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Where Hope Lives

Yisroel Besser

“If you want to learn, we want you here.” That’s the invitation Waterbury’s Rav Ahron Kaufman gives to any teenager who wants to try yeshivah learning

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

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MISSION STATEMENT “When a person aspires towards something greater, his life has meaning. When he is part of something greater, his life has identity. Those goals must be in Torah, for that is the essence of being Jewish” (photos Shimon Friedman)

I

f you’re of a certain age, you might recall the month when we were forced to take a painful look inward.

The November 1999 edition of the Jewish Observer hit America’s yeshivah world hard, courageously coining a term that was upsetting to some and shocking to others, when it devoted an entire issue to the topic of kids at risk. The front-and-center coverage acknowledged that this was a real problem. The initial post-Holocaust era of uncomplicated chinuch, the great rebuilding, was over. In this new era, the structures were standing rebuilt and ready, but we were starting to lose the people meant to fill them.

There was much hand-wringing in the street — blaming and shaming of parents who’d ruined their children by having too much money or too little money, shown too much permissiveness or too much control — but there were also voices of hope.

In that Jewish Observer issue, a respected young talmid chacham spoke up. As a 12th-grade rebbi at the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, Rav Ahron Kaufman had firsthand knowledge of the subject. A keen observer of his talmidim, he’d made it a point not just to speak, but to listen. Back in Flatbush on Leil Shabbos, he’d ventured out of his comfort zone, walking the streets to engage smoking teenagers in conversation. He heard the undeclared frustration, the lack of clarity and connection.

And he wrote.

Our teenagers yearn to be understood and long to understand as their souls’ craving for meaning cries out deep inside of them. When these issues are addressed, their directional signal changes from downwards to upwards….

In order for my Judaism to be new every day, it has to be greater every day. It has to be something to which I can apply myself and constantly feel attainment. Growth is achieved through setting goals. When a person aspires towards something greater, his life has meaning. When he is part of something greater, his life has identity. Those goals must be in Torah, for that is the essence of being Jewish.

“A yeshivah is not a business.” For Rav Hutner, if a bochur wanted to learn Torah, there was no risk, just unconditional emunah. Same for Waterbury

It was sort of a mission statement, though few realized it at the time. Reb Ahron wasn’t diagnosing a problem, but charting the response.

Torah. Goals in Torah. Accomplishment in Torah.

But of course, with the solution, came a new problem. Who would teach these boys Torah? What yeshivah would accept bochurim with too-long hair and too-vacant eyes, voices laced with fear masquerading as defiance?

 

I’ve circulated at political conventions with Rabbi Chaim Nosson Segal, Director of Community Relations and Outreach for Torah Umesorah, and marveled as I watched him in action. Blessed with an imposing physical presence, personal charm, and an ability to get things done, Rabbi Segal could have been one of American Jewry’s great fixers or lobbyists, if he was so inclined. Instead, he’s a fixer for G-d and His Torah, softening the earth so that seeds of Torah might take root.

At about the same time that Rabbi Kaufman wrote his insightful JO article, Rabbi Segal approached Torah Umesorah with a concept. The Waterbury, Connecticut, community, once a vibrant Orthodox kehillah (Rav Mordechai Gifter had been rav there in the early 1940s) was faltering.

It wasn’t just a Jewish problem, it was a “quality of life” issue for the neighborhood at large. Understanding what a young group of student families could do for the area, the University of Connecticut was offering a building on campus to house a proposed Jewish school. Then the local Conservative temple added their own attractive building to the proposal.

Rabbi Segal saw the Divine message and the opportunity, and together with a group of Torah Umesorah roshei yeshivah and balabatim, he identified Rabbi Kaufman as the candidate. The need was there. The place was there. And now they had their man. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 710)

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