Photo Credit: Shlomo Greenwald
Rabbi Yisroel Reisman

Last month, Rav Yisroel Reisman, rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaath – along with other roshei yeshiva, such as Rav Elya Brudny and Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky – gave their stamp of approval for a new initiative encouraging Jews to scale back the sizes of their engagements and weddings.

Called The Simcha Initiative, it calls on people to pledge to the following:

We will have no elaborate vort celebrations.
We will limit the wedding meal to family and close friends of chosson & kallah, with a maximum of 250 invited guests, followed by a Simchas Chosson v’Kallah for all of the chaveirim who wish to rejoice with us.

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So far (as of the time of publication), the pledge has 1,311 signatures. To learn more, The Jewish Press recently spoke with Rav Reisman.

The Jewish Press: How did this initiative come about?

Rav Reisman: There were many calls for improvements, especially during the darkest days of this pandemic. We were truly frightened and for good reason. Those were weeks during which it seemed that virtually no person placed on a ventilator was coming off.

I was told that Maimonides hospital ran out of body bags, rachmana litzlan. A number of my friends spent Shabbos and Pesach alone in the hospital while their wives were all alone at home. We should remember what it was like.

Those were weeks where it became clear that this virus was unlike any other and that professionals themselves were confused. Doctors and our governor [Andrew Cuomo] were making valiant attempts and bold declarations, but contradicting themselves and each other routinely. We were scared.

As frum Jews, we naturally looked heavenward. We felt ready for some sort of meaningful upgrade in our spiritual lives. We hope that these feelings will remain, but we all know that they become weaker with time. We felt that this energy and emotion needed to be channeled somewhere.

Why focus on weddings? There is extravagance in many areas of our lifestyle. Why start there?

Many have asked this question. I agree that the real target should be individual extravagances and an inflated upscale manner of living. However, people’s private lives cannot be regulated.

I wish that we would have the common sense to stop living ostentatiously. However, simchas are public, communal events. Gedolim have long called for a moderation of simchas. Gedolim have long called for the elimination of elaborate vorts. This is not a novel idea. However, perhaps now people will have the motivation to listen.

Allow me to share my experiences. My wife and I have made seven bar mitzvahs and seven chasunahs, baruch Hashem. We have dealt with caterers, florists, and party planners. They are fine, erliche Yiddin. However, there is a definite societal pressure to spend more and more. We called to order vort flowers and the amount that one must spend is going up and up and up.

A florist told my wife, “You can’t do anything decent for less than $400.” Why can’t a chassan send a simple beautiful bouquet? Why must it be a massive, towering monstrosity? They make you feel that if you send anything smaller, you will embarrass the poor kallah.

For our daughter’s vort, we wanted to use a party planner because we didn’t want to be busy setting up, but we didn’t want a fancy extravaganza. I just wanted someone to do what I would do. I couldn’t get someone to do something simple. Her vort was beautiful, but much fancier than we needed or wanted. Why? Because each simcha is an advertisement for the party planner. She, too, is subject to social pressure and cannot afford to put her name to something that isn’t impressive and distinctive. That’s how things escalate and escalate.

We have children living out of town. There is zero pressure. They made a kiddush for their son’s bar mitzvah – not a prop in sight. It was beautiful, bakovodik and simchadik. It was the way a simcha should be.

Why specifically call for a maximum of 250 guests? Why not a price cap, or a requirement that weddings be buffet style, or a limit on the size of flowers and the expense of invitations?

It would be nice to make comprehensive rules. We tried a test run on a proposal with more details on a trial group. We discovered that the more details there are, the less likely it will succeed. We are hopeful that a family-only meal will spur an attitude of self-control in regard to all expenses.

By backing this initiative at this time, are you and the other rabbanim implicitly arguing that lavish weddings are the cause, or one of the causes, of the coronavirus pandemic?

Not at all. We have no nevi’im. My rebbe, Rav Avrohom Pam, zt”l, was opposed to people who offer reasons for tragedies. When we feel a wake-up call, we need to look inward, to find ways of improvement.

When the wake-up call is to an individual, he needs to find a personal area of improvement. When it is a wake-up call to a community, we need a communal improvement, an upgrade that has potential to last.

What if someone has over 250 family members? What if the mechutanim haven’t signed on to the initiative? 

The answer is always l’kulah. That is, these are meant to be guidelines to an improved wedding scene. A family-only wedding meal is our goal. There are no simcha police counting the number of guests. And, certainly, if I make a kabbalah [pledge], it is in no way binding on my mechutan. We try – but with ne’imus, in a pleasant way.

Will rabbanim try to make this compulsory or are you hoping individuals will voluntarily sign on?

How can it be compulsory? We have no authority to compel anything, nor do we wish to. Some people call it a takanah. However, it is neither a gezeirah nor a takanah; it is a kabbalah that individuals are voluntarily accepting.

The whole beauty of this lies in the fact that this is purely voluntary, a movement by people who take the initiative to follow up on a suggestion. We did no mailings or phone banks to ask people to sign up. None at all. Each and every person who joined did so on his own.

We realize that the nature of people is that even if they agree, not everyone will run to the computer to sign up. We were advised that only about 10 percent of people who are convinced of the merit of a cause will actually take the time to sign up. We set our goal at 250 families. We are grateful that we have far exceeded this number.

Will you be issuing other measures – related to simchas or otherwise?

No. After this, all will be set right. Actually, I hope that others will make suggestions that I can follow. The “Stop the Talking in Shul” initiative is an equally worthwhile cause.

Anything else you’d like to add?

How about learning a story of Nach? Let’s learn Nechemia, chapter 3. Nechemiah arrived in the Land of Israel 15 years after the second Beis HaMikdash was built. He found a poor and dispirited people who were oppressed by the gentiles who lived in the land. The wall around Jerusalem had been breached in numerous places.

Nechemiah immediately set out to rebuild and fortify the wall, to protect the city. People ridiculed the sight of the Jewish rabbi setting out to rebuild the city wall. They said, “What are the feeble Jews doing? … Will they revive the stones from the piles of dust? … Even that which they do build, if a fox comes up to it, it will break their stone wall!” (Nechemiah 3:34-35).

Nechemiah, though, pushed forward and successfully rebuilt the wall. The third chapter of Nechemiah contains 32 verses of acknowledgment. In these verses, the families of those who came forward to help Nechemiah are listed by name. In the final verse of the chapter, Nechemiah writes, “And so, we built the wall, and half the wall was completed, and the people had the heart to do [the rest]” (3:38).

Nechemiah acknowledges by name those who built the first half of the wall. Those who came forward to complete the second half of the wall are not mentioned individually. Why? Rav Pam explained that those who came later did indeed do something wonderful. But it was not enough of a reason to be acknowledged by name in Nach.

It was those who came at the beginning who deserve to be acknowledged. These were people who came forward to strengthen a weakened Jewish community – those who felt a sense of history, a realization that they stood at an opportune moment to turn the tide on behalf of their community. They were not just building a wall; they were fulfilling a mission. These were special people, whose names are therefore spelled out in Nach for eternity.

Many Jews have suffered much during this pandemic. Those with foresight will step forward to help create a lasting and meaningful legacy to this period. We’re still building the first half of the wall. Join us at simchainitiative.org.

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