Is It Hip to be Sefardi?

By Ilene Rosenblum

Rabbi Avraham Yosef, Chief Rabbi of Holon and the son of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, recently declared that all newly religious Jews should follow the Sefardi tradition, regardless of their heritage.

I’ve heard this one before. Eating kitniyot, legumes on Passover and jamming to music that doesn’t have the oy oy oy refrain at first sounds enticing. But that’s ignoring the full picture. While some Ashkenazim wait anywhere between one hour and six hours after eating meat before eating dairy products, I’m unaware of any Sefardi tradition to wait fewer than six. Sefardi men also wake up before dawn to say Selichot for the entire month of Elul. That’s a lot of sacrificed ice cream and sleep for some chummus on Pesach.

Maybe the Sefardim want to gain a little more ba’al teshuva clout. In my experience, there is much less outreach from Sefardi institutions, and should a person of Sefardi descent become more observant, they often find support from Chabad or get “streamlined” into a program that doesn’t teach Sefardi customs. But I don’t think that is what is at stake here.

What is interesting is that this comment referred to Jews becoming more observant — not converts. Why not encourage the Jew to connect to his or her Jewish roots but rather to plant new ones? Although I believe the argument is flawed and otherwise problematic, it’s one thing to suggest that converts adapt a certain set of customs, it’s another to have a Jew change.

According to an article in Ynet, the rabbi explained in the halachic responses section of the Jewish website Moreshet, that in Israel one must embrace Sephardic traditions. In order to reconcile the precept that one mustn’t abandon the tradition of one’s fathers “and do not forsake the teachings of your mother,” he ruled that those born to religious parents should follow their traditions, but if a Jew has no religious background, no family tradition in halachic matters, that person must accept the Sephardic tradition and laws.

What about for someone like me, who comes from a traditional household that was clearly Ashkenazi but not Shabbat-observant? It would seem an insult to the tradition brought over by my grandparents and great-grandparents — albeit watered down in the United States — to switch to something else rather than try to revive what I do have.

While the gaps between Ashkenazi and Sephardi observance are not always so wide, it has been difficult enough keeping up with the prayers and songs I have not understood, unfamiliar phrases, doing this and not that on Shabbat, and odd customs, that it would have been an undue emotional burden to distance myself from what may be familiar, including my family!

Besides, I can’t imagine expecting to get a real tan without turning red, downing hilbe or being able to properly shake my hips. Pass the whitefish.

Check out Ilene’s blog at

Leadership vs Isolationism

Rabbi Micah Segelman

The Orthodox community is poised to assume the mantle of Jewish leadership in America. Demographics attest to our continued growth both in absolute terms and as a portion of the overall Jewish community. We are the most passionate and knowledgeable about Judaism and Israel and are the most willing to give of our time and money for Jewish causes. We are the stewards of the Torah’s wisdom and thus have so much to share with other Jews. But are we thinking and acting like leaders?

Klal Yisroel’s mission as the chosen people is to lead the entire world in drawing closer to Hashem (1). “Thus it became necessary that one nation be introduced into the ranks of the nations which, through its history and life, should declare that G-d is the only creative cause of existence, and that the fulfillment of His will is the only goal of life (2).” This requires that we adhere to higher standards and that to a degree we separate ourselves from the world around us (1). “Such a mission imposed upon this people another duty, the duty of separation, of ethical and spiritual separateness (2).”

While separation is required it seems to me that total isolation from the world around us is incompatible with the leadership that the Torah demands of us. If we only have the ability to relate to people within the Torah camp then we’re not fulfilling our great mission. We can’t influence a world from which we have retreated.

Jewish interests are constantly threatened. We are faced with disproportionate criticism and inappropriate censure of Israel. We are confronted by secularism, materialism, and promiscuity. Our Orthodox interests are threatened by groups of Jews who oppose Torah study and observance and we are challenged by the extreme left wing of modern Orthodoxy. We must forcefully and honestly engage our antagonists and lay our rightful claim to the moral high ground. Yet in doing so we must display leadership and not succumb to narrow parochialism. When we show disdain for other viewpoints we antagonize people who are outside of our own community. We must use calm and compelling logic and not resort to strident and intolerant language. Instead of confident and reasoned arguments we sometimes resort to shrill tones and personal attacks. We are alienating those who could become our supporters.

A friend of mine grew up in a traditional but non-frum home and the children were enrolled in an elementary school Yeshiva. One day his brother’s Rebbe told the class that “Golda Meir is a rasha” (this story happened in the early 70’s). Largely as a result of this incident all of the children in my friend’s family were transferred to public school. My friend is a fine Ben Torah and Marbitz Torah. But none of his siblings are frum.

We can learn how to effectively lead from many of the recent responses to the issue of ordaining a woman to serve in a Rabbinical role. The statements from the Moetzes Gedolei Torah and the recent letter from HaRav Shmuel Kamenetsky (3) were forceful but not strident. Many of the articles written (such as those by Rabbi Adlerstein, Rabbi Ginzberg, and Rabbi Shafan) also struck the right balance. Unfortunately, even a well formulated and constructive article written in a moderate tone can generate negativity when a few phrases are seen as unnecessarily harsh, especially when they are taken out of context (4). This too should be instructive for us.

If we fail to teach our children and students how to relate to people outside the Torah camp we are building a future Torah community incapable of leadership. We must set boundaries for our children and students in their interaction with the outside world. We correctly stress the dangers which the world around them presents. However, our ultimate intent is to equip them to make their way in the world as confident Bnei Torah. Our intent should be to prepare them to confront the outside world – not to paralyze their interaction with the world around them.

In discussing whether a ben Torah should go to college one of my Rebbeim said that he’s “Pro Torah” and not “Anti College.” This seems to me to be a much healthier message than telling people that college is “treif.” If we stigmatize secular education we are teaching people to be afraid of the outside world. Whether to pursue secular education is an individual decision to be made with great care and proper guidance. Furthermore, there are different valid Torah approaches to this issue.

However, I would hope that all agree that we can’t produce a generation of Bnei Torah who are thoroughly insulated from the world around them. This doesn’t require advanced secular education per se. But it requires a healthy attitude towards and the ability to understand and communicate effectively with the outside world.

I once returned home after being away in Yeshiva for a few months and came to shul for shacharis. Even to this day I often wear colored or striped shirts. However, on that particular day I was wearing a white shirt, dark pants, and a dark jacket. A man in shul whispered a derisive remark (which I unfortunately overheard) to the effect that, “Looks like they did a good job brainwashing him.” Clothing is fairly innocuous and yet it created a tremendous barrier, even for a person who is Orthodox. Imagine the barrier that would have been created if I truly came across as cloistered. And imagine if the other person was much further removed from Torah than my critic was.

Being comfortable in the outside world will be helpful to people in earning a living. But this isn’t the only motivation in engaging the world around us. Being overly restrictive carries the risk of alienating people who don’t want to live an isolated life. Cloistering ourselves makes us incapable of bringing other Jews closer to Torah. The inability to engage the outside world precludes us from advocating for causes that are important to us.

We have an opportunity to lead and to make a tremendous Kiddush Hashem. But are we up to the task?

(1)Seforno, Shemos 19:4-6
(2)Rav Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters (Spring Valley, NY 1988), Letter Four
(3)Five Towns Jewish Times, Letters to the Editor, July 8, 2010
(4)Jewish Week, ‘Rabba’ Appearance Stirs Up Controversy, June 30, 2010

All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce this essay only in its entirety including this statement.

Do We Show Enough Respect to Secular Jews?

Like most really good questions, the typical answer would be, “It depends.” It depends on the basis for the respect towards a Jew and how we personally define a “secular” Jew. The following few lines are my personal thoughts on the above question.

