Can Chabad do ANYTHING right?

[I didn’t want to write on this topic as it’s too depressing and generates spite and heat. That’s not my intention. I won’t publish comments unless they are sufficiently motivated by language that is positive and helpful. I’m not writing to create a huge argument. Like all my posts, I just write what’s on my mind at some time]

There has been a lot of press and talk about the happenings (hopefully soon in the past) of a lack of requisite and proper immediate action in respect of cases of sexual abuse which occurred over time, some years ago. People certainly made horrid mistakes: sometimes it was out of sheer unbelievable ignorance about the ways of the world (sheltered lives void of Western Morals, which are Halachically mandated in such cases according to the Ramban as a Torah command?), and other times it was a clumsy or “too clever” misguided attempt to cover up, in the hope that it will “just go away”. Neither reason is an excuse or acceptable. Unfortunately, victims often take years to tell their stories. That’s apparently a known side-effect and a sad one as it means things are dealt with years later. Pedophiles spread their sick urges like uncontrollable vermin, wherever you place them. I do not know if they can be cured. This is not my area. Nor do I know the confidence intervals of such “cures”. I’m not sure if anyone knows.

Certainly, those who are and have been friends with a victim, and are able to express social compassion and support, outside of any governance structures, should continue to do so or see if they can commence doing so. [For my part, I spent many hours helping to out  a shocking, perhaps the worst, pedophile (and those in the know, are well aware), and I really didn’t and don’t know victims on any personal let alone social level.] I hope there are many people of their age group, peers and friends, and I hope those people make an extra point engaging them, as I’m confident that can only contribute to them feeling less ostracised.

Those who were part of the YBR governance structure and knew of wrong doings, ought to move out of any governance role in any and all committee or decision-making roles. How long do they stay out of such positions or roles? I do not know. I expect it depends on the person and any metamorphosis they may undergo due to education and sincere Tshuva and Kapporo (accepted atonement).  I’m not sure they have to be banished to a pseudo city of refuge, but they do need to undertake continuing education and deep introspection and I would go as far as suggesting they undertake voluntary pastoral roles where appropriate counselling and helping general victims (they don’t have to be Jewish) or if they are Jewish, we know that there were victims from a number of Schools in Melbourne that they can try to show they have acquired the requisite understanding and skills to empathise and support such people cope with living. Ultimately, I mean a pastoral role. Most victims will, I suspect, require psychological and/or psychiatric assistance to get them through the damage they experienced. I’d avoid counsellors. There are a myriad ways anyone can become a counsellor (you can even take a quick course for $900) and these courses lack scientific rigour or a proper roof body that can punish people for ethical breaches. There are many shonks out there.

That the Jewish News focusses negatively almost solely on Chabad is not surprising. Their approach has long been considered  (on unrelated happenings) as anti-Orthodox and they have no qualms using a JEWISH News to advertise anti-Jewish practice. When Judaism morphs to solely Zionism, or some other single mode of expression more akin to culture, then the Jewish News will be part culpable for the alarming assimilation rate. In the USA it is, I believe 70% assimilation. Think about it. It’s an epic disaster

Today, Love conquers all. “What can I do?” you hear the mother or Booba saying … When a boy brings home someone from another religion in a relationship, it no longer has stigma because “what can I do“. Once upon a time a kid knew they couldn’t do this and this actually prevented the mountain of growth of questionable conversions for a relationship. Once upon a time the boy was not permitted to come to the front door with that intention and was told by his parents to “fly a kite”. People were even afraid to consider assimilation because it meant saying goodbye to family. Yes, there is more to it, especially the new religions of egalitarianism, equality, “tikkun olam” and social justice and that’s that. Ironically, many who do convert sincerely, can’t get their husbands to go along with them. A house of holes and hypocrisy is born, and children who see this are statistically known to be more likely to intermarry or become fundamentalist.

When a girl is allowed to bring home a boy from another religion, then it’s “not so bad” (at least, the kids they might have are Jewish so all is “good”) although you won’t hear the champions of egalitarian approaches complaining about that. Matrilineal descent is fine, its only been Halacha for thousands of years. Reform recognise patrilineal descent, and we know that they are now forced to move more and more to tradition in order to proffer some Tachlis to their communities (who intermarry more than any; patrilineal descent has not helped at all). It is a plain fact that most households assume that to compromise for “family unity” is the answer. “What can I do?” is the refrain. What they are doing, is setting up a framework for Judaism to die in the ensuing generations just so they can eat a Seder together or Latkes on Chanuka and in some cases delude themselves that their grandchildren are Jewish. They don’t see that far ahead. Why? That’s a complex answer and another post. As to Yohr Tzeit and Yizkor? The next generation seems to take the money and run.

So how does Chabad fall into this discussion?  I sense a reaction to the debacle of the pedophile issue, which also seeks to minimise all the good that Chabad has done and continues to do in preserving Jewish identity, by sparingly reporting positively on their work (save the usual pictures of an event). Chabad literally built Judaism in Melbourne. They are ubiquitous. They are unceasing in their efforts, non judgemental with irreligious people, but won’t leave you alone. They are nudniks when it comes to Jewish observance. They want you to connect to your roots so you can light up the world. That’s their way. You can’t change it, and there is no point even wanting or trying to change that approach.

