Dear Rebbe: From Anonymous

An open letter to the Grand Rabbi of Satmar of Kiryas Joel, NY written by a constituent and posted anonymously to a Yiddish blog. We merely translated it to English.

Satmar Rabbi is at the forefront of fighting to preserve the status quo in Yeshivas

Peace and great salvation to my master and teacher the rebbe of Satmar, may he live long years, the rock of his dwelling in the great city of God, Kiryas Joel.

With great humility and trepidation, I take my pen to write from the heart, although I know my humble stature: who am I to come before the king? But I feel compelled to do so nonetheless.

This last Passover I sat with the thousands of disciples and followers of Our Master at the annual Chol Hamoed lecture in the Great Shul. The rebbe’s words were, as usual, like cold water to a tired soul. The holy words of Torah, ethics, and guidance are like manna from heaven for the weekdays to comes.

His Honorable Holiness spoke of God’s great kindness, and how the rebbe, the pillar of fire that leads our camp, saved the pure education of the Jewish children in New York. The rebbe elaborated on the Pesach miracle of this year, how the wicked ones who wish to annihilate us have conspired to force on our children various studies filled with heresy and apostasy — God save us — but “the Holy One Blessed be He, saved us from their hands,” with the great heavenly aid and the wisdom of the rebbe. Indeed, on the very sacred first night of Passover, the scheming wicked ones were delivered into the hands of those occupied with Torah study.

I, too, at the conclusion of the lecture, danced to “Vehu She’omodo” [“The Lord Has Stood For Us”]. But, rebbe, it was with feelings of both joy and anxiety. On the one hand, the joy was indescribable that we will continue to educate our children in the way of Torah, without the governance of the wicked who have abandoned the Torah. It is a great joy that within this benighted generation God has left us a leader who was able, with his foresight, to nullify the scheming of our enemies. On the other hand, however, I felt the piercing pain. My heart felt pinched, tears flowed from my eyes, and this is the subject of my present words.

Master and teacher: I am a simple Jew who is occupied with making a living and providing sustenance to my family. I work bitterly hard, morning to night, to feed my family. I am what some would call a ‘balebatisher’ young man. I have, thank God, a good position, and I earn a decent wage. I earn around $85,000 annually, plus health insurance.

It’s a decent living. Many of my friends could only dream of such. But rebbe, it is not enough, it is far from enough, very far. Here’s the accounting: I pay $3,000 rent per month for a cramped apartment. Tuition and summer camp comes to around $20,000 a year. Food costs another $25,000 ($500 a week — a very tight budget for a family of ten). I am left with $9,000 for all other expenses, such as electricity, gas, phone, clothes, and so on and so forth. $173 per week!

I do not receive food stamps, Section 8, vouchers, or any other income from government programs. With $173 per week I am supposed to cover my running budget.

Dear rebbe, I am a thirty-something young man. I started my job earning $18,000 annually. Thank God, I’ve worked my way up nicely. But rebbe, the professionals at my company earn a great deal more, typically above $200,000 per year. I, with my many years of yeshiva study, could not find a better starting salary. I didn’t know any English, or Quickbooks, or Excel; I had no training in anything. I fell from the Torah world into the material world without any preparation at all. Today, already doing well at my job, I could never achieve the positions that pay close to a quarter million dollars a year. All because the learning of my youth did not prepare me for it.

I look with envy to the company attorney, the accountant, the engineer. They are well paid for their professions. But I have no profession, and must make do with my narrow wage.

I remember the days of yore when I sat in the “tents of Torah” with the rebbe in yeshiva. My father, may he be well, urged me to study to become a rabbi. His command protected my soul. I studied and reviewed, again and again. I turned my nights into days, until I was able to conclude my studies and take the exam. I will never forget my joy at being examined for the “horo’oh” by the rebbe. I later even received “Yorah Yorah Yodin Yodin” (the highest level of rabbinic ordination) from Rabbi Fishele, of blessed memory. It was a true joy of Torah. The rebbe glowed from joy: no small thing, another student attained the “horo’oh.” My parents were beside themselves with happiness. And my grandfather, of blessed memory, who had suffered through the camps [during World War II], could not stop speaking of the vengeance he now had in the hater of Jews — may the names of the wicked be erased. Those were the glory days.

