My friend can’t even think of not living in one of the great Torah centers. He says that the ruach of ruchniyus is unmatched outside the major centers on the East Coast. He feels that one of the major communities is the ideal place to raise children. In such communities, they will have role models who are steeped in spirituality. Simultaneously, he and his family will have the optimum opportunities for spiritual growth, as they will be able to draw upon the unique strengths that comprise the spiritual heartbeat of Klal Yisroel.
On the other hand, his rebbetzin feels that smaller communities often produce healthier, more hashkafically well-rounded Jews. In smaller communities, people aren’t just frum because everyone else is. When living in a community comprised of people of all levels of observance and growth, individuals are compelled to understand why they are serving Hashem. They are forced to contemplate their values and cannot just follow the crowd, dress the part, or play the part without really internalizing and understanding what part they are playing.
In her opinion, those from very established communities are frequently plagued by a degree of shallowness. They know how to dress the part, they know how to say “im yirtzeh Hashem” and “boruch Hashem” at the right times in their conversations, but they don’t really have to think much about their observance or why they perform mitzvos. Thus, despite their access to the spiritual treasure trove – the good schools, the excellent parent bodies, etc. – they aren’t necessarily better as a result.
So who is right?
Of course, like every other complex question, the answer is, “It depends.” They are both right and perhaps they are both wrong too. It depends.
FORMING AN IDENTITY AND LIVING UP TO AN IDENTITY
In a smaller community, people who are identified as a source of spirituality – a kollel couple, a rov or rebbi, and the wife and children – are elevated by the very nature of the community’s expectations of them. They are also exposed to fellow Jews who often don’t share the same level of observance as they do. Their neighbors may not even be familiar with or connected to the levels of observance that the couple is on and may not share their spiritual dreams and aspirations.
This compels families to emphasize the specialness of their observance. Of course, while emphasizing the specialness of their observance, they must be careful not to denigrate others, especially those who do not know any better. Nevertheless, parents are forced to instill in their children pride in their relationship with Hashem. Their children thereby become stronger in their identity. They learn how to stand up to peer pressure and they learn that just because “everyone does it” does not mean that we do.
Certainly, in large developed Torah centers, it is possible to instill these same values. Yet, when at times the “everyone” who does it are exemplary families, it is harder for a person to convey the idea and the pride that “we are different.”
Still, my friend protests, “How can you compare the spiritual vitality of a place such as Lakewood or Brooklyn, homes to the greatest concentration of talmidei chachomim and ovdei Hashem from whom to learn, with a smaller community, which is lacking those advantages? How can you contrast cities where you have people learning every possible area of Shas and poskim, where you have centers of Torah, avodah and gemillus chassodim that seem unrivaled anywhere else, with other, smaller locations?”
He, too, is right. In that sense, there is something incomparable about the large, vibrant Torah centers.
…AND THE DISADVANTAGES
What this friend, as a young person, hasn’t yet discovered is that it often becomes difficult after a while to achieve sipuk hanefesh and find one’s calling in the very large, established communities where, in order to succeed, in order to “make it,” you must be someone on a world-class level.
Often, even very distinguished yungeleit, couples and families just feel like a number or a bar code in the very large Torah centers. They go unnoticed. It is very difficult to land a position as a cheder rebbi, let alone a maggid shiur, in an environment where there are so many remarkable talmidei chachomim with so few opportunities.
In a smaller community, one can “make a difference” much more easily. One can begin by learning with local members of the community. One can, with fair ease, start saying a shiur, thus building up his confidence and making a real difference. Women have umpteen opportunities to share their enthusiasm for Yiddishkeit with others, and this in turn rubs off on the children in a profound way.
Yes, there are challenges, significant challenges, in small communities, especially when it comes to child rearing. One has to constantly engage in a balancing act, knowing when to hold and when to fold, so that children don’t become resentful. Truth be told, however, in large communities, too, this challenge is always present, and sometimes, because children might not have as strong a sense of their specialness, their uniqueness or pride in their identity, it may be even harder.
PROUD AND UNAPOLOGETIC FO FULFILLING HASHEM’S DESIRES
Not long ago, I interviewed Rebbetzin Vitel Kalmanowitz about her father, Rav Avrohom Gross. In the course of the interview, Rebbetzin Kalmanowitz stressed that the chinuch that her parents inculcated in their children mirrored her father’s own ideal of being proud and happy to have standards that were not subject to compromise.
She recalled, “Our father made us proud that we were different. He infused in us the knowledge of who we are, what we stand for and how happy and proud we should be because we are ehrliche Yidden.
“When I was in the eighth grade,” she continued, “our school was planning a graduation trip to Washington, DC. My parents unequivocally refused to let me join. In our home, the ‘no’ of my father was not subject to debate. We didn’t even dream of questioning. I informed my teacher that my parents would not let me go. The teacher called my mother and my mother told her what my father had said: ‘In this home, at the end of eight years of learning, one makes a siyum, not a trip to Washington!’
“When I asked my father, ‘But what will I tell my friends?’ he replied, ‘You will tell them that your last name is Gross and Gross doesn’t go!’
“That motto, ‘Gross doesn’t go!’ was a life lesson for me. We are different and we are proud of it! Proud and unapologetic for doing Hashem’s desires!”
EMPOWERED WITH EMUNAH AND IDENTITY…WHEREVER ONE LIVES
The underlying challenge in any community is to internalize one’s own emunah to the extent that it is “tofeiach al menas lehatfiach,”which is literally translated to mean that not only is it wet, but it makes others wet. In other words, wherever one lives, one has to internalize one’s emunah to such an extent that not only is it contained within the person’s psyche, but it emanates from within to impact others, to the extent that one starts talking about Hashem and with Hashem in a way that one’s children and those around also become suffused with emunah. You can’t fake that. Through thick and thin, good and bad, one’s children and one’s community members see how a person is suffused with iron-clad emunah, with true bitachon, both by seeing Hashem’s loving Hand when things go well, by noticing His Hashgachah Protis in everything, and by recognizing and feeling His love and Hashgachah when things do not go well.
One can’t fake these things. If a couple really works on their emunah and is truly cognizant of Hashem’s Presence as if He is a member of the household – which He is – then no matter where they live, be it in a major Torah community or in a smaller community, they will have the lifeline, the most meaningful relationship possible to ever achieve.