Back to Basics: How to Live in Galus

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This roundtable on introspection in view of the current rise in anti-Semitism was planned well before the current coronavirus crisis, and took place prior to the issuing of social-distancing guidelines. There was discussion about delaying its publication until such time as we could all focus on other things beyond this virus. We have decided to publish it now for two reasons. The first is the unfortunate fact that we are beginning to see a rise in anti-Semitism in relation to the virus. Various Middle-Eastern countries are publicly blaming the Jews for causing the infections in their countries. White supremacists on social media in this country are doing the same, even to the point of inciting violence. We have also read the stories about Jews being denied service at various businesses. Secondly, many of the concepts discussed by the Roshei Yeshivah at this roundtable apply equally to our conduct during this pandemic.

May following the hadrachah we receive from Gedolei Torah enable us to get through this and all of our tzaros and bring the Geulah.

This roundtable discussion revolves around our internal response to anti-Semitism. It is not meant to say that our actions are the cause of the current uptick in anti-Semitism, but as with any tzarah, we should be introspective as to how we, as yirei Hashem, could improve.

The impetus to organize this roundtable actually began after the last two violent attacks, one in Jersey City and the other in Monsey, which differed from previous attacks in that the perpetrators were not white supremacists, but African Americans. The attackers themselves were obviously not mentally stable. The concern came about when a lot of latent anti-Semitism was expressed by members of that minority community in the wake of the attacks.

In addition to complaints about Jewish landlords and gentrification, there were many anti-Semitic canards stated publicly. It led us to reach out to the leadership of the African American community, who themselves spoke very forcefully against anti-Semitism following the attacks, to see what we can do to mitigate anti-Semitism in the African-American and other minority communities in the U.S.

One possible approach under consideration would be to institute Holocaust education in public schools. Project Witness recently ran a very successful program in Crown Heights with middle-school students. At the same time, two Reform clergymen who attempted to speak about the Holocaust in an inner-city high school were met with scorn from the student body. While Holocaust education should be an important part of our response, we have to do more. Part of the solution will have to be to build relationships with leaders of those minority communities with which we currently lack relationships.

The question is, can we demand change from the various minority communities without at the same time being prepared to respond to their legitimate complaints? This is not meant in any way to suggest moral equivalence in our actions with others, but it may be an opportunity for introspection.

Participating in the roundtable were:

Harav Elya Brudny, Rosh Yeshivah, Yeshivas Mir Flatbush

Harav Lipa Geldwerth, Maggid Shiur, Torah Temimah; Mara d’Asra, Khal Kol Torah

Dayan Harav Chaim Kohn, Av Beis Din, Machon L’Choshen Mishpat; Mara d’Asra, Khal Chasidei Gur of Flatbush

Harav Yisroel Reisman, Rosh Yeshivah, Yeshivah Torah Vodaath; Mara d’Asra, Khal Agudas Yisroel of Madison

Moderated by: Dr. Irving Lebovics

The first issue is that we are expanding into new neighborhoods, and one of the places we are expanding into is a minority neighborhood similar to the Jersey City situation. Should we say that we have a right to live in these places and establish a community and go with a position of strength? Or should we find some way of reaching out and preparing the community for the influx?

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A group of children cross the street in Monsey, N.Y. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Harav Brudny: First and foremost, historically, the way to avoid anti-Semitism in galus is to know how to live in galus. One of the first things the Torah teaches us about living among non-Jews is “lamah sisra’u — don’t be ostentatious.” The first thing that a Jew has to be aware of is how his conduct looks to the people around him.

We have been expanding into minority neighborhoods where the underprivileged population does not have the brachah that some of us are blessed with, and we are looking for affordable housing to raise a family. If we come in and keep a low profile, and we can be good neighbors and do what a Yid is supposed to do, like show kvod habriyos, makdim shalom l’kol adam, teach our children to be respectful, to be cordial, and not shtech ois de oigen, not to flaunt prosperity — then it can be a tremendous kiddush Hashem.

This has worked in many neighborhoods, where we live next door to them and it works well, like in Cleveland and Baltimore. But if we come in and live the American dream, with the luxury housing and fancy cars, and the neighbor lives without basics and relies on government assistance, so that’s a classic case of lamah sisra’u.

