Getting to know you

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The first shofar blasts of Elul have sounded. Those blasts are associated with fear: “Can the shofar sound in the city and the people not tremble?” (Amos 3:6). That fear, however, is not the helpless, numbing terror felt by those waiting for a hurricane to hit or a missile to fall. Rather it is the high tension felt by soldiers going into battle or athletes before a major competition. The tension comes from knowing that a great deal is at stake, and that one will either rise to the challenge or fail.

That is why Maimonides, in his code, associates the shofar blasts of Elul with an awakening from slumber. If we pay attention to blasts, Elul becomes a time of exhilaration, of rejoicing in trembling, as we recognize the opportunity that lies before us, the chance to make a fresh start of our lives.

Our sages identified a number of verses in which the first letters of four consecutive words spell out E-L-U-L. The best known, of course, is the verse: “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” Repentance starts with taking careful stock of ourself, our “ani – I.” Another acronym for Elul is formed of the words: “Ish lereieihu umatanot l’evyonim – Each person to another and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22). Our preparation for the new year must come in the form of a reexamination of our relationship to our fellow Jews and recognition of our essential interrelationship.

On that note, let’s consider what secular and haredi Jews think they know about one another.

RECENTLY, AN ad appeared in the two largest haredi daily newspapers seeking men at least 35 years old with a broad knowledge of Talmud, Halacha and aggada, who also have experience giving classes to audiences from varying backgrounds. Applicants were informed that they must be prepared to live in completely nonreligious urban neighborhoods.

Within a day, over 200 had faxed resumes.

Now, anyone reading the local press over the past year might have concluded that the most important issue for the haredi community is sexually separate buses. But then how to explain all those haredim eager to make their homes in neighborhoods which no separate bus will ever reach, and where the women will not exactly be conforming to the dress codes of Mea She’arim, even if they seek to dress respectfully?

Maybe those who responded represent some modernizing trend within the haredi community. Not likely. First, that group would not be reading Yated Ne’eman or Hamodia. Second, the large majority of those who responded already had positions within the haredi community as heads of kollelim or teachers in yeshivot. Many of them had written religious books. In short, they were from the very elite of the community.

How, then, do we explain the apparent contradiction between the response to the ad and the publicity given the issue of separate buses? The answer, I think, is that there are two opposing trends within the haredi world. On the one hand, there are those whose entire focus is on protecting the “purity of the camp” and erecting as many barriers to the outside world as possible.

Then there are those whose primary concern is with sharing their own joy in Torah life and study with the broader Jewish society. The latter also feel the need to protect themselves and their children from alien influences. They do not believe religious observance is a lifestyle choice, or imagine that there is no tension between contemporary secular culture and Torah values.

I ASSUME that nearly all of those who responded to the ad have kosher cellphones, and that most do not have Internet access in their homes, or if they do, that the computer is always in a public place and guarded by the highest level of filters available from Internet Rimon.

But the latter group is not content to be purely defensive. Its members also want to do something positive with their lives, and for them that means primarily sharing Torah with their fellow Jews. (My own guess is the second approach is likely to be more successful, even in terms of protecting haredi youth. If one adopts a purely defensive posture, one is likely to eventually end up knocked out, like Floyd Patterson against Sonny Liston. But if one is filled with enthusiasm for sharing Torah, the operative principle is one borrowed from the laws of kashrut – that which gives off does not absorb.)

The two “camps” are, of course, archetypes. There may be many haredim who do not fit neatly into either – those who are neither exercised about separate buses nor eager to do kiruv work. And there are others who have one foot in both. But my sense is that those who are more concerned with outreach constitute the silent majority of the haredi community.

Ayelet Hashahar, the organization that published the ad, has placed individual couples on more than 50 secular kibbutzim and moshavim in recent years. The same organization currently sponsors 7,000 telephone study partnerships between haredi and secular Jews weekly, and is offering special partners before the Days of Awe for secular Jews who would like to familiarize themselves with the mahzor (www.B-2.co.il). Nearly 2,000 kollel students, under the banner of Lev L’Achim, go out weekly to learn with secular Israelis.

HOPEFULLY, I have succeeded in providing a more nuanced view of the haredi world for at least some readers. But I don’t want to suggest that misconceptions run only one way.