I’m not a Chabad (or any) Chassid (I don’t fit) and am wary of any underlying philosophy proclaiming that there is only one way, but I am also loathe to support an undercurrent of “anti” Chabad to persist, even after they (hopefully) sort out their issues, and yes, it’s taking way too long because of a void in leadership.

Chabad don’t in general join other Rabbinic Organisations; Melbourne was exceptional because that’s just about all there was,  so perhaps we’ve reached a point where they aren’t worried they don’t dominate these and don’t care if they resign. Those Rabbinic Organisations however are a reflection of what we are. The best they seem to be able to do is issue statements. Contrast this to the RCA and OU where education is at the forefront even though statements are made. Don’t even mention the Council of Orthodox Synagogues of Victoria, apart from the Eruv. That organisation is also crying out for new authentic leadership.

Where is the weekly lesson from the members of these  Rabbinic organisations? Why aren’t sermons and shiurim podcasted later or published? Much more can be done.

I detect, with few exceptions, that Jewish Education, and here I mean the type which doesn’t just seek to indoctrinate, but simply learn for learning’s sake so that people can see the incredible beauty of the written and oral law and the commentaries surrounding these, has fallen by the wayside. It is the essence of Judaism, not the Kreplach, Choolent, Gefilte Fish and Chicken Soup.

I’d like a dollar for every Bar Mitzvah boy’s speech which isn’t about sport. Judaism just seems to have disappeared (together with the Rabbis who used to be at these events, and the Kosher Food that was a must at any Jewish Simcha … and yes, there are Jewish Simchas hosted by the very wealthy which are simply Trayf … uber fancy cuisine or the use of custom herds comes before heritage and tradition: great-grandparents turn in their graves).

Today, we see new ways (mostly copied) to draw people into a Shule, through some type of “program” which includes kids and food. For the older generation, it’s enough to offer whisky and herring and they flock. This is all fine. If, however, it doesn’t lead to further involvement, sans these ingredients, it has a limited shelf life and a shallow precarious continuation. Torah Education must be the cornerstone.

Many Rabbis, non Chabad and some Chabad, simply don’t engage their congregational youth in a serious study of Torah. Some can’t relate to the kids because they haven’t lived in a Western world or understand it. They need to. The Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rav Soloveitchik certainly understood the need to understand the Western worlds they lived in and studied in University. It’s not just about classes for a bride before she gets married.

Kids break their heads so that they can get an Aliya on their Bar Mitzvah and learn Haftora like a parrot. Would it not be better to have a policy in a Shule, in fact all Orthodox shules, that they only need to get an Aliyah without Haftorah, but should attend a weekly one hour shiur with the Rabbi (or some proper assistant) for a year to augment what they may (or may not study at School). Parents should be encouraged to attend too. This should also be provided to Bat Mitzvah girls (who I understand in many cases already have privately done such things) but they too should have a year-long initiation to Jewish Orthodox Learning, which after all, is the basis for everything and represents the true tradition from Moses to this day. The other flavours are western influenced portable religions that don’t survive the test of time. The USA experience has taught us that.

Chabad has done and continues to do much good. The Jewish News (and some blogs, and I honestly haven’t read these blogs, nor seek Facebook posts on the topic because I get too upset with the often generated unnecessary, anonymous and ad hominem attacks) really should also undergo a Bar Mitzvah for their staff journalists. I challenge them to have a weekly column which describes something a Chabadnik has done to touch and ignite Jewish souls in our community. There is plenty of material. Is it not newsworthy? It’s at least as newsworthy as pictures at a cultural event. Alternatively, let a capable Chabadnik give a weekly Shiur to journalists of the Jewish News?

My own feeling is that most want Chabad to get its house in order and continue the overwhelming good that they achieved. If they have papers like the Jewish News (and various web sites, and of course the left-wing Jewish Friendly “the Age”) seeking to minimise their enormous contribution to the community over decades, they will still survive, whether they are part of a Rabbinic Board or not. They will still have a profound positive effect. But, and I caution this most seriously: they must remove the stains, and embrace the reforms that are necessary, as we’ve seen across the spectrum of various Jewish and non-Jewish communities, and recognise that protection of children and education of educators and staff, are simply not negotiable and must be taken as seriously, if not more, than an infraction of eating Ham. If they do that effectively, and manage to sideline those who should have known better, and seek to re-engage (not just for PR) with victims (not all will want or be able to) of the past, then they will effectively continue their efforts to bring the redemption earlier. Jewish studies teachers without degrees should at least undertake correspondence courses in formal Education if they can’t/won’t attend University personally. I don’t see why it’s different to Kashrus, where Kosher Australia sponsored staff to undertake a Food Science degree at RMIT.

My own view is that they need to import a very talented, world standard, and worldly, Chabad Rabbi to re-invigorate and re-align the institutions. Yes, it will cost, but in the long run, it’s either that, or they will wallow in mediocrity.

If they do not do this, and continue to over argue little points that really should not be on the table, and keep faceless people and rampant nepotism, they will remain in this state of constant flux.

