Thursday, September 28, 2017

An Interview with Menachem Bombach

Guest Contribution by YY Bar-Chaiim

Rabbi Menachem Bombach
Reb Yaakov Yisroel (YY) Bar-Chaiim grew up with little knowledge of his illustrious religious heritage. In his search for Emes, YY found out that it is in Orthodox Judaism that truth can be found. He eventually found a home in the world of Chasidus. To put it the way he did
"As I began considering a profession, I knew it had to do with education and psychology.  I believed in the potential of young people to do moral somersaults.  That’s when I bumped into Orthodox Judaism.  And slowly but surely, Hossidus."
After reading my post on the innovative Rabbi Menachem Bombach, he was moved to do an interview and offered to place it on my blog. I accepted. Rabbi Bombach is a former member of the Meah Shearim world who has opened up a  religious high school for Chasidim that offers a full secular curriculum.

(The version of this interview I present here has been edited for brevity. The full version can be read here. It gives a more in depth look at both YY Bar-Chaiim and Rabbi Bombach. I urge everyone to read it. The interview follows.)

YY:  So where did it all begin?

(He begins speaking of his fascinating childhood education in the very extreme Dushinsky school in the Mea Shearim district, but soon we both realize that the time is flying and we should focus more on what kicked off his career).

MB: I really don’t know why Rabbi Grossman (from Migdal HaEmek) took me on as a counselor to work with Russian immigrants.  Because I had no experience.  But you know, in the north there aren’t so many qualified employees, so since I was willing to live in Afula – why not.  I think I made many mistakes in the beginning (…) but one thing was clear to me.  From the moment I began to work as a professional, I realized I must study.  I mean, I felt in the beginning like an Am HaAretz (ignoramus).

YY:  Wasn’t there opposition (to your leap into academic studies)?  The way we see things in the west, for someone from your background to make the decision to go to (pursue an M.A. at) the Hebrew U. (in public policy of all things), is a radical thing, almost heresy!

MB: Well, in general, I’m very individual.

YY: Independent.

MB:  Yes.  I’m true to what I believe.  I always have been.  I’m not a conformist. I could never live a conformist way of life. Conformism for me is like cognitive prison.  I’m simply not capable of doing what everyone else is doing (…) So too here, I saw the need to study and develop skills – so I did.  Eventually I started the Mekhina (special program at Hebrew U. for assisting hareidim to acclimate at the university) and began to study at the Mandel Institute (for exceptional educators).

YY:  It all just developed naturally?

MB:  Different things just happened.  I tell you, when you travel to Haifa at night, you go 30 meters here and 30 meters there.   Only at the end when you look back you connect the dots. 

YY:  But wasn’t there opposition in the family?

MB:  Ok.  My father was Satmar.  But he died when I was young and I was raised, from age six, by my mother’s second husband.  He was a very big Talmid Khakham (Torah scholar).  And we had many, many discussions. In the end, we got to a place where my parents, including my mother – whom I truly, greatly respect – just didn’t understand what I was about.  It got to the point where our relationship just, well, it just really isn’t good.  Oh, I come to her, and honor her, but the relationship has become very, very weak.  She simply doesn’t understand …

YY: It’s as if you’ve become in her eyes “Off The Derekh” (spiritually wayward)?

MB:  Yes!  Exactly.  I had become Off The Derekh.  She looks at my children as if they’re off, at my wife as if she’s off.  All because we have strayed so far from the (Mea Shearim) groove.  We look different.  We act different.  Think different.  Really – Off The Derekh.

YY: And the wife?

MB:  Oh, Yes.  My wife and I – we’re totally together.

YY:  There was no novelty for her in your way; nothing she had to get used to?

MB:  No, my wife and I, pshhh – we’ve been working together from the beginning.  This is a success story.  21 years now!

YY:  How about your children.  Are you not worried about them suffering from your non-conformism?  And if they would choose differently from you – would you be accepting?

MB:  Tomorrow, if my child would choose a different way, I’d hug and kiss him.  And be hurt!  Because I deeply believe in my way.  But I’d respect him.  I’m not a paternalist. I don’t believe in prescribing for anyone else how to live.  I am raising, first and foremost, a human being.  Afterwards he needs to make his own choices (…) In general, I honor every human being.  Because he was created in the image of G-d.  Jews and non-Jews.  It doesn’t matter to me.  They are all human beings (…)

YY: Alright.  I can’t hold back. 

