By Rabbi Shmully Hecht – Yale/New Haven
It was eight short years ago. He was thirteen years old. A fine lad. All thirteen-year-old Lubavitch boys are first rate. Regardless of the naysayers. At the exact prescribed timeslot, we applied online to one of the legendary Chabad summer programs. If my memory recalls, the website had a rather short timeframe and application submissions opened at midnight.
Thursday evenings were traditionally dedicated to late-night study in Yeshiva. Lail Shishi. The more studious ones made it an all nighter. Now it’s the admissions process. Regardless, nocturnal Chasidism it is. How odd I thought. But do as instructed or endure the consequences.
It was akin to waiting outside the Apple Store on Black Friday. First come first serve. Limited supply and the sale will not last. The Chinese are backed up and inventory is racing off the shelves. We have all seen those queues wrapping around corners of city streets. Tech diehards literally camp out from dusk to dawn. Purchase your phone upgrade now or your camera won’t capture the culex pipien antennae of a mosquito in your next photo shot. Certainly calls for camping out in a tent on Third avenue under the rusty scaffolding of a local slumlord. Pathetic. In the Great Depression we had food lines. Post Modernism created iPhone lines. Lubavitch had midnight cutoffs for education applications. The dreadful contemporary redefining of upward mobility. A Shanda.
The procedure felt like bidding on a house in a hyperbolic real estate market and the broker was asking for highest and best. There are thirteen bids, it must be all cash, no contingencies, hard deposit, waive all rights, throw in flowers for the seller. And the Lexus. Expect a counter. And by the way, the owners are away for a few weeks so we don’t anticipate their response for a while. No house, no broker, no frenzy. This was simply the arduous process to gain acceptance to a popular Lubavitch summer camp. Academic mayhem of Chasidic order.
To our chagrin we were placed on the waiting list; word on the street is that most people do. And oh did we wait! And wait and wait. Some families are still waiting. Eight years later. I kid you not. Well, I guess a people that have waited two thousand years to return to our homeland can wait endlessly for a Camp or Yeshiva to reply to an application. Pitch your tent and hustle up. Why waste time with the Ivys. We have our own waiting lists. Have a few months to spare? Scratch the Visa to get into the Ukraine. Just consider applying to a Lubavitch mosad. The Israeli Consulate doesn’t even pick up the phone. And then they send you back when you land in Tel Aviv because you filled out the wrong entry permit.
Jews excel at waiting. In anticipation of life and death pronouncements from despots and tyrants our people have endured the worst mental torture of any. From Pharoah to Achashveirosh, the Pope to Stalin. What’s a few days or a few weeks in the life of a millennial old Nation. Suck it up. We’ll get back to you.
Need your car back from the dealer after he changes the transmission; Three days. AAA to show up to change your tire; Sixty minutes. An oil change; thirty minutes. A cold brew at Starbucks; five minutes. A google search… But Alas, a desk in Yeshiva, a room in seminary, a bed in Mesivta? Fuhgeddaboudit.
Criminal defendants often claim that sentencing day is the best day of the emotional ordeal. The waiting is over.
Time passed as we naïvely assumed we were all set. An old classmate of mine recently told me he did not sleep for two agonizing weeks whilst waiting for his son’s final admission to a Chabad mesivta. Ordinarily, parents of children with life threatening diseases experience sleep deprivation. Families struggling with basic needs suffer from insomnia. Severe trauma victims twist and turn lying awake at night. Parents applying to Chabad mosdos should not be experiencing this waiting game. The chronic procrastination syndrome has now penetrated the chinuch application-course for our children of all ages, in all our institutions. Most of us have experienced the ordeal and I need not elaborate.
“And even if they tarry, we anticipate its arrival.” Is it time to add a fourteenth Ani Mamin!
The pundits claim that the current strenuous process is symptomatic of the rapid growth of the internal Chabad population. Progress, shout the critics. It’s an encouraging sign. Indeed, that may be the case, yet the system is broken. Broken is an understatement. The infrastructure has essentially collapsed, and Lubavitch is trapped in its wreckage.
