Monday, April 23, 2018

Way Off Base

Hesder Boys
YCT trained Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz who self identifies as Open Orthodox - is a man with a sense of high ethics and morality. He has in fact dedicated his life to those ideals. And founded many organizations along those lines.

I am told by one Orthodox rabbi who was one of Shmuly’s mentors when he was a student here in Chicago that he has always been like that. He had a good heart and sought to fulfill the Torah’s mandate of ‘Justice, Justice you shall pursue!’

He has in fact been doing that ever since. That being said, I have some profound differences with him how he has carried out that mission. He is in fact guilty of the same type of thing he accuses Religious Zionists of in a recent article. He characterizes much of Religious Zionism to be an ‘ultra-nationalistic, land-idolatry’. I actually agree with him about this in certain Religious Zionist circles. But has he not done exactly the same thing worshiping social justice as an idolatry of sorts?

He has practically made a religion out of it. In that vein he has managed to trample just about any aspect of Judaism he believes gets in the way of that.  No matter how traditional that aspect may be. Even when there is universal Orthodox rejection of his interpretation and implementation of social justice. Tradition doesn’t matter to him. It is to be abandoned to the greater good of social justice.

In a recent Arutz Sheva oped - this is what troubles him about Religious Zionism. He says it is...
‘fundamentally flawed, directionless, and even broken in many ways’ (and) ‘no longer the model for social justice and lacks a culture of tolerance, diversity’
This is what he says alienates liberal non-Orthodox diaspora Jews: 
Lamentably, we are rapidly losing young American Jews to the allure of anti-Zionist movements on college campuses. 
This is true. But not for the reasons he attributes it too, a Religious Zionist attitude that says:
 “Good riddance to those liberals in the Diaspora. What does it matter what they think?” 
That is not the reason. It is because of a complete lack of knowledge by today's Jewish youth about Jewish history and their Jewish heritage. It has nothing to do with the attitude of Religious Zionists about them. They don’t care about a right wing Religious Zionism they believe subjects indigenous Arabs to an ‘oppressive occupying military force’. They have been influenced by Left leaning Academics that have made heroes and martyrs of Palestinians suffering under Israeli rule. They are fed this garbage day and day out on university campuses all over the US by Palestinian academics and their Left Wing sympathizing colleagues.

He says that ‘The progressive philosophy that built modern Israel is rapidly being forgotten’. I say good riddance to that. Ever since Israel loosened the reins of their socialist ideology and allowed a little more freedom to their people, Israel has prospered.

I agree that social justice, should be a feature of any ideology that is based on Judaism. Religious Zionism included. But that cannot alone be its definition anymore than land is. We should not allow that to become the new ‘Avodah Zara’ that replaces the old ‘Avodah Zara’ of land worship. While both the land of Israel and social justice are integral to Judaism, they are only a part of it. Neither should alone be considered the sum and substance of it. 

That being said, Shumly was way off base in his analysis of Religious Zionism anyway. There was an excellent rebuttal to his views written by Rochel Sylvetsky, a woman whose son is in a Hesder Yeshiva. Hesder is a Religious Zionist program which allows soldiers to alternate Torah study with military service. It is well known that Hesder boys are among the bravest soldiers serving in the army – often taking on the most dangerous assignments in groups.  Is it not the ultimate Tikun Olam to protect your own citizens – citizens of all persuasions including those living in Meah Shearim and even Israeli Arabs?

She refutes his charge that Religious Zionism has lost its moral way by listing the many Religious Zionist organizations in Israel that do exactly what Shmuly says is missing 

While I do not agree with her entirely, she clearly makes the case that Shmuly is way off base. It is well worth reading her rebuttal in its entirely.

Bottom line is that Shmuly has a good heart. But his zeal in applying his principles has blinded him to the fact that the idealism he believes has been lost  in the Religious Zionist world is still very much alive and well.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Natalie Portman’s Shallow Perspective

Natalie Portman (Wikipedia)
I shouldn’t have been so surprised at all the attention Natalie Portman has been getting for her decision boycott a Genesis Prize ceremony in Israel. Portman was the latest recipient of this prize:
The Genesis Prize honors individuals who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their engagement and dedication to the Jewish community and/or the State of Israel. 
Her initial comments indicated that the reason for her refusal to attend was because of ‘recent events’. Which was a reference to the way Israel was handling weekly protests by Palestinians in Gaza amassing on its border. They are protesting their horrid living conditions. Conditions that are due primarily to Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

On the surface one might agree that Israel’s use of live ammunition against unarmed Gaza civilians protesting the hard life for which they blame Israel - as immoral. This is the way the mainstream media reports it. And obviously how Portman sees it.

The reaction to Portman’s decisions by many supporters of Israel has been to condemn her – and paint her as a BDS supporter.  She was quick to deny that, claiming that the reason she refused to attend was because Prime Minister Netanyahu would be addressing the ceremony and she did no want to be seen supporting him by her attendance.

I find all of this attention curious. Why does anyone care that a celebrity like Portman (who is being honored for her very celebrity via her acting ability) is boycotting a ceremony in Israel? Her views are either uninformed or are more likely based on her own political perspective rather than on any objective consideration.  It is a perspective shared by some of the more vocal critics of the Democratic Party, who see things the same way Portman does. None of the other Democrats in congres have (to the best of my knowledge) defended Israel against those critics.

Their hate for Netanyahu was made abundantly clear when he addressed congress during the Obama administration - urging the US to reject the nuclear deal with Iran. Some Democrats actually boycotted Netanyahu's address. But even those that attended were highly critical of him and the Speaker of the House who invited him. 

Portman was born in Israel. I suppose that is part of the reason people pay any attention at all to her views on Israel. But being born in Israel does not make her views any more valid that Mahmoud Abbas’s views are. Abbas was born in Haifa.

Portman is Jewish. Perhaps that is also why she is given attention. It is true that she is Jewish. She was born of a Jewish mother. End of story. But her lifestyle hardly reflects that fact. Someone whose Judaism consists of marrying a non Jew (who later ‘converted’) and putting up a Christmas tree in her home, hardly makes her values consistent with Judaism. 

