By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
In the Across the Fruited Plain section of this week’s Yated, there is a small news item about the closing of a shul in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Congregation Ahavas Achim had been struggling with waning membership and mounting deficits. It finally made the decision to shut its doors.
As one whose father hails from that section of the country, I found the closing of this shul very newsworthy. But you don’t have to come from Massachusetts to recognize the historical significance of the story.
With the closing of this shul, a slice of shining history will slip away, soon to be forgotten. That is regrettable, because this shul, founded 120 years ago by Litvishe Yidden from Europe, recalls the great mesirus nefesh for Shabbos that a handful of Jews demonstrated, despite the terrible price that they were forced to pay. That ought not be forgotten.
The Jews who arrived in New Bedford left behind their families, friends and everything they knew. Like so many others, they came to these shores in search of a new life. We don’t know much about these particular individuals, but we know the general outlines of their story.
Fine, ehrliche Yidden were starving in the old country. They could not afford to feed and clothe themselves and their families. Survival had become impossible. They finally threw their fate to the winds blowing from the new world on the other side of the Atlantic and sailed for the goldeneh medinah.
Many of those gutteh Yidden sought to remain loyal to their heritage, but more often than not, they were overwhelmed by the challenges; surviving in the new country while maintaining their fidelity to Torah, appeared impossible.
These Jews of Lita who were brought up on a diet of Torah came here and found no chinuch structure for their children. They couldn’t find jobs that didn’t require working on Shabbos. Given what was then an institutionalized six-day workweek, Jews who failed to show up for work on Saturday were back on the streets looking for employment on Monday.
The Jews were strangers adrift in a lonely world of doom and gloom where their most cherished values evoked universal scorn. Lacking a support system and the mental stamina and spiritual fire to navigate the obstacles, they faltered. They made the tragic calculation that temporary chillul Shabbos would enable them to earn a livelihood and ensure a secure future for their children. They thought they could then regain their former standing as observant Jews and rear their children in the same tradition.
When people allow themselves to compromise on their ideals, the end is never good. It is not for us to judge them, for we have no way of knowing whether we would have withstood their tests. In hindsight, it is very easy for us to imagine ourselves being staunch and heroic in the face of their challenges. It is so easy to say that had we been alive at that period of time, we definitely would have been among the minority who remained loyal to halacha.
Looking back at the trials to which so many succumbed, we can’t help but note the tragic fallout of their choices. The vast majority of their children and grandchildren abandoned the Torah way of life. In contrast, those few who persevered and were loyal to their mesorah and shemiras Shabbos merited to produce beautiful Jewish generations. But back then, in the very midst of the cauldron, when hunger and homelessness were real dangers, very few were capable of looking at the future and imagining a healthy and vibrant community they could draw strength from.
Every generation has its nisyonos. Today, we, too, are tested each day with new temptations that our parents and grandparents never dreamed of. Our senses are assaulted daily and we are expected to withstand those attacks. Despite the differences in our nisyonos, one thing is the same: The intensity of the nisyonos makes us feel as if we are being asked to put our lives and fortunes on the line in order to pass the tests.
When Chazal teach that our forefather Avrohom Avinu was tested through ten nisyonos, it doesn’t mean that he didn’t face additional daily nisyonos. It means that Hashem tested him in ways that he doesn’t test other people. Besides for the regular daily battles we all must face quietly, Avrohom faced ten cardinal tests which determined whether he was worthy to speak with Hashem and be the progenitor of Am Yisroel.
The Lithuanian immigrants, who settled in New Bedford and established their shul there, were some of the rare few who were able to withstand the trials of the times. They took on all types of menial jobs and did their best to raise their children to follow the proper path. Some of the people who valiantly maintained that shul, are third- and fourth-generation members of the synagogue. They are the grandchildren of the heroes who withstood their nisyonos. However, the membership continued to dwindle and now the shul can no longer sustain itself. There simply aren’t enough people who are interested in what is soon to become a cultural artifact – an Orthodox shul in New Bedford dating back to before the turn of the 20th century.
In many of the communities where people read the Yated, there is not enough room in the local shuls for all those who wish to attend. The schools are bursting and the community continues to grow. We overlook the New Bedfords of the world. We forget about the millions of neshamos lost to the spiritual trials and temptations of the past century. We forget that the American map was once dotted with thousands of small towns with kehillos, rabbonim, kosher butchers and a religious infrastructure.
Those kehillos are all gone now and there is barely anyone who even remembers that they ever existed. The few towns like New Bedford which boasted religious populations and managed to persevere are dying out. Most lost their children to the melting pot, with the minority moving on to Boston or another city blessed with day schools and a frum base.
But let’s turn the spotlight for a moment on ourselves. How would you say we are faring with today’s nisyonos? Let’s take one example. In bygone years, Jews were compelled by Jewish employers to work in factories on Shabbos. Those Jewish employers forced fellow Jews to go off the derech. Today, we have an unprecedented situation that bears certain parallels to that tragic era.
