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Monday, May 17, 2010

Our Google Image At Risk

It was the year that the cholent blew up. The yeshiva cholent pot was a little bit too full. The oil boiled over and dripped into the flame, causing an explosion on Friday night. The fire marshals came and didn’t like what they saw. They closed down the Yeshiva for a few months and closed down the kitchen for even longer. The Yeshiva was going to close it’s doors.

There was one guy, let’s call him Chaim, who stepped up to the plate and took over the running of the yeshiva. The elderly Roshei Yeshiva were great with learning, but not as involved in keeping the kitchen up to code. Chaim was already working for yeshiva in some capacity, but now he took full charge of the office, the kitchen and the entire building. He managed the meager finances of the Yeshiva and worked with donors to rehabilitate the building and make it legally habitable for Yeshiva Bochurim. Before we knew it , the building was safe once again, the kitchen was updated and the cholent was back on the flame. The yeshiva lived to learn another day.

Maybe I was naive, or maybe I was just out of the loop, but I just found out (years later) that Chaim was never paid. He had other jobs, and he was supporting his family responsibly, but my yeshiva had not paid him. If they had money they would have hired an administrator and the cholent might not have blown up to begin with.

The tragedy of this story is that a Google search on my Yeshiva will tell you about the condemned building, the oblivious Roshei Yeshiva, and the boys who were forced to go home. No search engine will tell you the story of Chaim, the altruistic hero who saved the Yeshiva.

More tragically, no Google search will tell you what Chaim saw in the yeshiva that made him work pro bono to rehabilitate it. You won’t find anything about the depth and diligence of the learning, the dedication and devotion of the teachers, or the decent businessmen and dayanim that the yeshiva produced.

Chaim is a real Chareidi, the type that exist off line and in real life: a regular guy, smiling, shmoozy, making a living and learning every day. Nobody asks him Halachic questions or stands up when he walks into the room. He helped the yeshiva because he loves Torah and he saw Torah suffering.

Today, every individual and group has a digital persona. Our snapshot for the world is the information that appears on the first page of a Google search. Some people manipulate their digital persona to misrepresent themselves; others are well represented online. Some innocent people let their digital persona take on a nasty life of it’s own while they don’t get within four amos of a computer screen.

Search engines can’t access a Rosh yeshiva’s Shiur Klali or his weekly Mussar Shmooze. They can’t be at a Rosh Yeshiva’s Shabbos Table or experience his Ne’ilah. They form an inaccurate digital perception of a Rosh Yeshiva based on a couple of second-hand statements quoted in the New York Times and on random weblogs.

I’m not suggesting that every Yeshiva Bochur to start a blog; I’m suggesting that every Yeshiva Google their staff and make sure that they are properly represented.

This Friday, a handwritten sign quoting Reb Nosson Tzvi Finkel Shlita went up in the Mir Yeshiva. He urged his students not to attend protests. The sign was photographed, quoted and analyzed by scores of blog readers. The world out there is hungry for information and relying on inference and guesswork to get it.

What the world out there does not know (and cannot know) is that Reb Nosson Tzvi Finkel has always been against students attending protests. I am aware of two instances in which Reb Nosson Tzvi gave his eleventh hour endorsement to rallies and, even then, encouraged students to go for no more than ten minutes. They were both peaceful rallies that obtained government permits. There is no room for conjecture and hearsay when it comes to Reb Nosson Tzvi and protests.

The problem is that the Mir Yeshiva doesn’t realize how many people are downloading that six word handwritten sign in the hallway. They don’t realize how many people are sincerely trying to figure out what Reb Nosson Tzvi really thinks about protests in Meah Shearim. If the yeshiva were thinking in terms of digital impact, they would have made the sign clearer. Better yet, the sign would have quoted the Rosh Yeshiva’s own words and been posted in an Internet press release. Why stay below the radar of the search engines and leave everyone assuming the worst?

It makes me think of the time I rudely interrupted a conversation in Jerusalem’s Old City. Three English tourists directly ahead of me were engrossed in an obscenely uninformed discussion about my style of dress. One of them asked a question and I, in frustration, jumped in and offered an unsolicited but accurate answer. They lectured me on my rudeness.

It was OK for them to walk in front of me and spew nonsense about my lifestyle, but it was inconceivably rude of me to insert myself (and some truth) into their conversation!

The point is that we would all be better off if people went straight to the source for information. When we, as Orthodox Jews, are an elusive source of information we are not doing ourselves any favors.

(And by the way, I’ve been informed that the alumni are getting together to buy a present for “Chaim”. If you contact me I can forward you the information – you won’t find it online)

Posted on 05/17 at 03:42 AM • Permalink
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Meet Rabbi Sender Haber

Rabbi Sender Haber is the Rabbi of the B'nai Israel Congregation in Norfolk, VA. He is well known throughout Hampton Roads, having arrived over twelve years ago as one of the original four members of the Norfolk Area Community Kollel. In that capacity, Rabbi Haber was involved in community wide programming, teaching, and outreach. He has inspired many Jews to expand their Jewish identity and increase their love of Torah and commitment to its observance. Everyone who knows Rabbi Haber is touched by his breadth of Torah knowledge and his ability to convey the wisdom of the ages in such a way as to make those esoteric writings accessible to persons of all levels of experience and a variety of backgrounds.

Rabbi Haber has served in a number of capacities during his years in Norfolk. Since 2003 Rabbi Haber has been a teacher of Jewish Studies at Toras Chaim Day School in Portsmouth, teaching boys and girls of all ages, with a focus on Gemara, Halacha, and Chumash. He has also taught at Yeshivas Aish Kodesh and Bina High School in Norfolk, and served as Assistant Rabbi of B’nai Israel for 6 years. He also serves as the Rabbi of the “Lost Tribe,” Tidewater’s Jewish Motorcycle group! While handling all of these responsibilities, he has continued to participate in numerous Chavrusos (one-on-one learning partnerships) covering a wide range of topics and writings.

Rabbi Haber and his wife Chamie have been married for thirteen years. They have four children, Minna (9), Moshe (6), Ely (4), and Akiva Meir, born in August of 2012. They both come from rabbinic families steeped in Torah, Kiruv and Chesed. Rabbi Haber received his Rabbinic Ordination (Yoreh Yoreh) from Rabbi Sender Rosenbloom and Rabbi Mordechai Freidlander of the Jerusalem Beth Din. He was awarded a Teaching Certificate by Torah Umesorah Association for Jewish Day Schools in 2004 and again in 2009. In addition, Rabbi Haber has spent over a decade studying Talmud, Jewish Law, and ethics in some of the world’s most prestigious Yeshivos including Beth Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood, NJ and Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Haber can be contacted through the Synagogue office at 757-627-7358, or through e-mail at