Last week, I interviewed Rabbi Aharon Hoch in Toronto. A second-generation talmid of Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, Rabbi Hoch was the one of the first products of a mainline yeshiva to go into full-time kiruv work under the auspicies of Aish Hatorah. He pointed to his summer experience on a Torah Umesorah Project SEED program in South Bend, Indiana as having sparked his first interest in kiruv. That summer he discovered that Jews out in the hinterlands were both some of the nicest people he had ever met and totally "innocent" with respect to their lack of knowledge of Judaism.
Flying back to Israel three days later, the man sitting next to me provided a classic example of precisely the type of Jew that Rabbi Hoch was talking about. We were flying with a two teams of Jewish hockey players representing Canada in a five-nation hockey tournament in Israel. My seatmate, it turns out, has been a senior executive in the National Hockey League (NHL), the top professional league in the world, managed some of the top junior teams in Canada, and led two previous delegations of Canadian Jewish hockey players to Israel. He is also a law professor.
For the first hour and a half of the flight, he talked to me about his father. There was something deeply moving about listening to a seventy-year-old man talk with such reverence about a father who lived to 97 and has been gone for twelve years. "I think about him every single day," he told me. I was especially fascinated by the way my new buddy linked everything he admired about his Russian-born father to his Jewishness.
The Bassin family owned the general store in a small town in rural Saskatchewan. They were the only Jews in the town.. The home was strictly kosher, with kosher meat shipped from Winnipeg. At the family dinner table, everyone was expected to have opinions and to be prepared to defend them under cross-examination from the family patriarch, an avid reader.
The incident that Leibel (the Jewish name by which his father called him, not that by which he is known today) recited with the greatest admiration, however, involved his father's sense of social justice. During a down period for Canadian agriculture, many of the farmers in the area had to put their farms up for auction. Leibel's father went to the auction and announced that there was no point in anyone bidding because he would outbid anyone who did. Years later, he told his son, while they were driving through the countryside, that all the land one could see could have been theirs, but that it would not have been the right thing to dislocate families from their traditional way of life and deprive them of their only source of livelihood.
Another time, his father was asked to contribute to repairs on the local gentile cemetery. He agreed – "We live with these people" – but only on the grounds that the contribution be completely anonymous. To this day, Leibel associates giving b'seser (anonymously) with a proper Jewish approach to tzedakah. He told me that for his daughter's wedding he and his wife decided to forego certain knick-knacks and give the $2,000 saved to charity – but with no plaques.
When recruiting Jewish hockey players, he always tells the parents, "Your son will be home for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even if we are in the playoffs. And even if you don't care." When he was an executive in the NHL, the owner of the Quebec Nordiques once asked him to fly to Sweden to sign a player. He told him that he couldn't because it was too close to Yom Kippur. The owner replied, "I didn't know you are Jewish." (Anti-semitism traditionally runs high in Quebec.)
"Well, you do now," he replied. A few minutes later, he called back to tell the owner, "Not only a Jew, but a proud one."
He told me that the major importance of the upcoming tournament in his eyes is to instill a certain measure of Jewish identity in the players. Though the tournament is being held in Metulla, the team's first trip off the plane was to Jerusalem. And when I had finished davening Shachris, Leibel said that he wished he had brought his tallis on board so that he could have prayed"with me.
I do not wish to make too big a deal of Leibel's strong Jewish identity. The strictly kosher home, Friday night family meals, large family sedarim, and the ability to read Hebrew phonetically would not have been enough to prevent Leibel from intermarrying. He defines himself as "spiritual," not religious in any way, and his present day observance is obviously minimal by our standards.
The history of North American Jewry is an ongoing story of declining ethnic identity from generation to generation, with Jewish considerations an ever smaller factor in important life decisions, such as whom to marry. Without a serious Jewish education, ethnic identity cannot sustain itself.
At the same time, I would not totally discount "Jewish pride." Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky once said that if not for the creation of the State of Israel, after the horrors of the Holocaust, most of world Jewry would have been lost completely, and but for Israel's victory in 1967, there would have been no Russian Jewry movement. Israel helped non-Orthodox Jews maintain some identity. In my experience, the greater a Jew's pride in being Jewish the greater the likelihood that he or his offspring will be open one day to learning Torah, if only as the source of all Jewish values.
In the course of the flight, Leibel and I discussed the Akeidah – the possibility of a father killing his son has always made him uncomfortable – and the morning blessings, particulary "she'lo asani isha." He mentioned that all three of his young grandchildren attend a Jewish school (although I cannot say what kind.)
Though neither mitzvah observance nor Torah study obviously play much role in Leibel's life, I did not hear one word of rejection, rebellion, or disdain. He simply never learned much about Torah and mitzvos.
That is what Rabbi Hoch meant when he described the "innocence" of most American Jews. And it is why it is our duty to teach them Torah in any way we can.