I Am Charedi

by Yaakov Rosenblatt

I am charedi. I was born in Brooklyn, went to mainstream charedi elementary and high schools, spent two years in Mir Yerushalayim and attended Kollel at Beth Medrash Gevoha in Lakewood, New Jersey. I wear a black hat on Shabbos and dark pants and a white shirt much of the week. My yarmulke is large, black and velvet and being a frum and inspired Jew is my most basic self-definition, on par with being human and being male.

Am I charedi? I believe in the utter supremacy of Torah wisdom to secular knowledge. But I also believe that one can see Hashem through analysis of the physical world and that many committed Jews who engage the sciences have a richer appreciation of Hashem because of it.

Am I charedi? I believe that Torah study is a most worthy pursuit and the community should support and lionize scholars whose wisdom is clear and vision is pure. Writing s’forim, debating s’voros, and forging new paths in Torah is an effort worthy of a significant portion of our charitable dollars.

Am I charedi? I learned in Kollel for four years and am now in the business world. Having observed and experienced the high cost of raising a large frum family and the gargantuan, often futile effort to attain those funds without a secular education, I am no longer sure that open-ended Kollel-for-the-masses is a good idea. While Kollel-for-all was critical to establish a Torah society in the late 20th century, the second decade of the 21st century may be a time to reevaluate the socio-economic ramifications of thousands of men unable to support their families with dignity.

Am I charedi? I respond with disdain when some Orthodox leaders respond to theological challenges with nuance and apologetics, not passion and conviction. We are blessed to live in a nation whose Heartland craves traditional values. We are the Judeo rock of the Judeo-Christian bedrock of American civilization and should be proud to explain our beliefs and practices to those who question them. And I respond with disgust when some of my coreligionists defend observant Jews who knowingly bend the rules and break the law, bringing dishonor to our camp and disrepute to our mission.

Am I charedi? I like to read about current events and am fascinated by the interplay of religion and politics in America. I believe that we should be involved in the political process as informed, concerned citizens with traditional values, not merely as a voting-block looking for its share of the pie.

Am I charedi? I believe in the passionate worship of Hashem and that keeping of every nuance of Halacha is our path to a relationship with the Creator. I believe that intense Torah study can bring one to a closer relationship with God and we are most encouraged and inspired when we seek the advice and blessing of pious rabbis. I treasure my few conversations with HaRav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Mir Rosh Yeshiva, when I studied in his yeshiva. He beheld a purity you could see, a connection you could touch.

Am I chaarei? I cut a deep line between Judaism and the culture that surrounds it, even if some of my brethren cannot. I regard most issues of dress, attitude and religious emphasis as the result of history and personality not values and principles.

Am I charedi? I am embarrassed when some of my brethren don’t act appropriately in the larger society. I know that they are merely extending the culture that works in their neighborhoods to the larger world as they pass through it. And I understand that they are intelligent, kind people who are ignorant to the mores of American society. But I am embarrassed nonetheless.

Am I charedi? I believe that many non Jews have a relationship with God that is worthy of respect and encouragement.

Am I charedi? I believe that the charedi world has become larger over the last decades, but that much of that growth has been in nuance not diversity. Where the entire community would once join the community school, there are now many schools for many shades of gray. To someone on the inside the differences are huge, to someone looking in from the outside they are shades of the same color. I wish there was less uniformity; it would keep our most creative youth more engaged.

Am I charedi? I believe that the trend in our community towards sameness of dress and greater insularity was not a decision consciously made, but the result of the blending of the Yeshiva and Chassidic communities in the same neighborhoods. When you daven in the same shteibels and use the same mikvahs you take on the tendencies of the other.

Indeed, I am a Charedi. I am a Charedi circa 1970, my father’s generation. Then, yeshiva students wrote, spoke, and thought in English. They dressed in color. Frum men went to college to train for a means to make a living. People were pashut in their hashkafa and sincere in their avodah. They would enact chumros when advised but did not see stringency as a path to purity. They had a closer relationship to secular Jews because of their secular first cousins and to non Jews because they lived in mixed neighborhoods. Their motivation was to build a frum infrastructure for the next generation where observance would be easier and yiddishkeit would be the natural choice. They were not motivated to get their kids into “the best” school and their kids married off to “the best” shidduchim.

They were American charedim. And I am an American charedi. Each generation wants its children to be more perfect than they. I am no different. I pray that my children be charedim like my father. And I pray, fervently, that they maintain, live and promote the charedi values he promoted: fealty to Torah, reverence of Torah leaders, and a lifelong commitment to the Jewish people. All, in a very simple, very straightforward, American way.