Portman is known for her social activism. While some of her activities along those lines may be in in concert with Jewish values, they are hardly exclusively Jewish. True she was born a Jew and that makes her Jewish. Being born Jewish lends no more credence to her sense of Judaism than it did to Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter. He too was born a Jew too. He founded Murder, Inc.

I am not comparing Portman to Buchalter. Just noting that one’s lifestyle is indicative of their values. Neither Portman nor Buchalter’s lifestyle is indicative Jewish values.

I will take Portman’s word for it and grant that she does not support BDS. But that does not make her decision any wiser. As I said, it is likely informed by her brand of politics. A view that ignores the Israel’s right as a sovereign nation to decide how to best defend itself. 

Portman’s views are shallow. She sees what’s on the surface: An oppressed population in Gaza being controlled by a mighty military oppressor using lethal weapons against unarmed civilians.

There is no attempt to understand why Israel, a country that has done so much kindness in the world, found it necessary to protect itself that way. 

Israelis are the original ‘Doctors without Borders’. Where ever there has been a catastrophe in the world, Israel is practically the first one there to help. They do not look at the race or religion of the people suffering.  Even when Israel’s enemies are involved. They saw a need by Syrians injured in their civil war and filled it. They treated them in field hospitals and in even their own hospitals in Israel as needed. Does it make any sense that this kind of people would use more force than they believed necessary to protect themselves? 

If Israel uses live ammunition, it isn’t because they want to kill Gaza protesters indiscriminately. Even under warlike conditions Israeli soldiers try to minimize casualties to the innocent among their enemies at increased risk to themselves. It was not beneath Hamas leaders to make sure Israel kills innocent children by using them as human shields!
The same thing is happening now. They are forcing Israel into a corner and then crying foul. These protesters are not peaceful. True they don’t have guns. But they do have deadly weapons such as Molotov Cocktails. Israel is not going to respond with their own Molotov cocktails. They are going to shoot at someone throwing it at them. The mainstream media reports this as Israelis shooting at unarmed civilians  protesting conditions forced upon them by the Israeli government. A truly disgusting distortion of the truth.

I cannot stress enough the fact that none of this would be happening if Gaza’s Hamas leaders had taken Israels gift of Gaza and tried to build a country instead of spending every dollar they got building terror tunnels and arming themselves with all kinds of weapons. Including rockets supplied by Iran - hidden among the very goods that are vital to Gaza. But blockaded to prevent those things being smuggled in and used to kill innocent Israelis They care more about destroying Israel than they do about their own people.  And in the process they get to blame their sorry predicament on Israel’s blockade.

The protests are about lifting the blockade.  And a sympathetic world agrees - completely ignoring Israel’s security needs.

There is not a question in my mind that Israel would not boycott Gaza if it didn’t see it as an existential exercise. If Gaza’s Hamas leaders would have taken Gaza graciously and asked Israel to help them build their country, Israel would have jumped at the chance. Israel is not interested in maintaining the conflict. But Gaza’s Hamas leaders see only one goal. And it isn’t about giving their people a better life. It is about destroying Jewish Israel and taking the land for Islam. 

If Natalie Portman had any real sense of compassion, and really wanted to help the down trodden Palestinians in Gaza, she should understand that Gaza’s real oppressors are its Hamas leadership. Her celebrity would be put to far better use had she not boycotted the Genesis ceremony. And instead used it as an opportunity to assert the truth about what is really going on there instead of her knee-jerk reaction to boycott it.

Had she done that she would have done more for the cause of Gaza to alleviate its suffering than a hundred boycotts.  What she has accomplished instead is giving a boost the Palestinian narrative and has encouraged Gaza’s Hamas leadership to continue their terrorist ways.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Collusion, Obstruction, and James Comey

Former FBI Director, James Comey - A higher loyalty? Or self loyalty.
It’s a slow news day in the Jewish world. Not much to comment on. At least not that I care about. So I thought I would reflect a bit on current events with respect to the President.

I have very little sympathy for James Comey. He is currently on a book tour with a mission to sell a lot of books and glorify himself in the process. After watching some of the interviews he gave this week, I saw a man who was mostly self absorbed -  and cannot get over the shock of being fired as Director of the FBI.

I saw nothing that he said about Trump as damning. Certainly nothing about collusion with the Russians to subvert the election. Or even obstruction of justice. A lot of that was Comey’s own interpretation about what Trump said to him in his initial meetings as President or President-elect.

True, Trump’s request asking him for loyalty; or his request to cut some slack to his (at the time) recently fired National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn - might sound suspiciously like obstruction of justice. But that is a long way from proving intent. He did not exactly order him to do it. He asked him if he could see his way clear to doing it. It’s all in how you interpret his words.  Comey obviously  wants it to be seen as obstruction. That is how he has presented it.

The fact is, Trump’s communication skills are sorely lacking. Which leaves a lot of what he says open to interpretation. Which can go either way depending on which side of the political aisle you are on. (And tweets don’t really count. It’s almost as if he had an alternate personality - tweeting as an observer rather than as President.)

Bias is easy to see in Trump’s detractors when they are interviewed. What galls me the most, though, is their projection of righteousness of their views. As though it is - oh - so obvious how guilty he is of either collusion or obstruction. As if this is the way any normal person would see it.

And it doesn’t really help Trump’s image when practically the entire mainstream media so obviously plays right into that narrative about Trump  – without actually saying so and pretending to be objective.

Comey has been received as a near hero by the media and Trump’s enemies for ‘exposing’ to  the world just what a lying, immoral, and unethical individual Trump is. (…as if we don’t already know that.) But Comey’s bias is made obvious by the pettiness of his comments about Trump’s appearance. Those personal attacks clearly make his entire narrative suspect.

How ironic that this is the same man who is characterized as a hero - was seen as the devil by the same people: Clinton supporters who accused him of sabotaging her campaign. If this doesn’t show political bias, I don’t know what does.

I wouldn’t put any stock on Comey having any impact on Mueller’s investigation either. There is probably nothing in Comey’s book that Mueller doesn’t already know.

There has also been a lot of speculation that Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen will ‘spill the beans’ on Trump when confronted with evidence that he violated laws that might end up in a long prison sentence -  unless he cooperates.

