A Visit, A Memory and A Wish

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My wife, daughter and I recently spent a Sabbath on the sprawling campus of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, near Baltimore. The Ner Israel yeshiva might better be described as a town, comprised as it is of scores of faculty and graduate student families living in on-campus apartments and townhouses, and hundreds of students residing in on-campus dormitories.

(Full disclosure: My wife and I have three sons studying at Ner Israel, and my brother teaches Talmud and Holocaust studies in the yeshiva’s high school division. I spent formative years studying at Ner Israel; the literal meaning of alma mater – “nurturing mother” – for the yeshiva’s relationship to me is apt.)

Located in a rural area of Maryland, amid rolling hills and verdant fields, Ner Israel is a rare, perhaps unique, place, an oasis of both natural and Jewish beauty. As we took a stroll late Friday night, the dulcet sounds of harmonizing voices floated on the air. The singing emanated from homes of the teacher-rabbis, who are traditionally visited on Sabbath evenings by their students for sharing Torah thoughts, discussions and song.

The next day, after services and the Sabbath meal, the parking lots – where, of course, not a car moved – were quickly filled with children at play, the music of their laughter and chatter accompanied by the percussion of small feet running and skipping rope. A small playground hosted younger children and their mothers. Some parents sat on the balconies of their homes, watching the kids at play, studying Torah or just relaxing.

The traditional Sabbath greeting in a yeshiva like Ner Israel is “Good Shabbos,” but there are few places on earth where the phrase “Shabbat Shalom” – “Sabbath of Peace,” introduced by the Safed kabbalists in the 15th century and used as a greeting by many Jews today – would fit so well.

Life on “Yeshiva Lane” – the campus address – revolves around the two large study halls, or botei medrash, one used by the nearly 250 high school boys, the other by the more than 600 young men in the postgraduate and Kollel (married student) divisions.

Aside from the apartments and townhouses, the campus includes an administration building, dining hall, basketball court and, of course, classroom buildings. But the botei medrash (singular: beit medrash) are the twin hearts that pump the lifeblood of Torah study throughout the campus. On the Sabbath as during the week, each of the large halls is filled with students poring over the holy texts of Judaism, reading, arguing, understanding – and adding links in the Jewish Torah-chain stretching back millennia.

Studying with one of my sons that Sabbath in the high school beit medrash, I was reminded of a day trip I made to Ner Israel a number of years ago with the religion editor of the New York Times at the time, Gustav Niebuhr. He had never seen a yeshiva before.

One of the yeshiva’s administrators gave us a short tour of the campus and then took us to the main beit medrash. When a door to the cavernous but crowded room was opened, my guest surveyed the scene –several hundred young men (mostly in pairs, as yeshiva study is traditionally done) surrounded by piles of books, loudly and animatedly arguing. He was visibly intrigued. Actually, taken aback might be a better description. It was probably quite different from what the phrase “study-hall” likely recalled to the Oxford alumnus from his university days.

The administrator invited the reporter to walk through the beit medrash and interview students at his whim. He seemed hesitant to take up the offer, reluctant to take the young men from their studies, but the administrator’s encouragement and the reporter’s own natural curiosity won out in the end.

I watched as he gingerly entered the room – bare-headed, looking far from Jewish (which he isn’t) and armed with only a pen and a pad – and went from one pair of students to another. At each stop, the students stood up to welcome the visitor, pulled up a chair and invited him to sit down. Several such conversations later, the reporter returned, his pad filled with notes, and his eyes, it seemed, with wonder.

He remarked to us how deeply impressed he had been “with the sincerity and idealism” of the students he had met. Some of the young men with whom he had spoken had been raised in Orthodox families; the fathers of many had studied at Ner Israel decades earlier (the yeshiva was founded in 1933). Others had come to Orthodoxy along with their families, or on their own. One student who particularly impressed him had been a Hollywood writer before becoming observant and enrolling in the yeshiva. The article the reporter later wrote for his newspaper about Ner Israel well evidences the positive impact the yeshiva and its students had on him.

I have been an assiduous monitor of the media, especially the Jewish, for nearly two decades. And it pains me when media tend to focus on aberrations within the haredi community – real, magnified or fictitious. That focus often yields a negative image and, when it does, gravely misleads.

At those times, I find myself wishing that every Jew could spend a Shabbat, or even just a few hours, at a place like Ner Israel.

© 2010 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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3 Responses

  1. Gershon Josephs says:

    “And it pains me when media tend to focus on aberrations within the haredi community – real, magnified or fictitious”

    Unfortunately, the way things are going in the Chareidi world, Ner Israel is going to be the aberration soon enough, if it isn’t already.

  2. aron feldman says:

    Did you attend the Fri night tish of R”Yaakov Eisgrau? It is a must for any visitor! Did you attend any shiurim or shmozen from R”Aron Feldman? (no relation) each one is a masterpiece

  3. Shades of Gray says:

    I basically agree with Rabbi Shafran, and would in a way, go even further. Ner Israel is a particularly good example to show a non-Jewish reporter, with it’s large, college-like campus and other diverse aspects(besides it being Rabbi Shafran’s alma mater). Even when I am in a prosaic and perfectly ordinary Brooklyn Beis Midrash, however, I enjoy observing young Bnei Torah– be they Chasidish or Litvish– who are happy and enthusiastic in their learning; I suppose it reminds me of when I, too, was that age, and probably less jaded about community and life :)

    A Canadian journalist once said at a journalist convention that although an advocacy journalist can rightfully have a cause and perspective, however, “a good journalist must play devil’s advocate; you must argue against your own convictions”. As one example of a lack of this two-sided discussion, I read an article published four years ago in a secular Jewish magazine where an author was responding to a critique of her conclusions about problems in the Chasidic community. While one might argue based on her research, that she added aspects to the discussion not discussed elsewhere, she did not include any in-depth, intellectual counter-points that would be offered by a religious educator or mental-health professional possessing a favorable view towards the Chasidic community(though the piece did have a few favorable sentences such as “there is no doubt that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are caring and responsible individuals”).

    This week, Gary Rosenblatt of the Jewish Week, reflected on ten years since an abuse scandal hit the modern-Orthodox community, in what I thought was basically a positive and even hopeful discussion of a community problem. In connection with the subject, he quotes Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee, that “when you allow the pathologies to be the focus…you miss the forest for the trees”, which is Rabbi Shafran’s point as well at the end of this article.