The Leventhal family.
In Two Worlds: An Interview with Rabbi Avrohom and Eshkie Leventhal
Since making Aliyah in 2005, Rabbi Avrohom and Eshkie Leventhal have straddled multiple worlds. Their children attended both Religious Zionist and Charedi schools and yeshivot, their shul is open to a wide spectrum of Jews, and Rabbi Leventhal’s organization Lema’an Achai works with Jews of all stripes and types. Rabbi Aron White sat with the Leventhals to hear about their journey and the lessons they have learned about “living in the gray” and navigating multiple communities.
How would you describe your own upbringing?
Eshkie: Both of us grew up in the Charedi world. I was born in Boro Park, raised in Monsey and moved to Lakewood before marriage, so I lived in the main triad of American yeshivish communities! I even went to Chassidic schools, so I was not exposed much to the outer world. I would never have imagined that one day I would have a picture of Rav Kook hanging on my wall!
R’ Avrohom: I grew up in the Charedi yeshivah community in Baltimore and studied at the Talmudic Academy, a school with Charedi leadership and a diverse student body. I later learned at the Scranton yeshivah, which is part of the Lakewood system, and from there moved onto Ner Yisrael, which is more open. My parents were open to Zionism, with a special place in their hearts for Israel. My mother would tell us how she wrote about the birth of the State of Israel for her fifth grade report – an event which only occurred two years before! We were not labeled as “yeshivish” or any other way; we were Jews and that was it.
Even to this day there are two types of Charedi communities. In Lakewood, Boro Park and most of Monsey there isn’t much of a Zionist community or a feeling of connection to Eretz Yisrael. Honestly, their home community is their Yerushalayim; they might go to Eretz Yisrael for a vacation, but it’s not a fundamental part of their being. In Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and other communities there may be a Charedi atmosphere, but there is much more openness. In those communities many would say they are “chovevei tzion” rather than Zionist, but they are much more connected to the Land than the other communities.
You made Aliyah from Baltimore in 2005 to Ramat Beit Shemesh, and your family members have a mix of approaches and hashkafot – some children are more American and some more Israeli, with some more Religious Zionist and others more Charedi. How do you keep a family with so many differences connected to one another?
Eshkie: When we made Aliyah, we carefully chose schools for our children. They were coming from Baltimore, so we placed them in “Charedi-lite” schools, but eventually shifted them over to “Religious Zionist Torani” schools. We were happier with the more open schools. I once went to a parent-teacher conference at one of the Charedi schools wearing a denim skirt, and I felt so judged it was like I was in a jail. I had studied at Chassidic schools in America but I felt far more judged and self-conscious in the Charedi schools in Israel. That being said, I am very proud that each of our children has their own opinions and personality, and didn’t feel the need to be exact copies of their parents.
R’ Avrohom: The first year of chinuch is challenging. Olim often experience an identity crisis, but children also have the opportunity to find themselves and their own path. My oldest daughter went to a Charedi school and a Charedi seminary but ended up marrying a guy who went to the army, and they do not consider themselves Charedi today. They initially sent their kids to a Religious Zionist school, but a new school called Netzach Yisrael opened up which is categorized as Mamlachti Charedi. It is a Charedi school that is much more open to Eretz Yisrael – when you walk in the building, there is a quote from Rav Kook on the wall!
One of the myths people have about Aliyah is that you have to choose between Religious Zionist and Charedi, but we have been able to find a lot of people living in the gray, with aspects of both worlds. Ramat Beit Shemesh has grown tremendously – Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph now has close to 40,000 residents and about 20 schools, allowing each family to find the type of hashkafah and style that fits them. And as I said, each child will form their own path. One of my sons, who has long payos and wears a shtreimel, was walking in the street early in the pandemic without a mask. A policeman stopped him to give him a ticket. When he asked him for his ID, my son took out his army ID – giving the policeman such a surprise that he let him off!
Your shul also is also a blend of Religious Zionist and Charedi. Can you tell us more about it?
R’ Avrohom: Our shul is called Kehillas Shivtei Yeshurun (KSY), and I served as the President there for 8 years. It’s grown from 15 to 190 families in the last ten years under the leadership of Rabbi Yaakov Haber, and it is incredibly diverse. You have mostly Anglos, some Israelis too, Charedi, Charedi-lite, Religious Zionist, Torani, Chardal. Within a three-minute walk you could have a homogenous shul of any one of those types, but people choose KSY because they want to be somewhere diverse.
There has been a significant shift. When people made Aliyah between 2005 and 2010, there was a very strong sense of having to conform to what others were doing. Since 2010, people making Aliyah have been able to be themselves more, and this has really helped people. Aliyah is more successful when you feel you can breathe! For example, there are many people who daven in a Charedi shul throughout the year, but davka go to another shul on Yom HaAtzmaut in order to say Hallel. For them, their shul generally provides them the best community for their family, and they feel they can supplement and ensure they are connected to Zionism as well.
Eshkie: One of the most important things we have learned is to make informed decisions, and not to make life-changing decisions based on conversations in the park or in the stairwell. There was a family of ba’alei teshuva who made Aliyah a few years ago, and they chose to enroll their kids in Religious Zionist schools. The first week they were here he met a neighbor in the stairwell who told him in quite certain terms how the Religious Zionist school wasn’t frum enough, and that he had to move his children to the school his kids were in. That school required a hat and jacket for the interview, which this father didn’t even have, but the zealous neighbor lent him his. Thinking this was the only way to succeed in Ramat Beit Shemesh, the ba’al teshuva switched his children to a Charedi cheder, which was totally inappropriate for them. Six weeks later, his 12-year-old decided he didn’t want to be religious because he didn’t fit in.
When you make Aliyah there is so much to learn and take in, so take your time, and don’t be pressured even by well-meaning and strong-minded neighbors. You have to do what works for you!
Rabbi Leventhal – you run a highly successful chessed organization called Lema’an Achai. How do the differences between the Charedi and Religious Zionist communities impact the work you do?
R’ Avrohom: When I walk into the office, there are people working together from across Israeli society. I think it provides a model for how our society as a whole can function. We have therapists who are Charedi, and therapists who are formerly religious. We match each person with the client who will work best for them, doing whatever is in the best interest of the client. Ultimately, we all have the same goals, and I am proud that a diverse group of people are able to work together.