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Hashamayim Mesaprim…

The recent guilty verdict in the Weberman trial is raising a lot of interesting discussion with many interesting questions. I was talking to a friend of mine the evening after the verdict about how I felt the trial was not just about a single man, Nechemia Weberman, but about a community and their stance regarding sexual abuse. I feel that the entire community was on trial, that the verdict was not just against Weberman but against a community which allows Webermans to operate with impunity because they know that the community will always protect them and refuse to acknowledge the accusers. That opinion didn’t sit well with her. “Do you believe there are any good Satmar Jews?”

That’s a tough question. On the one hand you have Bikur Cholim, gemachs, hachnossas orchim, and all the other chessed organizations run by Satmar chassidim; how can such a community be called bad? On the other hand you have a community that turns a blind eye to abuse, protects abusers, stigmatizes and ostracizes survivors. That culture, created and maintained by the community and its institutions is responsible for countless destroyed lives; how can a community built upon such a structure be called good? Are they not collectively responsible for the lives of all the victims who have lost theirs?

I once asked my rav an interesting question. One of the Sheva Mitzvos B’nei Noach is a prohibition against idolatry. While not as strict as the Judaic commandment to believe in God and no other gods or forms of God, the prohibition effectively makes punishable by death the belief in any other deity other than our God. What if someone has never heard of our God? What if they live in a civilization that had never been reached by our religion, or by a religion which believes in our God as well? How can they be held responsible for violating a prohibition if they had never been presented with an alternative?

My rav answered that the pasuk “Hashamayim mesaprim k’vod kel umaaseh yadav magid harakia.” The heavens bespeak the glory of God and the work of His hands, does the firmament proclaim. There is no excuse for not believing in a Creator because the world itself tells you who created it. So I asked him, but how can you expect someone to reach the conclusion that there is one Creator who created the world, just by looking at your environment? He answered that it would have been a novel idea, if Avraham Avinu had not done it at the age of three. Once a person reached that conclusion, once the ability was introduced into the world, there was no longer an excuse to claim ignorance as a reason for not believing in God.

There are always leaders and always followers. There are those who produce the environment and those who are its products. But the people who propagate the stigma, the ones who are responsible for its enforcement and perpetuation are only given power by those who agree to comply with it. Those people are still culpable, because the information is there, the proof is all there, all they have to do is open their eyes and accept the truth and the powers that be will lose their dominance. Accepting that there is abuse in our community is not as large a leap as accepting that there is a God, and the proof for the former is so much stronger and more tangible than indications of the latter. Are the followers bad people? Not inherently, but that makes them no less culpable and responsible for the devastation their complacency causes.

This trial and everything it has brought to light is proof. The information has been there for years, we have presented it for them countless times through articles, discussion, and demonstrations right at their doorsteps. We have done and will continue to do our part to educate them about the dangers they face and the dire consequences of ignoring the truth. Now it is their responsibility to act on it and help save lives.

Why me?

Im en ani li mi li, uk’she’ani l’atzmi ma ani, v’im lo achshav emasai? I’m listening to the song right now. It seems a pretty popular verse, and what with the scores of songs using those precise lyrics. One might get the impression that this notion is somewhat thematic of Judaism. I first heard this proverb when I was very young and continue to be constantly bombarded by it through a variety of media. How hypocritical a world this is.

Ever heard the story behind a world changing movement or idea? Ever spoke to the person behind it? The stories are always classic variances on the archetypal underdog versus the-powers-that-be story. Person conceives of idea, person tries acting on that idea, person is doubted and scorned by the rest of the word, person perseveres and success in changing the world despite overwhelming adversity. Am I the only one who is so disturbed by this archetype given the aforementioned ubiquitous and oft-repeated proverb? You would think that after a whole the world would get the message.

The first question people ask me when I tell them that I work at our place or that I’m a member of a support group for survivors of sexual abuse is usually a shocked “why?!” And that always throws me off because it seems like such a ridiculous question. So I usually tell them that I feel that my causes are important to me, that I believe very strongly in them, and that if no one else is going to do anything about them then I will. “But why does it have to be you?” Well, because who else if not me? Are you going to do it?

I understand Im en ani li mi li to mean that a person has an obligation to examine himself, his soul, and his connection to God and others, find his place in all of it, and use his God-given abilities, understanding, and talents to help others. Each person is given a unique set of abilities and understanding that they must realize in themselves (Im en ani li mi li), they must then understand how those abilities define their purpose and enable them to improve their world (Uk’she’ani l’atzmi ma ani), and not allow themselves to be pressured not to act or fall prey to comfort or complacency (V’im lo achshav emasai).

Why do I do what I do? Why don’t you.

What If?