My family just returned from a short trip to the North. Along the way, due to a variety of car problems, we had to rely on the kindness of numerous strangers. As we searched for a garage in Beit She’an, something about my accent or facial expression must have aroused the pity of the young woman we stopped to ask for directions, and she told us to follow her for more than a mile. At the garage, the owner put our car up on a lift and spent 15 minutes rigging up the exhaust so it would not continue dragging along the ground. He refused to accept payment, despite all my entreaties, and even though he had saved us from a very costly repair.

On the way back, our car died at a nature reserve. When I asked the shirtless fellow with a small tattoo next to us if he had jumper cables, he replied affirmatively and gladly spent the next 20 minutes in a futile attempt to revive our car.

I cannot say that these encounters with non-haredim shocked me. Many of the nicest and most generous people I have known were not religious. But they did cheer me immensely and put me in the proper frame of mind for the work of Elul – rediscovering my connection to all my fellow Jews.

This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post, September 5, 2008.

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5 Responses

  1. Chaim Wolfson says:

    “Assuming that those who are more concerned with outreach constitute the silent majority of the haredi community, why are they silent?” (Comment by zalman — September 7, 2008 @ 5:42 pm).

    Perhaps it’s because they are “doers”, not “talkers”.

    “Sounds to me like the latter group is bringing those that they are mekarve into a world of `those whose entire focus is on protecting the ‘purity of the camp’ and erecting as many barriers to the outside world as possible’.” “Comment by Baruch Pelta — September 9, 2008 @ 9:30 pm).

    Sounds to me like you’re saying that to take “joy in Torah life and study” one must be be a Chareidi. I think there are many people out there who would find that insinuation very insulting.

    “I think to some extent a good degree of the latter represents a group which is more philosophically or polemically inclined and cannot stay in the bubble which is the chareidi world. So they draw others into it instead.”

    What makes you think so? Do you know these people well? Were you even aware of their existence before you read Jonathan’s post?

  2. Baruch Pelta says:

    On the one hand, there are those whose entire focus is on protecting the “purity of the camp” and erecting as many barriers to the outside world as possible. Then there are those whose primary concern is with sharing their own joy in Torah life and study with the broader Jewish society.
    Sounds to me like the latter group is bringing those that they are mekarve into a world of “those whose entire focus is on protecting the ‘purity of the camp’ and erecting as many barriers to the outside world as possible.”

    I think to some extent a good degree of the latter represents a group which is more philosophically or polemically inclined and cannot stay in the bubble which is the chareidi world. So they draw others into it instead. Whether their hashkafas change depends on how open-minded they are. But after all those years in yeshiva of having Orthodoxy defined for them as Daas Torah, stringent observance, and the primacy of Talmud in Torah study, one doubts that the majority will make any shifts of major proportion.

  3. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Zalman, I don’t think they are silent at all. I think that the secular media purposely don’t tell you things which will spoil the stereotypes. This is true about their portrayal of national-relgious-settler types as well. You didn’t hear about the cooperation between the Arabs and Jews in Hevron against the international agitators whose immodesty as well as agitation upset both groups. You didn’t hear about when Hevron Arabs asked Rav Levinger to adjudicate their internal disputes, being a fair and unbiased outsider. I just read Friday’s Hamodia in English and found that their discussion of the difficulties of high-ranking police commander Uri Bar-Lev didn’t even mention his part in the expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif three years ago or the issue of police brutality. They also like to feature pictures of President Shimon Peres in kosher-looking poses. You have to look at different media and correct for their bias. They would all take you for a ride if they could.

  4. HESHY BULMAN says:

    There is a very simple explanation for the “silence” of the silent majority who genuinely care about their fellow Jews. While many in the frum world are quite knowledgeable about Hashkafah they know that they do not have the tools to overcome either the skepticism or, quite often, the sheer animosity encountered in initial contacts with the secular Jew. As well, in an often hostile world, insularity is a natural reaction. Let us not make light of the courage and conviction it takes for the frum individual to engage in Kiruv work.

  5. zalman says:

    Assuming that those who are more concerned with outreach constitute the silent majority of the haredi community, why are they silent?