Shoving “Nachas for the Rebbe” down kids’ throats

It is well-known that in Melbourne, Beth Rivkah College, the sister School to the boy’s Yeshivah College is more moderate. It does not seek to distance itself from the State of Israel; it has no problem engendering feelings for the love of Israel, appreciating the חיילים who risk their lives for their State and their people. This traditional, more moderate, attitude of Beth Rivkah has meant that non-Chabad families, who are otherwise traditional or even frum, feel comfortable sending their daughters to Beth Rivkah. Much of the credit for this lies at the feet of earlier principals of Beth Rivkah, including the current principal, Mr Gurewicz, who was a soldier in the Israeli Army and whose wife is an Israeli who also exudes a love of the land. Mr Gurewicz isn’t going to be principal for ever, and if Beth Rivkah goes down the track of Yeshivah, latent, triumphalist hard-line Meshichist elements may well take over Beth Rivkah. They have begun chipping away at Sepharadit as their first effort.

Beth Rivkah, unlike its brother school Yeshivah College, would not allow Meshichist chanting or signs of this variety that appear in the Mesivtah room at the Yeshivah. Indeed, in a possibly significant or unrelated move, Rabbi Gurewicz just resigned from the Va’ad Ruchni of Chabad in Melbourne (the Vaad was devised to replace Rabbi Groner ז’ל as the source of spiritual direction) for what has been described as “personal reasons”.

It is with this backdrop that I feel compelled to describe a recent incident involving my young niece. She’s not from a Chabad home. Her mother attended Beth Rivkah, as did her sister and Aunties and cousins. She’s very bright and a respectful if not precocious little girl; she is also very perceptive.

Just before Pesach, one of her teachers suggested that girls who wanted to write a note that would be personally delivered to the grave site of the last Rebbe, ז’ל could do so by writing their names and any message or request they might have. It is not my intention in this post to enter a halachic excursus about אין דורשים על המתים. Let’s assume that what the girls were asked to do  is acceptable from a Halachic ground (yes, we are well aware that the Rambam is opposed to such practices).

One would expect that an intelligent and sensitive teacher would realise that there is some tension about this practice. I’m not sure how clever one has to be in order to be aware that there are those who do not feel that it is appropriate to make requests of a holy person who now resides in Gan Eden. There are others who are comfortable with such requests, provided that the request is cast in language which beseeches the dead person to make a representation to Hashem, using their proximity to Hashem and their exalted status in Hashem’s eyes in Gan Eden. Finally, there are others, who are simply not comfortable sending letters to a grave, period. Some such people are uncomfortable sending letters to Hashem via the Kosel.

What about the teacher? She is both an educator and a chasid. Do the two roles clash? Is there a tension between these two roles? I do not think that there need ever be a clash between the two roles. In my estimation it is a primitive Chasid or an unsophisticated Teacher whose involvement will inevitably cause a tension between the two roles.

In the case at hand, in the spirit of positive criticism, here is what I would have done, if I was the teacher in a Chabad School (also marketed ostensibly as a community School—Beth Rivkah College).

  1. I would have explained the מצווה of visiting the dead at their graves (using simple sources)
  2. I would explain the opinions of those who lie on grave sites cry and moan versus the opinion of those who consider it wrong to even visit a grave site because it is a place of Tumah (using simple sources)
  3. I would explain what the position of Chabad was, in the context of the two aforementioned opposing views, and then enunciate the different practices of Rebbes up to and including the last Rebbe who spent long periods at the gravesite of his father-in-law, the Rayatz ז’ל (I’d use some audio visual support if available)
  4. I would then suggest that those who felt inclined to pass on written requests to be read at the grave of the last Rebbe ז’ל that they could do so by filling out a form. (I’d show some examples of things that are appropriate or inappropriate)
  5. I would suggest that those who wanted to pass on a written request to a different Rebbe or indeed to Hashem via the Kosel, could do so.
  6. Finally, I would ask the girls who did not feel inclined to write any request, to say some Tehillim while other girls filled their forms. I’d explain that Tehillim is an equally acceptable way to beseech Hashem.
  7. I would try to discern if I was successful in encapsulating the language of tolerance and if there was any latent tension, I’d deal with it.

If a teacher did the above, I think it is appropriate, and I am not sure one could say this teacher is a bad or failed chasid if a few girls choose not to fill in a form and say Tehillim instead!

Alas, before Pesach, at least one educator at Beth Rivkah decided that she was not going to be considered a good Chasid unless each girl filled out a form. So, how did she get around the issue of some girls feeling uncomfortable writing anything? She simply advised them that they didn’t have to write a specific request.  Instead, all they needed to do was write their name and their mother’s name on the form.

The teacher thought she was clever. She wasn’t. She thought she was now a perfect 100% chasid because she got a 100% hit-rate and was able to go to the Kever and tell her Rebbe that she managed to achieve 100%. Does she think that Hashem is a fool? What she didn’t realise is that each and every girl who was cajoled into filling out a blank form has potentially experienced a negative educational experience. They have gone home and told their parents. They have felt forced. They have felt distance from the Rebbe ז’ל and their likelihood to have a positive attitude to Chabad down the track, is diminished by every such incident.

