It was painful to read Mrs. Lichtenstein’s editorial depicting severe problems in our Torah community. At a time when Torah scholarship is widespread and chessed deeply entrenched in our environs, the problems she identifies seem very out of place. Yet, the enormous good does not allow us the luxury of denying that which is so profoundly wrong. What follows are the thoughts of one observer. I make no claim to special insights. Yet, silence is not an option. At the outset, let me say that the problems she identifies are multifaceted. They are not given to a simple solution.
Take, for example, the case of the teenager who could not keep up with the pressure of a yeshivah with high scholastic demands. He complains to his parents and to his Maggidei Shiur, who tell him to continue on and all will be well. When he withers under the pressure, he is told to leave the yeshivah and find a more suitable school — one with lesser demands. He does so, only to find himself with friends who lead him away from Torah observance.
The story is sketchy, but I must make some assumptions. First, did his parents honestly assess their son’s capabilities? Was he placed in the first yeshivah for his good or for the sake of his parents’ prestige? Everyone would love to have their child be a star student; it reflects well on the parent and the home. But this dear neshamah deserves to be more than a pawn in a parent’s desire for greater self-esteem.
The parents may say that they simply wanted their son in a good yeshivah and not one in which he is stigmatized with mediocrity. That raises another problem. Except for the yeshivos that are run by kehillos that provide for all their members, and who must provide chinuch for all the children of the kehillah, the overwhelming majority of yeshivos are private businesses which have the luxury of taking metzuyanim (excellent students). If one does not belong to a kehillah, one is out of luck. The Menahalim tell me that if they weaken the standard of the yeshivah they will lose the good students. Furthermore, they don’t have the resources to provide for students who need special help. In many cases, the special help means the attention that must be given to a B student. So the student who cannot keep up is shown the door. The Chazon Ish, zt”l, when faced with this question by Menahalim, was adamant. To throw a bachur out of yeshivah was, in his view, a death sentence. It was immoral to do so.
Every yeshivah, before opening its doors, must commit to allow for a certain percentage of weaker students. When all must do so, the competitive edge of one yeshivah over another disappears. I do not know how to make this happen. We have no central authority that will impose order. I have to believe that if the yeshivos do what is right, the Ribbono shel Olam will crown them with success. There are some well-known examples that have done just that and have been graced with extraordinary hatzlachah. But they are so overburdened that they look to the rest to follow their example and share the burden. In short, the first problem addressed results from a failure of individuals and institutions. Both need to be sensitized.
Mrs. Lichtenstein’s second case is that of a young married man who, when faced with three children and mounting expenses, became an alcoholic through the medium of so-called “kiddush clubs.” Once again, the story is sketchy. Why is it that a bright young man did not seek training for a profession that would allow him to support his family? We are told that the neighbor’s children were dressed beautifully and the apartment they lived in was too small. So while the husband was doing his best to make a living, his wife “complained a lot.” The husband found solace in alcohol served at kiddush in shul. Ultimately, he became addicted to alcohol and became abusive at home.
First, let me say that any shul that makes alcohol freely available to mispallelim should be closed down. A shul is not a tavern. Anything more than a one-shot l’chaim is dangerous. If one is seen taking more than one shot, he should be warned that the next time this happens he will be barred from the shul.
As to the underlying problem of lack of parnassah, kollelim should have the responsibility to see to it that well before a yungerman leaves the kollel, he should confront what he will do when that day comes. Some kollelim are, in fact, doing just that. The decision as to how long one should stay in kollel is one that must be made with the Rosh Kollel and the family of the yungerman, including his wife. The right answer may be two, five, or 20 years — but there must be a plan.
The last case is that of a family caught up in the great American dream. A high-end car, an exquisite home, upscale vacations, summer homes — you name it. The husband goes into business and begins living off multiple credit cards until the bubble bursts — and is now facing a prison sentence.
There are some realities we must face. Middle-class Americans have 1.2 children, two wage earners, send their children to public schools and claim they are financially squeezed. What are we to say? Families, bli ayin hara, of five to 10 children, yeshivah tuition, kosher food and cost of housing at astronomical levels. Something has to give. We can’t have it all. I recall at one Agudah convention, Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, remarked that he was once driven to an event by a young man in a luxury car. Reb Yaakov said he doesn’t own Reichman’s “mist” (garbage), but “a car hot her shener vi Reichman — his car is fancier than Reichman’s.”
Many, many families struggle and do so with grace. But some get caught up in the rat race. Let me give you one example. Few, if any, middle-class Americans own a summer cottage. In our society, a summer home (not a bungalow!) has become a necessity — resulting in two mortgages, maintenance expenses, travel to the Catskills and summer camp.
We must inculcate into our children that simchas hachaim from Torah is all that counts. It must be tangible in the home. I was blessed with parents who were spiritual giants. The home exuded simchah, though our house was very modest and devoid of today’s luxuries. This must become the topic of discussion in every yeshivah and Bais Yaakov. It is not enough to take our problems out of the closet. We have an answer. The values of Torah and gemilus chassadim can satisfy even the thirstiest soul. When Klal Yisrael in the wilderness cried for meat — “Mi yaachileinu basar” — Hashem responded by sending them Shivim Zekeinim. Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt”l, teaches that when the Jewish nation said they lusted for meat, what they were truly expressing was a need for spiritual elevation. Until we realize that, we will not be able to withstand the materialism of America. One hundred years ago the Gedolim said the stones of America are treif. They were right then and remain right today. The only answer is to speak to the pintele Yid — the place in every Jewish soul that is pure and unsullied. First we must recognize that the famine we face is neither a raav lalechem nor a tzama lamayim. Only then can we reach out to the purity within ourselves and satiate it with the dvar Hashem.
Rabbi Aaron Twerski is a Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School.