When I think about ways or reasons to respect another Jew, my first thought (and this really applies to non-Jews as well, based on what I’ve been taught) is the concept of Kavod HaBriyos (respect towards one of Hashem’s creations). There is an intrinsic respect that we should be giving to anyone created by Hashem, simply because their own existence is a manifestation of Hashem’s ratzon (will or desire).

The second thought regarding respect is the concept of “pintele Yid”, a Yiddish term that refers to that innate Jewish “spark” that is in each of us. The neshama of Jew contains part of Hashem and it’s that “spark” that might be another basis for respect towards other Jews, regardless of if they are “secular” or not. An understanding of both of these levels of respect is, ideally, something that should be emphasized both in the home and in our school stystems.

A third level of respect, and this is sort of “out there” depending on your religious outlook, is a feeling of respect for a Jew’s secular accomplishments. This might be on an educational, professional, or a personal level. When I use the term accomplishments, I’m not referring to financial success, but more of the effort involved in pursuing a goal. For example, in a previous profession of mine, I was the Kashrus supervisor (mashgiach) for a local Kashrus organization in a Midwestern City. At times my job required me to be at the Jewish Community Center as early as 5:30 AM. I was always impressed with the number of people I saw who were also at the JCC that early in the morning using the exercise equipment. Their dedication, on a personal level, to their health, gave me food for thought in regard to my own struggles with getting up in the morning for minyan.

The term “secular Jew” is, in my opinion, can have a few definitions. A “secular Jew” could be someone who has no connection to Judaism on any level. Without getting in any halachic obligations of Kiruv (or mitzvah of “Loving Hashem”), it’s probably safe to write that we all agree it’s important to have some connection to Judaism.

A fellow Jew who is “secular” might also be a non-affiliated Jew who has craving for gefilta fish and matzo ball soup. On an dietary level, this Jew is connecting with Judaism on their level. This secular Jew might be a co-worker, old friend from the neighborhood, or a relative. They might fell connected to Judaism not by any outward religious observance, but by purchasing Israel Bonds, donating to their local Jewish Federation, or eating a bagel with a shmeer of cream cheese on a Sunday morning.

Another view of a “secular Jew”, and I don’t personally feel this way, might be that anyone who isn’t Torah observant is “secular”. I wasn’t taught to view Jews in this way, but some people within our camp do. I have met many Jews affiliated and involved with reconstructionist, reform, and conservative congregations that are far from “secular”. They are very committed to their Judaism and very serious about it. To label them as secular is really problematic. It’s possible to respect them for their own level of observance, even if it isn’t the same as our lifestyle. This doesn’t mean that Torah-observant individuals, organizations, or educational institutions shouldn’t approach them, but try to understand where they are coming from. For a Jew to choose to attend a Shabbos evening or morning service instead of a sporting event, one-day sale with door busters, or watch TV can be as much as a challenge as it is for me not to speak loshon hora.

I’ll be honest, I think some Torah-observant Jews show tremendous respect towards secular Jews. I also think that some of us could show a bit more respect. Remembering that we are “a nation of Priests” who were given the opportunity to teach by example can only help in showing respect towards secular Jews.

In Scandals, a Wake-Up Call for Orthodoxy

By David Klinghoffer

For all its outward vigor, the Orthodox community, which is my own, appears to harbor a sickness. You don’t have to be an ideological critic of traditional Judaism to wonder if the cause should be sought in Orthodoxy itself.

The past year has brought what seems like a never-ending stream of financial or sexual scandals. Prominent rabbis have been charged with money-laundering. The scandal unleashed by accounts of mistreatment of workers and animals in a kosher meat facility continues to reverberate. An influential rabbi specializing in conversions allegedly conducted a squalid relationship with a woman wishing to convert. There have been repulsive accounts of molestation of boys in yeshivas. Most recently, a prominent rabbi and communal powerbroker was charged with trying to extort money from a hedge fund.

Of course, not every allegation turns out to be true (and you certainly cannot believe everything you read, especially on the Internet with its bias in favor of grudges and witch-hunts). Yet the pattern of accusations can’t be coincidental.

For a convert or a baal teshuvah, like me, the greatest stumbling block to faith may indeed be the Orthodox community itself. If Torah is true, why do Torah Jews not stand out as particularly impressive? Deuteronomy says of our Torah observance: “It is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation’” (4:6). No one would say such a thing of us today. How can this be?

The answer, I think, lies in the nature of Torah that has allowed its adherents to persist for millennia. While liberal Jewish movements inevitably fade into the broader gentile society, traditional Judaism survives thanks to a hedge of religious laws that keep Jews somewhat separate from others: “Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9). Paradoxically, our ministering to and illuminating humanity as the “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) that God calls us to be is conditioned on this apartness from other people.

But insularity also has its risks. For communities, as for individual human beings, there’s a madness that often goes with spending too much time by yourself. Reality becomes a little unreal. So too, alas, in our Orthodox world.

At times you feel you are on Planet Frum, where eccentricities and trivialities — “Orthodox” jargon and accents, minutely observed quirks of attire, tribal foods — loom large, as if reflected in a funhouse mirror. This is pronouncedly so on the East Coast (which is one reason I moved to Seattle). For example, not long ago I was talking with a young woman who grew up in a Hasidic community. I was trying to get clear what exactly distinguished her former community from other Hasidic groups. Her answer kept coming back not to beliefs but to styles of socks and hats.

I recall another conversation with a New York woman, Modern Orthodox, who was seeking to locate another woman along the spectrum of religiosity. “Basically, she wears pants and eats fish out,” was her summary statement that would sound insane to any outsider. (She meant the other woman doesn’t strictly observe rules regarding modesty in attire or not eating in non-kosher restaurants.)

In an insular community, Torah can easily be reduced to cosa nostra — merely “our thing,” a game of chess with arcane rules that bear no meaning outside a narrow context. The serious danger lies in Judaism becoming a hermetically sealed environment, irrelevant and indifferent to the world. The highest ethics and values to be found in the wider society — which Judaism praises as derech eretz — are then minimized or even discarded as somehow goyish.

The visionary spokesman of Modern Orthodoxy in 19th-century Germany, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, warned of the peril Jews face in living up to our calling. In his Torah commentary, Hirsch wrote, “The sanctification of certain persons, things, times or places can very easily result in the pernicious idea that holiness and sanctification are limited to these persons, things, times and places. With the giving over of these things to holiness, the tribute has been paid, and the demand of holiness for everything else has been bought off.”

If you have “bought off” the Torah’s call to be holy by sanctifying yourself and your community, while ignoring all else, it becomes easier to overlook behaviors that run the gamut from silly to grotesque or worse.

When I lived in New York, I saw countless instances of Orthodox Jews behaving in public with little refinement or dignity. Visit the Kiddush table on Shabbos morning at many a shul. Grown men and women push and grab for food with all the manners and elegance that I regularly observe in my 2-year-old twins. Isolation from outsiders has something to do with it. In our bubble floating undisturbed through the world, we forget how to behave.

With our childishness goes a naiveté that may also explain how abusers are able to get away with it. Rabbis are regarded with childlike reverence. There is a guileless, ingenuous failure to confront reality.

The picture of a tragedy is complete when you consider how our unimpressiveness, our mediocrity, assures that even if we suddenly decided to accept the priestly role that God commanded us to fill, the world would hardly take us seriously. The credibility we might have, we have squandered.

I note this in sadness and frustration, not because I have any immediate remedy to propose. However, we can at least put the matter into its proper spiritual context, understanding that God appears to have built directly into the Torah the dilemma in which we’re caught. There is a necessary separation between clergy and congregation — the Jews and other men and women. Without it, there can be no priesthood. But isolation carries with it a risk that must be vigilantly guarded against.

