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Stepping Up

We owe it to each other to find our niche in working for the cause — the cause being the Jewish People


Stepping Up

When my sister heard the topic for this piece, she warned, “Don’t talk about the boat.” But it’s unavoidable. We can’t talk about arvus, the mutual responsibility that every Jew has for the other, without pulling up the classic parable. One guy drilling on the floor of his closed yacht cabin will still affect the other passengers because (this one’s for you, sis) all Jews are in the same boat, and when one Jew goes down, we all go down with him (Vayikra Rabbah 4).

Since we’re one unit, we owe it to each other to find our niche in working for the cause — the cause being the Jewish People.

My most low-key, humble friend does dinner and car pool like the rest of the world, but also co-manages 23 clothing gemachs. Another friend runs a clandestine organization that’s secretly helped thousands of people. It’s not just big-name, major-league players and Chabad shluchim in Nowheresville who are charged with making a difference. The fact that you were born proves that our nation needs you.

Lighting the Oil We Have
We moved to a growing neighborhood in New Jersey, and the closest schools are quite a trip. So far no one’s opening any around here, and my husband tells me that if I think the neighborhood needs a school, I should start it myself. Sorry, don’t think so. I really admire people with the ability to take on big projects, but I’m not the type.

Your husband has a point. When there’s a buzz in your head saying “someone really oughta…” it might be a sign that the someone is you. Taking on an enterprise like opening a school is daunting — but lucky you, if you can be the messenger to make it happen.

In truth, no one can do anything herself, whether establishing a school, or standing up to Antiochus. When Yael seized a spike to kill Sisra, it says “they took,” in plural. She could only accomplish what she did because the Shechinah, G-d’s presence, was there doing it too (Alshich, Shoftim 5:23).

Rav Noach Weinberg compares this to a crane hoisting and bringing down massive materials. There’s always a worker charged with guiding the hook and load. From a distance, it appears that the worker is lifting and lowering the haul when it’s really the crane doing it. Bais Yaakov was predetermined, but it was Sarah Schenirer who helped ease it into place. Motzaei Shabbos was destined for learning, and Avos U’banim showed up with pizza.

Thinking of the immensity of the task is discouraging — so don’t. Chesed superpower Yad Sarah started with Rav Uri Lopoliansky lending a few crutches and wheelchairs from his kitchen. ArtScroll/Mesorah began with one publication. Take one step, then another, and see which doors open.

Potential failure is scary. Rav Yisrael Salanter led yeshivos, founded the mussar movement, and started the first kollel. He also had initiatives that crumbled. He would quote, “A mensch darf tun un nit fun oiftun — a person has to do and not achieve.” When 13 Chashmonaim headed for the hills, they didn’t know they were going to defeat a world army. Stepping up is our job. Achievement is His job.

We own a store and are constantly asked to hire teenage dropouts or kids needing to keep out of trouble. We run a business, not a center for recalcitrant youth, and I find the expectations unfair.

Wow, that’s unfortunate. Any parent would feel ambivalent about someone who could help her child but doesn’t care to. That’s true for G-d, too. Passing up opportunities to impact His children devastates our own teshuvah prospects (see Hilchos Teshuvah 4:1). When we influence others, Rabbeinu Yonah says we’ve enlisted soldiers to fight our spiritual battles for us.

A non-frum woman called a frum coworker. Her anti-religious husband was away for the weekend, so could she please join them for Shabbos? The other woman said no, because, “I’m not a kiruv professional.” Not helping when we can is no small matter. As Mordechai tells Esther, “If you remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will be established for the Jews from elsewhere, but you and your father’s house will be lost” (Esther 4:14).

Baffled in the Big City
Growing up, we knew we counted. If we didn’t set up the kiddush or run Bnos, it wouldn’t happen. Fast-forward to Big City, 2022. My kids have no concept of helping a shul manage a minyan and think “Forever One” is a chassan-kallah song. To them, “different stripes, different types’’ is some guy in camp with black running down the sides of his Adidas pants instead of white. How can I help broaden their perspectives — and hearts?

Your kids can’t be fooled and will only absorb this when they see you live it. Do you get excited when you see lots of Jews together, like at Simchas Torah, a rally, or even a mass Chol Hamoed destination? Let it show, that excitement is contagious.

Your kids know how warmly you feel about those who knock on your door for assistance or Jews from other religious groups. Ahavas Yisrael doesn’t translate as blindly accepting everyone’s path. But there’s a difference in how we disagree with random strangers and siblings we love.

My neighbor told me about a time when she spotted a lost-looking ten-year-old girl. She’d missed her school bus and couldn’t reach her parents. My neighbor left a flying kitchen — on the shortest Friday of the year! — piled her kids in the car, and crossed town to get her home. When I asked why she didn’t call a reliable car service, she explained: “This kid goes to a school that we strongly disagree with ideologically, and it was important to show my kids that it’s not personal. We’re all family.”

