Friday, March 28, 2014

My Proposal for a Framework to Bridge the Chareidi/Non-Chareidi Gap in E"Y


I wrote an article which was recently posted on the Cross-Currents blog. Like many people, I'm frustrated with the vilification I'm hearing about points of view and decisions they disagree with. People talk past each other and impune the other's motives.
I had a 60 hour clinical training during law school with Professor Baruch Bush on how the theory and practice of transformative mediation (videos of Prof. Bush explaining transformative mediation above). It seems like it would be a very effective way to get the various sides to hear each other and, who knows, perhaps reach a long-term, consensual, and peaceful resolution and avoid further "culture war." The trick is getting the parties in the door.
I definitely recommend people read my article, the first few paragraphs of which I've copied below. Click here to read the full article.
Both sides on the chareidi draft issue in Eretz Yisroel see the other as an existential threat. The current coalition government apparently thought that they did not need to compromise on the imprisonment issue when they unilaterally negotiated and recently passed their draft bill. On the other hand, the various chareidi communities do not think they need to compromise in their total opposition to the law in any form and believe their show of solidarity on the issue at the Atzeres Tefillah gathering in Yerushalayim backs up that position. All they need to do it wait until the next election and give a majority to any coalition government which agrees to repeal the law.
When both sides look at the other, they feel simultaneously vulnerable and powerful. In reality, this is the perfect opening for leaders on both sides to participate in an open-ended dialogue that, based on past history, has a strong potential to not only enable them to reach a peaceable resolution to the conflict, but to bring them closer together. That framework for conversation is called “transformative mediation.”
The Transformative Model
The chareidi and non-chareidi communities in Eretz Yisroel need some framework within which to transform the downward spiral in their relationship. The current conflict is like a civil litigation. Both sides start with the intention of defeating the other, but in court, most cases are ultimately resolved consensually before trial. In this inter-communal Jewish dispute, however, it is not enough to settle individual issues with particular compromises while both sides continue to inwardly despise one another. We must transform the nature of the relationship between the two sides and reshape the form of the dialogue.
In the legal world, there are a variety of ways consensual resolutions are reached. Settlements arise from direct negotiation before or during litigation and sometimes through mediation. Most forms of mediation are mediator-driven. In other words, the mediator guides the parties through the issues to be resolved and sets the tone for what he believes a resolution should look like. In standard mediation, the mediator is an experienced professional with a good understanding of the strength of each side’s legal arguments and who is most likely to win on what issue in a full-blown litigation. He uses his knowledge and influence to guide the parties to what he believes is a workable solution. While this is often effective if the only goal is achieving a settlement, it often leaves parties with just as much animosity toward one another and feeling steamrolled into a settlement with the mediator taking the other party’s side on some issue.
But this method will not work here because the stakes are too critical. Neither side can risk participating in a process which could potentially force it to cede precious ground. This crisis demands a deeper response. The issues and values at stake are so personal and so nuanced for both sides that any outside intervention or coercion would not address the underlying issue; the relationship between the chareidi and non-chareidi communities in Eretz Yisroel.
More Than Compromise – Transforming the Dialogue
The good news is that transformative mediation is a participant-driven form of mediation which does not limit its goals to ironing out a compromise to a particular circumscribed conflict. Rather, it is structured to transform the form of the dialogue and the parties’ relationship... Click here to read more.
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Friday, March 21, 2014

Siyum Hashas on LIRR Next Monday Morning (3rd time!)

My friend asked me to post the below announcement abouta the third siyum hashas to take place on the Long Island Railroad next Monday morning on the train that leaves Far Rockaway for Penn Station at 7:51 a.m. (goes through Woodmere at 8:01). Join if you can!

