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My Grandfather and I "A"
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

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My paternal great-grandfather was Rabbi Dov Ber Horowitz. Among Chassidim throughout Europe, he was lovingly referred to as ‘Reb Berish Vishever, ’ drawing on the name of the city in which he lived and faithfully served as chazzan and shochet for more than fifty years. Each year he wrote beautiful songs for Chassidishe Rebbeim with whom he had close contact – among them the Admorim of Satmar and Viznitz, zichronom livracha. Many of his niggunim (songs) are still sung today by chassisdim around the world (Among them, the ‘Satmar Sholem Aleichem’ niggun and the Viznitzer ‘V’emunah Kol Zos’, sung on Shabbos Shirah and Shvei Shel Pesach).

The great tzadik and gadol Reb Shrage Feivel Mendelovitz z’tl used to ask my father a’h to sing his grandfather’s stirring “Geshem/Tal Niggun” each Seudas Shlishis in Torah Vodaas. To this day, Reb Shrage Feivel’s eighty and ninety-year old talmidim (students) b’eh hum the tune to me when we meet at social gatherings. I honor my zeide’s memory by singing his songs each Yom Tov meal, and my wife and I, with the chesed of Hashem, recently walked our daughter to the chuppah as dozens of my male cousins – Reb Berish’s descendants – sang his beautiful “Geshem/Tal Niggun.”

In 1944 at the age of 72, Reb Berish and 3,000 of his townspeople, h’yd, were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz several days before Shavuos. On the loading dock waiting for the trains to arrive, surrounded by armed German troops and snarling dogs, Reb Berish rose and tearfully addressed the crowd of assembled Jews. It was late in the war and despite the fact that the people knew they were headed for almost certain death; escape was impossible under those conditions. Reb Berish encouraged his townspeople to turn inward and do teshuvah before they met their fate. Having served as chazzan in the town of “The Visheves” for fifty years, he knew all the yomim noraim tefilos (high holiday prayers) by heart. He used this knowledge and his beautiful voice to lead the entire assembled group in a word-for-word recitation of the closing Neilah tefilah of Yom Kippur during their last few moments together.

Reb Berish was a victim of Anti-Semitism – not only during his final years. Throughout his life, government officials and civilians treated him and his contemporaries harshly. His opportunities for employment were limited, and he lived each day of his life in fear of pogroms and death.

Several generations have passed since those horrific experiences. I, and to a much greater extent my children, have been raised, Baruch Hashem, in almost ideal circumstances in a malchus shel chesed (under the rule of a benevolent government). I can live where I wish to, engage in virtually any profession and walk the streets of my neighborhood in comfort and security.

Our immigrant parents never felt that level of security; and even those who did were sensitive to the fact that we are in galus. It is well known that Reb Yaakov Kaminetsky z’tl, during his years in Monsey, discouraged his talmidim (students) from wearing talesim (prayer shawls) in the street on Shabbos since he felt that we as Orthodox Jews should live modestly and not attract undue attention to ourselves.

My father never considered wearing a talis in the street. I on the other hand, wear mine on Shabbos without giving it much thought. Our children don’t even understand what the fuss is all about. Wear your talis, don’t wear it; who cares?

An Exciting – And Challenging – Reality

I write these lines to share with you my growing sense of unease at the ill will that is being generated with our non-religious and gentile neighbors over the many zoning and political battles that have emerged over the past years as a result of our exponential growth, b’li ayin horah – and our newfound political power.

In the some of the largest Jewish communities of North America, we are suddenly finding ourselves in the strange position of being a powerful force in the political arena. Elected officials in every level of government are courting us. In some cases, we even represent the majority votes in our local races.

Politics is often a nasty business, however. When these election campaigns kick into gear, otherwise reasonable people resort to negative attacks and smear campaigns against their opponents. In our eagerness to promote ‘our’ candidates, we sometimes stoop to these tactics as well.

