By Larry Gordon
”]Lawrence, NY – They are seen as firebrands who are by choice isolated and who stick to themselves. They shun the limelight and instead prefer to live a simple, pious, and humble lives without the accouterments of modern life—all in an effort to pull themselves closer to G-d. This week they momentarily transplanted the leadership of the movement to New York, and the Toldos Avraham Yitzchok Rebbe prayed, hosted a tisch, and met with Jews from various backgrounds, sharing a bit of each other’s world.
Their Old World traditions handed down through the generations, however, are also shrouded in controversy, as fringe elements organize sometimes violent demonstrations on the streets of Jerusalem on matters they feel come into conflict with the sanctity of Shabbos, particularly in their carefully cut-out conclaves and neighborhoods. Who the actual players are in these unnecessary and embarrassing demonstrations is largely unclear.
These activities, though, combined with the community’s official position of non-recognition of the legitimacy of the secular State of Israel, brought them at loggerheads with others this week as they seek material support from communities who are identified by their strong support for the State of Israel.
I sat down with the Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Rebbe and his Rebbetzin between appointments to see people last Sunday—some of whom had flown in from other parts of North America—to try to clarify and understand where the Rebbe and his chassidim stand on the all-important issue of support for the State of Israel.
“What it comes down to, very briefly, is that the government violates Shabbos and sanctions this desecration,” the Rebbe said clearly and calmly in Yiddish. “If there would not be this violation of Shabbos, we would have absolutely no problem with the State of Israel.”
The idea that the litmus test for recognition of the State of Israel is the observance of Shabbos was handed down from the Rebbe’s father, the Toldos Ahron Rebbe, who passed away in 1997. The Rebbetzin interjected that the Rebbe is the older of two brothers and by right he should have been the next Toldos Ahron Rebbe. “The Rebbe was too easygoing and soft-spoken on issues, and many of the chassidim wanted a leader who was more of an activist and less of a pacifist,” she said in a very animated Yiddish.
It’s true, she said, that it’s difficult to sit idle and not protest the desecration of Shabbos. “It hurt us to see a Jew riding in a car on Shabbos—and yes,” she added, “even the Rebbe goes outside and protests by declaring three or four times in a raised voice ‘Shabbos,’ but then he goes back inside to his study and goes about his business,” she says.
She explained that those chassidim seen protesting, throwing things, and rioting in Jerusalem this last summer are not the followers of the Toldos Avraham Yitzchok Rebbe. “The people you see in the streets rioting are bums”—she used the English word there—“and people with nothing else to do.”
When the matter was raised about Toldos Avraham Yitzchok’s alleged ties to the infamous Neturei Karta, which protests Israeli policy together with radical Arabs and has met with Iranian President Ahmadinejad in Tehran and here, the Rebbetzin said, “This is something that we are not involved in and have never been involved in. The truth is that this whole business started with Satmar in New York.”
So the strain with the Israeli government and the matter of legitimacy and recognition is a matter that is played out on a very limited basis, though it is costly for the chassidim. It’s not entirely accurate to say that since there is the issue of Shabbos that they refuse to accept any money from the government. The fact is that they live there in Jerusalem; they utilize mass transit, which, though a fare is paid, is still subsidized by the State of Israel. The same is true when you take a drink of water or turn on a light switch.
One area in which this is played out is in chinuch—the education system. This sect, as well as others, refuses to take money from Israel’s Education Ministry for their schools, because they do not want their Torah studies financed by a government that openly and deliberately violates Shabbos. Therefore, their institutions are seriously in debt. And that’s why they are in New York now, to raise money for the considerable education system that they administer.
I suggested to the Rebbe that since he was here in New York seeking vital funding for his educational institutions, perhaps we could arrange for the Israeli government to send us—here in the Diaspora—the money, and then we could in turn give it to his organization. The Rebbe said, with a smile, that it sounded like a good idea, but they have not yet encountered a person who can successfully effectuate that type of arrangement.
