching out to a certain type of Jew - so that he (or she) can find a place in Orthodoxy. However, to paraphrase what was said above about Chabad, you can’t move the goalposts in order to win the game. 

But centrists they are not. To be a centrist is not only about a growing demographic – as Rabbi Eliezrie seems to posit. It is about where one stands philosophically relative to other Orthodox Jews. Or at least how one fits into the spectrum of religiosity.  And whether that demographic center can be perpetuated.

Chabad has a very clear Hashaka that is unique to them. It is distinct. And their interaction with other Jews tends to focus mostly on the non religious. They have their own schools and social organizations that are separate and apart from the rest of mainstream Orthodoxy. Whether Chasidic or Yeshivish or Centrist or on the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy (…if that still exists outside of OO).

If one looks at sheer numbers, the growth of other types of Chasidim is exponential. Add to that the world of Yeshivos and the world of Modern Orthodoxy - both of which are growing - and Chabad will never catch up to the combined growth of all the other Orthodox groups. Even if they include their outreach successes.  .

Furthermore, sheer numbers now does not necessarily predict what those numbers will be in the future. It remains to be seen whether a system that avoids a secular studies curriculum for elementary and high school students can sustain itself. Chabad’s philosophy is to avoid a secular curriculum in their schools (for boys) if they can help it… same as Satmar. The only difference being that Chabad will compromise and have one if that is the only way a community will support their schools. Detroit Chabad has no secular studies in their elementary school and Chicago doesn’t have one in their high school.

I therefore still maintain that the new centrists will be the moderate Charedi world (consisting of both moderate Yeshiva types and moderate Chasidim) combined with the right wing of Modern Orthodoxy. In my view they have the best chance at real growth since they are best suited to deal successfully with the modern world. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Shomrim – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There is much that is good about the Chasidic world. It is a brotherhood like no other. It is that sense of brotherhood that in my view was the impetus for forming the Shomrim Society back 1977. Shomrim are a group of usually Chasidic Jews that are volunteer neighborhood watchmen. Kind of like Curtis Slewa’s Guardian Angels. They patrol Jewish neighborhoods in order to provide protection against things like vandalism, muggings, assault and domestic violence.

The Shomrim Society has spread beyond its original borders of Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Boro Park, and Flatbush . There are now branches in cities like Baltimore, Miami, Lakewood, and London.

The fact is that a lot of Jewish residents in those areas are happy that they exist. They seem to have political support and some (if not universal) police support – who are happy to have some of their burden relieved by them. Shomrim even has some government funding. They not only add an extra layer of protection to those Jewish neighborhoods, they are often seen by Jewish residents as a first line of defense against crime. Their response time is generally a lot quicker than the police.  

There is not a doubt in my mind that there has been more than one occasion where an elderly victim was spared a mugging or an assault because of their quick response. And not all of the people they help are Orthodox Jews. According to a 2014 story in the Hackney Gazette
…around 70% of the victims (in London) they help are not from the Orthodox Jewish community, usually just local residents from any race or religion. 
Although I tend to doubt whether that 70% figure is anywhere near in a Chasidic enclaves like Williamsburg, I do believe that if a caller in distress is not Jewish, they will respond to them just the same.

But that is not the end of the story. I have had my issues with these self appointed watch groups. While there may be a benefit to having that kind of protection by one’s own people, there is a definite downside that makes me question their ultimate value.

The truth is I never liked the idea of volunteer neighborhood watch groups. My feeling has always been that despite the fact that theywere created to protect their communities, many of them were basically police ‘wannabes’ looking for adventure but untrained to do police work.

True, they do not carry weapons (thank God). But a lot of damage can be done with a fist. Or a foot. Or a stick. In their zeal to protect the innocent, they will sometimes go overboard. And in some cases hurt innocent people – mistaking them for a perpetrator. Now this can happen to police too. We all know what has been happening on this front these days. Ask the families of mostly black victims unjustly killed or beaten by the police in cities all over this country.

The difference is that the police are trained to know when and how to react – and how much force to use. So that hopefully – as bad as the recent cases of police brutality have been - they are a very small minority of the police department. As a percentage of the whole, the numbers are probably miniscule. There are bad apples in every group. But Shomrim have no such training. Certainly not on the level of the police department.
So, although I am happy that many people have been spared great tragedy as a result of quick response by Shomrim - preventing for example violence against an elderly Jew -  it comes at a terrible price. A price that can best be described in a Forward article by attorney, Michael Lesher. If it were up to him, he would abolish these groups entirely. And with good reason: 
The Brooklyn Hasidim accused of beating a young, gay black man named Taj Patterson back in 2013 are reportedly about to get a plea deal so sweet, they won’t serve a single day in prison. Patterson, who was beaten so badly that he was left blind in one eye, and who had homophobic slurs hurled at him throughout the ordeal, is surely having a hard time understanding the aftermath. 
I don’t know the details of this case. But it surely smacks of something way beyond protecting fellow Jews. I don’t think that beating and blinding a suspect while hurling homophobic insults at them is what protecting fellow Jews is all about. And this is not the first nor only case where excessive force was used. More from Mr. Lesher: 
For too long we’ve allowed a system of Jewish-run patrols to dominate the heavily Orthodox Jewish enclaves of Brooklyn, usurping the role of the official police force (with key support from vote-hungry politicians), despite their record of violence toward non-Jews. And for years we’ve held our tongues as the patrols’ unchecked behavior carried on… 
When retired police captain William Plackenmeyer told Newsday in 2003, “In Brooklyn, it almost seemed like there were two penal codes, one for the Hasidic community and one for everyone else…”  
When Michael wrote an article in the New York Post exposing some uncomfortable truths about Shomrim this was in part the response he got: 
Although several thanked me for telling the truth, a more common note was sounded by a gentleman who informed me by email that “Hitler succeeded to kill 6 million jews only because of such people like you.” “God will make you cry one day so hard,” another prophesied, adding, “I can’t wait for that day.” Summing up the case, one New York City rabbi’s message accused me of “trashing out fellow Jews” in what “may prove to be one of the most treacherous acts of messira [informing] in modern times.”
I am appalled by this response. Whether one agrees with him or not, this is not how to respond someone who has worked so hard to seek justice for victims of sex abuse. Instead of condemning him, they should be honoring him as a role model for the Jewish community.

