Rabbi Shlomo Rechnitz is our March Mench of the Month!
Rabbi Shlomo Kanarek was the keynote speaker at a Tu B'Shvat event, and offered his critique of some Lakewood Jewish schools and the exclusion of some of their children.
Shlomo Rechnitz: I’d like to discuss a man-made problem that we created and is completely fixable if we just cared enough. A problem that causes our Jewish brethren untold pain, incapacitating daily anxiety, rivers of tears. Fathers who don’t know where to turn and are made to feel that they failed their innocent children, mothers who cry themselves to sleep every night, and public humiliation. Stinging shame to our holy flock. Sheer embarrassment for our schoolchildren that people five times their age wouldn’t be able to cope with. A five-year-old being told every day, I promise you, tomorrow you’ll be able to get on the bus with your friends. And tomorrow comes and their ready by the front door with their backpack bright and early, clearly excited, only to be told that it’s just another few days. Just another few days. You’ll be able to join your friends.
You think these children are stupid? You think for one second that they don’t realize they’re the only ones being left out? At their tender young age, they try to put on a normal face. Until they get up and hide in their room. And cry. And cry some more. His parents have already cried their hearts out to the Rabbonim. To the school administration. Please, please, take our child. Six weeks and he’s still not in school. A 13-year-old girl that clearly sees that nobody wants her. She’s the town’s trash. Can you imagine an innocent Jewish girl putting on a face for her friends, claiming she hasn’t had enough time to decide which school she wants to go to. Only to lay her head down at night on the pillow, the pillow that’s still wet from the tears of the night before. Knowing that out of 15,000 girls, she’s the only one that nobody wants.
We feel unwanted if we don’t get invited to a wedding. We complain. Even if she eventually gets pushed into a school, how can that damage ever be repaired? Over the years, there have been angelic community activists who have gotten these kids into schools. You think for a second that the problem was resolved? We don’t realize that our actions and inactions are life altering? And then we ask, what are we doing wrong? Why are so many children going off the path? Those memories, those nightmares can never go away. Broken families, publicly shamed children and their parents. Ongoing pain and suffering. Who’s gonna’ take responsibility for all those tears, for that seemingly never-ending pain? Who has the right, who has such a God-like complex that they feel they have the right to inflict such irreparable suffering? If you’re ready to take the responsibility then stand up now. Show your face.
God can’t possibly ignore the tears of His precious chosen people. Yet we sit in our offices watching a Jewish mother, a mother who has no limits in what she’ll do for her children, while she cries her heart out. And our answer: Oy, I feel terrible. I wish I could accept your child, but I simply have no room. You should know that I lose sleep every night over this. But what can I do? I’m bursting by the seams, the principal won’t let, if I take you then I’m gonna’ have to take that other one, too. You can’t imagine how much I’m trying for you, I tried every day.
Gentlemen, spare me. The last time in life you get any credit for effort is in the 12th grade. Or in Lakewood it’s probably the 4th grade by now.
Who does Rechnitz think he is, to come here and lecture us? Firstly, you’re right. I’m probably not the one that should be doing this. But I’ve given substantial amounts of money to a variety of Lakewood Institutions.
The word money will always do that… But more importantly, I’m the one that gets the calls, the emails, the visits. I’m not the only one, but I get a substantial amount of them. From pleading fathers to sobbing mothers. And intermittently a call or a letter from a child. On my drive into Lakewood today, I got three calls from parents who asked me, I hear you’re going to Lakewood, can you speak to so and so? And I will address every one of them. Because how can I not? We’re responsible for one another. How can we be comfortable just because everything is fine and dandy by us while someone else is clearly suffering? Forget love for a fellow Jew. I won’t ask for that much. But another Jew needs us. Another Jew is crying out to us. How can we not answer him? Yet we expect God to answer us, to take care of all our needs. Because let’s face I we’re all needy, we’re all have requests, we all pray for all the help we can get, we all need divine intervention.
Rechnitz cited one of Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith, I believe that the that the Torah today is no different from what was received from God by Moses, saying it’s because our sages made sure to teach it to all our children in each generation, because we didn’t know who would be the child who would hand it over to the next generation.
That is until the 21st century in Lakewood, NJ, off all places, where we understand better than anyone else the importance and beauty of Torah, that we can’t seem to manage to arrange for every last child to have a place to go. … No other community would allow a child to be left without a school. In Los Angeles if the child didn’t have a school the first day, the whole community would be all over it. The same thing would happen in Baltimore, Chicago, Toronto, or anywhere else. This is basically a Lakewood disease. Yes, there’s a few kids in Munsey, more than a few kids in Brooklyn, but nowhere else and in no other time in history was this problem close to the magnitude it has in Lakewood. And I mean the whole process. Even the children that get in. How many of them and their parents sweat for months? Making phone calls, waiting for phone calls.
No one will dispute that Lakewood is everything right – and he describes the beauty of the community of Lakewood and its centers of Jewish learning and charity organizations.
