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The pure intellectual thrill of Jewish learning — a learning more challenging and rigorous than anything I experienced at the pinnacle of American academia — was also a powerful magnet. Nor is the joy of learning solely intellectual: Every time I open up the Talmud I am joining a conversation/debate that has been ongoing for more than two millennia.
We discovered for the first time true communities, in which people extend themselves for one another in extraordinary ways and share the rhythms of the seasonal calendar. When a study partner of mine, a Harvard and Oxford-trained classicist, passed away suddenly, leaving behind ten orphans, we raised $300,000 for his family, most of it in the form of monthly bank orders from Talmudic scholars, with large families and monthly incomes of $2,000 or less. When a neighbor needed a liver transplant, a group of a hundred of so men gathered every night for two weeks, until he was out of danger, to recite Tehillim on his behalf.
It is a community of extraordinary generosity. In my neighborhood alone, there are 200 or so free loan societies listed in our neighborhood directory for everything from medicines to bridal gowns to infant pillows for the bris.
Virtually every major volunteer organization in Israel was founded by Haredim: Yad Sarah, which dispenses medical equipment for home use; Ezer M’Tzion, which has created the world’s largest Jewish blood marrow registry; Ezra L’Marpeh, which handles over 50,000 emergency medical referrals a year. The late Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum, himself a sometime Haredi critic, once wrote, “the charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare, and human kindness [of the Haredim] may be unparalleled among the communities in this country.”
In both the United States and Israel, numerous Haredi-founded organizations offer summer camps, travel, and weekly activities for Jewish children suffering from cancer or other debilitating diseases. In the wake of the major aliyah from the former Soviet Union, Haredim created an entire school system in Israel, SHUVU, offering the highest level secular studies, with an enhanced Jewish curriculum, for children from Russian-speaking homes cut off from any knowledge of their Jewish heritage for seventy years.
Is every member of the Haredi community, then, like the exemplars to whom my wife and I were introduced at the beginning of our journey? Obviously not. Is it an idyllic society, with none of its own pathologies?
Again, no. As a member of the editorial board of an on-line journal, Klal Perspectives, devoted to discussion of communal challenges and the search for solutions, I know well the multitude of challenges.