For me the truth about the value of the Shmorim Society lies somewhere between the 2 extremes of the good and bad they do. 

On the one hand, they do offer an added layer of protection to the communities in which they serve. They fill a gap made by not having a big enough police force to properly protect a neighborhood for all crimes, big and small. The police department acknowledges that. 

On the other hand, there’s Taj Peterson who was beaten and blinded in one eye by overzealous homophobic Shomrim. Shomrim that are about to get away with it. He deserves a lot better than he’s getting from the criminal justice system.

I don’t know that I would disband them. But I would certainly have people seeking to join them, better vetted for psychological issues; better trained; and subject to the same standards and sanctions for wrongdoing as the police. I would at the very least require every call made to the Shomrim be monitored by the police department.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Honoring a Ban in the Breach

Chasidim - picture for illustrative purposes only (Arutz Sheva)
No matter how much they try, it isn’t going to work. Once again the leadership of a Chasidus has attempted to forbid internet use. There was a convention in Jerusalem last week attended by thousands of Ger Chasidim.  From Arutz Sheva
At the “Emergency Meeting Against the Dangers of Technology”, Hasidim were reminded of the strict prohibition against using internet-capable cellular devices, even if content screening programs are in place. According to the regulation, only those who require internet access for business purposes are permitted to use even filtered internet connections.
The popular Whatsapp cell phone application was also dealt with during the meeting. Speakers lambasted the application and called upon Gur Hasidim to remove it from their phones…
One speaker at the convention issued an unprecedented ruling against internet usage, saying that anyone who uses unfiltered internet connections is no longer deemed worthy of respect from their children.
“Anyone whose parent possesses a non-kosher device is no longer obligated by the [biblical law of] ‘Honoring thy father and mother’, and is not allowed to visit them.” 
Well it seems that these new exhortations are being ignored, right in the heart of the Charedi world. I am not talking about outliers that have bucked the system. I am talking about mainstream members of Ger living in places like Bnei Brak. From another article in Arutz Sheva
Both the Abarbanel Shtibel in Bnei Brak and Beit HaHasidim Shtibel in Ashdod were shut down on Friday and Saturday. Those managing the synagogues noted that strict orders were given at last week’s conference, and that a number of congregants had been seen openly violating the rules concerning cell phone use.   
You can’t fault them for trying. But the leaders of Ger are spitting in the wind.  As time passes, the rules against the internet are increasingly being observed in the breach. Ger Chasidim realize what the rest of the world does – that there is great benefit in internet use. And all the haranguing in the world is not going to change that.

Of course there are Chasidim that adhere to the rules – probably the majority. But I have to wonder just how long it will be before that majority becomes a minority – as the world increasingly becomes more dependent on internet use in their daily lives.

As I have said many times in the past - this is not to say that the concerns rabbinic leaders have about internet use aren’t legitimate. Of course they are. They are right to be worried about the dangers inherent in it - when convenience turns into addiction. In many cases those addictions are to internet porn – which is what I think is the focus of their concern. But what may actually be worse than porn are websites that question our fundamental beliefs. That can be a danger to anyone. But no one is as unprepared as for those encounters as those whose secular education is as minimal as theirs.

This is why their approach is doomed to fail. It isn’t working that well now and will work even less in the future. Instead of honoring a ban which has been in place for a few years now, we see incidences like the one described above. They plunge into the web without any preparation or guidelines. Those that have filters might fare well. But if something is completely forbidden as one speaker at that convention indicated - why bother with filters? 

Besides filters do not filter out everything. I don’t think there is a filter that can eliminate websites that question our faith. At least not all of them. A community that has absolutely no preparation for such encounters is an easy target for their arguments. 

(On that last score, those of us that do allow internet use have not yet risen to the challenge of those websites in our educational systems. More work needs to be done with that. A lot more!)

The rabbinic leaders of Ger – and like-minded leaders of other types of Chasidus, are barking up the wrong tree. The more they ban… the more they yell and scream, the more people stop listening to them. And once they stop listening to them on one thing, can it be that long before they stop listening to them on other things… or eventually everything?

Chasidic leaders have had a fairly successful run at keeping their Chasidim isolated from the rest of the world. They did that because they saw the outside world as harmful to a Torah- true lifestyle. And to one’s very soul!  They maintain that the more exposure one has to it, the more they will be tempted by it. They saw isolation as the best answer. 

Perhaps. In my view that is at best debatable. But even if it worked in the past, it cannot work anymore. The internet won’t let it. And forbidding the internet is becoming about as futile as forbidding air. The internet is everywhere. It is not going to be stopped. And Chasidim are not going to be isolated from it.