For weeks, we checked on the status of our son’s application. Will he spend the summer with his friends? Every child deserves an oasis away from the city to study and sport, grow spiritually and refresh for the upcoming school year. Children don’t belong in urban settings for the summer. But no response, no return calls, and then finally weeks later, a painful closure. The jury is back. The verdict will be read by her honor. The fate of the protagonist is set. The press races to get the story out. Heartrates rise hyperbolically. Neil Armstrong’s rose to 180 as he raced to land the lunar module on Tranquility base. NASA was monitoring it from Houston and he was rapidly running out of fuel. We weren’t dodging craters and falling from Space. We were trying to land a spot in a summer program. Does every Chabad family need an astronaut?
It was a few days prior to the commencement of the program. “We are so sorry to tell you that we are full. Perhaps you should try other places. Thank you for applying.” The call was short, abrupt, matter of fact and heart breaking. No bad intent on their part. Methodical and accurate. They were simply full. But that word full today has pejorative undertones. Lubavitch is full? An oxymoron! The moon is full. Planes are full. Parking lots are full. Suitcases are full. A gas tank is full. Lubavitch is never full.
Anxious people are creative. Busy people always get things done. Creative people always carve out space. Full is an arbitrary term and the time has come for Chabad to redefine it. One merely needs to take a small peek at the margins of our society today and assess the damage the term “full” has spawned. It’s a nightmare.
Speaking of those on the margins: On Tisha B’av we commemorate the ultimate fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Holy Temples. Both of them. The Talmud tells us the story of a man who was befriended by a Kamza and had an adversary Bar Kamza. He threw a party and the delegate who was sent to invite Kamza inadvertently invited Bar Kamza. Upon the latter’s arrival at the celebration the host asked him to leave. Being humiliated in public, he immediately offered to cover his tab, then extended the offer to covering half the cost of the party and ultimately the total cost of the affair. The host was stubborn and denied his offers. The man was so distraught he ultimately went to the Roman authorities and the rest is history.
When retelling the story we often portray the public mortifying ejection of Bar Kamtza as the catalyst that triggered the fall of Jerusalem. It did. But a closer reading of the story is much more complex.
The Talmud first quotes the Verse in Proverbs 28, “Fortunate is the man who is always afraid but he who hardens his heart will fall into evil.” Rashi in Gitten 55b comments on the word “fears” and explains that a concern and worry about the consequences of our actions, is the precursor to avoiding evil. As the verse continues, “a stubborn man will fall into evil.” The fearful one avoids it by thinking ahead. A peripheral reading of the story could indicate that the refusal of the sages to ultimately surrender to the Romans brought the fall of Jerusalem. Had the Jewish leaders simply negotiated a deal perhaps the aftermath would have been less tragic. But there is another reading the Talmud.
Jerusalem didn’t fall because a man was thrown out of a party and humiliated publicly. That would have been the proverbial, halba tzarah. The fact that the sages were indifferent to what they were witnessing and could not feel the pain and anguish of this man is the reason Bar Kamtza joined the long list of enemies of our people. The Rabbis sat by and did nothing. Not one Rabbi. The Talmud says “Sages,” plural. You know what they were thinking? I will tell you. Bar Kamza man is an antagonist of the host. He was not invited. He does not belong at the party. A host should not be compelled to accommodate his enemies at his personal affairs. And who are we, simply guests to stop him. Silence. The Second Temple fell. The sovereignty of the entire Jewish Nation was lost. Millions of Jews have since been exiled, pillaged, plundered, hung, shot, cremated, tortured, starved and incinerated for 2000 years due to the silence, indifference, apathy of the Rabbis. The indifference to one Jew who wasn’t welcome at a party to which he was not invited.
Ok, application denied. But what was I to tell my son? My wife and I collected our thoughts, petitioned our inner strength and started looking elsewhere. Summer was setting in and time was of the essence. Others in similar predicaments would have been simply spooked. Most families are without any resources, and panic they do. Single moms. Poor dads. Orphans. Where do they turn? A rejection in the final hour can be traumatic. It can simply drive a person mad.
