Monday, Jun 10, 2024

Reaching Out…Reaching In

When I was nine years old, my parents moved from a deteriorating neighborhood on the outskirts of Crown Heights to a budding Jewish area in East Flatbush. As is often the case with young children, changing neighborhoods was an unsettling experience for me. Yes, there was the excitement of moving into a newer, larger apartment, and yes, the streets were safer, but I was leaving behind my good friends. Life had been so ideal on Lincoln Place, where our gang would play tag and hide-and-go-seek, scampering around the alleyways and behind the shul just two houses away. Just two houses on the other side of my building was Mr. Licht's little grocery store, where I bought my daily ice cream pop. And now I was leaving all of this behind.

In the new neighborhood, I felt like a stranger. There weren’t any frum kids, so I started playing ball on the street with the non-religious kids. My old buddies, Chaim Tzvika, Yitzchok and Yossi, were replaced by Neil, Mark, Alan, Barry and Marshal. Because of my yarmulke, at first I was considered an outsider, but the fact that I could hit a punchball as far as any of them and I was pretty adept at football, earned their respect. Every day after school, we played for hours, not talking much about anything but the ballgame or the Yankees and the Knicks.
They were really nice kids – polite and well-groomed – and always used proper language. Some of them were children of European immigrants, others third-generation Americans, all of them were children of hard-working parents. On the Yomim Noraim, they took on a different look, dressed in their finest clothing as they attended their synagogues. Some of them were even seen in the Orthodox shuls.


Then came the British invasion, when the rock groups from England infiltrated America. The innocent faces of these boys changed drastically as their hair got longer, their clothing looked strange, and our street was no longer a healthy place for a frum Jewish boy. My parents, sheyichyu, had the foresight to send me away to yeshiva, isolated from the spiritual plunge prevalent throughout the country. I entered the world of Ravina and Rav Ashi, Rashi, Tosafos and the Rashba, while my friends embraced the world of the Beatles, the hippie culture, and the moral decay they brought with them.


That is when our paths stopped crossing. With the changing of the neighborhood, they all moved out. Over the years, from time to time, I wondered what became of them. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, if perhaps someone could light a spark of Yiddishkeit within those neshamos? I hoped that some of them over the years came into contact with a kiruv movement and today are religious Jews with frum families. But with the passing of time, those thoughts faded, as I became busy raising my own family and my own endeavors.


This past week, however, those thoughts returned. The monthly publication, Rockland Jewish Federation Reporter, arrived in the mail, with the headline on the front page announcing: “Local Day School To Close.” Reading the articles on this topic, I learned that after forty years of educating Jewish students in Rockland County, the Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School will be closing its doors in June. The editor, Mrs. Marla Cohen, writes that “Gittelman’s death portends something more. It confirms all of our fears that Jewish life in Rockland County other than that of the very Orthodox is worse than irrelevant…it’s on its way out. Non-Orthodox Judaism here is following some sort of national trend…”


Reform and Conservative congregations are merging because of declining membership. Others are closing shop. The surveys say that “younger Jews have little use for the institutions that previous generations felt obligated to support and aren’t connected to Israel the same way as their elders. They don’t find communal life compelling or consider it too expensive or worse…both.” This was followed by other articles about the school’s demise and the reactions of its parent and student body.


My initial feeling about this news was how shortsighted and careless were Geiger and Frankel and their ilk, the founders of Reform and Conservative Judaism. In their eyes, the Yiddishkeit of our holy mesorah was dying, and they felt the need to create a new and improved model that would be more in vogue with the changing times. It would be a more attractive version of religion that would appeal to the masses and allow them to flourish within society. The Ribono Shel Olam and Torah would be substituted with humanism and the secularization of our hallowed tradition.


What have these movements accomplished? Millions of Yiddishe neshamos lost over the generations, a tragic free fall of our people.


How wise are the words of Chazal regarding this week’s sedrah. “And they stood at the bottom of the mountain…” (Shemos 19:17). From here we see that Hakadosh Boruch Hu forced the mountain upon them like a vessel and said, “If you accept the Torah well and fine, but if notthere will be your burial” (Shabbos 88a).


Why, the meforshim ask, was it necessary for Hashem to force the Torah upon them when they already willingly accepted it by declaring, “Naaseh venishma”? The Maharal answers that this was necessary to teach them a basic truth that must be passed from generation to generation. At that momentous moment of Maamad Har Sinai, our people were ripe for accepting the Torah. They were on a high, experiencing the greatest miracles the world had ever seen. They clearly saw the Yad Hashem, and even a maidservant saw things that Yechezkel ben Buzi, one of our greatest neviim, didn’t see.


There will come times, however, when things are not so clear. There will be pitfalls and hardships in our way. Some might have the urge to go a different route, to find greener pastures and to abrogate our covenant with Hashem. For this, Hashem lifted the mountain over our heads and said that for our people, there is no other way. Our genetic composition passed down to us by the avos hakedoshim can only survive as long as we are attached to Hashem and His Torah. Whenever we will attempt to sever that bond, there will be our burial spot.