Historic Siyum at 70mph
On Monday, March 31, 2014 (29 Adar II 5774) history will be made, as a unique daf yomi shuir celebrates a rare milestone. The completion of Talmud Bavli for the third time. This upcoming siyum will not be held in a massive sports stadium attended by tens of thousands, but rather the event will take place in the same uncommon location that the shuir is delivered each day.
That morning will be the same as any other, as shuir members filter onto the LIRR train at Far Rockaway, Inwood, Lawrence and Cedarhurst stations as they have done for the last twenty-two years. But as the train begins to pulls out of Woodmere and Sholom Fried begins the final page in a 7 1/2 year cycle, they will be on the cusp of a remarkable accomplishment. This group has been riding the same Long Island Railroad train, with the same united purpose. To utilize the 45 minute ride into Penn Station NYC with a daily dose of learning. With miles and miles of track under their locomotive classroom, they are now on the horizon of completing the daf yomi cycle of Talmud Bavli for the third time.
Back in 1991, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, was approached by Aryeh Markovich while riding the LIRR one morning wanting to know if he would be willing to teach the Talmud on the 7:51 a.m. train from Far Rockaway to Manhattan. “I used to see a lot of people playing cards on the train,” says Markovich, ‘I figured why don’t we do something for people to utilize their time productively and learn something, too?’ Rabbi Lerner agreed, and the rest is history. The first day Markovich went up and down the train platform handing out flyers to publicize their class-on-wheels. The next morning, nearly 30 people showed up for their mobile tutorial in the train’s last car. It has been going strong ever since. Today, there are two morning Manhattan-bound trains that offer a daf yomi class. Students range from accountants, bankers, salesmen and even staff of the MTA itself. Railroad personnel are well aware of the class. Proud of the positive publicity it has generated, they do everything possible to help.
There certainly are challenges conducting a class in this environment. Eliezer Cohen, who has been learning with the group for more than 10 years and now serves as one of its senior magid shuir says “The daf discusses all aspects of life. Therefore there are issues that come up, from the mundane to the very powerful. The political issues of the day, sexual [topics] . . . sometimes there are issues that are hard to discuss on the train, but it gives vibrancy to the commute.” Yossi Klein adds, “While most commuters grunt at the occasional delay on the rails, we relish in spending the extra few more minutes delving a little deeper in the daf.”
This certainly will be a siyum to remember, unlike ones in the past. Before the current cycle began, few had the technology at their fingertips that exist today. In the last few years the accessibility of data to assist ones learning-on-the-go has exploded with an Artscoll app, or a virtual shuir on an ipad. But there still is this class. Those who prefer to go thru shas in the same manner as it has been learnt for many years past – as a cohesive group. The daily participants have binded together and share in lifes high and lows - brisim, bar mitzvahs as well as levaya’s and shiva calls.
To celebrate the occasion, on March 31, 2014 the siyum will be sponsored by original member of the shiur Elliot Krischer, Benjy Krischer and their families in memory of their dear parents who were niftar this past year. LIRR will reserve the full last car in anticipation of the celebration and full program is planned with the collation proudly sponsored by Gourmet Glatt. Former magidai shiur Rabbi Pesach Lerner, Rabbi Shmuel Bloom and representatives of of Agudath Israel will join as this moment of achievement comes to fruition: the greatest from the spirit of Lubliner Rov. Rabbi Meir Shapiro's vision of the Daf Yomi's potential, and the power of a continual procession of learning lives on strong as ever. Even in the East River tunnels of NYC on a packed commuter train.
Just think that you can also turn your morning commute into a productive period of learning that will shape the fabric of your daily entry into the business world. Anytime you join, seven years later you have completed Shas. Rosh Chodesh Nissan is a great time to take the step toward a new beginning as we start Mesechtas Beitzah. Join Sholom Fried, Yossie Klein, Eliezer Cohen and Rabbi Menachem Adler as they conduct their mobile class each morning.
We invite all former participants and their families to come join in the celebration on march 31. If you have any inquiries contact Eliezer Cohen at

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Not Raising Kids with Superficial Yiddishkeit

Rav Moshe Weinberger often speaks about the fact that this generation demands depth. Children in some earlier generations may have been satisfied with being instructed on what to do and how to daven without any explanation. "That's what Jews do." So many kids go off the derech today because they seek depth and meaning and become dissolutioned when they are presented with a shallow Yiddishkeit that is inconsistent and superficial.

