By Rafi Newman
The pervasive and incessant fear of the chareidi-religious, albeit unfounded and baseless, is openly visible.
When, for example, I get on a bus: I see fear in the people’s eyes; the men clench their fist, the women’s eyes widen with fear. They fear me – not because they know me. They fear my outward appearance, immediately discarding my non-intimidating and friendly smiling persona but rather immediately judging the contents of my character by the appearance of my clothes, panicking that I might at any given moment, scream, spit, revile, or perhaps perform an exorcism on their soul.
Do they secretly fear me because they really do believe that I am a “parasite,” will steal their money – or perhaps even use their blood for Matzoh? No, they simply fear me because I am different. I am a Jew who dresses as Jews did for centuries.
I am made to feel unwelcome, a stranger in a strange land. When I walk into Hebrew University’s library to find some rare Biblical text unavailable elsewhere, people actually ask me if I am lost or give me a look meaning “what am I doing here?”
Although I remain silent, my gut reaction is to pontificate:
I am a Jew who dresses as Jews did for centuries, believes as Jews believed for Millennia and devotes my life to the eternal Torah.
We have young boys less than ten years old quoting sages that survived the passage of time of two millennia. That is more of an accomplishment than an undergraduate degree.
When the Ambassador of the US, Dan Shapiro walks into the Mir yeshiva to experience what it is like, and is able to converse with students about their religious studies and feels welcome there, regardless if he is wearing a yarmulka or not, that is an accomplishment. That George W. Bush expressed his desire to visit the Mir is also an accomplishment.
At the age of 16, Yeshiva students acquire far more knowledge than a student attains in 3-4 years at university. At 20, they surpass a Ph.D., gauging this by the number of hours of classwork, numbers of books analyzed, and level of complexity of the material. The number of Jewish law treatises far exceeds the largest of law libraries and includes case law which spans millennia. A Jewish studies Ph.D. or Jewish philosophy Ph.D. represents far less than what the average 25 yr. old yeshiva bochur accomplishes.
These accomplishments are recognized, appreciated and supported by Jews worldwide, but the yeshivas do not take money without being concerned with the spiritual welfare of the benefactors. As an example, when a non-religious millionaire wanted to donate to the Mir Yeshiva, he gave the Rosh Yeshiva a signed blank check and told him to fill it out for whatever amount he desires and the millionaire will donate it. The Rosh yeshiva told him to write out $1000 and buy himself Tefillin.
The Mir Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Nossan Tsvi Finkel, may his memory be blessed, suffered terribly from Parkinson’s disease, but did not allow the disease to stop him from giving lectures at the Yeshiva and being available to learn with students, regardless of how severe the symptoms were. This is the resilience we idolize.
You see, you just don’t know us.
You don’t understand determination. You don’t understand that most yeshivas stay up all night Thursday nights and learn the night through or at the very least till 1:00 AM, getting up every morning of every day 6:30-7:00 AM. You just don’t know what it’s like studying 16 hours a day, every day, with unsatisfactory rations of food and sleep.
When I was 16 years old, in yeshiva, there was a boy who contracted a deadly virus. He was rushed to the hospital and according the doctor, he had less than 24 hours to live. Out of 120 students, 120 students stayed up all night, saying Tehillim (psamlms, ed.) and learning Torah for his recovery, which came to pass. People created shifts for more than a week, in which people would rotate and make sure they there was Torah learning going on at all hours of the day.
He was a new kid. Most people didn’t know him. But that didn’t matter to anyone. We did it because it was the right thing to do, no matter how hard it might be. That’s determination.
You see, you just don’t understand what our determination and resilience is about. It is not “we” the “old fashioned superstitious people” who need an education with useless facts or baseless theories that will never help us in life. We learn skills which we can apply to any facet of life, but most importantly to our dedication to Torah learning.
I personally know someone who happens to be a prodigy, and who only sleeps 2 hours a night- the travel time between his house and the Yeshiva. With the enormous lack of sleep, I still could not ever find a fault in the impeccable logic and reasoning behind his insightful lectures. But of course he would never advertise his accomplishments. Because that’s modesty.
We should take pride in our Torah learning and should take pride in our charity work. We do not need official National Service which pales in comparison to what we do every day of every month in every year throughout our lives. You don’t understand that when there are sick or poor people in our community, we don’t need to publicize our activities. We take care of our own, without forcing old, sick and disabled people to be manhandled by irresponsible young and reckless 18-year-olds.
Although laudable and far superior the other well-funded non-profits, we provide needed help without embarrassing the needy or humiliating them. Food boxes are left in front of poor families’ homes in the middle of the night so the neighbors would not know who it is who cannot afford to make a Shabbat meal. While being meticulous not to embarrass anyone especially those who need, we take no personal pride in what we do. We do it because it’s the right thing, no matter how much you will try to force us to believe differently.
We have no gargantuan propaganda machine proclaiming what we do that is exceptionally right because we take for granted that this righteousness and greatness is what is routinely expected by the Almighty.
We emulate Rav Shimon Bar Yochai who would rather live on paltry rations of a particular food from a particular tree and live in a cave for decades learning Torah rather being a “good citizen” and obeying the law of the land of his time which closed yeshivas and prohibited Torah learning.
You will not win this war against us. Don’t start one..
We see this “equal service” legislation as nothing short of a thinly veiled attempt to close all yeshivas and re-create our yeshiva boys in your own image. Proponents of the “equal service” bill will find that our resilience is still unbreakable.
Even if you choose to empty all yeshivas and put us all in jail, we will still be learning Torah in jail, but we will not be forced to be in the armed forces or work force. So we accept the looks on the buses, we’ll swallow the snarky comments at Hebrew U, but we will not accept your impositions on our lifestyle. We will not compromise our learning or our communal ties.
Do not mistake our silence for meekness. What we lack in public relations we make up for in strong-willed determination.
The writer is a 23 year old Yeshiva Student learning in the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He made aliya from the US in 1999 with his family.
This op-ed first appeared at Arutz Sheva.