My mother once told me a few years ago that when she was first hospitalized and I was taken in by my grandparents, my grandfather tried selling me off to another family for a million dollars. I’ve given a lot of thought to the ramifications of that possibility over the past year, because it touches upon another question I’ve been thinking about for a while: Knowing everything I now do, having experienced everything that I have over the past four years, and having learned everything that I learned, would I, given the opportunity, go back and make sure that the sale actually happened, thus changing the course of my life, or would I stick with my life as it is despite all the stuff I’ve lived through. Many important historical figures, from great kings, warriors, and royalty, to civil rights activists, innovators, and our greatest thinkers experienced extreme hardship which shaped and molded them into the people they were. Some people, when faced with challenges, fold rather than rise, but those who do overcome are tempered by the flames of their own personal baptismal fires.

Pondering this question always brings me back to The Matrix when Morpheus offers Neo a choice of red or blue pill. The blue pill offers Neo the status quo—remaining in the virtual illusion known as the Matrix where ignorance is bliss and perception is the only reality. The red pill, as Morpheus so eloquently put it, “you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” The movie casts the question as a no-brainer: Neo must destroy the system imprisoning the minds of humanity and lead the charge against the machines who are farming people for their energy. But upon further examination one may realize that the question isn’t that simple.

Simulism professes the belief in the distinct possibility that we are all living, not in an actual physical world as is conventionally believed, but in a virtual universe simulated by a higher civilization. According to the Simulation Hypothesis, which, according to people who ascribe to its premise, is becoming ever more plausible as our technology becomes increasingly more advanced, we may very well be the simulations of a higher, more technologically advanced civilization. As an idea it may almost seem credible especially given our forays into the field of artificial intelligence. Just spend a day or two playing The Sims. But once one grants the possibility that we may be simulated, what’s to say that the civilization simulating us isn’t itself simulated. In fact, if true, Simulism changes everything we believe to be true. Who’s to say that there is in fact a God who created the world. And why should a man not kill his fellow man if all we are is a stream of binary data floating somewhere in the ether, and can be restored with the click of a button. Does free will even exist? Is there such a thing as original though?

While there are numerous quacks, crackpots, and pop-philosophers that actually spend time pondering this grand “what if” conspiracy theory, the truth is that the answer isn’t really relevant. My usual response to people who broach this subject with me is something along the lines of “Run into a wall. Did it hurt? Shut up.” In other words, my perception is my reality and therefore, if there is indeed a race of machines imprisoning my mind in a pleasant illusion of reality to distract me from the fact that they are only keeping me alive to harvest my energy, it’s completely irrelevant because to me, perception is reality. But then again—what if it isn’t…And that is what the question of “What if” means to me.

There used to be a show on TV called Lie To Me which told the story of a psychologist and deception expert, Dr. Cal Lightman, who specialized in the study and interpretation of micro-expressions, or tiny, fleeting facial twitches which bespeak a person’s true emotions despite his best efforts to hide them. His interest in the discipline started after his mother’s suicide. To quote Wikipedia, “Dr. Lightman was driven to study micro-expressions as a result of guilt over his mother’s suicide. She claimed to have been fine in order to obtain a weekend pass from a psychiatric ward, when she was actually experiencing agony.” A short while after her suicide he acquired a video of the interview where she was evaluated by a psychiatrist who then declared her eligible for her furlough. After watching the video countless times, he began to notice that although she seemed to be smiling, her eyes betrayed the tiniest hint of pain, and had that been noticed before she left, his mother would never have died. Lightman then went on to open The Lightman Group which used the science of micro-expression to help law enforcement capture and prosecute criminals.

In one episode, to demonstrate his ability to a stranger, he warns his co-worker against ordering a hot dog from a local vendor. When the vendor gets annoyed at him for ruining the sale, Lightman asks him if he had been to the bathroom that day. The vendor reached up to scratch his neck, which Lightman then informed him meant “yes” despite the vendors assertions otherwise. Imagine possessing such an ability, to be as close to omniscient as humanly possible! It seems at once tantalizing and terrifying; however there is no question that it is an astounding ability. While the show was fiction, it was based on actual science and data. But while Lightman was possessed of this ability due to circumstance, assuming he were a real person and not a fictional TV character unavailable for question, would he choose his mother over his ability, or would he leave the past for the past and live his future as he was?

I know that I see the world differently as a result of my life and hardships. To be honest, I enjoy seeing it as I do, but it’s not always easy. I sense pain more acutely, I empathize more strongly with others who are in pain and at times it overcomes me. I’m more sensitive to others’ emotions, and it is both blessing and curse. I worry about things that no one else ever sees. I feel guilty about things over which I have no possible control because I know that aside from me, there are not many who see what I see as problematic. It’s a burden. So would I choose to bear it again given a choice, knowing all that I do now—would I take the red pill or the blue pill—I honestly have no idea.