MB:  (heartily laughs)

YY: You had said before we began that you didn’t want to be related to as a hero, on a human level.  Just your ideas.  But the truth is that you are speaking like what I’d call a hareidi humanist. 

MB:  That’s right.

YY:  Well, that’s a hero!  There aren’t many like you.

MB:  That’s right.  But I’ve had mentors.  Who was the first model for me?  HaRav (Aharon) Lichtenstein (associated with more academic and zionistic orthodoxy). I had a personal connection with him.  Not quantity time, but quality.  It was enough to get inspired (…)  He, for me, was an example of how to know G-d in everything you do.  A Jew, no matter where he is, can find G-d.  That’s core Baal Shem Tov (the philosophy of the founder of Hossidus).  He explains it differently.  But (as far as I’m concerned) it’s totally Baal Shem Tov.  He learns that one can find true spirituality even through some (non-religious) gentile means.  This (difference from the way of hossidus, which keeps clear from gentile ways) is a very complex issue, which I can’t easily explain.  But the point is that he was in touch with WORLDS.  He knew G-d in all his ways.  And (he taught that) this was always the way of our great leaders.  In everything they did, they’d be sanctifying G-d’s name (…)

YY:  Whoa.  Ummm, ehhh.

MB: (Laughs heartily)

YY:  I love you!  I love everything you’re saying. I want to speak with you for hours.  But if we’re really going to do this (project of presenting your philosophy as a unique way of being hassidic in the modern world), there’s a million dollar question.

MB:  Yeah, yeah …

YY:  I know this sounds like a harsh slogan, but I don’t mean it this way.

MB:  Yeah, yeah …

YY:  I mean, it sounds as if you’re, eh … Modern Orthodox in Hareidi garb!

MB:  Alright.  I’ll tell you why not.  I’ll explain it to you.  I mean I absolutely agree (with your presumption), but I’ll now clarify.  I make a distinction like that of HaRav S.R. Hirsch.  He spoke of the difference between religious separation and entrenchment, or fortress mentality.

(He brings out his Hebrew Hirsch Torah commentary on Genesis 20:1, which he has on the computer. The word hit’batzrut is used for the latter, and we learn it out with enthusiasm.  Hirsch explains that hit’batzrut will never further the goals of genuine religious development since it breeds fear of what is foreign as opposed to passion about what is true. 

On that note, now that the computer is open, my host offers to show some Hebrew news clips interviewing him in contrast to some zealous hareidi politicians. He laughs often when they give expression to their virulently anti-secular positions, then reiterates that what he shares with all hareidim is the embracing of the need for separating between religious and normative society.  It’s just that his notion of separation is, like Hirsch’s, essentially positive.  It certainly should not turn religious against religious, hareidi against hareidi, as we see increasingly happen).

MB: They (the extremist hareidim) are coming from nonsensical hatred.  It’s a sickness.  A real sickness. (In contrast,) I remain hareidi because I believe in the distinct value of “The World of Torah.”  To the extent that those who are capable of full time learning really don’t need to know anything else.  I really believe this.)

YY:  Aren’t there Modern Orthodox who believe this too?  You really think there’s such a sharp division in philosophies over this issue?

MB: I believe that the deepest passion of mankind is learning Torah – the way of HaKadosh Barukh hu (the blessed Holy One). I truly believe that.  One can argue over what exactly constitutes learning Torah.   But what’s clear to me is that regarding those who are capable, who have the depth and stamina for living full time within the study halls of Torah and to contribute novella – there’s nothing higher than that.  And they don’t need any other knowledge, whatsoever.  In living this way, they’re doing Tikkun HaOlam, repairing the world.

But all the rest of us – 70 percent or so – need more than that.

So that’s one point.  Secondly, I really do believe in the need for religious separation (from the rest of society).  The Mizrakhim, the Modern Orthodox, have different values.  One big one is the State of Israel.  It’s really one of the greatest differences between us.  Another point is that they try very hard to integrate into the greater society – to the extent that, in our view, they sink there.  This (orientation) facilitates assimilation, which is now around 40-50%.  Therefore I think the hareidi model works excellently.  It has numerous mechanisms for self-preservation. 

