A little over a week ago, Rabbi Hertz Frankel passed away after a rich and full career as one of the prominent askanim of post-war American Jewry. Rabbi Frankel’s official title was head of secular studies, or principal, at the original Beis Rochel D’Satmar in New York, the first girls’ school established in the tradition of Hungarian separatist ultra-orthodoxy. Important though this was, his role was far more wide-ranging than that, amounting to the chief liaison or ‘Secretary of State’ of Satmar, not only with the non-Jewish world, but much of Orthodoxy too. Whenever there was a public meeting with a New York politician, a secret meeting with the leaders of the Agudas Yisroel, an anti-Israel rally in Manhattan or a new organisation that required competent administration, Rabbi Frankel was there at the scene. He was even picked to run Rav Tuv, the Satmar Rebbe’s vision for a frum version of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) which would make America, and not Israel, the refuge for the world’s displaced Jews. Rabbi Frankel’s engaging accounts, first published as a column in Ami magazine, of his experiences with the Rebbe provide an invaluable window into a pivotal era in the history of post-war Orthodox Judaism.
The career of Rabbi Frankel also demonstrates a crucial feature of the Satmar Rebbe’s approach, namely his pragmatic willingness to ignore his separatist rejection of modernity, and work with a clean-shaven, western educated orthodox Jew where necessary to serve the wider cause. Nor is this an isolated case. Famously, Yerushalyim’s old yishuv made Jacob Israël de Haan, a newly religious and colourful (look him up) Amsterdam man of letters, its political secretary, spokesman, and emissary, a role he performed with vigor until his assassination at the hands of the haganah. Another standout example is Rav Avraham Yosef Wolf, who, coming from a neo-orthodox background, established the eponymous Wolf Girls Seminary of Bnei Brak, whose graduates became the archetype of the kollel wife upon whose backs the Chazon Ish’s vision for the new Charedi society in Israel was built.
At a more modest level, all of us are familiar with the reality of yiddish-speaking institutions leaning upon the yekke whenever professionalism or English literacy is required. Whether it be a headmaster, an accountant, or a medical professional, the Chassidic community has always functioned by drawing on outside expertise and skills. So far, this arrangement has worked well, or, at any rate, well enough. The passing of Rabbi Frankel, however, perhaps marks a symbolic end of an era, for it is almost certain that he, and with him many of the legions of lesser known figures, will not be replaced.
I base this claim on the two immutable principles of economics: supply and demand. On the first front, the ranks of the neo-orthodox who filled this niche grow thinner with each passing year, its progeny split between absorption into the Charedi system or the Modern orthodox world. Within only my limited years, I have seen the respectably besuited and tied Jew become almost an endangered species in Stamford Hill. The social and physical distance between chassidim and those they have leaned on for technical skills becomes larger as orthodox communities grow bigger and more differentiated from each other.
At the same time, while supply has been steadily drying up for decades, the demand for these services just gets bigger and bigger. Fifty years ago, Stamford Hill needed three chol headmasters, now it needs fifteen and an additional one every few years. In addition to raw numbers, the scope and scale of technical skills and expertise we require is increasing qualitatively. With the community too large to hide in the shadows, sporadic Public Relations in response to occasional scrutiny no longer does the job. Rather we require experts in the fields of medicine, law, finance, strategic planning, and public policy who can guide the community in its growth and relationships with its neighbours.
One option is to continue patching up each individual problem on an ad hoc basis while we wait around and hope something turns up, which is more or less what we’re doing. A better idea, though, I believe is to take advantage of our own rapid growth as a community to generate our own internal class of professionals, people with the skills, training, and experience to manage the organisational and external affairs of our community. This will doubtless contain an element of PR, but it will entail much more than that: real responsibility for crafting the policies that they have to defend. ‘Insourcing’ these skills will not merely allow us to solve the technical problem of recruitment, but also create the conditions for a new kind of community leadership, which is focussed on identifying and planning for problems in advance, rather than ever more frenetic firefighting.
Of course, desirable and practicable are two different things, and we cannot ignore the reason why we have always had to make do without an internal professional class, namely our education system. As I recently argued at some length in my Mosaic column, while there is ample scope for raising standards of literacy, numeracy and other skills in boys’ schools, there is a limit to how much we can tinker with an evolved system of education without undermining its core function of moulding loyal members of the Chassidic community. Conventional routes to professional qualifications and training, involving university attendance at the most formative stage of life, will likely remain unavailable to chassidim for the foreseeable future. Generating our own professional elite will, instead, require some out of the box thinking in order to build programmes and institutions that can be accessed by young adults after they are firmly rooted in the community through marriage and children.
Establishing these kinds of programmes means thinking in detail about why well-intentioned schemes have failed in the past, and what degree of prior secular education, if any, is necessary before candidates start, and how to identify in advance those with real potential. I have been grappling with these questions and hope to share some preliminary conclusions soon.