Sunday, May 11, 2014

Is This a Turning Point? Gratitude in Flatbush

Guest Post by Heshey Zelcer

Master of Ceremonies, Dr. Shlomo Sprecher addressing the audience
A few years ago, a Rosh HaYeshiva of struggling Yeshiva was approached by some parents of children who would be entering high school in the fall - with a proposition. He told this Rosh Hayeshiva who is a major Talmud Chacham that he represented a group of parents that – for various reasons - were dissatisfied with the the Yeshivos in that location. They offered to infuse his Yeshiva with the children of these parents. They appreciated his Torah knowledge and wanted their kids to benefit from it.

But there was a condition. The Yeshiva had to discard its position on the State of Israel. This Rosh HaYeshiva was a big supporter of the State and showed it in many ways. These parents would not send their children to a school that publicly supported the state. The Rosh HaYeshiva stood his ground. As a man of principle he refused to cast aside his views even if it meant the collapse of his Yeshiva.  Those parents went elsewhere.

When I spoke to him about it afterwards, the Rosh HaYeshiva lamented to me: OK, he understands their theological objections to the State. But… ‘Where is their Hakoras HaTov?!’ Dont they realize how much the State of Israel has done for Jewish people in general and the Yeshiva world in particular?

This has been the unfortunate mindset on many on the right. But… perhaps we have turned a corner.  In spite of the current unhappiness by the right to the State of Israel’s current pressures over them… we have some very encouraging news. The following is a guest post by Heshey Zelcer*:

For those who don’t live in Flatbush let me try to paint a picture of how the average chareidi here is taught to view the State of Israel.

One who davens in a chareidi shul in Flatbush will almost never hear his rav say a kind word about Israel or about the need to support it. Even the phrase the “State of Israel” cannot be uttered. I should qualify my statements. Sometimes we do hear about Israel. Just a few weeks ago a guest lecturer at a local shul spoke passionately about how the evil State of Israel is trying to destroy Torah Judaism.

The same holds true for the yehsivot in Flatbush to which we send our children. Not a word about Israel is ever mentioned. Again I must qualify my words. They will occasionally speak about “Eretz Yisrael” and the need to support this or that moisid, or the farmers who observe Shmitta. There is no mention, however, of Yom HaZikaron, of Yom Haatzmaut or why the Jewish state is important to the Jewish people.

But something unusual happened this year. Under tight security an historic event quietly unfolded in Brooklyn. For the first time, Orthodox Jews in Flatbush assembled on the 5th day of Iyur in a shul, under the auspices of a Chasidic rebbe, to express hakaras ha-tov to HKB”H for the State of Israel. Many of us felt it was a magical moment. We came together publicly, in our own shul to proclaim that we love and support the State of Israel and that its existence and security is important to us.

When the event in Rav Rotenberg’s shul was announced it unleashed pent-up emotions. People who I never thought of as activists were suddenly volunteering to publicize the event, driving around Flatbush hanging up posters, or convincing local shuls to send out email announcements to their mispallelim.

I don’t think anyone believes that this event will suddenly convince everyone to become a Zionist. It was more a way to validate our own feelings and emotions about Israel. Yes, it is legitimate to articulate and mean the words of Shir HaMallot, “When Hashem returned the exiled to Zion we were like dreamers.” Yes, we are dreamers intoxicated with joy, that after the Shoah that wiped out one out of every three Jews, we once again have a thriving and dynamic homeland that is a haven for Jews from any country that may seek to persecute us.

When over three-hundred and fifty people came together (and countless others were turned away for lack of space) it unleashed a catharsis. Everyone was able to look around and say that Flatbush is not monochromatic. There are many other people just like us. Within this small shteible over 350 people came together to publicly express their love for the State of Israel, and to give hakaras ha-tov to HKB”H.

Countless times I have tried explaining to acquaintances who are unhappy about this or that about Israel (or as Malcolm Hoenlein quipped, “I had a problem at the Plaza Hotel”) that one must differentiate between the State of Israel, and the government of Israel. The State of Israel is a permanent institution set up as a Jewish State based on democratic principles to serve as a homeland for all Jews. The government, however, changes every few years, and one can either agree or disagree, like or dislike a particular prime minister or the makeup of his government. But how can one possibly be against the State of Israel, which is a free and democratic country whose raison d'être is to enable all Jews to live free of oppression!

Has Flatbush reached a tipping point? Will others finally understand that as a religious Jew it is important to appreciate and stand up for Israel? I do not know. But a smart person once explained that there is a three-step process in which views that are outside the consensus become mainstream. When a new idea is first introduced it is dismissed, “That’s a silly idea.” In the next phase people express their hatred for it, “That is a terrible and dangerous idea.” It the final stage people say, “Yes, that is what I always believed.”

May we all be privileged to recognize and give thanks to HKB”H for the fulfillment of our 2,000 year old yearning.

*Heshey Zelcer is the author of Companion Mishnayot: Tractate Niddah (1994) and A Guide to the Jerusalem Talmud(2002). He has published about a dozen articles on Jewish law, philosophy, history and liturgy, and is the CEO of Hakirah: The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought.