Many years ago, Agudath Israel President Rabbi Moshe Sherer z”l said that the Satmar Rebbetzin controls the Jewish people. The way it goes is that the Reform look behind their shoulder to see what the Conservatives are saying. The Conservatives look to the Modern Orthodox. The Modern Orthodox look to the Agudah. The Agudah looks to Satmar. Satmar looks to the Rebbe and the Rebbe looks to his Rebbetzin!
We now have run into a similar situation. Except that today’s Satmar Rebbetzin is the noted historian Debora Lipstadt.
As you may have read in Sergey Kadinsky’s column last week, Ms. Lipstadt, a member of the Young Israel of Toco Hills, Atlanta, announced that she was resigning as a member of her shul. Her stated reason was that she was too upset to be a member of a shul that was part of an organization that gives a “heksher” to “racism and violence, etc.” By that, she meant the National Council of Young Israel, which, in a statement by its president, Farley Weiss, supported Benjamin Netanyahu in his bid to include Otzma in his coalition in the upcoming election. Otzma is a politically very right-winged group loosely associated with Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d.
Naturally, the rabbi of Toco Hills was quite rattled by Lipstadt’s public resignation. I would be, too. He then teamed up with a rabbi from Queens and others and gathered a total of 22 rabbis to sign a public letter directed at National Council stating that the organization does not represent them and should no longer issue statements on their behalf without a consensus. Ostensibly, they were upset with the lack of communication between the Young Israel leadership and their branches.
In truth, there is a problem with the lack of communication between the administration and the branches. NCYI must get back to be a grassroots organization, which is what made it great to begin with. This is something I have been addressing to officers of YI myself. But that was merely a ruse. What was really bothering the organizers of the petition was not so much the lack of communication, but the right-winged tilt the organization has taken. Had NCYI issued a statement condemning Netanyahu’s position, not a word would have been uttered by these same rabbis. This is not mere conjecture; this was made clear in the Zev Brenner radio interview with the Queens rabbi on Motza’ei Shabbos. To be honest, I did not hear the interview, but several others did report that to me. Had Lipstadt not made a fuss, nothing would have happened.
I applaud the rabbis of the Young Israel of West Hempstead, under the leadership of Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer. That Young Israel issued a release stating that they, too, have issues with the leadership of National Council but they prefer to deal with the administration in a direct and discrete manner. Kol ha’kavod! No public machlokes, no bashing others (which unfortunately someone from NCYI did in response to the petition). What matters is respect and results.
A number of weeks ago, I sat in the office of the president of a major Orthodox organization. On my agenda was the question of why that organization never takes stands on issues vital to the Jewish and Torah community. He told me in response that he feels like the rabbi of a shul. If a rabbi takes a stand on a public matter, there is bound to be a group that will take issue with the rabbi and cause a major rift. So he chooses to keep out of the political arena.
I am sure (in fact, I know) when he saw the shellacking that Young Israel took by these rabbis, he was relieved that he chose not to get his organization involved.
No doubt, many of the rabbis who signed were well-intentioned. Who knows? I might have signed a similar petition myself, if it were a cause I believed in. But the collateral damage was done. And the damage is serious. Every Orthodox organization that represents a broad constituency will now have to be extremely reluctant before they issue a statement of policy, especially if the statement will lean to the right. They will be under the microscope. The left has a habit of making noise in all environments, and the right is silent. That’s why the left usually gets its way. If you think about it, while 22 rabbis (some were surprising names) signed the petition, what about the 128 or so who did not sign?
As I am writing this article, I received an email post from Farley Weiss sent to the member branches. Weiss decries the fact that some Young Israel member shuls are now saying that they will not allow the NCYI Executive Director, Rabbi Marc Volk, into their shuls to offer youth programming from the national office. To me, this is hate. Period. If you know Rabbi Volk, he is a consummate gentleman. He is far removed from the political whirlwinds and just wants to deliver for his organization and for the Orthodox community. Farley Weiss already apologized for his public comment on behalf of the Young Israel about Otzma. But it looks like for a lot of people the apology is not good enough. Hate is better. And if the hate comes from those who preach tolerance, it is all the more accepted.
What is particularly ironic is that these same people who have trouble with Otzma, because they feel it is too hateful and racist in dealing with our Arab enemies in Israel, have no problem in hating a well-meaning historic Orthodox Jewish organization and its representatives in the United States. Get the picture?
Allow me to add another irony. AIPAC uncharacteristically interfered with Israeli politics by criticizing Netanyahu for his embrace of Otzma. They, too, feel it’s a racist organization. So, while they are showing sensitivity to the feelings of Muslims, a Muslim member of Congress pokes fun at AIPAC for their “Benjamins” and undue influence in Congress. Try as we do to gain favor by the rest of the world, we just can’t win.
It looks like the biggest miracle during Purim was the fact that Esther was able to gather all the Jews together for a cause (Esther 4:16). Let’s hope for another Purim miracle.
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.