New York – With a heavy heart, I feel compelled to write to the greater community as we prepare for Matan Torah and commemorate the yahrtzeit of the founder of Chassidus, Rabbeinu Yisroel Baal Shem Tov zy”a. As I write the following I beseech the Bais Din Shel Maaleh for divine assistance during the tumultuous times that we find ourselves in. I chose this week because all Jews are now preparing to once again accept the Torah on Shavuous, which is also the yahrtzeit of the holy Baal Shem Tov. Kabbolas HaTorah was the highlight of the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu, when we were given the Torah by Hashem on Har Sinai. Indeed Moshe Rabbeinu is the true paradigm of a manhig yisroel. In more recent history, the holy Baal Shem Tov, whose yahrtzeit we commemorate on Shavuous as the founder of chassidus, focused on every person’s ability to connect to Hashem, regardless of his learning capability, through simcha and ahava.
Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Ruchie Freier. I am B”H the mother of a wonderful Chassidishe family and the wife of a Talmid Chochom. As a young married woman, to support my husband in kollel and our growing family, I worked as a legal secretary; eventually I decided to pursue a law degree. Today, with incredible Siyata Dishmaya, my dream has come true, B’soch Ami Ani Yosheves, I am a practicing attorney in the heimishe community.
As a heimishe woman working in corporate America and in the courts, I have found myself in the unique position as advocate for Chassidim and frum people. Whether a particular group of Chassidim or a Chassidishe institution was experiencing legal problems or negative media coverage, I voluntarily took a public stand to make a difference. While, many people have criticized and disparaged me; I never wavered in my goal of trying to make a Kiddush Hashem by providing the public with the knowledge who true Chassidim are and what we represent.
How B’Derech Began
Last year on Lag Ba’Omer, during my annual trip to Meron, I befriended a heimishe woman. She tearfully relayed to me the sad story of her 16 year old son, who was expelled from yeshiva many years ago, after many failed disciplinary methods. Today, he is addicted to drugs and Torah and yiddishkeit were too painful for him and thus cast away. I was shocked and horrified and assumed this was an exception to the rule, an unusual case. I assured her that when we return to the states, I will use my professional connections to help her son. But, lo and behold, when we returned home, she introduced me to many friends, all in the same predicament. I realized then that to save her son, Klal Yisroel had to be saved. I realized that many children have been expelled from yeshivas and now live bereft of essential Torah values; for example, Chilul Shabbos, treif and arayos have become the norm among these children. While society calls these children “Kids at Risk” it’s really our Kehila that’s at risk of losing our children. The seeds for B’Derech, the movement to keep kids happy B’Derech HaTorah, were planted.
Several weeks later in July, a horrifying, damaging, awful article appeared as a front page cover story of one of New York’s famous magazines. It was the story of a young formerly Chassidish woman who grew up in Monroe and strayed from the Derech HaTorah. She maligned Torah and Chassidus and denigrated the core values of Yiddishkeit. I contacted the Times Herald Record reporters in Monroe that I had befriended and they agreed to help me. After several extensive interviews, my article appeared debating all the negativity attributed to Torah and Chassidus by the New York magazine. But, the reporters made me give my word and find an answer to the following question. “If your lifestyle is so meaningful, why do so many Chassidic children rebel?”
The Painful Truth
As any lawyer knows, before presenting a case, extensive research must be done. As any askan knows, to be effective, one must work relentlessly to help others. I lost no time doing both. Parents began calling me to advocate on behalf of their children so that their children either to be accepted or not be expelled from yeshiva, thus becoming a child advocate. I was asked to raise thousands of dollars for tutors, who were vital, lest many boys fail in their learning. I’ve spoken to all parties and have followed the instructions of my law professors, namely, learn to argue all sides of a case. The parents complain that the yeshivas cater to the top learners, the yeshivas correctly claim, that if they don’t maintain a high learning standard, parents would pull their children out. The parents complain that children are not allowed any recreational outlets and the rebbeim lament how they are overworked and underpaid. Both sides of the argument are valid.