Lo Sachsom Shor B’Disho

As we approach Purim, a day to which our Day of Atonement is comparable, I think it’s time we search our souls and see if there is anything we can possibly do to improve ourselves and our communities. Every generation has its nisyonos, every generation has one aspect of yiddishkeit which it needs to improve. Ours today is very serious. It affects yeshiva guys. At first it’s just a temptation, just something that niggles at the back of their mind saying “it’s not so bad—look everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t I?” And this temptation grows and grows until one day, a kid goes home, locks himself in his room, and does this terrible aveirah.

But that’s not enough; this particular aveirah is more fun when performed in groups, so they start hanging out late, and with rougher crowds, crowds who influence them, telling them that this aveirah will bring them immense joy and satisfaction. And as a group, they go and do it, luring other bochurim in as they go. Unfortunately this aveirah isn’t mentioned very often as it is very serious and people are ashamed to come forward. After all, what would their rebbeim say—what would their shadchan say! What would the velt say when it hears that this aveirah is so prevalent in our community and no one is doing a thing about it!!!

I am, of course, referring to the terrible lo sa’aseh of Lo Sachsom Shor B’Disho, or DO Not Muzzle Your Ox While It Threshes. For years, kids have been coming home from yeshiva after a day of hard learning, locking themselves in, taking their oxen out of hidden compartments in their floors and closets, and making them thresh while muzzled. Those kids you see roaming the streets on Avenue M? They aren’t headed to Pizza Time, or any of the other supposed hangouts—no, they are headed to Marine Park where they can thresh with their muzzled oxen in the glory of the night air, in an open field, exactly as the issur was meant to be.

Unless we do something about this now, unless we start raising awareness about the issue of Lo Sachsom Shor B’Disho, we will soon be dealing with an epidemic. But it starts at home. I urge all parents to sit down with their kids as soon as possible and have a long hard conversation about this very serious matter.

UNorthodox: My Response.

I first heard about Unorthodox, by Devorah Feldman, a week before its release, over dinner at Our Place. Someone there shared a link to the post article, and it intrigued me. I’ve always been naturally curious and interested in other ways of life and how other cultures and societies function, so I saw her book as an opportunity to get a glimpse of what the life of a no-longer-Orthodox, former Hassidic woman was like.

It may seem from what I just said that I routinely entertain the possibility of leaving Judaism in favor of something, as the secular world would see it, less constricting and restrictive than society perceives out way of life to be, and while that was almost true at one point in my life, it is no longer. I, having experienced what I have and coming out intact, know how the other side feels, and how to overcome its draw. When my life first started falling apart I began to reject Judaism and God, not because I didn’t believe in Him any longer, but because I almost hated Him. There were days when I would look up and yell “WHY ME?! WHY DO YOU HATE ME SO MUCH?!”

But although I no longer loved God, I knew that the Torah was true and that, for whatever reason, I had to adhere to it (perhaps it was fear of punishment, perhaps it was because I couldn’t imagine life without the Torah and its lifestyle), so my life and religious identity became about proving to myself the validity of God’s existence, logically defending the Torah, and constantly reconciling in my mind the question of why the good have it bad, and the bad have it good. It became a constant debate in my head, picturing myself sitting up on stage battling some nameless, faceless opponent. I was spending all of my time on the internet, skipping school because I didn’t feel like going, talking to non-Jews all day rather than associating with religious Jews.

I’ve always liked debating, I suppose it comes from my stubborn streak, and the internet is perfect for people like me; there are always people who want to debate you about anything. So that became my life: defending Judaism against non-Jews on the internet, and, ultimately, to myself. With every argument I won, every person I got to concede, my sense of Faith grew. But it wasn’t true Faith, it was simply haughtiness, my ego telling me that because I was a better debater than the non-Jews online, my Faith must be unflappable.

I was going out of my mind, and it wasn’t pleasant. I blasted music, read compulsively, watched movie after movie, anything to silence the debate in my mind, anything to give me a few minutes rest. I saw it everywhere, every book I read, every conversation I had, everything I saw people doing in the street. Everything had become a debate. Life…had become a debate.

And my life just kept getting worse. My mother beat me often, the look on her face something out of a slasher movie. My grandmother was in her own little world, incapable of doing anything except sitting there on her recliner in her dazed little world of catatonic depression. I had no money. No access to any. It was all locked up with my grandmother. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t go on school trips, I couldn’t buy food for my paralyzed uncle when the home health aides asked me to. My mother was abusing everyone in the house and seemed incapable of doing anything else, so that responsibility fell to me. But I couldn’t; I had no money.

Every time I needed something, for myself or the rest of the family, I would have to go into her room and beg, for over an hour. I had to beg her to write a check for the grocery, or the drug store. I had to plead, I had to scream, I had to cry just to get her to look up in my general direction, though she never looked right at me. To get her to write me a check I had to get her coherent enough to talk, and to do that I needed to get her to open up to me emotionally. I wasn’t prepared for it.

