By: David Tanner  | 

YU Satmar Shabbaton: Lessons From My Shabbos in Kiryas Joel

It probably wasn’t a good idea to leave Washington Heights to go to Monticello with only two hours before Shabbos. I had missed the last bus to the YUnite Shabbaton, which I had my heart set on attending, and I found myself out of breath and anxiously checking my watch as the hours to Shabbos quickly passed. So, foolishly or not, I called an Uber and was soon on my way. Halfway through my ride, though, the Uber broke down on the side of the highway in upstate NY. The Uber driver was kind enough to call someone else to take me, but by the time the new driver arrived, sunset was approaching. I quickly concluded that I wouldn’t make it to the YU Shabbaton in time for Shabbos but after perusing Google Maps realized that I was only minutes away from the Satmar town of Kiryas Joel. I called the Kiryas Joel branch of Chaveirim, the famed Jewish roadside assistance organization, explained my situation and was quickly supplied with an address to tell the taxi driver.

During the short drive there, I was filled with apprehension. I was thankfully fully prepared with my Shabbos clothes but concerned about the evident differences between the locals and myself: Would a clean-shaven, techeiles-sporting YU student be received kindly in the insular Satmar world of Kiryas Joel? 

I walked into shul earlier than everyone else, since I was makpid about davening before sunset while the practice of Chassidim is to daven long afterward. When they finally began, davening was slow, but loud and meaningful. As soon as it was over, my host, Reb Shia Kornbli, came over to me and welcomed me. He then went around introducing me to others as follows: “This is a real ‘shomer Shabbos.’ He was in a car, and Shabbos was coming, so he said ‘Stop!’ That’s a real shomer Shabbos!” Almost everyone I made eye contact with said “Good Shabbos” and “Shalom aleichem” and asked where I was from.

Back at Reb Shia’s home, his adorable children shyly peeked at me, until one of his sons asked me something in Yiddish that I didn’t understand, but I made out the English word “stuck.” I confirmed that I was indeed stuck, and Reb Shia explained to me that he usually hosts someone in my situation every Shabbos. As the meal progressed, Reb Shia and I exchanged divrei torah and zemiros. Reb Shia was very curious about YU, and I was curious about the chinuch system in Kiryas Joel. With regard to the elephant in the room, Reb Shia and I didn’t really talk about Zionism, though we did talk extensively about the Satmar Rebbe and his unyielding adherence to his beliefs.

The rest of Shabbos flew by. Before long, I was sitting back in the shul where it all began, eating shaleshudis alongside another curious Satmar Chassid. He was actually very impressed with my basic knowledge of some Chassidish Torah on the parsha (namely the Sheim Mishmuel — shoutout to Rabbi Reichman) and invited me to come back another Shabbos as his guest. I recently took him up on this offer, and he said would be glad to host any other YU bachurim reading this article as well.

So, who cares about my Shabbos? Why do I need to publish it as opposed to just telling my family and friends?

The reason I am writing this article is not because it’s a great story (although it is). It’s because I want to challenge the assumption within much of the Modern Orthodox or YU community that Chassidim disrespect us. My Shabbos in Kiryas Joel gave me a completely different impression. Everyone I encountered was genuinely curious about and respectful toward YU. In fact, many people had never even heard of YU and were impressed when I described a typical YU student’s schedule of Torah learning and secular classes. Ironically, the insularity of the Satmar community means that many individuals in that community have not previously encountered and have no negative preconceived notions of YU, creating an opportunity for a relationship of mutual respect and achdus.

Allow me to end with a story you may not believe, which indicates that positive changes toward achdus may be taking place. On the heimish bus back from Kiryas Joel the most recent time I went for Shabbos, I sat next to a Satmar yungerman [man who studies in kollel] from Williamsburg. We had a long, pleasant conversation. At one point, he asked me if I learned the sefarim of Rav Soloveitchik. After I affirmed that I had learned some of them, he told me he also did. I asked which sefer he’d learned, fully expecting him to mention one of the popular works of the Rav’s chiddushim on shas such as Reshimos Shiurim or Harerei Kedem. He haltingly said, “I think it’s called Divrei Hagus V’ha’aracha?” (For those who need to brush up on Rav Soloveitchik’s writings, this is a collection of essays including the hesped for Rav Velvel and the Rav’s famous speech on Zionism, “Kol Dodi Dofeik.”) Shocked, I said, “Ah, I thought you meant his chiddushim on shas … that’s more machshava inyanim, right?” My seatmate quickly retorted, “Oh, everyone knows his stuff on shas, but I like this sefer. He talks about Eretz Yisrael and describes Rav Chaim … he has very interesting things there.” Seeing my disbelief, he gave me a cheeky smile. “I bet you didn’t expect to hear that one.”

But that’s exactly the point. We expect and assume a lot of things that we may be surprised about. Instead of making assumptions, we would be better off if we took the time to talk and understand each other. This is especially true of the Chassidic community; though it is indeed different from ours in many ways, our lack of familiarity with it can lead us to exaggerate the differences at the expense of the vast similarities. An open mind, though, can lead to greater Jewish unity and a mutual appreciation for communities that are different from our own.

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Photo Caption: A Satmar Chassid walking in front of a Kiryas Joel Shul

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