Category Archives: Personal Reflections

Habeas Corpus for Horses?

Over the years, thanks to some creative, unusual talmidim I was privileged to teach when I was a mesivta Rebbe, I have had an assortment of pets (the animal sort). Each of several Purims, my shiur would give my wife and me, in addition to mishloach manos, a living gift.

We thereby became the proud caretakers, at various points, of a goat, an iguana and a tarantula. In addition to the tropical fish we’ve always kept, and the occasional hamster or mouse one or another of our children cared for.

I honestly appreciated each of the creatures; they evoked in me amazement over the variety and abilities of Hashem’s creations. Likewise, the birds and squirrels outside our dining room window during breakfast are an endless source of beauty (and, even sweeter, needn’t be fed). My wife is particularly partial to the graceful deer that sometimes venture from nearby woods to visit.

But animals are animals. Not, as some increasingly assert, beings less sentient than us but no less worthy of being treated as human.

The more than two thirds of American households that own pets spend more than $60 billion on their care each year, up sharply in recent years. People give dogs birthday presents and have their portraits taken by professional photographers. According to at least one study, many Americans grow more concerned when they see a dog in pain than when they see an adult human suffering.

That’s bad enough, but the law, too, is being enlisted to obscure the bright line between the animal and the human spheres.

Last year, the Illinois legislature passed a law that would force courts to give “parents” joint custody of pets in divorce cases. “It sort of starts treating your animal more like children,” says an unembarrassed Illinois State Senator Linda Holmes, the bill’s sponsor.

The nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project promotes the idea that animals should be entitled to the right to not be unlawfully detained without a judge’s order. Habeas corpus for horses.

New York University law professor Richard Epstein sees the implications, and skeptically observes that “We kill millions of animals a day for food. If they have the right to bodily liberty, it’s basically a holocaust.”

Shades of the 2002 book that made precisely that case. It bears a truly obscene title: “Eternal Treblinka.”

And then there is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals founder and president Ingrid Newkirk’s declaration a few years back that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses,” and her infamous aphorism “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”

We are required by halachah to protect animals from needless harm or unnecessary suffering when they are put to our service or killed for food. But that is a far bark from assigning them “rights.”

We who have been gifted with the Torah, as well as all people who are the product of societies influenced by Torah truths, have no problem distinguishing between animals and human beings.

But some secularists reason that, since animals have mental abilities, if limited ones, they should be treated like human infants.

If such people’s minds are open even a crack, though, they should be able to realize that considering animals qualitatively different from humans isn’t “speciesism” but a truth born of observable facts.

Yes, animals think and communicate. But conceiving or conveying abstract but important concepts like “right” and “wrong” and “responsibility” and “wantonness” – is something quintessentially, and pointedly, human.

Humans, moreover, have what philosophy calls moral agency, the ability to choose to act even against instinct.

And something else.

In a recent conversation with an eldercare professional, I pointed out something she had never considered.

Seen through a secular lens, biological species are “interested” only in preserving their own lives and those of their progeny; their behavior (consciously or not) serves the biological goal of the species’ perseverance. The previous generation has no value; it has served its purpose. Animals care only for their young, not for their parents.

Humans, though, at least in normal circumstances, feel an obligation to care for those to whom they owe their lives.

It will have to be seen whether or not such compelling distinctions will put brakes on the misguided idea of a smooth animal-human continuum. And, if it doesn’t, whether those who see animals as human (and vice versa, the inevitable other side of that counterfeit coin) will be able to enlist lawmakers in their goals.

More than we might imagine will hang on it.

© 2018 Hamodia

Hazards, Hazards Everywhere

My first earthquake was, as you might imagine, unsettling.

I was part of a yeshivah in Northern California in the 1970s, and my wife and I spent our first five years of marriage there, in the lovely Tanteh Clara Valley (yes, it’s officially “Santa” but we renamed it). Temperate clime, brilliant blue skies, enchanting mountains off in the distance.

And earthquakes.

