I volunteered for Aish HaTorah’s tutor session with a Birthright program this past summer. It had allocated three hours over a two week period for the women and men a chance to meet (in separate programs) with real live ultra-orthodox people. As I was leaving the known kiruv Yeshiva’s beautiful new building looking over the Kotel, I met a Chassidish young woman who also had been tutoring. She was a young mother who had taken the days off to get involved in this unique one-on-one opportunity to have input with the next American secular generation. Sara Rivka Geldzahler fresh from Williamsburg seemed to be the spokeswoman for Chassidim and the religious, invited me out for a coffee and insisted on sharing with me her salad and a few of her friend’s discussion.
Birthright, the program we had been invited to through Aish HaTorah, has been successful in bringing over many Jewish youth. Their goals, however, are not so clear. Their requirement of who can attend is limited to those who have at least one Jewish parent. Each separate group is defined by their similarities (either from the same college, political and secular views, athletic, artistic, or even homosexual as a few examples). They purposely downplay introducing any particular point of views on the trip. The few groups which are slightly interested in having a bit of religious experience are hosted by Aish HaTorah in one of their many varied programs in kiruv.
Unfortunately, as the Pew reports have substantiated young Jews don’t care about their Judaism. Those under 35 are not just apathetic about Israel, but due to the college scene with BDS and other such programs fighting Israel, many young Jews are anti-Israel.
Being offered a free trip is an opportunity for many of these students to take advantage, Thank G-d, which we would hope, it does seem to have some influence to counter the college experience and introduce some pride in being Jewish. But, if you read some of their testimonials, there are also those who walk away convinced Israel as an occupier or worse.
In the Pew report, more young Jews would not care about the destruction of Israel. One wonders if they would have been even bothered by the Holocaust at the time. Only 54% profess to be comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state at all. Israel is looked upon as the embarrassing cousins know one wants to acknowledge.
The historic link between American Jewry and Israel might be coming to an end. Perhaps with the new president, that impetus might stop, since unlike the soon-to-be-passing administration, Trump actually likes Israel.
The Pew report also pointed out (which it has consistently shown throughout the years) that in spite of the Reform movement not demanding any actual behavior change (read mitzvot) in their members’ commitments they lose numbers every year. Young Jews who are offered nothing would rather call themselves ‘atheist’ other than Jewish. The Orthodox, on the other hand, is growing.
At our impromptu brunch, Sara Rivka, a young, outgoing, Chassidic mother, told me how she loves speaking with the women in birthright, to those who have actually made a request to meet someone religious. It was gratifying to meet her. She charmed and gave these secular searching women a new perspective of being Jewish with her openness (perhaps not the first adjective when speaking about Chassidim).
She told us how she would start a tutor session with the women:
“Hi, my name is Sara Rivka. I’m Chasidic. I met my husband 3 times when I was 18 before we got engaged and then I didn’t see him until the wedding day, a year later. We have been married three years and have two kids. I’m open for any questions?”
The secular young women eagerly took up her offer and bombarded her with many questions:
“Was it hard not to see your fiancé?”
“Weren’t you worried he was the right one?”
“Didn’t you want to go to college?”
“Don’t you feel put upon and have no choices in your life?”
“Is that a wig and a hat? Why do you wear so much clothing?”
“Did you love your husband on your wedding day?”
“How could you think you knew him enough in that short time? How could you agree?”
“Do you let your parents make all your decisions?”
And then those totally out-of-the-box questions: “Do you believe in mermaids?”
Sara Rivka explained, “I know sometimes when I passed these kids with my husband, their thinking, ‘what a dark difficult world you have. Look you are covered from head to toe in the heat, married with children so young – life must be miserable.’ I want to tell them dark? Miserable? Hardly! We have a life; we are building a marriage and a new generation. Our lives are so full and rewarding!” Sara Rivka fervently explains how even when she is only walking down the street she takes her secular sister’s situation seriously. “So, sometimes, that is just what I do. I go up to them on the street when I see them staring and start a conversation. Why not? What have I got to loose.”
The students, from the Birthright program, are most likely older in years, but essentially less aware of the realities in building good relationships, are captivated by her. A new world is being offered. One of the birthright women came from a broken intermarried home, another’s mother recently died along with the last vestige of Judaism in the young girl’s life; no matter how water-down it was. Another student is planning to move in with her Christian boyfriend but wants her children brought up Jewish. The fourth woman tells of the tremendous chesed their temple does by encouraging the rabbi’s daughter to dress transgender and calls her – him. And these are the crème of secular Judaism. They are the ones who requested a religious encounter. Considering how low secular Jewish knowledge is and the Halacha status of actually being Jewish in America are; I’m very excited by Sara Rivka and the other young women who volunteered as tutors for these women.
Speaking to Sara Rivka and her husband Chaim Ozer on a follow-up phone call, she explained, “No, I’m neither Chabad nor part of their outreach programs, but I do feel that we as Chassidish Jews have so much to offer them.”
“Don’t you think they look at you not only as part of a black-tinted world (from the color of the clothes to the many imposed rules) but also as a closed and unapproachable community?” I asked both of the Geldzahlers.
Chaim Ozer Geldzahler answered, “Yes, I know secular people think we are inaccessible and truthfully, they are not altogether wrong. In some ways, we are closed. We make it a priority to be connected to our kehillah, the community, since it is an important aspect of being Chassidish.
