“No! That is our answer to the Board of Education’s plan, a threat to every yeshiva’s existence.” Read about the battle of the Frierdiker Rebbe against the New York Board of Education and read his words, which could have been said in 5783.
A Chassidisher Derher
That is our undaunted, fearless answer, cried from the throats of people ready and willing for the ultimate self-sacrifice.
That is our answer to the Board of Education’s plan, a threat to every yeshiva’s existence. No! We do not accept this mandate. No! This mandate is wrong. No! The half-in and half-out current crop of Jewish leaders cannot lead our battle for Torah. No! The rabbonim and roshei yeshivos cannot entrust this battle to anyone else!!
‘No, no, and no!’
We do not accept this mandate! We have never accepted it: not from the Romans, not from the Greeks, and not from the Russian Czars. We will not accept it from the Board of Education!”
Who was the subject of these impassioned words? Was it a cry against the horrors of the Soviet Union? Against the wanton persecution of the dedicated, selfless teachers of the underground network of chadarim spearheaded by the Frierdiker Rebbe?
“It sounds like it could have been written this year, in 5783, regarding our current situation,” says one Crown Heights mechanech.
Actually, these powerful words were passionately spoken by the Frierdiker Rebbe in the year 5702 (1942). The location? Brooklyn, NY.
They were published in the Hakria V’Hakedusha periodical, at the behest of the Frierdiker Rebbe.
The Frierdiker Rebbe’s battle to preserve Yiddishkeit in the Soviet Union was renowned throughout the Jewish world. But this time, the battle defended against something far more insidious: efforts, well-intentioned or otherwise, to modernize the education of our children. Instead of following the hallowed approach forged over the millenia, there were those who felt that things must change to account for the new world. “Let our children learn Torah,” these activists declared, “but let them also learn of science, of reason, of modern culture. It is time for us to fit in with the modern zeitgeist, and to become productive members of society.”
This battle was not the first. This campaign of the Frierdiker Rebbe continued a long tradition of Chabad Rabbeim, who staunchly defended chinuch al taharas hakodesh, a pure Torah education without compromise, imbued with wholesome emunah. Indeed, the consequences of these battles reverberate to this very day.
From the Tzemach Tzedek and the Haskalah movement, to the Rebbe Rashab and the Chevra Mefitzei HaHaskalah, to the Frierdiker Rebbe and the New York Board of Education, our Rabbeim stood tall from generation to generation at the forefront of the battle for pure Jewish chinuch.
When the Frierdiker Rebbe arrived in New York from a Europe torn apart, his famous statement, “America is nit andersh,” that the Yiddishkeit of America is no different from that of der alter heim in Europe, was a shock to many. One of the early tests of this approach took place almost immediately upon his arrival.
Back in 5699 (1939), the New York Board of Education passed the following resolution: “Voted, that private or parochial schools that operate with a program providing a session carried on in a foreign language during the forenoon, with only anafternoon session in English, be advised that such practice violates the compulsory education law…”
Nevertheless, the existing yeshivos of New York at the time — which, though all offering secular education, reserved the morning hours for davening and study of Torah — explained that such a change could not be implemented so suddenly.
The Board provided a year extension, and little more was heard of the matter until Adar 5702 (March 1942). The Educational Board reached out then to all existing yeshivos, noting that it appeared that a number of yeshivos had not complied with the above resolution and that hearings on the matter would soon commence.
The Frierdiker Rebbe was adamant that this regulation not be implemented. Using the possuk [regarding the mitzvah of challah] of “Reishis arisosechem,” (lit. the first of your dough), the Frierdiker Rebbe explained it by relating the word arisosechem to a word for bed, arisah. In other words, the first thing one should do upon arising from bed should be connected with Torah and Yiddishkeit.
In a letter to the head of Agudas Harabbonim, Reb Yisroel Rosenberg, the Frierdiker Rebbe described this law as, “A terrifying and horrifying decree hovering over the heads of the Jewish people across the greater New York area…”
In the continuation of the letter, the Frierdiker Rebbe explained that aside from the demeaning lack of respect for kedushah that placing secular studies first conveys, allowing this law to pass [and thereby allowing the government a say over our religious studies] would utterly destroy the foundation of the New York yeshiva system, with unexpected and dire consequences.
The Frierdiker Rebbe goes on to point out that the operating committee, led by Reb Yitzchak Meir Bunim, was working hard and in the right direction, basing their position on American law itself, yet their approach was leading toward a path of compromise — which should be unacceptable to the yeshivos. Instead, it should be explained to the members of the Board of Education that moving secular studies to the morning is completely impossible, and demanding this demeans our people’s religious feelings — and, “In every time and in every place, no one, not even those appointed by the government, has the right to demean the religious feelings of another, and certainly not in this free country; [certainly not] at a time when our brothers and sisters throughout the lands conquered by the ‘Agagite’ [i.e. the Nazis] are being killed, slaughtered, and murdered with tremendous cruelty; [certainly not] at a time when tremendous danger hovers over the holiness of the land of our forefathers, may Hashem have mercy on it and on us; [certainly not] at a time when our Jewish brethren who live in this country place themselves in danger on the battlefields of land, sea and air…”
The Frierdiker Rebbe went on to ask that all Jews, no matter their group or party, should participate in thwarting this evil decree. Specifically, the Frierdiker Rebbe advised to arrange: 1. Mass, organized rallies with fiery, passionate speeches, 2. Public pamphlets in Yiddish and English about the matter, and 3. Well-explained articles in newspapers.
The Frierdiker Rebbe also wrote to Reb Eliezer Silver, one of the leaders of American Orthodoxy, and pushed for stronger action by the committee, while also asking Reb Nissan Telushkin to galvanize rabbonim to visit different shuls and thunder against the decree from the pulpit. That summer, the article in “Hakriah Vihakdusha” was published, with the ringing cry of the three “No’s!”
Reb Dovid Edelman was a bochur in 770 at that time. He later related how representatives of the Chassidim attempted to work things out with the Board of Education, to no avail. Finally, the Chassidim told the government officials, “In 5687 (1927), the [Frierdiker] Rebbe was imprisoned in Russia for his work at establishing schools that the Soviet government didn’t approve of.
The US Congress and President Hoover intervened and demanded that he be freed. Are you now going to arrest Rabbi Schneersohn and make America the laughingstock of the world?! The Russian government will publish the hypocrisy and irony of the matter. America demanded that we free him, and then two years after he’s in America, America imprisons him for the same crime…”
Sure enough, the weight of public opinion and the arguments of the committees succeeded. In Tishrei 5703, the Hapardes journal reported that an agreement with the state educational board was reached for yeshivos to continue with limudei kodesh in the mornings.
A fascinating and timely article in this month’s Derher magazine explores this ongoing story in great detail, shedding light on this most important chapter of our heritage as Chabad Chassidim, in a tale that takes us from Lubavitch to Paris; from Eretz Yisroel to New York City.
Read the article in its entirety below, courtesy of A Chassidisher Derher.
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