In time to come, Israel will use you as a blessing

tear

My children rotated around the Shabbos table one by one as my husband laid his hands upon their heads and gave them his weekly bracha. As everyone settled noisily back into their seats, he quietly told me that he couldn’t imagine how the families of the three kidnapped teens in Israel must be feeling.

We visualized three sets of terrified parents trying to bring a sense of normalcy to their families. How much strength must it have taken for them to give brachot to their remaining children last Shabbos? How much more meaningful did that ritual become as their hands and hearts ached to also bless the child whose whereabouts were unknown?

They couldn’t have realized in that moment that they would never again have the opportunity to bestow the Friday night blessing upon those sons, so cruelly torn from their arms.

On that day Jacob blessed them, he said, “In time to come, Israel (the Jewish people) will use you as a blessing. They will say, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe’.” (Genesis 48:20)”

Could these parents even begin to comprehend that their beloved children would now personify those words of blessing by the short lives they lived and by the tragic way they died? Efraim and Menashe were brothers who lived in harmony amidst family conflict and also maintained their integrity as Jews outside the land of Israel.

By all accounts given, Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrah were boys who strove to bring harmony and peace to those who knew them. Certainly, throughout the ordeal of shock and uncertainty after their abduction, and now as the Jewish people grieve over their senseless murders, they have brought a measure of achdus that has been sorely missed in the Jewish community in recent times.

Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal were able to transcend the uneasy environment of political conflict during their young lives by living proudly and openly as religious Jews in Israel. They must have had faith that Hashem created every person and that all of Hashem’s creations are inherently good – to the extent that they unknowingly accepted a ride from someone who thought of them as enemies. For their display of faith and trust in humanity, they were killed.

Although their neshomas have now left the trials and tribulations of this world behind, the ideals they embodied remain forever imprinted on their families and the entire Jewish people. If nothing else, these boys have taught us that we are ultimately one nation, one heart, and one faith. May the lessons of Ephraim and Menashe live on through the legacy of our three boys, BD”E, and may their memories be for a blessing.

Bait and Switch

mileyMiley Cyrus Before and After

Last week a robo call was sent to the Chicago orthodox community inviting women to participate in a telephone conference about hair covering –

Why Cover?  Come Discover!

The phone message promised to teach women the meaning behind the great mitzva of hair covering and the many brochos/blessings it can bring.  One of the speakers was a rebbetzin from Chicago and another from Jerusalem.  Additionally, there would be testimonials from women on how covering their hair had enhanced their lives.

I decided to call the number, which had a New York area code, and hear what these women had to say about hair covering.  Immediately, there was an advertisement for some sort of contraption that would keep headcoverings in place.  Interspersed throughout the speeches were advertisements for hair covering paraphernalia sold by stores in the New York area.

As the first speaker began, it became apparent that this wasn’t a live presentation, but a series of pre-recorded speeches and testimonials.  Very soon into the speech, the speaker quickly went into the true purpose of the conference by claiming that “long wigs do not conform to the standards of tznius set by our poskim.”  Today’s toeiva (abominable practice) isn’t in not wearing wigs, but in wearing wigs that are too long and beautiful.  She said that we only need to worry about being beautiful to Hashem and not to society.  Apparently, there is an unfortunate trend among kallahs (brides) to buy extremely long wigs, and our kallahs need to be taught that long wigs won’t bring kiddusha to their homes.

Essentially, the phone conference hoped to instigate a campaign among women to cut their wigs to an appropriate length.  The “kosher” length can vary among communities from shoulder length to chin length.  Everyone should ask their posek what the standard is in their local community.  Additionally, sheital machers (wigs stylists) were blamed for the trend in long sheitels.  Wig sellers (both Jewish and non-Jewish, but the main lambasting was saved for the non-Jewish stylists – I believe the word “goyta” was used) have been encouraging frum women to buy expensive long wigs, and also refusing to cut them shorter when requested for tznius purposes.  We were exhorted to take a stand against sheital machers selling inappropriately long wigs and refusing to cut down wigs that are too long.

There were several testimonials from women who, by shortening their wigs, were able to bring good things to themselves or others.  One woman told an inspirational story about a woman who cut her wig 3 inches shorter. Emotionally, it was very difficult for her to cut her long wig to a shorter length.  As the stylist cut the hair, she said a tefilla and immediately felt connected to Hashem.  The woman thought that perhaps her sacrifice would merit help for an unmarried friend.  As the hair fell down around her, she repeated her friend’s name again and again.  The woman cried as the wig hair was cut.  Afterwards, not only did she get tons of compliments on her shorter wig, her friend also got engaged.

