ner-yisroelBy Rabbi Avi Shafran

I was recently privileged to spend the good part of a week on the tree-studded rural campus of my alma mater, Yeshivas Ner Yisroel (the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, according to the sign at its entrance). As always, visiting the place where I studied some forty years ago was an enthralling experience.

There have been changes, to be sure, at Yeshiva Lane, the winding private road that is the yeshiva buildings’ address. What was the main study hall in my day now serves the yeshiva’s high school division; and a magnificent newer beis medrash stands where, in the 1970s, an old house occupied by a faculty member’s family sat on a hill. New housing has risen up for faculty and married kollel students – there is a long waiting list of kollel-fellow families living “in town” (that is to say, Baltimore and its suburb Pikesville) who are anxious to move onto the yeshiva campus. (Kollel fellows who can no longer afford to be engaged in full-time Torah study understand that their campus apartment or townhouse should be offered to a full-time kollel fellow’s family.)

Torah life and study, and children, permeate Yeshiva Lane. Students and staff members walk to or from the study hall, often in studious conversation with one another; and parents driving cars and vans shuttle their children to schools “in town.” After school hours, the bevies of bicycles lying near the entrance of each of the apartment buildings welcome their owners back. A small playground suddenly comes to life, echoing with the sweetest sound in the world, happy kids at play.

On the Sabbath, the scene is idyllic. With no traffic, carpools, appointments or any reason to rush, a special calm settles over the campus. The songbirds that must have been there the entire week suddenly stand out, adding avian Shabbos songs to the ambiance. In the afternoon, after services and the festive Shabbos meal, parents sit on the balconies of their homes, watching their children at play, or study or just relax. A special lecture is offered for women, and husbands take a break from their studies to allow their wives to attend. Everyone looks after everyone else and everyone else’s children. The community is a model of caring. Every neighbor is neighborly.

Life on Yeshiva Lane unmistakably revolves around the study halls, where a total of close to 900 boys and men delve into the Talmud and other Jewish sources, usually studying in pairs. And the dynamos that are the batei medrash operate on Shabbos no less energetically than during the week, and are filled with young and not-so-young men from early morning until late at night.

I took the opportunity to spend a couple hours in one of those study halls; it was hard to find a seat. I applied myself to my own studies for most of the time, and then listened in to several of the pairs of students studying in my vicinity. It was as if I had been transported four decades into the past; the material and method of learning were more than familiar. And four decades hence, I realized, the room’s walls would hear the same sort of academic conversations, about the same texts. The Torah has been the focus of Jewish minds over millennia; and always will be.

Like all good things, though, my visit came to an end and I returned to a very different “ultra-Orthodox” world, at least a very different depiction of it than the one I had just experienced.

My job immerses me in the media. And awaiting me were the usual reports and blog postings about Orthodox Jews’ real or imagined crimes and misdemeanors, and the regular opinion pieces equating Orthodox belief and standards with backwardness, sexism, “phobias” and intolerance.

A special welcome-back “present” was a long frothing-at-the-mouth diatribe in a respected Jewish periodical, written by a self-described “polymath” angrily decrying the growth of the charedi community and its “Jewish fundamentalism,” which, he contends, “threatens the fabric of American Jewish life.” The would-be dragon-slayer railed against “the coercion and ignorance prevalent in American ultra-Orthodox communities”; asserted that charedi lives are “a distortion of Judaism” and fuel an “apparatus of fear, manipulation and power mongering”; sees something sinister if not criminal in the acceptance of Pell grants by yeshiva students who qualify for them; and sounds a dire warning that, because of charedi Jews’ generally large families, “New York Jewry, within a generation, will be fundamentalist, poor, uneducated and reactionary.”

Two depictions of the same subject, one a Rembrandt, the other a Picasso. What comes to mind is the famous musing of the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu. “Last night I dreamt that I was a butterfly,” he told his students. “Now I do not know if I am Chuang Tzu, who dreamt himself a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is Chuang Tzu.”

No, reality wasn’t what I returned to last week, but rather what I left behind. The portrait painted by a jaundiced media and the precious polymath is the dream, a fever dream. What I saw in Baltimore – which is duplicated in every charedi community I’ve lived in or visited – is the reality.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran


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  1. “Rabbi Shafran returns from one of the major hot-beds of Jewish Orthodox fundamentalism and blames us for skewed perceptions!”

    This is how this would be written about elsewhere! But it’s not really not so sinister.

    It is the eternal fight and struggle between guf and neshomo. Rabbi Shafran represents neshomo because he sees above all the “reality” he faces daily.

    The “realists” represent guf who cannot see beyond what’s in front of their eyes that there is much much larger picture that Hashem Himself is drawing for us obscuring the spiritual so they think what they see IS REALITY.

