Friday, April 03, 2020

The Big Blur

The new normal (Times of Israel)
On this Erev Shabbos before Pesach (Erev Shabbos HaGadol) - as we are all going crazy in a world we don’t recognize anymore I want to recognize my daughter, Rivkie Greenland’s thoughtful message – a prayer really. With serious illness and death all around us, it speaks to me. And I think it speaks to a lot of people. It was posted a few days ago on her Facebook page. I offer it here in its entirety. 

Everyone have a  safe, healthy, and peaceful Shabbos. - HM

I literally have no recollection of what I was kvetching about before corona came and attacked. It's all kind of a blur, really. I mean, there was chit chat about some weird virus out there in the world and then—whoosh— it was Purim..and I literally have no memory of anything else after that.

What's been squishing around in my head these days is the tefillah that we say for a lost item: "Hakol B'chezkas Sumin ad SheHakadosh Baruch Hu, Meir es Eineiheim." Everyone is considered blind until Hashem opens their eyes. It's really a declaration, a recognition, that nothing is lost from Hashem. He is in charge. He knows exactly where everything is. Everything. 

And when do we merit to find something we lost? When we give up control, and the thought that it is us who finds things....when we accept that if it's meant to be found, it will be, and the minute Hashem is ready for us to find it, He'll show it to us.

How many times have we found a lost object and it was right there in front of our face the whole time? Like in a place we've looked 1000 times! But until the very moment Hashem wanted it to be seen, it was hidden in plain sight.

We have all lost something. In an instant, life as we knew it changed forever. It was here a second ago, and now it's gone! And we are all walking around and searching. Searching for reasons. Searching for answers. Searching for purpose. Searching for meaning. And above all, searching for yeshuos and refuos.

With God's help, we won't stop searching. And the minute Hashem is ready for us to find what we're looking for, He will show it to us. And like when we pray for a lost object, it's as if Hashem is waiting for our communal declaration, "Everyone is considered blind until Hashem opens their eyes....It is You, not us, who is in charge."

Hashem, we know we are not really lost. We know we are just temporarily blind, waiting for you to open our eyes. Please help us to be ready and worthy to see what we can't see. We know that when You feel we are ready, You will not wait one extra second to show us what we all need to see. Until then, we will keep searching and deepening our understanding that nothing happens until you will it to be.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Of Unity and Stupidity in Israel

Netanyhu and Gantz - President Rivlin in center (Times of Israel)
Under normal circumstances it would have been major news that a unity government has been formed in Israel. Leadership will shared by both current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and former Army Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz. Netanyahu will serve  the first half of the new term and the Gantz the latter half.

But circumstances are not normal. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this news hardly registered a blip on the mainstream media radar. I congratulate both men for coming together in a time of crisis. It’s just too bad this couldn’t have been done from the start – before 2 additional elections were held with the same inconclusive results and a possible  4th in the offing. 

But it’s a done deal now. It is interesting to note that Gantz has dissolved his ‘Blue and White Party’. Not exactly sure why. But will hazard a guess that it was formed in the first place entirely for purposes of defeating Netanyahu. They are not that far apart ideologically. (At least in terms of Israel’s dealings with the Palestinian issue.)  Now, after once declaring he would never serve in a coalition with Netanyahu, he will be doing exactly that - followed later by becoming Prime Minister.

I’m glad to see this issue resolved. I know that about half of all Israelis will be overjoyed at the prospect saying goodbye to Israel’s longest serving leader - and don’t think it could come soon enough. But I will be sorry to see him go. He has proven his worth to the Israeli people. Which is why he is the longest serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history!

The latest thing Netanyahu has done is take immediate and effective action to protect the Israeli people from the coronavirus. From YWN
According to a recent study conducted by the Deep Knowledge Group (DKG), Israel has ranked as the safest country to be in during the current Corona pandemic. The Deep Knowledge Group website gave Israel the highest marks of any country in coronavirus safety.
Coming in first place with a ranking of 619, Israel made the first place rank beating out other countries such as Singapore, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Greenland who all factored into the top ten. 
The measure of a leader is how he reacts to national crisis. Israel surely has plenty of those - this one being only the latest. Under Netanyahu’s watch, major terrorist attacks have declined to zero. Some of the things he’s done to protect his people - like building a wall between the West Bank and Israel proper - have been harshly criticized by the mainstream media. But the fact is that wall has saved Israeli lives. There is not a doubt in my mind that Palestinian terrorists from the West Bank can no longer so easily cross over the line and blow up a bus or restaurant.

Is Netanyahu perfect? Of course not. He is human and subject to human foibles. He has made mistakes for which he will no doubt pay a hefty price once out of office. He is also a consummate politician that knows how to pander.  He is an egotist who thinks he is right about everything. And he doesn’t mind telling everyone that. He even lectured the President of the United States in a condescending manner!

But in spite of all that, he has led his country well during his tenure right up to the present moment.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has self quarantined again after his Health Minister, Yaakov Litzman tested positive for the virus. I hope he’s OK and I wish a Refuah Shelama to his Health Minister.

Meanwhile there are still pockets of violators that scorn all the warning  and continue to congregate. Fortunately the police are doing heir job and breaking them up. But not without some truly ugly behavior on the part of their young residents. A child there started screaming ‘Nazi’s’ at them and coughing at them as though trying to infect them with the virus.

I wish I could say I am surprised at this behavior. But I am not. Nor is it any excuse to say that it was just a child doing it. That child got his attitude from somewhere. He didn’t just think it up. He got it from his parents, or teachers, or friends... or all of the above.  There is no denying that this ugly attitude exists among many adults in communities like this. 

