My Radical Father and the Kollel
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen commenting on A Hardened Heart:
My father, of blessed memory, grew up in Brooklyn, New York City, during the era of the Great Depression – a severe worldwide economic downturn which the United States began to experience when the stock market crashed in 1929. My father’s sensitive soul felt the pain of the poor, the unemployed, and the homeless; moreover, his strong sense of justice led him to become involved in various radical groups that were trying to address these social problems.
My father grew up in an era when the majority of American Jews were beginning to assimilate into the American culture. This culture stressed the importance of economic success, and the worth of people, especially the worth of men, was often measured in terms of the money they earned. When Jews came to America, they discovered that when people would ask about a man, they would often ask, “How much is he worth?” Many American Jews would therefore feel pride if they or their children were financially successful, as they felt that through this success, they had fulfilled the American dream.
My father’s parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, and like many other Jewish immigrants, they no longer observed many mitzvos of the Torah. Most of these immigrants, however, grew up in traditional Jewish communities that stressed the following Jewish dream: to be successful in the study of Torah and in the fulfillment of good deeds. For example, at the circumcision ceremony, the baby boy receives the following traditional blessing:
“Just as he entered the covenant, so may he enter into the Torah, the marriage canopy, and good deeds.”
There is no mention in the above blessing about becoming rich and famous. Although Judaism does not oppose financial success, it stresses that such success should not be the goal of life.
Although my father, like most American Jews of his generation, did not have the opportunity to get a meaningful Torah education, he felt in his soul that life had a higher purpose. He therefore did not seek his sense of worth through “making money”; instead, he took pride in his social activism and deeds of lovingkindness. In this spirit, my father liked and respected the rabbi of our neighborhood synagogue, Rabbi Gavriel Beer, especially since Rabbi Beer, an activist in Agudath Israel of America, was concerned about the plight of the poor and the needy. I attended the afternoon Hebrew school of this synagogue, and when I was age nine, Rabbi Beer persuaded my parents to send me to a Jewish day school in order to study Torah. This was a big step for my parents; nevertheless, they were aware of my growing interest in the path of the Torah, and they felt that I should have the freedom to follow this path.
At age 14, I had a rebbe who tried to inspire his students to make the study of Torah their primary goal in life; thus, he suggested that we go to college at night and study in a yeshiva during the day; moreover, he also suggested that we learn in a kollel for several years after college in order to become talmeidei chachamim – scholarly disciples of the wise – that could be a source of strength for Klal Yisrael. We were never told that “everyone” should spend their life in a kollel; however, the idea of spending a few years in a kollel was encouraged. My rebbe’s emphasis on Torah learning – including the emphasis on going to college at night and later to a kollel for a few years – troubled many of the parents, for they were very concerned about the future financial success of their children.
During the winter, there was a special week where my rebbe was scheduled to meet with the parents of each of his students during the evenings. The purpose of these meetings was not only to discuss the progress of the students, but to also discuss their spiritual life goals. My parents had never met my rebbe, and I wondered how the meeting would go. When they came back from the meeting, their faces were glowing. I asked, “Did I get a good report?” They assured me that my rebbe had said nice things about me, but they mentioned additional reasons why they were pleased and happy. My father told me that my rebbe was his kind of guy. My father revealed that he was especially pleased that my rebbe did not speak of financial goals, and although my leftist father did not consider himself to be religious, he expressed his admiration for the religious idealism of my rebbe. He said that my rebbe spoke about the possibility of my learning Torah all day for a number of years after graduating college, and that he told my rebbe that he and Mom always encouraged me to follow my ideals.
When I came to class the next morning, my rebbe told me that he needs to speak with me privately during recess. I began to feel nervous, as I wondered if my father, who was not shy about expressing his radical views, had said something that might have upset my rebbe. Due to my worry, I found it difficult to concentrate on the lesson in Talmud that my rebbe began to teach.
When recess came, my rebbe called me over and told me that my parents have very special souls. He said that, unlike many of the parents, my parents did not express concern about my financial success when he discussed spiritual goals. He mentioned that he asked my parents how they would feel if I made Torah study my primary goal by going to college at night and studying in a kollel after college for a number of years. He then told me how moved he was when they replied that they always encouraged me to fulfill my ideals.
I now had a better understanding of why my father felt that my rebbe was “his kind of guy.” They both felt that making money is not the goal of life, and neither my father nor my rebbe would ever ask the question, “How much is he worth?” They both realized that a human being’s true worth is in living for a higher purpose.
P.S. It is a topic for another discussion, but the Tribe of Levi served, in a certain sense, as the first kollel of our people. Members of this tribe were not given a portion in the Land, and they lived in special cities where they were supported by tithes which enabled them to devote themselves to the study and teaching of Torah, as well as the service in the Sanctuary.
Today, the community kollels found in many cities in North America devote themselves to the study and teaching of Torah, and they have become centers of adult education.