Latest update: May 23rd, 2012
Half a year after our marriage in 1997, my parents called and said they couldn’t attend the Agudath Israel of America convention and had extra tickets. Would my wife and I want to go in their place? We were newlyweds in every sense of the word and cherished the opportunity of a new experience. “Certainly,” we said and made the trek from Lakewood to Parsippany in the state of New Jersey.
The speakers were interesting, the food was good, and the experience was uplifting. We stayed until the very end. On Sunday morning there were breakout sessions on a variety of topics. I attended a panel discussion which included a talk by Rabbi Yonason Rosenblum of Jerusalem. His remarks included words that etched themselves in my mind and have remained there ever since.
He said it was time for a new rallying call, a new idea with which to inspire the troops and turn values into action. He said the rallying cry should be Kiddush Hashem. He spoke of HaRav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, of Khal Adath Jeshurun (KAJ), whose raison d’etre was Kiddush Shem Shamayim, who saw each day as an opportunity to bring glory to the name of God. He saw every frame of life as an opportunity to remove the cloak of coincidence and reveal the patterns of Providence to all mankind.
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Each generation speaks its own language and needs its own message.
Hewed by Hashem into the core of our soul is the need to effect change in the world we inhabit. Surely there are levels of intensity that vary among people, but there is a primal spiritual need to embellish, adapt or undo the choices and lifestyles of the generations that have preceded us. We want to own our lives, and we own by creating.
Generally, the most dynamic generation is the first one, the one that brings a concept from idea to reality. A shul, for example, is most strongly supported and faithfully attended by those who establish it. Subsequent member commitment will wax and wane; in time people will become lax and complain until eventually a new group of members will push the old guard out and pour their own hearts and souls into the institution. They will change it and they will own it.
Such is the nature of man. When a generation is unable to add vision or value to its world, it replaces devotion with sarcasm, commitment with complaint. Ultimately, we create or we destroy.
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As a yungerman-turned businessman whose life odometer just turned 40, I feel a primal need for perspective, to understand who I am, who we are, and where our community is headed. Every generation before ours in the Jewish experience in America has had its unique contribution through which it gained definition.
My great-grandfather was a chassidishe Poilishe Yid. He left Galitzia in 1910 and moved to the United States to serve as a rabbi, shochet and butcher in Galveston, Texas. He left a mud-caked village for a sun-baked island. He completely reversed his socio-economic and cultural experience, trading poverty for opportunity, the world of the Polish peasant for a society founded on Judeo-Christian values.
My grandfather, his oldest son, was a first generation American. He spoke English well and appreciated American food, film and music. His formal education was minimal and he worked from morning until night in the family butcher shop, cutting meat and servicing clients. But his pride and joy were his children and he gave them the benefit of both a Jewish and a secular education. Becoming an American Orthodox Jew, proud and committed, was his contribution.
My father’s generation was the first generation of American-born bnei Torah, who believed in the primacy of Torah values, fealty to Torah leaders and allegiance to the yeshiva system. My father learned in kollel, went to college and became a professional, establishing a career with the Board of Education of New York. He and my mother raised 11 children. His generation, through their dedication and large families, built the haredi infrastructure. They created my world.
My generation added something, too. Our yeshiva education was more intense than that of our parents. We learned more, we learned younger, and we learned deeper. Our internal intensity was expressed in the external symbols of large velvet yarmulkes, peyos behind our ears, and a dress code of white shirts and dark pants. Our comfort with our values and focus on learning expressed itself in our speaking “yeshivish,” a language infused with idioms of Torah scholarship and the culture of Lita, something our parents never did. We saw the creation of the haredi press and a trend toward turning to the gedolim of Eretz Yisrael for psak din and social direction. My parents’ generation built Flatbush. We built Lakewood.
But we aren’t a perfect generation. As a result of our weak secular education and greater insularity, our generation is struggling to make ends meet. Parnassah options are often limited. If not employed in klei kodesh, most of us work for or start small businesses, frequently competing with each other to service the needs of our community. We are often recipients of governmental aid, a possibility our parents’ generation wouldn’t have considered. Arguably, their understanding of male responsibility was more traditional and defined than ours.
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Our children will undoubtedly have the same existential need to add, change, and contribute. What will their contribution be? Will their learning be more intense? Will they learn more diverse Torah subjects? Will they learn in kollel longer? Will they be more medakdek (precise) in halacha? Perhaps they will add a bit in each area. But I don’t believe it will be enough to give them a sense of creativity and ownership in Yiddishkeit. They will ultimately want something that is their own, something that is uniquely theirs.
Kollel was an idealistic endeavor for my parents’ generation. It was a rite of passage for my generation. It is a lifestyle for the current generation. It is a commendable lifestyle, without doubt. But it is hardly a choice that captures their hearts and minds.
The Torah values ownership and sees it as the touchstone of mesorah. Each year on Passover we say, “A person is obligated to view himself as if he was one who left Egypt” (Hagaddah, Pesachim 116b). Clearly, it is important for every Jew to feel as if he has been personally redeemed by God and transformed from powerless to powerful, slave to soldier.
Each year on Shavuos we learn that every Jewish soul was at Mount Sinai and received the Torah (Midrash Tanchuma Nitzavim). We each chose to accept the Torah, as a warrior accepts a mission. Clearly, personal connection and individual choice are the pillars upon which the successful transmission of Torah is set.
Currently we are in the period between Passover and Shavuos. Each night we count the Omer, marking the 49 days in which the Jewish people journeyed from slavery in Egypt to Revelation at Sinai. We remember the time we attained freedom and relive the decision to commit that freedom to a Godly discipline and an inspired life.