Chabad have done too much for Australia to stay in such a continued state of harmful flux, and I dare say, that some of the victims may actually agree with me. There were some aspects of their education and certain educators that left them with positive outcomes (at least I hope so! … their friends and family will know).

Here is something [Hat tip NB] just written by a Conservative rabbi (I don’t know the source)

Last Sunday night I checked the annual Chabad Kinus Sheluchim off of my bucket list – the annual gathering of Chabad emissaries from around the world. Over 4,500 rabbis from 90 countries convening for what is considered to be the largest such annual gathering of Jews in North America. Seventy-five years since the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson of blessed memory, arrived in America from war-torn Europe, Chabad is the fastest growing Jewish religious movement of our time. From Bangkok to Kenya, UCLA to Middlebury, Chabad houses, schools and mitzva tanks abound in numbers and vitality. The big announcement of the dinner was the appointment of Mendel and Mussie Alperowitz to Sioux Falls, South Dakota – a placement that secures a full-time Chabad presence in every single state.

As a Conservative rabbi I sat there marveling at the wonder that is Chabad. Not just its meteoric growth and ubiquitous presence, or its impassioned focus on the Rebbe.

Chabad’s secret sauce is personal relationships – on a street corner, a heimischy Friday night campus meal, or a one-on-one study session in a downtown office. The mission of a Chabad rabbi or rebbetzin is to draw out the pintele yid – the divine spark embedded in each and every Jew. What became clear to me last Sunday night is that the institution Chabad cares most about is not 770 Eastern Parkway or any campus Chabad; rather it is the institution of each and every unique Jewish soul yearning for expression.

The target audience of Chabad and the Conservative Movement is one and the same, our tactics are just different. The recently published Hertog study on Chabad on Campus makes clear that Chabad’s impact is greatest for those raised in Conservative and Reform households.

On a certain level, it makes no sense. Why would a movement that overlooks the Enlightenment, promotes a non-egalitarian expression of Jewish practice, is positively parochial in its posture and small “c” conservative in its politics captivate a liberally minded and often disengaged American Jewry? And yet, as the Hertog study explains, it is precisely these elements that help explain Chabad’s appeal.

In a frenetically paced world of online and superficial connection, where all of us stand to be alienated from each other and ourselves, Chabad provides an intimacy that is a deeply valued commodity. The free food and drink on campus undoubtedly doesn’t hurt, but it is the prospect of a finding a personal connection, the belief that you matter to someone that speaks to the soul of American Jewry. One does not need to be a chabadnik or social scientist to understand the importance of cultivating individual relationships; that community building is a retail business, one person, one Shabbat table at a time.

And yet for all its successes, it is also by understanding Chabad’s limitations that one sheds light on the distinctive role of the Conservative Movement. The Hertog study documents that virtually no students affected positively by Chabad choose a Chabad lifestyle after college. Why? Because sensitive as Chabad may be to the soul of American Jewry, neither its theology nor its lifestyle reflect the hyphenated lives that American Jews actually lead. Chabad does not embrace the non-Jewish members of our Jewish families. Chabad does not seek to draw in Jews of patrilineal descent.

Chabad does not engage with all the counterclaims, intellectual and otherwise, that modernity brings.

Embracing as Chabad may be, it is not pluralistic.

These observations are not meant to be criticisms. They merely signal the need for a religious movement that can walk side-by-side with American Jewry throughout their Jewish journey; a religious movement both single-minded and open-minded in its efforts to draw out the pintele yid hidden within.

Conservative rabbis complain when their lay leaders provide financial support for Chabad when neither they, nor their children have any intention or desire to live a Chabad lifestyle. What we fail to see in our kvetching is that we ourselves have failed to provide a compelling alternative worthy of our leaders’ investment.

What if the Conservative Movement were able to adopt some of Chabad’s insights? What if we were able to corral an army of Jewish educators and set in motion home study sessions; for singles, young couples, empty nesters, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons or home-bound seniors? What if the Conservative Movement redoubled its outreach to interfaith couples, individuals exploring Judaism, considering conversion or maybe just trying to figure out how to get a foothold in the Jewish community? What if our community were able to rethink congregational education to include opportunities for families to learn with each other – building both Jewish literacy and community at the same time, one living room at a time? What if there were hours enough in a day that Conservative congregational rabbis could enter the offices, homes and lives of our congregants campaigning for nothing other than their Jewish souls? It would require a dramatic rethinking of how we conducted business and allocated resources.
But given the stakes – the infinite value of a Jewish soul – why wouldn’t we be filled with a mesirus nefesh, a missionary zeal for the Jewish future? The Jewish world would be strengthened by way of having parallel efforts working in concert with each other. As my Chabad friend said to me at the dinner the other night: “Elliot, you and I are traveling down the same highway, but our windows are rolled up.” Lets roll down the windows and work together, learn from each other, respect each other, celebrating each other’s achievements even as we recognize our differences. There is room enough for us all, more than enough lost sparks looking to light up the dark. Most of all, let’s recognize that we are all on the same team looking to build up the individual and collective soul of American Jewry.

The author is the senior rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue, Manhattan.