I’ve also listened to the children and B’Derech has become their voice. I must apologize to all my law professors as I ignore one very important law school lesson, namely, never get personally involved in any case or client; do your job, remain aloof, distant but professional. In that I have proudly failed. After hearing the broken-hearted, painful stories of the children – I will never be the same. Their stories are of discipline, medication and its side effects, humiliation, rejection and the pain associated with being expelled from yeshiva, which ultimately led to the following internalization. I have been thrown out of Yeshiva – the yeshiva doesn’t want me, the Rebbe doesn’t want me, and Hashem doesn’t want me. I have cried myself to sleep many a night and have been awakened many nights by children roaming the streets, because their parents have locked them out.
I ask! When Hashem commanded Moshe Rabbeinu to prepare Klal Yisroel at Har Sinai, was there a separate section for learning disabled? Did ADD, ADHD, reading disabilities, etc. disqualify any Jew from receiving the Torah? I remember learning that all the Yidden accepted the Torah, K’Eesh Echad B’Lev Echad. In today’s world, learning has become the focus so that those kinderlach who can’t meet the standard are unwanted. I remember learning that Hashem chose Moshe Rabbeinu as manhig when he went to pick up and embrace the little lamb that was flagging behind the flock. Maybe that little lamb was disabled? Readers, didn’t Moshe Rabbeinu, suffer a disability; a speech defect? Perhaps, today he would not be accepted in a yeshiva, unless his parents would commit to an extensive regimen of speech therapy, tutoring and medication if all else fails.
I ask another question: Didn’t the Baal Shem Tov, found chassidus, with the intent to bring all the illiterate, dispersed and simple Yidden closer to Hashem and Torah observance through simcha? Wasn’t his goal to be “mekarev yidden” regardless of their learning capabilities? With a heavy heart, I will share with you some stories I have heard from these broken neshomas, who have been rejected or expelled, because our heimishe yeshivas want to be proud of a student body of metzuyanim. We need to reintroduce the Baal Shem Tov’s approach to serving Hashem, so that all these kinderlach can be saved!
Sruly is a 16 year old boy from Boro Park. His mother called me, as a last resort to try to help him. Sruly starts off our conversation like this. “Mrs. Freier, let me tell it to you straight. I don’t daven, don’t put on tefilin and am mechallel Shabbos.” His story unfolds and he was expelled from a heimishe Boro Park yeshiva because he was caught selling cigarettes. He admits that was a mistake, but he has vowed never to return to Torah or yeshiva. I gently tell him, “Sruly, I’m so proud that you haven’t cut off your payos.” He explained that he loves his little brother and often gives him bike rides, if he would cut off his payos, his little brother would be embarrassed when he rides the bike with him. I cried that day and I cried that night, and am trying to befriend Sruly.
Shloimy, is 16 years old and comes from a Chassidishe family in Monsey. His father always emphasized the importance of the mikveh for Chassidim; it was more important than davening, he said. Though Shloimy was a very smart little boy, he had a learning disability. He earned the ire of his rebbeim and was painfully punished daily. But worse, when he was very young, Shloimy was violated in the mikveh and vowed never to return there regardless of his father’s admonition. He also stopped davening and was eventually expelled from his yeshiva and the community. Today, shmiras shabbos is still a challenge for him, but he’s trying very hard.
Yitzy, is an 18 year old boy from Canada who holds a decent job in New York. He tells me that he still loves learning and was one of the good learners in his class. He was expelled together with a group of boys when they were caught smoking. When I asked him if he is shomer shabbos, he asked if he has to answer such a personal question at our first meeting. But, with a smile he ironically admitted that he can’t keep shabbos because he smokes! He told me that while he wears a yarmulke during the week, on shabbos, he and his friends go to Manhattan in jeans without their yarmulkes. He laughed and told me that a couple of weeks ago, he and his friends went to a strip club in Manhattan on shabbos. They were shocked when, despite their non-Jewish attire, the owner said to them “You boys are Jewish and today is your Sabbath, I’m not letting you in!” They argued it was discrimination. Undaunted, the owner adamantly said they could sue him, but he’s not allowing them in the club.