What we heard from the school official in Jersey City is not fiction. It resonates with these people. I think that it could be the greatest kiddush Hashem, but unfortunately, if we are not cognizant of not standing out, so of course what’s going to end up happening is friction and more friction, bitterness — and this leads to violent anti-Semitism, R”l.

Harav Geldwerth: I think that Rabbi Brudny touched on some very critical points. If I could just amplify on them a bit. One of the most important aspects of chinuch, which I believe is neglected, is the instruction in how to live in galus.

There is a piece from Rabbeinu Yonah [who] writes [in the beginning of Shaarei Teshuvah], when discussing one’s failure to utilize an opportunity to do teshuvah, compar[ing] Hashem’s anger to a jailbreak where the warden finds a prisoner who did not attempt to escape, and proceeds to punish him for not leaving. Hagaon Harav Moshe Shapiro, zt”l, asks: What is the mashal? On the contrary, why would the warden punish the prisoner for maintaining discipline and not escaping? He explains that the greatest insult to the authorities, including the prison warden, is the prisoner’s not recognizing that he actually is in prison. He is comfortable in his setting.

In my view, galus is the same. It’s an insult to our King that when He exiles us, we say, “Your exile is quite geshmak. I’m not so uncomfortable.”

We have to teach our children that, with design, we are purposefully exiled into a galus, and by definition, “in galus,” we are not going to have all the rules just the way we like. It’s exactly the opposite of the lesson of galus for us to think that we are fully entitled, and that (at the very least) if others can do this or that, why can’t I do it as well. Our history is not meant to be fair.

I think that back when we were being raised, certainly with our parents, there was a constant sense that we are in a place that we don’t quite belong and that hopefully — at best — we are tolerated by our hosts. In these times, here, we find among some the very opposite. They seem to see themselves as the hosts, “tolerating” them. And that’s very disturbing.

I remember my uncle, z”l, a deeply wise Holocaust survivor who learned and imparted various galus lessons, observing, “Can you imagine, a non-Jew in Boro Park can’t buy a newspaper on Shabbos, so he may have to drive all the way to Bensonhurst to buy the Saturday paper. What do you think this non-Jew is feeling and murmuring all the way? He’s swearing at all the Jews who [albeit legally and justly] bought up all their candy stores in the neighborhood, and are closed on Saturday. [He feels] they’re taking over! If Yidden would have seichel, they [would], on their own, set up a non-Jewish kiosk on 49th Street and 13th Avenue so that the non-Jews in the neighborhood could buy their papers.”

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Anti-Semitic graffiti on a Jewish-owned business in London last month. (Oliver Cooper)

There were [only] two camps in the mountains that I recall raising the American flag. Do you know the prevailing … attitude of some of the locals when one of the various Jewish camps in the area burnt down around 30 years ago? Volunteer members of the local fire department were not in the greatest rush. There were murmurings: Here they are. They use all our resources, our tax revenues, and they don’t even raise a flag. Tax-exempt, no flag, and we’re here.

Regarding the language that we use — do we think a non-Jew doesn’t know what the word sheigetz or shiksa means? They are in our houses, providing services. They hear. They know when we are respectful or demeaning. I taught and insisted that my children never use those words at all. If we don’t have the individual’s personal name and yet need to be descriptive, like Rabbi Brudny said, be respectful. You can say a non-offensive description, like “nachri,” if you have to.

One other point I would wish to add to Rabbi Brudy’s words, which I’m quite in agreement with. We mentioned lamah tisra’u. The Ibn Ezra adds to the concern of exhibiting wealth that we are also merivim zeh im zeh — we have our own internal squabbles, which become public. Our non-Jewish neighbors observe; they see that we’re fighting. They hear and read; these squabbles, sometimes … from prominent homes, have often ended up in secular courts, resulting in ugly press.

Indeed, we don’t have proper galus training. We don’t have the proper galus chinuch.

Dr. Lebovics: If I can maybe just elaborate a little bit on a point that Rabbi Geldwerth brought up, that’s very critical, is how we talk.

I think the minority groups are familiar with our slang, and unfortunately, even internally if one listens to the conversations that go on, the language is offensive.

Harav Reisman: I don’t have a lot to add, but maybe it comes from Yidden coming from all types of countries. In some places, the ga’avah d’kedushah was zehirus b’mitzvos, and there were countries that ga’avah d’kedushah was focusing on how we were different than others.