Rabbi Telsner resigns

He has made a few mistakes, and it makes interesting reading seeing the different reports from the Age Newspaper versus the Sun. They obviously have different sources whispering in their ears. The anti-Jewish News will have the story just in time to splash on the front page and triumphantly blow its horn as the harbinger of morality (sic).

The Yeshivah Centre is undergoing change, no doubt. However, I’m not going to say any thing on the Rabbi Telsner issue because if I do, some will certainly misunderstand my words and it will make no different how I state them.

I am sure Rabbi Telsner has learned from this, and will contribute in a way using the gifts God gave him.

Rabbi Telsner is a card carrying Meshichist, as is his brother in law, R’ Chaim Tzvi Groner. There is no place in a Shule for screaming signs that no longer belong. There is no Mesora for placards in Shules, and it’s also a failure of Maimonides 13 principles of faith which clearly imply that we believe in Mashiach coming. Mashiach is a term for someone God chooses, it is not a euphemism for one and only one holy person in the Garden of Eden. Denying God this choice is in my opinion Kefirah. Meshichisten will not, cannot, and do not believe it is remotely possible for God to decide whomsoever He chooses from the physically living. That is pretty close to Kefirah. It is also a pseudo Kefirah for them to even entertain that there may well be someone else chosen because they won’t appear as a loyal Lubavitcher.

As for me, as I have said many times I couldn’t care less who it is. Eliyahu HaNavi will tell us.

Yeshivah has lurched to the right. It needs to bounce back to the centre and concentrate on quality education. It cannot afford to be a front for a Mesivta. There is obviously a need for a Mesivta. Let them find premises and build themselves on certain backers finances. The School itself needs to stress the qualities unique in Chabad, and there are many. Let the students be known for being fine examples of the Midos that are imparted by this philosophy. By all means it needs to stay a Chabad school, but one grounded in the realities of Melbourne. Failing that it should stop marketing itself as a community school.

Ironically, the School failed dismally to effectively educate Russian immigrants, years ago, and no longer does it serve many who are not religious. That’s their raison detre!

Too many New Yorkers have infiltrated and married in and tried to turn it into a fancier version of Oholei Torah in Brooklyn. Bad mistake. This is not New York.

I think it’s also time to pull down the rather pointless Yechi sign at the back of the Shule. Those who feel the need to scream this message to the world can bounce on the corner of the street, or wear a yarmulka (which they can’t then wear in a bathroom) wave yellow flags, wear cheap badges and all manner of paraphernalia not mentioned in Shulchan Aruch.

It does turn people off, and I include people from outside the Yeshivah centre. Those who really want to experience that type of experience can just go down the road to Dudu Leider’s Israeli Chabad house. They will love it. I’m told they chant Yechi more times than Shma Yisroel, over there, by a factor of 100.

 

On the Royal Commission in Melbourne on child abuse

To be honest, the whole thing has long made me sick in my stomach. I don’t have the time to watch it live. Maybe I will read the full transcripts later, but I’m likely to get upset for multiple reasons.

I am glad that the importance of the issue is at the forefront and one can only hope that those who haven’t reported in the past would not hesitate to do so in the future and out a lurking sick criminal.

Unfortunately there will always be pedophiles. Medicine may one day have something to curb the sub human tendencies of offenders. I don’t know. But having observed them at close quarters, they actually live in a world of self-denial and delusion. They are a danger and I’m not at all convinced that after a prison sentence they are even capable of suppressing abominable tendencies they seem to have been born with.

I’d also hope that despite the natural urge, people aren’t focussed on triumphalism or expressing it. I have seen that, and whilst I understand why this has occurred I don’t see it as a positive development.

The key is the future and how communities learn from past mistakes huge and smaller. Education of children and educators and Rabbis more is the key.

It is ironic that the whole Din of Mesira was based on the concept that old time courts were biased or anti Semitic or amoral. I could understand that today with respect to a court in Saudi Arabia or Iran or even the UN etc but in a Malchus shel Chesed like eg Australia, it is nonsensical and indeed a chillul Hashem to be lectured or even need to be advised on basic morality by אומות העולם given we have to behave at a higher level. There is a מצווה of והלכת בדרכיו and we have been given a wake up call to be moral beacons as opposed to shtetl oriented subterfuges.

I may write no more than this. It’s too upsetting, really, in so many different ways. I’ve always tried to be fair: you make enemies on both sides as a result. I’m not a person who has a burning need for mountains of friends but I don’t want to enter a snake pit either.

Our holiday. Part 3: 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn New York

Dear Readers,

I’ve scribbled out part 1 (and thanks to a reader for the english correction wherein I learned that I had understood a word incorrectly all my life!)

I’m jumping to Part 3 before Part 2. Why am I doing so? Perhaps you will understand when I have finished writing. I apologise as always for errors but I don’t proof-read much if at all.

My dear father’s 2nd Yohr Tzeit is on Friday. Leading up to that has been somewhat teary. A way to cope is to try to divest from  thoughts and memories and ever presence. It only helps partly. Every which way life turns, the touch and influence of his Neshoma and memory is raw and palpable. Call it second generation holocaust survivor syndrome. It’s my existential reality; I can’t escape it.

