Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark
KEHILLOS YISRAEL: AN ESSENTIAL SOLUTION FOR OUR GENERATION
The suggested topic is to attempt to anticipate the challenges that will face the coming generation. However, I would humbly like to suggest that we must deal with the challenges of the present generation prior to setting our sights further. G-d willing, if we can try to solve these problems, the future may be completely different.
Today’s generation is faced with an array of difficult challenges, which are only becoming more pervasive, with no end in sight. The high cost of Jewish education, issues of parnossah, the shidduch crisis, a growing divorce rate, the internet, abuse, drop-out youth and adults at risk are unfortunately only some of them. To best plan for the future, we must seek to identify the underlying causes of these insidious problems and to tackle them head on.
I would suggest that one of the primary factors that contribute to all these problems is the extent to which our generation stresses materialism and the instant gratification of needs. Undoubtedly, these tendencies among our people come as a direct result of the influences of Western society, following the old adage “Azoi vi s’christlet zich, azoi yiddelt zich” – as the non-Jew behaves, so does the Yid.
But other than rabbanim giving speeches and writing articles that implore everyone to rise above these weaknesses, what can we do? Does anyone today have the power to make a difference in this area?
Ani ma’amin – I am wholeheartedly awaiting the coming of Moshiach, who will end our golus and establish a malchus of Torah. One of the primary characteristics of such a malchus is that it has the authority and power to uphold Torah standards. It is only in this way that Klal Yisrael as a whole can maintain its exalted stature as a mamleches kohanim v’goy kadosh.
What is most lacking today is just such an authority that will be universally accepted, with Torah powers to manage traditional “kehillos” and to enforce a way of life that will control these problems. In other words, we need kehillos – community structures – that mimic the times of the Melech hamoshiach – the Messianic era.
Let me give you a few examples of why I feel that a strong religious kehilla can counterbalance the sinister influence of our society and the need to strive for “the best available” watch, shaitel, shoes, etc.
Prices of esrogim have become outrageous. Kollel families who are living on a limited budget and even middle class earners have been known to purchase esrogim which can cost between $400 and $500 because of their desire to beautify and enhance the mitzvah. Rabbi Moshe Heineman, shlit”a, the senior Rav of the Vaad Harabanim – and of the Jewish community – of Baltimore, put a cap and ceiling on every esrog sold in the city of Baltimore – and it worked. No esrog merchant could sell an esrog for more than the established price. The result was that more people could afford to buy the esrogim they wanted and the extra funds became available to them for other necessities.
The lifestyle which promotes the most expensive esrog, the most expensive shaitel, the need for designer clothing, the purchase of every new technological “chachke,” has unfortunately had a tremendous impact on Jewish education. As a small example, spending more than $50 for a pound of chabura matzohs, as did a close relative of mine with a large family, can only impact their ability to make tuition payments to the yeshivas and/or day schools. Paying such bills is no longer the priority. Food, clothing, housing, transportation, juggling credit card balances and the use of gmachs, free loans, are first on the list of priorities; tuition is put on the back burner.
Naturally, our schools cannot function without these monies. What happens then? If the schools cannot raise funds to cover the difference between the low tuition paid by most families and the amount they need to pay their teachers a decent living wage, the schools must depend on dedicated malachim, who are few and far between, or else resort to hiring second rate teachers, reducing much-needed services, and increasing class sizes. Our children are being cheated of their right to be well-educated and their right to reach their full potential.
A kehilla with strong Torah leadership that would tax its members according to their income, set salary scales and tuition guidelines and would even own the schools can be the solution we need in our present situation.
Another of the major problems found in the Orthodox community that is related to finances has been the expenditure of large sums of money in the making of a shidduch – from the gifts given to the chosson and the kallah by the respective families to the wedding and the establishment of the household. Many of our rabbinical leaders have tried to limit these expenses by issuing takonos regarding every aspect of these expenses, such as the number of guests at the wedding, the menu, etc. Such takonos took root only in communities with very strong leadership and kehilla-type arrangements, such as various Chassidic courts.
A wealthy Chassid once came to his Rebbe in tears, begging to be able to invite additional guests to his daughter’s wedding beyond the amount allotted by the takonos. He explained that for business reasons he must invite them. The Rebbe answered that he gives him permission to do as he pleases as long as he acquires a new Rebbe for himself. The Rebbe understood that the takanos were established to counter the large and opulent weddings which have become the norm. We have lost sight of what the wedding is all about. It is simply for family and close friends to be mesameach choson v’kallah. It is not to keep up with the Joneses and end up paying for the simcha for many years.
The Rebbes also had the power to place a ceiling on the amount of money a young couple may pay for their first apartment. This provided a tremendous relief for the machatonim. Some Chassidic kehillos have established auxiliary communities outside of Yerushalayim and New York, so that affordable housing is available to newlyweds. As a result, we have seen the proliferation of many new communities where the challenge of earning sufficient parnossah to support a large Orthodox family is not as problematic. Again, this could only be achieved through strong leadership and kehilla type living even for non-Chassidic communities.
