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Posts Tagged ‘Chofetz Chaim’

Airbrushing The Past Creates Problems In The Present

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

There is an old rabbinic anecdote about a rabbi who was called on to deliver a eulogy for someone who had no redeeming social value whatsoever. The rabbi was hard pressed to think of anything positive to say about this person. So when he spoke he solemnly pronounced: “No matter how evil the deceased truly was, he was still a far better person than was his brother!”

Halacha allows for exaggeration in delivering a eulogy. But when this is liberally and untruthfully applied to Jewish history it becomes a dangerous threat to normative Jewish life. One of the great problems that plague religious Jewish life in our times is that a fantasy world – a completely inaccurate picture of European Jewish life before World War II – has been propagated and hallowed.

Because of this distorted picture of the past, a distorted view of present Jewish society has taken hold. And it is this distorted view that is responsible for much of the current dysfunction in religious Jewish societies the world over.

There have been attempts to somehow correct our hindsight but, in the main, they have failed because of the determined opposition of zealots who perpetuate inaccuracies and constantly create new fantasy stories to buttress their ideologically driven view of past Jewish life.

I am not in favor of exposing all the flaws of European Jewry and I am also willing to accommodate the many exaggerations about the truly positive aspects of that pre-World War II society. But without a balanced and somewhat accurate portrayal of what that society really looked like, it will be difficult for our society to move forward in a positive and constructive fashion.

There was a time when people believed pictures never lied and that one picture was worth a thousand words.That unfortunately is no longer true. Computers, airbrushing and other modern means of altering photographs have made pictures from the past suspect.

There is a famous photograph of the Chofetz Chaim sitting outside of his house talking to his eldest son, Rabbi Aharon Leib Poupko. In the original photograph the wife and daughter of the Chofetz Chaim are standing directly behind him. This picture has been reproduced in a new and completely hagiographic biography of the Chofetz Chaim – except that the women in the picture have disappeared completely from the scene.

This premeditated inaccuracy was mandated by the desire to make the past somehow resemble the imagined world of the guardians of current political correctness in our religious world. Once, many years ago in Monsey, my congregation’s sisterhood sponsored the sale and distribution of a generic vegetarian cookbook of exotic recipes. The cookbook contained an illustration of a young boy who was bareheaded. The ladies spent the entire night covering the boy’s head with a magic marker yarmulke.

I am also reminded of pictures of famous Eastern European rabbis who were forced to take passport or other official photos in a bareheaded pose. Those photos were later retouched (not very artfully at that) to make them conform to present accepted piety. This probably falls between acceptable exaggeration and unacceptable inaccuracy but it is indicative of the spirit of our times.

The inaccuracies and fantasy portrayals of the Jewish past are but one of the many symptoms of what I feel to be the major underlying malaise in much of religious Jewish society. That underlying problem is the insecurity of religious Jewish society in facing the new Jewish world that now exists.

This world is one of modernity gone rampant, of communication that is instant and all-inclusive, of a Jewish state with all of the social, political, theological and religious challenges that such a state entails, and of a completely different economic and professional work environment than existed a century ago.

Frightened by these immense challenges, unaccustomed to being a distinct minority in the Jewish world itself, and having been forced on the defensive by the attacks of the secularists, the traditional Jewish world has been loath to engage these problems. It prefers to repaint and revisit the past instead of facing the present. It is frightened and regressive instead of being confident and optimistic.

This is truly ironic, for today’s Jewish society and its demographics have once again proven, seemingly against all odds, the resilience of Torah and tradition in all sections and climes of the Jewish world. As such our education should be geared toward self-pride and optimism, reality and how to cope in our current world. There should be less emphasis on denigrating others and fearing their ideas and less trepidation of technological advancements.

Chofetz Chaim – Join the Army and Go on Aliyah!

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen, from Radin, better as the Chofetz Chaim, composed the unparalleled halachic work, the “Mishna Berura,” the definitive compendium of practical Jewish law. In addition, his writings on good deeds and kindness, “Ahavat Chesed,” and his treatise on evil speech, “Shmirat HaLashon,” show his great piety and saintliness. He is known never to have spoken unfairly about anyone.

In spite of the fact that the Chofetz Chaim was vehemently opposed to the non-religious spirit of the secular Zionists, he encouraged the aliyah of God-fearing Jews. He saw the surge of mass aliyah from Russia as “the footsteps of the Mashiach,” and the beginning of the ingathering of the exiles which precedes the Mashiach’s coming. “If we had the capability,” he wrote to his son, “it would be appropriate to buy land and make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael” (Letters of the Chofetz Chaim to His Son, Reb Aryeh Leb HaCohen, pgs. 43-44.)

