The Out-of-Town In-Towner: Rabbi David Bashevkin and Authentic Religious Experience
“It doesn’t matter.”
This was not the response I assumed I would get when I asked Rabbi David Bashevkin where he sent his children to day school. However, nothing about my sit-down with Rabbi Bashevkin went as expected. 18Forty was not mentioned once. Twitter essentially didn’t exist. The subject of the discussion started with North Adams, Massachusetts and ended with the conclusion that bochurim in Ner Yisrael know how to be mevatel Torah in healthier ways than YU guys.
Most people who have heard of or know Rabbi Bashevkin on a superficial level would assume he is a typical person from Lawrence, NY, who grew up influenced by the regular social norms of the community. This could not be farther from the truth. “Who I am as a human being comes from the upbringing of my parents,” he said. “My religious life is a composite of the generational reaction of my parents to their parents.” Bashevkin believes his parents’ unique cultural background of budding Orthodoxy in small-town America in the ’50s and ’60s has made him the person he is. The organic and unique influence they brought to his childhood through an authentic and pure form of religious growth nurtured in a small town sticks with Bashevkin until today.
Indeed, Bashevkin’s parents grew up with a less traditional background than many of his contemporaries. His father hails from North Adams, Mass. Bashevkin’s grandparents on his father’s side were less educated and observant. His bubby (grandmother) did not read Hebrew and his Zaidy (grandfather) worked on Shabbos until his retirement. However, they were deeply committed to Jewish values in an authentic and pure form. Bubby would travel to a Price Chopper supermarket in Albany to buy kosher meat. They stressed the importance of all their kids marrying Jews.
Bashevkin’s background is also untraditional on his mother’s side. His grandfather graduated Chofetz Chaim and was a rabbi in Portland, Maine, where his mother grew up. Ultimately, Bashevkin’s parents decided they wanted more infrastructure in communities more deeply rooted in halachik observance. Yet the Bashevkins never forgot to instill within their children the importance of independent commitment to Jewish education and the wholesome organic religiosity that their upbringings fostered. “I couldn’t go off the derech if I tried,” said Bashevkin.
This balance of community infrastructure and organic small town Judaism is the balance Bashevkin seeks to balance in his own house. “I try to take the average of organic plus education,” he explained. “It is likely that we have moved too far into the direction of the educational pedigrees as the sole arbiter of one’s religious character.”
Bashevkin described our contemporary Orthodox world as “airplane food and not home-baked.” He explained that it feels like it was made to serve mass production. Yet Bashevkin’s religious search is for a sincere religious moment in his life. “Religious life is so programmed, and a private moment of religious service and practice are harder to find,” he commented.
However, Bashevkin’s religious outlook and search for authenticity were not merely shaped by his parents’ upbringing in western Massachusetts and southern Maine. It was shaped for four years in central Maryland, where he studied in the hallowed halls of Ner Yisrael.
Bashevkin went to Ner Yisrael right after his years in Yeshivat Shaalvim. Although when he first arrived he was an outsider, by the time he left, he was “considered one of them.” He went in with a large cohort of students from Modern Orthodox schools who excelled in yeshiva. His morning seder chavrusa married Rabbi Moshe Tendler’s daughter.
Most of all, Bashevkin appreciated the authentic experience he got at Ner. “Ner Yisrael is a self-contained campus. Everyone stays for Shabbos, and after Succos, you stay until Chanukkah,” he explained. Bashevkin believes this created bonding with a chevra (friend group), creating a wholesome and warm atmosphere. Similarly, Bashevkin appreciated the authenticity of a group solely committed to Torah. “There is a real culture of movement and the way people speak,” he noted. “A culture of commitment and dedication to learning. And a dedication to healthy bitul Torah.”
Interestingly, Bashevkin noted that much of this authentic Yeshiva culture, and even the culture of healthy bitul Torah, is missing in YU. “YU is a very adversarial culture between beis medrash and the rest of your life because people have such little time that they only have 5 hours a day to learn and be shtark,” he said. Bashevkin believes that the learning at YU is tremendous and that students leave YU and “know a velt (world) of Torah.” However, the culture of hock and schmoozing in the context of Yeshiva between people who share a purpose is special, and Bashevkin thinks it is much more prevalent in Ner.
“I don’t think guys in YU know how to be a mevatel Torah like Yeshiva guys,” Bashevkin said. “There is a holiness in the way a Yeshiva guy knows how to be mevatel Torah. A walk with a chavrusa, a hock session in the coffee room. Learning how to take a geshmak beis nap or Shabbos nap.”
“In YU, guys need to grow out of a Shana Aleph and Shana Bet mentality,” he remarked. “Because chevra growth is not as much a factor in YU, many guys cling onto the Shana Aleph/Shana Bet model.”
After four years, Bashevkin left Ner because he thought the community he could serve best would help integrate his religious and professional identity. All his friends in Ner became doctors and dentists. But becoming a rabbi in that community is harder — if he wanted to become a dentist, he probably would have stayed in Baltimore. He still tries to incorporate the authenticity of the Yeshiva community into his daily life.
“It doesn’t matter.” Where Bashevkin sends his kids to school is not important because he has a different relationship with education. “It’s a decision we took seriously, but the role of my kids’ schooling turns it into a personality that is systematic and inauthentic,” and that is not what Bashevkin wants. He wants his kids to be exposed to many different communities and influences that allow them to grow purely and organically.
Bashevkin believes that a lot of the exposure to his organic background is done through family. “We have a very diverse family,” he explained. “I have a chareidi sister, a sister in the Five Towns, a sister in Edison, and an uncle in Bennington, Vermont. I have cousins across the religious spectrum. I make it a point to expose my kids to all family members because that’s the best way to create a family connection.”
Whether it has been through his roots in small-town Massachusetts and southern Maine or his time learning in the hallowed halls of Ner Yisrael, Bashevkin has always tried to create his own religious growth, fostered by independence and bravery to diverge from communal expectations. “There is a place to have courage and live fearlessly. Anyone has a point where they can lean into the norms and desires of a community and a point where they can say we are doing things a little differently. My family did things a little differently.” And that has shaped who he is today and how he raises his own children.
Photo Caption: Rabbi David Bashevkin is an out-of-town in-towner.
Photo Credit: Rabbi David Bashevkin