Making Jews Great
The innate dignity of every human being
Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, one of the most effective and articulate defenders of Torah Jewry in the United States, sent out an e-mail recently to a wide circle of community leaders in which he highlighted two negative phenomena in our community and solicited ideas as to what can be done to remedy them.
The second had to do with the chillul Hashem caused when identifiably observant Jews treat non-Jews, and sometimes just anyone outside their narrow group, as if they do not exist or are unworthy of notice. He related two stories told to him by the manager of a kosher restaurant in the Tristate area.
In one incident, an observant Jew accidentally stepped on the foot of a black patron of the same restaurant and pointedly refused to apologize, apparently on the grounds that doing so would be beneath his status as a member of the am hanivchar. The black patron was so upset by that rude behavior that he left the restaurant.
In a second incident in the same restaurant, an observant patron refused to vacate his table so that a gentile woman who had fainted in the restaurant could be placed upon the table until emergency services arrived.
DO I THINK that such behavior is typical or representative of the broader Torah community? Chas v'shalom. Taken as a whole, I believe that the community is distinguished in its derech eretz and general refinement. But anyone who flies frequently has seen enough similar instances to know that those described by Rabbi Gordimer's e-mail are not complete anomalies. I have previously enunciated in this space Rosenblum's Rule: The more insular and concentrated a community is, the worse its behavior will be toward nonmembers.
And because such behavior is not unknown, it is important to remind ourselves why it is wrong. It is wrong because it threatens the Jewish community. And it is wrong on a more fundamental level because it is based on a tragically deficient view of what it means to be a Jew.
There are multiple cultural and legal threats to the viability of Torah institutions today, and in dealing with those threats our national allies are religious Christian groups. Given their larger numbers, we need them more than they need us. To work with others requires treating them with respect. That's the practical level.
But much more important is the damage done to our own self-image when we demean gentiles as beneath our consideration. Rav Shimon Schwab always emphasized to his children that when making the blessing "shelo asani goy," they should always have in mind the most elevated gentile they could think of.
To do the opposite — to focus on the lowliest of the gentiles rather than the most elevated — reduces our conception of ourselves as Jews to the level of soccer hooligans around the world, the kinds who travel great distances to support their team by getting into fights with supporters of rival teams and, in general, by pouncing on anyone who does not share their ethnicity. The hooligans act as they do as a salve for their pathetic egos, which find little to be proud of in their daily lives. Only by treating others as somehow lower than them can they face themselves in the mirror.
And so it is with any Jew who feels it incumbent upon him to act or speak disdainfully of non-Jews: He shows that he has no concept of the true elevation of what it means to be a Jew. Recognition of that elevated nature starts with the innate dignity of every human being. And then proceeds to an understanding that a Jew is imbued with an additional level of potential kedushah — emphasis on the potential — beyond that implied in being created in the Divine image. Without that, there is no understanding of what it means to be an am kadosh.
AS I WAS REELING from the description of the two incidents mentioned above, I happened to come across a small item in Hamodia about Rabbi Bentzion and Rochel Groner, Chabad shluchim in Charlotte, North Carolina. On their return trip to the United States from Israel, where they led a Birthright group, an autistic young boy had a "meltdown" shortly after takeoff. His cries could be heard throughout the plane.
After about 15 minutes, Rebbetzin Groner walked over to the boy and extended her hand, which he took. She then walked with him to the bulkhead, where she spent a couple of hours rocking him and playing with him. Passengers who walked by saw a contented-looking black child resting in the arms of Rebbetzin Groner, who runs ZABS Place in Charlotte, a business that provides training and employment for people with special needs.
Now, whose actions reflect a higher regard for the privilege of being born a Jew: Rebbetzin Groner's, or those whose conception of being Jewish is limited to being better than the lowly goy, who is not even worthy of being treated with common courtesy and kindness?
My children are grown. So it's probably too late to undo the effects of my deficient parenting, to which they proved, in any event, remarkably resilient. But I remain fascinated by case studies of successful parents. Admittedly, it is a risky business reasoning backward from thriving children to rules of good parenting. We all know families in which all the children but one appear to have turned out very well. Such cases make it clear how hesitant one must be to draw any conclusions about the quality of parenting from the way children turn out. Children are not a tabula rasa to be shaped by their parents; each comes into the world with a distinct personality and at least seeds of future successes and challenges.
Nevertheless, there are times when all the children in a particular family strike the outside observer as well-adjusted, productive, public-spirited, and happy, and one cannot help ask what their parents did right.
Recently, we spent Shabbos in a different neighborhood, and I ran into a young man married to the daughter of old family friends in shul. He possessed a seemingly perpetual smile, as well as boundless energy and enthusiasm, and, in the course of our conversation, I blurted out, "Are all your siblings as upbeat and happy as you?"
Up to then, we had been discussing a number of the rabbanim to whom he is close — most of them well-known to me and all talmidei chachamim of considerable stature. Yet he added that for all his closeness to his rebbeim, there is no one whom he looks up to more than his father. My ears perked up at that statement, and I inquired about his father's outstanding trait that had enabled him to raise such enthusiastic children far removed from any major Jewish center.
He identified his father's passion and excitement for his work — he is a world-leading fertility expert — as the key. That passion and excitement was transferred to the children. No less important, my young friend added, was that he could not remember ever coming home from school and his mother not being home to greet him. (That is obviously not something that most families can emulate today.)
That Shabbos we were staying with a new chavrusa of mine. My chavrusa is the kind of person who always unnerves me — someone possessed of the discipline and order to extract every bit of his G-d-given talents. Even while practicing law with one of the country's leading law firms and subsequently running his own business, he managed to produce seven Hebrew volumes on various halachic topics and to teach regularly in kiruv programs.
He and his siblings all attended Ivy League schools, and one brother even became a Harvard professor. But far more impressive in my mind than the academic achievements is that each sibling has established a solid Torah home, despite their more modern backgrounds and the challenging religious environments in which they studied.
Again, my curiosity got the better of me, and I asked my chavrusa to poll his siblings about what they felt their parents had done to produce such children. Each responded in writing. And again, all emphasized the positive atmosphere in the home: constant laughter in the house; few rules but those few strictly enforced; never having heard parental voices raised, except one time when a careless driver almost mowed down the family as they walked to shul on Shabbos. The children could not recall ever having heard their parents speak disparagingly of someone or expressing the slightest envy of far more affluent neighbors.
The major parental messages were modeled, not delivered in the form of lectures. The children saw their mother constantly baking or cooking for others. The Shabbos table was filled with many guests, including singles, widows, and those the father met in shul and brought home. (Following his parental example, my chavrusa and his family host between ten and twenty Shabbos guests for one meal each week.) The siblings knew that their father treated numerous children from families lacking resources for free or at steep discounts.
The children were given the latitude to pursue various interests and develop talents outside the formal school curriculum. Though the father worked very hard, he always made an effort to be present for his children's games and performances, and the family always ate dinner together. (Not until the children were older did the mother return to school to become a CPA.) The message conveyed in the home was one of striving for excellence and doing things to the best of your ability, but the parents were also available to lend a hand for science projects or with homework, when needed.
But above all, each e-mail mentioned "siyata d'Shmaya, siyata d'Shmaya, siyata d'Shmaya."
May we all be blessed as parents with that siyata d'Shmaya, while picking up whatever clues we can from the examples of successful parenting brought above.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 674. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at [email protected]