The commentaries ask why we count up, adding a number each night, as opposed to counting down. When we begin counting on the second night of Passover we could say “there are 49 days left until Shavuos” and work our way down a number each night, until we reach Shavuos, the celebration of Revelation.
Many reasons are offered, but this explanation touches my soul: The process of committing to Torah is best made when it is a journey, a search and a discovery. We begin the journey with the destination of Sinai in mind, for sure. But if we begin from the end and merely count backward with predetermined detail, the process will be uninspired and the commitment, when made, will be weak.
We need a new mission: something as great as kollel was for my parents’ generation and the advent of “yeshivish” was for ours. We need something that will capture the imagination of our children. We need something that will capture the creativity of the best and brightest of our youth.
Kiddush Hashem fits the bill. If we make this our new mantra, we would need to adapt our educational system, keeping our values but changing their application. Kollel would be for those who would choose it, and they would need to “prove it to choose it.” Our children’s secular studies would be greatly improved in quality and quantity, not as an inherent value but as the means to Kiddush Hashem. You cannot inspire the world unless you are lettered; a Jew cannot speak for Judaism unless he is learned. But you will not inspire the world unless you can articulate values in the language understood by the masses.
The average layperson would be trained with the ability to provide for his family shortly after marriage, reducing the monetary stress that frays familial unity and communal harmony. Most of our laypeople will not be competing to provide services to our community. And the currency of our culture, the achievement of communal kvelling, would be bringing glory to the name of Hashem throughout America. With strong education and rabbinic guidance, haredi writers, speakers, and laypeople would weigh in with ease and familiarity on national issues. The layperson would be a Godly soldier, familiar with the moral battles of the day, in touch with the forces pushing for biblical expression in American culture and bristling at those pushing against it. The layperson would be seared with the desire and mission to bring honor and dignity to God by living, learning and working as a proud Jew.
As a child, I thought Kiddush Hashem meant clean up after myself at the park and giving an older woman my seat on the bus. It is surely that. But it is so much more.
It is sharing with mankind the core values of Judaism, the dignity of the religious lifestyle and the discipline of a higher calling. It is pushing back against the secularism that seeks to overtake America, the “progressive” forces that cloud the distinction between right and wrong and undermine the commitment to do anything about it.
The layperson would embody and promote this Jewish message to the world through everything he did: Choose the fine wine of Godliness over the sugared cereal of materialism, the pleasure of permanence over the desire of the moment. The world is ready to hear the message and we are the ones to share it.
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A few weeks ago I was at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport waiting on a TSA security line. It was early in the morning and the line, though long, was moving at a fair pace. I was positioned behind a Slavic man and his wife. Both were big and blond, and they seemed belligerent. I tried to make small talk and they turned away sharply. I wondered: What effect could my ancestors have had on Polish/Ukrainian culture in the 500 years they called that region home? Very little, I knew. All they could do was batten down their hatches and keep their values intact.
A bit further down the line of passengers was a middle-aged couple, seemingly middle-class, religious Texans. I asked myself: What can I do to weigh in on contemporary moral issues and be a source of Kiddush Hashem to them? Everything, I knew. They expected me, as an Orthodox Jew, to weigh in on the issues and they would listen carefully to my words.
Pursuing societal Kiddush Shem Shamayim would mean a communal focus that was less internal and more external. Instead of focusing, strictly, on the dangers of the Internet to our families we would also join traditional Americans trying to enact legislation to require public libraries to install content filters. We would use our connections to promote smut-free school zones throughout the state. We would use our influence to encourage chain stores to post stronger warning labels on violent video games. We would push back and reinforce the fringes of social decay. We would see it as our Jewish duty to protect not only the moral fabric of the Jewish community but also the moral foundation of America.
We are burdened by property taxes that pay for public education while also paying yeshiva tuitions. It seems unfair. We want tax credits, vouchers or, at least, state-funded busing and remedial services. Millions of traditional Americans are fighting the same battle. Kiddush Hashem would mean joining these groups on a more personal level – not asking a few askanim to represent us, but making it an issue of personal significance. We would weigh in on the issue and show society that the religious citizen is the model citizen and the moral heir of the American Founding Fathers. Pursuing Kiddush Hashem would mean bringing back aspects of the haredi community of the 1960s and 1970s: idealism and simplicity. We would see Kiddush Shem Shamayim in creating a society sustainable for many generations.
In the first half of the 20th century, Orthodox Judaism in America was weak. The first generation of bnei Torah built the infrastructure. The second generation built the beis medrash. The third generation can maintain the infrastructure, sustain the beis medrash, and pour thousands of reinforcements into the battle for the soul of America. This battle is not the battle of Eastern Europe, between Yaakov and Eisav. It is the battle between the followers of Avraham and the promoters of Sodom.
As frum Jews connected to the God of Avraham we have a moral duty to weigh in on this battle. For millennia, affecting the world around us was impossible. Survival as frum Jews was our sole aspiration. Today, a window has opened. We have the opportunity to stand up and be counted, to step forward and lead. We have the opportunity to sing a new song. We have the opportunity, indeed the blessing, to be the generation that sings to God a New Song, that sings to God throughout the Land (Psalm 96).
Yaakov Rosenblatt is the author of two books and a contributor to many Jewish and general publications. He “tends the flock,” literally and figuratively, as CEO of A.D. Rosenblatt Kosher Meats, LLC and a rabbi at NCSY – Southwest region.
About the Author: Yaakov Rosenblatt, the author of two books, is a rabbi and businessman in Dallas.
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