LIFE ITSELF

Written by Yisroel Besser. Published in the Mishpacha on May 10, 2022.

Reb Avrohom Chaim Fruchthandler goes public

Many years ago, a great rosh yeshivah told one of his closest talmidim, “Ess iz shoin tzeit — the time has come, that you should start helping other mekomos haTorah too, not just ours.”

That’s what the rebbi, who was both chacham and navi, said.

Now, over four decades after the passing of Rav Yitzchak Hutner, the rebbi who made that remark, his talmid still sees it as a guiding light. In keeping with that guidance, he’s breaking a longstanding policy and doing what is, for him, almost inconceivable.

Rav Avrohom Chaim Fruchthandler, president of Yeshiva Umesivta Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin and exemplar of his rebbi’s vision for “Zevulun,” has been helping not just Rav Hutner’s Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin but also the wider olam hayeshivos for decades with his resources. Now he is fulfilling his rebbi’s directive by venturing into territory that is doubly new: speaking with the media, and speaking about politics.

He sees I’m recording our conversation and says nothing, and when the photographer starts to set up his equipment, the host moves his chair over to accommodate him.

I know that for Reb Avrohom, this is an act that demands real sacrifice. He does not do interviews. (Trust me on this one. I may have tried once or twice.)

In the realm of “off the record,” there is no one more delightful and gracious; over the years his conversations have always been heavy in insight and humor, and laced with real shimush chachamim. It’s not a lack of courtesy that shaped his longtime determination not to appear in print publications — like all of his philosophy, it comes from his rebbi, who disdained the falsehood permeating the media.

But — and this distinction is crucial in understanding Reb Avrohom’s current mission — following the directives of our chachamim isn’t limited to, “okay, the rosh yeshivah paskened and this is how it always was and will be.” Rather, as someone who has a vibrant connection to talmidei chachamim, Reb Avrohom is capable of nuance, of adapting to changing realities, and now, a different rosh yeshivah has told him that it is time to speak.

That rosh yeshivah is Rav Shlomo Halioua, a son-in-law of Chaim Berlin’s Rosh Yeshivah Rav Aharon Schechter, himself the handpicked successor of Rav Hutner, who, before moving to Eretz Yisrael at the end of his life, charged Rav Aharon with leading the yeshivah. Reb Avrohom Fruchthandler has bowed before two generations of leadership since Rav Hutner, and his posture is still one of hachna’ah, of reverence, to the man who fills the post of rosh yeshivah.

And so he speaks — on the record. As usual, he is passionate, and as usual, he is eloquent. At times emotional, other times entertaining, always focused — and today, there is an added element, because today, he is talking about that which is most precious to him.

That which is most precious to us.

For more than 120 years, the state of New York not only respected the independence of the yeshivos operating within its bounds, it publicly acknowledged that it did not have authority over private schools. And private schools, including yeshivos, understood that parents have a responsibility to provide their children with what New York describes as “a substantially equivalent” education. Given the overwhelming success of yeshivah graduates, and the poor performance of New York public schools, there was nobody who believed that the yeshivah system was the educational entity in New York that needed a systemic overhaul.

All that changed over the last several years, as the New York State Education Department has repeatedly attempted to assert its authority over the yeshivah system.

In November of 2018, the state issued new curriculum guidelines and other rules for private schools, including yeshivos. After yeshivos challenged them in court, the rules were tossed out. In July 2019, the state tried again, issuing formal regulations. The regulations provoked a torrent of opposition and the state backed down.

But the state wasn’t giving up. Its increasingly liberal administration tapped the public sentiment and targeted the private schools — particularly this sort of private school — for special overview.

In March of this year, the authorities released their newest regulations.

Even as the state attempted to convey that these regulations were a more benign version of its earlier attempts to impose new rules, sharper eyes saw a different story. But it was Erev Pesach and people were busy and you know how it is, it’s just drama, and there’s so much to do at home…

And so here we are.

New York State yeshivos and their representatives are currently racing against a clock, having been given 60 days (less, actually, because Pesach took care of a week and a half) — until the last day of May — to respond to the proposed regulations. If they are then adopted, yeshivos would immediately be subject to oversight and control by New York State school officials, who see no value in limudei kodesh.

There are about two weeks left to this public comment period, and along with tefillah, Reb Avrohom knows exactly what he wants to see happen.

“There is only one real language a politician speaks, and that’s numbers. We have the people and the passion to deliver hundreds of thousands of letters, and that has to be the direction. Parents, teenagers, alumni… each and every person should take a moment to formulate their thoughts on these recommendations and send them in.”

What do you consider untenable in the new regulations?

“First of all, the fact that they require evaluations of the yeshivah system, but don’t ascribe any merit at all to limudei kodesh, making that part of the day effectively worthless — afrah lepumaihu — in their eyes.