It is definitely harder to explain the reasons behind the myriad of questions children have (at least until we attempt to squash their natural inquisitiveness so we don't have to be bothered with the questions). But it is vital that we do so. Children or teenagers often ask questions we don't know the answers to. It becomes humiliating, after a certain point, to continue saying "I don't know." And we don't always have the time to look up or ask people who are more knowledgeable about the answers. So it's natural for a parent to want to make kids feel wrong for asking their questions. And eventually, they learn to stop asking. They either become satisfied with shallow Yiddishkeit or disaffected from Yiddishkeit, believing that either their parents, rebbeim, or Yiddishkeit itself really is the superficial enterprise presented to them.

Why do only baalei teshuva deserve answers to the big questions? Why are we here? Why did Hashem create us? How can terrible things happen to innocent people? Frum children deserve these answers no less than our non-observant brothers and sisters. That is why the program Project Chazon was created.

I often fall into this trap as well but this past Friday night gave us an opportunity to address my kids' real questions. During the seuda, my six year old daughter asked, "Why do we do mitzvos?" A very basic but fundamental question! I think her implication was: Mitzvos are sometimes a lot of work. So why do we have to do them? They feel like a burden.

Rather than essentially ignore the question, which certainly would have been easier, I took the first crack at it with a Derech-Hashem-for-six-year-olds approach. I told her: "The only way we can understand why Hashem gives us mitzvos is to ask why Hashem created us to begin with. Hashem is perfect right? He lacks nothing. So why did He go to the trouble of creating us? Since He doesn't need anything, He couldn't have created us for His benefit; because He needed something from us. So for whose sake did He create us? It must have been for our benefit, for our sake. If so, then he must have given us the mitzvos for our benefit, because he wanted to give us something good. Mitzvos are the biggest good in the world that He could have given us.

Certainly there's more to say but the attention span is limited. Hopefully it planted a seed.

My oldest daughter (15) then tried her hand at another Derech Hashem/Mesillas Yesharim approach, which is amazing. She offered an analogy. She said to our youngest, "If you get something good, what feels better? When you get something as a free gift or if you get something that you'd already worked for and earned? Hashem gave us the mitzvos so that we can earn our reward and enjoy it even more."

IY"H, may all of us take the time to encourage our kids' questions,do our best to answer them, and be proactive about learning why we do what we do and teaching our kids the reasons!

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Monday, March 10, 2014

GUEST POST: A Reflection on Yesterday's Atzeres Tefillah

Thank you for Dixie Yid's encouragement to post the following thoughts I exchanged with him over email. 

On the train ride to the Atzeres, I read Dixie Yid's reflections here on living outside the box. His personal reflection made me dive into my "box," a working out-of-town "Baal Teshuvah" heading to a event defined for the "Charedi" velt. 

My experiences and growth in Torah have been a multifaceted and this year has been no different. I spent Rosh Hashanah in Uman and on Chanukah I was at a IDF base behind the green line passing my son around to soldiers. Today I was davening next to Satmar Chassidim and crying with them. 

Labels are the most divisive thing possible. 

I feel like my life would be so boring if I couldn't appreciate and learn from The Lonely Man of Faith, an IDF solider, or a Satmir Chassid. 

The Atzeres itself was a few hours of my life that strengthened my connection to Torah and my Emunah. The Ribono Shel Olam had to have nachas from the event. This is not the place to discuss my motivations for going but after putting aside the issues, one is left with a picture of tens of thousands of Yidden davening from their hearts, many with tears on their faces. No pushing, no yelling, and no signs. Just davening to Hashem for Limud Hatorah. there was only one pre-written statement at end and the rest was Tefillah. 

While trying to extract some mussar from the event, the following question was left in my head: Perhaps if we can look past the Chizonious (the issues/motivations) of the events/people, will the Penimius of Yidden looking for a deep connection to Emet will shine through?

The more we stand together from all spectrums the faster the Geulah will come. 

Am Yisrael Chai! 