Another woman took the plunge and brought all three of her wigs in to be cut shorter.  Immediately upon leaving the sheital macher, she and her husband got into a car crash.  It was a miracle that no one was hurt and there was no damage.  Surely, this miracle happened in the merit of her shorter wigs.

A different woman wanted to cut her long wig but had a bad experience asking a sheital macher to cut it.  The wig stylist couldn’t believe she wanted to shorten such a gorgeous wig and convinced her not to cut it. She saw an advertisement in a local Jewish paper by a sheital macher offering to cut wigs for free for tznius purposes. Although her heart was in the right place, she couldn’t seem to coordinate a good time for an appointment. However, the woman was determined to cut her wig. She finally found a time that worked and had two inches cut off the bottom. She thought maybe she should cut more, but didn’t want to be an ugly outcast.  She decided to throw all caution to the wind and cut off another 4 inches. She was thrilled – no other sheital macher would cut that much hair off for her. The woman was so grateful that she sent the sheital macher a beautiful shaloch manos that year.  Months later, the sheital machor saw the woman in a store and not only was she wearing her short wig, but also longer skirts.  The woman said her daughter was now more careful with tznius too.

There was another story about shortening wigs in the merit of a sick child’s refuah (recovery) from a serious illness.  The reception was bad and so I didn’t hear the details, but essentially, there was some sort of campaign for women to cut their sheitals so a young child would have a refuah and survive brain surgery.  Apparently, the child had a complete recovery due to the efforts of these women.

The conference also addressed how to approach women who wear long sheitals.  Basically, we should be dan lchaf zchus (give them the benefit of the doubt) because a woman wearing a long wig obviously has troubles in her life.  A woman gave a testimonial about a young woman she saw in a long wig.  The young woman was screaming for attention.  She decided to boost her neshama with the right words.  She complimented the color the young woman was wearing. Upon hearing the compliment, the young woman felt the need to explain that she dressed this way because her life was tumultuous.  The young woman expressed annoyance that people judged her clothing. The older woman explained that, yes, it’s terrible that people judge a person by their clothing.  That’s why the frum women want to protect her by advising her against long wigs or tight clothing…dress tznius and Hashem will help and protect.  If someone is lacking in eirlichkeit (dignity or modesty)- be kind. Compliment what she does right. Compliment her appropriate skirt length. Focus on the positive and don’t jump to judge. Only Hashem can judge.

The conference ended with a very forceful speaker that mentioned getting our husbands away from the internet and not caving into peer pressure to wear longer wigs.

To me, this entire conference was peer pressure to conform to superficial standards of piety.  I have no problem with short wigs, and have worn them myself.  However, a woman’s decision to wear a shorter style wig should be based on her personal preference, and not because other women will look at her as less tznius or a nebach (sad case) who must have a “tumultuous life.”  The program wasn’t about the brochos that are brought down on the families of women who cover their hair, but rather, on the curses that are brought down when women don’t cover their hair in an eirlichkeit manner.  To me, this phone conference is another example of how women are enforcing ever stricter chumras upon each other, and using daas Torah (the sanctioning of rabbis) as an excuse to do so.  You can’t know what is inside of a woman’s heart by what is on top of her head.

Achieving achdus through our kids

bringbackourboys2Photo from Times of Israel

It’s the day after my oldest son’s high school graduation, so I’m feeling kind of mushy. Every child goes through his or her own journey from freshman year to senior year and my son was no exception. For a myriad of reasons, we made the difficult decision to send him to a smaller out of town yeshiva, close enough to come home for frequent out shabbosim, but far enough away that he would have to dorm at the school. This was an agonizing choice that we spent many sleepless nights over, but for the sake of his growth and happiness, we took a leap of faith that everything would work out for the best.

We chose his school because we had heard that it emphasizes middos and character. It’s a yeshiva that focuses not only on learning gemarah, but on living the lessons learned within its pages. The rabbaim work to develop not only the minds of their talmidim, but their hearts as well. Although my son was coming from a different hashkafic background than the majority of the other students (or so we thought), we wanted him to develop as a person, as a friend, and as a future member of klal yisrael.

I remember dropping him off that first day of school. The freshmen come a few days earlier than the upper classmen to give them time to adjust to their new surroundings. Immediately, we walked into the building to find boys playing ping pong, schmoozing on the couches in the main lobby, and generally exploring their new home away from home. Right away, my son was approached by different boys wanting to get to know him, asking if he wanted to play a game of ping pong. I could only stand back and make an effort to hold in my tears of hopefulness that he would find the friendships he so desperately desired.