The Rebbe of Gur, the Lev Simcha, once realized that the cost of a spodik, the Polish shtreimel, was becoming prohibitive and as a result, announced that if the standard cost would increase beyond $400, he would remove his own.
When I was living in Mexico City, the local kehilla demanded payment of unpaid past dues from the children of a wealthy man before they would bury him in the Jewish cemetery. The dues were paid. I am not condoning this type of practice. I am only trying to describe the clout of a kehilla.
In addition to counteracting the influences of American society, a strong kehilla would enable us to be proactive as well in meeting the many needs within our communities. One model that is helpful to consider is the system of Jewish federations. Though not governed by Torah law, these organizations were created to centralize the fundraising and distribution needs for the general, local Jewish communities. In certain limited but important ways, these organizations reflect the focus of traditional kehillos which existed for so many centuries: taking responsibility for the whole city and not just one part of it.
I feel that the Orthodox Jewish community must work to reestablish city-wide kehillos which will centralize all aspects of Jewish life around Torah law on a stronger and broader basis. The many vaadei ha’ir (Jewish community councils) that exist presently, whose main tasks are often kashrus supervision, conversions and divorces, are insufficient.
One vital service provided by secular federations which we must provide as well is in the area of social-work. Social work is defined as an effort to improve the quality of life – and develop the potential – of individuals, families and communities within a society. It recognizes that many people need guidance and support from their community in order to lead happy and successful lives. While there are individual organizations that excel in specific areas, there are important needs that are not being met and there are an increasing number of people falling through the cracks.
We need a Torah-oriented, social-work service that will be available to the community to identify problems on both the community and individual level, address them early on, and maintain an open file while aggressively pursuing solutions. “Lo taamod al dam reyecha” should be its guiding principle. We are responsible for our brothers.
One of the great examples of the power of a kehilla existed in Germany. The Reform Movement, which began there, was spreading like wildfire to the point where there was very little Orthodoxy left in all of Germany. Into this void stepped Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, zt”l, who created the “Austritt Gemeinde” – a secessionist movement and independent kehilla which recognized only Orthodox Judaism. Under his leadership, this kehilla was so strong that it was able to save Orthodoxy in Germany. The kehilla controlled every aspect of a Jew’s life from birth to death, spiritually and physically. It took care of the sick and the downtrodden, and the challenges of livelihood and education, among others. Such a kehilla, if established in our day and age, could certainly address the problems of drop-outs, adults at risk, deviant behavior etc. It could also put into place preventative measures for their control.
In order for our kehillos to have success in all of the areas mentioned, we would have to bridge the gaps within Orthodoxy itself to accommodate all kehillos from right to left. The man who hired the three young chassidishe Yeshiva students to transport and smuggle drugs into Japan by lying, bribing and duping them, is now free after a short incarceration. The boys languished in jail for years (though as of this writing, one is about to be freed) as a punishment for a crime they had no idea they were committing. This despicable perpetrator was part of the Satmar kehilla in Bnei Brak, which placed him in cherem, excommunicating him from all Satmar kehillos world-wide.
This will work in Satmar kehillos but what about the rest of us? Outside of Satmar, he can do what he wants. The rest of us are not even able to put into cherem a recalcitrant husband who keeps his wife an Agunah, refusing to give her a divorce for decades. An attempt to do so would not even be recognized by the shul down the block. Unfortunately, this example is prevalent and well known in all of our communities.
We must strive to create a strong, united rabbinic force which will encompass all Rabbonim, Rebbes, and Roshei HaYeshivos in all Orthodox congregations so they can work together to form a “united Torah kehillos network” which can meet the many common needs of our communities.
Having said all of this, I would not like the reader to think that I am living in a dream world, fooling myself that such kehillas can be created sooner rather than later. We must have Moshiach for strong, centralized kehillos to be fully implemented so that all of our problems will be addressed.
In the meantime, as mentioned previously, there are examples of unofficial kehillos that respond effectively to some of the religious and ordinary needs of its members. This success has been led by volunteers who have created chessed organizations, built orphanages, established homes for battered women, hatzoloh, loan funds, Tomchei Shabbos, Mesilla/job-training programs, kiruv programs, anti-missionary organizations – the list goes on an on. With the continued growth of the Orthodox community, these organizations will, IY”H, become stronger and stronger as the needs arise, and new ones will be established as well.
However, without unity and focus, we will not be able to fulfill all the needs that we must. Divisiveness and the tendency to sit in judgment of others are among the most serious obstacles that can prevent us from accomplishing our goals. But as our communities grow, our challenges grow, and there is no shortcut to overcoming them. Without the authority of an official kehilla, our leaders will not have the strength that is necessary to tackle the wide-ranging problems we face today.
Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark is t he Dean of Bais Yaakov Bnos Raizel Seminary of Montreal.