What I Took Away from the Speech
Reb Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz's speech in Lakewood last week was probably the most talked about speech in the Torah world since Rav Schach's famous address at Yad Eliyahu stadium in 1990.
I have no independent knowledge of the magnitude of the problem in Lakewood of those without schools, either at the elementary or high school level. I doubt that it is worse than in Jerusalem where I live, though here the problem is almost exclusively confined to Bais Yaakov high schools. One close friend in Lakewood did tell me: Even for those whose children fit the Lakewood norms in every respect, but who have no yichus, no grandfather capable of writing a check to an institution, and no one to advocate for them, the process of finding a place in school can still be a nightmare.
Similarly, I do not know the causes. Is the problem stubborn parents who set their hearts on one particular institution and refuse to think about others? As Rav Elyashiv, zt'l, once said apropos of Jerusalem: Every girl has a right to a place in a Bais Yaakov; she doesn't have the right to the Bais Yaakov of her choice.
Is it parents who move to Lakewood because housing is cheaper, but who do not wish to abide by the standards of a community of kolleleit and former kolleleit?
Is it menahalim who want to turn their institutions into "elite" institutions, and find the fastest way to do so is being very selective and announcing one's elite status? I can still remember when the first such self-proclaimed elite yeshiva ketana was set up in Jerusalem, and the impact that it had on the entire yeshiva ketana system.
Or is it rather menahalim afraid that if they are too big-hearted in their acceptances, their institution will become known as place for "problematic" children and no one else will send their children? That has happened to friends of mine.
For the last situation, at least, a partial solution was found in Jerusalem. Rav Elyashiv, set up a rabbinical vaad to apportion girls who did not find a place among the various institutions. When those decision are made by a rabbinical vaad whose authority is accepted by the various menahalim -- admittedly not a given -- whatever complaints other parents have they cannot be directed against a particular institution and lower its reputation.
The answer is probably all of the above to some extent.
HOW THE LEADERS OF AMERICAN TORAH JEWRY would have laughed two generations ago if they could have foreseen that there would one day be more Jewish children clamoring to get into chadorim and Bais Yaakovs than there are places for them. When Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz created Torah Umesorah in the 1940s, there were few Torah schools outside the New York area and far fewer that were not coed.
In Detroit, Rabbi Avrohom Abba Freedman used to go to hospitals in search of patients with Jewish sounding names (something that would not be possible today) and try to persuade them to send their children to Bais Yehudah in Detroit. In those days, every new child enrolled in a Torah school was viewed as a precious prize – regardless of how religious his or her parents were. (Yes, I know that those were far more innocent times, and the moral standards of even non-observant Jewish children were far higher than today.)
Another difference between then and now: Yeshivos were viewed as public institutions serving the local population, not as private businesses. At some point, Reb Shraga Feivel announced that Torah Vodaath would no longer take boys from Brownsville because that was Chaim Berlin territory. He even sent away one of his biggest supporters and told him that Chaim Berlin should now be the recipient of his beneficence because he lived closer to Chaim Berlin.
What has changed? The Torah community has grown so large that our problem is no longer enrolling enough students to keep one local institution viable, but building new institutions rapidly enough to keep up with the population growth.
Another consequence of the rapid population growth is the ability to make ever finer distinctions. A talmid chacham not yet sixty remembers that in the Chicago of his youth there were shomrei Shabbos and non-shomrei Shabbos. Sure there were differences in levels of religious observance between families, but for purposes of whom one associated with Shabbos observance was the only relevant dividing line.
WHAT HAS BEEN LOST WITH THE BLESSING of our rapid population explosion is the sense of community. The most basic political function of any municipality in America is the provision of free public education to every child through high school.
But the idea of universal public education did not start in the 1840s in the United States. It began, as Reb Shlomo Yehudah noted, with Yehoshua ben Gamla over two millennia ago. "No child left behind" is a Jewish ideal.
What I heard coming from Reb Shlomo Yehudah Rechnitz's overflowing heart was a plea for a revitalized sense of community – and not just a multiplication of ever more precisely defined subgroups. If there is a Jewish child without a place to learn, if there is a Jewish child who is being given the implicit message every day that there is something wrong with him or her, or that his or her parents are not good enough, we should all be kept up crying at night.
