Israel’s New Torah Askanim
A few months back, Yisroel Besser posed the question in these pages: Where will the next generation of askanim come from and what can be done to nurture them? His article generated a great deal of discussion, but one aspect of the issue was not touched on by any of the discussants: How irrelevant the entire discussion would have struck most Torah Jews living in Israel.
Both the author and those who responded took it for granted that the term askan is one of high praise, connoting a person who serves the Klal by giving generously of both his time and money. Yet in Israel the term is almost always used pejoratively. Far from indicating someone who acts out of a lack of self-interest, it generally refers to someone who did not possess the necessary zitsfleish for long-term learning or the entrepreneurial skills to make it in business, and who instead cut out for himself a place on the periphery of a Torah leader or Knesset member to acquire a small fiefdom of power and influence.
What explains the differences in societal usage and norms? For one thing, the dominant social model in Israel for decades has been one of long-time learning after marriage. A serious avreich has a full nighttime learning seder, in addition to his two sedarim during the day. He simply has no time for Klal activities. Only in the last decade or so did Lev L’Achim begin to instill the idea that an avreich also has an obligation to teach Torah to those who would otherwise not have access to shiurim or chavrusas by organizing thousands of avreichim to go knocking on doors once a week to offer to learn with anyone who expresses an interest.
In America, the ideal of full-time learning after marriage never became the dominant social norm to the same extent as in Israel. But there is another difference in the historical development of the two communities as well. The foundations of the American Torah community were laid to a large extent during the Holocaust in the rescue and relief work of Zerei Agudath Israel under the leadership of Mike Tress. “[Mike] channeled all our energies into doing for the Klal,” remembered one of the hundreds of young volunteers who did the bulk of the rescue work.
The rescue efforts included high school girls who laboriously typed on old manual typewriters the four-foot long forms required for ever visa applications and which had to be filled out in six times; those who packed boxes of food for starving Jews in Nazi-held Poland in 1939 and after the war for the desperate survivors in the DP camps; those who sought out the affidavits of financial support, without which no visa application would ever be granted; and all those who engaged in the constant fundraising campaigns on street corners and subways.
Agudath Israel of America grew out of that initial rescue work. It is both a professional organization and a grassroots organization, in which many baalebatim have cut their teeth on Klal work. Visitors from Israel to Agudath Israel of America conventions and dinners are shocked by the scope of the organization and the numbers of those involved.
By contrast, Agudath Israel and its successors in Israel are political parties, nothing more. They employ virtually no professional staff and their activities, except at election time, are confined to a handful of insiders.
By and large, Israeli chareidim had no formative experiences of Klal work to compare to the rescue work of Zeirei Agudath Israel during the Holocaust and in its immediate aftermath. Peylim, which sought to rescue the children of Jews from Arab lands from the detention camps in which the new immigrants were initially housed, and in which children were deliberately separated from their parents, is perhaps the closest parallel. But the original group of volunteers to enter the detention camps was only six in number (each of whom became a major rabbinic figure, on the basis of a blessing from Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer that those who sacrificed to save the descendants of the Rambam and Rabbi Yosef Caro would not lose their Torah).
LIKE ALL SUCH SCHEMATIC CONTRASTS, the above is overdrawn and just a little too neat. For one thing, Israel has always been blessed with a plethora of traditional chesed organizations addressing the widespread poverty in the chareidi community. And it has produced a number of world class experts in the area of medical referrals, including, Rabbi Elimelech Firer in Bnei Brak and Benny Fischer in Jerusalem.
More important, the divide described above has begun to break down dramatically over the past decade. There has been a virtual explosion of innovative chareidi initiatives to address needs both within the community and involving its relationship to the larger Israeli society. The moving forces behind these projects are, in the main, young bnei Torah, who maintain close relationships with their rabbis. They are taking responsibility for addressing challenges that they see confronting their communities. Unleashing the powers of such individuals and helping them to become more effective – e.g., by bringing together those working in related areas – will be one of the main tasks of chareidi society in the years to come.
