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