This morning I had five injections in my feet (for plantar fascia) after enduring pain for way too long. The specialist kept saying, “this is going to hurt, this will hurt a lot more etc as he dug the needle and spread it around while squirting in places where needles don’t normally wander”. I answered each time. It doesn’t hurt. Just do what you have to do. When the procedure was finished and my feet felt like they had fallen asleep from the block used in my heels, he was ready to move on quickly (too quickly to his next patient). I stopped him and explained that nothing any doctor could do would cause me to show pain. He asked why? I replied that my parents are holocaust survivors in a world of insulting and sick denial, and their pain was far worse than anything I could ever imagine. Accordingly, I stridently refuse and refused to show visible pain; what I experienced was a drop in the ocean.

He stood there somewhat speechless. He asked me if my parents had passed away. I said my father had “just” passed away. That’s not true of course. His second yohr tzeit is in a few days and ברוך השם he is weaving his magic 2005-10-09_14-47-22 with השם and cajoling him to shower our family and wider family with Simcha after Simcha. To me though, it is like yesterday, and hence my instinctive but unintentionally dry incorrect answer.

So what has this to do with Crown Heights and Part 3 of a holiday? Is Isaac Balbin off on yet another emotional outpouring? Maybe he needs to see a shrink. Maybe I do need to see a shrink but not because of this 🙂

We were only in Crown Heights for a few days. The truly wonderful Tzirel Goldman led us on a walking tour of important places, and then our Mechutonim graciously took Leonie and I out to a very nice restaurant. Unfortunately due to a gig, I couldn’t make the wedding of their son, which had just taken place.

I felt an “agenda” happening yet I wasn’t in usual control. I was moving from place to place. The area was buzzing from Chanuka to Hey Teves (& silly meshichisten) and it was on for young and old. Let’s not forget to mention the aufruf I was looking forward to attending (oh and the Kiddush in Getzel’s Shule, someone I had heard lots about)

Suddenly, our Mechutonim, the Goldmans said, let’s go and introduce you to Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky. I had momentarily forgotten he was their brother-in-law. I keep getting mixed up between Duchman and Kotlarsky for some reason, and Mendel Duchman (who I also met on this trip in Montreal) is also a Mechutan of the Chaitons.

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky

I recognised his face, had seen him in Melbourne, and was aware that he supervised the shlichus operations for the Lubavitcher Rebbe זי’’ע. “Fine, I responded thinking perhaps I might just say a few niceties and perhaps share a tiny piece of Torah”. We came into his room and he is a big man in several ways. His office looked organised and tidy. Emails were constantly flowing in. He looked tired and weary as if the world was on his shoulders. We shook hands and I sat in front of his desk, with Rabbi Yossy Goldman, and the lady folk including Rabbi Kotlarsky’s wife (who is my mechuteniste’s sister), Leonie et al on the side.

After the usual platitudes. I mentioned to him things he (made out he didn’t know) about Rav Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg הי’’ד

The horrid Holtzberg Kvura

and we immediately had a rapport based on our collective experiences with these special korbanos tehoros. He asked me if I had been back to see what they had done to Nariman House. My response was “no” and I wasn’t sure I could anyway. On my last trip, I somehow managed to get into the bullet-riddled, blood-stained building and took a video, which I won’t show, as it is nauseating. I mentioned my chelek in the miracle that is Moshe Holtzberg and he nodded, seemingly knowingly. I had the impression that this figure knew a heap more than he was letting on. Nonetheless, I told him how Rav Gavriel’s parents majestically appeared in Melbourne for our daughter Talya’s wedding to Zalman Bassin. The others were moved, but he seemed to show less emotion. I had the feeling that he was “used to” these types of happenings and for him, they were but another confirmation of what he had experienced and what was driving him with a sense of unstoppable purpose.

Suddenly he turned to me and asked “Have you been to the Ohel?” 

I answered truthfully. A בית החיים gives me the heebee geebies and I avoid them. As a Cohen I am somewhat cocooned but that came to an abrupt end when my father passed away and a scene I had never been close to, invaded me with shock. I mentioned the opinion of the Gro and Beis HoRav (Soltoveitchik) and Mori Rav Schachter and explained I was a soul with a foot from Brisk and a foot from Amshinov. It’s a contradiction in terms, which might explain my often ebullient meshugassen and eccentricity (well maybe not, but it’s a good try :-). I explained that I find it very difficult to go to my father. I unashamedly attend the least of my entire family. He asked me for the reason, and I explained that I was ממש a nothing compared to him and feel emotionally distraught even from the distance, after which I would be disturbed for days. He asked why? “That’s a good Midda to have. One should feel useless when standing next to giants”. I countered that the giants are around even outside the בית החיים and that is a fundamental. Why did one need to effectively go to a “sack of bones” which was even Tomei to experience their special presence. I suggested that maybe people can achieve things in different ways.

He cajoled me undoubtedly through his demeanour and presence, to “not” leave Crown Heights without a visit.

I launched into the issue of Doresh Al HaMeisim (I can make grown Rabbis scream, but he was very calm) and that I had no Minhag to go to Mikvah, wear slippers and knock on doors. He responded that’s all unnecessary. You can go in the way you feel “comfortable”. I said that DAVKA at a Tziyun, there is a natural tendency to “ask” from the Niftar, and tried to side track him with Brich Shmei and Shalom Aleichem which aren’t said by some for similar reasons. He then said, “Nu, take a simple Maaneh Loshon and say that”. I heard what he said, and understood him well. He had more than a touch of charismatic “Rabbi Groner” about him.

