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Shaya’s Story – A Model of Conscientious Inclusiveness

on Friday, November 17 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

It was the day of Avraham’s funeral and Yaakov was preparing lentil soup for his mourning father Yitzchak.  Esav came in from the field and he was hungry and tired.  We all know the story – Esav sold the birthright for a bowl of soup.

Our Rabbis (Bava Basra 16) teach us that on that day, Esav violated no fewer than five separate transgressions, including degrading his birthright. This one requires some investigation. What exactly was the transgression of selling the birthright?  Was Esav ever warned not to relinquish his firstborn status?  What was so wrong with this action that it is grouped with an act of murder and denial of God’s existence, two of the other transgressions he violated that day?

Rashi tells us that the birthright Esav inherited positioned him to serve the Almighty in a special way. Esav was given the option to participate in the divine covenant.  Had he not sold the right of the firstborn, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains, Esav would have been entitled to the same destiny that God bestowed upon Yaakov.  But Esav had no interest in this role or in the privilege of being charged with a sacred mission.  Yaakov didn’t dupe him into selling his birthright.  He wasn’t tricked, fooled or pressured.  Esav sold his birthright because he simply didn’t value it, he didn’t cherish it, and ultimately, he didn’t even want it.

The Ramban suggests – if you want to know what Esav truly thought about his birthright and the honor to carry the legacy of his father and grandfather, just look at what he does right after he sells it.  The pasuk says, va’yochal, va’yeisht, va’yakam, va’yeilech, va’yivez, he ate, he drank, he got up, he went and he dishonored the birthright.  The Ramban highlights the order in the Pasuk: It doesn’t say he denigrated the birthright when it was sold.  Rather, Esav sold the birthright, and proceeded to immediately to eat, drink and get up and go and only then, va’yivez, he displayed great disregard for the birthright.

There are times a person must forfeit something of incredible value.  Sometimes, a person brings their great grandmother’s jewelry or precious item to a pawn shop because they desperately need the money.  But, a person in that situation will reflexively grieve and feel sad over losing something so irreplaceable.  Esav didn’t grieve; he sold the birthright, and went to a party, had a drink, and didn’t look back.

Esav’s most egregious transgression was minimizing what the birthright meant to him, and how easily he went about normal life after giving it away.  He threw away a special relationship, a special mission and a special destiny, and he couldn’t care less.  He was casual and flippant with a prize possession.

That birthright, the privilege of being a member of Klal Yisroel, of being a participant of the am ha’nivchar, a full member of the covenantal community and being charged with a sacred mission, is something many of our ancestors risked and gave their lives for.  We are the offspring and the progeny of Yaakov, not Esav.  The birthright, a symbol of Jewish values and Torah, is precious to us and of inestimable value.  If we didn’t have it, we would trade everything in the world, least of all a bowl of lentil soup to get a share of it.

And because our birthright, which importantly includes the teachings and traditions of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, is so precious and dear to us, it must be accessible and available to every member of the Jewish people. Torah, Jewish values, and the Jewish community are the right of every man, woman and child, irrespective of social status, economic status, level of learning, background, or level of observance. Every single Jew deserves access to his or her birthright.  Every single Jew, no matter his or her ability or disability, no matter his or her special needs, is entitled to access to, and participation in, our collective birthright.

A man from Gateshead, England, once came to visit the Chazon Ish together with his young son, a boy with Down’s Syndrome.  When they walked in, the Chazon Ish rose from his chair. The startled father told the great not to rise on his account.  The Chazon Ish responded, “It is not in your honor that I have risen.  Rather, it is out of respect for your son, a boy who possesses one of the holiest souls of our generation.” (Ma’aseh Ish, 1:230)

These holiest souls with different potentials and roles to fill in this world have a birthright, and it is no less than anyone else’s.  BRS is proud of our recent efforts to be sensitive to the special needs population through our programming and activities.  On Simchas Torah, we hold a special Kol Ha’nearim for those who cannot participate in a large crowd.  We open the Parshas Noach event and the Purim Carnival early for those with sensitivities and we are now running a special-needs Shabbos morning group every Shabbos.