But when it comes to schooling, we go crazy. We’re desensitized, we’re immune, we’re numb. We profess to teach Torah and the importance of the Torah view, yet whenever any yeshiva dean calls up an institution to try to get a child in, they’re turned down with the swipe of a hand. How hypocritical can we be?
I don’t want to shock anybody, but I’m not going to put the blame on the heads of institutions. I’m sure they can definitely help along the way. But they’re doing what any one of us would do. They’re protecting their territory. They know that it just takes a few missteps, a few wrong decisions, a few wrong children, and the next year they quickly become the Nebbech (loser) school. But I do want to mention Shlomo Kanarek, whom I’ve personally seen risk his reputation, risk his financing, risk his income, risk the name and reputation o his yeshivas, because he couldn’t stand the sight of one of our fellow Jews crying.
The blame, unfortunately, lies mostly on our shoulders. It is clear that our problem is not cruelty, apathy or selfishness. So how come the same parents who go out of their way to do charity for others become so insensitive and cruel when it comes to dozens of school children from Lakewood? The answer is painful, but it has to be said. I believe that many of us have created for ourselves a new Torah, a new Judaism, that makes us feel good about ourselves. But it has little to do with God’s Torah that He gave us 3,300 years ago. We turned our religiosity into an idol. And we forgot some of the basic tenets of Judaism. This new Torah some of us have created has a few articles of faith that have crippled us and have crippled so many of our children. Here are some of the new, distorted “Ani Ma’amins”:
I believe that I am better than you.
I believe that have to show all my chumras (religious stringency) so everyone can see how religious I am.
I believe that your children are not good enough for my children.
I believe that the Torah was given to perfect children and perfect families.
I believe that there is no room for individuality, we have to all fit into the same perfect model.
Would you not agree with me that these five ideas are heresy? They’re contrary to the entire message of Judaism.
Tonight, let us declare the truth: We believe that God loves every Yid, adult or child, unconditionally. And with tremendous love. We can never know the value of a particular soul. Every soul is part of God above. Someone who is truly religious loves every Jew with all his heart. The notion that some of us are better, holier and superior is primitive. It’s false. It’s foolish.
We developed an elitist attitude, an ugly superiority complex devoid of humility, of holiness, of unity, of genuine devotion. We’ve joined the rat race. The other is not good enough for us, they’re not religious enough for us. Every one of you here should be proud to merit to have your learning be your craft. And I wish I, too, would have had the zitsfleish (ability to concentrate) to do it. But unfortunately, due to a diagnoses of mild ADD, I was forced to (in undertone) go to work.
But when did the metamorphosis occur, turning a life of devotion to Torah into elitism? Why do we have to be better than everybody else? Why don’t we put God back into the picture?
Why do I have to feel awkward helping institutions which I know would never accept my own children?
Everybody in this world has their purpose, their individual journey. Why are we all judging each other? Why do I and other people feel like we’re being judged by a Sanhedrin of 50 thousand people in Lakewood? I feel terrible for most people who live here in that respect. Nobody here gives or gets any slack. Forget a second chance, that’s out of the question. You have better odds of winning the lottery. We’re so judgmental, and we all have an opinion about every single person we come into contact with. And we have to shame hordes of people on the way, so be it.
Don’t tell me that you love me, but you hate my children. Don’t tell God, I love You, but I hate your children.
It is time to realize how our elitism has destroyed our spirituality. But what bothers me most is a conversation that occurs nonstop in Lakewood. Parents call up a school and say, If you take in that person’s child, I’m not sending my kid. The school buckles under the pressure and rejects that child.
I tell you today, the heavens are startled by this. This is a destruction for the entire nation. How dare you destroy another child’s life because of your opinion about them? How dare you face God in prayer when you’ve snuffed out a Jewish soul?
I call on every school head, that from today on if you ever get such a comment, that if you take in that kid this family will not send their kid to your school, have the courage to tell them, We apologize, but we clearly are not the place for your child protegé.
I’m prepared, along with other people, to put the money up to build schools. I look forward to building schools. But I’m not going to take any part in this. I simply don’t understand. Nothing in Lakewood makes sense. Bring in an economist and he would tell you that this community should have folded twenty years ago. According to logic our entire lifestyle does not make sense. A lot of institutions don’t teach English. And I’m not opining here whether that’s wrong or right; many of us don’t work; we have lots of kids, thank God — it simply doesn’t add up on paper, yet it works. Why? Because we have one secret the economist does not know. One line on our balance sheet that they never heard of. It’s called divine intervention. God helps us. God makes it work.
And yet when it comes to accepting kids in school, here suddenly we all become professional accountants. Everyone becomes an actuary. There are too many kids in that class. Statistically, we find that the child’s ability to understand clearly decreases, as more kids come in. The school has too many kids, the class is too full, if we take him or her it would be irresponsible. Suddenly, when it comes to the most important thing, we leave God out of the entire picture. Out goes the trust.
I really, really, really want it to change. Tonight, a few hours ago, we started Tu Bishvat. Tonight I want to bless a new chapter in Lakewood, in which no child will ever be rejected again. Leave the money to us. But let’s treat our children the way we’re supposed to treat our children.Type your paragraph here.