Lakewood vs. Lakewood

By CJ Srullowitz

I recently had the distinct American pleasure of attending a minor league baseball game. Though New York City boasts two major league teams, the greater New York metropolitan area has several minor league ball clubs, teams filled with kids still in their teens, dreaming of one day playing in “The Show.” Often watching these developing players is more exciting than watching their more able, higher-paid counterparts. Not to mention, beer that night cost a dollar.

In the third inning, I turned to one of my friends and marveled at the determination of everyone involved with this game: not only the players, but the coaches, umpires, even the announcers—were all chasing the same, highly unreasonable dream: that someday they would make it to the major leagues.

My friend wasn’t so sure. He postulated that perhaps they were simply there to have fun. So we put the question to one of the trainers, whom we met during a seventh-inning stretch tour of the locker room. “How many of these players still believe they will make it to the majors and how many are just playing for the fun of it?” my friend asked asked.

“All of them,” he replied.

“All of them play for fun?” my friend repeated.

“No. All of them think they can get to the big leagues,” he said. “To a man.”

This genuinely surprised my friend, but not me. To date, fewer than 17,000 people have played in the bigs. That’s 17,000 players in the history of the American and National Leagues, going back well over a century. To put this in perspective, I heard a Yankees announcer say once, if you took every Major Leaguer, alive or dead, and put him in Yankee Stadium, the place would still be two-thirds empty.

Yet, despite those astounding odds, so many continue to push forward, holding on to the belief that somehow they will be among the chosen few. For their efforts, they are paid as little as $750 a month; they earn in one full season what Alex Rodriguez earns in the time it takes him to tie one shoe.

A few miles down the road from the legendary Lakewood yeshiva, resides a single-A ballclub, the lowest rung on the minor league ladder. The Lakewood Blue Claws are one of 246 minor league teams comprising in the neighborhood of five thousand players. Every one of these players was drafted by a major league team and signed to a professional baseball contract. These kids were stars of their college, high school and little league teams. They know how to play ball.

But there are still too many of them. The fact remains that only a few of these minor league players will ever get called up to the big club—even for a day. And of those that eventually do get called up, few will become regulars. And of those who become regulars, few will play for more than a handful of seasons. And of those who do play for several seasons, few will become All-Stars.

Yet,” to a man,” every player, since he was a young boy, aspires to be that one All-Star. Every one holds on to that dream.

What should we say about such dreamers? Should we mock them? Should we sit in the stands and cheer them on, all the while laughing at them in the backs of our heads? How should we respond to this ridiculous scene of an entire ballgame, whose foundation rests on cloud upon cloud of false hope?

To Torah Jews, their behavior should be inspirational. For their dream is a mechayev. Our Sages teach that Rebbi was mechayev—he obligated—the rich, because he was one of the richest men of his generation, and still, despite all of his financial obligations and business commitments, he found the time to become a great Torah scholar.

Likewise, Hillel was mechayev the poor. Despite his impoverishment and constant need to earn a living wage, he still managed to spend his days occupied in Torah.

Minor league ball players are mechayev all of us. If they can live in this “field of dreams” so can we. If they can hold upend their lives in the single-minded pursuit of an unlikely result, we can certainly adjust our lives to pursue a result that is guaranteed.

This guarantee is what differentiates us from them. In the words of the Sages,
““Anu ameilim veheim ameilim—we toil and they toil.” We all work hard at what we do. But unlike baseball players, we are guaranteed results. Just for trying. Torah study does not require us to become great scholars. We succeed with every word we learn. Torah study is not a means to an end but an end in itself.

Torah study is not for the select few (even if only a select few will excel at it). Too often, we push off learning as the realm of the rabbis. Too often we push off studying until we are prepared to sit for an hour or longer. Too often we push off studying on a basic level because we are too tired, too busy, too unmotivated to study in-depth.

Too many of us remain faithful to a practical approach. Our reach does not even approach our grasp. When it comes to Judaism, we become very modest about our abilities. This is tragic because it leaves so much on the table. We ought to take a page from the book of these dreamers, they of the impractical and the unlikely. We ought to imagine that we can become great talmidei chachamim, that we can become great tzadikim, that we can learn more than we currently learn and do more than we currently do. In doing so, unlike the ballplayers, we all become All-Stars.

21 comments on “Lakewood vs. Lakewood

  1. tesyaa said, “IMO, using a pseudonym that’s obviously a nickname or a made up name is OK; using a pseudonym that masquerades as a real name is not. It gives the impression of being a non-anonymous posting, when it’s not.”