It’s hard to convey the helplessness one feels when the very ground beneath slowly shifts this way and that. During that first temblor, we were in our second-story apartment. Strange, I thought, looking out a window, how the framed vista seemed to move up and down repeatedly as the building gently swayed. In a few minutes it was all over, but the feeling of powerlessness remained, and its memory has stayed with me over the decades. There’s nowhere to escape to, after all, when the very earth under one’s feet is expressing discomfort.

We later moved into a rented house, and its back yard abutted a dry gully. Dry, at least, in the summer. In the winter, when the Bay Area weather turns rainy, it morphed into a raging river. I loved listening to its roar, audible even in the house.

Our private river at times seemed poised to overflow its banks and come rushing into our living room but, baruch Hashem, it never did.

I was reminded of it recently, when heavy rains in the south of the state followed terrible wildfires that destroyed ground-stabilizing vegetation. The resulting mudslides – even more horrific to contemplate than earthquakes – devastated the Santa Barbara County community of Montecito, killing at least 20 people. Aged 3 to 89, the victims were buried alive in their homes or carried away by the mud.

Then there were the recent disasters that seemed imminent, but blessedly weren’t.

Like the public alert in Hawaii warning that a ballistic missile was headed toward the islands. The alert, understandably, terrified the state’s residents, especially in the wake of the past months’ chest-thumping and nuclear button braggadocio in Washington and Pyongyang.

“This is not a drill,” the official message misinformed Hawaiians, sending people into closets and basements and prompting countless citizens to write heartfelt goodbye notes to their loved ones. No one died as a result, but one man suffered a heart attack, and a woman became violently ill from shock. Many others feared the worst for the 38 minutes it took for state authorities to retract the public notification.

And then, mere days later, Japan’s public broadcaster accidentally sent its own alert that North Korea had launched a missile its way and that citizens should take shelter.

That panic lasted only five minutes, at which point the station apologized for the false alarm.

But, of course, in August, 1945, even though two initial alerts were followed by “all clear” signals in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all was not clear, and 129,000 people were killed, and countless others poisoned by radiation. Nuclear attacks are not unthinkable today either, and contemporary nuclear weapons are vastly more destructive than those of 1945.

Confronted with disasters, actual or averted, should make us think. We readily recognize the dangers of everyday life, the “kol minei puraniyos” we reference in Tefillas Haderech, the she’im yipaseiach echad meihem of Asher Yatzar.

But a truly sensitive person doesn’t just acknowledge the dangers of travel or the menace of maladies. He takes nothing for granted. Nothing. Not the stability of the earth under his feet, nor the absence of mass destruction raining from the sky.

Jews worry. It’s a stereotype exploited by comedians, impolite pundits, and anti-Semites, but it contains a grain of truth. And it derives from a fundamental Jewish middah, hakaras hatov – in the phrase’s most literal, most fundamental, sense, “recognition of the good” – the good that Hashem bestows on us daily, indeed every hour, every minute, every second the earth stays still and the only clouds on the horizon are made of water droplets.

To be exquisitely makir tov to Hashem for all the brachos from which we constantly benefit requires us, on some level, to realize all that could go wrong. There are people, after all, who are jarred from their sleep by earthquakes or fires or mudslides, or who don’t wake up at all. Only a keen recognition of dire possibilities can lead us to fully appreciate what so many mindlessly take for granted.

Nothing, in truth, can be taken for granted.

And that realization should imbue us with hakaras hatov.

© 2018 Hamodia

Remarkable Bordering on Incredible

Senator Orrin G. Hatch’s announcement of his retirement at the end of the year brought me back to the summer of 1995. That’s when I returned to my family’s former home of Providence, Rhode Island to visit, for the last time, the Utah senator’s former speechwriter, one of the most fascinating people I have had the fortune of knowing.

A scion of the Zhviller Chassidic dynasty, Rabbi Baruch Korff lay on his deathbed.

It was back in the 1970s that the erudite, eloquent Rabbi Korff worked without fanfare for Senator Hatch. To this day, the Mormon lawmaker, whose affinity for the Jewish people and Israel is legend, wears a “mezuzah” necklace given him, I believe, by Rabbi Korff.

