Making It Our Pain
So must we strive to be with our Jewish brothers
Wednesday, January 02, 2
The Klausenberger Rebbe ztz"l, who lost a wife and 11 children in the Holocaust, used to say, "I give thanks that when Klal Yisrael was in such tzaar (pain)I was not spared." Just as the Shechinah is with Klal Yisrael in tzaar — imo Anochi b'tzara (Tehillim 91:15) — so must we strive to be with our Jewish brothers.
While none of us are at the level of the Klausenberger Rebbe, we too seek to participate in Jewish tzaar, albeit vicariously and at great remove. Trips to the death camps in Poland, for instance, are one means of identifying with the horrors inflicted upon our fellow Jews.
And after each terror attack in Israel, we read about the victims to heighten our awareness of how much we have lost personally with the murder of any Jew.
Upon hearing of the massacre of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue two months ago, who did not immediately recall the Har Nof massacre, which took place almost exactly four years prior? The same question returned with force: "If we are not safe in shul, where are we safe?" For months after the Har Nof massacre, I could not walk into a minyan without checking out the exits — usually just one — and looking around to see if there was anyone carrying a gun.
But memories grow cold. So in the wake of Pittsburgh I picked up Mrs. Risa Rotman's Terror and Emunah in Har Nof, an account of the ten months she attended to her husband Chaim Rotman Hy"d, who was left comatose after being slashed repeatedly with a meat cleaver.
It is no exaggeration to describe the Har Nof kedoshim as pure korbanos. Rabbi Aryeh Kupinski's death, which came after he rushed into the minyan armed only with a shtender to attack terrorists brandishing knives and a gun, was but the culmination of a life of unrestrained giving. I can still picture Rabbi Kalman Levine rocking back-and-forth, with a smile never leaving his face, during a two-hour Gemara shiur on Shabbos afternoon. Rabbi Moshe Twersky, already the subject of a full-length biography, has been described as the greatest eved Hashem of his generation.
Chaim Rotman fit right in with the other four kedoshim, all of whom lived within ten buildings of one another on the same street, and who not only davened together, but had shared many simchahs and tragedies together. The Rotmans' oldest son, Eli, was killed when his bicycle plunged over a cliff. The Kupinskis' 13-year-old daughter did not awaken one morning.
Chaim literally ran to every minyan or shiur because the Talmud describes doing so as praiseworthy. His animated dancing, often together with Rabbi Levine, was the highlight of many a chasunah. As the only black-suited employee in the State Comptroller's office, his warmth and kindness, coupled with seriousness, left a deep impression on his coworkers.
ABOVE ALL, Mrs. Rotman takes us on her spiritual journey. Her absolute powerlessness in the face of events beyond her control forced her to turn more than ever toward the Ribbono shel Olam: "Hashem, You put me here, please help me." Whether at a simchah or dressing the youngest of her 11 children for cheder or by her husband's bedside for many hours each day, she lived fully in that particular moment.
Rather than thinking of herself as in limbo, as her husband hovered between life and death, she reminded herself that she was exactly where Hashem wanted her to be for her avodas hakodesh at that particular moment.
By recording in meticulous detail the welter of thoughts and emotions of those ten months, which also witnessed the marriage of a child and the birth of two grandchildren, Risa Rotman has allowed us, in some small measure, to share in her tzaar, and hopefully to grow from it as she did.
Two Countries, One Fight
It appears that I owe British Jewry something of an apology. A few months back, when the crisis with the Ofsted school inspection regime came to a head, I lamented that there had never developed in Britain a professional organization comparable to Agudath Israel of America representing Orthodox Jewry on an ongoing basis with state educational regulators.
Thus the communal response to government recommendations that threatened to make continued Jewish life in England untenable required the formation of an ad hoc organization, Chinuch-UK, created specifically to deal with the crisis. Implicit in my lament was the suggestion that if British Jewry had produced a Rabbi Moshe Sherer, all would be well.
But after reading in these pages of the parallel crisis threatening Orthodox education in New York State, home to the largest number of Orthodox children of any state (and far in excess of the number in the Great Britain), it is clear that there is no magical protection. Agudath Israel (and more recently the Orthodox Union) have developed a thick web of contacts with educational officials at the national, state, and local level for well over three decades. And yet all those contacts were not enough to prevent the promulgation of regulations by the NYSED (State Education Department) on the number of mandatory hours to be devoted to secular studies that would dramatically alter the nature of Jewish religious education in New York.
When a fierce wind is blowing, all the preparation in the world may prove of no avail. It is quite clear that throughout the Western world respect for religion and religious believers is declining. That is true in the United States, the most religiously observant country in the developed world, no less than in England, where religious belief and practice has long been in eclipse. Those far removed from religious belief cannot comprehend that for believers, religious practice is not just a lifestyle choice that can be accommodated to every governmental edict in order to get along.
The American Founders, by contrast, understood the power of religious belief both for good and evil. The bitter religious wars that had rendered desolate large swaths of Europe were uppermost in their minds when drafting the Constitution. The First Amendment's prohibition on the Establishment of Religion was designed to forestall precisely those kinds of religious wars. And the Free Exercise clause was intended to ensure the benefits of a religious public to the moral fiber of the new country.
THE CONTROVERSIES IN NEW YORK AND BRITAIN are not identical. The primary issue in New York is the number of hours required for secular studies. Initial reports that the state was demanding seven hours of secular studies daily (though that has now been reduced to three and a half) were far more draconian even than the Czarist decrees that forced the closing of Volozhin Yeshivah by leaving scant time for Torah learning. In England, the primary issue is the government demand that Orthodox students learn about "alternative" types of families and be taught to affirm the normalcy of that which the Torah views as deviant.
Still, the two battles are intertwined. Every time a government launches a frontal attack on Orthodox education it becomes easier for other governmental bodies elsewhere to do the same.
At one level, the battle over school hours should be easier to win, as it is not ideological/theological. As executive vice-president of Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, emphasized in one podcast, no one is contesting the state's interest in students being provided an education that leaves them capable of becoming productive citizens. The argument is about whether there are not more accurate measures than the number of school hours devoted to particular subjects to determine whether schools are fulfilling that mandate.
The NYSED has recently clarified that the extra hours of required daily classroom study is meant only for grades seven and eight. That remains too onerous and the subjects include much that is extraneous. In addition, there are still many dangers lurking in the new guidelines, including ones leaving the evaluation of Orthodox schools to local schoolboards, which may be infected with animus, rather than to state authorities.
It is crucial for believing Jews everywhere that these battles not be lost lest they become a harbinger of many other such crises. The first step is to make the secular authorities understand that if Torah Jews cannot educate their children to follow in their ways, tens of thousands of citizens will simply pick up and leave.