Then I got married. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Chase Bank doesn’t accept the “horo’oh” as payment. Neither does American Express. Nor even my local grocer, the one who stands next to me each Simchas Torah at the hakofos. They all demand cash. Green American dollars. It is sadly a degraded word, but it is also the world of reality.

Money makes the world turn, and I make my way in the world with no money. It is a bitter situation.

I am mired in debt. I borrowed here and there from good Jews. Borrowed from this one to pay for that one, like a spinning wheel. The credit cards are maxed out, and I pay bitter amount in interest month by month.

I remember the dark days before this very holiday of Passover. A time that is supposed to be filled with light and joy. “Our time of dancing was turned into mourning.” I had not an extra cent as the holiday approached, and here I had to buy shoes for the kids, suits, hats, and so forth. My father in law, a righteous man, went beyond his abilities and gave me $500. My father paid for my matzahs. I ran around trying to find additional loans of just a few dollars more. This one just straight out declined. The other wanted three guarantors, and wasn’t satisfied with any of the ones that I brought. Thank God, after all that effort, I managed to borrow $2,000 — with shame and humiliation.

After all this came the tough decisions. Do I buy shoes for Rochele or for Yankele. Her shoe has a hole in the bottom, and his shoes are torn at the side but the shoe repair man cold probably fix it. Zurich’s suit no longer fits him, and Burich’s suit is threadbare and coming apart. My heart felt shredded as I made these decisions. One child I was able to satisfy at least halfway, and the other child was left devastated and broken to piece.

Another 2–3 years, and we will begin to pursue marriage arrangements. I cannot even imagine what it would be like. I will need between $50,000 to $80,000 per wedding. I can barely scrape up an extra $5 to $8. All the wonderful wedding regulations won’t help me much. And then comes my dread that my children will, in the near future, start to spin in the same wheel that I am in, with no tools for their own success.

Dear rebbe, this is from a “balebatisher” [middle class] young man! I am not a pauper. But the education I received did not prepare me for the real world.

I don’t know if the rebbe can understand my pain and suffering. My hands tremble at the words I am about to speak, which I write with the greatest respect and much caution, and I hope this won’t be seen as insolence, because that is not my intention, God forbid.

A story is told about one of our great sages, who, on a cold, wet night went out to collect alms for a poor man who could not afford wood to heat his home. The sage comes to the wealthy man in town in the middle of the night and knocks on his window. The wealthy man crawls out of bed and opens the door, frightened, and sees the great rebbe at the door. The rebbe begins to speak about this and that. Meanwhile, the wealthy man is getting cold, and asks the rebbe to come in. The rebbe pretends not to hear, and remains at the door and keeps chatting. After a while, the wealthy man, shivering from cold, cries to the rebbe that he cannot take it any longer and the rebbe must come inside. The rebbe says: Good, there’s a poor man in town who shivers from cold night after night; now you might understand his situation — which you wouldn’t understand sitting inside your warm home.

To our point: the rebbe lives in his large, paid-off houses. Rides in a nice car. Owns beautiful works of silver. He has followers who pay for the weddings of his grandchildren. When you live that kind of life, when your greatest worry is who has a bigger crowd for the “Feast of the 21st of Kislev,” it might be difficult to understand the simple man in the field, such as I am, who goes through the seven fires of hell. As I said, I do not mean, God forbid, to accuse. On the contrary, it is in the interest of the Jewish people that our great leaders live with comfort and contentedness, especially a leader such as the rebbe, who is dedicated to observing with glory in the matters of kashruth, the commandments, Torah study, wedding regulations, and so forth. Still, though: sitting in one of his great paid-off houses, it will be difficult to understand the pauper’s situation.