That should be put to rest by Mueller’s own comments. He has said that Trump is not the object of Michael Cohen’s investigation.

I realize that some people reading this will say that I have gone over to the ‘dark side’. That I am now a closet Trump supporter. That could not be further from the truth.  I have not changed my views about his character. They have only been reinforced. Time and again.

I stand by my view that, unlike President Obama, Trump is morally and ethically unfit to be President - much the same view Comey has. But at the same time unlike Obama - his foreign policy has been more favorable with respect to the UN, North Korea,  Syria, and Israel. And his domestic policy with respect to the economy has been mostly favorable too. So far.

I try to be objective and see things as they really are – and not how the media necessarily presents them.

I could be wrong, but I think Trump is here to stay for at least the duration of his first term. And perhaps even a second term. I know that Mueller is not done yet. I also know that he has not publicly commented about whether his committee will find Trump to be guilty of either collusion or obstruction. But I just don’t think he will. And we should just get used to it.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

It’s Time

ZAKA founder and head, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav (YWN)
Tomorrow (April 20th) is the 5th of Iyar. That is the day in 5708 (May 14, 1948) when Israel formally declared its independence – Yom Ha’atzmaut. (For reasons beyond the scope of this post, Israel’s Rabbinate has moved up its observance to today). But tomorrow is the actual date.

This is the day every year that my Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik said Hallel. And it is the day that the Ponevezhe Rav, Yosef Kahaneman did not say Tachanun (a daily prayer of supplication that is to be omitted on days where there is a religious holiday or celebration).  Both of these Gedolim from yesteryear recognized the significance of this day.  It was the first time since the destruction of Bayis Sheni (the 2nd Temple) that the land of Israel was back in Jewish hands.

They were not alone. Many of the Gedolei HaDor of that time understood the that significance as well. It was a time of rare unity in Klal Yisroel. All of the religious factions in Israel united under one banner:  The United Religious Front.  A political party that consisted of Agudat Yisroel, Mizrachi, Poalei Agudat Yisroel, and HaPoel HaMizrachi.

I was recently sent a list of some of the distinguished Gedolim that signed a document* that contained that party’s platform. Which read: 
We thank Hashem that through his mercy we have been privileged to see the sparks of the beginning of the redemption with the creation of the Jewish state. 
Among others were the following signatories:

R Yechezkel Sarna - Rosh Yeshiva of Hebron
R Yaakov Sanktvitz  - Rosh Yeshiva of Sfas Emes
R Zalman Sotozkin  - Head  of the Vaad HaYeshivot
R Yechiel Tuchashinsky  - Rav of Etz Chaim
R Eliyahu Ram  - Rebbe in Yeshivat Meah Shearim
R Yechiel Shlesinger - Rebbe in Kol Torah
R Yaakov Landau - Rav of Bnei Brak

I believe it was Chazaon Ish changed all that. His philosophy is that which Charedi leaders follow today. In fact the anti Israel rhetoric has today become so vile in some cases, that even the Chzaon Ish would be appalled. If one would listen to some of it - they would think that Yom Ha’atzmaut was not only NOT to be celebrated, but is to be seen as a tragedy! The anti Israel rhetoric is alive and well in most of those circles. Some of it so bad, if one didn’t know better, they would think it were Hamas, Hezbollah, or Iran talking.

Even those whose rhetoric is not so acerbic, are still of the opinion that the State of Israel has no religious significance whatsoever. And use very opportunity to make that clear. They consider Israel’s founders Reshaim – evil people out to destroy Torah.  Although there are some that do recognize what the State of Israel does for them (most famously the late R’ Chaim Shmulevitz and the late R’ Nosson Tzvi Finkel), there are others that see the State mostly as a cash cow. Which is the primary reason that there are Charedi political parties in Israel today. They serve in the Keneset mainly to protect their own interests. None of them would dare skip Tachanun on Yom Ha’atzmaut, let alone say Halllel.

When confronted with the very real benefits bestowed upon them by the modern civilized state Israel has built, they chalk it up to selfishness… using a passage in the Gemarah as a parallel. The Romans didn’t build their roads for the jews. They built them for themselves!

This attitude permeates much of Charedi thinking. Reactions to any event related to the state is usually negative. Charedi leaders tell their people not to participate in them. Often explaining that the Zionist method of observance is not the Jewish way. So for example when a moment of silence for fallen soldiers was established on Israel’s memorial day, Charedim ignore it. Those with smoe compassion in their hearts for bereaved will stand silently in public when the siren blows.  But not in private. And some don’t even do it in public to show just how much disdain they have for the State. Yom Ha’atzmaut means less than nothing to them. They would probably be just as happy (maybe even happier) if the British mandate was still in place. Surely Satmar and Neturei Karta would be.

That said, things are beginning to change. There are Charedim in Israel that are beginning to recognize the value of a Jewish State. Even a Zionist one. There are now Charedi schools that impart a more positive attitude toward the State. There are now Charedim serving in the military. And there are even former hardcore members of Neturei Karta that have come around. All anyone need do is open their eyes and then their minds. By doing that they will realize that all the anti-Israel rhetoric they have been indoctrinated to believe is either grossly exaggerated or entirely untrue.

Sure, some of their complaints might be legitimate. But the fact is that without the Zionist founders, there would probably not be much Torah learning there. I don’t think that is even arguable.

I recall a story told about Rabbi Oscar Z. Fasman, founding president of my alma mater, HTC (back in the 20s). In seeking support for the Chicago Yeshiva, he traveled to Europe to meet with as many Gedolim as he could - seeking their advice. One of them was Rav Yosef Rozen, better known as the Rogatchover Gaon.  

After their meeting as Rabbi Fasman was about to leave, the Rogatchover asked him where he was going next. Rabbi Fasman said Eretz Yisroel. With a wave of his hand  the Rogatchover said,  Eretz Yisroel? They don’t know how to learn there! Today Israel is the largest Makom Torah in the world. Today one might say the reverse of what the Rogatchover said: America? They don’t know how to learn there (compared to Israel).

One of the primary reasons Torah study is flourishing there is because of a country that was made habitable for  people used to the amenities of a civilized world. Not to mention all of the subsidies provided by the government. Including protection from a military that they are exempted from.

