Snatching Shabbos Victory From the Jaws of Defeat

[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?

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10 comments to Snatching Shabbos Victory From the Jaws of Defeat

  • rejewvenator

    This is a wonderful response. Frum Judaism needs to compete in the open market, and it can, but we need to take responsibility to make it spectacular, joyful, and embracing.

  • Ori

    Hear! Hear! Even if you win by political means you still lose – you make Shabbat appear like an imposition. This way, you’re trying to deal with the core issue. The core issue isn’t Chilul Shabbat, it’s that Heterodox Jews see no value in Shabbat, at least the Orthodox version.

  • tzippi

    (Not sure if this went through the first time.)
    I had the pleasure of hearing Meredith Jacobs speak at our local Jewish book fair on her book, The Modern Mom’s Guide to Shabbat. I looked through the book before and had this to say in the Q and A:
    I think your book is really important, and if I were writing such a book I would keep all your chapter titles; you really covered the bases and your passion is contagious. But why, when I hear you speak and see synagogue and temple programming, is there so much emphasis on Friday night and havdala, but not what comes in between?

    Her answer was wistful. She said that she’s a work in progress and would like to try to bring Shabbos into Saturday. (Afterwards I spoke to her again to apologize and make sure that she knew I wasn’t being antagonistic and that I was with her all the way. She fully appreciated my question, and my support and encouragement.)

    This sets the stage for my point: Rabbi Feldman is of course 100+ percent correct. I have enough kovod harabbanus and respect for the man not to say otherwise. But I have to wonder, if it is at all possible for a spark to be lit from within the synagogues and temples and infrastructure. Do the people who are invested in keeping the infrastructure not just relevant but vibrant realize how crucial Shabbos day is? Might this be a wake up call to them?

    Meanwhile, I will hope that I hear the wake up call and will try to share what we have (and make sure we have what to share).

  • lev midaber

    “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).” – R’ Feldman

    (I apologize in advance for the length of this comment, it seems to have grown beyond my original intent, but lev midaber.)

    It would seem that those who do not greet women with a simple “hello” and a smile (and women who do not greet or return the same to men) are presuming this to be in the category of avak arayos or even b’geder arayos itself. However, as this is in the area of issurim (and I fail to see where an issue of “s’rara” would come into play here) it would seem that an isha is ne’emenes b’issurim of this nature.

    But if her statement regarding Rav Shach does not qualify, perhaps Shamai’s does (Avos 1:15) – “Hevei mikabel es kol ha’adam b’sever panim yafos.” He does not say “ish” or “enosh”.

    Bartenura states that this refers to guests in your home – don’t provide for them with your face sunken towards the ground. Giving such as this is not giving at all (his words). The earlier Mishna from Yossi b. Yochanan regarding guests already made it clear that we are dealing with women as well, else why make mention of excessive or mundane chatter with women.

    Tosafos Yom Tov directs us to Bartenura in Avos 3:12, where we are to greet “kol ha’adam b’simcha.” There he states that we should be b’simcha before every person regardless of age and stature. And Tiferes Yisrael on Shamai’s Mishna states that this includes friend or stranger, wealthy or poor, lowly or honored. He then specifically adds, based upon the letter Hei of ha’adam, even the idolator (as per Rabbeinu Tam in Tosafos Yevamos 61a). Surely we are not claiming that a Jewish woman, the daughter of the Avos and Imahos, and “banim atem la’Hashem Elokeichem” is less deserving of this basic expression of chessed and kavod than a pagan.

    Ramchal in Mesilas Yesharim lists related points of arayaos in Nekiyus including stretching out one’s hand to receive change from a woman with the intention of lasciviously gazing at her hand. But he does not list giving a greeting and a smile as a violation. Nor does he list this in Chassidus either. And, the fulfillment of this Mishna would clearly be in the realm of Nekiyus if not already in Z’hirus.

    The Rambam in Hilchos Deos 2:7 discusses the dangers of frivolity and light-headedness because they lead to ervah, but then quotes in the very same halacha Shamai’s Mishna. Shall we explain the Rambam as referring in this halacha to interactions between men, and that frivolity and light-headedness lead to ervah between men?

    I’m sure I could go and on through other sources, but perhaps no statement of Chazal from Sinai to the most recent Acharonim, nor any Ma’aseh Rav will convince those who wish to behave otherwise. And it is no secret that those who put up halachic justifications for not greeting women, are the same who, at best, give a muttered return “gut Shabbos” to men as well. I find that saying “they’re New Yorkers” or the like is a flimsy excuse – I didn’t know there were so many Brooklyn expatriates living in Atlanta. What we are really trying to excuse is a lack in fundamental middos in threadbare halachic dress.