I know I am basically talking to the wall - as nobody in the Chasidic world is going to pay any attention to me.  But I am going to give them some advice, anyway.

Start treating technology for what it is – a useful device that can improve one’s life. One must respect both its benefits and its dangers. Ignore it at your own peril. 

Take a page from us -your Modern Orthodox brothers. Not that we have all the answers – nor have we developed methods to implement some of our suggestions – but here they are. Don’t ban it. Teach responsible usage of it. Educate your children how to deal with websites that question your faith.

And by all means use filters – especially when there are children in the picture. Isolating yourselves from the rest of the world is no longer a realistic option. Teach your children how to engage with it responsibly. In my view that is the best – if not the only way to preserve  your culture… and maybe even expand it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

How Many More Are There Like Him?

Accused Mashgiach arriving in a Jerusalem court (Arutz Sheva)
This is one subject I hate writing about. That’s because the subject matter is so disgusting. Not that I haven’t dealt with it. I have. Many times. But sexual abuse is something that is just plain difficult to discuss… for a variety of reasons. Which of course begs the rhetorical question, if it is so difficult to discuss it, what it must be like to experience it?

That’s why I have discussed it in the past. My goal on this issue was (and still is) to exhort the Orthodox rabbinic leadership to do better. Victims of abuse (or survivors as they prefer to be called) have lives that have been changed forever. They will always be haunted by those memories. Even in cases where they have overcome them and lead relatively normal lives. But as has been demonstrated many times - getting over it is not always the result. I don’t know what the percentages are but there are a great number of survivors that do not get over it. They will often reject the Judaism they were raised with as a bunch of lies because of what they have experienced.

What’s worse many of them fall into a state of depression – unable to function or cope with the real world. They will often drop out of school and ‘self medicate’ with alcohol and/or illicit drugs to try and drown out the pain.  Attempts at suicide is unfortunately all too common among survivors and in some tragic cases, they succeed!

The way Orthodox rabbinic leaders in the past have dealt with these issues was clearly misguided - usually based on the presumption that an accused sex abuser is the victim of a false charge. Especially if they are prominent people that would never be suspected of abuse.  

Adding to the belief that accusations by survivors were false was the fact that many of them stopped being observant precisely because of it. They were thus seen in a negative light and their stories seen as unreliable. Rabbis then saw someone that went OTD accusing an innocent ‘local hero’ of an unspeakable crime. They were highly skeptical of the accusation and often treated survivors like pariahs.

In some cases where rabbinic leaders believed  a survivor - they merely chased the abuser  ‘out of town’  – without warning other communities about him.

That has changed somewhat. There is still a lot of work to do. But as one prominent Charedi Rav told me a few months ago in response to my praise of his (and a group of fellow Charedi rabbis) heroic call to report sex abuse directly to the police, ‘We were living in the dark ages’. I only wish all Charedi Rabbis would be on board with this view. Unfortunately this is not yet the case.

I bring this subject up  again now because of yet another respected Charedi Rav, Naftali Maklev, who was exposed as a sex abuser. From Arutz Sheva:
Jerusalem prosecutors filed an indictment against a rabbi who served as a mashgiach at a yeshiva in the city, for a series of rapes carried against a number of female relatives over the course of several years. 
Jerusalem prosecutors filed an indictment against a rabbi who served as a mashgiach at a yeshiva in the city, for a series of rapes carried against a number of female relatives over the course of several years.
He had attempted to justify his actions by perversely claiming they were not only permitted under Jewish law, but mandated. In some cases he even went as far as to claim his acts of abuse served to "purify" his victims spiritually and atone for sins their souls committed in "past lives", or to cure them of physical ailments.
In one particularly extreme incident relayed in the indictment, the accused secretly recorded leading haredi Rabbi Chaim Kaniyevsky issuing a halakhic ruling on a totally unrelated subject, then played it back to the accused and claimed the rabbi was in fact endorsing the abuser's actions, in order to persuade her against speaking out.
This is just the latest in a series of reports over the last few years about sex abuse in Orthodox community. I believe the problem is a lot worse than we realize. If I had to guess I would say that as a percentage of the whole - the incidence of abuse in the Orthodox world is probably about the same as it is in the non Orthodox world. There are a lot of sick people out there with sexual perversions. And they find ways to act upon. And do so in secret for many years until they get caught - as was the case here. 

Being a Mashgiach at a Yeshiva is not just a job in Chinuch. It is a highly respected position in a Yeshiva second only to being Rosh HaYeshiva. In some cases a Mashgiach is more respected that the Rosh HaYeshiva is. Rav Matisyahu Salomon, the Mashgiach of Lakewood is a case in point.

The Yeshiva this rapist was involved with was founded and endorsed by a who’s who of Charedi rabbinic leaders. None of them suspected him of this kind of behavior. I am certain they believed him to be a Tahor V’Kadosh - a true role model for students. Someone students could go to for advice in life – as is often the case  with a Yeshiva Mashgiach. But they know th truth now, since he admitted it in a Beis Din.

In this case the Yeshiva did the right thing. They reported the abuse to the police who arrested him.

Despite all the improvements in how abuse is now handled, we still need to do better. Who knows how many more ‘rabbinic role models’ like this are around, influencing young minds while satisfying themselves at the expense of others when no one is looking. And doing so for years! 

I am not calling for a witch hunt. That would be just as wrong as ignoring the problem. But there has to be a way to better vet our Mechanchim to see if they are fit to be around our children. Perhaps its time to implement a psychological test administered by experts on sex abuse for every Mechanech applying for a job - to see whether he has aberrant sexual desires and whether he might act on them. This may seem harsh or overkill. But better overkill than allow for the possibility of ruining so many lives.

Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman has the right idea which he expressed on his website The Short Vort . My thoughts echo his. If only every rabbinic leader in Orthodoxy had his attitude.

Monday, May 23, 2016

It’s Going to be President Donald J. Trump

Well, it seems to have happened a lot faster than I predicted. The tide seems to have turned in favor of Donald Trump.

I therefore stand by my prediction that he will be elected the next President of the United States, despite the fact that he may very well be the least qualified person in history to have ever run for that post.

Not only is he an ill mannered boor that has embarrassed this nation by his mere presence in the Republican primary, he is an individual with absolutely no core values. At least none that are evident. His views on core issues have radically changed from what they once were. I believe that is because of the constituency to which he desires to appeal. On the issue of abortion he was pro-choice not that long ago. Now he is pro life. On gun control he was against assault weapons. Now he is in favor of them.

The disgusting things he has said about opposing candidates – which are generally off limits in any kind of dignified run for any office, let alone the Presidency is an almost every day affair. His recent mention of Bill Clinton’s reputation for sexual escapades (some of which include accusations of rape) is his most recent attack on his likely opponent in November. Trump’s own inglorious past on this issue does not stop him from talking about Hillary’s husband.

The media has been extremely hard on him. Their portrayal of his candidacy would have made any other candidate disappear a long time ago. The media never misses a beat in finding fault with something he said, whether it is about foreign or domestic policy or about his penchant for hurling insults at reporters that have said something about him he didn’t like. For late night comedians he is a dream come true, providing an endless treasure trove of material with which to ridicule him. But instead of laughing him out of contention, his appeal  keeps growing.

He has absolutely no experience in governing. Knows little about foreign affairs or domestic policy. His negatives are through the roof! Most voters in this country just don’t like him – even as they don’t much like his opponent either.

I have only scratched the surface of how disgusting this guy has been. In short, there  seems to be little redeeming value in this guy. He has zero going for him, in my view. And yet, I predict he will win the election. Why? Because as Trump has himself has said, it doesn’t matter what he says or does. No matter how outrageous. . He could shoot someone in the middle of Times Square. It doesn’t matter. Sane people in the Republican party have voted for him. And sane people in the general election will vote for him.

If you are a Democrat, you might be tempted to say that GOP voters are a bunch greedy rich people that could not care less about anyone beneath their station - or just plain old  country bumpkins who do not understand who or what they are voting for. But that is a misreading of what’s really going on in my view. There are plenty of smart people that are supporting him. I have spoken to some of them. It actually shocks me to hear them talk about how they are going to vote for Trump… knowing all of the above. Which they discount by saying he is better than the alternative.

There are those still arguing that in the general election people will never vote for such an unpredictable unqualified megalomaniac… that most people in this country understand that a man like Trump would be an unmitigated disaster. That his nomination came about in a Republican party of full of fools but who will be a minority of the electorate in November. They quote polls showing Clinton over Trouncing Trump. Well, guess what happened? The two are in a virtual dead heat now. One poll actually puts Trump ahead of Clinton!

Not to mention the fact that a sizable percentage of Sanders supporters (I believe I saw a 17% figure)  that have said they will vote for Trump if Sanders is not the nominee. And he won’t be.

Why is this happening? In my view people are simply fed up with anyone connected to the status quo in government. They would vote for a frog if that was the only candidate running against an establishment candidate like Clinton.

They simply want an outsider and apparently don’t seem to care all that much who that is. Both Trump and Sanders fit that bill. If you are a Sanders supporter and can’t have him, then by default, Trump is that man. They see all the negative stuff about him as irrelevant.  They probably think that once in office he will do the right thing and all that as he gets down to business. And where he is weak in knowledge – he will get the best people in those areas to inform him. And maybe along the way, make some good decisions.

Well, we better hope that is the case. Donald Trump will win the election. I have little doubt about that now. It won’t matter what he will say in the campaign. It won’t matter how stupid or ridiculous he sounds. It won’t matter that Mrs. Clinton will show him up. And it won’t matter how much the media beats him up. It will not matter a whit.

This is not my wish. Just the truth as I see it.

That said, I have not given up on this country. We will persevere and grow – even with a President Trump. The country is much stronger than the Presidency. So for those for you thinking of moving to Canada after the election, maybe hold off a bit and see what happens. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Challenge of Integrating Orthodoxy

Invitation to BMG retreat featuring the OU's R' Steven Weil  as a keynote speaker 
One of the most significant events that happened to Chicago in my lifetime is the advent of the Chicago Community Kollel - a BMG (Lakewood Yeshiva) enterprise. This Kollel has changed the shape of Chicago. I cannot overemphasize their impact. The amount of Torah study they have generated among Baalei Batim (lay religious Jews) since their founding in the 80s is of exponential magnitude.

I can say without fear of contradiction that this Kollel under the very able guidance of the two Roshei Kollel, Rabbi Dovid Zucker, and Rabbi Moshe Francis that the Chicago Jewish community has been transformed. The Avreichim they choose are each leaders in their own right. Many of those who have made Chicago their home have become formidable presences. I have therefore enthusiastically supported – and continue to support the Kollel, both morally and materially to the best of my ability. 

