This week I again attended the Israel Celebration Day organized by our Christian friends here in the Metro Denver area. The event is attended by Jews and non-Jews alike. I was kindly given a table to sell and sign books and to promote some of our events and activities for the Jewish community. The respect the Gentiles attending this event have for Jews always moves me. After the main event there was a special kosher reception to honor Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of San Antonio Texas.
One incident, however, marred the event for me. A Jewish lady walked over to my table and asked me if I was the rabbi of the local Reconstructionaist temple. After I explained that I was not, she seemed confused and then asked, “Are you Lubavitch?”
“Yes, I am,” I replied. She made a face and started to walk away. “What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I don’t like Lubavitch,” was her response as she stormed off with what seemed to be a mixture of disgust and hate. Now it was clear that this was the first time this lady had encountered a Lubavitcher Hasid. Otherwise she would never have thought I was a Reconstructionist clergyman. One can only surmise that she was judging me, an individual, based on something negative she had heard about a group.
This encounter underscores a sad trend that needs to be addressed. Often haredi Jews are accused of being judgmental and unenlightened. But as a person who clearly represents what is sometimes called—often condescendingly—ultra-Orthodox Judaism I can attest to the unfair prejudice and stereotyping I am, at times, confronted with by some of my fellow Jews. The only other people who act in this type of condescending and mean spirited manner towards me are anti-Semites. Tragically, this phenomenon of hatred and stereotyping of Orthodox Jews is replicated all around the United States and the world.
Lesson for us all
Very few Orthodox Jews, and certainly none that I know personally, treat or talk about secular or liberal Jews badly. Certainly there are significant and often bitter disagreements with leaders of non-Orthodox denominations on matters of faith. But in general Orthodox Jews treat their secular and liberal brethren with love and respect. In fact there is a Halacha (Jewish law) that obligates one not to be judgmental of a secular and unobservant Jew (Talmud Shabbat 68b).
This point was beautifully made in a posting on my friend Heshy Fried’s popular blog entitled FrumSatire.net. The author of the blog post was a young woman who went shopping in the Ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park. She notes that her group consisted of males and females together who were dressed in regular Western attire. But she noticed something that startled her. The locals were neither staring at nor judging her.
In a rare moment of honesty this young woman admits that if a group of Hasidic woman would have come to shop at her local supermarket she would have most definitely stared at them. She continues saying that, “I would’ve whispered about your wig and hat combinations, at your shoes, at your brigade of children.” She ends with an apology aimed at the Hasidic population of Borough Park. “I am so terribly embarrassed. I’m embarrassed that I haven’t treated you as I should, as my fellow Jews, as what you truly are beneath the style of dress you choose.”
Clearly, the most effective way to overcome entrenched prejudices is through firsthand education. When one’s prejudices and stereotypes are confronted by the hard facts of reality they have no choice but to dissipate and we then become better people. That is what happened to the young lady while shopping in Borough Park. If the woman at the Israel day event earlier this week would have stayed to talk with me for a few extra minutes instead of offensively walking away in feigned disgust she may have found that the stereotypical image she had of me and my ilk has no basis in reality. Unfortunately she missed out on an opportunity for potential enlightenment and education.
Herein is the lesson for us all. If our values tell us that we must be understanding of and open to learn about other cultures and traditions we should certainly apply those same ideals in relation to differences of tradition and culture within our own Jewish nation. Anything less is nothing short of hypocrisy.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts