Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Maybe because it was a slow news week, or because the Trump-Russia story is getting tiresome, or because it was a convenient way for the New York Times to cover our community from their vantage point; the Gray Lady has been running negative articles targeting our community and its practices.
First it was an article against bris milah – not only metzitzah, but the whole thing. The hardworking Times reporter dug up disenfranchised Jews and wrote about their decision not to circumcise their newborn sons. One of those newborns isn’t halachically Jewish, but that’s clearly beside the point. The goal is to plant seeds of confusion and uncertainty in the minds of readers.
Then it was a lengthy article about 62 families who moved to Jersey City, a major enough story to merit space on page A17. It’s as if 62 families moving into a city of 250,000 residents is something groundbreaking.
Are they Irish, or Italian, or blacks or Hispanics moving into a Waspy city? Of course not. The Times would never tolerate such bigotry. The 62 families are Jewish. Not only Jewish, but ultra-Orthodox. And worse than that, they are Hasids.
And get this. The Hasids have nerve. “The influx, however, has provoked tensions with long-established residents, as the ultra-Orthodox seek to establish a larger footprint for their surfing population.”
Those pushy Hasids again. Even the mayor says so.
“They literally go door to door and can be very pushy trying to purchase someone’s house,” said Mayor Steven Fulop, a Jew of course. He told the writer that “his town took pride in its diversity, but had been concerned about ‘very aggressive solicitation.’”
Then two more little dots for the reader to connect and complete the story.
The article is headlined “A Wary Welcome for Orthodox Jews as Prices Push Families Beyond Brooklyn,” and repeatedly speaks about Jews moving out of Brooklyn, as if that is something terrible.
“Squeezed out of their traditional neighborhoods, ultra-Orthodox Jews have taken steps that have raised concerns as they settle into new communities,” the article reports.
The continued reference to leaving Brooklyn is a dog whistle to watch out or you’ll have a ghetto in your backyard. A lead puncher is Mayor Fulop, who the paper identifies as “a grandson of Holocaust survivors and a graduate of yeshivas.”
Ah. So he has a right to speak.
Which yeshivos? I Googled it, and it turns out that the good mayor was in yeshiva as a child, but didn’t really stick around. I’m not judging him, and my heart is pained for another Yiddishe neshomah that drifted away, but by the time he graduated high school, he wasn’t in a Jewish institution anymore. The choices he made after that don’t indicate that the spirit of the yeshiva had stayed with him.
He’s certainly not the one to make a statement or provide analyses on our behalf.
The article also made sure to mention Lakewood – you know, the town where religious Jews have taken over – and remind readers that the municipality voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, making some sort of vague point without explaining it.
The author, who is probably a nice person, writes: “Lakewood is also feeling the impact of a fast-growing minority group. Decades ago, the area was rural, filled with hardscrabble egg-raising farms owned by Jewish Holocaust refugees, a few grand hotels and an estate that once had been owned by John D. Rockefeller.”
Holocaust Jews are the good kind, but the ultra-Orthodox Brooklynites? Watch out for them. They destroy farms and Rockefeller-esque properties. And they are going to destroy your town if you’re not careful and allow them to move in.
We, too, just like the good mayor, have a right to weigh in on the topic of Jews moving into rundown neighborhoods and helping the local economy.
Perhaps the relevance of 62 families moving into Jersey City is something very different and contains a message for us.
In Tehillim, we learn that after the meraglim convinced Klal Yisroel to reject Eretz Yisroel in the midbar – “Vayimasu b’eretz chemdah” – Hashem promised “lehapil zarom bagoyim ulezorosom bo’arotzos,” to spread the children of the people who lost their trust in Him amongst the nations and disperse them throughout the lands (Tehillim 106:24-27).
Where does it say in Chumash that after the sin of the meraglim, Hashem swore to disperse the Jews around the world?
The Peirush Maharz”u on Medrash explains that the root of this was the posuk that states that Hashem swore that His glory would fill the world: “Veyimolei kevod Hashem es kol ha’aretz” (Bamidbar 14:21). He explains that the only way for Hashem’s glory to fill the earth is through Jews living in every corner of the globe. The Jewish people are His ambassadors. Thus, it is derived that the Jews would be evicted from Eretz Yisroel as punishment for that sin and would be dispersed around the world.
The posuk in this week’s parsha (Devorim 11:1) says, “V’ohavta es Hashem Elokecha.” Chazal (Yoma 86a) derive from the posuk “sheyehei sheim Shomayim misaheiv al yodcha.” Our mission is to make the name of Hashem beloved.
Because our mission here is to increase love and appreciation of Hashem, there is significance to all we do. The story isn’t 62 families opening a shul in a former dry cleaners shop that was boarded up in a rundown neighborhood, but that kevod Hashem is spreading.
For our children to succeed, we have to invest them with self-confidence. For them to thrive, we need to tell them their strengths and point out their gifts. That should be obvious to everyone by now.
And sometimes, we need to give ourselves an injection of national self-esteem, to remind ourselves of who we are, who our forefathers were, where we come from, and why we’re here. We don’t always know. Sometimes we act as if we have forgotten.
The Chazon Ish writes that the length of golus makes us forget.