My son came to the school a defeated kid. Academically, he was always a success, but socially he had experienced challenges from about sixth grade and onward. By the time he entered high school, he seemed convinced that he was unworthy of friendship or positive notice from his peers. If another child introduced himself, my son seemed poised for the punch line – the inevitable dig that would be sure to follow. His guard was up pretty high upon entering yeshiva and I only hoped that the school would help to ease his way into the freshman group.

The change my son underwent during his years in yeshiva is nothing short of miraculous. I don’t want to underestimate the effort and attention the rabbaim and teachers give to the students and all of the fires they put out. Certainly, the staff (from the office to the kitchen to the beis medrash and everything in between) was pivotal in helping my son adapt to high school life, dorm life, and life with his fellow classmates. I give them a lot of credit for creating an atmosphere of camaraderie and respect among the students. However, it was the other young men who most helped my son to believe that he was likeable, that he could make friends, and that he could be a valued friend in return.

My son’s classmates, who we were certain would all be from haredi backgrounds, turned out to be a diverse group. There were some boys coming to the school with a very limited background in Torah learning and those coming from a very strong place. Yes, many students had different ideologies than those my son had previously been exposed to, but that didn’t stop them from all being friends. They could debate, shout, get heated in defending their positions, and then go outside for a game of football.

It was really a beautiful sight watching the graduates say farewell to each other. Some wore hats, some had already ditched theirs with the rest of their suitcases, but they were all hugging and holding back tears. The affection and respect they had for one another was plain to see. Brotherhood was a word that popped up in more than one graduation speech. While some will remain in the yeshiva’s beis medrash program and others will go on to college or Israel programs, this diverse group of kids have created friendships and good memories that will last a lifetime.

As I watched my son saying his goodbyes in a sea of talmidim, I was reminded of a conversation I’d had earlier that day with my husband. We had both gotten several emails from various Chicago synagogues and yeshivas about a citywide tehillim session for the safe return of three yeshiva boys from Gush Etzion (Gil-Ad, Naphtali, and Eyal) who were kidnapped while on their way home to spend Shabbos with family and friends.

We were struck by the diversity of the organizing institutions and marveling that when a tragedy happens, especially one involving kids, it is possible for all of the diverse groups within orthodoxy to rally and stand together for a common purpose. While I can’t imagine the suffering that these boys and their families are going through, and they should be returned to us speedily and unharmed, the unifying power they have had upon klal yisroel is a kiddush Hashem.

Our young people have the power to unite klal yisroel. I see signs of hope in my children, in their friends, and in the young activists I encounter online. It is possible to do away with the prejudices we have against how one adjusts the brim of their hat or whether one even wears a hat at all. Kids don’t care about those things – they are still capable of seeing the person behind the uniform.  We grown-ups may not have gotten it right, but I have faith that achdus can be achieved through our kids.

Fear Mongering in the Frum Community

pitchforksThe Chicago Orthodox community has been up in arms for the past few days over an issue that started with a bang, but has gone out with a fizzle – and that’s exactly how many people hoped things would end.   A meeting set for tonight to discuss a proposal for a local shul to rent space to an Ombudsman alternative school was abruptly cancelled. Ombudsman schools educate students from ages 14-21 who dropped out of high school, but are now choosing to return to class to earn their diplomas.

The shul has been zoned to house a school for many years, and in the past, had hosted overflow from the local public elementary school until a new Chicago Public School was built nearby. Private schools have also leased space from the shul. However, last year, when a local private Jewish day school abruptly left, it was too late to retain a contract with a different school. The classrooms have remained empty for the entire school year, seriously depleting the synagogue’s budget.

Ombudsman is a private for-profit school that works with the Chicago Public School as an alternative program for drop out students who want to return for their degrees. My understanding is that an Alderman must sign off on any new Chicago Public School location. Had this been a private school with no connection to the Chicago Public School system, an Alderman’s signature would not have been necessary for the shul to rent their own space.

So much of the conversation over the possible school lease has been stifled. As I said, the informational meeting that was supposed to provide facts about the program and its effects on communities where such schools already exist was forced into cancellation. The information I have about what happened is based on rumor, innuendo, Facebook rants, community emails, and a robocall.

Breaking it down, it seems that before the shul had the chance to present the proposal to the community, another nearby shul caught wind of the plan and attempted to send out a community letter appealing to the neighbors to protest the school coming to their area. Before their letter could be publicized, the Alderman’s office sent out its own letter giving basic information about the proposed partnership and informing people about a community meeting to discuss the issue before a decision would be rendered.