Harav Brudny: There is also a lack of understanding among the entire frum community that the first thing is that chaviv adam shenivra b’tzelem — humans are special because they were created in the image of Hashem. In European countries, when we were persecuted, it was hard to respect our oppressors. But here, we’re not oppressed, so where did the appreciation of human dignity get lost? Our neighbors are human beings! The policeman, the fireman, the housekeeper, whoever it may be. We were raised, and we must raise our children, to treat them royally — because they’re human beings, not because we need them to come next week.

Dayan Kohn: I heartily agree, but let’s go to the core of the issue. As you know, I’m a European. I grew up in Vienna. Due to a lack of chinuch options, I went to public school until I was 15, when my father sent me to Yeshivas Kol Torah in Eretz Yisrael. I had neighbors in Vienna who were very anti-Semitic. My Jewish friends and I would get hit for no reason whatsoever. So I understand what anti-Semitism is all about.

Anti-Semitism is a disease that generally comes with mother’s milk. For the Yidden who survived the war, it was hard to switch gears and look at others with proper respect. In World War II, you had neighbors who were the best friends and overnight became the biggest enemies. The result is that they don’t trust any non-Jew. So I understand the psychology. It may be unreasonable, but there’s a reason. This is not to criticize, but we need to understand the core cause, and if we understand, then we can work on it. But if you go over to people and say, “Where’s the appreciation of human dignity?” they will say, “Where’s the kavod for my tatte, my zeide [from the War]?”

Of course, you can’t put everyone together in the same pot. My mother always told me about the non-Jewish person who saved them. She repeated it time and time again, “Those are chassidei umos ha’olam.” But this attitude comes from somewhere, and this is a point that has to be dealt with psychologically. And to understand why people have this kind of attitude. Then we can try to correct it.

Harav Geldwerth: But there’s something interesting, that the people that came here don’t behave like their children and grandchildren.

Dayan Kohn: I agree, but the reason is that they have pachad. The European generation had a certain respect, if that is the right word, but not a positive one. It was based on pachad. Those Yidden still have that pachad instilled in them.

The generation that grew up here grew up with an attitude that they finally had freedom. That this feeling could have a boomerang effect was something that the older generation sometimes had difficulties understanding.

Dr. Lebovics: I’m going to skip ahead to the issue of askanus. It’s known that today the Orthodox community is very supportive of the President. Probably because of Israel, or Orthodox people have a more conservative bent than in the past, but that support is very public and very out there. It carries over to issues that are very sensitive to minorities, such as immigration. When we are very supportive of the President, many minorities take offense, strong offense, at the visible support.

Another issue came up when the rent control policies in New York [were under discussion], where a number of prominent askanim and gevirim in our community, who support our yeshivos and the breadwinners within the frumme velt, some decided that it would be an Orthodox issue. There was a prominent frum magazine that had a cover story about it, and said that rent control is anti-Jewish. Obviously the minority community took offense, and there was some pushback in the area of askanus. The question is, how should our askanus look? Should we be fighting for such things or leave them on the table?

Dayan Kohn: Yidden survived in galus by shtadlanus. What happens today is that people have an attitude of achos lanu b’veis hamelech. Some people feel we have an inside connection. I do agree that Yidden should practice shtadlanus, but not that they should feel entitled.

Harav Reisman: There are two types of shtadlanus. When it comes to askanus, there’s askanus to protect money and askanus to protect frumkeit. For this, we have to step up. But to protect money, it’s better to have an outsider. I don’t think that, historically, there was hishtadlus except to protect Yiddishkeit.

Harav Brudny: The overwhelming majority of Yidden live in blue states, and the things that Yidden need are usually state issues, not federal. The federal government will not affect our needs or our schools. By being vocally and strongly for the President, with all the hakaras hatov — and we owe him gratitude — … that may be a mistake. Our needs are met in Albany and Sacramento and the capitals of the states. We don’t have the luxury to antagonize the leadership of the blue states. So it’s a tremendous balance. Hakaras hatov for the President, yes. But to be the banner-carriers for the political campaigns, that’s a problem of not keeping a low profile. And as Rabbi Reisman said, we are paying the price. They don’t care about us in Albany right now.