    It’s a good point and it’s our fault for missing that. We’ll change it in the future to something that makes it clear that it is anonymous.

  2. 1. It often happens that an article elicits comments that seem to veer off topic into related topics of high interest. This is no insult to the writer whatsoever.

    2. To dream of spiritual self-betterment is characteristic of the Jewish people. Sometimes, as this article says, we sell ourselves short by not reaching high enough. Every day is a new opportunity to fix something (including our own awareness of HaShem’s will) with the tools we have. We need to understand and appreciate these tools, then put them to good use.

  3. Hi PL,

    I just meant that”inspirational” pieces like this often have a tendency to get treacly/cloyingly sweet. Granted, literally, schmaltzy means ‘fatty’ and not ‘sweet’ and it is admittedly strange to use it almost as a synonym, but what what both terms really mean in this context is “too much” or “over the top.” CJ did an excellent job in avoiding this potential pitfall.

  4. I agree with yaakov, and didn’t bother to post as it seemed the post was quickly hijacked (my mistake, I should have done so regardless).

    But yaakov, now it’s my turn:

    “unschmaltzy manner”- what does this term mean (beyond literal translation:))?

  5. I wish I’d spoken up earlier, but CJ, I really loved this delightful piece which encourages people to hold on to meaningful dreams and goals against apparent odds, and I never got the idea or impression at all that it was any sort of pro-kollel piece.

    As with many pieces here this has served for a jumping off point for other issues -which is fine, but alas from the very start of the thread of comments people have ignored or somehow missed the pshat (simple), obvious inspiring message which you presented in a genuine, appealing, and unschmaltzy manner.

  6. mem, I hope this helps:

    BMG = Beth Medrash Govoha, which is the large, famous advanced yeshiva in Lakewood NJ.

    Chiyuv to be kovea ittim = personal duty to schedule regular periods of Torah study

    Kollel = post-graduate level of (mainly) Talmudic study. The participants are generally married, and they generally receive stipends. Some kollelim are founded to do community outreach in Jewish education, in addition to the study program.

  7. Once again I plead for clarity in translating the sometimes impossible to understand terms used in this blog.
    What is the meaning of:
    halachic chiyuv to be kovea ittim?
    I try to read and understand every post, but sometimes I never know if a word is Hebrew, Yiddish or simply slang. Putting the English meaning in parenthesis seems so easy, so please help me out here.
    And thank you Ron Coleman for the link to “asara batlanim.” You can’t imagine how helpful and enlightening such links are to a more or less beginner like myself.
    thanks all,

  8. As the author, I suppose I can only blame myself. Nonetheless, I am shocked and dismayed over the misconceptions drawn from this post – especially after my earlier attempt to clarify.

    So let me be blunt.

    I did not intend for this post to be seen as a pro-kollel pitch. The discussion I had at the ball game and the lessons learned were intended for working people, like myself.

    I work full-time. Actually, more than full time, these days. I never saw anything in this post (except for the unfortunate title) as indicating a push for full-time learning. My comment “It’s about promoting spiritual achievement in our learning and our observance of mitzvos. It’s about making sacrifices and dreaming big.” is not an advertisement for kollel. It is a comment aimed at every single Jew to maximize his or her potential in their personal Avodas Hashem.

    As it happens, I do support the concept of kollel and have many family members in kollelim. Nonetheless, I personally agree with many of the above comments as to the limits of a kollel “system” and the unfortunate fallout that follows when those limits are not observed.

    Perhaps one day I will write about it. But this is not that essay.

  9. Out of curiousity: is CJ Srullowitz a pseudonym? Most Wall Streeters (as you say you are) and lawyers have LinkedIn or other pages in response to a Google search. There’s no Srullowitz resulting from a Google search other than Jewish blog posts and comments. IMO, using a pseudonym that’s obviously a nickname or a made up name is OK; using a pseudonym that masquerades as a real name is not. It gives the impression of being a non-anonymous posting, when it’s not.

  10. Bob-

    I couldnt agree with you more about the need for candid guidance counseling which keeps individaul interests qualities and aptitudes in mind.

