I hope every Mishpacha reader read and absorbed last week’s cover story about the public relations efforts of chassidic residents of Montreal’s Outremont district, which had implications for Torah Jews far from Montreal.
Outremont’s chassidic residents – a full quarter of the neighborhood – discovered that their neighbors, particularly a local city councilor, were not all enthusiastic about their presence. The traditional response would have been to do nothing, other than mutter about the anti-Semities and pray that matters did not degenerate further.
Nor would such a response have been entirely unjustified. Xenophobia has long been a prominent characteristic of Quebec’s francophone population, and it would be hard to think of a group more likely to arouse suspicions of outsiders faster than strangely garbed, generally non-French-speaking, chassidim.
Blaming the anti-Semitics also benefits one’s psychic health. For one thing, it means that one never has to examine one’s own actions to determine whether they could have in anyway contributed to the animosity displayed. And second, it means that one need not worry about doing anything to change the situation, which is just part of the natural order of things.
Outremont’s chassidim, however, rejected the quietist approach. Aided by an unlikely ally — Leila Marshy, a local resident of Palestinian and Egyptian descent – they formed a meeting ground where local residents could discuss contentious issues. In addition, they created an on-line presence to introduce themselves to their neighbors.
Most important, they asked themselves what they could do at the person-to-person level. Cheskie Weiss, a Belz askan, tried to view matters from the perspective of the neighbors: “The more space we take up, the more visible we become and the more we must interact with our neighbors. It’s hard for those living around us, within such close quarters, when they aren’t greeted or acknowledged.”
Community leaders worked on creating a new communal ethos, and getting out the message that anyone who does not say hello or thank you is harming the entire chassidic community.
Have all communal tensions melted away in a sea of good feelings? No. Are there gentile neighbors, whose distaste for Jews is not ameliorated by a show of good manners and a pleasant smile? You bet.
Yet everyone acknowledges that there has been a real change in communal perceptions over a short period of time. Says Leila Marshy, the Arab woman who helped get the ball rolling, “[P]eople have stopped seeing chassidim as a monolith, but rather view them as a group of individuals.”
THE ISSUES DIVIDING JEW FROM JEW in Israel are far more complex than the local turf battles in Outremont. But if the Torah community could even achieve what the chassisim of Outremont did, and get outsiders to see the community as comprised of a diverse group of individuals, holding many different views, headlines beginning “Chareidim threw rocks . . . ” would have far less impact.
“All politics is local,” former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill used to say. And the same might be said about public relations. But there are common elements as well. Trying to view matters from the point of view of those whom one wishes to influence is an essential element of any effort to change perceptions. And I would guess that smiles and pleasantness go a long way in most cultures, including Israel. Finally, the greater the interaction at the individual level the easier it is to break down the myth of the chareidi monolith of automatons marching lockstep to the orders of their leaders.
The lesson of Outremont is that attitudes are not immutable – at least not everyone’s attitudes all the time. It turns out to be a lot easier than we think to change perceptions of us. But it doesn’t happen without a conscious effort on our part.
We are too easy on ourselves when we keep repeating mantras like, “Esav hates Yaakov” or “an am ha’aretz hates a talmid chacham“, as an excuse to do nothing. Those mantras serve to absolve us of all responsibility for the manner in which we are viewed. It would make no difference, we tell ourselves, if we forcibly condemned those who act contrary to the Torah in the name of Torah; it would make no difference if we refrained from name-calling – e.g., Amalek, Nazi. They would still hate us.
In the United States, every major piece of legislation must include an environmental impact statement. As individuals and as a community, we need to include a Torah impact statement in everything we do: Will this course of action increase the kavod Shomayim in the world or decrease it?
TORAH JEWRY IN ERETZ YISRAEL is entering a new period, in which the old ways of doing things will no longer suffice. With chareidi political power at a nadir, at least for the present, we can no longer depend on United Torah Judaism MKs to protect us. A new more entrepreneurial, more decentralized model of community leadership will have to develop quickly, as different approaches for addressing communal problems are tested.
Efforts to change public perceptions of chareidim will be part of the mix, but only part. Think tanks serving the Torah community are another idea whose time may well have arrived. Not only do we need to know much more about attitudes towards us – e.g., how deeply entrenches are they, upon what are they based, what kind of information would have a positive impact on popular perceptions – we have to know much more about our own community.
At present, we don’t even have a very good idea of the size of the chareidi community, much less the size of its various component parts. How do families make ends meet? How many families are unable to provide the basics of food and shelter? What are the aspirations of young chareidi men and women?
This week I received an email from Leah Aharoni, one of the co-founders of Women for the Wall (W4W), the “start-up” operation of three friends in Kochav Yaakov that has shown how a few determined, skilled, and energetic women can change the tenor of public debate on an important issue in the space of a few months. So when she talks, I listen.
Mrs. Aharoni’s suggestion was that the chareidi community create its own “incubator” to support grassroots efforts on social issues. Since 1981, the New Israel Fund has been funding Shatil, precisely such an incubator for more than a 1,000 different left-wing groups, pushing an agenda of social justice, Palestinians rights, and religious pluralism. Shatil provides new organizations with lots of training, technical and computer support, grant-writing assistance, and legal advice – in short, it is a one-stop shop for all the logistical support and training a start-up organization needs.
Opponents of the NIF decided to lift a page from their playbook. In the wake of Gaza expulsion of 2005, the national religious world was left in a state of hopelessness, shock, and anger, just as the chareidi world is today. The founder of one of the groups at the forefront of the battle against expulsion came up with the idea of creating an incubator like Shatil for the national religious world. As a result, there are today different organizations dealing with issues such as immigration, the environment, land usage, and media coverage from a nationalist perspective.
Aharoni suggests that the chareidi world tap its own considerable human resources to do the same. Precisely what form those efforts would take no one can say. Such is the nature of decentralized, entrepreneurial models. But it is clear that we cannot afford to remain mired in despair. And taking action is the best antidote.
This article was first published in Mishpacha.