Shaarei Shamayim

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BO 5772

BO 5772

Time Magazine was right when it named its Person of the Year, “The Protestor.” 2011 was filled with protestors in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Mexico, India, Chile, Moscow—even Tel Aviv and the Wall St. area of NY were not exempt—all crying out for change.   

The 1st protest movement in history can be found in today’s parsha when Moses appears before Pharaoh and tells him that Gd has commanded (Ex. 10:3): Shalach et ami, “Let my people go!” Those words became the rallying cry not only of the Jewish protest movement against the Egyptians, but most every protest movement in history…from the American Revolution to the French Revolution, from the civil rights movement to the Soviet Jewry movement. But the fact is that we have not paid enough attention to what follows Moses’ words, “Let My people go”: Shalach et ami v’yavduni, “Let my people go so that they may serve Me.” Freedom alone is not enough. That’s why so many revolutions devolved into chaos and violence. There must be a commitment to principles that guarantee continued freedom.

A few weeks ago the Jewish world was shocked as a new round of protests came out from Israel. This time it was not the Intifada of the Palestinians, but the protest of Hareidim. It took me a couple of weeks to process what had happened and now I’m ready to share my thoughts with you. Hareidim are ultra-religious Jews. Because of their very large families, they are now a significant part of the Israeli population. It 1st started in the city of Beit Shemesh where a group of ultra-Orthodox Hareidim taunted, cursed and spat on a 7-year-old girl walking to school who they claimed was not dressed modestly enough. I saw her on a You Tube video. She had a skirt down to her calves and a shirt with sleeves midway between her elbows and her wrists—pretty modest by most standards.

It soon escalated to another protest on New Year’s Eve which sent shock waves through the Jewish world. The protest was against the government of Israel and the people of Israel who they claim oppress them and their way of life. And to show how badly they are oppressed some of them dressed themselves and their children in concentration camp garb, wearing a yellow star, just as the Jews were oppressed in Europe and then ultimately destroyed.

The anger and revulsion this protest evoked was unparalleled! We cry out when any group uses Holocaust symbols inappropriately. How much more so when it’s other Jews whose own families went up in smoke in Hitler’s ovens? For them to use Holocaust symbols and to use it against the State of Israel…to compare the State of Israel to Nazi Germany…you tell me: Can anything be more obscene? And don’t kid yourselves: this was not just a small group of renegade troublemakers. They’re part of a very large group that supports them and whose Rabbinic leaders attended and supported the protest.

My colleague Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg asks: what did they hope to accomplish with this kind of protest? Did they think this would make the typical Israeli want to extend themselves more to help them? They’re not fools. They knew that the symbols they were using were only going to antagonize Israelis. They knew that in so doing it would not draw Israelis closer to them—just the opposite. It would create more distance. So why did they do it?

The answer: Because they wanted to create more distance! Their goal, 1st and foremost, is to separate themselves as much as possible from Israelis—whom they consider to be even worse than sinners. They consider Israel and its government Satanic. And their greatest concern is not that secular Israel is not reaching out to them, but that secular Israel is reaching out to them! And indeed, is reaching some of them! And some of them are reaching out to mainstream Israel as well!

There was a time when the ultra-Orthodox could completely isolate themselves from the general community. They can’t do that anymore for technological reasons—because of the Internet; for economic reasons—because they can’t support their families. A good deal of the Hareidi community in Israel is on welfare. Husbands go to the Beis Midrash all day to study Talmud instead of going to work, and receive a small stipend from the government. As Nehemiah Shtrasler from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote: “In no part of the Diaspora neither in Poland nor in Morocco did Jews even dream of living as parasites at the public’s expense.”

But more and more Hareidim are now starting to enter the Israeli mainstream. Their sons are getting occupational training; their daughters are going to religious colleges; their wives are going to work in mainstream Israel. Indeed, some of their children are joining the army. And some are choosing to leave the Hareidi community. There are now programs and organizations geared to Hareidi men and women who want to enter the modern world. Shmuel Pappenheim served for many years as the spokesman for the Eda Haredit, the most extreme anti-Zionist sect. You know what he’s doing now? He’s studying for a degree at Bar Ilan University. This is what the ultra-Orthodox Hareidim are really protesting against! Not that Israelis are not reaching out to them, but that some of their own are reaching out to the Israelis!

No one said this better than the 101-year-old leader of Israel’s mainstream Hareidim, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who in a Chanukah letter to his followers this year, called for his followers to: Exclude all paths that lead to national service, secular studies or the army, even if they assure a special framework for Charedi Jews…they encourage all sorts of programs, academies, colleges and the like which promise degrees, licenses, academic credentials, etc. intended to introduce goals and aspirations far against our way of life.” Boycott all the college programs and employment programs and army programs that the Israeli government and people are setting up specifically for the Chareidim…it’s all a trap to turn you off to Yiddishkeit. 