(One can only guess the heavenly reward that will accrue to Rabbi Morris Esformes who brought this Kollel into Chicago and paid all the Kollel salaries out of his pocket for its first year. He did so despite communal opposition – including that of Telshe.  He shepherded it through all that - and got a few other Orthodox Chicago philanthropists to go along. Morrie (as those of us who know him - call him) has a share in every word of Torah studied by those of us who are doing so now because of the Kollel’s influence.)

But all this Torah study comes at a price. Chicago has moved significantly to the right. While this is true about the entire Orthodox world - Chicago is unique in this respect.

Chicago was always a Mizrachi town. There was practically no Agudah presence here when the Kollel was established. Most of Chicago’s religious population were Religious Zionists. When in the 60s, Rav Ahron Soloveichik became Rosh HaYeshiva of HTC (Skokie) - he was made the titular head of Mizrachi. He sat at the ‘Mizrach Vant’ (the ‘Eastern wall’ in front of the Shul) at the main Mizrachi Shul.

Today, Mizachi is hardly a noticeable presence – compared to Agudah. Agudah now reigns supreme, right along with the Hashkafos it brings to the table. They have the most beautiful Orthodox Shul in greater Chicago. Mizrachi has no independent shul in Chicago proper at all.

Why has this happened? In my view the Kollel had a major part in that. Many formerly Mizrachi type people were drawn into the Kollel and started accepting their Hashkafos. So that a mixed seating affair for example that used to be the standard in Chicago started disappearing.

Now it’s true that the move to the right might have taken place anyway. But there is not a doubt in my mind that the Kollel’s massive and well deserved popularity accelerated it. Additionally Mizrachi’s popularity was reduced because of its own success. Many strong Religious Zionist Chicagoans made Alyiah – the ultimate goal of Mizrachi in the diaspora.  So it’s biggest supporters are now gone.

Even though I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Kollel and have tremendous gratitude for what Rabbis Zucker and Francis have done to transform the city, I am not l pleased with the ‘collateral damage’. It is no secret that I lament the fact that many of the Kollel’s stringencies have taken root among the Orthodox populace here. I am a bit dismayed that people that were once dyed in the wool Religious Zionists are now die-heard Agudah supporters.

Do not misunderstand. I am not opposed to Agudah. I support their presence here. I am just disappointed that it has come at the expense of a Modern Orthodoxy that once flourished.

The Kollel’s presence and popularity has made their Avreichim sought after Mechanchim in all Orthodox schools.  And the lack of Modern Orthodox Mechanchim made them all the more attractive. So that HTC’s Mechanchim are almost all Charedi. Even the coed Ida Crown Jewish Academy has Mechnchim that were at one time associated with the Kollel.

That has caused a generation of young people to be raised with the Charedi Hashkafos. Hashkafos that sometimes included disparagement of Modern Orthodoxy and its institutions. I don’t know if it is intentional or not. But that there is a negative a view now of places like Yeshiva University and Mizrachi among the right  cannot be denied. That means that Modern Orthodox speakers tend to be ignored and avoided by most of Chicago’s large young Charedi community. 40 years ago the reverse may have been true. An Agudah type speaker would have been ignored and avoided..

The question is, how do we change the new paradigm?  How do we get back to a world where the permissible remains a part of the culture instead of rejecting it in favor of more stringenicies?

The time is ripe to act. And there are several ways to do that. One of Chicago’s newer Kollelim is the YU Kolllel Torah MiTzion. They are beginning to make an impact here. But they have a very high hill to climb. Rosh Kollel, Rabbi Reuven Brand is rising to the challenge and has become a force to be reckoned with. He has begun to make a dent in the negative attitudes about Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism that have evolved over the last 40 years. He has been speaking to small Charedi groups and changing a few hearts and minds – as these Charedim have come to realize that Modern Orthodoxy is not the work of the Devil after all.

I am told that formerly skeptical people have fallen in love with Rabbi Brand. They now realize that having a different Hashkafa is not a prescription for lesser observance. They have come to realize that past Gedolim actually respected – even venerated - some of the heroes of Religious Zionism – that have been vilified by the right. How many of them must have been shocked to learn for example that Religious Zionist hero, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook was the Mesader Kiddushin (officiating rabbi) at the marriage of Rav Elyashiv, the late Charedi Gadol HaDor?

Charedim in Chicago are giving YU another look because of this young Rosh Kollel – his Avrecihim. Which leads me to challenge the Kollel to do what their parent institution is doing.

BMG is hosting a retreat where the keynote speaker will be the OU’s executive director, Rabbi Steven Weil. The OU is a Centrist type organization. I challenge the Chicago Community Kollel to feature Rabbi Reuven Brand as a keynote speaker at one of their own events. I’m 100% convinced that YU’s Kollel would reciprocate. If we are ever going to have Achdus and acceptance of one another - inviting Rabbi Brand to speak at a Kollel event would be an excellent way to start.

I would be remiss if I did not mention a similar effort taking place in New York. Tikvah is an organization  that exposes Charedi Yeshiva men to the world of modernity – at least as it pertains to the world of politics. One can read about it at Cross Currents.

These are the kind of things that are necessary to change the paradigm. At least here in America. Israel is a whole other ball of wax and beyond the scope of this post.  But if the Charedi world in America can see that they agree with us on many more issues than they disagree with us, then there is hope.  What about the obvious differences? Acudus is not about agreement. It is about respect.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Being Blind to Corruption Does Not Equal Compassion

It is a pretty unflattering picture. There is no other way to read an article in the Forward about the city of Kiryas Joel. And protestations from the Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel, only seem to make matters worse.

