My Brothers Do I Seek

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I came to full Jewish observance relatively late in life. I was nearly thirty and married when I first walked through the doors of Ohr Somayach. I don’t fully remember the entire process of becoming religious. But certainly the most important element of our decision was exposure to people of a refinement and depth that we had never before encountered.

For the last twenty years, I have been writing biographies of modern Jewish leaders. If one bright thread unites the lives of all the disparate figures whose lives I have researched it is their commitment to the Torah imperative that “the Name of Heaven should be become beloved through you.”

In the 1930s, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, today renowned as one of the premier Jewish thinkers of the century, supported himself in London tutoring young public school students. He instructed one of those young students to drop a coin in the cup of all the numerous beggars along the way. To another, he suggested that he should always go to the upper-deck of the London bus he rode to the lessons. Since he only travelled one stop, perhaps the conductor would not reach him to collect his fare, and then he – an identifiably religious Jewish boy – would hand the change to the person next to him and say in a loud voice, “The conductor did not collect my fare, please pay him for me.” The lesson: Not only must one sanctify G-d’s Name through one’s actions; one must seek out opportunities to do so.

These figures saw themselves as teaching about Torah in every situation. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, the wise man of American Jewry, once took a ball out of his pocket in a doctor’s office and started playing with a young boy. When asked if it was not beneath his dignity, he replied, “He may never see another old Jew with a white beard. I want his association to be a good one.” When he passed away, a group of nuns in Monsey wrote a letter lamenting the loss of the old rabbi who always smiled at them on his walks.

For thirteen years, the Klausenberger Rebbe traveled the globe raising the money to build Laniado Hospital in Netanya, to create a model of a Torah approach to healing. Once he learned that a pamphlet on the laws of family purity was being distributed to patients, and ordered it be stopped immediately. He built the hospital not to do missionary work but to demonstrate how the Torah views healing, he explained. That was reflected in the no-strike clause in every doctor’s contract, the surfeit of respirators so no triage decisions would ever have to be made as to who would receive a respirator, the willingness of nursing students, inspired by the Rebbe, to spend days and nights by the beds of patients upon whom everyone else had given up; and the use of much more expensive, but less painful, disposable syringes for shots.

The Rebbe was famous for his stringency with respect to shmiras einayim (guarding one’s gaze). But in the DP camps after the War (in which he lost his wife and eleven children), when he heard that young Jewish girls, dehumanized by what they had been through, had set up a red light district, he personally went to bring them back to their heritage.

These great Torah leaders treated each every person with whom they came into contact with respect and empathy. Reb Yaakov Kamenetsky and another rosh yeshiva once entered a cab, in which the music was blaring. The other rosh yeshiva asked the cabdriver to turn-off the radio. But Reb Yaakov told him not to. “The driver’s work is so monotonous that he’ll go mad without out it so we have no right to ask him to turn it off,” said Reb Yaakov, citing a Talmudic passage in support.

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would not jump up from his seat on the bus if a woman not dressed according to halachic standards sat down next to him, lest she feel insulted. He would simply push the button as if his stop was coming up and get off the bus.

A religious family undertook to cover the expenses of the fertility treatments of a non-religious Jewish couple, and sent them to Israel to receive blessings from great tzadikim, including the Rosh Yeshiva of Mirrer Yeshiva, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel. When the couple arrived at the Rosh Yeshiva’s house in summer attire, not usually seen in Meah Shearim, Rebbetzin Finkel greeted the wife with a hug and words of encouragement – “You are both Jewish. It is such a big thing to marry Jewish today.”

So as not to embarrass her visitor, the Rebbetzin explained that her husband was such a holy man that out of respect she dons a shawl when she goes into speak to him, and offered her guest another shawl and a piece of matching jewelry.

Reb Nosson Tzvi remained silent when the couple entered. The person who escorted them in started to explain their situation, but the Rosh Yeshiva stopped him short: “Of course I know who they are, I’m thinking of their pain.” Then he turned to the husband and asked, “Do you ever feel people are staring at you?” The husband nodded. Reb Nosson Tzvi added, “I often feel that way and that people cannot understand what I’m saying [on account of the loss of muscular control from debilitating Parkinson’s disease].” Let’s cry together. And that’s what the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva and the childless couple did.

Non-religious Jewish politicians who worked closely with Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the long-time president of Agudath Israel of America never felt that he looked down on them. New York Mayor Ed Koch said, “He personified the Talmudic rule, ‘Hate the sin, not the sinner’.” Upon Rabbi Sherer’s death, Alexander Schindler, the head of the American Reform movement, wrote a eulogy in The New York Times. The morning after his funeral, the black woman behind the entrance desk at the building housing Agudath Israel’s office, whom Rabbi Sherer always made a point of greeting effusively and inquiring after, and the Latin American building superintendent, whose family had been spared deportation because of Rabbi Sherer’s use of his political connections on their behalf, both wept openly.