Rabbi Korff was best known to the American public as “Nixon’s rabbi” – a title given him by President Richard Nixon himself, with whom Rabbi Korff developed a deep personal relationship. It is widely believed that the rabbi had an influence on Nixon’s strong support for Israel and on efforts to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate.

When the Watergate scandal broke in 1973, Rabbi Korff staunchly defended Mr. Nixon, founding the National Citizens Committee for Fairness for the Presidency. He admitted that Nixon had “misused his power” and that Watergate was “wrong,” but felt that the president hadn’t committed any crime and deserved to remain in office.

But Rabbi Korff’s early years were even more remarkable, bordering on incredible.

In 1919, a pogrom was launched by Christian residents of his birthplace, the Ukrainian city of Novograd Volynsk. Jewish homes were ransacked and Jews killed where they were found. Five-year-old Baruch’s mother Gittel fled with him and three of his siblings.

The little boy watched in horror as a rioter ripped his mother’s earrings from her ears and then murdered her. Writing 75 years later, Rabbi Korff averred that he had branded himself a coward for being too frightened to protect his mother. “My life ever since,” he wrote, “has been a quest for redemption from that charge.”

The activist life he lived reflected that quest.

In 1926, the surviving family members immigrated to the United States but, after becoming bar mitzvah, Baruch journeyed to Poland, where he studied in yeshivos in Korets and then Warsaw. Upon his return to the U.S., he attended Yeshiva Rav Yitzchak Elchanan, where he received semichah.

During World War II, Rabbi Korff, who had become an adviser to the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada, and to the U.S. War Refugee Board, petitioned European dignitaries, U.S. congressmen and Supreme Court justices on behalf of Jews in Europe. He even held clandestine negotiations with representatives of Gestapo head Heinrich Himmler, ym”s, about the purchase of Jews from Germany.

One of his wilder exploits took place in 1947, when, working with the militant Lehi group (derisively called the Stern Gang), he plotted to set off bombs in London (placed and timed to prevent human casualties) in protest of British policy in Palestine, and to drop leaflets over the city from a plane.

The leaflets began: “TO THE PEOPLE OF ENGLAND! To the people whose government proclaimed ‘Peace in our time’: This is a warning! Your government had dipped His Majesty’s Crown in Jewish blood and polished it with Arab oil…” The pilot he engaged in Paris, however, tipped off authorities and Rabbi Korff was arrested. After a 17-day hunger strike, he was released, and charges against him were dropped.

After the war ended, Rabbi Korff continued his work on behalf of fellow Jews, presenting a petition with more than 500,000 signatures to the U.S. government, urging that Hungarian Jews be permitted to enter Palestine.

Eventually, he served as a congregational rabbi in several New England cities, and as a chaplain for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. I met him in his retirement, when he employed me to edit one of several books he had written about his experiences.

During that final Providence visit, he lay in bed holding a morphine pump, but was still engaged with the few of us who had gathered to pay our respects. I remember him asking us to sing Adon Olam, and we obliged.

And I remember, too, a phone call he took from Eretz Yisrael, from someone clearly distraught at the rabbi’s dire situation. When the choleh hung up, he explained that the caller was a kollel man whom he had been helping support for a number of years.

So Senator Hatch’s announcement brought me to the brink of a thought that I often think, about how astounding were the lives of some who preceded us.

© 2018 Hamodia

Veiter Simchos

My brother, a rebbe in Yeshivas Ner Yisroel’s Mechina high school, and his wife, the daughter of the legendary Menahel Rav Yosef Tendler, z”l,were recently blessed with two new grandsons. Both were named Simcha Bunim, after my father, hk”m, whose first yahrtzeit will be observed on 20 Kislev.

When I wished my brother and his wife “veiter simchos!” – “further happy occasions! – I wondered if I had inadvertently uttered a double entendre. It turns out I did. My wife and I just returned from Milwaukee, where another bris took place, as our daughter and son-in-law welcomed their new little boy to their family; he, too, is a Simcha Bunim.

I’ve been thinking, as you might imagine, about the name.

