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.