Over 30 years ago (it feels like 15, but over the years I’ve learned to double the amount of time that I think has lapsed), I was a rotating rabbi in a new development outside of Hightstown, New Jersey, known as Twin Rivers. At the time, it was home to about 10,000 people, of whom 80 percent were Jewish escapees from all parts of Brooklyn. Most of them left whatever Judaism remained within them back in their old homes.
Shalom Hebrew Institute, co-founded by my brother-in-law Rabbi Yisroel Kellner, featured a Talmud Torah and a shul to reach out to these otherwise totally unaffiliated Jews. Together with Rabbi Sholom Ziskind z”l, we had weekly Shabbos services and, ultimately, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services. Today, the religious community there has, bli ayin ha’ra, grown and is led by Rabbi Aaron Gruman.
When we began to expand, especially for the Yamim Nora’im, the nearby Conservative temple began to publicly condemn us as foreign interlopers. This caused us a lot of consternation at the time. We thus turned to a seasoned Orthodox rabbi in the area to get his advice on how to react to these hurtful attacks.
His advice sits with me till this very day, although admittedly it’s not always the easiest to follow. “I don’t care what they are sayin’ about me as long as they’re talking about me...and they spell my name right!”
In other words, we should let them keep condemning us; it could only add to the community’s knowledge and curiosity about us. How right he proved to be. Eventually, Shalom boasted a day school, mikvah, and many committed Jews.
The article that I wrote for the Queens Jewish Link a number of weeks ago, titled “Cancel Culture Comes To Orthodoxy,” attracted a lot more attention and for a longer period of time than I anticipated, as evidenced by last week’s Letter to the Editor by Shira Leff Kreitman.
While Ms. Leff Kreitman’s letter was critical of the thrust of my article, the overwhelming response by others was supportive – and from the most surprising of sources. Principals of Modern Orthodox day schools, rabbis, organizational heads, roshei yeshivah, and baalei batim alike fully agreed with me. About two weeks ago, I was riding in our car when I saw that I was getting a call from an old family acquaintance who is a real warlord for the Modern Orthodox world. He is very successful in the business world and was a major supporter and friend of Yitzhak Rabin, being very much into the Oslo Accords at the time. Despite our friendship, we could not be more opposite politically.
When he began to mention that he read my article, I figured that maybe it’s a good idea for me to pull off the road, as I’m surely in for a rough ride.
What he said really did shock me. “You are 100 percent right! I’ve been saying this for years. The Modern Orthodox world is increasingly losing its message to their kids with each generation. I wish more rabbis would have the courage to say this publicly as you did.” Actually, my wife was driving, or I might have smashed into the car next to me on the FDR.
Yet I did receive reaction from the right-wing world as well, and not to gloat. A common comment was that in the “yeshivish” or black-hat world, there was a lot of apathy to be found. Many of the shteibel-like shuls are comprised of young men who attend minyan daily and even participate in Daf Yomi. But their real set of priorities is vapid. Many pay lip service to their rav but have little interest in his divrei Torah and do not follow his halachic advice if it interferes with their own notions.
One such person, who davens at a shul headed by a very well-known rav and a gifted speaker, told me that although most of the shul consists of people who are completely sincere, there is a significant element that views their commitment to Judaism like going to a hotel for Pesach: “You choose which parts of the program you like and the rest you skip.” I have heard this sentiment from a few people. Davening is only done with enthusiasm if there is an enjoyable baal t’filah or a cool nigun to sing to. Leining (Torah reading) is considered burdensome, and many conveniently walk in at Chamishi and find friends with whom to shmuz.
In the educational system, what I find lacking in the more chareidi world is not bein adam l’chaveiro, conduct between man and his fellow man. Contrary to that nasty popular charge, caring for others is hammered into young students, and the amount of chesed that grows from that community bears the proof – more so than most other communities.
The problem I find is that Choshen Mishpat, the laws pertaining to financial conduct and business ethics, is not taught as part of the curriculum. I’ve written about that in the now-defunct Jewish Observer years ago and for this paper a couple of years ago. At that time, a member of the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, turned-businessman, was so taken by the article that he joined me to meet with one of the biggest chinuch organizations in order to impress upon them the need to create a Choshen Mishpat-based text to be used in the yeshivah/day school syllabus. The organization indeed took this very seriously and even devised a draft for such a text. Unfortunately, the $40,000 needed to invest in the text never materialized. There was one special person in our community, who promised me access to a source for the money, but he died suddenly and so did the access with him. I’ve written to prominent people with no results to show for it.
But it must be emphasized, with all the noted issues in the chareidi community, that their essential message and dedication to their traditions is successfully passed on to the next generation. Perhaps some of the parents need to tighten up on their own behavior, as we all do, but they do send their kids to yeshivos that produce kids who remain faithful to their teachings and mission.
Modern Orthodoxy, unfortunately, does not have the same success rate, as I noted in my original article. Dedication to shiurim and minyan in the younger generation – and even devotion to the principle of Torah U’Mada as a matter of ideology, not convenience – contrary to Ms. Leff Kreitman’s wishful contention – is sorely lacking.
I found it interesting that Ms. Leff Kreitman did not dispute the fact that young Orthodox men are not coming to minyan. Instead, she attributed that to the fact that they “had consulted with their rabbis and they were told not to attend any minyanim at this time.” It is very curious that the young people were told by their rabbis not to attend minyan while the older generation, which has much more to fear from the threat of COVID, does attend as a rule. She also did not at all address the fact that the young Modern Orthodox hardly participate in Yom HaAtzmaut, Yom HaShoah, or the Celebrate Israel Parade, sacred teachings of religious Zionism – not to mention that they are minimally involved in community affairs. All these items measure the success of the teachings of their schooling.
And here is an extremely important point. A couple of years ago, Rabbi Berel Wein addressed chinuch matters to a public audience at the Yeshiva of Central Queens. During the course of his lecture, he mentioned how his rebbe in the fourth grade in his cheder in Chicago would start the day by having the children say out loud, “Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu – How fortunate is our lot (as Jews),” etc., which is mentioned daily in the Korbanos section of davening. This would drive home the special place that we as Jews have in this world.
A young man in the audience, who it turns out teaches in a classic Modern Orthodox day school elsewhere in the city, said that he is a fourth grade rebbe and if he were to drill that to his students, the parents would be in an uproar and his career in that school would be over.
That cuts to the heart of the matter. If our priorities are to be totally acculturated to the world around us and not be allowed to express our uniqueness as a People of Torah, then in the long run we are finished.
I cannot conclude this article without mentioning the fact that numerous people mentioned to me that the blame for the situation rests not with yeshivos or the system alone. The lion’s share of responsibility is with the parents. That is so true. We do say in K’rias Sh’ma twice daily, “V’shinantam l’vanecha – And you shall teach them thoroughly to your children.” The first and last obligation to transmit the Torah and its values to our children belongs to the parents. If parents are not living up to their own teachings, then we cannot expect the children to practice what they do not see.
I can report that, thanks to the efforts of a very dedicated rabbi outside of Queens, a major established Orthodox organization is looking how to address this critical issue.
Let’s add the future of our children to the very long list of matters of concern that we have during these very concerning times and time of year.
May we all be privileged to have Hashem grant us a year of prosperity, good health, and stability. We need it, our community needs it, and our country desperately needs it.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.