Whenever there is a police action – even it is done to protect those very people, this kind of reaction is almost guaranteed. These young people have been indoctrinated to believe that every single action carried out by the police is in service to destroying Judaism. Shutting down a Shul is surely seen by them as such an act. They just do not buy into the fact that it is all about Pikuach Nefesh. They actually believe police are using the virus as an excuse to harass them!

To be fair, many - perhaps most - people in that community that are as disgusted by this kind of behavior as I am. And understand quite well what is at stake here.

I only hope those that don’t understand that - do not find out the hard way that harassment was not the reason for breaking up their Minyan. Unfortunately the likelihood is that more people in those kinds of communities will test positive for the virus – as has been the case in other Charedi neighborhoods where safety measures were ignored too late in the game. God save us all.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Thanking and Blaming

The heroes of war
If we are at war then the warriors fighting on the front lines are the health professionals. That includes not only doctors and nurses. It includes EMTs, orderlies, hospital cleaning crews and janitors. The enemy they are fighting is invisible. A particularly insidious enemy that is deadly. It can inject its slow poison into innocent people - unaware that they are being infected untill days later. While carrying that poison and inflicting it unintentionally upon other innocent people.

This is an enemy that has no ideals. It is not discriminatory. It does not care what color, sex, or sexual orientation you are. It does not care whether you are rich or poor; Democrat or Republican; Jew of gentile… It attacks without warning. And as of yet there is no effective defense against it except for retreat.

Retreat - unless you are one of the above mentioned heroes. They - like all first responders - do NOT retreat. They charge forward into ‘live fire’ as the brave dedicated warriors they are.

Health care professionals are a special breed of people. I have said this many times before about doctors. But it is of course equally true of all people serving in ancillary positions. They are people that  risk their lives to care for the sick. Exposing themselves to the same deadly disease.

Even though they wear protective gear, it is not foolproof. Some of those health workers have caught the virus from the people they are treating. Some have even died! And yet I do not know of any that are retreating. Not only do they put themselves at risk, they bring increased risk to their families when they go home.

I do not believe it is even possible to thank them enough. All the justifiable thanks and praise I keep hearing about these heroes seems feeble in light of their amazing sacrifice. Nevertheless let me add my own feeble words of praise and thanks to these exceptional human beings.

As many others have noted, there are a lot of  people besides health care professionals that are serving the public need. They too do not have the luxury of self isolation. 

We all need to survive even under these conditions. 

We need police and firefighters to protect us; we need sanitation workers to keep the environment safe; we need food to eat, medicine to treat a variety of health conditions; people to operate grocery stores and pharmacies; truck drivers and mail carriers to deliver vital products; farmers, dairy and meat producers; factory workers in industries that produce life saving medical equipment like ventilators and masks... and probably a lot more people I can’t think of at the moment to operate the vital services we all need. They all deserve our utmost thanks for being out in the trenches risking their health and the health of their families so that the rest of us can feel safe in our homes.

Not to be forgotten or overlooked are government officials and their epidemiological teems. At all levels of government. While some have been more on top of things than others, there is not a doubt in my mind that all of them –top to bottom federal, state, and local - have been working hard in the fight to rid the world of this scourge. (Appreciation should also be expressed to medical researchers currently working hard to find effective treatment and a vaccine. And the FDA for fast-tracking that research by cutting red tape.)

It is easy to criticize some government officials for not doing enough or coming late to the party. There are those who say with some justification that had they done more a lot sooner, lives could have been saved. 

To that I say - 20/20 hindsight is hardly useful in situations like this. It is easy to say that had some other politician been in their place we would be faring better now. There is, however, no real way of knowing what others would have done in similar situations - knowing only what they knew then versus what we all know now.

It’s easy to complain. But useless and counterproductive. It is far better to thank all of our political leaders for the hard work they are doing instead of complaining about what they could  or should have done.

Same thing can be said of the vast majority of our rabbinic leaders. (At least here in America. Can't speak for Israel) For the most part they have been listening to the advice of health professionals on the front lines and supporting their guidelines. They have been urging us all to follow those guidelines. 

Whether one or another faction came aboard a day or so late, they are mostly all pretty much on the same page now – urging us to self isolate until further notice. They have been issuing almost daily updates.

Under normal circumstances we would be immersed in pre Pesach activity - and practically oblivious to everything else. Tasks that used to be taken for granted are now virtually impossible to do under these horrible conditions. The rabbinic establishment has been modifying the usual requirements for Pesach so that we don’t have to leave our homes. 

One of the bright spots (if one can even fathom a bright spot under these conditions) is that the CRC and Agudah of Illinois are working together as one. It was heartening to see an Agudah directive in my inbox that informed people about a CRC website option that can be utilized for purposes of Pesach preparation. If that kind of cooperation becomes permanent, it will be a major change for the better.

I wish I could just end there – on a positive note. But when I heard the President say yesterday that the next two weeks will be the most difficult yet… with predictions of between 100,000 to 250,000 deaths possible in the US, it is pretty hard to stay positive. And those numbers are optimistic. They are based on the current level of mitigation. Which means as long as we stay home  and practice good hygiene, and social distancing (when the need arises to leave the home) we can keep those relatively optimistic numbers low. If that commitment in any way weakens or wanes, the death toll could be much higher. I have heard figures like over a million deaths!

A final thanks goes to those of us that have been following those guidelines. We too are in this fight and staying home is the way we are doing it.