Dayan Kohn: May I add something? In Eretz Yisrael, there are those who are very strongly of the opinion that you should not take from the government, so as not to be influenced by the government. For some reason, in the U.S., this barrier is taken away.

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Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop (center R) talks with first responders outside the kosher supermarket where the deadly December 10, 2019, shooting occurred. ( AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Harav Geldwerth: In your question you raised something very important, and that’s the covers of our magazines. When someone walks down the street and they’re talking on their Bluetooth, they are in their own fantasy world. They talk about all sorts of issues — medical, personal, for everyone to hear. Somehow, I think due to the internet and due to Jewish publications, the same things are happening. We are in an imaginary bubble. I remember 30, 40 years ago, the headlines of a Jewish newspaper openly attacking the Pope. In Europe that would never have happened.

Our concerns have to remain behind the scenes. We have magazines that parade and applaud successful Jewish businessmen, with detailed amounts of money they have — presumably — just earned … our form of a heimishe Forbes. It’s in the open, in English, unmindful of who else is reading this, showing that we have lost all sense that we are in public. Similarly, our chats and our internet conversations — just like the way other unfriendly minorities speak about us, we speak about them. It’s all available. I’d be horrified to think that a nachri is reading what we – the less wise among us – are printing and what we’re saying.

Harav Reisman: If I can add to it, I have a two-part question. We want to teach Holocaust education in public schools; are we prepared to teach about slavery in yeshivah? And secondly, if we did teach it, do you think the chareidi boys would suddenly love those who were slaves? How do you expect it to work the other way? I think it’s the same idea. We don’t have the right idea of who we are, where we are.

Harav Geldwerth: Yes, but Rabbi Brudny was suggesting that it should be taught by the Rebbi, not the English teacher. If you learn Hilchos Avadim in the Rambam or Sefer Hachinuch and teach and give mashalim about slavery, derecho agav you will indicate that others had a bitter history too. No, none like ours; no one had a Holocaust like we did. They like to say they did, but the fact is, they didn’t. No one did. No one had what we had. If we put it in perspective, we can impart it all — in perspective. We don’t have to rely on less sensitive teachers of secular studies for such lessons in life.

I once heard — I don’t know if it’s accurate — that in the Breuer’s yeshivah in Washington Heights, when they were up to the chapter on evolution in the Regents course on biology, they would ask the teacher to stay home and Harav Schwab, zt”l, b’chvodo ub’atzmo, would come in and teach the chapter. He would present the secular view, as taught in the course, and then contrast it to the truths of our emunah. That’s achrayus. We can’t leave everything to the English teacher or to others, and if we took over these matters into limudei kodesh’s hands, perhaps the bachurim could look at it differently.

Harav Reisman: My point was that if we teach the Holocaust to them, we expect that they’re going to love us. This is a missed picture of the fact that we are not equal citizens in a country, but we are really guests in a country. It’s a mistake to think that if we teach Holocaust education, that will solve the problem.

Harav Brudny: We can’t expect teva to change, but we could expect that if we behave in a way that provokes them less, and we are doing what the Ribbono shel Olam wants, then we are living in galus the way we’re supposed to live. Then Hakadosh Baruch Hu will continue to be shomer umatzil. But if I step out of my galus role, then who took achrayus? The Ribbono shel Olam takes achrayus if I live like a galus Yid.

Dayan Kohn: The yesod of a Yid is ruchniyus. I feel that among the young generation the connection to ruchniyus is quite weak. Modern technology doesn’t help this, and the frum media didn’t help either. I’m not in the education system, but maybe we have to do something positive. Maybe let’s focus on what should be done. The core of everything, every Yid, is ruchniyus. A Yid has to use this world only as a means to an end, and from that comes an eidelkeit. This can affect everyone if at the top there is an eidelkeit, and we are educated to know that Yidden are ruchani.

The curriculum should not only be Gemara and Tosafos, but also vos is a Yid, vos bist du, vos is der ikrei emunah. All of this — Yahadus, the basics of Yiddishkeit — can elevate the person, and once you do that, he will be doing what he is supposed to do.

Harav Reisman: I’m saying that we are guests in this country and Rabbi Kohn is saying that we are guests in this world.

Harav Brudny: We are guests here, displaced from somewhere, yet our children don’t even know from where they are displaced. We long for Geulah. Unfortunately, today we go back and forth to Eretz Hakodesh, so people even feel what we’re missing! They think, “I was just in Yerushalayim, I was in Kever Rochel, in Me’aras Hamechpelah, I was in the hotel!”