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Rocking Rosh Chodesh Adar II Davening with Eli Beer and Chevra

This past Sunday our holy brother and sister in Woodmere, Eliav and Ruchi Frei hosted another beautiful Rosh Chodesh davening for the beginning of Adar II. Baruch Hashem, a very deep musician Eli Beer led the davening accompanied by friends with guitars, tambourines, a flute, and bongo drums. The video above, taken by the irrepressible Dov Perkal, captures the chevra's 50 minute Halel.

Click here to see some clips from the minyan we had for the Sunday morning during Chanukah led by Eitan Katz, also at Eliav Frei's house.

IY"H, may this video inspire us and may all of us have a truer davening!

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Sunday, March 9, 2014

Living Outside the Box - Blessings and Challenges

My oldest daughter goes to a local Bais Yaakov style high school. One night recently she asked me, "Are we modern orthodox or ultra-orthodox?" Before giving her any kind of answer, I asked her why she was asking.
She told me that her school was cooperating with a psychologist or PhD student by having all the students fill out a survey about certain issues. The questions were along the lines of: "Do you count your calories?" "Have you been on a diet in the last three months?" "Do you gorge yourself on food and then cause yourself to vomit?" The questions continued along those lines.

But the first question on the survey was whether the student identifies as "modern orthodox" or "ultra-orthodox." To my great pride, she told me that she had no clue what she should answer. And I don't think it's just because "ultra-orthodox" Jews don't use that label about themselves.
I asked her what she answered. She told me that she listened to how other girls said they were answering the question and filled in the same answer they did: "ultra-orthodox."
She then asked me, "So what are we really?" I told her that she had the right answer at the beginning by not ascribing any label to herself or our family. I told her that we are "just Jews" but that we share certain attributes usually ascribed to those who identify as "modern orthodox" and other attributes usually ascribed to those who identify as "ultra-orthodox" or "chareidi."
Some people have no label because they lack guidance and direction. Baruch Hashem, we have a Rebbe who we follow. If we have any question about which hanhaga we should keep in a certain area, we ask our Rebbe. I take pride in the fact that we've raised our children in such a way that they don't label themselves as being part of some subgroup of the Jewish people. That's why on my Blogger and Twitter profiles, I list my denomination as "Underconstructionist." We've never even taught the kids explicitly or by example to label non-observant people differently from ourselves or judge them as people. They are just as Jewish as we are but just don't know better or didn't grow up with Torah and mitzvos and either never got the opportunity or find out about it or it was too hard for them to learn a different way of life later on.
On balance, I'm happy to be a person who doesn't fit into neat, pre-defined categories. There are many blessings and perks that go along with that. For example, it's liberating to live as a Jew unencumbered by extraneous expectations and limitations that have no essential connection to Torah or the ratzon Hashem. I also don't feel any pressure not to learn parts of Torah to which I feel a connection. Such limitations dry out and hobble the soul.
It's also easier to do the right thing when it comes to "chanoch l'naar al pi darko," raising each child according to his or her own nature. If I felt some allegiance to a very specific way of life separate from the actual ratzon Hashem or halacha, it would make it harder for me to make decisions based on what's right for my children as individuals, based on their own nature.
If I felt compelled to raise my children to be a certain way regardless of their nature, the analogy is that it is like making a square peg fit into a round hole. It's not that you can't make it fit. You simply have to shave off the corners of the square peg to make it fit. That may work for wooden pegs, but it's incredibly destructive when done to children.
While being outside of traditional labels is a source of pride, it is also a challenge. There is a  comfort and hominess for those who do label themselves. There's a legitimately positive certainty that comes with doing things in a certain way because "that's the way 'we' do it." It creates a confidence and strength that enables a person to follow his community's minhagim and mores without having to think about each detail or wonder if he just made it up or if it has some basis. 
Socially, it's also easier to fit into a neat and tidy group. It's easier to deal with the real-life challenge of finding a shidduch for one's children if he can simply limit his child's potential matches to those with the same label listed in their "shidduch resume." There's also the danger of people not wanting to make a shidduch with the child of someone who does't easily fit in a label, even if the bochur and girl would  otherwise have been a good potential match. That creates practical difficulties in life and it would be easier not to have to live with such difficulties. In addition, not fitting within a simple label makes some people nervous and uneasy and it's hard to not always feel "accepted."
The bottom line is that while not fitting into a specific label is sometimes hard, I compare it to the Gemara's psak (Eiruvin 13b) that "it would have been easier if man had not been created than if he had been created." As my Rebbe always points out, it doesn't say it would have been "better" if man hadn't been created. It says it would have been "easier." Similarly, while it would have been "easier" to be someone who fits into a neat label, it would not have been "better" (for me personally at least).
Whether you or I count ourselves among those who identify with a particular subgroup of orthodoxy or not, may we all merit to fulfill the ratzon Hashem with truth!
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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Rav Hershel Schachter's Visit to Woodmere Last Shabbos and the Mantle of Leadership

