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"Turbulent Times" -- Zurich Style
by Rabbi Yonasan Rosenblum
This article orignally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine

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7/23/08

Last week found me speaking for the Jewish Boys School of Zurich on "Educating Children in Turbulent Times." But as far as Zurich goes, these are not particularly turbulent times – at least not yet. Those with whom I spoke could not remember more than one or two young people from the chareidi community leaving the fold.

The natives took a modest view of their achievement. A number quoted the late Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik's, zt"l, observation that every trend in the Jewish world arrives in Zurich twenty years later. The communal rabbonimand leaders are clearly eager to do what they can to avoid the problems that have been experienced by larger communities in Israel and abroad. Recently an expert from Baltimore was brought in to lecture on the perils of the Internet.

Many of the reasons for the Zurich community's success with its youth may be explained by factors that are unique to Zurich. And it would be a foolish on my part to claim any expertise about a community that I was visiting for the first time. Yet certain observations perhaps have wider application and could be adapted to different communities.

The chareidi community of Zurich is large enough to support a host of communal institutions: two boys schools – one primarily chassidic – until around age 15, a kollel, a number of shuls, a kollel, and even the production of cholov Yisroel products. Until a few years ago, most boys and girls went abroad to continue their studies after age 15, but in recent years, Yeshiva L'Tzeirim, and Machon Chen for girls have offered the possibility of remaining at home for another two or three years.

But Zurich is too small to support a host of competing schools, each seeking to prove itself the most elite by catering only to the "best" boys or girls. The schools are run as communal institutions by a board of governors, not as private businesses. Thus, there is less pressure to maximize the amount of material covered. The principal of the Jewish Boys School told me that boys from Zurich are generally somewhat behind their peers in their mastery of Gemara when they go abroad, but the orderly habits of mind they have developed and typical Swiss industriousness generally allow them to catch up quickly.

Because the schools are not competing, rebbes and teachers have the "luxury" of worrying about such topics as ahavas haTorah, yiras Shomayim, and middos tovos. The story is told of a group of mechanchimwho approached the Brisker Rav for a brochafor the new cheder they were opening in Bnei Brak. They showed the Brisker Rav their carefully planned curriculum, with the hours to be devoted to each subject and the material to be covered at each level.

But instead of a blessing, the Brisker Rav told them, "If I did not know that you were fine, upstanding bnei Torah, I would throw you out of my home. You sound to me like maskilim, whose only concern is mastery of the subject matter. What about instilling in our children ahavas Torah, character refinement, and yiras Shomayim? The problem today is that children do not experience the sweetness of Torah." That exchange would not have taken place in Zurich.


The relatively small size of the schools – one of the boys schools has 140 students, the other around 70 – means that classes are small, and no student gets lost in the shuffle. After my speech, one of the teachers, who grew up in Bnei Brak, told me with amazement how he has witnessed the entire educational staff of the Jewish Boys School meet to discuss a single student.

NO FRUM JEW IN ZURICH ever forgets that he is part of a small minority. There are no neighborhoods that are primarily chareidi – not even many blocks or even apartment buildings. Everywhere a Jewish child looks he sees the larger non-Jewish society. Yet this too has a positive side.

The awareness of being members of a small minority means that children have to constantly think about their identity as frum Jews. In addition, they are constantly aware of themselves as representatives of Torah Jewry wherever they go. The Kiddush Hashem imperative does not have to be taught; it is something that each child instinctively feels.

ANOTHER ADVANTAGE SWITZERLAND possesses is a plethora of kosher activities that can be experienced by the entire family. The country's famed natural beauty is everywhere visible, and scenic walks and bicycle rides are easily accessible within an hour of Zurich (which itself nestles between mountains and has a beautiful lake.)

Jewish parents and children spend a lot of quality time together. Family excursions are a regular event on Sunday afternoons. Most families spend a couple of weeks in the summer in rented quarters in the mountains, where minyanimspring up like daisies, and a shorter period during the winter school break. An old chavrusahdescribed to me coming to an open meadow at the end of a mountain climb and finding a large chareidi family standing there reciting Tehillim.

Sports are participatory in Switzerland, not a matter of cheering teams in stadiums. Everywhere we went, we encountered hikers, bicyclers, and runners. The activity starts young – often in a pack on the mother or father's back – and continues into old age. My wife and I were passed by more than one octogenarian on winding alpine trails.

This wholesome physical activity has not passed by the Jewish community. Virtually every boy, including those in Yeshiva L'Tzeirim, ride bicycles or small scooters to school. Teenage boys have plenty of healthy ways to work off excess energy.

