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By Yosef Shidler
So here we are again.
It’s another year and another story about Lakewood, New Jersey, also occurring right around the Nine Days, a period when we mourn the loss of our Batei Mikdash, one of which was destroyed because of the sin of sinas chinam – baseless hatred, or thinking that you are better than everyone else. As we reflect upon the lessons of the Nine Days and try to improve our ways, it is also appropriate to consider our responsibilities as the chosen people to be a light unto the nations in this world.
Clearly in the past few weeks the Jewish community has done exactly that. Dozens of people dropped everything to aid in the search for Rabbi Reuven Bauman when he went missing in Norfolk, Virginia. $2 million dollars was raised to pay the only medicine that could save the life of a small child. Hundreds of people who turned out to mourn a young boy who died in a tragic water park accident. All of these events are proof positive that we are united in so many ways, with so much good in our community and so many chesed organizations stepping up to help others in need. On the surface it looks like we are doing everything right and that we have done what we needed to bring Moshiach.
But he’s still not here. And from where I sit, we still have a long way to go.
Lakewood itself has so much that is right about it. A 2014 New York Times article discussed the unprecedented giving that goes on on a daily basis and the number of educational institutions here is staggering. And yet, there are things going on in this town that nobody wants to talk about and that in some instances seem to be deliberately done behind the scenes.
Let’s step back for a moment in time and consider Rav Aaron Kotler zt’l and how Lakewood came to be. Rav Aaron had a dream of building a small yeshiva for the top bochurim, that maybe one day might draw 100 students. He built Beis Medrash Govoha to bring his vision to life, choosing the small resort town of Lakewood, New Jersey. He imagined that bochurim and avreichim would come and learn in Lakewood and when they left the yeshiva’s hallowed halls, they would move elsewhere, leaving Lakewood as a haven for top-tier learners.
Little did Rav Aaron realize that his yeshiva would be so successful that it would undermine what he had set about to do. Rav Aaron was succeeded by his son Rav Shneur zt’l, with his grandsons Rav Malkiel and Rabbi Aaron Kotler currently at the helm of BMG. As time went by, a shift in our culture meant that suddenly any “quality” boy would, of course, be learning full time, a major change from the days when only the best of the best stayed on in yeshiva. And a construction boom created a stock of reasonably priced housing all over Lakewood, with a solid infrastructure built to provide for the needs of the many families who flocked to the town in search of a Torah community with modern conveniences. Hoping to head those problems off at the pass, the Lakewood Vaad was created to ensure that BMG remained the focal point of the town and that its residents fit the yeshiva’s cookie cutter mold.
Baruch Hashem, Lakewood is home today to dozens of wonderful yeshivos, but when it comes to getting our little ones into school, things can be exceptionally difficult, especially for those who don’t fit into the BMG box. Me? My family and I moved here from Crown Heights where housing was unaffordable. We soon found ourselves very much at home in Lakewood and while we were warned that getting your kids into school was “not easy but not impossible,” we weren’t really worried about running into an serious roadblocks. .
If you know me, you already know about the letter I wrote last year on Tisha B’Av when I still didn’t have a single school willing to accept my daughter. And you probably know how after that letter, she was welcomed into a wonderful school called Ateres Tziporah, which was saved from last minute financial problems by the generosity of Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz. What you don’t know is what an amazing year my daughter had in Ateres Tziporah, a school that helps every girl maximize her potential, makes each one feel special and has strong programs in both limudei kodesh and secular studies. It is an institution that educates the next generation of wives and mothers to have bright futures – one that equips them for the important roles that they will play both inside and outside of the house, should they choose to do so, instead of assuming that they aren’t capable of anything more than just sitting home and raising the kiddies.
And last weekend, the other shoe dropped. Unbelievably and without any warning at all, Ateres Tziporah was closed, supposedly because of financial issues. It took a while to dig down deep enough to find out what had really happened and the truth was almost too crazy to believe. The school’s downfall had been orchestrated by those who were tasked with making sure that Lakewood remained aligned with Rav Aaron’s vision, which didn’t include a place like Ateres Tziporah which warmly welcomed every girl who wanted to learn. I guess in their minds, it made sense. If there are no schools for the kids of non-BMG-type families, then they will have to pick up and move elsewhere, leaving Lakewood pristine and pure. For students of history, that concept is eerily disturbing, but let’s not go there.
Ironically, while Ateres Tziporah was supposedly closed for lack of funding, those who were running the school turned down donations that would have covered the shortfalls, with previous funding commitments deliberately sabotaged. What terrible sin was it that Ateres Tziporah had committed to find itself in the crosshairs of the Vaad? You better sit down for this one. It had made the apparently fatal error of welcoming every girl who wanted to learn and grow and succeed, and worse yet, it had done so without forcing parents to grovel or to hand over $40k checks as “admission gifts.”
The funny thing is that while BMG’s original class of talmidim may have included elite learners, they didn’t all come from BMG-type families. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was considered to be one of Rav Aaron’s top students and yet his ability to learn like no one else wouldn’t have been enough to get him into some of the schools we have in Lakewood today. It takes yichus. It takes money. It takes big checks and lots of them. How have we gotten to the point where the Torah, G-d’s gift to all of the Jewish nations, is considered to be something that is only for our society’s chosen ones?
The fact is that whether the Vaad likes it or not, Lakewood is changing, the sea of black and white dotted is with color. Is this a community that only welcomes one type of Jew and tells the rest to find somewhere else to live? I know what you’re thinking – that doesn’t really happen. But I can tell you it does. Because I received a phone call last year from a member of the Vaad telling me in no uncertain terms to “go back to Crown Heights,” a pretty misplaced comment considering that I am from Denver, my wife is from Florida and my family has been proud U.S. citizens for the past 100 years so we are the furthest thing in the world from Brooklynites. Are the powers that be in Lakewood actually taking their cues from the people of Sodom who prided themselves on denying outsiders entrance? As Americans, do we not have the right to live freely anywhere on the soil of this great country?