And yet, there are some people that are ignoring these directives. They are going out and mingling with others in a variety of circumstances. As recently as yesterday, I saw images on TV of a beach in Florida that was packed with people. There are some pastorsthat have been holding public services in their churches. And some rabbis that have been having Minyanim in their shuls. It is sad that a Chasidic Rav in Monsey that was recently seen as a hero by the entire world - is now seen as a dangerous fool.                                  

People like that are risking their own lives as well as those around them. And worse they are spreading the disease with their irresponsible behavior.

There is nothing I can do about the sunbathers on a Florida Beach or  non Jewish clergy. But I can speak to a co-coreligionist who to defies the will of God with his Frumkiet. Any Rav that keeps his Shul open during these times is almost like a Rodef! About which the Torah says one may pursue and kill before he kills. 

Of course he is not an actual Rodef and I  do not God forbid recommend killing him. I do, however, recommend the next best thing. He ought to be placed in the modern day version of a Cherem (excommunication) and be reported immediately to the police! And then forbidden from ever operating a Shul again.  That Rav may think he is being Frum by keeping his Shul open. But he is violating one of the most basic Halachos of the Torah - saving lives. 

The people that attended his Shul under current circumstances are victims. They might not be blamed listening to their Rav. But they were stupid - risking their lives in doing so.

Stupidity may not be a crime. But stupidity in this instance might be responsible for not only their own sickness but the sickness and possible death of others. They need to reprimanded and educated about their folly. And made to realize that  what they did was criminally negligent. And then sent home until this pandemic is over.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Why Charedim?

The funeral at Bnei Brak, March 28, 2020 (Ha'aretz)
One of the sadder and more perplexing things about the COVID-19 pandemic is who it is affecting the most - and why.

It appears that the more Charedi an Orthodox Jew is - the more likely he will get infected by the virus. Using Israel as an example, in the city of Bnei Brak one of every 3 people tested - have tested positive. The situation is so bad that Ya'akov Litzman, Israel’s health minister, who is himself Charedi has asked the Prime Minster to lock down the city immediately! He considers it of vital importance! Which I assume means that no one will be allowed to leave – and no one will be allowed to enter that city! 

I’m not sure how such an order would be executed. But I am having visions of armed military personal guarding all entrances and exits. If something like that happens then in effect Bnei Brak will become a virtual prison camp for its residents until further notice. A prison filled with sick people! Most of whom will be in ‘solitary confinement’ (as it were) by staying in their own homes!

According to a i24 news report (video below) half of those in Israel hospitalized with COVID-19 are Charedim. In one large hospital in Tel Aviv, 60% of the COVID-19 patients are Charedi! In a country where the Charedi population is only 10% of the whole, that is a shocking statistic!

The question is why?! Why is God hitting so hard - the very people who seem to be the most devoted to following His laws? While there are surely slackers among them - the vast majority are people that take their religious obligations seriously.

Many of them dedicate their lives to Torah study at great financial sacrifice. Many of them are people that live their identity as Charedim by being Chareid L’Dvar HaShem. They are ‘Choshesh for the Daas HaMachmir’. Meaning when there is a difference of opinion by rabbis in a Halachic matter, they will observe for the more stringent view based on the possibility that it may be the correct one.

These are the people that are known to give more of their income to Tzedaka than most of the rest of us. They takes seriously the Mitzvah of Maaser Kesafim – giving away 10% of their income to charity. These are people that have large families based on the Mitzvah of procreation –and do not utilize common Heterim (Halachic leniencies) for birth control. Especially if they are Chasidim.

Why has God chosen these hard working devoted Jews to take the brunt of this illness?

On the one hand, the answer is relatively simple. The very nature of their religious lifestyle entails being in group settings. For example Charedim are perhaps the most meticulous about Davening Tefillah B’Tzibur (in a Minyan of at least 10 people but usually a lot more) -  3 times a day.

The fact that Torah study is considered the most important Mitzvah in the Torah means that their Batei Medrash (study halls) are packed with people. Yeshivas are filled with virtually every young person in the Charedi world. Kollels abound – filled with young married men studying Torah. Even those that work can be found in their off time in a variety of settings where Torah study is going on - often in crowded rooms.

And then there are the large weddings that happen there every day (sometimes more than one). They are usually all packed with guests that are in close physical contact with each other. (Especially when they dance!)

It is also quite common for funerals of prominent rabbis to be packed to the extent of danger. (Recently - as illustrated above - young Charedim attended such a funeral despite warnings by their own rabbis not to do so! What makes them do that?! Does being that religious make them stupid?!)

But even without any of that - there are so many people per square inch in Bnei Brak that it is almost impossible to practice social distancing effectively on a daily basis unless you never leave the house! With families being so large, it is almost inevitable that one family member will get infected and will quickly be spread to the rest of the family.

There is yet another issue that exacerbates all of this, which is the fact that – by design - there is little communication with the outside world. Charedim in places like Bnei Brak are discouraged from having any unneccesary contact with the ‘Tamei’ (spiritually impure) outside world. I can’t even count the number of times I have heard Charedi rabbis say that anything emanating for the outside world is Pasul/Treif - and should be avoided like the plague. That any medium that might access that world is itself Tamei. TV, Radios, the internet, and secular newspapers are all treated like they were radioactive.

Add to that the slow pace their own rabbinic leaders have reacted properly to this disease and it should be no surprise why this community is so lopsidedly and tragically affected.

It should therefore be more than obvious why these physical circumstances makes Charedim more vulnerable to this  highly contagious virus than any other group.