And we need to remember.
We lack self-confidence. We try to mix in with the others, because we aren’t proud enough of our identity.
We have to be self-confident.
In last week’s parsha (Devorim 7:7), we learned, “Lo merubchem mikol ha’amim.” Hashem doesn’t love us because we are the largest or most powerful nation. He loves us even though we are the smallest.
We shouldn’t make believe like we are something we are not. Compared to all the other nations of the world, we are quite small and different.
Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel zt”l, the Mirrer rosh yeshiva, met the sons of the Brisker Rov after their arrival in Yerushalayim. He was surprised to see that their dress was unique. They were wearing the old-fashioned caps and suits of Eastern Europe, attire that was very different from the dress of the yeshiva bochurim all around them. Rav Finkel mentioned to their father, the Brisker Rov, that their mode of dress made them look very different than everyone else in the resurgent olam hayeshivos.
“Yes,” the Brisker Rov agreed, “it does. Because they are takeh different.”
Sometimes, we need to celebrate ourselves and realize that we have a mission and a mandate that make us takeh different, as the posuk in Parshas Vo’eschanan (Devorim 4:6) states, “Ki hi chochmaschem uvinaschem l’einei ho’amim.” “Study and observe My mitzvos,” Hashem says, for that is what identifies you as a smart and intelligent people in the eyes of the other nations.
We have it all. The nations of the world don’t hate us for being us as much as they hate us for trying to be them.
It’s summertime. People travel. Those who live in sheltered neighborhoods get to be exposed to Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s beautiful world and its inhabitants. We get to make an impression, to play our role as ambassadors. People who have only heard about us or read about us in the paper, watch us and see how we conduct ourselves. They notice if we are pushy, if we clean up after ourselves, and if we make sure our children don’t run wild.
On his visit to America, Rav Meir Shapiro asked for a hairbrush. The Lubliner rosh yeshiva then stood in front of a mirror and brushed his beard. His host was bewildered by the sight.
“I am a European rov,” the famed guest responded. “For many in the audience tonight, seeing me will be their enduring image of an old-time rabbi. I feel obligated to make it as pleasant as possible, so that they will view our world positively.”
If you read accounts of contemporary baalei teshuvah, you find that many of their journeys began with the sight of a religious family, or a glimpse of a Shabbos table. In so many cases, there was no seminar or lecture, just an image, followed by the thought of, “I want that in my life.” Read Rav Uri Zohar’s story. Read the stories of the thousands who fell under his spell and sent their children to a yeshiva and became religious. You’ll see stories of ordinary people who met a religious Jew and decided to find out more.
Hundreds of kollel men fan out across Eretz Yisroel cold-calling for Torah and bringing souls back to Torah and Yahadus just by being themselves.
We all carry much power, which is emitted by the way we walk, the way we interact with each other, and the way we carry ourselves. Everything makes a difference.
The message of the New York Times article referenced earlier is not the negative impression that it was ostensibly meant to create, but that if 62 families in a city populated by hundreds of thousands make waves, then we can all do the same, in the wider world, wherever we go. We shake ‘em up. We get noticed. What we do and the way we act make a big difference.
In hilchos Shabbos, the Chazon Ish (siman 56:7) rules as follows regarding milking cows on Shabbos: “It is forbidden to milk cows on Shabbos, and this is the minhag wherever Shabbos is valued, and it’s the Torah’s way to maintain peaceful relations with everyone…”
The last few words seem quizzical and unrelated to the halacha. What does having good neighborly relations have to do with milking cows on Shabbos?
Rav Yitzchok Hutner explained that the Chazon Ish wrote this p’sak at a time when the Israeli Histadrut labor union was on a campaign for Jews not to make use of Arab labor. They called it avodah zarah. The Chazon Ish held that Jews should try to maintain good relations with their neighbors, and thus inserted the line into a teshuvah in halacha in order to indicate the importance he attached to that dictate.
To be aware of those around us and act as a good neighbor is as eternal as the halacha itself.
Perhaps the New York Times article was a message to remind us of who we are and how we can impact others.
In the very last paragraph, the article quotes a Jersey City resident. “Eddie Sumpter, 34, a black neighbor around the corner who was able to buy a bigger house by selling his previous home to a Hasidic family, said he welcomed the newcomers. “‘We live among Chinese. We live among Spanish,’” said Mr. Sumpter, who is a cook. “‘It don’t matter. People is people. If you’re good people, you’re good people.’”
People is people. If we would accept that and be comfortable with our role and identity, embracing it and taking pride in our distinctive dress and conduct, we would be the light unto others we’re meant to be. People would see us as people.
A talmid approached Rav Avrohom Pam before bein hazemanim. “I am returning home,” he said, “and I have several non-religious aunts who will extend their hands in greeting when I arrive. How should I handle it?”
“I will share with you a rule I live by,” Rav Pam replied. “If a person expresses himself with courtesy and respect, then others around him will respect him even if they don’t understand his practice. If you are polite and considerate, and explain the halacha with confidence, then I assure you they will respect your conviction and not take it personally.”
Rav Pam’s rule for life is a guiding light for this season of travel and relaxation, as well as all year round.
We have to know who we are, and then those around us will know it too.
We is good people.