What follows is a very small and by no means exhaustive sampling of some of these initiatives, and it leaves out perhaps the largest category – new educational initiatives to address elements of the community whose educational needs are not being met.
A group of young chareidim with an understanding of social media formed a group called Dossim (a pejorative term for chareidim) to redress the most egregious media coverage of the chareidi community by responding to slanted journalistic stories in real time. Their ability to respond quickly, often with hard facts and figures, has helped to change the media playing field.
And they have shown a talent for capturing media attention in surprising ways. Thus they leaked to Israel TV information that a group of chareidim was conducting a barbecue on Memorial Day at Jerusalem’s Rose Garden Park near the Knesset. When the cameraman and reporter arrived to photograph this hardy perennial of anti-chareidi media coverage, they found instead a group of chareidim who had arranged yahrtzeit candles and were reciting Tehillim for fallen soldiers. They turned the tables on the reporter and cameraman by asking them why they wanted to foster divisions in Israeli society instead of using the day to pay homage to the fallen soldiers.
On another occasion, when a media personality made an unflattering comparison between chareidim and matzoh balls, a group of Dossim volunteers stood outside the National Broadcast Authority distributing matzoh ball soup to all who entered.
Rabbi Yitzchak Melber, a Skver chassid, was only 30 when he created Toras HaMishpacha to deal with women’s health issues. He brings together leading poskim and doctors in semi-annual conferences to exchange crucial about fertility and other women’s health issues. And the organization conducts regular symposia for kallah teachers to make sure that they have all the relevant medical information at their disposal. A hotline manned by Rabbi Melber and three other rabbis for women seeking medical information or referrals to doctors fields over 2,000 phone calls per month, and recently 17 chareidi women went through an extensive course to be able to handle questions to the hotline.
At one level, Rabbi Doni Cohen’s project (under the supervision of Rabbi Asher Weiss) connecting top scientists from the Tel Aviv University faculty and distinguished young talmidei chachamim, many of them dayanim or maggidei shiur, might seem like a niche project. But by bringing scientists and talmidei chachamim together not to debate the relative merits of science and Torah, but to share information and work together formulating solutions in areas where halacha and science intersect, he has succeeded in lifting the prestige of Torah scholars among Israel’s intellectual elite.
The name Mrs.Tzili Schneider, the wife of a maggid shiur in Rabbi Tzvi Kushelevsky’s Yeshivas Heichal HaTorah and herself a long-time Bais Yaakov teacher, is a familiar one to readers of this column. The latest project of her Kesher Yisrael organization focuses on neighborhoods – e.g., Kiryat Yovel, Gilo – where an influx of chareidim has led to tensions. Her goal is not only to change the perspective of secular residents through meeting and learning together with chareidim, but also the attitudes of chareidi residents. “Don’t spend your time counting how many apartments in your building have been purchased by chareidim,” she says, “but rather consider the opportunity HaKadosh Boruch Hu has given you by putting you together in the same building with secular Jews.”
Rabbi Yehudah Polishuk, 34, exemplifies the new generation of chareidi askanim. In addition to bearing the financial responsibility for Pischei Olam, a yeshiva for ba’alei yeshiva from academic backgrounds under the auspicies of Rav Moshe Shapiro, his Orot organization comprises five separate major programs, each fulfilling in a different way Rav Moshe’s injunction to “teach Torah wherever it is not currently reaching.” Ruach Yehudit, for instance, has introduced an hour of instruction in basic Torah concepts in 58 secular schools, with 14,000 students. Great effort is invested in distinguishing the learning material from the regular forms of instruction in order to arouse interest. Other programs focus on students in national religious schools, who might be described as dati-lite and lack sufficient religious grounding to resist the lures of secular Israeli culture. Orot also runs a year-long pre-induction mechina for students from national religious high schools.
Plugta posts a daily discussion topic on Facebook on subjects related to the future of the Jewish nation that attracts thousands of participants across the religious spectrum and also hosts regular face-to-face events on those topics in venues designed to attract maximum secular participation.
The depth of the talent and energy of young chareidim is more and more evident all the time. Nurturing that talent will be one of the primary communal tasks in the coming years.