Rav Moshe Shapiro, a leading Torah scholar in Jerusalem, included the following in a letter he wrote to a student who became the father of a son with Downs Syndrome:

Since the birth of your son, I have believed that if, with God’s help, you will succeed in the challenge which was given to you, then you will have been presented with an incomparable gift. This child has within him the capability to accomplish that which nothing else in the world can do – to actualize wondrous and powerful energy latent in the recesses of your heart.

In his book, Echoes of the Maggid, Rabbi Paysach Krohn tells the story of a man who once delivered a speech at a Jewish school for kids with special needs.  After extolling the school and its dedicated staff he cried out, “Where is the perfection in my son Shaya? Everything God does is done with perfection. But my child cannot understand things as other children do. My child cannot remember facts and figures as other children do. Where is God’s perfection?”

The audience was shocked by the question, pained by the father’s anguish and stilled by the piercing query. “I believe,” the father answered, “that when God brings a child like this into the world the perfection that he seeks is in the way people react to this child.”

He then told the following story about his son Shaya:

One afternoon, Shaya and his father walked past a park where some boys whom Shaya knew were playing baseball. Shaya asked, “Do you think they will let me play?”

Shaya’s father knew that his son was not at all athletic and that most boys would not want him on their team. But Shaya’s father also understood that if his son was chosen to play it would give him a comfortable sense of belonging. Shaya’s father approached one of the boys in the field and asked if Shaya could play. The boy looked around for guidance from his team mates. Getting none, he took matters into his own hands and said “We are losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we’ll try to put him up to bat in the ninth inning.”

Shaya’s father was ecstatic as Shaya smiled broadly. Shaya was told to put on a glove and go out to play short center field. In the bottom of the eighth inning Shaya’s team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the bottom of the ninth inning Shaya’s team scored again and now, with two outs and the bases loaded with the potential winning run on base, Shaya was scheduled to be up. Would the team actually let Shaya bat at this juncture and give away their chance to win the game?

Surprisingly, Shaya was given the bat. Everyone knew that it was all but impossible because Shaya didn’t even know how to hold the bat properly, let alone hit with it.

However, as Shaya stepped up to the plate, the pitcher moved a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shaya should at least be able to make contact. The first pitch came and Shaya swung clumsily and missed. One of Shaya’s team mates came up to Shaya and together they held the bat and faced the pitcher waiting for the next pitch.

The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly toward Shaya. As the pitch came in, Shaya and his team mate swung at the ball and together they hit a slow ground ball to the pitcher. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could easily have thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shaya would have been out and that would have ended the game.

Instead, the pitcher took the ball and threw it on a high arc to right field, far beyond reach of the first baseman. Everyone started yelling, “Shaya, run to first. Run to first.” Never in his life had Shaya run to first. He scampered down the baseline wide eyed and startled. By the time he reached first base the right fielder had the ball. He could have thrown the ball to the second baseman who would tag out the still-running Shaya.

But the right fielder understood what the pitcher’s intentions were so he threw the ball high and far over the third baseman’s head. Everyone yelled, “Run to second, run to second.” Shaya ran towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases towards home. As Shaya reached second base the opposing short stop ran to him, turned him in the direction of third base and shouted, “Run to third.” As Shaya rounded third the boys from both teams ran behind him screaming, “Shaya run home.” Shaya ran home, stepped on home plate and all 18 boys lifted him on their shoulders and made him the hero as he had just hit a “grand slam” and won the game for his team.

“That day,” said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, “those 18 boys reached their level of God’s perfection.”

We stand to gain the most by being conscientiously inclusive.  Our children learn sensitivity, we grow in empathy, and the community becomes greater when we embrace the mission and practice of inclusiveness in all that we do.

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Guest Post – Nobody Knew How Badly I wanted to Kill Myself and How Close I Came to Doing It

on Monday, November 13 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Last week, we hosted an event on the growing drug issue in the Jewish community.  A few hours before the event, a young man I know, or thought I knew well, sent the letter below to me.  He asked that I share it with the hope his story can help others and I began the program by reading it.  When I first opened it, I was reminded of a quote I find very meaningful: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”  I have great admiration for his courage in reaching out and for his desire to make himself vulnerable in an effort to be there for others. If you are feeling the way he describes, you are not alone. Reach out and it can and will get better.  May Hashem bless him and all those struggling with similar issues with only strength, happiness and success.