After the Alderman’s letter made its rounds, the community went on high alert. It became the water cooler gossip last week and throughout the weekend. I heard every excuse about why this school should not be permitted from juvenile delinquents, to graffiti, to drugs, to parking problems, to non-tznius student clothing, to increased crime, to an invasion of non-Jews of various colors and ethnicities bringing down property values.

There was also the argument that the non-Jewish neighbors didn’t want the school either, and were resentful that a synagogue had so much authority to make a decision like this that would greatly affect the community.  Essentially, the argument was that a plan that would negatively impact the surrounding neighborhood would be a chillul Hashem. Apparently, some rabbis spoke against the proposal from their pulpits on Shabbos and one rabbi even supposedly referred to “blacks invading our neighborhood.”

This robocall from a young child reading off of a script was sent to certain community members yesterday before the shul meeting was cancelled. The message is garbled but essentially says, “Save our neighborhood! I want to go outside and ride my bike without any problems or worry. Please come for a very important meeting….help stop (the shul) from bringing in an alternative high school for drop outs…I want our neighborhood to be safe, don’t you?”

I think this robocall represents the level that some people sank to in trying to dissuade the shul, the community, and the Alderman from pushing through this initiative. To use a child to spread propaganda that hinges on hinted-at racist stereotypes is low. If the school had been a place for Orthodox Jewish high school drop outs to earn their diplomas, I highly doubt such a robocall would have gone out.

I want to be clear that I have no opinion on whether or not Ombudsman would have had a positive or a negative impact on the community. I can’t have an opinion since I wasn’t given a chance to hear the facts. None of us were. My problem is the rush to judgment about a proposal involving non-Jewish students, presumably of varied races and ethnic backgrounds entering our neighborhood, even if only for a few hours a day. People had already gone into hysterics and made up their minds before the meeting.

We had the opportunity to make a kiddush Hashem with our behavior by reserving judgment until the facts were heard and not giving credence to fear mongering. Instead we believed the hype and turned into an angry mob brandishing virtual pitchforks.  We also lost a potential opportunity to both assist a local shul in financial distress as well as assist kids from the larger community trying to straighten out their lives and get an education.

Aveilus and Depression

pooperI’ve been pondering the concept of mandated mourning. After a parent dies, a child is required to mourn their loss for the 12 months following the death. This means refraining from participation in joyous occasions, celebrations, and public entertainment venues where people go to enjoy themselves.

I’ve been an avel since the end of last August, so I am in the final home stretch of aveilus. Of course, this also means that I’ll be missing this summer’s blockbuster movies, in all probability 4th of July fireworks (haven’t asked a shaila yet), Ravinia’s “under the stars” outdoor music concerts, this year’s Jewish Folk Arts festival which features live bands, to name but a few activities.

Basically, anytime someone brings up something fun to do, I have to pause and wonder if I will be allowed to attend. Even if there is some wiggle room for me to participate, there’s that sense of nagging Jewish guilt that pops up scolding me for trying to find a loophole to absolve myself of my responsibility. Personally, I’ve felt that I am honoring the laws of aveilus strictly for kibbud av v’eim (honoring your father and mother), and not so much for my own private grief. While I am saddened at the loss of my mother at a young age, since I never knew her, my grief is of a different nature.

Although this is not my situation, my feelings of growing impatience with the restrictions of aveilus as the year wears on have made me wonder how children of abusive parents feel during this time. If you are ambivalent, or perhaps even grateful for the death of your parent, how difficult must it be to refrain from all happy activities out of respect for their memory? In such a scenario when a child might be feeling relief, and possibly even joy at finally being free of a toxic parent, they are told that they must express the appropriate sadness instead of celebrating. Additionally, this outward display of sadness must continue not only for the week or thirty days following their parent’s death, but for an entire year. It’s not an easy undertaking.

I said to my husband the other day that I feel like I have nothing to look forward to. I’ve been perplexed at my state of melancholy lately, especially as the weather warms to my favorite season of summer when I am usually the most cheerful. It occurred to me, as my husband mentioned the folk arts festival happening today, that my malaise has a lot to do with my limitations during aveilus.

Thankfully, the restrictions of aveilus are temporary and there is an end in sight. However, I have to wonder at a mandated mourning system generalized for every type of mourner. The ways in which people mourn are as diverse as the mourners themselves and the relationships they had with their departed loved ones. While being excused from joyous occasions might be a welcome “time out” early in the mourning period, that time out might be unwelcome as time goes by and the mourner begins to feel isolated. Sometimes attending a show, dancing at a wedding, or socializing at a party is just what is needed to raise a mourner’s spirits. My hope is that those of you reading this post never have to consider my musings from a first hand perspective.