I’ve been reading psychology books since I was eight, and I knew a few tricks. So I would sit down, after all the yelling, crying, and pleading, and give my grandmother a therapy session. Me. Giving my grandmother a therapy session. It felt so wrong, as though I were operating on her soul, trespassing on a place where no grandson should ever tread. I needed her to open up so I could take care of the rest of the family, but the role I was playing was torturing me—It was killing me inside. But we made progress and I was getting what I needed, so I kept going despite the pain. Then one day she opened up to me and told me what I had been trying to find out for weeks with those sessions. I wasn’t prepared for it, not even remotely equipped to handle my grandmother’s fragility or the burden she had just placed on me by telling me why she was so broken.

It broke me. I myself became depressed. I would walk in the streets, crying, looking down at the floor, never making eye contact with anyone. I skipped school more often, and left early when I bothered to show up. I would go to synagogue every morning, put on Tefillin, mouth the words, but feel nothing inside. My soul was dead. Everything I had experienced, everything I had locked away in that “to be reviewed at a later date” recess of my mind and heart had come crashing down on me, engulfing me in a maelstrom of pain that just wouldn’t let me go. For a month I couldn’t function at all.

And then, thank God, I came out of it. Something, I still don’t know what, pushed me out of my melancholy, back into normal life. I looked back on my self-destructive patters over the preceding few months, and realized that something had to change. I didn’t have it in me to see a therapist, although I should have, but I needed my secret to be secret no longer. I needed the world to know my story; I needed the world to accept me for who I was and acknowledge my struggle. So I wrote a brief, condensed version of my life story and had it published in Ami magazine under a pseudonym, but after a month it wasn’t enough; I had only just begun the healing process.

By that time I had already reconciled my Faith, and come to the conclusion that Simple Faith is the only real Faith. By that I mean that no matter how far you go, how deep you dig for some kind of empirical proof, some kind of definitive sign, some logic or philosophy to explain why a person should believe in God, you will never find it—the pursuit is pointless. All a person can have is simple faith and believe in the existence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence of God; that must be the core of your belief.

But that was fine as far as I was concerned; my beliefs were independent from my feelings about the community and what I felt they had done, or not done, to harm me. You cannot possibly fathom the anger I felt against the rest of the world, from the Rabbinic leaders, to my family, and everyone in between. Every week I was coming up with someone else to blame for my life and my suffering. I would write long winded, scathing op-ed pieces of exactly what was wrong with our communities, and who was to blame for the decline of our society. Rabbis not caring enough, outreach organizations who weren’t tough enough on their kids, people who were rejecting Orthodoxy for having made the decision so easily, whereas for me it was never really an option; I had fought bravely to hold on to my faith, how dare they just spit on it.

And I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, diatribe after diatribe, condemning anything and everything about the community that I possibly could to whoever would listen. I gave fiery homilies against every institution I could think of, trying to get my vitriol into every publication I could email. My anger consumed me to the point where I started drinking, preferring to drown my emotions in Vodka rather than face them. I cherished those few hours when I could lay numb in my bed, feeling nothing but heady lightness and detachment.

And then, one day, I stopped. I had been attending Ohr Yitzchok, and had an excellent study partner, and it just occurred to me one day that I was wasting my breath; no one likes that guy; no one likes to be preached at; no one likes the fire and brimstone. If I wanted to actually effect change on my community, then I needed to stop talking and start acting. I needed to take charge and lead by example.

For me that meant writing a book about my experiences, one that would have my name on it, that would tell my story, that would hopefully galvanize others to take the issues I cared about seriously enough to demand change at all costs. I wrote the book in two weeks. Fifty thousand words in two weeks, and when I was finished, I expected to feel joy, satisfaction, elation at having completed my memoir! Instead I felt dead and sad and useless, as though I no longer had a purpose in life; that book WAS my purpose. What had kept me going every day was knowing that I was writing a book which would change the world, and now that I was no longer, now that those five hours a day were no longer dedicated to something of monumental importance, now that I knew that my life was once again meaningless and worthless, and that my existence was utterly inconsequential, I wasn’t quite sure whether to get on with my life or jump in front of a bus.

And then I got an email from someone who had read my story and had finally felt, for the first time in her life, that there was someone she could connect with, someone who could give her the strength to live another day, and seek treatment for her problems. Her mother, like mine, was an abusive person suffering from Bipolar Disorder. She thanked me for my courage in coming out with my story and assured me that in doing so I was saving lives. The truth is—she saved mine. That night I posted a thread Yeshiva World asking for ideas on how to spend my five free hours a day meaningfully. Someone suggested that I check out Our Place, that my personal experiences would make me uniquely suited for the task.

