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Views Differ on Growing Neo-Chassidus Trend

Yeshiva University will host its annual Orthodox Forum next month, bringing together scholarly rabbinic speakers and educators. This year’s topic: Neo-Chassidus.

Why should anyone be surprised? The topic of this trend within Modern Orthodoxy has created quite a favorable stir, as well as some opinions not so supportive.

Also, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, mashpia at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and the spiritual leader of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, N.Y., is seen as a leading figure and inspiration connecting people with the very spiritual vision of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

Several of those interviewed by the Jewish Link say that they noticed a growing movement towards Chassidus within the past 5-10 years. The joy of Torah, singing and dancing at a Kabbalat Shabbat and the learning from Chassidic masters seem to colorize the black and white of learning, some say.

Still others worry out loud, that while the emotional side is important, one can never lose sight of the deep-seated learning as part of Jewish education and tradition. Perhaps finding that comfortable spot where both are included is what Modern Orthodox Jews might be seeking, said one YU graduate.

Adam Friedman, 25, and a rabbinic intern at Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, N.J., said that he was learning in yeshiva in Israel, and knew many people who were connecting to Chassidus.

“The idea of hours after Shabbos still being in Shabbos singing drew me back. It kind of took my entire being and lifted it up to a new place. It is revealing. Chassidus is a small uncovering of something deep within which is very natural to the Jewish soul.”

Friedman was part of a group that explored with Rabbi Weinberger Chassidic texts ranging from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s “Likutei Moharan and the writings of Chabad Chassidus, which included the Tanya and many more scholars and texts.

“We kept to ourselves when I was at YU,” said Friedman. “We heard comments from people, but we weren’t looking for trouble or to make trouble. We were oblivious and tuned out commentary on the outside.

“Chassidus isn’t about garments, it’s about essence,” he said.

Friedman’s voice seemed joyful even over the telephone when he said, “nothing was familiar at first. We didn’t know where we were going. He (Rabbi Weinberger) was learning, exploring the similarities between the Nefesh HaChaim and the Tanya. We’re trying to find that oneness.”

The young rabbi also credited YU Rabbi Herschel Reichman “who gave us strength through his minyan. He is the real seed of this at YU, and he deserves an honorable mention. There was tension at times between people. I’d be asked how many hours I was learning. People gave me flack because I davened at a later minyan. Through Chassidus, he offered me something of quality you can’t exchange for hours of learning.”

Rabbi Weinberg wrote in 2012 in the online Klal Perspectives “We are all familiar with a number of wonderful kiruv initiatives that were initially established as a means of reaching out to the assimilated and unaffiliated. While these are still the populations officially being targeted by kiruv seminars and Shabbatons, a large percentage of attendees are actually (forgive me) FFBs of all stripes and colors. Last year, I was asked to speak at such a convention and prepared a drasha geared for the uninitiated and newly observant. Upon arriving, it became quite apparent to me that the great bulk of those attending were Chassidish, Yeshivish, Heimish and Modern Orthodox. Their common denominator? The intense longing they had to connect to Hashem and the sincere need they had to understand why they were keeping mitzvos and making sacrifices for Yiddishkeit.

“Many shared with me a sense of `lamah nigara’—why should we be kept back and denied the rich spirituality and the open and honest discussions about emunah typically offered to our secular brothers and sisters? Mind you, these were intelligent, observant individuals—most graduates of our finest yeshivos and seminaries. Why do so many of our fold flock to Carlebach minyanim on Friday night, or try valiantly to introduce some of the song and spirit into their shul’s davening? And these are not a fringe element of holy hippies. To dismiss or misinterpret these and many other phenomena of this genre would be both wrong and dangerous. Jews—healthy, learned and sincere Jews—are aching for meaning and inspiration. They are not, God forbid, rejecting traditional Torah learning and halacha, nor do they seek to stir some revolution against the old guard. They are simply searching for the soul and light they are missing.”

Buzzy Levine, the owner of Lark Street Music in Teaneck attends a Carlebach minyan at Congregation Rinat Yisrael. He was friends with the late Carlebach, who seems to be the more contemporary musical face of Chassidus.

“I see a lot of young people or people in general flocking to Shlomo minyanim around town,” he said. “It’s been going on for a long time. I noticed there was one shul doing this, but now I’ve seen other shuls who have maybe a monthly Shlomo minyan.”