This can’t be underestimated.  In order to really self-preserve, we (those of us who are not full time Torah learners) need to know the world.  Including the externals.  This (idea of knowing the world not in order to immerse within it) is a huge-huge difference (between the hareidi and modern orthodox world).

YY:  (Deep breath).  Hmmm.  Okay. I’m with you. And I’m very, very thankful we’ve made progress on these topics …

MB: You know – you are making therapy on me!  It’s important to speak this out.

YY: (laughing) Yeah, yeah.  Of course.  No one’s an island.

MB:  Absolutely.

YY: A few final questions.  This place is called “HaMidrasha HaHassidit.” What is the difference between hareidi and hassidi?  And why do you stress hassidi?  Do you feel this is a place, in the main, only for hassidim?

MB: The answer is affirmative.  First of all, the whole idea is totally based on the teachings of hossidut (the literature which we often learn with the students). To start off with – the whole point of externals. (I ask to better understand this.  He uses as an example that he insists on all his students praying according to the hassidic custom of wearing a hat, jacket and gartel – prayer belt.  He does this despite the fact that it seems to take away the kind of religious autonomy usually cherished by those involved in the wider world.  It takes me some time to catch his point but eventually I get it that he believes such customs offer crucial consistency to the principle of extending one’s service of G-d even into the outside world).Secondly, hassidut is teaming with a number of very strong motifs, like simkha in serving G-d, and transporting the study hall with you wherever you go.

YY:  You say that is a purely hassidic idea?

 MB:  Absolutely.  Non-hassidim distinguish sharply between life within and without the study hall.  (An interruption occurs and he needs to briefly step outside to relate to the students.)

They are so happy – it’s unbelievable.  And they work hard.  Believe me!  They are happy.  Simply happy.   When I was in yeshiva I was like (he makes a sour face)!  That’s how it was in yeshiva.  Pressure.  All the time pressure. 

YY:  So what is your explanation about why this happens?

MB:  Why?   Because they are not fulfilled.  Everyone needs to find his …

YY:  Niche.

MB:  Niche.  But also he needs to be r-e-s-p-e-c-t-e-d.  Respect.  (He goes on to explain how he had to let a good educator go because somewhere he didn’t totally respect every student).  Here we give respect to every single kid.  They are human beings.  None of us should have any advantage over them.  I mean, I have a position here (which requires from me to have them show extra respect) – for the sake of taking care of their needs.  But at the same time I must respect them.

YY:  In that I am assuming that every religious Jewish system agrees with you.  There are no approaches that are against respecting the students, are there?

MB: I have no idea.  I can’t say yes – because in my experience, when I was in heider, it’s not like they outright disrespected us, but you know, they’d look at you when you’d act up, like ‘go home to your father!’  We were just stuff for them. Objects.

YY:  It’s really unbelievable.
(He waxes on about the hassidic way being imbued with the opposite ethic; concerned about he health of the soul).

YY:  Are all your educators hassidim?  Do you make a point of including a wide variety?

MB:  Yes.  This is one of our messages.

My Reflections  

As we prayerfully remind ourselves these days of the celestial books which are opened for Tsaddikim (the righteous), Benonim (the in-betweeners) and the R’shaiim (major sinners).  Our job is to present our case for being written and inscribed, at the very least, not in the last.  After meeting rabbeinu Menachem, I think I understand better the danger of shooting too hastily, too obsessively, for the first. Klal Yisroel needs to know that there is a valid option of diving into the second and then working, in quiet, responsible brotherhood, up the ladder.

A Few English Net References:

Menachem Bombach | Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family ...

Menachem Bombach | J.F.N conference | מנחם בומבך

Alternative yeshiva draws protests for teaching secular subjects | The ...

 More information (in Hebrew) on this institution available here: (link)  

Other, Relevant Articles by the Writer:

The Distinction of Slonim 1 - A Simple Jew - blogger

The Distinction of Slonim 2 - A Simple Jew - blogger

The Distinction of Slonim 3 - A Simple Jew - blogger

As noted above, the full version of this interview is available here: (link)