by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 26, 2013
What Each of Us Can Do
A few weeks back, I met an avreich named Yehudah Shein from Beit Shemesh with an odd hobby. He goes around to social protest rallies with a few friends holding a two-meter long banner proclaiming: "Peace begins within: Chareidim and Chilonim refuse to be enemies."
That simple statement invariably generates a huge reaction. Shein was invited to be one of the speakers at a huge Social Justice rally two summers ago, attended by over 100,000 protesters. And one photograph of the banner went, as they say, viral: Within a few hours of being posted on the web it generated a hundred thousand "views" and ten thousand favorable comments.
The slight and unprepossessing avreich became something of a "rock star" at the social protest gatherings, as secular Jews expressed their excitement to learn that "you really care about us."
That last phrase should give us pause, for it captures something crucial about the relationship of the chareidi community with the larger Israeli society: Too many secular and national religious Jews think that chareidim look at them with contempt and do not care about what happens to them.
That non-chareidi Jews could feel that way may strike us with astonishment. Haven't Torah Jews have been responsible for a host of the largest volunteer organizations in Israel serving the entire Israeli public?
Yet, that perception is widespread. It arises in nearly every discussion about "equality of service." At some point, the chareidi participant will be asked, "Why can't you at least say a prayer for Jewish soldiers?" The questioner may have no idea what a "mi'she'beirach" is. But he knows that chareidim do not make one for IDF soldiers.
Sometimes the question is just a debater's point. But I have heard the genuine pain in the voices of those asking frequently enough to know that this is not always, or even usually, the case.
Now, I'm not entering into thorny areas of nusach hatefillah that are far beyond my competence. (In the interest of full disclosure, one of the shuls in which I daven on Shabbos morning does make the mi'she'beirach for soldiers, and the rav told me it was recited in the Bnei Brak shul in which he grew up, where one of the leading authorities in the Torah world served as rav.) But on the safe assumption that the nusach hatefillah in most chareidi shuls will not change in the near future, we must search for other ways to convey to the non-chareidi population that we do care about them.
FORTUNATELY, CHANGING PERCEPTIONS of non-chareidi Jews is not that hard. It requires nothing more than meeting them and treating them with respect. An officer of HaShomer HaTzair, the far-left secular youth group, wrote recently to the chareidi organizers of several meetings between older teenagers in the movement and chareidi avreichim and older ba'alos teshuvos. She began by relating how members of the movement had previously met with Bnei Akiva youth, Israeli Arabs, and even Palestinian youth. Only the chareidi world "always seemed so foreign to us, which is the reason I developed feelings of anger and wonder at these people."
At the first meeting, at which the chareidim "went out of their way to welcome us," she writes, "we were burning with curiosity. . . . [A]ll the questions we had and all the things we had ever wondered about started pouring out. . . . All of a sudden the realization hit us that we were talking to 'them,' that they are not so very different, and not so scary. They were not just 'them,' but Miri, Yael, or Yehudah."
What was the impact of these meetings, of gaining understanding "of the magic in many things that used to disgust me?" She admits that previously her default response whenever a young chareidi man got on the bus was one of anger and scorn. But "after the meeting, when I saw a religious boy get onto the bus, the sight of him brought back all those memories I had from the meetings, and so I smiled and my heart was warmed, just as it was at the meeting."
That reaction does not surprise me. I have been at enough meetings between pairs of religious and non-religious study partners set up by Kesher Yehudi, in which the partners routinely refer to one another as "like a sister to me," to understand how powerful personal contact in a framework of equality and mutual respect can be.
At meetings between chareidim and non-chareidim, Yehudah Shein writes, the non-chareidi will be conscious of only one thing: "How the chareidi person reacts to him – his manners, does he smile, does he listen. It's not the questions that matter, and certainly not the answers. Everything depends only on the interpersonal relations and the connections established."
IF WE WOULD ONLY AWAKEN ourselves to the power in our hands, we would seek out as many ongoing connections as possible, especially in contexts that involve Torah-learning, such as Kesher Yehudi, the activities of Ayelet HaSchachar, the knocking on doors by thousands of avreichim in Lev L'Achim.
