Monday, April 11, 2011

Building Fences

Yesterday I attended my grandson’s JCC league championship basketball game (his team lost - coming in 2nd). I noticed that the players included children (3rd and 4th graders) from the entire spectrum of Judaism. My daughter mentioned to me that the rule at the JCC is that everyone plays. There is no discrimination. So that children with crocheted kipot, black velvet yarmulkes, without any head-covering at all; children with long peyos and without peyos - all were in the game.

And their parents were there too rooting for them: secular and religious. Former Lakewood and Telshe Avreichim, modern Orthodox parents, and secular parents too. All manner of dress were there, men in jackets and black hats or black velvet kipot, men in blue jeans and kipot serugot; bare headed men… There were women in shaitels, snoods, hats, long skirt lengths and high necklines… and as well there were women wearing pants with sleeveless tops, and uncovered hair. We were all doing the same thing – cheering our team on.

I turned to my daughter and said, ‘This could never happen in Israel’. She agreed.

As if to underscore this point I noticed an article from last Friday’s Ha’aretz. Charedi Israel is all about separation. There is no such thing as a community activity where there is interaction between all Jews. Which is pretty ironic for a country that calls itself ‘the Jewish State’. It seems as though whenever possible extreme measures are taken to separate rather than unite. And it is the Charedim not the secular who insist on separating themselves from the rest of Jewry.

In the world of Charedim being insulated and thereby isolated from the secular world is of paramount importance lest they be negatively influenced. So they build walls figuratively and literally. This is what happened recently in one neighborhood that is mixed (Charedi and secular Jews living in one neighborhood). From the article:

One day, however, one of the ultra-Orthodox parents decided that the children should be separated. He turned to influential members of the community, who demanded that the municipality put up a fence.

The secular parents were furious, the Haredim became defensive, and both sides went to consult a rabbi. Rabbi Ezriel Auerbach, who is respected by Michael Ben-Avi, the director general of the local community administration (a kind of council of several neighborhoods run by representatives of the residents ), ruled that no fence should be built. The influential religious people didn't give in and, according to Ben-Avi, convinced the rabbi to change his ruling.

Overnight a high fence was built in the yard. There was shouting, compromises were suggested, and in the end Ben-Avi ordered its removal last month, a few days before Purim. Since then, "Everything is back to what it was, but a fence remains in our heart," summed up the secular nursery school teacher, Mika Lavi.

What a contrast in attitudes. And what a way to push Jews away from Judaism.

I realize that the Charedim in Israel want to be insulated from the influences of the outside world. But the truth is they can never be fully isolated anyway. At some point in their lives they will have to venture out from under their cocoon and see the real world - a world where the vast majority of its inhabitants are secular. With secular values and secular culture. One where people do not dress as Tznius and in many cases do not dress by any standard of tznius. Yes, that is the world we live in.

But I understand the argument. They say that we should do what we can to minimize contact so that we don’t learn from their errant ways. At best that is a debatable tactic. After being raised in total isolation unexposed to any secular culture for fear of its attraction, what will sudden exposure to forbidden secular delights do to a child? ‘How ya gonna keep em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?’

But let’s say they are right. That the more isolation you have the better chance you have at being protected... the better chance at preserving one’s value system. The question is - how far do we go with that? And how much of a price do we pay? What is the right Hashkafa here? If we go too far in the other direction - there is such a thing as too much exposure. Protecting our children from negative influences is something we should all strive to do.

I am not here to draw any lines about what is and isn’t acceptable exposure. I can only tell you that extremism in either direction is harmful. And what these Israeli Charedi parents did is way beyond too far. They have poisoned the atmosphere with their ‘fenced in’ mentality. Because fencing yourself in means fencing others out. It means rejecting more than their values - seen by secular Jews as rejecting them personally. Even if you don’t mean it that way, that is the result. Those who are fenced out see themselves as completely rejected by religious Jewry. That is not the way you treat a fellow Jew.

Building physical fences is not a Charedi ideal. Ask the Charedi parents in Chicago who signed their children up to play in a Jewish but religiously mixed JCC basketball league and attended the games cheering their children and their teams on. Ask the kids who formed bonds with their teammates religious or not. They did not suddenly lose their values by interacting with them on the basketball court. Nor did the parents lose their Olam Habah by being courtside together with men and woman who are not observant. In fact by doing this they probably gained some Olam Habah. How? By showing at least a rudimentary brotherhood in Judaism via a basketball league consisting of Jewish players of widely varying religious views.

I guess oneof the key differences between Israeli and American Charedim is how they see their fellow non religious Jew. In Israel the view is so negative that fences are desired and built– even at the cost of alienating them. Fellow Jews who are not of their own kind are avoided like the plague. What is the result of that? More hatred is generated among Klal Yisroel. Jew hating Jew. Nice!