Your actions show your kids how much you care. When you hear or read bad news, you can put down your coffee to say a perek of Tehillim. Try adopting a cause and let your family experience the high that comes from effecting change. Meetings, phone calls, and flyers in your living room are exciting. You can start a gemach — just opening the door to strangers will widen your kids’ outlook.

As a nation, we share a collective soul. It follows that Jews who don’t keep Torah properly are very much my issue. Let your kids see that. Invite nonobservant neighbors to simchahs and enable them to acknowledge Shabbos when returning a “Shabbat Shalom.” If you’re enthusiastic enough, head with the kids to the hospital and circulate with a lulav and esrog. Less ambitious? Ask that neighbor if he’d like to check out your succah.

It’s easier in small communities, but even Monsey, Marseille, and Manchester are full of prospects for people who are passionate about Klal Yisrael.

What Am I Embarrassed Of?
I have an MBA and am employed at a very high-profile company. I was approached by a Jewish organization that wants me to oversee donor campaigns and other financial outreach. The thought of a meaningful job is very attractive, but I squirm when I think of people asking me what I do and instead of saying “I manage at a Fortune 500,” it’s “I work at a religious nonprofit as a fundraiser.”

I bet a lot of people reading this are relating to your mixed feelings right now. We operate on two tracks: as Jews living in a non-Jewish world, it’s impossible not to be affected by our surroundings, and the result is that our internal aspirations get split. There are a lot of people who could find profound satisfaction directing their capabilities in a Jewishly significant way, but have a hard time letting go of a secular picture of “making it.”

This has been true in any country we’ve ever found ourselves, from Egypt on down; as we gain more prosperity and stability in a host country, we naturally absorb its cultural markers for status and self-esteem. It’s a built-in challenge of Jewish displacement.

A fascinating historical pattern is pointed out by the Meshech Chochmah (Vayikra 26:44). It begins with some sort of tragic ground zero that lands us on fresh shores. Everyone bands together, pooling talent and resources, in a unified effort to rebuild. Finally, voilà, we’re set up and stable. The desperate drive to reconstruct subsides, but all of that productive Jewish genius needs somewhere to go.

Out of crisis mode, it’s easy to turn away from a united Jewish center, and our creativity dissipates outward. The secular world receives our ideas and energy, while we adopt its values and priorities.

Today, this frayed identity might show itself as allegiance to non-Jewish causes or candidates, confused attitudes toward motherhood and family roles, or the need to distinguish oneself in the big wide world. Historically, this emotional assimilation continues until the ground gives way again, and we’re sent away to start anew. This is a familiar story; can we change the ending this time around?

Is Anything Okay?
There’s a woman who runs the Neshei, coordinates help for new mothers, and sets up a weekly shiur. She gets sensitive when we comment about her events or choice of speakers. I don’t know what the big deal is — we’re just trying to help.

Where would we be without these public service champions who seem to have their finger in every mitzvah pie?

Everyone should be open to feedback. Opinions from friendly participants who stay to help sweep up is one thing. Backseat critiquing from professional kvetchers is another. Unfair criticism and lack of appreciation are likely the biggest causes of askan burnout.

The antidote to that burnout is to bypass the naysayers and pass it upward: “Whoever genuinely involves themselves with the needs of the community, G-d will pay their reward’’ (Shabbos davening). It’s comforting that He will, because it’s clear no one else will. Additionally (and contrary to some individuals we could mention), G-d gives you full credit for what you undertake even though He’s the One making it happen (Avos 2:2).

My husband is a rav, and we thought that a shul with knowledgeable, strongly committed balabatim would be an easy landing for a first position. We were incredibly naive. There’s always someone upset about something my husband said or did. I thought I had pretty thick skin, but the drama is so draining.

It sounds classic. Hang in there, this is all to be expected. Golda Meir’s quip about being prime minister of three million prime ministers is well understood by anyone in rabbinics.

An oft-repeated tale is told of a sweet yungerman who takes over a shteller. Parshas Yisro, a heated argument erupts among the congregation over whether to stand or sit during that week’s reading of the Aseres Hadibros. Sunday, the confused young rabbi visits his predecessor.

“Rabbi Cohen, what’s the shul custom with Aseres Hadibros? Half the mispallellim sat, half the mispallellim stood, and everyone got annoyed at everyone else!”

“Ah,” replied Rabbi Cohen, “that’s our minhag!”