LAST FRIDAY NIGHT, a rav who was one of my role models at the beginning of the journey and remains one today spoke about yesterday’s fast of Aseret b’Tevet, which, according to some opinons, is the date of the sale of Yosef by his brothers. The Torah portion of the week, VaYigash, relates how Yosef and Binyamin fell on each other and wept. Rashi comments: Yosef wept for the two Temples that stood in the portion of Binyamin, which would be destroyed; and Binyamin wept for the Mishkan at Shiloh, in the portion of Yosef’s son Ephraim, which would also be destroyed.

What is the connection between those destructions and the reunion of Yosef and Binyamin? Yosef had constructed an elaborate test for his brothers to see whether his brothers would stand by their half-brother Binyamin, and thus rectify their sale of him. The brothers passed that test. But only in part. Throughout Yehudah’s plea to Yosef on Binyamin’s behalf, he refers to the latter as the son of their father Yaakov and as “the lad”, but not as “our brother.” Something was still lacking in brotherly unity. And that lack was felt in the destruction of the Temple for causeless hatred.

Until we can repair that lack of brotherhood, the Temple will not be rebuilt. Mrs. Tzila Schneider, the head of Kesher Yehudi, is trying to do just that. In recent years, she has organized thousands of learning partnerships between religious and non-religious women. The main message she offers the hareidi volunteers is: “If you see yourself as only a teacher in this relationship, but don’t feel you have anything to gain or learn from your secular partner, this program is not for you. This program is only for those who believe every Jew is special and that we are all intimately bound to one another.” I have been present at events in which the phone study partners met each other for the first time, and the warmth and excitement was palpable. Many pairs sat with their arms around each other for the rest of the evening.

Last Shabbos was spent with a group of over 100 women university students receiving an introduction to Torah Judaism under the auspicies of an organization called Nefesh Yehudi. I was amazed by the sophistication and command of the breadth of Jewish thought of the lecturers, including Mrs. Miriam Kosman, who made her debut in these pages last week. The conversation on Friday night lasted until 4:00 a.m., and the students did not hold back with their questions on every topic – relationships, homosexuality, why most hareidi women wear wigs, and, of course, Ramat Beit Shemesh.

Neither that Shabbaton or hundreds like it or 7,000 phone partnerships in Torah learning will fully repair the tear in Klal Yisrael. But they are steps in the right direction.

I HAVE NEVER REGRETTED the decision to become religious. I cannot even imagine how much less rich my life would have been without Torah. But it must be admitted that there is much in our society that does not conform to the paragons one meets upon entering the hareidi community. And much that I have subsequently been exposed to would have made the decision much harder at the beginning.

It is unrealistic to expect an entire community to attain the level of the great figures I have spent the last two decades writing about. But, at the very least, we should strive to emulate their example of turning every encounter with a fellow human being, and especially a fellow Jew, into a positive experience. Those whose insularity has rendered them oblivious to that message fill me with pain and anger.

This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

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19 Responses

  1. Aviva says:

    The points in the article are well taken, and when I get frustrated by the behaviors of people who present themselves as Charedi Jews I try to think would R’ Moshe Feinstein have condoned this behavior?

    However, what perplexes me is seeming the lack of depth and menschlichkeit among some in the Charedi population. If we have the Torah and learn it should we not stand head over shoulders above everyone else in humility, honesty, kindness, compassion, depth of character, wisdom… What is breaking down and why is there such a gap between our Gedolim and the masses who practice? Would love some sound comfort. I have not been able to find satisfying answers.

  2. cohen y says:

    R’SZA also wasn’t very involved in public affairs.However, he told his sons’ to follow R’Shach’s lead.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    We as a people need some useful working definition of what a Gadol today truly is, so we can seek out such Gedolim for their counsel.

  4. Aviva says:

    The points in the article are well taken, and when I get frustrated by the behaviors of people who present themselves as Charedi Jews I try to think would R’ Moshe Feinstein have condoned this behavior?

    As the owner of a small business and a Charedi I am bothered by the few “slick” businessmen who have not paid their bills in over a year. I am disturbed, why is it that a disproportionate percentage of the late payment delinquencies are coming from people who are Orthodox Jews ( we conduct a fraction of our business with the Orthodox community). If we have the Torah and learn it should we not stand head over shoulders above everyone else in humility, honesty, kindness, compassion, depth of character, wisdom… What is breaking down and why is there such a gap between our Gedolim and the masses who practice? Would love some sound comfort. I have not been able to find satisfying answers.

  5. Gershon Pickles says:

    This article, so simple in its style, is the “shtarkest mussar” yet offered on the whole sad spectacle.

