Thursday, March 08, 2007

Chulent, The View from the Fringes, and Blogging

While we rightfully take satisfaction in the growth of Torah Judaism in America, we also need to face the problems and challenges which that very growth has brought. Facing the underside of any society is not pleasant, but it needs to be done. Although there are no easy answers to serious problems, we should work towards partially ameliorating problematic situations.

The topic of "non-conformists" to Orthodox Jewish life has been addressed during recent years. During the teenage period, we call it "at risk teens" or "going off the derech". During adult years, it seems that less attention has been paid to the phenomenon. Hella Winston has written about the latter topic in her book "Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels". There are those who feel that her book leaves the reader to form a skewed and incorrect overall picture of chassidic society. Whether her writing is fair or not, all agree, however, that there are adults, as well as children who do not fit in neatly to Orthodox society.

I link to an article titled "Hasidim on the Fringe", which has been discussed on Harry Maryles' blog. The following paragraph tells how this group started:

Chulent started fifteen years ago as an after-business schmooze at the offices of its founder, Isaac Schonfeld, a thirty-something bachelor from Boro Park. The event began with a small circle of friends, mostly Hasidic men, many of them divorced, going through divorces, or single past the age of twenty-five--all aberrations in the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic world, where men and women are typically married by their late teens or early twenties and where divorce carries with it a social stigma more in sync with the early twentieth century than our own decade. These men "found themselves at the periphery of society because their religious convictions were being challenged internally," says Schonfeld. Together they created a "mini-society" with Chulent serving as their "ir miklat," or "city of refuge" (a reference to the biblical cities of refuge to which a accidental killer was sent to escape a potential avenger). Though Schonfeld initially hoped to keep the crowd somewhat exclusive, he never made a secret of Chulent. News of it spread, mostly by word-of-mouth, and Chulent soon gained popularity among a fringe group of ultra-Orthodox men, some women, and eventually a larger, more diverse group of Jews.

How can the Orthodox world prevent the need for "cities of refuge"? True, there will always be rebels, but not every person who doesn't neatly fit in is a rebel. Sometimes, we have to be more understanding when thinking about why people do not conform easily. Such people may be working bnei torah, older singles, or people struggling with issues of faith and doubt. If there is something that the Frum community can do to minimize the phenomenon, then we should be doing it.

In society at large, there are social circles and support groups for all types of issues and groups. In effect, "Chulent" serves as one type of support group in the Frum world, itself serving different types of people. Everyone needs a society or group to belong to.

One positive example of a specialized social group is Tiferes B'nei Torah(home of the "Shmuz"), described below. Not everyone takes the Brisk, Mir, Lakewood route, and some need a "chevra" to belong to after they have left yeshiva. People develop in different ways, and there should be a place in the Torah world for the maximum amount of people to develop at their individual pace . From the website:

As a nation we are flourishing. Our Yeshivas and Bais Yaakovs are filled to capacity; our Shuls and Batei Medrashim are packed; our communities are overflowing - Torah learning seems to increase on a daily basis. Yet, for many young, working people the question remains "where do I fit in?" Tifereth Bnei Torah was created to fill that void. Six years ago, Rabbi Henoch Lebowitz, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Chofetz Chaim Yeshivas, envisioned creating a social environment, almost a community within our communities, where a young, working Ben Torah could find his place -- a place where he could learn, a home that would stimulate him to grow, an environment that would nurture a sense of connection. That vision is now Tiferes Bnei Torah.

And now, on to a topic closer to home. What role does blogging play as a "support group", if it does at all ? To answer this question, I would divide the participants in Jblog discussions into three types. There are the anti-establishment members of the blogosphere, those with a gripe against society and have an extremely negative focus. There are also those on the blogosphere thinking or struggling about issues of faith, and gravitate towards places where people may voice doubts which they are not comfortable raising publicly. Both of these types of people find blogs, or fellow commenters who serve as support groups for those interested in the issues addressed. While I think that there are basic courtesies that one should observe when discussing problems confronting the Orthodox community, and I am likewise seriously concerned about people being exposed to anti-Torah ideas on the internet, my focus is not on either of these two groups.

I am thinking rather of the more "mainstream" bloggers and commenters. Obviously, mainstream is in the eyes of the beholder. I do not identify "mainstream" as either charedi or modern-Orthodox, but rather those who even when voicing criticism, do it in a responsible way, and do not come across as anti-Establishment(although, the latter is a relative term).

Let's face it: most of us enjoy blogging, and it fulfills certain needs. For some, blogging is simply another medium of communication. Yet for others, even in what we consider the "mainstream" group, blogging may go further than that. Perhaps it fills the void formed previously by a relatively highly-controlled media, where even slightly unconventional ideas are not always given sufficient voice. Certainly, the anonymity factor can be beneficial on blogs (although it can be abused as well). It is reasonable to state that for many, even those "not on the fringes", blogging may be a sort of an alternative society, and a type of social or support group.

Whether the charedi world will recognize blogging, if at all, remains to be seen. In the meantime, we can try to be more understanding of those in the "Chulent" group, even as we hope that they grow in their connection to Torah. And even if blogging is far from perfect, we can endeavor to make the activity as responsible as possible.

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