My first day there I was interviewed, both formally and informally, by everyone I came across. I found myself telling my story several times that night to many different people. I tried to fit in, I really did, but I just couldn’t connect with the kids there. I couldn’t accept how they just seemed to be throwing life away, with no regard for its potential and value. I tried not to judge, I knew that judging wasn’t allowed there, but I couldn’t help myself. I forced myself to smile at the kids as they walked past me without their yarmulkes, cigarettes in their mouths, their pants down below their bottoms. Surely I was better than that rabble.

One day I was sitting at the table, working on a post for the Our Place blog, when a conversation started next to me between one of the staff and a kid. The kid was saying how he had dropped out of school, wasn’t religious, and was getting high to dull the “emotional pain” caused by his father. As I was listening to him talk about his family, his life, and how disconnected he feels from everyone else, watching as the staff member was firm with him, impressing upon him how important it was to take responsibility for his life, I began to feel a connection with the kid. His life story wasn’t that different from mine, the only difference, in fact, was the outcome. I was a volunteer, having overcome life’s struggles, and he was still floundering. He mentioned that he needed someone to teach him English for the GED, and I volunteered.

For a little more than a week we worked at it, me trying to teach as best I could, him trying to learn despite being high. And as we spoke more and more about his life and his situation—I would insert it into the lessons—I began to understand how close I had come to where he was at that point—how easily the roles could have been reversed. I became extremely involved in his case, even losing sleep over it, staying up all night thinking of ways to help him. I spent hours on the phone with social workers and researching online, anything I could do to help him. I even called his father, which turned out to be a mistake. Eventually he found himself in Madison High School, and I breathed a sigh of relief. A public school is no place for a Jewish 15 year old, but it is a definite step up from living on the street, being picked up every other night and brought home by the cops.

He’s doing a lot better now that he’s cleaned himself up and attending school regularly. I take no credit for any of it, but it makes me happy when I see people turn their lives around. It gives me hope for myself and for the future. Where I work, our primary focus is on providing a kid with a safe environment, a place where, for four hours a day, he need not fear whatever is outside our walls. We try to clean kids up, we encourage rehab and counseling, and we try to find kids jobs. In short: we enable resilience. I see it as a huge accomplishment on our part and the kid’s part when one of our guys decides to stop smoking up, get a job, and finish high school or get his GED. We want people on their feet; we want them to feel like people again. Once we get that, we can focus on their Judaism.

Two weeks ago, a kid I play ping-pong and ride home with told a fellow volunteer that he’s trying to go clean, put on Tefillin, pray more, and study more. You cannot imagine what it feels like to see him praying evening services with us at night, and when my friend told me that he studied some Talmud with this kid, my heart almost exploded with joy. I know the strength required to turn your life around. I know the anger that many feel after their whole world seems to betray them. I know what it feels like to want to hurt everyone who you believe hurt you, whether directly or indirectly. I know what it feels like to be an outcast. I experienced all of it.

And now people are asking me why I’m seemingly taking Devorah Feldman’s side of the issue. Let me make something VERY, unequivocally clear. I detest what her book does; I hate what it did to us as Jews, turning us against each other. But I cannot hate her. I have not the ability to despise her. I know her; not personally, but by shared circumstance. She is my sister; not familially, but by a shared bond of common ancestry and nationality. I understand her and what she went through, and I cannot hate someone like that. I can only feel sadness that I couldn’t do anything for her, and hope that one day she realizes that the world is not the dark place she imagined it. I can pray that one day she is able to set aside the tainted lens through which she views Judaism, and finally see the beauty I see, but no. I can’t judge her. I can’t hate her. I can’t wish her ill. I see too much of my past in her.

Cash Or Credit

“Next customer?”

The man stepped forward hesitantly, slowly removing his products and placing them on the counter.

The cashier smiled at him warmly, as was company policy, “How are you today?” Another company policy—always make the customer feel special and important. She watched with well concealed impatience as he slowly, methodically placed his cans of corn behind the beans, the bread beside the butter, all of it behind the five pound bag of basmati rice. “Today is my anniversary,” he told the cashier, who turned slightly and rolled her eyes in the direction of her colleague one aisle over. Great, a talker.

“We’ve been married fifty years, me and my Maeve.” His eyes became distant as he looked into his past, smiling as he remembered. “We met on a Caribbean cruise; God she was so beautiful, sitting there on deck…” The cashier sat down on her stool, drumming her fingers on the register, waiting for the man to finish spilling his life story. I really don’t care about the time you had dinner while watching acrobats; I don’t care about how you two “knew” the first time you looked into each other’s eyes; I don’t care about the…”Time we went swimming with the dolphins? Its stunning down there—the water is so much clearer there than here in the city, and then a dolphin swam up to us and we pet it and nuzzled it…”

“What’s the holdup!?” some thirty-something year old guy wearing a power suit and a pissed off expression yelled at the cashier. He was waving a soda and a bag of chips in one hand and using the other to sign that the old man holding up the line must be demented or something.