No one says it better than ZAKA founder and head, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav in a letter to his uncle - published at YWN. His uncle is Neturei Karta founder, Amram Blau. Meshi-Zahav was raised on the knees of his uncle, bought hook line and sinker into his anti Israel rhetoric, and became a soldier for Neturei Karta’s war against Zionism. His message: His uncle was wrong! He explains why in great detail. His missive should be read n full. Here is a small excerpt: 
Who would have believed that 73 years after the terrible Holocaust, when the people of Israel were almost extinct, and there was hardly any trace of Torah and Chasidism, we would have a Jewish state of our own. The State of Israel. A state in which the world of Torah will reach prosperity unparalleled in the history of the Jewish people. 
It is time. Its time for the entire Charedi world  to let go.  Its time to discard all the old rhetoric about how Israel’s founders tried to destroy the Torah and whose political heirs – today’s leaders - still have that mission.

It is time to instead have Hakoras HaTov – gratitude for all the State has done for them, and for the entire Jewish people. It is time to recognize the significance of a strong Jewish State where Torah now flourishes. It’s time to reignite the Ahavas Yisroel of their spiritual forbears and reject the Sinas Chinam of today. 

They don’t have to say Hallel. Nor do they even have to skip Tachanun. All they need to do is recognize the reality that Yehua Meshi-Zahav does. If they do that, who knows…?  Maybe next year we can all celebrate in Jerusalem.

*There is apparently some controversy about validity of this document. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Two Charedi Videos

It is said that R' Shach would cry upon hearing of the death of any IDF soldier
I love the Charedi world. I really do. Even though I am not Charedi and do not always agree with them, I admire and respect the devotion they have in serving God. They are, in my view, role models for that. Very few Jews – even Orthodox Jews - can live up to a standard where how one lives  and virtually everything one does  - is all about serving God.

For the most part those virtues which in part consist of dedication, commitment, and compassion serve them well as husbands, wives, mothers and fathers.  Family values are a part of their very being. Kindness, charitable giving, and Torah study is part of their collective soul. 

This is not to say that they are saints. Who among us is? But they are probably less sinners that most of the rest of us. This applies to both the Yeshiva world and the Chasidic world. (Yes, I know there are exceptions.)

This might sound strange coming from someone that has been so critical of Charedim on so many issues. But that’s only because I care. I want to see them flourish. Not flounder. I want to see extremism destroyed, not tolerated. Unfortunatley there are far too many that follow a philosophy of extremism (a minority to be sure) - and some of those act on it without enough protest from their leadership.

Some people have accused me of trying to make Charedim over in my image as a Centrist. Much as I would love to see every Jew follow the same Hashkafa I do, that is not my goal. My goal is for each community to represent their own Torah Hashkafa in a positive light. All in the spirit of Elu V’Elu. 

While it is legitimate to criticize them when we feel it is warranted - we must at the same time recognize and admire their many strengths and positive attributes.  Live and let live within the parameters of the Torah through Halacha and Mesorah. That is my belief. Citicizing them L’Shem Shomayim only when it is warranted.

Obviously criticism is subjective and based on the individual critic’s personal perspective or bias. There can be clear differences of opinion about what is and isn’t legitimate criticism. But that’s just called being human. As long as it is L’Shem Shomayim – we should all agree that it is legitimate to criticize.

I mention this to be clear about my intent as I criticize yet another disgusting event in the Charedi world. It happened last night on Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. An event that is in stark contrast to another event in the Charedi world that was very inspiring. (More about that later.)

Last night I was directed to a video recording of a protest held at the epicenter of the extremist Charedi world, Kikar Shabbat. This is the intersection in Jerusalem where the Geula meets the Meah Shearim. It was held at the exact same moment when sirens were sounding indicating a moment of silence for fallen soldiers. They ignored it. Instead of being silent, they continued loudly protesting.

They of course have every right protest in a democracy. But it is the height of insensitivity to do that during the very moment where a national moment of silence is being observed. Regardless of how they feel about this method of memorializing the dead. They consider it a non Jewish way of doing that. But that doesn’t really matter. They should have done what most Charedim in Israel do that agree with them about it being Jewishly inappropriate and nevertheless stand in silence so as not to hurt the families that have lost loved ones in battle.

The callousness of these extremists is appalling. People died serving the very country that allows them to protest it. These were young soldiers who fought Israel’s enemies valiantly and gave up their lives. And yet these miscreants could not care less. There is not an ounce of compassion for the families that mourn the loss of their sons and daughters; brothers and sisters; and in some cases husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. They see what they believe to be an evil government and all they can feel is hate.

What is almost as sad as the demonstrators themselves is the bystanders looking on. Where was the outrage?!

I realize that these are so many of these kinds of protests that a lot of mainstream Charedim just have ‘battle fatigue’. They are probably just tired of all this and look on with dismay – hoping it passes quickly.

But still, to see this display of callousness without a single person there saying a word (at least none that was recorded) was depressing and makes me angry. I can only surmise that this ‘fatigue’ combined with decades of anti Zionist indoctrination has led them to tolerate this Chilul HaShem.

That video should however be contrasted to another one. One that is entirely the opposite. It is a different kind of a Charedi response to fallen soldiers. One that is a Kiddush haShem. It is a recording of the magnificent Rabbi Menachem Bombach teaching a classroom (or assembly) filled with Chasidic students. He is teaching them what it means to lose a loved one in battle serving their country.  

This is what I mean by Charedi compassion. It’s there. But because of all the anti Zionist indoctrination -these young children have somehow become immune to the tragedy of a fallen soldier.  This video is truly inspiring and gives me hope that the innate compassion that is part and parcel of the soul of the Jewish people becomes unlocked from the prison created by a rhetoric of hate.

I hope that this kind of truth will catch on. True, Rabbi Bombach’s school is unique and counter culture to his Chasidic anti secular studies heritage. But the compassion he teaches is certainly not counter culture. Hopefully this approach will somehow spread to other Chasidic schools, regardless of how they feel about Zionism or about teaching secular subjects.