Even back in the day, our strong character and difficulty with authority made Jewish leadership a challenge. In the first chapter of Sefer Yehoshua, when Yehoshua is appointed leader, G-d instructs him to “stay strong and steadfast” a total of four times. At his prophetic inception, Yirmiyahu is told, “Do not fear them, for I am with you (1:4).”

Jews have a hard time succumbing to authority because every Jew has his own greatness, his own insightful perspective, and his own unique contribution. This greatness is the real story, and being at the helm of such people is an honor that runs through all of history, right through your husband’s podium. “How fortunate are you,’’ says Moshe when handing over the reins to Yehoshua, “that you merit to lead Hashem’s children, and that is besides the immeasurable reward in the World to Come” (Bamidbar 27:18, Rashi, Mizrachi).

Rabbanus is a moral imperative, and while not for the fainthearted, it’s definitely for the bighearted. As a rav’s daughter myself, I understand the pressure. By watching my parents live and breathe communal responsibility and dedication, I also understand the calling and the privilege. It was always clear to us that our parents wouldn’t exchange it for anything.

Those Who Can, Teach
As a kid, I always played morah and dreamed of being one. I’m not ready to give it up, but is it true that relying on a chinuch income is irresponsible?

Unjust teachers’ pay is indefensible and stands unabsolved. Yet it would be a shame to deprive yourself of the privilege and thrill of teaching because others are oblivious or unappreciative.

“More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to nurse” (Pesachim 112a). This means that someone who wants to teach Torah, like you, will only really be happy if she does so. It’s hard to imagine anything matching the pleasure and exhilaration of the classroom.

The effects of what you do linger long after the bell rings — think forever. Teachers are compared to stars (Daniel 12:3) because even when they're no longer around, their light shines on.

There are perks beyond remuneration: built-in growth, the transcendent joy of connecting over Yiddishkeit, facilitating Torah lives, and of course sechar. Weigh those against the reality of working harder and living with less. If that resonates, know that it can be done.

The valiant efforts of Torah Umesorah and others have sparked a long-overdue upsurge in teachers’ salaries. Education will never compensate as much as law, and that’s okay; we wouldn’t want candidates showing up for the money. Torah is not meant as a way to make money and carries no earthly price. Nonetheless, one does need money in order to teach.

There’s an enormous spectrum of pay, so negotiate and check around. Traveling outside of heimishe enclaves substantially increases earnings. Salaries rise considerably as you accrue experience and short-timers drop out.

There are ways to augment your income. You may enjoy taking on seasonal projects, like directing the school play or working in a summer camp. Consider getting involved in extracurricular activities, curriculum development, or private tutoring. Teaching English, or better yet, STEM, while not klei kodesh, can impressively augment your morah paycheck and provide valuable mentoring opportunities for students.

A nice thing about teaching is that despite whom you sign a contract with, your direct employer is HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and you’re administering His work — so He’s also more openly involved in managing your wages and making it cover.

Consider how to set yourself up realistically, albeit more simply, and then march ahead. When you decide to teach, you join the ranks of Klal Yisrael’s nobility.

And a word to parents: It’s trending these days to say “thank you” to teachers, talk about them being heroes and heroines, and all that. Unless that spills over into being proud and supportive of our own children teaching, it’s suspiciously hollow.

Below is an excerpt of a letter printed in the Jewish Observer (September 1980):

I recently made a decision not to “go into chinuch.” What my teachers and my conscience have been telling me are one and the same: “You’re being selfish. You’re running after money.” I confess. My motivations are definitely selfish. However, I feel that my act of selfishness — the selfishness of a 17-year-old girl entering the computer field to make it easier for herself to support a ben Torah — is miniscule when compared to the selfishness of our frum society....

I can say with conviction that the caliber of the girls in chinuch will slip. We can thank the computer field for that, for it is paying potential teachers a good salary. The computer field, in turn, owes thanks to the frum society. It is because we refuse to pay for our children’s education that IBM has so many bright frum girls programming their computers.… These problems are forcing all but the very selfless out of chinuch. Many positions are then left open for incompetent people to fill.

I know this writer well. Besides being prophetic, she’s very special and puts herself out for Klal Yisrael in many varied ways. She’s worked hard to support her family on a professional salary, and her husband is a talmid chacham of note.

I wonder, though. Teachers don’t have a lower rate of husbands learning Torah, and there are many indicators for quality of life besides dollars. So while I was working on this article, I called her to confer and somewhat presumptuously asked if she ever regretted that she could have been teaching, perpetuating the Jewish People on an even grander level for the last 42 years. Not minding my nosiness in the least, she shared that she had mixed feelings about her decision. Every decision carries a price, and this one did too.


Mrs. Batya Weinberg has been involved in numerous aspects of Jewish education for over 30 years. She’s a senior lecturer in many seminaries and a noted student advisor.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 823)

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