Firstly, what exactly is “Bunim”? My father always assumed that it derived from Binyamin, and there are sources that indeed assert that. But another possibility was suggested to me by a brother-in-law’s brother, Tzvi West, who thinks (very plausibly, to me) that, like many double names (e.g. Zev Wolf, Dov Ber, Aryeh Leib…), “Simcha Bunim” may be a vernacular translation added to a Hebrew one. Because, in French, bonhomme means “a good-natured man” or “a man of good cheer.”

If that theory is right, though, both names are uncannily descriptive of my father.

He was renowned for his ready, radiant smile, and over the more than sixty years he served as a shul Rav, countless congregants and strangers alike were greeted with his sever panim yafos. He was a reservoir of friendly, encouraging words for all who sought his counsel.

But simchah isn’t only an interpersonal ideal. We exist for avodas Hashem. And Dovid Hamelech reveals that our lifelong service be done with simchahivdu es Hashem bisimchah. Jewish joy occupies a very high plane indeed.

I don’t know if my father was able to embrace simchah as he fled as a young teen with his family from their Polish town before the invading Nazis in 1939, or when he saw his uncle shot dead before him, or when he and other Jews were locked in a shul that was set aflame (though I imagine he must have smiled when a German army officer – Eliyahu Hanavi, the Jews suspected – passed by and ordered the Jews released). Or if he attained moments of joy during the years he and his Novardok chaverim spent as the guests of the Soviets in a Siberian work camp. But knowing Norvardok’s stress on making the most of every moment of life, it’s entirely plausible.

What I know for fact, though, is how Simchas Torah was his Yom Tov. He rejoiced then with vigor that left anyone who witnessed it astonished. And how delighted he was during his long career to be able to provide a spiritual home for a congregation of Yidden of widely diverse backgrounds and levels of observance.

When my siblings and I were young, it didn’t occur to us that a Rav davening all the Yamim Noraim tefillos (and blowing the shofar) himself was unusual. When, eventually, he trained others to daven for the amud, he took great joy in that, too, and always happily encouraged the new baalei tefillah.

He also undertook the most menial tasks of maintaining a shul with joy. The shul had no shamash, only a rabbi who saw honor in every shul chore.

A congregant recounted seeing him in the shul perched on a 20-foot ladder, changing a light bulb.

“What are you doing?” the man asked him. My father looked down and, wondering at the question, said, “changing a bulb.”

“I know. But why are you doing it?”

“Because the old one burned out,” he explained patiently, with his characteristic smile.

Leaving a neighbor’s shivah house five or six years ago, I was stopped by a gentleman who said he recognized me from a recent chasunah we had both attended, of a relative of mine (the man had a connection to the other family). I confirmed I had indeed been there. He then he took out his phone and said “I have to show you a short video from that chasunah. This zaken was dancing so gracefully, like a young bachur!”

My suspicion of what might be coming was borne out. The video was of my father, well into his 80s at the time, being mesame’ach the chassan and kallah with vigor and joy.

At present, he has five little boy descendants who carry his name (and one little girl who was named Simcha). May they, and, be”H, veiter simchos, herald a new infusion of joy into our world.

© 2017 Hamodia

“Mr.” to Us

Something recently reminded me of one of the many lessons I was privileged to be taught by Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, (pictured here with me at my wedding) who served as Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore.

As an 18-year-old studying in the   Yeshivah in 1972, I watched him at first from afar, then learned from him up-close. The depth of his knowledge, his eloquent, brilliant analyses of Shas sugyos, and of history and science, made a deep impression on me.

His intellect and erudition, though, were mere tools with which he was gifted. His essence was his dedication to Torah, to emes, and to his talmidim – indeed, to all Klal Yisrael.

When I think back on the many times I telephoned Rav Weinberg from wherever I was living at the time to ask him a question about halachah or machshavah, or for an eitzah, I am struck by something I gave little thought to at those times: He was always available. And, I came to discover, not only to me. So many others – among them accomplished talmidei chachamim, rabbanim, and askanim – had also enjoyed a talmidRebbi relationship with Rav Weinberg. In my youthful self-centeredness, I had imagined him as my Rebbi alone.

