The Pierced Teen and I

I hardly ever sleep on airplanes. So after an eleven-hour Thursday night flight to Eretz Yisroel, I arrived Friday noontime, jet lagged and exhausted.

I came to spend Shabbos with my daughter, who is studying in a seminary in Yerushalayim. Together we walked through the winding streets of the Jewish Quarter and enjoyed a beautiful, spiritual Kabbolas Shabbos at the Kosel. After the conclusion of the tefilos, we returned to our hotel, which was almost exclusively occupied by Shabbos observant guests, for the evening seudah (meal). I ate rather quickly and was in my hotel room getting some much-needed sleep by seven o’clock. By midnight, I awoke, already having had a full night’s sleep. I quietly left the room and made my way down to the lobby with a sefer, some reading material, and an assortment of roasted nuts that my daughter had purchased for me.

Sitting in the deserted hotel lobby, I looked up and noticed a teenage young man sauntering through the lobby. He was wearing jeans and a tee shirt, sporting a spiked, Israeli-version- of-a ‘mushroom’ haircut and several body-piercing ornaments. Not your average yeshiva bachur.

I smiled in his direction, wished him Shabbat Shalom, and turned the bags of nuts in his direction as if to invite him to partake in them. He was a bit taken aback at my offer and asked me if I was sincere. When I assured him that I was, he sat down and eagerly made a significant dent in my supplies. Several minutes later, a few of his friends entered the lobby and he invited them over to join us.

Some picture that was – four secular teens and a chassidic, forty-something rabbi chatting in a hotel lobby over a growing pile of garinim shells. Once they found out that I was a school principal, we engaged in a lively discussion about their school life and I fielded seemingly endless questions about the yeshiva where I serve as Menahel.

It was fascinating for me to observe how they warmed up to me as time passed. In fact, one by one they began referring to me respectfully, in the third person. Then, suddenly it got quiet for a moment or two. The young man who was the first to sit down wanted to know if he could ask me a question. “Betach”, (sure) I responded.

Two in a Row

His eyes locked in on mine with a mixture of hostility and genuine curiosity. “Why are there no charedim like you (who are friendly and accepting) in Israel?” he asked me. I responded that there are thousands like me – but that he had simply never met any of them. I asked him if he ever had a Shabbat meal in a charedi home and encouraged him to try that experience – with an open mind. I even offered to set him up with one of many families who would be glad to have him over.

Then his friends joined in. “But why do they (charedim) hate us and throw stones at us?” they wanted to know. I told them that they should not believe the stereotypes about charedim that they have been reading in the papers. I informed them that only a tiny, vocal percentage of our community engages in this type of behavior. I politely but firmly pressed my point. I said that I have had insults and abuse showered on me over the years by individual secular Israelis as I walked the streets of Yerushalayim dressed in my shtrimel, but that I never assumed that any of the four of them were of that mindset.

Like boxers circling each other in the ring, we weaved and bobbed around the issues they raised for a few more minutes until we parted company courteously and respectfully.

I was so deeply disturbed by the conversation that I found it hard to concentrate on my sefer after the kids left the hotel lobby. I got up to stretch my legs and walked around the lobby for a few moments. If round one wasn’t unpleasant enough, I got my second dose a few moments later. As I was walking to the rear part of the lobby, there was a secular woman finishing up a phone call on one of the hotel’s pay phones. I greeted her with a polite Shabbat Shalom. Her response was visceral and harsh. “Aren’t you angry that I am speaking on the phone during Shabbat?” she asked me angrily.

In my barely-passable Ivrit, I responded that anger was certainly not an emotion that came to my mind when I saw her on the phone. Saddened or upset perhaps, but angry? Why would I be angry?

