Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Frumkeit Plague of Lakewood

Shlomo Yehuda  Rehcnitz  speaking at a Lakewood event  (YWN)
Being right on this issue doesn’t give me any pleasure. But the consequences have now passed the threshold of being barely noticeable to the point of crisis. A crisis in a city some people call Lakewood, Ir HaKodesh.  (Half seriously. Half mockingly.)

The crisis is not new. It has been going on for some time now. It is not limited to Lakewood. But Lakewood seems to be the epicenter – where the most damage is being done. Many children in Lakewood are being denied an education being rejected admission to a school.

The reason is apparently not what I had thought it was. It is not because of the exponential growth of the Charedi population, there. I believed that the continuous massive yearly increase in the child population just meant that there simply was not enough room for everybody. No matter how many news schools were built, they could not contain the increased numbers.  But if that is a reason, it is apparently not the primary one. The issue behind this problem is a much bigger one.

The city fathers there know that children are being left out. Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon had spoken about it years earlier – strongly criticizing those schools that had become so elitist that good students could not get in.  But it seems that Rabbi Salomon’s word have fallen on deaf ears.
And now an outsider (…although he is Charedi, he lives in Los Angeles) has spoken out on this issue. Mega philanthropist, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz spoke at an event that included many of Lakewood’s rabbinic leaders and told it like it is. Mr. Rechnitz is like E.F. Hutton. When he speaks people listen.

I suppose it takes someone who has a major financial impact on Torah institutions to take a serious issue off the back burner. His speech was described in great detail by Rabbi Yair Hoffman in a YWN article that is accompanied by a video of that speech.

The brutal truth was spelled out. Which is that children being left out is a symptom of a far bigger problem. This is not to minimize the symptom. Shlomo Yehuda describes one instance of it very poignantly:
He spoke of a 13 year old girl, who clearly sees that nobody wants her. She’s the town’s Pesoles. “Can you imagine,” Mr. Rechnitz asked, “an innocent Bas Yisroel, putting on a face for her friends, claiming she hasn’t had enough time to decide which school to go to, only to lay her head down on her pillow at night, the pillow which is still wet from the tears of the night before?”
So what is the problem if this is only a symptom? Here is how Shlomo Yehuda put it:
“… we have a Machla (plague) in Lakewood. No other out of town community would ever allow a child to be left without a school. In Los Angeles, if a child wouldn’t have a school the first day, the whole community would be all over it. The same thing would happen in Baltimore, Chicago and Toronto or anywhere else.
This is basically a Lakewood Machla. Yes, there’s a few kids in Monsey, more than a few kids in Brooklyn, but nowhere else and in no other time in history was this problem close to the magnitude it is in Lakewood..Even the children that get in, how many of them and their parents shvitz for months, making phone calls, waiting for phone calls?”
 And then after a brief description about the beauty of a city that is Kulo Torah, he said the following:
“Many of us have created for ourselves a new  Torah, a new Yiddishkeit, that makes us feel good about ourselves, but has little to do with Hashem’s Torah that He gave us 3300 years ago. We turned our Frumkeit into an idol, and we have forgotten  some of the basic tenets of Yiddishkeit.”
“I am heartbroken for one particular conversation that occurs nonstop in Lakewood. Parents call up a school and say: if you take in so and so, I am not sending my child. The school buckles under and rejects that child.
This is a churban (holocaust) for klal yisroel!  How dare you destroy another child’s life because if your opinions of the other child?! How dare you become a murderer like that? How dare you face Hashem by davening when you snuffed out a Yiddishe Neshama? How DARE you?”
 He exhorted the listeners, “This is mammash(actually) shefechus damim (murder!).
If the school isn’t good enough for your child, shut your mouth and go find him a school that does work, or create your own school just for your child. Make a yeshiva just for him. He presented a list of five very false Ani Maamins:
1. I believe that “I am better than you.
2. I believe that I have to show all my chumros, so everyone can see how frum I am.
3. I believe that “your children are not good enough for my children.”
4. I believe that the Torah was given to perfect children and perfect families.
5. I believe there is no room for individuality; we must all fit into the same perfect model.
Shlomo  Yehuda’s condemnation of how Chinuch in Lakewood operates, is breathtaking. If I had said anything like that, I would have been called a Charedi basher. In fact I have said many of these things in softer tones and called exactly that – a Charedi basher. Which I completely reject since my goal was not to bash but to inform and raise consciousness about a malaise in the Jewish world. That was always countered with something like, ‘No one that I was addressing reads my blog and therefore my words were worthless!
But now, one of their own has said it. In far stronger terms that I ever cold have! And Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz will not be ignored. He is someone that garners tremendous respect for all the charitable work he does; all the financial support he gives to institutions like Lakewood; and the constant Kidush HaShem he makes in the world. I believe they don’t only respect the man’s money. I believe they respect the man.

Sholmo Yehudah Rechnitz is a Talmid of Telshe Yeshiva in Chicago. And he has remained very close with his Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levine. So his approach to this came as no surprise to me.  Rav Levine spoke out about this very issue at a Torah U’Mesorah convention, a few years ago saying something to the effect that if Jewish day schools would have been as elitist in his day as they are today, half the people sitting in that room wouldn’t be there. And probably wouldn’t even be observant.

My proverbial hat is off to Mr. Rechnitz. He is a Gibor -  great man.  An individual, with a big heart and an even bigger sense of responsibility to the Jewish community that extends far beyond Lakewood. He doesn’t just talk the talk. He walks the walk.

But will his rebuke help?  I’m not so sure. The ‘holier than thou’ Frumkeit that R’ Shlomo Wolbe so forcefully condemned in his masterwork of Mussar, Alei Shur, is alive and well in Lakewood. Thriving beyond anything R’ Wolbe could have ever imagined.