AS I SAT DOWN AFTER SPEAKING, the rav next to me mentioned one more thing that he felt made Zurich special: the decades long presence of Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, zt"l, a world renowned Torah giant. Rabbi Soloveitchik was famed for his open heart and ear for any Yiddishe tzoros, and most members of community felt a personal connection to him.

His word was respected by all the rabbonimof the different subgroups with the community – a very distinguished group in their own right. As a result, a spirit of harmony reigned in the community as a whole. The absence of machlokesin the community shielded children from the destructive impact on their middosof an environment of communal strife. They did not grow accustomed to hearing other frum Jews disparaged and distinguished Torah figures spoken off dismissively.

That spirit continues to prevail after Rabbi Soloveitchik's passing. Yeshiva L'Tzeirim is perhaps unique in that its student body is almost equally divided between Chassidic and non-Chassidic bochurim, and the rabbis of the Chassidic boys school attended the dinner at which I spoke.

The special circumstances of the Zurich community cannot be artificially recreated elsewhere, but there are enough positive points that can be emulated to bear further study.



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1.     7/27/08 - 5:48 PM
project nachamu

AS WE ENTER THE NINE DAYS LET US FOCUS ON THOSE WHO’S LIVES HAVE BEEN ALTERED:

• FOCUS ON VICTIMS OF PHYSICAL ABUSE

• FOCUS ON VICTIMS OF SEXUAL ABUSE

• FOCUS ON VICTIMS OF RABBINICAL ABUSE OF POWER

• FOCUS ON VICTIMS LIVING IN CAPTIVITY

• FOCUS ON VICTIMS LIVING IN FEAR

• FOCUS ON VICTIMS WHO LIVE WITH PTSD, WHO LOSE OUT ON LIFE’S SIMPLE PLEASURES.

• FOCUS ON VICTIMS WHO HAVE SUFFERED FINANCIALLY THROUGH THE ACTIONS OF THEIR ABUSERS.

PLEASE ENCOURAGE YOUR FAMILY, FRIENDS, CO-WORKERS TO SPEND TEN MINUTES BEFORE CANDLELIGHTING FOR THE NEXT TWO SHABBASOS FOCUSING ON THESEVICTIMS. TEN MINUTES TO PRAY FOR COMFORT, SOLACE AND STRENGTH FOR VICTIMS TO REBUILD THEIR LIVES. TEN MINUTES TO FOCUS ON THE PAIN OTHERS ARE GOING THROUGH.

IF ALL JEWS WOULD INVEST IN THIS PROJECT, WE SHOULD SEE THE REVELATION OF MOSHIACH SPEEDILY.

MAY THE WORDS NACHAMU, NACHAMU AMI BE FELT BY ALL WHO PARTICIPATE.

MAY ALL VICTIMS BE GRANTED STRENGTH, HEALTH AND HAPPINESS TO LIVE MEANINGFUL, FULFILLING LIVES.


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2. part of Switzerland's story     7/29/08 - 5:57 PM
RG

Switzerland differs from Israel, for example, in that there is a Law of Return in Israel so that any Jew can come here, and they do. Whereas, in Switzerland, it's a very staid community, only Swiss people have the "right" to live there, because how else will anyone new get citizenship. Thus this enforcededly small community has a good deal, in that people know, they might as well make it work, the people they are investing in are likely to be the adults of the neighborhood tomorrow. Yet in Israel, you're dealing with people who HAVE NO RESPONSIBILITY TO GIVE BACK TO THE KEHILLA, who almost for sure will move away as they grow older, often because they can't afford the housing prices of established communities, or for other reasons. It makes people less willing to invest in the Chinuch of the kids, in the creation of a community school, cause it's only a one-generation community anyway. From London, there's been a strong trend to Manchester for young people looking for Torah values and more affordable housing, and from Yerushalayim to outlying places, from everywhere to Israel, and I don't know the demographics in the USA.

Demographic reality is real. Financial reality is real. The only thing flexible in this whole equation, is that we have a tendency to think that only LASTING things are worth investing in. For example, if the kids would also live here when they grow up, it would be worth giving them a strong community spirit now. But since they're not, it's not worth it. Stick to plain old facts and figures education. WRONG. Kids need a community feel. A sense of belonging, of feeling like they're important to a community, and to a school (and to a family). It's not their fault that their future may be somewhere else. The future and the long term aren't the only things that matter. IN Jewish view, the SHORT TERM PRESENT matters greatly as well. We have to reinforce this belief in ourselves. Today matters. This week matters. This child matters.

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