  6. dr. bill says:

    cvmay, I could not agree more. i would suggest a second tour that mentions both RSZA and R. Levin zichronam le-verokha. As boys, they would peek into the room where the person RSZA called marah de’ertetz yisroel would learn and write. they would come back hours later to marvel at the fact that it was as if time had stood still and Rav Kook ztl was still sitting in the same place with his seforim. it may be just legend, but he inspired them. a visit to his former residence is worthwhile; the stories are of a kinder, gentler time. despite disputes, and there were many, most would be surprised whose wedding rav kook was mesadair kiddusin.

    [YA – He means R Elyashiv, shlit”a]

  7. cvmay says:

    Rav Aryeh, Rav Aryeh, Rav Aryeh Levin: The Paragon of Ahavas Yisroel and dedication to the entire Klal Yisroel.

    I recommend highly anyone visiting Eretz Yisroel to spend 3-4 hours with Rav Aryeh Levin’s grandson, Benny Levin who runs Gesher Organization (Kiruv between religious and secular Jews) on his special tour, “Path of my Grandfather, Rav Aryeh Levin”. We walked through Nachlaot, Batei Warshaw, spent time in his Beis Medresh and in the Klal Yisroel shul, on the outskirts of Machne Yehudah. This shul is where Rav Aryeh davened together with the holy soldiers of Etzel, Stern gang and other underground individuals. The book that I purchase for every Bar Mitzvah bochur is, “Tzaddik of our Time”, Rav Aryeh Levine ztt”l.

  8. L. Oberstein says:

    The other day ,one of the frum news sites had a video and that led to other videos and eventually I saw several clips with Rav Groosman of Migdal Ha Emek. He was interviewed by Yair Lapid on his TV show and came across so full of Ahavat Yisrael; Another showed him with soldiers at the time of the Lebanon War both before they went and kissing them on their return. One has to ask why he is that way and other clips of similarly clad people screaming “Tzeh mi poh” and being recorded saying that it is perfectly appropriate to spit on a little girl since she isn’t dressed modestly ( which one can see is not even factual) and that the country will eventually be taken over entirely by the Charedim. When I see these two images, it is hard to deal with logically. I have unfortunately and regrefully started to look at the dozens of young men who pass through our shuls collecting for their livlihood with a more jaundiced eye. I don’t want to feel that way, but they all look that way and I don’t know if they are like Rabbi Grossman or like the Sikrikim or whatever they call themselves. I wish that the Eidah Hacharredis hadn’t come out for these people. Are we living in a different dimension of reality?

  9. JF says:

    Your article is one of the most thought out and sensitive I’ve read on this subject matter that I ever read.

  10. Chaim Saiman says:

    Interesting. When I was in a charedi yeshiva I recall hearing the idea that Modoxy is only for yichidim who could “handle” its conflicting demands and ideologies, while the relative straightforwardness of the yeshiva world make it more appropriate for the hamon am. Its probably not what Jonathan intended, but there is a sense here that the opposite might be true. The yeshiva/charedi system is for the true gedolim who can balance unyielding fidelity to halacha with common sense and mentchlichkeit, while the hamon might be better off with a little less kannaus.

  11. YM says:

    “And much that I have subsequently been exposed to would have made the decision much harder at the beginning”

    I find this sentence intriguing. The “derech sheh’avodas hashem” is capable of making a Jew great or at least better if taken and engaged. Sometimes, frum Jews do not take that derech; in a few cases, Torah seems to breed a conceitedness that makes the person, chas v’shalom, worse than they would have been without the Torah.

    Is the fact that not everyone makes an effort to “be all that they can be” what would have made it harder for you at the beginnign to choose to be all you could be?

  12. Michoel says:

    As I commented on this post at beyondbt.com, Rav Dessler’s advice is a great example of something which we should learn from the sentiment rather than the actual act. In our hollywood-poisoned dor, better a person should sit on the first level of a bus, take the $1.60 that earned threw his own toil, and pay like every other normal person, without any fanfare or over-focus on who is looking at him.

    How many times have we heard kids and adults say, “don’t do that! it is a chillul Hashem”. Or, “If you do such and such public act like helping a little old gentile lady, it will make a kiddush Hashem”

    Do it because a little old lady is Tzelem Elokim and needs help. Or refrain from a bad act because it is a bad act.

    When the perception of our actions becomes more important than the actions themselves, we are clearly missing the Torah’s intent. And ultimately this can lead to greatly degrading the perception as well as the action.

  13. dr. bill says:

    Are these great examples closer to the exception or are they closer to the rule? The recent statements about a RY at Merkaz HaRav, regardless of who is behind it, tend to settle the issue, at least for me. If there was any protest in the chareidi community, i missed it. I suspect only outrage is protested not disrespect.