By our observing Shabbat or kashrut, the Torah intends to remind us of our high calling, not to dispense us from it. It’s hard to avoid the impression that this year has been, as a rabbi friend suggested to me, a wake-up call from God.

David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author of “The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy” (Free Press, 1998). He writes the Kingdom of Priests blog on Beliefnet.

Originally published in the Forward

Under the Radar Ways to Contribute to Your Shul

From Shua

~ In many shuls hundreds of siddurim are taken from the shelves on Friday night and, despite pleas to the contrary by the gabbai, are not returned. On Shabbos morning arrive early and return some of them.

~ The electricity bill is usually onerous, yet people often leave shul lights on. Shut the lights off when they are unnecessarily on and wasting money.

~ After daily post-Shacharis libations, many people leave their dirty plates and cups for someone else to clean up. Clean them up when you see them.

From Nathan

~ don’t talk unnecessarily

~ arrive early, not late

~ do not bring disruptive young children

~ don’t litter

~ keep the bathroom and your hands clean

Agudah and the BT

As you know from last week’s post, Ron Coleman, an integral part of Beyond BT, is being honored by Agudath Israel of America. We are setting a goal here on the blog to raise a modest $360 on behalf of Agudah and we on the admin side are personally pledging $100 towards that goal. If you pledge or give anything for the dinner please email us or leave a comment here.

We get a lot of requests to publicize causes from a lot of worthy organizations. We usually ask for a BT angle for the cause to make it relevant for our community. Of course, we don’t think BT causes are the only ones worth supporting, but the reality is that there are very few organizations who explicitly support BTs and that’s the cause that we’re focused on here.

So here are three ideas how Agudah can support BTs:

Show Explicit Concern For the Entire Jewish People
BTs sit in a strange place, often with one ear in the Torah observant world and one ear with family and friends in the non observant world. Most of us respect the gedolim as the leaders of the entire Jewish people, but many of our non-observant friends and relatives and perhaps some BTs themselves don’t feel the love and the concern that the gedolim undoubtedly have. Although Agudah is primarily tasked with overseeing Right Wing Orthodox issues, perhaps they can spend some tiny percentage of their resources showing concern and providing solutions or advice for all of the Jewish people.

Constructively Face the Challenges of the Internet
The official position of the Agudah seems to be that the Internet is prohibited to use, but many in the BT world feel that they need to access the Internet. Perhaps the Agudah can recognize this growing reality and start a campaign to encourage all Internet users to have appropriate filters and to use the Internet responsibly and constructively.

Help Us With Our Learning
The Daf Yomi Commission has helped many working people include some level of Gemora learning in their lives with Daf Yomi. BTs are probably missing out more than most in learning Gemora. Perhaps the Agudah can structure a deal with Artscroll to make the translations available at a low cost along with a program to enable and encourage any Jew that desires to put some Gemora learning in their lives.

Perhaps people can provide some other ideas on how Agudah can specifically help BTs.

Agudath Israel of America and me. And us.

I’m going to be an “honoree” at the Agudath Israel of America dinner a week from Sunday, May 17th in New York. I am among a handful of people receiving the Avodas Hakodesh award, which is for volunteers who contribute to the Agudah in some way by, well, avodah — work. If the Agudah calls what I do kodesh (holy) and asks me, as it has, to help promote the organization’s goals by agreeing to accept a plaque and to lean on my friends and associates to contribute, I’m happy to do it.

Someone asked me why. Part of it is that I am friendly with quite a few people who are very involved with the Agudah, and I like them, and what they do, and I like what they ask me to do, too. But on a less personal note, here is the letter I sent out, tweaked a little:

I have agreed to accept the Avodas Hakodesh Award at the upcoming 87th Anniversary Dinner of Agudath Israel of America at the New York Hilton Hotel on Sunday May 17th. And I am writing to persuade you to join me there.

The easy part is explaining why I have carried an Agudath Israel membership card for over 20 years and why this organization merits your support.

“The Agudah” is the largest grassroots Orthodox organization in the country, with chapters in over 30 states. In a time of dizzying political and social change, the Agudah is our community’s consistent voice in federal, state and local government. Its efforts on behalf of yeshivos and day schools, religious freedom, and advocating on behalf of the needy and disadvantaged are well known. Behind the scenes, I have been privileged to be exposed to Agudah’s efforts in coordinating private legal and allied resources where they are needed. And of course, the Agudah plays a leading role in spreading Torah throughout the world, in sponsoring social service and housing programs, job training, youth activities and summer camps, and providing overseas relief.

Agudath Israel takes on challenges that affect the whole Jewish world, with unusual clarity of mission. That clarity is a result of the fact that the Agudah operates under the direction and guidance of the Gedolei Yisroel. And that is why I am an Agudist.

As would be expected with an organization whose ambition and responsibility are almost boundless, the Agudah bestows great benefits… on countless beneficiaries… but is far short of benefactors. Please be one this year, when your support matters more than ever, by making a contribution via this link and, I hope, joining me at the Agudah dinner. Thank you for being at least a little open to persuasion!

You like? OK. Now, someone asked me why BT’s, in general, should want to be involved in this effort, and in particular why BBT-er’s would. To me, the foregoing is more than enough reason. The Agudah does important work on behalf of the Jewish people and it aspires to do its work by the principal of Daas Torah (Torah wisdom as enunciated by leading sages of our time).

It never occurred to me that BT’s might only be interested in supporting “kiruv” (outreach) projects, in the popular sense of the word. Supporting works that benefit the whole community and enhance kavod shomayim (the honor of Heaven) is for all of us. I can think of no better way to demonstrate a lack of need for social training wheels than for BT’s to demonstrate their commitment to the general welfare of our community.

Besides, it has been argued here often, and of course elsewhere, that the best kiruv of all is displaying to the “not yet frum” the “best” the frum world has to offer in terms of role models. Many of those role models are to be found in the ranks of the Agudah, both professionals and volunteers, and as I said, it was obvious to me almost as soon as I understood the “scene” that I must be an Agudist. The fact that I have, over the decades, had the chance to become friends with and work with so many of their number is one of those very happy bonuses in life for which I am very grateful to Hashem.

I like ’em. They’re my guys, and they’ve invited me to dinner. They even put me in a cool video. And now I’m inviting you!

(Don’t worry, glatt kosher. I asked. ;-))

Panim Al Panim – The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Facebook

I have, it seems, made my mark on Facebook, which is poised to become the world’s leading online social networking medium. Without going in for the adolescent (and worse) “applications” that people are constantly cooking up, I’ve managed to combine the RSS feeds of my two blogs, and my sensibilities for nostalgia, multimedia, self-promotion and wisecracking, plus a semi-plausable rationale — I’m trying to raise the profile of my strongly Internet-oriented law practice — into a pretty sizable “following.” I’ve met a lot of people from all around the world, Jewish and gentile, reconnected with innumerable friends I was certain I would never hear from again, and unquestionably opened up a number of opportunities that could bear fruit in the medium run. As I said, I’ve made my mark on Facebook.

But what kind of mark has Facebook made on me?

There are so many issues that arise from the point of view of Jewish sensibility that almost any one of them is worthy of a separate essay. I hope these bullet points, however, will stimulate constructive discussion… and not merely more lookups of my Facebook profile.

