When Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz got up to give the keynote speech at a Monday night fundraising dinner in Lakewood, N.J. for the largest yeshiva in America, everyone in attendance expected he would praise the rabbis and those who make great efforts to learn Torah. They figured he might spice up his talk with a few words of Torah and return happy and satisfied to his seat on the dais, as befits an ultra-Orthodox - or Haredi - who supports a great many yeshivot in Israel and America.
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Instead, the Haredi businessman from Los Angeles, who owns the largest nursing home provider in California, used his moment at the podium to give a scathing speech of rebuke that wiped the smiles off the faces of the rabbis sitting alongside him on the dais, and set off a storm in the Haredi world in both the United States and Israel.
Rechnitz was quoted by all the Haredi media in Israel for rubbing salt into the open wounds of the ultra-Orthodox community.
In his 50-minute speech, Rechnitz accused the Lithuanian, non-Hasidic Haredi community in Lakewood – a Jewish suburb in New Jersey with a large Jewish community built around the prestigious yeshiva and other institutions – of acting in a way that borders on “bloodshed.” Its educational institutions, said Rechnitz, begin selecting children at a young age, and the rabbis and the community turn their backs on those who are not “good enough” or “not really worthy.”
Rechnitz said that unfortunately, there was a sickness - mahala in Hebrew - in Lakewood. “No other out-of-town community would ever allow a child to be left without a school. In Los Angeles, if a child wouldn’t have a school the first day, the whole community would be all over it. The same thing would happen in Baltimore, Chicago and Toronto or anywhere else.” His words made their mark not just in America, but in Israel too, where there are similar problems in many communities. Every year, students, girls in particular, are left at home for weeks and months after being rejected by Haredi schools.
Rechnitz’s businesses also sell medical supplies all over the United States, and he is best known as a major philanthropist. He has given money to units of the IDF and U.S military, too. He has contributed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign in the past. Rechnitz was in the news recently after he bought 18,000 Powerball lottery tickets for his employees for the $1.5-billion draw two weeks ago. He said in the opening to his speech at the event in honor of Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Kanarek, the dean of six schools in the Lakewood community, that he has the right to speak about such things because he has gotten many children into schools in Lakewood – and because many people turn to him for help when their children are left without a place in school. He spoke of the rivers of tears, “of fathers who don’t know where to turn, who were made to feel that they failed their innocent children. Of mothers who cry themselves to sleep every night.”
He spoke of the children who at a young age try to put on a calm face but hide in their room and cry. “This child’s parents have already cried their hearts out to their rabbanim, to the school administration. ‘Please, please take our child. It’s six weeks, and he’s still not in school,’” said Rechnitz.
He wondered how a community that performs so many good deeds, such as helping the ill, can abandon its children: “Many of us have created for ourselves a new Torah, a new Yiddishkeit [Jewishness], that makes us feel good about ourselves, but has little to do with the Torah that He gave us 3,300 years ago. We turned our Frumkeit [religiousness] into an idol, and we have forgotten some of the basic tenets of Yiddishkeit,” said Rechnitz.
He listed five false beliefs that have permeated the community. “I believe that ‘I am better than you.’ I believe that I have to show all my [strict observances], so everyone can see how [religious] I am. I believe that ‘your children are not good enough for my children.’ I believe that the Torah was given to perfect children and perfect families. I believe there is no room for individuality; we must all fit into the same perfect model.”
He said the community has developed “an elitist attitude, an ugly superiority complex.”
“Why are we all judging each other? Why do I and others feel like we are being judged by a Sanhedrin of 50,000 people in Lakewood? I feel terrible for most people who live here in that respect. Nobody here gives or gets any slack. Forget a second chance, that’s out of the question. You have better odds of winning the lottery,” he said.
In the last generation, many large donors who have given money to Israel, Zionist institutions and other organizations have stopped just writing checks and have demanded to know how their money is being used. Is this trend now reaching the Haredi community and its donors? A person involved in philanthropy in America said, “In the past, a philanthropist would see it as a great honor if they allowed him to donate to Lakewood, but today he expects at the very least for them to listen to him.” The great rabbis, the ones with stature and prominence have disappeared, and this has created the new type of relationship between the donors and those who take the money, he said.
Near the end of his speech, Rechnitz said he would put his money where his mouth is and promised to build more inclusive schools.
“Leave the money to us. But let’s treat our children the way we are supposed to treat our children,” he said. Local media reported the next day he was giving $1.5 million to the schools run by Rabbi Kanarek.