A Letter From A Shliach on The State Of Chinuch In New York
by Rabbi Chaim Bruk
I agonized for weeks over writing this pre-Yom-Kippur letter, but as New York State continues to abuse the Orthodox Jewish Community, I feel compelled to speak up on behalf of my brothers and sisters, and I pray that my writing is received the way it’s intended as a form of support for our Jewish family. Chaskel Bennett of Five Towns and Shiya Ostreicher are two dear friends who are devoted Jewish activists and I penned a letter to them to express my feelings.
Dear Chaskel and Shiya,
First and foremost, I wish you and your beautiful families a G’mar Chasimah Tovah; may you all be sealed in the Book of Life for a Sweet New Year with infinite blessings from on High.
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, a day on which G-d will decide everyone’s reality for the upcoming year. During your personal presentation before the celestial abode, as the Heavenly tribunal decides your fate, I want to serve as your defense attorney, to remind Hashem how amazing you are and how much you’ve done for our people. I want Him to know that despite our many flaws, it’s people like you who are mechazek, bring strength, to our nation and ensure we won’t fall by the wayside due to the insidious pressure placed on our fragile souls by bad actors within the Empire State. I want to point out to G-d that you, along with the incredible Jews of New York who are totally devoted to Torah values and the traditions of Judaism, are worthy of only good, as you’ve stood strong and upright in the face of endless character assassination against our beautiful communities.
You may be wondering why a Montana rabbi, who lives in blissful rural America, is choosing to address two fine Jews in New York, so I will tell you: I can’t remain silent any longer, and I feel morally compelled to use the platforms available to me to share what’s on my mind, because as Jews we must call a spade a spade, and an anti-Semite with lipstick is still an anti-Semite. I am a native Brooklyn boy, and though I moved 16 years ago to faraway Big Sky Country, a part of me calls New York home and I need you to hear me out.
I am not a politician, nor does politics really speak to me. While many are obsessed with R’s and D’s, I spend my days obsessed with good and light, trying my very best to disperse darkness and negativity. I’ve been asked on countless occasions, from both sides of the aisle, to get involved in political causes, and it’s just not my thing; my heart is in a different place. You need to know that I am a student of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, so while I don’t buy into political correctness, I do believe in universal human dignity. While I don’t buy into fluffy “feel good” and “made-up” Judaism, I do believe in everyone journeying in their G-dly relationship at their own pace, making baby-step strides. While I don’t believe that people need to be sold lies to make the Torah absorbable to them, I do believe that there is a time and place to share each Torah idea and it’s on a case-by-case basis. Today, as I write to you about New York, it will be no different. I will pull no punches as I share my truth, the way I see it, so hear me out.
Our community has problems; every community does. I’ve never been one to shy away from constructively criticizing my Orthodox community when it’s needed. I do it with dignity, respect, and an understanding that the goal is to bring about needed change in areas where we’re lacking. Whether abuse swept under the rug, gossiping and quarreling, which is as un-Jewish as a ham sandwich, the treatment of students who don’t fit into the box of the yeshiva system, and many other issues, I’ve never held back from saying to our people that we need to get this fixed or the issues will be exacerbated down the road. Yet, my critique has always come from a place of love, not elitism, disdain, or judgment.
You see Chaskel and Shiya, I know a simple truth: every group on earth has its challenges and for all the flaws that we Jews have, New York seems to always point out shamelessly their perceived negativity about our community, because they are certain that almost no one besides Orthodox activists like yourselves will come to the defense of these sacred, beautiful, and giving citizens. Somehow, the tax-paying citizens of Monsey and Flatbush don’t count as full citizens to the “government” in Manhattan and Albany. Do we make mistakes? Of course. Do we need a kick in the pants occasionally? We all do! Yet, in Montana, our government officials and the people living in the Treasure State treat our family with dignity and respect, always taking into consideration our religious needs, while in New York they only know how to take our campaign donations but aren’t willing to stand with us in a time of need. They say the right things but almost never do the right things.
