Connectedness, Neo-Chassidus and The Woman’s Challenge

By Alexandra Fleksher

The Spring 2012 edition of Klal Perspectives addressed the rising concern that Orthodox Jews are feeling a disconnect to G-d, the Torah and the Jewish people. The topic has taken center stage yet again with the recent discussions about neo-Chassidism, particularly in the winter edition of the OU’s Jewish Action. Clearly, many Orthodox Jews are seeking ways to reconnect to their Yiddishkeit and explore new (or old?) avenues to infuse their avodas Hashem with spirituality, meaning and relevance.

Neo-Chassidism fascinates me. I attended two Modern Orthodox weddings in the New York area since the summer, prior to my exposure to the term “neo-Chassidism.” I immediately observed a number of young men with a particular look I had never seen before. They were not the typical “Tzfat type” with long beards and payos dressed in relaxed, loose-fitted Israeli style clothes. Rather, these young men were wearing modern slim fit suits, trendy shoes and ties, but from the neck up they looked like Breslovers. Their beards were reaching mid-tie, and their payos were just about as long.

Questions ran through my mind. If these boys are in college and are planning to be professionals, would they anticipate to enter the workforce with chest-length payos? And if they do work in the secular world, do they wear their payos and beards free? These boys were not chassidim working on 42nd street, but rather college-educated young men expressing their connection to Judaism in this visible way. I was curious if any of them were married, speculated if they would raise their boys in the same fashion, and seriously wondered what their wives looked like.

I spotted one of these neo-Chassids leaving the wedding with a sefer under one arm and his wife by the other. Lo and behold, she did not appear to be a hippie. She was dressed fashionably and flaunted a stylish long sheitel. Anecdotal evidence, yes, but very interesting, nonetheless.
Both of these weddings featured Eitan Katz as the singer who played almost exclusively Carlebach and Sefardi style fare not usually as prevalent in the typical American Orthodox wedding. And when the post-chuppah Carlebach version of “Od Yeshama” rang out the halls were rocking. I closed my eyes and felt I was transported to a yishuv in Eretz Yisrael. “There’s definitely a trend here,” I observed to my husband at the second wedding, “and we know nothing about it.”

While there have been concerns expressed about neo-Chassidism as a movement, one thing is clear to me, at least: it is certainly refreshing to see a generation of young people so outwardly (and presumably inwardly) devoted to something of the spirit, something that hits them as deep and joyous.
But then I had to return home to Cleveland, and back to my reality as a mother of four. Neo-Chassidism doesn’t do it for me, and my friends and I who are busy balancing our various responsibilities are not running to join the movement (although maybe we should pick up a Sfas Emes once a while).
But many of us are concerned with how we stay connected, how we prioritize our Yiddishkeit for ourselves, and how we keep growing in the midst of the many demands placed upon us as Jewish woman, wife and mother.

Last May, our shul hosted a panel for women in the community addressing the topic, “Supporting our Husbands who are Working: Supporting him, Supporting you.” I wrote a piece for Cross-Currents.
Now it was time to focus on supporting us, frum women who have the holy job, in partnership with our husbands, of transmitting Judaism to the next generation. But how do we make sure we sustain it in ourselves when it’s so easy to get distracted, to become wrapped up in the aesthetics, popular culture and foreign values that have a subtle and not so subtle way of creeping into our daily existence? How do we make sure our own connection to Torah learning and living is vibrant and alive? Most importantly, do we realize how critical this is to our success as builders and nurturers of beautiful Jewish families

So came to be our December panel which was entitled, “How We Stay Connected: To Hashem, our Community, our Families and Ourselves.” Our panel featured no rebbetzins or community leaders. The goal was peer-to-peer support; in other words, grassroots chizuk. When a rebbetzin stands up and delivers a lecture, a person can walk away inspired but can also have an excuse: this is her job to stay inspired and inspire us. But when it is a friend or an acquaintance who shares her struggles and then offers her own ways she has found to stay connected to her personal growth, there are no more excuses.

The beauty of the panel was that participants could feel validated and inspired by our neighbors and friends. The panelists, representing various stages of life, were well-spoken and confident, true role models of sincerely growth-oriented and priority-driven Jewish women. As I was listening to their personal stories and insights during a planning meeting, I was reminded of a principle in DBT, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy: there are two dialectical truths which are equally valid nonetheless, and they are, “I am doing the best I can” and “I can do better.” We Jewish women are doing some amazing things day in and day out in raising Torah-true families and being loyal to our mesorah, and that must be recognized. It is also true that we can learn from others who might be staying connected in certain areas a little bit better than we are.

