As the rebbe entered, his hasidim gathered around, dancing and singing. He had come, mid-morning, to Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School for the upshirin, or ritual haircutting, of a Kushner student. After the upshirin there was a tisch — a rollicking sort of audience with the rebbe — and an expo on contemporary hasidic life.
But not everything at the Modern Orthodox yeshiva in Livingston was quite what it seemed. The upshirin was make-believe, since a hasidic child’s ritual first haircut takes place at the age of three. The “rebbe” was actually Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, the Kushner head of school, dressed for the occasion as a traditional hasid in a bekishe (caftan), shtreimel (fur hat), white socks, and flowing sidelocks. The 12th-grade students, many dressed as a hasidic rebbe’s followers, stood in as gushing friends and family.
It was the annual Yom Iyun, or Day of Learning, at Kushner. In years past, the focus has been both Jewish and secular, with topics as varied as Israel, Shakespeare, and technology.
This year, the theme was Hasidism — the fervently Orthodox way of life marked by devotion to a charismatic rebbe, a mystical theology, and the customs and dress of a lost Eastern Europe.
“Hasidut seemed to be something the kids were really interested in,” said Rabbi Shimshon Jacob, who teaches Jewish history and spearheaded the planning of the day. “Our communities tend not to mix, and they are interested in how they do, why they do, and what they do.”
The Yom Iyun actually started the day before, on Tuesday, with a screening of the film Fill the Void, an award-winning drama about life, death, and marriage in a Tel Aviv hasidic community.
Wednesday’s activities started with a round robin of lectures on aspects of hasidic life from clothing to language to views on science and emotions. Faculty member David Schlusselberg, who just released a CD of Hebrew music, played his guitar and told stories. Seniors, dressed in traditional hasidic garb, led an interactive fair in which they depicted, sometimes lightheartedly, the lives of hasidim. “Women” tossed plastic babies to their “husbands” who were selling high-tech items at their in-house version of B&H, the Manhattan electronics stores owned and staffed by Satmar hasidim.
“To keep the students interested, we allowed for some humor,” said Jacob, who pointed out that those students familiar with the upshirin ceremony, or who may have had one themselves, may not have known that the tradition originated with the hasidic community.
Jacob acknowledged that it might at first seem odd that a school catering to an Orthodox Jewish community would feel the need to explore Hasidism in this way, setting it off as “the other.”
“It’s just a reality that while we are 99 percent the same, more often we focus on the 1 percent difference, and our communities really are separate,” he said.
The day concluded with a talk by Rabbi Meyer Schiller, a spokesperson for the Skver hasidic community of New Square, NY. Schiller, who maintains ties to the Modern Orthodox community and teaches Talmud at Yeshiva University, put Hasidism in its historical context.
Schiller underscored the ways in which the hasidic community and the Modern Orthodox community developed in opposition to each other. Describing the rise of Hasidism during the 18th century, he said that the maskilim, or Jews who embraced the Enlightenment, included the group that would become Modern Orthodox. The hasidim, meanwhile, “circled the wagons,” with the idea that modernity would eviscerate traditional Judaism. He also pointed out that “the rejectionist insularity and heredity leadership” of the contemporary hasidic communities “is not necessarily linked to the Torah of hasidut and the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov,” the Ukraine-born sage who is usually credited as the founder of Hasidism.
The difference between the theory and reality of hasidic life, he suggested, is like football: “It’s the playbook versus the game film.” But, he concluded, “even if we are distanced from the original movement of the Baal Shem Tov, we are still connected with its sense of joy, religiosity, and communal camaraderie.”
Kushner is a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.