Whenever I am in New Jersey for my MetroWest community business, I try to arrange at least one visit to New York City in order to experience the “real world.” So there I was, wandering the streets of downtown Manhattan on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in November, exploring the vibrant, dynamic, and trendy life of the SoHo section.
I was experiencing lots of art, fashion, real estate, and healthy food. I was absorbing the unique culture of the young generation and feeling good about the different environment and getting away from my Jewish business. Then, out of nowhere, between all the colorful advertisements of the galleries and restaurants, a small, modest black-and-white street sign caught my eye: Coming soon...The SOHO Synagogue. I thought it was unique. I thought it was different. I even thought it was funny, so I decided to take a photo of this weird phenomenon: the commercial promotion of a SoHo synagogue. Only then did I realize that I was the only one who thought that this was something strange. People were looking at me as the “weirdo” who was taking a picture of yet another ordinary street sign.
A few weeks later, back home in Israel, I was walking with friends in the Ramat Hacha’yal section of Tel Aviv, also known as the Israeli SoHo. We saw lots of art, real estate, and less healthy but very fancy restaurants. Suddenly a modest handmade street sign caught my eye. It was hung on the fence of a construction site and said: Mincha prayers here, every day at 1:30 p.m. Once again I thought: this is different, strange, and even funny. So I pulled out my BB camera and posed to take a photo. I then realized that once again I was the only one who thought the sign was unique. My friends still think that I am a bit of a “weirdo.”
Fast forward a couple of months. The International Day of Human Rights. I am at the Knesset representing world Jewry in a meeting of the religious pluralism caucus. On the agenda is a halachic (Jewish legal) ruling signed by more than 100 Israeli rabbis, many of whom are governmental employees and serve as city rabbis. The ruling, discriminatory as it sounds, forbids their followers to rent or sell apartments to non Jews, namely Israeli Arab citizens. I shared with the Knesset members a strong statement of condemnation by the leadership of UJC MetroWest, who together with many other Israeli organizations denounced this ruling and this group of rabbis. However, no one thought they were “weirdos.” We all know that they are authentic representatives of mainstream Israeli Orthodoxy.
I am still in the Israeli Knesset: an MK, Rabbi Chaim Amsalem, was expelled from his ultra Orthodox Shas party. His community has been forbidden to attend services with him and he was publicly called “Amalek,” a reference to the biblical tribe that the Israelites are obliged by the Torah to destroy. His unforgivable sin was that he wrote a book about easing the conversion process for Israeli olim (immigrants to Israel). He also made a public statement, based on his moderate Sephardic Jewish values but against his party line, that more yeshiva students need to join the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), rather than just study and get governmental stipends.
|Rabbi Chaim Amsalem|
How is it that a grand opening of a cool synagogue in the heart of SoHo becomes a natural phenomenon for most Americans? How is it a daily mincha service at a construction site in Tel Aviv becomes so natural for most Israelis? I believe that the answer is moderation and tolerance. When Judaism and Torah are introduced in a pleasant, modest, positive, and peaceful way, they can become a way of life and a source of pride. It doesn’t really matter what stream, what location, and what style one chooses to adopt. If Jewish tradition grows bottom up and is accepted freely with no coercion, it becomes much more natural for Jews and non Jews alike.
How is it that a non-democratic and non-Jewish ruling of discrimination against minorities was introduced in the democratic Jewish state of Israel? How is it that an MK rabbi was excommunicated and needed to have body guards just because he expressed his tolerant Jewish values? The answer is a mirror image: When Judaism is mixed with politics and forced on people top down; when it is introduced in a coercive, unpleasant, aggressive, and fanatic way, it is rejected and distanced. The religious establishment of Israel and our religious political parties are behind the growing anger of Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
World Jewry needs to join efforts with Israeli moderate forces from all streams of Judaism. We need to bring back, before it is too late, the Judaism that we used to have and return it to public life. Unfortunately, this Judaism, somehow and without noticing, was kidnapped by zealots.