The fact is that a city like Kiryas Joel is a wonderful place in which to live if you are a Chasid and adhere to their rules. No less a critic of such places than Shulem Deen has said as much. Shulem, one might remember, was a member of a similar city (New Square) whose restrictions and rules were virtually identical to those of Kiryas Joel.

Kiryas Joel is a city where everyone is family. I doubt that are more than a handful of residents there that would not give you the shirt off their backs to help a fellow Jew of any stripe – even if they are completely irreligious.

The joy they feel in being Jewish – more specifically Satmar Chasidim is palpable. The poverty is great. And yet this may be one of the happiest towns in America. There is little if any crime. People can leave their doors open and not worry about being robbed. They love their Rebbe, who is their spiritual and even material guide. They rely on his wisdom in all matters. 

This relieves them of responsibility in making important decisions in life. The Rebbe knows what’s best. They are content with a life filled with Chasidus. They willingly live in virtual isolation from the rest of the world – believing its influences to be evil. Instead they enjoy doing what they do - oblivious to what goes on outside of their world, and not caring a whit about it.

One may therefore conclude that an article like the one in the Forward (and many others like it) is there for only one purpose: to smear Charedi Jewry, with lies, exaggerations, and innuendos. Thus causing an upheaval in their lvies

However, as much as I believe that the Chasidim of Kiryas Joel are happy and wish to be left alone, I also believe that an article like this one exposes deep underlying problems that need to be corrected. Problems that include questionable practices with respect to government financial assistance programs; ignoring New York State requirements for secular education in their schools; and the ‘in house’ way in which they handle sex abuse… which seems to favor the accused over the victim.

The first two of the above are related. When you do not give your children the tools to make a decent living, they have no choice but to rely on government assistance when they become adults and have large families. They therefore are told to use all means necessary to maximize that assistance. Sometime that entails nibbling at the edges of legality; sometimes crossing that line; and occasionally severely crossing it.

Nonetheless Rabbi Teitelbaum has condemned the scrutiny taking place right now. He (and perhaps the whole community there) feels that they are under siege. Here is how he put it: 
“Until now there were also strict laws, but because we live in a kingdom of benevolence [a reference to government authorities] to put it bluntly they simply turned a blind eye to what’s going on by the Jewish children,”
“They didn’t want to look, the benevolent kingdom. Now, too, they’d continue doing that, the government would have continued, they’re happy not to look and not to know. But these worthless people are stirring up in various ways and are demanding in court, forcing the government that they should take a stance.” 
“Due to our many sins, it’s very painful to talk about it, there stood up several worthless people from our own who have studied in Hasidic yeshivas, and sadly they arrived I don’t want to say where. They decided to wage war against the whole ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of New York,”
They went and snitched to the governments of New York City and New York State with complaints that the students of the yeshivas, of all yeshivas (elementary and middle school) are not learning enough general studies as required by law.”
It’s interesting that Rabbi Teitelbaum considers turning a blind eye to their world an indicator of being a benevolent kingdom (Malchus Shel Chesed). But what a terrible way to see government laxity on issues of legality that were created for the benefit of all citizens – including those that live in Kiryas Joel. This is not what I think of when I say the US is a Medina Shel Chesed. The government turning a blind eye to breaking the law is instead a government shirking its duty. I would in fact characterize the enforcing these educational requirements themselves as an act of Chesed. As I would making sure that all financial assistance complies with the law.

The Rebbe labels those deemed responsible for this government crackdown snitchers (Mosrim). I would call them heroes. They are the ones who lived in these kinds of  communities and know quite well what their citizens are being deprived of. And they say that there are many in that community that secretly agree with them – but stay quiet fearing the consequences of dissent.

That the vast majority of these citizens are actually happy and agree with Rabbi Teitelbaum is based on their misconceptions of the outside world. Misconceptions based on half truths and an isolationist Hashkafa based on those misconceptions. So of course they feel under siege.

The ‘snitchers’  - says the Rebbe - have decided to wage war on the entire Ultra Orthodox Jewish community of New York. I believe that is a ridiculous charge.  There is absolutely no war against ultra Orthodox communities that comply with the law. It is only against communities that don’t.

If Rabbi Teitelbaum would ever read these words (which he probably never will)  he would say that I too am waging war against them. But that doesn’t matter to me since I know that I am not.

That said, most of the Chasdim in Kiryas Joel would probably agree with the Rebbe. They would say that I am a nobody compared to him and have no right to contradict the words of this holy man. He knows what’s best for his own community. Not some Modern Orthodox Jew that has no clue about what’s going on there. I fully agree that Rabbi Teitelbaum is a huge Talmud Chacham. I am indeed an ignoramus compared to him. But that doesn’t mean he is always right.

I don’t know where this will all end. The government may back down or find some sort of loophole that will allow Kiryas Joel to continue with business as usual. But that will be sad for the Chasidim of Kiryas Joel. They cannot keep producing people that are unable to support their large families and expect the government to fill the gap. At some point as their numbers increase exponentially the government will just say no. What will they do then? 

Thursday, May 19, 2016


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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Modernization of Chabad

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe as a young man
One of my pet peeves is how the right wing uses the word ‘modern’ when applied to religious Jews. What they mean by that is ‘less observant’. Which is a completely erroneous understanding of what ‘modern’ means to Modern Orthodoxy. Obviously. For a Modern Orthodox Jew, being modern means engaging with modernity and benefiting from it – without sacrificing Halacha at all. It most certainly does not mean less observant. And yet that is still how it is used in more right wing circles: To be modern is to be less Halachic.