The Rebbe unequivocally condemned participation in any kind of riots by chassidim. He said he does not advocate or encourage getting involved in those types of activities, and that he bans any individual who does participate from entering his shul in Jerusalem.
Some voiced their opinion last week that the Rebbe’s visit specifically to Lawrence was in and of itself provocative and that he should be rejected on all levels for representing a group that refuses to lend full legitimacy to the elected government of Israel.
That position, it seems, was based mostly on the need of some to sensationalize, dramatize, and exaggerate a situation that has only a minimal resemblance to reality. It’s odd to think that we, sitting in the Diaspora in New York, are the big pro-Zionists, while those living on the front lines—which is all of Israel—are the anti-Zionists. There’s something incongruous about that thought process, and it is misguided to draw definitive conclusions based on that skewered formula.
A lot of the criticism of the Rebbe’s visit was based on the usual conflict between perception and reality. Coverage by media outlets with limited space to explore all sides of the issue, combined with impatience and inattentiveness by readers, often leads to the wrong conclusions. People often use only droplets of information that are available to them to paint individuals or groups of people with this broad brushstroke that labels them dangerous to the cause of K’lal Yisrael.
Based on what the Rebbe and his wife had to say, and taking them at their word, it seems that they are simply principled people who, as observant Jews, find the desecration of Shabbos in the land of the Jews intolerable. The Rebbetzin recalled the situation when they were a starving young couple, lacking the resources to purchase food. “There was a woman that I met who nebach lost her son in a car accident. I met her by mere chance,” she said. “She wanted to donate some money to us in her son’s memory, and I thought it was a piece of unexpected good fortune—really a miracle—that I had met her. I told my husband about what had transpired and he had only one question for me: Did the woman keep and observe Shabbos?” They concluded the story saying that, sadly, the woman was not shomer Shabbos, and her husband refused to accept the money.
As devoted Jews, many of us here feel that the State of Israel, situated in our ancient homeland, represents us all and defines us as a people, on a multiplicity of levels. We are composed of people from many different backgrounds, orientations, and customs. Our ancestors hail from different continents and countries. In a sense, within the relatively small but global Orthodox Jewish community we are frequently unified by our diversity.
And viewing Israel as central to our lives may even be a healthy thing. One only hopes that some of the strong feelings voiced last week, albeit by a fringe minority, are not based on the different ways the Rebbe’s chassidim and those of us here lead our lives. We would all probably be better off not displaying for the public the intertribal differences that very often set us apart from one another. Feeding fuel to this divisive fire conjures up the worst kind of prejudices, which we certainly have no right to display against one another.
In fact it does immeasurable damage, because the critics of Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael are gleefully watching, pleased that we can attempt to harm one another’s causes by vilifying and denigrating a segment—no matter how much we disagree with them—of our people. By indulging in this kind of practice, we do the bidding of our critics, and that must make them extremely content and satisfied.
Aside from the money they so desperately need, the Rebbe says that each time he comes to New York he gets a chance to get closer to Jews he otherwise would not have the opportunity to come in contact with. “I draw closer to them and I hope that through the relationship they are able to come closer to Hashem,” he said.
To many of us, the image of Israel and her survival is the greatest and most challenging undertaking of our time. I don’t believe that the Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Rebbe feels any differently about this issue. It may very well be that those chassidim of various sects—perhaps only on the periphery—who question the entire concept of Zionism, its proliferation, and support do so because of the fashion in which Shabbos has been trampled on all too often over the years.
We are passionate about the survival of Israel. Perhaps we are willing to overlook some aspects of what we consider the compromised Jewish character of the state in the interest of the greater good of her survival. If that is so, then that’s where our convictions may diverge with the Rebbe’s. He, too, is passionate about Israel—where he and his children reside—but he is just as passionate about the sanctity of the holy Shabbos as it relates to the Jewish state. Dismissing and denigrating him is a hurtful simplification of the reality.
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org