He even approved of Jews enlisting in the gentile armies of Europe, indicating that it would be good training and preparation for our own Jewish army. He told them: “In a short time the Mashiach will come, and we will have a State, and a State needs an army. Will you wait until then to learn how to be soldiers? Now you have the opportunity to learn how to fight. This is very important to us. The Master of the World is arranging this opportunity for practice to prepare you for service in our own Jewish army” (See, “Torat Eretz Yisrael, Ch7; L’Netivot Yisrael, by Tzvi Yehuda Rabbi Kook, 2:6; Mishna Berura, Shabbat, 329:7: sub-section 17.)

The following story is brought down by the revered scholar Rabbi Dichovsky, in his comentary, “Neot Desha,” on the Talmud. In the introduction, he recounts his visit to the Chofetz Chaim to ask him a question about moving to Israel at a time of clear and present danger, when Arabs were waging pogroms in the Holy Land. We quote his account verbatim:

“I saw it proper to record a statement made to me by the most pious of all of the kohanim, the Rabbi of all Israel, the glory of the generation, the holy of all Israel, may he be blessed in memory, in the matter of aliyah. I asked him about this question, and the following are the details of our encounter.

“It was the beginning of the year, 1933. There was a group of Torah scholars who had organized themselves to go together to Israel to learn Torah. I too was amongst them, but I had many doubts, because I knew that many of the great gedolim (Torah scholars) of Israel were opposed. The heads of my yeshiva were especially opposed to the idea that yeshiva students would go to Eretz Yisrael, even for the sake of studying Torah. They said that the proper conditions had not as yet been established in order to facilitate Torah study with the proper diligence in the Holy Land, to the extent that we are able to study Torah in the yeshivot in the Diaspora. Therefore, I said in my heart, that I must not ask my rabbis in this matter, for obviously their answer will be no.

“Like Rabbi Zera, who ran away from his teacher, Rav Yehuda, when he wanted to make aliyah to Israel (Tractate Ketubot, 110B,) I decided to go and ask the counsel of the righteous tzaddik of our generation, our revered master, and to receive his blessing before I departed. Therefore, just before the Day of Atonement, I journeyed to the yeshiva of the Chofetz Chaim in the town of Radin, where I stayed in the shadow of this great, righteous individual. This was, as is known, the last Yom Kippur of this special tzaddik, for at the end of the year, in the month of Elul, he was taken to the yeshiva Above, may his merit be a shield to us and all Israel.

“In spite of his great physical weakness, a Heavenly Providence was with me, and I merited to see him the day after Yom Kippur. I told him my situation, and that I had a good chance of making aliyah to Israel as a Torah student, only I had lingering doubts if I would be able to learn Torah with the same diligence with which I was learning now. Immediately, he answered, in his famous sweetness of speech, that there was no room at all for my wariness. Why in the world would I not be able to learn Torah there with absolute diligence, he said? Just the opposite would seem to be true, for the Land of Israel, without question, was more conducive for steadfast immersion in Torah. He recited the verse, ‘The gold of the Land is good,’ on which the Midrash says, ‘This gold are the words of Torah, for there is no Torah like the Torah of Eretz Yisrael; and there is no wisdom like the wisdom of Eretz Yisrael.’

My Machberes

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Igud Rosh Chodesh At Kingsbrook

On Monday, Rosh Chodesh Teves – the sixth day of Chanukah, December 26 – more than thirty member rabbis convened at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn to participate in the Rosh Chodesh Conference of the Rabbinical Alliance of America-Igud Horabbonim. Speakers included Rabbi Noach Bernstein, Rabbi Michoel Chazan, Rabbi Yaakov Spivak, Rabbi Yehuda Levin, and this writer.

Rabbi Chazan, chaplain of Kingsbrook, described the invaluable work being done by the chaplaincy staff. He told of a volunteer who attended to elderly patients at the hospital, particularly in helping them with their tefillin for daily prayers. The volunteer sought the blessing of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, zt”l (1886-1979), Satmar Rebbe. The Rebbe encouraged the volunteer to continue his good work and blessed him with long life. The volunteer lived into his late 90s. His work is being continued today by his son. Rabbi Chazan also noted that the greatly respected Bikur Cholim of Satmar began its citywide mission and operations at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center.

This writer, in his capacity as Igud director and rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights, called for the re-staffing and re-empowerment of New York State’s Kosher Law Enforcement under the direction of Rabbi Luzer Weiss. New York has become synonymous with kosher food, and kosher consumers today include vegetarians, the lactose intolerant, Hindus, observant Jews and others. Any erosion in the perception of kosher quality will hurt New York’s kosher food production as well as its economy.

A resolution was unanimously approved urging the governor and the state legislature to embolden and increase the office of Kosher Law Enforcement, led by the universally respected Rabbi Luzer Weiss, thus ensuring that the state’s kosher food industry would continue to grow – a critical consideration in this time of increasing unemployment.

Rabbi Yaakov Spivak, rav and rosh kollel of Ashyel Avraham in Monsey as well as a columnist and radio and TV commentator, focused on the dangers of smoking. In 1964, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l (1893-1986), author of Igros Moshe, did not prohibit smoking “in particular because a number of great Torah sages, in past generations and in our own, smoke” (see Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:49 [1964]; Yoreh Deah 3:35 [1973]; and Choshen Mishpat 2:76 [1981]).