It is true that many Modern Orthodox Jews do sacrifice Halacha in favor of modernity. I have called these people MO-Lite. But less observance is not the defining characteristic of Modern Orthodox Jewry any more than it is of Charedi Jewry because of the laxity in Halacha by Charedi-lite Jews.

But this definition of modern seems to stick among right wing Jews. If you are modern – you are just not as Frum.

I bring this up in light of an article by Shalom Kesselman to which I was directed. Therein, Shalom describes a problem taking place among younger Lubavitchers: 
It is a fact that Chabad is becoming increasingly modern. I’m not suggesting that the movement or the ideology is becoming modern; rather that vast numbers of our young are settling for a “lighter” version of what it means to be Lubavitch.
While there have always been such people in Lubavitch and in every other Frum sect, we are now seeing more than ever before unprecedented numbers of youngsters embracing this modern Chabad lifestyle. 
If by lighter they mean less observant, then this is truly a problem for them. I don’t know how accurate his observations are. But if the comments following this article are any indication, this is more than a personal anecdotal observation. The reasons he proposes for this phenomenon are intriguing. 

One of those reasons is the easy access to the internet. This has made their lives less insular. One might argue that Lubavitch if anything is the antithesis of insular. That is true. No one is out in the world more than Lubavitch – engaging with Jews that in many cases are far removed from their Judaism.  

But that misses the point Shalom is making. While it is true that their outreach work makes them familiar with the outside world - those that are not doing outreach live in an environment that is pretty insular. In fact they hardly interact with other Orthodox Jews. Even Charedi ones. Their entire social circle is Chabad. Especially among the young. (Yes there are exceptions. There are always exceptions.) With the internet so easily at hand they come to know a world that their parents (those not in outreach) never knew when they were growing up. A world that asks uncomfortable questions… and sometimes provides answers that are not compatible with Judaism, let alone Chabad.

Another problem is that their Rebbe centered lives were somewhat shattered when the Rebbe died. When a movement’s entire focus is on one individual and that individual is gone, that can easily cause a crisis of faith. Their response to it, however, is the rather well known. Instead of questioning their faith, they went the opposite way. At one level or anther they believed that their Rebbe would be resurrected as Moshiach… or at least that it was a distinct possibility. That is in part because the Rebbe himself kept talking about Moshiach’s imminent arrival just before he died.

When the Rebbe died, it generated a division among Lubavitchers. There were those who openly proclaimed the Rebbe to be Moshaich even while he was still alive - and awaited his 2nd coming after his death. And there were those who believed the Meshichists were damaging to their cause and have been fighting them ever since. 

Although the more public nature of that ‘war’ has subsided, it still exists. The Chabad Meshichists still believe he’s coming. And the Chabad anti-Meshichists think they ought to keep their opinions to themselves – as they are harming the Chabad ‘brand’ with such talk. Ultimately hurting the  mission of outreach given to them by the Rebbe himself. 

While both sides believe that it is at least possible that the Rebbe will ‘arise and lead them out of this bitter Galus’, the Chabad anti Meshichists do not dwell on this and see harm being done by those that do. This is still a fierce battle  among the 2 factions, although they have managed to be doing it quietly these days. The fallout is twofold. A vacuum was created by the Rebbe’s death… and the state of ‘war’ among Luubavitch leaders was extremely ‘off-putting’ to young people.

It is now almost an entire generation since the Rebbe died. The imminent arrival of Moshiach predicted by the Rebbe over 20 years ago has not happened. He has not been resurrected.

Finally, there is their over-aggrandizement of their outreach people – called Shiluchim. If you are not a Shaliach in Lubavitch, you are apparently looked down upon. Shalom says they are often considered 2nd class citizens and even ‘losers’! The fact is that there are a lot more Lubavitchers that are not in outreach than those that are.  When the majority of young people are considered 2nd class citizens, it should not surprise anyone that it makes you a bit jaded about your movement.

Shalom adds that Chabad’s approach to educating their young has not changed - remaining the same as it was 40 years ago. It thus fails to recognize the new challenges that young people face.

My criticism of Chabad’s Meshichism remains. It has not changed. The fact that I have not been talking about it for a while is because I saw that  doing more harm than good. There is no overt talk among Lubavicthers here in Chicago about the Rebbe being Moshiach. I spend a great deal of time in the mainstream Chabad Shul here and I would detect it if there was.

But the issue has not gone away. And it appears to have had a negative effect on Chabad’s young. Now it is true there are other things that can be blamed for the ‘modernization’ of Chabad – as noted. But those things are problematic for all Orthodox Jews. If Chabad wants to change the tide, I think they have to re-think their approach to the Meshichists. 

Which in my view should include reassessing their over-emphasis on the Rebbe.  Yes, he was a great man and great leader with few peers. But he’s gone now. His soul is in the Olam Ha’Emes along with the souls of other great Jewish leaders that have passed away. Chabad needs flesh and blood leaders to guide them. Not images from the past.

I am told by many Chabad members that the ‘anti Meshichists’ are in the vast majority of Lubavitch. If that is the case - they need to clean house and eradicate this phenomenon from their midst. It is not enough for them to ‘look the other way’while Meshichists hold sway in their very headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. 

That policy seems to have now shown to be counterproductive to their future… and for Klal Yisroel. I cannot overemphasize the value of their outreach programs. It is massive compared to any other Orthodox outreach programs out there. If there was ever a time where outreach was vital to the Jewish people – that time is now.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Centrism – Where Do We Go from Here?