Chassidim have many customs that ensure that the kehillah remains impermeable but inter-connected to each other. The special clothing; hats, pants, beckeshes, shtreimels, the length of their peyos as well as participating together in sholosh shudas, tishes, and visiting the Rebbe . All for the purpose (among other reasons) to form a closely united community with strong connections to the Rebbe and most important their attachment to Hashem and
Chassidim is built on the foundations of Ahavas Hashem, Ahavas HaTorah and Ahavas Yisroel. Chassidim, in general, are extremely welcoming to other communities. However, if a modern orthodox Jew came into a Chassidic shul, he would probably feel like he stuck out, just like a Chassidic Jew would feel if he showed up to a Young Israel in San Diego.
Chassidim lives revolve only around Torah education and their respective communities. This is what makes Chassidim narrow-minded, one could argue. Work is a means to live, but not the central part of one’s life or a person’s definition. A person doesn’t identify himself by what food he eats or the bed he sleeps in, so a carpenter or plumber works only for the purpose to provide food for his family. Secular education’s purpose is to provide a vocation but shunned as a value. Torah is the main focus, that and to crave God.
Also, there tends to be an assumption that Chassidim are anti-Israel. Most Haredi Jews, contrary to popular thinking, are pro-Israel borne out by the last two presidential elections where both times the ultra-orthodox communities were the ones who supported Romney in 2012 and Trump, because of their pro-Israel positions. This, however, was not seen by the secular, who did not value Israel as an important enough position to affect their vote.
That being said it is not like Chassidim don’t have anything to do with anyone else. The Satmar who are extremely closed, have their own city, unique rules, and approach, yet, are known for their unbelievable chesed and tzedakah. Other groups are also involved in helping; however, it is the Satmar who are the leaders in the tremendous Bikur Cholim program of bringing kosher food to the hospitals for the sick and visitors, providing transportation, arranging housing arrangements, as well as, meals for Shabbos in-house hospitality.
The Satmar have, also, set up programs singling out Russian immigrants, helping them get established. They provide monetary aid for orphans until they get married. When it comes to tending to those in need and giving of tzedakah; Chassidim are not closed, not by any means!”
Chaim Ozer described how he himself had personal experience with the Satmar Rebbe. He was an orphan since he was barely ten. He remembers how the Satmar Rebbe came to comfort him and his mother and siblings. The Rebbe personally stayed involved with Chaim Ozer’s family over many years.
Sara Rivka continues, “Yet, when parents want to explain to their children the different graduations of Yiddishkeit, children tend to understand concepts in black and white. Many times religious children can not distinguish between secular Jews and non-Jews since there aren’t any major differences they can see. They just see that secular Jews are different from themselves, and don’t know about the beauty of Judaism. Children of Israel have the additional handicap that most goyim that they know of are Arabs, which instill more fear and condemnation.
So yes, Chassidim are closed and encourage their exclusiveness, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to share. Our lives are so enriched, building a future, ensuring strong marriages and attachment to Yiddishkeit.
You know what ‘frum’ means right”, she interjects. “First there are the Fanatical Religious on the right. YoU are in the middle and then everyone else is too Modern’. That is how each person views their religiosity, but really all Jews are on a circle. We each are coming from our own paths and have an equal path to forge. Everyone has their own struggles, and a course to travel to make their own connection to Hashem. Chassidim is a way to make the journey smoother.”
Chaim Ozer Geldzahler, whose pride for his wife’s kiruv activities pours out in his words, is a poet and a writer who comes from a prominent, illustrious family. Chaim Ozer’s father, the Rosh HaYeshiva, Eliezer Geldzahler, who Chaim Ozer’s grandmother described the Rav as a ‘magical spirit who created an environment where his students engaged in all of their daily activities with fervor’ was killed in a bus accident in Eretz Yisrael at the young age of 45 in 2004, leaving Chaim Ozer and his twelve siblings and his esteemed mother. Rav Eliezer’s grandfather was Rav Dessler. Chaim Ozer’s mother, Baila, is the granddaughter of the Bobover Rebbi, and the daughter of the famous Milwaukie Rav Michael and Rebbetzin Feige Twerski family.
Chaim Ozer’s grandmother, Rebbetzin Feige a counselor and also a prolific writer, has recently released the book entitled “Rebbetzin Feige Responds”. She answers questions that most Chassidish Rebbetzins have surely never been asked in her own column at Aish.com. Chaim Ozer’s family has always been involved with kiruv whether from afar or close and it is very part of his and Sara Rivka’s world.
A vort Rebbetzin Feige once had written in her column:
“Rabbi Dessler wrote; “We see life not as it is but as we are.” We all have lenses through which we perceive the world. If the lenses are transparent, we get a clear view of reality. But if they are clouded over, our view of things become myopic and distorted. The most common clouding agent that obstructs our clear vision is self-interest and ego. We can all attest to the fact that “me-ism” can delude us and cause us to rationalize the most twisted of postures, easily convincing ourselves that skewed convictions are valid and, at times, even exalted. (Our life’s purpose is) to be in touch with the true reality.”
As Sara Rivka said metaphorically, in reality,we all are on the same circle. We all need to make the journey towards the center. It is a beautiful thing to watch her step beyond her ‘me-ism’ as she steps out of her sheltered Chassidish lifestyle and see her make an impact.
We should all be involved to help educate the uninformed, to help them find their way to the center, and sometimes that means back to the circle in the first place. We should not use our own comfort-level-zones, embarrassment, lack of time or any other excuse we all find not to get involved. And they, the interested secular students, in turn, will help us grow towards our goals as well.