The author of two books, Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt “tends the flock” both literally and figuratively, as CEO of AD Rosenblatt Kosher Meats and a rabbi at NCSY – Dallas. This essay first appeared in the Jewish Press

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20 Responses

  1. Whoa Nelly says:

    Apparently the writer forgot one other questions.

    Am I chareidi, I wrote an article about chareidim in a publication geared for non-chareidim.

  2. c-l,c says:

    All that you say ,mirrors what R’YK said american society ought to be.
    He also emphatically stated ,that for Israel,such would be detrimental.

  3. Joe Hill says:

    This writer can be considered out-of-town Chareidi. In-town his views (though not his dress) would be more in line with modern orthodoxy.

  4. L. Oberstein says:

    What a pleasant way to start my day, reading this article. The author eloquently and unapologetically expresses what I would like to believe is normal,frumkeit. My gripe with some of my colleagues is that they look over their shoulder at the “right” and feel that our way is inferior or b’dieved. One of the reasons the extreme overpowers the moderate in most cases is that they have more passion and less willngness to compromise. I admire the American Agudah very much. Rabbi Sherer was a great man. In order to keep the tent big and include certain elements, he let them call the shots on issues of the place or lack of place of females in public events . I want to ask a question and would appreciate a halachic answer. Since the women at the NJ Siyum were on the highest level of the bleachers and not mixed with the men or on the side, why did they have to have a mechitza that cost a fortune? Is it halachic or just bowing to pressure beyond halacha?

  5. Bob Miller says:

    As always, our focus should be on meeting HaShem’s expectations of us, regardless of what descriptor (Chareidi or whatever) might be thought to apply. I imagine that we each have better ways to spend our time than in pondering what macro- or micro-subgroup we might belong to.

  6. Dr. E says:

    –I am no longer sure that open-ended Kollel-for-the-masses is a good idea–

    Don’t worry, you are still Chareidi. If you were non-Chareidi, you would be quite sure that open-ended Kollel is never a good idea for anyone.

  7. Mark S says:

    ‎”Charedi” is a made up term that doesn’t exist in halacha. We have kohanim, levites, gerim, mamzerim, zavim, etc. but no “charedim.” It’s an invented socio-political term. One day this guy will realize that he’s not really “charedi” and that he’s not really accepted into that camp, at all, I mean he’s a CEO and an NCSY rabbi. I like using the term “Jewish” or “old school Jew” when discussing people like this. Maybe one day he’ll realize that he’s just a good Jew who does mitvos, learns Torah, is mfernes his family c’halacha, and is mekarev people and won’t need to shtel zu to a made up term for what it means to be a good Jew.

  8. ab says:

    Mark S: This is not true. Chareidim is a term used throughout the genrations (I can think of one example in navi right now… – “Hachreidim el dvaro”). Though you ar eright that it was never used on a ‘class’ of jews, so-to-speak, but rather, it is a description of any G-d fearing Jew in genral.

  9. YM says:

    I think it is very important for a person to know which sub-group they belong to and what it stands for. As the writer says, it is a basic part of self-identity.

  10. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Not really…

    The 1970’s Jews you emulate were not called “Haredim”. American Jews like you have adopted Israel’s Hareidi label but not their ideology. In fact, in Israel, people like you would be rejected by the “real” Haredim.

    The “Haredi” label in the US is a relatively recent import. That causes all kinds of problems. As this terrific article shows the label has become so broad as to lose all meaning. The range of “Haredim” today go from modern US Yeshiva guys like the author all the way to Satmar and even Neturei Karta.

    What you are, if you need to label it, is far closer to the ideal of modern orthodoxy.

  11. Bob Miller says:

    YM wrote, “I think it is very important for a person to know which sub-group they belong to and what it stands for. As the writer says, it is a basic part of self-identity.”

    How do you (or do you) propose to reverse the splintering of observant Jews into smaller and smaller “boutique Yiddishkeit” categories, each with its own redundant set of institutions, etc., and its own carefully cultivated distance from all the others?

  12. Eli says:

    You are Yochanan Kohen Gadol. You have stayed where you are, while society has moved so that where you used to be on the right, now you are so far to the left as to be no longer accepted as religious. You would never be able to get your child into a Charaidi school in Eretz Yisroel, so how can you be a Charaidi?

    I have to agree with the Menachem Lipkin. You are (if you need a label) Modern Orthodox, on the path of Rav Shechter & Rav Lichtenstein.

  13. dovid2 says:

    Yaakov Rosenblatt, what’s wrong with you? You’re so normal.

  14. Yaakov Rosenblatt says:

    One of the basic definitions of Charedi vs frum Modern Orthodox, to me, is the willingness to dress in an insular way, to set boundaries between yourself and the secular culture.

    One of the benefits of being a 1970’s Charedi is that those boundaries are reasonable and that you know they are just boundaries, not inherently holy. But that they are there.