God bless Rabbi Bombach. He is truly one of my heroes. Unlike those extremists, he is the real deal. We need a lot more like him and a lot less extremists who participate in protests like the one at Kikar Shabbat.




Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A View of Satmar Education from an Insider

Frida Vizel does a good job describing the truth about Chasidic education. In her Tablet Magazine article of the same title, she tries to be objective about her former community. The former Satmar community resident describes in some detail what life is really like there and tries to navigate between the two polar opposite descriptions of it. Claiming it is not as dire as Shulem Deen describes in his New York Times oped on the subject, but does agrees that they could still use a lot of improvement. 

I should note that even though Ms. Vizel was educated by Satmar she is quite articulate. This does not however reflect the kind of education the men receive in that world. Women do get a secular education there. I don’t know whether she is observant or not, but that is irrelevant. I believe she has presented an honest view of Satmar life.

The point of her article is that their finances and job opportunities are a lot better than the impression one gets from the many stories and opinion pieces written about them.  Here is how she puts it: 
To hear the defenders of core education say it, a community of children without modern education will result in destitution and a reliance on government handouts—your tax dollars. The problem with this argument is that it is hyperbolic and insincere, even if census data seems to support it. It is true that Hasidim need to do more to provide adequate vocational training for jobs that require specific credentials. But that’s different from saying Hasidim are really one of the poorest communities in the country. Several factors skew the census data: Hasidim have very large families; I come from one of fifteen. They live in heavily concentrated areas, which amplifies any trend. Income might be underreported. And the community is very good at using its collective power to lobby and organize for as many government programs as possible. Just because people are good at getting benefits doesn’t mean they are poorer. 
While Mrs, Vizel tries to use these words to defend her old community, I find this description falling short of that mark

The community is still grossly under-educated and its members often uses antiquated means to support themselves. This is hardly a prescription for a financially secure future in a 21st century economy. Here is her description of how her community survives:
How do Hasidim make money if they don’t get a secular education? The Hasidic economy seems to operate in old-school, wheeler-dealer, handle-bandle kind of way. The men who don’t speak English learn it as they go along, and their female relatives help. When I was a child, my father would often phone from the office and ask us to ask our mother how to say this or that word in Aynglish. “And ask Mammi…. vus meynt alternate?” To this day, my father speaks a barely comprehensible English, even as he runs a large organization for disabled children and often interacts with Albany politicians.
Her father’s success is probably due more to his own personal determination and ingenuity than it is to any preparation through Satmar’s educational philosophy.

What about the statistics that say Satmar is the poorest community in the nation? It is true as she notes that a number of factors - such as large families - skew the census data. But she practically admits that her community under reports their income and actually is a lot better off than those statistics show. She also notes the extensive use of as many government programs as possible.

Well, that combined with under-reporting of income easily lends itself to possible massive fraud in the aggregate.

She might argue that everyone under-reports income to some degree. I doubt that. It is true that many people will hide a small amount of income and not report it to the IRS.  Which is still wrong. But that's still a lot different than defrauding the welfare system by taking money they do not really qualify for. And even leaving ethics out of it, most Orthodox Jews do not depend on welfare and are statistically less likely to defraud the welfare system. Besides - the Jews doing it that least should be those claiming the highest level of Torah observance. I suspect the opposite is true based on statistics alone. 

What kind of job training is available to Satmar Chasidim if they don't have a secular education?

By her own admission the kind of job training they get ‘in-community’ is limited to jobs that do not require specific credentials. Which means home town jobs like Torah teachers, store clerks, fish mongers, butchers and the like. We aren't talking about people with marketable credentialed skills, like plumbers, welders, or carpenters, let alone a profession requiring a higher education. 

It is highly likely that  all this translates into pay that is considerably lower than those trained on the outside – where apprenticeships in the trades most often lead to certification. Furthermore only those trades that serve the community are available for them to be trained ‘in-community’. There are a variety of trades that are not available to them simply because they are not needed in that community directly. The only apprenticeship training they can get for those trades is on the outside. Who is going want to hire and train someone that can barely speak English?

Mrs. Vizel also notes that one of their sources of income are Gemachs (free loan societies). Is that any way to support a family? To borrow as much money as one can? 

It is also not so much of a surprise that the typical signs of poverty don’t exist in Satmar. Here is what she says to indicate that:
When I walk through my Hasidic community, I don’t see the markers of some of the poorer neighborhoods. There are no homeless Hasidim lying at the corner, no Hasidic mothers begging for food, no abuse of drugs to numb the pain. I see a people nicely dressed, with the children in ribbons and bows. 
No one accuses Satmar Chasidim of being drug addicts. No one accuses them of not having great family values... or of not being great parents. The only concern is how they pay for being ‘nicely dressed, with the children in ribbons and bows.’

All of which brings me back to the issue at hand. The utter lack of any secular education for Satmar men. The Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel is shortchanging his Chasidim - with the false claim that he is fighting secular education as a function of Gzeiras Shmad. There should be no doubt about it. Unfortunately that is a  claim bought into so easily by far too many of his Chasidim. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

A Satmar 'Victory' and Public Schools

Rabbi Aharon Teitlebaum - Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel
Two wrongs don’t make a right. One might be tempted to use statistics about New York City’s public schools to bolster the argument made by the Satmar Rebbe.  He argues against offering secular studies in their schools. He might point to those statistics and ask, what good is such a program? Why should they even consider it? And add that their own schools do a far better job educating their students than public schools do.

That argument has no sway with me. Because we are talking about two different populations.

One population is Chasidic. Their children come from homes where education is stressed as one of the highest of Jewish values.That helps motivate their children to learn. The public school population on the other hand consists to a  significant extent of inner city schools whose students come from homes where education is not a high priority – if at all. I would not be surprised that the numbers are pulled way down by those inner city schools. From VIN
Under the auspices of the United States Department of Education, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has been testing fourth and eighth graders nationwide on reading and math since 1966 in order to assess schools’ progress and improve education.
But reports from the NAEP’s 2017 tests have shown both city and state public schools have demonstrated little improvement over the past few years, with only 22 percent of fourth graders earning reading scores that reached the test’s “proficiency” level, compared with 27 percent nationwide. 
Eighth graders had similar scores, with just 24 percent achieving the “proficient” ranking, compared to 31 percent nationwide.  In both grades, black and Hispanic students’ scores trailed those of their white peers by a range of 23 to 30 points.
According to a New York Post editorial, the NAEP report demonstrates that despite the highest per student spending in the nation, New York State is failing its public school students.  
There are really two issues here. One issue is whether secular studies do in fact benefit students materially - which of course segues into the decision by Satmar Rebbe to not provide those studies. 