Harav Geldwerth: Rabbi Brudny, you mean they were in the Miami of the Middle East!

Harav Brudny: L’havdil! But to a child, v’sechezenah eineinu b’shuvecha l’Tzion … he was there last week; he’s going there next week.

Baruch Hashem, our bachurim are there, our girls are there for seminary. But is Tzion Geulah, or is it Romemah? What is Tzion? Do children know Hoshana Tzion hemetuyenes? I don’t believe our children are growing up like that! I am using “children” euphemistically. Do our young adults live with an awareness of where we belong? We belong in someplace metaphysical that combines Rabbi Reisman’s and Rabbi Kohn’s place. You know, we belong in Eretz Hakodesh, in me’ein Olam Haba.

Dr. Lebovics: I have one more question; it may have been answered inadvertently. In the area of shtadlanus, some of our kehillos are now in areas where we are the majority. This means that we can elect our local officials and school boards. So we have the ability to direct funds that were for public schools … to yeshivos, and maybe to correct the old inequities. But at the same time, some of those other institutions who were dependent on those funds perceive it as a takeover, like someone is taking something from them. Is it appropriate for us to try to take over government or city councils? How should we deal with that? Should we say we’ll work from the outside, not from the inside?

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Harav Brudny: I think you could work from the outside through the inside without us being the face of the inside. We don’t need to be left totally on the outside like beggars, because the fact is that we are indeed the majority, so we can elect who we want. But instead of electing someone with a visible Yiddishe tzurah, why can’t we elect a gentile who is going to look out for our interests, who understands that in two years he’ll have to run again? Wouldn’t that be the wiser way? From our experience, if we have people that are what you call the minority in the community beholden to the need of the majority vote, I think things would be much more pleasant. Theoretically, Doctor, what you are saying seems to me very on-target.

Dayan Kohn: There’s something else, which goes to what we discussed earlier, and that is the attitude of entitlement — es kumpt mir. I clearly remember my father’s advice: If a non-Jew does something for you, pay him right away.

Harav Geldwerth: Rabbosai, sometimes there are historic mistakes. My father grew up in the same city that Rabbi Kohn grew up in [Vienna]. He told me that after the disastrous Weimar Republic, the people woke up to find out that major real estate and properties in Berlin, such as some of the Parliament’s and other major government office buildings, were bought up in a historically depressed market by none other than the Rebbe in foreign Poland, to whom they were now paying rent. Do you think that served our interests when people drummed up sinah in the ’20s?

Today, we have not so wisely become a public face in the media, ambassadors in poorly accented English, and that is who they see. If some of us ask ourselves what are they doing there, what do you think the public at large is thinking?

We have a bad record. Harav Mordechai Schwab, passing by at night, would climb over the railing of the Revolutionary War cemetery on Saddle River Drive in Monsey to pick up the potato chip bags and the soda cans, which kids from neighboring yeshivos would, without thinking, toss in there. How could a local neighbor or family feel if, near a grave with a flag, there’s a soda can lying there? So this adam gadol had the achrayus and the concern — an old man! — to climb over and clean it up.

Dayan Kohn: If the Gedolim would give directives with clarity on what the layman’s hanhagah should be, then there would be a mehalech. It has to come from the top.

Harav Geldwerth: Rabbi Kohn, you’re convinced they will be listened to.

Dayan Kohn: If we lost even the minimum respect that we don’t have to listen to Gedolei Yisrael, then darf men reisen kriyah af dem alein.

Harav Brudny: To preserve Yiddishkeit is exercising our democratic rights. But what we’re saying here, by all the Rabbanim, is that those rights darf min nisht oishtechen non-Jewish oigen. Better by far for the Jewish community to get less tax dollars and have a chassidei umos ha’olam or a friend, someone who meets our goals, to be the facilitator. He’ll be a little bit more caring about the [other] minorities, but he will take care of us and preserve us from the sinas Yisrael.

Dr. Lebovics: Talking about taking over an entire board is one thing, but having a representative in a larger group is not the same question necessarily. Having a small number of visibly frum representatives in a larger body like a state legislature has been extremely helpful in moving our agendas in those bodies.