  15. Dr. E says:

    I’m not quite sure that today’s mode of Chareidi dress mentioned by Reb Yaakov is really predicated on a desire to dress insularly. To me, it’s more a matter of conformity to the prevalent “brand” within today’s Yeshiva world that is the fabric of all of the mainstream Litvishe Yeshivos which self-identify as “Yeshivish” or Chareidi. Perhaps this new standard of all black and white is only indirectly insular. That is because this new dress code borrows from the way that Chassidim have dressed for the past couple of hundred of years—and that was predicated on insularity.

    The proof for this is that colored and patterned shirts and light colored pants were the normative dress of mainstream Litvish Yeshiva guys 30-40 years ago. I would ventuire to say that they would be labeled “chareidim” by virtue of their worldview, Shmiras Hamitzvos, and related Halachic practice that would be the nuanced distinction with the MO community. Let’s be real. If this more “modern” type of clothing were worn today (as it is in “non-Yeshivish” Yeshivos), it would still be quite different from the general population of males that age, especially if one adds in the yarmulka.

  16. dr. bill says:

    Consider your attitudes towards issues like “…the utter supremacy of Torah wisdom to secular knowledge…” and “…Torah study is a most worthy pursuit and the community should support and lionize scholars whose wisdom is clear and vision is pure. Writing s’forim, debating s’voros, and forging new paths in Torah is an effort worthy of a significant portion of our charitable dollars.”

    the attitudes are not uncommon. However, the latter is suprising given the tuition crisis that you mention. the former is incomprehensible if you insert examples of secular knowledge like medicine or science or even literary theory. i find both dangerous, the latter financially and the former intellectually. Both make you a chareidi, albeit one who recognizes that the lifestyle is neither traditional or sustainable. traditional and sustainable are important elements of orthodoxy, historically and going forward.

    a few more steps and we can welcome you into the ranks of traditional orthodoxy – a term i prefer to MO or CO or whatever.

    an important and well written POV. thanks

  17. Slingshot says:

    In my opinion, this article expresses EXACTLY why american Judaism is doomed. the word “Israel” was not mentioned even once in his diatribe about being 100% dedicated to torah AND society as a whole without contradiction or compromise. If history has taught us anything, the only logical future for the Jewish people in via the state of Israel. the homeland for which we pray daily. the largest single population source of Jews today. The place where Jews can literally live the dream of not only 4-amos of halacha (an individual focused religion) – but as a nation, as Hashem intended. And the author didn’t even mention it. like it doesn’t exist. or is not a really important part of the orthodox equation. I don’t care if he is “hareidi” or not, but he has effectively illustrated the future downfall of American Judaism. I’m not saying everyone must move to Israel tomorrow morning. But I do believe that it should be part of the daily philosophical discourse. it is fundamental

  18. Samuel Popack says:

    I generally do not use the adjective “chareidi” because it is misleading. It originated in Eretz Yisroel as a way to describe those who followed the Eidah HaChareidis as opposed to the Rabanut. But it has evolved, and has come to mean basically anyone who is not Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist. But then it is simply the generic, default, traditional manner of being frum. And by using a brand name for the generic you are giving the impression that it is not the generic.

    Chareidim do not follow any specific teachings of any specific Rebbi, nor do they believe in any specific values not already in the Torah. Chasidim follow the specific teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples; Telzers follow the teachings and Minhagim of the Telzer Yeshiva; the Mussar movement was started by Rav Yisroel Salanter – but “Chareidi”? There was no beginning to “Chareidism” except on Har Sinai; no particular person whose teachings they follow except Moshe Rabbeinu, and no particular Minhagim they perform.

    So there really is no such thing as a “Chareidi.” Those who people refer to as “Chareidim” have mostly never referred to themselves as such – in America you can go to Yeshiva from Kindergarten through Kollel and you will most probably never hear “we are Chareidi,” and you may even never hear the term used at all.

    And because words matter – it’s a strange thing but people often tend to form impressions of reality based on words and phrases rather than creating words and phrases that reflect reality – I do not use the term “Chareidi” because by giving generic, default Judaism a label it conceals the fact that this Judaism is in fact the generic and default.

  19. shlomo zalman says:

    I live in Eretz Yisrael.
    Are you a chareidi? Sorry, but no.
    You could have been, but you veered off. Close,but no cigar,and you are better off for it.

  20. Steve Brizel says:

    The above column was a great column which showed intellectual honesty. We need more people in both the MO and Charedi worlds who know how to make Havdalah as well as Kiddush, to paraphrase R M Shapiro ZL, and realize that we too often use urban myths and stereotypes in thinking about the “nisht unzerer” , whether MO or Charedi.

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