In March, I spent a weekend in Palo Alto, California. The rav of the Orthodox shul is a close friend. We first met almost 23 years ago when he came to our home on Rosh Hashana wearing a cardboard yarmulke from the Kosel. This was my first chance to see what he had achieved in nearly a decade in Palo Alto.
I was met at San Francisco airport by the new NCSY director for the Bay area. His territory covers hundreds of square miles, and somehow he is supposed to plant sparks of Yiddishkeit among Jewish high school students spread out over this entire area. The task is overwhelming, but rather than complain he is just out there doing it.
Palo Alto now has its own kollel. Any resemblance to the first community kollel planted almost thirty years ago, in the midst of a large Orthodox population in Chicago, is purely coincidental. No such Orthodox community exists in Northern California, and the kollel members must service a huge area.
The kollel members have been carefully picked for their wide diversity of skills, and their respect for one another is palpable. One member has become the part-time Shabbos rav of a new kehillah in San Jose. Others are doing kiruv work on the many college campuses in the area or teaching at a nearby non-denominational Jewish community high school.
At the minyan each of my three mornings in Palo Alto was a young man whose black suit and hat would fit right in at the Mirrer Yeshiva. On the sunburst Stanford campus, where the standard attire is considerably less plentiful or formal, however, they must stand out. Despite his demanding pre-med major, this young ba'al teshuva manages to make it to minyan (well over a mile from campus) every day and to learn. While I was in Palo Alto, he made a siyum.
The rabbi's children in communities like Palo Alto grow up with standards of kashrus and tzinus that distinguish them from all their classmates. Every invitation to a party contains its own trials. (For that reason, they often leave home at an early age.) Yet my friend's children strike me as unusually happy, with a stronger sense of themselves than many who grow up where such standards are the norm.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO at an Agudath Israel convention, Rabbi Michoel Hasten mentioned that 70% of the members of the Orthodox Jews in his hometown of Indianapolis are ba'alei teshuva. The Shabbos after Palo Alto, I had my first chance to visit my friend from kollel days in Indianapolis.
What Reb Michoel did not say at the Agudah convention is that almost half those ba'alei teshuva did not begin life as Jews at all. At Shalosh Seudas, he pointed out a bar mitzvah age boy whose peyos would not look out of place in Meah Shearim. Yet his family is just completing the
The president of the shul is also a ger, who has just completed Shas, and traveled to New York, with other members of Reb Michoel’s daf yomi shiur for the Siyum HaShas. He will be accompanying the senior class from the local Jewish high school on a trip to Israel the next week, and he keeps asking me about English daf yomi shiurim in Har Nof.
Out-of-town communities tend to be just that – communities – in ways that one does not find in major Jewish centers. During my Shabbos in Indianapolis, the entire congregation ate all three meals in shul. Though I "worked" hard in Indianapolis – three speeches and a derashah on Shabbos and Motzaei Shabbos -- I did not mind because the thirst to hear was so great.
The Indianapolis community has been greatly benefited by the generosity of the brothers Mark and Hart Hasten, whose journey to Indianapolis took them from a Polish shtetl to Siberia to an Austrian DP camp (and in Mark's case service in the Red Army and on the ill-fated Altalena). The spacious state-of-the-art school, in which their children and grandchildren teach, and adjacent cultural center are among their contributions. Talk of a kollel is in the air.
NO TRIP TO THE STATES WOULD BE COMPLETE without some adventure. Two weeks ago, I was scheduled to speak at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday night in Milwaukee. At 5:00 p.m. I found myself still on the tarmac in Chicago and going nowhere due to tornado warnings in Milwaukee. When two clean-cut young men told the stewardess they were getting off the plane and renting a car, I realized that they were probably my last chance to reach Milwaukee in time and asked if I could join them.
The two turned out to be Mormon brothers from Utah. By the time we reached Milwaukee, tens minutes before the speech was to begin, I had become one of the Orthodox community's leading experts on the sociology of the Mormon Church. (More on that another time.)
The kehillah in which I spent Shabbos was founded by Rabbi Yakov Yisroel Twerski, a scion of the Hornesteipoler dynasty, and is today headed by his son Rabbi Michel Twerski. Unfortunately for me, Rabbi Michel Twerski and Rebbetzin Faige Twerski were featured speakers at the Torah Umesorah convention the Shabbos of my visit, but their son Rabbi Benzion Twerski and his family were on hand to host me.
I would guess that most of Milwaukee community, like those in Palo Alto and Indianapolis, is comprised of ba'alei teshuva, but the warm Chassidic feel instilled by the Twerskis is immediately evident. The community has attracted 100 new families in the last decade, as its reputation as a place for those who want to grow in ruchnios spreads.
The warmth of the shul was captured for me by a young man with Downs Syndrome, dressed like any yeshiva bochur, who led Lecha Dodi with incredible enthusiasm from the bimah on Friday night. One knew without being told that he had always received a warm embrace from the rav whenever he came up to the bimah. Indeed many children made themselves at home on the bimah throughout the davening. (Another young man with Downs Syndrome lained the haftarah almost faultlessly on Shabbos morning.)
The bi-racial Sherman Park neighborhood in which Rabbi Twerski's shul is located boasts beautiful wide boulevards, and a housing stock of solid brick and stone homes, with a good deal more individual character than one finds in newer Orthodox communities, and at about 20% the price they would fetch in Flatbush. The Milwaukee Bais Yaakov now continues through high school, there is a local branch of Chafetz Chaim yeshiva, and a solid kollel. My biggest question during Shabbos was: Why doesn't everyone move here?
For a real taste of the greatness and diversity of the Jewish people there is nothing like a trip to the hinterlands of Jewish life.