Moishe, is 15 years old boy from Boro Park, who cried to me, that no matter how hard he tried, the highest mark he could muster on his test was in the 30’s. Everyone kept telling him to try harder and harder, and his classmates made fun of him. His parents took him to every tutor, specialist and therapist, in search of a solution. Moishe finally had enough, he left yeshiva and wanted to put and end to the humiliation, pain and rejection. Today, he is recovering and in a yeshiva overseas with a warm, supportive and caring staff.
Yitty is a young woman from a balbatisha family in Monroe. After her divorce, she was reluctant to use the same covering of her sheitel as her family’s custom. Her brother called her a “shiksa” and instructed her father to evict her from his home. Today, she has fulfilled her brother’s prophecy and living with young, single man from a heimishe family, without chupah and kiddushin. I met with Yitty and tried unsuccessfully to befriend her.
One Friday night in middle of our shabbos seuda, there was a knock on the door. Levi Yitzchok was brought to our shabbos table by a friend. The friend politely asked me where Levi Yitzchok can put his cell phone and wallet. Levi Yitzchok left his home in Williamsburg and was wandering the streets and needed a warm meal. He joined our seuda and sang zemiros and returned motzei shabbos to retrieve his muktzeh belongings. His father followed shortly angrily looking for him. His father insisted that through force, fear and punishment, his son would come home. Levi Yitzchok is now abroad and calls me from time to time. He is so sad and pitiful and in so much pain.
Chany, is a beautiful young woman from a Boro Park chassidishe family. She has no problem explaining that she abandoned Torah and has created a new world for herself. She is a neshoma that got lost to an organization that helps frum children go off the derech, run by a formerly frum woman, Malkie S. Chany is filled with anger towards Chassidim, and a few dedicated volunteers are trying to bring her back.
Toby called me and we met several times, she too is a pretty young woman from Boro Park, who graduated from one of the prominent chassidishe girls’ schools. She begged me, “Inspire me!” She confided that she’s dating a non-Jew and wants to be convinced that the chutzpa and intolerance she sees from young frum children and adults, are not representative of yiddishkeit.
Yanky, is a handsome, mature 18 year old boy from Williamsburgh. His relationship with his parents and community are strained. He strongly wants to be connected to Torah and is shomer shabbos. But, he can’t live at home and no yeshiva would accept him. He too is abroad and asked me to please help organize a program for him and his friends. I asked him if I could please speak to his father to explain his feelings and he objected saying, “My father has to learn to accept me, even if I don’t wear the hat and jacket he wants me to. I don’t want you to convince him that I need to find my place in Yiddishkeit.”
Shmily, is a cute 17 year old boy from Canada. He was at a kumzits I hosted and made the following point: It says in the Torah that going to secular court is assur. It also says in the Torah that we must keep shabbos. I see rabbonim in court, so maybe if that mitzvah isn’t valid, then maybe keeping shabbos isn’t valid either!? Maybe being Jewish is about doing what’s convenient for each person and we can pick and choose what we want to follow.
When R’ Yom Tov Glaser was here from Israel lecturing for B’Derech we spoke to a group of (formerly) chassidish young men in Monsey. They all exclaimed that they have no idea what it means to be Jewish. In their view, it’s all about money and a dress code. As long as you either give money or wear the right clothes and appear on the outside as frum, then you are accepted, regardless of what is going on inside your heart. Rabbi Glaser, who is a Baal Teshuva, returned to Eretz Yisroel shattered by what he saw and heard. Rabbi Glaser said that Chassidim have 90% of Yiddishkeit intact; but, that we’re missing the first 10% — the essential foundations of Yiddishkeit!
