Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Interfaith Affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and co-founder of the online journal Cross-Currents is known for his trenchant commentary on a range of issues facing the Orthodox as well as Jewish community at large. “I try to weigh in on contemporary issues from a Torah perspective,” he told The Jewish Press.
Adlerstein was born in 1950 in New York City. His mother was a Holocaust survivor who spent half of her teenage years in a concentration camp in Vichy, France. He described his father as being “part of that generation between the wars that really had no home, that shuttled from community to community.”
The Adlersteins lived in an Orthodox neighborhood in Manhattan where “everybody in the community was a survivor.” He received his semicha from the Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim while simultaneously attending Queens College.
In 1978, he moved to California to teach Torah as a rebbe. Over the years, Adlertsein has lectured for the Association for Jewish Outreach Professionals), delivering lectures and workshops to Jewish outreach professionals, and he’s taught at Loyola Law School and Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles.
He now lives in Israel and continues to teach. “That’s [in] my blood, that’s the first love,” he explained.
We discussed some of the latest brouhahas in the Jewish world. Referring to Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling ice cream in Israeli settlements, Rabbi Adlerstein stated, “I think people who love Israel and love the Jewish people couldn’t bring themselves to eat it…. I would say the proper thing to do is to educate people as to why they find Ben & Jerry’s distasteful and not the kind of thing you want to bring into your house. I would say the same way that people who knew survivors found it distasteful and found it impossible to buy a Volkswagen…. Volkswagen was Hitler’s car. It was the car of the people. Volks means ‘of the people’…. Most people did not formally boycott German products, but felt that if your neighbor still screamed in the middle of the night because they could not get past their nightmares, are you going to park a German car in front of their house? It was just distasteful to people who had any sensitivity.”
Julia Haart, star and executive producer of the Netflix miniseries, My Unorthodox Life, has capitalized on her radical departure from her religious roots. Rabbi Adlerstein commented, “Even if every bit of her narrative was true, the ferocity with which she is turning against her religion and her people has to be condemned… She’s going after Judaism, taking her kids, including one who’s still in a traditional school, and trying to convince them that this is all a bunch of rubbish.”
He added, “The worst of what she is, is true of a heck of a lot of us. We also trade in principle, determining right and wrong for momentary pleasure. Really, I think part of what’s maddening about Julia Haart, and anyone else that should be called out, is that the decisions that she’s making are not so different than the decisions that all of us make – those who claim to really believe in the system. She claims she doesn’t believe in the system, so, in a sense, it’s more defensible. But for the rest of us who do, we still make those decisions – not as critical and not as extreme as her decisions – but the process is the same.”
At just 17-years-old, Jacob Steinmetz is the first practicing Orthodox Jewish baseball player to be drafted by the majors. He just graduated from Long Island’s Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, and is looking forward to playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Rabbi Adlerstein said, “[I] wish success for Jacob Steinmetz. He’s going to go through a lot of contradiction and a lot of tension because he’s Orthodox…. Your choice in career is not the most important decision you’ll make in life, at least it should not trump values that you should adhere. He’s going to be in difficult situations, and he’s already said that he will play on Shabbat. And in that regard, he wouldn’t be a role model for Orthodox kids…. Orthodox kids who go off to college, other than YU and Stern and Touro, according to some people who work on campus, the dropout rate from Shabbos observance within two years is 50 percent.
“One of the things that we try to do in the classroom, is say, yes, career is important, but your Yiddishkeit is more important. I’m not saying that he has done that, but we don’t want our kids to think that if you get a really, really, really good job offer, you’ll try to make the best of your Yiddishkeit, but you really can’t turn down the good job offers. Lots more people have to make those decisions all the time…. Why do we take risks when it comes to our kids’ spiritual well-being?”
Alta Fixsler is a two-year-old British girl born to Orthodox parents who has been on life support due to sustaining a brain injury at birth. Her treating physicians at Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital have decided that she has no quality of life, is in pain, and should not be kept alive anymore. However, after examining her brain scans, pediatric neurologists in the U.S. determined that she does not feel pain.
Alta’s mother is Israeli and her father is Israeli-American. Hospitals in Israel and the U.S. have offered to treat Alta free of cost, but on May 28, the High Court of London rejected a petition for Fixsler to be transferred to a Jerusalem hospital and ruled that her life should be ended, despite her parents’ objections based on their religious beliefs and wishes. Alta’s parents may take this case to the Supreme Court.
Rabbi Adlerstein explained, “The law of the land in the UK, as is true of many countries in Europe, is that the final say in life and death matters of a child who can’t voice his own opinion is with the State, not with the parents. They reject the idea that you can make any prediction of what the real person wants when the child is only two years old and can’t tell us that she wants to be an Orthodox Jew when she grows up.” He continued, “It’s not just Alta Fixsler who’s on life support. It’s parental rights. It’s tradition. It’s biblical morality – all of those things are also on life support.”
Looking ahead to the Yamim Nora’im, Rabbi Adlerstein talked about how the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur present an opportunity for change. “Habits can be broken. You can change your schedule, you can change your focus, you can change your behavior, and if you couple that with a sincere desire to do things differently, then you can get it done.” He further noted, “Yom Kippur is my favorite day of the year. I call it the ultimate free lunch, because when you ‘show up’ – attitudinally – you are guaranteed some degree of atonement and reconnection with G-d. For 25 hours you spend the day in G-d’s immediate presence. You don’t reach out to Him, He comes to you.”
Rabbi Adlerstein refrained from predicting whether we are living in the end of days because there have been too many false alarms, but he somberly concluded, “The only prediction I make, despite my abhorrence of such predictions, is that the noose is tightening around American Jewry.”
He added, “There are so many signs that G-d is – I won’t say losing patience – but G-d is saying, ‘I’m going to nudge you a little closer to seeing what this (Israel) is all about.’ Look at this country not as a vacation destination.”