When I go to my father’s Tziyun, I say very specific Tehillim. I do that to stop myself from ASKING my father to do things. You can’t do that, but it’s a very natural tendency. I said I’d consider it seriously, but if I did go, it would be a very great mental strain to stop myself from lapsing into Doresh Al Hameisim when standing in front of two people who were responsible for my Torah education and much more.

In another part, I will explain what eventuated in terms of decision time.

I then mentioned that I had written but once to the Lubavitcher Rebbe yet had never received a reply. He didn’t ask what I had written, but I was comfortable saying it. I said that Melbourne was going through a particularly difficult and potentially splitting moment where two icons were jousting and Lubavitch was splitting. I had mentioned my family history, and made it clear that I could not be considered a Chosid in any shape, but I knew that the only person who could resolve the issue was the Rebbe himself and I asked him to. I never got an answer, and the Rebbe then had a stroke. I always assumed that the reason I hadn’t received an answer was because the Rebbe was B’Sakono and wasn’t in any position to respond with the same immediacy and wisdom as people were accustomed. I left it as a תשבי. One day I’d find out.

At that moment, Rabbi Kotlarksy said but you did get an answer, you just didn’t know it. I will now tell you what happened. As a result of the momentum of letters such as mine (I don’t claim any special powers!), he was summoned immediately to the Lubavitcher Rebbe who instructed him to travel to Melbourne and sort out the “mess”.

Rabbi Kotlarsky then told me how he sorted it out, and he did so quickly. I was very impressed by the ביטול of Rabbi Y.D. Groner ז’’ל about whom I could never imagine as “lower” than anyone, given his towering presence. That was a new greatness that I discovered. I was blown away by what Rabbi Groner had done. I was also blown away by the fact that on this particular trip after our daughter married into a well-known family, I had about an hour with someone who I never expected (or had a desire/need) to meet. I had no common business, so to speak.

But “the Aybishter Firt Der Velt”, and it was השגחה that I was to unravel a long mystery. I liked Rabbi Kotlarsky. He gave me the impression that he’s someone who I could sit for five hours listening to at a farbrengen. His finger was literally on the Chabad pulse.

We said our good byes, and I thanked him for allowing us to interrupt his very busy schedule. He was due to spend Shabbos at the Ohel for Hay Teyves and seemed to always be on planes, in cars and any vehicular transport, as he explained to me.

I’ve obviously not gone into all details, as they aren’t necessary and help nobody today.

So I come home to the Golus of Melbourne, and I’m due to now go the Tziyun of my dear father. I’ve had a practice run, so to speak, and it was mentally draining for me to keep my thoughts halachically sound and emotionally relevant.

I have to admit, that I am still implacably against people who write “to” the Rebbe as I noticed in many letters (even though they were torn) the people either didn’t know the Halacha, or were never taught it properly by some single-minded teachers who probably assumed something transcending Halacha. I don’t change my views on that and don’t apologise. I understand Chassidim emulate, but I am sure that the Lubavitcher Rebbe never ever was Doresh directly of his father in law. He was a Medakdek B’Mitzvos K’Chut Ha’saaroh and could not be questioned on such issues. I feel this was also why he had a common thread with the Rav, who is also known as the איש ההלכה.

So, until my next post, I will try to do the things one should do to give my dear father’s Neshoma nachas, although I can’t help but feel that there ought to be a motive to pile these up during the year, and just unload so to speak on the Yohr Tzeit when the Neshoma will go up a level (or levels).

I hope I haven’t bored you too much, but most of my posts are rather selfish. I heal myself through writing them.

R’ Nochem Zalman Gurewicz ז’ל

 

This last Shabbos, I was in two minds concerning which Shule to attend. Generally, I daven at Elwood Shule every second week, and the main Chabad Yeshivah Shule in Melbourne on the other week. Recently, I have davened at Elwood more often, feeling the need to show support.

The plan was to daven at Elwood, and like many, follow davening with an in-house Kiddush, Mincha, and eventually to a late lunch leading into the Taanis. After reading Emmanuel Althaus’s excellent e-mail of community events, it was apparent that Shabbos was R’ Nochem’s Yohr Tzeit on Tisha B’Av, and that a Kiddush/Farbrengen would be held at Yeshivah after davening given that the fast was moved to Sunday. R’ Nochem was one of my teachers; I had to attend the Kiddush.

R’ Nochem left an indelible mark on me (and others, of course). In what way does a teacher of year 11 and year 12 do that? Was it just because he was a good teacher? Why indelible? Let me be up front. R’ Nochem was not a Geonic teacher who dazzled the class with exquisitely crafted Pilpulim on the Gemora. He’d usually sit at the front of the class, stroking his beard, while uttering an elongated “Yeh”. We knew that during this time he was dealing with the Pshat in the Gemora or the Pshat in a Tosfos. We saw him struggle with these at times. That’s not to say that he had any unnatural difficulty learning. Rather, what we witnessed was an honest and open interaction between R’ Nochem and the Gemora. He hadn’t spent hours in preparation.