    I also heartily agree with you that history has been highjacked today and distorted in order to advance social agendas. Those with scanty historical knowledge of what it was really like in the “heim” (aka old country) get hood-winked everyday

  11. The yeshivos at the mesivta and beis medrash levels need to provide candid guidance counseling to their students, keeping their students’ interests, qualities, and aptitudes in mind. The idea that every student’s career path should be the same, with no allowances for individual differences, is a recent invention and not traditional whatsoever. It’s remarkable how many mores of today’s Orthodox society did not exist in the “old country”.

  12. A decade ago I lived in Lakewood. Bli ayin hara, I have sons who learn with joy, hasmada, fulfillment and success full time in BMG/Lakewood. I am a frequent visitor to Lakewood.

    I will defer to the author CJ Srullowitz as to the stated purpose of his essay, quote “It’s about promoting spiritual achievement in our learning and our observance of mitzvos. It’s about making sacrifices and dreaming big.”

    The human cost of this well intended but overly idealistic and therefore misplaced approach is very high. And, I am not just referring to Lakewood Kollel wives who may be forced out of financial necessity to juggle 2 or 3 jobs on top of trying to raise children and keep a household functioning, or to the children who may be emotional orphans with two living parents.

    I am also speaking about the flotsam and jetsam of Kollel men floating around Lakewood who stay in leaning because of frum society’s expectations/demands, but who have no chiyus/joy in their learning and who are confronted daily with their depressing lack of talent, success/achievement in their learning.

    These men have been socially acculturated through the yeshiva school system to believe that anyone not learning full time is a loser and a waste of space, and to therefore “dream big”.

    Rarely is the message conveyed in the yeshiva school system that G-d assigned each one of us to a unique role in the orchestra of Kiddush H-shem, and that it is part of His grand design for some men to honor Him by playing another instrument in addition to learning Torah.

    Yes, every male has a halachic chiyuv to be kovea ittim. But, not every product of the yeshiva school system is cut out for full time Torah learning, nor should full time Torah learning be frum society’s articulated goal for every male.

    I think the following story about the Satmar Rov (R. Joel Teitlebaum ztl 1887-1979) makes my point. After the war many survivors did nothing other than learn full time. The Satmar Beis Medrash was bursting at the seams until the day Rebbeinu Yoel ztl with his penetrating gaze apprised the assembled olam and began pointing “You, you, and you! Out of the Beis Medrash and get to work!”. Those who left became the backbone of the Satmar community, the businessmen and askanim that built Satmar in America. Their talents and abilities would never have been given the opportunity to be of service to Klal Yisroel had they stayed in the Beis Medrash learning Torah full time.

    CJ Srullowitz advocates for an approach that has already been implemented in Yeshivishe society for decades: Individual talents and abilities are systematically ignored and routinely sacrificed for the “big dream” of full time Torah learning as an occupation. The human cost of this misplaced idealism is often tragic to behold in Lakewood.

    When big dreams of spiritual achievement in learning crash upon the shoals of the lack of ability for full time Torah learning the high cost of dreaming too big is depression and dysfunction.

  13. Yes, Ezzie, I’m with you, but the problem is when you say “Lakewood” you’re not saying merely koveah ittim [establishing set times for learning Torah], you’re saying asara batlanim… and then some…

  14. Thanks to all for the comments.

    As Ezzie points out, this essay is not about promoting kollel or discussing finances. It’s about promoting spiritual achievement in our learning and our observance of mitzvos. It’s about making sacrifices and dreaming big.

    The title was an attempt to be clever; nothing more. I, too, work for a living.

  15. Minor league baseball has economic aspects not fully addressed in this article. I would not expect any player to be able to stay in it unless his food, clothing, and shelter needs were paid for using

    1. his minor league pay, bonus, and expense money, plus

    2. additional money, as needed, from his off-season work and from his family.

  16. (Since a friend asked: I understand the post as being directed at Koveah Ittim, not Kollel; however, I am wary of how that line becomes very fuzzy when it comes to Torah, hence the comment.)

  17. To echo the first commenter, of course we should all strive to learn Torah to the best of our ability. In my opinion, this does not mean we should all be kollelmen in Lakewood or other yeshivos. Not everyone ie cut out to learn full time forever, nor is it a practical venture for most. If one can carve out some years to learn full time that is wonderful. There are plenty of people who work in other fields but are devoted to serious Torah study. This is the example most of us should be striving for.

  18. Good post, and points well made.

    At the same time, from a communal point of view, we should focus on best utilizing each person’s individual talents for where they are useful. Certainly people can as individuals choose to live on $750/month to pursue their unlikely dream; we as a community should not pay them far more to do so. Etc.

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