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Stepping Up

Yonoson Rosenblum

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

THE BLESSING OF PEOPLE WHO RISE TO THE CHALLENGE

As a sometimes spokesman for the Israeli chareidi community, I try to keep myself abreast of what is going on in the community. Frankly, this particular task often gets me down. The needs of Klal Yisrael are many, and the money needed to pay for them is enormous. The recognition of how many members of our community live in pain — some self-inflicted, most not; some remediable, some not — is depressing.

For instance, I spent the afternoon of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, in a crowded office watching videos in which Jewish girls, some barely into their teens, tell their stories of involvement with Arab men, and describe the slippery slope that can end with being imprisoned as chattel in some forsaken Arab village. Perfect viewing for a fast day.

And the phenomenon is a growing one. The director of the youth centers established by the Learn and Live organization in Tzfas told me that when they opened up the first center four years ago there were four girls in this category; today there are over sixty. And the organization has a list of 600 girls in danger in just the northern part of the country. Nor is the phenomenon confined to the secular world.

But there is a flip side to such bad news: the inspiration from meeting those who have stepped up to alleviate the suffering. Most often those who do so have no unique personal connection to the suffering population. They have seen other Jews in pain — that’s all. Often their efforts seem quixotic; they lack any special expertise or personal resources. And yet rarely do their efforts fail to bear fruit.

The founder of a network of youth centers for Israel’s disaffected youth, for instance, was already running an organization distributing close to three million dollars in food products annually to poor families. He turned his own apartment into a soup kitchen and moved to a smaller apartment with his fourteen children. Yet as much as he was already doing to help his fellow Jews, when he began to hear stories, through his work with impoverished families, of the problem of Jewish girls becoming entangled with Arab men, he took on an entirely new multimillion dollar project to address the problem, despite the fact that he would himself be considered poor.

Last year, I was introduced to the special challenges of single mothers in our community. Things that most of us take for granted — e.g., who will daven with our sons on Shabbos or Yamim Tovim or review their learning with them — are major challenges for these mothers. Many of these mothers are baalos teshuvah and have little or no communal support structure. But as always seems to be the case, along with the need came the angel willing to devote herself to their wellbeing: Malka Yarom. Despite her own modest means and physical disability, she created an organization, Em HaBanim Smeicha to address the full panoply of needs of both the mothers and children in single-parent homes. That includes Pesach and Rosh HaShanah retreats to ensure that the families will have a Seder and a place to daven on Rosh HaShanah.

I have met more than a dozen of such meshugoyim in recent years: People who have an idea for tikun olam that gives them no rest. One hears from educators today about the short attention span of kids raised on computers and handheld interactive devices, and how difficult it is for them to absorb material. So Rabbi Dan Roth came up with the idea of producing riveting visual presentations to present complex material on both halachic topics — e.g., mezuzah, yichud, maasar kesafim — and also issues relating to middos development, such as Chasing the American Dream, and Crossing the Finish Line. Each of the TorahLive productions comes in a version for home viewing and in one that can be used interactively by a teacher. Ten full-length videos have already been completed, and nearly two dozen more are in various stages of production. These are not just crutches for a weaker generation, but effective tools for providing heretofore unattainable clarity through visual means. Rabbi Roth showed me the hundreds of pages of research that goes into each topic before he even begins working on the script and visuals.

In Open Minded Torah, William Kolbrener begins an essay entitled “Stepping up,” discussing Yehoshua’s need to be persuaded by Moshe Rabbeinu to accept the mantle of leadership and the prophet Yirmiyahu’s plea, “I’m but a youth,” in direct response to his mission assignment from Hashem Himself. He concludes with a plea that we not evade responsibility with the excuse “there must be somebody else.”

“We will not likely be called upon by our nation,” he writes, “yet we may be by our families, our schools, our workplaces, by a vision which no one else sees, or others are dissuaded from seeing, simply too afraid to confront. [W]e should not give in to the weaker part of ourselves .... Sometimes, we have to step up.”

Baruch Hashem, our community is filled with those who do.

****

Ditching Equivalence

One of the free weeklies aimed at the chareidi public recently ran a headline on the announcement of special mortgage preferences for those who served in the IDF. A subheader argued that had Housing Minister Ariel Atias not been chareidi, the government would have fallen, presumably because the chareidi parties would have demanded identical preferences for kollel students.

I disagree that our chareidi MKs would have attempted to bring down the government in such a case. Different treatment of soldiers and kolleleit violates no sacred principle. Otherwise the housing minister would never have agreed to the new preferences.

To insist on the equivalence of kolleleit to any other societal group is a double-edged sword. A few years back, income supplements for kolleleit meeting certain criteria were challenged in the Israeli Supreme Court on the grounds that such supplements were not available to university students. The Israeli Supreme Court agreed, and rather than extend the supplements to university students, it got rid of them altogether.

I argued at the time that the Supreme Court had erred because university studies and kollel studies are manifestly not the same thing and provide different benefits to society. A democratic legislature can favor one over the other and in different ways precisely because they are manifestly not identical.

No issue so enrages secular Israelis about the chareidi community as the draft deferment for yeshivah students. Chareidi support for generous benefits for those who serve in the IDF is one means of mitigating that animosity. As Rabbi Grylak frequently reminds us, we are a minority in Israeli society, and, as such, should go out of our way not to irritate our secular brethren, especially at a time when Prime Minister Netanyahu has already vowed to review internal social priorities in light of the “social justice” protests.

We will not convince secular Israelis that kollel students protect Israeli society no less than IDF soldiers, and demanding that social policy conform to that assumption only infuriates them.

In addition, secular Israelis are correct that there is one very clear difference between those serving in the IDF and kollelleit. The former serve by compulsion. Yeshivah students of the same age are not compelled by the state to study in yeshivah. They are doing what they would most like to do and view as the most valuable use of their time.

With soldiers, it is the state that makes the determination about what is the most important use of their time. Having compelled them to serve in the IDF, the secular state is entitled to compensate them for that service.

Rather than insisting on an equivalence between IDF service and learning in kollel — an equivalence in which neither side believes — our Knesset representatives would be better advised to focus on increasing the availability of homes for sale or rent, which is the most effective way to lower skyrocketing prices.

****

Two Million and Counting

On August 9, 2001, a suicide bomber detonated himself in the Sbarro Pizza parlor in downtown Jerusalem, killing or wounding over 100. Among those killed was Shoshana Greenbaum, a religious schoolteacher from Los Angeles, who was expecting her first child. (She was also her parents’ only child.) Her husband, Shmuel, who was not with her that day, describes himself as going from the being the happiest man in the world, married to the most wonderful woman, to the loneliest.

To maintain his sanity, Shmuel dedicated himself to promoting acts of kindness, large and small, and sending out A Daily Dose of Kindness e-mails detailing such acts to a list that eventually grew to two million. (A collection of A Daily Dose of Kindness examples in Israel is available through the Partners in Kindness website.) To the question he is frequently asked — How can you continue to believe in Hashem after what happened to you? — Shmuel always offers the same answer: “After reading about acts of kindness and G-dliness every day and doing acts of kindness myself, how can I not believe in G-d?”

Out of his unbearable tragedy, Shmuel Greenbaum has taught us all a vital lesson: Nothing deepens our love for Hashem more than becoming aware of the beautiful world He created for us. And nothing instills that awareness more strongly than focusing on all the good of which human beings are capable in countless everyday ways.

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