They wear black velvet kippot. They wear white button-down shirts and black pants to yeshiva. They wear black jackets and hats during prayers and on Shabbat.
Many have sideburns curled behind their ears. Torah study is their number one pursuit and has the highest value in their lives. Most will spend years studying in Kollel. But they also have some basic general studies in the afternoon. They play ball at recess.They attend summer camps where they study Torah, play sports, do arts and crafts, and participate in drama productions.
Torah study will always be the most important component in their lives, but many will attend university at night in conjunction with advanced Torah study in yeshiva. They are receptive to the idea of sustaining and supporting their families with know-how they acquired by studying for degrees, participating in vocational training or with general business acumen.
They are surrounded by men from similar backgrounds who maintain their spiritual commitment and intense Torah scholarship, while participating in the workforce.
Welcome to the world of the American haredi.
The world of American haredim just intersected with the religious-Zionist and secular-Israeli universe in the most fascinating of circumstances. The Israel national little league baseball team spent last week in Oneonta, New York playing against all-star teams from Rhode Island, New York, Indiana, Ohio and Colorado.
A nearby American Haredi summer camp heard that the Israeli team was playing and, without missing a beat, decided to come and cheer for their fellow Jews. No questions were asked about the level of religious observance of the Israeli players. No eyebrows were raised by the leaders of a group that is not excitedly Zionistic about coming to cheer for the Jewish state’s national team.
They simply came – black velvet kippot, tzitzit fringes flying and all – and cheered with great passion for fellow Jews. I cannot think of a more beautiful scene than these haredi campers cheering: “Yis-ra-el!” Clap! “Yis-rael!” Clap.
After the game, team players, including secular Kibbutznikim, mingled with these fans and thanked them profusely for coming and cheering them to their 8-4 victory over Ohio. This is Jewish unity at its best. Accepting. Respectful. True brotherhood.
And make no mistake about it: There is a direct correlation between the fact that these haredi boys have general studies and can join the workforce, while maintaining full acceptance and respect in their communities and their willingness to reach out and be part of the broader Jewish nation.
Without giving up on one iota of the importance of Torah study, they are comfortable functioning in the world and in the presence of non-observant Jews and gentiles.
And this is what is sorely lacking in Israel today.
My teacher and mentor, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, told me the following story which so clearly demonstrates the reason for the stark distinction between the Israeli and American haredi. He was once in a car with three of the “Gedolei Torah,” the revered Torah sages, at the helm of America’s top yeshivot.
The discussion among the four of them turned to where they went to school in their early years. One by one they revealed which public schools they attended. When the third one, who heads a very haredi institution, divulged that he also attended public school, the others were in shock. “Et tu brute?” Can it really be true? He insisted that it was true. One of the sages asked him to prove it. He asked how he could possibly prove something from over a half a century before. One of the other sages replied, “I’ve know how you can prove it. Sing “Silent Night.”
It all starts from the top. The Torah giants in America attended public school and are living proof of the reality that one can have a secular education, and even function in the secular world, and still reach the highest levels of Torah scholarship and righteousness.
While, they surely warn and prepare students for the daunting spiritual dangers of the outside world – and daily Torah study and praying three times a day play a huge role in maintaining one’s spiritual standing while functioning in that world – they have not erected the barriers we see in Israel.
They understand that the combination of Torah and basic secular studies, while permitting and even encouraging sports, art, music and, eventually earning a living, is both healthy and ideal. The Torah giants in Israel emerged from the “yishuv hayashan” mentality in which righteous scholars focused on Torah study with support from European communities and they felt that secular Zionists “invaded” their turf.
This arrival created all kinds of spiritual challenges for their society, while also, in their eyes, defiling the land of Israel. The immediate reaction of the Sages in those times was to put up iron barriers and allow no contact with the broader Jewish community.
While that may have been the correct response to protect the spiritual needs of the haredi community back then, maintaining those policies decades later is having devastating effects on both the broader Jewish community and the haredim, themselves.
A leading scholar in the American-haredi community told me that he went to visit his daughter and son-in-law in Bnei Brak and was distraught to see his grandsons throwing rocks at cats. He told his daughter that he was going out to buy the kids a soccer ball so they could play something more productive and healthy, while not transgressing a Torah commandment against causing animals to suffer.
She replied that he cannot do that. “They will grow out of throwing rocks at cats,” she explained. “But, they won’t grow out of playing soccer, they will come to revere the secular soccer players, and they will be pulled away from their Torah study.”
How many young boys – in a world without television or a way to follow professional soccer – go from playing soccer with friends to worshiping professional, secular players to the point where it pulls them away from their Torah study? The answer has to be close to zero.
How any American haredi yeshiva students studying Torah in Israel for a few years play in the yeshiva flag football league in Jerusalem? Hundreds. How many are being pulled away from yeshiva because they play ball? None.
And that includes the Mir Yeshiva students who regularly compete for the championship.
The time has come for the American-haredi world to influence and shift the Israeli-haredi system to a more sustainable and healthy approach. It will be more sustainable both for the haredim and the country as a whole, and healthier for both the Haredim and the country as a whole.
We will know that both the Torah world and the State of Israel are on the right path when Israeli-haredi boys will be willing to come and cheer for a team with secular boys because we are all family, and that is what Jews do for fellow Jews.
I won’t stop trying to make that happen and hope that all Jews, including haredim, will join me in this mission. Let us envision that a day will come when we can go to a field in Israel and hear haredi boys cheering for secular boys with comfort, pride and confidence.
As we saw last week on the baseball field in Oneonta, this will then enable the secular boys to feel a connection, love, and respect towards the haredim.
It can be done. I can hear it now: ”Yis-rael!” Clap. “Yis-ra-el!” The writer is an ordained rabbi, author, educator and community activist in Beit Shemesh.