This, plainly, was because those venerable sages did not yet know that smoking was dangerous. On the contrary, smoking tobacco was perceived as beneficial and healthful. Indeed, when Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen, zt”l (1838-1933), author of Chofetz Chaim and Mishnah Berurah, heard from doctors that smoking was dangerous for those who are “weak,” he ruled that, even if one is addicted, it is necessary to stop.

Rabbi Spivak stressed that no one is permitted to begin smoking – especially young yeshiva students. Rabbi Spivak called on Torah leaders to take the initiative in stopping smoking by our youths.

Students who earned their semicha at Kollel Ashyel Avraham and are now Igud member rabbis presented Rabbi Spivak, their Torah mentor, with a plaque expressing their deep appreciation of his Torah leadership and guidance. Rabbi Spivak and the other rabbis present were moved by the expression of deep, heartfelt appreciation.

Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center is located at 585 Schenectady Avenue in the East Flatbush section of central Brooklyn, moments away from Crown Heights. It was founded in 1925 as a chronic care facility to serve the Jewish community within a cultural context.

As the community has evolved and diversified, Kingsbrook has expanded its services and programs to meet the needs of the area’s large, culturally diverse communities. The rabbis met in the Chaim Albert Synagogue, which serves as a full service synagogue as well as the Jewish chapel for the hospital. The high vaulted ceiling and tall stained glass windows with more than 7,000 memorial name plaques adorning its walls, some dating back to 1873, confirm the shul’s status as an emblem of the community’s rich Jewish history, recalling the time when great rabbis lived in a thriving Jewish neighborhood.

Kosher Chaplains

In 2006, a number of observant Jewish chaplains serving at medical facilities throughout the United States and Canada joined to participate in the first Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) course specially tailored for observant Jews.

Successful completion of the CPE course by chaplains is desired by hospitals and medical establishments. However, since the regular presentation of the course does not address issues that affect observant Jewish patients, who are dealt with by observant chaplains on a daily basis, a special presentation was organized by Rabbi Chazan. Rabbi Chazan is also director of the Central Council of Rabbinical Chaplains (CCRC). In these capacities, Rabbi Chazan is the dynamic leader of observant chaplaincy services throughout the United States.

In 2008, CCRC held a gathering at Kingsbrook’s aforementioned chapel. More than 30 rabbinical chaplains from the tri-state area participated. Keynote speaker at the event was Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski, renowned spiritual leader, psychiatrist, therapist, and author. Rabbi Twerski addressed many issues and concerns that confront hospital rabbinical-chaplains daily.

Part I: The Beginning

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

This wasn’t supposed to happen, especially not to me.  I could give you all the stats: my great-grandfather learned in Radin with the Chofetz Chaim, my grandfathers learned in Slobodka and Novardik, and my father has smicha from Ner Yisroel in Baltimore.  Outside of the brief fantasy (which lasted a lot longer than I care to admit) that I would be the star player who takes the Chicago Bears to the Superbowl, I always saw myself in yeshiva.  It is what I had always planned to do, and I never really contemplated anything else.

I missed all the warning signs, too.  The fact that I really didn’t like to learn, and that that might have some impact on my plans, never crossed my mind.  After all, I was good at it, winning awards and learning competitions in day school (I definitely liked that) and shooting up through the ranks in high school to the highest shiurim.  I also failed to notice that as high school transitioned to beis medrash most of my peers really wanted to learn and didn’t play those silly “hiding from the Rebbe games.”  The truth is learning was something I did because I had to, not something I did because I wanted to or enjoyed it.

That fantasy world came crashing down on me after I seriously injured a high school boy in a football game that took place when I was supposed to be in seder (I guess I didn’t want to give up on that Chicago Bears fantasy so quickly).   Sometimes you just see things more clearly after an event like that, and I suddenly realized that I wasn’t really doing much of anything in yeshiva.  I still see that play, that tackle and the pain from his broken collarbone playing over and over in my mind.

Things were mostly a blur at that point, and even though I have a very good memory, I cannot remember the actual moment at which I decided that it was time to leave.   In all honesty, I probably thought that I’d just leave and start again in another yeshiva, somewhere else.  I also don’t remember the point at which I decided not to even apply for admission to another yeshiva, although the fact that I couldn’t give a decent accounting of what I had learned over the previous two years probably had a lot to do with it.   The football game was on a Sunday.  I was home by Tuesday afternoon with no idea what to do and what my future would hold.

I was only partially aware that for most people a quick exit from yeshiva without even an attempt to transfer someplace else was usually an indication of some serious offense.  While I had been guilty of no such thing, I didn’t feel comfortable telling people that I had never lived up to any of that potential they always thought I had in learning.

