By Yaakov Rosenblatt
Hewed by Hashem into the essence of man is the need – the unmistakable and existential need – to add something to the experiences, choices, and lifestyle of the generation before it.
The most dynamic generation is often the first one. In the simple but telltale example of a shul, the most committed generation is the one that founded it, seconded by the one that set it in a new direction or that moved it to the new Jewish neighborhood. Those generations will sacrifice the most for the shul, donate the most to it, and be most spirited by its success.
When a generation does not add, amend, create, or redefine its purpose in some way, major or minor, it is a generation on edge, quickly becoming a generation of sarcasm, cynicism and negativity.
Human nature runs through time and place and it is worthwhile to try and understand how the need for change expresses itself in our world, the yeshiva world.
My great-grandfather, a Poilisher yid [Polish Jew] moved to the United States in 1910. He changed. He was different than the generation before him. While just as frum, he changed his socio-economic status entirely. His forebears lived in dire poverty in Galitzianer [Northeastern Poland] villages. But in the summer of 1910 he boarded a ship in Bremen, Germany and decided to change his world. In America, he opened a kosher beef business and dabbled in real estate. He made money and lost money, and sent his children to yeshivas. He lived most of his life in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.
My grandfather, Max, was his oldest son. He was distinct from his father, too. He was the first generation American. He spoke English without an accent. He liked American food, watched American movies, and listened to American music. Notwithstanding his lack of formal education, he lived the American dream, giving his own children the benefit of a Jewish and secular education and seeing them buy their own homes – something he never did. To him, becoming an American Orthodox Jew, clean shaven and smartly dressed, was a major step forward. It was what shaped his identity.
My father’s generation added something, too. He was part of the first generation of “Bnei Torah”. His parents were shitbel yidden, practitioners of rudimentary Yiddishkeit. They saw work as primary and Torah study as secondary, and did not relate to Gedolim [Torah leaders] as we do.
My father learned in Kollel for a couple of years, went to Brooklyn College at night and became a public school teacher. He and my mother had and raised 11 frum children. His generation – through their tenacity, dedication and large families – built the wonderful mosdos that we take for granted in Flatbush, Monsey and Far Rockaway.
My generation (35 yrs) added something, too. Our Torah education, with college off the agenda, was more intense than that of our parents. Our internal intensity received external expression in our black velvet yarmulkes, tzitzis out, payos behind the ears, white shirts and dark pants (and sharp ties and Borsalinos on Shabbos). We saw the creation of the frum press which gave our commitment security. We looked to the Gedolim of Eretz Yisroel for psak din [rulings in Jewish law] and more and more for Hashkafa [Jewish philosophy]. Gemachim [Free loan funds], while founded conceptually by the generation before us, were brought to a new level by our generation. A 1985 Lakewood Gemach directory and a 2005 Lakewood Gemach directory say it all.
We ‘sat and learned’ longer after marriage than the generation before us. My own wife worked in a New Jersey Day School while I learned in Lakewood for three years, and we then moved to an out of town Kollel where I remained for another five years.
My father’s generation saw their large families as a major accomplishment and defining characteristic of their achievement, but my generation sees having as many children as we can as a given (it is interesting to note that many of my friends from families with 10+ children are on track to having 6 or 7, and those from smaller families are often on track for 10+ children.)
Many in my generation see remaining in kollel or klei kodesh [religious work] for their entire lives as their chiddush [addition] to the last generation. Economics of the 60’s didn’t allow it. But today, real estate profits and generous government programs allow for more klei kodesh careers than ever before. An average family size of six creates a new teaching position for every four families (24 kids). Adding positions in administration, fundraising, kashrus, rabbanus, kiruv, and safrus, a klei kodesh position is created by just three frum families paying their bills on time.
My generation wants to live better than the klei-kodesh-for-life of the last generation. While our learning may be at a higher level, we don’t want to live in a low-ceiling basement apartment to do so. Of my contemporaries (that are second and third generation Americans), those most willing to sacrifice are children of baalei teshuva and middle class balebatim who did not experience physical sacrifice growing up. Sacrifice is easier for them because sacrifice is new.
But what about our children, the next generation? What will they add? Now somewhere between ages 5 months and 15 years, they will have the same existential need to change, add, contribute, and affect as we have had.
Will their learning be more intense than ours? Perhaps, but how much more intense will it be? They won’t learn more “Reb Chaims” than we did, they can only begin to learn them younger. They may also learn more diverse miktzo’os [subjects] at a younger age than we did. But how distinct an achievement will that be? Will it be enough to give them a sense of ownership, a sense of change, a sense that they matter? Chazel say ain beis medrash b’lo chiddush [there is no House of Study without novel thoughts]. Where there is no chiddush and nothing meaningful to contribute there is cynicism: cynicism of one’s leaders, cynicism of oneself and cynicism of those who dare to find a niche and create chiddush. What can we do to make sure they will not be led in that direction?
Will they sit and learn for more years? It is hard to believe so. Large family size makes it difficult for even the wealthiest to support their married children and with massive immigration from Mexico, government programs will be on the decline.
Will they create more gemachim? They will. But will they be qualitatively different than what we have today? Enough to throw their arms around it and say they achieved it, as a generation?
Will they be more medakdek [precise] in Halacha? My generation is very, very medakdek.
Not having something to add, not having self-realized potential and feeling limited leads to grinding negativity. People begin to gain their identity from a group, not from what they have achieved personally. And that leads to finding flaws in those who stand out and pulling them down to the lowest common denominator of the group. Which takes away the desire and courage to initiate. It is human nature and true in every society.
So how will the next generation turn? Will it become more insular and shut out anything not Jewish at all, including all secular studies? Undoubtedly, some will choose that and it will be their chiddush.
Will it learn fewer years in kollel, falling back onto the instinct of man to provide for his family, going to work younger as do many Chassidim? Without doubt, some will and that will be their chiddush.
Will it become “Eretz Yisroel-only”, looking to the gedolim of Eretz Yisroel for every halacha and hashkafa [law and philosophical position], not paying any attention at all to the American Gedolim? Some will and that will be their difference.
Will it be more focused on Kiruv Rechokim and see it as their chiddush? Some will and that will be their contribution.
The next generation will do all of the above. Some will focus inward, striving for new levels in gadlus [spiritual greatness]. Some will look outward, looking to add more secular knowledge. And some will be cynical.
But the need for direction and change also creates an historic opportunity. The farmer that wants his son to remain on the family farm does not demand that his son do so. He remarks, time and time again, how he wishes he could have purchased 1000 acres adjacent to their farm, and then creates an opportunity for his son to buy them and expand the farm tenfold. He gives a vision to the son within the structure he sets forth and then lets the son take ownership of it and develop the method and strategy of its implementation.
That will take showing the next generation that there are significant things we have not achieved that they can. What are they?
Yaakov Rosenblatt, formerly a member of the Dallal Kollel, now served as Associate Director of NCSY-Dallas, Director of Jewish Student Union-Dallas, and runs his own business. He is the author of Maharal: Emerging Patterns (Feldheim, 2001)