    How apropos that the same Mishna in Avos 3:11 which lists, among 5 who have no portion in Olam Haba the well known, “hamalbin pnei chaveiro b’rabim” also lists the lesser known “m’galeh panim b’torah shelo k’halacha” aka twisting Torah to suit your own purposes contrary to Halacha. It appears we are tempted to commit the latter to avoid the former. But as I once heard Rabbi Adlerstein explain (based on R’ Chaim Friedlander), those who violate these 5 are lacking a basic understanding of what Kedusha really represents.

    In our quest to create the Kedusha of Geder Arayos (and of Shabbos), let us not undermine the foundations of Kedusha itself.

    Lev Midaber

  • Chabadnik

    How nice to see that the deep truths expressed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe many decades ago have made their way into the psyche of American Frum. Those of us who have made a practice of examining the Rebbe’s worldview have found that beyond teaching Torah, the Rebbe articulated- by word and example- a way to practice wholesome, emotionally healthy, and inspiring Yiddishkeit even in the midst of a generation of vociferously secular Jewish brothers and sisters. There is no need to invent the wheel on this- The Rebbe’s teachings are published and easy to access.

  • asher

    I agree that in principle everyone should be greeted on the street – but the reason I do not greet women is twofold. Firstly, there is a good chance my mind will unlock it’s doors to improper thoughts – even when the woman is dressed fairly modestly. many, if not most men, will agree/attest to this. Secondly – l’hotzi m’libam – in this day and age where FRUM young couples freely socialize with each others spouses, it is necessary to set certain gedarim which al pi din are not required – and, I reiterate, probably against what we should be doing (i.e. greeting everyone b’sever panim” Ironically, if I sense that it will be a kiddush Hashem – and also when I attend events in order to be mekarev – I will cordially greet women, being somech on the fact that a mashpia (hopefully) won’t be mushpa.

  • yy

    “Frum Judaism needs to compete in the open market” (#1)

    Is this really what all your arguments boil down to? Is this the “deep truth” of # 5?

    I’m wholly hesitant to endorse any religion that feels its essence must be marketable. If G-d is G-d, trust Him to do the shpeherding. If each one of us can do a little something to be a vehicle for that — great. But compete on the open market???

  • Chabadnik

    to #7
    The Rebbe didnt believe in “frum judaism” or the notion of competing in the open market. What drove the Rebbe (and his followers) is the belief that any Jew who has the privelege of having been born, or having discovered, what Yiddishkeit is, has the obligation to go out and offer this opportunity to another Jew. This is the simple, humble and empowering truth that Feldman seems to have hit on. I hope the truth of it continues to drive him, straight from belief to action- and not via any of the strange sounding, self-important, and generally odd routes that “the kiruv world ” often takes.
    As I said earlier, we would all do well to study the Rebbe’s teaching. If anything, they might even make one more “marketable”.

  • Steve Brizel

    It is evident that in the case of the author, that R Feldman is following the Mesorah of R E Feldman who created a Torah community in Atlanta where none had previously existed in a positive way, but without worrying about the reactions from a secular Jewish power structure.

  • Moshe Schorr

    (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).

    This line hit me twice.

    The question “when did “serious” become a greater religious value than “happy”?” is a paraphrase from Reb
    Noson of Breslov (though I doubt that Rav Feldman is aware of it). Reb Noson wrote to one of his students; “I have heard that Reb Ozer (the students’ name) is “frum”. That is not waht we recieved from the Rebbe (Rebbe Nachman of Breslov). The main thing is “freilach” and “frum” oich (as well).

    The second point ” We are so serious we cannot even greet each other unless we know each other already” reminded me
    of something that happened to me many years ago, but I cannot forget.

    I went to a simcha in a hall in Yerushalayim. The place has several rooms and usually has more than one simcha at a time. As I entered the courtyard I saw a person leaving. Since he was obviously coming from a simcha, I spontaneously wished him “Mazal Tov”. He looked me over with a supercilious expresion and asked “Do I know you”?
    He went on his way without any other response.

    He is not alone. In Yerushalayim it is customary to accompany a choson to shul on the day of his auf-ruf with song and happiness. The sight always fills me with joy and gratitude that another Jewish family is on its way to being built. But when being privileged to escort my own son to shul, not one person who came in the opposite direction would offer a “Mazal Tov”.

    We have a lot of work to do.