But on he went. “I remember taking Maeve to the world’s fair in 1964 and seeing all those rocket engines. They kept saying that they would fly to the moon, but it seemed so silly at the time. But they did it—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin—they walked on the moon! We saw so much that day. But then we had our kids a few years later and we had to give up gallivanting to take care of them. Oh they were beautiful kids; we loved them so much. We cried so much on their first day of college. They were twins, you know, perfectly identical—we could never tell them apart.

“After they moved out we planned to travel the world, but Maeve got sick with that cancer and I had to stay and take care of her—who else would? It took a few years, but she got better. And now it’s our fiftieth anniversary”

By now the line was getting restless, tapping their feet impatiently, looking as though they would love nothing more than to throw that rambling old codger out themselves. The cashier noticed and realized that it had to stop; she felt so bad though, that sweet old man…but company policy was “no more than two minutes per customer” and she was already pushing five.

“Sir—I’m sorry, sir? Cash or credit?”

The man looked up at her with bewilderment, “credit? Oh no, I don’t have credit here…Maeve doesn’t let me have credit…she says that that idiot peanut farmer caused this recession mess by raising interest rates; all of our neighbors have credit and now can’t pay it off. No, I don’t have credit. That Ronald Reagan guy seems to know his stuff though…”

“Okay, sir, how do you want to pay, do you have cash?”

“…We heard him on the radio last week…”

Sir! How would you like to pay!”

“…Even those Democrats seem to like him…”

SIR!!!” she yelled as she grabbed the man’s wrist, “How will you be pa…” She stopped when she felt something cold against her palm. She looked down, her face turning pale as she looked up and said “I…I’m sorry sir…have a nice day.”

“Thanks, you too,” said the man as he walked out of the store with a small, vacant smile on his face, his bags left forgotten on the counter.

“Hey,” yelled the man in the power suit, “what kind of garbage is this? That old fogy just kept us waiting for almost ten minutes, and you’re not even gonna ring him up?”

The old man turned to wave to the cashier, his sleeve riding up as he did revealing the medical bracelet on his wrist.

 Alzheimer’s…

Absolute Potential

The world is tempting and life is infinite possibility. As human beings we naturally strive for innovation, to forge a new path, to achieve the impossible; to possess the unpossessable. And it’s not such a wild idea; the boundaries of possibility are pushed ever further with each passing generation, from the Greeks to the Romans to the Germans and finally, to the Americans. Innovation is constant, growth inevitable. There is always something new to experience, which stands in testament to the absolute possibility offered by life and living: we can do and be anything.

But where to start?! Take a classic tale of absolute possibility, the genie in the bottle. Suppose you were offered three wishes, where would you begin? Would it be money, power, perhaps love or women? Would you choose to be selfless or selfish? Where would you start? And that’s just with three wishes. None of us chooses to be born and none of us (unless you’re suicidal) chooses to die, and our life is one huge sequence of unplanned genie-wishes. Where to begin?

For the first few years of our lives, our wishes are dictated by our parents and elders. During adolescence we take their input under advisory, but make our own wishes. Finally, for the first time in 15 years, our lives are, to a certain extent, our own, and the possibility of life is intoxicating. We begin to realize that we can do and be anything, that the rules are ours to make, not our parents. Some people choose to follow their parents’ suggestions—to adopt their morals and beliefs—while others prefer to shed that burden in favour of freedom. But where the first group has the benefit of years of direction, the second group is at a distinct disadvantage; they have no clue where to start.

Picture yourself at a wedding smorgasbord, with everything from pasta to tiramisu, where would you start? Like any epicurically overloaded eater, you would probably start by sampling everything; once you find out what you like, you’ll go back for seconds. That’s how people with no clear direction approach life and its possibilities: by sampling everything. And on it goes, every day a new experience until a person is left feeling empty and longing for direction, because the pursuit of everything is futile.

Structure, guidelines, rules. These define us. They set the parameters by which we lead our lives, and they, counter-intuitively, allow us true access to the infinite potential life has to offer. Much in the same way an author cannot write mind for grammar, a musician cannot compose without mind for tempo, and a builder cannot construct without mind for engineering, a person cannot live without guidelines and direction.

Sadly, although the world offers limitless potential, we as human beings are limited, and therefore cannot have it all. However, if we harness our energies, our minds and our souls, and we focus it on one goal, on one life, and on one path, we can achieve true greatness.

