Problems in the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox World

            August/September 2012    
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Cracks Appear in the Frum World

By N. Shuldig

Frum = Definition: Yiddish for a very highly religiously observant Jew

Fifty years ago the word ‘frum’ was synonymous with ‘erhlicht’, another Yiddish word meaning honest, upright, trustworthy and dependable. But things have changed much in the world of the ultra-Orthodox and not all for the good.

The ultra-Orthodox Jews (called in Hebrew charadim) are distinguished by their dress code. The men wear black hats, black suits, black socks and white shirts and the women always cover their hair either with a wig or a decorative cloth covering or even a hat depending on the sub-group standards. The women also wear long dresses that come below the knee and sleeves that come below the elbow; the chest area is also covered till the neck.

There is no mixing of the sexes in gatherings such as the synagogue, bar mitzvahs, weddings and other non family festive meals. Men sit separate from the ladies often with a make shift wall (meketza) separating them not just from fraternization but also from view.

Unfortunately this insular group which has silently boasted of higher successful marriages than their non-religious peers was relatively free of most crime problems. But as this group grew and became enormous due to 1.) large families and also 2.) to the many returnies to the Orthodox fold, so has it been matched by increases in divorce rates and surprisingly in real crime. This negative trend is partially due to outside influences, such as the secular culture's influence on the religious communities, and partially due to a certain internal flaw that is beginning to manifest itself in this highly conformist social group as shall be explained. But first let us explain what frum really is:

Once a great rabbi was asked, “What is ‘frumkite’? (Frumkite is Yiddish (again) generally refering the world of the frum people together with their customs.)

The rabbi answered saying that frumkite is the outward manifestation of yirat shaimayim, (fear of G-d).

This answer, unfortunately, tells us much about what is happening in the ultra-Orthodox world today.

Fifty years ago, people who were yirat shaimayim (possessed the internalized fear of G-d) where few. Before World War II, American Orthodox Jews were known to struggle not to break the Shabbat. There was even a synagogue in the now very religious section of New York, Boro Park, that had early Shabbat morning services so that those unfortunates could finish their prayers early and go to work. Those who were steadfast in their religious observance and were very idealistic suffered greatly financially. If they did not come in to work on Saturday, they lost their jobs. Jobs were few and money was short; many religious people worked on the seventh day and hoped that G-d would forgive them.

As time progressed these steadfast people found ways of making money and raising families. These people were idealistic, self-sacrificing, intellectually honest and dedicated to giving their children a better life than they had. Their children received better educations, better living environments and had their physical needs provided for by their parents in a much great degree than their parents had had.

A new world opened after World War II. The yeshiva world was reborn seeing the opening of hundreds of yeshivas throughout America and Israel. The parents encouraged their children to learn the 'word of G-d' and they vigorously supported both the Torah schools and their children.

But as time went on, something else happened too. An over-emphasis on the clothing that differentiated between the Orthodox and the rest of the Jewish world began to take root. The external manifestation of religiosity became important. No longer was a person judged solely on his merit, but also on his dress. It slowly became imperative for religious boys and girls to dress ‘properly’, at least as defined by the Orthodox social dress code. This over emphasis on the religious dress code began to take predominance over other aspects of religious life getting to the point that it basically put being internally G-d fearing in second place far behind the fear of breaking the ever present and ever important visible social dress code.

In addition a second phenomenon came into being: the G’mach. A G’mach (Hebrew) meaning a free loan society began to take root in the religious communities to aid people to make ends meet. While the average person would have to take out a loan at the bank and pay a high rate of interest, the religious were able to secure an easy loan with no interest and no charges. In addition, food G’machs were set up to help people by supplying them with various food packages for free to help them meet the strains of raising a large family. Today there are more G’machs types and organizations than can be counted.

At this point in time the life in the religious world was much superior to that of the non-religious. The religious family had stability, community support and a much higher degree of family harmony and happiness. But at the same time, the over emphasis on external manifestation began to take its toll.

Many people who externally were part of the frum community, meaning in their dress and appearance, were internally not connected to the central part of Orthodoxy: an awareness of G-d in every aspect of the person's personal life. Although they dressed frum and acted frum, their minds were full of other ideas many coming from the surrounding secular and non-Jewish culture in which we live. We began to see marriages breaking down and the divorce rate began to raise up - however it must be stated that it is nowhere near the non-religious average. Still, the religious public were beginning to meet with problems in their frumkite.

This trend has continued and was even joined by an other, even worse, manifestations of something being wrong in the very tight lipped religious community. At first child molestation was hushed up. G-d-forbid that someone should hear of this, it is bad for the child’s future, bad for the community, etc. Finally it is surfacing that, yes, there are even frum child molesters.

Even worse, we have witnessed the once considered impossible, frum murderers. We witnessed a crime in which an important Chassidic Rebbe and the entire community tried to punish one person for praying in a different synagogue. The community tried punishing this person for his sin of praying in the wrong minyan by damaging his property and ostracizing his children from the local schools. Then final straw came when the gabbai (aid to the Chassidic Rebbe) tried to burn down this person's house at night while the entire family was sleeping in it. This person was apprehended and is now in prison. But where were the community while this hate crime was building up? Where was the Chassidic rebbe when his followers were trying to terrorize a man for simply praying in another minyan? Something was wrong here that was covered up.

Then there was the murder of a young boy in New York by a religious man and the murder of a respected Rabbi in Israel by another religious man. It must be stressed that this is a very, very small proportion of the religious public and miniscule compared to the vast problems in the surrounding secular societies in which we live, yet it is significant. It must be mentioned that the religious public abhors violence and most religious neighborhoods that I have been in are tranquil and peaceful. How ever it is significant that there are these types of violent crimes by religious people which never happened before.

This is not to mention the on-going fraud that is happening in the areas of g’machs. Whereas there are so many people doing kindness and raising money to help out less fortunate religious people, there is a very small minority of people in the frum community who practice fraud on its members by collecting money to help the poor and use it for themselves. It is difficult to distinguish which charities are honest and which are fraudulent. As of yet, there is no standard public accounting for many charities that would aid donors to determine where the money goes and to know how much actually gets in the hands of the poor.

What has happened in my opinion is simple: The over emphasis on the external manifestation of being G-d-fearing and little emphasis on the internal aspect. The Orthodox community is now in peril of giving birth to young people to whom only the externalities of life are important. How you dress and how you appear is what is important but what is inside is not so important. The emphasis is on the wrong aspect. This is a terrible future.

What needs to be done is simple: A new emphasis on serving G-d, of putting G-d first and foremost in the hearts and actions of each and every individual. Being frum may be important, following the dress code is very important, it keeps the person in the correct society, but it does not guarantee that the person will be truly internally G-d-fearing. Emphassis on being internally G-d fearing must be stressed in addition to the externalities. Although we have always had bad eggs, still this I believe is the proper solution.


from the August/September 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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