Nor did his ongoing interactions with his talmidim prevent him from travelling wherever his services were needed. A sought-after speaker and arbitrator for individuals and communities alike, he somehow found time and energy for it all.

In the early 1980s, Rav Weinberg was asked to temporarily take the helm of a small   Yeshivah in Northern California that had fallen on hard times. He agreed to leave his home and position in Baltimore and become interim Rosh Yeshivah.

My wife and I and our three daughters lived in the community; I taught in the   Yeshivah and served as principal of the local Jewish girls’ high school. And so I was fortunate to have ample opportunity to be meshamesh Rav Weinberg, and to witness much I will always remember.

Like the time the yeshivah placed Rav Weinberg in a rented house, along with the yeshivah’s cooks – a middle-aged couple, recently immigrated from the Soviet Union.

Though Northern California has a wonderful climate, its winters can be cool, and the house’s heating system wasn’t working. The yeshivah administrator made sure that extra blankets were in the house, and an electric heater was procured for Rav Weinberg. (The cooks, it was figured, had been toughened by a colder clime).

After a week or two of chilly, rainy weather, it was evident that the Rosh Yeshivah had caught a bad cold. Someone went to his room to check the heater. It wasn’t there.

It was in the cooks’ room. Confronted with the discovery, Rav Weinberg sheepishly admitted to having relocated the heater. He “thought they might be cold” he explained.

We bought another heater. And learned a lesson.

But the particular memory that was recently jogged in my mind was of the yeshivah’s janitor. A young black man, his surname was Barnett. And that’s how we referred to him. “Hey, Barnett, how’s it going?” “Yo, Barnett, can you take care of this mess?” “Barnett, you working tomorrow?”

Once, Rav Weinberg heard one of us call out to the worker. Fixing his eyes on us, the Rosh   Yeshivah said, quietly but firmly, “Mr. Barnett,” pointedly articulating the “Mr.

What reminded me of that incident was a report about a commencement speech Supreme Court Justice John Roberts made at his son’s ninth-grade graduation from a prestigious New Hampshire school. He had much of worth to share with the boys, warning them, for instance, that their privileged lives will not insulate them from adversity, and suggesting that they take ten minutes a week to update and thank one of their former teachers with a written note (“Talk to an adult, let them tell you what a stamp is. You can put the stamp on the envelope”).

He also told them that, when they get to their new school, each of them should “walk up and introduce yourself to the person who is raking the leaves, shoveling the snow or emptying the trash. Learn their name and call them by their name during your time at the school.”

And so I was naturally reminded by that advice of Rav Weinberg’s “Barnett lesson” – that kvod haadam extends to every rung of the social ladder (and all the more so within Klal Yisrael’s social order!).

Then, suddenly, I realized that Rav Weinberg’ yahrtzeit, Shivah Asar B’Tammuz, was mere days away.

Yehi zichro baruch.

© Hamodia 2017

Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, z”l: Recollections at his Shloshim

It was more than 30 years ago, in Providence, Rhode Island, that I received my first letter from Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, z”l. I still have it, and keep it in a safe place.

For a relatively young out-of-town high school rebbe /would-be writer having just made his first submission to the Jewish Observer, the flagship printed medium for the dissemination of Torah thought and perspectives, simply receiving an acceptance letter from the magazine was a wonderful surprise.

More wonderful still, though, was the warmth of the words in Rabbi Wolpin’s personal note, in which he expressed his appreciation for my offering and which was full of encouragement to keep writing. And over ensuing years, both before and after I joined the staff of Agudath Israel of America, each of the essays I wrote for the JO was acknowledged with new words of appreciation and encouragement from its editor. That was Rabbi Wolpin. He was rightly renowned as a top-notch writer and a top-notch editor. But he was a top-notch mensch, too, a top-notch nurturer, empathizer, partner and coach. And, although he was much my senior in both age and ability, he was a top-notch friend, too.

It was 1970 when Rabbi Wolpin assumed the editorship of the JO. Back then, as a high schooler myself in Baltimore’s “T.A.”, or Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, I had a keen interest in hashkafah, and a literary bent. And so I read the Jewish Observer avidly and considered Rabbi Wolpin, whose keen insights and wonderful prose animated the magazine, an intellectual hero. So it’s no wonder that first acceptance note, years later, was, and remains, cherished to me.

