Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Belzer Rebbe

The Belzer Rebbe,Yissachar Dov Rokeach (VIN)
Even though I am a direct descendant (7th  generation) of R’ Shimon Yaroslaver, an early 19th century Chasidic Rebbe , I am not a Chasid. Not even close. 

My father grew up in a Chasidic home. His father was the Rav and Posek of a few small Jewish towns in what is now the Ukraine (formerly a part of Poland). He was a devout Chasid of the Chortkover Rebbe. My grandfather passed away before the Holocaust. 

Although culturally a Chasid, my father was not philosophically a Chasid. He was more of a Hirschean.  Which is why he insisted I attend college. That is the Hashkafa in which I was raised despite having attended a Charedi day school and a Charedi Yeshiva high school through 10th grade. After which I attended HTC,  a Yeshiva whose Hashkafa was more along the lines of my family.   I attended HTC for then next 10 years and received Semicha from the Rosh HaYeshiva at the time, Rav Ahron Solovechik.

After his retirement at age 69 - and nostalgic for the culture of his youth, my father grew a beard, made Aliyah, settled in Bnei Brak  and joined the Boyaner Shteibel. (Boyan and Chortkov are a related Chasidus). This was long after I got married.

I am not going to go into the reasons why I am not a Chasid other than to say that this is not how I was raised. I mention all this in light of a recent article at VIN about the Belzer Rebbe. I know nothing about Belzer Chasidus. I have no clue, for example, how it differs from other types of Chasidus. But the more  I find out about the Belzer Rebbe, the more I like what I hear. Judging solely on that, if I were to decide to become a Chasid, I would be a Belzer Chasid.

Recall that it was the Belzer Rebbe who agreed to begin offering a secular studies curriculum in Belzer schools in exchange for the maximum  financial support the Israeli government would provide to Charedi schools that do that. 

Consider that of all segments of the Charedi world, Chasidim are the least likely to offer a secular studies curriculum. Consider also that the vast majority of Charedi schools in Israel do not offer any secular studies curriculum. They are willing to forgo the desperately needed financial support they would get if they did. It was therefore quite a courageous thing for the Belzer Rebbe to do. A decision that at the time was harshly criticized by the Charedi rabbinic leadership.  

It now appears that he is bucking another well established model of Charedi behavior with his approach to members of the  Charedi world that have left it. Apparently including those that have dropped observance altogether. From VIN

In a historic move, the Belzer Rebbe announced the establishment of a new organization for former chareidim, both those who maintain a religious lifestyle and those who are not religious.

The new organization is not meant to do kiruv but to provide a warm embrace to all those who have chosen a different lifestyle from their parents. The new organization, dubbed Ahavat Kedumim, will serve to maintain the connection to these people, deal with their concerns and help them keep associated with their families. 

This approach is not new to the Charedi world. There has been an increasing realization that keeping a bond with OTD children is a far better option than ostracizing them. This is in contrast to the past where it was pretty standard policy in the Charedi world to turn away from children that went OTD. I know one family (that I would describe as moderate Charedim) who many years ago, cut off all contact with a daughter that went OTD. To the best of my knowledge they have no clue where she is, what she is doing, or what her life is like now.

Unfortunately there are still Charedi leaders that advise severing all contact with OTD children If I understand correctly, Chasidim are more inclined to do that.

On the other hand, many Charedi educators have discovered that maintaining contact will at least not make enemies of them. Not to their families or to the Charedi world. They might even have nostalgia for their old life even if they are not willing to return to it. 

And at best, who knows? It is not unheard of to return to a family that has maintained loving relationships with an OTD child. 

On the other hand rejecting them the way the abovementioned family did is almost a guarantee that they will never return.

The Belzer Rebbe was moved to adopt this new program because of his innate compassion for fellow Jews regardless of what path they have taken. The precipitating factor, however, was the following: 

The initiative stemmed from a tragic case involving a former member of the Belzer chassidus, who took his own life after his parents and the community broke off relations with him. The tragedy triggered the establishment of the organization, as the Rebbe understood that breaking off relations is not the solution for those who leave religious practices and embark on a new path.       

Indeed. The results are along the lines I mentioned. Which are as follows: 

The organization was warmly received by former chareidim. One of them who was interviewed by Galei Tzahal said that “we feel like we are in a dream, we received a true embrace from one of the great men of our generation.” 

I cannot imagine too many OTD Charedim saying that about any Charedi leader. Instead I often hear them blaming those leaders – at least in part – for why they left. 

This new organization is in line with Chesed that I have heard mentioned that is typical of the Belzer Rebbe. Active Chesed that he dispenses equally to all in need. From is own Chasidim to completely secular Jews.

Just to be clear, I am not becoming a Belzer – or any other kind of Chasid. But I do wish to express my appreciation for this man. Who should be an inspiration for all of us. Including other Charedi leaders.