Reading the news can be depressing, but for every negative story about the Chasidic community, there is an uplifting one to be found. I feel fortunate that mine is among the positive. Born in Netanya, my family was close to the previous Klausenberger Rebbe, as well as connected to the Bostoner Rebbe. Later on, my family moved to Europe where my siblings and I were raised. From a young age, I was given a full knowledge of how Chasidus began and an understanding of its purpose, enabling me to find my place in the world while also being a good Jew.
History And Current Perception of Chasidus
To truly understand Chasidus and accept it for myself, my father taught me the history behind it. With that knowledge, I could then see, as an adult, that the issues today are not with Chasidus itself, but with the perception of it. Many of the troubles I have witnessed are linked to the restrictions imposed by various sects in the name of Chasidus. This leads to a negative association between Chasidus and the regional rules set by different groups, with many assuming that they are one and the same. While some groups may prefer to establish guidelines as a precautionary measure, it is a completely separate entity. Not conforming to these rules can sadly cause a strong and negative reaction. Genuine Chasidus however, as established by the Baal Shem Tov, has flexibility which is being lost today.
For hundreds of years in Eastern Europe, there had been one way to serve Hashem, ‘perishus,’ meaning separation. Lives were split into tasks of physical and spiritual. This derech was sustained by a strong educational system, teaching the people how to daven and learn. This thrived until the Cossaks came. Whole communities were wiped out, cities destroyed, and the entire spiritual network was lost.
Survivors were few and were usually the illiterate or those who lived far out in the fields. They were unable to serve Hashem or hand over any mesorah to their children. The Baal Shem Tov became aware of the vacuum of spirituality and taught a new way to serve Hashem: with everyday mundane acts as well as through mitzvos and learning. For example, when you eat, enjoy it so that your blessing has meaning. The message that all acts can be done for His sake and that is serving Him, was an opening for all those who had survived. Thus Chasidus was developed not as a way to impose a limitation, but as an opportunity to do everything one always did, including what we enjoy, but now to do it for Hashem’s sake. An example from today is that the Bostoner Rebbe z’tl would actively encourage his Chasidim to use Christmas decorations to decorate the succah – they are pretty, so use them in a way that serves Hashem. That is the real meaning of Chasidus.
Being a Good Jew
When I think back to my childhood, I realize that my siblings and I were not raised to be good Chasidim. In fact, for many years I was not even aware of any difference between myself and my Litvish classmates. We were raised to be good Jews. For better or worse, I was constantly aware of my place in society, in my community, in my nation and, in the world. Knowing this, the pressure to conform affected me less as I could be confident in the knowledge that I was behaving in a way that was fitting to my place.
My brother reminded me of a time when he was suspended for a day from yeshiva; a boy had asked him to hide a radio, and it was found. When my brother refused to disclose the boy’s name, my father was called. He told my brother, “I raised you not to snitch on others, we will deal with the consequences.”
While I am sure my father would not condone hiding it in the first place, he fully supported my brother in his decision not to name the other boy who would surely have been dismissed from school. By focusing on being a Jew, a good Jew, we became proud of our role in Am Yisrael.
My childhood was far from rosy; we often came home in tears wondering why there was so much hatred in the world and my father would tell us the truth. That we don’t know why bad things happen, but we must always behave like the children of a King. We soon came to understand that appeasing others is not the answer. Accepting that fact, we developed pride in who we were, simply because it was being reinforced in us on a regular basis. With it came a responsibility to behave correctly. We were taught to do what was right, no matter what.
Parenting is not one size fits all and this applies just as much to the way Torah was given over to me and my siblings. Our secular hobbies and interests were encouraged, and as teenagers, we were each able to enroll in regular classes of our choice: art, piano, self defense. It had to be earned – do well in school/learning and your lessons will continue.
While having our own talents helped each of us us feel special, it also showed us that the world can be enjoyed. Later on, we were able to understand that our talents can also help others, and that doing so was our way of Avodas Hashem. The flexibility of Chasidishkeit allowed us to enjoy our our own unique skills, knowing that we could develop and grow in the outside world along the way.
What Do Healthy Chasidim Look Like Today?
In Chasidus, I am lucky to have a great role model in my father, making us proud of him and wanting him to be proud of us. His dedication to the family, to the community, his strength in his beliefs, the way he treats people and how he was always giving and making time for others are values in Chasidus/Yiddishkeit. When we saw others behaving badly, we would always hear “learn what not to do.” This simple sentence taught us so much; not to disparage others. Our opinion is valid, but there is a lesson to learn from everyone and we can always improve.
My siblings and I are not alike. Some of us watch movies and some don’t. Some of us cover our wigs and some don’t. Some even have long peyos and some don’t. But these are all simply personal choices. Chasidus is equally important to us all as a way to serve Hashem with everything we do. It does not set restrictions of its own, and we live as the best Jews we can be.