* The forgotten past: BT’s are always struggling with the issue of whether to bury the past, and if so how deeply. Facebook certainly brings this concern into “real time.” My observation is that, on the whole, this aspect of the Facebook experience — people from my past reemerging — has been very positive for me. Many of our ideas of what we’ve left behind, and whom we left behind, are based on rose-colored projections that are themselves premised on inaccurate or wishful recollection of the real past. Without going too far into it or getting too personal, what I see of the lives of people with whom I haven’t been in touch for 20, 30 or sometimes even more years, via their Facebook profiles, is that I haven’t missed all that much, in any sense of the word.

* A world of respect: New friends I’ve made on Facebook, who quickly are able to ascertain from my profile and my ongoing contributions to it (via blog feeds, photographs, “status” updates and the like) that I am orthodox, express great respect for my way of life. Naturally those who are put off by it don’t become friends. I believe this does result in a Kiddush Hashem. I regret that I can’t magnify this effect by posting family pictures, which as a rule I will not do on an open Internet site. On the whole I believe this is an overall positive result.

* Drawing near of hearts: We Jews have a concept that we are supposed to beware of k’rivas hadaas — an inappropriate “drawing near” of emotions between men and women who should not have intimate relationships. It is well known, and has been discussed here often, how the Internet has, in many contexts, caused many people who otherwise would not have inappropriate relationships with members of the opposite sex in “real life” to drop their usual guard and to become ensnared in unfortunate situations. Oddly enough, there is something about Facebook, at least in my experience, that seems to militate against this. It may be that there is, as a rule, less anonymity on Facebook than in the old chat rooms or on instant messenger; people are mainly there to project their personalities on some level, not to hide them. There also ground rules and a person can be kicked off. At least as a middle-aged adult interacting entirely with other adults, I have found this not to be a problem.

* Whither dignity?: On the other hand, there is no question that, just as in the real world, there is a much lower standard of personal dignity, especially as it relates to “modesty,” on the Internet and on Facebook than there is in our frum communities. There is no particular reason I have any interest in interacting with people who are much younger than I am (who are typically the least dignified in this respect) or whose standards of behavior is not in line with what I would typically expect to experience in an environment in which I would ideally operate. But there is little question that if only by virtue of friends of friends or other incidental interactions, that on Facebook I am — just as I do in real life — interacting with people who hold themselves to a lower standard of dignity than is ideal.

* The other side: And that brings me back to a point related to my first one. The more I am exposed to what’s out there, whether it is among my former friends, associates and classmates who “look me up” or vice versa or among new people that I meet, the better I feel — by far — about the decision I have made about how to live my life. I cannot stress how much more valuable this is to me than the finger-pointing homilies in frum literature, periodicals and classrooms about the emptiness of gentile or non-frum Jewish lives. I see people whose lives are pathetic or sad, yes. I encounter a very distressing number of photographs of people of both sexes in their twenties, not life’s losers but professionals and prospective professionals, who are comfortable posing with alcoholic beverages hoisted in the air, as if life were just one drunken binge. This could go into the “dignity” point above, and it is a sad thing to see. But I also see people with rich, full, interesting and accomplished lives, professionally and, by all indications, personally, and nothing — not a thing — makes me want to switch places with them. The overall effect for me is one of chizuk, reinforcement.

The greatest reward from Facebook of all, for me, is the opportunity to connect, communicate and commune, on whatever level, with more and more people who are interested in ideas, in life, in each other just because of who we are. Ultimately I spend more time on Facebook than I should, and I have resolved to spend less, simply as a matter of prioritizing how time is spent in life by a Jewish person. In fact, if I had no career rationale for it at all, I may be hard pressed to justify it in any event. On the other hand, online social networking is probably one example of a mode of human social — and business — interaction that will get more, not less, important in the coming years. Face it.

Contributor Ron Coleman’s blogs are LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®, about trademark, copyright, Internet and free speech law, and Likelihood of Success, about everything else.

Beyond The BBT/SEZ Shabbaton

The Shabbaton is over. It was great and we want to first thank everybody who participated. There’s a slight let down that invariably comes after being so involved in planning and executing an event like this. Rabbi Tatz teaches that happiness is a result of moving towards completion of something meaningful. The greatest joy is right before the time of completion, but afterwards there is a decline on the happiness meter. To recalibrate the happiness we need to reframe completed events into steps in the continuing projects of perfecting ourselves, our communities and the world.

From a logistics point of view, things went very smoothly. We had the right amount of people (about 90 for lunch) for the facilities we had. The food was good and plentiful and the meals were relaxed and friendly with lots of good conversation. We added a Friday night communal meal this year, which made a big difference. David and I would like to thank our wives and families and the Greenwald family for the amazing job they did with the planning, serving and cleaning up. Thanks to Congregation Ahavas Yisroel for providing the facilities. A special thanks to Serach and all our hosts for their amazing home hospitality. Finally, thanks to all the speakers for their thoughtful words on individuality, integration and inspiration.

The Melava Malka was well attended with a number of people coming in after Shabbos. Chaim Linn served up some great music, including a live version of Davy Pray, with a special cameo from one of our KGH friends, Richard Maisel, singing a tune he wrote about Yerushalyim many years ago. We also had the pleasure of listening to Jameel at the Muquata talk about the need for us Americans to keep continually connected to Eretz Yisroel. He’s in America to blog about Nefesh B’ Nefesh who have scheduled a live and online Jewish blogger’s conference this Wednesday.

The Serandez (SEZ) people were terrific and friendly, despite the slight age gap between the BBT’ers and the SEZ’ers. However, all the Dvar Torahs were growth focused and that was the common bond on which we planned the event. I’m reading a book by Clay Shirky called “Here Comes Everybody – The Power of Organization without Organizations” in which he describes a Small World network pattern in which small densely connected groups sparsely connect with each other. In our situation, Beyond BT and Serandez were each a densely connected group with similar interests, sparsely connected primarily through David, Serach, Ezzie and myself. If you want to understand the changing social phenomena going on in the Jewish blogosphere and the greater Internet community, this is a good book to read.

One note of interest was that quite a few of the Sez’ers that I talked to had a least one BT parent. The Shabbaton gave me a greater appreciation that our FFB children have quite a different world view than us BT parents. I don’t think we’ve really explored this enough here, so if any child of a BT is game we would really appreciate a post on the topic of FFB children of BT Parents (we’ll put it up anonymously if you want).

In terms of the larger picture, the Shabbaton was planned for the attendees benefit and many expressed appreciation of the great group of people assembled and how wonderful it was to be comfortable just being ourselves without fear of judgment. A meeting like this also sensitizes us to the needs of others – people need places to live, new jobs, shidduchim and often just a listening ear.

One of the projects I’ve been marinating and mentioned at the Shabbaton is called Beyond Kindness or Beyond Chesed. It’s goal is to make us more aware and proactive in our Chesed. For our own sakes and for Klal Yisroel, we need to go beyond doing kindness when it smacks us in the face, to becoming true Baalei Chesed by seeing and seeking out the opportunities around us all the time. G-d willing we’ll flesh this out more in the next few months and perhaps we can collectively take a step towards becoming a growing community of Torah and Chesed pro-activists.

FFB Communal Leader Makes it Clear to BTs – “We Don’t Like You”

NJOP has posted Hillel Gross’ Address at the 10th Anniversary of the Lincoln Square Synagogue Beginners Service on Google Video.

It is probably the best FFB address to BTs in Jewish history.

Please visit the NJOP page for more details about this historic event and please view the video below.
Read more FFB Communal Leader Makes it Clear to BTs – “We Don’t Like You”

Build New Bridges on Shabbos Nachamu

The past two weeks have been active ones here on BBT including some spirited discussions about numerous important issues. The issues that have been drawing the most attention and comments seem to involve inclusiveness.

We here at BBT are always looking for opportunities to foster constructive dialogue on important issues and to build more bridges.