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Standing on the roof of my yeshiva overlooking one of the holiest cities in Israel, I stared at the graves of my fore-bearers and dreamed of meeting them. I had just returned from yeshiva after a three week bender and I was so filled with self loathing and pity I couldn’t stop thinking of ending my life. It would be so simple I told myself, one jump, 10-15 seconds and it would all be over. The pain, the anger, the sadness. All gone. I even had the perfect plan, it was still Yom tov in America so I could text every member of my family explaining my choice and begging their forgiveness, but they would only see the messages long after I was gone. This was what my world had come to. The truth is I knew that besides for a few select people, my world would be rocked by the news of my suicide.

I had meticulously maintained an image of confidence and happiness that most people bought into hook line and sinker. The image I cultivated was one of a smart confident young man who simply enjoyed having a good time. However; the truth was that behind that carefully crafted image was nothing. A singularity to match that of the largest black hole in existence. I was hopelessly empty. I had spent my life convinced that an endless supply of designer clothing and joints would be enough to keep me satisfied. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. I had reached my end. The yeshiva was completely empty, I was all alone, with no way out, and no weed or alcohol to numb the pain of simply being alive.

Now this desire to end my life did not simply appear one day, it had been festering in my head for years; however, I never mentioned it to anyone in fear of shattering my precious image, my immaculate persona. I couldn’t let real emotions ruin people’s ideas of me, perish the very thought. So I allowed that voice to remain dormant in the back of my head, always there but never acknowledged. I thought of different ways I would do it, always hypotheticals I told myself. Just “what ifs” I even came up with the perfect suicide. I would put a hose in my exhaust pipe and attach the other end to the window of my car, turn the car on, wash down two Xanax with some scotch, smoke a joint, and simply never wake up. Painless. The perfect way to go out. But I of course never acted on it, or told anyone how I was really feeling.

Then it started getting worse, my first year in yeshiva, while davening not 100 feet from the kotel on rosh hashana, watching everyone around me crying out to HaShem to grant them life for the year, I davened for the opposite. I davened for an easy way out. I begged God to end my life that year. I asked to be hit by a bus, or to even be involved in a terror attack. I knew I couldn’t do it myself, not out of self preservation, I simply wasn’t that selfish. I couldn’t subject my family to any more torment at my hands, although I often thought I’d be sparing them endless pain by simply taking myself out of the equation. For months during that year I would go to sleep every night hoping and praying I simply wouldn’t wake up the next morning, and every morning I would open my eyes and feel the crushing disappointment of having to endure another day. Modeh Ani seemed to be mocking me.

Until one night in my Shana bet, after enduring as much as I could I decided it was time. As I sat there taking in what were surely my last few moments I began to cry. Once my tears started they wouldn’t stop, hot and thick they poured down my face as I realized that I would rather die than simply admit that I wanted to. I would rather destroy my actual self than the one I had been projecting all these years. Tears still flowing I called my father, knowing as an ER physician his cell phone would be on during Yom Tov. He answered the phone on the third ring immediately asking “what’s wrong”?

Choking back sobs I began to tell him everything. For the first time I broke down my image. I told him how much I hated being alive. How for the last few years my biggest wish was that an asteroid would collide with the earth, allowing me to die without hurting anyone else. When I finished speaking my father explained to me that I was sick. Much like someone who has strep throat, and much like strep if untreated my sickness would get worse and worse. He made me go in for a psychiatric evaluation where I was almost immediately diagnosed with clinical depression and put on antidepressants. I keep thinking how different my life might be had I broken down my image in 12th grade, or even last year, but I was too afraid. Too scared of what people would think of me knowing that I wanted to kill myself. As it turns out no one thought anything less of me. People understood.

