The Yeshiva World News posted a video of Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz speaking at a gathering in Lakewood New Jersey a few days ago. The headline read – “A Path-Breaking Speech by R’ Shlomo Yehudah Rechnitz About Serious Issue Facing Lakewood Community”. By the time the video was posted on the news site I must have seen Rechnitz’s comments and video links on my Facebook and Twitter feeds posted at least a dozen times.
R. Rechnitz is famous for his generosity and is according to Wikipedia “an American businessman and philanthropist. He is the founder of TwinMed, LLC and owner of Brius Healthcare Services, the largest nursing home provider in the State of California.” He recently purchased meals for some 400 American soldiers returning to the US who he met by chance while he was traveling to Israel, in the Shannon airport. He also purchased Powerball lottery tickets for his employees.
What Mr. Rechnitz said in Lakewood deserves the attention it is receiving. He called to task the mind set of Lakewood insularity that seeks to exclude certain individuals, especially children, who do not fit exactly into the rigid and increasingly stringent mold that the community stridently demands. You can watch the video and hear his passion and concern, and every word spoken is true. He confronts the false belief of superiority and that “your children are not good enough for my children” to go to school with and he speaks of the unacceptable rigidity the community adheres to exclude others even though they are part of the same group.
Rechnitz is spot on. I cannot begin to tell you how many families I have seen, who have taken a full day to drive to see me, to try to help their children, and themselves get through the trauma of rejection, and THEN go right back to the same community that has rejected them. The rejection is often for things like wearing a kippah that is not large enough for the community standards or davening without a jacket, or a skirt that does not go quite the minimum two and a half inches below the knee, or Gd forbid, speaking to a member of the opposite sex, or wanting to go to college or…well you get the picture.
But beyond this is the fact that there are now a good number of Lakewood people trying to discredit Rechnitz. As the owner of a large chain of health facilities it is inevitable that his organization is under investigation. He has not been personally implicated and there have not been any reports finalized yet. Still, for many Lakewooders Rechnitz is now persona non grata, and someone to vilify. But that cannot happen. And that is what really makes this story so important.
Remember the asaifa, the gathering to demand that the internet be banned? And, that you should only use a kosher phone not a smart phone with an internet connection? Internet connections were and in many communities remain, the work of the devil. This story is precisely why there was such an intense push to ban internet services. Rechnitz’s speech has caught on like wild fire. It has gone viral and that is simply too threatening to certain community members. It is threatening to their power, to their religious and social base and to their rigid but unsupportable lifestyle.
This is not just a clarion issue for Lakewood. Rechnitz has exposed the failings of Hareidi communities everywhere. What happens in Lakewood happens in other places. There will be people who, because of this unwanted media attention will become even more rigid. There will be others, however, who will use this viral event to begin the tedious but necessary process of change, welcoming diversity within the parameters of true Jewish life, not a false rigidity created of whole cloth that has no basis in Halacha.
I welcome his comments. Despite the efforts of some, Rechnitz cannot be easily dismissed. As a philanthropist with well known largess his words carry significant weight. One can only hope that he is heeded. If not, there will be a seismic shift in this, and similar communities with the potential to create havoc between the old order and a young society exposed to the hypocrisy of exclusion.