Family Breakdown

I thoroughly enjoy every part of my visits to Eretz Yisroel. The kedusha (holiness), the predawn walks to the kosel for Vasikin minyan (sunrise-time prayer services), and perhaps most of all, watching my adult children progressively grow attached to the holy stones of Artzeinu Hakedosha. But increasingly so, each of my trips to Eretz Yisroel leaves me feeling more and more troubled by the growing harshness and hostility between the secular and religious Jews. Its almost like we are a behaving like a terribly dysfunctional family.

There is certainly more than enough blame to be placed on the leadership (and many individuals) of the secular community. I have been scanning two Israeli papers every day since the intefada started five years ago, and the outrageous, inflammatory, anti-charedi comments are simply horrific and are so far beyond the pale of civilized discourse. I assume that the left wing, secular leadership of Shinui and Meretz will not be reading these lines. But if they would, I would tell them to search their souls and realize that they are depriving their children of the spiritual oxygen needed to sustain Jewish continuity by denigrating us so badly and repeatedly.

Having said that, don’t we, too, need to undergo a cheshbon hanefesh? Whose insane idea was the rock throwing anyway? Step back and think about it. Two generations of young charedi men threw rocks to impress secular Jews about the kedusha of Shabbos or to enforce its observance? Why in the world did we ever allow a fringe element to frame this debate and why did we not forcefully and repeatedly distance ourselves from the violent actions of those who shamed us so? I am not discussing the somber and proper expressions of public and respectful protest at the pain of public chillul Shabbos sanctioned by our Gedolim. We are discussing the lawlessness and desecration of Hashem’s name that took place in the guise of promoting Shabbos observance.

Chazal say that it takes forty years to fully understand events that take place. Let’s subject this issue of the rock throwing ‘hafganos’ (protests) that have taken place on and off over the past forty years to the harsh light of cost-benefit analysis. What did it accomplish? Close a few roads on Shabbos? Is that such a significant victory? Tens of thousands of Yidden have beautiful Shabbosos in America with cars driving all around them, albeit mostly driven by gentiles, which changes the dynamics of our response. However, I have a secular Jew living down the block in my hometown of Monsey. He drives and washes his car on Shabbos. My wife and I greet him with a cordial Gut Shabbos when we pass his home. Each time, he responds with the same salutation – uttered with the utmost derech eretz. And even if the closing of streets in charedi neighborhoods was one in the win column; at what price was the victory?

Of Rioting and Cuts

A.M. Rosenthal wrote a prophetic op-ed piece in the New York Times nearly fifteen years ago, following the horrific Los Angeles race riots. He commented that after the riots of the inner city minorities ran its course, he predicted that in the following months and years, the upper class whites in the country would riot the way they always have rioted. They will abandon the cities and move to the suburbs, he wrote, and they will vote Republican and shred the social services network. Sure enough, in 1994, two years later, Newt Gingrich was propelled to power and his “Contract with America” started a decade-long attack on funding for social programs. And shortly thereafter, President Bill Clinton announced that he would, “End welfare as we know it.”

I conducted parenting classes in different Torah communities in three of the five evenings that I spent in Eretz Yisroel on this past trip. Fielding questions from hundreds of people in an open forum for two hours and taking private request for eitzos gives the presenter (me) a very accurate read regarding the challenges that communities face. I can tell you firsthand that our valiant avreichim and their families are suffering terribly from the draconian ‘triple-whammy’ cuts of the past few years. Simultaneously, child subsidies have been slashed, yeshiva funding cut back and all sorts of regulations on religious schools are now in place – compounding the strain on these mosdos haTorah.

Shouldn’t we ask ourselves if the recent, painful budget cuts brought about in part by the stunning ascendancy of Tommy Lapid and the Shinui party – the rioting of the secular Jews – was even in a small part caused by the self-imposed collective black eye that we suffered as a result of the aggressive actions of some members of our community? We cannot avoid these implications for our future. Just because Tommy bungled his mandate and is slipping from power does not mean that the forces that propelled him there have abated.

