Sunday, January 31, 2016

Happy Campers?

Chasidim siting at the Rebbe's Tisch (table), - a joyous Chasidic custom
The lack of a decent secular education among many of my coreligionists is one of the most troubling issues facing Orthodoxy today. Outside of the Charedi world in Israel, nowhere is that a bigger problem than in the insular world of Chasidim. Not all Chasidim. But those that live as large independent homogeneous communities like Satmar’s Kiryas Joel, Skvere’s  New Square, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the Willimsburg section of Brooklyn.

Getting a Jewish education is of paramount importance if one wants to perpetuate Judaism. That is why we send our children to religious schools. Without a Jewish education the chances or a child retaining his Judaism is severely reduced. One can see that in the tragic level of assimilation and intermarriage taking place in heterodoxy that has the Conservative movement scrambling for solutions and has Reform movement changing how it defines Judaism.  While there are exceptions to all this, I think it’s fair to say that it is the rule.

That said, the importance of a secular education is increasingly becoming marginalized – and in some cases virtually eliminated. A situation I have decried countless numbers of times.  As noted however, the insular Chasidic communities are the ones where this is most prevalent in this country. (Israel is a separate discussion)

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the 50s and early 60s Orthodox Jews of all stripes attended the same schools - which all had secular studies programs. After a while, as the post Holocaust immigrant Chasidim found their bearings and became more organized they created an insular society and built schools that all but eliminated secular studies before age 13 - and have no secular studies at all past that age.

The question is why? Why do Chasidim avoid secular studies? What is about that they find so offensive? I think the answer can be seen in a video produced by Menachem Daum for PBS. Even though the video doesn’t say exactly why they oppose it, one can ‘read between the lines’ to understand what is really going on. It is about keeping people in the fold.

I don’t think there is any other way to look at the communities than cult-like. It is not a cult that forces its people to stay in it in any threatening way. But it does force them to stay in subtle psychological ways by both positive and negative reinforcement. 

On the one hand the world of Chasidim is one where there is a tremendous  sense of family and community. The camaraderie; the kindness and the warmth in these enclaves is palpable and immediately felt by visitors that spend any time there. People do actually look out for each other. No one is left out. The entire community is sensitive to the welfare of its individual members. One would be hard pressed to find this kind of camaraderie  and universal compassion in any other segment of Judaism. Even expatriate Chasidim like Shulem Deen recognizes this - despite his expulsion from that world and attendant loss of his wife and children. He has said that he still sometimes misses it.

Then there is the way they see their Rebbe. He is seen by his Chasidim as larger than life. He is accorded a level of honor reserved for kings. He is seen the man closest to God by orders of magnitude over anyone else. The opening scene in the video demonstrates the kind of worship he gets as almost every passerby bows and kisses his hand! He is a beloved figure seen as dedicated to the welfare of every single individual - going out of is way beyond all reason to help a Chasid in need. If there were saints in Judaism, to his Chasidim he would be one. He is the man that sets the rules. These rules are designed to promote a higher level of Kedusha - a holier and more pristine Jewish existence as defined by the Chasidism of their Rebbe. This is the positive reinforcement.

Then there is the negative reinforcement. Part of that holiness means concentration on religious studies to the exclusion of secular studies. It means instituting customs that will keep them insulated and isolated from the world outside. They learn English as a second language.barely being able to speak it properly let alone write it. They dress the way they do in service to their overly broad interpretation of the Chukas HaGoy – the prohibition against following non Jewish customs.

Their dedication to and dependence upon the Rebbe - combined with their sense of community as extended family and their insularity assures that these rules are followed. It also assures that they stay there and with rare exception - stay poor! That's what a lack of a decent secular education will do for you. And there is precious little they can do about it. And yet they vehemently deny that they are a cult saying they are free to leave anytime they choose. No one will stop them.

Indeed, most of these people say they are happy, even ecstatic -  living this lifestyle. I have no doubt that many do feel like this most of the time. It’s almost like a summer camp atmosphere. But I have to believe that they are not so happy being poor – even as they might deny it publicly. I think that there may be more unhappiness than many of them are willing admit.

Why? As noted in the video there is fear about the consequences of coming out publicly with their true feelings. How it will affect their peer relationships. And their community standings.  If one wants to be a member in good standing in that world, one does not express unhappiness about their material circumstances. Especially since they have no place else to go and no skills to better their lot. So that those who are not happy - bite the bullet and feign happiness and contentment. Which after all does still exists at some level.

I don’t know what future lies ahead for these people. Yes, they seem to be happy in their current condition. But in my humble opinion, their future does not look very bright.