Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Haredi Triumphalism in Perth - Updated

Recently, a 19 year-old Yeshiva student, was tragically killed in a freak accident in Perth, Australia, where he was participating in the SEED program.
.... was drowned after being swept to sea in Perth, where he was on a visit teaching Torah. He was standing on rocks on the shore, well above the waves, when an unusually large wave from the heavy seas (estimated at 10 meters high) knocked him into the waters. The seas remained rough with many waves of up to six meters, which hampered rescue efforts.
The SEED program is well-known, but for those who aren't familiar with it, here's a description from the above linked article.
The SEED program in which ..... was participating is a very demanding effort. The bochurim who participate spend months preparing Torah material to give over to the various members of the community with whom they learn during the period they spend there. The material is from a wide range of sources and includes Chumash, Mishnah, Gemora, as well as halochoh, hashkofoh and general Jewish knowledge. On the program they are busy from early in the morning -- learning with people before they go to work -- until late at night. In the middle of the day, during the business lunch hour, many go to offices to give classes and to learn individually with interested people. They also spend time during the day working with children. Shabbos and weekends are also utilized to allow families to participate in kiruv-related activities.
His death is a huge loss for the entire Jewish community. By all accounts, he was a talented young man with a bright future ahead of him. May the family be comfortod "b'soch sha'ar aveili tziyon v'yerusholayim".

This week the Yated Ne'eman and Hamodia newspapers both published an article, which was also published in the Five Town Jewish Times. The article was written by Richard Altabe, the principal of Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway. (Interestingly, Yaated doesn't credit the author.)

The article eloquently expresses the loss we've suffered. It's a beautifully written piece, that truly pays tribute to a special soul.

However, one part of the article seemed not to fit with the tone of the rest of the essay. It's a part in which Mr. Altabe is clearly relying on others descriptions of a community, and the image of the community he represents doesn't match with the reality.

Here's the offending paragraph:
“Since the arrival of Jews in Perth in 1892, never had there been a program that had such impact on this city, which was isolated from the Torah world both physically and spiritually. To call this a kiddush Hashem would be a major understatement. Since our arrival in Perth last year, the impact has been overwhelming. Perth has grown from a midbar of Torah, to a city that’s opening its first proper yeshiva next month. Over the course of two weeks, over 40 shiurim and classes were given by the four bachurim and two yungerleit.
Is it just me, or is this extremely condescending to the Perth community? The SEED program does great work, but there is absolutely no reason for a SEED representative to denigrate a community, even in the past tense.

Reading the Altabe article, one would get the impression that there was no serious Judaism --and certainly no succesful Jewish education or kiruv-- in Perth prior to the SEED program's first visit last summer. SEED arrived to "show the way" and after only two summers of SEED the community has grown to the point of opening a "proper yeshiva". This is simply untrue and ignores the Perth community's dedication to Jewish education and the many outreach efforts others (whose kippot apparently aren't the right color) have put in over many years. I do not claim to know the extent of all of these efforts, but I am familiar with a few.

The Carmel school in Perth has a diverse student body, but strives to give over a positive Jewish education and message. I'd compare it favorably with many Jewish Day schools across the US.

In addition to the community's support of Carmel, Yeshiva University ran a program to Australia called Counterpoint Australia. The team spent much of the summer in Melbourne running Jewish awareness programming for a school there, but for many years, they also spent ten days or so in Perth, running a five day long retreat for the High School, as well as teaching in the school and within the community. The team always included a musician, and I and many other well-known Jewish musicians, participated in the program over the years. The preparation for the program could be described identically to the description of the SEED program.
The bochurim [men and women] who participate spend months preparing Torah material to give over to the various members of the community with whom they learn during the period they spend there. The material is from a wide range of sources and includes Chumash, Mishnah, Gemora, as well as halochoh, hashkofoh and general Jewish knowledge.
Many of the Counterpoint Team participants over the years have gone on to become "names" in Jewish education and kiruv.

The Perth community, and especially the Carmel School, gave enormous support to this program, and invested a lot of money in it. Flying a team of 10 from Melbourne to Perth, renting a campsite for a week, organizing and arranging the logistics, etc. required a huge commitment, and the community was very supportive.

In addition to the Counterpoint program, which ran for years, there have been Israeli shlichim who have donated years of their lives to come run Jewish studies programs in the Carmel school on shlichut. These frum Mizhrachim have had a huge impact on their students' Jewish education and their commitment and dedication, made at tremendous personal sacrifice, ought not be ignored. It's not easy to leave your country, friends, and relatives to go teach for five years in a foreign country. You also wouldn't know it from the article, but Perth students have attended post-graduate yeshivot like Gush in Israel and RIETS in America. Much of the credit should go to their families and teachers.

I believe that Orot Mitziyon, a religous Zionist program from Israel, ran programming in Perth and the community was supportive of their efforts as well.

One of the leaders of the Counterpoint team over the years, Rabbi M. Rothchild, went back to Perth for a few years to teach Torah. He also started a summer kollel that brought young men and women from the YU community out to Perth to teach and inspire.

In short, over the years, there have been many Jewish education and outreach efforts in Perth and the Perth community has demonstrated a commitment to supporting the teaching of Torah, both financially and through personal participation, that long predates SEED's involvement with the community. There is always room for more Torah, and different approaches and hashkafos may reach different people. SEED does great work, but a little bit of perspective and humility seems to be in order.

UPDATED 8/24/06

Richard Altabe writes:
Please do not rush to judgement on the comments of Duvi Safier. He was the student organizer of the Perth group from the 5 towns and he remained at the site of the tragedy for three days while authorities searched for ....'s body. I believe that Duvi wanted to emphasize the remarkable work that his friend and the group had done this year in Perth and in no way did he intend to denigrate this wonderful community. He intended to demonstrate the greatness of his friend, not to denigrate the people of Perth or the other groups that may have served the community in the past.

Duvi has been through the emotional trauma of witnessing the death of his friend, having to inform the boy's parents and working for over a week behind the scenes to make sure that his friend was given proper kavod hameis. Let's not rush to cast aspersions on anyone. We must strive to see the good in everyone.

If I erred in not properly considering the feelings of the Perth community by not editing Duvi's statement, then I apologize sincerely. Perhaps I should have been more sensitive of the potential hurt that others may feel.
It was not my intent to attack Duvi personally and I apologize if my post gives that impression. The purpose of my post is not to cast aspersions against any individual, but rather to respond to an atitude often reflected in the charedi newspapers in which the article appeared by addressing a specific case where I have personal knowledge of past history. Had this not fit in with a pattern I've seen time and again, I'd have never addressed it. I can only imagine how difficult this has been for Duvi and I wish him much hatzlocha in the future.

Updated 9/1/06

Out of sensitivity to those who may be "Googling" the niftar's name, I have edited this post to remove his name. This contretemps does not involve him.