So what was the purpose of the protest in Nazi regalia? To create more distance. For a while it may achieve its goal, but it won’t last. Protests whose goal is only to undermine never succeed. Moses’ protest that became the Exodus had to lead to Sinai—to Torah as its ultimate goal—to endure. As Moses said, “Let My people go that they may serve Me.” The ultimate goal of the Hareidi protests must be to serve Gd—a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of Gd’s Name. Instead they have created a Chilul Hashem, a desecration of Gd’s name. Let me illustrate with a true story.

Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman, from Passaic, NJ, himself a right-wing Hareidi, wrote in his weekly column, for his congregation a piece called: “Hey, Rabbi, Did You See the Paper?” Let me read some of it to you:

    I pulled into the gas station just as I was thinking about what I should write in relation to the fast day this Thursday ­ Asara B’Teves [1/5/12]. I had just begun to wonder what message of hope and inspiration I can offer on this day which is the 1st of the 4 fasts which were decreed because of Sinas Chinam (Baseless Hatred) and which climax with Tisha B’av…

       The attendant had just about finished filling my car with gas. As he squeezed a few more drops of petrol into my car and a few more dollars for his coffers I squirmed to retrieve my wallet from my pocket.

    “That will be $46 sir.”

    “Why thank you so much, here you go and have a Happy New Year to you and your family.”

    “Thank you and by the way, you’re the rabbi of that Synagogue there on High Street; no?”

    I hesitated and then responded, “Yes, that’s me. How did you know?”

    He did not resemble anyone in the Shul so I figured I’d ask how he knew me.

    “I came by the Synagogue the other day as I wanted to ask you something?”

    “Really, you came by when?”

    “Oh yesterday in the afternoon, however, I saw you were preaching so I did not want to disturb. However, now that fate sent you in to buy gas I’d like to ask you something.”

    …The fellow…[showed me] page 19 of the December 28th edition of the New York Post. As he passed the page to me in the car, I saw the headline, “Attacks by ultra-Orthodox Shock Israel”.

    “Hey Rabbi, did you see this?”

    Unfortunately, I nodded in the affirmative.

    “Is this true? Did this really happen?”

    …I nodded again in the affirmative. He looked down and then said, “This is pretty scary; no?”

…His sense of fear seemed above and beyond all normal expectations of any non-Jew reading a paper and therefore it was now my turn to ask him a question. “Hope you don’t mind my asking but why are you so concerned about what’s going on in Israel?”

    “Rabbi, let me tell you something. I come from Pakistan. In my country there was no peace; there was always fighting and often people got killed. Finally, my wife and I decided to move to America with our 4 kids. We settled in the Bronx and for a while things were better; however, soon I saw there were problems here as well. My kids were getting beat up and my wife was scared to go shopping by herself. I was working 14 hours a day driving someone else’s taxi-cab. I was desperate to find a way out for my family. I felt that we went from the fire of Pakistan to the frying pan of the Bronx.

    “One day I had a ride from JFK to Boro Park, Brooklyn. As we drove I spoke to the man in the car. I asked him what the meaning of his clothes was; he told me he was an Orthodox Jew. I told him how my children are taunted and bothered for being Pakistani. He told me how his children walk together to school in the morning and they have friends and they feel safe and secure. He told me how compared to other neighborhoods, the crime rate in his neighborhood was very low. After I left him off, I parked my car and walked around the neighborhood. People were quiet and the children were happy. People were secure and at peace.

I came home and told my wife we should move to a Jewish neighborhood and there we will finally find peace. I looked into moving to Boro Park, however, the prices were more than I could afford. Then my brother who also came over with us from Pakistan told me about an advertisement he had seen in the local Pakistani paper about a gas station which was for sale in Passaic, New Jersey. When we went to see it and I saw that there is a Synagogue right near the station and that there are many Jews here, we decided to pool our resources and we bought the station. So you see rabbi, we moved to Passaic to get away from the fights and the violence—from the lack of harmony and the constant confrontations which were so endemic to Pakistan and the Bronx. We settled in about 3 years ago and thank G-d; life has been good and peaceful. Then last week I bought the newspaper and this article just screamed at me. Rabbi, I know from my old days of driving my Jewish friends to Boro Park that you people look to Zion for direction. I know that you aspire and desire to live the way your people live in Israel. So rabbi, please tell me, is what is going in Israel going to start here? Will little girls soon be fearful of walking to school here in Passaic as well? Rabbi, I don’t want to move again. Rabbi, will things be good for your people? If you guys are fighting among yourselves, then what hope is there for me and my family? That is why I am so scared.”

What these ultra-orthodox Hareidi protestors have done is no less than a Chilul Hashem, a desecration of Gd’s name. To think a Pakistani who was inspired by the peaceful way of Jews echoing the verse from Proverbs (3:17) we sing as we put the Torah away: V’chol n’tivoteha shalom, “And all its paths are peace,” is now worried because the Jews have turned from their peaceful ways, is nothing more than a desecration of Gd’s name. To wear Holocaust garb and accuse the Israeli government of being Nazis bent on destroying Jews, is nothing more than a desecration of Gd’s name. May all Jews see this and be inspired to live their lives as a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of Gd’s Name. Amen!

                                    Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis                 


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