  14. Abe 71 says:

    I like this article. It is is a ray of light. The reason is because it views the Jewish People as one unified group and hence looks at our people through some of its greatest representatives. They were great, and they exemplify us. The thing is that unfortunately most of the time outsiders do not judge a group by its greatest members; rather people tend to look at the lowest common denominator in a group. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it is a fact. Hence the phenomenon that certain anti-semitic people will make negative comments about the Jewish people even thought they say some of their best friends are Jewish. They think their friends are the exception, not the rule. We as Jews know the moral upstanding members of our our own respective subgroup, are the rule and not the exception. We need to recognize that is the case with every other subgroup as well. Most ____ Jews are moral upstanding respectful people. That not only means (or should mean) that we ALL understand that violent extremeists do not represent the Hareidi group, who are by in large moral upstanding people who try to follow the Torah, but also that most non-Haredi observant Jews do as well, and furthermore that most secular jews, and in fact, just most Jews, are moral fine upstanding people who try to do the right thing as they understand it. When we each see a member of our group who has done something wrong, we know they are the exception. If only we viewed “our group” as every Jew, then we would judge each other much more favorably. That is clearly the way the great leaders referenced in the above article viewed their people.

  15. lacosta says:

    one need remember that the exemplary ‘bein adam lechaveiro’ of the rabbis rosenblum and adlerstein come from a place of either BTism and/or Western culture : especially living lives of hasbara , apologetics , one can’t live a life mvatel–wiping away everyone else, their opinions and lifestyles.
    unfortunately, especially in israel , but maybe increasingly in chu’l, there are strains whose ideology is not being an ohr lagoyim or layehudim– rather to be a cherev nokemes, to achieve ‘lehavdil bein kodesh lechol’– where anyone who acts different than they qualify for a status meriting ‘uveearta hara mikirbecha’ [ or at best tameh tameh yikra–michutz lamachane]…

    one wonders if these attitudes are a post-War aberration, or somehow inherent in halachic judaism…

  16. fischel roth says:

    Dear Jonathan I love your article (like many other) I would like to copy you on a letter I send to “hamodia” looking forward to seeing you in the near future
    Fischel roth
    Dear Mrs. Lichtenstein,

    I read with interest your editorial tilted Hitching a Ride on an 8
    year old Girl’s Distress in today’s Hamodia.

    While I agree with every word, I would like to make an additional point.

    Edmund Burke famously said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of
    evil is that good men do nothing.” I feel that the reason why the
    general Israeli population could be fooled by the distorted media spin
    on recent events is due in large part to our silence.

    If we, the vast majority of Charedim, would strongly condemn the
    violent actions and disassociate ourselves from the people
    responsible, it would be harder for the media to paint us all in a bad
    light.

    Respectfully

  17. Orit says:

    There is so much that is beautiful in the kindness of most ordinary religious people that is unbelievable. The acts you mentioned about the great people are actually pretty routine kinds of behaviors for the religious folk I know. I am not taking away from a great rabbi’s kindness, but I just wanted to point out that among my own religious friends and neighbors, I have seen unreal acts of kindness from “regular” religious people too – care for the elderly, the sick, etc. However, we still have to watch out for the wrong in ourselves. Many religious Jews lack sensitivities for things not explicit in the Torah and or their upbringing. For example, how many shuls today are built with the disabled in mind? How much racism is tolerated in our community?

  18. cvmay says:

    Rav Aryeh, Rav Aryeh, Rav Aryeh Levin: The Paragon of Ahavas Yisroel and dedication to the entire Klal Yisroel.

    I recommend highly anyone visiting Eretz Yisroel to spend 3-4 hours with Rav Aryeh Levin’s grandson, Benny Levin who runs Gesher Organization (Kiruv between religious and secular Jews) on his special tour, “Path of my Grandfather, Rav Aryeh Levin”. We walked through Nachlaot, Batei Warshaw, spent time in his Beis Medresh and in the Klal Yisroel shul, on the outskirts of Machne Yehudah. This shul is where Rav Aryeh davened together with the holy soldiers of Etzel, Stern gang and other underground individuals. The book that I purchase for every Bar Mitzvah bochur is, “Tzaddik of our Time”, Rav Aryeh Levine ztt”l.

  19. Baruch Gitlin says:

    I think this is perhaps the most inspiring of the many articles that I have read recently that deal with, directly or not, the recent troubles in Ramat Beit Shemesh and the uproar they have inspired. As someone who shares at least some of your background, I particularly relate to your statement that “much that I have subsequently been exposed to would have made the decision much harder at the beginning.” I suppose God reveals to us what he wishes to reveal at every stage of the process, and our job is to see through the fog towards the ideals to which we originally aspired, and the stories you relate are perfectly selected to remind us of what these ideals really are. It’s honesty like you display in this article that makes it seem worthwhile to continue the struggle towards these ideals.