“Second, the regulations empower local school boards to review not only our curriculum, but our faculty as well, which is unprecedented. In addition, substantial equivalency — which means a school has ‘passed inspection’ and is considered successful by their standards — will be assessed only via a checklist of curricular inputs while ignoring our superb outcomes.

“Now,” Reb Avrohom qualifies, “there is a perception that since schools that administer Regents exams are exempt, they’re safe. That’s false, firstly because even those schools are subject to review if anyone — even a paid yeshivah critic or bitter opponent of yeshivos — submits a complaint, and also because what about yeshivos that just have an elementary school? [Regents exams are only administered in high school. —Ed.] And what about some yeshivos that don’t do Regents?”

Those are not the only issues. “The core subjects were always English, math, social studies, and science, but now they plan to add many more, at their discretion. And there is nothing stopping them from continuing to add requirements.”

And then it gets really dramatic. “The regulations require parents to switch their children to a different school if their current yeshivah is not deemed ‘substantially equivalent,’ and they are threatening jail time for parents who send to nonequivalent schools.

“It’s almost a joke,” Reb Avrohom says, “because the public schools — so well-funded, and so powerful — are producing quite poorly relative to us, in every area. Covid destroyed not just the education process, but in too many cases, the students themselves. The schools were forced to abide by union-made decisions about when and how to reopen and the children’s education suffered terribly.”

He laughs. “When the public schools can match our attendance rate and our graduation rate and our Regents grades, they should come talk to us about equivalency. But they want to send our parents to jail….”

In the past, there have been similar requests that concerned Jews step up by sending letters and emails, and it takes a lot to get people to believe that these things can really make a difference. Why should they respond yet again this time?

“First of all, the lesson from the past is that this hishtadlus does work. After the outcry when the state released its prior set of regulations, they were abandoned. So people should know that their voice does matter.

“And these regulations are even more dangerous. Now, the government is showing what they really want. They are reaching, actually over-reaching, deep into the heart of our yeshivah system and opening up a new door of control. If we let this go, then the yeshivah system as we know it is over, chas v’shalom! Anyone can file a complaint, at any time — including people so consumed by hate or jealousy that this is what they do full-time — and invite a new round of reviews.”

If the yeshivos have been performing so well, why is the State busying itself with our education?

“They don’t have a problem with our education. They have a problem with us. And their main problem is that we don’t share their values, and they don’t control us. Religion is out, in their books. If we give in here, they will come for our succahs or shuls and expect a seat on your yeshivah’s Board of Directors.”

Reb Avrohom pauses, as if considering whether to make a point. He is a passionate man, and there is audible emotion as he continues speaking.

He is heir to a path, talmid to a rebbi who believed and saw America as a malchus shel chesed, a respectful citizen who always considered it a privilege to vote and pay taxes.

“I didn’t say anything when New York State passed real estate laws that sharply reduced landlords’ profits, even though it affected my bottom line — because that’s not our life, it’s just business. But now,” and here his voice cracks, “now they are touching our lifeblood, ki heim chayeinu.”

Reb Avrohom is joined by his son, Reb Yehoshua Leib. That’s itself symbolic of the conversation’s theme. I’ve watched others of Reb Avrohom’s generation struggle to delegate or transfer any sort of meaningful responsibility to the next generation. Yet in Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, the younger generation, imbued with the mesorah of complete and utter deference to talmidei chachamim of the yeshivah, has been charged with not just taking part, but with leading.

I’ve seen Reb Avrohom’s face when his son stepped up to speak at a Torah Umesorah convention: not just paternal pride, but also a look of a man who has succeeded in a mission. Not just to hold a torch high, but to ensure that the ones he will hand it to can hold it with the same conviction.

Reb Yehoshua Leib, who reflects the enthusiasm (and straightforwardness) of his father, is animated about a quote from the rosh yeshivah, Rav Shlomo Halioua.

“It’s the Eibeshter’s Torah! It’s for no one to decide that they are in charge. It’s His Torah, not ours, and we have to show Him that we care.”

Reb Shua Leib is working on this issue, both publicly and behind the scenes, with a full spectrum of Orthodox organizations and groups, and he assures me that there is not just unity, but shared energy.

“The chassidim are amazing, no one is backing down here, we’re all being mechazek each other because we all sense that this is the Ribbono shel Olam’s battle we’re fighting. This is untouchable.”

Reb Avrohom shares a story he heard from his close friend Ralph Herzka, during the speech he delivered as guest of honor at the recent Mir yeshiva dinner.

During the elections for the Polish parliament, the Sejm, the Chofetz Chaim directed askanim to create a political party with a slate of Torah-true candidates. The community leaders explained that they knew the numbers, and there was no chance of the Torah community winning even a single seat.