I finally gathered the courage to tell one of my closest friends  and his response was that we have friends so that we can tell people about these things. His response was one of love not judgment. I didn’t feel weird or different when telling him, on the contrary I felt liberated and free. Someone would actually understand me, understand the feelings I had been suppressing for years. I really never felt better. I write this now as I start a new chapter of my life, one of honesty not of farces. Of truth not lies. Of sobriety not drug dependence. I write this free of the burden of pretending to be something I’m not. I write this not in the hopes of garnering pity or sympathy, I write this in the hopes that even one person who has felt the way I have felt, and is scared to talk about it will read this and understand how much better their life can become by simply confiding in those they trust.

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Five Questions to Ask for a Happy Marriage

on Thursday, November 9 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

In a previous message, Inquiries or Inquisitions: A Rabbi’s Perspective on the Shidduch System, I shared some thoughts and modest suggestions regarding what have become normative practices in dating.  Afterwards, someone shared with me what might be the most outrageous prospective shidduch question I have heard yet.  The “other side” wanted to know if the girl’s family members were buried next to each other in the cemetery in Europe or in separate sections of the cemetery designated for men and women.  The parent who was asked this absurd question responded to the shadchan, “Let them know that I believe my grandparents’ ashes were likely mixed together in the crematorium.”

Rav Pam (Ateres Avraham, Chayei Sarah) quotes Rabbeinu Bachya, who instructs us that when looking for a spouse we should not place an overemphasis on looks, money or yichus, but rather the bulk of the attention should be on middos, the person’s character.  The metric Eliezer used to find the proper mate for Yitzchak and the next worthy matriarch of our people was not dress size, SAT score, or net worth, rather it was someone who intuitively acted with kindness, displayed innate compassion, and gave selflessly.

Sadly, the bulk of the typical “shidduch resume” today, as well as the pervasive theme of the questions I entertain when someone is looking into another person, revolves around education and experiences, facts and data regarding family, but little about character and traits.  This is obviously concerning, since it is character and virtues that will inform the compatibility of the couple and determine the success of the marriage.

I am not minimizing the significance of some of these questions.  However, the disproportionate attention given to, and impact of, what should be secondary issues, and the neglect of the primary questions, is no doubt contributing not only to the disillusionment with the shidduch process, but the growing incidence of conflict in marriage and divorce.

A resume and the research process can help decide if a date is worthwhile, but evaluating marriage is much more difficult and will never come as the result of things written on a piece of paper.  It is the result of shared experiences, critical conversations, and learning crucial things about one another’s background, expectations and predilections.

Someone who dated for a fairly long period of time before getting married recently shared with me that now that he has been married for a few years, he thinks back to some of the things that he thought were big issues, and realizes that in truth they are inconsequential.  By the same token, there are many things he now sees as fundamental factors in marriage that he didn’t even consider or think about when identifying what was important to him in a spouse.

So what are the critical things to look for in dating to determine if someone is suitable for marriage? What are the things we should be encouraging families to focus on when entering the shidduch process?

Drs. John and Julie Gottman have been scientifically studying healthy relationships for four decades and have emerged as authorities on the factors that contribute to a successful marriage to the point that they can predict with greater than 90% accuracy if a couple they observe will still be married in five years.

Dr. John Gottman is speaking at BRS on Sunday, January 28th

Register now as space is limited

 

Their research shows that Eliezer was on to something.  Kindness is not only an admirable trait regarding the treatment of others, but it glues couples together.  In fact, it is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated, all which combine to feeling loved.  Kindness is not only practiced during good times, but happy marriages practice kindness even in the way a couple fights by making sure that communication never includes condescension, aggression, or name-calling and focuses only on the issue that needs to be resolved.

Kindness and compassion are indispensable in marriage and should be qualities we are unwilling to compromise on for ourselves or our children. But there are other factors which can make or break a marriage and while some answers to questions are not objectively right or wrong, discussing them and understanding the different approaches to them, will go a long way to make a happy marriage.

Here are five examples of conversations that I submit should take place over the course of dating and courtship and even within marriage itself, if they didn’t occur sooner:

  1. How did your family fight?

Disagreements are inevitable in marriage.  How those differences are navigated is the driver of the success of the marriage.  Did your family put things on the table, have it out, did they sweep them under the carpet, or did they silently shut down when issues arose?