And so here we must ask: why should we not teach our children a craft? Will teaching them Quickbooks prevent them from remaining faithfully observant Jews? What kind of heresy is there in the study of Excel? What is the problem with studying English, which is a vital necessity in today’s world?

Blessed be the Lord that he prevented the decree of the wicked. But speaking amongst ourselves, pious Jews, perhaps it is time — under the purest conditions — to provide the studies that would help our children with their futures?

Please do not respond with the high and mighty buzzwords like “Chasam Sofer,” “Haskalah,” “purity and holiness,” and the like. I want to understand simply. I struggle like a dog, all to please our Father in heaven. I have the right to demand an explanation.

Rebbe, it is no longer a time of working the fields. Even tailoring and other manual occupations are no longer. Most well-paid jobs require a profession. That requires beginning to study at a young age. Take me, for example. I have an inclination for medical areas. I am a member of Hatzoloh [the volunteer EMT ambulance service]. It gives me great satisfaction. The average doctor earns $190,000 a year. Why should I not have a job like that?

Why was I not taught these skills in my youth? Why must I suffer, when my life could’ve been so much easier?

And what about the obligation to “teach your son an occupation”? In the old days, it meant teaching your son to sow and plough the fields. Today, it means teaching them to use computers. To study for a profession. That is the skill our time demands. How do we ignore this entire obligation?

The rebbe said in his talk that, thank God, we have millionaires among us. Wonderful. But on the other hand, we have a disproportionate number living in poverty when compared to the educated classes of the outside world. Not everyone has the temperament to run his own business. You need leadership skills, and to be a risk-taker. I, and many others like me, are not like that. I can’t go to sleep at night if I don’t know if I’ll be able to pay my rent. I need secure and stable employment.

The world has changed. We cannot continue as before. The work world has changed. Cost of living keeps rising. (This year, tuition fees went up, but wages stayed the same. How am I supposed to pay them?) It is perhaps time to rethink our approach.

Before I conclude: There are many who cry, we cannot raise pious Jews when offering such studies. Let us look at our own institutions: the holy “Bais Rochel” school for girls. They study English, math, science, history, and many other secular studies. We fulfil almost entirely the government demands (by the old law!). And what are the results? Pious Jewish women, righteous and modest! It is well known that our holy womenfolk are far more pious and upright than our men.

Here we must ask: How is it different? How come the girls can study it all, and they grow to be Blessed Seed, but the boys can’t because they won’t grow up to be pious Jews? How are these different from those?

It is a topsy-turvy world. The women, most of whom will grow up to be homemakers, who will cook and bake and do all the work around the home and raise the children, they’re the ones who study science. The holy women who raise our children, who instill in them the “Shema Yisroel” each day, who transmit to the next generation the simple and blind faith, they are the ones who study the history of the Gentiles. The girls who will likely never use Outlook, get to study it. But the boys, most of whom will grow up to be workers and breadwinners, who could use all of those studies for creating better living conditions, for them it is strictly forbidden!

Rebbe, rebbe, master, master: I weep as a son who confesses before his father, for the rebbe to take the matter into his hand and with his great wisdom and understanding to change it. Who else is so qualified as the rebbe is, who fears no one? The world looks to the rebbe. When the rebbe institutes something, it influences the entire God-fearing Jewish world. It is my strong hope that the rebbe will be fearless in the face of opposition and repair this matter in the Torah way.

I conclude my words with all the blessings written in the Torah. May the rebbe merit to sit on the throne of his kingdom, he and his sons among Israel, until we merit the day of when each man will rest under his grapevine, each man under his date tree, with the coming of our righteous Moshiach, with the rebbe to lead us, speedily in our days.

Such are the words of his disciple who rests in the dirt at his feet.

Shiya Ostreicher (left) lobbied for the bill to exempt Yeshivas from educational standards. Simcha Felder (right) held up the budget to force the exemption in.
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