The Chofetz Chaim knew this as well, yet he maintained his position: He wanted a party of shomrei Torah u’mitzvos. The activists were perplexed, and they asked why he wanted them to run candidates who would ultimately lose.

The Chofetz Chaim explained that tens of thousands of Yidden would vote for the party. With Yidden from all over joining forces under a Torah banner, that itself would be the victory. Because even if they would not win the election, they would still be sending a resounding message to the world: There are tens of thousands of Yidden who are still holding fast to the Torah! There are tens of thousands of loyal, proud soldiers announcing that, “The Ribbono shel Olam iz nisht bankrupt — Hashem is not bankrupt, kiveyachol!”

Reb Avrohom reflects on the story. “That was true even if they would not win, so for sure we have to send a loud, resounding cry that the Torah is untouchable when, b’ezras Hashem, we will win. We’re the ones who have endured government after government, attack after attack, still holding tight.

“I don’t know the Ribbono shel Olam’s cheshbonos, but you can see how fast Cuomo fell after he picked a fight with the Torah itself. ‘G-d didn’t do this, we did,’ he said, and it didn’t end well for him. It’s not a new story. We’ve seen this before.”

But what made you decide to take the unusual position of spokesman for this particular effort? You’ve never taken a vocal public role before. Why not leave it to the askanim who usually do this?

“Of course the organizations are working their way, very effectively, but this is a campaign for the people davka. My chinuch is that the machine that makes us ‘hechere people’ — that ennobles and elevates us — is Torah. My rosh yeshivah gave me a mandate to try be machzik Torah and what that means isn’t writing a check for Torah alone, but caring, hearing its cry and singing its song.

“When a parent is waiting in the emergency room with a child, they don’t make cheshbonos about what they’re usually prepared to do for this child, they just do whatever they can to help. When there’s a fire burning, you don’t think about what makes you look good, you grab a hose and get to work.”

It’s somewhat interesting that my host uses this mashal.

About ten years ago, there was an electrical fire at the main building of Chaim Berlin, on Brooklyn’s Coney Island Avenue. The building was evacuated and the fire department managed to extinguish it, but the damage was not insignificant and it looked like it would take a few days for the yeshivah to recoup and reopen.

The Fruchthandler family is in the real estate business, and through that long night, the two biggest clean-up companies in the city — competitors on a standard day — worked in tandem to ensure that the building was safe and clean by morning.

When I mention that story, Reb Shua Leib’s face lights up. He was there all night, working alongside the crews with one goal in mind. “The beis medrash was ready for first seder, regular time.”

“Va’telamdeim chukei chayim,” Reb Avrohom intones the words, a tremor in his voice as he says the word “chayim.” This is life. You don’t stop breathing.

The day I meet him, Reb Avrohom has just returned from a two-day trip to Toronto on behalf of the yeshivah. He arrived home well after midnight, but he shows no signs of fatigue this morning.

Watching him speak, I recall something I heard from a talmid who had often driven Rav Hutner. The Rosh Yeshivah would return to the car after various rabbinic meetings wearing a look of frustration. Clearly, he felt that the time could have been used more productively. After one such meeting, this talmid asked the perturbed Rosh Yeshivah why he went at all.

“I go,” said Rav Hutner, “to hear Rav Aharon Kotler say the word ‘Torah.’”

Listen to Reb Avrohom Fruchthandler say the word “yeshivah,” and you will hear it too. You will know that to this man, it is the solution and the source, the antidote and the answer. You know that he will fight to sing its song the way it was taught to him.

“That’s what we’re asking right now,” he repeats, “just write the letters. Take a moment, reflect on what it means to you, what this heilege system has done for you, and write it down. Make sure the authorities know that this is serious to us, make sure they know how serious this is to us, and make sure they know that we will continue to flourish, b’ezras Hashem.”

In my files, I have a letter that Reb Avrohom once sent me, a quote from Rav Aharon Schechter.

The Rosh Yeshivah was writing to someone who had expressed the desire to donate funds directly to his children, rather than invest in the organizations that educate them.

My attention was called to a statement of yours in which you state that you seek to give directly to children and families rather than to large nonprofits, writes Rav Aharon.

If that terminology is a pseudonym for yeshivos, I can only say, “for shame.”

Shame, for the substitution of a corporate shell name for life itself. Shame for forgetting that the fountain of Har Sinai — the mattan of Toras Chayim from Elokim Chayim — flows today in the arteries that Hakadosh Boruch Hu prepared for it: The name of those arteries is yeshivos!

That’s the letter. That’s the background, the vision that shapes Reb Avrohom, and the message to the people.

With a pen or keyboard, we get to raise our eyes heavenward and say, “Ribbono shel Olam, we have not forgotten!”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 910)

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