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.