How was this helpful? Surely a student ought to see their teacher in absolute control of their material? Teaching a new subject this semester at University, one of the things terrifying me is not being in “complete” control of the material. Will a student ask a question for which there is no apparent response? Will I become tongue-tied at one of my bullet points because a mental blank clouds the ability to convey meaning and intention adequately? It’s not merely an egotistical fear; subconsciously, as a University professor, we are expected to know what we are talking about. It need not be that way, however. R’ Nochem had no such tickets on himself. His was an exercise: a journey of educational engagement. It was as if he was saying

I’m learning the Gemora and Tosfos, and you will learn it with me. We will make mistakes together, but we will learn and eventually come to an understanding.

Pedagogically, there is nothing second-rate about this mode of learning and teaching. Indeed, provided that a student is mature, some would consider it superior. There was more, however, to R” Nochem’s classes than Gemora and Tosfos.

Reb Nochem Zalman Gurewicz ז’ל

R’ Nochem came across, primarily, as an ordinary human being; a Tomim (simple and humble personage). Whether he did so consciously, I’ll never know, but his stories entranced and regaled. In a moment, we were transported from a difficult piece of Talmudic logic into the world of a Jewish soldier in the Soviet communist army. Pursued by the NKVD or “EnKaVehDeh” as he pronounced it, we were at once in Soviet Russia feeling his challenges, his pain and his hunger. R’ Nochem didn’t talk about himself exclusively by any stretch of the imagination. There were a wide array of personalities that somehow, almost star trek like, entered the door of that simple class room at 92 Hotham Street in Melbourne, Australia.

R’ Nochem’s Lubavitch was somewhat different to the one many of us are exposed to today. His was not a pastuerised and homogenised existence. Like Rabbi Groner ז’ל there was a keen reverence for Rebbes and Tzadikim of other groups. We heard stories about R’ Meir Premishlaner and R’ Zushe extending to contemporaries about whom he conjured an almost personal interaction. He showed great joy when expounding a good vort, even if it wasn’t derived from traditional Lubavitch sources. Yet, he was also a real Chosid. He knew his personal faults and never hid them. He was self-effacing and paradoxically charming at the same time. This contradictory infusion only increased a charismatic magnetism, discussion of which he would find most embarrassing.

As youngsters, we knew he “schnorred” for the Yeshivah. He had worked in knitwear earlier. He mixed with the Smorgons and other paragons of the community. Yet, that job description connoted a pariah-like existence to young teenagers and was considered derogatory. Today, employees are known by the more professional and acceptable title of “fund-raisers”.

R’ Nochem toiled as a worker. Rising well before the crack of dawn, he seemed to be davening in every minyan: from the first through to the last. No word in the siddur escaped his attention, and each was lovingly given due reverence. In R’ Nochem’s “spare” time, and this included his infamous vehicular conveyancing, an undercurrent of Tehillim was murmured in that idiosyncratic tone. Every time his car was fixed by the panel beater, we placed bets on how long it would be before it once more looked like he’d been in a serious accident. Without exaggeration, if you were “lucky” enough to hitch a ride with R’ Nochem, benching Gomel, B’Sheim U’Malchus was assuredly advised.

I remember once when in early high school, he called for volunteers to help on a mission to Carlton. I put my hand up. It was certainly a better proposition than the boring three R’s. The ride took an eternity. R’ Nochem meandered through many wrong turns. Finally we arrived outside an old Edwardian half-house in a quiet Carlton side street. We wondered what our task was to be. The deceased had apparently left his “estate” to the Yeshivah, and our job was to assist in loading a clapped out panel van with anything that appeared to be of value. I don’t remember many things impressing us as being any real value, although we did enjoy an interesting time rummaging through draws, finding ancient writing implements and the like. Of course, we also shlepped. We made it back in one piece, but it wasn’t always clear on that return journey that this would indeed be the case.

R’ Nochem was the “pinchy man”. He adored children, and the level of this adoration extended to an often painful pinch of the cheek. Ironically, in our more enlightened society, he would probably have been charged with harassment and battery, but what would they know about genuine affection. At least one of my children, Tzvi Yehuda, experienced this form of “love” and I’m glad he did!

R’ Nochem was spotless. This was a man whose suits, shirts, shoes and ubiquitous beige cardigan were at all times salubrious. His beard was always “clean”, his breath never unpleasant. We took these things for granted but when one looks around today and sees people in respected positions, with their shirts out, tzitzis dangling wildly in unkempt and gay abandon, jackets barely able to enclose an extended girth, pockets filled with the days takings, squished, dusty, off-colour fedoras and more, one comes to appreciate that N’Kiyus, cleanliness, is not anathema to a Chosid. I should add, that both R’ Zalman, R’ Isser and others were also immaculately groomed at all times.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. At times, R’ Nochem would blow up unceremoniously at a recalcitrant Talmid. These were not “ordinary” Talmidim. They were children of holocaust survivors whose parents essentially “deposited” their sons and daughters at the doors of the Yeshivah, praying that an educational experience be imparted. These parents worked 24/7 and mostly had neither the time, patience or Menuchas HaNefesh to cope or deal with children in a new country, let alone in a more modern era. One colourful character, whose name will remain anonymous, had a tendency to incessantly disturb the pervasively calm class ambience. Enraged, R’ Nochem grabbed his black umbrella hurling it towards the back of the class and almost impaling the said Talmid. Well, it was funny at the time, but yes, we know it could have ended badly. With R’ Nochem, you saw what you got and you got what you saw.