Barasi Yetzer Hara…

On the subject of problems, one of our biggest problems as a community is our refusal to acknowledge the existence of certain problems. In his introduction to Mesillas Yesharim, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto states that what he has written is not intended to teach anyone anything new or novel, rather his goal is to remind people of what they already know to be true, to engrain it in their consciousness, and to impress upon us the importance of its message. In fact, upon reading the Mesillas Yesharim, one gets the impression that he is, in fact, learning nothing new or anything he couldn’t extrapolate on his own. It is common knowledge. And so is the existence of myriad problems which go unacknowledged and unaddressed in our community.

Don’t take my word for it; the next time you’re sitting around shmuzing with a couple of your friends, bring up a few uncomfortable topics. Child molestation, mental illness, eating disorders, child abuse, drug abuse, orthopraxy…take note of the response. These are all topics upon which we are all in agreement: they must be addressed or our kids’ futures are in jeopardy.

But then walk into a mainstream yeshiva and take a look around. Do you see anyone suffering with those issues? Do you see drug users, sexual, and physical abuse victims, bochurim with mental illnesses or who live with parents who suffer from mental illnesses? Do you see any bochurim who bear every outward resemblance to the standard yeshiva bochur archetype, but who are actually kofrim? Of course not.

Something’s wrong though—something doesn’t add up. When I walk into Our Place, or Ohr Yitzchok, I see hundreds of kids who suffer with all of those problems daily. All of a sudden, when it’s all too late, they show up on our doorsteps, lives in a shambles, arrested, addicted to something or other, on the wrong end of a bad deal; where were they five years ago? How did we miss them?

We as the Jewish people are the am hanivchar. We stood at Har Sinai and accepted the Torah. We spent 40 years in the desert, we built the Beis Hamikdash. We said naaseh v’nishmah and accepted the perfection that is the Torah. We accepted it and took it upon ourselves as a contract of sorts to devote our lives to its teachings, and, through those teachings, self-perfection. Because that is the purpose that religion serves: a path to self-perfection.

But over the centuries—the millennia—we’ve lost some perspective on what it does for us. Accepting the Torah does not make us perfect. Accepting the Torah does not mean that we are, by dint of our commitment alone, granted the holiness and perfection contained within its words. Unfortunately, there are many, if not a majority, in our community who assume that we have already attained personal and societal perfection. It’s a nice ideal, but they’re getting ahead of themselves and its hurting countless people.

Their image of perfection precludes any perceived imperfection. So mental illness couldn’t possibly exist because mental illness is an imperfection (a sentiment which is itself extremely offensive), and imperfection doesn’t exist in our community. My son couldn’t possibly have been molested by his rebbi because child molestation is a grievous sin and therefore cannot possibly exist. Rape can’t exist because rape is a sin; the girl must have done something to provoke it. Mr Schwartz couldn’t possibly be beating his wife and kids, because that’s just wrong; they must be making it up—blowing it all out of proportion.

And its not just the frum world, although we definitely have more of it and to varying degrees. This applies more to chassidim, less to litvishe, and even less to modern orthodox. It’s a common psychological coping mechanism; when confronted with evil, people prefer either to ignore its existence, despite the fact that it is clearly present, or they rationalize its existence by blaming themselves or the victims of said evil for having acted in a manner that brought it upon them. The classic example being a father blaming a daughter’s rape on the skirt she was wearing. Rather than acknowledge the fact that rape exists, and not only exists, but forced itself upon his precious daughter, the father tells himself that while ordinarily rape doesn’t exists, end that even if it does, it could and would never exist for his family, this case is different because she was dressed provocatively.

That mindset is nothing short of cognitive dissonance. Evil exists. Imperfection exists. Sin exists. That’s why the Torah gives us ways of dealing with it, of punishing criminals, and penance from sin—because it all exists. The proper way to deal with it is not to close our eyes in hope that it will all just go away, or tell ourselves that it is entirely our fault. Barasi Yetzer Hara, Barasi Torah Tavlin means that yes, there are challenges, there is sin, there is evil and imperfection, but we, thanks to our God, have a way to fight and overcome it. It’s a shame that the very tool which is supposed to help us overcome adversity, is being used to make adversity stronger.

The Battle

Everyone has problems. We all do. And these problems vary in severity, magnitude, and circumstance from person to person. That’s life—conflict and resolution—a constant struggle to do the right thing despite the obstacles life seems to enjoy throwing at us, impeding us, and trying to prevent us from achieving. And most of the time these problems are easily surmountable, like “how will I pay my phone bill next month?” or “how will I fit jury duty into my work schedule?” and these are problems we face and overcome with little or no thought because we understand that they are part and parcel of daily life—that they are what comprise a normal life. They do not cause us to fall apart; they do not reduce us to a sniveling mess hugging our knees as we sit on the floor in a pool of our own tears, because they are to be expected. The solutions to these relatively simple problems are apparent and easily implemented.