As does the memory of the first time I met Rabbi Wolpin in person. It was in the mid-1980s and my wife and I decided to take a long-distance shopping trip from Providence to Brooklyn one Sunday with our two youngest children. I called Rabbi Wolpin to see if we might stop by his home to meet him, and he and his rebbetzin, tibadel l’chaim tovim, didn’t hesitate to answer in the affirmative.

I vividly recall how welcoming the Wolpins were to us when we arrived at their home. And I remember, too, how our two-year-old son, our first boy, ran around the room and repeatedly tossed off the yarmulke we had recently begun putting on his head. I was embarrassed by that behavior, even a little worried that it might herald more rebellious actions in the future. Rabbi Wolpin laughed and assured me that it was perfectly normal and that I had no reason to be concerned. I was greatly reassured. (The little boy is a respected talmid chacham and rosh chaburah in a large kollel today, with a family of his own – and he keeps his head properly covered.)

A decade after that visit, at the invitation of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, we moved to New York and I was privileged to joined the staff of Agudath Israel. A large part of that privilege was being able to work with Rabbi Sherer, of course, and with Rabbi Wolpin.

Whenever I had the opportunity to interact with him, the experience was rewarding. Whether it was on a professional level, regarding articles in the JO or interaction with various media, or on a personal level, like when one of us happened to pass by the office of the other and stopped in to ask a question or offer an observation, I was impressed anew each time by his incredible knowledge, savvy and insight.

And then, as I came to realize what Rabbi Wolpin’s position as the JO’s editor actually entailed, I was much more than impressed.

Soliciting manuscripts, fielding submissions (including the surely difficult task of sending rejection letters that were nevertheless kind and encouraging), analyzing and editing copy, interacting with writers and editorial board members – not to mention penning his own perspectives and well-wrought commentaries – were all part of his portfolio. And I don’t remember ever seeing his face show any of the pressures under which he labored. Always a smile, always a happy greeting, almost always a good pun or humorous observation. Just thinking of him now makes me smile as I write.

Above all, perhaps, his respect for talmidei chachamim was a life-lesson in itself. He was, it seemed to me, in almost constant contact with not only the respected Rabbanim on his editorial board but with members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. He would consult them on “judgment call” issues and they would call him with concerns and guidance. And he was always appreciative, seeing himself as fortunate for the very fact of those interactions. He was a modest man, and, despite his important position in Klal Yisrael, kept as low a profile as he could manage. While he was a true and illustrious oseh, a “doer,” he saw himself more as a me’aseh, a facilitator of the work of others.

There can be little question that the world of intelligent, well-written and compelling Torah thoughts in English today derived directly from the toil of a Seattle-born, public school-attending melamed’s son, who was born in 1932 and, at 15, traveled to New York to study at Mesivta Torah Vodaath. There, the boy, who would become the Rabbi Nisson Wolpin the world of Torah would come to know and revere, absorbed the teachings and devotion to Klal Yisrael of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt”l, and became close to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l and Rav Gedalia Schorr, zt”l. Several years later, he joined the yeshivah founded by Rav Simchah Wasserman, zt”l and then studies in Bais Medrash Elyon in Monsey.

After his, and the JO’s, retirement in 2008, Rabbi Wolpin effortlessly slipped back into the life of the beis medrash, which he had really never left. Two years later, he and, tbl”ct, Mrs. Wolpin moved to Eretz Yisrael.

Rabbi Wolpin’s nurturing (and skillful editing) of younger writers like my dear friend Yonasan Rosenblum and me, and his featuring of seasoned scribes like Rabbi Nosson Scherman, shlita, and Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, shlita, made the JO what it was – and in the case of the former group, helped us develop our critical thinking and writing skills.