During the pandemic, the Orthodox community was maligned in ways that would make the 1930s Germans and 1950s Soviets feel at home. Did every Jew in New York follow the rules instituted in New York by Governor Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio? No! But neither did many other minorities who were never called out because the Jew is always an easy target. Was every mosque closed during COVID? No! But did you read about it in the New York Times or New York Post? How is it that thousands of Black Lives Matter activists gathered one mile away from Crown Heights to demonstrate after George Floyd was killed and at the same time we were prohibited from coming together to pray in shul or join joyously for weddings, celebrating the holy matrimony that is at the foundation of Jewish life. Not every Jew or Jewish group did everything correctly; we are human and make mistakes. But I know Orthodox Jews in New York who until today pray outside to protect their health. Did you ever read about that in the Forward? My shul in Montana was closed for many months, and I personally never understood the obsession with minyanim, but to mistreat an entire community made up of large families, just because you can and no one will hold you accountable, is cowardly and despicable.
I want Hashem to hear this. Dear G-d, when You’re sitting on the Heavenly throne of judgment, please focus on the beauty of these New York souls. Think of the Yidden in the five boroughs and beyond who survived the abuse with grace, class, and determination. They could’ve joined the tens of thousands of Jews who moved to friendly states like Florida, Georgia, and Indiana, but they didn’t; they stayed to support their communities, their schools, their mikva’os, and their families. I don’t how they do it. I don’t know how they find the inner strength to put up with all of it, but I am inspired by their selfless dedication
Recently, New York yeshivos have been under attack. The Board of Regents caved to a few disgruntled former yeshiva students who are demanding that the state stick their nose into the school curriculum and if it doesn’t match their expectations, they should pull funding for the school lunch program, the busing costs, and a few other afterschool programs. It’s baffling. Has the government dealt with the failing public schools in New York, the gangs, the drugs, the illiteracy, the over-sexualization of teens, the metal detectors? Have they figured all of that out and now have free time to deal with the “horrible” Jewish education in the cheders? Should Orthodox children go hungry because their parents chose a religious education for the children? Is the property tax money of the Jews in Williamsburg and Kew Gardens less green than those same taxes from people in Staten Island? Do they not get to use their property taxes for their kid’s education? Can New York handle it if tomorrow 50,000 Jewish children would move into their local public schools?
It’s no secret that I live in Bozeman where my children attend public schools. Chavie and I decided that this is what was needed for our children and their needs, but it was our choice, and the staff at our school treats them with incredible respect and appreciation for their unique life, whether it relates to kosher food, Shabbos/yom tov observance, and even music during Sefiras HaOmer. Do parents in New York need Big Brother intruding on their education choices for their kids? Is there a big growth in the crime rate or is the family unit falling apart that New York needs to swoop in and “save” the Jewish kids from their parents?
Shiya and Chaskel, I envy your inner fight. I may have given up a long time ago, but you guys haven’t, and G-d needs to see how lucky He is to have Jews like you two serving Him with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might. It’s hard enough to be a Jew, but doing it while your government and those who are meant to be working for you are working against you is an insurmountable challenge. But you guys get it done.
Can we accept the same line of reasoning that they use against the yeshivos regarding public schools? Will funding of public schools be dependent on what parents allow their kids to watch on TV after school which will guarantee their inner worth being challenged and as they get older push them into a world of drug use, promiscuousness, and a warped reality. Will they hold back funding for all the kids who attend schools with secular studies and don’t know how to read or write and certainly don’t know the skills that the yeshiva students learn through the role modeling of their parents, their community service, and their Talmudic studies? Is schooling a parental choice or a bureaucratic choice? Should parents get to dictate what their kids study and what they don’t? How about funding for kids who come out with Spanish or Somali as their first language and don’t know anything about American civics?
There are many Orthodox schools that study secular studies and parents can always choose to send the kids there. My parents sent me to Oholei Torah where we didn’t learn any secular studies, yet I enjoyed almost every day of my schooling and still have adoration for many of my teachers, especially those from first, fourth, and ninth grade. Am I less qualified to serve humanity because of my “inadequate” education? Am I less capable of reading and writing than those my age who did attend schools with secular studies? Tell that to my classmate Mendel who owns a massive insurance company, to Yosef whose company went public, to Mendy who is a top-notch attorney, to Yanky who owns a bank, to Binyomin who is a top-earning mortgage lender. The narrative is false and I need the world to know it.
