Saturday, Jul 20, 2024

Veteran Affairs

I was always fascinated by the opening Rashi in Parshas Shelach which castigates the meraglim for seeing the tragic episode of Miriam's tzoraas and not gleaning a lesson from it. After all, aren't there 31 commandments, positive and negative, associated with slander? Yet, it seems that learning from episodes that seem to scream mussar at you may be just as imperative. And like my rebbi of old, Rav Mendel Kaplan zt”l, was wont to do, you can turn on the radio and hear a shmuess.

Indeed, the Rambam’s chastising in Hilchos Taanis of those who see tragedies and consider them coincidental probably refers to natural disasters, but I don’t think it is forbidden to learn some lessons from political disasters as well.


The recent revelations of the disastrous treatment of US veterans have caught the ears of a country that is normally apathetic to political scandals involving this particular president. However, the mistreatment of veterans has touched a chord in even the most stoic and lethargic political heart.


Even for those who don’t observe Memorial Day by remembering veterans or as observers of the ubiquitous parades that march down the avenues of Main Street America (all except for Ocean Parkway and 13th Avenue) and instead use the day searching for the biggest and best sales are surely upset by the overt mistreatment of the men and women who gave of their lives to fight for this country. The horror stories of veterans waiting for months just to get an appointment for a doctor to see them is appalling even to the least patriotic among us. According to reports in the news, at least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs healthcare system.


For those of you who may not know, most qualifying veterans are supposed to receive free medical care for their entire lives. I am sure that there are tons of forms and conditions, many that may preclude certain members of the armed forces, but all in all, there should be thousands upon thousands of old soldiers who are entitled to that care. Maybe you never noticed the massive VA Hospital on the way to the Verrazano Bridge. I can’t imagine that any patients were ever serviced there. According to a recent audit, 57,436 veterans were waiting for appointments that could not be scheduled within 90 days, while about 43,000 had appointments more than 90 days in the future. In addition, over the past 10 years, 63,869 new enrollees in the VA healthcare system had requested appointments that were never scheduled.


These are waiting lists that make the “Brisker reshimah” a kinder shpiel!


When I hear of waiting lists and veterans at risk of being neglected, my head spins. “Waiting lists” are a common expression in the world of chinuch and so is the term “at risk.” What tugged at me during this conversation was the term “veterans.”


We, too, have our veterans. Obviously, we know of the older generation of Yidden, the survivors or the refugees, or even the American-born veterans who are our relatives. But what about the veterans whom we do not know? What about those elderly Yidden and Yiddenes whose children left them and ran away to far-flung places in Middle America? What about the simple old Jew whose now 60-something-year-old son decided to become a professor somewhere and absconded with tradition while his head was filled with the wild ideas of the SDS and hippie movement? I can never forget the images seared in my brain of the four old men with long white beards who grace the cover of the House of Sages of Israel calendar. I wonder: Are there actually old men sitting in front of Gemaros who have no one to visit them?


Indeed, Rav Mordechai Gifter zt”l used to rail about those pictures, as they made the Gemaros seem as archaic and ancient and irrelevant as the old men sitting bent over in front of them.


But I ponder about the men. How many shivrei luchos are there? How many remnants of Slabodka, who for some reason never had a connection with our community, now live detached in a world of memories that are muddled by the lights of Broadway and a touch of dementia?


How many proverbial cantonists – children snatched away from the pure sounds of Alef-Bais or a blatt Gemara by the running, the hiding, the dogs and the bayonets of Nazis and Communists of the European Continent, and even the sidewalks and stickballs and maybe the air-conditioned theaters of these shores – are there? Even in their old age, they yearn for their past. A past we can hardly imagine. Snippets come back to them when they see the cherubic smile of a young yeshiva boy. “Are you learning Bava McKama or Bava Metziah?” I was asked 35 years ago by one of those veterans, who was then an aging cab driver in the city.


About ten years ago, I spoke to a very successful Jew and asked him to help us with our yeshiva. What he told me shocked me. “I lived in Toronto when your grandfather was the rov there,” he said. “My father was niftar and I had to work all night at the docks to support my family. I would sleep through your zaide’s class, and though the boys would point out my slumber, he would prohibit them for waking me. He knew why I was sleeping and gave me only words of chizuk.”


Then the man told me, “I would like to donate ten dollars for every hour that I slept in his class.”


The donation was massive.


We can hardly understand the war our veterans fought. And maybe we ought to wonder if, in their final years, we should be looking for them.


About twenty-five years ago, while I was in kollel in Pittsburgh, Rav Shaul Kagan zt”l asked us to lend a hand and raise money in Beaver Falls, a town that only football fans know because of a native son named Namath.


I knocked on the door of a wooden home that looked like it was plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting and set down in the hills of Western Pennsylvania. It looked so ramshackle and destitute that I could not imagine how I was given this address. It had a tine mezuzah on the doorpost, and I wondered whether the “instructions” were still inside. Nevertheless, I kissed it while the door creaked open, revealing a man who could have passed for Meshuselach.


I made my plea to deaf (perhaps literally) ears. “A kollel?” he snarled. “Where is there a kollel? Pittsburgh? Why don’t you go work?”


I countered with a plea, trying to explain how important our work was. Then I tried the wrong tactic. “Have rachmonus. I woke up at 5 a.m. to get up here and…”


He stopped me with a sarcastic laugh. “5 a.m.? Rachmonus? When I was ten years younger than your age, I was up at 4 learning whatever I was able to learn and that was after going to mikveh! And then I would have to cut wood…” And on and on. “I never got a chance to learn in kollel.” He paused as he softened up. “I wish at least I could support yours.”


I was shaking when I left his home. I may have come for a donation, but maybe I got more than I asked for.


When I read about thousands of veterans waiting to see a doctor and being told that “we will get to you,” I began to wonder. Am I doing anything for our veterans? When was the last time I went into a nursing home randomly and picked out a Yid, like my father would, and just created a friendship?


I will never forget visiting a Slabodka talmid who lived with his son-in-law in Woodmere. He was lost here, as his son davened in a shul where the mechitzah had been removed and the rabbiallowed him to make a minyan (if available) in his own office. He was too weak to go on his own to my father’s fledgling shul and his son-in-law would not take him. My father would always take me to visit. I wonder how many Yidden who were thirty years younger at the time are now in their 90s, waiting for visits and friends. Veterans. Waiting.


Recently, I had a meeting with a Mr. Srulowitz, a parent in our yeshiva, who told me of an amazing project he and his wife began with their family. Each week, they bake some extra challahs, and from a list provided by neighbors and community askanim, they deliver them to homebound, lonely and elderly Jews in their community of West Hempstead. Unlike Tomchei Shabbos, they do not drop off the challahs and run. Rather, they present the small gift in honor of Shabbos and the boys stay to shmooze a little with the recipients. They call it and names and letters are coming in faster than the dough is rising.


I don’t think I will ever have advice for fixing the problems of the Veterans Administration, but maybe we should start thinking about our own veterans.




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