Monday, May 28, 2018

These are Charedi Priorities?

R' Kanievsky and R' Edelman speaking to a Prison official (YWN)
I’ve told this story before. But it bears repeating in light of a story at YWN(More about that later.) About 30 years ago when my parents lived in Bnei Brak, my father Davened in the Chasidic Shtiebel of the Bilitzer Rebbe - down the street from his house.  Both my father and the Rebbe were approximately the same age, of European background. Having immigrated to Israel from the US at about the same time - they struck up a friendship.

One day my father found out that one of the Bilitizer Rebbe’s Chasidim was caught selling drugs. When my father expressed his outrage, the Bilitzer rebbe said something along the lines of the following, ‘Nu, Reb Shimon, you have to understand. This fellow has a large family to feed… he has 10 children!’

My father left rather astounded by his friend’s response, went home and had a cow! 

How anyone could defend  a drug dealer  (made worse by the fact that a religious Jew was doing it thus causing a Chilul HaShem) was beyond disturbing to my father. Instead of expressing the outrage my father felt, the Bilitzer expressed his sympathy for his drug dealing Chasid!

This seems to be a pattern in the Charedi world. It is one thing to judge people favorably. But to do so at the expense of overlooking a serious crime is disgusting! And ignoring the  attendant Chilul HaShem seems to counter one of the most basic principles of the Torah. God commands us NOT to desecrate his name numerous times.  

YWN reported a story about Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Gershin Edelstein (whom many consider Gedolei HaDor) having been visited by a high ranking prison official. The purpose of that meeting was to make sure that Charedi prisoners be allowed to wear jackets and hats for Davening. Something these two Rabbonim were told was being denied to them.

As many people that have commented on this story have noted, this was a truly perplexing event for a variety of reasons. This is the ‘Hill they want to die on?!’ This is the issue that these great Rabbomim want to address? Allowing prisoners convicted of a variety of criminal activity to be allowed to wear a jacket and hat for davening?

This is not a Halachic requirement.  But it is a very strong Charedi requirement. Some shuls will not allow you to Daven for the Amud (as a Chazan) without it!  Even if you are in Avielus – the 12 month period of mourning for the death of a parent where one should be gathering Zechusim  (merit) for the deceased. Davening for the Amud is the traditional way of doing that – for those capable of doing so. They take precedence over others. This is called being ‘a Chiuv’.

And it is what happened to famed Orthodox criminal attorney, Ben Brafman when he was in Aveilus. He told this story at the mea culpa Agudah dinner of the Spinka Rebbe who apologized after he was caught in a tax evasion - money laundering scheme. Ben needed to catch a Minyan for Mincha and when the Gabbai asked if there was a Chiuv. (someone in Aveilus or a Yahrzeit) Ben raised his hand. The Gabbai ignored him and chose another fellow (who by coincidence was a former client of Ben’s). Why? Because he wasn’t wearing a hat or a gartel!

This shows exactly where the priorities are. The lack of a hat for davening is more significant than the crime one went to jail for. It is the hat that matters most.

One might argue that these great Rabbanim could do nothing about their incarceration. That… what’s – is done. They are paying for the crime. And all these Rabbonim wanted to do is help them out in any way that they could. Even in this small way. What’s so wrong with doing that?

But as was so eloquently noted by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, criminal activity is plaguing Charedi Jewry. He cites many examples: 
One of the most senior charedi politicians in Beit Shemesh…, was just arrested for major fraud...
(W)e have one of the worst desecrations of God's Name in the country's history, the conviction of former Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger - a man who was widely suspected of very serious wrongdoings for decades…
Earlier this month, nine charedim were arrested for a huge, sophisticated fraud involving the creation of fictitious yeshivos in order to receive various government benefits. They printed thousands of fake identity cards and even purchased buses to quickly transport hundreds of cooperative students to the Yeshiva in case of a surprise inspection. The scam had been going on for years… It was the largest fraud ever uncovered in Israel's history.
This follows a similar case in Beit Shemesh last year, where police arrested twelve charedim for creating a fictitious yeshivah with 150 students in order to receive benefits.
A few years earlier, police raided three non-profit institutions in Beit Shemesh and Beitar which were likewise running fake yeshivos to collect benefits. And when the government started to audit how many students in charedi yeshivos really exist, various yeshivos voluntarily removed a total of ten thousand fictitious students! 
I am not picking on Charedim. As Rabbi Slifkin noted, we all have our share of bad apples. The problem is that these people aren’t treated like bad apples. Their misdeeds are practically ignored. That distinguished Rabbonim go out of their way to see that they are given the right to observe minute Charedi customs - sends  a message that what they did was not all that bad. The Charedi convicts can easily end up thinking that their only problem was getting caught.

This matches the reaction of the above-mentioned Bilitzer Rebbe and the Gabbai that refused to give the Amud to a Chiuv. The greater concern seems to be for the welfare of the criminal than the crimes committed and the attendant Chilul HaShem. 

It also seems to be of little concern - WHY these people resort to crime in the first place. I can’t speak to every single incarcerated Charedi. But it is clear that a lot of that crime was financial. In some cases it might be greed. But it is just as likely that they simply needed the money to feed their ‘10 children’ (…to put it the way the Bilitzer Rebbe did).

It’s true that a lot of progress has been made in the Charedi world in that department. Charedim now have options available that can train them for the workplace after they finish Kollel. As has been noted here many times - that is not enough. There are too many people that cannot support their families without outside help. And if they can’t get enough outside help, resorting to crime is an option for far too many of them. Which is why there are  enough Charedim in the prison system for 2 distinguished elderly Rabbonim to step in and help them… even in this small way.

It’s too bad that such care is not accompanied by the kind of outrage my father had at the crimes that put them there. And the rebuke they should have gotten instead of the right to wear a black hat in prison.