Even fleeting contacts can have an immense impact. On my last visit to Israel TV, a non-religious newscaster was waiting outside the studio, long after she was done for the day. She knew I was coming, and had waited to tell me how blown away she had been my son and daughter-in-law's pleasantness when repairing her major appliances and selling her new appliances. "You and your wife are obviously doing something right," she told me. She was half correct.
Rabbi Yisrael Miller in his new book In Search of Torah Wisdom: Questions You Forgot to Ask Your Rebbi (about which more next week) shares two examples of the potential ramifications of the slightest actions. One concerns a gentile woman named Pat who bought a book at a Jewish book store. She noticed upon returning home that the binding was torn. She had heard that Jews are reluctant to part with their money. But when she returned to the bookstore, the clerk smiled and happily replaced the book upon being shown the defect. That ready smile began Pat's (now Rochel's) journey, along with her entire family, to Orthodox conversion.
The other story concerns a young college student with positive associations towards Orthodoxy, in the form of a beloved zaide. She assumed, however, that full Jewish observance was something only for grandparents. Until she happened to be in Rabbi Miller's shul one Shabbos, along with other local university students, and noticed a young woman close to her own age, whose modest dress immediately set her apart. Not a single word was exchanged between her and the other young woman. And yet the realization that modest dress is not just for bubbes, and can be stylish as well, was enough to trigger her own journey towards an Orthodox life.
BE A MENSCH FOUNDATION, whose Beis Shemesh activities are headed by Yehudah Shein, won a tender from the Washington Jewish Federation to heal Beit Shemesh after the controversy over the Beit Orot school two years ago. The organization's website contains a short clip, in which Israelis across the spectrum take the following pledge: "I pledge not to judge anyone based on his/her appearance, dress, or group affiliation. I will be careful not to make generalizations, and I will try to always see the person behind the outer appearance. I will judge every person favorably and focus on the good in every person. Let's create a new reality Israeli reality – one of acceptance, brotherhood and unity. Together we can."
It's easy to be cynical about such messages. But with another Tisha B'Av come and gone, and Mashiach still not here, perhaps the time has come to try unleashing the power of a pleasant smile and treating each person we meet with respect and dignity.
Racist as Charged
Why do so many on the Left seem determined to maintain the fiction that nothing has changed in American racial attitudes, even after a black man has twice been elected president? Thus, the acquittal of George Zimmerman, charged with second degree murder in the killing of Travyon Martin, based on evidence so weak that uber-liberal Alan Dershowitz has called for the prosecutors to be disbarred, is cited by many liberal commentators as proof that nothing has changed since the lynching of Emmett Till.
The interest of perpetual race hucksters like Al Sharpton, who has far more innocent blood on his hands than George Zimmerman (remember Freddie's Fashion Mart or Crown Heights), is obvious. Civil rights leaders seek to distract attention from how cheap black life is in black communities. The same weekend that George Zimmerman shot Travyon Martin in self-defense, a dozen or so blacks were shot by fellow blacks in Chicago's ghettos. Blacks have a seven times greater likelihood of being murdered than whites, and almost always by other blacks.
Finally, white liberals love the racism charge because it makes them feel so good about themselves and provides an all-purpose tool to dismiss every criticism of President Obama.
Yet how many of those same white liberals have ever ventured into a black ghetto, as the "racist" Zimmerman did to mentor two black children and do home repairs for their mother. One of Zimmerman's black neighbors testified that she would trust him with her life, and another that he was the only person, black or white, to greet her when she moved in to their racially mixed neighborhood, and gave her his phone number with instructions to call him if she ever needed help. Zimmerman also led a one-man crusade to have the son of a local police officer prosecuted for beating senseless a homeless black man.
How much more satisfying (and easier) to live in a tony suburb and pronounce Zimmerman, whose head was repeatedly bashed onto a concrete sidewalk by Martin, a racist than to ever actually help a black person.
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