I must have been asked scores of times over the first few weeks, “Why aren’t you in yeshiva?”  It was a question I really couldn’t answer for myself, let alone anyone else.  Luckily, my response, “I lost my football scholarship,” made people laugh and walk away without pursuing the question any further.  In retrospect, I probably would have been better off trying to develop a real response to that question.  It may have given me some of the kind of guidance I really needed.

The point was I always had a vision of where I saw myself going.  Yeshiva as far as the eye could see, marriage and kollel and the likelihood that I would spend my life learning in the mornings and teaching history (my favorite high school subject) in a yeshiva’s General Studies department.

Sin Of The Grasshoppers

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

With Israel surrounded, as ever, by implacable enemies and forced to endure withering assaults of negative international opinion, we can take needed comfort and learn an important lesson from the Torah context of some key phrases in the Yom Kippur liturgy we recited just days ago.

Two such phrases are “selach na la’avon ha’am hazeh” (“forgive the sins of this people”) and that powerful culminating statement in the Kol Nidrei service, “Vayomer Hashem salachti k’dvarecha” – God’s solemn declaration that we stand forgiven.

The remarkable scenario is found in the well-known story of the spies in the wilderness. The Jews had left Egypt and were in the Wilderness of Paran, at which point they requested that spies be sent to investigate the Promised Land they were about to enter.

Moshe Rabbeinu picks “individuals of stature, leaders of the Children of Israel, every one of them a prince.” They spent forty days checking out the Land. On their return to the camp they reported that “the Land is flowing with milk and honey indeed,” and they presented as evidence a colossal cluster of grapes carried by two people on a pole between them.

But they continued telling a frightening tale of formidably fortified cities whose walls were impregnable and whose people were giants. They concluded: “We can’t go against these people for they are stronger than we are.”

To bring their point forcefully home, they declared: “Va’nehi b’eineinu k’chagavim” – “we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers” – and”v’chein hayinu b’eineihem” – “and so we saw ourselves in their eyes.”

The people, hearing this dreadful report, lifted up their voices and cried, “Would that we had died in Egypt . Wherefore does God bring us unto this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become free prey! It would be better for us to return to Egypt!”

Since their departure from Egypt, the Jews had crossed the sea, experienced their great encounter with the Divine at Mount Sinai and were fed manna and provided water in the parched wilderness. All these wondrous events seemed suddenly forgotten by the people, as was their bitter enslavement in Egypt.

This was hardly the first time since the beginning of the process of liberation that the people showed little or no faith in God. When the Egyptian chariots were approaching, and the deep sea stretched before them, the nation cried out: “Is it because of lack of graves in Egypt that you brought us out here to die in the wilderness?”

Shortly after crossing the sea, when they had not yet found water in the wilderness surrounding them, the people cried out, “What shall we drink?” Soon thereafter they complained about the lack of proper food: “Would that we had died in the Land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots and ate bread to satiation.”

And when they ran out of water a second time, they showered bitter reproach on God and Moshe: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”

But it was only when the people built a Golden Calf do we read that the Almighty considered severely punishing the people.

Nothing,however, compares to God’s burning wrath in the case of the spies. “I will smite them with the pestilence . I will wipe them out totally,” he declares.

Why then? Weren’t the previous complaints and revolts equally shameful and provocative? Why is it just then that God seemed ready to obliterate the nation?

Indeed, this time wasdifferent. A closer reading shows us it was the first time Jews were engaged in debasing, disdaining, deriding and scorning themselves. Previously the people had complained against God or Moses. Now however, the people’s revolt and the their desire to return to Egypt was based on utter self-contempt.

“We were as grasshoppers in our own eyes.” We were as worms, as snails, as bugs, as dust in our own self-esteem. It was not so much the revolt as the reasonfor the revolt – its motivation – that brought God close to sealing the people’s fate.

With such total lack of self-appreciation – by being so debased and scorned in their own eyes – a people can have no future, no vision, no hope. This group is not a people. It is an anarchic mob.

Only Moshe’s plea saves the people. Only the supplication reiterated in our Yom Kippur prayers brings about a change in God’s plan.

“Forgive the sin of this people . Hashem, Hashem, please be gracious and merciful” – only this converts the death sentence into a life sentence and brings about a Divine judgment that, while dooming the self-deprecating generation to die out in the wilderness in the course of forty years of wandering, offers salvation to future generations of the Jewish people.

Evidently, the sin deserving the penalty of annihilation was self-debasement and self-contempt. Belittling oneself, considering oneself not worthy – the act and state of self-derision – was declared an a nearly unpardonable sin. Perhaps it was this biblical story that prompted Hillel to declare: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

A fine story about the Chofetz Chaim comes to mind.

Famous for his learning, wisdom and humility, the Chofetz Chaim liked to travel incognito in order to avoid adulation. One day, as the Chofetz Chaim was on his way home to the Lithuanian town of Radin, the coach driver began praising a certain rabbi who happened to lived in Radin.

