[Rabbi Ilan Feldman, rav of Beth Jacob Cong. in Atlanta (and son of Cross-Currents senior blogger Rabbi Emanuel Feldman) sent this letter to the dejected rabbanim of the Baltimore community after the JCC board ignored the plaintive cries of the arguably best organized and most influential Orthodox community in America. The board decided to open a JCC on Shabbos, something that the frum community had successfully fended off in the past. Cross-Currents readers have read about the issue before. Rabbi Feldman was the veteran of such a struggle in his own city, and shared his reaction with his colleagues to the north. The letter is moving, free of the venom we are used to seeing when “they” get it all wrong, and remarkable for its optimism and practical suggestions. It has already circulated widely, and served as the topic of the Yom Tov derasha in one major Baltimore shul.- YA]
Watching from afar, reading snippets, it is all painfully familiar, almost inevitable, as if they are following a script they have no bechira over. They are clearly copying from a common playbook, because the wording, the cynical claim that they are trying to enhance Shabbos, the concept of the JCC supporting “multiple journeys”, use the same language we heard last summer when they opened in Atlanta.
Since they are not baalei mesorah, I doubt they speak the same way because they come from the same yeshiva. I know for a fact that Atlanta JCC took coaching from others, including Baltimore JCC, about how to get this done in spite of orthodox opposition, learning lessons from the failed attempt a few years ago in Baltimore.
I believe the one lesson in all this is: the orthodox Shabbos is clearly not observed spectacularly enough to communicate to these people. As a community, we are too closed, too private, too unsharing, too self-conscious, to self suppressed, to have let them realize– in their bones– that it is inconceivable to offer a gym or a pool on Shabbos. I do not expect, b’derech hateva, that an entire city will become shomer Shabbos. But I do expect that our Shabbos can be so powerful to us that those who don’t keep it would be a bit ashamed about it. But alas, they have no idea that we relate to this the way we would if our sister was, Heaven forbid, violated. They know only the realm of the political, and, in that realm, they assume only that we are trying to force our way upon them. The louder we protest, the more they think we are trying to exert political pressure. Kavod Shabbos is not a concept they even disagree with; they have no idea we are concerned about that, or kvod Shamayim. Even when we say it, they translate it into their political terms of power. A bigger problem is that we, the guardians of Shabbos, fall into that trap and think our strength is in numbers, or political muscle, or influence with wealthy donors, in the process ignoring the true source of our strength, which is unflinching devotion to the idea of kvod Shamayim. If we got that straight, on the lay level (translate for you R Elchonon [Oberstein] from Alabama: baalei batim), our Shabbos would not be routine, we would not spend our time making ourselves superior by talking about what is wrong with the secular in an attempt to keep our children in line. Rather, we would be filled with enthusiasm, we would be aching to share, our shuls would look like centers of spiritual joy, with really happy people in them (when did “serious” become a greater religious value than “happy”? We are so serious we cannot even greet each other unless we know each other already). The gulf in “reality” between the two worlds is tremendous, and if we are not willing to do something about it, shame on us, not them. We are the parents, they are the children. There is trouble in the family. Do the parents lock their bedroom door, or emerge and take care of things?
Last summer, when the JCC opened, I said these things repeatedly in public, and called for a chizzuk of Shabbos among those who do “get it.” We had 60 people publicly, on the internet, proclaim their personal kabbalos for what they would take on to strengthen Shabbos. We formed a team that would examine what could be done to make Shabbos “spectacular”: we looked at Kiddush, we looked at davening, we looked at activities in the afternoon, and we looked at sharing Shabbos, we looked at greeting each other on Shabbos (it unfortunately has become fashionable to walk right by a Jew on the street on Shabbos and not offer a greeting, and certainly if it is the other gender. I have an eye witness (she is psula l’edus but an isha tzanua bas talmid chochom) that Harav Shach, ZT”L, personally greeted her- though he did not know her– on Shabbos when he passed them). We made some changes, nothing terribly dramatic, but the “conversation” of a being responsible to have a spectacular Shabbos is alive, and we are not finished yet.
This Shavuos, we created a commando unit of people who accepted the goal of inviting 50 Jews to spend the entire Yom Tov with us. We invited many people, and many people politely said “no”, but their connection to frum yidden will never be the same. I spent a morning at the JCC passing out cheesecake and inviting every member of the staff, including the Executive director, to stay with us for Yom Tov. I did it because I was afraid to, and I am tired of playing by my made up rules of politeness and consideration, hiding the fact that I am inhibited in being marbeh kvod Shamayim when it is uncomfortable and not heroic, relegating such behavior to Chabadniks. Among the 25 people who are spending Yom Tov with us are: a couple from a small Tennessee town who have never seen Shavuos; a scientist from CDC whose mother is Jewish but she never heard of Yom Tov; a couple whose parents are baalei teshuva but the kids never were frum; several students from a local chiropractic school, and a couple who have been members for 30 years and who have been mechalel Shabbos every week to come to shul, who are now going to walk to shul for the first time. After Yom Tov we are going to transform this program into an ongoing process of inviting every Jewish board member of every Jewish organization to spend a Shabbos in our neighborhood. I don’t know if it will affect the guests or not, but I know it will change my people’s view of themselves radically.
All this is not to say how great we are. It is only to say that there is much that can be done that is not being done, and as guardians of Shabbos—shomrei Shabbos— we have to do something like this. Our predictable future otherwise is an unbridgeable gulf not only in practice, but in comprehension, between frum Jews and everyone else.
Why would we allow that?