But my original question has not been answered. Why did God send a plague into the world whose physical nature hurts the very people most devoted in service to Him?

I have no answer. But one thing seems certain. There are prominent rabbis that will speculate. They will talk about which area of Godly service we are all lacking in and propose that we tighten up observance in those areas.

I am not going to speculate what those areas might be although I’m sure most people know what to expect. Every time there is a tragedy of some sort, those issues come up as a reason why God let it happen.

Perhaps it’s time for them to think somewhat out of the box? Even if it negatively affects their religious comfort zone? In my view there must be an area where Charedim are specifically more lacking than anyone else. Why would God otherwise target them the most?

But the truth is that this does not let any one of us off the hook We should all be looking in the mirror. No one is immune. A lot of people are getting sick. Some seriously. Some dying! Not all of them are Charedim.

We all need to strengthen our observance in areas where we know of our own personal weakness. We can all be better people. In the eyes of God and the eyes of man. That is as important as doing whatever physically necessary to stay healthy and not spread the virus to others. We need to do both our physical Hishtadlus (maximum effort) and our spiritual Hishtadlus. One without the other may not be enough. It is apparent that God is sending the entire world a message here. He wants all of us to be better people. And we ought to try and accomplish that.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Predictions for after the Storm

A ‘Tipping Point’ for the Orthodox Community?
By Paul Shaviv

Charedi Rabbonim - image for illustrative purposes only (Ha'aretz)
I am once again pleased to host another thoughtful essay by renowned Jewish educator, Paul Shaviv. I have had similar thoughts myself. Although I do not agree with all of his predictions, I do  sympathize with many of them and they are certainly all worthy of discussion. One thing seems certain. Once we come out of this, the world will never be the same. Will it be better? Will it be worse? Only God knows. - HM

Whenever this crisis is over – may it be soon – there are likely to be radical changes in Orthodox Jewish community life, both in the Diaspora and in Israel.

Among them may be:

 A crisis of confidence in rabbinic leadership.  Disillusion and anger are being expressed all over the internet and press at the way in which the leading Haredi rabbis dealt with this crisis.  They failed to recognize the initial danger of the virus, to the point of dismissing it. That failure was compounded by opposition to cancelling minyanim, schools / yeshivot, public gatherings etc.  When such gatherings did happen – and they are still happening – no-one seems able to stop them.  Attempts to do so were too little, too late. 

The results are that in New York and – especially – in Israel, the ‘hot spots’ of coronavirus, with accompanying tragedies, are mostly in Haredi areas.   There is considerable public anger in Israel at the Haredi community.  The anger is fueled  by images of Haredim attacking police, firemen and other officials trying to enforce public health provisions.  There may be parallel public feeling in the USA, especially in the NY-NJ area.  Mayor de Blasio’s threat to permanently close down shuls and yeshivot who were not complying with emergency orders speaks volumes.

Like the Orthodox anti-vaxxers, all of these attitudes show a fundamental ignorance of basic science; a view that “the rules don’t apply to us”; and an antipathy to the rule of law.  They stem from an awful education system, imposed on our community by rabbinic dictum, and supported by Orthodox political parties.

Related to this will be the effect of closing shuls and yeshivot for weeks, and possibly months.  For teenagers who have no experience of unstructured leisure time, the freedom may be addictive.  Will they uncomplainingly return to an 8:00AM – 6:00PM learning routine?  I am not sure.  Will their fathers return to daily minyanim?   As the WW1 song said. “How will we get the boy back on the farm after he’s seen Paree?”

Another effect – not at all clear at the moment – will be the financial consequences to institutions, organizations and businesses.

Pesach observance, especially among the wider Orthodox community will never be the same. At a time when all shopping is actually very difficult, the public has looked to see what products they can use that are permissible without special, expensive Pesach hechsherim.  It turns out there are many.  But if they are OK this year – why weren’t we told about them last year?   Or the year before?    There is a perception that the rabbinic authorities have not been at all sympathetic or understanding to the practical problems of the Jewish family, especially those who don’t live in major Jewish areas, or who are financially pressured.  The commonest plea to the religious authorities was to permit kitniyot.  There are precedents for this.  It’s not clear how helpful this would actually be (rice and beans would have been the main purchases) – but the psychological gesture would have been huge.  No-one budged.

The ‘ZOOM heter’ opened another window regarding digital electronics which will never again be completely closed.  Interestingly, this is probably the only rabbinic ruling in recent years enthusiastically and positively received by the Jewish public!  It seemed to be a real demonstration of human empathy and understanding to very acute social distress.  (Sephardi leniency towards the use of electricity on Yom Tov is a well-established principle.)   But it was quickly squashed by Ashkenazi poskim, even if one or two seemed to indicate, grudgingly, that the Sephardi scholars had a point.

We are living in unprecedented times.   They do not compare to wartime, G-d forbid; but they are imposing novel and disruptive conditions on all of our lives, and specific disruptions on the Orthodox Jewish way of life which has grown in the last few decades.   In such circumstances, leadership needs to lead in ways which inspire confidence – at every level (ve’hamavin yavin!).   But the significant and fundamental adjustments and sacrifices which are being made, and the unavoidable impact of  suffering and bereavement must leave their impact on all of us. 

Things will not return to what they were.  What will change? 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Will This Deadly Crisis Change Some Minds?