Each time the driver uttered praise for this rabbi, the Chofetz Chaim would demur. When the driver proclaimed how learned the rabbi was, the Chofetz Chaim responded, “Nu, he is not so learned.” When the driver related how compassionate and charitable the rabbi was, the Chofetz Chaim protested, “Nu, he is not so compassionate and charitable.” When the driver described how humble a man the rabbi was, the Chofetz Chaim begged to differ: “Nu, he is not so humble.”

At that point the driver had heard enough from his contrary passenger. He stopped the coach and unceremoniously threw the man to the side of the road.

The next day the driver decided to pay a visit to the famed rabbi whose virtues he had extolled so forcefully. At once he recognized the rabbi as the very passenger he had left stranded the day before at the side of the road. Mortified, he began crying out, “Oy, Rebbe, please forgive me.”

The Chofetz Chaim interrupted him and said: “Mein tayerer Yid, I have nothing to forgive you for. I have to thank you for teaching me a very important lesson in life. We have no right to deride ourselves. We must fully respect ourselves and never be self-deprecating.”

* * * * *

 

The fact is, it goes against our tradition to belittle ourselves. We should not hold our noses high up in the air, but we are not allowed to permit people to step on us, to take advantage of us, to belittle and bypass us.

The Torah resonates with the message: Jews, have respect for yourselves! If we won’t have respect for ourselves, if we won’t have respect for our people, who will? If I am not for myself who will be? If I am not for my people who will be? If I say I am no good, why should others try to convince me otherwise about myself?

And yet, despite that unmistakable message, perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the Jewish people, not only in the wilderness but repeatedly throughout the ages, has been the tendency to debase ourselves.

In the Middle Ages there were Jews who converted to Christianity to save their skin. But then, in their desire to prove their Christian sincerity, they became faithful handmaidens of the bloody Inquisition. They were the first in line to testify that the Talmud and Jewish lore blaspheme Jesus and Christianity, thus helping to light up the dark Middle Ages with pyres of Jewish martyrs and precious sacred texts.

Modern times proved no better. Once the ghetto walls were breached in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the process of emancipation, followed by assimilation to neighboring cultures, proceeded at an ever-increasing pace.

We were proud of becoming elegant Frenchmen, and in fact turned into better Frenchmen than Jews. We were proud of becoming cultured Germans, and in fact turned into better Germans than Jews. We began hiding our Jewishness and became increasingly ashamed of it.

We were driven by utter self-derision. We became filled with a self-contempt that times reached the level of self-hatred. We became like grasshoppers in our own eyes. No wonder those around us took to seeing us in the same light: “V’chein hayinu b’eineihem” – “that is the way we appeared in their eyes.”

Today it is no better. In the Middle Ages, some orders of Christian monks used self-flagellation to beat the devil out of themselves. So too do some Jews flagellate themselves, mercilessly driving any sense of Jewishness and Zionist feeling (as if these were the very devil) out of themselves and their environment.

Were these Jews to act as the monks did, in the seclusion of their monastic cells, it would be sad and painful to know about but it would not constitute a threat to the entire nation. But these Jews display to the entire world their total lack of self-respect, their contempt for the most sacred aspects of Judaism. They trumpet their disgust through all conceivable media, readily placed at their disposal by our enemies. They thus send waves of dejection and desperate impotence through our people while strengthening the hands of our adversaries whose only wish is to destroy us.

Herzl hoped that once we were in our own land the problem of anti-Semitism would be solved We have come to learn, however, that the world won’t change. As long as the Jewish people is vital and creative, in its own land or out of it, the world will hate us with a passion, will harass us, and will find all the pretexts – no matter how far-fetched and unreasonable – to support our enemies

Even if Israel had the best and the Jewish people were blessed with the most charismatic spokesmen, it would not be in our power to persuade the stranger who loves to hate us with a passion to learn to love us with a similar ardor.

But what we must do is shout and argue – even plead and beg – with our brother and sister Jews:

Let us be. Don’t help in digging our graves. Don’t offer our enemies live ammunition to kill us, to finish us off. Let them not be triumphant because of the collaboration of Jews who not only accept all the lies invented about us but bolster those lies by their own fancifully false interpretations. Please, don’t condemn our generation to extinction the way a handful of leaders did in the wilderness who saw themselves as worthless grasshoppers.

When Jewish intellectuals distort history in order to “prove” Jewish guilt and Israeli aggression, malevolently overlooking whatever would unquestionably prove Israel to be in the right, they are guilty before God and man of a malicious crime that, as we have seen, in our ancient past threatened our whole people with extinction.

As the story of the spies exemplifies, nothing brings down God’s wrath as when His people loses its self-appreciation, becoming debased and deligitimized in its own eyes.

We – all of us, big and small, laborer and academician, intellectual and man in the street – must beled to a deeper understanding of our personal value, to the colossal impact of our personal acts, and to a true understanding of the justness of our cause as a people.