What better way to do so than to have you join us, live and in person, at the 3rd BBT Shabbaton in Kew Gardens Hills on Shabbos Nachamu, August 15-16, 2008.

This year we are co-hosting with SerandEz and are also happy to announce that Jameel from The Muqata will be joining us, from Eretz Yisroel, for our Melava Malka where we will be unveiling the latest incarnation of the BBT Jam Band (you will surely want to be present for that historic event, no scalping please) .

There will be a full Shabbos program including relaxed catered meals and personal thoughts on the themes of Integration, Inspiration and Individuality. We have kept prices as low as we can in order to encourage full participation.

The cost is $50 per person and family and individual discounts are available. We will provide housing accommodations. Hope to see you all, yes that means you, there.

Email us at to register.

Appreciating Our Differences Together

In Michtav M’Eliyahu (Strive for Truth) in the essay on Why The Righteous Suffer, Rabbi Dessler points out that Hashem in His kindness gives us the capability to achieve the ultimate heights of awareness and experience the greatest degree of happiness possible for a created being. Not only that, but He enabled us to experience the unending delights of the spiritual world as something we can earn and therefore truly own. We can feel that we deserve it, because we earned it.

Hashem goes even further by giving each of us a unique appearance, personality, mental capacity and environment so that our individual service is unique throughout all of history. We each have the ability to give our own unique speech in praise of Hashem on a daily basis.

At the two past Shabbatons we gave everybody the opportunity to speak for a maximum of 10 minutes. In Passaic, somebody commented that this was a brave thing to do given that we hadn’t heard the people speak before- how would we know if they would be good? As it turned out all the speeches were good. Why? Because everybody shared a little about themselves. Not necessarily their “story”, but something personal, something unique, something that let us understand and appreciate them a little better.

That’s the beauty of the Shabbaton, we get to meet and connect with others. Whether by hearing them take the floor for 10 minutes or by just shmoozing for a few minutes at the meals, the oneg or the Melava Malka. We get the opportunity of becoming a part of somebodies life story as they become a part of ours.

Some people have asked why we’re doing this Shabbaton jointly with Serandez. The main reason is that participants in both communities share the common focus of discussing important topics, improving ourselves and improving our communities. That’s the tie that binds and those are the ties we need to continuously strengthen.

A close friend of mine is making a Chasana and they needed to pare down their list. They used the criteria of having at least shared a Shabbos Meal with the person or family. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of sharing a Shabbos together. It is a catalyst to enlarge our world and help others enlarge theirs.

With that being said, here are some details about the BeyondBT/Serandez Shabbaton:

– The Shabbaton is being held on Shabbos Nachamu, August 15-16 in Kew Gardens Hills, with the meals being held at Congregation Ahavas Yisroel.
– The cost of the Shabbos is $50 per person for 3 catered meals, an Oneg Shabbos and a Melava Malka.
– Family discounts and special situation discounts are available.
– We will find accommodations for those who live outside of Kew Gardens Hills.
– Please RSVP us with your email and cell phone at if you are hoping or planning to come so we can plan appropriately. Also email us with any suggestions.

Ultra Orthodoxy: Not So Inclusive Just Yet

by Akiva of Mystical Paths

In “Can Beyond BT Be More Inclusive” (here), Alan asks an interesting question. He says, “Beyond BT has established its place in the right wing of the Orthodox spectrum” and asks “Can Beyond BT make room for a Left Wing Modern Orthodox BT like myself?”

While I won’t try to answer this relative to Beyond BT, I’d like to expand the question, has the orthodox Jewish world “moved right”, and “is there room for left wing modern orthodox”?

The net answer, I think, is somewhat interesting. For generations, observant Judaism was under attack and in retreat. From the outside, such as Czarist Russia conscripting Jewish children, from the inside, as the haskala developed and presented the Jewish community (especially the young) with ‘alternatives’, and sometimes with them combining forces, such as the haskala recommending governments remove the community rabbonim and put their own in place.

After World War II, orthodox Judaism was broken. All of the strongholds of Torah, the great yeshivas and the great chassidic courts, were crushed. By the blessings from Above and the incredible efforts of those who escaped and those who survived, literally just a few handfuls, the seeds for the future were just barely planted. Many a yeshiva was rebuilt by 1 or 3 rabbonim, or sometimes not even that (just a surviving student!) Many a chassidus was literally just a rebbe or a rebbe and a few chassidim, not enough to fill an average living room.

The end of orthodox Judaism was predicted, major social studies were done that showed the future appeared bleak. In this environment, the rabbonim struggled to maintain the basics, Shabbos, Kashrus (not glatt kosher, not mehadrin, not 3 cheshers, just basically kosher), Family Purity, Education for the future generations.

There’s an interesting mitzvah in the Gemora, targeted at the rabbonim, at the leaders of the generation, that says (essentially) ‘don’t turn the community into sinners’. Meaning, it’s one thing to work to improve the failings of the community, it’s another to focus on those failings such that the whole community basically sees themselves as violating the Torah. In essence, don’t do the Accuser’s work for him. The community should consider itself good, and be taught how to be even better.

But we have another mitzvah from the Torah, be a nation of priests, a holy people. When the nation or community is in trouble, we’re not going to focus on the level of kashrus, the level of tznius, or the general aspect of what it means to be a holy people. While just barely kosher really isn’t good enough (we can debate whether 5 cheshers and 10 chumras are too many another time), when the other choice is not kosher, we’ll make whatever allowances necessary, as far as we can, to keep people in kosher status. If, thank G-d, people are keeping kosher and Shabbos, we’re not going to shout about covering hair, or the length of sleeves, or praying with a jacket, etc.

Through the post-war generations, things gradually improved. Modern orthodoxy sprang up first, trying to combine some strength of the past with the draw of the modern world to create Torah u’Madda. As a kosher alternative to Conservative and Reform, it held it’s ground and grew to an energetic community. While it’s balance created an energetic, thriving and, quite important, prosperous community, that higher involvement in the modern world resulted in the primary energy of the community being involved in the world. The Modern Orthodox community, beyond it’s initial structures (YU for example) was not generating the Torah scholars or high intensity Torah focus of the future.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Torah powerhouses of the past were, slowly, beginning to rebuild and regrow. The planted seeds grew, many yeshivas were rebuilt, most bigger than before (unfortunately, not all, some are lost forever). The chassidic courts recovered (those that could, some quietly faded away and some were lost) and grew bigger than ever. But it took a lot longer, 3 generations.

What happened then is a tipping point was reached in the Torah world. The majority of the Torah world, the focus of the Torah world, returned to the powerhouse yeshivas and chassidic courts. If you want to learn Torah, you to go Ponevitch, Mir, if you want to live Torah you go to Satmar, Chabad, Belz, etc.

And so, the day school students came too, and returned home with a black hat and a jacket or a long skirt, long sleeves and a commitment to covering their hair.

One of the challenges in the new balance is that the ultra orthodox community finds itself having slipped almost unaware into the Jewish world leadership position. Suddenly, the pronouncements of gedolim are being eagerly listened to, and responded to, throughout the world. The external leadership functions pretty much don’t exist yet. The shift in mindset from taking care and protecting the community to taking care of Judaism and the Jewish world is just beginning to be understood as a responsibility.

Part of this is the matter of tolerance versus defense. For the last 3 generations, the ultra-orthodox community has fought with all their strength to defend themselves, the Torah way of life, and grow. Thank G-d, this was successful. Now we need to transition from complete defense to developing functional relationships, and even respect, for our brothers who may not follow exactly the same path (yet still a kosher path).