  1. Affection

Did your family prioritize and show verbal and physical affection with one another or was it assumed and not expressly provided?  How often do your family members say “I love you” or offer praise?

  1. Articulated Roles

Do you have a more traditional outlook on gender roles and responsibilities regarding children, income and caring for the house, or is there an expectation of sharing all responsibilities equally?

  1. Money

Did your family spend money freely or are they more calculated and frugal? Do you like high end brand name clothing, furniture and cars or are you satisfied with inexpensive or generic alternatives?

  1. Transparency

How do you feel about privacy and personal space within marriage?  Do you expect to have access to all of my passwords, accounts and spend most free time together or do you prefer having personal space and sometimes doing things apart?

Again, in large part there are no right or wrong answers to these five questions and they are certainly not a comprehensive list of the type of issues that truly make or break a marriage.  Nevertheless, they are a sample of the types of ways I believe we should be thinking about evaluating a prospective mate and focusing on the critical things in marriage.

Gottman’s research has shown that 69% of relationship conflict is about perpetual problems. All couples have them – the problems that are grounded in the fundamental differences that any two people face.  They are the issues that create the fights that happen over and over again with both sides thinking this will be the time I convince the other that my way is right, though it never happens.  Gottman says that with every fight there was a conversation that needed to take place, but a fight happened instead.  Rather than revisit the same fights over and over, we can eliminate almost 70% of the conflict in marriage, by simply identifying our fundamental differences and devising a strategy of how we will navigate them with the spirit of compromise and partnership.

R’ Chaim Vital (quoted in R’ Shlomo Wolbe’s Kuntrus Hadracha L’chasanim) said: “A person’s character traits are primarily measured based upon how they are to their spouse.”  If we learn to ask the right questions and emphasize the most important things, perhaps we can improve the process of finding a mate, as well as the health of our marriages themselves.

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We Have Been Called Out by a Teenager: Will We Get Defensive or Get Serious?

on Thursday, October 26 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

A few years ago, I went to see Rav Eli Sadan, the Rosh Yeshiva of Bnei David, a Mechina in Eli.  Maj. Roi Klein z”l, the hero who threw his body over a hand grenade in the 2006 Lebanon war to save his fellow soldiers, was a graduate of Bnei David.  So was Lt. Hadar Goldin, z”l, as was Col. Ofer Winter, who led the massive effort to get Goldin back after he was kidnaped and killed in the last Gaza war.  A growing number of officers in the IDF are products of Eli.  It seemed to me that something very special is happening in the yeshiva and I wanted to meet its founder and visionary to better understand what it might be.

Rav Sadan explained to me that in his yeshiva they teach the classic curriculum of Gemara, halacha and mussar; however, underlying all that they study is a common set of values and motifs they want to inculcate into the young men: living with emunah, faith in Hashem, and being devoted to a life of mesirus nefesh, selfless service to Him and to His people.  Every text they encounter, every law they analyze, is looked at from the perspective of how it can reinforce, grow and help them be more inspired in their emunah and in their devotion to a life of avodah (service).  In addition to classic texts, the yeshiva spends much time studying the writings of the Maharal, Rav Kook and other who focus on these themes.

On the first day each year, Rav Sadan hands each boy a piece of paper and a pen and asks them to write their goals in five years and ten years from that point. Where do they see themselves?  What do they want to accomplish?  He then collects the papers, submitted without their names, and looks through them. Rav Sadan explained to me that every year, almost everyone writes a version of the same thing: “I want to marry a great girl, I want to have a family and I want to have a great job where I can make enough money to live comfortably.”

Rav Sadan then turns to the boys and asks a piercing a question.  What did you write in your goals and ambitions for your future that reflects that you are a Torah Jew?  Is what you wrote any different than what someone without Torah and who isn’t observant would write?  Where are your aspirations spiritually?  What are your goals in avodas Hashem and in yiras Shomayim?