Women have a unique struggle with connectedness. While we do possess binah yeseira which enables us to have a certain spiritual intuitiveness, our days are often so steeped in physicality that it sometimes can be difficult to be more than minimally aware of our focus. It is hard not to fall down the slippery slope of valuing the physicality for what it is, in and of itself. Whether it be beautifying mishloach manos, Shabbos meals, our homes, simchos, tznius clothing, or sheitels, it is hard to not get wrapped up in the externals at the expense of our true connection to the mitzvah. This struggle is especially acute for women who are more aesthetically inclined.

Even browsing issues of our frum magazines, one cannot miss the plethora of advertisements and photographs which certainly add an element of, and often a desire for, “materialism in the name of mitzvos” in our already busy lives, with so many important things already vying for our attention. A frum ladies magazine this past year featured an article about strollers, and the average price tag of the models featured was $663 (one was as high as $1099). The article even featured a $459 stroller and described it as “a quality stroller yet it is affordable.” Ironically, the same issue mentioned in the pages earlier that “middle-class families struggle terribly, too” in regards to budgeting and the frum lifestyle. Of course, one has a right to spend her money as she wishes, but it is quite another thing when a frum magazine determines what is and what is not affordable for its readership. Clearly, the bar has been raised. No wonder we have debt issues in our communities.
I truly believe the frum woman wants to keep her priorities straight and do the right thing. I truly believe that at times, she finds it hard to work out the balance. Often, she is just so busy, and, to tell the truth, so tired. In an attempt to attend to our numerous responsibilities, we struggle with not putting our own physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual needs on the proverbial back burner. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t.

Raising children can be isolating. Working outside the home can be as well, especially if we work in a secular environment and struggle to find the time to stay connected to our community. Many women find it challenging, amidst balancing our responsibilities to our husband, children, and home, to make the effort to meet with friends and attend shiurim. In contrast, when a man returns to shul three times a day, he gets an immediate dose of connectedness – to his community, to his focus, and to Hashem. A woman must make a different kind of effort to incorporate tefilah into her life. And she must make an effort to pause in the blessed craziness and incorporate whatever it takes for her to stay connected to her Judaism, whether it is davening, learning, chesed, other forms of personal growth, and/or working on the recognition that her reality is her avodas Hashem. She must do this not just for her family, but for herself.

One of the recurring themes mentioned during our panel was the transition from singlehood to marriage with or without children. When a woman is single, she can devote herself to her spiritual growth, find methods that fit into her lifestyle and often keep the high from seminary, if she attended. When a husband and kids come into the mix, some struggle while applying their old methods of avodas Hashem to their current reality. One of the practical suggestions addressed in this panel was toning down expectations – figuring out a realistic way to daven, to listen to words of inspiration, and to find growth and satisfaction though marriage and through raising a family.

Interestingly, three out of four panelists participated in phone chaburas led by rabbis or rebbetzins which focus on topics such as personal growth and parenting, and they recommended them strongly as a practical way to stay connected. These chaburas provide a dial-in number so one can call to listen to the recording whenever is convenient. Another panelist spoke about how she always connected intellectually to Judaism but found it impractical to pick up a sefer and do the type of learning she wanted to do. She found ways of attending shiurim, joining phone chaburas, and learning at her own pace which enabled her to keep up her commitment to learning. A mother of six children, five years old and under (four of them are quads) talked about how she realized that, with four identical faces staring up at her, parenting was her vehicle for growth, and that by thinking ahead and imagining her children as the type of adults she hoped they would become, she needed to become that wife and mother who would raise such human beings.

Another panelist, who had an advantage over the others due to her life experience, addressed prioritizing life responsibilities and the importance of keeping your eye on the goal in our everyday lives. The final panelist shared her personal story of her role in dealing with a husband’s illness, addressing the challenges of staying connected during nisyonos. She proved how her traumatic experience actually deepened her emunah and belief in Hashem tenfold. Even in the most challenging of circumstances, she showed us through example that it is possible to continue to grow one’s relationship with Hashem and actually be changed for the better.
In my opening remarks as moderator, I proposed the following idea, a reinterpretation of Gary Chapman’s “love tank” concept from The Five Love Languages. Chapman explains that we each have a tank that needs to be filled. Our love tank is filled in different ways, depending on our own unique needs and definition of what it means to feel loved. Our job is to fill the tank of our loved ones not by how we feel loved, but how they feel loved. [2]

May I suggest we also have a tank that is our source of connection to Hashem. We have to keep it filled, and it will not fill up by itself. Often our tank runs empty because it is neglected. Sometimes we fill it with the wrong things, the Kool Aid of gashmiyus that gives us that initial sugar rush but cannot possibly keep the engine running. As Jewish women, we must find the methods that personally to speak to us, and we must make an effort to keep filling that tank up. It requires time and maintenance, but who said the things most important in life come easy?