So for Alan, the answer is, there is room for every Jew, especially every Jew who is mitzvah observant. Yet, the ultra orthodox community is new to it’s bigger role, and is not yet comfortable across the board in dealing with all aspects of the wider Jewish community. However, I am sure, with G-d’s help, we will learn to work together and respect each other as brothers before Hashem.

How Do You Choose a New Community?

My husband and I are very seriously considering moving to the Philadelphia area. I’m a little concerned about choosing a community in an area where I don’t know anyone. How does one go about doing that? When moving do people “interview” Rabbis about their shuls/community? If so, what should I ask?

I’m pretty open-minded when it comes to “denomination,” I’m mostly concerned
about finding a community that would be welcoming of both me (still learning/growing in my observance) and my husband (who is not presently observant).


I once again have the privilege of co-chairing the Achdus Chinese Auction which will be held this year at the New York Hall of Science on Motzei Shabbos, November 10th. Now, most of us that live in Jewish neighborhoods on the east coast are aware that this time of the year is “chinese auction season”. It seems that there is a different chinese auction, (or two, or three) every other day. Achdus, we believe, is different, very different.

The idea for the Achdus auction was developed four years ago when administrators from two different schools, the Bais Yaakov of Queens and Yeshiva Tifereth Moshe, realized that they were each planning to run their own chinese auction. They hit upon the idea of combining their auctions thereby lightening the load on the community calendar and enabling the pooling of the respective resources and talents of two administrative and parent bodies to produce one amazing joint fundraiser — Achdus! We believe that this joint fund raising concept is unprecedented.

We have worked extremely hard to produce an elegant, fun evening with great games, delicious food and amazing prizes. There’s really something for everyone: fine jewelry, travel, Artscroll Shas, electronics, trips to Israel, judaica, gift certificates and “Achdus Auction Exclusives“, unique and fun prizes that can’t be found anywhere else. For example:

The Kosher Supermarket Blitz
The winner of this special prize will have five minutes alone in a fully stocked kosher supermarket. The store will be closed to the public as the lucky winner races against the clock to fill his/her shopping cart to overflowing with a bountiful array of kosher groceries. I’m sure this will end up being a phenomenal YouTube moment!

Give Me Two Scoops and Make it Personal
Many of you are familiar with Max & Mina’s Ice Cream store in Kew Gardens Hills. They are famous for their wild flavors such as lox, potato chip fudge and Ring Ding, have been written up in the New York Times and have been named no 1. on the list of Top 10 Unique Ice Cream Parlors in America by the author of Everyone Loves Ice Cream. The winner of this “Achdus Auction Exclusive” will be able to help create their own flavor that will appear on the flavor board and be served up at Max & Mina’s. Anyone up for a scoop of Chewy Teshuvah Chocolate Chunk?

Up, Up and Away
Hop aboard and bring a friend on your private one hour aerial sightseeing tour of New York City. Traffic will crawl beneath you as you glide safely above the City that Never Sleeps.

This year’s Grand Prize is a Kosher Caribbean cruise for two. As old man winter has finally begun awakening from his slumber, imagine yourself surrounded by turquiose waters aboard a Five Star luxury cruise liner with award winning gourmet Glatt Kosher dining, complete spa facilities, top notch entertainment, women’s Israeli dance classes, Shiurim, Daf Yomi, Minyanim, Mixers and much more. The Grand Prize includes two round trip tickets to point of embarkation and $1,000 spending money.

Those of you who are in the metro New York area, please join us this motzei shabbos and stop me to say hello, I’ll be the one running around like a chicken with his head cut off. Those of you who aren’t local, please take advantage of the opportunity to support two great schools, the achdus concept and the chance to win some amazing prizes by purchasing your tickets today.

For a list of all the prizes and to order tickets, check out our website at

**Today, November 5th, is the last day to take advantage of the early bird bonus ticket packages.**

Looking at Intermarriage

Devarim 7:7 – “Not because you were more numerous than any people did God find satisfaction in you and choose you, for you were the fewest of all the peoples.”

Throughout history we have ALWAYS been in the competition for “fewest of all the peoples.”

And yet…

“The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew: all other forces pass, but he remains. WHAT IS THE SECRET OF HIS IMMORTALITY?”

~ Mark Twain, “Concerning The Jews”

The secret Mark Twain is looking for is not such a big secret. The secret is Hashem. It is Hashem’s mechanism for preserving His people. The secret is hard to see only until the secret is revealed. From then on it’s easy to see.

The Jews COULD BE as populous in the world as the Christians or the Muslims… IF our ranks had not been continuously thinned out and held in check by the rest of the world. We Jews have been subject to non-stop hatred and persecution. We have been tortured, and we have been murdered, and it has been neverending though history. That is half of the explanation to why we are few, the physical attacks against ourselves. It doesn’t tell us why we Jews still exist however.

Spiritual attacks are the other half of why we are few. Those attacks come in a variety of forms; forbidding Torah study, davening, Rosh Chodesh, Yom Tov, bris milah, tefillin, and so forth. All this reinforces our paucity, but still doesn’t tell us how we survived as a people.

Spiritual attacks today are not coming in forbidding adherence to Jewish law so much as something else, something far more insideous and more difficult to understand; enticements toward intermarriage and assimilation. These are the “nice” attacks, the “sweet” attacks, the “sugared-coated poison” attacks.

To keep this piece from going too long I will focus the rest of this narrative on intermarriage.

God forbids intermarriage. Nechemya (Nehemiah) 10:30-31 – “…observe and fulfill all the commandments of God, our Lord, and His laws and His decrees, and that we would not give our daughters (in marriage) to the peoples of the land (non-Jews), nor take their daughters for our sons…”

The prohibition against intermarriage is clear, yet intermarriage is now rampant within our ranks. A look at some statistics will be most helpful. For discussion purposes, I will use the “National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) Of Year 2000.” You can view the charts here.

The intermarriage rates stand at around 50% for reform and non-affilliated, around 32% for conservative, and around 6% for orthodox Jewry. At this rate we are looking at the death throes of the Reform and Conservative Movements right now. A generation or two more and they will be gone…poof!

To forstall the inevitable, drastic measures have been taken and more are on the way in order to hang on for dear…(cough) life. For example, the Reform rewrote God in their own image when they decided that patrilineal descent can also keep the children Jewish.

God demonstrates this fallacy in Ezra, Chapter 10, Verses 2-3 – “…We (Jews) have trespassed against our God, and have taken “nashim nachrios” (non-Jewish women)…Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all such women and all that are born to them…and let it be done according to the Torah.”

Jewish men must leave their non-Jewish wives. No “gett” (Jewish divorce decree) is required because God does not recognize Jewish intermarriage. AND, because the women were not Jewish, meaning the children were also NOT JEWISH, the children are being left behind as well. If you think that is harsh, understand that God expects His Jewish Covenant to be adhered to in every respect. God says it is life and death…”CHOOSE LIFE!” (Devarim 30:19)

If it was Jewish WOMEN who were married to non-Jewish MEN, the children would not have been left behind, because, being from Jewish mothers, the children would also have been Jewish.

Likewise, one of the examples of the Conservatives rewriting God in their own image happened when they VOTED that driving on Shabbos was now allowed…so long as they only drove to shul.

God is very clear about being rewritten. Many of the Taryag Mitzvos are dedicated to these kinds of infractions. This subject should be studied in depth from Devarim, Chapter 13. It isn’t pretty.

What is now clearly happening is that the current, less than 200 year old emanation of the Reform and Conservative Movements, are unraveling and on the road to extinction. As in the past, observant Jewry will repopulate the nation, only to begin the self-perpetuating cycle of Jewish collapse and renewal once again. We wait for Moshiach to straighten everything out once and for all, and this time…forever.

