Thursday, May 29, 2014

Satmar and Yeshiva University

Elimelech Wagschal gets a kiss from his mother at his graduation 
If only this would start a new trend.

One of the issues I have with Satmar type Chasidus is their attitude about the secular world. Of those in the Charedi world that eschew having anything to do with it, they are one of the most extreme.

 As a result they oppose anything but the most basic secular education for their students.  It isn’t only the possible Kefira they might be exposed to that they are afraid of. It is the culture. They probably fear that more than the Kefira. They do not want any of their Chasidim to adopt anything from that culture. They see the promiscuity that goes on in the world and they want to avoid it at all costs – Tznius being a high priority item. They see what they call the ‘values of the street’ and they run the other way. So when it comes to higher education – well… that’s out. The problems I just mentioned are on the university campuses in spades.

So they live sheltered and even insular lives – believing that in this way the ‘values of the street’ will not penetrate their communities. Only the most minimal contact is allowed and even then – only for Parnassa purposes.

But isolation has proven not to be as effective as they might have hoped for. The internet has assured that.

Satmar will counter that it is true that their insular  ways are not foolproof, but nonetheless it is still the safest way to go - on the whole.

Most Satmar type Chasidim will remain safe. But at a price. By not availing themselves of the opportunities to better their lives and income via the education available to others - the majority end up with menial jobs The pay for those jobs is no where near the amount necessary to support their typically large families. Except for a few that have family connections to welathy entrepreneurs or have their own entrepreneurial spirit to borrow money and invest in a business - many end up being quite poor. This is was demonstrated in a survey taken a few years ago that showed the Satmar village of Kiryas Joel to be one of the poorest in the United States.

Which is why the story of Elimelech Wagschal is such a big deal. He is a Satmar Chasid that through a twist of fate graduated from Yeshiva University undergraduate school. From VIN:
Take one look at Elimelech Wagschal and he looks nothing like the typical Yeshiva University graduate.  With his black payos and bekeshe,  the 22 year old Kiryas Joel man does not fit the classic Yeshiva University mold, yet he found his experience at the school to be nothing but a positive experience and he hopes that others who find themselves in a similar predicament will follow in his footsteps. 
Despite being a straight A student from his earliest days in yeshiva, Wagschal found himself denied admission to Kiryas Joel’s yeshiva gedola.
“I could have gone to a different yeshiva, not in my hometown, but my family and I decided that the thing to do was to go to YU,” Wagschal told VIN News. 
Given his minimal background in secular studies, Wagschal was hesitant to apply to Yeshiva University, and instead spent one year at Touro College where he earned straight A’s.  Buoyed by his academic success, Wagschal transferred to Yeshiva University, where he completed a degree in business management with an above 3.5 grade point average. 
Although he came from a different background than most of his classmates, Wagschal foundthat he was accepted with open arms and felt absolutely no pressure to change in order to better fit in with YU’s student body.
“I am a very strong chosid and that is something that you are at heart,” said Wagschal.  “It isn’t superficial and a chosid can fit in anywhere. At no point in time did I ever have to compromise even a single drop on my values or beliefs.”
This young man bucked the trend in that world. He did something few young Chasidim do. He attended a university in order to better his future. He was welcomed with open arms and did quite well. Furthermore he remained true to his Chasidic heritage.  As I said in the opening line, if only this will start a trend.

I don’t know how the Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel feels about this. Nor do I know how the rest of his community felt. But his parents seemed to lovingly approve of what he did. That is evident from the photo.

Perhaps as important in this story is the way the students at YU accepted him. These young mostly Modern Orthodox students did not see a Satmar Chasid. They saw a peer… a religious student getting an education right alongside everyone else. They treated him as an equal… as one of their own.

I have read more than once about the Satmar type Chasid that goes OTD because of the strictures placed upon him in his community.  Strictures that mostly do not exist in modern Orthodox environments.  But when these young men and women become disillusioned with their Chasdi lifestyles they go straight from being a Satmar type Chasid to becoming entirely secular and non observant. They don’t eve consider becoming Modern Orthodox.

One of the reasons for that is that Satmar type Chasidus treats Modern Orthodoxy as pretty much going OTD anyway.  So they see no more value in becoming Modern Orthodox than they do in becoming completely secular.

But even if they were convinced to try that first before going completely OTD they wouldn’t do it. They feel out of place. Their upbringing is radically different; as is their worldview; their way of life; the way they speak English; their interests; and their intellectual pursuits. They feel a sense of rejection because they are so different in so many different ways. It is like living on Mars.

But as Elimelech’s experience at YU has shown, one can remain true to his core belief and culture and still be welcomed as a full fledged member of that group. The lack of academic preparation can be made up. They can catch up to their peers relatively quickly. They do not have to feel like social outcasts at all. If they end up getting the kind of education YU can provide, their future will likely be a lot brighter, both financially and socially.

It is there fore imperative to make certain that the word gets out among Satmar Chasdim who are having difficulty remaining in the fold. Let them talk to Elimelech Wagschal. He can teach them a thing or two.