There are also significant issues of zoning and land use matters across the United States that pits our real needs against the sensitivities – real or perceived – of our neighbors. Virtually every shul and yeshiva that is built is done so with protracted, often bitter zoning battles. Having just completed a three-year odyssey to secure all approvals necessary to build the yeshiva where I serve as Menahel, I am intimately familiar with the passions that these situations generate on both sides.

As our community grows, b’eh, we will need chochmas Shlomo (The wisdom of King Solomon) to balance the need to pursue our rights while not violating Hashem’s clear instructions to us – in the form of an oath – not to create ill will among our neighbors while we are in exile. (Kesubos 111a).

With all these pots are on the fire, we dare not provoke our neighbors needlessly over matters large or small that are within our power to avoid. In the past, this was self-evident as we were a small minority, and couldn’t afford to engender any negative feelings. We also had a greater level of interaction with non-Jews in our neighborhoods than we do nowadays, which heightened our level of sensitivity to their feelings.

Things are very different now.

A Dangerous Step to Take

In the last sixty years we have evolved from,

1) “Please allow us to live in peace” to

2) “I’m glad to be living in peace”, to

3) “I have every right to live in peace” to

4) “We will always live in peace no matter what we do.”

While I do not suggest that we march backwards to step 1, I think that a blend of 2 & 3 is the wisest path to take. This would follow the shvil hazhav (golden path) of moderation charted by the wisest of all men, Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon). We should respectfully and vigorously advocate for our rights and privileges in this great country, but we must always be cognizant of the fact that our generation of children who live in the United States have been granted the gift of security that eluded us for two thousand years.

Rabbi Berel Wein, in one of his taped lectures, related that when his shul (synagogue) in Monsey was being built, and the main beam supporting the structure was being purchased, the contractor suggested that the shul invest in a more expensive beam, one with a 150-year guarantee. Rabbi Wein remarked that as a student of history, he is painfully aware that throughout our years in galus (exile), Jews never planned to live in one place for that long a period of time.

If you accept my argument that step 1 is inappropriate and a blend of steps 2 & 3 are the ideal, I propose that the attitude of step 4 is downright dangerous. No one gave us a guarantee that this menuchas hanefesh (tranquility) will last forever. I was recently in Antwerp, where many observant Jews regularly remove their yarmulkas in the street for fear of being attacked. It is the same in France and many European countries. And if we ever needed a wake-up call as to how things can turn badly very quickly, just look at what is happening in France over the past month or so.

Acting Graciously – and Wisely

We have the right to wear our talesim in public on Shabbos, but we should not walk four abreast in the street when our gentile or non-religious neighbors are driving by. We should vigorously pursue our right to build shuls and yeshivos in our communities but should do whatever is humanly possible not to impede the flow of traffic and not to park illegally when attending those shuls. Our streets and lawns must be kept clean and tidy and we need to be exceedingly polite to each other and to the non-religious and gentile members that we interact with – on the roads, in the bank, and in the Post Office.

We, as educators, parents, and community members need to see to it that we do not follow the potentially disastrous path of step 4. We must pick and choose our issues and battles very carefully, and do our very best to conduct them with dignity and grace – even if and when we are provoked. We must do our very best to act as model citizens and be mekadesh Shem Shamayim (glorify the name of Hashem) at all times. Our interactions with our neighbors must be in a manner of friendship and neimus, which is the way of our Torah.

Klal Yisroel is collectively mourning the death of Rabbi Naftoli Neuberger z’tl who recently passed away after more than fifty years of exemplary public service in Baltimore Maryland. He was a proud advocate for Torah values and a prince among men who conducted his affairs with outstanding distinction and refinement. He was revered among all segments of Baltimore Jewry and his opinion sought by elected officials at local, state and national levels – not for the votes that he delivered, but for his wisdom and unimpeachable integrity.

Each of us, as ambassadors for Torah Judaism should look to emulate his noble ways as we chart the course of our individual and collective lives in these difficult times.

© 2005 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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