Judaism is like a tree with lots of dead end branches. It is our job as Jews to stay on the trunk and not get pushed off onto one of the dead end branches, or a leaf that goes brown and blows away. We need to be on the tree’s trunk, and that is where we want our progeny to be as the final act in God’s play unfolds.

Meanwhile, what is the attraction of intermarriage? Why do so many of us fall to its allure? I am going to throw some additional numbers at you and then make some points.

Jews are 1/4 of 1% of the world’s population. That is, for every Jew there are 400 non-Jews. To better understand what this means, I am going to focus on America, which entertains the world’s largest Jewish population. Still and all, Jews are outnumbered in America by around 50 to 1.

For many of those “50,” CATCHING a Jew is an prize of extreme value. The Jew is sought after for his mystique. He is vaunted for his intellect. They think the Jew is wealthy, and sometimes he is. The Jew is treasured in THEIR minds because he is the one who was chosen by God. Acquiring a Jewish mate for many of the 50 is as good to them as it is to a child acquiring his first bicycle.

Most of these 50 don’t have a clue that for the Jew marriage to them is a sin before God, and that if they help the Jew commit this sin they have earned a share in this very major transgression. For many of them they see only the opposite. If they can bring a the Jew even an inch closer to THEIR OWN beliefs, they are doing that Jew the biggest favor of his life, and they will be blessed by the Lord. They don’t view themselves as villains creating the means for sin. In their eyes, they are heroes, even saints.

Let’s say that 20% of those 50 would actually make the attempt to snare the Jew if they had the opportunity. Of that 20%, let’s say half at some point find themselves in close enough proximity to a Jew to have a shot at enticing him (or her). For every single Jewish man or woman out there, that means there may be 5 or more non-Jewish men or women after YOUR potential mate.

Think about this 5-1. Who are these 5? Look at it from the point of view of the girls: What is a Jewish woman competing with? These 5 non-Jews are ready to give YOUR guy whatever wants, whatever he is looking for. If he wants SEX, two or more of them will be glad to give it to him. If he wants intellect, one of more of them will have an ample supply. If he wants sweetness and charm, one or more will be there to oblige. If he wants gorgeous, a runway model, one or more will be close enough. Whatever he wants…it’s there, and they are YOUR competition for YOUR potential guy.

What are you going to do about it ladies? Are you going to give him sex because it’s the only way you think you can compete with your nemesis? Is it any wonder that Jewish tznius (modesty) and self worth have plummeted in recent times?

Why do these non-Jews have any capability of competing with you? It should be no contest. They have NOTHING to offer. YOU have everything. The problem is, too many of us have forgotten that we are Jews. To many of us no longer know how Jews are supposed to live. Too many of us have lost the meaning of being Jewish and the importance of our heritage.

This is why reform is intermarrying at 50%, conservative at 32%, and orthodox at 6%. When we stay with what God tells us, we stay Jewish. When we don’t, we get swallowed up like Yonah. It is because we are chosen and because we are the smallest of the peoples, that the today’s world is so divided on what to do with us: Kill us, or love us to death.

You Don’t have to be in the Middle to be in the Middle

Last February 12, my post titled “I’m back in the middle again” appeared on this site.

It was a follow-up to an earlier post, “It’s lonely in the middle.”

A few people still aren’t talking to me, outraged that I dared to suggest that there’s anything wrong with frum Jews dividing themselves up into smaller and smaller enclaves, despite the strain upon already inadequate financial resources, or that fear of different legitimate hashkofos within Yiddishkeit is symptomatic of the very reason why the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed and we remain in galus.

I was delighted and gratified, therefore, when barely a week later the current issue of Jewish Action arrived containing an article by Rav Emanuel Feldman, in which the preeminent author laments the increasing divisiveness within the Torah community. I urge everyone to read it here.

With his characteristic eloquence, Rav Feldman laments a state of affairs wherein many Chareidim look down on Modern Orthodoxy as essentially irreligious while many Modern Orthodox prefer the company of irreligious Jews to that of Chareidim. Instead of looking toward the vast ocean of halacha and hashkofoh we have in common, we pick on the few differences, magnify them beyond proportion, declare they are symptomatic of some profound spiritual contagion, and keep our distance lest we or our children become infected by the ideological illness of the other side.

Frum Jews to the right or the left of us are not our enemies. Perhaps our children could benefit from experiencing the broadening reality of a multifaceted Torah community in which sincere people can recognize that their differences are a source of strength. A single school might have different tracks, with more gemara for some students and more secular studies for others. Weaker or less committed children would grow from association with more serious students, while stronger students would learn to feel a sense of obligation and connectedness to Jews not exactly the same as they are.

Would it not be good thing for the next generation of b’nei Torah to learn to appreciate other Torah Jews without having to “convert” them to their own hashkofic perspective or else invalidate them for being different? Could we not at least try a little harder to emulate the twelve tribes as they were back in the glory days of the Jewish people?

I have heard Rav Noach Orlowek comment more than once that he recommends families to choose smaller communities where frum Jews on the street say hello to people they don’t know, or to people from other shuls. As one who has lived in both types of community, I know the value of a “Good morning” or a “Gut Shabbos,” or even eye contact and a cordial nod. It’s a travesty that there are communities in which these are rare.

But why are we so afraid to show our children that Jews not exactly like us can still be good friends, good neighbors, and good Jews, beyond the five seconds it takes to say “hello”? Maybe, amidst all the different agendas, a little more mesiras nefesh for achdus should find a place at the top of everybody’s agenda.

Living in Highland Park, NJ as a BT

I remember like it was yesterday, four years ago, when we took our first look at Highland Park, NJ with a real estate agent. We had made the decision as a family to move to the area because we wanted to put our three then elementary-aged children into a yeshiva that separated the boys and girls, and offered the best frum and secular education we could find for them. The ideal school we could find is where they are now, “Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion” in Piscataway, NJ. The problem was, we would have to move. I drove the children from Pennsylvania to NJ for six months, three hours of driving a day, while we engaged in the house hunt.

Our lovely home in PA was worth about 250K in that local market. We had a huge plot of land in a beautiful neighborhood. That first day of house-hunting in Highland Park left me in tears. We looked at houses with a half a million dollar price tag that were substantially smaller than our PA home, on a postage stamp plot of land, and all of them needed some work. The real estate agent, a frum Jew from Highland Park, kept saying the same thing to me: “You aren’t just buying a house here, you are buying a community!” I couldn’t see it. I felt despondent.

We finally got what my husband calls “Highland Park-atized.” Meaning, we considered any house that had a place to sleep and a bathroom, and we started figuring out how to make just about any available structure on the market work for our family. We ended up in quite an adventure — living as a family in the finished attic of a 100-year-old two-family house for six months while we gutted the house below us and turned it into a one family house. The end result doesn’t look like like a half a million dollar house. It’s too small for our family. There’s no land to speak of. We are still in shock after all these years every time we have to pay the mortgage and property taxes. This is by no stretch of the imagination our “dream home.”

And yet, it is. It took a year or so to realize how ideal Highland Park is for us as a BT family. We are grateful every day that we had the courage and the determination to move here. We understand now that the real estate agent was right — what we bought was a community, and a place to live while we raise our children in Torah.

Highland Park is a very unique community. There are about 1000 shomer shabbos Jews living within 2 square miles, and six Orthodox synagogues from which to choose. The first thing that really stands out is that all of the Rabbis get along and are mutually respected. There are shiirum all over town, and none of the all-to-common- “I will go to this shul but not that shul” mentality. Residents here often daven at one place, but typically will go to lectures and social events in any shul. My husband is able to learn Daf every night, when his work schedule allows. I go to two shiirum during the week, and often take advantage of frequent illustrious speakers who come in to town.