People gathered in prayer in Bnei Brak a few days ago (Jewish Press)
If there is one positive development, from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that the idea of banning the internet has finally been laid to rest. (At least I hope it has.) It is now being used by the very people that organized or supported the Asifa (gathering) a few years ago. Where Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman basically told those gathered that (based on a the words of one of our medieval sages - Rabbenu Yona’s Shaarei Teshuva ) Jews would lose their place in Olam HaBah if they did not listen to the words of R’ Shmuel Wosner, ZTL. Who  followed Rabbi Wachsman immediately and forbade anyone from having the internet in their homes.

Much of the yeshiva world from which Rabbi Wachman stems is now utilizing internet extensively on social platforms like ‘Zoom’ to give Shiurim to their students in their homes who would otherwise be in the Batei Medrash (study halls) of their Yeshivas.

It is true that internet use in the Charedi world was subsequently honored mostly in the breach. And since then  there has been a change in attitude that is more receptive to having it in the home if it is properly filtered. But it was still seen as an evil best avoided entirely. I can’t say for sure but I don’t believe there is anyone that thinks that now. It is a lifeline to the world that provides immediate lifesaving information on a daily basis. 

Sadly, there is no better illustration of a need like his than what is happening in Bnei Brak, perhaps the most Charedi city on earth. From the Jewish Press
(Bnei Brak) has the highest contamination rate in Israel due to gatherings that have taken place at weddings and other events, despite government restrictions.
Part of the reason for the lack of cooperation with those restrictions has to do with communication difficulties stemming from lack of electronic communications – many strictly Orthodox communities shun the internet altogether, as well as smart phones, televisions and even radios. Some of the communities within Bnei Brak continued to hold minyanim (prayer quorums) despite the government restrictions against the gatherings, intended to stem the spread of the virus. 
As sad as the situation in Bnei Brak is, they are not alone. Boro Park  might be characterized as the American Bnei Brak. According to this website - as of this past Friday, numerous Shuls were to remain open on Shabbos and used for purposes of public prayer. That list is veritable who’s who of the Chasidic world.  This has generated an astonishing but justifiable response from New York Mayor, Bill de Blasio. From the Jewish Press
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned the Jewish community, again, not to hold services in the synagogues. Failing cooperation, he said, permanent closure would be the next step.
Although many shuls have closed in deference to the city’s COVID-19 coronavirus restrictions, some have not and instead continued to hold minyanim despite the city’s orders to close in order to prevent the spread of the virus…
if you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church, and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services. 
I suspect that there are a lot of Chasidim in Boro Park that have internet access in a variety of ways. Last time I  was there, I saw plenty of Chasidim using smart phones. But there are plenty of Chasdidm that don’t and remain un - or under - informed. It is quite likely that many of those that are informed don’t believe it is a serious problem and are ignoring it. That is in part a plausible explanation of why these areas  are so highly infected.

One final note. It appears that the attitude of one of the strongest rabbinic resisters to the stay-at-home policy has changed his mind. In what might be called ‘the better late than never’ category, Rav Chaim Kaneivesky has apparently done a complete 180. From Life in Israel
Rav Chaim Kanievsky just issued a psak a short while ago that they hope will be more effective in making people stop and take notice.
Rav Kanievsky paskened, currently specifically for Bnei Braq and not in general, that people should daven alone at home and not in any shul. People should NOT make private minyanim. It is pikuach nefesh.
Rav Chaim Kanievsky adds that anyone not davening at home but in a minyan has the status of a rodef and if you are aware of such a minyan or person you must report him to the authorities, even with the knowledge that this might lead to him being arrested or slapped with a large fine. If you are aware of someone who is meant to be in quarantine but is not following the quarantine rules, you are allowed to shame him publicly over this.
Rav Kanievsky also added that this is not just for davening, but people should also learn Torah at home and not in shuls, even alone in shuls and batei medrash. 
Pretty strong words! Perhaps he feels that way now because according to a Times of Israel report almost half of all those hospitalized with COVID-19 are Charedim.

Thank God we are all on the same page now. I just wish it had happened sooner.

Updated - 2:33 PM CDT

Friday, March 27, 2020

Which God Are They Praying To?!

Stanislover Rebbe, R' Uri Ashkenazi (Wikipedia)
It is really hard to stay sane these days. Every time I turn on the TV news, I can feel the panic rushing through my veins. COVID-19 cases are spiking. Not just in New York. But in big cities everywhere. Doctors and nurses that are on the front lines taking care of the sick are getting it too. People are dying. Not only those with compromised immune systems, underlying health conditions, or the elderly. But in some cases even young people with no underlying health issues and no compromised immune systems.

Which makes the cavalier attitude expressed by some beyond perplexing. I realize that most of us are taking this seriously and following the guidelines and precautions experts in the field are recommending. And while that seems to have leveled off the spike somewhat in  New York, it has yet to do the same in other large cities. Like Chicago. A lot of people I know have the virus. Some of whom I am very close with (although not physically at this time).

And yet this does not seem to register with some people. From Hamodia
The Chassidic world, and the London community, mourns the sudden petirah of Harav Uri Ashkenazi, zt”l, the Stanislaver Rebbe of London, who was niftar on Thursday morning in London at the age of 76…
He was hospitalized in a serious state Wednesday after testing positive for coronavirus, and was niftar on Thursday. 
According to sources in or from the UK, Rabbi Ashkenazi had treated this disease cavalierly and ignored the advice of the government and health professionals in the field. He even attended a wedding when he was asked not to, apparently. Now - in very short order, he’s gone. And who knows how many people his irresponsible behavior affected. Rachmana Litzlan!