Rav Sadan’s goal for his students is that by the time they leave his yeshiva, each one thinks, feels, and acts like a Torah Jew with spiritual ambitions, aspirations, and goals.  He wants them to see themselves as having a personal mission in this world, a unique calling to serve Hashem in some capacity or form.  It is said that Rav Sadan calls every graduate of Eli in the month of Elul and asks, what did you do to serve Hashem and the Jewish people this past year?  How have you made the world a better place?

Rav Sadan’s extraordinary success has revolutionized the IDF with the number of religious officers having grown tenfold since he began.  Last year, he was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize in recognition of his great contributions to Israeli society.  I walked away from the meeting very inspired, and the following year we were proud to host Rav Sadan for a Shabbos in Boca where, among other things, he met with our educators and leaders to share his approach.

I was reminded of Rav Sadan and his wonderful Mechina in Eli when I read a very provocative blog post this week.  Eitan Gross, a high school student who describes himself as a modern orthodox teenager, writes:

As kids, we are proactively exposed to media and entertainment that is anti-religious and contrary to Halacha. Is it realistic to assume that a teenager’s value system will not be corroded by the endless subtle and not so subtle attacks on Torah true values?

Aside from the challenge of not letting the modern world negatively affect our inner world, the supposed balance between religious values and secular values seems to be much more weighted towards the secular than the religious.

Modern Orthodox teenagers can tell you who Kobe, Jay Z, or even Shakespeare is, but very few will know R’ Chaim Kanievsky or R’ Herschel Shachter. We’ll know the history of America in depth, but won’t know how the State of Israel was established. We’ll know how to solve complex math equations, but wouldn’t be able to read a simple mishnah. We are infested with American culture, and forget our past. We care about world values, and neglect our own. We care more about Western morals than the true morals of the Torah. We are high school students before talmidim. We are aspiring sports players before yearning Talmud scholars. We are college graduates before yeshiva bachurim. We are Modern before Orthodox.

Many in our communities take up the attitude that G-d’s laws are a burden (or even immoral in certain cases) so they simply write off areas of Halacha as if they don’t apply. Of course, their kids get the message and proceed to pick and choose whatever is comfortable for them as well. And for the laws that are being kept, we treat them as if they are a checklist — Say Modeh Ani, check. Wash hands, check. Then go to davening, look on my phone and wrap my Tefillin before Aleinu because I’m so eager to get on with my day, but it still counts because I said Shema and Shemonah Esrei, right? Check.

We are so addicted to the secular world that Hashem is never given a chance.

You may disagree with his analysis or formulation, but I believe Eitan is on to something and we cannot dismiss his heartfelt and sincere plea to provide him and his peers with an education, community, and hashkafa that gives a relationship with Hashem a chance.

If Rav Sadan gave us a blank paper and pen, and asked us to record our dreams, goals and aspirations for the next month, year, or decade, would they include being a better eved Hashem, davening with more kavanna, improving our emunah and bitachon, living with more yiras Shomayim, or would they just list losing weight or getting in shape, earning more money, buying a bigger house, getting a nice car, and taking better vacations. To be sure, all of these are reasonable and in some cases admirable goals, but none of them reflect our core identity as Torah Jews.

There continues to be a great deal of discussion regarding the tuition crisis, and it deserves to continue to be addressed.  But, Eitan brings our attention to a parallel crisis, one more urgent and much less comfortable to deal with meaningfully.

In our parsha, Avraham is described as “Ha’ivri.”  Rashi explains that this title derives from the fact that he comes from “mei’eiver ha’nahar,” from the other side of the river.  Avraham is an immigrant to Cana’an.  Nevertheless, the midrash tells us he was called an “ivri,” and we continue to be labeled “ivrim,” not as a geographical description but an existential one. Avraham loved people, he was a selfless and devoted giver and he was dedicated to all of humanity, not just his family.  However, when push came to shove and everyone stood on one side of an issue that ran contrary to what Hashem wanted, Avraham had the courage, fortitude and faith to stand mei’eiver, on the other side.

When there is a conflict between our Western values and our Torah ones, which side do we stand on?  When there is tension between being modern and being orthodox, which side are we on?  As the progeny of Avraham we carry within our DNA the capacity and strength to be mei’eiver, to stand on the unpopular side; the question, though, is will we?  Eitan and his peers are counting on us to.

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