We finally found the one place that would accept him. He had no friends there and the participants were from unfamiliar schools. It was nonetheless a Chabad Institution designated solely for thirteen-year-olds. It was their inaugural year and a test pilot program. The directors benevolently launched it to absorb the overflow of other oversubscribed programs. We packed his bags on a late Thursday afternoon, he hugged his mom, and off we went. After driving a few hundred miles I dropped him off and headed home.
The minute Shabbos was over he was calling frantically, pleading to leave. Literally Begging. In reflection, I made a colossal mistake leaving him there in the first place, despite not having a viable alternative at the time. In retrospect, it was inexcusable.
Absolute squalor. Beatles the size of rugelach wriggling around the perimeter of the mikvah; a further reading on the adage of “one who immerses in the mikveh with a sheretz biyado,” vermin in his hand. The mold in the bedroom was so visible I could not discern if it was deposits of soot from a recent fire or black paint. There was no toilet paper in the bathroom. BYOB. Bring your own bottle. And your own toilet paper, while you are at it. BYOTP! Coincidentally the directors of this camp were the kindest people. Gracious enough to accept my child at the late hour, with no preconditions. Beggars can’t be choosers, Shmully Hecht. You have very limited options in the second week of a humid, stifling hot, July. The directors simply didn’t have the financial wherewithal to adequately set up the temporary camp. Moreover, the food was scarce, and I had serious concerns. My child was not going to go hungry for the summer in a provisional environment. Roosevelt’s New Deal ended hunger in the thirties, or so I thought.
I reminisce of being expelled for a day from mesivta on Ocean parkway 30 years ago. Ocean Parkway was a wonderful Yeshiva with excellent mechanchim and a gracious building. On one particular evening the kitchen staff were unorganized, they left early, and we were left with scant allotments. We cast a speedy ballot and unanimously decided to break into the walk-in freezer, find the goods, and throw ourselves a bbq. A resourceful member of the class jimmied the padlock on the steel encasement and we rolled out the meat. Concentric circles of wide eyed bochurim formed around the booty as we beated our chests. Within twenty minutes the smoke was billowing down the parkway as we feasted on fresh burgers and a few slices of chuck steak. I was waiting for an Indian dance to commence as the raid was successful and the youth were fed. A gastronomic bivouac on the basketball court of Tomchei Tmimim. Fully satiated. It was frankly hilarious, and I’m sure my classmates share similar fond memories of the affair. The leader of the band now protects the streets of Crown Heights. Locksmiths and burglars are the best guardians of society.
The next day our principal, Rabbi Tenenbaum sent us home. A misdemeanor, but a crime no less. He was a wonderful man who cared dearly about each and every one of us. His wisdom, love, and devotion to the bochurim was heartfelt. He made indelible impressions on all of us, delicately reprimanded our wrongdoings and could not tolerate grand larceny in Tomchei Tmimim. No one should. Nixon lost his presidency over Watergate and this was the Rebbe’s mosod.
I arrived at 824 Eastern Parkway that afternoon and notified my grandfather of our meat-poaching episode and the decision of the Hanholoh. I was living with my grandparents at the time and they were my proverbial guardians. “Zeide, We broke into the freezer and feasted on some fine beef,” I recall telling him. “We were simply starving, and the kitchen staff missed the plot.”
“Well, its hashgacha pratis,” he replied. “A friend of mine just dropped off two box seat tickets to a Mets Game in Shea Stadium. Take a friend to the game and be home before midnight. Just make sure Rabbi Tenenbaum accepts you back in Yeshiva tomorrow.”
JJ Hecht was an incredibly wise man. Yale has many smart men, educated men and proper men. And infinitely more women. But very few wise ones, and the distinction is monumental. We paid a small fee for the culinary pillage and the episode passed without incident. I distinctly remember telling Rabbi Tenenbaum about the baseball game. Two bochurim with yarmulkas and payis bypassing the scalpers, the attendants, the crowds, headed straight to the box behind the plate. He could not contain his laughter. He too was among the wise ones. Oh, the Mets lost. I hear they most often do.
But my son was on the phone, hundreds of miles from home pleading with me to come pick him up and take him. The problem was I had no where to take him if I did.
To be continued…
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