But he isn’t the only one. This was posted yesterday in Life in Israel
Every day in the news, including today, there are reports of the police discovering schools still in session and breaking them up, or shuls still meeting for services and locking them up. This is true in both Israel and in the USA (and maybe other places as well, though I pay less attention to them). Yes, other gatherings as well by other types of people - same issue, whether some form of protest or prayer vigil or just lackadaisical whimsy behavior (beach goers and general entertainment). 
I just do not get it.  
(I don’t get it either.)

And then there is this from Rabbi Yakov Horowitz: 
This morning, I saw a few fellows dressed like me walking to a (“house”) minyan/prayer quorum, a day after 13 people died of Coronavirus in one New York City hospital alone, a day after NYC officials announced that over 20,000 of its residents have Coronavirus, 3,750 hospitalized, 840 in ICU units, and 280 dead.
I could not help but wonder what God they are purportedly praying to, and what religion they are practicing. 
I have the same question. We are the Chosen people. Chosen by God to be His treasured people. Which requires us to live by a higher standard than the rest of the world. And judged by God accordingly. That means following Halacha to the best of our ability.

And yet when it comes to one of the most important Halachos in all of the Torah, it is ignored. Not just by laypeople. But in some cases by people that are supposed to be our spiritual leaders.

They have NOT been behaving in accordance with God’s will. They have instead been defying God, Who tells us to guard our health. And not only have they endangered their own health they have endangered the health of others – some of whom may get seriously ill and in some cases die because of it!

God does not want us to congregate right now under any circumstances! He does not want us to die. He wants us to listen to Him! And those who ignore the clear health warnings – ARE NOT LISTENING!

What is it that makes them ignore these warnings? Is it that they don’t think medical science knows what it’s talking about? Is it that they think this is all just one big exaggeration? Are they even paying attention to what is going on in the world… in their own communities?!

I do not understand. What will it take for some of these people to wake up – before it’s too late?!

This both scares me and angers me. I just don’t know which feeling is worse - the fear or the anger!

Please – Everybody just stay home and stay healthy. May we all soon be over the scourge plaguing the earth right now! God help us all!

Good Shabbos

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Of Rabbis, Heroes, and Fools

Dr. Zev (Vladimir) Zelenko (VIN)
Some people that ought to know better can be incredibly stupid and selfish. This exists everywhere – including right here in Chicago. There are people think that they know better than the experts. That they are immune to disease. These people are foolishly ignoring all the warnings issued by the best epidemiologists in America to avoid crowds. And have been congregating for their own selfish reasons.

This makes me both sad an angry. As I and many others have been saying, people like this endanger not only themselves but everyone else.

This has generated a strong response from Chicago Mayor Lightfoot. She threatened to close all the beaches and parks if people keep congregating on them. 

Some might be wondering what religious Jews are doing in the parks and beaches. But I am not talking about religious Jews. I’m talking about a few ordinary Chicagoans. 

Yesterday was a nice day in Chicago and it brought out the crowds. There were perhaps a few religious Jews among them. But most of us were not. Most of us here in Chicago have stayed indoors and have been scrupulously following the guidelines issues by city and state officials on the advice of epidemiological experts. Guidelines fully endorsed - and even exceeded by the combined Orthodox rabbinate of Chicago.

I mention this in order to demonstrate that there are stupid people in every community. There are people that do not pay attention to warnings. They end up risking their lives and the lives of their family, friends, and neighbors. These are not necessarily bad people. Just people that stupidly - do not pay attention to warnings of a dangers to our health -  and how best to avoid it.

There has been a lot of criticism of religious Jews who seemed to have flouted these guidelines and have formed Minyanim, inside and outside their Shuls in places like Boro Park and Williamsburg. Crowds there apparently still persist. Even as recently as yesterday according to one report I saw. These people can join their fellow fools on the Chicago beaches with their arrogance and/or ignorance. I only hope they don’t pay a heavy price for it.

On the plus side there was some good news about the rate of the COVID-19 spread in new York yesterday. It has decreased. Not as many as expected got it yesterday it seems. But that kind of news can be counterproductive if people think it allows them to loosen up on their social distancing. That would create an even bigger spike.

Right now social distancing seems to be working. Now is not the time to let up on it. Instead we should be doubling down on it. That  may prove to be the best solution of all. Those that do not have the virus and do come into contact with those that do, by staying put – will not get it. Simple as that. Staying home where no one has it is the way to do that.

On that note I was happy to see the following on Matzav
Gedolei Bnei Brak: It’s a Mitzvah Gedol(ah) NOT to Daven in Shul 
The rabbonim wrote; “To all our dear and beloved brethren, because the doctors determined that the danger of the epidemic is very serious, and the doctors believe that there is a very great chance of being infected within the shuls…according to the doctors’ instructions, people should daven outside with no more than 10 attendees in one place, two meters away from each other.”
The letter is signed Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, Rav Shimon Baadani and Rav Sariel Rosenberg and Rav Y. Silman.
At the same time, the chief rabbis of the city of Bnei Brak, Rav Shevach Zvi Rosenblatt and Rav Chaim Yitzchok Eizik Landau, also (wrote) a strong letter stating that people must not daven in shuls.
It should be pointed out that in the United States, rabbonim and doctors have strongly commanded people not to daven with minyanim at all, even outside, but to daven b’yechidus in one’s home. 
All well and good Except for one thing. Frankly, I don’t understand why the rabbis of Bnei Brak have not forbidden even outside Minyanim. Why tempt fate by Davening outside - even when standing 2 meters from each other? Even with as little as 10 people?

Why play these games? True, the chances of bumping into someone in the street that has the virus may not be great. But it is certainly possible. 