The time has come for all of us to grow in our conviction that, despite our human flaws and occasional mistakes, we have every right and justification to continue to thrive and progress as a people in our own land – and that as a united people we will face up to all challenges from near and from far.

In the coming year, in the face of the derision and guilt heaped upon us in such liberal doses by our enemies, we must stand up to all temptations that may lead to a weakening of faith and trust.

We must never forget we are an ancient people with unbroken descent, having made vast contributions to mankind and with an undisputed right to the Land of Israel that no person of a sane mind and a just heart could challenge.

The Ship of the Jewish People has sailed over the stormiest of seas in the course of the ages, reaching the 21st century battered but creative, full of vitality, confidently looking forward to a glorious future.

Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is the author of several books including “Politics of Compromise” and “In the Shadow of the Struggle.” He is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel; taught at City University of New York, Haifa University and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker.

The Multimillionaire Who Remained True to Orthodoxy

Wednesday, April 19th, 2006

Note: Most of the information in this article is based upon Forty Years of Struggle for a Principle: the Biography of Harry Fischel,edited by Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, published by the Bloch Publishing Company, New York, 1928, and the unpublished manuscript Continuation of Biography of Harry Fischel, 1928-1941. The published book will be referred to as B, and the unpublished manuscript as UB.
 
In 1924 Harry Fischel had occasion to visit the town of Eishishok in Lithuania. Eishishok is located a few miles from Radin, where Rabbi Yisroel Meyer Hakohen Kagan, zt”l, popularly known as the Chofetz Chaim, lived.

When the Chofetz Chaim learned that Mr. Fischel was nearby, he immediately sent an “automobile bus used for the purpose of conveying students from the station at Radin to the yeshiva, to take Mr. Fischel to Radin. Accompanying the bus was a committee of students. Mr. Fischel was met at a considerable distance from the yeshiva by the rabbi, then 86 years of age, who personally escorted him to his home and then through the Talmudical college” (B page 318).

Who was this remarkable man whom the Chofetz Chaim went to great effort to see, spend so much time with, and honor in such a manner?

Humble Beginnings

Yisroel Aaron Fischel (later known as Harry) was born on July 19, 1865, in the small, isolated Russian town of Meretz. His father, as well as most of the residents of Meretz, barely eked out a living. His parents were admired, however, for their deep piety, and they did their utmost to instill Torah values in their children. They were successful with Harry, who throughout his life remained an Orthodox Jew strictly committed to the observance of mitzvos.

Mr. Fischel received a basic religious and secular education from his father and the local school. It’s interesting to note that he apparently had virtually no exposure to Torah she’ b’al peh.

“I had no opportunity [in my youth] to acquire very much Hebrew knowledge. However, since I came to our free country ‘America,’ where knowledge can be acquired without any hardship and without any cost, I immediately took advantage of the opportunity and began the study of Mishna.” (UB pages 83-84.)

“At the age of only ten years, he spent some weeks in modeling from wood, with a lowly pen-knife, a miniature replica of the Tabernacle [mishkan], so accurately designed according to the description in the Scriptures, and so carefully executed, as to excite the wonderment and surprise of the dwellers in the town. Through this bit of work, done on his own initiative, the boy developed a taste for the profession he was later to adopt.” (B pages 4-5).

The aptitude Harry exhibited at such a young age would enable him to master the rudiments of architecture by the age of eighteen.

At that time all able-bodied Russian youths were compelled to serve in the army for five years as soon as they reachd the age of twenty-one. To avoid this, Harry, at age twenty, made the difficult decision to leave his beloved parents and to immigrate to America.

“Their final words of admonition were, ‘When you reach the golden land, do not exchange your religion for gold.’”(B page 9.) He never forgot these words as long as he lived.

Early Struggles

Harry Fischel arrived in the United States on a bitter cold day in December of 1885 with only sixty cents in his pocket and the clothes on his back. He first tried to secure a job in an architectural firm, but soon saw that this was hopeless. He therefore became a carpenter’s assistant, earning three dollars a week. Harry did not forget his parents after his arrival in the goldene medina. His commitment to the mitzvah of kibud av v’aim led him to send his entire first week’s wages to his parents. He asked the family he lived with to extend him credit for his room and board.

“From this time on, the young man never failed to send his mother and father a monthly remittance of at least ten roubles, or about five dollars in American money, so budgeting his expenses and living on such fare as to make this possible, no matter how small his earnings were.” (B page 15.)

Shmiras Shabbos, No Matter What

We live in a time and place where laws protect the Sabbath observer from discrimination. Most businesses have a five-day workweek. While it’s true that observant Jews still encounter situations in the workplace that test their commitment to Yiddishkeit, today’s milieu is a far cry from the one Harry Fischel found himself in when he first arrived in America.

Harry worked for six months as a carpenter’s assistant, toiling 12 hours a day and then spending two hours in night school, where he studied English and broadened his knowledge of architecture. He did not mind the long and grueling hours because he did not have to work on Shabbos.