I reached out to the kiruv professionals in America and Eretz Yisroel, to help bring our kids back by using the methods that bring secular Yidden back. B”H in addition to R’ Yom Tov Glaser, we have earned the support R’ Nuchem Chaimovitz, R’ Elyahu Bergstein, and R’ Yaakov Yisroel Wenglin. These prominent rabbonim are lecturing for B’Derech and assisting in parenting and chinuch concerns. We’ve been to many heimishe communities offering lectures on how to teach children the foundations of Yiddishkeit which seem to have been lost. Our community has become so focused on the chumras and gedarim of Yiddishkeit, have placed such an emphasis on the externalities, that the treasure we are protecting – true Torah values such as, Ve’Ahavta Es Hashem Elokecha, Ve’Ahavta L’reyacha Kamocha, the timelessness and truth of torah sh’baal peh, the joy of shabbos, etc., are lost to these children.
Volunteers have been recruited to form a supportive network for several children. What we have learned is that children who are straying are not rebelling, rather they are being pushed out. They need large doses of tender, loving care “TLC” so that the pain can be released and the healing process can start. So many tears have been shed by these broken neshomos. I’ve been asked how can I allow these children into my home, what message am I giving my children? To that, I’ve replied, “My children see that we take care of those less fortunate, brokenhearted kinderlach, who are also Hashem’s children.” It is my goal to inspire others to follow.
I have had meetings in Israel and we are working on a program designed for each child. We have gathered some children off the streets and offered them courses to earn a high school diploma in America and in Israel. We are offering a series of lectures by R’ Elyahu Bergstein this month in Boro Park and Williamsburgh, separate for men and women. We hope to have one of the therapists affiliated with B’Derech speak as well. For further information on women’s lectures call 917-509-9518 for men’s lectures call 347-598-6527.
B’Derech HaTorah Neylech – The Finish Line
People are asking me, “Where do we go from here?” I remind everyone that B’Derech is a movement, not an organization. A movement is a phenomenon that propels everyone into action. Kol Yisroel Areivim Ze L’Zeh. It’s not about professionals, principals, Rabbonim, politicians, therapists or Roshei Yeshiva doing something to deal with the crisis of our precious children going off the derech. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent by funding organizations and employing professionals; yet in the past decade the crises has reached epidemic proportions. As one mechanech told me, Eyn Bayis sh’eyn shom meys.
Each of us must do our share to bring about the change that our system so critically needs. We need to decide what “average” is and accommodate every child Al Pi Darko. No child should feel labeled; no longer should a child be told that he is shvach and needs to go to a special yeshiva. Perhaps classes should cater to the “average” and require the metzuyanim be taken out of class for advanced tutoring?
Moshe Rabbeinu, you know firsthand the irreparable damage that machlokes can foster! Korach and his cohorts were prominent members of society and as the earth swallowed them they cried “Moshe Emes V’Toraso Emes!” Unfortunately, our generation is riddled with dissention; our leaders are plagued by financial woes as well as litigation and din torahs. Our children see this – even more, they are directed not to talk to children aligned with another group or whose parents daven in another shul. We need to set the example for our children and prove that D’racheha Darkei Noam, v’Chol Nesivoseha Shalom.
Reb Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, you founded chassidus, surely a tzaddik of your stature, can provide a safeguard for the machlokes which ensued between different factions of Chassidim and is threatening the beauty of Chassidus and the lives of our kinderlach. Surely, you can send us a wake up call that Chassidus is about kiruv – bringing our kinderlach close to Hashem through ahava and simcha; not about rejection, expulsion and stringencies which make them cry out from too much “pressure.”
As we approach Kabolas HaTorah, I conclude with the following question: While secular law guarantees every American child a public school education, did Naaseh V’Nishma guarantee every Yiddisha Neshoma a Torah education in a mainstream yeshiva? Can our children stay B’Derech HaTorah with Simcha and Ahava without being labeled “shvach” or “at risk?”
In the zchus of Moshe Rabbeinu and Reb Yisroel Baal Shem, I humbly and respectfully beseech the Bais Din Shel Maaleh for Siyata Dishmaya. B’Derech HaTorah Neylech. I rest my case.
Ruchie (Rachel) Freier, is a prominent Charedi attorney at law, and can be contacted by email at [email protected], she maintains her offices at the following locations:
Brooklyn, NY 11204
Monroe, NY 10950