Friday, May 27, 2011

... And I Sat Down And Cried.

The Bar Mitzvah in our shul this past Shabbos was unlike any other Bar Mitzvah I ever attended; but that's simply because the young man is unlike any other Bar Mitzvah I ever met before.

Reuvain is a child with Down's Syndrome. It only takes a single glance at Reuvain to know that he's not quite like you and I. Despite the fact that he's been around for thirteen years, his height and face are more reminiscent of that of a seven year old. His speech can sometimes be unclear and he occasionally has issues dealing with certain social situations, including large and noisy crowds.

In the six years that I've been davening in my present shul, I've come to feel that I know Reuvain to some extent. His is the face that I see when I lain. I say that because whenever he is present in shul during laining, he takes a chair and stands on the opposite side of the bimah from me. From there he will watch and listen attentively as I lain. He’s also often the one “in charge” of placing and removing the cover of the Torah in between aliyos. Usually, at some point toward the end of the laining, he will ask me for the yad, as he likes to hold on to it. My usual response to him is that I still have two or three or four (or however many) aliyos still to lain before I can give it to him. He'll look at me and smile and wait patiently until the end of laining so that I can give him the yad. In some ways, it's become a bit of a game between us. In the past, I've told him that he can have the yad after I finish the aliya after kaddish, but he still asks, and so I'll still him "three more aliyos" or "two more aliyos."

In truth Reuvain is a very special person in our shul -- and that is a testament to both his parents and the people in our shul. It is unfortunate that in the past, children such as Reuvain were hidden away, lest their very existence bring shame the family and ruin chances for shidduchim for the other members. It's even more unfortunate that this type of attitude actually still exists in some places. Reuvain's parents, on the other hand, never subscribed to this mode of thinking. They have done their best to integrate Reuvain into the shul to the best of his capabilities. He comes to shul nearly every week and davens and participates as best he can. As I mentioned earlier, he is always present and watching during laining. When the Sefer Torah is taken out of the aron, he is there to help, and when it's being put away, he's there waiting to kiss the Sefer and help put it away. Reuvain has never been hidden away by his parents -- he is one of their children and, to the best of his ability, they and their other children have tried to fit him in and mainstream him as much as possible.

The people (and especially the children) in the shul have embraced Reuvain as one of their own. It's all too easy and common for children to make fun of another child who is different -- and there is no denying that Reuvain is different in just that way that might cause other children to poke fun at him. But that's not what the children in our shul do. Instead, he's one of them. I have a very vivid memory of Simchas Torah a few years ago where Reuvain was dancing in the shul with his stuffed Torah and all the other children in the shul were dancing in a circle around him, celebrating with him, making him the focus of their celebration. The adults, too, welcome Reuvain with open arms. After davening he will often go around to wish "Good Shabbos" to all the men in shul, and they will all shake his hand and with him a "Good Shabbos" in return.

I have a slightly more personal connection with Reuvain than the average person in our shul. For some reason that I have yet to fathom, Reuvain has taken a liking to me personally. He has somehow locked on to me as a figure of admiration and friendship. Perhaps one short story will illustrate this and provide some background for what happened this past Shabbos.

In our shul, the custom is to give pre-Bar Mitzvah boys individual aliyos on Simchas Torah. Reuvain had been practicing the b'rachos for his Bar Mitzvah and knew what to say if he wanted to have an aliyah. Reuvain was given the opportunity to have an aliyah and was somewhat ready to go, but when his turn came, he got cold feet and didn't want to go. So, we called up some other boys instead and, after each one was finished, we gave Reuvain the opportunity to have the next aliyah. This continued until we got up to the very last aliyah before Kol HaN'arim. He was then told that if he wanted to have an aliyah, it would have to be then. In the end, with his father's help, he mustered up the courage and took his first aliyah. Amid tears of joy, his parents watched as he said the b’rachos on the Torah and stood there for his first aliyah. I was later informed by Eeees that Reuvain was asked what made him change his mind and agree to have an aliyah. He said that he did it for me.  Needless to say, I felt extremely honored and touched.

I knew in advance that, for his Bar Mitzvah, Reuvain was supposed to read the Maftir. His father had been telling me in the months leading up to the big day that he had been practicing with his teacher and that he had been making wonderful progress. I hadn't heard him practicing his laining, but I had heard him practicing Ain Kailokeinu and Aleinu and, over time, I could see his progress there. I figured that if he could lain the Maftir, it would be a wonderful thing. I certainly didn't expect anything more.