Eventually an architectural firm offered him a position at ten dollars a week. While this presented him with a great opportunity, he would have been required to work on Shabbos. After some soul searching, he recalled the words of his parents – “Do not exchange your religion for money” – and refused the offer, continuing on in his low-paying job.

More difficulties loomed, however. One summer day he arrived to work only to find his place of employment closed – the owner had gone bankrupt. All Harry’s attempts to find another job proved fruitless, because every time he applied for a position, he made it clear that he would not work on Shabbos.

Finally he was hired by a firm of architects – but during the interview, he had chosen not to tell them he was a Sabbath observer. He hoped the firm would let him have Shabbos off based on the quality of his work and his willingness to work for five days at considerably lower wages than he’d been offered for six.

The job turned out to be all that Harry had hoped for and more. The week flew by as he applied himself in his new position. The working conditions were excellent, and he found the work interesting and stimulating. But when he approached his employer on Friday afternoon and asked if he could have Saturday off, he was told, “If you don’t come tomorrow, you need not come on Monday.”

He was now faced with a most difficult test of his religious principles. This job ws precisely what he had been looking for, and it held the potential for the realization of his dream to become an architect. It appeared to be the road that would lead him from poverty to financial success.

Harry spent a sleepless night agonizing over what to do. He finally decided that he would get up early Shabbos morning, daven, and then go to work. After davening he headed home to change from his Shabbos suit to weekday clothes and go to work.

Arriving at the corner of Hester and Essex Streets on the Lower East Side, he saw that not a single store was open. The streets were filled with people dressed in their Shabbos finery. The atmosphere of Shabbos was everywhere. Harry was truly torn by his predicament. He thought of how shocked and disappointed his parents would be if they knew what he was thinking of doing. Finally, with great difficulty, he made his decision.

“He knew that neither then nor later would it ever be possible for him to desecrate the Sabbath.”(B page 19.)

On Monday he returned to his place of employment. He pleaded with his employers to let him work a five-day week, saying he would accept half of the salary that had been agreed upon when he was hired. Not only was his plea rejected, he was not even paid for the week that he had worked.

Such were the tests observant Jews faced in America at the end of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century.

Marriage, More Job Related Problems – and Success

Harry finally found a suitable job in October 1886, as a foreman for a builder. The hours were long, but at least Shabbos was not a problem. On November 26, 1887, he married Jane Brass. She had immigrated to America in 1883. She came from a fine religious home. Indeed, her father, brother and grandfather were all talmidei chachomim.

“Thus, the young woman possessed in both her antecedents and upbringing all those qualities most likely to appeal to the young man and to strengthen and encourage all that was best in his own character.” (B page 24.)

Harry’s employer gave him two weeks’ vacation as a wedding present. When he returned, however, he was told there was no work and he should look for another job. The newlyweds now faced a most difficult time. Harry spent months looking for a job, without success. Things were so bad that the couple was forced to pawn every item of value just to get through the terrible winter of 1887-88.

The tide turned in July of 1888. Harry was asked by Mr. Newman Cowan, a customer of his former employer, to estimate the cost of raising the roof of the building that Cowan̓s business occupied. The job was so large and complex that many contractors refused to even bid on it. Further, Harry had no capital with which to undertake such a job. He told this to Cowen, who replied that if the price were right he would arrange credit for him.

The work took five months to complete. Harry’s cost estimates were so precise that not only did he make a good living on this job, he was also able to save $250, a substantial sum in those days. The most beneficial outcome was that he became well-known as a successful contractor, one very much in demand.

In the year following the completion of this job, Harry had so much work that he built up his savings to some $2,500. For the reader to fully appreciate what that amount of money represented, consider that $2,500 in the year 1889, according to the consumer price index, had the same purchase power as $50,883.78 in the year 2004. Or, looking at it from the perspective of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita, an index of the economy̓s average output per person that is closely correlated with the average income, $2,500 in the year 1889 was equivalent to $12,335.26 in2004. (See http://eh.net/hmit/compare/ for details.)

Mr. Fischel was now on his way to affluence.

“The story of the next few years [of his life] reads like a fairy tale.” (B page 31.)

His abilities as a businessman and his expertise in construction and architecture led him to financial success after financial success. By 1900 he was the owner of a number of tenements and, eventually, entire buildings on Park Avenue in the most affluent neighborhood in New York City. He now had a large annual income.

In short, in little more than thirteen years Harry Fischel had gone from a condition of dire poverty to one of affluence, becoming a multimillionaire at a time when even being a millionaire was nowhere near as common as it is today.

Through all his success he remained true to Orthodox Judaism.

“Mr. Fischel’s principles as to Sabbath observance went far deeper than merely refusing to work himself on that day, his religious code held it equally wicked to cause others to work and he at once met the problem, not only by closing down operations of his own buildings, but by setting an example for others by paying hundreds of men the wage they would have obtained by working the half day Saturday, in order that they might resist the temptation to desecrate the day. Not only then, but in later years, when he came to build on a very extensive scale, it is Mr. Fischel’s pride that not a single Jew has ever worked on the Sabbath on any operation on which he has been engaged or in which he has been interested.” (B pages 32-33.)