Walk around any typical college campus on any day of the week and ask the freshmen and seniors you meet a few questions about the Constitution or about the three branches of government, about the history of the Moors in Spain or the Cossacks in Ukraine, and the answers to the basic questions will be on a third-grade level if you’re lucky. Is that the successful secular education that New York wants for our children?
I sat in Bozeman a couple of weeks ago and read in agony the front-page article in the New York Times (on September 11th no less) going after a minority, the Jews, in a dishonest and discriminatory fashion, with lies and fabrications about our education system. Am I to believe that the same people who went after us for COVID, who trash Israel every Tuesday, who think religion and G-d are archaic, who think beautiful, independent Orthodox women are somehow oppressed for choosing to have large families and to dress modestly, who think that every minority (even made-up ones) needs to be protected except for Jews are the people who care about the education of our children? Does anyone actually believe it? It reminds me of when the elites in Westchester, living in their gated “whites only” communities, gave us advice on how to live in a diverse Brooklyn neighborhood of blacks and Jews, when in reality we did just fine together most of the time.
Hashem, our dear Father in Heaven, in case You couldn’t tell, I am fuming. It’s America and it’s 2022, and no people, not even the loathed Jews, should be treated this way. A coordinated attack by government, media, and ex-community members is powerful but it won’t break us. We’ve been through worse and thanks to people like Shiya and Chaskel, I know we will be OK.
I will pray in Bozeman that Hashem send wisdom to the governor of New York, to the mayor of New York City, to the board of regents, that they see the flaw in their ways and stop going after our holy institutions of Torah study and ethical teachings. There is no crime in parents choosing to teach their kids halachah, hashkafah, Talmud, Chassidus. You don’t have to like their parental choice, but you shouldn’t interfere with it either. My parents chose to send me to private tutors to get a basic secular studies education and that was their right; parents can do the same today if they choose to.
We are a strong people, we are a resilient people, we are a wise people, and we are a G-dly people. My friends in New York, please pat yourselves on the back for sticking with our way of life despite the hardships placed on you by your overbearing, power-hungry government. They are hoping that the world forgets about the crime and potholes, the looting and taxation, and will focus on the always-easy scapegoat, the Jew.
It won’t work. As the Psalmist tells us and we’ve seen it play out time and time again, “They kneel and fall, but we rise and gain strength.”
Reb Shaul Alter writes a story of Reb Moshe Betzalel, the brother of the Imrei Emes, who was ill and there was a question whether he’d be able to serve as the shofar blower that year. Friends and family beseeched the Imrei Emes to give the honor to someone else for that year, as the strain of shofar blowing could stop his healing. Yet, he demanded to blow the shofar, explaining that when he blows the shofar and gives so many Jews the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah, it gives him literal life and will actually make him heal quicker. Indeed, he did blow the shofar that year and survived to tell the tale.
Chaskel and Shiya, your life is defined by your service of Klal Yisrael, and it’s what make you so special and makes me honored to call you friends.
My dear brothers, please rock on. I send my love from Montana this erev Yom Kippur. I think about you guys a lot, my blood boils for y’all too often, but I am encouraged because I know the soul of the Jew and I know the soul of the New York Jew, and no matter how many join together to try to throw us under the bus, we will persevere. Never stop fixing that which needs change, never stop progressing to making the education system and the community foundation stronger, and don’t let outside gossipers and rabble-rousers intrude on what we have, because they are simply jealous that we keep going.
As you stand in shul and recite the words in our prayers, don’t shy away from reminding Hashem how much you’ve done for His people in New York, and I, as your defense attorney, will do the same. May all our people find the peace to serve G-d with a wholesome heart until we merit the time when we will have Jewish government that supports our holy choices under the leadership of Mashiach Tzidkeinu. May it be speedily in our days, Amen!
Your not-so-secret admirer,
Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.