Throughout our history, we have seen these wise words of Chazal actualized. When, during Bayis Rishon, Jews were engaged in the service of the idols of gentiles, they were exiled to foreign land. When they became Hellenized during the period of Bayis Sheini, they brought inner turmoil to our nation that eventually led to its destruction and the golus that we find ourselves in to this day. And we see with our own eyes the gradual disappearance of those who have left our mesorah. Of course the leaders of Reform and Conservative could not appreciate these words of Chazal, because they don’t believe in Torah min haShomayim, Maamad Har Sinai orTorah Shebaal Peh.


The innovators of these new movements failed to see their deficiencies from a practical standpoint. To withstand the adverse effects that Olam Hazeh can have on the Jewish soul, we must keep every aspect of the Torah. Without full-fledged dedication to its lessons by lacking the spiritual nurturing of its mitzvos and becoming uprooted from its precious legacy, the Yiddishe neshamah misses the strong fortification to safeguard it from the winds that threaten to blow it far away from its origins.


After having worked myself up into a frenzy against these imitations of Yiddishkeit, I remembered my old friends on the block, Neil, Mark, Barry and the rest. They were genuinely good kids, potential ovdei Hashem and heads of fine families who could have been a nachas to Hashem. Where are they today? I saw the pictures in the federation journal of parents at the meeting hearing the announcement of the school’s closing. You can see the disappointment on their faces and their real concern about the future. And while they follow a misguided path, they are still our brethren. The school, albeit Conservative, was still their connection to Yiddishkeit, and with the passing of time, even these weak links to our heritage are disappearing, leading to total assimilation, Heaven forbid.


The obvious conclusion that we must draw from this is that we must strengthen our efforts on their behalf. Yes, there are already numerous kiruv organizations doing exceptional work in this area. But as individuals, we must look and see what we can do to reach out and help them, either through active participation or monetary support. And one cannot minimize tefillah on their behalf, for we carry a responsibility for our brothers and sisters – “kol d’mei achicha tzo’akim ailai” (Bereishis 4:10).


However, there must be a change of attitude on the part of the Yidden outside our camp who look at us as people of a different religion; men from Mars. The editorial in the paper was very telling. Attempting to offer a rationale for the impending doom of Conservative Judaism, Mrs. Cohen quotes Professor of Sociology Samuel Heilman, who, in a speech at New City Jewish Center, opined: “The center of American Jewry is falling out. Today, the religious move ever rightward, instituting more stringent definitions of kashrut that our great sages could not have possibly kept (because microbes in water need filters that would not have been invented in their day) and separating men and women in buses and on the street.”


Professor Heilman should know better. Surely, he is not oblivious to the fact that our sages for thousands of years were constantly on guard to preserve the sanctity and the pristine nature of the Torah. They instituted takanos, fences, to guarantee that the dictates of the Torah are not violated. This didn’t alienate the masses. To the contrary, it strengthened them. As an example, what a major stringency the prohibition of muktzah on Shabbos was and how inconvenient. Yet, it was embraced by Jews at the time and helped preserve the sanctity of Shabbos throughout the generations. For a knowledgeable professor to speak this way in front of a crowd that hasn’t tasted authentic Yiddishkeit is irresponsible and just gives them fodder to rationalize their continuation on the path to nowhere.


The articles about the school mentioned some of its numerous qualities. It provided the students with a sense of community, great friends, and a strong background in Hebrew and Jewish studies. It was a home away from home. Some would miss the “close connections” made at the school and the strong Jewish identity it gave them. But not once are the words G-d or Torah mentioned, and therein lies the reason for the predicament Reform and Conservative Jewry face today. Their interest is waning because of spiritual malnutrition.


Aside from intensifying our efforts in reaching out to them, we have to somehow get the message across to them. Instead of looking for mergers or starting other institutions of the same kind, it’s time to stop sidestepping and face the problem head on. Every second wasted in not moving forward is a step backward.


Various segments of the Orthodox community have successful learning programs, teaching the real thing. To stem the tide of disinterest and losing precious neshamos, we cannot do it alone. Our resources are limited. We have our own struggles and we have to overcome damage caused by generations of this misguided path. We need them to at least peer outwards, outside of their comfort zone, to reach in towards us and hear new ideas, vibrant Judaism that they haven’t been exposed to until now.


A woman who attends Torah classes given by my wife tichyeh is an advertising copywriter turned children’s television writer. She is in the process of putting out a book on mitzvos. It was refreshing to read the following from her introduction: “I was raised in a suburb in Buffalo, New York, as a Conservative Jew. I went to Hebrew school. I had a bat mitzvah… I had a strong Jewish identity and even a healthy amount of Torah knowledge. But I had no clue about G-d.”


After probing and searching together with her husband, she started to attend these Torah classes. She continues: “One surprising theme that emerged was that I could have a personal relationship with G-d. Who knew? The journey has led me and my family to move houses, change schools, and observe Shabbat and the holidays.


“I am still very much a work in progress in terms of observance and daily practice, but every Jew, even those born into ultra-Orthodox families, are works in progress, finding new and better ways to connect with each other and G-d.”


Let’s get the word out that we are there for them. They would do well to get acquainted with members of our community. They would see that we have a lot more in common than they think. That we face many of the same challenges and struggles that they do. That we are not the fanatics that the secular media makes us out to be. And that one can live in 21st century America as a Torah Jew.



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