I’ll begin with three short stories. In June of 1967, I was sitting in the central Chabad Lubavitch Yeshiva at the famous 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y. At approximately 1:45 p.m., Yankel the Beder, who took care of the men’s mikvah, which I and others used beginning at 5 a.m. each morning, ran into the yeshiva and gave a loud shout: “Men sloked a Yid!” — a Jew is being beaten up!
Religious and racial strife was accelerating in those years in many Brooklyn communities. Within 15 seconds, the whole of the yeshiva was on the street, everyone asking breathlessly, “Where? Where?” Someone shouted, “On Kingston and Lincoln Avenue!”
We all ran, weaving through heavy traffic. A major altercation was taking place — even the police were already there. Everyone had instinctively responded to the call, to the extent that no one had closed his Gemorah (Talmud) or other religious book of study. No one asked the affiliation, level of observance, or gender of the Jew being beaten. We only heard “Men sloked a Yid.”
In the summer of 1968, the situation in Brooklyn’s Jewish communities was deteriorating. Our family lived in an apartment complex that housed mix of Chassidic, African-American, and Latino families. Gangs of young people lived there, and it was very dangerous, especially at night, to navigate the streets and even our complex. I had three younger teenage sisters (Rebbetzin Devorah Kornfeld is the youngest of my sisters), and other young Chassidic teenage girls also lived in the complex. We had a real problem.
The head of the gang was a young fellow by the name of José, and I made it my business to befriend him. Here I was, a Chassidic rabbinical student, black hat and all, only about a year or two older than he was. If you had dropped me in Manhattan, I would have had difficulty navigating back to Brooklyn. Our community was insular and did not assimilate with other cultures at that point. All I did was talk to him, ask him about school. He was a Dodgers fan, and I was a Yankees fan (full disclosure: I once played hooky to go to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx to watch my baseball idol Mickey Mantle belt some home runs.) We schmoozed, and over time he became a friend. After that, whenever the teenage girls would walk through the halls, or the elderly Chassidim would walk down the street near our complex, José and his friends were mentschlach and respectful.
After I’d moved to Seattle as part of my regional responsibilities I began to travel to Alaska — first to Anchorage, where I have developed some lifelong friendships, and then to Fairbanks. In December 1979, it was a freezing, wintery day — and I mean freezing. By then we had organized a group, and it was their first evening with Chabad. Fifteen people showed up from a cross section of the general Jewish community. I tell my children and grandchildren that 15 people in Fairbanks, Alaska at that time is like having a crowd of 25,000 in Manhattan today.
After my presentation, which focused on the Chassidic philosophy of embracing all Jews with love and compassion in a non-judgmental way — and, for that matter, bringing the universal message of belief in God and the Noahide Code to all people — a man by the name of Mike stood up and asked, “Rabbi, do you belong to the group that burns the bus signs in Jerusalem?”
During those months, commercial signs with pictures of men and women in swim clothes were hung in Jerusalem’s very Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood and its environs. This caused consternation and anger among many members of those devout communities. Some of these signs were burned by individuals living there.
“Mike,” I responded, “I strongly condemn any acts like the ones you are describing. Especially in our Holy Land, and especially in Jerusalem.”
But then I added, “Mike, let’s have a conversation. The people living in those neighborhoods of Jerusalem are three, five, 10 generations of devout Jews, with their unique way of life, with large families. I condemn the burning of those signs — strongly. But where is the sensitivity? To come into these neighborhoods, where nearly 100 percent of those living there are devout Jews, maintaining their religious lifestyle for hundreds of years through devotion and self-sacrifice.” And then I asked Mike where he had lived before he came to Anchorage.
“Minneapolis,” he answered
“Did you belong to a synagogue?” I asked.
He responded that he had belonged to a temple.
“Mike,” I asked, “if during Kol Nidrei services, Yom Kippur eve, a man or woman had walked in dressed in swim clothes, and sat down — not bothering anyone — how would you feel? Do you think that would be appropriate? Would they not be asked to leave? Or to somehow find suitable clothing? Would that be respectful and sensitive — to you and the whole membership — on Kol Nidrei?”
I emphatically reminded him that I condemned the burning of those signs, that it was not how to have a discussion among brothers and sisters.
“But,” I concluded, “sensitivity goes both ways.”
“Rabbi, thank you,” Mike said. “I see your point.”
Now we get to the hard question. The hard question is — as one learns, as we all should, Rambam, Maimonides, in Hilchot Teshuvah, chapter three, (it’s all in English today and it would be suitable for us to learn these laws before the New Year):
Accordingly, throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself. [On the other hand,] if he performs one mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others. This is implied by [Proverbs 10:25] ‘A righteous man is the foundation of the world,’ (i.e., he who acted righteously tipped the balance of the entire world to merit and saved it).
How do we meet the challenge? How do we maintain mutual, loving, respect? As the gifted writer Peggy Noonan recently wrote in a column, and I paraphrase, “To tolerate doesn’t mean that you love.”
We’re not talking tolerance. We’re talking about mutual, loving respect. A person may say, “Yes, I support your right to choose the lifestyle that speaks to you. But I want you to understand my sensitivities — your choice as it relates to your feelings about Israel; your choice as it relates to the Jewish community; your choice as it relates politically in our Blessed Land; onward and onward, has a qualitative impact on my life.”
As the Rambam quoted above, it’s an equal balance. It’s a scale. One act either way has profound impact on all of us.
As the Rambam writes in another place, at the end of his monumental work Mishnah Torah, when the Messiah will come, and there will be the redemption of the world, there will “be neither famine nor war, envy nor competition, for good will flow in abundance and all delights will be [as common] as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know God.”
We all want a world where there is no famine, where there is no war, right? An essential part of creating such a world is to address this exact challenge — to develop mutual, loving respect. If this Person A’s choice impacts the quality of life according to Person B, we should do our best to be aware of and sensitive to that reality. On the other hand, being sensitive and aware of those that don’t share your traditional background embraces and validates their being part of the Jewish peoplehood nonetheless. One of us getting attacked immediately concerns all of us, regardless of their identity. Two individuals bonding over baseball can begin to create a real bridge between two divided communities.
It follows, as we prepare ourselves for the New Year, standing before the Almighty unified as one people in order to realize that unity, the challenge is to further develop and sensitize ourselves to true mutual respect. While we have some fundamental differences, mutual respect, although very challenging at times, is achievable. As my dear friend Dr. Rene Levy, who at a recent town hall meeting so eloquently made a passionate presentation for unity among our people, said, “By perfecting themselves, Jews can perfect their communities.”
The main thing in having these discussions is to feel that we’re all one family, that the other person is your brother or sister, and to walk the extra mile — all of us — in the areas of understanding, sensitivity, and love. And no matter what, to always feel like the old song from the ’60s, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”
Shana Tova to all.