The other issue is how well universal public education as implemented now serves the public interest. 

Satmar Schools

Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel has expressed his opinion loudly and clearly. His comments are, however, are misleading. He has declared victory against those who wish to force Satmar to offer secular studies. The New York State legislature has granted  Satmar schools an exemption from the state requirement of private and parochial to offer a secular studies program equivalent to public schools. His praise for State Senator Simcha. Felder who spearheaded this effort in the state legislature has been effusive. Calling it a victory over Gzeiras HaShmad (A government decree to convert Jews). He compared all current attempts to enforce that rule to the antisemitic attempts by Czarist Russia to force secular studies upon Yeshivos in his country over a century ago. 

History records that those Yeshivos had shut down rather than submit to those changes. What the Satmar Rebbe fails to mention is the huge difference between what happened then and what is happening now: the differing motivations. Differences recognized by the philosophical heirs to the very Yeshivos that closed down at that time. 

Today the vast majority of these Yeshivos offer a secular studies programs. Most of which is equivalent to what is offered in public schools. And even those that aren’t quite up to that standard, still provide a variety of secular studies that Satmar refuses to offer. 

Claiming that this is a victory over Gzeiras HaShmad is therefore quite ingenuous. He has tried to bolster his argument by claiming the courses required by the state include ideologies that are anathema to Judaism - some of it being actual Apikursus. That too is disingenuous. While there may be some courses that might be taught in an unacceptable manner. Clearly they don’t have to be. Otherwise none of the Yeshivos that offer them - would. And then there is the slight little detail that Satmar girls actually do have a secular studies program. Do they teach their girls Apikursus?

I dare say that if their boys had the same curriculum that their girls do, there would be no controversy.

Some might argue that allowing the government to get their foot in the door – even in legitimate ways is a slippery slope to being forced to eventually teach Apikursus. The problem with that kind of thinking is that most Yeshivos have for decades been providing secular studies to their students without any problem. Obviously they were not worried about it at the start and have been proven right not to worry..

What about the claim by the Satmar Rebbe that their Chasdim are happy with their lot... and that they produce good, highly productive citizens despite the lack of any secular studies program?  One need only read one letter (translated from Yiddish) to understand why this is at best an exaggeration. It was written in the form of an open letter to the Satmar Rebbe by a Chasid that actually loves his lifestyle, his community, and his Rebbe. And does not want to leave. 

The writer has a relatively decent paying job byway of his own determination and self education. But he notes that because Satmar lacks any kind of formal secular education, he was left unprepared for the real world. He was denied the kind of income that the educated professionals he works with have via their education.Why was he short changed? Consider that his salary is well above the typical salary made by most other Chasidim in his community. And yet he is mired in debt and can barely support his large family. 

He accuses the Rebbe in less than subtle terms of being out of touch with his Chasdim because of the relatively lavish lifestyle provided for him by his community as the Rebbe of Satmar. He does not begrudge him those perks. As the Rebbe of a major Chasidus, he deserves to be treated that way. But it does keep him out of touch with the financial realities his Chasdim face every day

I don’t know if this Chasid speaks for all Satmar Chasidim. But I’ll bet dollars to donuts that he is not alone. Which is exactly why some expatriate Chasidim have tried to get Satmar to do what other Yeshivos do - and offer a secular studies program. Same as they do for their own girls.

What do other Satmar Chasdim think about all this? I don’t know but I suppose that ignorance is bliss. I’ll bet many of them simply believe that their Rebbe knows whats best and are satisfied living their lives in poverty - using the welfare system as a source of income. heir Rebbe said this was a victory over Gzeiras HaShmad. So it must be true.  Except that it isn’t.

Public Schools

The second issue is the state of public school education. The above statistics speak to the failure of public school education as it now stands. After decades of continually throwing money at the problem it argues mightily for a radical change. One that will direct motivated students into academic schools and re-route unmotivated ones to vocational schools. Vocational schools that will have only one major academic subject: English.  Reading, writing, and speaking English is probably the primary tool for succeeding at a decent job these days. Outside of that training for vocational skills should be their mandate. I think parochial schools should offer vocational schools or programs too.. 

Vouchers that could be applied to all types of academic and vocational schools or studies would help solve a lot of the problems the above mentioned statistics indicate. Parents could then choose the school that’s right for their children instead of sending them to a neighborhood school that at best limits their options. 

The argument by teachers unions that public schools must take everyone while charter, private and parochial schools can pick and choose who they want. would lose some of its luster. 

One thing seems certain. Public education as it stands now is not working.If anything says throwing more money at the problem doesn’t work, the above mentioned statistics do. It’s time for a change.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Step in the Right Direction - but Not Enough


I’m happy to see the Agudah on board. I received a communication from David Nyer* with a statement** from mainstream Orthodox institutions about the violence perpetrated by Charedi extremists in Israel.

Agudah spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran, has joined the RCA, OU, and Young Israel - condemning recent attacks perpetrated by Charedi extremists in Israel towards the IDF and Israeli police. It’s nice to see them speaking again with one voice on an issue vital to the Jewish world. Just as they have with respect to the extremists on Orthodoxy’s Left..

But as I’ve noted in the past (more than once)  one has to look beyond the actual perpetrators of violence and recognize the source of the problem: The rabbinic factions in Israel whose anti Israel and anti Army rhetoric has given these miscreants ‘permission’ to behave this way. They reason that their leader’s condemnation of the government and the army justifies their behavior in this vein.  

Especially since even the moderate Charedi leadership in Israel has been relatively quiet about these attacks. The staement made of that. And included the following appeal by Young Israel president Farley Weiss:  
…to all Jewish Rabbinical and communal leaders in Israel to join us in condemning these reprehensible actions and we must do all in our power to prevent these attacks.” 
I wish I had any confidence in this happening in any significant way. I may be wrong but even in America I do not for example see Agudah going beyond a statement.