A Hopeful Sign

I had the most wonderful five days in Eretz Yisroel, and thoroughly enjoyed the precious time that I spent with my daughter. But the events of Friday night cast a pall over my mood and thoughts as I replayed them in my mind’s eye again and again.

Until Sunday morning.

It was about seven o’clock in the morning – after the vasikin (sunrise) prayers in the Kosel plaza. I was reciting tehilim after davening when I observed a scene unfolding right before me. Several secular Israeli teenagers had just arrived at the Kosel. They were dressed similarly to the young men that I had spoke to in the hotel lobby thirty-six hours earlier. Clutching paper yarmulkes to their heads, they kissed the holy stones of the wall and stood there in silence for a few moments. As they turned to leave, one teen in the group approached an elderly Sephardi bearded Jew and asked him for a blessing. The boy bowed his head while the rabbi blessed him with feeling and vigor. His peers followed the lead of the first teen and received similar blessings. Those who were in close proximity to the rabbi watched this beautiful exchange with pride and nachas. But I suspect it was more meaningful to me than the others – in light of my Friday night experience.

The boys turned to leave and I went back to my tehilim. I lifted my head again when the elderly rabbi loudly called the boys back to where he was sitting. He hugged the boys one at a time and warmly kissed each of them on both cheeks. He then placed his hands on their foreheads and emotionally exclaimed in Ivrit that Hashem should bless them and that all their actions should be met with unending success. They kissed his hand and walked away visibly touched.

My eyes began to blur as I thanked Hashem for restoring my faith that future generations of His children will interact similarly with each other – with tolerance and true ahavas Yisroel.

(Originally Posted on

9 comments on “The Pierced Teen and I

  1. I recalled after reading this wonderful post my first visit to Israel in 1994. I was completely and utterly secular with no knowledge of Judaism. However, when I walked around Jerusalem at night I saw teens that looked more lost than I was. I saw souls aflame and looking and left me wondering, “how could they be so down-trodden in Israel?” I learned over the years about the secular Israeli education system and the gulf between the Charadi world and theirs even though they were literally neighbors. I wondered if there would be anyone or any group that could brige that gulf. I envisioned a Hebrew speaking person or group, someone who had been in the Army perhaps. Amon Yizchok has done wonders I have been told — thousands fill his “concerts”

    There is such a power in Israel. Just standing waiting for a train from Beer Sheva to Tel Aviv, and seeing a whole train load of soliders get off and slap and kiss each other with their cell-phones and sunglasses! If they only could tap into that deep power that I sense when I see them!

    Oh there is so much to say on this subject and I am glad to see the ball rolling on it here at Beyond BT.

  2. Lo alman Ysroel.

    Interestingly the last story with the sefaradi points to the proper attitude we should have to a fellow Jew never mind his praxis. Who are we to judge? It is time that we, ashkenazim, drop our ingrained defensiveness developed as a reaction to Haskallah.

  3. Thank you so much. I am IM”H going to Eretz Yisrael next Sunday to visit my daughter in Seminary, and your beautiful words are a tremendous preparation and inspiration.

  4. Thank you for the pre-Shabbos inspiration. It’s very hard to explain to a secular Jew why religious Jews get overwrought by chillul Hashem (the community scene in the film Ushpizin comes to mind). Physical violence will not accomplish anything, but it may be important for the not-yet-frum person to understand and respect the red lines of the shomer shabbos person. This is also a step in kiruv, I think. Good Shabbos, Chana

  5. Well said! Your sociological analysis was right on target! But most of all, it was a wonderful reminder that a kindness like sharing nuts can go a long way to changing someone’s mind. The teenager might not have shown it to you, but no doubt, you affected him positively.

  6. Beautiful! And, especially appropriate on this website. If any of us had been greeted with rocks and slurs, we’d have run as far as possible from frumkeit. Do the rock throwers think they’re accomplishing anything but spreading the hate?

    Each of us BTs treasures the memory of a frum Jew who appreciated our neshama and nurtured our growth–despite our secular look and behavior.

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