Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Flawed Charedi Perspective about the 'Other'

Street scene in Bnei Brak
‘Nebech, You have to understand. This fellow has 13 children to support!’  

One may recall this comment made by a Chasidic Rebbe in Bnei Brak about one of his Chasidim. I mentioned it recently in a related post. That Chasid was caught selling drugs. His Chasidic Rebbe made this comment over a quarter of a century ago. He could have easily made it today. That attitude does not seem to have changed

I bring it up now in light of an amazing article by Shlomi Gil in Mishpacha Magazine (only partially available online without a subscription). Had it been written by me, I would clearly have been accused of Charedi bashing. I don’t think anyone can accuse Mishpacha of that.

Mishapcha deserves a lot of credit for directing its readers attention to a problem plaguing their world. At least as it exists in Israel - in places like Bnei Brak. Bnei Brak is probably the epicenter of mainstream Charedi Judaism in Israel – albeit its most right wing expression.

The problem they deal with is the thinking among their people that resorting to certain type of criminal activity as a means of support is not such a big deal. While I’m sure the vast majority of Charedim in Bnei Brak are honest God fearing Jews that would not steal a penny from anyone - a not insignificant number of them would do so under circumstances outside of their community. Their high level of religiosity does not carry over to the outside world. 

This allows for the above-mentioned attitude.  One that is exacerbated by their level of need. Their relatively low incomes and large families creates a situation that most others don’t have. Which entices them towards breaking these kinds of laws - as long as it doesn't affect their own community.

This begs an obvious question. Why doesn’t their more religious outlook; their more religious way of life give them better numbers? Why do the stats about this kind of criminal activity pretty much mimic those of the rest of the world? Shouldn’t their religious teachings reduce their numbers?

There is clearly a great emphasis on ritual behavior. I doubt that there is an observant community anywhere in the world more meticulous than they are. It is obvious in everything they do and in the lifestyle they lead. 

And yet when it comes to breaking the law outside of those rituals and outside of their community, there is an attitude of tolerance and permissiveness that  causes some of them to try and get away with it when they think they can. I believe that’s the reason that the above-mentioned Chasidic Rebbe made that comment about his drug dealing Chasid - instead of condemning it with every fiber in his body. To him, it may have been wrong, but not the biggest deal in the world. Besides, one must be Dan L’Kaf Zechus judging favorably their fellow Jew - having sympathy for someone who was only trying to support his large family.

The Mishpacha article strongly implies that Charedim have little if any guilt about smuggling contraband purchased overseas into Israel. Gad Serusi, a customs official was interviewed for the story. Speaking of cigarettes as a smuggled item, he said that they are common items smuggled into Israel by Charedim from overseas. There they are sold for a quarter of what they are in Israel. They are smuggled in in Tefilin bags, Tails bags and Shtreimel boxes. 

Serusi also said that there is a stigma that Charedim smuggle more than others, but he said in truth they are no better or worse than any other sector of the population. He added that there is however a trend for young Charedi men to bring large amounts of cigarettes from abroad – some of them even showing off what they have smuggled in. 

While smuggling cigarettes is not the same as smuggling in several Kilos of narcotics, it is not that much of a leap from smuggling cigarettes to smuggling cocaine. Once you’re smuggling, why not do it for maximum dollars which drug dealers (some of whom are embedded in the Charedi world) are willing to pay their drug ‘mules’?! Some Charedim are enticed by the quick and easy money - thinking they will never get caught. With nary a thought about the terrible consequences to society they contribute to, or what might happen to them if they get caught!

The idea that it is illegal doesn’t seem to matter. That it is unethical doesn’t even to occur to them.

Gil interviewed one such individual identified only by his fist name - David: 
I met David, who was released from one of Europe’s largest prisons three years ago and has managed to put his life into some semblance of order since then, through a mutual friend last week. Our meeting came on the heels of a spate of arrests that have hit the Israeli news recently regarding young people from chareidi families being used by sophisticated handlers to smuggle drugs and other contraband through airport customs. While the most high-profile of these was the grandson of a frum MK, several others have come forward and described their own harrowing experiences — naive or foolish as these would-be couriers may have been. 
A ‘spate of arrests’. Who would have even suspected the use of such a term about Charedi smugglers. 

I see this primarily as a failure of Charedi Chiunch. The emphasis on ritual behavior seems to be at the expense of ethical behavior. Either that, or they believe that smuggling contraband past customs officials is not unethical.

I have to believe it is the former. The ethics are there. But they are not being sufficiently emphasized. In the very same issue of Mishpacha there are several stories about Charedim whose ethical and moral behavior the rest of us can only marvel at. This excerpt from Jonathan Rosenblum’s column is one such story. Which is the antithesis of the malaise otherwise plaguing the Charedi world: 
Rav Mendel Kaplan once stopped his car and offered a ride to a large, non-Jewish woman whom he saw struggling against the elements on a snowy and windy winter day in Chicago. When she came out of the diner to which he’d brought her, Reb Mendel was waiting for her to take her home.
If this was the way all of us would behave, articles lamenting a spate of arrests mentioned in Mishpacha would not be possible. The question is, why don’t we see the behavior of these special individuals and try to emulate them? Why do some of us not even come close? Why are the most religious Jews among us no better than the rest of the world when it comes to this kind of crime?

It is high time for Charedi Mechanchim to adjust what they emphasize. And to stop the vilification of all those outside of their world. And instead to instill into their students the values of a R’ Mendel Kaplan before they even begin to open a Gemarah.