[1] Linehan, M. M. 1993. Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Press

[2] Chapman, Gary. 1995. The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. Chicago: Northfield Publishing.

Alexandra Fleksher holds a Master’s in Jewish Education from Azrieli Graduate School of Education. Over the past 12 years, she has taught in community schools and Bais Yaakovs.

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7 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    Often our tank runs empty because it is neglected. Sometimes we fill it with the wrong things, the Kool Aid of gashmiyus that gives us that initial sugar rush but cannot possibly keep the engine running.
    Interesting, one of the issues I’ve heard raised concerning the neo-chassidus you describe is exactly the sugar rush analogy.

    I agree with your peer (actually I’ve argued for mentor) approach in many practical life areas, interesting is that our communities across the board seem to reject it (see earlier discussions on baalei batim – the across the board response seems to be to have “professionals” address the problems)


  2. eliyahu says:

    Nice article! Neo-chassidus is much more than just a look — I believe there are plenty of people (like myself) who look like typical Centrist Orthodox Jews, yet study and try to implement chassidic teachings. I don’t see it as a “joining a movement,” but rather a matter of learning and following the teachings of certain spiritually-oriented seforim.

    Such seforim are now abundantly available in English, from the invaluably comprehensive and encylopedic Jewish Spiritual Practices by Rabbi Buxbaum, to specific paths like the Bilvavi (available for free online), or the very accessible teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov on, among many other things, the importance of personal prayer. (Google “To taste the hidden light of Torah” to be taken to the relevant chapter of Likutei Eitzos).

    No matter how busy we are, with children or work or whatever, we can make efforts to infuse our lives with with love of Hashem, with enthusiasm for improving our spirituality and learning and observance and middos, whether through meditation or personal prayer or the repetition of pesukim (all of which have been practiced for ages). Organizations, shiurim, changes in outward appearance–these things might be nice, but they aren’t necessary. All that’s needed is to study and practice.

    Of course, having a friend we can discuss spiritual things is very important as well (as Rebbe Nachman teaches, “Talk over spiritual matters with your friends” — googling this will also lead you to the relevant chapter). The more articles like this one that appear, the more people will hopefully become comfortable in making the spirituality a topic of everyday conversation.

  3. Luba Penner says:

    Kudos to the author for the thought-provoking, and eliquenly delivered article. Great examples to illustrate the point. The analogy in the conclusion is superb!

  4. DavidF says:

    Very nicely done. Such a forum sounds like a great vehicle for inspiring and sustaining growth!

  5. Alexandra Fleksher says:

    joel rich, the novelty and success of Klal Perspectives is that it includes laymen (and a laywoman, that’s me, this past edition on the baal habayis)in joining the conversation of addressing those problems.

  6. Rivka Leah says:

    I don’t know if this is the proper forum to make a referral, but I would share that as a BT of 26 years or so, I’ve found the chaburahs of Rabbi Aryeh Nivin as well as a class taught by Devorah Yaffa Singer to be game changers for me. I call her class “hisbodedus for litvaks”.

    Essentially, both approaches offer tools to access a more tangible experience of H’, as well as a more authentic experience of ourselves as ovdei H’.

    Despite the academic bent of much of the readership here, I’ll go out on a limb to posit that for most people, an entirely cerebral approach to Torah will leave much to be desired.
    Each person will resonate with different teachers, but I think the success of neo-Chassidus points to an overwhelming desire for learning that, while it has an intellectual aspect, emphasizes the experiential as well.

    The success of such current teachers as Rav Itamar Schwartz, R. Lubinsky, R. Cable, and similar thinkers, shows that this hunger is growing. Most of those who are seeking this inspiration are not growing their payos, or taking on other external manifestations … They are just needing more than what’s in the standard diet of learning found in most yeshivos.

    I think rather than focus on the externals of the trend, we should pay attention to what underlies it – and appreciate it.

  7. Alexandra fleksher says:

    Rav Aryeh Nivin’s vaad was one mentioned at the panel. While my piece wasn’t intended to be a proper examination of neo – chassidism, I do believe the trend reflects a reactionary move towards more spirituality. Would be interesting to compare how and if the trend has made inroads into the more right-wing yeshivos vs. Y.U., etc.

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