Rav Hershel Schachter, shlita, the Rosh Yeshiva and posek from YU, spent this past Shabbos at Aish Kodesh in Woodmere in connection with YU's quadrennial chag hasmicha. It was a true privilege having him and I was surprised to see that he indirectly addressed the recent brouhaha involving the "open orthodox" movement's recent innovations to Jewish practice involving women putting on tefillin and "partnership minyanim," wherein women lead parts of the davening. He did not speak about the issues directly but touched on the main theme of his recent teshuvos on those topics. See here for the one on tefillin and here for the one on partnership minyanim.

I will summarize a small portion of his drashos and then share some of my thoughts about what these developments mean to me as a baal teshuva.

Rav Schachter's Drashos over Shabbos

Friday night, between Kabbalas Shabbos and Maariv, when Rav Moshe Weinberger usually speaks, Rav Schachter spoke instead. In the course of a larger discussion, he quoted an opinion that unlike earlier times, one should not repeat Shmonah Esrei if he forgets Yaaleh VeYavo on Rosh Chodesh because we are likely to forget the second time as well. This is because we concentrate less during davening and are likely to forget Yaaleh VeYavo again,  unlike earlier generations when people had better concentration. He then commented, as an aside, that "Some think many more halachos should change today!"

Shabbos morning, he spoke about how Moshe ascended through the cloud that covered Har Sinai and that according to one opinion quoted by Rashi (on Shmos 24:18, quoting Yuma 4b), Hashem held Moshe by the hand and led him through a path through the cloud.

He related this teaching by Chazal to a teaching of Rav Simcha Kook that connects to a well-known  pejorative story misnagdim tell about chassidim. That story goes as follows:

Three chassidim were talking and each one was trying to show that his rebbe was better than the others' rebbes. The first chossid said, "My rebbe is so great that one time he was traveling with a horse and wagon and it began to rain. He did not want to be delayed by muddy roads so he davened to Hashem and He made a miracle. It rained on one side of the road and on the other side of the road but it was dry in the middle and he was able to travel."

The second chossid responded, "Well that's nothing. One time my rebbe was traveling with a horse and wagon and it was almost nighttime. There were no street lights, so he would not be able to travel in the dark. He therefore davened to Hashem and He made a miracle. It was dark on one side of the road and on the other side of the road, but it was light in the middle and he was able to travel."

The third chossid answered, "That's all very nice but your rebbes are small potatoes compared to my rebbe. One time he was traveling with a horse and wagon and it was almost Shabbos. He knew that he could not travel on Shabbos but he need to get to town. He therefore davened to Hashem and He made a miracle. It was Shabbos on one side of the road and Shabbos on the other side of the road, but Chol in the middle and he was able to travel!"

Rav Schachter related that he once heard Rav Simcha Kook speak at YU, which is in Manhattan, the "great-grandfather of impurity." He commented that YU had accomplished a miracle even greater than the final rebbe's, making a small strip of Chol with Shabbos on both sides. He said the miracle of YU is that it exists in the middle of Manhattan, with Chol surrounding it on both sides. Yet it creates a little strip of Shabbos in the middle. That is true greatness!

Rav Schachter followed up that we live in such confusing times. We are surrounded by confusing, cloudy secularism on all sides. Like Moshe, it is so difficult to find that path of Shabbos, that path of Kodesh in the middle of all of the Chol without getting lost. Just like Moshe had Hashem to hold him by the hand and guide him through the dark cloud up to Har Sinai, we too need great poskim and gedolim to show us the path through the cloudy secularism of this world so we do not become confused by the misleading appearances of the world around us.