I was rebellious but not in the sense that I didn’t want to learn. Rather, I became somewhat estranged from the curriculum on Fridays. I didn’t have the presence of mind or a mature appreciation of Friday’s chassidic sicha. I used to slink off to the back of the class and learn basic Chumash/Rashi together with a little Sefer written in the style of “Itturei Torah” whose ditties on psukim I quite enjoyed. Determined to “do my own thing”, I put my black bag (“techke”) on the desk in front of me, effectively cutting myself off from what others were learning. Okay, okay, I hear your pseudo-psychological assessment of my behaviour and your assertion that not much has changed since then …. this article isn’t about me, though. R’ Nochem in his wisdom, accepted my position. He said:

As long as you are learning, it’s okay with me

How many teachers, including myself would tolerate such insolence? These days, when I lecture and see a student seemingly not paying attention because they are peering at an open laptop, I gravitate towards their seat and say

If you are looking at my overheads, they are in front of you on the screen, so please close your laptop or you will miss important information

In a word, R’ Nochem was tolerant. He had a clear sense of mission. His mission was simply to build the organisation. He worked tirelessly. He didn’t live in a grandiose setting and was humble until his last days in our world. R’ Nochem was always the first person at someone else’s Minyan when there was a Shivah. He was a source of comfort to so many people. I recall going to his flat in Alexandra Road when he was sitting Shivah—I don’t remember for whom. I was struck by the absolute simplicity of his flat. There were no trappings. This was a humble existence. He wasn’t “Rabbi” Nochem Zalman. Alas, I didn’t know his Rebbetzin. I firmly believe, though, that behind every good man, there is an even better woman.

His son, Mulik, otherwise known as Mr G, in keeping with the education imparted by both of his parents began his delivery at the kiddush by speaking not about his father, but about the other co-sponsor of the Kiddush, who also had a Yohr Tzeit. This struck me at the time as consonant with the example set by his parents. Somebody else always came first. Mulik mentioned (and I’ve heard this from him many times) that his father was very frum and a big medakdek b’mitzvos. I surmise that one of the reasons why Mulik refuses to be called “Rabbi” is because he couldn’t possibly see himself as being seen to be “more” than his father.

In the words of one of R’ Nochem’s grandchildren, as relayed to me yesterday

They don’t make them like that anymore

יהי זכרו ברוך

A new attempt to evict Meshichisten

We have credible information that Rabbis Shem Tov et al, have initiated the serving of new writs to the Crown Heights 770 Meshichisten (including the Gabbai) with a view to having this group permanently removed from the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s ז’ל original headquarters.

The divide between the Meshichisten and regular Chabadniks is set to widen. Even if not successful, this new action is likely to cause many closet Meshichisten (who are outwardly silent for reasons of diplomacy and financial consideration) to become more public and outspoken.

Yeshivah College in Melbourne remains hopelessly contradictory and continues to allow the daily morning thrice recital of “Yechi” followed by “Ad Mosai” (now prior to T’kias Shofar) in the School’s Beis Medrash and Mesivtah Minyan and openly flouts the clear Psak of Rabbi Groner ז’ל.

Not to be outdone, Rabbi Moshe Kahn  of Melbourne’s Chabad Youth takes this two steps further by allowing the recital of Yechi thrice, three times a day at camps (at a minimum) although Rabbi Kahn is not a Meshichist himself.

It is hoped that Chabad, led by what I consider to be the more realistic types, returns to its roots as a once glorious movement that inspires the world-over with overflowing love and a commitment to reconnecting all Jews with Torah and Mitzvos (yes, they also want them to connect to Chassidus, and that doesn’t bother me in the slightest even though I know zero Chassidus).

Meanwhile in Melbourne two of the four individuals seem to no longer dance and prance like a ridiculous Bananas in Pyjamas parody, on the corner of Balaclava and Hotham. Only the “father and son” tag-team remains to be out of control and active. Not much can be done to rein them in, however.

Many members of the Vaad Ruchni in Melbourne are overt and covert Meshichisten. I wonder with whom they will side when the news of the new writ hits the airways?

In that general context, I’ll sign off with the wise words of R’ Aharon Soloveichik ז’ל (HaRebbi Melech HaMoshiach, David Berger, Urim Publications, 2005. p.75, note 7)

To my great dismay. . . publications affiliated with the Lubavitch movement have persisted in stating that I validate their belief that a Jewish Messiah may be resurrected from the dead. I completely reject and vigorously deny any such claim. As I have already stated publicly. . . such a belief is repugnant to Judaism and is the antithesis of the truth. My intent in signing the original letter . . . was merely to express my opinion that we should not label subscribers to these beliefs as heretics. Any statements in that letter which imply an endorsement of their view were not shown to me at the time I signed and I once again repudiate any such ridiculous claim