RIETS Beis HaMedrash - Yeshiva University's Hashkafa must be strengthened
There is not a doubt in my mind that Modern Orthodoxy is under siege. Not a physical siege or even an intentional psychological one. But a siege nonetheless. It has been ongoing now for some time and happening right under our noses over the past few decades. We are losing the ‘war’. Right wing ideas and customs are taking hold in our world.

If Centrism is to lay claim to the term Modern Orthodox, we have to examine what has happened to us and why. And where do we go from here? How should we define ourselves as a distinct and legitimate form of Orthodoxy? It is not for nothing that many on the left see us as Charedi light. That’s because we have adopted many of their customs and Chumros. I know many Centrist Jews that wear black hats for example. It is now almost impossible to discern whether an individual is a Centrist or a Moderate Charedi. This has both good and bad implications. Let me explain.

In the positive sense, there is nothing wrong and everything right with taking Halacha seriously. In the past there was a lot of license in Modern Orthodox circles to look the other way as Halacha was skirted or even violated. The classic example of this was the idea of a Young Israel synagogue hosting an event where there was mixed dancing between the sexes. There are clear violations of Halacha when a man and woman that are not married to each other – or even if they are married but where the wife is a state of Nidah - dance with each other. Physical contact of any kind is not permitted. Certainly not in the context of a dance. But back in the day - this was largely ignored. 

I will go a step further and say that there was a time where many Modern Orthodox women that were Shomer Shabbos and Kashrus but did not observe Taharas HaMishpacha (use a Mikva). Which means that both they and their husbands  were in serious violation of Halacha. I personally know quite a few people like that. (Most eventually did come to observe these laws but it is clear that at one time they did not. In many cases it was because of pure ignorance of Halacha.)  Today, virtually all MO women from right to left do.

Improvement in our day in these areas has led in part to a phenomenon which I call social centrism rather than philosophical or Hashkafic Centrism. Which means that moderate Charedim and Centrists each have our own Hashkafos, but lead our daily lives in almost indistinguishable ways.

But there is a bad side to this in the sense that many modern Orthodox customs have have practically disappeared. To take one example - Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet laments the loss of mixed seating at weddings and banquets. It is no longer fashionable to sit together with your wife and other couples at a wedding or banquet. One should hear or read a transcript of his Shiur on this. It is eye opening. While there are some weddings that are still mixed, the tide is turning away from that as many Centrist Jews want to accommodate invited Charedi Rabbonim and friends and  that prefer to sit only with members of the same sex.  And it is also sometimes the case that children of MO parents that have spent a year in Israel come back with Charedi ideas – having attended a Yeshiva that caters to MO but is as Charedi as they come – indoctrinating their students that way. (Some call this phenomenon ‘flipping out’.)

Which brings me to PORAT. Again. As listed by an anonymous attendee of their inaugural meeting - (identifying only as ‘Comentator’), here are the buzzwords that he heard there: 
the qualities of the Orthodoxy being sought included: “Inclusion .. tolerance ..…community…open tent… open discussion.. unifying force…grassroots voices…listening community …Orthodox…spiritual…non-judgmental…civil discourse...independent…self-confident”. 
There is little if anything among these words that I would not support and endorse. However, it matters how we define some of the more controversial words or terms among them. Like open tent. 

Contrary to what some have been saying about Centrism we are not rejectionists. Orthodox Judaism of any stripe, whether modern or Charedi should be open to all Jews, regardless of their level of religiosity or beliefs. One can and should accept every Jew at face value. What one may not do is accept some of their mistaken ideas about Jewish theology. Nor should one place any legitimacy on violations of Halacha that they may not observe. 

We should not be judgmental. Nor hit them over the head with rebuke each time we see a violation. We should welcome all Jews under the tent of Orthodoxy with open arms. But if they ask, we need to be honest with them about whether what they are doing is Halachicly correct or not. Our approach should be through mentchlichkeit and to influence them mostly by example. But accept them into the community we must. They are Jews like anyone else. We are brothers and sisters. The Torah requires us to love our fellow Jew. And it mandates responsibility for one another.

Is PORAT the answer to these problems?  For me the answer is clearly, no! First because of
PORAT’s interpretation of those buzzwords. They take the idea of ‘open tent’ to mean accepting not only the individuals themselves but their theological ideas as well. Ideas that are Apikursus bordering on Kefira. That is where I part company with them. This (among other things) crosses hard lines set by the spiritual mentor of Modern Orthodoxy, Rav Soloveitchik.

So what is the answer? Should we start a parallel organization that has its own ideas about how to define those words that would fit with our Centrist worldview? I am disinclined to believe that this will help. Sad as it may be, I don’t see grass roots type organizations accomplishing anything against the tide of right wing influences.

The only real way to return to our own identity as Centrist Modern Orthodox Jews is to each individually lead our lives that way. And to make sure that our schools reflect those views. We should encourage more Centrist young people to seriously consider a career in Chinuch. We need to develop more leadership along the lines of Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Lichtenstein. And we need to strengthen existing Centrist institutions like Yeshiva University

This approach may be ‘spitting in the  wind’ since the Charedi world is growing at exponential rates - as is their influence (compared to the Modern Orhtodox world). Add to this the fact that Chinuch is a natural field for Charedi young people to pursue, and it seems like an almost hopeless endeavor. But if we are to return to – or retain any of our Centrist values, in my view this is about the best thing we can hope for.