It’s an asinine approach, but what would I know. I’m just an educator, I’m not a Chabadnik.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia although my views have naught​ to do with my employer. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

13 thoughts on “Shoving “Nachas for the Rebbe” down kids’ throats”

  1. I think there ia a major chiluk between writing to the Rebbes ohel (an old chasidic minhag) and the relatively new emphasis and focus on ligrom nachas ruach lehorebi (which incidentally gets me very nervous)

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  2. The comments you get on this one will be very interesting.
    I would have added to your analysis of the subject that other chassidim also have the practice of visitng the grave of zaddikim. Note the tours to Europe of Ger, Boyan etc.
    I would also have mentioned that chabad sets a lot of store by this practice to the extent that according to the official chabad version the Rebbe Rayatz’s chief ,and prehaps only, reason for visiting Israel in 1927 was to visit kevarim of the Avos etc as he was unable to visit to graves of his forebears in the USSR.

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  3. yasher koach
    I rather think it is dvar b’itto to examine why Mulek G left the Vaad
    I think he/we ned to speak out and expose the Taliban before its too late
    I am concerned that the instructions of the prev Rebbe obm to establish an inclusive schooling system along Orthodox Chabad lines but offering full range subjects is on the brink of extinction
    Mesivata is rapidly diminishing Yeshivah College
    Taliban interpretations of the Rebbe’s pronouncements regarding the “evil” of limudei chol have resulted in a distinct division b/w students in the general stream v Mesivta –
    there is much more to discuss – sustainability of ‘klei kodesh’ generation, Shaliachocracy, etc

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    1. Of course, this is not a Chabad Minhag per se. The issue I’m addressing is effectively people trying to be מקיים the Rambam regarding ויכוף … I don’t think Chabad has ever been about “forcing”. It has been about cajoling and stressing the positives. These neo types who do things “only” to bring נחת רוח to the Rebbe ז’ל do not realise that they are turning other off in the process! יצא שכרם בהפסידם

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    2. Pinchas, there certainly are a myriad of issues that can be discussed. I simply reflected on an educational approach that in my opinion is simply contraindicated and more akin to the force-feeding offered by Hungarian Chassidim.

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  4. I think some people don’t have things clear re. Yeshiva. Even though the rebbe gave clear horaos for Melbourne regardin limudei chol, nevertheless, don’t you expect that the kids will be taught the rebbes shito, on many things and therefore may want to go to Mesivta.
    Just one more point, 90% of the Bochurim in Mesivta, once they hit yeshiva Gedola and onwards will see that to get a decent shlichus these days is very hard to get, and that after they finish yeshiva, they will move into the world

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      1. Isaac, you are absolutely correct. There is no reason for the boys in VCE to be considered second class. In fact I think that many of the boys that go to Mesivta are just lazy and they don’t want to work hard for a VCE diploma. When Rabbi Groner, under the directorship of the Rebbe, set up the School he knew exactly what he was doing. If the students are taught that where ever they are they can achieve exactly what is demanded of them to the fullest potential, there would be no would be no reason for students to succumb to peer pressure and laziness. What ends up happening is that the boys think that going to mesivta is the only way to be a good bochur. Which is in fact not true.
        Kol Tuv

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        1. A gitte voch,
          One point I didn’t make clear. The headmistress said it was optional and announced that. The teacher then made them all write their names in vacuo.
          Another point. The teacher did not go to the Ohel!
          I think your point of a teacher mentioning all the names at a Kever is a good and valid one. What we have here though, I suspect, is some Mivtza as if it is important for the teacher to get all her kids to do so.
          Finally, I do not know if the words Nachas for the Rebbe were used, but I personally don’t like that as a motive for such things.

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  5. A guten Moed. Isaac, you have a good point. There should be much more explanation regarding this practice. People over simplify the concept of going the Ohel and writing פ”נים. In fact there are books written about it and they should be taught and studied (I think there is a new book on the Ma’aneh Lashon).
    How ever I must disagree with your point at the end of your post, that a teacher should not feel it important that each child write his or her name. When I was a teacher in different settings, and when I came in contact with different people before I went to the Ohel, I explained to them about writing to the Rebbe to implore from Hashem, etc. But it someone did not want to write, I would simply ask them their name and mothers name so I can ask a brachah for them. I think that this is a perfectly acceptable. I can’t imagine that the teacher was doing anything else. If however the teacher was indeed forcing the students to write their names, you are correct.

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  6. Re Limudei Chol at Yeshivah College.

    Lets set one historical fact straight. Rabbi Groner, with whom I learnt Gemorreh nearly every Tuesday since 1966, did not set up the school. It was set up by the Anash pioneers in 1954.
    The school was run br Reb Zalman Serbrynaski.
    I came to the school in 1957. The only other member of the pioneers who was a teacher at that time was Reb Abba Pliskin. The other teachers were Rab Arel, Muilk-MrG.
    Rabbi Groner came at the end of 1958 and took up the running of the school in 1959.
    From my point of view if the non attendance at secular classes resulted in the Mesivata producing respectable talmedie chachomim who can combine true torah schloraship with true yiras shamayim and avodsa hashem in the true chabad way and also ensure that they can also have a respectable parnosse then I would say go for it.
    However I think it is safe to say that so far the sort of person that i describe above may be the minority of the products of the mesvite.
    Which then riases the question is it worth maying the price for the detrimantel affect it has on the Yeshivah high school
    A gutten voch.

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