Harry Fischel’s rise is not the only rags-to-riches story that occurred in the goldene medina in those times. What makes his unique is what he did with his success.

“He regarded the prosperity which had come to him as a direct answer to his prayers and considered that it imposed a definite obligation upon him to express his gratitude in good deeds. While he continued to strive to increase his holdings and to make more secure his fortune, it was mainly with the desire to place himself in a position where he might devote himself with greater zeal to his religion and might have more time to be of service to others.” (B page 84.)

Mr. Fischel became involved in a myriad of Jewish causes. These spanned such endeavors as founding the first religious classes for girls in 1894, playing a key role in HIAS (Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society), serving as vice president of Beth Israel Hospital, and becoming perhaps the major figure involved in the founding of Yeshiva College, to name just a few.

(Editor’s Note: There is hardly enough space here to discuss all the philanthropic concerns Harry Fischel was involved with throughout his life. His efforts to promote Orthodoxy will be discussed in some detail in Dr. Levine’s next “Glimpses into American Jewish History” column, which will appear in the May 5 issue of The Jewish Press.

(The author wishes to thank Rabbi Aaron Reichel, a great-grandson of Harry Fischel and the author of The Maverick Rabbi, for his assistance with the preparation of this aricle.)

Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. His “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” feature appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Who’s Watching The Kids?

Wednesday, December 29th, 2004

A good friend of mine, “Sarah,” recently shared her concern over her two year old grandson’s health. As far as she could remember, he was always coming down with a cold, ear infection, or stomach virus. It seemed as if every other week, the little boy had to be taken to his pediatrician. Since her daughter-in-law worked and took college classes, Sarah often had to use her own personal and sick days at work to be available to watch him when he was sick and home from day care.

Sarah strongly felt that her grandson’s frequent illnesses were due to a combination of being exposed to other ill children at his day care center and the fact that it was unlikely he was napping properly while other babies and toddlers were crying and screaming nearby. He was run down and therefore his immune system was not up to par. And the fact that the boy was in day care, she angrily insisted, was her son’s fault.

Her son, a brilliant young man, had decided after he came back from his year in Israel that he was not going to attend the Ivy League college where he had applied and had been accepted. Instead, he would become a full time learner, and then go into chinuch. His rebbes and friends and applauded this decision. Many expressed how envious they were that they had a son who was such a talmid chacham.

While she and her husband took pride in their son’s Torah study, they were also somewhat concerned. Both were college graduates and they had expected him to be one as well. Though they both had well-paying jobs, they barely managed to pay their mortgage, tuition and camp for five children, insurance and maintenance of their minivan and car, plus all the extras that are part and parcel of raising a frum, middle-class family. How would their son manage to support his family?

Their concerns were realistic. While their son learned, their daughter-in-law, whom they loved and admired, held the fort. “Leah” went to college with the goal of graduating in the health sciences so that she would have a career that paid decently. She also went to work because the bills had to be paid. When she had the baby, she had no choice but to hand him over to a woman in the neighborhood who watched several babies at her home. Both her own mother and her husband’s mother worked and were not available for full time baby-sitting. And staying home with the baby was out of the question.

At one point, Sarah had considered quitting her job for the baby’s sake, but part of her paycheck went to subsidize her son’s expenses and truthfully, she loved her job. She had been a stay-at-home mother until her youngest was in pre-school. She believed in the theory, backed by research, that the first three or four years of a child’s life form the foundation for the future.

A child who felt loved and had his/her mother’s attention and encouragement would likely grow up to be a confident, competent adult. She believed those children who were lacking emotional nourishment grew up to be insecure and unsure of themselves, and easy prey for abusive or manipulative people – whom, she felt, had also been emotionally neglected children.

Those years at home had been draining but fulfilling. When her youngest went off to school, Sarah was ready to join the world of working (out of the house) adults and to make use of her hard-earned education and skills.

Now, Sarah couldn’t understand this new world of barely-home-mothers and barely-home-babies. She blamed it on the barely-home non-working fathers. Whatever happened, she wondered, to men who earned during the day and learned at night and in their spare time? Weren’t the gedolim from the Talmudic times wage earners? Some were royal court doctors, some were shoe-makers and milkmen, but all worked. The great and venerable Chofetz Chaim had a grocery store.

The only solution, as unfair as it sounded, was for only the children of the wealthy to be full time learners, supported by their parents so that their wives could stay at home with their babies. Or perhaps a Yissachar and Zevulun arrangement could be made where a wealthy friend would support the learning family and share the learner’s zechus of learning Torah.

Sounds good, but was it realistic? All I could do was listen. And to say a quiet mazel tov when she called last week to let me know her the young couple was expecting.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/whos-watching-the-kids/2004/12/29/

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