Can the Hasidic community Change?
To many, within the community and without, the question may seem ridiculous. Secular Jews and other outside observers, after all, often look at Hasidim as throwbacks, strange folks whose key characteristic is the refusal to catch up with the times. And Hasidim themselves make much of their resistance to change: Growing up in the community, I was often taught the dictum of the Hungarian rabbi the Chasam Sofer: “Chadush asur min hatorah,” what’s new is forbidden by the Torah. This fear of change predates the holocaust, and was popularized by the Chasam Sofer largely in response to waves of change that came with the current of its times, as Socialism, Zionism, and the Jewish Enlightenment threatened conservatism.
But as those of us who grew up within Hasidism know, the community has indeed changed, in subtle but important ways. When I was a kid, for example, we had a terrifically large computer in the house. It ran only DOS and had no power to bring in any modern ideas, so it was seen as fairly harmless. With the advent of the Internet, the computer began to trickle in influences like a sieve, and it was soon rebranded as a terrible threat that must be kept out of Hasidic homes. Telephones too, went through a period of being seen as entirely neutral. When I was a young newlywed woman I had a blackberry, and it wasn’t controversial yet. With time, the more vigilante elements in the community launched a campaign to eradicate smartphones and replace them with Kosher phones. But while we now see few smartphones on the streets in Hasidic communities, many people will easily volunteer that they have a second, not-kosher phone stashed in the other pocket.
That’s change. Halting, perhaps, and inconclusive, but still the sort of change that makes a real difference in the lives of real people, who are now free to supplement their knowledge of Chumash with news of the latest tragedy in Syria, say, or the newest best-selling novel. It’s not enough to threaten the Hasidic way of life, but it’s plenty to make life better, richer, and more faceted for its individuals.
But while smart phones are one rather frivolous example of change, genetic testing is another, more profound one. In 1983, Rabbi Josef Ekstein, who had lost four of his children to Tay-Sachs, decided to do something about the horrible genetic disease that disproportionately afflicts Ashkenazi Jews. Rabbi Ekstein did not have a high school diploma, nor did he understand the science behind the genetic disease, but according to his website he was “Determined to ensure that no parent would ever endure the agony of losing a child to this devastating genetic disease,” which is why he launched a grassroots effort to put an end to Tay-Sachs.
Rabbi Ekstein’s organization, Dor Yeshorim, was formed to ensure that no Hasidic couple marries if both parties are positive for Tay-Sachs. When I was seventeen, the organization spent a day at our school. We all gave a blood sample, paid a fee, and filled out a form. It was very matter-of-fact. Then, the following year, when I came of age to marry, we called in our number and my future prospective husband’s number before I even met him. I remember that my parents were ready to have us meet by Saturday night, but we had to wait until Sunday afternoon because the Dor Yeshorim offices weren’t open yet. After Dor Yeshorim opened and we were told that it was a go, I met the boy for the first time. Within a few hours, I was engaged.
I never gave any thought to the whole affair. It was just part of the procedure. But Dor Yeshorim didn’t happen overnight. Before it launched, Rabbi Ekstein said in a 1993 New York Times story on the organization, the general attitude too often was “if God wants me to have a Tay-Sachs child, I’ll have a Tay-Sachs child.” And genetic testing was seen as a form of family planning, which Hasidim otherwise eschew. And yet, Dor Yeshorim prevailed.
How it did so is a question worth asking. The Hasidic community didn’t wake up one day and embrace modern genetic testing when it rejects much of the science that shapes it. It happened because it made sense, and Hasidim are pragmatic when they are not defensive. And the people who ran Dor Yeshorim were careful to take the Hasidic reluctance to change seriously and to work with it, instead of against it. They did not come with criticism as much as with a very specific solution. This was a very creative solution because it reached beyond the idea of aborting the Tay-Sachs fetus, an approach that would have been far more difficult to implement. There was something else they did right: They began on a voluntary basis. Allowing people to choose has the benefit of not making them feel like their civil liberties are being encroached. And while it began with 45 people, the following year there were 250, and soon the organization came down to private schools and became an institutional part of the Hasidic community.
This attitude—cautious, respectful, and effective—is one we’d now do well to apply to Hasidic education. Recently, I received much pushback for an article I’d written for Tablet and that argues that the alleged crisis in Hasidic education—young boys and men receiving too little English and practical knowledge to make it in today’s demanding economic environment—was hardly as horrible it seemed to many outside observers and to some former Hasidim who resent the incomplete education they themselves had received in Hasidic yeshivot. But this approach, skewering the Hasidim for not adapting quickly enough and completely enough to modern life, is bound to fail.
We all might agree that it is the law to educate all children and that every child should get a proper education, but strong handing a religious group with a persecution complex seems to defeat its own aim. For change to come to the Hasidic community, we must do away with the desire to vent cathartically and misrepresent the facts to excite outrage. I think it will be most successful if it comes with the sensitivity and desire to build from within that organizations like Dor Yeshorim exemplified. We have a blueprint right in front of us; now it’s time for anyone who truly cares about this issue to stop shouting and get to work.
Frieda Vizel lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She blogs at friedavizel.com.