And yet, five weeks before the start of the new school year, 170 girls suddenly have no place to go in September. Their parents will be forced to beg and pull any string they can so that their daughter can be squeezed into an already too full classroom. Ateres Tziporah’s parent body is angry and rightfully so – it’s not just that they have to find another placement for their girls. It is because their daughters were in a school that loved them, nurtured them and helped them grow in their yiddishkeit and outsiders decided that that approach to chinuch simply wasn’t the way things go in this town. Parents are frustrated, angry and literally at wits end because of the powers that be who are denying them the opportunity to educate their girls as they see fit. And its not just Ateres Tziporah – other schools that have suffered a similar fate, with a local girls’ high school with 60 students also being shuttered by the same forces.
Let me reiterate again that I am in no way looking to detract from Rav Aaron’s kavod. He was one of the luminaries of the Torah world and his method of chinuch yielded wonderful results. Coming from Lubavitch I can tell you that the Lubavitcher Rebbe had a different approach – he believed in welcoming every person, treating everyone with respect and making sure that unity was priority number one. But the Lakewood Rav Aaron envisioned is not the Lakewood that exists today and life in contemporary Lakewood is not what it was in 1950 or even in 1980 or 2010. Even one of Rav Aaron’s own grandchildren was heard to say that if he were alive today, “he would move Lakewood out of Lakewood.”
At issue here is not just a single school but an entire way of life. Sure we have conveniences galore but is it possible that our community is breeding a divisive mentality, one that allows us to forget just how powerful we can be what we all stand united? In any other community, a yeshiva being forced to close down would result in a huge outcry and campaigns to save the school that would likely be picked up by Jewish communities all across the United States. But in Lakewood, Ateres Tziporah was closed down and not a single community leader has uttered even one word about the situation. Does their silence imply that they stand with the Vaad? That a school that welcomes every girl who wants to learn has no place in Lakewood Ir Hakodesh? I’m sorry to say that we are living in a sick world, where we can find ourselves in the midst of the Nine Days and there are rabbis and community leaders who seem to have no problem seeing kids out of school, stuffed like human sardines into an overcrowded school and torn away from their friends.
When my daughter was about to enter Ateres Tziporah last year, I was called to a meeting in the school where I was asked to sign a paper from the Lakewood Vaad committing to keeping quiet and not speaking out on any issue. The implication was clear – if I didn’t sign the paper my daughter would not be going to school. Is that the kind of town we live in? Where people are bullied into silence? It was clear at that moment that I was definitely not welcome here, a message that seemed to come straight from the town’s leadership.
I find myself asking the question. Is there not one voice of leadership who will step up and say what we can do to rebuild Ateres Tziporah?
I should mention that aside from this craziness, I love living in Lakewood and we have been so happy here that my parents have moved to town as well. Should I just move to a place that has true Torah values and respects the potential in each child instead of throwing them under the bus? I have no intention of going back to Brooklyn, as that lovely rabbi from the Vaad suggested, and if I can’t find a suitable school for my daughter in Lakewood because of the elitist mentality that seems to be everywhere, then I will just have to drive farther to find a place that understands what the Torah is all about and what achdus really means. It is laughable that Lakewood prides itself on being an Ir HaTorah because there is literally nothing Torahdik about leaving 170 girls out in the cold.
Having been raised on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I know that each of us is here to bring light into places of darkness and right now, Lakewood is sadly, very, very dark. It is unfathomable that so many precious neshamas have been cast aside like last night’s garbage and left to flounder on their own and that an institution that teaches Torah could be closed so that the Vaad could turn back the hands of time and pretend that it is 1950 all over again. The leadership of Lakewood needs to open their eyes and see what our town really looks like. The people of Lakewood need to stand up and call out those who closed down a school that was home to 170 girls. We are a people who stop everything the minute there is a tragedy to help someone else – how can we just stand in silence when our daughters are denied their chance to be taught the beauty of Torah and the love of yiddishkeit?
Let me end with a story told by Rabbi Yechiel Spero that was recently printed by Artscroll that took place right here in Lakewood in BMG. The entire yeshiva was downtrodden after Rav Aaron’s passing, wondering what would become of the yeshiva. The mashgiach, Rav Nosson Wacthfogel, stood up and relayed a dream that had been shared with him by a great Torah scholar.
In the dream Moshiach was sleeping on a couch. The Chasom Soffer approached Moshiach and tried to wake him up with no success. Then Rav Aaron walked into the room and attempted the rouse Moshaich, again with no success. Finally a young American boy in a baseball cap walked into the room and tapped Moshiach on the shoulder, waking him up.
Addressing the room, Rav Nosson explained that Moshiach didn’t come in the generation of the Chasam Sofer or Rav Aaron Kotler. He told the talmidim “he is coming here, for you guys, right now and he is coming for the American kid in the baseball cap.”
Let that lesson sink in. Those kids in the baseball caps? They have value. They are important. They were created in G-d’s image. And the mashgiach of BMG made it abundantly clear to the yeshiva’s talmidim that even those who don’t dress in black and white also have have the ability to bring Moshiach – we just have to empower them.
Are we ready to accept them? Open our arms to embrace them? Create Torah institutions for them?
Or is Moshiach going to continue slumbering because even after all these years, we still haven’t learned what ahavas chinam and achdus are all about?
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of GreaterLakewood.
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