    It doesn’t mean that Reb Avi isn’t a realist and the realists don’t have a neshomo. Chas v’shalom. It means Reb Avi has trained himself, certainly courtesy of Ner Yisroel, to look at the ruchniyus of an issue. While not letting the hard core facts cover up the emuna every yid should have that their chaver is pure and wonderful and holy.

  2. A Talmid chochom from the heim once told me an axiomatic truth. When u hear two polar views on an issue:

    ‘ the truth is somewhere in the middle’

  3. I was privileged to attend Ner Yisroel for close to three years from 1970 – 1973. Yes. what Rabbi Shafran describes here is exactly what I saw there then. However, when I now read Rabbi Shafran’s wonderful narrative, I much more realize the extremely extreme debt of HaKores HaTov I must have to the Ribono Shel Olam for granting me to attend not only an excellent major yeshiva, but an excellent major yeshiva that really forms a whole vibrant Torah community of a whole little “yeshiva village.”

  4. When I first came, the building that now houses the Beis Medrosh for the high school — called the “Mechina” — was not built yet. Instead, both Botei Midrashim were housed in the three story classroom building. On the first floor, the space of three classrooms was not partitioned by walls, giving one long room for the Mechina Beis Medrosh. On the third floor, the space of three classrooms on both sides of the building (a total of six classroom spaces) plus the space of the hallway in the middle was all not partioned by wall, giving one large square shaped room for the post high school — called the “Yeshiva” — Beis Medrosh.

    During that first year of mine, construction began on the new Beis Medrosh, which would be adjoining the classroom building. I can well remember how, almost every day, I would stand at the window at that end of the hallway on one of the floors of the classroom building to watch the progress of the construction.

    The building was completed by the start of my second year in Elul. It was really a great occasion for the yeshiva to move into this new beautiful Beis Medrosh, with its wood panelled walls, lighting fixtures flush in with the drop ceiling, its beautiful Aron HaKodesh, etc.

    The Mechina then moved upstairs to former Yeshiva Beis Medrosh. The Hanhala told us then that the long range plans were for the Mechina to use this new Beis Medrosh, and the Yeshiva would move to another new Beis Medrosh which would be housed in a whole new building, which would be built on the location (of what was then) the old house. This actually did take place by the early 1980’s and is thus the format of today’s campus.

    If I remember hearing talk correctly, I believe that the “old house” was originally the house of the people who originally owned the plot of land, on which there was a little farm. When Ner Yisroel bought the land and began building its school campus, the old house was used as space for the offices. (It was this way when I first came.) Soon after that though, the new administration building was completed, which now housed the offices. The old house was then partitioned into apartments for a few members of the faculty. Latter on, as mentioned above, it was taken down to be the location of the new main building of the Yeshiva Beis Medrosh.

    The little photograph here is of this main building of the Yeshiva Beis Medrosh.

  5. what Avi experienced this Shabbos is something that we all experienced, while we were there: I was also there in the late sixties, 410 484 7200 is a no/ I will never forget. and 4411 will always be an address that is etched in our hearts:
    Remembering the Gedolim of yester year that came to visit, the Reb Moishe’s Zt’l, The reb Yaakov’s, the Reb Hutners, The reb Gifters, The Reb Chaim Steins, and many other Gedolim, that came to visit our Godol Adir The Rosh Hayishivah Zaicher Zadik Vekodosh Livrocho, and who can forget our Manhig Ruchny Zecher Zadik Vekodosh Levrocho Reb Dovid, The Rosh Hayishivah Later on Moreinu Hagoin Rav Weinberg, and Moreinu Hagon Rav Kulefsky Zichronom Livrocho, these holy people were living Sefer Toras, they were all a MUSTER as to what an ehrliche yid should be, and they wanted all of us to be just that: Ehrliche yidden: Achron Achron Choviv: someone who we will never forget: whom we now realize was a Goan Adir, who took care, and not just took care, but he really cared of every yid Rav Naftoly Neuberger Zecher Zadik Vekodosh Livrocho:
    43 years later I still remember the singing that took place in the dining room and yisochor frand, speaking already then in the dinning room on Garrison Blvd:
    They all had a vision of what they wantred to accomplish: and they certainly did a great job:
    we wish the hanhala and The Rosh Hayishiva continuous Siyata Dishmaya to carry the torch of what Ner Yisroel stands for: a special Brocho, to Reb. Boruch Neuberger, who is following in the footsteps of his Father, Reb Sheftel, Zol Gezunt Zein, and his Grandfather ZTV”L reb naftoli

  6. I hear you. Every out of town Yeshiva should arrange a week of Yarchei Kalla. I do it on my own & wish others would join me. There’s nothing like stepping back in time & re’living those Yeshiva days. Its also great that my wife & kids see that I take off a week of work in middle of the year to go learn Torah undisturbed.