Levine said if anything he sees himself as a beginner at neo-Chassidus. He met Carlebach in the late 70s in Albany. His wife, Laya, knew Carlebach even before then. “I like music, and I just think it really adds to the spirituality,” he said. “We’re supposed to sing at services and that aspect is appealing.”

Rabbi Yosef Blau, the Masgiach ruchani at RIETS dials down the conversation about the neo-Chassidus impact at YU. He said he thought the interest in Chassidus came mostly from students who learned for a year or longer in Israel, where he said it is much more prominent.

“Part of it reflects the unrealistic expectations of taking a boy out of high school, sending him to Israel and expecting him to study Gemara all day long,” he said. “They are looking for other things, and in Israel there’s the Breslover phenomenon, a Chassidic component of Rav Kook. It’s there in the air. Boys and girls are looking for something to enhance their experience in Israel. The intellectual component can be too much and too overwhelming, so this (Chassidus) hits home. And then they come home to America and they come to Yeshiva University, which is both a yeshiva and a university. This is an alternative for them. And it is meeting apparently a real need, but it can be shallow.”

Rabbi Blau added that Rabbi Weinberger has touched “a chord for a lot of people who were brought up in Orthodox communities where Orthodoxy was basically routine. Chassidus gives Orthodoxy a certain life. It adds dimension. But a word of caution, because Chassidus can be the easy part. Who doesn’t like to sing and dance?

“They talk about studying, but it’s not clear how many are really studying Chassidic works. The studying part is not so exciting,” continued Rabbi Blau. “You have to plug away.”

He also said that this trend still finds itself at an early stage. Rabbi Blau isn’t sure if this is a passing fad or something that will really transform the Modern Orthodox community.

“People who live in Woodmere might put on a kapata on Shabbos, but during the week, they are the same people as before,” he said.

Mutty Shur grew up around the sounds of Carlebach and other well-known Jewish musicians. Indeed, his father Moshe was a member of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band.

“My father was very close with Carlebach,” said Shur, a Kew Garden Hills resident. “Carlebach’s way was never to push something specific on anyone. Some people look at Chassidus as a rebellion to formal Judaism.

“Basically what being a Neo-Chassid means is that if you are not learning in the beis medrash all day you can still have a relationship with God without losing touch with halacha. Look at Rabbi Weinberger’s shul. He learns there every day at 6 a.m. I don’t think learning is dismissed from Chassidus as people say it is.”

Former Teaneck resident Zev Weisinger, who now lives in Washington Heights does trace his roots to a Chassidic dynasty, but he doesn’t consider himself a neo-Chassid. “My feeling is that as long as this is not against halacha, it’s fine,” he said. I know a bunch of people who do partake in this neo-Chassidus idea. It’s a way for them to get closer to Judaism and God, and as long as it’s not against halacha, who am I to judge? I’m perfectly content where I am. Some guys need that mysticism and spirituality. If they get close this way, why make it a problem?

Weisinger, 24, admits that he knows many who came back to religious Judaism because of Chassidus. They had what he described as a “fiery love for Judaism.”

“Look, they bring a sense of spirituality,” he said. “It’s not for everybody. For me it’s too flowery, too fluffy, and I’m not a fluffy type of guy when it comes to Judaism.”

Or as Rabbi Blau said, “They are looking for something more emotional, not dry and intellectual. These people have been in an educational system over the years as part of the community and they feel a lack, and this (Chassidus) gives them a spark.

“Still, I’m always concerned about superficiality and shallowness,” he added. “You can enjoy Simchas Torah, but there’s also Tisha B’Av.”

Rav Weinberger will be visiting Teaneck on Sunday, February 22, to give a Shiur as part of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun’s Beis Medrash program. His topic will be Mi’Shenichnas Adar: So What? Bringing happiness and emunah into our lives. The program starts at 8 p.m. and men and women are invited.

For sponsorship opportunities contact Daniel Gibber [[email protected]], Henry Orlinsky [[email protected]], Jackie Feigenbaum [[email protected]], Danny Saks [[email protected]], Zev Halstuch [[email protected]] or Steven Becker [[email protected]]

By Phil Jacobs

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