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz said numerous times in his Kol Nidre drashah: "If you have not lost a night's sleep any time during the past year in pain over the situation of our lost brothers [i.e., assimilated Jews] what do you think you are doing on Yom Kippur? You are a heartless person." Shlomo Yehudah Rechnitz would have us feel the same about children staying at home waiting for a place in a Torah school in their city.
But crying is not enough. If we really care, we will do something. A lack of space in our mosdos is not like an incurable disease for which we can do little besides offer our tefillos. Here tefillos are not sufficient. We have a humanly created problem that can be discussed, analyzed, and for which solutions can be proposed. If we confine ourselves to prayer or weeping, we show that neither are serious, but only substitutes for acting.
Mr. Rechnitz recognized that. He offered his money to build new mosdos. But he also recognized that others will have to contribute as well.
Charlie Harary once asked Rabbi Noach Weinberg how he managed to accomplish so much. Reb Noach answered: "Cheshbon (making a spiritual accounting). Every night sit on the floor and think about Hashem's tza'ar from the state of the world. And then think what you can do to rectify the situation. If you start doing that, you'll be able to accomplish much more."
That's what I took to be Reb Shlomo Yehudah Rechnitz's message as well: Take seriously the tza'ar of the children and then the tza'ar of Hashem over the pain of His children, and then figure out what you can do to help.
That is a message applicable every place in the Torah world, not just Lakewood, and to a myriad problems, not just the lack of space in educational mosdos.
When I shared with my recent Shabbos guest Rabbi Dovid Affen some of the aminadversions directed at Rav Aharon Kotler, zt"l, by Efraim Zuroff, he fairly jumped out of his seat. His father, Rabbi Avigdor Simcha Affen, was a Kletsk talmid, who survived the war in Central Asia.
In his review of Rebbetzin Esther Farbstein's Hidden in Thunder, Zuroff wrote: Farbstein also neglects to point out that among those who advised their students not to try and emigrate via the Far East were yeshiva heads who themselves had visas to the U.S., at least one of whom, Rabbi Aron Kotler, of the Kletzk Yeshiva, indeed went to America.
Thus Zuroff implies that there was something dishonorable about Reb Aharon's escape, and that Rebbetzin Farbstein covered up for him. (Elsewhere he has written that chareidim do not participate in Holocaust Remembrance Day because they are embarrassed by the mistakes of the roshei yeshiva.)
In the same review, Zuroff admits without elaboration that escape eastward through the Soviet Union was a "dangerous plan." Indeed it was. Rabbinical students were by definition considered "counter-revolutionaries" by the Soviets. To request passage out of the "workers' paradise" was to invite exile to Siberia at best and a firing squad at worst. All this was discussed among the bochurim and Reb Aharon, the senior Rabbi Affen told me, and most chose to flee eastward deep into the Soviet Union.
The use of the Curacao end visas, issued without authority by the Dutch consul in Kovno, as the Mirrer bochurim decided to do, was a huge gamble. Nor could many more have escaped that way. The Japanese soon discovered that the end visas were fraudulent, and over 40% of those issued went unused.
And again, as noted last week, Reb Aharon's situation was completely different than that of his talmidim. He had a Special Emergency Visitors visa, which allowed him to travel to the United States. His talmidim could not have received such visas.
Even so, his own escape was miraculous. When he arrived in Moscow to pick up his visa at the American embassy, none was waiting. The Soviets gave him only 24 hours to remain in Moscow. In response to a desperate telegram from Reb Aharon, Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr, Mike Tress, and Moshe Berger worked through the night on Shabbos to recreate Reb Aharon's dossier, and Tress travelled to Washington D.C. on Shabbos to convince the State Department to transmit by wire a new visa. It was not those efforts, however, that saved Reb Aharon, for he never returned to the embassy.
Rather he purchased a train ticket from Moscow to Vladivostock and walked right past the Soviet guard without proper travel documents. He did the same for the boat from Vladivostock to Kobe, Japan. Not the sort of miracle upon which the entire Kletsk Yeshiva could have relied.
Once in America, Reb Aharon worked ceaselessly during the war and afterwards on behalf of his Kletsk talmidim, both privately sending them merchandise that could be exchanged on the black market and working on their behalf through Vaad ha-Hatzala. His escape was for their sake, and so it proved to be.
That's what brought my Shabbos guest out of his seat.