Reflecting on Rav Schachter's Message

I grew up Reform and became religious in high school as I have written about elsewhere.  One central aspect of the Reform and Conservative denominations which I was happy to get away from was the hypocrisy of religious systems which tailored religious doctrine to appeal to the desires of the masses. Among many others, I borrowed two sociology books from my local JCC library to learn about orthodoxy during that time. These two books had a major influence on my thinking. One was The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry, by William Helmreich and  the other was Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism, by Lynn Davidman. Both books were written by people who were not part of the communities they were portraying and were not necessarily trying to write complimentary portrayals.

I made one observation based on the communities profiled in these and other books and certain attitudes held by many people I came across. There is a segment of the modern orthodox community that institutionally approaches Judaism in a qualitatively similar manner as the Reform movement in which I grew up. I do not judge them as people, but I observed people who attempted to find religious justifications for whatever they wanted to do.  This smacked too much of the Reform background I left behind so I made sure to distance myself from the perspective of that subgroup of modern orthodoxy.

It pains me to watch when people within the ostensibly orthodox world fail to learn the lessons of the failure of the Reform and Conservative denominations' "doctrine on demand" approach.  Whether it was the "women's tefilla groups" craze in certain enclaves twenty years ago or the "partnership minyanim" of today, I am baffled at people's shortsightedness. How can they not look past the end of their noses to see the long term outcome of a policy which institutionalizes the practice of finding halachic justification for whatever secular-influenced morality happens to be in vogue?

Note that it is clear that these issues are nowhere near the forefront of the main challenges facing orthodoxy today. Many other issues loom much larger, like the problem of child abuse and the problems outlined in Rav Moshe Weinberger's famous article from Klal Perspectives, Just One Thing is Missing: The Soul. That being said, we can only correct the failures within orthodoxy to the extent there is still an orthodoxy to correct. If we sit idly by and abandon a segment of our brethren to oblivion in a few generations, like other sects which broke off from Judaism, any correction of  various issues will be a moot point with respect to those who are lost.

That is why I am so grateful for leaders like Rav Schachter. He and other rebbeim in YU and the RCA care too much about the modern orthodox community to stand idly by while a not-insignificant minority of it begin walking down the slow path out of orthodoxy while still maintaining that they are orthodox - but "open." He wrote his well-known essay "B'ikvei Hatzon" twenty years ago to address the issue of women's tefila groups then and he wrote his recent teshuvos on women wearing tefillin and "partnership minyanim" in recent weeks to "lead us through the cloud."

Many rebbeim, talmidei chachamim, and poskim prefer to learn and teach their own talmidim and shul-goers and are too "humble" to offer our generation the leadership it needs. But where there is a vacuum in leadership, that void is filled by bloggers and rabbis, "little foxes destroying the vinyards." This contrast between fitting leaders who take up the mantle of leadership and unfit individuals who take up the role of the poskim is reflected in the Rambam's words in Hilchos Talmud Torah (5:4):
... So too any sage who is fit to pasken and does not do so holds back the Torah and places stumbling blocks before the blind... [This is in contrast with] the little students who do not amass sufficient Torah yet seek to aggrandize themselves before the ignorant people and among the residents of their cities and jump [to the forefront] and sit at the front to judge and pasken for the Jewish people. They multiply machlokes, destroy the world, extinguish the light of Torah, and destroy the vineyards of the L-rd of Hosts. Shlomo said about such people, in his wisdom (Shir Hashirim 2:15), "We have been gripped by foxes, little foxes destroying the vinyards."
I am grateful that some have learned the lessons of the failure of the heterodox world I merited to leave behind. We are fortunate to have giants in Torah, poskim like Rav Schachter, who heed the words of the Rambam to lead the generation. May Hashem help such leaders guide us through the confusing cloud of life in exile and may they leave little empty space for the "little foxes" to mislead segments of our community along the path of the Reform and Conservative movments.

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