Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Spiritual Threat

Several years ago, I had an opportunity to discuss the educational system in Israel with Rebbitzin Ella Soloveichik, the wife of my Rebbe, R’ Ahron Soloveichik. We were neighbors and often discussed issues of the day. I once lamented the fact that there was absolutely no value given to Limudei Chol – secular studies – by the Charedi establishment in Israel. And that there was therefore no Limudei Chol curriculum to be found in the Charedi school system at all except for elementary math through grade 8.

Rebbetzin commiserated with me and then proudly told me that her son Chaim, did not have this problem. He lived in Israel and sent his children to an Israeli Charedi nationalist school, Ahavat Yisrael-Rapaport... or Rapaort for short.They include a secular studies program modeled on the typical Charedi schools in America.

This brings me to a particularly disturbing article in the Israeli Yated Ne’eman . It was republished on their unofficial website Deiah V’Dibur and picked up on Rapaport is in the process of trying to re-locate from Talpiot to Ramot. Ramot is a Charedi section of Jerusalem.

The residents of Ramot will not have any of that. Posters have been put up all over the place there condemning the entire enterprise. And they cite condemnation by their Gedolim calling such a school Shatnez - the biblically forbidden material woven of linen and wool.

I have written about this attitude many times asking the question about how it is possible that this piece of ‘fabric’ can be Shatnez in one place (Israel) and non-Shatnez in another(America).

But the negative descriptions of this school are so bad it almost sounds like they were talking about eating Treif or violating Shabbos …or worse! Is this how they see Limudei Chol? Here are some of the descriptions of Rapaport in the article:

‘…local rabbonim (are) urging the public to step up the battle against the dangerous new breach…’

‘…a struggle to stave off the effort to import the foreign, unsuccessful form of education…’

‘(The)aim of moving the school is to introduce new educational models to the chareidi community, inculcate foreign values in the children…’

And then there is a letter attached supposedly signed by some of the biggest Charedi names in Israel starting with 100 year old R’ Elyashiv. Here are some excerpts from that letter:

Now “a spiritual threat hangs over the neighborhood due to the municipality’s intentions to house, in one of the neighborhood’s buildings, the “chareidi nationalist” institution, Ahavat Yisrael-Rapaport, with its emphasis on [secular] studies, which runs counter to the spirit of the age-old form of education handed down to us through our rabbonim…

“And therefore, upon seeing the holiness under the threat of destruction, we hereby issue a holy call not to lend a hand in this matter, chas vesholom, and every individual has an obligation to strongly voice opposition to this before all of the entities involved in the matter.

“Activists and public representatives must stand up to this breach, waging a holy war for pure education, and parents are warned in accordance with the Torah not to enroll their children at these institutions.

The letter also speaks in strong opposition to the preparation this school has for army service. But the bulk of the concern seems to be about Limudei Chol.

So there you have it, Lakewood’s premiere high school in Philadelphia is Shatnez. Telshe in Cleveland, Chicago, and Riverdale are spiritual threats of destruction. These kinds of schools are to be opposed in a holy war and parents are warned not to enroll their children there.

One might say that America is different. That this statement was meant for Israel and not the United States. I beg to differ. Even if one accepts the idea of ‘two Torahs’ - nowhere does that statement make such a distinction. The letter and the rhetoric in the article was very clear. Schools that offer Limudei Chol are Shatnez.

One might try and explain that Jerusalem is different. That there is a standing ban against Limudei Chol in Jerusalem going back many generations. The Gedolim who wrote this letter had that in mind.

Again, I beg to differ. No where do they make that distinction. But even if that is the case - there is such a thing as Hora’as Shah. There comes a time where innovation must be introduced to save Judaism itself. This is clearly one of those times.

The raging poverty among Avreichim in Israel which I was made even more acutely aware of on my recent trip has no apparent solution. It is getting worse by the day. Yeshivas Mir has not been able to pay some of its staff their wages since Shavuos. Its Rosh HaYeshiva, R’ Nosson Tzvi Finkel is spending the entire month of Elul trying to raise funds in Europe and the US. This after just Yeshivas Mir’s annual fundraising drive. He is going back to the same people who just gave what they could and asking for substantial amounts more. This is not the time to oppose Yeshivos that offer Limudei Chol.

What about the age old ban against Limudei Chol in Jerusalem? Consider the case of R’ Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. R’ Sonnenfeld was the head of the Yishuv HaYashn in Jerusalem in the early 20th century. This was the community that pre-dates Zionism and goes back to the Talmidei HaGra and the followers of the Bal Shem Tov. They immigrated to Israel – mostly Jerusalem - and lived in poverty for many generations just to have the Zechus – merit – of living in the holy land. They abided by the ban against secular studies in Jerusalem and were supported mostly by donations from the West.

When the early Zionists made their mass immigration they started setting up good secular schools in and around Jerusalem. Some of the religious Jews in the Yishuv started sending their children there in the hopes that they would be able to get better jobs through better education.

R’ Sonnenfeld saw attendance at a secular Zionist school as a spiritual threat and collaborated with a religious Bal Habos who was a PhD in education (if I recall correctly). They established religious schools with a curriculum that included Limudei Chol in Jerusalem in order to counteract the pull of the secular Zionist schools.

Imagine that! R’ Sonnenfeld is the spiritual father of Neturei Karta. At least that is what they claim. And yet there was R’ Sonnenfeld advocating religious schools in Jerusalem that included a good secular studies program.

Just like R’ Sonnenfeld saw the need in his time, so too should the current leadership have such a vision – albeit for entirely different reasons. Instead we get an almost vitriolic attack! Oh how times have changed.

Yes, we need Gedolim today. But not like those who signed that letter - if indeed they did. Instead we need Gedolim like Rav Ahron Soloveichik in whose footsteps his son R’ Chaim has followed.