But what about those times when life throws a curveball, a real zinger that comes from out of nowhere and leaves the person it hits shocked and stunned and unsure of how to proceed? What happens when the mother of a fourteen year old boy decides to up and walk out of the family. or when a rebbi, a man who is looked up to and respected, even revered by his students and to whom his students turn for guidance, takes advantage of his student’s trust and respect and abuses a child, leaving him scarred and hurt and utterly uncertain about life. What happens when a parent, the person who is supposed to love his child more than himself, supposed to provide for his child, supposed to share the child’s euphoria after passing a very difficult gemara test, wipe his son’s tears after he breaks an arm at baseball practice, raise his son in accordance with the Torah, and properly equip his son to handle the world and all of its challenges, abuses his child, beats him and degrades him, humiliates him and emotionally eviscerates him. What then.

The aforementioned examples happen more often than we in the community would care to admit, and when it does it leaves behind devastated crater of a human being, a walking shell devoid of certainty, a scarred individual who feels cast out and abandoned, left to fend for himself in this harsh and terrible world. Because that is how the world seems to someone at such a young age, especially someone so hard done by. The world seems cruel and harsh and unforgiving with danger lurking around every corner.

For most people, however, the world is a beautiful place full of love, beauty, and hope; moments shared, first steps, new beginnings and fresh opportunity. With such an outlook on life it’s a bit difficult to identify with the complete inverse—with those who view life as a battle. Because that’s unfortunately what life is for so many kids, a battle. Life is a fight rather than an experience, and that mentality often leads to crime, violence, and substance abuse.

When the battle becomes too much and the odds insurmountable, the only recourse is retreat, which usually comes in the form of drugs and alcohol. For a relatively small price one can buy a temporary reprieve from the battle and become numb, transporting himself to a world where none of it matters. But that’s just temporary, end eventually life encroaches upon this place of temporary solitude, and more pills or injections or lines are needed to reach that quiet place until one day the retreat isn’t temporary.

Finally at that point, when its already too late, does the rest of the world realize what was happening just under its nose and that it can just as easily happen to their son, or their daughter—to their niece or nephew, and they cast about for anything, anyone that can help avoid the seemingly inevitable. And that’s where we come in.

Our Place is a place where a kid can come and see that the world doesn’t have to be a constant struggle, that it’s not out to get him, that there are people who do care about whether he succeeds or fails—whether he lives or dies. We provide him with a safe environment, a safe and secure part of his life where he can just chill and be a regular person for a few hours a day.

No, It’s Not an Easy Question.

Suppose you were the principal of a Hebrew day school out in the middle of Nowheresville, Alabama and you were approached by a lesbian couple who wanted to enroll their child, who is Jewish, in your school, what would you do? On the one hand, homosexuality is anathematic to Orthodox Judaism, but on the other hand, the child did nothing wrong—a seemingly impossible choice.

This very question was actually posed to a well-known Rosh Yeshiva who instructed the day school to accept the couple. And the reason given was that no child should be denied a religious education simply based on the actions of their parents.

It struck me as a powerful message to the community, and to myself in particular, because this is a subject about which I have been writing for years—the actions of the parents bit, not the lesbian part. In my case the fight was about social stigma, the stigma of divorce, the stigma of being the child of a mentally ill mother. Doors were constantly closing before me because the people in charge were so concerned over possible, and likely improbable, complications which may or may not arise that I was never given a chance. When I was four years old, applying to pre-school, no school would accept me because my parents were divorced. Only after begging, pleading with the school administration did my mother and grandparents manage to get me into a school.

I would be remiss if I did not admit that there are many potential problems with accepting the child of lesbians into an Orthodox Jewish school, influence being the least of them, but a child, especially one as young as the child in question, hasn’t lived long enough to have actually don’t anything wrong themselves, anything which would give cause to not accept him into a religious school.

I had this argument with another guest at my friend’s house one Shabbos, and she seemed pretty quick to condemn the child to a life of public school, devoid of Judaism—until it hit close to him. My friend’s uncle isn’t very religious and is sending his son to an even less religious school in California. As we were debating the issue of the lesbian’s child this woman began lamenting the fact that my friend’s cousin would likely never receive a real religious education. I was incredulous. Just five minutes prior she had been all for rejecting the child of questionable parents, regardless of whether or not those parents wanted their child to receive a religious education, and now she was bemoaning the fact that my friend’s uncle wasn’t sending his child to a religious school.

It took another five minutes until she actually understood how oxymoronic and hypocritical her positions were, and when she finally did realize, she was speechless. Because she realized the magnitude of her former opinion. None of us want problems in our backyard, but Kol Yisrael Arevim Zah Lazeh, and therefore, each Jew, regardless of religious observance or sinful parentage is worthy of our time, effort, and love. It is an important idea to understand and internalize because the very fact that the answer to the question returns a simple “reject” in a person’s mind bespeaks a terrible problem.

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