So there we were on the big day in shul. All manner of friend and family were gathered to watch this special boy become Bar Mitzvh. I finished laining the parsha and returned to my seat so that Reuvain could lain the Maftir. However, after the gabbai called Reuvain up to the Torah, we could hear him saying "Don't want" from his seat. The poor kid probably wasn't prepared for the large crowd of people and retreated into his shell. His father took him outside to try to calm him. In the meantime, the congregation waited.

After about ten minutes (and after consulting with the Rav), his parents decided to try slowly acclimatizing him to the crowd. They brought Reuvain into the shul and all the men except for his father and his Bar Mitzvah teacher left. While everyone was outside, Reuvain practiced the laining again. After he practiced it once, Reuvain's brothers and some other relatives were brought back in, and he practiced the laining again. After that, some more men (including myself) were brought back in and he did it yet again. Finally, the rest of the men were brought back into the shul and this time, he lained the Maftir with the b'rachos. I'd probably be lying if I said there wasn't a single dry eye in the house, but there certainly were quite a few more wet ones than there are at a standard Bar Mitzvah. After his aliyah, while we were all singing Mazel Tov, his Bar Mitzvah teacher picked him up and began dancing with him. You could see the love and caring that he had for that child.

To my surprise, Reuvain wasn't quite done. After finishing the Maftir (and after one more "practice session" without everyone leaving the room), Reuvain recited the b'rachos for the haftorah and then proceeded to read the entire haftorah (and recite the b'rachos afterward), an accomplishment that completely shocked and amazed not only myself, but just about everyone in shul. The Rav of our shul, a fellow who doesn't often get flustered, was so completely moved by Reuvain's accomplishment that he could barely speak. You could hear his voice breaking from emotion as he gave the d’rasha (or as much of it as he could) after the haftorah was completed.

In addition to Reuvain's accomplishment, there was also the attitude of the people in the shul. The whole process of getting Reuvain comfortable enough to be able to lain added about thirty minutes to the davening. It certainly would have been within the rights of anyone in the shul to stand up and protest on grounds of tircha d'tzibbura. But the fact of the matter is that no one complained about the delay or about being asked to leave the shul and return. Everyone did it willingly for this special young man.

I’m not normally the type of person to get chocked up or overly emotional. I sometimes like to pride myself on my ability to keep my emotions reasonably in check. In addition, I have over twenty years experience in teaching bar mitzvah boys how to lain and nearly twenty years experience as a parent. I sometimes like to think that, when it comes to Bar Mitzvahs, I’ve “seen it all” and that there is little that can move me emotionally.  For example, when Walter and George became Bar Mitzvah, I was certainly very joyous and felt a lot of pride, but I did not become all choked up about it. But for this little boy things were different. This is a kid – no, make that this is a young man – who has had to struggle to developmentally grow and thrive in his life. This is a young man who, because of his dedication and the love and devotion of his parents and teachers, was able to get up on his Bar Mitzvah day and exceed everyone’s expectations of what he was able to accomplish.

Some people may have been able to hold their emotions in check. The Rav of the shul, as I mentioned above, was barely able to. As for me, it was hopeless. I was too overcome with emotion.  After the Rav finished speaking, I went into an isolated spot of the shul, and I sat down and cried.

The Wolf

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Arson In New Square... and the Silence That Followed.

This week, Shaul Spitzer, a New Square man,attempted to burn down own the house of another New Square man.  Spitzer arrived at the  home of Chaim Aron Rottenberg at around 4:00 on Sunday morning, armed with Molotov cocktail-like devices.  Fortunately, Rottenberg woke up before Spitzer could set fire to the house, killing Rottenberg and his family.  Instead, Rottenberg confronted Spitzer. At some point, the incendiary device was lit, with Rottenberg suffering third degree burns over 50% of his body.  Spitzer, who was also burned during the confrontation, has been arrested and charged with arson and attempted murder.

It turns out that this is not the first time that Rottenberg and his family have been targeted.  In the previous few months, there have been nighttime protests outside his home (complete with calls such as "Sheigetz get out of New Square"), car and home windows have been smashed and other acts of intimidation.

You may ask what it was that Rottenberg did to deserve all this.  Did his wife act in a non-tznius fashion?  Did he read Rabbi Slifkin's books?  Does he author a blog? 

The answers to the above questions are no.  Rottenberg's crime, for which he and his family were going to be murdered, was davening in the wrong minyan.  Apparently, in New Square, the Rebbe had instituted a rule years go that everyone must daven in the main shul in New Square.  Rottenberg, for whatever reason, chose instead to daven in a minyan in a nearby nursing home.  For this reason, his family has bee the subject of intimidation and harassment for months.