Recently, I had the opportunity to leaf through scores of Jewish Observers. It was a bittersweet experience. I was enthralled anew at the quality of the writing, so much of it not only perceptive but prescient, and so much of it still timely even after the passage of many years. But I was anguished anew at the fact that the JO has long ceased publication. And, of course, well beyond that, anguished at the fact that Rav Wolpin, z”l, is no longer with us, at least not in person, here in this world.

Yehi zichro baruch.

© 2017 Hamodia

POTUS and the Piñata

“Fire this ignorant teacher for inciting violence against our POTUS,” read one of the many overheated comments to l’affaire piñata (forgive the language cholent). “More indoctrination from the filthy left,” contended another commenter. On the other side of the controversy was someone who wrote, “Um … This is genius. This teacher deserves a medal.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with the Colorado contretemps that birthed the above: A celebration of the Mexican cultural holiday of Cinco de Mayo at Roosevelt High School, in the Rocky Mountain state town of Johnstown, included an assault on the aforementioned POTUS, or President of The United States.

Well, the assault, while physical, wasn’t on Mr. Trump’s person but rather on his countenance, which graced a piñata, a papier-mâché figure traditionally filled with sweets, released by celebrants’ banging at the container with sticks until it breaks. Which it did here, leaving the president’s smiling, if deflated, image lying on the ground as the candies were liberated.

Whether the teacher who oversaw the celebration, who was quickly suspended, was guilty of any crime isn’t clear. The contention of some present that the other side of the piñata featured Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto certainly complicates any judgment.

The candy kerfuffle raises the issue of teachers’ conveying their personal political or social attitudes to their charges. That educators should not engage in overt politicking is entirely reasonable, of course; but entirely inevitable is that more subtle, and thereby more insidious, conveyances of their outlooks will take place.

I am reminded of my English class in 1970. Our teacher – I’ll call him Mr. Levin – was an unabashed liberal, an implacable foe of then-POTUS Richard Nixon, and a vociferous opponent of the Vietnam War, societal moral norms and all that stood in the way of what Mr. Levin considered progress. Teenage me, by contrast, was vocally contrarian whenever political or cultural matters came up in class readings, assignments and discussions; the teacher and I thus had many opportunities for what might politely be called dialectic. My grades in Mr. Levin’s class were not what I felt they deserved to be, but I attributed that to a persistent recurrence of the laziness with which I had been accurately diagnosed. I wondered, though, if there may have been more to my B’s and C’s than met the eyes.

And so, one day, when the members of the class were assigned to write a poem about any topic we chose, a devious idea dawned: I would write an entirely disingenuous anti-war sonnet, making no more of an effort than I ever did, just to see if it might affect my grade. I held my nose and did the deed. Sure enough, I received an A+, my first (and, I think, only) one. Mr. Levin even hailed my accomplishment in a glowing comment beneath the grade.

And people wonder why I can sometimes be cynical.

What I gleaned from that experience was the realization that grades sometimes reflect a grader’s biases rather than a gradee’s mastery of material or skill. And that teachers, being human, bring their personal attitudes and outlooks to their classrooms.

That truism escapes some public school parents, who delude themselves into thinking that their children’s minds are being filled with only facts and skills, not with the values of those into whose care they place their progeny. All classroom education, no matter the subject, involves a relationship between teacher and student. And so, the character and life-philosophy of a teacher is always – or always should be – an important consideration.

Including for those of us who entrust our children to Torah institutions. You won’t find anyone more dedicated than I to the view of secular education expressed by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. He rejected the valuation of secular studies as limited to their “practical utility,” an attitude, he maintained, that deprives young Jews from “the pure joy of acquiring knowledge for its own sake.” He asserted that secular learning can be “a road leading to the ultimate, more widespread dissemination of the truths of Judaism.”

But for that to be so, it must be transmitted by Jews who comprehend that purpose. If we dismiss “English,” the catch-all term for secular studies, as unimportant, and thus entrustable to teachers who have knowledge of facts but not the perspective for presenting them in a Torah context, we fail our children.

Creating a capable cadre of bnei Torah who can expertly teach writing, literature, science and history from an authentic Torah perspective requires the guidance of Gedolim. It is guidance, though, we do well to seek.

An edited version of this essay appears in Hamodia