BaMidbar 5773 -- Apology to Rabbi Ilan Feldman; Meet Richard Falk; A Shavuos Initiative
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 10, 2013
Apology to Rabbi Ilan Feldman
I recently had the pleasure of spending a weekend in the Boca Raton Synagogue, which advertises itself under the slogan "Valuing Diversity; Celebrating Unity." For once, the slogan is accurate. The large shul complex has space for at least seven different types of Shabbos minyanim by my count.
There is one chabura in the shul that brings a rosh kollel down from New York for a series of "lomdishe" shiurim every other week, and also many teenage girls whose Shabbos attire would not win accolades in your local Bais Yaakov.
With respect to the latter, an old friend from Jerusalem, now living in Boca Raton, commented to me, "Just focus on the fact that many of their families were not regular shul-goers, much less mitzvah-observant, five years ago." In other words, what counts is the direction they are moving.
A conversation in the shul parking lot on Sunday afternoon caused me to rethink what I wrote in these pages last January in response to Rabbi Ilan Feldman's much discussed article in the latest issue of Klal Perspectives. Rabbi Feldman wondered whether our communities have become less welcoming to newcomers, even as they have become more rigorously observant.
I expressed doubts that greater commitment to Torah results in a less open attitude to potential newcomers to the Orthodox community. On the contrary, the greater passion for Torah the greater the desire to share Torah with others and the greater the pain at the thought of one's fellow Jews distant from any connection to Torah. That is why the chareidi world has always played the dominant role in kiruv. And I quoted campus kiruv workers to the effect that spending time within Torah communities – and none more so than the Lakewood community – has the greatest impact on the students with whom they work.
Now back to the conversation that led me to reconsider whether Rabbi Feldman is not on to something. As I was leaving Boca Raton, a middle-aged man stopped me in the shul parking lot to thank me for one of my Shabbos speeches. In that talk, I told a story about the late Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel (before he was Rosh Yeshiva) and a friend of mine who had just come to Yeshivas Mir from Ohr Somayach. The first morning of Selichos in Elul zman my friend could not find his place in the davening. With rising panic and humiliation, he began to think that it was folly for him to come to Mir after just two years in Ohr Somayach. At that moment, Reb Nosson Tzvi, with whom my friend had already started a nighttime chavrusah, came running over to him with a Selichos opened to the right page.
When I related that story, the man told me, his son turned to him and said with great pain, "I wish I could have had a rebbe like Rav Nosson Tzvi." He proceeded to tell me his story of coming to Yiddishkeit already in middle-age.
At first glance, he seemed to have been located in the ideal community to make a smooth transition to Orthodoxy. He lived in a more laid-back "out-of-town" community, with many ba'alei teshuva in its ranks. The city boasted three high school yeshivos. Two of those placed a heavy emphasis on Gemara learning, while the third has traditionally been more like a Torah Umesorah school of the 1960s. The previous principal, though a lifelong product of mainstream yeshivos, was content to work within the existing framework, while gradually instilling the students with a love of Torah learning.
He was succeeded, however, by a new principal eager – out of the best of motives – to increase the level of Gemara learning. He introduced, for instance, an "optional" evening beis medrash. No doubt many of the students benefitted. But for the oldest son of the stranger talking to me, who had entered the yeshiva unable to read aleph-beis and was still struggling to catch up in Gemara, even with a good deal of tutoring, the change was a disaster.
Around the same time, the father began to notice that the family was receiving fewer Shabbos invitations than they had when they first started their journey to mitzvah observance. "I had the feeling that some of those who had been most enthusiastic when we first became observant were disappointed that we were not moving faster – for example, selling the home we loved and moving within the community eruv." (Remember that I am reporting perceptions. Obviously, I am in no position to comment on objective reality.)
To the father's dismay, his son had no interest in going to Eretz Yisrael to continue his Torah learning after high school. He went straight to college and then to work. Baruch Hashem, he is still observant and often engages his father in lengthy discussions on the weekly parashah. But Gemara learning remains largely an unpleasant memory.
Eventually, the family moved to Boca Raton, and the Boca Raton Synagogue fits them like a glove. The father repeated frequently in our half an hour conversation, "I love Torah," and told me that he listens to four shiurim a day. But not having grown up in yeshivos, he cannot understand the importance the yeshiva world attaches to black-and-white dress. He is delighted to be in a shul, where a green shirt, casual slacks, and a windbreaker occasion no stares.
That parking lot conversation made me realize that even the strengthening of standards, which considered in isolation would certainly be considered positive, can exact a cost. And that even those of us who view ourselves as "right-wing" or "yeshivishe" have an interest in making sure that there remain within our communities portals of entry and comfort zones to the left.
Meet Richard Falk
In response to the Boston Marathon bombings, retired Princeton professor of international law Richard Falk, urged Americans to "medit[ate] on W.H. Auden's haunting line, 'Those to evil is done/do evil in return.'"
His rantings in Foreign Policy Journal obsessively circled back to Israel as the source of the evil done by America. "As long as Israel has the compliant ear of the American political establishment, those who wish for peace and justice in the world should not rest easy," he wrote. The United States has been fortunate not to suffer worse blowbacks, Falk opined, "especially if there is no disposition to rethink US relations to . . . the Middle East." And he accused President Obama of "succumbing to the Beltway ethos of Israel first."
These rantings should come as no surprise, as Falk also believes President Bush allowed 9/11 to happen as a pretext for the Iraq War. He once published a cartoon on his website portraying Israel as a dog wearing a hat with the Star of David and the United States as a fire hydrant.
But besides being daft, Falk is also the United Nations Human Rights Council's "Special Rapporteur on the situations of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967," who regularly produces reports accusing Israel of the most heinous human rights violations, denies Israel any right to self-defense, and defends the legitimacy of Palestinian "resistance," i.e., terrorism. His position is secure on the UNHRC, which is controlled by members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Now that more Americans have tasted Mr. Falk's venom perhaps they will want to reconsider whether the US should be footing nearly a quarter of the UNHRC's expenses.
A Shavuos Initiative
One of my goals in Outlook is to share information about valuable initiatives that can be replicated in many locales. A local activist in my neighborhood recently told me about an experimental project he ran the last two Shavuos nights.
Two years ago, he lured a dozen or so of the tougher neighborhood kids into a local shul, with a minimal financial incentive. The kids did not dress up for the occasion, and their arrival was a bit of a shock for those learning in the beis medrash. But my acquaintance managed to persuade enough men learning in the beis medrash to learn with them to provide a one-on-one chavrusa for each teenager. Those chavrusos lasted for over an hour, followed by a ninety-minute shiur with the rav of the shul.
The initiator freely admitted that the project could have been done better -- with more advance notice to the adult study partners and more subsequent follow-up. The one-night of learning did not instantly change the world, though one of the older boys now gives a leil Shabbos class to a group of younger ones.
But a number of those who learned with the wayward teenagers commented that they were surprised by their ability to learn, and that the time invested learning with them was time well spent. And the rav told me that he had an attentive audience for his shiur. As for the prime targets of the initiative -- many of whom harbor a great deal of resentment towards the community in which they grew up – they were reminded that they are still connected to Torah, and that there is a way back.
My acquaintance does not claim to have discovered a magic formula or even to have executed his initiative particularly well. He just wanted to throw the idea out there for others to pick up and improve upon – hopefully this Shavuos.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity, Chareidim and Their Critics, Islamofacism & Terrorism, Jewish Ethics, Shavuot
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