I believe that when something like this happens, a community is obligated to stop and re-evaluate itself.  While the actual act of arson may have been the work of a lone person*, the campaign of harassment was not and surely was endorsed by communal leaders.  When a community allows itself to physically harass and intimidate people over the choice of shul, then there is something severely wrong with the community.

The silence of the Skver Rebbe on this matter has been absolutely deafening.  To date, he has not condemned publicly condemned the attack on Rottenberg.  There are at least two possible reasons for this.  The first is that he is so far removed from his congregation that he does not know what is happening.  The second is that he knows what is happening and he approves.  Either way, the Skver Rebbe does not look good.  If he is unaware of a major event such as this, and unaware of the campaign of intimidation that has been going on for months, then his capabilities as a communal leader are virtually nonexistent.  If, on the hand, he knows and approves, then he's no better than a common thug.  Either way, the silence is showing that the Rebbe may well be unfit to lead the community.

When an event like this happens, a community must also stop and remind themselves of their  larger environment.  I'm not talking, in this case, about the chillul HaShem that has come out of this.  What I'm talking about is the attitude of the community concerning their perceived autonomy. 

There are those who believe that the Skver Rebbe has a right to dictate to people which shul to daven in.  Likewise, there are those who feel that it's perfectly all right to use intimidation,harassment and terror -- up to and including arson -- to enforce that rule.  Of course, there are laws against that sort of behavior, laws that, due to the isolation and homogeneity of the town, they feel they can ignore.  There are those who seem to feel that it' perfectly all right for New Square to be run as an absolute theocracy, and that those who don't fall in line should be forced out by whatever means possible.  They will state that New Square has the "right to set standards" for itself and that if Rottenberg or others "don't like it, they should just move."

 Fortunately, we live in a country where that's not the rule.  A community does NOT have the right to set religious standards and then ruthlessly pursue those that don't hold those standards.  It would serve the New Square community well to reflect upon the laws that grant them the freedom to be free from harassment in the first place.  You cannot assert the right to live where you want while practicing your religion and then turn around and deny the same to others.  There's a word for that sort of behavior -- hypocrisy.   And it would do the Skver Rebbe (or whomever is leading the community) well to remember that he, too, is subject to the laws of the United States and the State of New York – and that ordering a person to be harassed out of the community through violence is against those laws.

What is also astounding to me is that there are people who actually defend what Spitzer and the rest of the community have been doing.  They actually maintain that the leader of the community has the right to tell you where you can pray and that if you don’t follow his instructions to the letter, you forfeit your right to live there, you can (and should be) forced out of your home and publicly hounded until you leave.  They support the idea that a group of people should be allowed to set up a mini-theocracy where one person’s word is absolute law and that by living in the area, you surrender any and all rights (both halachic and legal) to which you are entitled. 

But the truth is that they don’t really mean it.  Oh yes, it’s good for them when they control the show, but I’d be willing to bet dollars-to-donuts that if a group of Chassidim moved into a hypothetical isolated Modern Orthodox community and were subject to this type of harassment that they would be registering their complaints as loudly as possible (and rightly so). 

And, in the end, what’s the cause of all this?  Because Rottenberg chose to daven in another shul.  I can’t help but wonder if this is exactly the sort of sinas chinam (baseless hatred) that is mentioned as the cause of the destruction of the second Bais HaMikdash. 

UPDATE:  The victim's name for tehillim is Chaim Aharon ben Chaya Sara.

The Wolf

* or not.  It is as of yet unknown if Spitzer was acting alone or under orders from higher authorities in the community.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Irony... (UPDATED)

You've got to love it when a weekly newspaper such as the Israeli Yated puts the following letter in their paper.

All of the weeklies and freebies, including Mishpachah, distort and blur the holy Torah world view we received from our rabbonim and one should not, choliloh, bring newspapers of this sort into the home or promote them in any way.

And granting any hechsher to such newspapers is clearly out of the question.

This applies even more to radio of any kind and all Internet sites, all of which are provocative and destroy the soul, and are the root of impurities and harm.

Signing at the end of Nisan 5771.

Nissim Karelitz

Perhaps my reading skills are lacking, but do you see any exemption for the Yated (which, I believe is a weekly publication)?

On a side note, it looks like Mishpacha is "officially" out.  

UPDATED (5/6 3PM EDT):  Well, now, that's embarrassing.  S. informs me that the Yated is a daily and not a weekly and hence not included in the above referenced statement.  There goes the point of the post.  My apologies to the Yated for the error.

The Wolf