I’m glad they have come on board with the sentiment. (Although it doesn’t really surprise me.)  But actions speak louder than words. And I do not see them doing everything in their power to prevent these attacks.  There are mainstream members of the Agudah Moetzes that actually side with the factions in Israel that inspire those extremists. They have made public statements expressing it and have attended anti Israel protest rallies organized by Satmar - standing side by side with their leaders in support of those sentiments.

Clearly the solution is in dealing with source of the problem. I just don’t see that happening because of  the support by some of them of the view and rhetoric that inspires those extremists.

For me the course of action is pretty clear as I have outlined many times. The leadership that inspires these extremists should be shunned.

There are those who say it’s virtually impossible to do more than they already have. I’ve heard it all before.  ‘What are they supposed to do with those extremists?’ ‘They don’t listen to anyone!’ That their behavior has been condemned falls on their deaf ears. They deem those extremists juvenile delinquents in any case - not interested in listening to their leadership.

But there is something the mainstream Charedi leadership in Israel can do. It is the opposite of what they have done till now.

I recall not long ago, an incident where one of the Charedi Knesset members interceded on behalf of one of the jailed draft dodgers and to got him released from jail. What he should have done instead is doubled down on that jail sentence and insisted that it be carried out in full. And made clear that that breaking the law will not be tolerated. As a legislator it is his duty to see back up law enforcement and the judicial system that metes out justice. The law must be followed. ‘Getting the guy off’ was exactly the wrong call and served only to encourage them to continue along their violent path. What’s to stop them? Certainly not any significant time in jail!

I once again say to the Charedi leadership in Israel to do more than pay lip service condemnation to the violence perpetrated by extremists (if they’ve even done that). And to stop saying that it is just a few extremists doing it. Because even if that’s true, it is clear what motivates them. Or at the very least  gives them their excuse. They will say that they are simply doing something about the beliefs of their leaders. There has to be action, they say in order to make their point.

I actually agree. There has to be action – by the more sane members of the Charedi mainstream  in Israel. Actions along the lines I suggested in previous posts on the subject (such as those I mentioned last Friday). Not mere words accompanied by apologetics.

Unless and until that happens, this will continue. Innocent Israelis; some of them patriots serving in he military; some of those Charedi - will continue to be physically and emotionally hurt by these extremists. The Charedi leadership in Israel (as well as some of the Charedi leadership  in America) that support the views that inspire those extremists must share responsibility for some of the evil that results.  It’s too bad they don’t realize it yet. Or perhaps they do but tolerate it since according to them the greater good is being served.

*David Nyer, LCSW, is an Orthodox activist. He can be reached via email at djn415@aol.com for any questions or comments.

**Available in full herehere, and here.

Friday, April 13, 2018

A Really Bad Idea

Anti Israel extremists of Meah Shearim (Arutz Sheva)
I appreciate the sentiment. In fact, I might have in a moment of anger supported it. But ultimately it is a really bad idea.

I don’t know anything about Evyatar Elbaz. But he has apparently arranged for something he calls a ‘Victory Round’ to take place on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) in the heart of Meah Shearim. Where riots have recently taken place which have included some of the most despicable behavior ever by religious looking Jews! As Elbaz noted in an article in Arutz Sheva, those riots ‘have turned the lives of Jerusalem residents into hell in recent months.’ 
"The peak of course was the violent and despicable behavior of those extremists who desecrated the funeral procession and kidnapped the body of the baby who drowned in a hotel in Ashdod. This is compounded by Jerusalem road-blocking, vandalism of city property, injury to haredim who decided to join the army, and of course their traditional contempt for state symbols such as Memorial Day for Israel's Fallen Soldiers and Independence Day," 
Elbaz and other activists will arrive Sunday in jeeps flying flags of the State of Israel. He says he is not afraid and is prepared for every neighborhood resident reaction. "They have to understand that with violence and crazy extremism they won't achieve anything," Elbaz stressed. 
The problem with doing this is that it will not change the hearts and minds of people that believe the worst about Israeli leaders, - having referred to them more than once as Nazis. A march through those neighborhoods on a day that they consider a tragedy for the Jewish people will only make them angry. It may even spark violence between those proudly carrying those flags and those that spit on it.

As much as I understand and agree with Elbaz’s motives, I am strongly opposed at this march. Whatever statement they want to make will be outweighed by the violence that may very easily ensue.

His goal of conveying to them that violence and extremism won't achieve anything will fall on deaf ears. It won’t work,.

I don’t know what will. I have no real clue how to prevent future riots by those Israel haters. These are people with a mission! They are ideologues that will not compromise. They view themselves as guardians of the gates of Torah... soldiers for God at war with those that they think want to destroy it. 

They see opposition to the State as a religious imperative – worthy of great sacrifice! And obviously worthy of hurting fellow innocent Jews in the process. Whatever it takes!  For example setting dumpsters on fire which has been a tactic of theirs in the past creates toxic fumes that can easily harm the sick and elderly of their own neighborhoods. But they don’t care. For them, it’s all about their cause! Sound familiar?

The truth is that violent protesters of Meah Shearim have a lot in common with violent Islamic Fundamentalists. Their views on Israel - sourced in their religious beliefs - are for all practical purposes identical. They are both religious extremists that want Israel destroyed and are willing to hurt others when it suits their purposes. 

So a mere march with Israeli flags down Meah Shearim’s main street will only strengthen their resolve and might result in violence that will not serve to advance their goal. 

Instead of marching against them in their own neighborhoods, any ideology that causes the kind of continued riots that happen in this community should be condemned. Religious leaders that promote it should be isolated from the rest of the observant civilized world. They already have a start in that direction. They self isolate from the rest of us. 

But even that is not enough.  Although I don’t think it will ever happen, their rabbinic leaders who promote that ideology need to be condemned by the entire mainstream Orthodox establishment same as it does the extremists on the Left. 