In this case the American Rabbinate is right. Daven at Home!

For reasons that we cannot understand, this is what God wants from us right now. The Torah tells us that we are to guard our lives in the extreme. We are required to violate almost every Mitzvah in the Torah in order to save our lives – so that we can live to do more Mitzvos after the danger passes. Why the Bnei Brak rabbis are playing these games when there is a clear biblical level requirement not to do so - is perplexing.

One more thing. A few days ago Vladimir Zelenko, a doctor that services the Satmar community in Kiryas Joel recorded his thoughts about the number of people that had contracted the virus he had seen there – predicting an almost total rate of infection in that community. For that he was apparently excoriated by the leaders of that community claiming that he was wrong and causing antisemitism with statements like that.

I agree with Rabbi Yehudah Levin. (Video can be seen here.) I don’t know who this man is. But if I recall correctly he is someone with whom I would disagree on just about everything. In some cases vehemently. (Not going into details). But in this instance he could not be more right.

Chicago's lakefront, adjacent parks, and trails, have been closed by order of the mayor until further notice.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Calling Out Irresponsible Behavior

Agudah of Illinois Dayan, R' Shmuel Fuerst condemns irresponsible behavior
I am kind of a news junkie. I read, listen, and watch the news frequently throughout the day. Including when I have my doughnut and coffee every morning.

This has become a very depressing of enterprise of late. For obvious reasons. That of course hasn’t stopped me. If there was ever a time to pay attention to what is going on in the world –it is now!

This morning I heard the same news I’ve been hearing for weeks now. And as has mostly been the case - just when you think things have gotten pretty bad, they get even worse. I walked away from this morning’s newscast anxious and depressed. It took me awhile to get back to an even keel. Which doesn’t really change things. But it does help me deal better with the day.

What depressed me today is that New York is – or is quickly becoming - the epicenter of the COVID-19 virus infection. Watching a desperate Governor Cuomo struggle through a press conference citing infections figures that seem to double every few days is frightening beyond words.

It was distressing to hear him say that respirators - a vital piece of medical equipment -  will be in such short supply that tens of thousands of people that might need them to survive – will not get them.  Equally distressing - frightening even - is his prediction that what is happening in New York will soon be happening all over America relatively soon.

I’m not sure how accurate this projection is since the rates of infection varies from state to state. Less populated states do not have anywhere near the infection rate New York does. And if they practice social distancing properly they might get out of this without the kind of spike taking place in New York.

Which brings up the question, ‘Why New York?’ What is it about this city that makes it the epicenter of the disease?

The answer to that should be obvious, too. Population density.  Everyone is close to everyone else. Places like Times Square comes to mind. It seems like – in New York -  there are people everywhere all the time.  

Some epidemiologists have theorized that public transportation in New York finds people so densely packed - so close to each other they can barely move. Every day. Morning and evening. Social distancing in situations like that is impossible. It is also true that the spike might be related to the fact that many people weren’t tested until now and actually had the virus earlier – but are first being counted now. That, however, doesn’t make me feel much better.

New York is also the epicenter of Jewish life in America. There are probably more Jews in the greater New York area than in every other city combined. The same is true for Orthodox Jews. It has not escaped my attention that this fact has contributed to the problem. Not because there is God forbid any sinister motive. But simply because of the fact that Orthodox Jews tend to congregate in groups a lot more than the average New Yorker. Mostly for religious reasons.

A great many Orthodox men go to the synagogue daily to Daven with a Minyan. Some go 3 times a day. And most men and women go to Shul every Shabbos where in some cases there are many hundreds of attendees. In other cases there are those that Daven in a crowded Shtiebel where there might be dozens of Jews sitting or standing right next to each other for hours at a time.

Young Orthodox Jews can be found in the Beis HaMedrash of their given Yeshiva studying for hours a day among hundreds (or even thousands in some cases) of other students every day  for months at a time!

We also tend to have our share of weddings and Bar Mitzvahs - all of which tend to be much larger than the average New Yorker celebration. Weddings in particular are a breeding ground for infection because of the close contact between people during those lengthy dance sets!

None of this is inherently bad. There is nothing wrong (and everything right) with a society that has such a close knit relationship with their coreligionists and celebrates life-cycle events with family, friends and neighbors. But this isn’t about right or wrong. It is about facts. And in this case, these facts do not favor us.

Most of the Orthodox Jewish community has been duly chastened and have been abiding by the restrictions imposed by the government. For purposes of their own safety and to prevent community spread.

Unfortunately there are some that have been treating this like a joke. As though the government and epidemiologists don’t know what they are talking about. And they have either totally defied those restrictions or have been modifying them inappropriately for their own ‘religious’ purposes.

They have not only put themselves in danger. They have put the lives of their families in danger. As well as their neighbors and friends.  

But perhaps worst of all is the Chilul HaShem they are causing. They might not realize that the world is watching. Or they do and don’t care.  Either way that attitude is so irresponsible that it ought to be made clear that just how wrong and anti Torah it is by all responsible Orthodox organizations. Which have been coming out with valuable advice almost daily about what to do during this crisis both for our physical and spiritual health.

It is important for them to spread the word and announce to the world that what this community is doing is NOT OK! That behavior like that is a Chilul HaShem of major proportion! And that the responsibility for it is at the top. The buck stops at the door of their leaders who are either encouraging this behavior or tolerating it.

Once again - (and I cannot emphasize this enough!) It is time for all responsible Orthodox organizations - across the board - to speak with one voice of condemnation about this.