Today, we have frum children who are out of school, rejected for arbitrary reasons. Parents making a genuine sacrifice to enroll their children have the door slammed in their faces. These rejected children often have literally nowhere to turn.
In certain cases, there is a troubling similarity between those who slam the school doors shut in front of tearful patents and those factory owners who, on Monday morning, slammed the door shut on those workers who didn’t come in on Shabbos. By rejecting these children, it is possible that they are pushing the children away from the community that should be embracing them.
The Lomza mashgiach offers a fascinating insight into the nisayon of the Akeidah. Hakadosh Boruch Hu told Avrohom Avinu to bring Yitzchok to a non-descript out-of-the-way mountain. What compounded the nisayon for Avrohom, the mashgiach pointed out, was that his sacrifice was to take place far from civilization. Nobody would witness what he had done.
If the Akeidah would have been held in a public square or stadium where everyone could watch, and if it would have been covered live by the media and posted on You Tube, the nisayon would never have propelled him to the level of greatness he attained. He reached sublime heights precisely because he carried out his act of devotion utterly alone, far from human view.
We witness people who appear to be acting selflessly in Hashem’s name, while they are actually seeking to add glory and fame to their own names as well. That is not the test of greatness. The true test of greatness and fidelity to Hashem’s word is how a person conducts himself when no one is watching. Will he do the mitzvah with the same fervor as if there is a camera nearby to capture his dedication?
It is not those who seek out the attention or the ones who hold press conferences to announce their meritorious deeds who are the true heroes of the Jewish people. Rather, it is those who shun publicity and who labor without the benefits of spotlights who are the most deserving of our esteem.
The people who thrive on attention are not motivated by idealism or benefitting the people they claim to be fighting for. The true leaders of Am Yisroel don’t assume leadership positions because they are adept at manipulating the press. They pay no attention to the ever-changing trends and idols of society.
Individuals such as Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l, whose yahrtzeit was this past Sunday, and ybl”c Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman toiled in virtual anonymity for decades before they became household names. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and his son-in-law, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, learned day and night without a break before they became recognized as giants of the day. Rav Ovadiah Yosef suffered years of deprivation as he amassed his computer-like knowledge of Torah.
Cavorting with politicians and hobnobbing with big names can bring flashing fame, but often, to find those with real power and effectiveness, you have to search the walk-ups of non-descript buildings.
True heroes carry the nobility of spirit that defines certain people at the core. The Litvishe Jews who built the New Bedford shul at the turn of the past century are such people who sacrificed to keep their sacred traditions intact.
Many of the nisyonos that we face in our daily lives challenge us in a different way – in the way we treat our fellow Jews. Do we look down at other people or do we put ourselves in their shoes and respond compassionately? People who have power over others should consider how truly great individuals would respond to the nisyonos that they are facing. To carry forth our example, what would Rav Shteinman say if he were running a school and a person with a slightly different background would apply for admittance?
The answer to that question is not a mystery. Several menahalim actually posed just this question to him several years ago during one of his visits to America. He responded that had Avrohom Avinu come to register in their schools, he would not have been accepted. Despite the promise he radiated, they would have rejected him based on his father’s ineligibility to be a parent in their school.
The director of a cheder in Beit Shemesh approached Rav Shteinman several years ago with a dilemma. A current parent in the cheder remarried and wanted to enroll the children of his new wife in the school. The school rejected the new applicants because the hanhallah feared that they didn’t completely meet the mosad’s criteria. When the father refused to back down, Rav Shteinman was approached by the school’s director for guidance in dealing with this stubborn individual who refused to accept the school’s decision.
Rav Shteinman was incredulous. He responded that it is gaavah to insist that you are better than the other person. To reject a child from a cheder for specious reasons is not a sign of greatness, but a sign of gaavah. Those were the words of Rav Shteinman.
What a powerful message and what an important lesson.
But how is a principal to deal with a parent who applies to his school, when he knows that other parents will mock him if he accepts a child that others have rejected? It is his personal nisayon. No one is watching. There are no klieg lights trained on him. It is not an easy decision. He has to be able to demonstrate his love for a random Jewish child. He has to rise above petty concerns and face down the baalei gaavah who say they speak in the name of purity. He has to consider in his soul what would be best for the child and the other children of the school.
When faced with such a nisayon, it is incumbent to turn to someone of the caliber of Rav Shteinman, if necessary, and pose the question to him.
Today, at this late date in the school season, there are still children who have no school to attend. Through no fault of their own, they languish at home. The school they attended last year closed, or the child’s family moved from another city, or other extenuating circumstances marked them as “rejects.”
As we sit in our offices, at our shtenders and in our homes, we should consider how our decisions will hold up to scrutiny in hindsight. How will we be judged when our actions – or our lack of action – become public knowledge? Not everything we do is momentous, but all of our actions are eternal and have ramifications.
With mitzvos and maasim tovim we create good malachim – not only angels in Heaven, malachim mamash, but also malachim who walk among us, precious Jewish children and worthy adults.
Avrohom Avinu showed the way and made it easier for us to withstand our nisyonos. May we all merit to make the right choices and withstand our momentous, and daily, tests.