A talmid chacham approached me last week with a question about the chareidi media's coverage of the horrible Carmel Forest fire, in which 44 people died. In the secular and national religious press, he noted, there were pictures of the victims, and, at the very least, some context to the lives lost – parents, spouse, children, and siblings. But in the chareidi press, the coverage focused almost entirely on the religious Jews who perished in the blaze – for instance, Rabbi Uriel Malka, a rav in the prison services – or on particularly moving stories, like that of the sixteen-year-old Haifa fire department volunteer, Elad Rivan, who rushed from his high school classroom to join in rescue efforts and was overcome by the flames. Absent, however, were the capsule biographies of the other victims. Why? he asked. (A caveat: I cannot personally confirm this claim; I did not read the entire chareidi press.)
One does not want to make too much of this. The staff of Mishpacha's English edition, for instance, had less than a day to put together its entire fire coverage, while also putting to bed the rest of the issue. And it is human nature that the loss of those with whom one identifies more closely will be felt more strongly.
At the same time, it is incumbent upon Torah Jews to never to forget that the loss of every Jew diminishes all of us. Once, all Jews understood that. "Jewish unity," used to be a frequent Jewish federation slogan, before the pretense became laughable. But the farther removed Jews are from the shtetls of Eastern Europe and immigrant neighborhoods, from a common history and shared experiences, the fewer bonds they feel to one another.
Only belief in the Torah can truly account for our essential connection to one another – something that once required no explanation. We are bound because we all stood at Sinai and were charged by Hashem with a world historical mission. The loss of any Jew is the loss of the potential to fulfill our collective mission. And as guardians of the true basis of Jewish unity, we Torah Jews must not allow ourselves to become desensitized to the tragedy of any Jew cut-off in his or her prime.
There are many forces that endanger that sensitivity. In Israel, we of necessity raise our children in such a way as to minimize the influence of the surrounding society. But in doing so, we also run the risk that they will lose their awareness of the essential connection to the individual Jews who comprise that society. Sometimes we avoid focusing on the mesirus nefesh of Israeli soldiers, lest they become the role models for our sons.
But however understandable the reasons why our sensitivity to the infinite potential of every single Jew has grown dull, we must fight against that dullness. That too is part of what it means to be a Torah Jew.
I have a great weakness for those rare individuals from whom ideas and plans to better the world pour forth in an effusion. Rabbi Sender Linchner, zt"l, the visionary builder of the magnificent campus of Boys Town in Jerusalem, exemplified that trait for me. I first met him in his Bayit Vegan apartment on a cold, rainy winter night to discuss his father-in-law, Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the legendary builder of Torah in America. Rabbi Linchner had just gotten out of the hospital after a bout of pneumonia. Already well into his eighties, Rabbi Linchner looked frail bundled up against the chill, and it was far from certain that he would make it through the winter.
Rabbi Linchner not only survived the winter, he lived another four or five years. During that time, we became close and spoke frequently. Though he had learned in Rabbi Yehuda Heschel Levenburg's yeshiva in New Haven, the first real yeshiva in America, and in Radin in the final years of the Chofetz Chaim (of whom he snapped a photograph learning in his tefillin, which hangs on my living room wall), he did not dwell in the past. Talking to him, I felt like an old man speaking to a younger one. By the time he finished his early morning swim, he had hatched more ideas for new projects than most of us will have in a lifetime. He never lost his enthusiasm. When Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Klugman's major biography of Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch appeared, Rabbi Linchner gave me his entire collection of Rabbi Hirsch's writings in German and a rare copy of an earlier translation of Nineteen Letters, and asked me to bring them to Rabbi Klugman.
Rabbi Yitzchok (Itchie) Lowenbraun, the director of the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals (AJOP), is another one of those perpetual idea machines. Whenever he calls, I can count on hearing about two or three new kiruv initiatives, either just beginning or in the pipeline. He is in constant touch with kiruv professionals around the country to hear about the challenges they face and new approaches that they are trying, like a bee taking the pollen from one flower to fertilize another.
Sometimes the ideas catch on. At last year's AJOP convention, one of the themes was that kiruv professionals, who have experience teaching inyanei emunah to sophisticated college students and adults, would be ideally suited to teach emunah in our own schools, where the need is great. A program based on this insight is already far along in the prepatory stages in Baltimore.
And sometimes nothing comes of the new ideas. But there are always more where those came from, as a recent call from Rabbi Lowenbaum reminded me. Currently AJOP is involved in one of the most comprehensive empirical research projects every undertaken of the Torah community – this one dealing with the children of ba'alei teshuva and their integration into the Torah community.
One of the themes Rabbi Lowenbraun is pushing at the upcoming AJOP convention is the possibility of synergies between the kiruv efforts of a wide-range of Orthodox Jews, especially on college campuses. Another major topic will be confronting the changed circumstances of kiruv today, when intermarriage is rapidly diminishing the pool of potential ba'alei teshuva and a minimal Jewish identity can no longer be assumed – i.e., in an age when Israel is seen as the bad guy and the Holocaust is ancient history.
Sometimes the good guys win. That's important to know because one of the yetzer hara's favorite tactics is to tell us that our efforts won't have any effect so we might as well save our energy. Don't bother davening or saying Tehillim for the person in critical condition after a car crash, for the soldier in a coma with a bullet lodged in his brain, for the couple still childless after fifteen years of marriage, or the older single, the yetzer whispers in our ear.
This week Google announced that it would no longer post videos produced by Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) because they violate the company's policies concerning hate speech. But the whole purpose of PMW is to expose the virulent hate speech being broadcast in the Palestinian media and sermons, and thereby combat it. Google's action would have effectively promoted hate speech not lessened it. Fortunately, so many emails were directed towards Google's headquarters that the decision was reversed a day later.
In Seattle, the Metro Transit Authority accepted a series of powerful ads to be displayed on buses decrying American support for Israeli "war crimes" in Operation Cast Lead. In response to an overwhelming response from the Jewish community, as well as Christian supporters of Israel, the Transit Authority announced a new policy not to accept non-commercial advertising, and the virulently anti-Israel campaign was thwarted. In both cases, thousands of individuals taking the time to write an email or make a telephone call averted an evil decree.
Such efforts will not always be successful. But even one such success should provide all the incentive that we need to invest the energy. And if Google and the Seattle Metro Transit Authority can be swayed by thousands of emails, can we doubt that the prayers and Tehillim of thousands of Jews will be viewed with favor by our Merciful King in Heaven, Who wants only our good.