It may not change their behavior. But at least the world will know that these people are outliers who - with an attitude like this - have separated from the rest of the Jewish people and do not represent Judaism at all

This might sound harsh. Some might say that dishonoring a rabbinic leader is the height of impudence and counter to the values of the Torah in a serious way.

That would be true under ordinary circumstances. But as the Gemarah tells us, B’Makon Chilul HaShem – Ein Cholkin Kavod L’Rav. I can’t imagine a Chulul HaShem greater than causing the world to blame the pandemic on religious Jews.

I am therefore glad that in Chicago Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst, Dayan of Agudath Israel of Illinois made comments last night during his annual pre-Peasch lecture that are a version of what I said here. (It was live-streamed on Zoom and available by telephone for those that do not have Internet access). I do not recall his ever doing anything like that before. It takes a lot of courage. And that ought to be applauded by all of us.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

A Shift in Power

Union of Reform Judaism president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs
We should be pleased at the outcome of the WZO elections, but we should not gloat. According to an article in the Jerusalem Post, Orthodox factions took the lion’s share of the votes:
The Reform, Conservative and Hatikva slates took a combined 54,098 votes, while the Orthodox, and right-wing slates took more than 62,000 votes, ostensibly giving this bloc an advantage in the World Zionist Congress over the left-wing, progressive lists.
This means money. The WZO will be allocating more funds to religious institutions that - among other things - are in the forefront of the battle to keep heterodoxy out of Israel in any official capacity.

This might come as a shock to Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union of Reform Judaism. He had hoped that his crusade to gain legitimacy in Israel would gain momentum from this election. He had urged Reform Jews to vote in those elections. And promised to use that money to end Orthodox control over Jewish life in Israel by giving Reform and other denominations equal authority in all religious matters. 

While that sounds like the democratic thing to do,  Judaism is not a democracy.

It is the theology of a nation that was formed at Sinai upon receiving the Torah – God’s law for the Jewish people. A law whose binding nature has been rejected by Reform Judaism. It would be national suicide to give that kind of control to Reform rabbis in a country that calls itself as Jewish. 

Some would argue that a Jewish state need not be anything other than a secular country where the majority are Jews. But that does not a Jewish state make. Demographics can change and then... poof! more Jewish state. 

A Jewish state needs an identity that goes beyond how many Jews live there. It needs to be based on how the Jewish people identify themselves. What makes them Jewish is what makes the state Jewish. 

That was determined at our founding as a people at Sinai. That being said,  Israel is not a theocracy. It is a democracy in the sense that no one is forced to follow Halacha. Nevertheless it is Halacha that ultimately defines who we are as a people and as a nation. 

At the very least that should mean that only rabbis of the denomination believe in that definition should have a say in public policy on religious matters. That is what the Israeli rabbinate is all about.

It is true that Israel’s rabbinate is far from perfect. It has had more than its share of controversy. There are unresolved problems there that have caused even some Orthodox rabbis a lot of grief and despair. It is in need of major repair. How that would or should happen is beyond the scope of this post. But one thing is certain. It should not mean taking control out of Orthodox hands and sharing it with non Orthodox rabbis.

That is one thing most Orthodox rabbis agree upon. Even those that think the current rabbinate ought to be shut down. These same rabbis would never cede control of religious decisions to heterodoxy. Which is one of the main reasons that - with a few notable exceptions - Orthodox Jews were urged by their religious leaders (from right to left) to vote in the WZO elections. It seems they (we) have indeed won an important battle.

But as I said have said at the outset - now is not a time to gloat. Or to take victory laps. The battle is not over. Heterodox rabbis have not given up their quest for recognition in Israel. 

Just be clear these rabbis are not evil people. As I said yesterday, they know not what they do. A Reform rabbi is in a category of a Tinok Shenishba. The truly believe their cause is just. They are just wrong about it.

The question arises, why did the Reform faction not get more votes? After all they claim to be the largest Jewish denomination in all of Judaism. Their percentage of Jewish population is near 40%. Orthodox Jews are currently only about 10% (albeit growing) They should have received four times as many votes as the Orthodox factions!

I think that by now those of us that have been paying any attention already know the answer to this question. Most Reform Jews – even those that actually do at some level identify as Jewish and have some from of ritual observance (for example - lighting Shabbat candles) don’t really care about Israel. I believe that most of them probably didn’t even know there was an election  or even what the WZO is all about. They are mostly apathetic. Not because they are evil. A Reform lay person is no less a Tinok Shenishba than are their clergy. 

As passionate as a Reform rabbi might be about his version of Judaism, it’s clear that they have not passed that passion on to their members.  At least not enough to get them to vote in those elections.

What does all this mean about the future of American Jewry? I’m afraid nothing has changed. The trajectory is the same. If anything it is only getting worse as more American Jews abandon any semblance of their Judaism to the point of rejecting their very identity as as Jews. Intermarriage is at an all time high and is a fact of life. It is seen by many non Orthodox Jewish laypeople (if not quite fully by all their rabbis yet) as a plus to intermarry! Just like prize winning American novelist Michael Chabon (who is Jewish) does.

I have no clue what to do about this sad reality. But reality it is. The only real hope for perpetuating ourselves as a people is the way Orthodox Jews are doing it. By understanding and applying what Judaism is all about – Halacha. And making sure our children are educated to be as Jewishly knowledgeable as possible

In the meantime try and reach out to as many non observant Jews as we can - that care enough about Judaism to want to perpetuate it - and teach those willing to learn - what authentic Judaism really is. Even if it is only one person at a time. With the results of this election, we have taken a step in the right direction.