There can no longer be any kind of apologetics for them. There can be no “I condemn what they do but I agree with their motives’.  No more puff pieces in Charedi magazines about how wonderfully religious they are - and even how idealistic their anti Israel views are. Their leaders need to be completely ostracized by the rest of the Torah world as ‘Chutz L’Machane’ - outside the camp of Torah! A virtual Cherem if you will! 

That should be accompanied by full support of the government to crack down on them if and when it happens again. No more pity. No more‘trying to get them off’. If laws are broken they ought to be punished to the full extent of the law. With the complete unequivocal support of all of mainstream Orthodox leadership. Protests to that should be followed with similar consequences. Even if every single one of them ends up in prison. 

There are those that say, that even this won’t help. Perhaps they’re right. But as least the world will know that these people do not represent the Torah no matter how loudly they scream it.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

My Daughter's Grandfather

Zaidy Marcus and Dovid, a great grandson 
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Israel every Jew with any sense of respect for the dignity of Holocaust survivors upon hearing the call of the siren - stops  for a moment of silence in memory of the six million Jews that perished.

As a child of the Holocaust I am particularly sensitive to anything to do with that time. My parents and my wife's parents all experienced its horrors and survived each with their own story to tell. 

I just returned from a poignant program at Arie Crown Hebrew Day School where some of my younger grandchildren still attend. My 84 year old sister in law, Anne Maryles spoke. She told the assembled children about her experience surviving that terrible time. It was both the horrific and inspiring at the same time.

My daughter Rivkie Greenland has written a powerful and beautiful tribute to my father in law reminiscing about her personal memories. He was indeed a very great man. Someone that personified both Torah scholarship and humility. In honor of this day, her words follow in full.

I grew up with 4 survivor grandparents. Three of whom were at my wedding. Today, none are left.

ALL of my grandparents z”l lived through unspeakable horrors.

This post is dedicated to my Zadie Mordechai ztl, or as we lovingly called him, Zadie Markus. In his book “מיינע ליבע קינדער”(My Dear Children), he emphatically instructed us to understand the details of his story of survival and to never forget it.

I thought you might like to meet him first.

There is not one of us who did not adore him or think of him as a great person. He was a quiet man, and only spoke when spoken to, or when there was something very important to say. But with his very few words, we knew he loved my Bubbie (a”h) and Mom and Auntie Ruthie. We knew he loved all of us. I don’t know how we knew it...he wasn’t kissy or huggy or mushy.... but we just knew.

I vividly remember Zadie eating Farina in the kitchen of his house in Detroit, Michigan, on the corner of Dartmouth and Westhampton. As a very young girl, I remember visiting him in Bornstein’s Bookstore where he worked. I also remember visiting him at the place where he worked as a mashgiach. I remember asking him if he was allowed to take food from the caterer’s kitchen any time he wanted and he quickly said “no.” I couldn’t understand why. Im sure no one would have minded if he ate an egg roll or two if he was hungry.... But it didn’t belong to him, and he didn’t need it, so he didnt take it. It was as simple as that.

I remember the hot stamping machine he had in his basement. Zadie used to hot stamp things like benchers and Kippahs. I always wanted to try that machine. Something about creating detailed things intrigued me.

I vividly remember Zadie sitting at his Shabbos table and singing this niggun called.... well, I don’t know what it was called. I guess we called it “Zadie’s niuggun.” I don’t know where it came from, or if it had words. Did Zadie sing it at his Shabbos table with his family before the war? Was it passed down from generation to generation? Did he hear it somewhere? Or was it just ringing in his head? If I close my eyes tight, I can faintly remember the tune.

I vividly remember Zadie learning Torah. A lot. My mother said he learned most of what he knew after the war, beginning in his 40s. He was a huge Talmud Chacham (Torah Scholar). We all knew it. Yet, he was understated, never haughty about the Torah he knew. Often he was our Posek; usually because he was makil (lenient) on everything. And it wasn’t because he didn’t know the halacha. Zadie was makpid (stringent) to not make our lives any harder than they needed to be. He was that kind of person.

When we were older, we use to play “Stump Zadie with Torah Questions” at the Pesach Seder. As you can imagine, he won every time.

He was a man of simple needs but not a simple man. He lived through the horrors of the Holocaust. His ENTIRE family tragically perished. His ENTIRE town heart-breakingly destroyed. He survived by living in the attic of a righteous gentile for 4 years.

FOUR. YEARS!

He lived there together with 6 other Jews from his town. All that time, he Never saw the light of day. But the 7 of them survived and were eventually liberated. They were the only surviving 7 from their entire town.

He got married to Bubbie (a”h) soon after the war and was blessed with two beautiful daughters whom they sent to learn Torah in Bais Yaakov, without question of sending them to public school.

Like others post-war, he had many jobs. And not because he had many interests. Zadie Mordechai was THAT Jew... the one who got hired on Monday and fired on Friday because he was unwilling to be m’challel (desecrate) Shabbos. But he did not let that stop him. On Monday, he got up and got another job, the next week another, and another, and did whatever it took to retain a Jewish home with Torah values, always learning Torah, never speaking lashon hara, all this even after all the horrific years he had been through. This was Yaharog V’al Ya’Avor (not to be given up for anything) with him. His dedication and perseverance to maintaining a Jewish home with Torah values was unwavering.

I was lucky to be the first grandchild to name a child after him. My Mordechai, my Marcus (yes that is his real English name though we changed the “k” to a “c”) is the complete antithesis of Zadie’s personality. But there is a commonality between them and it may be the most important character trait of all..... perseverance and determination even in the face of difficult challenges.

I’m know he beamed with pride about the daughters he raised with Torah values who gave this mesorah over to their kids, who gave this mesorah over to their kids and, Bezh one day will give this over to their kids.

He loved and honored my Bubbie.He loved and honored his family and relished in their successes. He loved Torah.
That was it.
That was all there needed to be.
לעלוי נשמת all 4 of my grandparents a”h

Mordecahi Ben Yitzchak Isaac
Tziril Bas Avrohom Meyer
Shimon Ben Chaim Noach

Bayla Bas Tzvi

who survived the Shoah, dedicated themselves to rebuilding and living a life of Torah values and are no longer here with us to tell their stories. It is incumbent for us now to tell their stories for them.