We did not know when we arrived here which shul we would join, and who would become our Rav. We say now that we thought we were moving to Highland Park for the Yeshiva, but Hashem knew all along that it was also for our Rav, Rav Drucker, the Rav of the Agudath Israel in Highland Park. We established a relationship with him early on, and have grown in reverence and affection for him over the years. Dayeinu, if the schools had turned out to be excellent for our children — and they did — it would have been enough — but finding a Rav for our family whom we hope to be close to for years — that is an amazing, cherished blessing.

The other exceptional thing about Highland Park is the sheer number of BTs here who are all over town. You’d never know it. Lots of us look the part of FFB, and it’s only after some conversation that we are surprised to find out that this family, too, has been on a similar journey. Highland Park is full of BTs who are fully committed to the Torah path, and are working hard to raise their children frum from birth. The other nice benefit of living here is the lack of judgment for being a BT. If anything, BTs are often appreciated and admired.

It has taken me a good long while to stop mourning the big house and beautiful landscaped neighborhoods, as well as the much more affordable monthly expenses of our former community. But the rewards of our decision to move are evident every Shabbos when my three beautiful children come to the Shabbos table with their dvrei torahs and most of all, their love for Shabbos and Hashem. My children love being frum Jews. My husband is learning in the evening. I am growing in Torah every day. We have an amazing Rav who cares for our family. We are contributing to the community with friendship and chesed, and receiving it as well. You can’t put a price on that! Maybe we don’t really own our house, the bank does, and my husband has to give up gardening for now. We’ve got a different garden to tend, and the soil of Highland Park has turned out to be very fertile for our BT family.

The Debate

On a recent Saturday night, a local organization in my community held what has become an annual debate. These debates are a highlight of the year. Generally, there are two debates; one serious and one humorous. This year’s serious debate dealt with the following proposal:

“This house believes that the insularity of the Anglo community in Bet Shemesh is detrimental both to that community and to the wider Israeli society.”

In the last few years this has become somewhat of a contentious issue for our community. The modern city of Bet Shemesh dates back to the beginning of the Medina. For about 40 years it remained a moderately sized, mainly Sephardic community. In the early 90s, thanks mostly to a very ambitious real estate agent, a new development sprang up as, what was billed, an “Anglo” community. It was to be a religious Zionist neighborhood where people from America, Great Britain, Australia, etc. could have an easier absorption among a larger Israeli population.

Well the place took off. (And this doesn’t even include Ramat Bet Shemesh.) In our little “Sheinfeld” neighborhood (named for the builder) there are many hundreds of families and a half a dozen shuls. In the last 5 years, thanks to Nefesh B’Nefesh and the large influx of Americans, the neighborhood has become overwhelmingly Anglo. My shul, for example, has about 75 families and I am hard pressed to think of more than 5 who are “Israeli”.

For many of us, it has been incredibly easy absorbing into such an environment. Yet some of the “pioneers” are decidedly disappointed that the community, which they had thought would have a mix of Anglos and Israelis, has turned out to be so heavily Anglo.

The proponents in the debate made several points that one would expect to hear. They argued that our children’s language development is being hampered, their ability to themselves absorb into larger Israeli society will be affected, that we as a whole are not contributing to Israeli society, and that we are making those few Israelis who live among us feel like outsiders. On the whole they argued that this is not the picture of Aliyah and absorption for which they had hoped.

The opponents made some points that also touched on some issues we have discussed in this forum. The main thrust of their argument was that this insularity actually is a benefit in that it allows us to maintain many of the positive religious and American values that we want to pass on to our children and preserve for ourselves. Another benefit is that, though it is true our children’s Hebrew language development will suffer slightly, their English language skills will remain at a much higher level and this is a huge advantage in today’s global economy where English is the driving force. A very succinct take-away line was, “While it is a mitzvah to live in Israel, it’s no mitzvah be an Israeli.”

As Baalei Teshuva we bring certain things to the table, like a greater sensitivity to non-Jews, a greater tolerance of other races and cultures, and a greater appreciation for the value of worldly knowledge. So while it’s important for us to live in solid, frum communities we may also want to inculcate our children with some of the positive values and ideas from our “galus” lives.

In the end, as the opponents in the debate made clear, the children of our Bet Shemesh neighborhood will do just fine. They will learn Hebrew, (most will) defend their country, find gainful employment, and become contributing members of the greater society as upstanding Torah Jews. But in addition, they will hopefully bring with them a little something extra that only could have been gleaned from a little Anglo oasis such as Sheinfeld.

Likewise, our FFB children will continue to integrate into whatever type of community fits them best. Hopefully, they too will bring with them that little extra value that only our past experiences could have provided them with.

I’m Back in the Middle Again

My last post is hibernating in my hard drive, still unsubmitted and unpublished. It’s pretty dark, as I was in a pretty dark mood when I wrote it. And even though I tried to lighten it up the second time through, I decided in the end it wasn’t something I wanted to post. Maybe I’ll wait till my next fit of melancholy and send it in then.

What had soured my mood was the set of circumstances that had prompted me to write another recent post, “It’s lonely in the middle.” Here you have it:

I teach in a yeshiva high school. Yeshiva high school is a curious phenomenon, an apparent oxymoron that attempts to create a hybrid combining the standard of learning and Torah commitment of a traditional yeshiva with a solid program in secular studies. And although Rav Hirsch invented this very approach and used it to save much of German Jewry from the influence of Reform, yeshiva high schools have, for the most part, gone the way of the dinosaur.

Like politics, the world of Torah has been steadily polarizing. The right gets farther right, and the left gets farther left. My principal gets calls from all over the country from parents who want a secular study program that will leave college open as an option for their children without sacrificing Torah study standards or separate education. Few such options exist.

But we exist, taking students from almost every background, providing boys and girls on separate campuses with first-rate Torah and secular educations. We’ve earned for ourselves an exceptional reputation from yeshivas, seminaries, and universities, beating private school SAT averages every single year for over a decade, and turning out class after class of committed young b’nei Torah. Some are chareidi, some are tzioni, some are learning in kollel, most go to college, many become established professionals. And the overwhelming majority continue to demonstrate the same level of Torah observance that I hope for in my own children.

So what’s the problem? Well, on the right: “You’re not a REAL yeshiva.” Possibly a good thing, since we’ve saved a number of kids severely damaged by real yeshivos. True, most of our boys don’t daven with black hats (well, one does — my son). Only a few wear jackets. Many of the families have televisions (or perhaps I should say, ADMIT to having televisions). And many of our students actually plan on having jobs when they grow up.

On the left: “You’re not Zionistic enough.” Never mind that 90% of our graduates go to learn for a year or more in Eretz Yisroel, and that our fourth student in three years is about to enlist in the Israeli army. Oh, don’t forget about the “benefits” of coeducation that our students are missing out on (since, as we all know, all those recent studies proving the benefits of separate education are wrong).

What do these people think about, I wonder, when they’re sitting on the floor on Tisha B’Av mourning the Beis HaMikdash that was destroyed for sinas chinom? The persistent, passionate rationalization of this war of ideologies that turns every one who doesn’t agree with MY VIEW OF THE WORLD into a heretic or a fanatic can’t possibly be bringing Moshiach any closer.

But the superficiality of so much of the frum world only seems to be getting worse, with a white shirt and a black hat becoming the line in the sand, either the hill I have to die defending or the enemy I have to kill at all costs.

Meanwhile, the boys I teach, despite their variegated backgrounds, demonstrate a degree of achdus the most shuls could envy, and the girls I teach are still complaining that our curriculum isn’t allowing us to continue learning Mesillas Yesharim.

Pity we aren’t a REAL yeshiva, isn’t it.