Tuesday, March 18, 2014

When Being a Mentch is the Exception

Rabbi Aaron Fink - Photo credit: Forward
When simple Mentchlichkeit (common decency; respecting your fellow man) becomes something out of the ordinary, then there is something terribly wrong with the system. But that is the world of Orthodoxy we seem to be living in today.

In yet another revealing article in the Forward by Frimet Goldberger about her trek out of Satmar we read of her admiration for a a man who acted like a Mentch to her and her family.The man is Rabbi Aaron Fink. He is the head of a Beis Yaakov (a type of religious elementary school for girls) in Monsey. What did he do? He warmly welcomed Mrs. Goldberger’s  4 year old daughter into his school.

Mrs. Goldberger is effusive with praise for this man. That’s because his warm and accepting attitude towards them was indeed out of the ordinary. So much so that it left the Goldbergers speechless. Prior to their interview with him, she and her husband had applied to other religious schools for their daughter. And they were basically treated like dirt. Why? Because they decided to leave Satmar and find a Hashkafa that made more sense to them.  They had experienced so many rejections that they had almost given up on sending their daughter to a religious school.

To the principals of those schools they were untouchables. The thinking goes that if one leaves the environment they were raised in, they are rebelling. Not only against their particular Hashkafa, but against observant Judaism as a whole. In other words they were going in the wrong direction. So these principals automatically assume that the child of a family like this will be a negative influence on their students; and that accepting this family into their schools would give them a bad reputation.

(Isn’t it always about reputation, though? How sad that there are so many Orthodox institutions that care more about their reputations than they do about the individual.)

The Goldbergers were so inspired by the treatment they received from this man that they attribute their later decision to remain observant to have been heavily influenced by him.

And what doers Rabbi Fink get for his troubles? From the article:
Rabbi Fink’s degree of tolerance comes at a price in this community of mostly Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox families, where the liberal Orthodox population is nearly extinct. He is religiously suspected by other rabbis and people in Monsey – individuals he needs to work with daily.
This is what our growth has wrought. Religious Jewry is in an unprecedented period of growth.  According to that now famous (infamous?) Pew Report - we Orthodox Jews are bucking the trend of a declining Jewish population by being its only segment that is growing in number. But you don’t need a study to realize how true that is. One only has to look at the increase in the number religious school and  the numbers students in them over the last 60 years. In Chicago alone there are more day schools, Yeshiva highs schools, and girls high schools then at any time in history. There are also a lot more Orthodox Shuls; more service organizations; more Kosher restaurants, and more Jewish Outreach than ever before. And all this feeds off itself. Particularly  Jewish education. That breeds Jewish growth. There is no arguing the point.

But the terrible downside of such growth is something that should concern all of us. It creates divisions and destroys harmony.  Hashkafic  differences used to be over-looked… even ignored. There were in fact less religious differences among us.

TVs for example were in almost every home – including many of those on the right. But today no card carrying Charedi would dare have (or admit to having) a TV in his home.  Back then even those who had no TVs in their home were not judgmental about those who did. Children all went to the same schools and were all taught by the same teachers. We were one homogeneous group of Achdus. Schools in those days were competing for any kids they could get from any type of home. There was no litmus test of Frumkeit in those days.

But today, all that has changed for the worse. A lot worse.  And it is the fault of the right. They are so afraid that their children will be contaminated by outside influences that they are keeping fine people out of their schools. They are also making unreasonable demands on parents.  Children whose families have TVs or the internet or smart phones  are denied  enrollment. Because of our successful growth rate, schools can afford to deny entry to anyone they want and still have full enrollment.  

The problem with this kind of thinking is it does not really protect their children at all from the future influences they will experience as adults. It may actually harm them by not sensitizing them to it.

The fact is that some of the finest and most observant people in Orthodoxy went to schools that were more homogeneous.  Schools that bred tolerance and acceptance. Today by virtue of the fact that schools can now be as exclusionary as they want we have instead - intolerance and rejection.

So when people like the Goldbergers want their daughter to experience a school with children from a wider variety of backgrounds, it is nigh impossible to do so. Instead of allowing their daughter into their school, they were given the ‘third degree’ and rejected. How degrading it must have been for these parents or any parents for that matter to be grilled with questions about their Frumkeit.

I’m happy for the Goldbergers to have found Rabbi Fink. He is someone whose Jewish values are in order. I guess that Rabbi Fink is indeed a Tzadik (to use Mrs’ Goldbergers description). His Mentchlichkiet makes it so by today’s standards, I guess. But the fact that he is an exception rather than the rule is not something we should be proud of. 

Rabbi Fink’s behavior ought to be the norm. But instead he is the exception that is a throwback to an earlier time. A time where we looked at the content of one’s character and not whether they owned a TV or were connected to the internet. Our growth has produced the opposite. I guess its true. Niskatnu HaDoros.